20 February 2020

It's National Nest Box Week!

It is National Nest Box Week (NNBW) this week and our wild birds are starting to think about the coming breeding season. This year is the 20th year of NNBW, which aims to encourage everyone to put up nest boxes for birds and to raise awareness of their needs ahead of the breeding season. While our migratory birds are preparing for their journeys back to Britain and Ireland for the summer, lots of our resident species are already singing to affirm their territory, finding a mate and choosing a nest site.

Tiny Blue Tit chicks thinking food has just arrived. Photo by Lee Barber

Around half of all households feed birds, so while food can often be plentiful, the lack of suitable nesting sites can be a problem. Putting up a nest box can therefore provide a welcome boost for some species. Blue and Great Tit are the most-frequent users of nest boxes but there is an amazing variety of species that use boxes, and by providing a suitable box, you could encourage them to set up home in your garden. House Sparrow, Nuthatch, Starling, Swift, Stock Dove, Tawny Owl and Kestrel are among the species that need suitable nesting sites and providing a box could really help them and some of our other declining red or amber listed species. For more information on what boxes are suitable for which species, click here.

Tawny Owl chicks waiting for the next delivery of food. Photo by Lee Barber

When buying a nest box, one of the most important features that I look for is a removable lid. This aids cleaning the box at the end of the breeding season (cleaning can be done between 1st September - 31st January) but most importantly it means that the contents of the nest can be recorded. BTO volunteer Nest Recorders around Britain and Ireland record the number of eggs, fledglings and the outcome of nesting attempts, providing a wealth of information on how our wild birds are doing every year. Nest recorders are provided with a code of conduct to make sure that the nest is checked in the safest possible way, so valuable information is gathered without affecting the birds.

BTO nest recorder checking on a Blackbird nest. Photo by Lee Barber

Nest cameras are a very popular choice and this also means that you can record the contents without even leaving your living room. They are particularly useful for boxes which are usually placed quite high or are difficult to get to, like Tawny Owl and Swift.

So far this year we've only seen a few birds inspecting our boxes at BTO HQ in Norfolk. Nest recording isn't just about those species that use boxes though; there are already a few Collared Doves sitting on eggs and we've also seen a brood of Egyptian Goose goslings paddling up the river. It's only a matter of time before we find our first Blackbird nest of the year and then the tit species will start building. It's a very exciting time!

Egyptian Geese are one of the earliest breeders. Photo by Lee Barber

For more information on becoming a nest recorder, check out our Nest Record Scheme website.

19 December 2019

A beach discovery provides more than just a ringing recovery

Owen Williams writes:

I can clearly remember the day I made my first ever retrap: it was 1 March 2008 and I was nearing the end of my training for a Woodcock-specific C permit with my trainer and award-winning ringing guru, Tony Cross. Over the following 11 years I have ringed over 1,800 Woodcock and fitted 60 geolocators on this same site in West Wales - the geolocators were part of the research project by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) into Woodcock migration. Recoveries of geolocators are always a massive bonus and my first was on 7 January 2013 when I retrapped a bird that had been tagged during the previous winter whilst the BBC’s One Show was filming a piece about Woodcock on my site.


A tagged Woodcock. Photo by Owen Williams.

Since that exciting night, a further 15 geolocators have been recovered, this represents a 23% recovery rate showing the remarkable site fidelity of the species. However the latest recovery must rank as one of the most unusual ever.

On 20 October, I received an email from Tony Cross informing me that Mark Carter, the former assistant warden on Bardsey Island, and ringer, had found a tag washed up on Aberystwyth beach and asking if I recognised the serial number shown in the photograph attached to his email. If the incredible luck of the tag being found on a shingle beach is not enough, to be found by a person who actually knew what it was and then knew who to ask about it, is truly amazing.


The tiny tag found on the beach. Photo by Mark Carter
I instantly recognised the serial number, confirming it was one I fitted on 6 March 2013. So it was promptly sent to Dr Andrew Hoodless who heads up Woodcock research at GWCT. He then sent it to James Fox at Migrate Technology Ltd the company who made the tag.

