Portland Bill: Friday 5th to Monday 8th May 2023

In an effort to expand on their experience, Anna arranged for herself and Rosie to go to Portland Bill this weekend. Unfortunately for them, that meant dragging me along as well. Needless to say, when this was organised there was no inkling of what would be happening this weekend. Fortunately, there is no television at the Portland Bill Bird Observatory.

Being a Bank Holiday weekend, the traffic down the A350 / A354 past Melksham was abominable and, despite leaving from Purton at 9:30, it was 13:30 by the time we got there. We were met by Jodie, whom I previously met when Jonny, Ellie and I went to Skokholm in 2019, who is doing her second stint as assistant warden, and later by Martin Cade, the warden of the Observatory.

Naturally, being a Bank Holiday, the weather was not very good! Fortunately, the garden at the Observatory is very sheltered and so wind is not a big problem there. Obviously, rain prevents ringing and rain, wind and fog all affect the arrival of migrants. The nets were already open when we arrived at the Observatory, and we took over from the previous ringers at 14:30. Unfortunately, there were absolutely no birds hitting the nets until, at 18:50, just as we had decided to give it up as a bad job, we caught this beauty:

Neither Rosie nor Anna have processed a Pied Flycatcher before, Rosie processed this one. It had already been ringed a couple of days before, so it was processed as a recapture. In fact, it was seen every day of the weekend, but not captured again. Although it is very brown in colouration, it is a second year male. This is identified by the two white spots on the forehead, one either side of the beak. The tail was blackening up, to add further evidence as to its sex:

This ageing and sexing was a little outside of my comfort zone, having personally only ringed or handled a single specimen (on Skokholm, back in 2014), so it was good to have Peter, one of the long standing members of the observatory, on hand to help (as well as the Demongin & Svensson reference guides).

Saturday dawned wet, windy and miserable. It remained so until about 10:30, by which time it had calmed enough for us to open the nets and started to catch a few birds. None of the catches were heavy, for different reasons each day, and it meant that we had lots of trips around the nets, often returning with nothing to show for it. Saturday’s first birds were a couple of Blackcaps at just before 11:00. Anna then got the opportunity to ring her first ever Whitethroat at about 11:30, and then straight after lunch she got to process her first ever Woodpigeon.

The catch for Saturday comprised: Woodpigeon 1; Wren (1); Blackcap 2; Whitethroat 1; Willow Warbler 1; House Sparrow 2. Totals: 7 birds ringed from 5 species and 1 retrap, making 8 birds processed from 6 species.

Sunday dawned dry but, unfortunately, after the rains of Saturday cleared, the mist rolled in on Saturday evening. The foghorn started up at about 18:00 and was still going at 6:00 the next morning, whilst we were opening the nets. As a result, it was another quiet day, with no falls of warblers or other migrant species. The numbers caught were low, but the quality was good for two relatively inexperienced trainees. Between 6:00 and 10:00 we caught a number of the expected migrant species: Blackcaps, Willow Warblers and another Whitethroat, plus two retrapped birds: a Chiffchaff and a Whitethroat (both ringed at the Observatory this season). Soon after 10:00 Rosie got her chance to process her first Woodpigeon.

We then caught a couple of lovely birds. First off was a female Redstart:

I don’t have a good enough portrait shot to put up, but this shows the female colouration and the bicoloured tail. Note the dark central tail feathers, which is helpfully diagnostic of this species, especially if one is not familiar with Nightingale, that has a uniform tail colouration.

This was followed soon after by a Swallow. We usually catch our birds in mist nets: this one decided to fly into the Observatory building itself, colliding slightly with one of the windows, without harming itself, and being caught by hand by Jodie. Once processed it flew off strongly away from the garden.

We had a Willow Warbler at 14:00, and then caught absolutely nothing for the next two hours, until this lovely male Firecrest turned up in the nets:

Those facial markings do make him look cross!

