Wednesday 29th July 2020

The newly mown path along the north-eastern margin of the reserve

A cold but calm dawn greeted me today and all the nets were in place by 06:30. There had clearly been some movement overnight as the first ten birds trapped were all Sedge Warblers, which have been relatively few and far between until now. Twenty Willow Warblers throughout the morning was the highest daily total so far this year. The flow of birds was steady, gradually slowing down as the temperature rose.

Crake Ride – ready for action!

Jack, one of Devon Birds’ contractors, had managed to visit the site and mow the paths and rides at the eastern end for the first time this year. These are usually managed with a relatively small tractor as access for anything larger is difficult. However, due to mechanical problems, a bigger beast was employed to mow and flail its way through this time. I prefer the wider paths it created. They are easier to walk along and there’s no longer any risk to clothing, skin or eyesight from overhanging brambles. The broader net rides will be easier to access and to maintain as well. I’ve still got a fair bit of work to do cutting back overhanging branches and reinstating tethers but there’s no rush as these rides don’t really come into their own until the late autumn and winter months. At the moment, the ninety metres of net I use in the reedbed and beside the sewage works is more than enough for a lone ringer, especially during the early morning rush!

Crest Ride – 48 metres of rampant vegetation cleared in an instant

On an unrelated note, I have been aware of the presence of Otters on the site for some time, as they use my bridge to Marsh Ride as a latrine, but I have never seen one. Nick Townsend informed me that somebody from one of the neighbouring farms set up a trail camera under the footbridge over South Milton Stream not only confirming that there are otters there but also giving us the first definitive proof that we have water voles as well. Until now there had only been a couple of unconfirmed sightings and a number of holes spotted in the banks of Horsewell Ditch. These animals must have made their way across from another Devon Bird’s reserve at South Huish Marsh in the neighbouring valley, some 250 metres to the south, following a private reintroduction there almost 20 years ago. I will have to amend the ditching protocols to accommodate this when I update the management plan next year.

Final totals, 73 birds of which 72 were new: 3 Blackbird, 5 Blackcap, 3 Blue Tit, 1 Bullfinch, 3 Chiffchaff, 2 Dunnock, 2 Reed Bunting, 13 Reed Warbler, 1 Robin, 16 Sedge Warbler, 20 Willow Warbler and 3 Wren.

Tuesday 21st July 2020

Things got off to a good start this morning with all six nets up before 06:30. The net I repaired last time looked great at the southern end of Marsh Ride, with no holes and the correct tension on the new shelf string until a badger went through it, snapped the brand-new, bottom shelf string, left a massive hole and a trail of muddy footprints! I think it’s probably beyond repair this time! Expensive! A replacement will cost me £137, although I may be able to salvage the top four shelves from the old net for use as a spare.

In terms of birds, numbers were steady first thing but tailed off again by mid morning. 52 birds were trapped of which 47 were new: 3 Blackbird, 9 Blackcap, 1 Cetti’s Warbler, 9 Chiffchaff, 1 Garden Warbler, 1 Great Tit, 9 Reed Warbler, 2 Robin, 3 Sedge Warbler, 1 Song Thrush, 4 Willow Warbler and 4 Wren.

Tuesday 14th July 2020

Net rounds, during what was a steady morning’s ringing, were punctuated with various bits of essential maintenance. A willow tree had fallen across the path at the east end of the reserve and badly bent one of my mist net poles, which had to be straightened by levering it between two fence posts. I also had to replace a snapped shelf string as well. It takes an age and a lot of concentration to thread new string through every other mesh for 60 feet, especially as the wind gradually strengthened! Unfortunately, my garden at home is too small to erect even a 40 foot net so the work had to be done on site.

Nick Townsend had already cleared the remnants of the willow, which was much appreciated, but the paths and net rides at this end haven’t been cut at all this year and are barely accessible with bramble trailing across at head height. The contractor was supposed to have been this Monday but apparently has a problem with his tractor! With a whole season’s growth waiting to be cut, doing this by hand is beyond me and it may be some time before I can erect the full suite of nets.

However, Marsh Ride is now almost back to pristine condition and at least a foot wider than a month ago. Just a bit more cutting is required to reveal the last of the boards there. Other than that the flow of birds gradually tailed off as the morning progressed with nothing out of the ordinary. Unknown to me (and coincidentally now that I’ve cleared the rides at the ringing hut end) Dave Scott was down there for the first time this year and caught 23 birds. These are our combined totals for the day.

80 birds were trapped of which 68 were new. New birds included: 1 Blackbird, 8 Blackcap, 4 Blue Tit, 1 Cetti’s Warbler, 20 Chiffchaff, 2 Dunnock, 1 Goldfinch, 1 Reed Bunting, 18 Reed Warbler, 3 Robin, 5 Sedge Warbler, 3 Wren and the first Willow Warbler of the autumn.

