Quality Not Quantity

Between its gentle slopes, the valley floor was covered in a thick bed of reeds, their green leaves rustling and swaying in the breeze. Beyond the tops of reeds the valley gave way to green, marshy meadows and steely blue pools of water, before finally reaching the shingles of a pebble beach and the greeny blue ocean beyond. Amongst the scrub, brambles and bushes of the valley slopes and the densely packed reeds was a myriad of paths, elevated above the water level so as to never flood, and a network of speakers playing the songs of birds, from reed, willow and sedge warbler to quail, meadow pipit and blackcap. Welcome to Icklesham, not only managed for birds and wildlife but purposely designed for ringing.

Tree pipit

Nestled on the slopes, a small green building blends in with this natural landscape. To call this building a ringing hut is an understatement. It is purposely designed for the safe and efficient processing of hundreds of birds in one go. Inside individual ringing stations are set up for each species, with a small opening in the wall in front to speedily release the birds once processed.

This weekend the elements were against us, a wet spring and summer resulting in a poor breeding season for many species, coupled with the heavy rains and strong winds of a typical British bank holiday.

When the wind did ease, the lines upon lines of nets did their job, and while we did not catch the sheer volume of birds one might expect at this site, we never the less caught over 200 birds in the first morning and near on 600 birds on the second. As usual the site did catch some quality species, with wood sandpiper, whinchat, spotted flycatcher, green sandpiper, a handful of tree pipits and redstart being among the highlights. It is not every day that you get to ring 10 grasshopper warblers in a row!

At the grasshopper warbler ringing station

As dusk began to settle over the reeds, the tapes switched to swallows and martins. Overhead a flock of 1500 sand martins and 30ish swallows began to gather. A hobby shoots by, scattering the flock, but before long it has regrouped, swirling in one big mass against the sky. Moving as one, the flock dips down to skim across the tops of the reeds, before quickly rising up into the darkening blue. Eventually, with twilight upon us, the flock drops into the reeds and we move in to remove the birds from the nets. Again not a huge catch, with the majority of the flock heading into the reeds behind. But by 11 o’clock 160 sand martins and 11 swallows line up along the back wall of the ringing hut, twittering away in roosting bags before settling down for the night, to be released in the cool light of dawn the next morning.

Sand martins settled in for the night in their roost bags – 5 birds to a bag

After two long days we not have had the quantity of birds but we certainly experienced the quality of ringing at Icklesham.

Green sandpiper

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