Bird ringing update: catching my first Stonechat and receiving a T-permit

Photo: A Stonechat that was ringed at Martin Down National Nature Reserve. © BeaujolaisB

Since I last blogged about bird ringing, which was 4 months ago, things have definitely moved on. That was the first time we’d ever been and since then we’ve returned a hand-full of times.

We’ve been ringing in a woodland site near Salisbury, Wiltshire. It’s great for the variation of species, but has a serious horsefly and midge problem – not very pleasant on a hot summers day.  At this site, we caught an elusive Marsh Tit and have ringed a Treecreeper, Nuthatch and Willow Warbler.

The Willow Warbler is actually pretty special and can only be distinguished from the Chiff Chaff by a certain characteristic of their primary covert feathers.

willow-warbler.jpg

Photo: Willow Warbler. © BeaujolaisB

Another site, on the well-known Martin Down National Nature Reserve serves a completely different group of species, many of which are farmland birds and warblers.

I ringed my first Stonechat, as well as numerous Black Caps and a Long Tailed Tit (LTT). The LTT was the cutest ever.

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Photo: Long Tailed Tit © BeaujolaisB

In the few months that have gone by, I’ve also been awarded my T-permit by the BTO. Buzzing is an understatement. The moment I got that email, I couldn’t contain my happiness that my ringing journey has officially begun. Now for the 2 year countdown until I get my C-permit!

 

 

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Visiting North Cornwall: The Trevose Head Heritage Coast

Photo: View of Bedruthan steps and the giant rock stacks from Park Head and overlooking Pentire Steps Beach. © Beaujolais Bussell.

Recently I went for a camping trip in Newquay, Cornwall, a small town on the North coast of Cornwall. Although it was lovely, my best memories were made from a day trip to the Trevose Head Heritage Coast – a stretch of coastline that begins at Bedruthan Steps near Trenance, and finishes just below Polzeath. The outline of the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) can be seen near the number 04 on the map below.

Related image

Photo: Graphic of Cornwall AONB’s. The Trevose Head Heritage Coast starts just above Newquay. File taken from Carn to Cove, although originally from Cornwall-aonb ©.

Encompassing some of Cornwall’s wildest coastline, this stretch of Cornwall truly is a hidden gem. With its breathtaking views, unsung beaches and beautiful landscape, it’s the perfect location for a quiet getaway. Of course, if fine-dining and shopping is your thing then this maybe isn’t the best idea, but if you’re interested in natural wonders and a thriving ecology then this might just be the place to head (excuse the pun…).

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Photo: View from the walk up to Park Head and the Bedruthan Steps. © Beaujolais Bussell.

Bedruthan Steps, a Victorian staircase leading to the sea is the first point of interest you might like to visit. Legend says that the rock stacks near the steps were actually stepping stones for the Bedruthan giant who needed a shortcut across the bay. Unlikely in reality, the steps were only first mentioned in 1847 and were more likely to have been created during the Victorian times when Newquay became a thriving seaside town.

A long history of mining dominates the area, which if you look closely enough at the cliff-edges can be seen by their distinctive shapes. Great caverns and beaches are littered along the coast – all signs of the explosions and tunnelling carried out from the miners of Carnewas Mine in their search for precious metals of the time, such as copper, iron and lead.

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Photo: Photograph of Pentire Steps beach, the lesser known set of steps that leads to an otherwise inaccessible cove. Beware, the steps are not for the faint hearted and the beach gets cut off during high tide. © Beaujolais Bussell.

But even further back than that, the area holds considerable archaeological sites, particularly 6 Bronze age burial mounds, or barrows and a Iron Age cliff castle. Dating from as far back as 100BC and ranging to 2500BC, these are perfect examples of Cornwall’s history and tribal roots. They almost make you feel like you’re in the set of Poldark…

Park Head

Photo: Park Head, the location for prominent archaeological sites such as the barrows and cliff castle. © Beaujolais Bussell.

The cliff-top supports an array of wildlife, flora and fauna. Fulmar’s and Oystercatcher’s can be regularly seen and examples of Stonecrop and Thyme and Kidney Vetch can be seen on the cliff-top, surrounded by blooms of wild-flowers during the summer months.

