January 26th   Leave a comment

If you look at birds regularly, and particularly if watch them through a pair of binoculars, sooner or later you will see one with a set of colour-rings on their legs. It’s not hard in Crail, of course, with half of the redshanks carrying 6 colourful rings as part of my long term study, and what seems like nearly all the shags from the May Island carrying a large numbered colour ring. But every so often you spot a bird that wasn’t ringed here and so the opportunity to find out where it has come from. John spotted two such individuals before Christmas and the original ringers have got back to us now with their details.

The sanderling at St Andrews ringed in Iceland

The sanderling at St Andrews ringed in Iceland

The first was a sanderling on the beach at St Andrews. You can see it has a whole raft of colour rings on its legs. You would report this by specifying whether the ring is on the left or right leg and whether it is above or below the knee. Then its colour or its type, the ring size and its order on the leg. So this sanderling is: left leg below the knee (it’s really the ankle but everyone calls it the knee), green flag (you can see the ring has a flap sticking out) over yellow over green; right leg above knee, metal ring; right below knee, tall yellow ring. This type of detail can be tricky to get in the field so a photo like John’s makes it easy. The person who marked this bird can also see that our sighting and information is reliable. I have been looking at marked birds for over 20 years and I can take a mental photograph as I watch one but even so without a reasonable view, often with a telescope, it’s easy to make mistakes. No problems here though, and indeed less so as more and more of these types of sightings are backed up with photography that is now accessible to any observer with even a basic camera. And with one of John’s photographs we can almost read the number on the metal ring (these are all unique and what you use if you recapture a bird of course).

This sanderling was ringed on the 18th May 2007 on a beach near Reykjavik, Iceland. Not it’s home, just another beach on its journey to breed probably in northeast Greenland – sanderlings breed spectacularly far north and it might not start laying its eggs until the beginning of June. There is no mention of its age at ringing – I suspect an adult. Regardless it is, at least, in its 8th year and maybe much older. Sanderlings live at least to 20 if they get lucky and I would suspect even longer, despite them being smaller than thrushes. The sanderling was then seen on the Eden on the 6th January 2008, close to where John saw it this winter. Between then and now the sanderling has been seen every year, at the same time of year, either near Reykjavik or near St Andrews, usually on exactly the same spot on the scale of a few kilometres. I love this constancy and individual connectivity. The sanderlings we see on the beach at Balcomie for example, live there, some of them for decades, and have a few other such homes scattered over the planet between their breeding and wintering site. When we disturb them or worse sacrifice their beach for development it’s not a bit of readjustment needed, it’s a whole new home.

The Svarlbad purple sandpiper at Kingsbarns

The Svarlbad purple sandpiper at Kingsbarns

The second colour-ring sighting was a purple sandpiper just below the car park at Kingsbarns Beach. Reporting this one is easier – it’s got a numbered flag on it. But seeing the number definitely requires a good photograph or a telescope. The purple sandpiper was ringed on the 9th June 2009 on Spitsbergen, at 2am in the morning. How evocative is that? At that time of year, that far north, it’s full daylight. No catch in the dark, but probably a bird caught incubating on its nest in the Arctic sunlight. Purple sandpipers are fairly tame on their breeding grounds as they are around Crail in the winter. It’s straightforward to put a little cage with just a tiny entrance in it over the nest. A returning bird putters around the cage until it finds the entrance and then settles down to incubate. You then run up to the nest in the direction of the entrance and if you are lucky the bird retreats late and away from you, missing the entrance in panic, and stays in the cage. The bird can be caught, ringed and back on its nest with only its feathers ruffled (and a story to tell its chicks) within a few minutes.

Unlike the sanderling, John’s sighting is the first for this bird. But our purple sandpiper has probably been shuttling between Spitsbergen and Kingsbarns since 2009 and probably long before. Again a 20 year life span might not be particularly unusual for a bird that makes it through the first couple of years and establishes safe places to breed, stage and winter at. I will be looking out for it from now on – not just a purple sandpiper at Kingsbarns Beach car park, but THE purple sandpiper there.

Posted January 26, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

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