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This one’s for you

Steve carefully checking the wing feathers to see if the Treecreeper, Certhia familiaris is an adult or juvenile

Stephen checking the wing feathers to see if the Treecreeper, Certhia familiaris, is an adult or juvenile

One of my school friends has been on my mind a lot recently. Horribly I found out via Facebook that he passed away last August and of course I regret I haven’t spent more time with him in recent years.

Last week was all early mornings. So it was a challenge to get out of bed again at 6.00am on Saturday to meet up with the aptly named John Swallow of the Berkshire Downs Ringing Group who’d I’d got in touch with via the excellent (BTO) British Trust for Ornithology website. John had very kindly invited me to join him in the Kennet valley for an early morning bird ringing session. Something I’ve wanted to get involved with for ages. I’ve always been interested in birds, in fact they were my first love. I spent many happy hours watching and sketching them when I was a nipper.

I arrived at 7.30ish to find John had just finished ringing a female blackbird. He introduced me to Stephen (pictured above) who he’d helped train to get his C permit and to David a second year student from Reading University. To my delight the very next bird out of the bag was one of my all time favourites, a scarlet-breasted male Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula. Wrens, Dunnocks, Marsh Tits, Long-tailed Tits, Nuthatches, Robins and Long-tailed Tits soon followed plus quite literally a real handful of feisty Blue and Great Tits. Then later we ringed a rather splendid male Siskin Carduelis spinus and an equally fabulous Treecreeper Certhia familiaris which has a surprisingly high-pitched almost electronic sounding call.

The birds are caught in mist nets that John had set up before dawn. The birds are carefully placed in soft bags, then quickly ringed, measured, sexed, checked to see if they are an adult or juvenile (this is the tricky bit), examined for fat content, weighed and then released. I say quickly because it is important to cause the minimum amount of stress. This information is meticulously written down in pencil in John’s notebook, the data from which is later sent to the BTO.

David and I were shown how to handle and examine a bird correctly, including how to gently blow on its chest to part the feathery down which reveals how much fat it is carrying. We were also given the important job of releasing them. The rather plucky blue tits thanked us by biting and stabbing at our fingers quite mercilessly. But that’s a small price to be able to see our fabulous birds in ultra close-up, to admire their fabulous plumage in HD, feel their warmth in your hand and a little heart beating. By the end of the day I must say my smile was slightly wider than my face.

One or two were reluctant to leave my hand. A dunnock for example seemed quite content to sit there a while which gave me a fabulous opportunity to examine its quite beautiful chestnut brown eyes. You can separate a juvenile dunnock from an adult by just how deep this colour is. After talking to it quietly it flew up into a nearby tree. Who knew I had an up to now undiscovered vocation as a bird whisperer.

Rather inevitably the moment arrived where I was given the opportunity to put on a ring myself. I was a little apprehensive as Stephen handed me a male Nuthatch Sitta europaea and the ringing pliers containing the tiny, almost weightless aluminium ring. But under his guidance I held the leg carefully by the knee and the ring slipped on and tightened down nicely. Hurrah, I’d ringed my first bird.

As I released him I couldn’t help thinking of my friend Nick and whispered ‘this one’s for you buddy’.

Male Nuthatch, Sitta europaea

Male Nuthatch, Sitta europaea, my first ringed bird

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