For such a small area of land, the Trevose Head Hetitage Coast sure does pack a punch. Views, wildlife and extended history make this location rich in heritage and culture, allowing you to take a step back in time during Cornwall’s existence.

If you’d like to know more about the Trevose Head Heritage Coast then a more detailed map can be seen below. Alternatively, additional information on the area and other Cornwalls AONB’s can be seen at: Bedruthan StepsCarnewas walk and Cornwall AONB.

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Photo: 04 CARNEWAS TO STEPPER POINT by Cornwall-aonb ©.

© Beaujolais Bussell.

 

 

The Biomimicry Institute – what is it and how does it relate to Peacock feathers?

Photo: Peacock by Richard B Clark on Flikr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Ever wondered how a peacock gets its stunning feather display? Or, if we could use carbon dioxide to make oxygen, just like plants do during photosynthesis?  Have you ever looked at nature and thought, “wow, that’s a great idea – why didn’t us humans think of that before?”

Well even if the answer is no, an inspiring community of scientists have indeed asked those exact questions. Luckily, they’ve also teamed up to create the Bio-mimicry Institute, one of the most exciting initiatives I’ve found all year. Setup in 2006 by Janine Benyus, a biologist and author of the 1997 bestseller, the institute aims to provide a platform for academics, industrialists, investors and designers to share and swap ideas on how to solve engineering problems using nature as inspiration.

This idea, of a global network of inventors sharing bio-mimicry related ideas is without doubt a very progressive and radical one. It embodies collaboration and cooperation and reminds us to look to nature and the environment for 21st century problems. Although this sounds intuitive, the first time bio-mimicry was mentioned was in the 80’s, probably less than 30 years ago, and even then it wasn’t popularised until 1997, with the fitting publication of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature by Janine Benyus herself.

So really, what I’m trying to say is, bio-mimicry is a relatively new subject. And only now it is starting to feel like one which fits snugly into the environmentally friendly picture us humans are currently trying to paint.

As well as being able to become a member of the Bio-mimicry Institute, which enables you to access premium content and educational materials (starting at $10 per month), you can also, for free, visit their AskNature section. This forum-type discussion area is all about finding questions and answers to your engineering challenge. It’s built like a search engine (e.g. Google) and allows you to enter keywords that relate to your project or idea.

For example, when I type “thin film” into the search box, a range of biological strategies, ideas and resources are displayed. The first one that caught my eye was called:

“Structures create colourful feathers – Kingfisher” (quite appropriate given my blog name)

kingfisher screenshot

This example discusses how the structures in a Kingfishers feathers are responsible for its bright and unmistakable plumage, not just a pigment as with “normal” colouring. This kind of idea, structural colour is not unknown and has been found to be the cause for many weird and wonderful colours, such as those in a Peacock (which actually consists of a brown pigment) and those in butterfly wings.

Unlike pigments, which work by absorbing and reflecting a certain wavelength of light that corresponds to a colour we see (e.g. a yellow banana reflects light at around 580nm), structural colouration works because of constructive and destructive interference that depends entirely on the geometry of the components, rather than their chemical make-up, which is what determines a pigments colour.

For example, one body of research was conducted on the colouration of African berries and how they were able to retain their colour for hundreds of years. it was found that the skin of the berries were formed such that when visible light impinged on the layers, interference occurred between the reflected beams, resulting in blue light being selectively reflected while all other colours were absorbed. The absorbed colours were absorbed because of constructive interference, whilst the blue was reflected due to destructive interference. They even showed that as well as causing interference, the structural formation also caused visible light to be circularly polarised upon being reflected by the berry – interesting stuff if you ask me. If you want to know more, then see the article below*, as well as the original paper.**

Although I’ve yet to adopt one of the ideas on AskNature, there are loads to choose from and many provide inspiration when searching for solutions. So, if you’re an engineer, designer or inventor, then please, please use The Biomimicry Institute, or more specifically, AskNature to find or inspire you to find a solution. You never know, one idea may lead to another and another, and another, until your search down a rabbit hole takes you to a whole new world of structural colour formation in African fruits.

You can find The Biomimicry Institute and Ask Nature at the links provided.

