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Every now and again it is refreshing to have a major change to your ringing routine.  Over the last couple of years I have had several trips out with the Wash Wader Group, a couple with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and several with the North Thames Gull Group. They all catch their birds primarily using cannon nets.  They probably should be called "mortar nets" as the net is propelled by four mortars.  Today, Jonny and I went on the 275 mile round trip to the Pitsea Landfill Site to work with the NTGG. We arrived at 7:30 and were on the site by 8:30, with the cannon nets ready to fire soon afterwards.  As you can see from the photograph below, the immediate landscape is pretty bleak, but it overlooks the Thames Estuary, which is somewhat nicer to look at

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The gulls have become habituated to following the heavy machinery that compacts the rubbish into the landfill and then staying around to feed on the newly compacted rubbish. A truck load of rubbish is emptied in front of the net and the compacting machine runs backwards and forwards over it, which piques the gulls' interest. It  then moves away and the gull settle down to pick through the rubbish for edible scraps.  Usually we wait for an hour or more before there are suitable numbers of birds to warrant firing the net. Today, it was ten minutes.

The first catch was just under 100 birds: mainly Black-headed Gulls, but including a good number of Common and Herring Gulls, plus a couple of Great Black-Backed and one Lesser Black-backed Gull. All birds processed were identified and aged, fitted with a BTO metal ring on the right leg and a numbered colour ring on the left, and their maximum primary length and their head and bill length measured.  Jonny got to ring his first Common, Great Black-backed and Herring Gull - so I suspect he thought it worthwhile.

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We had reset the cannon net before starting to process the first catch: and it was fired for a second time just as the last couple of birds were being processed. This was a much bigger catch: approximately 250 birds.  This time we had the same mix as before, but with no Great Black-backed, but with one intriguing bird: a potential Herring x Caspian Gull hybrid, shown below.

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This was a cause for considerable debate amongst the highly knowledgeable regular team but I would not profess to be any sort of expert, and certainly don't have an opinion on it.  However, the whole Herring Gull / Lesser Black-backed Gull ring species seems to be being split on a regular basis: 20 years ago would anybody have actually considered the provenance?  

We had hoped to go for a third firing but the birds just disappeared.  However, it was certainly the most compact and effective gull ringing session I have been on.  Gulls are facing a considerable pressure these days: from compost.  So much food waste is now being composted that there is much less food in the rubbish dumped in the landfill. Therefore, there is much less food for the gulls. This is reducing the number of birds on the tip and, clearly, stressing the gull populations.  One result is, possibly, resulting in their moving more into towns and cities more often: where human feeding habits and discarding of same offers better feeding opportunities. ST/JC

We had hoped to have a session at Blakehill Farm on Wednesday, but the weather forecast was for strong winds gusting to over 30mph, so I changed the venue to Webb's Wood. I was joined for the session by Jonny and Ellie. I wasn't expecting there to be a large catch: I have been out of the country working and unable to top up the feeding stations for a couple of weeks.  In the event, we had a reasonable catch and, in some ways, a very decent one.  The list was: Great Spotted Woodpecker 1; Blue Tit 6(5); Great Tit 6(3); Coal Tit 1(1); Marsh Tit 1(3); Robin 3; Redwing 1; Goldcrest 2; Lesser Redpoll 3. Totals: 24 birds ringed from nine species; 12 birds retrapped from four species, making 36 birds processed from nine species.

It is always good to catch Lesser Redpoll in the Forest, but the stars of the day were the Marsh Tits. After last year's good showing of them, 19 ringed and a total of 30 individual birds processed in the Forest, we had our best ever catch of them in Webb's Wood. One bird was ringed on the first session in Webb's Wood, in February 2013. It was subsequently caught in the Firs in October 2016 and then recaptured back in Webb's Wood on this occasion. Although the Firs is adjacent to Webb's Wood, the distance between the two capture sites is over 700m. For a bird that is exceedingly sedentary, this represents quite an unusual movement.

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Our first session of the new year was at Lower Moor Farm. By way of a change from our usual CES site, we set up close to the visitor centre and in the wildlife education area.  Apart from Jonny, I had a fairly inexperienced team out with me: Annie is just starting with extracting birds; Steph started processing on this session and David came along for his second session and is just getting used to handling wild birds.  In the event, we had a good, manageable catch, with plenty of opportunity for the team to work without pressure.

The list for the session was: Blue Tit 14(3); Great Tit 5(3); Long-tailed Tit (2); Wren (3); Dunnock 3(1); Robin 1(2); Blackbird 5; Chiffchaff 1; Chaffinch (1); Bullfinch 2; Reed Bunting (1). Totals: 31 birds ringed from seven species; 16 birds retrapped from eight species, making 47 birds processed from 11 species.

