Tuesday 2nd November 2021. Water, water everywhere!

A light frost, the first of the autumn, greeted me when I arrived at the Reserve this morning but, as the day wore on, I found myself peeling off layers of clothing in brilliant sunshine with almost no breeze. Perfect conditions for the nets, if a little bright. The birds weren’t cooperating though. There was little sign of overhead passage, just a few hundred Woodpigeon and a couple of Redwing and Mistle Thrush and not much on the ground either. In the end, just 23 birds were trapped in five hours and half of these were re-traps. The final totals were: 1 Blackbird, 2 Blue Tit, 3 Cetti’s Warbler, 4 Chiffchaff, 2 Dunnock, 3 Goldcrest, 3 Great Tit, 3 Robin and 2 Wren.

However, with no pressure from the nets, I was able to complete a number of minor maintenance tasks, which had been accumulating. The first job was to replace the snapped mist net pole in Blaca ride. I had measured its diameter on my last visit and made up a sleeve at home to cover the break. Tightening a couple of self-tappers fixed it in about five minutes. A good start.

The bridge to Marsh Ride – now suitably restrained!

After the wet latter half of October with 60% more rain than average, South Milton Stream was pretty full and the water table had clearly risen in the reedbed. The stream was lapping around the base of my bridge to Marsh ride. It has been swept off its mountings a couple of times before so I hammered in two scaffolding poles to stop it drifting downstream in the future. Marsh ride is the lowest point in that part of the reedbed. Years of walking up and down the net ride have created a channel, probably only 10-20cm lower than the surrounding marsh but enough to show up as prone to flooding on Environment Agency maps.

Surface water in Marsh Ride
Changes to the depth of South Milton Stream following the cessation of dredging

Whilst on the subject of flooding. The northern boundary path, in the region of the boardwalk, is regularly inundated when the coastal sandbar is high and the reserve manager was concerned that the cessation of dredging in South Milton Stream would exacerbate the problem. Today gave me the perfect opportunity to take some photos and measure the current depth of the channel. About an additional 20cm of sediment has accumulated since my last measurement but the boardwalk area remained accessible, confirming mine and Nick’s assessment that it is water impounded behind the sandbar rather than the stream that causes the flooding. The chart above shows the amount of sediment accumulated since the last dredging operation in 2014.

No flooding at the Boardwalk bridge despite the accumulation of sediment in the stream!

The water levels in South Milton Stream, between the sewage works and the boardwalk, lapped between 10 and 30cm below the banks and it now has a much more natural appearance when compared to the 2m deep, steep-sided channel left after previous ditching operations. There is no doubt that this will raise the water table leading to a healthier reedbed and, as an added bonus, at no cost to Devon Birds or the ecology of this part of the reserve. It’s still early days but, at the present rate of sedimentation, my hope is that the stream will eventually look like this in the height of summer, albeit with much lower flows. The images below, travelling downstream from the public footpath towards the boardwalk, show the gradual raising of the water table and the transition from almost no reeds to a much denser stand of almost pure reed.

South Milton Stream above the STW, where the gradient is now too steep for sedimentation to occur. Note the depth of the channel and the absence of reeds.
South Milton Stream 100m downstream at the STW outflow. A shallower channel and reeds beginning to appear.
South Milton Stream a further 200m downstream, just below Marsh ride. Contrast this with the first image above.

Early Autumn update 2021

Getting to South Milton has been a bit of a struggle in the last month or so and keeping the blog up to date even more so. Suitable weather conditions for ringing always seem to clash with my shifts at Home Park mass vaccination centre. At present I feel that getting the vaccine into the arms of the hesitant has to take priority. On the few days when I have managed a ringing session the gap between visits has meant more vegetation to clear before I can get the nets up and, frustratingly, the numbers of birds have been low as well. The table below shows just how much Covid has impacted on the number of sessions in the last two years.