 

 

*African Berry Colour

**Pointillist structural color in Pollia fruit

A walk down the Kennet and Avon Canal

Over the weekend, my girlfriend and I visited her brother at his pad in Bath, Somerset. Even though I was born in Somerset, I’ve rarely visited Bath in the past, largely because there has never been a reason to, but also because Bath used to exist in its own county – Avon. However, in 1996 the ceremonial county of Avon was disbanded and both Bristol and Bath were incorporated into the ceremonial county of Somerset, lying in the district of Bath and North East Somerset. So anyway, we were actually quite excited to see what all the fuss was about.

Being the nature-loving family that we are, we decided to take a walk through the small village of Bathampton, a civil parish located 2 miles east of Bath. As the well-known Kennet and Avon Canal runs through the village, it seemed almost silly not to take a walk and admire this hidden gem. Not to mention, the views from Bathampton looking over the very south of the Cotswold National Park are astonishing and were more than enough to draw us in.

View from Bathampton Canal

Starting at the cutest little boat cafe – the “Cafe on the Barge” – we walked due East along the canal, leaving our car parked in the free spaces next to the church. Following the waters edge, we immediately passed the cutest collection of narrow-boats, ranging from short and stubby, long and skinny, brand new and barely floating. We thought to ourselves, it must be a simple life living on a narrow-boat. Limited space, limited utilities and a far more restricted materialistic lifestyle – a way of enjoying life without the endless supply of commodities.

Not far from where we began, our very peaceful walk was quickly ground to a halt, but not because of something common, but because a family of mute swans had bedded down in the middle of our path and included, mum, dad and 6 cygnets. Obviously, with 6 little ones, we were extremely cautious. It didn’t help that 2 of the cygnets had decided to travel the width of the path to eat the very green grass on the other side. This meant that to get past the swans, we had to walk between the parents and 2 of their young – not a great idea!

Swans at Bathampton

Photo: Said family of swans after we had safely crossed their path. If you notice the Cockapoo in the top right, I think you’ll find it funny to hear that they actually didn’t make it past the swans. After being one of the crowd waiting to get past, they eventually let their swan nerves get the better of them by turning round and giving up. 

In the end, by shooing the 2 cygnets back to their parents, we (and the crowd that by this time had built up too), scuttled past the swans as far over to the opposite side of the path as we could – single file and as quickly as possible. We were now able to continue our journey.

Shortly after making a wide bend along the canal, we arrived at the Bathampton Swing Bridge, a lovely example of the quirky characteristics you can find along Britain’s canals – swing bridges, locks and docks – all traditionally painted in black and white and operated by a simple push/pull system. Next to the bridge was a very dainty, very Bath-like cottage which overlooked both the view of the canal and the breathtaking landscape of the Cotswolds behind. Another picture taken by a member on Flickr shows the bridge looking face on, as if you were standing on the right hand side of my photo. Although their photo is titled Millbrook Swing Bridge, I’m pretty certain it’s actually the Bathampton bridge.

Millbrook Swing Bridge

Millbrook Swing Bridge by Keith Murray

Photo: The Millbrook Swing Bridge by Keith Murray. The gate on the right hand side was situated next to a public footpath, and during our trip we detoured up this path and viewed the canal and Cotswolds from above. The range of view was spectacular.  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

You could keep walking for miles following the canal; all the way to Bradford-on-Avon if you wanted to, a whole 10.13 miles. Unfortunately on this occasion, we decided not to walk the whole 10 miles, but I’d love to do it in the future because the route even passes the Dundas Aqueduct, a spectacle for any lover of grand British architecture, or a photographer. Keith Murray kindly took some pics of that too, so you’re able to see it below.

But for anyone that’s not quite sure of the canals, or for someone that simply doesn’t realise their biodiversity and splendour, they’re out there, waiting to be explored, naturally exhibiting and supporting a huge range of fauna and flora. Please support and visit these untouched and wonderful examples of British biodiversity.

Dundas Aqueduct by Keith Murray

Photo: Dundas Aqueduct by Keith Murray (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Dundas Aqueduct, River Avon below by Keith Murray

Photo: Dundas Aqueduct, River Avon below by Keith Murray (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) 

Complimentary Currencies – what are they and how can they help?

Photo: Cash Money by Andy Thrasher on Flikr. 

