Guest Blog: Keeping Tabs (and Tags) on our Brilliant Birds of Prey

My name is Roisin Kearney and I am a Conservation Officer with RSPB NI. I work in a number of different areas, but one of the issues I cover is wildlife crime in Northern Ireland, including raptor persecution. I am also a keen ringer and a certified tree climber, so – along with the NI Raptor Study Group – I help out with ringing and wing tagging the red kite chicks in Northern Ireland. I am also one of the people responsible for keeping daily checks on the GPS tags that we put on some birds of prey in 2019 and I thought I would let you know how brilliant it is! We essentially check to make sure that the birds are still moving (i.e. still alive!), but the movement data gives us so much more information than that.

Me up a tree (can you spot me?!) [Photo: C. Barnett]

I check on the tags first thing every morning (after I have made my morning coffee) and it is always a really fun way to start the day. I get a little frisson of excitement when I see that a tag has updated. What am I going to get today?! Will the bird have travelled to some amazing far-flung place (i.e. Antrim…) or will it still be in the area that you left it the last time its tag sent data? Most of the time it’s nothing exciting and the bird has not ranged far (though it is still nice to see the bird is still alive and kicking!) but sometimes you get wonderful surprises.

For example, one red kite – who had had pretty standard movements up until this point – did leave County Down, where it was tagged as a chick, for the hills of Antrim soon after fledging but then basically stayed within one small area there. Imagine my surprise then to see that one day, quite suddenly, and for no apparent reason, it had flown to Cork! Over the next two days, it seemed to decide that it didn’t like Cork after all and flew straight back up to County Down, where it has pretty much stayed since then. Why?! Monitoring these tags throws up endless questions. Did something happen to the bird in Antrim to scare it off? Or did it just fancy an adventure? Did it think the grass was greener on the other side (then decide otherwise?). Perhaps it was just to do with the prevailing winds, or it was following another bird.

One red kite has been exploring! [Image: Google Earth]

Unfortunately, it is not always so positive, and I will admit that I am also a little bit apprehensive when I check on the birds each morning. Persecution of our raptors is such a huge problem and I dread that fate happening to one of the amazing birds that I have gotten to know over the last few months by following their paths through life. When I was awarded my tree climbing licence, I was so excited to work on the red kite project and climb up trees and ring fluffy, lovely chicks. Alas, the first tree climbing situation I was called out to was to recover a dead female red kite from her nest containing her three eggs. Her and her mate had both been illegally poisoned. It was not the wonderful start to my tree climbing that I had envisioned. I hope that the day does not come that “my” birds stop moving and I have to go out and recover one of the birds to find that it has been illegally killed. It might break my heart just a little bit.

Female red kite dead on her nest with three eggs. Poisoned by the illegal poison Carbofuran. [Photo: A. Ferguson]

Nevertheless, I am still so excited to see what this next year brings. Red kites especially tend to roost communally during the winter and so these birds aren’t ranging as much now. However, this year I am hoping to see some more exciting journeys taken by these birds!

Who knows where they might roam?!

Guest Blog by Roisin Kearney, RSPB NI (PAW NI Partner organisation)