First time Gull ringing with the WWRG in July 2011
Some of the “leaders” of our Gull ringing expedition on Sunday 3rd July wanted a written record of the experience of a “first timer”, so here goes:
First of all it would be hard to be more of a first timer than I was yesterday, as I am not a ringer and had never before even handled a bird. The reason I turned up was the fact that my 15 year old son has been a ringer for over 2 years now and as a reward for plenty of GCSE studying I had agreed to drive the 3 hours from London to Norfolk for this Gull ringing trip, where he was hoping to get (and did get it) the chance of gaining experience with gulls, which is slightly harder to come by in West London. I did enquire in advance if I could do anything useful on the trip if I was there anyway and Sarah from the WWRG had told me via e-mail there would be plenty of things to do for non-ringers if I was up for an adventure. I was and decided to go onto the island with the group.
The gull colony nests on a man-made island off the Norfolk coast which can be reached on foot during low tide. After a short briefing the group of 14 ringers (and me) drove up to the deich and set off on foot from there. I have to admit that the walk to and back from the island through the mudflats was by far the hardest bit. So if you are thinking of joining this trip next year, be prepared for about 30-45 minutes walk through wet and deep mud before the fun starts. Once on the island we took a brief rest and strengthened ourselves with food and water before starting the round ups. To my surprise I was then briefly introduced into the art of actually putting the rings on Herring Gull and Lesser Black Backed Gull chicks. I tried to remind people that I had never ringed a bird before, but my utterances were quietly ignored and a pair of pliers was put in my hands. I have to admit that whilst I am generally a calm person a slight feeling of panic started to rise. I was mainly afraid of actually injuring a bird, but also of making a fool of myself and holding everyone up with my ignorance, but things got busy so quickly that there wasn’t much choice but to join in and give it a go.
As a group we tried to round up as many chicks as possible at each attempt, eventually encircling them with our bodies, literally knee to knee and elbow to elbow to avoid any escapees. Some chicks were hard to catch; others were just sitting very still trying to hide amongst the vegetation and were very easy to pick up. Then it was ringing time. To my surprise it generally wasn’t too hard to tell the two species apart and after a few catches I got some of them right. To avoid mistakes we had been told to always check the species as well as the ring with one of the more experienced ringers, one of whom always stayed out of the “ringing circle” to hand out the rings, to advise and help anyone who needed it. The people who were comfortable climbing around the rocky side of the island went chick-catching there and often came back with armfuls of chicks which were added to the middle of our circle to be ringed. There wasn’t much time to observe behaviour, but I learned a few things nonetheless: some of the chicks were really good at pretending they were injured or even dead in their attempts to be left alone. Others were incredibly feisty, bit and scratched everything within reach and – if that didn’t stop the ringer handling them – vomited copiously on top of you. I suppose your options are limited if you can’t fly yet and the alien handling you is about 20 times your own size.
So if you would like to spend a Sunday kneeling on top of stinging nettles (and sometimes sharp rocks) and getting thoroughly pooed and vomited on by gulls, this is the trip for you!
Some parent birds weren’t very happy with us either and made that quite clear, taking a few dives at the group and attacking Sarah, who was the only one standing up at the time. However, we just had a few scratches at the end. The rounding up and ringing lasted about 5 hours. Because of the incoming tide we had a very strict deadline and actually did manage to use up all the rings by then (500 in total).
There were some unexpected highlights. Scattered around the vegetation were plenty of new nests with eggs and very young chicks and what a treat it was to actually see a chick starting to break the egg open with its egg-tooth or, in another case, fully emerging into the world for the first time. There wasn’t much time to coo but enough for people to take a look or even some pictures.
One thing that had been a pleasant experience for me when I started driving my son to his regular ringing group and others around West London (he started when he was 12) is the very supportive, jovial and friendly atmosphere in these groups and the WWRG is no exception in this respect. Everyone was supported and helped when necessary, people’s health and safety was taken very seriously and even on the occasions when I had (yet again) overlapped the Herring-Gull ring too much and someone else had to waste time fixing my mess I was not told off but reassured and shown the right method to do it again. When it turned out that I hadn’t packed enough water for the two of us on this hot and sunny day plenty of people were willing to share which made a real difference particularly towards the end when energy levels were starting to run dry.
I found the group professionally run and well prepared. As I am always slightly inclined to try and see things from the bird’s point of view I was happy to note that the birds’ welfare was paramount and taken into account at all times. It was, however, quite a hard day’s work and at the end they do take a picture of the group covered in all sorts of excrements. So I got my adventure. As with all adventures there were some difficult and some scary moments. But I am glad I did it and also have to admit to a small sense of pride at the unexpected fact that soon there will be quite a few Herring Gulls and Lesser Black Backed Gulls flying around Norfolk with rings around their legs that I put there.