Spring time dipper ringing

My husband, Danny, and I have been training as ringers on a part-time basis for a year or two now. We have hugely enjoyed our expeditions with our patient trainer, Richard Barnes. So far these have focussed on mist-netting small passerines, so we were delighted to have the opportunity to go out recently searching for dippers on the Derwent with Rike and Phil Bolam and Tony Gibson. Mist-netting across rivers was not wholly new to me, as I spent my teenage summers (many decades ago) pursuing goosanders up the South Tyne with Brian Little’s team. Instead of the jeans and plimsolls of the seventies, the costume this time was thermal underwear and chest waders. Danny fishes, so he looked and felt at home in this outfit, unlike me, struggling a little in his hand-me-down gear.

The weather could not have been better, one of those crisp sparkling mornings that make you glad to be a northerner. We approached the first of the known nest sites, set up the net and waited. And waited. Then we waited a bit longer. Ah well, it was a beautiful day for it. Eventually our patience was rewarded as our first dipper, a retrap, landed in the net. It was a real pleasure to handle this sturdy and attractive little bird, rather smaller and less dumpy than they appear through binoculars and with remarkably soft plumage. The surprise was that this individual had previously been associated with a neighbouring territory. After more fruitless waiting, the conclusion was that this site was not occupied this year, and that this individual had expanded its territory accordingly.

Time to move on. The net was taken in and we moved downstream to another nest site. There were certainly more birds about here, on two occasions one hit the net but didn’t become entangled. Again, quite a lot of waiting, this time enlivened by hot cross buns as it was Good Friday. Danny got some good views of grey wagtail as he waded up the river, attempting to drive dippers into the net and we got fabulous views of a red kite flying very low overhead. Early chiff chaffs and wrens serenaded the sunshine. Eventually our patience was rewarded as we caught another dipper, an unringed bird this time. As well as the metal BTO ring, a Darvic colour ring was applied, a new technique for us. There was great frustration all round as a kingfisher flew into the net but escaped as Rike approached it, no-one else even seeing it as we were examining the dipper. By this time the birds had worked out the location and purpose of the net, and were zipping up and down the river hopping over it neatly. Time to call it a day.

While a kingfisher in the hand would have been a spectacular addition to the day, we did have a tremendous time, we learned a lot, and are very grateful to Rike, Phil and Tony for letting two beginners tag along.

by Christine O’Rourke

13th April 2016