A Birthday Chat

The rolling downland of Salisbury Plain stretched to the horizon. Tall stalks of grass, their yellowing heads bending over, ripple in the faintest of breezes. Scattered amongst the yellow greens are dark green hawthorn bushes and the bright reds, blues, purples and yellows of wild flowers. Butterflies skip from one to another. Small skippers, marbled whites, ringlets, meadow browns, small tortoiseshells and even a fritillary pause for seconds at each before flittering away.

The sun blazes, its heat pounds down on the grass and tracks. Away from the public roads, tanks and 4x4s kick up plumes of dust from the grey gravel tracks that meander through the landscape. Perched on the tops of the bushes, a dead branch or marker post sits the bird we are searching for. The whinchat. The size of a robin, with a striking white stripe above the eye, streaky brown back and a beautiful washed out, pale orange breast. The whinchat is a summer visitor, mainly to our heaths and moorland, spending the winter in southern Africa.

A beautiful female whinchat

Between 1995 and 2008 the numbers of whinchats more than halved in Britain, all but disappearing from central and eastern England. It is likely that factors in both their wintering grounds, migration routes and breeding areas are playing a role in this decline. Having escaped the intensification of farming practices following World War II, Salisbury Plain remains a haven for whinchats and provides a perfect opportunity to study their habitat choices and nesting success. By colour ringing individuals the aim is to also establish whether fewer adults are returning from Africa each year.

Nest of colour ringed whinchat chicks

First task today was to colour ring a brood of six chicks. Next was to try and catch a rather elusive adult female who so far had avoided capture. Colour ringing of both adults from a nest site is key to understanding which birds are nesting where, and with whom, as well as establishing whether birds are returning.

Today we were lucky. Strategic placement of our traps around the nest, focusing on favoured perching posts, ended up with the elusive female caught, ringed and colour ringed… Here is hoping that the small part we played today will help yield results that will disentangle the factors affecting whinchat populations and provide solutions to help them recover.

Not a bad way to spend the last day of your twenties….

Happy Birthday to me!

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