Thirty years of ringing birds

2011-03-03 00:00

THE early bird catches the worm, so the saying goes, but at the Darvill Bird Sanctuary a group of avid ornithologists each month turn the tables on the birds, catching them in nets, measuring them and putting rings on their legs as part of a vital onging research project.

Ringers celebrated 30 years of bird ringing at the sanctuary site earlier last month.

Ornithologist Dr Mark Brown of BirdLife SA and the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Biological and Conservation Sciences, said the bird-ringing project at Darvill is the longest-running project of its kind in South Africa.

During the past 30 years more than 30 000 birds of almost 200 species have been ringed at Darvill and the data being discovered is now en- abling­ ornithologists to study the effects of climate change on our birds.

Brown said in the past eight years some 15 new ringers have been trained at Darvill; “making it probably the most active training site in the country too”.

“It was initiated in February 1982, by Dr David Johnson, as a means to study bird migration in Pietermaritzburg birds. Johnson, along with his wife Sally, ran the project until 2003 when I took over. Other significant folks are Meyrick Bowker, who has now been part of the team for around 20-odd years, and Dr Barry Taylor, who has independently ringed there for about 10 years,” Brown told The Witness.

He said bird ringing started in South Africa in 1948 and has grown as a research tool as well as a hobby. There are currently around 150 active ringers in this country.

When The Witness arrived at the Darvill­ Bird Sanctuary at 8 am on a Saturday the bird ringing was already well under way to ensure that birds are caught, ringed and released before the heat sets in, and with minimal­ stress.

Fine nets, strategically placed in the vicinity of ponds and reeds, are regularly inspected for catches and birds are immediately disentangled and placed into cotton bags which are hung in the shade. Seated under canvas, ringers expertly remove the birds from the bags, identify, inspect, measure and weigh them and ring the delicate legs. The data are all carefully recorded.

Although scientific in nature, the project is also an opportunity for families­ to enjoy an outing together and get in touch with nature and the rich birdlife the area has to offer.

Recalling some interesting facts discovered through the project, its founder Johnson said a Red Bishop bird ringed at Darvill once turned up in Cape Town and another in Pretoria­, while four European Swallows­ ended up in Corsica. Two others were found frozen near Moscow­.

He also recalled how once they had caught and ringed 25 Willow Warblers­ in one hour at a spot they nicknamed “Willow Warbler Alley”.

“Two years later on the same day four of those birds turned up again in the same hour.”

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