Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Ring reading excursion in the snow

Last Saturday’s birding tour was supposed to be the ‘crown’ on my attempts to get more people reading bird rings in my area, the Krimpenerwaard. For those who are completely new to the phenomenon of ringing (or banding) birds: for scientific purposes birds can be marked with a small metal or coloured plastic ring around the leg. This ring holds a unique inscription so the bird can be individually identified in the field. Rings of very small birds are too small to be read with a telescope and these birds have to be recaptured, but rings of gulls for instance are big enough to be read with a telescope. Although it’s not exactly easy, some birdwatchers think its really exciting to read bird rings in the field. Admitted, I’m one of them.

But more than an exciting hobby, the reading of rings contributes to our knowledge of bird behaviour and wellbeing. The number of questions that can be answered by analysing the data collected by ringing projects is almost unlimited, if carried out correctly of course. But before you can answer any questions there has to be something to analyse. Gulls wintering in the Krimpenerwaard, where do they come from? Geese in the polder, how long do they stay and do they come back to the same spot each year? To be able to answer such questions, people have to trace down ringed birds and read the rings.

Since I started to search for ringed birds more regularly last year there are just about 2 persons in the Krimpenerwaard who do this on a regular basis. Add to that a handful of people who occasionally report a ringed bird and that’s it for this region. With an active bird club in the Krimpenerwaard with more than 600 members, I thought it should be possible to make more people enthusiastic for reading bird rings. After a few articles in the club’s magazine I decided to give a lecture about how to read bird rings and organise an excursion to practice in the field. The lecture was organized quite well, but beside Jonne who came for mental support, there were only 6 participants. I keep telling myself it must have been the weather conditions!

So last Saturday there was the tour and I was sure more people would be interested in a field excursion than a boring lecture. Unfortunately the weather forecast was dreadful: loads of snow on the morning. Nonetheless I was slightly disappointed when it turned out that as much as 3 die-hard birdwatchers showed up at the meeting point. So this is how sensitive people are to exciting stories about reading and reporting bird rings!

Of course all those people who did NOT come don’t know what they’ve been missing. Let’s just forget that we had only 1,5 hours before we found ourselves in a true blizzard, but before that we really did have some success. At one of my favourite spots for ring reading (Haastrechtse brug, Gouda) we found one ringed Common Gull in a mixed flock of about 200 Common and Black-headed Gulls. The bird was wearing a white colour-ring (EA90) on the left leg and a metal one on the right. Colour-rings are generally very easy to read and it took us a few seconds to read it. Luckily, because the bird quickly decided to go sit down on the ice to avoid heat loss via the bare legs. This was a new sighting for this spot (the bird wasn’t seen here before) and my day was a success after all!

Poor record shot of the ringed Common Gull just before it went sitting on the ice...

Because of the strong, cold wind we didn’t stay too long and we quickly went to Schoonhoven where I knew two possible spots for ring reading. At the first spot, near the ferry across the river Lek, many gulls were attracted by our bread crumbs and after a few minutes we found a metal ringed Common and Black-headed Gull. However these were not the most cooperative birds of the flock and they disappeared as soon as they appeared, leaving us with only a part of the inscription. With a part of the inscription you can’t be sure which individual bird you’re dealing with, so this didn’t help us a lot. At the other spot in Schoonhoven, the pond in the park, there was a flock of Black-headed Gulls, but none of the birds was ringed. Unlike the Friday before, when I found two metal ringed Common Gulls here. I had then been able to read one complete code, and surprisingly this was a bird from Finland (it said ‘ZOOLOGICAL MUSEUM HELSINKI FINLAND’). A nice result after all!

While driving to our last spot, the snow came and didn’t stop. This meant that I soon lost 2 of my participants and with only one left I arrived in Krimpen aan den IJssel where we also visited a pond in the park. The snow didn’t help a lot but after a little while we found one Black-headed Gull with a metal ring that I had also read the day before. Another Finnish bird! What a fantastic idea that the birds that we are feeding bread crumbs in our cities in winter are birds that have travelled so far to get here! Only by reading rings we can reveal this information… Have I made my point?

This weekend got me three ‘new’ birds in the Krimpenerwaard, something that doesn’t happen each week so I’d say this is a very satisfactory result, despite the weather. I still keep hoping that this kind of results will at some point open more people’s eyes so more rings will be read in the Krimpenerwaard and more interesting data will be collected. For more information about bird rings in the Krimpenerwaard you can visit the website of the regional bird club, the Natuur- en Vogelwerkgroep Krimpenerwaard: www.nvwk.nl.

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