My country life: the bird ringer of Spurn Head

Meet Paul Collins, the man responsible for ringing thousands of migratory birds on this narrow sand pit

10th March 2011
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Last year saw records tumble at the Spurn Head Bird Observatory, which sits at the mouth of the Humber Estuary. More than 16,000 birds were caught and ringed on this spit of land, which is just 50m (165ft) wide in places, smashing the previous record of 11,000.

Most of the blackbirds, warblers, starlings and other common species were caught by Paul Collins, who has spent the last eight years in charge of the collection of huts that make up the observatory.

Spurn Head is in a constant state of flux. On one side lie the mudflats that attract so many waders, while on the other is a small narrow beach, buffeted by the relentless crash of the North Sea. “It’s impressive in the winter when the wind’s blowing,” said Paul. “There are rocks that I can’t even lift up, yet the sea just tosses them out of the way, it’s so powerful. Sometimes the sea strips the beach of sand and you get right back down to the clay, then five days later the sand’s back again. It’s a magical place.”

Paul revels in the solitude of this bleak but beautiful stretch of coast, although he’s rarely short of avian company. “You get thousands of birds migrating here because it acts like a funnel and they’re all drawn in. It’s the first bit of land that they see,” said Paul who, as a schoolboy, was taught how to ring birds by a family friend; today it takes up to five years to get a licence.

Before taking over as the warden at Spurn Head, Paul worked in the warmer climes of Hong Kong. “I was radio tagging black-faced spoonbills,” he said. “There’s only about a 1,000 left in the world, but they breed between the two Koreas, which is a bit of a dodgy place to be.”
 
Behind the observatory sits Paul’s pride and joy, a collection of ancient Heligoland traps. “The weather is so rough and windy here, conventional methods such as mist nets are very difficult to use, but we can use these traps permanently,” he explained.
 

Named after the archipelago of German islands in the North Sea where they were invented, the huge traps, which are up to 15m (50ft) long, are made up of a series of chambers linked with netting which funnel the birds to a small, baited enclosure. It’s here that Paul skilfully catches, weighs and rings them, with each bird taking under a minute to process.

Vital research

The origins of ringing go back more than 100 years, and today it’s seen as a major research tool for organisations such as the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), which employs Paul to send in meticulous records.

Paul weighs and measures the bird, without causing it any harm, and releases it again
 

The importance of ringing, he explained, is to find out as much about a species as possible – where it breeds, its migration routes and life expectancy, as well as monitoring population trends, so that if there is a sudden dip, the BTO can find out why. Autumn and spring are his busiest times, but winter can get hectic too if inland snow drives birds to the coast.

But it’s not the rarities blown in by the icy north winds that really interest Paul; it’s the common birds he loves. Flocks of more than 40,000 knots can feed on the rich estuarine mud at any one time, and last winter he marvelled at over 1,000 robins as they arrived from Scandinavia, before spending two days ringing 150 of them.

Paul is helped out by one volunteer, as well as some of the birdwatchers. They stay in the old ammunition sheds that used to supply shells for guns that once defended the estuary, though Paul has moved to the comparative luxury of a wooden chalet.

Paul also follows up sightings of rare birds for the BTO, although he’s got little time for the twitchers who descend on his bleak idyll when news of a rarity sets their pagers bleeping. “They get obsessive, that’s the trouble with them,” he says.

“On some days it’s horrendous. You get coachloads of birdwatchers. I lock myself away and leave it to the Wildlife Trust to manage.”

THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ISSUE 43 OCOUNTRYFILE MAGAZINE. TO NEVER MISS AN ISSUE SUBSCRIBE TODAY!

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