There then followed a nervous few weeks whilst we waited to find out if the tag still contained viable data despite being immersed in water for what appears to be a considerable time. The good news arrived on 10 December, when we learned that the geolocator had recorded 18 months of data before the batteries eventually ran flat. The data showed that this Woodcock had made three migration flights between West Wales and Yaroslavl in Russia, each journey being around 2,800 km. The tag ran out of power prior to this Woodcock’s autumn migration bringing it back to Wales, which means that it made a minimum of four migration flights since being tagged.

All the birds I tagged in 2013 were retraps of birds ringed in previous winters; this was because we knew that these were site faithful thus increasing the chances of encountering them back on the site in a subsequent winter and recovering the tags. This particular bird had been ringed as a juvenile by me in the previous winter, so had already made three migrations before tagging, with a minimum of four additional journeys before it died; this Woodcock must have flown at least 19,601 km since hatching. It is possible that this individual could have migrated for several years between the tag batteries running flat and the bird perishing, so it could have traveled even further than this.  

Woodcock migration tracked
We can only speculate how this Woodcock perished, however my ringing site is close to a tributary of the Ystwyth River that enters Cardigan Bay 9 km away and very close to the beach in Aberystwyth where the tag was found. There is no knowing when it perished, but it does appear that this tag has spent a considerable time immersed in water. The fact that the data was still accessible after all this time speaks volumes about the quality of design and engineering that goes into these tags.

03 December 2019

Moroccan farewell to a long-distance Peregrine

Ed Drewitt and Luke Sutton write:

For the past 21 years, Ed Drewitt has been studying urban-dwelling Peregrines around the Bristol area, in particular what they eat. His prey studies have revealed that not only do urban Peregrines eat a huge range of species in Britain (over 100) they also hunt at night catching nocturnally migrating birds such as Woodcock, Snipe, Teal, Moorhen and even Corncrake and Spotted Crake. During this period Peregrines have extended their range across southern England and can now be found nesting in most cities and large towns in this region.

Juvenile Peregrines blue RX and RY, RZ. Photo taken by Robin Morrison.

Since 2007, Ed alongside Luke Sutton, Hamish Smith, Seb Loram and Jason Fathers have been fitting blue colour rings to Peregrines across the west of the country from Bristol to Devon, ringing over 200 Peregrine chicks. They have received information on 55 of these birds, some of which were dead, others alive and well. Over this time the team have also submitted over 160 nest records for Peregrines, tracking both the highs and lows of their breeding attempts.

Peregrine blue RY being ringed. Photo taken by Robin Morrison.

One bird AA, the first the team ringed, is still the breeding male in Bath where he hatched and is now over 12 years old. Most recoveries (47 in total) are what we would expect, with females travelling further than males, and only 7% travelling further than 200 kilometres. It was therefore to the team’s surprise that blue RY, ringed on the 30 May 2019 in Taunton, Somerset, was found dead in early November in Tiznit, Morocco (2,435km over 155 days). He was hit by a vehicle. This is the first British-ringed Peregrine to make it to mainland Africa, beaten only by one that made it slightly further south to the Canary Island of Lanzorote.

Peregrine blue RY taking to the skies. Photo taken by Robin Morrison.

While Peregrines from northern Europe, such as Finnish Lapland, sometimes make it to northern Africa, this remarkable recovery illustrates the species' ability to travel long distances, which is does regularly from North America to Central and South America, and northern Russia to the Middle East. However, British-hatched Peregrines generally stay within the Britain or hop modest distances over to Belgium, France or the Netherlands.

04 April 2019

Thermal tech lightens the darkest nights

Ben Dolan writes:

In Spring 2017, we were privileged enough to be invited by the BTO to write an article for Issue 5, Spring 2017, LifeCycle magazine on the use of thermal imaging to monitor and ring birds ‘Thermal Birding’. This followed a successful trial, using it to find and ring lapwing pulli, and then using it whilst dazzling, which was a game changer in this area of ringing for us.

