Ringing Breeding Birds in Wales

Friday evening near Llyn Brenig in the Sitka spruce forests of North Wales. The warm, humid air that brought storms has been replaced by a chill northwesterly and clearing skies. In the clear-felled forest, the nightjars ‘churr’ at dusk and we try to lure a male to a large mist net with a recording of the churr and other calls; he flaps round and runs straight in but dances just over the net and, after a few more circuits, gives up. We soon realise that the harsh wind and the cool temperature are not helping our cause. On a warm, calm night, these nightjars will be caught, ringed with a small, numbered metal ring and ‘radio-tagged’ with tiny transmitters so nests maybe found and individual birds monitored. All part of ongoing research into the potential impacts of local wind farms. The trapping, ringing and tagging is skilled and time-consuming, and often uncomfortable when the midges cloud the still air. My old friend Tony Cross is one of the few licensed to conduct such research work.

Dawn the next morning and the wind cries on and so we leave for the west coast. The hills near Cerrugydridion are low lit in soft green but the moors above Pentrefoelas on the high road to Blaenau Ffestiniog are rich rusts and umbers.  A male hen harrier, white as a gull in the distance, runs the moor and we rush to cut if off as it crosses the road; we intersect but he pirouettes up and off away without a care.

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Soft hills west of Cerrugydridion at dawn.

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The heather moors and mires above Pentrefoelas are beautiful hen harrier and merlin country.

Down into Porthmadog and Jenny’s cafe for breakfast. Then a rendezvous nearby with Kelvin, the local red kite watcher, and three British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) colleagues; here to ring pied flycatchers in the oak woods, but taking the rare opportunity to ring young red kites from two nests on the northern edge of the current range.  Tony, again holding the required licences, climbs the trees by literally hooking up a rope with squirrel poles and then climbing the rope with ascenders; each docile, young kite gets a coloured and numbered tag on each wing and and a metal BTO ring on a leg. The tags will be looked for at winter roosts and breeding sites in future years; the survival and movements of these individuals monitored to continue to understand how they utilise the countryside and expand their range.

The Lleyn peninsula holds a good population of choughs (pronounced ‘chuffs’ but their call from which the name is derived is a much more attractive, loud-ringing ‘chee-ow’) that breed in crevices on the high cliffs and ledges in sea caves; these broad-winged, shiny black crows feed with delicate, lipstick red, curved bills on the short coastal grasslands rich in invertebrates.  Tony has been studying these wonderful birds that ride the constant, coastal breeze for nearly 30 years.  We head to Cilan Head near Abersoch and in strong winds, Tony disappears over the edge and his dog, Dylan, and I wait and watch the soaring birds from the safe grass slopes; choughs wheel and cry ‘chee-ow’ of course, but there are also gulls, shags, oystercatchers, and, best of all, the straight-edged fulmars that fly past or circle and soar. The medley is a constantly revolving entertainment in ever changing light to the sound of the wind and crashing waves.

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Chough in the wind over the Lleyn peninsula.

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Choughs are social acrobats of the sea winds, nearly always in pairs or family parties; they often fold their wings like stealth fighters, dive and tumble.

There are three key stages to ringing the nestling choughs on the Welsh cliffs: 1) retrieving the nestlings from the cliff ledge or sea cave nest on the end of a long rope (if they are too young then curse loudly because not a soul can hear you and come back later), 2) ringing the young birds with a unique combination of colours and numbers on the cliff top and 3) having returned the young then it is straight off to the next nest site. We check three nests and ring three broods, the wind finally eases as dusk arrives and we drive home to mid-Wales in the dark.

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Stages 1 and 2 of the chough colour-ringing process.

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Stage 3.

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Fulmars are the most beautiful seabirds even with their front heavy, tube-noses.

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An agitated oystercatcher with a nest somewhere on the cliffs.

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The cliffs ledges are flower-rich and of endless beauty.

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Looking west towards Bardsey from Cilan Head on the Lleyn Peninsula in the late evening.

On Saturday morning, which dawns calm and bright, we head to Aberystwyth and Penderi.  Here the cliffs are just as high and mighty but there is a long walk downhill carrying heavy ropes and all the gear across pastures to the cliff-tops where patches of ancient oak forest cling to the steep slopes. The cliff tops are grazed less than before and a lesser whitethroat sings from the scrub. I hate to admit that I would have put the scratchy, dull call down to a chaffinch and walked on by.

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The coastline at Penderi, south of Aberystwyth.