There have been three visits on the 8th and 22nd of July and 3rd August since my last report. The combined total is 116 birds processed of which 104 were new with 11 re-traps and one control. The controlled bird was an adult, female Sedge Warbler with a UK ring, which initially caused me some confusion. The ring string I am currently using for this species is prefixed AVJ as was the ring on the bird in question, which made me assume that it was a re-trap. However, I always ring on the right leg with the ring orientated so that it is the correct way up if a bird happens to be photographed in the field. This bird had an inverted ring on its left leg. On closer inspection, I realised that my ring numbers begin with 7 whilst the control ring started with 1. This is the first time I’ve seen the ring numbers coinciding like this and I assume it must be a pretty rare event. I routinely check for rings on the left leg after inadvertently adding a second ring to a Blue Tit in the past. Just one more thing to look out for in the future!

Totals for the last three visits are: 9 Blackbird, 16 Blackcap, 2 Blue Tit, 1 Bullfinch, 23 Chiffchaff, 5 Dunnock, 1 Greenfinch, 1 Great Tit, 1 Great spotted Woodpecker, 15 Reed Warbler, 5 Robin, 9 Sedge Warbler, 2 Song Thrush, 5 Willow Warbler and 9 Wren.

Wednesday 23rd June 2021

I’ve been volunteering at the Covid mass vaccination centre at Home Park, Plymouth, which has curtailed ringing operations a bit, but today a day off coincided with a decent weather forecast so South Milton beckoned.

After the disappointing catch on my last couple of visits I decided to open the two net rides to the east of the sewage works rather than the main reedbed ride. These are on the edge of an area of wet woodland and I had completed preparatory work on my last visit, replacing posts and guys and lopping off overhanging branches.

Together with the nets beside the sewage works, these proved to be quite productive with 47 birds trapped, only 11 of which were re-traps. Twenty recently fledged Chiffchaffs dominated the catch. Totals were: 5 Blackbird, 4 Blackcap, 23 Chiffchaff, 1 Dunnock, 1 Great Tit, 4 Reed Warbler, 1 Robin, 5 Sedge Warbler and 3 Wren.

Tuesday 27th April 2021

After a completely clear, windless night with a full moon I wasn’t expecting much in the way of grounded migrants this morning and I wasn’t disappointed! Nevertheless, despite the lack of numbers, there was a reasonable selection including eight species of warbler and the first Reed Bunting, Garden Warblers and Whitethroat of the year. A French ringed Sedge warbler provided the icing on the cake, although this is known to be a local breeder, ringed as a 1st year at Trunvel, Treogat, Finistère, France on 6th August 2018 during its first southwards migration. Now returning to South Milton to breed for the third successive year.

Once again, my time was most profitably spent, between net rounds, clearing more grass from the boards in Marsh Ride. With 42 metres of board now fully exposed, just six remain to be cleared during my next visit.

Final totals were: 1 Blackbird, 5 Blackcap, 2 Blue Tit, 1 Cetti’s Warbler, 3 Chiffchaff, 2 Garden Warbler, 1 Reed Bunting, 1 Reed Warbler, 1 Robin, 6 Sedge Warbler, 1 Whitethroat and 1 Willow Warbler.

South Milton Ley Biodiversity

One of the major shortcomings at South Milton Ley, identified in the last management plan, was the lack of comprehensive, contemporary information on the flora and fauna of the reserve and the complete absence of monitoring both before or after major projects, which may have affected species distributions and diversity. Since 2015, I have made considerable efforts to encourage specialist teams to visit the reserve and the fruits of their collective efforts have been considerable.

Whilst this blog primarily concentrates on bird ringing at SML, Devon Bird’s current lack of an archivist causes me concern that, in the event of my sudden demise or that of my pc, many records could be lost. Consequently, I have sent copies of species lists to Natural England, who oversee the SSSI, and made the decision to post copies on this blog as well.

My own contribution to today’s lists is minor when compared to the efforts of visiting specialists and, whilst I have made every effort not to omit anyone, it was safer to name the parent groups rather than individuals and I apologise in advance if anybody feels overlooked.

In summary, since the current management plan was written in 2015:

The number of plant species identified has increased from 95 to 208 thanks to surveys by John Day.

The number of arachnid species identified within the reserve has increased from 10 to 26, thanks to Geoff Foale from Salcombe. Flies and related insect species have increased from 130 to 514, thanks principally to the efforts of Geoff Foale and members of the Devon Fly Group. Barry Henwood and members of the Devon Moth Group have increased the number of moths from 6 to 174, whilst Dr Martin Luff has increased the number of beetles from 15 to 192.

