A deep dive into the world of bird ringing with personal accounts from our dedicated volunteers over the South West.

What is bird ringing?

Bird ringing collects information on the survival, productivity and movements of birds. It helps us to understand why bird populations are changing. Bird ringing has been taking place since 1909 and is the process of catching birds and putting a lightweight numbered ring on the bird’s leg. When the bird is re-caught by us or another ringer somewhere else in the world we can calculate things like its age and if it has moved around.

The British and Irish Ringing Scheme is organised by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and has around 3,000 specially trained bird ringers. A bird ringer will train often for many years before gaining the legal permit which allows them capture and ring birds.

How do we do it?

We often use very thin mesh nets called mist nests to catch the birds, then we put the ring on and note down what species it is, its age, if it’s male or female, the length of its wing, its weight and other things like if it has any fat or muscle. All of this takes hundreds of hours of practice and is only done by people with special permits. We always ensure that the birds welfare is our top priority. We collect all of this data in minutes. They might look a bit funny with a ruler under their wing or laying down on a scale for weighing but the temporary embarrassment gives us really valuable data.

Why do we do it?

Bird ringing is very rewarding as the data we collect can help us to understand what birds are doing on a national and local scale. It can show us the birds present on site, how long birds live, bird behaviours, where they move and when they move. At SW Lakes this can also guide our management plans, ensuring that we are managing our habitats well for birds and other animals and plants.
We have volunteers in Cornwall, Devon and Dorset who bird ring on our SW Lakes sites. They have kindly given a personal account of their time.

Stithians Reservoir, Cornwall – Fraser Bell and Group

We chose to ring at Stithians Reservoir due to the great habitat it provides for many migratory and breeding birds alike. Many of our members are local birders and regularly birdwatch at the reservoir, so we already knew the great variety and numbers of migrants that the site attracts. The site is a fabulous place to ring; the time between net rounds is spent admiring the lake surroundings with plenty of opportunity to catch up with many of the other lake residents such as gulls and wildfowl. Whilst the site itself is a highlight, the large numbers of both breeding and migrating willow warblers are always a treat to see up close. These summer migrants were well supplemented by a supporting cast of more familiar local species, with blue and great-tits, dunnocks, robins and blackbirds commonly caught. The most unusual catch by far was a gorgeous male wheatear, whilst grasshopper warblers, tree pipits and even a nightjar were all present nearby at one time or another adding to the excitement. 

Fernworthy Reservoir, Devon – Helen Williams and Roger Short

At Fernworthy Reservoir we have a Constant Effort Site meaning we have the same mist nets in the same locations over the same time period through the breeding season. This scheme provides data like the birds on site, the amount of adults and juveniles and their survival rates. We have done this for over 12 years and have caught some fantastic birds and learnt huge amounts.
We also have about 30 bird boxes here which we monitor over the summer. We ring the babies in the nest and have caught many of them again as adults. In 2021, great tits, blue tits, pied flycatchers, nuthatch and redstarts used our boxes.

“In 2019 only one box was occupied by a pair of pied flycatchers, in 2020 we had six pairs and in 2021 we had eleven pairs!”

Longham Lakes, Dorset – Roger Peart

I have been ringing at Longham lakes since 2011, the site offers a mix of scrub, dry reedbed and willow clumps near but separated from the lakes. The most notable occurrence in the 11 years has been catching yellow-browed warblers! One was caught totally unexpectedly in October 2012 – remarkable at the time for an inland site, especially in Dorset. Since then, every autumn mp3 tapes of their calls have been played and a further six have been ringed, including three in 2015.

Longham Lakes, Dorset – Thomas Weston

In my first few years exploring Longham Lakes I remember seeing bearded tit and masses of wintering waterfowl in the winter. The flocks of great white egrets which then descended on the site were impressive, as well as my first ever Bonaparte’s gull which I was lucky enough to spot and photograph.
But, the main reason I chose to ring at this site was due to a colour ringed greylag goose which had the ring U052. 

U052 was ringed as an adult male in Poole Park in June 2019 as part of the Poole Park Greylag goose Study set up myself. This project aims to find out where Greylag geese moulting in Poole Park disperse to in the non-moulting period (July – June). U052, aptly named ‘Kevin’ by some of his admiring observers, was resighted at Longham Lakes in Spring 2020 by 2 observers. In 2020, U052 settled down and tried to breed. He and his partner were able to raise 2 goslings to the age where fledging would have been possible. However, due to unforeseen circumstances, one of his goslings developed angel wing from birth and was taken into long term care with an animal rescuer, whilst the other grew up successfully and survived into the Autumn. The gosling who fledged was later seen with U052 in September 2020.

 U052 came back to Longham again in the summer of 2021 but unfortunately his goslings were predated early on and so he left, presumably with his partner to moult at Poole Park. From Greylag roundups at Longham Lakes, the amazing members of the public who go out and resight any metal or colour ringed geese and the individuals who provided me with the permissions to ring on site, thank you so much! 

Every record of Greylags at Longham Lakes has provided an opportunity for greater understanding of Greylag geese movements in Dorset and has led to more questions being asked.

If you do see any white colour ringed Greylag goose beginning with a U followed by three digits, please do let me know at [email protected]. Likewise, if you would like more information on the project please feel free to drop me an email.

How do I get involved?

You can find out more about ringing and how to get involved here on the BTO website, https://www.bto.org/our-science/projects/ringing/about . A huge part of bird ringing is being able to resight the birds after they have had their ring put on their leg – no training needed! Take a look at this cormorant below which was spotted by a visitor at Burrator reservoir. As this cormorant has a coloured ring on its leg, we got in touch with the ringer and now know it was fitted with the ring in the nest as a chick on 10/06/2021 on an Irish island called Irelands eye and had flown all the way to Burrator reservoir, Devon by 05/10/2021. Image below by John Kaczanow.

A huge thank you is owed to our volunteer bird ringers who collect this data which help us enormously to understand our birds and our sites better and to the volunteers and visitors who resight our birds. If you have seen a bird with a ring, please let me know on [email protected].