The busiest morning so far this year kept me fully occupied for the first few hours today. In fact, I didn’t manage to grab a cup of coffee until about 11am when things began to quieten down. 102 new birds of 16 species were ringed: 1 Blackbird, 6 Blackcap, 2 Bullfinch, 7 Chiffchaff, 1 Dunnock, 1 Garden Warbler, 3 Grasshopper Warbler, 2 Great spotted Woodpecker, 11 Reed warbler, 2 Robin, 43 Sedge Warbler, 2 Tree Pipit, 1 Whitethroat 13 Willow Warbler and 3 Wren.
Ringing woodpeckers is not without its hazards. One of the birds today was caught by its carpal and had grabbed two feet full of net. These had to be freed first in order to relieve the tension on the carpal joint and get the wing free. Unfortunately this put me within range of its bill and my right hand was well drilled by the time the bird was extracted.
Finally, are there any ichneumon experts out there? The beast above was flying around the willows at the southern end of Marsh Ride but, with approximately 2,500 species of ichneumonid in the UK and little id information on line the best guess I can come up with is Ichneumon lugens (formerly Chasmius lugens). Overall length was 25-28mm, which continues my habit of only spotting the largest insects. It would be nice to nail down an id though as it’s definitely a new species for the reserve.
A faulty starter motor, followed by the storms of last
weekend, put paid to planned visits to SML last week so, despite a forecast of
thundery showers, I seized the opportunity presented by lower winds on Monday.
In the event I only had to close the nets once for about thirty minutes to
allow a downpour to pass. Luckily, I had just completed a net round when it
started to rain so there were only two birds, which had to be extracted in a
hurry. These were ringed in the comfort of my car.
Migrant numbers were low and the ringing was steady. A tape lure playing Tree Pipit song attracted the first birds of the autumn with at least eight present, two of which found their way into a net. 53 birds of 14 species were ringed: 2 Blackbird, 4 Blackcap, 1 Blue Tit, 3 Chaffinch, 2 Chiffchaff, 2 Dunnock, 2 Garden Warbler, 5 Reed Warbler, 2 Robin, 12 Sedge Warbler, 2 Tree Pipit, 1 Whitethroat, 11 Willow Warbler and 3 Wren.
The first two visits in August produced nothing unusual but included a reasonable selection of the commoner migrants, including the first Whitethroats, Garden Warblers and Grasshopper Warbler of the Autumn. The commoner species such as Reed, Sedge and Willow Warblers were trapped in moderate numbers but I get the impression that the bulk of migrants have yet to start moving with swallows and wagtails still to arrive in the reed bed in numbers.
At least maintenance of the net rides becomes easier as the season progresses. The hemlock water dropwort, which is so difficult to control when it’s growing, has died back now and the only vegetation that regularly requires clearing is reeds which have toppled into the net rides as a result of wind or heavy rain. A small Elm tree had fallen right across Blaca net ride but I had anticipated this and arrived suitably equipped to clear it. These Elms self-seed and usually reach a height of about 4m before Dutch Elm Disease kills them off. Whilst unfortunate for the trees and the wider landscape, it does keep them below the optimum height for encouraging birds into the mist nets. In the event, I found that the tree was completely dead and the trunk had snapped at the base so it was easily dealt with.
It’s always been more difficult to write this blog when the ringing hasn’t produced anything out of the ordinary. Two baking hot days at the end of the recent heatwave resulted in 109 new birds of 12 species: 5 Blackbird, 10 Blackcap, 1 Bullfinch, 1 Cetti’s Warbler, 8 Chiffchaff, 3 Dunnock, 3 Great Tit, 28 Reed Warbler, 3 Robin, 25 Sedge Warbler, 10 Willow Warbler and 12 Wren. I suppose I should be grateful for 82 warblers in two days!
There are no prizes for working out the sex of this juvenile Blackcap, trapped today, as it undergoes its post-juvenile moult with new black crown feathers replacing the juvenile brown ones! Ringing was steady today with no surprises. 49 new birds of 12 species were trapped including 36 warblers. The final totals were: 5 Blackcap, 2 Blackbird, 1 Cetti’s Warbler, 1 Chaffinch, 14 Chiffchaff, 4 Dunnock, 1 Goldfinch, 1 Great Tit, 13 Reed Warbler, 1 Robin, 3 Sedge Warbler and 3 Wren. There was also 1 control Reed Warbler from Slapton Ley.
I started the day by clearing more vegetation and overhanging branches from the net rides before the temperature started to creep upwards. Apart from that it was a fairly standard day’s ringing for July with 69 birds of 13 species trapped. New birds included: 7 Blackbird, 3 Blackcap, 7 Blue Tit, 1 Cetti’s Warbler, 19 Chiffchaff, 3 Dunnock, 1 Great spotted Woodpecker, 13 Reed Warbler, 2 Robin, 3 Sedge Warbler and 2 Wren.
Returning to SML after a two-week tour of Kyrgyzstan in central Asia, I decided to start at the seaward end of the reserve because I had cleared the net rides there on my last visit. New growth was quickly dealt with and the nets were opened by 06:00. However, birds were few and far between and with only 4 trapped in the first 90 minutes, I decided to transfer operations to the eastern end. The paths had been mown in my absence and the boardwalk was also clear, which made getting about easier. However, the low rainfall, which has been causing arable farmers and gardeners concerns recently, had done little to reduce plant growth within the marsh and the rides at the eastern end had all but disappeared under a sea of green.
