Tuesday 7th July 2020

With an ever-changing weather forecast, opportunities to ring must be grabbed. Originally, two consecutive dry days had been predicted with suitably low winds. However, as things evolved, this reduced to one. At least this eliminated the need to make a decision! In the event it was windless and calm at dawn, if a little unseasonably cold. The nets by the sewage works were opened before 6am and the remaining three across the reed bed about 30 minutes later.

The first few net rounds were brisk, with sufficient birds to prompt me to get out extra bird bags as a precaution but, by mid-morning, the numbers had reduced to a steady and more manageable trickle. The westerly wind increased as the morning progressed and by midday had reached force 4-5, which is about the limit at South Milton. With nothing in the valley between the ringing area and the coast to interrupt the airflow, I often have to pack up at lower wind speeds than others with more sheltered sites.

However, the billowing nets at the close of play made it clear that more gardening was required, particularly in Marsh Ride, to avoid snagging on adjacent vegetation. I had come equipped for this, starting with a hedge trimmer to remove the less robust stuff. Extendable anvil loppers made short work of the thicker willow branches, which were encroaching on the ride from the south, and finally, a pair of freshly sharpened shears dealt with the mass of hemlock water dropwort to either side of the ride.

This plant species is a nightmare. All parts are poisonous. The sap is caustic to susceptible individuals and it has spread uncontrollably in the eastern half of the reserve where inappropriate drainage operations at the end of the last century have lowered the water table and allowed it to outcompete the reeds. Easily reaching 2.5m high, it is an umbellifer and the dried seed heads catch on the nets and are a real pain to remove.

Ordinarily, I cut back this invasive monster with the hedge trimmer in the spring when the shoots are thin and soft, but lockdown put paid to that this year. Now woody and up to 5cm across, the stems were beyond the capabilities of my trusty hedge trimmer and there was no option but to get physical. Doing this in the middle of the day was probably not the smartest idea I have ever had but it didn’t take long, and the result was quite satisfying. All that remains is to clear the thatch of grass from the last 50m of boards and the ride will be back in pristine condition.

In terms of birds, 61 were trapped of which 51 were new: 3 Blackbird, 5 Blackcap, 2 Blue Tit, 4 Cetti’s Warbler (all juvs), 12 Chiffchaff, 1 Great Tit, 20 Reed Warbler, 4 Robin, 3 Sedge Warbler and 7 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/

Tuesday 23rd June 2020

The Ringing Hut Ride today – compare this with the 9th June below

Having cleared the net rides at the seaward end of the reserve during my last visit, I decided to use them today. What a difference an intact sand bar and a couple of weeks of rain makes! Water levels had risen way too close to the top of my wellies for comfort and, with the Ringing Hut Ride not safely accessible, and it only being possible to erect one net in Lower Marsh Ride out of the usual two I quickly decamped back to the dryer, eastern end after a brief attempt to clear some of the cobwebs out of the ringing hut,

The single net in Lower Marsh Ride
A clean and tidy ringing hut

Things here were best described as slow and steady. Juvenile Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps have started to appear in increasing numbers but young Reed and Sedge Warblers have yet to put in an appearance – a little later than usual. The day was brightened by the recapture of an adult male Cirl Bunting but the final total was only 27 birds, 19 of which were new: 1 Blackbird, 3 Blackcap, 1 Blue Tit, 4 Chiffchaff, 1 Cirl Bunting, 1 Dunnock, 1 Goldfinch, 2 Great Tit, 1 Reed Bunting, 5 Reed Warbler, 1 Robin, 4 Sedge Warbler and 2 Wren.

Today’s Cirl Bunting retrap

Wednesday 10th June 2020 – New ringing controls

I’ve just received two ringing recovery reports from the BTO. Both for Reed Warblers trapped at South Milton Ley on 2nd June this year. Not very exciting though – they were originally ringed in the autumn of 2019, one from Slapton Ley, 15 km away and the other from Budleigh Salterton, 56 km distant. A table containing all known ringing recoveries involving SML can be viewed here:


Tuesday 9th June 2020

The ringing table – now in the shade!

A relatively quiet morning with just eleven new birds trapped out of a total of 27. However, the relaxed pace gave me the opportunity to make some progress with the restoration of Marsh Ride. The vegetation either side of the ride is under control now but the boards remain hidden under a thatch of grass, making them invisible, slippery and all too easy to step off the edge into the mire, which can reach above the knee in the wettest areas. Using lawn edging shears and raking the cut material to one end of the ride, I have now exposed about a quarter of the boards – enough to operate safely. Just another 150 metres to go!