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There was a large work party of teenagers on site, with Chelsie and Ed from the Wildlife Trust so, once again, I took the opportunity to give a quick impromptu ringing demonstration and explanation of what it is all about. ST/JC/AH/SB/DW

It has been a couple of months since we have managed a session at Somerford Common. My usual ringing site is undergoing significant work: the Forestry Commission are instituting a coppice regime in the fenced off paddock area, which is where I usually set my winter feeding station. This year I have set it up in the bridleway that runs parallel to, and 150 metres south of, Queen Street.  The only problem with this particular part of the site is the mud. The subsoil is so churned up by horses and, unfortunately, trail bikes, it is very difficult terrain.  Given the 100th anniversary of this particular battle in 2016, I think they should rename it: Sommerford Common.

There was a good team turn out, with Jonny, Charlie, Ellie and Neil joining me for the day.  With the improving skills of the team we will be setting more net next year, to make sure everybody gets plenty of opportunity to continue their development.  The forecast for the day was for it to be dull, grey, misty and mild. We set the nets and carried out the first round: and then the rain started. We closed the nets and for the next hour drank coffee, until the rain stopped.  There is nothing more galling than looking at the weather app on your phone telling you that it isn't raining whilst the rain is drumming on the roof of the car.  About 9:45 the rain stopped and we reopened and shook the water off the nets and continued to catch birds.

The list for the day was: Great Spotted Woodpecker 1; Nuthatch 1; Blue Tit 6; Great Tit 7(1); Coal Tit 5(4); Marsh Tit 2(1); Long-tailed Tit 1; Wren 1; Dunnock 1; Robin 3(3); Blackbird 2(1); Goldcrest 6. Totals: 36 birds ringed from 12 species; 10 birds retrapped from four species, making 46 birds processed from 12 species.

Ellie got to ring her first Great Spotted Woodpecker, which was good experience for her (even if it was still my blood that got shed, holding the bird so she could photograph it, for her records). More importantly, the two Marsh Tits ringed, and the one retrapped, made this the best year for the bird in the Braydon Forest since I started my project in late 2012. There have been 19 new birds ringed this year: a significant improvement on the 12 last year. Of those 19, at least 12 were juveniles (it has been impossible to reliably age the birds caught in the last few months, as adults and juveniles share the same plumage and are showing similar levels of wear).  28 retrapped birds, representing 17 different individuals, is also the best rate of recapture at any time.  The combination of records represented 30 individual birds processed within the Forest (20 in 2015; 24 in 2014; 19 in 2013). Hopefully, there is a real, if gradual, increase in the number of Marsh Tits in the Forest and good survival rates. ST/JC/CS?NS/EJ

Ellie, Jonny and I had a quiet session at Blakehill on Saturday.  It was quiet because there were very few small Passerines flying around. To be honest, apart from a few Skylarks, there was virtually nothing out on the plateau's edge: no sign of Meadow Pipits or Linnets. I don't know if there is less seed out there this year, or if it was the mist. 
That is not to say we didn't have a good time: Ellie got to ring her first Stonechat and Starling and Redwing are always great to handle. One day we are going to catch one that was ringed in Scandinavia! The list for the day was: Blue Tit 1(1); Great Tit (1); Wren 1; Robin (1); Stonechat 1; Redwing 19; Blackbird 2(2); Chiffchaff 1; Chaffinch 1; Starling 1. Totals: 27 birds ringed from eight species, five birds retrapped from four species. 
 The highlights were the eighth Stonechat of the year at Blakehill. To put that into perspective: in 2015 we caught just one, the first on my rings. To catch eight on one site (that isn't Salisbury Plain) in one year in Wiltshire is exceptional. In the whole of Wiltshire in 2015 only 14 were ringed, in 2014 only eight and seven in 2013.  Also, catching an over-wintering Chiffchaff at Blakehill was unusual. They tend to be found at the Water Park but infrequently elsewhere in the winter.  This was only the second we have caught in December, the previous one being at Lower Moor Farm in December 2014.
 2016 12 17chiffST/JC/EJ

With Saturday's session being rained off, Sunday saw us in Red Lodge woods. I was joined for the session by Jonny and, for his first taster session, David Williams. The track at Red Lodge is virtually impassable for a length of 50 metres, even in a reasonable 4x4; so it is a bit of a trek to get to the optimum ringing area. With the three of us, we decided to carry everything we would need for both the nets and the ringing station along the track. It was a sensible trade off: cutting several miles off the session norm for this site, for a bit of extra effort at the start.

Because we were ringing around the feeding station that I set up on Monday of this week and topped up on Friday, we only set 4 nets. I was looking for a catch of about 50 birds, which would give me plenty of time to spend with David.  In the event, we nearly doubled that, and added a new species to the list for the wood.

The list for the session was: Nuthatch 3: Blue Tit 27(14); Great Tit 12(12); Coal Tit 3(2); Marsh Tit (2); Long-tailed Tit 3; Robin (1); Redwing 3; Blackbird 1(2); Chaffinch 4; Lesser Redpoll 6.  Totals: 62 ringed from 9 species; 33 retrapped from 6 species, making 95 processed from 11 species. This is the second largest ever catch at the site.

