28 November 2017

The Barra Sparra

Ian Thompson, Yvonne Benting and Bill Neill write:

We have been colour ringing House Sparrows here in Askernish, South Uist as part of the BTO’s RAS scheme for the past seven years. Because House Sparrows have a reputation as being difficult to catch and retrap, the use of colour rings was a conscious decision on our part. This enabled us to identify the birds individually in the field, but more importantly, it allowed our neighbour to participate in the project by recording the birds that visited his garden.

Female House Sparrow. Photo by Ian Thompson

While the House Sparrow RAS season runs from April – August, we observe and record our birds all year round. Again, the use of colour rings has allowed us an insight into their movements around our islands and this has surprised us as to how far ranging they can be. We now receive regular updates from several observers around the islands, and the birds have been recorded as far north as Balranald, North Uist (46 km) and as far south as South Glendale, South Uist (11 km).

To date, all these movements have been within what is known as “the long islands”, which are all joined by causeways, and none have yet travelled over water. With two birders having recently moved to the Isle of Barra, we began hoping that one of our birds might turn up there.

Recently we had been seeing three unringed birds (two male, one female) amongst our regulars and favourable weather gave us the opportunity to try to trap them. Over a period of two weeks, we trapped and ringed 12 new birds (seven female, five male) and we still had four unringed birds (two male two female).

But, amongst the 12 was a bird we hadn't originally ringed (control)!

After a few enquiries, we found that the bird had been ringed by Mark Oksien earlier this year on 18 September at Garrygall, Barra (see map below). Not only has this bird moved 26 km, this is the first time we have recorded a House Sparrow crossing water to other islands. After such a long wait, this was not the way it was meant to happen. We expected that it would be one of our colour ringed birds turning up in Barra, not the other way round.


As Bruce Taylor, one of the Barra birders commented  “the way Calmac has operated of late, we can rule out ship assistance”.

This House Sparrow has since become known as the “Barra Sparra”.

Note:- None of the 12 Sparrows that were ringed have been seen since.

We had news yesterday (27 Nov 2017) of another sparrow making the reverse trip! A bird I ringed on 7 Nov 2017 (O54) turned up in Bruce Taylor’s garden yesterday (one of the birders on Barra) at Brevig, Barra. It would seem that we have quite a movement of sparrows here in this bout of hard weather.

House Sparrow O54. Photo by Bruce Taylor

Information and regular updates on our project and sightings of our birds can be found on the Outer Hebrides Birds website or by following this link.

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