Saving Species

Our work

Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

Saving Species

The need for species conservation has never been greater. Despite notable successes in improving the fortunes of a number of bird species, more are being forced onto the list of those that need attention, both globally and in the UK. If we want to have a
  • Finding ways to read small ring codes on little terns

    Guest blogger: Dr Leah Williams, Conservation Scientist

    Little terns nest on shingle beaches with the largest colonies found in eastern and southern parts of the UK. They are migratory and spend the winter off the coast of West Africa.

    Little tern numbers in the UK have been declining since the 1990s, causes are thought to include disturbance, predation, food shortages and extreme weather conditions, the total UK population is now less than 2,000 breeding pairs.

    Little Tern Recovery Project

    To help reverse the decline of the little tern in the UK the RSPB and partners are working together on the EU LIFE+ funded Little Tern Recovery Project.

    The project aims to lay the foundations for the long-term recovery of the little tern in the UK by increasing numbers of breeding pairs and productivity, identifying long-term plans for conservation and increasing public awareness and support.

    Why ring little terns?

    Not much is known about the little tern’s life, such as, at what age do they begin to breed, their movements between nesting colonies and their lifespan. Knowing the answers to these questions will allow us to plan for their conservation.

    By marking little terns with coded colour rings we will be able to track individual birds’ movements through re-sighting the rings over a number of years.

    By the end of the five year EU LIFE+ Little Tern Recovery Project there will be a small but significant population of colour ringed birds which will have been re-sighted and will continue to be re-sighted after the lifetime of the project.

    Difficulties reading the small codes on the colour rings

    There could be some potential problems with colour ringing little terns, they are one of our smallest seabirds and they have short legs so reading the uniquely coded rings may not be feasible.

    We decided to run a trial to colour ring a small number of adult little terns to test whether or not we could read the rings with either a telescope or digital photography equipment.


    Colour ringed adult little tern ‘UA0’. Photo by Leah Williams. Photo taken under Natural England Schedule 1 photography licence.

    We colour ringed fifteen adult little terns at colonies in Winterton-on-Sea and Blakeney Point on the Norfolk coast. As only fifteen birds were ringed across two large colonies we needed to be able to tell which birds were fitted with a colour ring. To avoid us from than having to search through all adults in the colony to find the colour ringed birds, they were also sprayed with a little blue dye on the nape of the neck (the same dye that farmers use on sheep) which washes off after a few weeks and causes no harm to the birds.

    Of the eleven birds we colour ringed at Winterton, five were already ringed with BTO metal rings. All were ringed as chicks in the Great Yarmouth area, two were eight years old, one was eleven years old, one was sixteen years old and the final one was seventeen years old - close to the longevity record for little terns (eighteen years).

    Using digital photography to read coded colour rings

    The trial was successful, after finding the ‘blue’ birds and with a bit of patience we were able to use digital photography equipment to read the codes on the adult little tern rings without disturbing the nesting birds.

    Using digital photography equipment to read the codes on the adult little tern rings. Photo by Mark Bolton.

    Ringing 74 Little tern chicks

    The colour ringing scheme went ahead and in June and July this year along with the East Norfolk Ringing Group we colour ringed seventy four chicks at the Winterton and Blakeney colonies. Hopefully some of these chicks will survive to adulthood and return to our shores in the coming years to breed and provide us with the vital information needed to inform our longer term and wider UK conservation strategy for the little tern. Next year we are planning to roll out the colour ringing scheme to include more sites in the project.


    Colour ringed little tern fledgling UV3. Photo by Leah Williams. Photo taken under Natural England Schedule 1 photography licence.

  • Testing video tags on lesser black-backed gulls to reveal foraging behaviour

    Guest blogger: Leah Williams, Conservation Scientist

    Modern technology is providing fascinating insights into the lives of our marine birds. For example, RSPB’s FAME project has tracked over 1,200 individual seabirds using tiny GPS tags. We’re now getting a good idea about where our seabirds go during the breeding season, but we don’t yet know what they do when they get there and how they interact with the environment around them.

    In some parts of the UK there are breeding seabird colonies close to offshore wind farms. Although essential to help us reduce our carbon emissions it’s important that renewable energy is obtained without having an impact on the conservation status of threatened wildlife, and we don’t yet know what the impacts of these turbines are on foraging seabirds and on other wildlife. We need to find out if our seabirds are foraging near to wind farms and if they are, how they interact with them – their behaviour, flight height and avoidance range. But how to go about it?

    Our technological whizzes here at the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science have developed a new kind of tag which incorporates a GPS device and a tiny pinhole camera. These tiny video tags have already been used successfully on gannets and we’re hoping we’ll be able to recreate that success using lesser black-backed gulls to assess the impact of off shore wind farms.

    In order to test our theory and make sure that the technology works how it’s supposed to before we launch the full-scale project next year, we’ve been busy trialling the tags on lesser black-backed gulls nesting on RSPB’s Havergate Island reserve in the Alde-Ore Estuary, within foraging range of offshore wind farms.


    Working at Havergate, Suffolk. Photo by Mark Bolton

    Havergate, Suffolk’s only island, is gull heaven, with all five species nesting here. Staying on the island is a unique experience – it’s remote but within viewing distance of the local Suffolk coast villages. Power is provided by the sun and wind, there is no running water, but there are over 2000 pairs of gulls – a seabird researcher’s paradise!


    Over two weeks in May we caught and tagged seven birds. From that sample we’ve retrieved the tags from five birds. (A note on lesser black-backed gulls – they’re clever birds and are often more reluctant to enter the cage a second time round, so a lot of patience is required! And don’t worry – the tags eventually fall off the birds we can’t catch after a week or so.)


    The results are looking promising so far, so this tiny piece of gadgetry could prove a useful tool in assessing the impacts of offshore wind farms on our marine birds.

    Tagged lesser black-backed gull. Photo by Mark Bolton

  • Vultures - who wants to be a millionaire?

    [From Chris Bowden, our vulture guru in Bangalore]

    An unexpected and wonderful bonus for our vulture awareness work last week came in the form of India’s prime-time TV and hugely popular version of Who wants to be a millionaire quiz show (Kaun Banega Crorepati) asked the question ‘Which cattle medicine has been found responsible for the decline in vulture population in India?

    Photo credit: Sherwin Everett (screen shot of his TV!)

    The host Amitabh Bachchan is arguably the biggest Bollywood star of all time, and explained the diclofenac issue very clearly and how it has decimated the vultures. So the message was reinforced well, further aided by the fact that the contestant ‘asked the audience’ - who almost got it right!  Even now after massive media coverage over the years, we have a huge task to ensure that people across the subcontinent really know (and fully accept) that diclofenac is the main cause of the declines, so this will have successfully reached many million more people than before... (I’m amazed how many people I know in India either saw it or knew about it) -  nice one, and thanks to Amitabh!