First Willow Warbler of the Year: The Firs, 4th April 2021

A bright and early, and cold, start to a session at the Firs this morning (I had to de-ice the car before setting off at 5:45!). Whilst the catch wasn’t huge, it turned into a lovely session: a combination of good birds, good company and lovely calm, sunny weather. Apparently the big chill hits tomorrow!

I set my usual nets down the central glade: 3 x 18m from the bottom of the slope to the ponds and then 3 x 18m and 1 x 12m on the opposite side of the glade, down to near the end. Having set the nets I thought there was still a bit of a gap that needed filling, so I put an additional 9m net at the far end of the ride. It turned out to be a fortuitous decision.

The Firs map from the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust website, amended to show the net positions

My first round was just before 7:00 and the first two birds out of the net were a pair of Treecreepers. I say “pair” with some deliberacy on this occasion: they were extracted from the same net, the same shelf in the net, they were immediately next door to each other and one was a male and the other a female, so my determinations is that they are almost certainly a breeding pair. That I took them out of the net at a 90 degree angle to where I have put up a Treecreeper nest box gives me hope that they might consider using it. We shall see. The first round also delivered a retrapped Chiffchaff. I identified it as a female with a developing brood patch, and was delighted to find when I entered the data up this afternoon that it was ringed last year as an adult female. I might be wrong but I am consistent.

The morning was never very busy, but I don’t expect it to be at this time of year. I removed the feeding station last week so the titmice have dispersed, the resident species are busy establishing breeding territories and the summer visitors are arriving slowly at present. Which is a roundabout way of saying that over the course of the morning I only caught one Blue Tit and three Great Tits and no other Paridae (or Aegithalidae come to that).

About 9:00 I was joined by Annie and her daughter, Elara. They stayed for a couple of hours. This was only the second time Annie had been out since Elara arrived 19 months ago, so I reintroduced her to the delights of handling and ringing birds. I eased Annie in gently by giving her a couple of male Blackcaps to process. Elara was fascinated by the birds, particularly watching them fly: an instruction she gave them each time one was released! Annie got her to say the names of the birds as they were processed. She managed Robin and Blackcap came out as “Cap”. It was a lovely interlude.

After they left I decided that I would check the nets and, if empty, close them up. One of the things you can rely on is that, if you have a long section of nets stretching down the entire length of the glade, even if there are no birds in the nets nearest to the ringing station, there will be one in the net furthest away. On this last round there was a female Blackbird in the second net and a solitary warbler in the very end net: the 9m net that I had added to the ride as an afterthought / filler. I was delighted to find that this last bird in the last net was the first Willow Warbler of the year:

A lovely specimen in good body condition and carrying a reasonable amount of weight for a newly arrived migrant. I couldn’t remember having a Willow Warbler this early before and so I looked up the records before starting this write up: this is the earliest we have ever caught a Willow Warbler since the group was constituted under its current structure, 1st January 2013. Mind you, I did find out that it is by just one day, as I caught one on the 5th April 2017 at Lower Moor Farm and another on the 6th April 2019 at Somerford Common. Still, it is the earliest by any of the current team.

The list for the day was: Nuthatch (1); Treecreeper 2; Blue Tit (1); Great Tit 1(2); Wren 1(1); Robin 3(1); Blackbird 3; Blackcap 5; Chiffchaff 3(1); Willow Warbler 1. Totals: 19 birds ringed from 8 species and 7 birds retrapped from 6 species, making 26 birds processed from 10 species.

The morning was full of bird song and drumming. The Great Spotted Woodpeckers were in full force all morning, with the occasional Yaffle joining the throng. First thing though, there was a tremendous row from the northern end of the wood: the Jackdaws were going ballistic, a lot of calling and a lot of mobbing. I can only think that some poor Tawny Owl hadn’t found itself a nice secluded place to roost.

After a very satisfying morning’s “work” I packed up and left site by 13:15. It is hard work setting up and taking down when going solo – especially at the Firs. It might be a small wood but don’t be fooled by the two-dimensional map, it has a very decent 100m slope down to and, therefore, up from, the central glade. By the time you have done a dozen net rounds, including two journeys carrying, as I was this morning, 20 x 1.8m aluminium net poles, it is hard work. The total distance covered is in the region of 6km, of which 1.2km is up a reasonably steep gradient. For a fat old pensioner that is the very definition of hard work!

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