A Plethora of Pipits: Blakehill Farm, Tuesday, 25th September 2018

Some time back we had scheduled to run one of our regular ringing demonstrations for the Swindon Wildlife Group at Blakehill Farm. We normally do Saturdays but, with the 22nd September coinciding with the Wildlife Trust’s “Country Comes to Town” event, we scheduled for Sunday, 23rd September.  Unfortunately, it decided to rain torrentially for most of the day and we had to cancel.

Having caught a decent haul of Meadow Pipits at Blakehill last time out, Jonny and I decided to have a session Tuesday morning to see if we could catch a few more.  Unlike the last session, we were sharing half of the site with the Trust’s cattle: cows with calves and their superb Aberdeen Angus bull.  The electric fence was off all morning.  The cattle clearly didn’t realise, as they dutifully stayed away from the wires.  We have found on several occasions that we can safely work around the cattle.  I suppose it helps that both Jonny and I have farming backgrounds, so have experience of working around livestock, and it helps that they just don’t seem interested in our nets.  We didn’t tempt fate too much, with just two net sets in the cattle field.

At 6:00 this morning the temperature was zero degrees Celsius and the place was shrouded in mist, which was quite handy, as it didn’t lift at all until we had the plateau nets open. We never got round to setting the perimeter track nets, as we started catching almost straight away. It seemed every bush had a Meadow Pipit or three sitting atop it. The temperature began to rise and the mist lifted.  By 10:00 it was a very comfortable 23 degrees Celsius and the birds became very active.

We were confident that there were well over 200 Meadow Pipits out on the plateau.  Between 8:00 and 11:30 we caught 131 birds, of which 98 were Meadow Pipits. An excellent haul, given that we only had half our normal nets set up.

As anyone who reads the West Wilts Ringing Group blog knows, we don’t target big catches: our preference is for low intensity sessions where we can focus on each individual bird and maximise the data from each and maximise the training opportunity for the team.  As all of the major migration hot-spot sites on Salisbury Plain or the Marlborough Downs are already taken, our approach is realistic for the sites we have available.  A catch of this size is unusual for my team.  It is our second largest ever.  Blakehill is our favourite place (when we can get on it: weather and sensitivity to ground nesting birds control access), because you never know what will turn up, but we are never going to catch 200+ Blackcaps on migration because rightly, given its special status as the main lowland neutral grassland reserve in the UK, there are no large areas of low scrub so beloved by birds on migration.  However, this catch came exclusively from the small isolated bushes on the plateau’s edge.  We think that one key reason for so many Meadow Pipits being about was that there were swarms of crane-flies around the plateau.  Being an insectivorous bird this must have helped to attract them in.

Blakehill 2

This was our net set.  The yellow line is the position of the electric fence, the red lines are the nets: mainly 6m, 9m and 12m and one 18m, providing the backbone of the complex set.  Meadow Pipits are slow flying and so the traditional method of catching them is to set up an open triangle of nets with a lure placed towards the back net.  The birds are attracted to the lure and, if the trappers run toward them, through the open end of the triangle, they fly off less carefully than normal and some end up in the nets ready for extraction and ringing.  We augmented the nets in that complex with several spring traps and Potter traps (a walk in cage with a tripwire mechanism) baited with live mealworms. They were, generally, a failure, with just one spring trap doing its job. The complex itself delivered 30% of the Meadow Pipits and 3 of the Chiffchaffs, so well worth the effort.

The list for the day was: Blue Tit 4; Great Tit 2; Dunnock 2; Stonechat 1; Whinchat 3; Robin 1; Meadow Pipit 97(1); Blackcap 1; Chiffchaff 4; Goldfinch 2; Linnet 1; Reed Bunting 11(1).  Totals 129 birds ringed from 12 species; 2 birds recaptured from 3 species, making 131 birds processed from 12 species.

This takes our Whinchat total to 12 for Blakehill this year, our best ever.  It was our first Stonechat of the year anywhere.  It was a cracking juvenile male:


There was also only our second Linnet for the whole Blakehill complex for this year.  We recaptured a Meadow Pipit from our last ringing session.  The other recapture was a Reed Bunting, but the ring it was sporting was not one of ours.  It will be interesting to find out exactly where and when it was ringed (and whether we have correctly interpreted age and sex).

The weather was flat calm throughout the morning until just gone 11:30 when, from nowhere, a pretty strong breeze sprang up and brought our session to an end.  It was a cracking session: the birds came regularly, but not in such numbers that we couldn’t easily manage them.  The variety was good and the Meadow Pipit catch astonishing.

%d bloggers like this: