NORTHUMBRIA RINGING GROUP CELEBRATES 50TH ANNIVERSARY
By IAN KERR
Fifty years ago two young birders entered a small wood behind the village of Low Hauxley at the northern end of Druridge Bay in Northumberland and found it, in their own words, ‘carpeted with blackbirds.’
The tired migrants, newly-arrived from Scandinavia, had sought shelter and food in the leaf litter under sycamores, Scots pine and other trees and in the village allotments adjoining the wood.
Brian Little and Bryan Galloway, both recently qualified ringers, were looking for a suitable site for a coastal ringing station to catch and mark thousands of migrant thrushes, finches, warblers and other species passing through in spring and autumn.
At that time the village hinterland was open farmland, the wood being a tiny green oasis and consequently a big attraction to passing birds. This became even more so in the 1970s when the surrounding area was a devastated and left a moonscape of opencast mining. After coal reserves were exhausted in the 1980s the area was landscaped to create a caravan park, a nature reserve and mixed farmland and woodland.
Brian had learned his ringing skills under the expert eye of Dr Eric Ennion at the former Monks House bird observatory between Seahouses and Bamburgh. The pioneering work there achieved lasting recognition in Dr Ennion’s 1960 publication The house by the shore. Among other students was a very youthful Bill Oddie, later to achieve recognition both as a highly-respected ornithologist but, more publicly, as a television personality.
The two excited visitors discovered that the wood was owned by Captain Francis Widdrington. When approached he gave enthusiastic permission for them to start ringing and later gave the wood to the ringers. The captain apparently had a sweet tooth and a delightful custom arose of providing him annually with a pot of Hexhamshire heather honey from the hives of one of their friends.
The wood quickly became home of the then fledgling Northumbria Ringing Group, now celebrating its 50th anniversary, having marked up to the end of 2012 more than 323,000 birds of 209 species, 77,000 of them at Low Hauxley. Members have handled everything from Golden Eagle and Montagu’s Harrier, the full range of wildfowl right down to the smallest passerines.
Brian and Bryan, both now in their seventies, are still very actively involved. Brian, who was awarded the MBE in 1996 for services to ornithology followed by the Bernard Tucker Medal in 1997, is the group chairman and Bryan is the secretary.
Celebrations have included a big get-together at Gosforth Civic Hall of members past and present and the production of a commemorative book highlighting just a few of the species on which it has concentrated.
Bryan recalls that one of their first tasks at Hauxley was to construct a Heligoland trap. An earlier trap at Monks House was abandoned in 1960 so wooden spars and netting were scavenged and ferried to Low Hauxley on the roofs of an Austin A35 and a Morris Mini van and used in construction. The trap was built with a removable side wall to allow tractor access to the village allotments.
Initially, the village hall was used as a ringing base but shortly afterwards a small hut was erected. Later a larger one was donated by the opencast contractor. It was equipped with bunks so the keenest of young ringers could stay overnight and operate from first light. A second trap was also built on the other side of the wood. Mist nets, introduced locally by Dr Ennion, quickly followed.
However, members did not confine their activities to Hauxley and birds were sought and ringed right across Northumberland. One special target was Merlin, subject of the group’s longest-running study. Merlins have been handled every year since the group was formed and work in Northumberland and, more recently, on the north Durham moors, has resulted in more than 3,600 young being ringed. The project has provided much of the present knowledge about the species.
Ringing Merlins back in the 1970s was part of my introduction to the group and since then I have joined others in walking the hills each spring in search of these rather elusive birds.
Members have had to develop tree and rock climbing skills to reach nests. Others have been soaked in rivers catching goosanders and some even ended up swimming in the sea during rather adventurous efforts to net moulting Red-breasted Mergansers at Lindisfarne.
Others have been involved in long-running projects on ringing nestling Peregrines, Goshawks, Tawny and Barn owls and on the groups is also responsible for ringing our rarest seabirds, Roseate Terns, at England’s only breeding site on Coquet Island. Others have annually ringed migratory species, including Pied Flycatchers in local oak woods. Many thousands of Swallows have also been ringed, both as nestlings and from reedbed roosts in late summer.
More recently, the groups has undertaken responsibility for ringing the region’s new colonists including Avocets, Marsh Harriers, Ospreys and Red Kites.
A host of papers have been produced by members for both popular and more scientific publications, all adding to the group’s national reputation.
The breadth of the group’s work is shown in the results for 2012, by no means the best of years because of the extremely wet weather which caused high failure rates and mortality among many species. Nevertheless, more than 13,000 birds of 91 species were ringed. They included 3,700 Swallows, 1,600 Blue Tits, 1,200 Great Tits, 500 Chiffchaffs, 200 Tawny Owls, 79 Roseate Terns, 76 Merlins and 43 Barn Owls as well as three Marsh Harriers and three Ospreys.
Throughout its existence the group has mainly remained an amateur set-up with members ringing during evenings, weekends and holidays. A few have gone on to careers in conservation, something they freely admit would never have happened but the membership of this still-thriving organisation, now confidently looking forward to the next 50 years.