10 October 2017

The Big Biggleswade Starling RAS

Denise Cooper-Kiddle and Derek Gruar write:

The BTO Breeding Bird Survey survey has recorded a 49% decline in Starlings across the UK since 1995. Why numbers have dropped so dramatically is not fully known. Retrapping Adults for Survival (RAS) projects are helping find out whether adult mortality is a possible cause.

Adult Starling. Photo by John Harding

My back garden in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire gets more than its fair share of Starlings (4,446 ringed here since 2010). Three years ago, the BTO suggested I should start a RAS project. As well as a unique metal ring I also add a colour ring to every adult bird caught between 1 April and 31 August each year. Since then I’ve colour ringed 634 adults. My RAS uses red rings with a white letter/number code starting with a P or a K and are unique to each Starling throughout Europe.

Starling roost. Photo by Laura Kuselska

What makes the Biggleswade RAS exceptional is the volume of data it produces. In June 2015, two months after the start of my first RAS season, I was contacted by a retired couple living a few streets away. They had started seeing Starlings with red rings in their garden and a leaflet they picked up in a local shop (1,000 had been distributed around the area) told them about the project. Brian and Viv took on Starling spotting as almost a ‘day job’ and Brian, an ex data manager, decided to set up and manage a complete project database. Every red-ringed bird is added into the database and every day on which that bird is sighted is recorded. This shows that an ‘amateur’ ringer and some absolute hero volunteers can provide a lot of information about a declining species.

So far the database contains 7,382 confirmed day sightings (ring code seen clearly among the mass of Starlings rushing around feeding). Looking at when individual birds were sighted shows that some birds are only seen during the breeding season and some are seen all year round.

Click to enlarge

Staying around or not, can make a lot of difference regarding the number of days on which a bird is sighted. Take two of the ‘regulars’ that have been seen on over 150 days since they were colour ringed. PIF has been seen on 158 days since being colour ringed on 4 May 2015. PVC has been seen 163 times, but wasn’t colour ringed until 14 June 2016. The difference is that PIF disappears for months at a time outside the RAS season and PVC has been seen on at least two days in every month since being colour ringed.

I did consider colour ringing the juveniles I catch as well, but decided against it as so few return as breeding adults the following year: of the 271 adults I have red ringed in 2017 only 52 had been metal ringed here as juveniles in 2016 (about 5% of the total of 980 juveniles ringed here in 2016). A lot will not have survived their first winter, but hopefully quite a few will simply have dispersed and gone elsewhere. It does look as if some birds return at some point because three Starlings metal ringed here in 2011 or 2012, and never seen or retrapped since 2012, suddenly turned up this year to ‘collect’ their red rings.

Juvenile Starling. Photo by Christine Matthews

Where do Starlings ringed in Biggleswade go? A number of recoveries and controls of birds within a 40 km radius suggests they disperse over a reasonable area. Two recoveries have been very noteworthy - a juvenile ringed here in August 2014 was found dead in Capel-Sylen, Carmarthen in March 2015 and an adult ringed here in November 2016 was found dead just outside Bunschoten-Spakenburg in the Netherlands in August 2017. This was especially interesting for me as I lived in Bunschoten-Spakenburg for 11 years; just one of those quirks of fate when investigating these fascinating birds.



With the 2017 RAS season now finished and the data entered into the database, who knows what the results will show us in the next few years. If you do see a red colour ringed Starling starting with the letters P or K, feel free to contact me on Info@denisecooper-kiddle.com.

29 September 2017

Sligo's slippery slope to ringing

Mícheál Casey writes:

I started getting into ringing from reading the metal rings on gulls, particularly Common and Black-headed Gulls. Back in 2004, I read the ring of a handsome Common Gull, and was thrilled to hear back from Hugh Insley about where and when it was ringed. It was a chick (one of a brood of three) which was ringed on 26 May 1997 at Loch Tarff, near Fort Augustus, Highland, which was 400 km from where I saw it in Sligo Harbour, Ireland.

Common Gull. Photo by Mícheál Casey

I have seen this bird at least once every winter since 2004 and have just seen it back for its 20th year this weekend, looking quite fresh for its age.

Portfolio of this Common Gull. Photo by Mícheál Casey

I emailed Hugh when I decided to move on from ring-reading to training as a BTO ringer and I remember the reply well. He said it will add a lot to my birding, but it will also take away some of my enjoyment of birding, as my enjoyment of every bird or group of birds seen will be diluted by....."now how could I catch that?". He was partly right, but I have gained so much more than I have lost overall.

Common Gull. Photo by Mícheál Casey

This bird has a little way to go yet to break the longevity record of 27 years but hopefully it will keep returning to Sligo Harbour for a few more years to come; Mícheál will be waiting!

If you are able to read the ring of a gull while it's stealing your chips or just loafing around on the beach, please report it to www.ring.ac. You will be sent all the details on the bird and your record will help build a more complete picture of its movements.

13 September 2017

Record breakers of the bird world

Bird ringing has come a long way since it's inception in 1909. It was primarily set up to answer some basic questions, like where do our birds go and how long do they live. Since then, an amazing amount of information has been gathered that answers many more complex questions, like why a certain species population changes each year and where in Britain or Ireland are they declining. More information can be found on the BirdTrends and ringing surveys pages.

https://www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/ringing/surveys/ras

 https://www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/ringing/surveys/ces

At this time of year, all of the previous year's data have been loaded and checked and the Ringing and Nest Recording Team pull together some of this information to produce the Online Ringing & Nest Recording Report. The report includes annual totals for ringing and nest recording, as well as information on recoveries, but it also covers one basic question... how long can a bird live?

