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Bird Ringing at Ockham & Wisley

Title: Bird Ringing at Ockham & Wisley
Continent: Europe
Country: England
State / Province: Surrey
Participants:Rich Mooney, Susan Frost, Alan Martin.
By Rich Mooney & David Boddy

Emily helping daddy with the baby birds
Ockham and Wisley Commons are located at the intersection of the A3 and M25 in north Surrey. Ringing studies started here in 1997 with the permission and support of the head ranger David Boddy. David has been managing both sites for 10 years now and has done an enormous amount of work to improve the habitat, especially for heathland birds. Initially only the tit boxes were being monitored, and a few target species such as Hobby and Nightjar. But in January 2000 it was decided to introduce a feeder station in Ockham, so that its use could be monitored during the winter months and hopefully retrap some of the tits from the nest boxes. This has proved very productive and accounted for 445 new birds of 20 species.

What follows is an introduction to the site (written by David Boddy) and a brief summary of the activities during the past four years, including the feeder station results and annual ringing totals.

History and Habitat
Wisley & Ockham Commons were formerly the manorial waste land (commonland) of the parishes of Wisley, Ockham and Cobham. Chateley Heath was the common for Cobham. The origin of Heathland on the Commons was around the Stone Age & Bronze Age times when clearance of woodland by humans began. Tree felling affected the soil structure and nutrients were washed out of the top horizons of the soil. This left the sandy, acidic and grey coloured soil we see today. Heather was one of the few plants to be able to survive these harsh conditions. The rights of the Common allowed villagers to exploit the commons for various uses despite the land being owned by the Lord of the Manor. The commoners had grazing rights so over time the area of Heathland increased as stock grazed out trees and heather flourished. The cutting of birch and gorse for fuel also kept the heath open. Commoner’s activities created diversity of habitat for wildlife, in addition to maintaining the heath itself. Coppicing gorse created habitat for Dartford Warbler and similarly coppicing birch benefited Nightjars.

From about the 1600s onwards subsistence economy which made heathlands viable declined, as for example, coal was used as fuel rather than heathland materials. The special character of heaths declined and trees reinvaded, particularly after grazing stopped. In 1871 commoners’ rights were removed from Ockham though not from Wisley, this may be why today Ockham has very little heath and is dominated by Scot’s Pine. The heathland restoration programme at the moment includes grazing on Wisley, removal of willow scrub by our volunteers and turning the pine plantations back to heath. Using techniques such as scraping and ground disturbance we hope to encourage one of our rarest birds to breed, the Woodlark.  This winter Hunt’s copse in Wisley will be cut for coppice. This management will improve the structural diversity of the wood, prolong the life of the coppice hazel stools, encourage Bluebells, and possibly in the future maybe nightingales will sing again in Hunts copse.

Study Objectives
·         to monitor the breeding success of nest boxes
·         to maintain accurate records of all activities, including the submission of nest record cards
·         to confirm breeding or presence of specific target species (Hobby, Nightjar, Woodlark)
·         to establish a feeding station and monitor its use during the winter by weekly mist netting
·         to carry out some autumn mist netting 

Summary of Activities
Ringing at both sites started in May 1997 with the inspection of the tit boxes that were already in place. Great Tit and Blue Tit occupy the majority of boxes, although it is hoped that Marsh Tit might turn up. The first attempt to catch Nightjar on Ockham using a mist net and tape lure was made on June 17th and was successful, producing two birds, a male and female. Four other attempts were made to catch Nightjar on the Wisley site during July but no birds were caught. A male came in close to the net on two occasions but didn’t seem overly concerned and even started ‘churring” in a nearby bush. A female was also seen one evening.

Conor checking the tit boxes
1998 started well with a good spring, and again lots of Blue Tits and Great Tits to ring. Three attempts to catch Nightjar were made on Ockham in June with no joy. Unfortunately it was a very wet month and the conditions were less than perfect when we did get out. Luckily birds were seen and heard by David at least confirming they were there.

