Matt, our summer conservation intrern here at Frampton Marsh, has been helping with some of the turtle dove tracking work carried out by RSPB scientists. Here he writes about the project

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Our Turtle Doves

Europe’s only truly migratory dove and a real attraction during the summer here at Frampton. The turtle dove, however, is one of our fastest declining species, having lost over nine of every ten birds since 1970! Their gentle purring song, small size compared to the more familiar collared dove and pretty plumage make them top on the list for many birdwatchers and it is vital that we make every effort to protect them. Habitat loss, hunting and predation across much of their range are key factors in their decline.

Whilst watching turtle doves at Frampton on a hot summer’s day, given away by the carrying sound of their gentle song, you may now find yourself saying “Hey Bill, has that bird got a tag attached to it?” And it’s true, researchers this year have now trapped three turtle doves at Frampton and fitted them with satellite tags that are visible through binoculars. This is part of on-going research carried out by the RSPB under the banner of “Operation Turtle Dove”. The RSPB began tagging turtle doves in 2012 with the aim of tracking them during their migration to better understand the problems they face. As a fully migratory species, it is not just here we need to focus our conservation efforts, but also in the different countries it crosses during migration and at wintering grounds. This is why tagging and tracking them so important to help protect the species: it helps us see where we need to concentrate our efforts.

Photo: The research team at Frampton prepare a tagged bird for release

Trapping birds and fitting them with GPS tags needs to be done carefully and under license. The aim of my blog is to explain the whys and how’s of the research done here at Frampton. Firstly, there is a limit to the number of turtle doves the project has permission to trap across all sites. Furthermore, once trapped each bird is carefully measured to determine its suitability for tagging. Unsuitable birds, i.e. juveniles or birds in an unsuitable moult stage, are released without being tagged. We have now trapped three birds this year at Frampton and fitted them with high-tech GPS gadgets. The tags we are using this year are attached to growing feathers and designed to fall off after around six months, giving us ample time to track them on their autumn migration without risking problems associated with tags that stay on the birds. Plus, the new tags give us a more accurate fix on location, so its win, win. Autumn migration is a vital time for us to study turtle doves as birds tracked in previous years have been shown to disappear over France and Spain at this time, possibly due to hunting. Here at Frampton we are also not alone in our efforts to provide turtle doves for the project, there are 22 sites in total across Eastern England. Along with tagging the wider-project is also helping educate land owners on how to maximise their land’s suitability for turtle doves and educating the public on all things turtle dove.  Perhaps the best way to demonstrate how the research is carried out is to introduce one of our previously tagged birds:

 

Angela the turtle dove from Frampton Marsh

Angela the turtle dove was tagged at Frampton in 2016 and is an example of how the project can provide real answers to some vital conservation questions. Once the team had fitted Angela with a satellite tag she would soon have to battle the hazards and dangers of a 5000 km migration to Sub-Saharan Africa. Hunting awaits her in many places, predators lurk around every corner, habitats that once provided food and rest have gone and many birds simply perish in the sandstorms of the Sahara! But Angela was strong.

Photo: Turtle doves face many pressures during migration, including sandstorms

Angela crossed the English Channel on 11 September and started to travel across France with resolve. According to satellite fixes she hit Spain on September 20 and all was looking good. By the first of October she was in Morocco. She then took on the dangers of the Sahara Desert without fear and crossed it by 4 October. The satellite fixes then showed Angela had arrived at her wintering ground in Mali, East Africa around the 22 October. For turtle doves, the Autumn migration can be as long at 5000 km and crosses over many countries, such as France, Spain and Morocco, during the legal hunting season. Angela’s return journey started in late April 2017. She flew straight for a stopover in the rich and plentiful landscape of the Moroccan hills which lasted from 2 May to 21 May. Often study birds stop in Morocco: resting and refuelling on the diverse trees and crops it provides. She then cracked on over Spain, flying strong for two days and took her time crossing France in three weeks with a few rests. She arrived back in the UK on June 16 and returned to Frampton on 19 June 2017. Another breeding season passed, and she made her way again back to her wintering grounds in Africa. Sadly, we lost her in the Sahara Desert during her migration back to the UK that year. Indeed, several of our tagged birds have perished on this first leg of their return migration journey: sandstorms are a real hazard in the Sahara. So, as you can see, Angela was a bird that we were able to learn a lot from. She showed us exactly the route taken during autumn and spring migration, where important rest and stopover points are, and where turtle doves spend the winter. We can now use this data to help formulate conservation strategies, i.e. by ensuring wintering grounds are protected and hunting in Europe is monitored.

Photo: Not Angela! A 2019 tagged bird at Frampton. Photo by Toby Carter

Photo: Angela’s migration route

Photo: The rich and diverse landscape of Meknès in Morocco. Photo by Chris Orsman

 

Hopefully, I have gone some way in explaining why you may now see tagged turtle doves here at Frampton and the current research carried out by the RSPB. As mentioned, the research team has tagged three birds this year at Frampton and we are happy that our reserve can be a place where turtles doves can be seen and be used in research that is urgent given the rate at which they are declining: several tagging sites previously used by the research team have had no turtle doves this year. However, at Frampton we have had a good number of turtle doves this year so let’s hope we can keep these wonderful and charismatic birds at Frampton for as long as possible!

 

Written by Matthew O’Connell (Volunteer Conservation Intern)

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