01 March 2018

Retail ringing

After undertaking years of training, bird ringers are in a privileged position to be able to catch birds. The information gathered through ringing is used to help answer some of the big questions in ornithology, such as why populations are changing and what routes birds take on their migrations.

Ringing often brings ringers into contact with people who know nothing about bird ringing, and commonly have little contact with birds, other than those in their garden. This is a great opportunity to educate and enthuse the public about the lives of birds, ringing and the BTO. Most of the time, bird ringing is encountered through television programmes like Springwatch, a ringing demonstration at a local nature reserve or even the ringing demonstration at the Birdfair, but occasionally it can be seen in the most unexpected places.

Rutland Birdfair ringing demonstreration. Photo by Sam Franks.

With the permission of the landowners, ringing sessions are held up and down Britain and Ireland; in supermarket car parks (for Pied Wagtails), city streets (Waxwing), waterways (swans and geese) or on the sea front (gulls and waders). Colour rings or flags are frequently used to identify birds that are ringed without the need for ringers to catch them again. This has the added bonus that anyone (not just ringers) can report colour-marked birds (see here for instructions on how to report a sighting of a colour-marked bird), as long as the species is known and the combination is read correctly.

Waxwings enjoying the berry bushes. Photo by Jeff Baker

Occasionally, perfectly healthy birds do get into trouble and end up in places they don't want to be. If they are lucky, the bird identifies the exit and promptly flies out, but sometimes this doesn't happen due to the nature of the building (a large warehouse or a shop with automatic doors for instance). This can lead to store alarms having to be left unset, which has implications for their insurance and can be stressful for the owner. This is where a ringer's ability to catch birds safely can be invaluable.

Ringers across the country regularly step in to help catch the Blackbird in the warehouse, the Blue Tit in the shopping centre or the Robin at the wedding venue (as we have posted previously). Here at BTO HQ, we do not get that many phone calls about birds trapped in Thetford, Norfolk (where we are based), but today was the exception. The caller informed us that: "There is a Robin trapped in Poundland and it can't get out!!!! We've tried everything, including herding it towards the door, but it keeps flying back into the store!".

Robin doing a bit of light shopping in the afternoon. Photo by Lee Barber

Conveniently coming up to lunch time, Lee Barber had the opportunity to nip out and try and release the bird back into the wild. He recounts: it is a strange feeling putting a mist net up in Poundland, with customers wandering around and a Robin flying over their heads, moving mostly unseen. After a quick assessment of the Robin's behaviour and its preferred area in the store, and whilst managing the customers, I quickly put a short mist net up. Within 15 minutes I'd caught the adult Robin, which was promptly ringed and released outside (after a quick health check).

Robin safely in the hand ready for release. Photo by Lee Barber
As this is something that the BTO doesn't do routinely, we must say a huge thank you to all the ringers that we've contacted who have dropped everything to help a bird in need. Some of the locations have been very challenging due to the height of the building, access, and other obstacles in the way, but there is usually a happy ending; sometimes the bird has even left the building of its own accord before the ringer gets there.

15 February 2018

The Joy of Nesting Birds

Hazel Evans writes:

This week (14th – 21st February) is the BTO’s 21st National Nest Box Week.  Each year we encourage anyone who is interested, to put up nest boxes locally. I’d like to delve in to some of the different aspects for why this is such a wonderful thing to do, and how we can make the most of them.

The first and most obvious reason is to give birds a place to raise their young. In areas of human habitation it can be harder for birds to find places to nest, so putting up a nest box is a good way to ensure there is somewhere for the birds to use. There are many external factors which may affect the outcome of a nesting attempt, but we can offer them a good place to start. You may also choose to put out some appropriate nesting material in the nearby trees and bushes, or grow some plants to encourage insects. Non-native plants in gardens have been found to be a potential detriment to our local birds, they do not provide as much food, because non-native plants may not be able to host as many caterpillars as native plants, so this may be something to consider.
Robin feeding it's young. Photo by John Harding

The second reason why putting up a nest box can be important is monitoring. One of the BTO’s strongest assets is the data it has collected through organising monitoring schemes, and the Nest Record Scheme (NRS) is no exception. Now running for over 75 years, close to two million records of nesting birds throughout the UK have been sent in for over 200 species. This includes data from open nesting birds and nest boxes, both of which are highly valuable. As long as the NRS Code of Conduct is adhered to, we can safely record the progress of nesting attempts by counting the number of eggs and chicks and recording the outcome of the attempt and submitting data to the NRS.

