Monday 10th December 2018

Redwing 2

Redwing © David Pakes

Another squelchy day at South Milton with the water level in Marsh Ride just low enough to allow for safe access. There were far fewer midges flying and lower numbers of Chiffchaffs reflected this. 40 birds were trapped but only 25 of these were new: 6 Blue Tit, 4 Cetti’s Warbler, 12 Chiffchaff, 1 Goldcrest, 6 Long-tailed Tit, 2 Redwing, 3 Reed Bunting, 1 Robin and 4 Wren.

There’s not much else to report. Water levels even higher than last time and the sluice on the new ditch has been breached at both ends with the pressure of water scouring away almost half a meter of soil from the northern end.  I dropped in a barrow load of large stones, which were lying on the surface of the re-profiled access path, and shovelled soil into the gaps. Despite repeated jumping up and down to compact the material, I’m not convinced it will hold and it will need some proper engineering to rectify.


Tuesday 4th December 2018 – Cutting edge ringing


Former site of the boardwalk at South Milton Aquapark! © Nick Townsend

Earlier in the week I had been sent photos of unusually high water levels at SML, with the boardwalk and Marsh ride both underwater and inaccessible. An exceptionally high and robust sand bar at the seaward end of the reserve, combined with recent heavy rainfall has impounded a lot of freshwater, causing levels to rise and I wasn’t sure which net rides would be useable. The jet stream has been dragging a succession of depressions across the Atlantic towards the UK but today saw a welcome drop in the wind speed enabling me to visit and get a few nets up. In the event, levels had fallen sufficiently for things to operate normally, although the water in Marsh Ride was halfway up my wellies.

It was one of those days though. Temperatures were low with a frost so the priority was to get birds out of the nets quickly to avoid the risk of hypothermia. Typically, a succession of Wrens and Blue Tits, most of which were re-traps, found their way into the nets before spinning around to make sure they were thoroughly entangled. These all took time to extract allowing numbers of trapped birds to build in the other nets, meaning that net rounds ended up being pretty well continuous.

Over recent years I have mastered the art of repairing holes in mist nets and, during the winter months, check and fix each of the nets in turn. A small hole can be mended in minutes once the mesh is pinned-out, so I operate on the principal that, if there are time pressures and a bird is badly tangled and going to take longer to extract than it would take to repair a hole, I get the scissors out. Often cutting a single strand is sufficient to release the tension and free a trapped carpal for example. I have always questioned the wisdom of ringers who are proud that they have never needed to cut a net. Perhaps they only ring placid birds like swallows. For me the welfare of the bird comes first, so the scissors were used three times today, on a Wren and on a Song Thrush and Water Rail, both well caught by their carpals.

Final total for the day was 51 birds, 14 of which were re-traps plus 1 control Chiffchaff: 8 Blue Tit, 2 Cetti’s Warbler, 23 Chiffchaff, 1 Goldcrest, 1 Great Tit, 2 Long-tailed Tit, 2 Reed Bunting, 1 Song Thrush, 1 Water Rail and 10 Wren.

Monday 26th November 2018 – Midgefest!


Midge swarm 26th November 2018

After another 10-day gap due to indifferent weather, today was almost perfect, with low winds and no rain forecast. Looking at the Atlantic pressure charts for the next week or so, it was clear this was going to be a brief weather window that had to be taken advantage of. The benign conditions coincided with an emergence of Chironomid midges from the sewage works. These short-lived insects form the major part of wintering Chiffchaffs’ diets and about thirty birds were taking advantage of the glut.

The sand bar at South Milton Sands, which controls the water levels at SML is unusually high at the moment and the two seaward net rides have been inaccessible since the late summer. The level of impounded fresh water behind the sand bar has risen significantly and is now just a few cm below the bridge to Marsh Ride. With over 2m of flowing water in the ditch, crossing the bridge requires care!

Marsh bridge

51 birds of 12 species were trapped but only 35 were new birds: 2 Blackbird, 4 Blue Tit, 4 Bullfinch, 1 Chaffinch, 15 Chiffchaff, 1 Dunnock, 1 Reed Bunting, 1 Robin, 6 Wren.


Friday 16th November 2018


My first visit to SML for a fortnight due to unsuitable weather. In reality, the wind strength was borderline at times and I packed up at 1pm as it became increasingly murky and damp.  If every leaf I extracted from the nets today had been a bird I would have run out of rings! The highlight of the day was a Yellow-browed W calling by Marsh Ride, which I failed to trap or even relocate later. There was no real sign of any passage but there were 18 Redwing, 3 Grey heron and 2 water Rail on site. 37 birds of 12 species were trapped: 11 Chiffchaff, 2 Cetti’s Warbler, 2 Blackbird, 7 Blue Tit, 4 Goldcrest, 2 Great Tit, 3 Long-tailed Tit, 1 Meadow Pipit, 1 Redwing, 2 Reed Bunting, 1 Robin, 1 Wren.

Pipit payback!

ADB7712For the last two autumns, I have been targeting southward bound Tree Pipits as they pass over SML. The realisation that they are suckers for tape lures playing their song, even in what seems like the most unsuitable habitat, tempted me into trying and, although catching them in a reed bed sounds unlikely, they could be tempted to settle in the tops of willows and eventually their curiosity would draw them down to the tape player in the grassy strip at the bottom of the net ride. Result – some ending up in the net. This year however, Tree Pipits were thin on the ground so, in mid-September, I switched my attention to Meadow Pipits, who suffer from the same fatal attraction.

