The RSPB has fitted whinchats at the nature conservation organisation's Geltsdale reserve with special tracking devices in an attempt to discover why these migrant birds are in serious decline.
Whinchats are small colourful birds that travel across from Africa every summer to breed in the uplands of the UK. But since the mid 1990s their numbers have halved, making them a species of serious conservation concern.
Over the summer, RSPB Conservation Scientist Malcolm Burgess fitted 19 geolocators to whinchats breeding at RSPB Geltsdale. He was aided by three volunteers who located the birds. The devices will reveal where the birds spend the winter, what migratory route they take and where they stop off en route. By building up a picture of the whinchat's migratory behaviour and movements, and for the first time wintering areas, it will hopefully help shed light on why the population is plummeting.
Malcolm Burgess from the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science has put hundreds of geolocators on whinchats in Nigeria as well as fitting them to many other species. He said: "It's a tricky business as the birds need to be caught and the geolocator fitted without causing them harm. This is achieved by catching them in a special net and then attaching the tiny 0.36g geolocator with a flexible harness which still enables the bird to move completely normally.
"As all of the information is stored on the geolocator, the even bigger challenge will come next year when the birds return to Geltsdale and the birds need to be re-caught to remove the devices. Since the geolocators are virtually invisible, the birds have also been fitted with colour rings to indentify them. Out of the 19 geolocators fitted, we expect to retrieve around 40%, the natural adult survival rate, as many of the birds won't return. However, these will still provide some totally new and revealing information."
Steve Westerberg, Site Manager at RSPB Geltsdale, said: "Whinchats are very colourful, beautiful birds that inhabit special wild places and are emblematic of wild landscapes. It's always a joy to see them breeding at Geltdale. Unfortunately, there are far fewer of them in the North Pennines than there used to be.
"Hopefully, this research will provide us with some clues as to why their numbers have declined over the past two decades."