Blakehill Farm: Saturday, 20th March 2021

For the second session in a row: no Blue or Great Tits. To be fair, both sessions had small catches but it is still noteworthy. I was joined for the session this morning by Ellie: getting an opportunity to ring at one of the nature reserves that she manages. Ellie had an early appointment, so I was setting up on my own (I love those 5:30 starts – looking forward to them getting earlier (he lied))

It is hard work at this site when solo or duo, so I only set five nets around the plateau bushes (2 x 6m; 2 x 12m and 1 x 9m) and a single set of 3 x 18m nets along the perimeter track. Whilst I was there in the pre-dawn dark the Skylarks started singing and, as the sky lightened, they took to the skies. They were ever present from then on and there had to be at least 20 singing males in the area within which we were working.

I put lures for Wheatear, Stonechat and Meadow Pipit out on the plateau and Redwing on the perimeter track. Clearly, I was hoping we might get some of the winter visitor Redwing that are still hanging around the area. The latest Redwing the group has ever caught was one on the 28th March 2019 at Tedworth House by yours truly, so late Redwing are possible.

I was also hoping for an early Wheatear, as we know they are currently arriving in the country. However, we have never caught one in the Braydon Forest and the earliest any have been caught was one in mid-April back in 2004.

Initially, the only lure that worked was the Meadow Pipit. Later on I changed the Redwing lure to Linnet and, I am pleased to say, it worked almost immediately.

It was a nice catch: Long-tailed Tit 1(1); Wren (1); Meadow Pipit 2; Dunnock 1; Robin 1; Chiffchaff 1; Linnet 1; Reed Bunting 1(1). Totals: 8 birds ringed from 7 species and 3 birds retrapped from 3 species, making 11 birds processed from 8 species.

The highlight of the catch was a Reed Bunting, Z936307, which was ringed as a juvenile back in October 2015. It had not been seen again until today, five-and-a-half years later.

Alongside the ringing, we were delighted to see the return of Curlew for another breeding season. It is known that two pairs nested at Blakehill last year, with one pair thought to have successfully raised their brood and the other, sadly, being predated by the local foxes (the key predator of Curlew eggs and chicks). Jonny Cooper is running the lowland Curlew monitoring project in north Wiltshire, and we are hopeful that the nests can be identified and protected this year. The use of thermal imaging technology should help in that.

It was quite funny how the Curlew manifested themselves this morning. In the paddock behind the perimeter track is a small group of Herdwick sheep. I walked along the track to the nets to extract a Robin that had been caught. The sheep followed me along and, as I turned away from the net ride I heard a sort high-pitched mewing coming from, what seemed to be, the group of Herdwicks. I spent quite a few seconds looking to see which of the sheep was making the noise when a Curlew flew off from behind them. It flew up, flew around and started the much more familiar bubbling call. This was answered by another bird and, all of a sudden there was two of them. We saw and heard them regularly throughout the morning.

One of the reasons for the small catch was the weather. It stayed particularly cold all session, which was exacerbated by an unforecast breeze coming from the north-east, so, Skylarks apart, there was not a lot of movement around the site. I had to close the plateau nets early, as they were billowing and catching in the bramble and blackthorn. Blackthorn is a particularly bad net killer – and I have enough mending to do from normal wear and tear without the added issue of blackthorn damage. We packed the plateau nets away by 11:00, when Ellie had to leave.

I went to take down the perimeter track net ride and found the Linnet sitting almost on top of the lure. I love it when a plan comes together. Returning to the ringing station I was pleased to find Jonny had turned up to check out the Curlew. He very kindly lent a hand with the packing away of the ringing station and I was away before midday.

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