If you like it, then you shoulda put a ring on it!

The Dobrogea region in southeastern Romania is part of the Eurasian-East African Flyway, one of the important migration corridors for birds that follows the western coast of the Black Sea. To learn more about conservation in this region, we headed to the Black sea coast to visit the Agigea Ornithological Observatory, as it is the first and only permanent ringing and bird migration research station in Romania. But why are birds even ringed, how do you ring them and what are the challenges? Let´s find out!

Why do we put rings on birds?

You may wonder: why do conservationists put rings on birds and what is bird ringing? Bird ringing is the attachment of a small, individually numbered metal or plastic tag to the leg, sometimes wing or neck of a wild bird. Birds are ringed because this provides a reliable, inexpensive and harmless way to individually identify each bird. Bird ringing is an important tool providing information on the survival, territory use, reproduction and movement of birds, helping ornithologists to monitor bird populations and understand their dynamics. With the help of this bird ID, once a ringed bird is re-encountered – either when birdwatchers read the ring number through their binoculars or if they catch or find the bird – it is possible to gain information about this individual. 

The original purpose of bird ringing was to solve the mysteries of bird migration. Bird ringing for scientific purposes originates from Denmark back in 1889. From then on, in a very short time ringing shed light on the complicated migration routes of many birds and in 1931, the first atlas of bird migration was published. Nowadays, thanks to these efforts the broad migration patterns are now known for most bird species in Europe. 

The Agigea Bird Observatory

The Agigea Bird Observatory is located at the Marine Biological Station “Prof. Dr. Ioan Borcea”. The aim of the station is to research a variety of different topics connected to birds. These include, for example, the influence of climate change on bird migration, zoonoses carried by birds, biochemical and ecotoxicological studies, as well as general ornithological and ecological studies. Established as a project in 2018 in cooperation between the Alexandru Ioan Cuza University of Iasi city as well as the Romanian Ornithological Society, this is the only almost all-year-round active bird ringing station in the country. Annually, they ring between 12.000 and 16.000 birds. 

Bird ringing has a strict monthly and daily schedule here. During spring migration from March to May, as well as during the autumn migration from August to November, ornithologists ring birds every day from 5AM to 11PM. In June and July ringing takes place every 10 days, and only between December and February, the station takes a full break from ringing. As we visited the station in July, it was very important for us to arrive on the 20th of the month. 

This is how ringing works

On our 5:00 morning arrival, we were welcomed by the coordinator of the Research Station, Emanuel Baltag, as well as a few other enthusiastic ‘early birds’, starting the morning shift of ringing. There is not much time to spare, we have to get to work, preparing the area for catching birds.

The ringing team checks the nets hourly or on hot days even half-hourly, and places the found birds in canvas bags. This does not endanger the bird, quite on the contrary, the bag calms it down and ensures that its feathers are not damaged. Then comes the actual ringing, when a metal ring of a suitable diameter (for larger individuals, also coloured plastic rings are used) is attached to the leg of the bird. This includes the country code and the serial number of the ring. Moreover, the team takes various measurements of the ringed bird at the point of ringing, such as the weight, length of the wind and tail, the width and length of the bill, as well as the muscle and fat content of the individual.

At the Agigea Ornithological Station, not only the employees do this work, but also several experienced ringers from Romania and abroad that volunteer for free. The volunteers who come to help are not only professional ornithologists, but also hobby birdwatchers that receive training in the station. Emanuel tells us that more than 50 volunteers from Romania and beyond come to help out every year, building a true community at the station.

Over the course of the day, 78 birds are ringed. Species like Common whitethroat, Lesser whitethroat, Olivaceous warbler, Great tit, Common nightingale, Syrian woodpecker, and even an Eurasian reed warbler, which is the first migrant of this season, 10 days before the autumn migration period officially starts. We are amazed by how efficiently the team works together throughout the whole day, and even manages to welcome a group of young pupils from a local school, introducing them to bird identification and ringing. The identification of bird species takes a lot of practice – the team clearly managed to captivate this group of children with their knowledge and enthusiasm for bird conservation. 

The power of the community

Throughout our journey, we seek to document the diversity of nature conservation work and find out what drives people to dedicate their lives to protecting nature. A common thing we hear and have experienced throughout our own career is the lack of funding. Jobs are limited and it is challenging to create permanent positions. There is often not enough funding to secure conservation actions on a long term, not just for a few years. Hence, the funding issue is the one most profound challenge we hear again and again and creates so many obstacles for effective nature protection.

When asking Emanuel about his motivation, he says two very powerful things:

“Nature protection, specifically in my case working with birds is way more than a profession and more than a hobby for me. It is a way of life. Being outside in nature and being able to do what I feel passionate about – this is irreplaceable for me. Secondly, as you can also see, what we do here in the station would not be possible without the help of volunteers. Over the course of the years, a true community grew here, consisting not only of professional ornithologists but also of hobby birdwatchers who work in all kinds of fields. Many of them even come to spend their holidays here with us. Before the Covid pandemic, we organised yearly birdwatching camps, where over 200 people attended. An incredible community of bird enthusiasts has formed here. And I can say with confidence, that one of the biggest achievements of the station is exactly this ever-growing community. ”

The Agigea research station does not only do ornithological research, they also take care of the protected sand dunes that stretch around the station. In the next article about our visit to Agigea, you can find out more about that!

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