With apologies to any bell ringers out there, I’ve called this one Ringing the Changes. However, we’re not going to talk about that ancient art, but a rather more modern one; that of ringing birds.
It came as something of a surprise when I began reading county bird reports how many bird species and individuals within species actually move around. It seemed that very few species didn’t, somehow or another, migrate, roam, wander or drift. I suppose it’s obvious – why have wings and not use them – but it was the sheer range of species prone to seasonal and weather driven movements that fascinated me. Of course, all this information can only be gleaned by being able to observe individual birds, or indeed, any other animal, during the course of its peregrinations. And that’s where ringing comes in. Attach a ring or other unique marker to a creature and over time there is every chance it will be seen in various places by various people. If enough of those people have the care and presence of mind to submit their sighting to the appropriate authority, a database can begin to be created. And important information gathered.
The concept of ringing seems simple enough to us enlightened 21st century nature lovers. But in times gone by, the only method by which we could unravel the mysteries of bird migration was by personal observation coupled with an enquiring mind. Most people were more concerned with putting food on the table than the wanderings of birds. Easier and more important to shoot and eat them than question why they were there and where they came from. These wider issues were the realm of musing academics, primarily, it seems, clerics who had the means and the time to devote to the study.
Only in the 19th century did scientific process, communications, travel, and awareness evolve sufficiently to make more sophisticated observation possible. Not many years before, myths and legends pertaining to how birds ‘hibernated’ still abounded, and were ingrained in folklore. As an example of this, I have a copy of The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White, a forward thinker if ever there was one. His 18th Century treasure trove of observations, correspondence and anecdotes includes such references as ‘As to swallows being found in a torpid state during the winter in the Isle of Wight….I never heard any such account worth attending to‘ But later when observing swallows congregating in osier beds by a river during a late summer dusk…’Now this resorting towards that element at that season of the year, seems to give some countenance to the northern opinion…of their retiring under water‘. Later still upon hearing an account of a House Martin hawking flies in late November ‘I am now perfectly satisfied that they do not all leave this island in the winter’. However the basic principle that some birds did indeed seasonally migrate or move location seems to have been firmly established, albeit imperfect, in its understanding. Discussing with a correspondent the regular appearance of Ring Ouzels on the South Downs ‘Your approbation, with regard to my new discovery of the migration of the ring-ousel, gives me satisfaction; and I find you concur with me in suspecting that they are foreign birds which visit us’. He goes on ‘I shall be very curious to remark whether they will call on us at their return in the spring, as they did last year’.
All well and good, but severely limited in terms of any wider appreciation of bird movements. No photographic reference, no social media, no guide books. There was obviously a need for a more scientific application, and eventually the concept of ringing was born. The first UK based ringing activity can be traced back to the very early years of the 20th Century when pioneers from two British institutions, British Birds magazine and Aberdeen University, began placing numbered rings on birds. They were hoping to answer basic questions of where species seen in the UK summer spent the winter, and where did winter visitors spend their summer, (click here for a full history from the BTO). Without an established network of observers it wasn’t surprising that recoveries were few, but after 3 years a Swallow ringed in the UK was recovered ‘wintering’ in South Africa and caused a quite understandable sensation: the door to a whole new world of wonder had been pushed wide open.
Nowadays, ringing and tagging birds is a common practice enacted under licence by many people in myriad countries. We have learned so much about how bird populations move around the globe, where vulnerable breeding species spend their winters, how food sources are exploited, how breeding success is affected by climate change, longevity, site affiliations and how various man-made devices and practices can cause mortality. All of this data helps inform government and local development strategies, allows conservation bodies to more effectively target their efforts, and allows population trends to be analysed. The move towards easily seen colour ring combinations and the advent of light weight satellite tracking devices elevates this science to a new level, and is already shedding light on how and where certain birds, whose movements were hitherto pretty much unknown, spend their time. It can only get more sophisticated and accessible as technology develops.
I was inspired to write something about this subject due to my own recent observations which I think might be of interest to you. The first personal instance I had of a ringing recovery was of a bird I saw dead, mangled and being tucked into by a young Great Black-backed Gull at Winterton, Norfolk a few years ago. By enlarging the image, I could make out the ring code CEE.
I sent the information to the BTO and was informed that the bird was a Shag that had been ringed earlier that summer in Northumberland. It was, perhaps a victim of bad weather and subsequent starvation. Who knows?
A couple of years later I noticed a Knot that had several colour rings on its legs. A trawl of the web showed this bird to have been ringed as part of a scheme run in the Netherlands by their Department of Marine Ecology and Evolution, Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research. It had hopped over the North sea to spend its time poking about on the intertidal sands at Sea Palling, Norfolk.
During February 2019, I photographed an adult Black-headed Gull at Salthouse, Norfolk which had an easily read white colour ring bearing the number J9Z5. It turned out this individual was ringed in Norway and I received a potted history of its movements since being ringed. You can see below that the bird was originally ringed in Norway during the summer of 2013 and had been recorded as wintering at the same locality, Salthouse Pools in Norfolk for the subsequent 8 years.
A few days ago I saw another highly visible colour ringed Black-headed Gull at Thorpe in Norwich, T2X8. I’ve seen this individual before during 2019, but sent the record away to the appropriate institute, this time in Gdansk, Poland. The response I received was comprehensive and reproduced below.
This bird was ringed as an adult in Poland during the summer of 2017, presumably at a breeding colony. It spent the following winter of 2017/18 at Thorpe , Norwich before making its way back to Germany during spring 2018. During late summer 2018 it was tracked through the Netherlands before once again wintering in Norwich. Spring 2019 saw the bird make its way back to the breeding grounds on the Polish/German border before returning via Hunstanton to Norwich, there to spend the winter. During 2020, the bird commuted back to Poland/Germany before being seen in late July at Cromer, Norfolk en route to its favoured wintering ground amongst the well fed ducks and doves at Thorpe. Amazingly faithful site loyalty.
At the same time as recording the well travelled Polish bird, I noticed several other Black-headed Gulls with blue rings. By tempting them close with bread and stale cake, I was able to take snaps of a remarkable series of (almost) sequential ring numbers: 2K59 – Adult, 2K60 – 1W, 2K61 – 1W, 2K62 – 1W, 2K64 – 1W. For a guide on how to age these birds click here. It transpires these birds were all ringed in Norwich during November 2020 as part of a new project. It will be interesting to see what further recoveries tell us and whether these birds show the same site fidelity as the Polish individual.
Hope that’s piqued your interest to find out more about this fascinating subject. If you are interested to find out more click here for BTO information and guidance.