A day out with the Sorby Breck Bird Ringing Group

Checking the number on a previously ringed great spotted woodpecker

Checking the number on a previously ringed great spotted woodpecker - Credit: Archant

Paul Hobson finds out about a local group that is doing its bit for wildlife conservation

Geoff putting up the mist nets

Geoff putting up the mist nets - Credit: Archant

I have known Geoff Mawson for quite a while now. I first met him when I was commissioned by Natural England to record a dipper project they were running in the Derbyshire Dales.

Geoff and a group of volunteers were ringing the dippers with coloured rings to help them monitor the dippers' breeding success and their movement between the dales during the year.

I thought I had a working knowledge of bird ringing during the breeding season but I realised I knew nothing about ringing during the rest of the year. It was time to find out more so I joined Geoff, and three young women he was training to become licensed ringers, for a morning at one of his regular sites in the Dark Peak.

Bird ringing was born out of the late Victorian birders' obsession with migration. They had been aware of migration for many years but had no method of actually tracking individual birds. To try to solve this dilemma they came up with a neat solution - attach a small, very light ring with a unique number to the leg of a bird. Then if - and it's always a big if - when the bird dies someone removes the ring and sends it back to the ringers with the information of where it was found, its movements can be tracked.

Great spotted woodpecker

Great spotted woodpecker - Credit: Archant

The first bird ringing scheme started in 1909 and by the 1930s it was run by British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). From that date the scheme has produced huge amounts of incredibly important data, much of it well beyond simply working out where birds go to in the winter.

Before I arrived that morning Geoff had put up two mist nets to catch the birds that he would ring. These are incredibly fine, almost invisible nets with soft pockets on the lower edge. When a bird flies into the net it is caught and falls gently into the pocket where it is trapped. The nets are incredibly soft and absorb the shock of the bird as it flies into it.

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Geoff and the three women he was training - Lorraine, Evie and Abbey - checked the nets every few minutes so the birds were stressed for the minimum amount of time. The ringers then transferred each bird to a soft bag and took it back to the base station - the back of Geoff's car. Once at the station each bird was carefully taken out of its bag and identified. It was then measured (wings and tail), sexed, aged and weighed. If the bird already had a ring the number was recorded along with its measurements. If it was not ringed then an aluminium ring of the correct size for the bird was popped onto its leg and the new number added to the record book.

Geoff has been ringing in Derbyshire for 50 years and the amount of information his work has accumulated is vast. I was fascinated to learn just how detailed it is. After ringing each bird I had a rather naïve idea that he simply waited until it had been re-caught or died then he simply recorded where it had been found. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Geoff and his three volunteers

Geoff and his three volunteers - Credit: Archant

By ringing at a few select sites (termed observatory sites) for extensive periods each year over many years, Geoff and others from the Sorby Breck ringing group based in the Sheffield and North Derbyshire area have built up very detailed information about our local birds. His work displays fascinating facts, such as the ratio between young and adult birds each year which indicates that season's breeding success. He can even predict what day the maximum number of meadow pipits will migrate - 17th September. A simple thing like the weight of a bird, and even how much fat it carries, can quickly tell him if it has had a good summer or winter's feeding. Any single measurement doesn't scientifically tell a lot. The real art is getting thousands of measurements over days, months and years. With this data from Geoff and others we can create an in-depth picture of Derbyshire's and the UK's bird successes and failures over the last few decades. And it is this vital information that allows conservation bodies like the RSPB to target specific work to help our birds.

I was not only fascinated to learn about the science of bird ringing but also the motivations that drive youngsters - the next generation's wildlife conservationists - to get involved. Becoming a ringer is not a quick process, though you can go at a pace that suits you. To become a competent licensed ringer requires many hours of training and to gain this experience volunteers work in the field with experienced and supportive ringers such as Geoff. New volunteers quickly get to handle and ring birds, a very up-close and personal experience. There is no other form of birding that lets you get so close to a living bird. I saw the excitement in Lorraine, Evie and Abbey's eyes when they processed a bird. I chatted with them about their motivations, which were to get close to living birds, to extend their own knowledge and to be able to make a genuine contribution to conservation. On top of this they felt social factors were also important, such as working in a small group, being fully supported and safe. The birding world can be a male-dominated one. Bird ringing offered these three something different that they felt confident with.

Geoff is a member of Sorby Breck ringing group and their website (sorby.org.uk) has a section about ringing demonstrations. Everyone is welcome and it's a great way to be introduced to this fascinating branch of the birding world.

The morning I spent with Geoff was excellent. Not only did I learn a lot - every day is a school day! - but I saw just how patient and caring he was as he worked with his three trainees. If you would like to consider starting a new hobby, one that gives amazingly close encounters with birds and contributes to our knowledge and the conservation of Derbyshire's wildlife, then perhaps bird ringing could be for you.


Redpoll - Credit: Archant

For details see www.sorby.org.uk/groups/sorby-breck-ringing-group

Willow warbler

Willow warbler - Credit: Archant

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