Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) continues to wreak havoc amongst our bird populations, and after all the deaths within seabird colonies during the summer, wintering wildfowl are the group of birds that are suffering the most with it at the moment.
As a bird ringer operating under the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) ringing scheme, we have to adhere to a raft of new, more targeted, biosecurity measures, and understandably so. It is very important that ringing continues despite of HPAI, to ensure that there isn't a loss of essential data crucial in informing our understanding of this disease, and monitoring changes in bird populations because of it. It is also essential that ringing activities do not contribute to the spread of HPAI, hence the new biosecurity measures that are now in place.
I also have considerable experience in visiting poultry units and the biosecurity measures that are always in place to mitigate disease risk and spread, and I'll come back to that shortly with some personal thoughts and observations on what I think that all birders should be doing, indeed all users of the countryside that move from site to site, to help reduce the spread of HPAI. The problem is, that some birders, and users of the countryside, can be a belligerent lot, and aren't happy to be asked to follow any guidance. Please note that I did say 'some' birders!
The BTO have divided their guidance and permissions regarding HPAI by activity e.g. seabird ringing, passerine ringing etc, and country e.g., England, Wales etc. And as I only target passerines at the moment, I have to follow the biosecurity guidelines set out for the ringing of passerines.
I have summarised below the biosecurity measures that we now have to follow:
- Wear an outer laying of clothing that can easily be sanitised e.g., waterproofs, and disinfect the outer layer, boots and hands (or nitrile/vinyl gloves) on arrival to and departure from the field site.
- Sanitise all catching, handling and ringing equipment that has the potential to come into contact with birds and clothes at the end of each session.
- Sanitise hands and biometric equipment (pliers, rules, scales weighing pots etc) frequently during a session, and at the end of a session.
- Once a bird bag has been used to hold a bird, it cannot be used for another individual until it has been washed.
Prior to Covid, I used to visit free range egg producers to assess the tree planting that the egg producers had undertaken on the hen's ranges. The idea of the tree planting was for enrichment of the birds, and to also provide additional habitat for biodiversity, as the tree planting tied in with particular National Vegetation Classification (NVC) woodland communities.
At each site, on arrival I disinfected my car wheels via a spray bottle containing Virkon S, and scrubbed and dipped my boots in the disinfectant bath provided by the egg producer. On leaving the site, the same was done again. In addition to this, I also had to wear a set of paper overalls, that were disposed of at the end of the visit and therefore not used again.
I think that some of the above should most certainly apply to birders, who very often visit multiple sites, and it should apply even if not visiting multiple sites. And as I said before, any users of the countryside should follow some of these guidelines as well.
The guidelines that I think all birders etc should be following are cleaning and spraying of boots on arrival and departure from a site, and also the spraying of car wheels on arrival and departure from a site. If this was followed, it would at least ensure that birding activities weren't contributing to the spread of HPAI. The reason I say this, is that going back to my poultry unit visiting days, it was feet and wheels that were the main vectors of disease transmission between sites, and this applies to HPAI exactly the same.
So, when you are next out birding, or walking your dog perhaps, please have a think about this, and make sure that your activities aren't contributing to the spread of HPAI.
Now to some birds! I have mentioned before our good friend's Robert and Diana's farm near Garstang where we have nest boxes primarily aimed at providing a safe place to nest for Tree Sparrows, and where we also run a winter-feeding station. The reason we operate the feeding station is to provide over-winter feeding opportunities for the Tree Sparrows, and if we catch some of these birds at the feeding station, it provides us with some excellent data on survival (percentage recaptures).
In early December, we had our first session at the feeding station, and managed to ring 23 birds, including eight Tree Sparrows. Other species ringed were four Blue Tits, three Great Tits, three Chaffinches, a Robin, a Coal Tit and three Greenfinches.
It was a clear, crisp morning and a few Pink-footed Geese were moving about, including the 1,164 that flew over us. It is hard to estimate how many Tree Sparrows were at the feeding station, but it was probably at least thirty birds. Other sightings that made it onto the pages of my notebook included a Kestrel, two Grey Wagtails, a Buzzard and a single Siskin.
I was down in southwest Lancs again towards the end of the first week in December completing wintering bird surveys, and although the weather was glorious over the two days I was surveying, it was very cold with a hard frost lasting all day. Over the two days I recorded of interest 1,436 Pink-footed Geese, eight Stock Doves, 20 Collared Doves, a Water Rail in a reed-fringed ditch, 180 Lapwings, 14 Golden Plovers, 101 Curlews, 78 Common Gulls, five Buzzards, a female Sparrowhawk, a female Marsh Harrier that headed north, a female & two male Kestrels, a Raven, eight Long-tailed Tits, three Song Thrushes, a Grey Wagtail, a Lesser Redpoll, a Siskin, a pair of Yellowhammers and two Reed Buntings.
Towards the middle of the month, we were back at the feeding station and it was another clear, frosty day. Only eleven birds were ringed this time; a female Mallard, three Great Tits, two Robins, two Blue Tits, a Chaffinch, a Tree Sparrow and a Treecreeper.
The wetland was frozen solid, so all the wildfowl had moved on.
To finish off I just wanted to wish you all Season's Greetings, and I hope you enjoy the mid-winter festivities. We are beyond the Solstice now, so we can look forward to the return of the light!