It was so hot during my last visit that I cleared some vegetation and moved the ringing table a few metres so that it is now under the shade of an overhanging willow tree. This makes all the difference to the temperature and prevents me from slowly cooking. It also keeps the bird bags and my digital scales out of the sun. Although today was cooler than of late, it was still too warm for any major work on the remaining, overgrown net rides at the eastern end of the reserve but, having just purchased a second lithium battery for my cordless hedge trimmer, giving me an extra 40 minutes of power, I felt up to making a start at the seaward end. The net rides here are exclusively reed, making them relatively easy to clear. The main issue is the depth of water, which is determined by the height of the sandbar on South Milton Beach. Although a little higher than usual at this time of year, it only reached mid-wellington and my feet remained dry. Forty minutes and one flat battery later all sixty metres were clear and ready for action, although I suspect that a quick trim will be necessary next time I visit.

Final totals: 3 Blackbird, 2 Blackcap, 1 Chiffchaff, 4 Dunnock, 1 Goldfinch, 1 Great Tit, 1 Greenfinch, 6 Reed Warbler, 1 Robin, 3 Sedge Warbler, 1 Song Thrush and 1 Wren.

A freshly-cleared ringing hut ride

Back in business – Tuesday 2nd June 2020

French Sedge Warbler ring 8670096

A 4am alarm saw me fed and watered and out of the house 30 minutes later. Stopping on the way for fueI for the first time since the beginning of March, I arrived at SML just as the sun was beginning to clear the horizon. The net rides are still far from perfect but Nikki and I had cleared the 90 metres closest to the ringing station and, although the boards in marsh ride are invisible, covered with a thatch of new turf, it was too hot for any major physical work and improvements will have to wait, as will the more distant 120 metres of net ride that have still to be cleared.

There was a steady flow of birds throughout the morning but some, such as the numerous breeding Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs, proved elusive. These are all in established territories by now and probably won’t find their way into nets until they and their young disperse at the end of the breeding season. Ordinarily, most of the adults, particularly the males, can be tape-lured towards a net when they first arrive in spring but the breeding season is too advanced now and the use of tapes is unethical. Fortunately, Reed and Sedge Warblers seem to be more mobile and twenty were caught along with a male and two female Cetti’s Warblers together in the same net.

In established breeding areas, many Cetti’s males are polygamous, holding large territories with up to three females. Males spend most of their time singing and defending the territory but take no part in nest-building or incubation, and only some feed their young. Females paired with polygamous males lay larger clutches and successfully raise more young than those in monogamous pairings, suggesting that the polygamous males select the best-quality territories. After several years with low numbers at South Milton the species seems to have bounced back, with catches increasing from just 6 birds in 2017 up to 16 last year.

56 birds of 12 species were trapped in total, made up of roughly equal numbers of resident species, mostly juveniles, and warblers. Highlights were two UK control Reed Warblers and a French-ringed Sedge Warbler. I also had a new species in the net just before I packed up – a grey squirrel! Luckily, I had gardening gloves in my pocket but I approached the creature with some trepidation. This wasn’t covered in the training! In the event it wasn’t tangled and I was able to encourage it along the shelf whereupon it climbed the mist net pole and disappeared back into the trees. Something of a relief!

Final totals: 5 Blackbird, 2 Blackcap, 3 Cetti’s Warbler, 3 Chiffchaff, 9 Dunnock, 1 Great Tit, 4 Long-tailed Tit, 1 Reed Bunting, 13 Reed Warbler, 4 Robin, 7 Sedge Warbler and 4 Wren.

Lockdown legacy – Thursday 29th May 2020

Where did Marsh Ride go?

I had been all set for a days ringing on the 24th March with the car packed and sandwiches made, when Boris announced the start of the lockdown. Reluctantly, I decided that the journey fell into the unnecessary category and stayed at home. Just as well really as the police had road blocks on the main road at the bottom of my street, although I doubt if they would have been there at 04:30, which is when I have to leave home at this time of year to arrive at South Milton just before dawn.

The BTO announced that all ringing and survey work was to cease until further notice, so I was stuck at home for eight long weeks with an increasing sense of frustration. Social distancing is easy at SML as I rarely see anyone else there during a day’s ringing, but I recognise that if I had an accident it could have put an unnecessary burden on the health service.

Following the Prime Minister’s relaxation of the restrictions on Sunday 10th May, the BTO finally did the same three days later, on Wednesday 13th May, but insisted that permission was obtained from landowners before ringing could recommence. It took another couple of days before I received a positive response from Devon Birds. I had been warned that the reedbed net rides were completely overgrown after two months of neglect and was waiting for a contractor to clear them with a brush cutter but, hearing nothing, I took the bit between my teeth and decided to do the work myself.

