Monday, 6 October 2014

Ring, ring!

Dungeness August 1978
Regulars from Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory have arrived with their cannon net. They are going to set it up on ‘our’ beach in the hope of catching terns and Kittiwakes for ringing. My competitive hackles have risen as Sandwich Bay is seen as the opposition - the other bird observatory in Kent. It’s a local derby, this meeting of the birding clans. We, of course, claim to find more rare birds and get better falls than they do. Mind you, they’d say the same about themselves. This little get-together has been organised by the wardens, a quid-pro-quo arrangement – they get to use their net and gain experience of handling terns, we get to use our rings and benefit from any subsequent information derived from recaptures. They seem a decent enough bunch, these wanderers from East Kent. The setting up of the net takes a while and safety precautions take up a lot of the time - a cannon net is, after all, propelled by explosives. I am asked to take up a position westwards of the net, low down on the beach almost opposite the patch. My role is two-fold: to stop the public wandering into the firing line of the net and to discourage any birds from settling on the beach close to me and thus out of the range of the net. It’s strange sitting so low down the beach looking out to sea as I’m normally on top of the shingle ridge when I sea-watch. This novel perspective keeps me amused for a while which is just as well as there isn’t anything else to do but wait until the net is fired and that might be a couple of hours away. I wiggle my backside into the shingle and form a comfortable seat. Lying back on the slope I can still look directly out to sea. Not only am I comfy but extremely relaxed. The hypnotic quality of the waves take over. My mind wanders off and I am rocked further into the comfort zone by the steadily increasing wind. Some time later my trance is broken by the muffled thud of the net being fired. We all scramble over the shingle to the net to help extract the birds that have been caught. On arrival those birders already there are standing around with hands in pockets. The net has managed to catch absolutely nothing. Not a good afternoons work at all. Sandwich Bay pack up and head back east with their cannon net.

I hate doing them, but it’s part of the ringing procedure at DBO…if you catch a Starling then Nick wants a moult card done on it. This involves a feather-by-feather examination in which you have to age each feather tract (by a numbered code) and fill out a specially printed card. It takes time, involves a lot of blowing on the body feathers to search for any tell-tale feather sheaths and is, it has to be said, terribly boring. Each gentle blow dislodges the odd downy feather and by the end of a busy day the ringing room floor comes complete with a bespoke downy carpet. To come across a net full of Starlings is a double blow. Not only are they a difficult species to extract from the net (the bend of the wing often gets tightly tangled) you also know that a dreaded moult card awaits. I must make a confession now Nick – I have more than once let the odd starling go instead of traipsing back to the ringing room to face yet another bloody moult card.

My ringing ambition was achieved today when I closed ring number NC73290 around the right leg of a Wryneck. I won the toss of a coin with Dave Walker for the right to do so. He beat me to a Grey Partridge earlier in the week so it all seems to have worked out fairly. Not like the other morning when we both put up the nets before dawn and trapped a Green Woodpecker. We informed Nick who then woke up his girlfriend Liz so that she could ring it. We were bloody livid!

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