In terms of vertebrates the number of amphibians and reptiles remains the same at three and four respectively. One additional fish species has been identified, taking the total up to a majestic three and a comprehensive bird list has been compiled with the assistance of Mike Passman, Bob Burridge and Vic Tucker. Only species recorded either within or flying over the reserve have been included and several rarities, shearwaters, divers, auks and waders, recorded either in the bay, on the beach or at South Huish are now omitted. The current documented avian total stands at 215 species.

Finally, local resident John Ward has recorded fourteen species of bat adjacent to the reserve and Jess Smallcombe and Ellie Knott of the Devon Biodiversity Records Centre have just provided conclusive proof of the presence of both Water Voles and Otters, taking the mammal total up from 22 to 32 species. Species lists for all of these groups can be accessed here: South Milton Ley Species Lists

Tuesday 30th March 2021. Back in business!

The first stage of the easing of the current lockdown restrictions on travel came into force yesterday and, armed with a copy of an email from the BTO making it clear that voluntary work and environmental monitoring are both exempt from the covid 19 restrictions, I left the boundaries of Plymouth for the first time in four months and made my way to SML.

The bridge at Marsh Ride prior to being dragged back across the two metre gap

I wasn’t sure what was going to greet me, knowing that the bridge to Marsh Ride had been swept off its mountings by floodwater back in December and half-expecting some of the rides to be blocked with fallen branches and vegetation. In the event, things weren’t too bad. Unlike the first lockdown, there had been little plant growth during the winter and nets were quickly erected beside the sewage works and in Blaca Ride. Accessing Marsh Ride was more problematic but I had come equipped and managed to haul the heavy wooden bridge back across the two metre wide ditch and onto its mountings about thirty minutes later. With hindsight, it was lucky that the bridge hadn’t been swept away completely and Nick Townsend and I will hammer in posts to secure it and prevent a recurrence.

Back on its mountings!

From the ringing point of view, things were less than perfect. The north-easterly breeze, blowing down the valley, was stronger than forecast and there was no evidence of visible migration. Despite this, a pair of Reed Buntings, Chiffchaffs and the odd Blackcap were singing in the reserve and two male Cirl Buntings were vocal just outside the boundaries. Twenty nine birds were trapped, just over half of which were new, including 9 Chiffchaff and a Willow Warbler. The re-traps were dominated by Dunnocks and Wrens but also included 2 Cetti’s Warblers, and 2 returning Chiffs, a Willow warbler and a Blackcap. Final totals were: 3 Blackbird, 1 Blackcap, 2 Cetti’s Warbler, 11 Chiffchaff, 4 Dunnock, 1 Long-tailed Tit, 1 Robin, 1 Willow warbler and 5 Wren.

Friday 27th November 2020

Firecrest

Unlike some other ringers in the South Hams, I had decided that, although permitted, travelling to my ringing site during the Covid crisis constituted an unnecessary journey and I have been twiddling my thumbs at home for the last few weeks. However, given a welcome break in the weather and the knowledge that other visitors to the site are few and far between, I finally succumbed to temptation and travelled to South Milton for a dawn start today. Unfortunately, the forecast of an overnight frost and low winds turned out to be woefully inaccurate with a steady force 4 NE breeze blowing down the valley, which is at the upper limit for such an exposed site. On a positive note, the wind had prevented a frost and overcast skies made the nets less obvious.

Birds waiting to be processed – different colours = different nets!

As is usual at this time of year, things started off slowly and gradually picked up as the morning progressed. Chiffchaffs dominated the catch, with two Firecrests providing the highlight. The last bird trapped was a female Great Spotted Woodpecker, which got its revenge for the indignity by drilling my knuckles as I extracted it.

Woodpecker damage!

Final totals were 56 birds of which 46 were new: 5 Blue Tit, 1 Chaffinch, 33 Chiffchaff, 2 Firecrest, 2 Goldcrest, 1 Great spotted Woodpecker, 6 Long-tailed Tit and 6 Wren.