Although forewarned, the rampant growth of vegetation still took me by surprise, and it took over four hours of slashing and raking to clear the 50-meter length of Marsh Ride. It was too windy to put nets up anyway, but the breeze kept the temperature tolerable on what was a pretty warm day otherwise. Still I am ready to go as soon as the weather is suitable!

Ready for action!

Self-isolation – Monday 16th March 2020

I feel like I have been practicing self-isolation for the last five weeks in anticipation of the inevitable spread of Coronavirus. Record breaking rainfall totals and high winds made ringing impossible and led to a gap of 40 days between visits to the reserve, the longest since I started ringing there. On the bright side, at least I have valid reason now to ask visitors to keep their distance rather than try to hold a conversation while I’m trying to concentrate on processing and releasing birds!

Personal hygiene has been a priority for me whilst ringing, ever since contracting Giardia at SML a couple of years ago. A particularly unpleasant gastric parasite, associated with faecal material, it proved beyond the testing and diagnosis capabilities of the NHS and my degree in applied and environmental microbiology was my saviour in that, after three weeks of discomfort and pain, I was able to self-diagnose and arrange private tests and appropriate antibiotics rather than waiting another ten days for the NHS to conduct yet more tests. Just two days after starting the antibiotics things started to improve!

One fortunate consequence of the parasite was that I stocked up on medical-grade, alcohol-based hand gel at a budget price – surplus stock from the Canadian health system, which was originally procured during fears of a SARS outbreak. I now have six litres of the stuff at home, probably enough to last my entire ringing career. I’ll be selling it on street corners as the current outbreak progresses!

Not much need for it today though. All the wintering Chiffchaffs and Crests have departed, leaving behind just resident species and the first few, returning male, breeding Chiffchaffs, some of which were adorned with the pollen of eucalypts, presumably picked up as they crossed N Africa or Iberia. At least three Cetti’s Warblers were singing at various points around the perimeter of the reedbed and three Water Rails appeared to be holding separate territories. Bird of the day was a beautiful Barn Owl, which sat briefly on a pole in the sunshine beside marsh ride before flying to cover.

Ringing was slow, with just 14 birds trapped, and only three between 9 and 12am, when I packed up: 3 Cetti’s Warbler, 6 Chiffchaff, 1 Reed Bunting, 1 Robin and 3 Wren. Things can only get better!

Wednesday 5th February 2020

Horswell Ditch today

Ringing at this stage of the winter is often unproductive as most wintering birds are already ringed and many are starting to move on. The increasingly mild winters have also significantly reduced the numbers of wintering thrushes, finches and buntings so I wasn’t expecting a great deal today. My expectations were realised with just 16 new birds processed together with 36 re-traps. Totals included 24 Chiffchaff, 7 Goldcrest, 5 Firecrest and a solitary Reed Bunting.

Marsh Ride bridge – now with wire-mesh surface.

I took advantage of the low workload to put the finishing touches to the bridge to Marsh Ride. It’s now covered with wire mesh to provide grip and sufficiently clear of the water to prevent the mesh from trapping floating vegetation in the future.

I also walked around to Horswell Ditch to check on the stability of the bank I rebuilt at the weekend. It’s still there at the moment! Only time will tell if I have done enough but the water level has risen to the top of the sluice and was pouring merrily over the top, which is a good sign.

Full again – Horswell sluice with the repaired bank at the lower right

Sunday 2nd February 2020 – The 2nd reed cut

The cleared area (almost 10,000 sq.m!)

The winter reed cuts at South Milton have always reminded me a bit of ‘Dad’s Army’, with a team of, not exclusively but largely, elderly volunteers and somewhat unreliable equipment. This impression was reinforced this morning when, after a night of heavy rain, the reserve manager gave a fantastic imitation of Private Frazer (you have to imagine a dour Scottish accent here!) – “We’re all doomed – nay body will turn up – the reeds will nay burn – you should have cancelled!”

These fears proved unfounded and 27 volunteers made short work of clearing the last of the area we started two weeks ago. It was damp underfoot but the reedbed remains alarmingly dry considering the rainfall we have received in the last few months. Around a hectare was cut in the end, fully meeting our stewardship obligations.

The repaired bank around the top end of Horswell sluice

I contributed very little on the day but concentrated on fixing a major leak beside the sluice on Horswell Ditch. Despite repairs by our contractor last autumn, the pressure of retained water had once gain punched a hole through the soil beside the sluice, partially draining the ditch. Vic and I managed to reduce the flow by jumping up and down on the earth above to compact it. I then spent the morning digging out and carrying shovel loads of clay to consolidate the bank, trying to build up a sufficiently robust buttress of soil upstream of the sluice. I finished off by topping the repair with turf in the hope that plant roots will help to reinforce and stabilise the bank.