A Wiltshire First For Me! Blakehill Farm: Sunday, 12th September 2021

With a 5:00 start, to get the nets open on the plateau before it was light, I was joined for the first time by Adam Cross, a C-permit holder recently moved to Chippenham. The team also included David and Anna, Anna’s first visit to Blakehill Farm. We set the same nets as last time plus 5 x 18m nets on the perimeter track. The catching was the reverse of last time: the Mipit triangle delivered the majority of the birds and the other plateau nets very few..

I had noticed, when I went to do a bit of ride maintenance yesterday, that the electric fence had been reinstalled and there was a fresh cowpat near one of the bushes. Sure enough, whilst putting the nets up over a dozen large, beefy lumps wandered out of the mist. Fortunately, they soon realised that we weren’t very interesting and wandered off from the rank, tussocky grass, and the prickly bushes where we were setting our nets to find some sweeter grass elsewhere. It is great that the cattle that the Trust farm (I think these were either Dexter or Aberdeen Angus) are generally placid and disinterested in our activities.

So, what is the title about? The last net to be set up was the Mipit triangle. Whilst working on it I had left the car with the tailgate up. Adam pointed out that there was a bird on the car, he took a quick photo from distance, in the mist:

Photo by Adam Cross, edited by me

The mist prevented getting a really good sight of the bird but, as it flew off, we agreed it was almost certainly a Wheatear. Whilst Wheatear are common enough on passage at Blakehill Farm, they tend to be along the perimeter track on the opposite side of the site, where I am reluctant to set nets: too open and easily seen, not by the birds, but by walkers and birders, and I have experienced complaint from that quarter when ringing on the plateau in the past.

Our first round was very quiet: probably because of the mist. It was nice to get my team’s first Sedge Warbler of the autumn migration, the first bird out of the nets, followed by an early morning Wren.

Sedge Warbler

For the second round, I checked the perimeter track hedgerow nets (empty), whilst the others checked the plateau nets. They came back with a good haul of birds, and I thought that this could be a really good session. When Adam handed me a bag with a Wheatear in it, I knew that, for me, it was a red-letter day. I have ringed Wheatear before: having been lucky enough to process two on Skokholm back in September 2014, but that is it and I have never done one on my home patch. Checking the group records that are available online, the group has only ringed 13 of them in Wiltshire. The online records show data since 1989 – but it is probably only complete from 2000 onwards, as not all paper records have been digitised. The previous most recent Wheatear was processed back in September 2012 on Salisbury Plain. All of the sites that had previously caught Wheatear were transferred to the North Wilts Ringing Group when it split from the West Wilts Ringing Group at the beginning of 2013.


I am not sure why it looks quite so fat: it was a decent weight but not huge. It probably had fluffed itself up but it wasn’t cold. Suffice to say, it flew off strongly when released.

The bulk of the catch brought back was Meadow Pipit. They have definitely arrived now, certainly earlier than last year. In the equivalent session last year (11th September 2020) we caught just the one. The catch was good and regular throughout the morning. As the sun broke through the mist, and the air warmed up, the Crane-flies became more apparent and started settling on the nets. Perhaps that is what draws in the insectivorous birds to this part of the plateau? That said, the blackberry bushes are absolutely laden this year and will, hopefully, be bringing in plenty of birds themselves over the next month or so.

We were joined for an hour or so by Neil Pullen from the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust. He took a few photos of us processing birds and we had a bit of discussion about the plateau management at Blakehill and the potential for ringing in the other parts of the site that we don’t currently cover.

Adam had to leave at 11:00 and the rest of us decided that we would start packing up at just gone 11:30, and started shutting the nets after we had emptied them. I did the perimeter track nets and David and Anna did the plateau. The perimeter track nets never did anything that warranted having erected them (one Robin and one Great Tit being the sum total), which is unusual. However, the plateau nets delivered an excellent coup de grace: a couple of Whinchat. That gave both David and Anna a first each for their records.

Whinchat – photo by Anna Cooper

The list for the day was a very satisfying: Blue Tit [3]; Great Tit [1](1); Wren [1]; Meadow Pipit 1[38]; Dunnock (1); Wheatear [1]; Whinchat [2]; Robin 1; Sedge Warbler [1]; Blackcap [1]; Chiffchaff [3]; Willow Warbler [1]; Reed Bunting 1[1]. Totals: 1 bird ringed unaged; 2 adults ringed from 2 species; 53 juveniles ringed from 11 species, making 58 birds processed from 13 species.

The one that got away: in last year’s session we caught a Kestrel. This year we had a Kestrel chase a Meadow Pipit into the nets. Unfortunately, it managed to extricate itself before we could get to it! Mind, in trying to correct the fumbling of a now departed trainee, last year’s Kestrel lacerated my thumb, so perhaps that was a good thing!

We were all packed up and ready to go by 13:00.

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