Turtle dove migration revealed by satellite
SOMEONE once said to me: “What’s the use of all this ‘ringing’ and ‘tagging’ that goes on with birds, surely it’s all a waste of time and money?”
Several years later I can’t remember the answer I gave, but the news just in from the RSPB, would have been manna from Heaven, because the migration route of a UK breeding turtle dove has, for the first time, been revealed, providing valuable data in the conservation fight to help save the species from UK extinction. Last July, the RSPB fitted a small, lightweight satellite tag to a turtle dove from Suffolk. In a UK science first, the RSPB was able to track Titan, the tagged turtle dove, on his 5,600km migration route from Suffolk to Mali, and back again, all in real time. The turtle dove population has plummeted 96 per cent since 1970, making it the UK’s fastest declining migrant bird. This decline is so dramatic that the population is halving in number every six years; should it continue at this rate the species may be lost as a breeding bird in the UK within the next couple of decades.
Flying mostly under the cover of darkness, Titan flew across epic landscapes such as the Atlas Mountains, Sahara Desert and the Gulf of Cadiz. The satellite tag also uncovered that he travelled about 500700km per night flying at a maximum speed of 60km per hour.
Dr John Mallord, RSPB senior conservation scientist, said: “This is the first time that we have ever been able to track a UK-breeding turtle dove to its African wintering grounds. Previously we largely relied on ringing the birds, which didn’t give us half the amount of data Titan’s tag has. On top of his wintering grounds, we also have his migration route, where he stopped to rest and refuel and how long he spent in different places.
“Our aim now is to build on this new information, which will be used to help us to target our conservation efforts far more effectively on precisely those areas the birds are using when they leave the UK.”
Titan’s outbound journey to Africa, where he wintered for six months, took about a month to complete. On his return he spent two weeks making his way through France, initially following the Atlantic coast, before leaving from Dunkirk and touching down in Suffolk. The latest satellite reading shows that Titan has returned to the same area he was first found and tagged in Suffolk.
RSPB scientists and partners at BirdLife hope to explore the key habitats, land use and food resources throughout the migration route in order to understand the reasons behind the alarming decline.
The research will help plan and implement conservation actions on a local and international scale to help save turtle doves from UK extinction.
The team will be returning to Senegal this winter, an important wintering area for turtle doves, and a staging area for Titan on his way to Mali, to explore the reasons why they might be declining at such an alarming rate.
There are many factors on the wintering grounds that could play a part in the alarming decline of turtle doves such as: a lack of reliable water sources, scarce food resources and limited suitable roosting sites.
Historically, hundreds of thousands of turtle doves have wintered in Senegal, although there are suggestions that these numbers are lower nowadays, therefore it is vital that conservation efforts are focused on wintering sites to get a better understanding of the reason why they are declining and what to do about it.
For more information on Titan’s journey and how the RSPB and Operation Turtle Dove partners are helping to stop turtle dove declines visit: rspb.org.uk/titan.
Hopefully, this amazing bit of evidence thanks to tracking will be sufficient to answer any more questions about the efficacy of such practices, and next time you sing about turtle doves at Christmas, you will know where they are... sunning themselves in Mali!
The Laughing Badger Gallery, 99 Platt Street, Padfield, Glossop
●● A pair of turtle doves perched on a television aerial