July produced quite an exciting discovery, the location of a Hobby nest. This however became a rather anxious time for all involved, as we detected that at the top of the tree there were fresh ‘spike holes’ caused by climbing irons. There was sap coming out of the holes proving someone else had been up to the nest recently! David mounted counter measures against the possible ‘eggers’ (egg thieves) which included around the clock observation by dedicated volunteers to watch the nest. Luckily on the 4th August all the hard work paid off with three healthy young Hobbys being ringed. All three fledged and were seen hunting with the parents late into September.

1999 was not that productive in terms of birds ringed as work and family commitments did not allow me to spend as much time at these sites as I wished. I did however manage to get around the tit boxes, which produced the first brood of Coal Tit. Again, no success with catching Nightjars this year, but once more birds were heard by David at the Ockham site. A pair of Hobby managed to raise another brood this year though the nest was not located, by any parties! Three young birds and two adults were seen hawking for dragonflies over Teal Pond, Wisley in late August.

Into the Millennium
It was decided at the annual ringing conference in Swanwick that we should set ourselves some aggressive site ringing targets for the millennium. This gave the incentive to get the feeder station up and running. The first station was situated in David’s garden, which backs onto Ockham Common. It consisted of two posts fixed in the ground about three feet apart, and each post had a cross section attached to the top to attach four feeders. Peanuts were provided in normal metal feeders and red bags to attract Siskin, and black sunflower seed was also provided for Greenfinch and tits. One forty foot net ran parallel to the feeders and another thirty foot net along the back of the garden. On occasions nets were also put up in the adjacent field, running through a thin willow hedge and proved quite good for catching Blackbird and Song Thrush. The variety and number of birds that were caught over a period of three months was excellent, taking into account the nets were only open for a period of about 4hrs once a week. As well as 445 new birds caught, we retrapped 4 Blue Tits and 1 Great Tit from the nest boxes.

There were also 4 birds controlled at this site, two Blue Tits (from Staines and Ripley) and two Siskins. One of these Siskins was ringed in Finland, an exceptional movement of 1,588 kms, and the other was from the Highland Region of Scotland. Full details of these movements are included in the appendices.

Spring 2000 started well with the first brood of Tawny Owl being ringed. They were using a nest box that David had put up in his garden a few years ago. The male and female were heard calling in February, which prompted me to check the box, as until then it had only produced Squirrels. Although we didn’t manage to catch the adult, three young were ringed. We also found two prey species in the box; Yellow Necked Mouse and Bank Vole.

Blue Tit
There was an apparent decline in Blue Tit occupancy of the Tit boxes this year with only three broods ringed, though we did get nine broods of Great Tit, the most so far. Some of the boxes had fallen down and Great Spotted Woodpecker had drilled at least two boxes out. We also had one case on the south side (Wisley) where someone had pulled the chicks out of the nest box and stamped on them. With this appalling vandalism in mind any obviously visible boxes at Wisley will be relocated to the Ockham site this winter. Interestingly a female Great Tit that had been ringed in January at the feeder station was re-trapped twice, at two different nest boxes, both of which had young. Another highlight of the summer was the ringing of 2 broods of Spotted Flycatchers, one in the churchyard at Ockham and the other in a garden nearby.

For the second winter period it was decided to move the feeder station from David’s garden to Well Cottage, the site of one of the pairs of flycatchers. A similar arrangement of feeders and 2 nets was set up and operated on 7 dates between early November and December, producing primarily large numbers of tits. The closeness of the two sites has predictably produced a large number of retraps from the previous winter (31 birds) and some from the nearby nest boxes (11) plus one Great Tit from north of the A3 at Wisley. This site has clear potential to attract large numbers of finches, and 2 Siskins trapped on the 7th December were our first for the winter. The owners of Well Cottage, Mr and Mrs Watson are extremely welcoming and supportive, and further visits through the remainder of the winter and early spring are planned.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone for all their help over the past few years. To the members of A.R.G. who have all at one time or another contributed, to David & Sam & Neil before he ran off to be a Fireman, and to Mr and Mrs Watson. But especially to the volunteers who have put so much time and effort in without thought of reward. Not forgetting Surrey County Council who kindly brought me two new mist nets.


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