However, he did pose nicely for the few seconds it took to get these photographs. The rest of the session comprised recaptures of three Blackbirds and a Robin.

The list for the session was: Woodpigeon 1; Swallow 1; Redstart 1; Robin (1); Blackbird (2); Blackcap 3; Whitethroat 1(1); Chiffchaff (1); Willow Warbler 3; Firecrest 1. Totals: 11 birds ringed from 7 species and 5 birds retrapped from 4 species, making 16 birds processed from 10 species.

Although we were scheduled to be ringing the site Monday morning, the overnight forecast was for it to start raining between 5:00 and 6:00 and to get progressively heavier until lunchtime, with no let up until late afternoon, if at all, so we took the decision to head home after breakfast. It was a shame that we didn’t catch more birds, but we had nearly three days with a bunch of very friendly people. Coincidentally, the journey home took just two hours!

Outside of the bird ringing, we saw some lovely birds whilst there. I was lazing around the site whilst Rosie and Anna were checking the nets, when I came across a Spotted Flycatcher perched on the end of a branch in a tree lining one of the unused net rides. I spent a good few minutes watching it hawking for insects, in that typical flycatcher way. Rosie and Anna came along in time to see it go about its business.

Over the course of Friday, through Sunday, a Cirl Bunting was seen, and heard, regularly in the grounds. It was clearly a singing male. However, other sightings from outside the garden indicated that there was a pair in the area. Hopefully these Cirl Buntings are a sign of an increasing natural eastward spread of this species from its Prawle Point isolation.

Sunday afternoon, whilst I manned the empty nets, Rosie and Anna went out with Mark Cutt, a local birder and ringer, to check on a nest box that was occupied by Great Tits. Unfortunately, they were introduced to the dark side of Titmouse breeding: of the seven chicks in the box, five were dead and two were too small to ring. It is hard to know what caused the deaths: most likely one of the parents has met its end and the other is struggling to keep them fed. Mark then loaned them his thermal imager, so that they could go out see what was about after dark. They got some excellent views of the Bill’s Little Owls.

Out on the sea regularly were hundreds of gulls of multiple species, including many Kittiwakes. There were plenty of Gannets out there as well, but the star seabird that I saw was a passing Arctic Skua. Unfortunately, I dipped on the Pomarine Skua and I didn’t get out of the Observatory grounds to go and see the Guillemots and Razorbills – but that was my own fault / decision.

The garden was very busy with insects: Rosie identified three species of Bumble Bee: Early, Buff-tailed and Red-tailed, together with lots of Honey Bees. She also found a Glow Worm. I came across this beauty on the path:

It is a caterpillar of the Oak Eggar, Lasiocampa quercus. They overwinter as a half-grown caterpillar and then feed up until pupating in June. This specimen was approximately 8cms long. Up on the balcony of the Observatory this caterpillar turned up:

This is the caterpillar of the Ruby Tiger, Phragmatobia fuliginosa.

So to sum up: not as many birds as we would have liked, but that has been the norm for my sites back in Wiltshire anyway. It is a great place to go for a weekend, whether ringing, birding or just hanging around and chilling: all of which was happening whilst we were there. At £20 per night it is not an expensive weekend.

The Observatory has a fabulous bookshop, well stocked with a huge range of natural history titles. New books are actually as cheap, or cheaper, than any online retailer. Second-hand books can cost as little as £1:00. Rosie took full advantage of the second-hand racks and I bought “European Birds” by Hume, Still, Swash & Harrop, for £15:00. The cheapest price I saw online, from the obvious suspect, was £17:50, elsewhere the absolute cheapest price for a new edition was £16:50. It took all my self-control not to spend over £100 on books.

I fully expect to go back for next Spring migration with whichever trainees fancy having a go. Just a week or so before we arrived there, the team processed over 600 birds in a single day. That would be daunting, but with the availability of experienced local ringers, entirely manageable.

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