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!
Spotted Flycatchers are one of the easiest species to age in the Autumn requiring only a cursory examination. First year birds have prominent pale tips to the greater coverts, tertials and upper tail coverts, all of which can be seen in the field and in the photo above. These pale tips and edges are absent in adult birds. By the following spring, after a complete moult in their winter quarters, adults and 1st years are indistinguishable.
The wind was a bit stronger than I would have liked first thing this morning but as I had a meeting with Natural England on site later in the day, I got the nets up anyway. Turned out to be fruitful as the breeze forced birds a lot lower than they had been in the recent good weather and a couple of 1st year Spotted Flycatchers in the net together was a bonus. These are generally restricted to the treetops and evade capture. By mid-morning the breeze had dropped and the cloud cover gone. With the nets now glaringly obvious in the sunshine, numbers tailed off. The arrival of a contractor to mow the paths around the reserve precipitated an early finish as the two nets in Willow Ride were blocking his access. A total of 48 new birds were trapped: 19 Blackcap, 1 Blue Tit, 11 Chiffchaff, 3 Reed Warbler, 9 Sedge Warbler, 2 Spotted Flycatcher, 2 Whitethroat, 1 Wren.
The drainage contractor has also been busy, levelling the spoil excavated last year from Horswell Ditch and scalloping the ditch banks in places. It looks pretty horrendous now, especially when compared to last months luxuriant vegetation, but the work had to wait until after the breeding season and at least we know that regrowth will not be a problem!
A bit of good news on the bird front as well. Whilst walking beside Ham Ditch, I heard the unmistakable calls of a juvenile Water Rail begging for food. I had speculated back in April that they might be breeding this year and this must presumably have been young from a second brood. Together with the Spotted Crake, also back in April, it shows what a difference a wetter reedbed makes. This was one of the topics discussed with the Natural England advisor as we are working together on proposals to construct sluices in the main drainage channel to restore and maintain the water levels.
Quiet again today. Didn’t even see a single hirundine! 41 new birds ringed: 18 Blackcap, 1 Blue Tit, 3 Chiffchaff, 1 Dunnock, 1 Great Tit, 8 Reed Warbler, 1 Robin, 3 Sedge Warbler, 2 Whitethroat, 2 Willow Warbler and 2 Wren. Also 2 Spotted Flycatchers on site and 120 Linnet, 6 Grey Wagtail and 1 Tree Pipit over.
Apparently, SML was crawling with birds on Thursday but, by the time I arrived early on Friday morning, after a clear moonlit night with low winds, everything had moved on. That’s life! I live too far away to get there every day and, with 460 miles of commuting to and from the site in August, cost is an issue as well. Anyway, it was a pleasant sunny day with a steady trickle of birds and a good selection of warblers, the best of which was an adult Grasshopper Warbler. Unlike young Groppas in the autumn, which are in pristine plumage, the adults are worn and tatty and this bird was no exception. (See the extensive wear to the tail feathers and the distinctive undertail coverts below).
I did spot that it had moulted some body feathers and the two inner tertials, which, for me, feels like an achievement!
The upper arrow shows new feathers on the mantle, the lower arrow the new middle tertial – broader and darker than the old outer one.
44 birds were trapped: 3 Blackbird, 18 Blackcap, 1 Chiffchaff, 1 Garden Warbler, 1 Grasshopper Warbler, 5 Reed Warbler, 2 Sedge Warbler, 1 Whitethroat, 7 Willow Warbler and 1 Wren.
The photo above shows how fantastic Horswell Ditch, which was deepened and widened in September 2017, is looking now, compared to how barren it looked 12 months ago (below). Despite the exceptionally dry summer, it held water throughout and must have helped to maintain the water table in that part of the reserve. Ten species of dragonfly have been observed and common frogs also bred. Final profiling and scalloping of the northern bank is due to take place next month.
