Tur­tle dove mi­gra­tion re­vealed by satel­lite

Macclesfield Express - - THE LAUGHING BADGER - SEAN WOOD

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

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