Tuesday 11th August 2020

The middle of August is usually the busiest time of year at SML and with an easterly element in the breeze and few thunderstorms the previous night I was expecting great things. It seems that my understanding of the impact of the weather on migration patterns still has a long way to go and the site resembled the avian equivalent of the Marie Celeste. There was a complete absence of visible passage overhead with not a single hirundine, wagtail or pipit seen flying over all day. It seems that the only migrants reaching southern England at the moment have arrived on the Channel coast in inflatable boats.

On the ground Willow Warblers and Blackcaps were missing altogether and just two Sedge Warblers were trapped all day. There were conciliations in the form of the first Tree Pipit trapped this autumn and a single Garden Warbler, both tape-lured, but the blistering heat and high humidity made everything hard work and in the end I packed up early. Final totals were 37 new birds and one control Reed Warbler with a Slapton ring: 19 Chiffchaff, 1 Dunnock, 1 Garden Warbler, 2 Great Tit, 8 Reed Warbler, 1 Robin, 2 Sedge Warbler, 1 Tree Pipit and 3 Wren.

Saturday 4th July 2020 – Super (sodden) Saturday

Two weeks have elapsed since my last visit to SML as unseasonal wet and windy weather continues to prevent the use of mist nets. The only consolation is that the weather will have curbed the worst excesses of post-lockdown madness so evident when the sun was out! Unfortunately, it has also put a stop to the outstanding DIY jobs around the house and weed clearing on my allotment, which I have been occupying myself with over the last three months.

Consequently, I have turned my attention back to Chiffchaffs and Scandinavian Chiffchaffs Phylloscopus collybita abietinus in particular. Some time ago Ottenby Bird Observatory in Sweden published a montage of head shots of Siberian Chiffchaffs P.c.tristis (reproduced below) and I scoured the internet, searching in Russian and various Scandinavian languages, to produce something similar for abietinus.

Phylloscopus collybita tristis, Siberian Chiffchaff, compilation – Ottenby Bird Observatory.

The Ottenby photos were all taken under controlled conditions with consistent lighting and background colour whilst those I have collated for abietinus are highly variable. I have only used images taken during the summer in the core breeding range from Moscow, west through the former Soviet republics of Belarus and Estonia to Finland, Northern Sweden and Norway. Images where the colours of the birds, vegetation or ringer’s hands are clearly off have been omitted.

Phylloscopus collybita abietinus, Scandinavian Chiffchaff, compilation – multiple sources

With a group of pictures like this a couple of things have become apparent. Firstly, just how similar abietinus can appear to collybita and on occasions tristis, even in an image, rather than with a mobile bird in the field. However, to my eyes at least, a couple of reasonably consistent features started to emerge. Most, although not all, show some yellow in the eyestripe, particularly above and in front of the eye and a good proportion have a little yellow on the cheeks, upper breast or sides of the breast.

These features eliminate confusion with a “classic” tristis but are no help when it comes to collybita. Assuming that the bird is in the hand and it is not long-winged enough to eliminate collybita that way, something else is required. Personally, I have a feeling that the photo montage suggests a band of greyness in many birds forming a subtle and narrow collar, running across the nape to the sides of the breast. This may be just wishful thinking on my part and I would welcome comments from other ringers. One thing I am very aware of is that, in the ringer’s grip, this subtle feature would be entirely obscured by the fingers.

Finally, for completeness and having spent hours tracking down suitable photos, I have posted a selection of the abietinus images, showing the whole bird, in a gallery here. https://earlywormringing.wordpress.com/wintering-chiffchaffs/

Sunday 19th January 2020 – The first reed cut

The first stacks of cut reeds ready for burning.

The first stable area of high pressure since last September produced a beautiful sunny day for the first reed cut of the winter. Although cold, the physical efforts of the 20 or so volunteers and the subsequent burning of the cut reeds kept everyone warm. Unfortunately, the Devon Birds’ reed cutting machine suffered a major breakdown for the third successive year, which reduced the area cut. However, thanks to the personal efforts of Rory Sanders, who had purchased a second machine for parts we were able to continue and cut and burn around 5,500m2.

The deceased Devon Birds’ cutting machine.

None of this would have been possible without the sterling efforts of Nick Townsend, who had dug down through the compacted sandbar at South Milton Sands, allowing the water impounded within the Ley to drain in time for the cut.

The cleared area at the end of the day.

More of my and James Day’s photos can be seen in the following gallery.