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Bird ringing

The Society has been involved in bird research for many decades, particularly the use of bird ringing and satellite tagging as a conservation and monitoring tool. This work is carried out mainly by the Society Bird Ringing Group and also in partnership with the National Trust (Farne Islands) and RSPB (Coquet Island).

Stuart Will and the late Geoff Lawrence ringing Tawny Owl chicks, GPNR © Paul Drummond

The Natural History Society of Northumbria’s ringing group has 3 main ongoing projects:

  • Constant effort ringing at Gosforth Park Nature Reserve
  • Seabird ringing on the Farne Islands and Coquet Island
  • Autumn migration at Low Newton-by-the-sea

If you are interested in joining our Ringing Group and training to become a qualified bird-ringer, please click here.

Ringing on Farne Islands and Coquet Island

Ringing takes place on Coquet Island and the Farne Islands during the spring and summer months when thousands of seabirds return to the Northumberland coastline to breed and raise their young. Ringing seabirds on Coquet and the Farne Islands has helped to glean insights into the movements of our breeding seabirds in Northumberland and far further afield. Species ringed on the Islands generally include Arctic Tern, Common Tern and Sandwich Tern as well as Fulmar, Shag and gull species.

Bird ringing work on the Farnes and Coquet Island has expanded in recent years towards more-focussed studies in which ringing is used as a means of monitoring changes in the survival and growth of terns and other seabirds from year to year. It has become clear that we need to know a great deal more about the ecology of the marine environment in the North East, and studies have been extended with the formation of the Farne Islands Marine Research Group, a collaboration between ornithologists and scientists in the Society, the University of Newcastle and the National Trust.

In 2010 the Society Bird Ringing Group began a project to attach data loggers to Kittiwakes as part of their sea-bird monitoring work. This new area of research is providing fascinating and important data on seabird foraging which we hope will be used in the future conservation of the marine environment.

Ringing at Gosforth Park Nature Reserve

In addition to our coastal research, the Society Bird Ringing Group carries out a programme of constant-effort ringing in the nature reserve. This involves using mist nets set in standard sites at intervals to catch and ring birds. The data collected contributes to a national database and helps to monitor changes in the abundance and productivity of British birds.

Reed Warblers are a speciality of Gosforth Park Nature reserve which holds the biggest breeding population this far north in the UK. Ringing is the only way this species can be monitored effectively, and current trends suggest that the population is increasing as the area of reedbed is expanded.

Ringing a Kestrel, GPNR

Autumn migration at Low newton-by-the-sea

Set right on the east coast, Low Newton-by-the-Sea offers a great vantage point from which to conduct ringing during the autumn months. The autumn migration of birds flying to their wintering sites can provide a great spectacle and ringing has led to great advancements in the knowledge of how, where and why migration takes place. Low Newton-by-the-Sea offers a good chance of catching “drift” migrants during the autumn with birds being pushed across the North Sea by winds and weather systems.

Individual projects

As well as the above, individual ringers also carry out their own ringing work at various sites. Below you can read about the work of Philip Hanmer through the year.


A Ringer’s Year by Philip Hanmer

September 2016:

Ringing at Howick has continued this month with warblers feeding up on both the native and some of the more exotic wild fruits.  Blackcaps (heading to Morocco) were in evidence early in the month but were subsequently eclipsed by Chiffchaffs on their way to Senegal. Our most interesting and rare (but regular) migrant, a Yellow-browed Warbler, was captured at the end of the month.  This bird is pioneering a new evolving migration route from Russia to Africa (instead of the species traditional route south through China to South East Asia).  The specimen we captured was no lost waive but a healthy bird carrying lots of fat (see pic.).  On the same day we captured a juvenile Spotted Flycatcher also on its way south to cross the Sahara.  In coming migrants have mostly still to arrive although it’s possible that some of the numerous Blackbirds around at the end of the month have Scandinavian accents! 

Yellowbrowed Warbler in hand © Phil Hanmer

Resident birds continued to entertain including another juvenile male Sparrowhawk, and the juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker first captured last month – but now moulting into its adult (male plumage).   Finally, a return from the BTO has revealed a very unusual Blue Tit which we ringed at Howick back in 27/9/14 – it was Controlled (recaptured alive) by another ringer on the 21/8/16 at a site near Preston; after travelling 196 km’s! 

