If you’ve never been to Norton Priory I must suggest you go; this was my first trip there and I’m already planning to return 🙂 The good people of Cheshire Active Naturalists often hold events there, as the ranger is a member himself and very interested in wildlife.
This time round we were here to see a demonstration of bird ringing by David Norman of Merseyside Ringing Group, an august local chap who has been ringing birds at the site for over 30 years and has over 100,000 ringing records to prove it !Basically, how bird ringing works is simple in theory – you catch your bird, you put a numbered ring on its leg, you make a note of everything and then you release the bird to see whether you or anyone else catches it again. Ringing records are useful for everything from demographic studies to long-term population trend estimates, and it’s most exciting when birds are re-trapped a long way away from where they were ringed or many years later, as this can prove beyond doubt that individuals travel around the globe and can survive for much longer than you might expect.
In practice, bird ringing is slightly less simple for, of course, to ring birds you must catch birds and this is not straightforward, as anyone who has ever tried to catch a gull dashing off with their sandwiches will tell you. At Norton Priory, David Norman and his assistants were using a mist net, which is essentially a large sheet of fine knitted mesh which is strung across a gap between bushes or in some other place where you might expect birds to fly through in reasonable numbers. The mist net is dark coloured so is well camouflaged against the surrounding vegetation – some birds will spot the net and avoid it, but many will not and will fly into the net and become entangled, to put it bluntly. The net is soft and baggy so it’s only the birds’ dignity which is harmed, but it is obviously very important to be there at the net to fish them out as soon as possible so that they can be ringed and released straight away.
Once removed from the net each bird is placed into a soft cloth bag to keep it calm and contained insofar as possible. Each bird is handled for the minimum time needed to identify to species, sex and if possible age it. Each bird is usually weighed as well, as this information can provide clues about its health and body condition. Then the ring is applied and the bird is allowed to fly off. Not surprisingly it takes a lot of practice to be able to do this properly and ringers have a long apprenticeship before applying for their own licence to catch and ring birds from Natural England.
The demonstration was highly interesting, with everything from goldcrests to jays being handled and ringed by David and his team. I encourage everyone based in Cheshire to visit the Cheshire Active Naturalists’ website and think about joining in for the new season’s fun which will be starting very soon.