Birda Stories

Pass the Pliers

Reading, UK

Rackie Powell

As stress weighs on Rackie, her dream of finally being able to share her life long passion for bird ringing is on the line. Years of practice have come to culminate on a tiny island in between the Bristol Channel and the Atlantic. She feels unprepared, but she can’t turn back – not now that she’s so close.

Words by: Rackie Powell

As a day of blue skies dawns, on the horizon, a lonely island peeks into view. Squashed in her seat, and slightly deaf from the noise, Rackie’s hands start to shake. Not because she’s in a helicopter for the first time, but because she’s going to be tested when she lands.

“I’m a bit of a perfectionist and I sometimes feel a bit out of my depth, even if I’m really good at something. I felt that recently when I was doing my bird ringing assessment. For bird ringing, you have to be tested so you can get your licence; to ensure you’re doing it correctly. I went all the way to Lundy, an island in the Bristol Channel to do the test.”

“The journey over to Lundy was incredible. but I’d built up this test so much in my head that I suddenly felt that I thought I knew nothing about birding. All the questions kept running through my mind; do I know enough? Why am I even at this stage? Will I fail? you learn more about what ringing can do, you understand how powerful a tiny, unique metal ring on a bird's leg can be for science.

“I first learnt about ringing when I was about 14. When I saw my first bird ringing demonstration it immediately inspired me to pick up the ringing pliers. It was amazing and felt like such a privilege to see birds closer in your hand. I think that’s the initial draw for most people, but as you learn more about what ringing can do, you understand how powerful a tiny, unique metal ring on a bird’s leg can be for science. We get to measure them, weigh them, find out how long these birds live for and where they go in the world!

“My favourite thing about bird ringing is doing the one thing that inspired me; ringing demonstrations. I’m able to give people the opportunity to see birds they might have only seen in their garden, and at a distance, up close. It only takes 5 seconds, but it can have such a lasting impact.

Collage of a bird ringer in the UK. Picture of a Female Kingfisher in the hand. Picture of a Treecreeper, held in the ringer's grip. Rackie in a Birda cap holding and ringing a Long-tailed Tit in ringer's grip, the safest way to hold these birds.
A selection of the birds that Rackie has ringed / banded. Top left is a female Kingfisher, bottom left is a Treecreeper and the bird in Rackie's hand is a Long-tailed Tit. Rackie is a certified bird ringer and is ringing birds under licence. She is holding them in the 'ringer's grip' which doesn't hurt them and keeps the birds safe. After they have been ringed, they are released.

“I was convinced I wasn’t going to pass my ringing test on Lundy, but as luck would have it, there were a number of people on the island who had never seen ringing before. When I was being assessed on how to do bird ringing, I was able to demonstrate and teach members of the public about ringing and share ID tricks, like how to tell the difference between a Chiffchaff and a Willow Warbler, a notoriously similar species. Talking to them made me realise that, yes I do know what I’m doing after all!

When asked about a particular day where she remembers ringing a memorable bird, Rackie’s eyes brightened.

Birdwatcher smiling at the camera with binoculars at WWT Slimbridge
Rackie out birdwatching at WWT Slimbridge

“There’s something really special about catching a bird you’ve seen before. I have a Barn Swallow project where we ring chicks in the nest, so we know where they’ve started. In the winter, they migrate all the way to Africa to then come back to the same nest. When you’ve caught exactly the same Swallow in exactly the same barn a year from when you first ringed it, it’s so impressive. This tiny bird that fits in my hand has been to Africa and back this year…That’s the stuff that blows my mind when I’m ringing. You suddenly realise that this is the sort of data that is concrete proof of how incredible birds are!

“My result from Lundy came through and I’m happy to say that I finally got an A ringing permit, which is the highest level you can get, and my trainer endorsement; so I can train people now! I can pass on the ringing pliers too!”

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