30 August 2016

Ringing on Fair Isle

Ciaran Hatsell, Senior Assistant Warden for Fair Isle Bird Observatory (FIBO) writes:

Fair Isle has been a hallowed ground for ornithological studies for over 60 years. It's unique location and isolation coupled with its small size make it a nigh on perfect place to study both bird migration and seabird populations. With the old pioneers such as ‘Fieldy’ Stout paving the way for the modern day observatory staff (who rely more on optical equipment than firearms!), the art of daily observations and recording still holds a very relevant place in the ornithological world.

Fair Isle is famous for attracting rare and scarce migrants from all over the world and the daily ringing activities often provide opportunities to study some unusual species. With over 378,000 birds ringed at FIBO, there have been some remarkable movements logged, with ringed birds recovered as far away as Brazil, Canada, Russia and South Africa amongst others.

It would be easy to assume that the majority of the ‘vagrants’ that reach the isle will never make it back and that they have simply made a grave error on their migration route. However, down the years recoveries have shown that birds can re-orientate and get back on track. A Rustic Bunting ringed on 12th June 1963 on Fair Isle was shot in Greece on 15 October of the same year, demonstrating the ability of these birds breeding hundreds of miles from here to find their way again (albeit to meet an unfortunate end!)

American Wigeon photo taken by Edmund Fellowes

Another phenomenal tale was of a young male American Wigeon, ringed as a duckling in New Brunswick, Canada on 13 August 1986 and found on Fair Isle 21 September of the same year! In a recurring theme, the bird was then shot two months later in Ireland, presumably as it attempted to re-orientate. 

Fair Isle has been fortunate enough to host many first records for Britain over the years and birding here really can produce anything at any time: from a Rufous-tailed Robin (the first British record) being found on a family stroll, to a Magnolia Warbler found on the cavernous expanses of the west cliffs of the island on a Sunday afternoon off. It really is a magical place to observe migration. For those islanders and Bird Obs staff that value their ‘Fair Isle lists’, it can be the most unusual bird that gets people running. Several observers famously abandoned a search for a Siberian Rubythroat to go and see a Blue Tit that had turned up!

A super rare Blue Tit photo taken by Dawn Balmer

The other major aspect of work at FIBO is the monitoring of seabirds. The fortunes of Fair Isle’s seabirds play out a rather sinister tale and in recent years, the island have been a crucial biological indicator site of our changing climate. Several species have declined in number and the demise of the Kittiwake is perhaps the most evocative story. They have gone from 19,340 breeding pairs in 1988 down to just 880 breeding pairs in 2015.  The islanders who have been here since then are saddened by the lack of noise and atmosphere the Kittiwake once created, with the voice of the Kittiwake fast disappearing from our seabird choir.

Kittiwake photo taken by John Harding

There has been a great amount of work recently done on designating the waters around Fair Isle as a Marine Protected Area (MPA), which could potentially go some way to safeguarding the future of Fair Isle's seabird and marine life.

As part of the seabird monitoring work here we also get a chance to ring a good number of seabirds. One of the aspects visitors to Fair Isle often enjoy the most is the Storm Petrel ringing sessions. The opportunity for guests to get involved with releasing the birds is something people rarely forget and makes a trip to Fair Isle even more memorable. It never ceases to amaze how these dainty, Starling sized birds spend years out on the open oceans, covering great distances in the search of food and potential breeding colonies. The BTO website lists the oldest Storm Petrel at 37 years, 11 days old, remarkable for such a diminutive seabird! Fair Isle a great site for catching, with 2,453 birds ringed in 2014 alone. We have caught birds from the Faroes, Norway, Portugal as well as many hundreds from other sites in Britain.

The standardised daily recording and ringing of migrants provides a fantastic and unique data set. The data is currently being analysed with some fascinating results involving the arrival and departure dates for migrants. There is a vast wealth of data and it may take many years to analyse it all.

Over anything else, it is a great honour and privilege to get to work in such an incredible place, with the changing of the seasons bringing something new at every turn. From migrants, to seabirds to taking in the awe inspiring scenery, the work here at the Bird Obs is both scientifically relevant and hugely enjoyable.

Eds - It is great to see a report of the first ringed Hen Harrier being recorded moving to/from Fair Isle! Ringed as a chick on Orkney on 7 July. See more on their Twitter page.

