Dunsford wood update, 13th May

Network member David Price gives the latest from Dunsford woods, from his visit on 13th May

As expected most of the birds in nest boxes were hard at it producing eggs on a daily basis, performing just like battery chickens.  The majority of the Pied Flys were in the midst of laying, some had started incubating and others were not far behind the rest with nest building.  In all there were 6 already incubating, 17 laying and 3 completed nests - a total of 26 active nests.  This is well up on last year's 22, and only two short of Dunsford's best ever total of 28 way back in 2007.  There were definitely some singing males that had as yet not got a nest site and perhaps not a partner, and there were one or two new nests at a very early stage which might develop – so there may be more breeding pairs to come.   After a protracted and slow start in April and early May, things are certainly looking a lot more encouraging.

However, it's not been all plain sailing for them.  Box 61 was an early nest where there had been one egg some 5 days earlier, so I approached quietly in the hope that the female may be sitting - (one of the advantages of the overnight rain was that the dead oak leaves underfoot were totally soggy and for a change didn't sound like walking on cream cracker biscuits!).  I managed to get to the box quietly and stuff my hand over the hole without that rather disappointing situation where the female flits out when you are literally only a metre away.  I looked inside hoping there may be an incubating bird present.  Instead I was surprised to see that the cup of the nest had been covered over with dry grass and leaves, rather like tits do when they leave their nests during laying.  Hmmm – interesting.  I teased the material aside to reveal how many eggs there might be, only to discover a totally empty cup.  What's happened here?  Did I make a mistake in recording one egg last time?  Then, looking closely, there in the bottom on an oak leaf was the evidence to exonerate my recording abilities - a small piece of blue broken shell.  I guess the egg or eggs had been predated and the birds had abandoned.  However, presumably not phased by this, the pair had picked themselves up from this set back and started again, as in the next but one box was a brand new nest compete with 2 eggs.  Let's hope they fare better with this attempt.  (The box in between was where the dormouse had been having a nap on last visit – but he was no longer using it for a bit of a siesta).

Over the rest of the visit going round the boxes, creeping quietly over soggy oak leaves towards potentially occupied boxes did actually work in some instances, as I managed to find five boxes with females sitting.  So it was out with the ringing gear for the first time this year and after carefully covering the top of the box with a bird bag, I gently lifted the birds off their eggs.  (I even risked losing the female in box 32 by feeling the need to keep the lid open long enough to photographically record the moment of one of the year's first incubating birds sitting on eggs.)  As I've come to expect now, with such a dedicated bunch of PF nest-boxers and bird ringers out there in the south west, all but one of the captured birds already had rings on.  One of the ringed females was a returning Dunsford bird, - ringed as a nestling last year in a nearby box.  The others were carrying the following rings:

D568995

D568714

X533379

. . . which from the ring prefixes I deduce the first two are from Judith and Tom across the road in Bridford Wood, and the other one is from somewhere in Malcolm's East Dartmoor woodlands. Next visit, there should be plenty of females to creep up on.

A good proportion of Blue and Great Tits are also now incubating, and more nests and laying birds were recorded, - so that there are perhaps 30 Blue and 4 Great Tits actively nesting in boxes.  The majority seemed to be doing OK.  One BT nest still had 8 cold eggs again in it on this visit so has probably failed.  The two birds who were having to put up with a large hornet lurking on the ceilings of their respective sitting rooms, are mightily relieved that these primeval insects have moved on elsewhere - (as is the surveyor!).

When I looked in Box 29, which had 5 eggs on the last visit I expected there to be a brooding bird sitting well down in the nest cup peering up at me, but was instead surprised to see a Blue Tit lying across the nest with one wing out as if shielding the eggs.  It looked almost as if the bird was playing dead . . . . then I realised the poor thing actually was dead!  What had happened here then?  I reached in and as I grasped the bird's body it felt cold, stiff and very lifeless. But when I tried to remove the bird from the box most of the nest started to come out with it.  The poor soul had managed to ensnare her foot in some very unforgiving light brown fur, which in the bird's efforts to escape had twisted round and round, like plaiting, to form a surprisingly tough restraint rather like garden twine.  I had some difficult breaking the strand so well had it been twisted.  Not a very nice end for the unfortunate bird which had obviously just started incubating the 8 eggs in the nest.  A rather tragic happening, and a long drawn out expiry for the bird which doesn't really bear thinking about.

Anyway, to more pleasant and uplifting topics.  Boyland Common was looking great - Bluebells were out and the Hawthorns ready to burst into flower shortly.  A few fritillaries were flying around when the sun shone - I think probably Pearl rather than Small Pearl-bordered from my inadequate views and inexpert assessment.  Also recorded a Silver Y moth, almost certainly a recently arrived migrant coming in with the warm southerly airstream a few days earlier.  At the Clifford Bridge entrance, I sacrificed a corner of my marmalade sandwich to replenish the DWT-designed "bird table", where some kind soul regularly puts a handful of bird seed, and the birds have now got habituated to it.  It's the best spot in the whole wood for recording what's around - I got no less than 8 species in two minutes (GT, BT, CT, MT, NH, D., CH, and 3R) standing no less then 3 metres away and didn't even need to us my binoculars.

Didn't record the Wood Warbler, nor did I hear the Lesser Spots - but they do go very quiet at this stage of the season.  Green Woodpecker was yaffling briefly, and (hooray!) a Garden Warbler had eventually decided to turn up – locating itself deep inside a blackthorn thicket on Boyland Common, but singing almost continually.  Managed to find two Robin's nests - both of which had been built right alongside small woodland tracks, and if the respective birds hadn't darted out in front of my feet I would have never have known they were there.  Recorded two Spotted Flycatchers,- always a difficult species to pick out in mature trees, and located a Tawny Owl by the insistent Blackbird mobbing calls.  What with these, as well as Linnets, Siskins and Goldfinches the list of breeding birds is steadily growing for this season.

And what news of the house hunting pair of Pied Flycatchers on the slopes of Boyland Lane?  These were the ones that were possibly having a bit of a "domestic" on our last visit about whether to go for the up market brand new oak box, or the rustic, dilapidated, listed building with dry rot in the floorboards and a patched up front.  Well, it would seem Mrs P had her way, as the old relocated box, now re-numbered 50, had a PF nest in it.  Not just any old nest, but a huge construction.  She'd obviously gone overboard on this to make a point about who does all the nest building work.  It might be a magnificent effort but here's not going to be much headroom for the youngsters I fear, though at least they will be a good way away from the rather dubious rotten floor at the bottom of the box!

So all happening at the moment, and next visit, with virtually all the Pied Flys incubating, should be interesting, if not a bit busy.