Tuesday 9th April 2019

A cool spring morning with a light NE headwind dropped a few migrants into SML today. 60 birds were trapped: 2 Blackbird, 11 Blackcap, 3 Blue Tit, 2 Cetti’s Warbler, 15 Chiffchaff, 5 Dunnock, 1 Long-tailed Tit, 1 Robin, 1 Song Thrush, 1 Reed Bunting, 1 Robin, 1 Song Thrush and 19 Willow Warbler. Most of the Willow Warblers were long-winged (presumed males) and laden with body fat. One bird with a 70mm wing, weighed 11.3g, the heaviest I have encountered to date and sufficiently heavy for me to check the calibration of my digital balance!


The Tour de France – August 2018

Sedwa recovery.jpg

On the 14th August 2018 I ringed a number of Sedge Warblers at South Milton Ley. I’ve just heard that one of these, a first year bird, was controlled at Sandouville, Seine-Maritime, France, 311km ESE just two days later and then, amazingly trapped for a third time at Mars-Ouest, Sant-Philbert-de-Grand-Lieu, Loire-Atlantique, France, a further 330km SE on 23rd August. What are the chances of that? Time to buy a lottery ticket I think!

Tuesday 26th March 2019

Cirl B 2

With high pressure well and truly established, a sharp overnight frost greeted me when I arrived at South Milton this morning. After a bone-chilling hour erecting seven nets with cold, ice-covered poles, the sun rose to herald a beautiful spring day. Birds were few and far between, with no visible migration and the weather giving little reason for migrants to linger anyway. Despite this, 28 birds were trapped: 2 Blue Tit, 3 Cetti’s Warbler, 9 Chiffchaff, 2 Cirl Bunting, 3 Dunnock, 3 Goldfinch, 1 Great Tit, 1 Reed Bunting, 1 Robin, 1 Song Thrush, 1 Willow Warbler and 1 Wren. The two Cirl Buntings, both males, are the first for two years and the Willow Warbler is the earliest one I have ever caught at SML.

Willow Warbler
The first Willow Warbler of the year



Wednesday 20th March 2019


A newly arrived Chiffchaff with its face encrusted with pollen.

The spring equinox heralded an end to the string of storms, high winds and wet weather, which had been battering the SW for the previous four weeks. With the jet stream finally moving north and benign weather forecast, I made an early start and headed back to South Milton Ley. In the event the forecast was off the mark and I was greeted by low cloud and persistent light drizzle. Arriving at 06:30, it was two hours before the weather cleared and I could open the nets.

The conditions were not conducive to migration and just 15 birds were trapped, half of which were retraps. Amongst them was one lingering, wintering Chiffchaff and one obvious newly arrived spring migrant, its face encrusted with pollen, presumably picked up somewhere in southern Iberia. The total included 4 Chiffchaff, 1 Cetti’s Warbler, 2 Reed Bunting, 2 Great Tit, 2 Blue Tit, 3 Long-tailed Tit and 1 Blackbird.

Monday 25th February 2019

I took advantage of the easterly element in the wind today and strung up four nets in a row beside the western side of the sewage works. Normally, and frustratingly, the prevailing SW breeze up the valley concentrates the midges (and the Chiffchaffs) at the eastern end of the STW, where a public footpath makes netting impossible. The total catch was a respectable 48 birds, although only 19 of these were new. The total included 28 Chiffchaffs, a winter day record for the site, and 1 new Bullfinch, Reed Bunting and Goldfinch.

Other birds of note around the reserve were 3 singing Cetti’s Warblers, 2 singing Cirl Bunting, 2 Water rail, 2 Tawny Owl, 1 Sparrowhawk and 1 Great Spotted Woodpecker.

Thursday 14th February 2019


The new, “flat-topped” hedge at SML.

With a light south-easterly breeze forecast, I was at South Milton Ley by 07:30 and had the usual six nets operational before 9am. As expected it was those nets beside the sewage works, which provided the majority of interest, whilst the three nets in the reedbed added just two additional birds. There were an estimated 50 Chiffchaffs feeding in the trees surrounding the STW, including at least two Siberian Chiffchaffs, but the wind direction was not ideal for trapping. Despite this Chiffchaffs dominated the catch, making up 14 of the 24 birds trapped. Elsewhere on the reserve there were two each of singing male Reed Bunting, Cirl Bunting and Cetti’s Warbler.