Here, two chough nests have either failed or fledged; two big descents are energy sapping and fruitless.  The cormorants are much more accommodating and 2o young are ringed on some easy cliffs in the warm sunshine. Some of these ancient, oilless birds move south to Brittany and only by attaching the metal BTO rings are such movements recorded and seasonal patterns understood. Tony finds some early purple orchids on the ledges but I am not courageous enough to abseil over; it’s the getting back up bit that preys the mind.

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Adult in flight looking so much like a pterodactyl.

We then check a site, accessible only at low tide, near Constitution Hill in Aberystwyth.  The pair of choughs nest in a specially constructed nest box on a crumbling cliff of Ordovician shale, normally a sure-fire winner, but this too is also empty. Many of the mid-Wales cliffs are soft shales and mudstones and the crevices forever collapsing so nest sites are few, even though the cliff top foraging habitat is ideal.  Nest boxes made of stout wood and wedged into the cliff provide a safe place to breed and there are 20-30 additional pairs that use them each year. Jackdaws, buzzard and a peregine have nests on the cliff here too and all sail over in the high breeze; then a female peregrine takes a fresh kill off the incoming male. She lumbers low across the sea giving harsh, angry calls with her heavy, half-plucked prey clutched tight, pursued by hungry, snapping herring gulls that dare not do more than harry and hope.

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Peregrine and prey low over the water with herring gulls in lukewarm pursuit.

After fish and chips in Aber, it is inland through the green-remembered hills to Strata Florida near Pontrhydfendigaid (‘Bont’ to everybody), where we walk the woods and ring the pied flycatchers and tits found in the 80 or so nest boxes. An annual ritual repeated by Tony around 6th June. Ringing is just the BTO metal ring, not additional colour-rings because these birds are hardly ever seen in the wild by ornithologists. Data are obtained from breeding birds caught in the nest boxes using special traps, and dead birds are found and rings retrieved all along the migration routes and wintering areas from Wales to tropical Africa. This year the number of flycatchers is down; we don’t see or hear a redstart or wood warbler and the tit broods are meagre.  Spring started warm but a recent period of prolonged rain killed many of the young.  A round, moss heavy, dipper nest on a rock wall above a waterfall is washed wet; the dead white eggs tell another sad story of unusual summer storms.

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Male pied flycatcher waiting for us to leave the vicinity of the nest box that holds his brood.

The bluebells are late and in their prime, purple in the dying sun beneath the golden oaks. The evening light warms the ffridd of bracken and hawthorn at the top of the valley above the oakwoods. In the 1980s, we hid on this hillside to catch the egg collectors that preyed on the handful of red kite nests that were located in the hanging oaks on the edge of the Cambrian mountains; one long-tenanted territory was here in this prettiest of valleys. We watched and waited for hours and also dashed around in ancient cars; perhaps because there was always so much to discuss in the Cross Inn at Ffair-Rhos we very rarely caught anybody.

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Hillside at dusk on the edge of the Cambrian mountains; the Teifi Pools are just over the furthest hill.

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Bluebells in evening light with hanging oakwood beyond.

The next morning and to South Shropshire; endless small hidden valleys where we meet with local ornithologist, Michelle. She spends the Spring locating and monitoring the breeding raptors, waders, dippers and everything else. Together, we colour-ring a brood of kestrels extracted from a deep hole in an ancient ash. Kestrels are rarer now in this county of forest and pasture perhaps because goshawks are on the increase.

Colour-ringing and wing-tagging young birds, whether they be kites, choughs or kestrels enables movements, breeding history and survival of individuals to be understood; it is the most basic but arguably the most important research tool in ornithology. Something akin to, and as harmless as, putting dog tags on a new army recruit. All ringing, wing- and radio-tagging is licensed and managed by the BTO and only undertaken by trained ornithologists. Colour-ringing is only undertaken as a specific project on a species of current conservation concern. Ringing birds with a numbered metal ring is carried out to provide useful population monitoring data for all bird species, both residents and migrants. Bird ringers are a rare breed; taking a stroppy blue tit out of a mist net is an art requiring a calm head and nimble hands.

We drive to a woodland-filled valley and Tony retrieves a young male goshawk from a huge nest, high up in a Douglas fir. Goshawks are pure killing machines with an unwavering eye, strong, fast wings and sulphur yellow talons with long, curled-needle, black claws: ‘Into my heart an air that kills’.

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A kestrel nest site in an old and enormous ash tree and young male goshawk being ringed.

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