Blue Tit fledgling. Photo by Christine M Matthews

The third reason I value nest boxes very highly, is the intrigue and excitement they can provide. Anyone can put up a nest box and monitor what’s inside it and in turn benefit from watching the behaviour of the birds. Interactions with the natural world have been shown to help relieve depression, anxiety and stress. We are living in a time where it is easy to lose touch with the natural world and many children aren’t getting experiences with nature; having a nest box in your garden is an inspiring way to learn about the natural world. Monitoring nests is not something that should be taken lightly but with the knowledge that the data is going to a good cause, it's something we can experience great joy from.

Now is the time when garden birds are just starting to prospect nesting sites in preparation for the approaching spring, so the sooner you can get a box up the better, whether you build it yourself or buy it from the garden centre. There are many bird species which use nest boxes, so if you have a bit more space then you may want to put up a larger nest box, for a Kestrel or owls.

Once used, it is a great idea to clean out old nests the following winter to allow for a fresh start in the spring. To comply with legislation, nests should only be cleaned out between 1 August and 31 January.

01 February 2018

Brit abroad causing a stir

The species, or subspecies, of the Redpoll complex has long been something that birders and ringers have debated; the use of new advances in technology, like sonograms and DNA studies, have only fueled the discussions. There are currently three recognised species, Lesser, Common (Mealy) and Arctic Redpoll, with subspecies also acknowledged (depending on which criteria you use). Identification of these species can be difficult; however, ringers are in the privilaged position of being able to collect detailed data on size (wing length) and plumage to help inform the decision.

Since 2010, the average number of Lesser Redpoll ringed by the BTO Ringing Scheme is 21,000 birds per year. The number of these that are later relocated is quite high in comparison to similar species. They have become increasingly common in gardens (as recorded through Garden BirdWatch) possibly due to garden bird feeding; this also offers additional opportunities for ringers to catch these birds.

Colour of location: Ringed in Britain and Ireland, Found HereRinged Here, Found in Britain and Ireland

The map above shows the ringing and finding locations for all the Lesser Redpolls that have been ringed or reported in Britain and Ireland. This map will have to be redrawn later this year however, as we have now received details of a bird that had its metal ring read in Spain! During 2017, there were only two sightings of Redpoll in the whole of Spain, so 20 January 2018, when a flock of 15-17 birds turned up, was an exciting day; it was made even more exciting by the fact that one of the birds was wearing a ring!

Adult male Lesser Redpoll. Photo by Jesús Mari Lekuona

Unfortuantely, as the rings on Redpoll are very small, it is very difficult to read the ring number in the field; however, Jesús Mari Lekuona managed to read all but the last number. This narrowed the options down to 10 possible birds, and all of them were Lesser Redpolls of various ages (adult or juvenile), ringed on 14 October 2017 near Cinderford, Gloucestershire by Robin Husbands. As you can see from the photo, this bird is an adult male... and this matched a single bird, ringed at 12.30!

This is the most-southerly recovery of a Lesser Redpoll, although there is a report of a 'Redpoll species' recorded in Portugal (before they were split into three species). In countries where certain species rarely occur, finding a bird with a ring can be really helpful, not only to increase our understanding of bird movements, but also to help validate such an unusual movement.

Thanks to Jesús Mari Lekuona, Ricardo Rodríguez, Jorge Nubla, Oscar Guindano and Jose Ardaiz for getting the ring number and Rare Birds In Spain for letting us know.

19 January 2018

Ringing and recoveries roundup

From all in the Ringing and Nest Recording Team, we wish you a Happy New Year!

This is a very busy time of year for us. Ringers all over Britain and Ireland are submitting their 2017 ringing data before their ringing permits can be renewed. The graph below shows when the data were submitted for birds ringed in 2017, and the number of birds in each data load.

Number of ringed birds submitted to BTO. Click to enlarge graph.

The deadline for submitting records isn't until the end of Febuary, but even so, it looks unlikely that we will reach a million birds ringed this year. At the moment Blue Tit is the most-ringed bird with 102,716 ringed, followed by Goldfinch (53,993), Great Tit (53,395), Blackcap (51,806), Chiffchaff (49,801) and then Siskin (33,812).

