Biodiversity Update – July 2022

Dryad’s Saddle, Cerioporus squamosus

Back in April last year, I wrote about efforts and progress in documenting the biodiversity at South Milton Ley. This partnership working continues, with many gaps still to fill, but has confirmed the presence of hundreds of species of flies, moths, beetles, fish, reptiles, mammals and, of course, birds many either threatened or of conservation concern. It has also significantly increased the number and scope of individuals and organisations likely to spring to the reserve’s defence if the habitat were threatened in the future.

There have been a few small gains since last April but mainly as additions to groups that were already well studied. Yesterday I photographed a fungus growing on the trunk of a small, dead Elm. With the aid of Google, I was able to make an educated guess as Dryad’s Saddle, Cerioporus squamosus. This was subsequently confirmed on Twitter by Dr. Richard Broughton, an ecologist at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. This brings the fungal species list for the reserve up to the grand total of three!

Stump Puffball, Lycoperdon pyriforme

The only other fungal species I have identified are Blushing Bracket, Daedaleopsis confragosa and Stump Puffball, Lycoperdon pyriforme. So, if there’s anyone out there from south Devon with an interest in mycology, who’d be prepared to have a look around the 18.2 hectares of the reserve, please get in touch. In reality, most of the reserve is reedbed so I would expect that the much smaller areas of damp woodland around the margins would be the most productive.

Blushing Bracket, Daedaleopsis confragosa

On a similar note, we currently have no information on lichens or mosses within the reserve and, on the zoological side, non of the invertebrate phyla, apart from Arthropods, have been studied. If you, or anyone you know could help with these (or other, even-more specialised areas of biodiversity) get in touch and you’ll be welcomed with open arms.

Wednesday 13th July 2022

No time for photos today. A steady flow of birds throughout the six hours the nets were open kept me busy. Luckily, given the temperatures in recent days, a layer of cloud in the morning kept things civilised. Nevertheless, it was like sitting in a sauna by midday and the 90 minutes it takes me to take down all ten nets seemed like an eternity. 84 birds of 14 species were trapped, including the first Willow Warbler and Whitethroat of the autumn.

Totals: 5 Blackbird, 9 Blackcap, 2 Blue Tit, 3 Cetti’s Warbler, 25 Chiffchaff, 3 Dunnock, 4 Great Tit, 14 Reed Warbler, 4 Robin, 3 Sedge Warbler, 2 Song Thrush, 1 Whitethroat, 1 Willow Warbler, 9 Wren.

Tuesday 5th July

A hot and humid slog of a day. It started at 05:30 with extensive hacking back of vegetation to clear the net rides. At this time of year, the Hemlock Water Dropwort is dying back and unable to support its own weight. A bit of wind or heavy rain and the whole lot collapses into the reedbed rides. The drying seed heads on this umbellifer could have been designed to snag mist nets and must be removed carefully to avoid damage. My rechargeable hedge trimmer makes the work easier but it still takes time to clear all 50 metres. To add insult to injury, one of the willows beside the ride had put on a spurt of growth and the weight of the new leaves and branches was causing them to sag below the level of the top shelves, also risking entanglement and damage to the nets.  After a 400m round trip back to the car to collect a set of extendable loppers, the problem was resolved (at least until next year).

The net rides outside of the reedbed required minimal maintenance but it was still about 07:30 before all the nets were up. I had opened 156m, just about the max I can safely manage alone. If it were to get too busy, I always have the option of furling some of them. It may not sound a lot but, when I’m operating on my own, which is the norm for me, 70+ birds in the six hours I have the nets open represents one bird extracted and processed every 5 minutes. Today a 75 birds were trapped: 2 Blackbird, 12 Blackcap, 3 Blue Tit, 3 Cetti’s Warbler, 21 Chiffchaff, 1 Dunnock, 2 Great Tit, 10 Reed Warbler, 7 Robin, 2 Sedge Warbler, 12 Wren.

I finished off by confirming breeding of Common Blue Damselfly, the 13th species of Odonata to be identified in the reserve.

June 2022

So far, June has proved to be a month of mixed fortunes. On Tuesday 7th June, the most benign weather forecast for a week saw me arrive at South Milton Ley at 05:15. The Met Office had predicted just a 10% chance of a light shower around dawn, so I wasn’t surprised when it started to rain after I’d got the first four nets up. Furling these, I retired to the car to sit it out. Two and a half hours of constant rain later, I finally emerged into a well-watered world. The persistent rainfall had caused a lot of reed and hemlock water dropwort to fall into Marsh Ride and it was a slow, soggy process to clear the vegetation and unfurl the nets. It was after nine am before I processed my first birds. In the end just 17 were trapped, with 9 new and 8 re-traps.