The saga of this year’s very late Barn Owls has just about come to an end with the ringing of five broods of owls this month including the last of 4 owlets near Rock on the 25th.  These were a replacement brood as the original (first brood) all died around the end of June. 

Finally, some trainees had an interesting and instructive experience at Howick and Lee Moor Pools on Sunday 25th.  This is when we ringed the new Mute Swan Cygnets (three at each site).  Both adults evaded capture at Howick (although we already know who they are from reading their ring numbers earlier in the year) while after some running around in circles both of the adults at Lee Moor were briefly recaptured.  This revealed (again from their rings) that while the male has been at the farm before, breeding back in 2014, he has in fact acquired a new mate.  Hopefully more information on her origins to follow from the BTO.  Incidentally the male weighed over 11 Kg’s.

August 2016:

Ringing at Howick has continued this month with good catches of soon to migrate Swallows, Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers.  The Chiffchaffs seem mostly to be very juvenile birds hatched in the local area; while most of the Willow Warblers are just stopping on migration as they start travelling south to Africa for their ‘holidays’.  The other regular Howick warbler – the Blackcap was scarce until the end of the month when numbers seem to have suddenly built up of both very juvenile (local) birds and birds from further afield; that have all moved in to feed on the berries in the arboretum.

The numbers and proportion of locally resident birds such as Blue Tits and Great Tits and Long Tailed Tits is definitely down on most previous years; indicating the poor breeding year they have had.  However, the last two mornings of the month were particularly interesting with an adult Great Spotted Woodpecker being recaptured on the 26th (that was originally ringed as a juvenile in September 2004).  This was with a juvenile of the year with its distinctive red tonsure.  Then on the 27th (when we captured 53 birds) we caught the juvenile woodpecker again (clearly not as bright as its parent) and a beautiful juvenile male Sparrowhawk.  This was along with 18 Blackcaps and a Goldcrest.

Sparrowhawk ringed by Phil Hanmer

Sparrowhawk ringed by Phil Hanmer

The saga of this year’s very late Barn Owls is continuing but looking quite good for the late nesters with three nests having hatched their eggs within the last week or so.  I will not be going to ring these for at least 20 days – and they will not fledge until October!  I have at least two more nests to check on in September.

Recent returns of controlled birds from the British Trust for Ornithology for birds caught near home (already carrying rings) have been interesting with a Siskin from Kemple End in Lancashire, another from Lakenheath Fen in Suffolk and one from Strensall near York.  The Lancashire and Lakenheath birds were both first ringed in 2013; while the bird from York was in its first adult year and only ringed in February 2016.

As the season for bird migration develops I will continue to ring most Friday and/or Saturday mornings at Howick into October.  Just look for us on the edge of the car park (before 12:00 noon). If it’s windy or wet, it will not go ahead.

July 2016:

Work has continued with Barn Owls this month and as further proof that this is a very late (and not especially good) breeding year; at the end of the month we discovered four pairs that have laid eggs within the last few weeks. Three of these are breeding for the first time this year, while the fourth is a replacement brood (three pulli that were hatched in June having died in the first week of July). Given the extended time it takes for Barn Owls to raise their young it will be the weather in September that determines the success or otherwise of these late breeders.

Retrapping adults continues to produce some interesting results with a female nesting near Howick having been ringed as an owlet at Rock in 2009 (7 yrs old) but successfully raising young herself (in the same box) every year since 2011. Another female (one still with eggs mentioned above as a late breeder this year) is our Control (immigrant) from Dumfries ringed as a pulli in 2011 at ‘Bucht Rig’ but taking up residence near Craster in 2012.

I have now calculated the occupancy rates for the small nest boxes that I monitored earlier in the year.  These boxes and sites are dominated by Great Tits and Blue Tits but also include other species such as Redstarts and Tree Sparrows.  A particularly interesting comparison is between the occupancy at Ingram which was only 18% (compared with 30% in 2014); while at the Breamish Caravan Site occupancy was only down to 38% compared with 40% in 2014.

