March 5th 2022

Male Firecrest

The driest, sunniest day for some time with an ideal north-easterly breeze was only let down slightly by the wind intensity, which was borderline for the most exposed net rides. Nevertheless, thirty birds were trapped, dominated as usual by Chiffchaffs. These were a mix of lingering, wintering birds and returning, local breeders. Some of the returning females, identified by their ring numbers, were already losing feathers from their brood patches and were particularly porky, weighing in at over 10g. Two female Blackcaps were trapped as well, several weeks earlier than local breeders usually begin to return. Perhaps these were wintering birds on their way home to central Europe. A relaxed morning’s ringing was rounded off by the first Firecrest of the year and final totals were: 2 Blackcap, 4 Blue Tit, 17 Chiffchaff, 1 Firecrest, 3 Goldcrest, 1 Great Tit and 2 Long-tailed Tit.

Finally, I know I bang on about how excessive ditching has lowered the water table in the reedbed and how Nick Townsend and I are doing our best to restore the floodplain but, if you look at the depth of the ditches in the following three photos and the density of dry reed stems, it’s pretty obvious that the deeper the ditch the fewer the reeds.

Deep ditch – hardly any reeds
Medium ditch – 100m downstream – increased density of reed
Shallow ditch – a further 100m downstream – healthy reedbed!

January 16th 2022 – The first reed cut

Each winter we try to cut and burn 2ha of reeds at South Milton Ley to promote new growth and prevent the build-up of leaf litter. We’re halfway there now after the 1st cut of the year thanks to a hardy bunch of volunteers! Unusually, the seaward end of the reedbed was dry enough to allow the reed cutting machine to access the area for the first time in over a decade. The SSSI conditions for the site do not allow us to remove the cut reeds and frequent flooding means composting them is not a practical option either. Bring on the pyromaniacs! A steady breeze and beautifully dry reeds meant that the whole process was over and done with by the early afternoon.

Catchup time

I’ve nothing but admiration for those birding blog writers who keep their webpages meticulously up to date even when there is little or nothing happening. Martin Cade at Portland Bird Observatory is a prime example of this dedication to duty. I, on the other hand, am far less committed, although to be fair I’ve far fewer readers to worry about. Storms, rainfall and persistent high winds seem to have dominated the local weather for weeks but I have made five visits to SML since my last post, two for reed cutting and three for ringing so I’ll run through them briefly in sequence.

A tale of the unexpected

There’s nothing up my sleeve!

Over the decade since I first started training as a T-permit holder I’ve experienced a few instances when birds do something completely unexpected. On Wednesday, I had just finished processing a Goldcrest but, when I opened my left hand to release the bird, it did not fly off immediately. It didn’t look stressed and certainly wasn’t hypothermic so I tilted the palm of my hand slightly to encourage it on its way. I wasn’t ready for what happened next.

In the flash of an eye, the bird rotated through 180o and then disappeared straight up the sleeve of the jacket I was wearing. Trying to work out where a bird weighing just 5 grams was hiding in a quilted sleeve was never going to be an option so I was left with no alternative but to gingerly slip my arm out and take the coat off. Gentle exploration located the bird at around about the elbow, whereupon it was easily extracted and flew off apparently non the worse for its brief experience as a troglodyte.

Wednesday 12th January 2022

Tristis Chiffchaff

The first ringing session of the year, with perfect weather, wind strength and direction. The reedbed is currently both unproductive and underwater so I concentrated on the area downwind of the sewage works. This proved to be a good call and 65 birds were trapped with 44 Chiffchaff, including 3 tristis and 2 UK control collybita. Also 6 Goldcrest, 3 Bullfinch, 3 Blue Tit, 3 Great Tit, 3 Robin, 1 Dunnock, 1 Blackbird and 1 Wren.

Two of the tristis were classic birds with olive limited to the margins of their flight feathers and tail and completely lacking in yellow tones except in the underwing coverts. A few years ago, the third bird would have been relegated unceremoniously to the form colloquially known as fulvescens, showing more olive on the mantle, a hint of yellow in the supercilium, undertail coverts and around the thighs. It was assumed that these birds were intergrades from the zone of overlap between tristis and abietinus. However, all the mtDNA analyses done on these birds for me by Martin Collinson’s team at Aberdeen University have come back as 100% tristis. Whilst this method only gives the maternal ancestry, I think it unreasonable to assume that hybridisation only occurs between male abietinus and female tristis.