This was not the start to the month that I’d hoped for. Things picked up however, on the 14th, when I received a long-awaited email from the BTO. Way back in September 2021, during a visit to Portland Bird Observatory, I was persuaded that I should apply for my A-permit. After ringing over 13,000 birds it was probably about time to progress! This proved to be a slow process, due to several factors including my trainer being ill, the independent assessor taking two months to fill in his part of the application form and the Ringing Standards Select Committee losing two members and being unable to operate.

To cut a long story short, the RSSC finally approved my application, commenting ““The members of RSSC all commented on the excellent quality of your references and your excellent level of experience.” Whoopee! It’s been a long wait, 9 months from start to finish, for a process which should only take about six weeks. In reality, it’s not going to make much difference. Almost all of my ringing in Devon is done alone. It will enable me to have full control of my data and order my own rings, which will make things much more streamlined.

Two subsequent visits to South Milton Ley, on the 15th and 23rd, were much more productive, resulting in two of the highest totals I have ever had at the site in June. It was demanding work though, with 10 nets to cover and the most distant of these around 400m apart. I reckon I must have walked about 10km each day during the net rounds. Totals for the month so far are:

169 birds of 19 species were trapped. Of these 131 were new and 38 were re-traps. New birds included: 12 Blackbird, 22 Blackcap, 13 Blue Tit, 1 Bullfinch, 1 Cetti’s Warbler, 37 Chiffchaff, 7 Dunnock, 1 Greenfinch, 6 Great Tit, 1 House Sparrow, 1 Linnet, 1 Long-tailed Tit, 6 Reed Warbler, 13 Robin, 1 Sedge Warbler, 8 Wren.

Whilst the totals are pretty impressive by my modest standards, 113 of the 131 new birds, or 86%, were this years’ juveniles, suggesting that the breeding season so far has been pretty successful!

May 2022 – Summary

Each May I live in the hope that I will ring a good number and selection of migrants at SML. The reality this year (and every other year) has been a large number of re-traps, both of resident species and returning migrants such as Blackcap and Chiffchaff, whilst new birds and passage migrants have remained elusive. I have to accept the fact that, given reasonable weather, there is little reason for birds to linger or even stop at South Milton on route to their breeding grounds. Consequently, I have struggled to find the enthusiasm to keep the blog up to date.

However, 96 birds of fifteen species were trapped this month, with 45 new birds, 50 re-traps and one UK control Reed Warbler. Adults and juveniles of resident species such as Blackbird, Dunnock, Long-tailed Tit, Robin and Wren made up 75% of the new birds with just 11 migrants amongst the total.

SpeciesNew BirdsRe-trapsTotal
Blue Tit044
Cetti’s Warbler033
Great Tit112
Great-spotted Woodpecker101
Long-tailed Tit718
Reed Warbler257
Sedge Warbler235

Thursday 5th May 2022

Back in the field after a relaxing break at Portland Bird Observatory. There was little evidence of migration at South Milton Ley with just 25 birds trapped. Only 10 of these were new, including 3 Blackcap, 2 Chiffchaff, 1 Sedge Warbler, 1 Jay and 1 Great Spotted Woodpecker. The re-traps were mostly returned breeding Blackcaps, Reed Warblers, Sedge Warblers, Chiffchaffs and two local Cetti’s Warblers. The Jay and Great Spotted Woodpecker were the last two birds to be caught and I managed to extract and process both of them without personal injury!

Wednesday 13th April 2022

Not much evidence of passage today either! Just 16 birds trapped of which 11 were new: 8 Blackcap and 3 Chiffchaff. The male Blackcap above briefly caused me some confusion when I noticed how brown its crown was, at least until I twigged that it was covered in pollen!

Saturday 9th April 2022

The first ringing session this month at South Milton Ley. A frosty start with very few migrants visible eventually warmed up and produced 21 birds, 12 of which were new. These included my first two Willow Warblers of the year plus 2 Blackcaps and 2 Cetti’s.

It’s a foolish birder who relies on leg colour alone to separate Willow Warbler from Chiffchaff in the field but when you see legs this colour in the net it’s a safe bet it won’t be a Chiff!

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