What a beast! Photo by Nick Townsend.

The peace was interrupted by shredding machinery being operated by contractors engaged to cut the hedgerow on the southeast boundary of the reserve. This was planted in 2003 and had been sadly neglected ever since. Many of the spiral, plastic tree guards used to protect the young saplings are still in place 16 years later and have prevented new growth from sprouting at the base of the trunks, whilst the main trunks have become rather “leggy”. The hedge was about 6m high and has been cut to half-height. A massive twin circular saw mounted on a large tracked excavator was used and the debris mulched. This equipment was selected as it makes a clean cut and avoids the extensive damage caused by the more conventional flail. It is also more beneficial to wildlife. From now on the hedge will be cut every eight years or so. Now neatly manicured, with a flat top, the hedge looks rather tidy but the over-enthusiastic contractor was actually supposed to leave a few trees uncut.

Hedgerow trees provide a range of habitats in one small area. Together with the hedge they provide shelter, food, nesting sites, song posts and hiding places for birds, as well as stepping-stones between woodland habitats. One mature hawthorn can produce as many berries as 200 metres of hedge cut every year. Hedgerows containing a selection of mature trees contain a greater diversity of birds than those closely cut, which provide limited breeding opportunities for tree-nesting species such as goldfinch and greenfinch and limited feeding opportunities for a wider range of birds. It is recommended that mature trees are allowed to develop at irregular intervals on all suitable hedges. Although this recommendation has not been implemented at SML this time and the whole lot have had the chop, the trees are only 16 years old and there is plenty of time to allow a few to reach maturity in the future.

Ditch 4

Never reluctant to blow my own trumpet, the Horsewell Ditch project, designed by myself and Nick Townsend with support from Natural England and practical advice from Rory Saunders, is looking fabulous. Excavated in September 2017 and landscaped in September 2018, this new habitat has already hosted a Green Sandpiper and today held a Grey Heron, 10 Mallard and 2 Teal. Even this project has had its setbacks with the weight of retained water breaching the earth banks at either side of the sluice. Multiple barrow loads of clay and much jumping up and down to consolidate them seem to have reduced the seepage to manageable levels and the experience gained will be of benefit when designing a sluice for the main drainage ditch in the future.


Second winter reed cut 3rd February 2019

2019 Reed Cut 2

The second day of reed cutting took place on a crisp, frosty morning at South Milton Ley and we were again fortunate with the weather and with relatively firm ground. The total area cut this year was extended to around a hectare. A great achievement and much the largest area cleared in recent years, especially as the accumulated leaf litter made the work much harder for both the reed cutter and the reed gatherers, particularly in the wetter areas nearer the sea. As we were about to finish the machine expired and has now been taken away for a well-earned service and repair.

2019 Reed Cut

A view to the south from the boardwalk showing the extensive area of reeds cut in 2019

First winter reed cut, 20th January 2019

rc 2019 2

A pleasant, dry morning with a gentle breeze down the valley greeted the thirty-plus volunteers who turned out for the first reed cutting and burning session of the winter at South Milton Ley today. With such a good turnout, including a few welcome new faces, the team of Devon Birds’ members, local birders and residents from South Milton parish and the surrounding area, was able to cut, clear and burn almost 6,000 square metres of reedbed in about three hours.  With cutters, stackers and pyrotechnics ably coordinated by Nick Townsend and Vic Tucker and relatively firm ground underfoot the work was completed surprisingly quickly with only the last few bonfires requiring attention in the early afternoon.

rc 2019 1

Mowing sections of the reedbed on rotation rejuvenates it by preventing the accumulation of plant debris. If not managed, this can accelerate the drying out of the marsh and encourage colonisation by willow, alder and other trees. Cut sectors are always adjacent to established stands of mature reeds to ensure rapid recolonization of the new growth by invertebrates from the surrounding areas. In the short term, this minimises the impact on the birds breeding and feeding in the reedbed and, in the longer term, produces a diverse mosaic of healthy reeds.

Devon Birds extends its thanks to all those who took part in what was an enjoyable and sociable event today and invites even more of you to come along for the second cut starting at 09:30 on Sunday 3rd February 2019.