Ringing the changes

Interview with Jeremy Gates – a Surrey bird ringer

Many members of RSPB Guildford will have met Jeremy Gates, as every year he rings the juvenile kestrels nesting in the garden of the Grundy family. But how did Jeremy become a dedicated bird ringer and why does he do it?

Jeremy with kestrel chick

… I’m doing what I always dreamt of as a child. Bird ringing is not just a hobby, it’s my passion.

In Jeremy’s own words: ‘I think I was born a bird-watcher. Even before I could walk I was watching and reacting to birds. When my father took me fishing, I only wanted to watch the birds. All birds fascinated me and I spent my younger years cycling around Guildford, looking for birds.

Joining the Junior branch of the RSPB (which was then called the Young Ornithologists Club), meant for the first time I had like-minded people to bird watch with. The organised trips meant I could visit places like Farlington Marshes and Pagham. I was absolutely hooked.

My ambition, even as a young child was to become a bird ringer. I wanted to see birds up close, to hold them and to understand more about their lives. Becoming a ringer involves registering with a trainer who takes you under their wing. While I was trying to find a local trainer (not easy), I worked and qualified as a tree surgeon. In my spare time I became a twitcher, travelling all over the country to see rare birds, such as the Golden Winged Warbler (seen in Kent in 1989).

Then in 1993, through the Surrey Bird Club I found someone willing to train me. Steve Abbott had been the Club’s Chairman and was a very experienced ringer. Under his guidance I learnt how to net and ring birds. I will never forget holding my first bird – a Great Tit. I felt both humbled and excited.

Now I ring around 1,000 birds a year and am one of about 2,500 ringers in the UK. It’s a mixture of general and targeted ringing. The general ringing involves the use of a net to catch a selection of birds. The targeted ringing is often seasonal, so for example I might look for warblers in summer and siskins in the winter.

Being a tree surgeon really helps when climbing to bird of prey nests in trees. It means I can easily climb a tree, put the rings on quickly and  then leave the birds in peace. So long as you are very calm and quiet, the birds don’t panic. Their welfare is always paramount.

I think the Firecrest is the most stunningly beautiful bird I’ve ever ringed. Top of my ringing wish-list is an Osprey, but as they’re mainly found in Scotland and a special licence is needed to approach their nest, this may remain just a fantasy.

For now, I’m doing what I always dreamt of as a child. Bird ringing is not just a hobby, it’s my passion.’

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