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.
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.
The final monthly ringing totals for 2018 are now available via the link above. 1,960 new birds were ringed including over 1,200 warblers.
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.
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.
I returned to South Milton Ley this morning after an absence of almost two weeks. I needn’t have bothered. The place was almost devoid of birds, with just 5 trapped in four hours.
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.
A view to the south from the boardwalk showing the extensive area of reeds cut in 2019
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.
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.
Siberian Chiffchaff 11th January 2019
The welcome arrival of a stable anticyclone over the UK and ideal weather conditions for ringing coincided almost exactly with a debilitating back injury, which also pinched the nerves to my right arm and confined me to the house for the next two and a half weeks! However, by the 11th, cabin fever had got the better of me and I felt up to driving to South Milton and getting a few nets up. The discomfort was tolerable and my worries about reduced mobility proved groundless. The birds cooperated as well, arriving in the nets in a steady trickle and managing to remain relatively straightforward to extract. 40+ birds processed in four hours is just one every 6 minutes and I can manage that pace all day.
In the event Chiffchaffs dominated the catch, making up 31 of the 41 birds trapped. This equals the previous winter Chiffchaff record set on January 26th last year. One of the birds was a classic Siberian Chiffchaff and there was at least one more, un-ringed bird present, which avoided the nets. Maybe next time! Final totals were: Blue Tit 2, Cetti’s Warbler 1, Chiffchaff 30, Goldcrest 1, Long-tailed Tit 2, Robin 2, Siberian Chiffchaff 1 and Wren 2.
In addition, there were 13 buzzards displaying over Horswell Wood, 11 Teal flushed from Ham Ditch and 3 Water Rail present. Reassuringly, after two very quiet years, at least two male Cetti’s Warblers were singing from opposite ends of the ringing area so fingers crossed for a more productive year.
There has been no ringing for the last two weeks due to the continued wet and windy weather. Given the amount of rain recently I suspect that most of the rides will be inaccessible next time I visit. In the meantime, I’ve received two new recovery reports: One of a 1st year Sedge warbler ringed at SML on 31st August 2017 and controlled as an adult a year later at Noyant, Soulaire-et-Bourg, Maine-et-Loire, France on 14th August 2018 and a second of a 1st year Chiffchaff ringed at Lodge Hill, Chattenden, Medway on 27th September 2018 and controlled at SML on 2nd November 2018.
In the absence of anything more interesting to report, I would like to take this opportunity to wish my handful of regular readers a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Redwing © David Pakes
Another squelchy day at South Milton with the water level in Marsh Ride just low enough to allow for safe access. There were far fewer midges flying and lower numbers of Chiffchaffs reflected this. 40 birds were trapped but only 25 of these were new: 6 Blue Tit, 4 Cetti’s Warbler, 12 Chiffchaff, 1 Goldcrest, 6 Long-tailed Tit, 2 Redwing, 3 Reed Bunting, 1 Robin and 4 Wren.
There’s not much else to report. Water levels were even higher than last time and the sluice on the new ditch has been breached at both ends with the pressure of water scouring away almost half a meter of soil from the northern end. I dropped in a barrow load of large stones, which were lying on the surface of the re-profiled access path, and shovelled soil into the gaps. Despite repeated jumping up and down to compact the material, I’m not convinced it will hold and it will need some proper engineering to rectify.