Thursday, 28 August 2014

The Assessment

In September 2007 I took my first steps towards becoming a bird ringer. Yes I had had an interest in birds for a few years, more so once I met my husband to be. He got me interested in birds and I got him interested in whales and dolphins. While Lee had been ringing for a couple of years, I had yet to take the plunge. Then came the Isle of Wight ringing course which he was attending and on which a space had become available. Considering Lee had just driven me to Plymouth, and hung around all day while I did a dolphin survey, and with my growing interest in birds, I agreed. So began what has become another passion in my life. The thrill of holding a bird, learning so much about moult, aging, sexing and their life histories that cannot necessarily be gained from observation alone, is a real privilege. In November that year I began ringing with Merseyside Ringing Group near Chester. Developing the basics of handling, ringing and aging passerines and learning to set mist nets and safely extract birds. Despite driving an hour to get to the site, leaving in the dark and despite braving frozen conditions on many occasions, I had been caught by the ringing bug. I remember ringing my first Greenfinch, Yellowhammer, Dunnock and Firecrest, I remember ringing my first and only Willow Tit and being almost rugby tackled out of the way as I went to remove a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker from the net.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker

Within a year I had moved to Scotland to guide on a whale watch boat before settling in Norfolk where I was taken under the tutorship of Greg Conway. Over the next two years I ringed passerines in Thetford Forest and warblers in reed beds at the Nunnery. I ventured onto a seabird island off the top of Scotland, where I caught hundreds of Puffins and the odd Gannet or two, one of which left a mark I still bear today. I ringed hirundines at Gibraltar Point in Lincolnshire and even dabbled in a bit of wader ringing with the Wash Wader Ringing Group.

My first adult Gannet

By September 2010 I was back on the Isle of Wight ringing course and was put forward for my C permit. Now I could ring independently, although I was still responsible to my trainer. And so it continued, I set nets in my garden, my parents garden and my parent in laws garden! I went out with ringers targeting specialist birds like Nightjar and Firecrest. I started helping at a reed bed site known as Cranwich, somewhere that has become central to mine and Lee’s ringing activities. I went abroad, ringing in the Gambia where Western Palaearctic migrants and colourful Afro-Tropical birds mix. I went to the famed Icklesham and delved into hundreds of warblers, hirundines and pipits. I became a nest recorder, gaining a pullus endorsement which allowed me to ring the chicks in the nests I’d found. I wandered through woodlands monitoring Pied Flycatcher and Redstart nests. I ventured onto rather smelly landfill tips and ringed Black-headed, Herring, Lesser and Great Black Backed Gulls. I spent early mornings in reed beds, in scrub land, on beaches, on farmland, on remote islands, ringing and learning more.

Ringing a Kingfisher

Finally last year my trainer said to me it’s time, I’m ready. Ready for my A permit. Unlike with the C permit, this time I needed to be assessed by an independent trainer. Someone who I had not ringed with before. Step up Steve Piotrowski. In June 2014 I joined Steve at Minsmere for a ringing small ringing session with his team. After that there was just one stage left, one final session at my site, one final assessment. Roll on Bank Holiday Monday and with grey skies and a still wind we took to the reed bed at Cranwich for that final assessment. With the threatening rain holding off the birds seemed to make a beeline for the nets. Chiffchaff in particular seemed to be moving through the site in large numbers, with 41 caught (the highest number caught in one session at Cranwich and our usual annual total!). Intermingled with the Chiffs was a good variety of birds, with Sedge Warbler, Reed Warbler, Garden Warbler, Marsh Tit and Treecreeper also caught. With the rain closing in and the nets closed the total number of birds captured, processed and released stood at 96 and Steve’s decision was in. I had passed! Steve’s recommendation was that I should be considered for my A permit. The process is not over, it now rests in the hands of my trainer who needs to complete the paperwork and the Ringing Committee who will review the application….   

Just one of the 41 Chiffchaff caught during my assessment

A huge thank you to everyone who has helped me to learn to ring over the years, and who will help me to continue learning over the years to come. Here's hoping my application is accepted...

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

A Start at the end of the season...the 100th Wild Barley Post!

An industrial yard. A concrete square surrounded on all sides by tall brick warehouses. Scattered through the yard are stacks of wooden pallets, plastic drums and other working debris. Beyond tall gates is a labyrinth of roads that make up the network of industrial units sandwiched between river and sea in Great Yarmouth. A small lab leads through bolted wooden doors onto this yard. Above that is another set of offices accessed by a set of metal stairs. It is not the most obvious place you would go looking for nests, yet we know many species of birds will happily nest alongside human activity in urban areas. Most of the time you might think of pigeons, or blackbirds in your gardens, all associated with some sort of greenery. But there are some birds that will nest in the most seemingly unnatural areas. Think of peregrine falcons nesting on cathedrals and gas works, perhaps not so glamorous but gulls nesting on roof tops. Here in this yard there was also a nest. 

An unlikely place for a nest...

Tucked up under the eaves of the metal stairs, sitting on a small ledge is a rather scruffy collection of dried grass and leaves. It’s not totally inconspicuous with bits of yellowing grass hang down from this ledge. The soft tsip-tsip call of a bird from the yard gives the identity of the nest away. Hopping from roof top to pallets and back again is a small robin-sized bird. Its vent and tail are a beautiful pale red with the rest of its body charcoal grey and black. He holds himself up right, cocky almost, calling to another similar bird who has that beautiful red tail but is more drab greyish brown above. The female. The pair are Black Redstarts, and we are privileged to have them breeding in our yard. There are fewer than 100 breeding pairs in the UK and because of this the nests have extra protection through licencing to prevent disturbance.

As a licenced bird ringer, with an open nesting pullus endorsement and having an appropriate schedule 1 licence I carefully and quietly approach the stairs, hoisting myself up on a bike rail to peer into the nest. Despite the bright sunshine and heat of the yard, the nest is dark and cool. A small neat cup sits amongst the seemingly untidy mess of grass, and within this five pink, blind and pretty much bald little chicks squirm. I leave them be, letting the parents return to tend their brood.

The first glimpse of Black Redstart chicks

When I return the chicks have grown. They have tracks of feathers down their bodies, tufts of fuzzy feathers form patches over the head and body, while tiny little pins are starting to poke through on stubby wings where feathers will grow. Their legs are well developed and are ready to take a ring. The process is quick and in a matter of moments the chicks are nestled back in the cup, waiting for mum and dad to return which is not too long.

Ringed and returned to the nest

A short while later and a careful peek into the nest reveals large, well feathered chicks. I do not hang around long. These guys have grown so much, they are open eyed and alert. I am as quiet as possible, moving slowly so I do not startle them. Their parents still tsip-tsip at me from the roofs as I retreat.

My final visit and the yard is quiet, I climb slowly up to the nest, already knowing the answer. The nest is empty, the dark corner quiet, the cup well flattened. The chicks have gone. Headed off into the big wide world, five extra souls to the UK’s Black Redstart population.