Swallows July16

Swallows being ringed by Phil Hanmer

I opened up the Howick Ringing Station for the ‘autumn’ season on the 14th and we had an excellent start catching 26 new birds including Swallows (see pic. of two juveniles and an adult), Blackcaps and eight Chiffchaffs (see pic. of a very young juvenile).  There were also 4 retraps; three were from 2015 while the fourth, a Bullfinch, was ringed back in 2014.  Since then we have been able to ring on three more occasions with a particularly successful session on the 23rd when 59 birds were captured.  The proximity of the cricket pitch (where Swallows love to hunt for insects) has enabled the catching of quite a number of Swallows; including 10 on the 30th (all but one being juveniles of the year). While working with trainees at the Howick Ringing Station on the 31st it was gratifying to see (and most of all hear) three noisy young Kestrels careering in circles around the car park.  These were ringed in their box in the arboretum back on the 1st July. I will continue to ring most Friday and/or Saturday mornings at Howick into October. If you want to come along and learn something or just take pictures you are very welcome; just look for us on the edge of the car park (before 12:00 noon) or get in touch to check days/dates.  If it’s windy or wet it will not go ahead.

June 2016:

June has been dominated by Barn Owls but it does not look like it’s going to be a particularly good year for them.  The rather poor and erratic spring (and now summer) weather is making life hard for this much loved bird (which is at the northern edge of its breeding range in Northumberland).  Normally most pairs have well grown young by now and we have ringed many ‘owlets’ but this year most pairs still have eggs or very small young.  There is no very obvious shortage of food – indeed several females have been observed asleep on their eggs surrounded by a ‘larder’ of voles and mice, supplied by the male bird.

It will be the end of July or even August before I can really calculate occupancy and productivity. However, retrapping of adults has producing some more interesting outcomes.  This includes a female found near Whittingham that was ringed as an owlet in its nest near Craster in 2014 (indicating some evidence of birds moving inland to occupy areas where owls are scarce after previous bad winters); a male with two young at Lee Moor which was originally ringed in its nest at Lesbury in May 2012 (part of an early brood); another bird from the same Lesbury nest is raising three young in a box near Boulmer that was only put up in February this year!  Finally there is a female with two small young near Wingates that was originally ringed (as a breeding adult) in June 2008.  Its originally home was in a box in a barn that collapsed in a snowy winter.  This bird must be at least 11 years old; a very good age for a Barn Owl. I usually find a few Kestrel’s nesting in purpose built boxes or owl boxes – but this year I am only aware of three and I suspect one of these has had the young Kestrels stolen from it (that film of the novel ‘Kes’ has unfortunately a lot to answer for…).

The strangest occurrence of this Barn Owl monitoring season was the discovery of a very alert but still down-covered Tawny Owl in a box near Middleton (the extreme south of my study area) on the 26th June.  This is extremely late in the year to find a young Tawny owlet and also in a box somewhat short of tree cover!

Young Redstarts

Redstart chicks being ringed by Phil Hanmer

I did monitor the small breeding passerine birds (tits, Tree Sparrows, etc.) at my usual sites near Powburn, Longhorsley and Doxford; with trainees working for their BTO pulli ringing endorsement. I will calculate the occupancy rates when I get time to put the information into the BTO’s database but it has not been a particularly good year – again the weather pushed everything into June (instead of May) and some broods of tits just perished in their nests.  The only bright point was the finding of three Redstart nests on the same farm near Longhorsley.

While continuing to work on the Barn Owls I will be opening up the Howick Arboretum Ringing Station from July which will continue on most Saturdays (from the 16th) mornings – and at least one weekday morning – until October.  If you want to come along and learn something or just take pictures you are very welcome; just look for us on the edge of the Howick car park (before 12:00 noon) or get in touch to check days/dates.

May 2016:

May has been dominated by Tawny Owls; a very rare breeding duck (of which more another time), Dippers and Kestrels.  However, I will start with one of our very early breeders the Blackbird.  It was a pleasure to ring three pulli (young chicks) in their nest of known parents (both already ringed) in my neighbour’s garden at the end of April – only for them to apparently disappear from the nest without trace at the beginning of May.  However, on the 7/5/16 a trainee retrieved first one and later another from a mist net at home in the garden.  Because of their rings I could positively identify them and subsequently saw them being fed by the parents.  However, this left one unaccounted for (and we only ever saw two with the parent birds) but then on the 14/5/16 another trainee retrieved number three from a net in good condition.  So in this case all three have survived the first few weeks of life.

Dipper being ringed by Phil Hanmer

Dipper being ringed by Phil Hanmer

At this time of year I also check a number of traditional sites for breeding Dippers.  Once site at Rothbury yielded not just a Dipper nest but also, close by, nesting Grey Wagtails; both were subsequently ringed.  I do an annual  survey of the River in Hulne Park for occupied Dipper nests and this year does not seem to be a good one but one female was caught at her nest and ringed and then a couple of weeks later her entire brood was ringed.  The male Dipper watched both operations from a nearby rock.