The longevity records for 2016 have now been updated and there are some interesting new records. Relatively new colonists like the Little Egret often feature. As they have only been ringed in any numbers in Britain and Ireland in the last fifteen years, we probably haven't yet established the normal maximum life expectancy; the record currently stands at 10 years and five months.

Little Egret chicks. Photo by Graham Giddens
Last year saw 17 records broken including three owl species; Barn Owl, Little Owl and Tawny Owl with ages reaching 15 years, 13 years and 23 years respectively. Some finches also did well with Twite, Lesser Redpoll reaching six years and Goldfinch reaching 10 years.

Lots of these record breakers were caught by a ringer, as opposed to being found dead or being identified by colour marks. Where ringers monitor the same populations annually, the potential for individuals to be caught again increases. This is exactly what happened with three of the record breakers, Little Ringed Plover, Peregrine and Nuthatch, which broke their own records after being re-encountered in 2016! 

The Puffin longevity record was broken again in 2016, and the oldest-known bird in Britain or Ireland is now a ripe old age of 37 years. The individual that broke the record, seen in the photo below, was ringed and re-encountered by the Shiants Auk Ringing Group, who ring in the Western Isles. The previous record holder was also a bird from the Shiants.

The oldest-known BTO-ringed Puffin, by Liz Scott.

We won't be analysing the 2017 records until next year but we already know that the current longevity record for Jackdaw has been broken. Originally ringed in April 1999 by Declan Manley, and subsequently re-caught in 2005, 2007, 2012 and now in 2017. A Goldfinch ringed in Nottinghamshire and found dead in Devon has also broken the 2016 longevity, adding another couple of months on to the current record.

Longevity records are the maximum a species has been recorded to live but most birds do not manage to reach this age. The average life expectancy and lots of other interesting facts can be found on our BirdFacts page.

04 September 2017

White bred Sandwich Tern

Ewan Weston from the Grampian Ringing Group writes:

On 19 June, Grampian Ringing Group carried out some colour ringing at the Sandwich Tern colony in the Sands of Forvie NNR, Aberdeenshire. The group has a long running study on the species to gather information on survival, recruitment and movements. While rounding up some of the young for ringing, one eagle eyed trainee spotted a pure white chick amongst the regular coloured chicks. This bird was colour ringed, although we were not hugely hopeful of the prospects for a white bird as it would be more noticeable to predators. The photos of the chick were sent to an expert who suggested the bird was probably not an albino, but has the recessive Ino mutation, which results in very poor oxidation of melanin.

White Sandwich Tern and birds in regular plumage. Photo by John Tymon.

Since ringing, we have had several sightings, initially as this distinctive bird migrated down the east coast of Scotland and then over on the west coast of England at Ainsdale beach in Merseyside where it has spent a few weeks. Several people have sent us photographs of it and it has turned into a truly magnificent tern.

Flying alongside a 'normal' Sandwich Tern. Photo by John Tymon.

From this colour ringing project, over the last few years we have found that once birds leave their breeding sites they spend several months on the UK coast (often north of their breeding sites) before heading south to winter predominantly in Africa. Very few Sandwich Terns return to Europe in their second summer, with most only migrating back to Europe in their third or fourth summer. It will be quite a long wait to see if this bird returns to Scotland in a few years time to breed, but if it does I am sure it will be seen.

As this project highlights, sightings of colour marked birds have helped increase our knowledge of the movements and behaviours of many species, not just Sandwich Terns. So, if you see a colour marked bird (or find a bird fitted with just a metal ring), please report it at www.ring.ac.

16 August 2017

See you at Rutland Birdfair

It's that time of year again, when birders from all over the world gather at their 'Glasonbury' - The Birdfair.

Over the years, the Birdfair has raised mind boggling sums of money for bird conservation all over the world. Many wildlife charities attend to help with this cause and promote their charity at the same time. The BTO has attended the Birdfair for many years and this year is no exception, so when you are there, pop over to marquee three (stand 36-38) and say 'Hi'. It would be great to meet our many thousands of volunteers and members and we can let you know what has been going on at BTO HQ recently.

For the Ringing and Nest Recording Team, the pinnacle of the Birdfair has to be the ringing demonstration, run in partnership with the Rutland Water Ringing Group. We're in the same place as previous years, which is next to marquee four and the red car park. Over the years we've had some fantastic birds including Kingfisher, Sparrowhawk, Turtle Dove and Nightingale, but it's not all about the rarely caught birds. All the data collected during Birdfair will go into the BTO national ringing database and supplement all the fantastic work done by the Rutland Water Ringing Group.

Ringing demo in action. Photo by Sam Franks

Our main species caught are Reed and Sedge Warblers, some of which have been ringed in previous years, and now have clocked up quite a few miles during their life by going to Africa and back. Once we have processed all the birds, our attention switches to ringing people. If you are 'ringed' with one of our wrist bands, pop over to the BTO stand (marquee three) to find out what happened to you.

Releasing a Dunnock. Photo by Peter Carr (@wildlifePete)
There is a lot to do at Birdfair, but make sure you visit us at the ringing demo and the main BTO stand, as it would be great to see you (we may have a small slice of cake for you too).