Lindsay went to the Upper Rock to meet some people who pay to come to Gibraltar in order to volunteer. She met the volunteer birders & ringers at the Bird Observatory
Tucked away off the beaten track at the foot of the Med Steps is a small building which houses the Jews Gate Bird Observatory. Every spring for the past six years Steve Norman has spent three months stationed there as resident ringer. Along with his team of volunteers (all bar one are visitors to the Rock), they scour the skies for passing birds on the migratory route to their northern breeding grounds. They also catch and ring visiting birds in order to keep track of the bird population coming to Gibraltar.
Steve’s association with the Rock began back in 2007. After his wife passed away he looked for somewhere to go which didn’t have any associations with their past holidays. He found an advert in the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) magazine asking for volunteers to visit Gibraltar and help with the monitoring programme. That summer he came for 2 weeks, the following year he returned this time for 3 weeks. In 2009 the resident ringer for Gibraltar moved to Canada and Steve was invited to fill the vacancy, he has done that job ever since.
In late February each year, he flies into Gibraltar, makes his home in the Observatory and gets everything ready for the visiting volunteers. Once the mist nets which are used to catch the birds are in place, Steve’s ready to welcome a maximum of six volunteers each week. Some stay for a few days, others for two or three weeks at a time. Each day Steve leads his team of helpers as they catch and identify the birds. They are weighed and studied before being ringed and released back into the wild.
This is important work as all the data from the ringing is sent back to the BTO in order to track the health and wellbeing of each of the visiting bird species coming to the area. Their body fat and muscle condition is recorded which in turn gives the ornithologists information as to how far they are expected to travel on their migration. A bird with high fat and large muscles is expected to be fit enough to fly over 2000 miles up to northern Germany or the British Isles.
The work is highly specialised and it takes 4 to 5 years of training to become an “A Permit” ringer. The birds’ welfare is of paramount importance, so when the mist nets are set up, they need to be checked every 15 minutes so that any birds which are caught don’t suffer injury or distress. It’s not just the birds though that can be injured. Steve says that on a number of occasions he’s been pecked by over keen woodpeckers and had the talons of a bird of prey sunk into his hand! “Those are the days you hope there’s a volunteer on hand to help get the bird off you!”
Steve says they will only open the mist nets to catch the birds in the correct weather conditions as if it’s windy or wet or if there’s hot sun, the birds are more likely to be injured while they wait in the nets to be released. They can’t be in them for any longer than quarter of an hour as they can fall victim to feral cats in the nature reserve or perish in the heat of the sunshine.
Hand in hand with the ringing programme, Steve and his team of volunteers are tasked with observing the skies on the look out for raptors (birds of prey) and other birds migrating from south of the Sahara Desert up to Europe in order to breed. This, like the ringing, is weather dependent. If the wind is coming from the east, birds wont attempt to cross the Strait as they could be carried way off course and into the Atlantic Ocean.
The perfect wind conditions for seeing the raptors is a south-westerly without rain. Luckily for me, that is exactly what the Rock was experiencing during my visit to the Observatory and I was lucky enough to see Black Kites and a Short Toed Eagle soaring overhead. (Thankfully I was in the presence of experts who were able to tell me what they were!)
What species of birds do the volunteers get to see on their visits to Gibraltar? There are many varieties of Warbler including Willow Warbler, Spectacled Warbler and the imaginatively named Melodious Warbler (which is a yellow colour much like a canary). A rare highlight for the volunteers is the Serin which is a type of finch. Among the birds of prey that can be spotted are several species of eagle, Black Kites, Marsh Harriers, ospreys and vultures.
Over the course of a bird watching & ringing season, around 60 volunteers can be expected to pass through the doors of the observatory. One of those is Eddie Stubbings, originally from Norfolk but now living and working on the Welsh Island of Skomer which is a wildlife sanctuary. This year marks Eddie’s third visit to Gibraltar. He has also volunteered in Malta but he says that’s a completely different environment “In Malta we are protecting birds from getting shot and reporting wildlife crime”. The allure of volunteering here is “the combination of both ringing and raptor watching and seeing different species from at home”.
Another visitor to the observatory this spring is Anna Allum, for her it’s also been a bit of a busman’s holiday as she works in the RSPB reserve at Pullborough Brooks in West Sussex. Her short stay on the Rock has been very varied though; “I’ve been contributing to the Raptor count, and did some moth trapping. I’ve been out to watch the bats in the evening and yesterday I helped rescue a loggerhead turtle on one of the dolphin boats”.
So why does Steve pay for a plane ticket and spend three months of the year getting up at dawn and working more than 12 hour days keeping track of the birds in the skies above Gibraltar? “I enjoy it, it’s lovely to see birds I can’t see in England, from rare warblers to birds of prey”.
At the beginning of May, Steve shuts up the Observatory and heads back to his native North Yorkshire to do exactly the same thing but on his home turf. There, his speciality is warblers and he’s written papers on the species. He looks forward to perhaps seeing some of the birds which have flown over the Rock visit him on his home turf.