I located six Tawny Owl nests in boxes and all but one have raised young.  The females in the case of two of these birds are well known to me.  One from Craster was first ringed in 2012 and has bred every year since.  Another which always uses a box near Longhorsley was first ringed in 2010 and only missed 2013.  News from Kielder where a much larger number of Tawny Owl sites are monitored says they have had a poor breeding year.

Tawny Owlets by Phil Hanmer

Tawny Owlets by Phil Hanmer

Before I start looking for nesting Barn Owls I check this time of year for breeding Kestrels and Little Owls (rare in Northumberland).  So far I know of three Kestrel nests; one female of which “stared me out” from her box and quite refused to fly out into my net. Last year we captured the male in a net but clearly she has other ideas.  We let her be and will go back to hopefully ring the young in June.

Finally, in most years I have started ringing small passerines in boxes (Great Tit, Blue Tit etc.) by this time but this year they are all very late.  Strangely Redstarts (a migrant) have already laid eggs, which in my local experience is very early!

April 2016:

Purposefully avoiding any contact with Barn Owls at the moment means I have little to report; except the recovery of an owl apparently killed by a collision with a train near Howick. I originally ringed this bird as an owlet near Middleton in July 2009. At nearly 7 years this was quite a long lived Barn Owl and it has travelled both north and east since its hatching. If you see a dead bird please do check if it is ringed and try to get the full RING NUMBER. Either report this to the BTO or to me; this provides invaluable information.
Tawny Owls however are now well into nesting so I have been checking boxes and recently ringed 2 pulli at a box near Hipsburn. I have another four to return to (with trainees) in the very near future. A sixth seems to have given up in the rather unpleasant weather. I don’t feel it is a very good year for Tawny Owls however as I only sample a small part of the population I will defer judgement until my colleagues such as Martin Davison (Kielder) can report.

Last month I reported that I (and trainees) had enjoyed ringing (and controlling) a number of Siskins and Lesser Redpoll; all of which are still healthy. Thanks to the BTO’s database, I can now add some fascinating details of these birds origins:

Siskins:
D287311 – ringed RSPB Lakenheath, Suffolk Nov 2013: At Lemmington Hall Apr 2016.
Z536638 – ringed Brandon, Suffolk Sep 2015: At Lemmington Hall Apr 2016.
D891134 – ringed Warsop, Nottinghamshire 6/3/16: At Lemmington Hall 30/3/16.
Y707505 – ringed Thetford, Norfolk Feb 2013: At Lemmington Hall Jan 2016.
V021800 – ringed Peebles, Scottish Borders Apr 2013: At Lemmington Hall Jan & Mar 2016.
D448630 – ringed near Clitheroe, Lancs. Apr 2013: At Lemmington Hall Mar & Apr 2016.
Z463253 – ringed near Montrose, Angus Aug 2015: At Lemmington Hall Mar 2016.

Lesser Redpoll:
Z139899 – ringed Oakington, Cambs. Feb 2016: At Lemmington Hall Apr 2016.
D266776 – ringed Mickley, Prudhoe May 2013: At Lemmington Hall Mar 2016.
Y659975 – ringed near Forfar, Angus Jul 2013: At Lemmington Hall Apr 2016.
Finally we also controlled a Great Tit which was ringed at Fenwick (east of Lowick) in August 2015 which has now taken up residence at Lemmington Hall. A rare movement for a tit.
The result of my research into the Willow Tits visiting gardens in Craster has produced fascinating results. V709707 was originally ringed as a juvenile at Low Newton by the Natural History Society Ringing Group; most interestingly this was in September 2007 thus making this little bird exceptionally long lived at nearly nine years old.

Migrating Chiffchaff (warblers) have arrived this month and one was captured on the 16/4/16 near my home; this appears to be only a year old. Another captured on the 23rd was an adult which may have been back and forward from Africa several times. Most of our small resident birds such as tits and Tree Sparrows will be nesting in May so I will be nest recording and ringing soon.