The Lesser Redpoll were the new species for the site. This might well be a result of the thinning process, as that is the only change that I can see to the structure of the wood in the last four years.  The catch of four Chaffinch was also the largest for this species at Red Lodge - and the first catch of them there since June 2014. Is it a coincidence? Who knows? Three Nuthatch were also a nice catch.

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David survived his session and is pretty convinced that he would like to become a trainee ringer. The more the merrier. ST/JC/DW

I seem to be doing a lot of ringing demonstrations at the moment. Because the weather was due to be fairly windy, and I had another group from the Wildlife Trust's well-being team scheduled to attend, I returned to the Firs somewhat sooner than I would normally do so. As I was working solo, I knew I could set just a few nets and catch a reasonable number to make the session worthwhile for the attendees.  The result was that we caught a high proportion of retrapped birds - but that is where the science is. The catch was somewhat less varied than the previous but the crew that attended the demonstration were more than happy with what they got to see.

The list for the morning was: Blue Tit 9(9); Great Tit 5(7); Coal Tit 2(3); Marsh Tit (2); Wren 1; Robin 1(3); Redwing 5; Goldcrest (2). Totals: 23 ringed from 6 species; 26 retrapped from 6 species, making 49 processed from 8 species.  

As I was working alone, the group got a chance to see the whole process, from extraction through measurement and recording, to release. In the course of the work several of them were taught how to safely hold and release birds back into their environment, From the tweets that surfaced subsequently, I can be confident that the session was a success with the group. ST

A very interesting week this week: the top news is Jonny Cooper being awarded his C-permit.  It is well deserved: he has worked hard, is totally reliable and has made sure to take advantage of all of the opportunities that have come his way: working with the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, ringing wildfowl and waders all over the country; going to Iceland to ring seabirds (and Red-necked Phalaropes (not jealous, at all)) and then spending a session with the team at Spurn for some additional, independent assessment.

I did a talk on Thursday and a ringing demonstration on Saturday. Thursday's talk was for the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust's Well-Being team. One of their projects is working with children who have either been excluded from school or who have other issues around being at school.  The aim is to get them involved in nature and I was asked to give a "motivational and inspirational" talk on bird ringing (not my words). I was a little apprehensive about it: how do you enthuse teenagers these days?  It has been a long time since my children were teenagers and, obviously, lost in the mists of time since I was. I decided to make it a little bit interactive: a short quiz to start and I took in a couple of different traps to show them how they worked and an MP3 player with the Latvian Redwing lure loaded. In the event, I needn't have worried. Two of the teens were just "too cool for school" but the rest were totally receptive. Being a cussed individual, I made sure that I continually directed questions and comments at the two most obviously disaffected youngsters and, by the end of the session, they were drawing my attention to some of the birds hopping around the hedgerow outside the window and asking about their identification.  After the talk, they borrowed the MP3 player and were delighted when, playing it outside the Visitor Centre, half-a-dozen Redwing flew into the trees adjacent. The session was scheduled to be an hour long but, after the questions and chatting, it went for nearly two hours. I have also been asked by one of the others how they get involved in ringing. He has been invited for a couple of taster sessions and, if he wants to, can join my little team of trainees. 

This morning's session was for the Trust's Watch group. This is their young members' group and we had 13 children, with accompanying parents, in attendance plus three members of the Trust staff to manage the audience.  The weather was fabulous: little wind, which our nets were completely sheltered from, and a clear blue sky and continuous sunshine. I had Jonny to help me, and it was just as well as the first round catch was relatively large. As some of these children are quite young (6 years old, the youngest) I decided to save their legs and set my nets along the hedgerow opposite the Visitor Centre and another couple in the Wildlife Education Area.  We had a really good catch, so I might have to try these positions again.  The list was: Blue Tit 16(3); Great Tit 5(3); Wren 6; Dunnock 1; Robin 6(2); Redwing 6; Blackbird (1); Blackcap 1; Goldcrest 2(1); Lesser Redpoll 2; Bullfinch 1; House Sparrow 1; Reed Bunting 2. Totals: 49 ringed from 13 species; 10 retrapped from five species, making 59 birds processed from 13 species.  Because the children were not arriving until 9:00, we didn't open the nets until 8:45.  It would be interesting to try it again, with a few more nets and the nets open from first light: I would think it could yield close to 100 birds. 

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To say that the children, and their parents, had a good time would be an understatement. They were so enthused to see the birds close up, but also to see so many different species: a few of which they (and their parents) had never heard of. Jonny, bravely, was happy for them to go in small groups to watch him extract birds from the nets. We had a super couple of hours and some additional birding yielded Buzzard, Kestrel, Pied Wagtail and Raven. It was a lovely morning.  Hopefully it will have given the children a real enthusiasm for birds, and we finished it off drinking coffee and eating jaffa cakes with the Trust team. Thanks to Chelsie and her team for inviting us to do it and for organising everything so well.  ST / JC

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Wiltshire Ornithological Society was formed on November 30th, 1974, and has grown in recent years to more than 500 members.

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