A day in the life of a Turtle Dove field scientist

Post by Stephanie Morren, Interim Operation Turtle Dove Project Manager for the RSPB

Having recently joined the Operation Turtle Dove team, I wanted the chance to find out what a day in the life of a turtle dove field scientist was like and also to see some turtle doves in the wild! So I joined RSPB’s Tony Morris (Senior Conservation Scientist) and Laura Wright (Turtle Dove Volunteer Intern) at various sites in Norfolk and Cambridgeshire to see how they were doing.

The day started very early, we were at a farm near Downham Market by 6am – the team are certainly dedicated! 26 turtle doves have been caught this year and had radio trackers fitted harmlessly to their tails. Using a radio receiver we hoped to pick up the signal of one or more of these turtle doves and see where they are and what they are up to.

Tony Morris searching for nests in suitable scrub

At our first stop we very soon heard the wonderful and charismatic sound of the male turtle dove purr. Soon afterwards we heard a second – it seemed very likely that there were two territories here. We saw both birds perching on trees and electricity wires and it really was a thrill to see such a fast-declining bird in the wild. Neither of these males were radio-tagged though, so we had no idea where they were nesting. We spent a long time poking around in bushes to try and find a nest but no luck this time.

 At our second site we were very excited to pick up a signal from a radio-tag with our receiver. We followed the signal over bridges, through fields and eventually to some suitable habitat near a railway line. However, although we couldn’t find a tag, it looked very much like the signal was coming from a tag not attached to a bird. It may have come unstuck from the tail, or sometimes the birds shed their tail feather with the tag attached. A disappointing outcome, but still a good insight into how the team are tracking these birds.

Laura Wright searching for radio signals

So why find out where the turtle doves are and where they are nesting? Farmers in the Norfolk/Cambridgeshire area are involved in a study trialling seed mixes on their land. This seed mix contains wild flowers known to be a good source of food for turtle doves such as fumitory, white clover and common vetch. Some farmers mow plots in their crop and plant the mix in these and some leave borders around the edge of the field with the mix planted there. The farmers are paid for the loss of crops. The team of RSPB scientists are comparing nesting attempts of turtle doves at or near farms with these seed plots with nesting attempts of turtle doves at farms without. So in order to do this they need to find and monitor the nests.

It was a beautiful day with lots of fantastic wildlife sightings including little owl, yellowhammer and red kite and it was a joy to join the team. However I am filled with admiration for the hard work they are putting in to find a solution to the alarming decline of this iconic farmland bird.