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Keyhaven 2021: what have we learnt from last year’s bird ringing?

Helen Schneider writes:

One of the much-needed pleasures of a new year, when it’s cold and grey outside, is to reflect on the highlights of the previous year, which in 2021 included two public ringing demonstrations, one for young birders and the other for the Lymington-Keyhaven Nature Reserve Open Day.

When you think of birds in the Lymington-Keyhaven Nature Reserve, you probably picture the fabulous range of waders, seabirds, herons, egrets and waterfowl to be found on the coastal marshes, lagoons and out in the Solent. But, with the exception of a new tern project on Normandy, the majority of our team’s ringing is of passerines and near-passerines caught between the seawall and the Ancient Highway at Keyhaven. In terms of numbers, this group of birds is the most dominant worldwide, characterised in general by their perching behaviour and in particular by their feet, i.e. with three toes facing forwards and one backwards, which enables them to do all that perching. At Keyhaven they include year-round residents and migrants which breed and/or overwinter elsewhere.

In the past year, we managed to process 1,276 birds of 47 species compared to a 2020 total of 2,085 birds, coincidentally also of 47 species. By ‘process’ we mean ageing and, where possible, sexing, as well as taking other biometrics such as weight, wing length and muscle. This is done for both birds that aren’t ringed when we catch them and those, known as ‘recoveries’, that are already ringed by us or others in the UK or elsewhere, of which more later.

Andrew Colenutt engaging young members at the HOS ringing demo, 16 October

In the past two years Covid-19 restrictions have of course affected many aspects of all our lives. For our ringing team this has included when and how often we could hold ringing sessions and hence the number of birds we caught. Other factors that affected our totals over the past year include prolonged stormy weather through October and into November, and being busy with other fieldwork especially our Hawfinch ringing and GPS/radio-tracking, of which more in an upcoming blog!

Because of these different amounts of ‘effort’ from year to year, it is hard to use our data to say with confidence much about trends in abundance (no's of adults of each species), productivity (ratio of adults to juveniles) or adult survival (through re-trapping birds ringed in previous years). So in 2021 we registered our main Keyhaven site with the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) as a new Constant Effort Site (CES). This means we set the same nets in the same specific locations over the same time period at regular intervals through the breeding season. Although this is a commitment for at least three years and probably longer, we look forward to enabling our ringing data to contribute more to national and international understanding of what’s happening to bird populations and movements.

So, what DID we catch in 2021?! Well, we had good totals of Meadow Pipit (58), Sedge Warbler (74) and Reed Warbler (50) but lower than average totals of Blackcap (122), Whitethroat (61), Lesser Whitethroat (9) and Goldcrest (3) compared with the previous 5 years.

Meadow Pipit, one of 58 processed through 2021

It was the first year we didn’t catch any Grasshopper Warbler although they were heard in an adjacent reedbed. Other notable species included a Willow Warbler of the northern subspecies acredula, more usually found in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe compared with the subspecies trochilus race we commonly find in the UK and Western Europe.

Two races of Willow Warbler with the northern ‘acredula’ race individual on the right in this image, taken at Keyhaven 14 August

To make a change from early mornings, we had a couple of pre-dusk sessions and caught 97 Swallow prior to roosting, alongside small numbers of House and Sand Martin. Two of our Swallows were recoveries originally ringed as nestlings at Norley. One House Martin ringed at Keyhaven in 2020 was recovered a year later 190km away in Worcestershire, which is a bit of a trek but, of course, pales in comparison with the distance this bird would have travelled to and fro to overwinter in Africa.

Other interesting records received in 2021 were two Lesser Redpoll ringed at Keyhaven in November 2020, one of which was recovered in South Perrot, Dorset in April 2021 and the other in Challock, Kent in February 2021. Two of our Sedge Warbler were already ringed: an adult ringed on Bardsey Island (319km away, 3 months earlier) and a juvenile ringed in North Somercotes, Lincs (326km away, 16 days earlier!).

A well travelled juvenile Sedge Warbler, first ringed in Lincs, 18 August

Finally, we had a male Nightjar which we had originally ringed as a 2nd year in July 2018 and recaught in June 2020 and again in July 2021, showing it was faithful to the same site in the breeding season each year. We also caught a 2nd year female in 2021 and seven juveniles, all of which suggests that we have at least 2 breeding pairs on site, possibly more.

2021 was also significant in terms of expansion of the team to officially include two pre-teen trainees and permit upgrades for two of the adult team members. As of January this year we are now formally the “New Forest Ringing Group” and you can now keep up with our exploits on Twitter (@NF_RingingGroup)


Thanks to Pete Durnell for arranging access and providing the relevant permissions, in addition to Julian Sheppard and his team for maintaining the rides. Also, thanks to the ringing team, Marcus Ward (trainer), Andrew Colenutt (A), Helen Schneider (C), Jamie Ward (T), Amy Squires (T) and Georgie Digby (T). We would also like to express our gratitude to other ringers and trainees who joined us on site throughout the year with special thanks to Graham Giddens who assessed Andrew and Helen for permit upgrades and Pete Potts with whom we are jointly running the Solent Tern project.

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