On the journey of improving my knowledge on local ecology and conservation, I felt that it was vital that I get to know some birds a little more. Whilst I can identify common garden birds and ground nesting birds, I wanted to start to develop this further and enhance my identification skills by learning to distinguish species by sound.
For a very long time I have wanted to observe mist netting sessions and bird ringing and with a quick nose at the British Ornithology Trust website, I experienced both within days! All I needed to do was locate the nearest trainer to me, fill out and email a contact form and before I knew it I was out in the field. The introductory sessions that I attended were a fantastic way to see bird ringing in action and it is not just all about putting a ring on it! Preparation and planning is essential and ensuring the welfare of the birds is of upmost importance. Following these sessions I have now signed up with my trainer and am working towards my ringing license, so I will be sharing my birding adventures via Howl.
My first session in the field wasn’t mist netting but instead I accompanied a trainer woodcock lamping late at night (otherwise known as the ‘dazzle and net’ technique). The Woodcock Scolopax rusticola, is a Wader that relies on its cryptic camouflage to avoid detection. It is beautifully coloured to resemble the dead leaves and bracken found in its typical woodland habitat.They spend most of the day roosting in the woods before venturing out at dusk to feed on worms and small invertebrates on the surrounding Forest lawns and pastures.In the New Forest there are two populations, one population is resident and breeds here, the other are migrants who fly from Russia and Scandinavia in November to spend the winter here before returning eastwards again in March to breed overseas.
The woodcock lamping technique involves locating individuals feeding on open grassland at night using a lamp and once close enough individuals are caught in a large net. During this session we were quite unlucky as the birds seem to be unusually nervous, resulting in a few failed attempts. However, we persisted and finally managed to catch one. I was shown how to handle and take measurements of this unusual but beautiful bird whilst causing the minimum amount of stress to the bird in the process.
Now that we had our first woodcock of the evening we needed to determine whether it was a juvenile or an adult by taking a close look at the wings. The primary feathers are a key indicator. For example, if they have abraded tips it is a juvenile and if they have clean smooth tips it is an adult. Once this ageing step had been completed it was time to place a ring on the right leg of the bird. These rings come in different sizes to accommodate different species. Using pliers, the ring was squeezed to close the gap so it forms an O shape. An important step here is to check the fit and that the ring moves freely. The number of the ring is important and the ringing scheme helps us to understand what is happening to birds in the places they live and how this affects population increases and decreases. It also gives information on the movements individual birds make and how long many live for. Once fitted with this all important ring, we then needed to take some measurements.
The first measurement taken was a wing measurement. With careful handling the wing is pulled gently away from the body, ensuring it remains parallel to the body. The beak was then measured using the standard procedure, which is to measure the length of the beak from tip to ‘feather’ (the point where the feathers at the top of the beak start). The final measurement needed was weight and is done so by placing the bird into a bag. The beak is pushed down into the breast of the bird and slid into the bag headfirst. A spring balance is then used to determine weight.
With all the measurements that are required obtained, the time came to release the individual. The trainer allowed me to hold the woodcock on the ground for a few moments, whilst he switched off the lights, allowing the bird to readjust. I was then given the signal and released the woodcock who swiftly disappeared into the night! Of course, it is important that all of these measurements have been recorded, completing these with time of capture, name of sight and weather conditions. It is also important to note any unusual physiological details seen whilst handling individuals. Interestingly my trainer has come across a couple of grey morphs, appearing greyer overall, with a grey face and large patches of grey on the back. All UK woodcock ringers recently received an email asking them to look out for these grey birds and to collect some additional information on them. It is
believed that they have come from Northern Russia, and isotope analysis of feathers will help confirm (or ruin) this theory.
Since my woodcock lamping adventures I have been mist netting on a number of occasions and details of these sessions will be coming soon in part 2 (I’ve had some beginners luck and have caught a few firecrest!)