Ringing in Summer
Part 13: June-July 1976
Since my earliest visits to Beddington I had frequently met up with Ken Parsley and Mike Netherwood, who were the sole surviving members of the farm’s ringing group, which had been formed during the 1950s. Under the auspices of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), the group collected data by trapping birds. This was done mainly through their capture in a fine meshed net, strung out between two secured poles. On calm days the net would be hard to see, and birds would fly into it, finding themselves cushioned in a pocket, quietly awaiting extraction by a ringer. Once in the hand, the bird would be identified, sexed and aged; a set of measurements would be taken, such as wing length and weight; and a light metal ring placed on a leg. On this ring would be embossed a unique serial number and an address to send details of the bird in case of recovery. This latter stage helped build up a clear idea of where birds moved to, how fast they could travel and their longevity. The commonest way of a bird being ‘re-found’ after having been released was by being caught by another ringer, or being discovered dead by a member of the public. After many years, and with hundreds - if not thousands - of recoveries, the BTO were able to build up a database that was used to identify the migration routes of birds, where they bred, wintered and fed. It was also an opportunity to critically examine the plumage of a bird whilst it was in the hand, so that the identification and ageing of each species was better understood. The whole process required sensitivity – apart from the obvious wish to treat the bird with the utmost care, any subsequent data would be useless unless the bird could carry on its life unfettered and unimpeded after release.
To take part required a period of training before a ringing licence would be granted – without it you were not permitted to participate. I had increasingly spent time with Mike and Ken, watching them process the birds and at times helping them by holding poles or bird bags. It was a privilege to see birds so close up and an education to examine the plumage to clearly be able to identify, sex and age an individual. My admittance to become a member of the ringing group was granted in June. I was licenced as a trainee under Ken, but both he and Mike helped me attain proficiency in the ways of bird ringing - from the correct erection of the nets, their care and upkeep, subsequent extraction and handling of the birds, gathering biometrics and awareness of what was going on around you, they started to teach me the art of this ornithological science.
There was one reference guide that was indispensible to the ringer, known simply by the surname of its author – ‘Svennson’s’. This softback book, based on years of examination of birds in the field and also from museum cases, laid bare the dark art of being able to read such subtleties as feather tracts, moult and wing emarginations to correctly identify and age what you were holding. It only covered the passerines, but that covered 95% of what we were trapping. On first opening a copy, I was bamboozled by the definitions (which were in turn shortened to code) and a plethora of line drawings of wings and tails. Slowly, this became understood.
We would invariably set up to four nets, which could be as long as 60 feet and as tall as four panels (each panel being approximately two feet deep). The siting of them could be dependent on having a backdrop of vegetation (to disguise the net), along a line of bushes that were acting as a corridor for moving birds, or be down to the presence of a feeding flock (such as Linnets and Goldfinches in a stand of seeding vegetation). In the latter scenario we would employ short, single panel nets that were most effective in trapping the birds.
Midsummer frequently meant trying to catch Swifts. For such a fast-flying (and generally high-flying) species, trying to trap them was not an easy task. It took cunning and guile, plus a bit of muggy or cloudy weather to bring the birds down low, when they would feed only inches above the ground. Because Beddington was one big insect attractant (rank vegetation, sewage settlement) it was also a virtual cafe for insectivorous birds. If the Swifts did come low, then there would hundreds, possibly thousands.
A free standing net however would not fool a Swift. You needed to be a bit smarter than that. So, the art of 'flicking' was devised. This meant that two of you held the poles (at either end of the net) horizontally, low against the ground, until a Swift flew towards you. Teamwork was needed at this point, as one of you would call out, and in unison the net would be brought up into a vertical plane. Hopefully the Swift would be intercepted in flight. This worked remarkably well, and some afternoons (it seemed to be an afternoon past-time) we could trap up to 50 individual Swifts.
There are two things that most birders do not know about Swifts. Firstly, they have very sharp claws. After a Swift ringing session your fingers would be covered in scratches. Secondly, most of them play host to flat-flies, quite large creatures that crawled over the Swifts body underneath the feathering. These quite unsavoury things would often jump off and onto the ringer and, being the size of a flattened baked bean, could cause panic. The ringing recovery rate of Swifts would have been low but for the efforts of ringing teams up and down the country flicking these scythe-winged beauties. I enjoyed these timeless afternoons, always on warm days, with the smell of rank vegetation, a subtle whiff of effluent and the torpor of the thick air cut through by the scream of Apus apus.