Before Christmas I attended a talk at my university and in all honesty, it was one of the most engaging and inspirational I’ve ever been too. I’m not a regular at university-run events (largely because I live quite far away) and I’m certainly not a regular to economics-based talks that are a world away from the laws of physics. But this particular talk caught my eye.

The lecture was being given by Kate Raworth, a rogue economist who amongst many things is attempting to break down the barriers and limitations of classical economics; doing so by swapping them for progressive and sustainable approaches that live within the social and ecological boundaries of the 21st century.

Over the course of an hour, Kate provided a snapshot view of her new book, Doughnut Economics, using each chapter as its own section of the talk, eluding to each and every approach that, she believes could transform us into 21st century economists.

Amongst all of her fantastic ideas, there was one that really stuck with me. A lightbulb moment, you could say.  You know, when an idea just clicks, and you can almost feel each and every neuron shooting through your brain, blasting from point-to-point at the speed of light until your whole head is just a glowing network of ideas, all crisscrossing and interconnected as if viewing London by space.

Oops, sorry for going slightly off subject… where were we…

Kate had begun by talking about money. More specifically, she was discussing the possibilities for creation and ownership of money, alternative to those that steered us into the financial crash of 2008. Things like, a requirement to hold 100% reserves for all money credited at commercial banks, or the issuing of one-off tax rebates for all indebted households during financial dips, coined “People’s Quantitative Easing”.

These are all fantastic, but it was her next idea that really struck a note. The idea is called a complementary currency. It is used alongside a national currency and is typically distributed on a local scale so that individual communities can reap the benefits. They can come in various shapes and sizes but are usually paper, electronic or arbitrary objects, and are in most cases interest-free.

Whether they are used to steer the social tendencies of marginalised communities, boost the local economy, provide utilities and services to the poorest, or provide alternative payment for traditionally unpaid work, they are working. So well that there are now numerous accounts of local communities benefiting from these initiatives.

Take Kate’s example*, which comprised of a community in Kenya who created and utilised the Banga Pesa. This is a complimentary currency aimed at easing pressure off of families during hardship by providing them with a means to purchase local goods, without using their standard money for essentials such as electricity.

But there are other examples too. Here in the UK, I’ve managed to find information on 6 complimentary currencies, all created to help boost the local ecnomoy and provide an alternative means of transaction for indepedent businesses. Starting with the oldest, these are the Totnes, Lewes, Stroud, Brixton, Bristol and Exeter Pound.

Exeter, created in 2015 is of course the newest, but the one regarded as the most successful has to be Bristol, which since its inception in 2012 has been traded at a total of over £5 million.

bristol pound by samantha bell

Photo: A 2012 £1 Bristol Pound note by Samantha Bell on Flikr (CC BY 2.0)

The fact that over 2000 members** are in on the idea means that you can now receive some of your salary in Bristol Pounds, can pay your tax with some (a world-first!) and can even draw some out of a local Bristol Pound cash point. It is the perfect example of how alternative forms of currency can strengthen a local community, even in a seemingly developed country.

Research** conducted by the University of Bath into why this form of monetary design works in Bristol highlighted some specific attributes that communities most possess if they too are to succeed in introducing a complimentary currency like the one operating in the south west. Bristol’s unique social and ethical character is a key driver in the community’s vision to operate in a more local and sustainable manner that promotes a smaller but stronger economy.

Users of the scheme have expressed a “feel good” factor associated with supporting local business, created as a result of the ideology driving the whole idea, one that promotes a sustainable and circular economy that can become resilient to financial crashes and independent of globalisation and large-scale commercialism. I can’t help but think if more of us had this same feel-good factor when we shopped, then we might just feel a little happier. And in this current climate, I’m sure we could all do with a little pick-me-up here and there.

These ideas could also be applied to even smaller groups of people, like the homeless community in a certain town or city or the elderly in another. The reasons for their creation would of course be unique to each situation – the elderly might need an initiative to encourage social interaction, whereas the homeless or poorest of our community might need a way to purchase basic necessities, even when they don’t have the cash to do so.

I hope, with the use of the Bristol Pound, I’ve made you more aware of the benefits of complimentary currencies. I also hope you realise their potential and are able to see how in actual fact, they could be used for even smaller communities and social groups to improve public spending, by directing it towards a more sustainable and circular network of consumers and retailers.

