Blakehill Farm: Wednesday, 3rd March 2021

Lucy and I met up at the entrance to Blakehill Farm Wiltshire Wildlife Trust nature reserve at 6:45 this morning. The plan was to see what birds were using the fields adjacent to the cow byres behind the Whitworth Building. I had a couple of mad ideas, the maddest of which was to set up a few Potter traps baited with mealworms and a lure for Wheatear, just in case any of them happened to be passing through and fancied a snack. Unfortunately, that drew a blank. One day!

We set the usual nets for that field:

My other slightly mad idea was to lure for Redwing, as there were still some of them and Fieldfare about the site. I put lures on for them on the 2 x 18m and the standalone 18m net. It didn’t work. However, at 10:20 we did catch one – in the 9m net in the complex adjacent to the farm. Needless to say, moving a Redwing lure to that area did not deliver any further examples of the bird.

All nets caught, which is always a good thing: it makes you feel that you made the right choices. The three net complex was most successful, particularly the 9m net. It is the site at which I most regularly catch House Sparrows and, sure enough, the first two birds out of the net were a male and a female.

The catch for the day was: Blue Tit 1(1); Great Tit 2; Wren 2; Dunnock 4(1); Robin (1); Redwing 1; Blackbird 2(1); House Sparrow 6. Totals: 18 birds ringed from 7 species and 4 birds recaptured from 4 species, making 22 birds processed from 8 species.

It wasn’t the biggest catch but it was big enough to be enjoyable and relaxed enough for some training. As it was the first time that Lucy has had the opportunity to process both House Sparrows and Dunnocks it meant we could take time over these species. Ageing Dunnocks is a real black art: there are so many slight variations of plumage and eye colour to take into consideration before coming to a conclusion. House Sparrows have always been considered to be incapable of being aged accurately once both adults and juveniles have gone through their autumn moult, whereupon young and adults adopt identical plumages for their particular sex. That was until recently when Laurent Demongin’s “Identification Guide to Birds in the Hand”, translated from the French by Oxford based, fellow ringer and all round good bloke, George Candelin, hit our shelves with the suggestion that second year male House Sparrows can be identified as such due to a characteristic of the median coverts: specifically that in the juvenile bird the white tips to the feathers retain a central black spike not seen in full adults, as seen in the photograph below:

I hate to say it, but we did have a fatality this morning. It doesn’t happen very often, perhaps once in every 1,500 birds, but this was particularly poignant. At 8:55 Lucy ringed our second Wren of the morning. It had been extracted from the 3 net complex. Our ringing station was relatively equidistant from each net set, about 100m from each. Having processed the Wren it was released at the ringing station and left to its own devices. Just after 10:00 we noticed a Kestrel come flying across the fields to the south. We watched it stop and hover a couple of times, and then it stooped. I knew it was heading for the net, so I ran for it. As is par for the course, I got over halfway there when it managed to free itself from the net and fly off. I knew it had to have been after something (Kestrels are just as happy to take small birds as they are to take voles and mice) so went over to check the net. Sure enough, it was the same Wren that Lucy had ringed over an hour earlier. Wren mortality is naturally in excess of 70% for juvenile birds and 50% for adults. We were checking the nets every 15 minutes this morning, so I don’t feel guilty about it, it is a very unusual occurrence for our group and my team in particular.

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