Having had a good moan about the state of the rides, today wasn’t too bad ringing wise. 67 birds of 16 species were processed: 1 Blackbird, 20 Blackcap, 9 Blue Tit, 1 Chaffinch, 3 Chiffchaff, 1 Dunnock, 1 Goldfinch, 1 Great Tit, 5 Reed Warbler, 2 Robin, 7 Sedge Warbler, 2 Tree Pipit, 1 Stonechat, 2 Whitethroat, 9 Willow Warbler and 1 Wren.
- The innovative, curved Crest Ride with the mist net poles showing the original ride!
It’s a constant struggle to keep the net rides open at South Milton but with wet ground in spring, followed by a long hot summer, plant growth has been particularly vigorous this year and it has been impractical to maintain all the rides. Consequently, I temporarily abandoned the two easternmost, Crake and Crest, in favour of concentrating on the more productive sites in the reedbed and around the sewage works. However, as autumn progresses Crake and Crest, as their names imply, will start to become increasingly fruitful so, seeing that the paths in the upper Ley were long overdue for a cut, I asked the reserve manager if our contractor could mow the rides at the same time. Jack, our regular contractor, has done a fantastic job over the years and normally uses a small tractor perfectly suited to access and cut the rides.
This time, he must have used a much larger vehicle because, when I checked the rides on my last visit, it looked like they had been cut with a combine harvester. The rides are both about 4m wide now, twice the width they should be and big enough to drive a truck down. All the wooden, tethering posts, used to keep the mist net poles secure and which took 2 days to measure out and hammer in, have been removed, presumably to enable the beast of a machine to gain access. Finally, to add insult to injury, none of the rides are straight and now run in shallow curves. Logistics were never my strong point, but I would have thought that removing the six posts on one side to gain access and using the remaining six posts on the other side as a guide could have resulted in a straight line. Given that Jack has proved unfailingly reliable in the past, I suspect he was inadequately briefed.
Never mind. A lesson learned. It will take me a day to sort out, rather than the two hours it would have required to cut them in by hand. I’ll have to hack back the vegetation on the outside of the curves to straighten them before re-measuring and hammering the tethering posts back in. Then I can set up and secure the mist net poles ready for action again. I suspect that they will end up looking like landing strips in the Amazon until some vegetation grows back next year!
Tree Pipit – South Milton Ley, 25th August 2018
I’m still struggling to get good numbers at South Milton this autumn. It seems that the bulk of passage may have already happened. Reports from the near continent and as far away as Georgia all suggest that southwards movement began early this year. For example, this year at the Loire Estuary, France, large numbers of Aquatic Warblers were recorded weeks before the normal peak, with a staggering 70 individuals trapped and ringed over a 16-day period at the end of July/early August. Batumi Raptor Count Tweeted: “Something interesting is going on this year: early Harriers, early Black Kites and just now already the first Imperial Eagle of the season. Two weeks earlier than the previous earliest bird (Sept 2nd). What’s going on up north?”.
So, just 41 birds today was not really a surprise, with a smattering of migrants amongst the resident species. Almost all were trapped in the first couple of hours and everything had dried up by mid-morning: 2 Blackbird, 9 Blackcap, 2 Blue Tit, 1 Bullfinch, 3 Dunnock, 1 Great Tit, 4 Reed Warbler, 7 Sedge Warbler, 2 Tree Pipit, 6 Willow Warbler and 2 Wren.
Tuesday 21st August 2018
Having caught your attention with the possibility of something good, I must confess that unfortunately my hands were the only things that were purple after processing a number of blackcaps that had been feasting on blackberries. An occupational hazard for ringers at this time of year. Birds were hard to come by today – particularly poor for the middle of August. Perhaps the persistent SW winds have held things up or kept birds on the other side of the Channel.
I only saw two Willow Warblers in 5 hours and not a single Tree Pipit responded to my tape lures, (I caught 16 here last August). However, there were just enough birds to keep me occupied and the first young Kingfisher of the year plus a juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker was a bonus.
44 birds were ringed: 1 Blackbird, 10 Blackcap, 2 Blue Tit, 1 Garden Warbler, 1 Great Spotted Woodpecker, 1 Kingfisher, 6 Reed Warbler, 2 Robin, 18 Sedge Warbler and 2 Wren.