A training expedition I’ll never forget…

Colleagues from the Scottish Raptor Study Group (SRSG) were kind enough to invite myself (Eimear) and Dr Kendrew Colhoun to their patch in Scotland to train in fitting GPS tags. I am already trained and licenced to handle birds of prey, and I have ran a wing-tagging marking programme of buzzards in Northern Ireland since 2011. I also help to wing-tag red kite chicks here each year, and have fitted GPS backpacks to buzzards. But I had never fitted these particular GPS units before. Kendrew is a ringer and holds an ‘A’ permit, the highest level for ringing. He is experienced in tagging and trapping all sorts of birds all over the world but he too had never used these devices before. We jumped at the chance to get some training with some of the most experienced mentors in raptor conservation. And after their fundraising efforts, it was only fitting that Dara and Roisin McAnulty (see earlier Blog ) came to see the training too.

Over the course of a week we learned how to fit these tags via backpack-style harness to young goshawks, very similar in size to the birds we will be tagging. These tags give incredibly valuable information about the movements and survival of young goshawks and it was brilliant to see the entire system in practice.

Following our training, we were successful in getting our licences from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) to put GPS tags on birds of prey in Northern Ireland. The licencing reports are pretty strict – which is a good thing. Kendrew and I will have to write reports giving a step-by-step overview of the tagging of each bird, the exact measurements (to the mm!) of each harness we put on, and the behaviour of the birds immediately afterwards and throughout the duration that the backpack stays on (which can be as long as 4 years!). As scientists we want to collect information which will help us to understand how these birds live, and the threats and pressures on their populations. But, we would never do this in sacrifice of the health of the bird. Technology and techniques are always being refined, and it is important that we give feed-back to the BTO so they can make sure that licenced techniques will not harm the birds in any way and that any refinements we might suggest can be considered in similar applications in the future.

So now we have the equipment, we have the know-how and the licences, and we have landowners permission we are good to go – now to tag the birds!