If you found this interesting and would like to find out more about both complimentary currencies or sustainable economics then these resources would be a good place to start:

 

*Read more examples in Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth, pp.182-8

**S. Johnson and H. Harvey-Wilson, “A realist evaluation of the Bristol Pound”, Centre for Development Studies, University of Bath, 2017. 

Why you shouldn’t use artificial turf in your garden

Photo: We’re all here by Maureen Barlin on Flikr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Over the past 10 years or so, the desire for a low-maintenance replacement to the ever-growing grass lawn has fuelled the sale of artificial turf, the stuff that many of us would have played hockey on at school. A hard, plastic and unnaturally-green product that serves to take away the “thankless” task of mowing the lawn while providing a show-home looking garden for your “work-hard, play-hard”, “no time to do anything” lifestyle. How fun…

Sounds like suburban bliss doesn’t it? No wonder the Guardian interviewed an artificial lawn provider in suburban surrey for their views on the topic. But unfortunately, fake grass is yet another materialistic object that damages the environment, joined by the likes of 4ltr 4×4’s that’s never spend a day of their lives in the countryside while spitting out extremely high carbon emissions, convenience-based food and lifestyle products that are 9 times out of 10 made of plastic and extreme property development all over our irreplaceable rural countryside.

The sad thing is. This craze isn’t restricted to just suburban London. Earlier today, someone I know posted up some photos of their recent landscaping project. This wasn’t something I hadn’t seen before and I wasn’t completely surprised that it had made it my way. But I was shocked to find out that this devilish artificial turf had made it all the way to Devon. A place I thought actually cared about what’s outside and which I thought contained people who love their gardens. Obviously I was wrong.

How could I have been so naive? Even the turf companies are advertising the environmental benefits you can gain from installing artificial turf. These include:

  • Less carbon emissions as no need to mow the lawn
  • Less use of pesticides and weed killers as you’ve got no living matter to kill
  • Saves water because you’re grass is now a baron, plastic landscape.

Oh how wonderful those benefits sound (NOT!). I can’t believe that these companies are even allowed to promote this kind of rubbish. Obviously those things are true, but not for the right reasons.

So with artificial turf looking like its going nowhere and turf companies claiming artifical turf is the wonder-product, I thought I’d summarise all the reasons why you shouldn’t buy it.

Fake turf is commonly manufactured using tire rubber crumbs. These contain organic contaminants and traces of heavy metals.

Not exactly something you want to be releasing to the environment, especially when their in micro or nano form. There are plenty of other ways we can reuse tire rubber that doesn’t harm the environment (again).

If not made of rubber, artificial turf is also commonly manufactured entirely of plastic and will never biodegrade. 

Just like tire rubber, plastics like polypropylene, polyurethane and polyethylene are used to manufacture the turf. These indestructible materials are used because they are indeed indestructible. But unlike real grass (which never needs replacing), this artificial junk will one day need replacing. What happens to the plastic you say? Well, it gets chucked into the ocean obviously.

Installing artificial turf means removing all the nutrient-rich soil from your garden and replacing it with rubble and plastic. No worms, no life. 

Rubble and plastic certainly doesn’t sound like a nice environment for vital wildlife living in the soil. Worms especially need the soil to survive, turning mulch and organic matter into much needed nutrients for the plants above. Why do you think you can buy a wormery to compost your waste food? They’re great at fertilising the soil, provide routes for water to travel and are vital to a well-rounded ecosystem.

It destroys what little of a wildlife habitat you had left. No grass means no wildflowers, so no insects, bees or birds. 

Just like the worms provide food for plants, the worms are themselves food for a whole range of other wildlife like birds, hedgehogs and moles. With no food for plants, no wildflowers will grow, which in-turn will deter butterflies, bees and insects.

I could go on forever with other reasons why you shouldn’t install artificial turf. They all follow the same environmental theme and for good reason – why wouldn’t they be when we’re proposing to replace wildlife habitats with lifeless plastic?

So, next time you’re thinking of landscaping your garden and someone offers you artificial grass, please think about the effects it has on the wildlife in your garden. Be a wildlife supporter, not a wildlife destroyer.

