Mid Ulster Bird Ringing Project

Bird ringing is essential to the development of both bird science and bird conservation.  It dates back to 1899 when the first metal rings carrying a unique number were attached to the leg of a bird.  This innovation turned anonymous birds into recognisable individuals, identifiable as such for the rest of their lives. Ringing soon became a mainstay of migration studies worldwide, revealing previously unknown migration routes to an astonished world. Later on, in the 1940s, ring-recoveries came to be used to estimate annual survival rates of birds.

Large numbers of birds must usually be ringed in order to provide a small number of recoveries, with the average recovery rate for birds ringed in Britain around 2%.  Most small birds have recovery rates of less than 1% (excluding personal recaptures by the ringers themselves), but some larger birds can yield recovery rates of 20% or more.  Many records are needed to provide a worthwhile picture of the migration routes or survival rates of particular species.

Ringing can be applied to species of any size, year after year, on a large spatial scale (nationwide or greater), with the results continually added to an ever-growing long-term database. Moreover, the biometrics collected when birds are handled in large numbers provide valuable insight into other aspects of bird biology, such as breeding and moult, body weights, age and sex ratios, and even the incidence of disease.

Ringing data have shown their value in recent decades, when many bird populations declined and some species have also changed their migration patterns. If we are to detect and understand these changes, and take effective conservation measures, we need appropriate data.  The most recent BTO studies combine data from ringing, nest records and counting schemes to produce demographic models of bird populations that give unprecedented detail on large-scale population dynamics.  Understanding what is happening to our bird species will help direct efforts in bird conservation.

Mid Ulster Bird Ringing Project

One of the objectives of the Mid Ulster Biodiversity Action Plan is to engage local people in action for our local biodiversity.  One aspect of this is to encourage the observation and recording of our local species.  Previous training projects have been well supported with local people now taking part and gathering vital information through a range of surveys for bats, butterflies, moths, bumblebees, etc.

Bird ringing provides vital information that cannot be obtained from bird observations alone. However, bird ringing is highly regulated and can only be carried out by skilled licensed ringers with the utmost consideration for the birds’ welfare.  Learning as an ‘apprentice’ (for usually a couple of years) under the close supervision of experienced ringers, progress is assessed by an independent ringer so the Ringing Scheme maintains very high standards of bird welfare and scientific data.  A British Trust for Ornithology ringing permit is a legal requirement for anyone ringing birds. It has to be renewed annually.

There are licensed bird ringers within Northern Ireland, however, few operate ‘West of the Bann’.  Consequently, there is a lack of data on bird species in the Mid Ulster area that could be obtained through ringing.  This information would be particularly beneficial in shaping future conservation work both through and outside the Mid Ulster Biodiversity Action Plan.

To address this situation the “Mid Ulster Bird Ringing Project” is being developed in partnership with trained licensed bird ringers.  The objective of the project is to bring together people interested in becoming a licensed ringer, and to provide training opportunities to enable them to do so.  Through this process, vital data will be obtained on a range of bird species frequenting the Mid Ulster area.

The outcome of the project will be to have trained bird ringers operating in the Mid Ulster area, gathering vital information that will be of use at local, national and international levels.

During 2015 and 2016 a number of ringing training days were held throughout the Mid Ulster area. Following an assessment of this, it became apparent that one of the best ringing sites in the area (and on a par with any in Northern Ireland) is at Traad.  It was decided to undertake a concerted effort during 2017, and to run the site as a trial Constant Effort Site (CES).  The CES is a national standardized ringing program where ringers operate the same mist nets in the same locations within the same site over the same time period at each session over the breeding season.  There are 12 sessions undertaken, one within each of the 10 day windows specified by the BTO. There are currently over 140 CES sites throughout Britain and Ireland, but only 1 other CES site in Northern Ireland.  Traad has now become registered as the second.

Between the beginning of May and the end of August 2017, all 12 sessions within the CES windows were completed at Traad. These sessions resulted in 357 new birds ringed and 75 retraps (birds already with a ring).  Some of the highlights from this are that a sedge warbler originally ringed in France in 2015, which had been caught at Traad in 2016, was retrapped again in 2017.  Sedge warblers migrate, spending the winter in western and southern Africa.  This bird has been to Africa (twice), returning to Lough Neagh, and was caught in 2017 within 10 metres of where it had been caught in 2016.  Another sedge warbler ringed in southern Spain in April 2017, turned up at Traad in May 2017.  (It had travelled at least 1968 km in 21 days).  Several birds ringed at Traad have been caught in France and southern England.

While recoveries of birds in or from other countries creates excitement, the value of the information obtained from Traad’s own birds is important in understanding local population dynamics. The numbers of sedge warblers and particularly reed warblers being ringed at the site is significant on a Northern Ireland scale.  Ringing records for Northern Ireland for sedge warblers show: 32 ringed in 2014; 9 in 2015; 57 in 2016 (17 of which were from Traad), and 144 ringed at Traad in 2017.  The importance of the site for information on reed warblers is even more significant with no reed warblers ringed in Northern Ireland in either 2014 or 2015, and only 17 ringed in 2016 (16 of which were from Traad).  In 2017, 29 reed warblers were ringed at Traad. (Totals for NI for 2017 are not available yet).

In addition to the vital data on birds being obtained through the Mid Ulster Bird Ringing Project, the training opportunities being provided have been recognised. As well as local people becoming involved and starting the training process, trainees from over Northern Ireland have attended ringing sessions to experience ‘Traad’.

As bird ringing is highly regulated and can only be undertaken with trained licenced ringers present, the project has been relying on the good will of licenced ringers volunteering their time and effort to ensure each ringing session can be undertaken.  Realizing the importance of the site for the data collected, it is hoped that licenced ringers, trainees, and volunteers can be talked in to helping out again to ensure 2018 is another successful year.

If you have an interest in becoming a ringer, or even want to come along to see what it is all about, please contact Mark Edgar, Biodiversity Officer, Mid Ulster District Council.

E-mail: mark.edgar@midulstercouncil.org