I have just finished preparing a ringing report for SML for 2017, partly because Natural England have sent me a copy of their rules relating to bird ringing on SSSI’s, which says a report should be submitted to them annually, but principally because I think that data is of no value unless it is in the public domain. Copies have been sent to Natural England and to Devon Birds for the Harrier.
Chris Townend’s assessment of the bird reserves owned or managed by Devon Birds in 2015 recommended that: “All reserves should have realistic, species specific targets for birds breeding, wintering or on passage. Measuring the success of such targets can only be carried out through regular and accurate monitoring.” The current SML management plan also highlights areas where contemporary data on the flora and fauna of the reserve are inadequate or lacking and the need to address this shortcoming before future changes and the impact of habitat improvements can be assessed. With this lack of data in mind, ringing continued throughout the breeding season in 2017.
Historically the principal focus at SML has been on ringing migrant birds during spring and autumn passage but, as the migratory routes of most of the species there are already well understood, the focus has now shifted to more demographic based studies. For the first time, in recent years, ringing took place in every month and continued throughout the summer. This will enable changes in population, survival and productivity rates between years to be monitored in the future at SML.
Overall it was a productive year with significant improvements to the ringing infrastructure leading to a total of 2,137 birds processed, including nearly 1,200 warblers, and the data collected will form the baseline for future comparisons. You can read the full report here: Annual Ringing Reports
A windless morning with a thin layer of high cloud saw me back at SML just after dawn. It was a little bit warmer and a little bit busier today, although still best described as slow and steady. 32 birds were trapped of which 21 were new including 14 Chiffchaff, 5 Blackcap and 3 Willow Warbler. The Spotted Crake remained on site, calling just twice at 07:30 and 09:15. It has been completely elusive, despite the best efforts of numbers of hopeful observers, and isn’t responding to tape lures any more. I did get good views of a Water Rail in the same area of reedbed though as a consolation. The whole reserve remains exceptionally wet and the fact there are still rails present and they have ceased calling and gone into stealth mode reinforces my belief that there may be several pairs attempting to breed this year.
On a non-bird note, I was tipped off by a visitor last Sunday that there was an unusual flower growing in the upper Ley. Risking life and limb and nearly parting company with my wellies in the process, I managed wade through a particularly wet and overgrown swamp to secure the photo above, which I think is Arum italicum, based on the colour of the spadix and the lack of purple around the margin of the cowl. Separation from the native Lords-and-ladies or Cuckoo Pint, Arum maculatum is not easy for a non-botanist with limited reference books but, either way, it will be a new species for the reserve’s plant list!
After another unproductive session on the 26th March, which certainly wasn’t worth blogging about, with just three new Chiffchaffs ringed, and with a forecast of a clear skies and no wind I was anticipating a decent day at SML and it started well. Arriving at 07:00, there was still a thin layer of frost on the ground and on the mist net poles, and I made my way to Marsh Ride to erect the nets when I was amazed to hear the unmistakeable whiplash call of a Spotted Crake just a few metres away from me. Despite my best efforts I couldn’t see the bird although it responded well to my attempts to imitate its call. It called again briefly a couple of hours later and that was it. I am reliably informed that this is the first spring record for the area.
On the ringing side, things weren’t exactly hectic with 19 birds trapped of which 12 were new including 4 Chiffchaff, 3 Willow Warbler and 1 Goldcrest. Re-traps included a male Cetti’s Warbler of unknown origin and female ringed as a 1st year bird at SML in 2016. This is good news as Cetti’s have been very quiet here for the last couple of years and it’s nice to know that a pair is present at the start of the breeding season.
Crest Ride, March 2018
A brief ridge of high pressure gave me a weather window to get some nets up after what seems like an endless procession of wind, rain and snow so far this year. In the event, it was hardly worth the effort with just six new birds and three recaptures. All of the wintering Chiffchaffs and Crests have either departed or perished during the snow and sub-zero temperatures at the beginning of month. I have already received details of a Goldcrest found dead at the neighbouring Mill Farm on 27th February, when overnight temperatures fell to -4oC and I’m sure many others will have succumbed in the days that followed when the South Hams was covered in snow.
On the brighter side, one of the recaptures was a Chiffchaff returning for the breeding season. Originally ringed in April 2016, this is the first returning Chiff to be caught this year. At least three other males were singing strongly in the hedgerows around the ringing area. Unusually, at least four Water Rails were calling between the sewage treatment plant and Marsh Ride. Wintering birds have normally departed by now and I am speculating whether this year’s unusually high water table has encouraged some birds to stay to breed. Water Rails have only been proven to breed at SML on one occasion (1989) but the species is occasionally heard during the spring and summer months. Whether these are breeding birds or summering non-breeders is unknown. Water Rails normally start incubating during the last week of March in the south of England so I’ll be keeping a lookout for any sign of breeding activity.
