BTO Cymru

Croeso i blog BTO Cymru. Welcome to BTO Cymru's blog

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Colour rings, how your sightings can further your contribution to conservation

 Modern digital photography has become an integral part of the modern birding scene, together with the quality of modern optics means that the reading of colour rings is now easier than ever. Gone are the days when only Mute Swans could easily be read, today birders and photographers are reading and hopefully submitting their sightings to the relevant project organiser either directly or via the BTO.

                                                                                       Photo Trevor Fletcher

I got involved in colour ringing and subsequently general ringing in the early 1990s. At that time I was an old school beat policeman spending a lot of my time walking round my then patch of Porthmadog. Of course having a bit of a passing interest in birds you noticed a lot whilst walking about talking to people and it became apparent that the numbers of Mute swans built up in the harbour during the summer and dispersed again in winter. As was the case in those days any problems with anything and the police station was first port of call and many a time have I spent helping the harbourmaster with Mute swans caught up in crab lines etc.  It soon became very obvious that a number of these Mutes had coloured darvics on them and that they had been ringed at various locations across north Wales.  Step forwards to an eventful morning I was crossing the harbour bridge and there were a number of young person’s there looking at a seabird in the river channel. I stopped to ask what was there, and was pointed out the Black Guillemot. I got chatting to the chap in charge of what was an RSPB work experience party, and got on the subject of the ringed swans. Well it transpired that his partner, a certain Adrienne Startford, was a ringer and no doubt could be persuaded to ring a few more swans if we could help with the cost of plastic rings, and so began my ringing career!

Today I am the Development and Engagement Officer for BTO Cymru having retired from my previous employment some 16 years ago, and for 25+ years have been involved in many colour ringing schemes; Chough, Ring ouzel, Osprey, Red kite, and my own project on Twite. Over the past few years on my travels across Wales talking to various groups, one of my popular topics has been “has new Technology made traditional ringing redundant?”  I am sure many ringers have been told that with all this new-fangled satellite stuff we won’t need to ring birds anymore, but the truth is when we fully explain what we can get from ringing they soon change that opinion. A big part of the talk is how a simple and relatively inexpensive colour ring can really enhance your ringing project.
The Mute swan study we did in north Wales proved a big moult migration into north Wales from south Lancashire, and even the Severn valley. Where this flock gathered to moult depended on where the residents were breeding that year, so in some years large numbers were in the mouth of the Ogwen near Bangor, other years in the river in front of the castle at Caernarfon and others at the Foryd. Most of the resightings were undertaken by a number of regular watchers who got really attached to their swans now they were easily identified individuals.  The key to keeping these dedicated watchers was consistent and prompt feedback. The myth that they mate for life was soon disproved amongst the local breeders with some behaviour making Eastenders look tame.

My own Twite project started in partnership with RSPB’s Twite recovery project in Nant Francon. In the first year I started colour ringing I dramatically increased the estimate of breeding Twite in the area and later that winter, with thanks to a local photographer, some of my colour ringed birds were sighted near Flint castle. Some of the coastal wintering birds were then colour ringed and from them and retraps of other people’s birds we found that the majority of the coastal wintering birds from Anglesey eastwards were Scottish birds and that the majority of our welsh breeding population winter eastwards on the Dee estuary, with one moving as far as Thornham in Norfolk for the winter.

                                                                       Photo Toby Carter

If you are a keen follower of the expanding Welsh Osprey population and follow them on social media, then most of the identification and stories are generated by the colour rings we fit before they fledge. Yes they have had £3000 satellite technology on some individuals, but all the family history and sightings are achieved through the placing of a £2 engraved plastic ring and your efforts.

                                                                                                                                                           Photo Kelvin Jones

There exists across Wales a number of colour ringing schemes and all the project leaders put in a lot of time and effort looking for and following up on sightings of their colour ringed birds. Adrienne Stratford and Tony Cross’ long running Cough project engages with many people and photographers across Wales and beyond, and has made a huge contribution to the conservation of Chough across Wales, and the policy decisions made by Welsh Government. Again the secret here is to provide feedback promptly and accurately.

So if you are just a regular birder or photographer and you get sightings or shots of colour ringed birds please follow up by informing somebody. You may not know who runs the scheme but Facebook and other social media are a great way of finding out plus Don’t think that somebody else has already done it, as there is often a big turnover at some of these regular sites. A classic case being the Chough flock on the Little Orme at Llandudno. The birds seen feeding during the day are not the same birds that roost on the cliffs there overnight……..

In addition, Curlew are in crisis and any sightings of ringed birds are vital to help understand their conservation needs. Facebook is currently helping spread this message with sightings of returning birds from the north Wales moors regularly coming in.

                                                                                                                                                               Photo Tony Pope

A number of north Wales based birders have set up a WhatsApp group and regularly check the high tide roosts on the north Wales coast. Their sightings of Sandwich terns have shown the importance of the southern Irish Sea for these birds with birds from the north east of England, southern Ireland and Scotland all being recorded on passage in autumn. Their activities have now expanded to migrant waders and gulls and they have built up a network of contacts with all sightings being followed up and group members updated. Fascinating stuff and of great use to conservation.

So let’s list the colour ring projects you might come across in Wales: Mute Swans, Whooper swans, Osprey, Chough, Hawfinch, Twite, Ring ouzel, Turnstone, Sandwich Terns, Little terns, Ringed Plover, Curlew, Dipper, Yellowhammer, Stonechat, Herring gulls, Lesser black-backed Gulls, Greater Black backed gulls, Rock pipit   ……………….

Please make your time in the field watching these birds or just by taking their photographs help conservation efforts to help these species by reporting your sightings. If you can’t find a scheme coordinator contact me .

For more information about the ringing scheme and colour ringing visit the BTO web site here.


  1. Thank you Kelvin for this , great information . watched with interest you video chat last night


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  2. Glad you enjoyed last night. When all the social distancing is sorted quite happy to reserect the originbaltalks I used to give about 2004/05 and all the other long forgotten photos and characteurs . Kelvin

  3. Teifi Ringing Group are still colour ringing Reed Buntings on the Teifi Marshes as part of our BTO RAS. Excellent number of sightings from photographers.

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