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.’

Birds to spot this Autumn

Tony Cummins, RSPB Guildford Walks Leader and Coordinator

The days are getting shorter, leaves are falling and mornings are chilly. Autumn is here! Birds are sensing a change in the weather and are becoming more active. Summer migrants are leaving and other birds are starting to arrive. So what should we be looking out for this Autumn and where are the best spots for bird watching?

Tony Cummins, our RSPB Guildford Walks Coordinator, explains which birds are arriving, leaving and just passing through.

“Many birds are migrants, but it’s not always obvious. Some migrants are just passing through and refuelling for a few weeks, others are here for the winter and some are internal migrants.

The passage migrants are travelling south from Northern Europe, where they go to breed during the short Northern summer. This includes many waders, who may stop off here on their migration route.  It can be an opportunity to spot some of the less common waders like the Curlew Sandpiper (which likes saltmarshes with muddy pools and shallow coastal lagoons) and the Little Stint (a tiny, wading bird). There is a plentiful food supply in the UK and birds will ‘refuel’ for a few weeks before moving on.

Photos courtesy of Ian Bollen

Then there are the winter migrants who spend their winter in the UK, like Redshanks (who may have travelled from Iceland), Curlews (the largest European wading bird), Godwits (Black-tailed and Bar-tailed) and Plovers. It’s also worth looking out for the juvenile waders, who often migrate later than their parents.

Birds migrating from the UK include swallows, sand martins and house martins who will start leaving any time soon. Swifts and cuckoos have already left.

So where are the best places to see these avian comings and goings? Pulborough RSPB is good for spotting small passage birds like Whinchats and Spotted flycatchers, which are both summer visitors and passage migrants. Also, there is a gradual build-up of water fowl. Wintering ducks include:

  • Shovelers – in winter, breeding birds move south, and are replaced by an influx of continental birds from further north
  • Wigeon – many birds visit the UK in winter from Iceland, Scandinavia and Russia, with large numbers of wintering birds at a few UK sites
  • Teal – in winter, birds congregate in low-lying wetlands in the south and west of the UK, many are continental birds from around the Baltic and Siberia
  • Pintails – can be seen all year round, wintering birds arrive from September with numbers peaking in December
  • Brent geese  – nest on the boggy Arctic tundra, by mid September they leave their breeding grounds and arrive on our shores in early October, where they will stay until April

Photos courtesy Steve Simnett

Coastal areas can be very good in Autumn and we have birdwatching trips to Titchfield Haven, Farlington Marshes and West Wittering. If you’re keen to see starling murmurations, there are 5million starlings in the UK in Autumn, and many can be seen at Farlington Marshes. Avocets can often be spotted at Titchfield Haven.

Closer to home, you’ll notice garden birds are sensing a change in the weather and their behaviour changes too. Tits start to form feeding flocks, often led by Long Tailed Tits who are particularly adept at spotting food sources. Winter thrushes will start to arrive. Many blackbirds are internal migrants, and after they’ve finished moulting often look for a new location to settle in.

Also, if you’re very lucky you may spot a rare Wryneck. As its name suggests, it has a very flexible neck. It’s a species of woodpecker and passes through the UK in Spring and Autumn.”

To see our full programme of Autumn birdwatching walks, CLICK HERE.

Spotting the Western Sandpiper in Snettisham

A lone Western Sandpiper, amidst a mass of Dunlin was discovered at Snettisham RSPB on 22nd July. Although it is the world’s commonest calidrid, previously there were only ten accepted records of the Western Sandpiper visiting Britain. This was Norfolk’s second ever sighting, the previous one was in 2011.

Talking to the person who first spotted the bird he said “a small group of Dunlins and Sanderling landed in front of me, in silhouette and amongst them was something that I knew was special, even if I wasn’t entirely sure what. I managed to manoeuvre to get a slightly better angle, but was thwarted by vegetation that obscured the mystery bird. Before long, the tide pushed the flock off and despite much effort I failed to relocate the intriguing calidrid.” After eliminating a number of possible species, he realised he had something special and thought he knew what it might be. Returning early the following morning, as the tide fell and the Dunlin spread out to feed, the mystery bird was spotted again. It was a summer-plumaged Western Sandpiper. The orange on the head and back were subdued but clearly visible.

Jim Scott, the RSPB Snettisham site manager confirmed the identity of the ‘mystery bird’. As the news circulated, keen birder watchers started to arrive at Snettisham. I spoke to one person who had driven through the night from Cumbria in the hope of seeing this rare visitor.

Snettisham is a tricky place to get the timing right, as the ideal times are just before or just after high tide, as the birds either finish up their foraging, or just get started. At high tide, most of the waders are roosting and asleep, hunkered down with their bills tucked in. At low tide, the shorebirds are spread out into the far distance across the vast mudflats of the invertebrate-rich mudflats of The Wash, so that even with a scope the majority of the birds are too far away.

Because the tide had largely gone out by the time most people arrived, the Western Sandpiper was not seen by many birders until the evening tide on 23rd July. The sandpiper was most easy to locate at high tide and on the falling tide. At low water it disappeared and presumably fed somewhere further out. With patience, the bird was possible to find and there was an almost palpable excitement amongst the bird watchers, waiting for it to appear. I was lucky enough to see it through various people’s scopes, as I know I could never have spotted it myself amongst the thousands of Dunlin, Knot and Sanderling.

This was my first visit (as a ‘newbie’ birdwatcher) to Snettisham and even now I cannot believe how privileged I was to see this top of the rarity range of North American shorebirds visiting Britain.

Photos courtesy of Ian Bollen