My first experience of bird ringing

Photo: One of the male Blackcaps that we caught and processed. 

On Saturday, Sharnna and I got to experience bird ringing for the very first time. After following several bird ringers on Twitter and WordPress for some while now, I finally contacted a local trainer to enquire about us having a go.

As the sites are usually pretty muddy, we met our trainer at 7am in his local village and hitched a ride in his 4×4. With lunch packed and a bag brimming with bottled water in case we got thirsty, we were set for our day of ringing and had no idea how it would unfold.  After driving for 5-10 minutes, we arrived at our site for the day – 100 acres of private land brimming with life and owned by a chirpy elderly gentleman who had a profound admiration for wildlife.

When ringing, nets are used to catch the birds during their travels. In our case, we used mist nets which are a series of thin, black nets, which when viewed from front-on, are virtually invisible.

Ringing mist nets

One of my biggest concerns with ringing was the welfare of the birds being caught. There’s a large amount of controversy and a lot of people worry that ringing is cruel, so I was keen to get this topic out in the open with my trainer.

Ultimately, being caught in a net, handled and ringed is an unnatural and uneasy process for the bird in question and licensed ringers understand peoples concerns. However, achieving a ringing licence is a long process that requires consistent training for approximately 2 years, after which you’re still responsible to your assigned trainer. It is also a very important and effective means of collecting long-term and real-time data of both native and migratory birds, data that is vital to their conservation efforts.

After seeing first-hand how they’re caught, how they behave during the period and how they are affected afterwards, I am also certain that very little distress is passed onto the birds and very little are hurt during the process. If my trainer was anything to go by, the welfare of the birds being ringed comes first and foremost before anything else. Various precautions are taken to ensure the welfare of the birds and various factors regarding the landscape and weather are also taken into account.

Of course, the birds we study are wild and as such they should not be over-handled or regarded as a trophy. At the end of the day, ringing must be done for scientific and conservation efforts. When its just a fun hobby of catching birds for no scientific benefit then that’s when it starts being cruel. That being said, it’s important to state that no birds during my ringing session were treated this way. All of my photos were taken just after ringing and as you may notice, there are no photos of brooding female birds as these were all released immediately after processing.

Once we’d put the nets up, we set up a little “camp” quite far away from the nets themselves. Our trainer brought all the necessities, including scales for weighing (& accompanying pots for holding the birds), wing ruler, an assortment of BTO rings and matching pliers, as well a collection of fabric bird bags and a few other useful items – all secured in a cute little wooden box, the kind you’d imagine a scientist to keep 50 years ago.

Ringing Setup 120518

For each bird, we recorded the species, sex, feather length, age and weight. If female, we also scored her brood patch. The extent of knowledge and experience you require to do all these things is very large. It makes you understand why training takes so long.

All-in-all, we caught 4 Blackcaps, 1 Chiffchaff, 1 Robin, 1 Blackbird, 1 Kingfisher and 2 Bullfinches.

Although my trainer was a little disappointed, we were astounded! We hadn’t had the luxury of ringing 200 birds in a normal event, so this small collection was the best it was every going to get. The Blackcaps were a lovely site because you don’t usually see them much in standard gardens, definitely since there were 2 different pairs.

The Chiffchaff was an eye opener and made you realise how small birds actually are, and the blackbird, well, made you realise how aggressive small birds are!

Kingfisher 120518

The Kingfisher was the jewel in the crown, (even if she was a little scraggly and smelt of fish!) and the 2 Bullfinches were a spectacular site. As a notoriously shy breed, it was wonderful to see them up close. Their plumage is so straight, tidy and perfect. Almost as if someone has coloured them in, tirelessly ensuring they don’t cross the lines.

Bullfinch

All in all, our ringing day was amazing. Our trainer was brilliant. We shared opinions on animal and bird welfare, countryside life in Britain and the controversy surrounding ringing. They were all very important topics and ones that scientists should have a view on. As a fellow scientist and collector of data, bird ringing couldn’t of gone any better. It is the the epitome of what can be achieved through science and the natural world and warmly crosses between the two. It was the best experience I’ve had a in a long time and I can’t express how glad I am that I did it. I am certain ringing will remain in my life for many years to come, so watch this space for more updates.