The recommended method for trapping Meadow Pipits is to set three nets in a triangle around a bush and tape lure the birds in. There isn’t a suitable open space at South Milton so I tried the Tree Pipit method. So far this year it’s yielded 37 birds. Most pipits are trapped in targeted operations and few are caught by chance so, with such low numbers involved, I had no expectation of any recoveries. I was, therefore, pretty surprised (and excited) to receive a ringing recovery report last evening. My excitement was tempered by the realisation that the bird had only travelled 18km and that the recovery wasn’t going to add a great deal to our knowledge of the species. Still it’s the first ever Meadow Pipit control for SML and having a bird ringed and controlled the next day must also be a pretty rare event for the species. End result – a brief period of smug self-satisfaction!

Friday 2nd November 2018

After another cold, clear night I was greeted by a heavy frost this morning and, once I had scraped the ice off the mist net poles – the only real disadvantage of metal versus bamboo poles – things started quietly. Because of the cold I decided to use my minimum suite of six nets, all within 200m of the ringing station, which enables more frequent net rounds. Flocks of 500 Woodpigeon and 50 Jackdaws heading south overhead and groups of blackbird, redwing and fieldfare feeding on hawthorn berries around the reserve, gave some indication that there were migrants about and I might be able to lure a few into a net. However, despite my best efforts, the thrushes were elusive and soon departed.

The final total for the day was 36 birds of 10 species, including 9 re-traps and a UK ringed Chiffchaff. The highlight was 4 Cetti’s warblers, which brings the total for the species to 10 individuals in the last 5 weeks. New birds were: 1 Blackcap, 5 Blue tit, 3 Cetti’s Warbler, 9 Chiffchaff, 1 Goldcrest, 2 Great Tit, 3 Meadow Pipit, 1 Reed Bunting and 1 Wren. Also around the reserve: 1 Sparrowhawk, 2 Bullfinch, 3 Water Rail, 1 Green Woodpecker and, despite the frost, Red Admiral and Common Darter still about.

Reed Warbler BF09952

Reewa 2017 Netherlands SML BF09952

Receiving a ringing recovery report from the BTO always generates a moment’s excitement. In the case of Reed Warbler BF09952, this was tempered by the fact that I knew the bird was carrying a Dutch ring when I trapped it at SML on 22nd August 2017 and had been waiting for over 14 months for the details to arrive. The bird was a 1st year, ringed at Erlecom, Ubbergen, Gelderland, The Netherlands on 11th August 2017 and controlled at South Milton 11 days and 707 km later.

Reed Warbler 2017

Thursday 25th October 2018

OBC 25-10-2018
Oak Bush Cricket Meconema thalassinum (female)

The long spell of dry settled weather continues but with higher winds and a significant drop in temperatures forecast I squeezed in a ringing session before the weather changes. There was little sign of passage, other than a handful of Siskins and a Redwing over, and there weren’t many birds on the ground either. Just 31 birds of 12 species trapped: 1 Blackbird, 5 Blue tit, 1 Cetti’s Warbler, 8 Chiffchaff, 1 Dunnock, 5 Goldcrest, 1 Goldfinch, 2 Great Tit, 1 Long-tailed Tit, 1 Meadow Pipit, 1 Song Thrush and 4 Wren.

The highlight of the day was an Oak Bush Cricket – a new species for the reserve’s insect list, which now stands at 783!


Friday 18th October 2018

Another glorious day at South Milton. A little too bright for optimum catching and with very little sign of passage either overhead or on the ground, I wasn’t expecting a great deal so I opened two additional nets in Crest ride. This brought the total net length to 126m, which is not far short of the maximum I can safely manage on my own. Crest and Marsh Rides are at opposite ends of the ringing area, 400m apart, so each net round is about 1km, which keeps me busy (and warmer) on cold winter days.

Cold wasn’t an issue today and I ended up with a respectable total of 75 birds of 15 species: 3 Blackcap, 13 Blue tit, 1 Bullfinch, 2 Cetti’s Warbler, 2 Chaffinch, 18 Chiffchaff, 2 Dunnock, 2 Goldcrest, 3 Goldfinch, 2 Great Tit, 11 Long-tailed Tit, 6 Meadow Pipit, 1 Reed Bunting, 5 Robin and 5 Wren.

11th October 2018 – An update

It’s been difficult to summon up the enthusiasm to keep this blog up to date recently after a series of uneventful and uninspiring ringing sessions. I spent the middle part of September at Portland Bird Observatory, where, in the 5 days out of 12 when it wasn’t blowing a gale, I managed to trap just 45 birds. The Observatory’s grand total for the same 5 days was a meagre 135. Birds just didn’t seem to be moving.

It hasn’t been much different since I returned to Devon with 98 birds of 14 species trapped in three sessions at SML between the 26th September and the 9th October and this total includes a high proportion of resident species. Apart from a handful of Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps there were few migrants on the ground, although passage was clearly ongoing with groups of Meadow Pipit, Skylark, Siskins and hirundines overhead. One late Reed Warbler on 26th September proved to be just that, despite my best efforts to turn it into a Blyth’s Reed! I kept myself occupied by playing a Meadow Pipit tape beside a net on the edge of the reedbed. This is not an ideal setup for trapping the species, but it was reasonably successful with 23 ringed.

Totals for the three sessions were: 14 Blackcap, 7 Blue Tit, 2 Cetti’s Warbler, 1 Chaffinch, 14 Chiffchaff, 4 Dunnock, 2 Goldcrest, 1 Goldfinch, 4 Great Tit, 23 Meadow Pipit, 1 Reed Warbler, 4 Robin, 7 Swallow and 13 Wren.

News of a juvenile Isabelline Shrike, found on Thurlestone golf course yesterday, shows that the potential rewards are out there. Yellow-browed Warblers and crests have yet to reach Devon in any numbers and it was this time last year when the unprecedented influx of Firecrests began. Fingers crossed!