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RSPB Minsmere bird-ringing demonstrations reveal the miracles of migration

PUBLISHED: 09:00 09 September 2017

Carl Powell, of Waveney Bird Club, holds a bearded tit as he demonstrates bird ringing at RSPB Minsmere. Picture: DAVID HOVELL

Carl Powell, of Waveney Bird Club, holds a bearded tit as he demonstrates bird ringing at RSPB Minsmere. Picture: DAVID HOVELL

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Autumn is here - and that means birds are on the move. Waveney Bird Club members have been showing visitors to the famous RSPB Minsmere just how miraculous migration really is.

Eleven-year-old Georgina Raven, of Scole, near Diss, is shown a bearded tit by licensed bird ringer Carl Powell at Minsmere. Picture: DAVID HOVELL Eleven-year-old Georgina Raven, of Scole, near Diss, is shown a bearded tit by licensed bird ringer Carl Powell at Minsmere. Picture: DAVID HOVELL

The jaw-dropping wonders of bird migration have certainly rung out loud and clear for hundreds of visitors to the famous RSPB Minsmere nature reserve this summer.

Fantastic feats of navigation and endurance propel winged waifs across thousands of miles - not once but twice each year - as they traverse the globe from their natal or breeding grounds to their wintering areas. Some of the wanderers weigh just a few grams but still manage to cross Europe, the Mediterranean, north Africa and even the Sahara, for example.

They have to contend with the vagaries of often vicious weather systems, struggle against seemingly endless losses of habitat and they often have to run the gauntlet and try to dodge hunters’ bullets. And when the northern summer beckons, they have to undertake the perilous journey all over again, but in reverse.

Bird migration is one of nature’s greatest marvels. But for the most part it takes place unseen, with many migrants using the cover of darkness to avoid predators and to make the most efficient use of the cooler, less resistant, night-time air - and to be guided by the stars.

A nuthatch is ringed during a Waveney Bird Club ringing demonstration at RSPB Minsmere. Picture: DAVID HOVELL A nuthatch is ringed during a Waveney Bird Club ringing demonstration at RSPB Minsmere. Picture: DAVID HOVELL

For many people, however, even the day-flying migrants - such as the familiar swifts and swallows - just seem to vanish at the end of summer.

But the miracles of migration have been brought home to Minsmere visitors in the most vivid and up-close-and-personal ways this summer with another series of weekly bird-ringing demonstrations given by Waveney Bird Club members. Over the past seven years, the club’s bird-ringers - fully trained, experienced and working under strict licensing conditions administered by the Thetford-based British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) - have introduced hundreds and youngsters and adults to the beauty and the intricacies of the lives of thousands of birds that have used the RSPB’s hugely popular nature reserve.

Some of the birds have been hatched on the reserve, some have raised young there and some have just been passing though on their migratory journeys. But all have been admired at the closest of quarters, in the hand, by legions of people during the demonstrations.

Club chairman Steve Piotrowski, one of East Anglia’s most experienced bird-ringers, said the club hoped that its link-up with the RSPB in the venture would help to inspire people to become interested in nature and care for wildlife in general, and birds in particular.

A green woodpecker is ringed at RSPB Minsmere during a Waveney Bird Club ringing demonstration. Picture: DAVID HOVELL A green woodpecker is ringed at RSPB Minsmere during a Waveney Bird Club ringing demonstration. Picture: DAVID HOVELL

“Most people would not normally get the opportunity to see birds at such close proximity but during the demonstrations at the reserve’s Discovery Centre they can study their beauty and their intricacies in minute detail,” he said. “The birds we ring are released very soon after their biometric details are recorded and their ring is fitted, but there is enough time for the visitors to really appreciate them and be given some quick guidance on their identification features.

“The looks of wonderment on our visitors’ faces - the adults as well as the children - are very rewarding for us. People seem fascinated by the birds’ migratory stories and their lifestyles.

“We very often invite a child to help us release a bird after it is ringed. The ringer will gently place the bird onto the palm of the child’s hand and there is a split second before it flies away - the children absolutely love. It’s wonderful for us to see the children connecting so closely with wildlife. It’s something people remember for a lifetime - people have told me they released a bird with us at a demonstration years ago and the memory has stayed with them through the years,” said Mr Piotrowski.

The birds are caught in strategically placed mist-nets that are regularly checked by ringing team members so that they are in the net for the shortest possible time. An individually numbered lightweight metal BTO leg ring is fitted to each bird and a series of biometric details are recorded for the BTO database - meticulous measurements and the weight of each bird are logged and its condition is assessed.

A cuckoo is held after it was ringed at RSPB Minsmere during a Waveney Bird Club ringing demonstration. Picture: DAVID HOVELL A cuckoo is held after it was ringed at RSPB Minsmere during a Waveney Bird Club ringing demonstration. Picture: DAVID HOVELL

If a ringed bird is subsequently re-controlled by another ringer, or is reported by a member of the public, important details about its life, such as its longevity and migratory history, can be gleaned.

A total of more than 13,300 birds of 56 species have been ringed or controlled (re-caught after having been ringed elsewhere) by Waveney Bird Club’s licensed ringers at RSPB Minsmere since the demonstrations began, ranging from the most numerous - blue tit - to scarce visitors such as wryneck, pied flycatcher, marsh warbler and firecrest.

“The more we know about these birds the greater our understanding is of their lives and the more knowledge we have the better chance there is for their species’ conservation,” said Mr Piotrowski. “So many species are facing so many threats these days, here in the UK, throughout their migratory routes and on their wintering grounds. They need all the help they can get and the knowledge that is being gained through ringing is being put to very good practical use to help their survival.”

RSPB Minsmere visitor experience officer added: “The Waveney Bird Club ringers’ demonstrations were an instant hit when they first started running the activities at Minsmere during the school summer holidays seven years ago. They are now among our most popular events on the reserve, attracting interest from people of all ages and abilities, from children and families to older and more experienced birdwatchers.

“It’s not difficult to understand why. Even with the most powerful binoculars or telescope, it’s impossible to beat seeing a bird ‘in the hand’ of an expert bird-ringer for getting an appreciation of the subtleties of the different colours in their plumage, the shapes of their beaks, the fine structure of their feathers and other parts of their anatomy. Something we normally only observe at a distance is suddenly so close you could touch it, making it possible to appreciate even more these often tiny creatures, which can weigh less than a 20p piece and may have flown many thousands of miles to reach the reserve.

“This is the central purpose of bird-ringing – science – to help us learn more about birds and in turn what we need to do to conserve them. Waveney Bird Club’s ringing activities at Minsmere are continually adding to our understanding of birds on the reserve.

“Since opening five years ago, Minsmere’s Discovery Centre has been helping the next generation enjoy, experience and learn about the wonders of nature, and Waveney Bird Club’s ringers have made a valuable contribution to the work of inspiring a new generation of nature lovers and conservationists.”

The next Waveney Bird Club ringing demonstration will take place at RSPB Minsmere’s Discovery Centre on October 26 and next year’s programme will commence at Easter.

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