Spring is truly underway at Sherwood Forest, and it has brought with it some very tiny new arrivals.
This week, it was an invitation to join Kev, educational ranger Mike Hill and ecologist Tim Morley for an afternoon of tagging baby birds. I didn’t need much persuading.
Tagging (also known as ringing or banding) a bird means placing a metal loop with a serial number around one leg. Once tagged, information about the bird’s age, location, size and weight can be stored in a central online database and accessed by conservationists who come across the bird in the future.
Kev says that 97% of what we know about birds comes from this method. He explains: “The more we know, the more we can help these birds… But we still know so little. And that’s why people like Tim go on trips all over the world to learn more about some of the most mysterious species.”
There is lots that the team at Center Parcs can learn from ringing birds. Mike explains: “If we’re ringing a lot of baby birds each year that means the environment is flourishing. Everything is in balance, in terms of plants, insect and predators, if we have a good number of birds hatching and surviving.”
Kev shows us the rings, which range from tiny (wren-sized) to about the circumference of a human wrist (for penguins, swans and so on). For our first stop, we’ll need one from the smaller end of the scale…
Nest number 1: Collared dove
A mother collared dove has set up home in a shelter at the back of Forresters’ Inn, overlooking the staff area. Kev put up a small shelf in the rafters in the hope of encouraging a robin or blackbird, but it was this dove that took up his offer.
As we approach, the mother flies away, which is common. She doesn’t stray too far though, keeping an eye on us as we work and returning shortly afterwards. The belief that touching baby birds will leave a human scent and cause the mother to abandon them is false, Kev explains. “We leave some scent, sure, but birds’ sense of smell is underdeveloped compared even to humans. It doesn’t affect the parent’s behaviour when they return at all.”
Up his ladder, Tim takes both the two baby birds, who are just a couple of weeks old, and pops them in a soft fabric bag. One by one, he uses a set of specialist pliers – designed to make it impossible to attach the ring too tightly or hurt the bird – to slip on the tiny metal band. Each bird takes around a minute.
They are completely calm the whole time, and don’t seem to mind at all. Tim explains that the warmth of human hands is a lot like the feeling of being in a nest with their mother and siblings.
Tim is gaining experience for a trip later this year to Bird Island in the Southern Atlantic Ocean. The island is around 1,000km south of the Falkland Islands and only accessible by boat or helicopter. He’ll observe, study and ring Atlantic seabirds including penguins, albatrosses and giant petrels.
Just as we’ve returned the chicks and are packing up, Cath from Forresters’ pops out on her break. “I hope you’re not taking our babies away!” she jokes. “These ones belong to Forresters’!” The staff have been watching ‘their’ nest since the eggs hatched, keeping an eye on them during their breaks.
Nest number 2: Garden warbler
We head to the north of the Village, where Kev and his team have created a heathland area. Heathland is a shrubby habitat, often filled with dense gorse. It is one of our most threatened habitats, and its loss is devastating for much of our native wildlife.
As we pick our way down a path. Kev suddenly stops and points to one of hundreds of apparently identical gorse bushes. “There’s a nest in there too,” he says. “I know because I leave a little marker for myself.” We cast our eyes around but nothing looks out of the ordinary. Kev goes on: “Look at this mark in the soil.” There’s a small indentation in the ground just off the track, about the size of my palm. It’s completely incongruous. “That’s the mark. You can’t use anything obvious because magpies and crows will notice if something changes and they’ll come to investigate. If they find a nest with eggs or small young, they’ll eat them.”
This nest is home to some baby garden warblers, just a day old. They are tiny, blind and featherless. They are too small to be handled or ringed, but they will grow up quickly. The window of time to ring a baby bird is extremely small – in a few days these chicks will be big enough to ring, but a few days after that they will be too large. If the team attempts it then, they might become agitated, move around too much in the nest and shatter it. This is called ‘exploding’!
We leave the tiny garden warblers be. Kev will return in a couple of days to check on them.
Nest number 3: Blue tit
The blue tit has nested in a bird box right on the perimeter of the Village. Mum flies away again as we approach, and with the chicks carefully removed, Kev plugs the hole in the front of the box with a spare bag.
This is in case the mother returns while we are still working on the chicks. If she sees an empty nest, she might assume her babies have been taken by a predator, and she won’t return.
The blue tits are a little older, in what Kev calls “their big and bouncy stage!” One tries to hop away when Tim shows us how tiny it is, but he closes his hands around its tiny body, making a warm, dark little cave. When he opens his hands again, the chick is calm and still.
Each of the three baby blue tits is successfully ringed and put back in the nest. A few minutes later, we see the unperturbed mother return to her babies.
As we walk back to the Village Square, Kev is identifying the various bird dropping stains on his overalls. “I have a set back home,” he suddenly breaks off, beaming, “with a stain from a Manx Shearwater [also known as the Atlantic Puffin, a seabird that can be found all around the Atlantic, from Iceland to Argentina.] It’s like a badge of honour!”
He looks down thoughtfully at a particularly large white stain on his front. “Not that one though. That’s yoghurt.”
If you’re visiting us this summer, make sure to book onto a Wildlife Walk or Ranger’s Ramble (varies by Village) – our rangers will often tailor their routes to what’s happening in the forest at the time, so you might visit some nests or meet some of our other newest wildlife.
Learn how to make your garden bird-friendly with these top tips from Tim, Mike and Kev.