One of the many male Great Tits ringed. Photo by lee Barber

As the data come in, we also receive the details of BTO-ringed birds which have been reported away from the place of ringing. Here are some interesting recoveries that have turned up so far this year.

A Chiffchaff ringed at Snettisham, Norfolk on 24 September 2016 was recaptured at Gwennap, Cornwall on 6 January 2018 (489 km). A Goldcrest got a bit too close to a cat on 9 January at South Elmsall, Pontefract after being ringed at Heysham Harbour, Lancashire on 19 September 2017 (118 km). An unfortunate Lesser Redpoll was found after falling prey to an unknown predator at Oudon, Nantes, France. It had been ringed near Darlington, Stockton-on-Tees (805 km); strangely, the ringing and finding dates are exactly the same as those of the Goldcrest. On a lighter note, an Oystercatcher was seen at Dawlish Warren, Devon on 4 January; this individual was ringed at Holbeach St Matthew on 31 August 1999 (353 km).

Male Goldcrest. Photo by Lee Barber

Last week we received a report of a ring being 'found in a drawer' in Tennessee, US on 7 January 2018. A BTO ring being found in America is always a special event, but while processing the details, we realised we already had a report of this bird on the system. It actually died in 2005 (4.5 months after ringing). This ring was put on a female Canada Goose at Llangorse Lake, Powys... and was shot at St Johns, Worcester, 77 km away, and reported by someone who lived near Llanelli, Camarthenshire. It is amazing to see how far a ring can travel without the bird.

Thanks to all our ringers and nest recorders for doing such great work; without them this information would be impossible.

21 December 2017

Return of the winter Blackcaps - a geolocator story

How do migratory birds respond to a changing environment? The answer to this question may help us unlock key insights into the mechanisms behind migration, and predict how animals will adjust to future global change. British Blackcaps may provide key insights into birds’ abilities to evolve changes in migration. Blackcaps are now spending the winter in the Britain and Ireland in greater numbers than ever before - a change BTO scientists have linked to garden feeding and warmer temperatures. But what exactly do they gain by wintering here, and where are they coming from?

Blackcap with first geolocator retrieved - photo by Benjamin Van Doren

As previously reported, last year, researchers from the BTO, Oxford University, and Exeter University began teaming up with bird ringers and garden owners across Britain and Ireland to study the Blackcaps that visit our gardens in winter. Last winter, we fitted 36 Blackcaps with geolocators, miniature devices that track movements throughout the year; however, the birds must be recaptured in order to retrieve the device and data, which can be a challenge.

Excitingly, returning Blackcaps carrying geolocators have been seen in gardens around the country since late November. These early successes would not have been possible without the dedicated BTO ringers, Garden BirdWatch participants, and other volunteers who have contributed so much time and effort to the ongoing study.

Blackcap geolocator movements. Blue dot - wintering site.

On 26 November, Glynne Evans recaptured the first returning individual in his Hampshire garden where it was tagged nine months earlier. Preliminary analysis indicates that the bird left Britain at the end of March and spent the summer in France, before returning by early November. But is this pattern the exception, or the rule? And why did this bird decide to come north for the winter when it was already in southern France? We hope to find the answers to these questions and many others - as the project continues.

Garden ideal for Blackcaps - photo by Benjamin Van Doren

Glynne’s GBW garden has turned out to be an exceptional Blackcap site, with a further tagged bird (analysis in progress) being caught in December, as well as two other colour-ringed birds returning from last year, giving a return rate of 25%, so far. We know very little about their behaviour and movements in winter, so any sightings of colour-ringed birds would also help answer these questions. Glynne provides food for Blackcaps starting relatively early on in autumn—could this partially explain their affinity for his garden?

How can you help? 

Do you have Blackcaps visiting your garden in winter? Look out for Blackcaps with colour rings and note the positions of the colours on each leg, or even better, take a photograph. Observers interested in joining the colour-ringing and tracking efforts can contact Benjamin Van Doren at Oxford (benjamin.vandoren@zoo.ox.ac.uk) or Greg Conway at the BTO (greg.conway@bto.org). Gardens with multiple Blackcaps regularly attending bird feeders are particularly valuable. For further information please see Life Cycle, issue 6 Autumn 2017.

This study is a collaboration between Oxford University, BTO, Exeter University and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, Germany.