Monday 15th July 2019

Juvenile Blackcap

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.


Wednesday 10th July 2019

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.

Thursday 4th July 2019

The neatly mown boardwalk

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.

Marsh Ride before, during and after clearing.

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.

Sunday 9th June 2019


The view eastwards from the ringing hut.

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.

Monday 3rd June 2019, Camera-shy wildlife

Simon Vacher

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!

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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.

25th May 2019 – Odds and Sods


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.Ruptella

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.

18th and 25th May 2019

Garwa 1
Garden Warbler, 25th May  2019

It’s difficult to generate much enthusiasm for keeping the blog up to date at this time of year. Spring migration is all but over and the hope of an exotic, off-course migrant has passed. Being located in a bay, the Ley will never attract the numbers and variety of migrants drawn to a coastal headland so it’s bread and butter ringing for the next couple of months. By that I mean concentrating on the breeding birds and their offspring and dealing with a high proportion of re-traps compared to new birds.

Dawn is currently around 05:30 and the early starts and long hot days don’t improve my creative writing skills either! There are advantages though as the ringing tails off by midday, giving me the opportunity to maintain the net rides at my leisure. I currently use 210m of net ride and the damp conditions in the reserve lead to prolific plant growth, despite the surrounding countryside starting to wither as we experience a prolonged dry period. I have ringed 17 Blackbirds this month – all adults – presumably seeking softer ground at the Ley due to the lack of rain elsewhere. Back to the point. All this plant growth needs to be kept under control or the reedbed rides can disappear entirely within a month or so and I’m feeling quite self-satisfied that they are all fully operational. Marsh ride requires a bit more work to clear the grass that springs up between and ultimately obscures the boards but, that apart, the rest of the rides are looking pretty good.

Crake Crest

Crest Ride (left) and Crake Ride (right)

I have lumped together the totals for the last two visits. There’s nothing out of the ordinary but I have been able to confirm that there are at least two pairs of Cetti’s Warblers present in the ringing area and that a pair of Garden Warblers appear to be breeding for the second successive year. 88  birds of 15 species were trapped: 12 Blackbird, 5 Blackcap, 4 Blue Tit, 2 Cetti’s Warbler, 4 Chiffchaff, 6 Dunnock, 1 Garden Warbler, 1 Goldfinch, 2 Great Tit, 3 Long-tailed Tit, 31 Reed Warbler, 1 Robin, 9 Sedge Warbler, 2 Song Thrush and 5 Wren.


Friday 10th May 2019

South Milton Ley seemed a little tame today as I made my first visit after returning from a 10-day birding tour of Bulgaria. The trip had been organised by BirdID Norway (see links) and subsidised by the Norwegian government. Costing just £260, 215 species were recorded in total with 120 on the last day alone and 20 species of raptor. Migration was in full flow with many flocks of pelicans, storks and various raptor species passing overhead. We also managed to get to grips with a few species, which had eluded us on our previous visit, including Black Woodpecker, Nutcracker, Thrush Nightingale and Collared Flycatcher.

Migration was certainly not in full flow at the Ley today and re-traps dominated the birds caught. Many of these were warblers returning to breed at the site. The net rides required a fair bit of work before I could open the nets as the Hemlock Water Dropwort, which is prolific around the margins of the reedbed, had grown considerably in my absence and the first new growth of the phragmites was also beginning to appear. Fortunately, the contractor who maintains the paths around the drier, eastern end of the reserve, also mows my two net rides there, which saves me a lot of effort. At the end of the session I cleared the net rides at the wetter, western end of the reserve. These are easier to maintain as the higher salinity prevents anything but phragmites from growing and the young shoots are easily dealt with using my trusty, rechargeable hedge-trimmer.

LMR 2019

Lower Marsh Ride, May 2019

There were 13 new birds and 23 re-traps: 4 Blackbird, 3 Blackcap, 3 Blue Tit, 2 Cetti’s Warbler, 3 Chiffchaff, 4 Dunnock, 1 Great Tit, 1 Great spotted Woodpecker, 1 Long-tailed Tit, 3 Reed Warbler, 4 Robin, 7 Sedge Warbler.

Saturday 20th April 2019

With crystal clear skies overnight, a full moon and a light NE breeze there was little reason for migrants to stop or linger at South Milton Ley this morning. Nevertheless, I was greeted by birdsong everywhere with the first Reed Warblers of the year and at least three Grasshopper Warblers reeling in different parts of the reedbed. The ringing was steady throughout the day but tailed off as temperatures rose. 34 birds were trapped in total: 7 Blackcap, 1 Blue Tit, 3 Chiffchaff, 2 Dunnock, 2 Goldfinch, 1 Great Tit, 1 Long-tailed Tit, 1 Reed Bunting, 3 Reed Warbler, 9 Sedge Warbler, 1 Whitethroat, 2 Willow Warbler and 1 Wren.

 I had to make a temporary repair to the boardwalk across Marsh Ride as some of the pallets supporting the boards had rotted and collapsed, allowing the boards to sink and water to come perilously close to the top of my wellies. When I returned to admire my handy work, I spotted an eel in the vegetation. At first I thought there were two. It was so close I was able to touch it before it emerged and slowly made its way along the net ride. It was over a metre long, which is about as big as they get! Unfortunately my camera was back on the ringing table!

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!