Tuesday 7th July 2020

With an ever-changing weather forecast, opportunities to ring must be grabbed. Originally, two consecutive dry days had been predicted with suitably low winds. However, as things evolved, this reduced to one. At least this eliminated the need to make a decision! In the event it was windless and calm at dawn, if a little unseasonably cold. The nets by the sewage works were opened before 6am and the remaining three across the reed bed about 30 minutes later.

The first few net rounds were brisk, with sufficient birds to prompt me to get out extra bird bags as a precaution but, by mid-morning, the numbers had reduced to a steady and more manageable trickle. The westerly wind increased as the morning progressed and by midday had reached force 4-5, which is about the limit at South Milton. With nothing in the valley between the ringing area and the coast to interrupt the airflow, I often have to pack up at lower wind speeds than others with more sheltered sites.

However, the billowing nets at the close of play made it clear that more gardening was required, particularly in Marsh Ride, to avoid snagging on adjacent vegetation. I had come equipped for this, starting with a hedge trimmer to remove the less robust stuff. Extendable anvil loppers made short work of the thicker willow branches, which were encroaching on the ride from the south, and finally, a pair of freshly sharpened shears dealt with the mass of hemlock water dropwort to either side of the ride.

This plant species is a nightmare. All parts are poisonous. The sap is caustic to susceptible individuals and it has spread uncontrollably in the eastern half of the reserve where inappropriate drainage operations at the end of the last century have lowered the water table and allowed it to outcompete the reeds. Easily reaching 2.5m high, it is an umbellifer and the dried seed heads catch on the nets and are a real pain to remove.

Ordinarily, I cut back this invasive monster with the hedge trimmer in the spring when the shoots are thin and soft, but lockdown put paid to that this year. Now woody and up to 5cm across, the stems were beyond the capabilities of my trusty hedge trimmer and there was no option but to get physical. Doing this in the middle of the day was probably not the smartest idea I have ever had but it didn’t take long, and the result was quite satisfying. All that remains is to clear the thatch of grass from the last 50m of boards and the ride will be back in pristine condition.

In terms of birds, 61 were trapped of which 51 were new: 3 Blackbird, 5 Blackcap, 2 Blue Tit, 4 Cetti’s Warbler (all juvs), 12 Chiffchaff, 1 Great Tit, 20 Reed Warbler, 4 Robin, 3 Sedge Warbler and 7 Wren.

Saturday 4th July 2020 – Super (sodden) Saturday

Two weeks have elapsed since my last visit to SML as unseasonal wet and windy weather continues to prevent the use of mist nets. The only consolation is that the weather will have curbed the worst excesses of post-lockdown madness so evident when the sun was out! Unfortunately, it has also put a stop to the outstanding DIY jobs around the house and weed clearing on my allotment, which I have been occupying myself with over the last three months.

Consequently, I have turned my attention back to Chiffchaffs and Scandinavian Chiffchaffs Phylloscopus collybita abietinus in particular. Some time ago Ottenby Bird Observatory in Sweden published a montage of head shots of Siberian Chiffchaffs P.c.tristis (reproduced below) and I scoured the internet, searching in Russian and various Scandinavian languages, to produce something similar for abietinus.

Phylloscopus collybita tristis, Siberian Chiffchaff, compilation – Ottenby Bird Observatory.

The Ottenby photos were all taken under controlled conditions with consistent lighting and background colour whilst those I have collated for abietinus are highly variable. I have only used images taken during the summer in the core breeding range from Moscow, west through the former Soviet republics of Belarus and Estonia to Finland, Northern Sweden and Norway. Images where the colours of the birds, vegetation or ringer’s hands are clearly off have been omitted.

Phylloscopus collybita abietinus, Scandinavian Chiffchaff, compilation – multiple sources

With a group of pictures like this a couple of things have become apparent. Firstly, just how similar abietinus can appear to collybita and on occasions tristis, even in an image, rather than with a mobile bird in the field. However, to my eyes at least, a couple of reasonably consistent features started to emerge. Most, although not all, show some yellow in the eyestripe, particularly above and in front of the eye and a good proportion have a little yellow on the cheeks, upper breast or sides of the breast.

These features eliminate confusion with a “classic” tristis but are no help when it comes to collybita. Assuming that the bird is in the hand and it is not long-winged enough to eliminate collybita that way, something else is required. Personally, I have a feeling that the photo montage suggests a band of greyness in many birds forming a subtle and narrow collar, running across the nape to the sides of the breast. This may be just wishful thinking on my part and I would welcome comments from other ringers. One thing I am very aware of is that, in the ringer’s grip, this subtle feature would be entirely obscured by the fingers.

Finally, for completeness and having spent hours tracking down suitable photos, I have posted a selection of the abietinus images, showing the whole bird, in a gallery here. https://earlywormringing.wordpress.com/wintering-chiffchaffs/