Summer is closing and with it Belfast and Down Ringing Group’s CES at Bog Meadows. The CES is the constant effort survey that is part of the BTO’s monitoring efforts and designed to gather information on species diversity and numbers. I joined the CES in mid-June.
The final CES bird (ringed by yours truly!) for 2015. Thanks to Owen Hegarty for extracting the bird and Sofia Gonçalves for the photo.
It’s a fairly obvious thing to say, but bird ringing is like fishing, and not just because it involves nets, although that is certainly part of it. You can’t become a qualified ringer without mastering the erection and disassembly of the nets. Most ringing parties that I’ve been involved with have used three. The CES uses eight, and after we arrive on site at 5:30am, there is a busy hour or more spent in a concentrated methodical rush to get the nets up. Without them in place, all else in delayed. They are our weak link in the chain of events that determines when the ringing proper can begin. I am learning the vocabulary of guy ropes and slip knots and furling sticks. The nets are paid out and slipped on to tall poles of bamboo, then earthed and braced by the tension of the guys and that of the strung-out net itself. The skill, the patience, it takes to get the whole thing to stand up, the deftness of the hand-motions to untangle, smooth out, the bundled nets reminds me of my mother’s expert handling a skein of wool or thread for her intricate elaborations into an aran jumper or the lace for a christening robe. The whole airy structure reminds me of Frost’s The silken tent, except that there’s no gently swaying at ease – once up the net stands steady and firm, strong enough to hold whole flocks of birds including relatively hefty jays and magpies. Even a sparrowhawk.
The eponymous Bog Meadows is a little pocket of wilderness tucked between the snarl of the M1 motorway, the crowding of urban west Belfast, and the encroachment of an industrial estate — and I do mean encroachment. Over the summer a little introductory patch of land that was re-wilding has now been ‘developed’ to a scorched earth in preparation for who knows what. Nothing built on it yet, so it all seems a bit unnecessary. Anyway, the rough land and its scrubby trees and dawn sightings of rabbits are gone. Thankfully, the ‘developer’ stopped at the fence and I like to think that our dawn forays played some small part in holding that boundary for the birds and other wildlife that are resilient enough to tough it out under the constant hum of anthropogenic noise and some feral humans that leave their debris and clutter that the scruffy wilderness absorbs, even integrates.
As well as the habitats of its name, Bog Meadows encloses a small woodland and a few ponds, the latter home to coots, moorhens, dabchicks and occasionally a kingfisher or two. Our station shelters close to the hide that overlooks one such pond. Here we set up the ringing table complete with plastic sheeting to act as roof (the table must be kept dry) and windbreak (guide- and record-books and fragile equipment can’t be ruffled). Despite the proximity of the motorway, it’s amazing how its rush-hour hum recedes under an eruption of birdsong. And then we settle into the rhythm of bird-ringing that also resembles that of fishing: the relaxed waiting interspersed with the busyness of checking the nets every twenty minutes or so; and the delicate and intense activity of extracting birds from the nets, and taking them back to the station for processing – identifying, ringing, measuring, weighing, followed, finally, by the elevating delight of releasing them.
Extracting birds from the net is not always easy. Many of them entangle themselves into a helpless morass by grabbing footfulls of net; some thrust themselves right through to the other side. The first thing you have to do, therefore, is identify which side of the net to extract the bird from – the side it flew into, which is not always easy; but usually if there’s no net between its legs, none that is, across its belly, you’re at the right side. Then you hold the bird gently in one hand, feeling the throb of its tiny heart against your own flesh, and carefully start to remove it from the net. The general rule is, get the legs out first, then the wings, finally the head. It’s important to start with the legs because the feet are often the worst caught, tangles of net clutched in the grasping toes. You pull gently but not too gently; the bird is small, fragile but not that fragile. Some tension has to be created to get the threads over the wrinkles of bald flesh, the single ‘thumb’ that opposes the other toes, the curve of claws. Then, keep the feet away from the net, while lifting and turning to get the wings, then the head out. It’s delicate work, and you have to keep an eye on the bird’s physical state as you do it. If the bird is getting too stressed, its feathers fluff and its eyes glaze, time is of the essence: you cut it out and you let it go. Not work for the fainthearted.
Different species have different levels of difficulty. Blackcaps are usually easy. Wrens are hell. Blue tits fight like crazy. Once the birds are out, however, they go into a bag, where they usually fall quiet. When we extract fledglings, we often bag them together, like a little flock of long-tailed tits that I peeked at over the summer, all caught together, bagged together, and later returned together close to where they were caught so that they were back on familiar turf, or a familiar canopy. Looking into that bag, the upturned heads gazing back at me, was like looking into their recently-vacated nest. It reminded me of that quintessential bird-poet, John Clare, and his The Pettichap’s nest. A lesson in trust.
We return often with bags of bird fixed to a ringer’s necklace or on numbered fingers so we can keep track of which net they were extracted from. Then the bags are shared out, and reaching in you’re never quite sure of what’s inside. It’s like dipping into a child’s lucky bag. The first thing is to identify the species and select the right ring size. The unique numbers are then called out to the scribe who makes a note of all the details. Then there follows the intense and precise activity that’s involved in putting a tiny band of metal on a passerine’s slender leg. Then you measure the wing length from its ‘wrist’ joint, holding the wing close to the body; and finally weighing it, by slipping it into a small tubular container. The variation in species’ weights is astonishing. I knew the general weights of some species from my PhD, as well as previous ringing experience. But it’s different to experience the relative heft in the hand, from the barely-thereness of a goldcrest or willow warbler, to the relative weightiness of a blackbird. Holding of a wild bird in the hand is to have physical experience of life lived at at different scale and rate, complete and perfect. A taxon that diverged from ours, avian from mammalian, some 200 million years ago, in the Jurassic; and yet the similarities: the naked legs; the feathers soft and sleek as fur; the dark bright of the eye. The warmth of the body. The rapid beat of the heart. And the privilege of seeing it so close up – the red eye ring, the pinkish iris of a longtailed tit; the biscuit-brown iris of a robin; the outrageous glamour of a kingfisher’s plumage, that seems, as Tim Dee put it in “A Running Sky”, permitted under licence, in our soft non-tropical light.
What I love about ringing, apart from the pleasure of being so close to birds, spending time with people who are so committed to them and to their pursuit, and the small but important contribution we are making to their monitoring and thus hopefully, ultimately, their protection and survival, is also this, and this is pure self-indulgence: the collection of facts, the concreteness of them, the lodestone of their reality. It makes up a little for what I miss about research, for this work too will contribute to research. But also its the way my list is slowly accumulating in my own record-book: 21 of the 40 species I need to qualify. And 60 birds so far. Like my excel sheets of old, this list will grow.