Woodcock found by the use of the thermal imagining device. Photo by Ben Dolan

At the time we were using the Pulsar XQ50S; we now use the Pulsar Helion XQ38F with streaming and recording facility.

Since the article was published we have been contacted by many BTO ringers, ringers from Europe and a couple further afield and have had some great feedback that using the device has reduced disturbance, made time more productive, made it easier to carry out bird counts, that surveying wildlife has never been easier and that people have had some first records for their sites using this method.



The view through the thermal imager, catching a Woodcock. Photo by Ben Dolan

Many ringers now own these thermal units and we have had the pleasure of hosting a number of ringers at our sites, as well as visiting theirs, and sharing knowledge which has been a great experience and has helped build new friendships and useful contacts.

The thermal imager is a fantastic tool for bird ringing, finding nests and monitoring nest boxes but it is also great for general wildlife surveys, whether it is hares, badgers, bats, moths and more.

Hedgehog. Photo by Ben Dolan

We look forward to continuing to share our experiences with others and hope they have as much success with the equipment as we have had, with some equally surprising records.

To keep up to date with what we do please follow us on twitter @ringerswm or for our thermal technique guide, visit our website www.westmidlandsringinggroup.co.uk

05 March 2019

Crappy place to ring

Matt Prior writes:

You wouldn’t normally think of sewage treatment sites as wildlife havens but they are often sought out by bird ringers because they are indeed very attractive to birds. A particular treatment process, percolating filters, are rich with fly larvae, worms and snails that graze on the bacteria that treat the sewage. Sewage works are particularly beneficial to birds in the winter providing an insect food source during cold weather because the filters rarely freeze due to the warmth of the sewage. Accessing such sites is difficult and requires robust risk assessments and method statements and ringers have to take the unusual steps to wear full personal protective equipment including hard hats and high visibility clothing.

Sewage treatment works in the snow. Photo by Lee Barber

Grey Wagtails are present at most sewage works; ringing studies have shown that many breed and are resident. In the winter Grey Wagtail numbers increase, presumably from birds originating in upland areas and we have seen that with a bird ringed as a nestling in the Welsh mountains that was retrapped at Marlborough sewage works in the winter. In March, we ringed a Grey Wagtail at Marlborough sewage works and this bird was retrapped by a ringer in Belgium in June. This is the first example of a BTO ringed Grey Wagtail to be recovered in Belgium. We contacted the Belgian ringer and he recorded it as a male and thinks it was breeding nearby.

Some years ago, a Grey Wagtail was retrapped at Calne sewage works that was originally ringed in Denmark so ringing shows that our wintering Grey Wagtails come from the continent as well as from Britain or Ireland. In addition to mapping movements, bird ringing can provide information about survival and on 4 December 2016 we retrapped a Grey Wagtail that we originally ringed on 23 January 2010 making it 6 years 10 months 19 days old; just short of the BTO longevity record.

Grey Wagtail. Phone by Lee Barber

Sewage works are also very attractive to Pied Wagtails and Meadow Pipits. Meadow Pipits have shown some level of winter site fidelity at Marlborough sewage works with many retrapped in subsequent winters and some returning for up to five years but we haven’t yet learnt where they are breeding.

Pied Wagtail. Photo by Lee Barber

Chiffchaffs are another bird that are now strongly associated with sewage works. Thousands now winter across the UK and sewage works are definitely the most popular site for them. Birdwatchers seek out these sites to look for Chiffchaffs in the hope of finding a browner looking one that is Siberian Chiffchaff. If we retrap one originally ringed on its breeding grounds that really would be exciting. Personally I have not been that lucky but I have retrapped a Chiffchaff that had originally been ringed in Belgium. We will continue to monitor birds on sewage works and who knows what we will learn next.