15 August 2016

An unexpected but timely recovery

Gary Clewely (BTO) writes:

Nightingales are one of the best-known species in the UK for their impressive vocalisations, yet will be increasingly unfamiliar to many of us due to a marked range contraction and population decline in recent decades.

The motivation behind the BTO Nightingale tracking study is to identify key migratory routes and wintering areas to inform conservation. Fieldwork during the 2016 Spring was particularly exciting, because in addition to retrieving geolocators from previous years, this was the first time GPS loggers weighing less than 1 g were fitted to Nightingales in the UK, which if recovered the following year would give us unparalleled data on their migration.

Nightingale. Photo taken by John Spaull

During a mist-netting session at Alton Water (blue pin on map), in Suffolk (managed by Anglian Water, one of the tracking study partners) where we were catching males for tagging, one of the birds caught was already carrying a BTO metal ring – NA82699. This was initially not too unusual, especially as ringing was taking place on the site. The bird was swiftly processed and fitted with a GPS tag before being released safely back into its territory. Later, it came to light that NA82699 had in fact been ringed in January 2016 during an expedition to the Kartong Bird Observatory in The Gambia (orange pin on map). This is the first case of a Nightingale ringed in sub-Saharan Africa being found in the UK but remarkably, it is not the first exchange of Nightingales between East Anglia and the Kartong survey area. In 2011 and 2012, Nightingales ringed in East Anglia were recorded in Kartong, including a bird originally from a site near Ipswich, just 10 km from Alton Water.

Of course, recoveries in and from Africa are hugely dependent on effort and are biased depending on where ringing activities take place. Nonetheless, it is extremely encouraging that the ongoing monitoring at places such as the Kartong Bird Observatory is valuable and well placed to help inform us about migrant bird populations.

Olly Fox, who was on the January trip to The Gambia, reports that the Kartong ringing survey has a relatively high retrap rate for Nightingales with four birds encountered in multiple winters (in addition to the three exchanges between Kartong and the UK) from only 17 birds ringed between 201115. Olly goes on to tell me that wintering Nightingales in the coastal part of The Gambia are generally found in patches of dense vegetation but can also occupy secondary habitat, such as disused farmland. For males at least, these territories are defended throughout the winter months. However, increasingly these habitats are under pressure from development of agriculture and clearance of woodland and scrub to satisfy a rise in demand for firewood and charcoal. These are perfect examples of land-use changes occurring across the range of many migrant species that are important to identify and understand when considering their conservation.

Nightingale singing. Photo taken by Amy Lewis

Far from jumping the gun on the tracking study results, recoveries such as this complement tracking well, providing useful context and help to focus winter ringing efforts and inform local conservation, in this case by the Gambian Department of Parks and Wildlife Management and other NGOs. We will still need the detailed tracking information to understand the precise routes taken and the timing of their movements. The combination of continued tracking work and further ringing in The Gambia will help us understand how typical the apparent connectivity of Nightingales between East Anglia and coastal Gambia is.

02 August 2016

Want to see a Whimbrel? Den mark it with a colour ring

It's always a pleasure to hear the Whimbrel's distinctive call when flying over and it's very special when one is caught (see online reports). Relatively few are ringed in Britain & Ireland and with the addition of colour rings the reporting rate has increased substantially. The pie chart below shows how few dead birds are found in relation to the number of reports received of colour rings.

The Mid Wales Ringing Group started a colour ringing project in 2010 to try to answer some basic questions regarding Welsh birds in particular, like movements, staging areas, survival and site faithfulness. Some of these birds have been reported (dead and alive) in quite a few areas including Scotland, France and North Africa.

A Whimbrel wearing a Mid Wales colour-ring combination was recently reported in Denmark. The BTO online reports show this to be only the fourth BTO-ringed Whimbrel to be reported in Denmark. Yellow D74 was ringed on 30 April 2016 at 2:50 am and 72 days later it had travelled a minimum distance of 1,059 km to Storevorde, Denmark.

If you were hoping to see a BTO-ringed Whimbrel outside Britain & Ireland, there is a much greater chance of seeing one in Guinea (195 reports), Guinea Bissau (224 reports) and Iceland (366 reports).

Colour-ringed Whimbrel photo taken by Jens Veilgaard Vendelbo
Whimbrel photo taken by Jens Veilgaard Vendelbo

So if you ever see a Whimbrel, or any other wild bird for that matter, report it at www.ring.ac. The information will be very useful and could hint towards a new movement or behaviour.

For more information on this and other Mid Wales goings on, click here.