Dippers in Golden Valley: Tuesday, 13th April 2021

I was invited to help my friend, Aurora Goncalo, to look for a Dipper nest at Wick Golden Valley Nature Reserve, just north of Bath. It is a lovely spot, with the clear, fast flowing river Boyd wending its way through the aforementioned valley. The approach to the reserve is a bit of an obstacle course, thanks to the welcoming (sic) nature of the local residents. The entrance is at the end of a private road: I had to move three sets of traffic cones and ignore three “No Entry” signs to actually reach the entrance to the reserve. I also suspect it has the highest density of “No Parking” signs anywhere in the UK.

As seems to be my habit, I managed to arrive 30 minutes early, whilst Aurora advised that, due to the traffic in Bristol, she would be 10 minutes late, so I had a nice stroll around the site before they arrived. It was interesting to see that the dog walkers of south Gloucestershire / north Somerset are every bit as ignorant of “In the interests of wildlife please keep your dog on a lead” as the dog walkers of Wiltshire.

Once I had sprayed the recalcitrant padlock with liberal amounts of WD40 (other penetrating lubricants are available), and we could get in, our convoy made its way to the bridge over the river. Immediately we exited the vehicles we saw a pair of Dipper fly out from under it and away up the river.

Aurora is carrying out her PhD at Bristol and is collaborating with, and working on data from, the group Fauna Forever in Peru. She is working with the bird coordinator of that group, Chris, a really friendly Canadian ringer / bander (ringers in the UK, banders in the rest of the world, pretty much), who is currently in the UK and, with his partner Hazel, was a part of the team today. We were also joined by Jess, a member of the “Friends of Golden Valley” group and her children.

Our first action was to set a 6m net across the river just to the north of the bridge. We then made our way down to the bridge to check for the nest. After my obligatory stumble on the uneven and very rocky substrate and equally obligatory dunking, I realised that I should have remembered to take a couple of walking poles with me. Fortunately, Jess found me a couple of sturdy sticks, which enabled me to remain upright for the rest of the session. To be honest, everybody managed to get wet, even if not quite as flamboyantly as myself. When we reached the bridge there were three nests on an exposed horizontal RSJ support. The nest on the left had disintegrated, the one on the right was probably from last year and right in the middle was a freshly built and lined nest in which we could see some movement. Clearly this is a favoured Dipper nesting location.

We needed the help of a ladder to access the nest. Aurora did the climbing, I made sure everything stayed above water. There were two nestlings, with their feathers at the medium stage.

Nestling Dipper Photo and nails by Aurora

I would suggest that they have another 7 days or so to spend in the nest. Given that incubation is 17 days and time to fledging is 22 days, this means that the eggs were laid around about the 12th to 14th March. Records from the BTO’s Nest Record Scheme give the mean laying date of first clutch as the 6th April, with extremes of 12th March to 15th May, so it is definitely an early brood. It is highly likely that this pair will have a second brood this season.

Subsequent to ringing the chicks, we set a second net on the other side of the bridge, as we had noticed a pair of Dipper being active on that side. We were trying to work out whether this was the same pair that we had seen leave the vicinity of the nest as we drew up. It didn’t seem to be the case because had they returned back down the river, at least one would have likely been caught in the first net and we were monitoring pretty closely when we weren’t actually in the river. However, a few minutes after we set the second net, that second net caught. Not only did it catch a Dipper, but it also caught a Kingfisher, much to the delight of the various folk wandering through the reserve, who got really good close up views.

Kingfisher male Photo by Aurora

The Dipper was also an adult male. I was given the task of explaining to the group of observers, including a few children, what is meant by a cloacal protuberance! Funny how difficult it can become to phrase something like that so it is understandable to all ages without being either trite or yucky.

Satisfied with our morning’s work by 11:00, we decided to take the nets down and leave site. When we reached the first net we had set, just 5 minutes since I had last checked it, there was a second Dipper in it. So both nets caught. This one was a second year female. When checked, her brood patch was crinkling, with little sign of surface blood vessels, which would tie in nicely with the development stage of the nestlings.

Female Dipper Photo by Aurora

We left site just after midday, again moving the traffic cones out of the way that the friendly residents had put back to block the access. A lovely session with some really nice people and my 106th UK species ringed.

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