The first of three Siberian Chiffchaffs trapped on 26th January 2018
At last, a dry day with winds, which were low enough to get some nets up. In fact, at times in mid-morning it felt positively balmy. The sunny periods were enough to produce swarms of midges, whirling about in mating dances on the leeward sides of taller trees and a north-westerly breeze drifted them towards the net ride beside the sewage treatment plant. Things were looking good for decent numbers of Chiffchaffs. These midges are a major component of their winter diet, often turning their droppings black, when the midges are swarming. When the sun goes in the midges disappear and the warblers disperse making them harder to trap.
The second Siberian Chiffchaff
In the event, the morning’s tally of 47 birds included 30 Chiffchaffs, 4 Firecrests and 2 Goldcrests. Three of the Chiffchaffs showed all of the characteristics of tristis and two of them obligingly gave the characteristic short “peep” call when released.
A lovely day but not many birds. Just 14 new birds were ringed including: 5 Chiffchaff, 3 Firecrest, 2 Goldcrest and 1 Reed Bunting.
Also on site: another 20+ Chiffchaff, 1 Siberian Chiffchaff, 2 Redwing, 5 Water Rail, 1 Sparrowhawk, 1 Tawny Owl and 1 Great Spotted Woodpecker. There were 3 Hares in the middle of the field to the south of the reedbed and a weasel ran across the footpath by the sewage treatment works.
A break in the weather enabled the first of this year’s two winter reed cuts to go ahead as planned. The biting easterly wind and heavy waterlogged ground didn’t make things any easier for the thirty volunteers who turned up to help but the breeze certainly kept the bonfires going!
We packed up in the early afternoon, having cleared almost half a hectare.
Lower Marsh Ride on 3rd January 2018 – submerged under 1m of water
A series of deep depressions with associated high winds and rain, interspersed with brief quiet periods and heavy frosts have prevented any ringing at South Milton since the middle of December. However there have been benefits.
Storm Eleanor piled up an exceptionally high sandbar at the seaward end of the reserve and this barrier, coupled with high spring tides and a lot of water flowing from the catchment, has raised the water level in the reedbed and ditches. Nick Townsend and I visited today, to determine which areas of reedbed would be accessible for cutting next weekend, and we were able to make measurements of water depths and flows along the length of the reserve. The weight of entrained water subsequently breached the sandbar and it partially reformed over the next two days. Nick managed to make additional measurements over this period and we now have a series of observations relating the depth of water at the coastal footbridge to the extent and depth of water in the reedbed and ditches.
We have been working together with Natural England to produce a proposal to install control structures along the main drainage ditch in order to rectify the impacts of previous, over-enthusiastic ditching operations. A historical concern about a risk of flooding at Mill Lane, the eastern boundary of the reserve, has driven past management and we now have conclusive evidence that it is a lack of capacity in the culvert under Mill Lane, rather than the water level in our ditches, which has caused surface water flooding there in the past. The installation of up to three sluices would give us control over water levels in the eastern half of the reserve for the first time and should restore both the water table and gradients along and across the whole reserve with no effect on the flood risk at Mill Lane.
South Milton Stream pre 1991
The widened, deepened and straightened stream in 1994
The same view in December 2017 showing how far the water table has been lowered
Our intention is to raise the water level in the main ditch to something like this (taken on 3rd January 2018)
Siberian Chiffchaff, South Milton Ley, 18th December 2017
A glorious, sunny day at South Milton Ley. Just a little frost on the ground first thing and some ice on the mist net poles but very little breeze and almost perfect conditions for mist-netting. The numbers of wintering Chiffchaffs are beginning to build up around the Sewage Treatment Works with over thirty present, including at least one new Siberian Chiffchaff.
32 new birds were trapped including: 15 Chiffchaff, 1 Siberian Chiffchaff (the third tristis of the winter), 3 Goldcrest and 3 Reed Bunting. Also 1 UK control Blue Tit, 1 re-trap Cetti’s Warbler and 2 Firecrests present
Siberian Chiffchaff, South Milton Ley, 5th December 2017
A forecast of low winds from the south, rather than the cold northerlies of the previous few days, tempted me out today. Winter looks to have arrived in earnest at South Milton Ley with the phragmites all turned brown, most trees without any leaves and, for the first time since the spring, not a sign of a dragonfly or butterfly. The hedgerows around the reserve have all been stripped of their berries and the thrushes have moved on.
Adult female Cetti’s Warbler, South Milton Ley, 5th December 2017
Ringing was slow but steady enough to stave off the cold. 29 new birds were trapped including: 13 Chiffchaff, (including the second tristis of the winter), 1 Firecrest, 5 Goldcrest, 1 Meadow Pipit, 1 Song Thrush. Also 1 UK control Goldcrest, 2 returning wintering Chiffchaffs and 2 re-trap Cetti’s Warblers.
Cetti’s Warbler – the only passerine in the UK with ten tail feathers rather than the usual twelve.