I managed to clear enough vegetation to get the nets opened before 9am and was rewarded with a steady stream of birds. The high temperature and a force 4-5 NE breeze required the nets to be emptied frequently to prevent birds suffering in the heat or becoming more tangled as the nets blew around. Safely bagged and transferred into shade, processing was pretty well continuous between net rounds and my lunchtime sandwiches remained un-eaten until mid-afternoon! Chiffchaffs dominated the 80 new birds ringed with 44 trapped. These were exclusively young birds, the adults presumably keeping a low profile as they complete their post-breeding moult. Tucked in amongst them was a single Willow Warbler, slightly yellower and its identity confirmed after a quick check of the wing formula.
Final total: 80 birds – 2 Blackbird, 2 Blackcap, 1 Blue Tit, 44 Chiffchaff, 4 Dunnock, 1 Great Tit, 5 Long-tailed Tit, 6 Reed Warbler, 1 Robin, 8 Sedge Warbler, 1 Willow Warbler and 5 Wren.
Lower winds and a break in the recent period of unsettled weather saw me return to South Milton again this morning. The day started with a sighting of an animal running ahead of the car down the access road to the reserve. From a distance I had thought to myself “that cat has a very fat backside” but as I got closer realised that it was actually a young badger.
I had decided to start by the ringing hut at the seaward end of the reserve as the net rides there are easier to maintain with increased salinity stopping anything but phragmites from growing. Previously, soft mud had prevented safe access but the ground had firmed up and the rides were quickly cleared of sprouting reeds. It was just as I finished this work that I heard a strange rushing noise in the reeds. Increasing in volume and apparently heading straight towards me, it was unlike anything I have heard there before. As it reached a crescendo two adult Roe Deer dashed across the net ride and they and the sound faded away into the distance as quickly as they had arrived.
The ringing was not particularly productive so, after two hours, I packed up and transferred to the eastern end of the reserve. It wasn’t much better here. The colder weather during the latter half of May seems to have impacted on the timing of the breeding season and fledglings have yet to appear. There were plenty of adult birds carrying food though so hopefully breeding has been delayed rather than disastrous. Highlight of the day was two new Reed Buntings. Final total: 18 birds – 1 Blackbird, 1 Blackcap, 1 Blue Tit, 1 Chiffchaff, 1 Great Tit, 2 Reed Bunting, 7 Reed Warbler, 1 Sedge Warbler and 3 Wren.
The BBC descended on South Milton Ley and South Huish reserves for a couple of days this week to film sequences for a forthcoming “Inside Out” program. In reality, it was lone, specialist wildlife cameraman Simon Vacher who Nick Townsend and I met at 10am. Escorted by Nick, he had a list of shots to complete in advance of the show’s presenter, Nick Baker, filming on site later in the month. My role was to enable him to film a short sequence about bird ringing at South Milton. Easier said than done it transpired as the wind strength was borderline for the nets and almost all the birds caught were adults and already ringed. No great surprise in early June as this year’s youngsters have yet to fledge. I did trap an un-ringed Blackbird but, as their natural response to a predator (or ringer) is to squawk their heads off, we decided not to film that one!
Luckily and unexpectedly, the penultimate net round revealed an adult male Cirl Bunting in Marsh Ride net. A highly photogenic bird and fortunately very relaxed in the hand, I was able to ring the bird on camera whilst being interviewed by Nick. Naturally, after the event, I thought “Oh I could have answered that better” but the show’s producer has emailed to say he’s more than happy with the soundtrack. Apparently, they would like to repeat the interview with Nick Baker and a BBC film crew next week but as ringing is so weather dependent, may have to resort to splicing together my answers this week with questions recorded by the presenter. The wonders of technology!
The show’s producer had visited both reserves last month to identify the shots he required. Foremost amongst these was to be a sequence of a singing male Sedge Warbler. By June most of the warblers confine their singing to brief snatches as they are well into their breeding cycle by then but there was a lone, presumably unmated, Sedge, which sat in clear view in an Alder beside the ringing station and performed beautifully. Other shots were harder to get but Devon Birds member Alan Doidge had staked out a couple of Yellow Wagtails at South Huish on the Monday evening, a very unusual record for June, which was a big bonus and another member Mike Passman provided an extra pair of eyes later in the week and the highlight was a perfect view of a displaying Chiffchaff.
It’s not all about ringing at SML. Behind the scenes Vic Tucker, Reserve Manager, and Nick Townsend, Conservation Officer organise and manage the ongoing maintenance of the reserve and one-off projects. Principal amongst these tasks is the mowing of the perimeter paths and maintenance of the boundaries and fences. Whilst I was in Bulgaria, the latch on one of the gates was adjusted to make it easier to open and one of the contractors excavated the south bank of South Milton stream where livestock from a neighbouring farm had managed to gain entry to the reserve. Although strictly the responsibility of the farmer, Devon Birds has acted to prevent further incursions. The contractor has also reinforced the sluice on Horswell Ditch and plugged a couple of leaks. The difference in water levels above and below the sluice is clear in the photo above despite the recent lack of rain. Nick designed in a spillway at the upstream end of the ditch to divert water directly into the adjacent reedbed during periods of higher rainfall.
Finally, when it comes to insects, they need to be big and/or bright for me to notice them at all, unless they’re biting or stinging me! Yesterdays fell into the bright category. A longhorn beetle Rutpela maculata. Widespread and common, it had been on the Reserve’s insect list, which now stands at an impressive 838 species, for a while.