Over the last month or two, I have been learning to read again, but in a whole different way – reading colour rings on birds legs! A bit of a specialised skill, I must admit, which involves spending a considerable amount of time standing in one place, staring at birds’ legs through a powerful telescope, looking for coloured bands, which sometimes have letters / numbers inscribed on the ring. It’s a tad embarrassing, but I do get a rush of excitement when I spot a colour ring and huge satisfaction when I finally get all the details! If you are wondering WHY birds get bling like this the BTO explains it all here. And if you happen to see a bird with bling, please tell someone about it – here’s how.
At Omeath, on the south side of Carlingford lough, close to the newly established Greenway, which I must find time to explore properly, I stopped to examine a mixed flock of birds roosting (chilling out, pruning etc.) at the waters edge. I scanned through the birds and was thrilled to spot a blue colour ring on a Common Gull (Larus canus), which I eventually read as 2AHX.
I sent the details to Shane Wolsey from the BTO in Northern Ireland and he was able to tell me that 2AHX was ringed on Copeland Island on the 29th of June 2013 as a pullus (chick). This was the first time the bird has been seen since!
Just across the water in Warrenpoint, I spied a large gathering of gulls on the roof of a warehouse close to the harbour. Before the morning traffic started, I set up the scope on the footpath in the middle of town and began searching through hundreds of legs for a splash of colour. My heart skipped a beat (is this sad?!) as I spotted a white band on the red-ish leg of a Black-headed Gull (Larus ridibundus). I edged closer, being careful not to get run over, and with a bit of patience and a lot of luck, I managed to read the ring – T5J4.
After asking some local ringers which scheme this bird might belong to, details were sent off to the Polish Ringing Scheme in Gdansk. It turns out this bird was ringed on the 5th of June 2011 as a pullus (chick) and has travelled almost 1,550 km to Warrenpoint – the point obviously has a lot to offer! Black-headed gulls which breed in northern Europe and around the Baltic Sea migrate to western Europe (including Ireland and the UK) for the winter. Check out bhgullsni for all the news on Black-headed gulls in Northern Ireland!
Over a month after leaving the jungle, I’ve managed to find the time to finish this post, or as much as I can from here (Bolivia), with limited Internet. I could add so much more, especially about the great people we met and non-avian experiences, but hopefully this will give you a taste of our experiences over the four wonderful weeks. Between January and February 2015 Rasmus and I spent a month in the rainforest, in the lowlands of Peru close to the Bolivian border on the Madre de Dios river, a tributary of the Amazon. With help from CORBIDI, the national organisation for bird ringing in Peru, we organised a stay of one month to assist with the ringing campaign carried out at ITA (Inka Terra Association). During that time we opened nets at six different sites in various habitats to determine the species present and examine the moult strategies.
All transport in the area is by boat and getting to our ringing sites was no exception. Above the boat is packed with equipment, tents, food, water and we were lucky enough to bring a cook too! We worked closely with Helmut, a biologist, who organised the logistics which included transport, accommodation, food, equipment and additional staff when required. The experience was unique in countless ways for us. It was all that we hoped for, as we were given the opportunity to actively contribute to biological research in the jungle. Our accommodation was basic but comfortable, with mosquito nets and cold showers, all you needed after a hot sticky day catching birds and warding off biting bugs. On many occasions we were based far from any form of shelter so we built our own temporary ringing hut in the woods, where we could shelter from the rain and enjoy breakfast(s) between net rounds.
As usual, nets were opened early in the mornings, and we carried out a few afternoon sessions too. We learned early on the disadvantage of opening the nets a few minutes too early, when we encountered some not too happy bats. It was a slightly nervous first encounter for me, but I survived bite free.
Bats were not our only concern when setting up and checking nets. At one site we unknowingly set up a net very close to a bullet ant nest. Bullet ants are known to have the most painful sting of all insects, which takes up to 24 hours to dissipate. We also encountered snakes, various biting insects and countless ant species during out net rounds to keep us awake. Wellington/rubber boots are essential dress in the jungle, both to keep your feet dry in the rainy season and for protection!
When a bird was captured the first step was to identify the species. With 1,800 bird species in Peru, and about 600 in the lowlands, this wasn’t always straightforward. Thankfully as time went on our identification skills improved. Once a ring was fitted we recorded moult, feather wear, reproduction status, age & sex where possible, wing length, weight and skull ossification. Thankfully my experience with European birds came in useful, but at times I felt like a beginner all over again! Before being released we took specific photos of the wings, head, body etc to support our records.
Towards the end of our stay we helped to carry out ringing in the forest canopy. It was in some ways an experiment and we used an existing set of raised platforms, bridges and towers at approximately 25m in height to set up the nets. Ringing in the canopy required a lot of patience, but we succeeded in capturing two birds in two days, maybe room for improvement!
During our stay we trapped over 120 birds (I need to compare my records with the official ones). The majority of the birds tapped were passerines in 7 different families. The most frequently caught were pipridae, furnariidae and thamnophilidae (more details in a later post, I hope).
Above a male Band-tailed Manakin about to make his escape. The male and female of Manakin species are highly sexually dimorphic. We also captured a variety of hummingbirds, which was a real treat for me. It took time to learn how to handle these tiny birds. We also ringed a number of pigeons (much to Helmut’s delight) and a variety of kingfishers, a single motmot and a single aracari.
This Lettered Aracari had an exceptionally strong and sharp bill – much caution was needed to avoid bloody fingers. As the majority of birds in the area are residents (non-migratory) we didn’t trap large numbers, which gave us time to carefully process each bird, and recaptures were relatively common. A large percentage of the birds were classified as first year (FCJ or FCF) and many birds showed signs of active reproduction. Over the next weeks and prehaps months, I hope to find the time among our travel adventures to review the photos and data collected and compare it with what has been published on moult and breeding in neotropical birds. Hopefully this can assist others working in this area in understanding the biology and life cycle of these amazing but lesser studied species.
I want to share with you (who ever you are!) the things that have helped me survive my past few days in “The Field”. I owe them my health and sanity! For anyone who missed my last post, I have escaped the office and have been let out into the woods to play, collecting data on small mammals (mice!)!