Winging at Whitwell Common

Sorry, that should be Ringing, but I have a slight lisp! Half a dozen of us joined Ray and Alan as they carried out a ringing session over the evening and early morning of 7/8 July at Whitwell Common.Ringing birds helps us understood more about bird behaviour, their migration, habitat requirements, and plays an important role in conservation and protection internationally.

 BullfinchRay and Alan have been ringing together for 35 years, so they have a well worn routine, which they welcomed us into. Having already put up their mist nets to catch the birds, Ray showed us a small one near our collecting and measuring area, so that we did not disturb the birds in other parts of the common. These fine nets entangle the birds without harming them, and Ray or Alan check every fifteen minutes, so the birds’ confusion is minimised.

 Once brought back in cloth bags to the weigh station, they are gently taken out, identified, measured, ringed and weighed, and sometimes photographed, before being released. Mostly. Some escape before weighing!I arrived in time to be volunteered as scribe, which was something I was keen to do, as I had attended a ringing demo before, and wanted to get involved. Richard & Beryl, Barry, Andrew followed, and we all marvelled as we saw first a chaffinch, robin, then great tits, wrens, and even more interesting birds brought out and attended to.

 The records included the age and sex of the bird (I for one learnt an awful lot about bird sex!), whether it is nesting (the females have brood patches, bare skin under the tummy for keeping the eggs and nestlings warm), the intricacies of moulting – for instance, blackbirds don’t moult all their baby feathers in the first year, so you can tell a two year old blackbird from an adult – and the arcane jargon of the moult record 06112132 which means something like 6 old wing feathers, 1 missing, 1 showing and three growing (forgive me if that’s inaccurate, Ray!).

 The birds are recorded with five letter codes, so a chiffchaff is a CHIFF and a chaffinch a CHAFF, a blackbird a BLABI and a blackcap a BLACA.

 Putting on the ring is harmless to the bird as the rings are carefully sized to fit round the leg with some play, but not enough to get things underneath them or let them get caught. The most exciting thing is to retrap a bird already ringed; we had four this evening, one caught the previous year, and one four years ago, so it is now at least five years old. One of these was a marsh tit – or was it a willow? Ray and Alan took care to consult the manual to ensure they did a correct identification of these easily confused birds; fortunately not only did they agree with each other, it also agreed with their previous identification – they hadn’t mis-identified it as a juvenile, which would be very easy to do.We had fantastic close up views of sedge warblers (SEDWA), whitethroats (WHITE) and blackcaps, both female and juvenile (and they don’t look very different until you look at the state of their wing feathers, females being fuzzy and worn, whereas the juvenile’s are pristine), wrens (WREN) and goldcrests (GOLDC). Beryl achieved her ambition when we got a beautiful male bullfinch (BULLF) and after weighing it, Ray placed it on her hand, where it just lay, in a sort of daze, until tipped over onto its front, when it flew off (see photo).

 JayI stayed for one more round of the nets, and was delighted not only to hear something squawking loudly in the distance, obviously something vocal had been caught, but to be surrounded by a dozen long tailed tits while I waited. Alan came racing back with a female dunnock (DUNNO) which he wanted to ring and release quickly – he turned her on her back and showed me the shape of the egg she was ready to lay in the morning, clear under the skin of her tummy.

 Before we could get on with the next set of birds he brought back he had to go and help Ray release a flock of long tailed tits (LOTTI) that had been caught – this in addition to the twelve I’d seen! So in the last twenty minutes we had as many birds to ring and record as we’d had the previous three hours!

 Ray was viciously attacked by the jay (see photo) who was highly unamused at this treatment, and Alan brought out at the last the jewel in the crown, and I gasped in wonderment at seeing a kingfisher (KINGF) at such close quarters.


Even more amazing, he showed me how to hold it. So I have beheld a kingfisher, and what’s more, the kingfisher has been held by me.

Thanks to Ray and Alan for a wonderful evening.

If you find a bird with a ring, please note the serial number of the ring, and send with details of the type of bird, circumstances of finding it (cause of death and how long ago if known or guessed), location (address/grid ref) and date to BTO, The Nunnery, Thetford, or email them or enter the details on line at You will get a response with information about where the bird was ringed originally.

 Jacky Pett

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