The current thinking seems to be that if it looks like a tristis, sounds like a tristis and has tristis DNA then that’s what it is. Fortunately, all the birds were attracted into the net using a tristis song lure and gave the soft, short ‘peep’ call on release, which, as far as I am concerned seals the deal! I have posted photos of all three birds and a collybita Chiff below for comparison purposes.

tristis 1 with more olive than usual and a hint of yellow in the eyestripe.
tristis 1 – note hint of yellow in the undertail coverts and around the thighs.
tristis 1 – yellower underwing coverts than usual
tristis 2 – a ‘classic’ example
tristis 2 – note lack of yellow tones apart from faint underwing coverts.
tristis 3 – another ‘classic’ bird
tristis 3 – no yellow here either
collybita Chiff for comparison
collybita breast and underwing coverts

Tuesday 4th January 2022

The bridge to Marsh Ride on 3rd January 2022

Firstly, a happy new year to all those readers waiting anxiously for my next instalment. Don’t hold your breath!

I know from experience that, in the middle of winter, my mist nets beside the sewage works at South Milton Ley are only productive when it’s either flat calm or when there is an easterly element in the wind. The rest of the time the prevailing south-westerly breeze concentrates the chironomid midges and the birds on the opposite and inaccessible side of the works. With a seemingly endless stream of wet and windy westerlies in recent weeks, I have been keeping my carbon footprint low by staying at home.

To be honest, Covid vaccination commitments currently occupy two days a week and I also have an allotment, which desperately needs digging over prior to the spring planting season, assuming the ground ever dries out enough to work! With my main reedbed ride unproductive until the middle of March, there is little incentive to travel to SML. The flocks of roosting Reed Buntings, which used to form a significant part of the winter catch, are a thing of the past, with just one bird trapped this winter.

Added to this, the gradual and intentional silting up of the main drainage channel is beginning to have the desired effect of raising the water table in the middle of the reserve, (see the photo above), which means that, as a lone worker, I won’t risk accessing Marsh Ride. There’s over a metre of fast-flowing water under the bridge at the moment and another 60cm of soft sediment under that. The boards along the net ride are covered in a layer of silt, which turns them into a skating rink. It’s just too dodgy, trying to carry bird bags without slipping into the mire!

I haven’t been totally idle though. The first draft of the next management plan is completed and will be published as soon as I have addressed the comments received from various interested parties. I discovered that, deep in the darkest reaches of the Devon Birds’ website, someone has digitised all the annual reports from 1929-2018 into one massive pdf file. I have been searching this document for records relating to SML. I also have acquired a digital copy of “The Birds of Devon” by D’Urban and Mathews from 1892. Scouring both has enabled me to increase the bird list to 215 documented species. Only two of these, Little Bittern and Long-tailed Skua pre-date the establishment of the reserve in 1969.

If anyone wants copies of these two historical documents, leave a comment and I’ll stick them on Dropbox for you.

Wednesday 14th December 2021

Tristis 1

After three weeks with two named storms and seemingly endless days of wind and rain, I finally escaped the house and got in 3 hrs ringing at South Milton Ley before the next band of drizzle swept in. In reality, it was windier than I had hoped for and, with leafless trees and the reeds having died back for the winter, the breeze was sweeping up the valley unimpeded, keeping most birds on the opposite side of the sewage treatment works to my net rides. Just 10 new birds were trapped, which is not a good return on the six litres of fuel it takes to get there and back from Plymouth. There were compensations though; First out of the net – 2 tristis Chiffchaffs followed by 5 collybita Chiffchaffs, 2 Goldcrests and a Blue Tit.

Tristis 2

One of the Chiffchaffs had an overgrown upper mandible. This is first time I have seen this in in over 2,500 Chiffs I have ringed there. It didn’t seem to have affected its feeding though with a healthy winter weight of 7.7g.

Finally, in May this year I heard a female sparrowhawk soliciting food from a nearby male quite close to one of my net rides. On two subsequent visits I heard what I assumed to be nestlings begging for food and saw the female carrying prey into the same, inaccessible clump of trees. When I mentioned this to the reserve manager, he was, to say the least, dismissive, telling me “Sparrowhawk has never bred inside the reserve.” Not one to take kindly to having my field skills questioned, I had been waiting for the leaves to drop before investigating further and the lack of birds today gave me the perfect opportunity.

Nest located and photographic evidence secured!

Sparrowhawk nest

It was a few metres from where I had expected to find it and the tree was surrounded by impenetrable bramble, which was a shame as I’d been hoping to get close enough to look for rings in regurgitated pellets or to get a ladder up to look in the nest itself. Never mind. It was a moral victory anyway!