Sanderling Citizen Science

Just to be clear, this is about people studying shorebirds, not a surreal Sanderling society where small, dumpy birds study the humans on a day out at the beach…

…So anyway, the other day I was at the beach.  I was at Dungeness with my telescope on the lookout for terns using the area as a fishing ground as part of my summer contract of tern monitoring.  But as its near the end of a pretty dismal breeding season in Sussex, there weren’t too many terns.  Instead I was drawn to some small shorebirds running along the water’s edge looking for food.  They were Sanderling and the very first one I saw happened to be colour ringed!


A pretty poor image but not bad for a phone down a dirty scope when Sanderlings never stand still!

Out in the world there is a very small proportion of birds that are ringed by trained and licensed ringers.  Out of these, most of the birds sport a small metal band which can only be read when the bird is caught and inspected in the hand.  These birds are also dominated by garden species as a lot of these ringers catch birds in their spare time as a hobby and what better place to do this than in your garden?  A small number of ringers are really dedicated and get out into the wilds.  And an even smaller number have launched projects which use colour rings which can be seen from a distance so you don’t have to recatch a bird to record it.

So to see this Sanderling with its colour rings without having to look at a million other birds first made me rather happy, and just writing this makes me realise how coincidental it was.  Although birdwatching at Dungeness helps as its a peninsular sticking out into the channel which funnels hundreds of thousands of birds through it every migration season.  A good reason why it has its own bird observatory where bird watchers and ringers do their best to monitor and study this immense movement of birds every spring and autumn.

Anyway, to draw this rambling to a close I sent this photo to a nice scientist in the Netherlands who has an overview of all colour ringed Sanderling in the World (!) and knew who had ringed this bird, which has been seen up and down the Sussex coast 9 times over the last two years.  They also sent me background information on Sanderling as well as a paper on how to age these small shorebirds.  So I’m just waiting to hear from the group who actually ringed this bird but was once again impressed by citizen science in action- a few bits of colourful plastic and some emails have combined with the knowledge, skill and efforts of bird watchers and ringers to make a pretty impressive, global research programme for these birds.

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