Wednesday 23rd March 2022

Female Cirl Bunting – 23rd March 2022

A scheduled meeting with Nick Townsend, Vic Tucker and Graham Burton, one of Devon Birds’ two new Conservation Advisors, saw me taking the opportunity to arrive at dawn and get some nets up. I had a good four hours before the others turned up to start their tour of the reserve. The intervening hours weren’t the most productive I have ever spent, with just eleven new birds out of a total of seventeen, but there was enough variety to keep me on my toes and a surprise at the end.

The wintering collybita Chiffs all seem to have departed, including the obese individual I trapped last time. These have been replaced by local breeders, already with what seem to be well established territories. Three Siberian (tristis) Chiffs found themselves in the nets by the sewage works again. These were all re-trapped birds that had been present throughout the winter and, like the bird caught last week, all were having the avian equivalent of a bad hair day, moulting body, mantle, head and tail feathers. At this time of year the moulting process, with the olive edges of the retained flight feathers becoming more obvious, can make them look less like tristis but the brown head, prominent white eyestripe and lack of yellow on the breast and around the vent makes it easy to confirm their identity.

Three moulting Siberian Chiffchaffs – 23rd March 2022

I was going to say that the fact that these birds were in the middle of their pre-breeding moult was also a pretty strong indicator that they were from the east, where the breeding season doesn’t really get going until June. Then a dead-ringer for a collybita chiff, equally tatty and in the same stage of moult as the tristis, ploughed into a net. It remains my ambition to discover where these wintering birds come from. Wherever it is, there doesn’t seem to be much ringing!

Moulting collybita? Chiffchaff – 23rd March 2022. Any guesses where it might be from?

In between photographing the Sibes, to keep the Devon Birds records people happy, and removing their moulted body feathers from my sweaty hands, I processed a 1st year male Sparrowhawk, a female Cirl Bunting and, right at the end, a nice male Coal Tit. Surprisingly, this is the first Coal Tit I have ever seen at SML let alone ringed. I tried to string it into a migrating Continental bird but there was just too much olive on the mantle for that!

Coal Tit – 23rd March 2022

Final totals: 11 Chiffchaff, 1 Cirl Bunting, 1 Coal Tit, 1 Dunnock, 1 Great Tit, 1 Sparrowhawk and 3 Wren.

March 14th 2022 – A Chiffchaff smorgasbord

Moulting Siberian Chiffchaff

A beautiful spring day, only let down by a lack of birds. Out of 20 trapped this morning just five were new and only one of these was a migrant. There was a real mixture of Chiffchaffs present, identified by their ring numbers, including returning local breeders, lingering wintering birds, and one particularly scruffy looking Siberian tristis. The weight of one of the wintering Chiffs had increased from a portly 8.7g at the end of January up to a colossal 11.2g today, the heaviest I have ever encountered. Anticipating a protest from the recording software, (correctly as it happens!) I had checked the weight on two sets of scales, both of which were calibrated last week. Blowing the bird’s breast feathers apart revealed that its belly was yellow with fat. If it doesn’t depart soon it won’t get off the ground!

The Siberian Chiffchaff, which was first trapped on 21st December 2021, had managed to avoid recapture until today and what a sorry looking specimen it was. As the snow doesn’t clear from most of their breeding range until well into May, these eastern birds have a delayed pre-breeding moult relative to western european birds and most winters one or two remain at South Milton Ley until late April before departing. Todays’ bird was moulting its head, body and tail feathers and won’t be winning any beauty contests until at least mid-April!

The same bird back in December 2021

March 5th 2022

Male Firecrest

The driest, sunniest day for some time with an ideal north-easterly breeze was only let down slightly by the wind intensity, which was borderline for the most exposed net rides. Nevertheless, thirty birds were trapped, dominated as usual by Chiffchaffs. These were a mix of lingering, wintering birds and returning, local breeders. Some of the returning females, identified by their ring numbers, were already losing feathers from their brood patches and were particularly porky, weighing in at over 10g. Two female Blackcaps were trapped as well, several weeks earlier than local breeders usually begin to return. Perhaps these were wintering birds on their way home to central Europe. A relaxed morning’s ringing was rounded off by the first Firecrest of the year and final totals were: 2 Blackcap, 4 Blue Tit, 17 Chiffchaff, 1 Firecrest, 3 Goldcrest, 1 Great Tit and 2 Long-tailed Tit.

Finally, I know I bang on about how excessive ditching has lowered the water table in the reedbed and how Nick Townsend and I are doing our best to restore the floodplain but, if you look at the depth of the ditches in the following three photos and the density of dry reed stems, it’s pretty obvious that the deeper the ditch the fewer the reeds.

Deep ditch – hardly any reeds
Medium ditch – 100m downstream – increased density of reed
Shallow ditch – a further 100m downstream – healthy reedbed!

January 16th 2022 – The first reed cut

Each winter we try to cut and burn 2ha of reeds at South Milton Ley to promote new growth and prevent the build-up of leaf litter. We’re halfway there now after the 1st cut of the year thanks to a hardy bunch of volunteers! Unusually, the seaward end of the reedbed was dry enough to allow the reed cutting machine to access the area for the first time in over a decade. The SSSI conditions for the site do not allow us to remove the cut reeds and frequent flooding means composting them is not a practical option either. Bring on the pyromaniacs! A steady breeze and beautifully dry reeds meant that the whole process was over and done with by the early afternoon.

Catchup time

I’ve nothing but admiration for those birding blog writers who keep their webpages meticulously up to date even when there is little or nothing happening. Martin Cade at Portland Bird Observatory is a prime example of this dedication to duty. I, on the other hand, am far less committed, although to be fair I’ve far fewer readers to worry about. Storms, rainfall and persistent high winds seem to have dominated the local weather for weeks but I have made five visits to SML since my last post, two for reed cutting and three for ringing so I’ll run through them briefly in sequence.