March 2016

Having signed up onto a BTO ‘RAS’ project we have made a special effort, when cleaning out and repairing owl boxes in the first half of March, to capture and especially recapture adult Barn Owls.  RAS stands for ringing adults for survival; and is research aimed at studying the survival of adult birds as distinct from their productivity – which is the purpose of nest monitoring.  Interesting recaptures have included a male that’s with a female near Wooler that we actually ringed as an owlet at West Fenton in 2011.  A male probably hatched in 2012 that’s always resided around Rock and has been recaptures several times.  Another male that we ringed as an owlet near Craster in 2014 which has now taken up residence in a box at Howick – apparently displacing my oldest known pair of birds (both over 10 yrs old when last encountered).  Another male ringed as an owlet in 2013 near Howick is paired up with a new female north of Craster; while a female first controlled (a bird previously ringed by another ringer in another area) in 2012 is again in the Craster area.  This bird was actually hatched in Dumfries in 2011!  Finally my colleague Maurice McNeely recaptured an owl in an inland box south of Berwick that proved to have been ringed as an owlet in 2014 in a coastal box near Fenham.  We have also ringed several brand new owls and controlled another bird near Warkworth – origins as yet unknown but the BTO’s computer will track it down for me.  I have now imposed my own moratorium on visiting Barn Owl boxes until the end of May – when we will start checking for eggs and young.  However, Tawny Owls are now nesting so I will start surveying their nest sites shortly.

Barn Owl ringing by Phlilp Hanmer

Barn Owl (Tyto alba)

The change in weather patterns seems to have brought in a lot of Siskins, Goldfinch and a few Redpolls around my home near Lemmington Hall.  This has proved interesting and instructive for several trainees.  Highlights have included 42 birds on the 10th which were mostly Siskins but included a Blue Tit from 2012 and a Chaffinch from 2011. 64 birds on the 23rd including a retrapped Redpoll from Jan 2015 a retrapped Siskin from 2012 and another from 2013; and a control Redpoll and a Siskin. Finally on the morning of the 30th we captured 77 birds which included no less than 5 controls (2 Redpoll and 3 Siskin); there was also a Siskin recaptured from 2012.  The highlight of the day was a Kestrel (not a usual bird to catch in a mist net) – apparently attracted by all the small birds around; this was an adult male (pictured).

My ongoing special interest in the rare tits (willow & marsh) took me to a secret ringing location on the coast not far from Alnwick one morning to solve the mystery of exactly which species was visiting garden feeders.  A bird was quickly captured and proved to be a Willow Tit; amazingly it had a ring on it already and so is a ‘control’.  The data has gone off to the BTO and I will soon be able to tell the owners of the garden were their little rare bird is from.  I will also be trying to make some nest boxes for this species (quite specialist) in the future.

Feb 2016:

The weather has continued to be a little unkind from a bird ringing point of view but I have managed to get quite a lot of new (and replacement) small bird boxes put up near Longhorsley, Doxford, and in the Breamish Valley.  This led to a marvellous experience when I was putting some boxes up for Marsh Tits (a small but otherwise fairly conventional box); a ‘tit’ started calling in the trees above me – I played a recording back to it (a standard survey technique for the small rare tits) but it ignored the sound of a Marsh Tit.  I then switched to a recording of a Willow Tit and the bird immediately reacted by flying much closer; and switched itself from a short call to a full song.  I have no doubt that this was a Willow Tit prospecting for a nest site.  Later that week I had made three Willow Tit boxes and returned to put them up in the general area.  These are packed with wood shavings because these birds like to partly excavate their own holes.  I have a plan available for these specialist boxes if anyone would like one.  I have also got several new boxes put up for owls this month.

It’s been a bit of a come down from ringing in South Africa but I have managed to do a few ringing sessions near home with trainees.  As well as new birds we have also recaptured a Goldfinch and a Siskin both originally ringed in 2013; a Chaffinch first ringed in 2006 (so 10 yrs old) and a Great Tit ringed in 2010.  I have also observed several Blackbirds fighting over food and ‘territory’; the result of which was a dead Blackbird being found today – which proved to have been ringed as a juvenile in 2011.

At present I am trying to check on a sample of our Barn Owl boxes; to undertake repairs, clean out ‘jackdaw sticks’, put in new bedding (wood shavings); and ring some adult owls.  I stop doing this in just a few weeks so the owls can settle down to breeding in April and May.

Phil Hanmer

A Ringer & Trainer

Natural History Society of Northumbria Ringing Group (Great North Museum: Hancock)

tytoalbas@btinternet.com