Sadly the title does not refer to me as I have been laid up for several days. Having done no more than look out of the window for three days, yesterday I ventured out to at least look from the car window at the fine sunny day.
I headed for the coast, feeling then need for a wide horizon. This also gave me the chance to see a little wildlife. I also came across a story of many years of wandering, that highlights the importance of the Solent coast. The carrier of this tale was a black-tailed godwit feeding beside the road at Milford-on-Sea.
Black-tailed godwit are medium sized (a bit smaller than an oystercatcher), long-legged, long-billed waders that breed on Iceland and return to the UK to moult in late summer and then to winter, staying on until they moult back into their red breeding plumage and return to Iceland, usually in late April. They feed on intertidal mudflats, pools and fields and will move between the coastal flats and flooded river valleys, avoiding the sandy shore favoured by their relative the bar-tailed godwit.
black-tailed godwit feeding
We actually know quite a lot about the lives of black-tailed godwits and they have been the subject of intense study for almost twenty years. They are attractive birds, quiet approachable and have long legs (that is important!). They are also the traditional bringer of spring in Iceland where they do not get the more familiar harbingers of most of the rest of Europe, the cuckoo and swallow.
Now for the legs! It is always important to have legs but if you are studying birds long legs allow the use of easily seen rings, which means you can individually mark birds and identify them in the field, with no need to catch them again. It was in this way that I came across a story of wanderings, thanks to RR-YX.
colour-ringed black-tailed godwit RR-YX
I could see that this bird was an adult and the worn rings told of a few years, small size also hinted at it being a male. In these days of the internet it can be very quick to get information about colour-ringed birds and so it proved for this one. It turned out that it was ringed as an adult male on 18th April 2003 as a newly arrived migrant at Vogalækur, Mýrar, Mýrasýsla, Western Iceland. This was done as part of a long-running project to track the movements of Iceland’s waders co-ordinated by the University of Iceland. But this was just the start of the tale after a couple more sightings nearby in the next couple of days he then turned up at Keyhaven, Hampshire on 17th November 2003 and remained in the area until April 2004. What was pretty certain was that he would have left Iceland well before November, so was he in the Solent unseen?
The following autumn gave a clue to where he might have been, in August 2004 he was seen at Killingholme, on the Humber in Lincolnshire before turning up again at Keyhaven in November and then staying until at least 13th April 2005, although there was a surprise, a brief trip to the Ouse Washes, Cambridgeshire in mid February. It was again at Killingholme in the autumn from July, staying at least a couple of months before again being seen at Keyhaven in November staying until late March. The autumn of 2006 saw him avoid the Humber as far as we know and appear in Keyhaven in October, after a trip to Newtown on the Isle of Wight in November he was not seen all winter until appearing at Titchfield Haven at the start of March 2007 and then on the River Avon at Ibsley on St Patrick’s Day.
The next few years saw the general pattern of autumn on the Humber, winter at Keyhaven continuing. Sightings became more interesting in 2013, with a trip to Coward’s Marsh, Christchurch Harbour in February, then the Ouse Washes on 1st April, Benbecula in the Western Isles on 23rd and then SW Iceland on the 25th. Not quite as good as a satellite tag, but you can still see get the picture and a lot cheaper and now ten years after he was ringed! Further sightings followed at favoured sites with another in Iceland in May 2015.
When I saw him yesterday he was over sixteen years old and back at an old haunt. Many people see colour-ringed birds and do not report them as “They will have been seen before” or someone else will report it. What his story shows is that all the records together produce a story of regular haunts on which he mostly relies of survival, but also of a knowledge of other key sites all around the country. His tale shows how our wildlife relies on a network of sites, regular returning shows how continuity of habitat is important, he knows where he is going and what to expect when he gets there. So we need to look after networks of sites across the whole of these islands and further still and we need to ensure that they persist, a new site will not automatically get added to the inventory as an immediate substitute for the loss of a traditional location.
Lastly his trip from Benbecula to Iceland in 2013 shows his speed of travel, in fact it will have taken him well under the two days to make the flight as he took the spring to Iceland with him after we looked after him for the winter.
Please do report any colour-ringed birds you see, there might not always be a long story but there just might be. You can report them via the BTO at BTO Ringing Scheme and click on the “report a ringed bird” icon on the top left side (you can report all ringed birds you see or find here, not just colour-ringed ones). For some schemes you can track down the ringer which can get you the details much faster, but there are links as to how to do this there too. Not only is it fascinating but it provides invaluable data for nature conservation and gives insights as to how we might go about serving the needs of real birds.
For colour-ringed birds note which leg the colours are on, where they are in relation to the leg joint “knee” and where the metal ring was if it can be seen. By convention the combinations are quoted with the bird’s left leg first then the right, so this one was RR-YX.
Just imagine looking at him from behind and you will get it right! Oh, and get a picture too if you can.