If she likes it she wants to put a ring on it

Harriet Day and a Little Owl

by ANTONY CLAY

SPENDING time with nature has become very popular with a lot of people in recent months but for Harriet Day it has always been a way of life.

She has been spending the lockdown bringing a bit of comfort to our feathered friends, as well as carrying out vital research to find out more about them.

Harriet (23), of Robinets Road in Greasbrough, Rotherham, is a hairdresser by profession but aims to make her birdwatching hobby into a career.

She takes part in vital surveys for the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), is training to be a bird ringer, and has built a large number of nestboxes for owls.

Harriet has been birdwatching since she was a child and spends as much time as possible searching out everything from a robin to a red kite.

“As a child I used to go fishing with my dad and I came across a kingfisher. I was besotted with this kingfisher. Every time he went fishing I wanted to go so I could see the kingfisher,” said Harriet.

A young Sand Martin gets a ring

A visit to Greasbrough Dam where she saw a colourful great crested grebe only spurred on her enthusiasm. “It fascinated me as it was making a nest,” said Harriet.

She has written articles for birding publications and is a keen member of the Sheffield Sorby Brecks Ringing Group where she is in training to become a qualified BTO ringer.

Bird ringers put lightweight rings on the legs of birds as a way of tracking their movements. If a bird is spotted, or found dead, the ring’s number is recorded and passed back to a database which can show where the bird has travelled.

“When I first started ringing I was a nervous wreck,” admitted Harriet. “But my trainer said I would not hurt the birds. They have quite a lot of resistance and there is no harm done to them.

“I have been volunteering with the BTO for the past two years with bird ringing.

“I have been getting up at 4am and putting rings on birds.

“I have done a sparrowhawk and you have got to watch your hands. People think they will bite you but its their feet that do the damage with their claws.”

Harriet is looking forward to being able to travel to the East Coast to ring seabirds — which will involve tackling steep cliffs with huge waves crashing beneath!

A bird in the hand: Harriet prepares a cuckoo for ringing

“If they do allow us to travel by June I will be going back to Flamborough. I will be ringing kittiwakes and abseiling down the cliffs,” said Harriet.

She said that her interest in ringing stems from wanting to understand how birds navigate over long distances.

“I wanted to know a little bit more about migration and the only way to do that is bird ringing,” said Harriet.

“I think migration always had a fascination for me, trying to understand how they get here. People have to have a Satnav but the birds don’t.”

Last October at Flamborough, Harriet caught a goldcrest, Britain’s tiniest bird, which had already been ringed two days before — in Nigeria. “It’s amazing how they come back every year,” she said.

The rarest birds that Harriet has put rings on so far have been a cuckoo and a nightjar, a seldom seen species that mainly hunts at dawn and dusk.

“It’s so rewarding to think that cuckoo has been ringed by someone and it then goes to Africa,” said Harriet.

Harriet hopes to get her bird ringing licence this Autumn after her rigorous training was delayed by the pandemic.

But the lockdowns of the last year have not slowed Harriet’s drive to help the birds — and people — at all.

A Dipper is set to be ringed

She said: “I decided in lockdown I was going to make some nestboxes. My nan’s friend is really good with wood and we made 13 little owl boxes, 10 tawny owl boxes and two barn owl boxes.”

She asked local farmers if she could place the boxes on their land and got permission to revisit them to ring any chicks.

Birds have shown an interest in the boxes — sited around Greasbrough and Wentworth.

“In the process of creating these nest boxes, I felt it gave me focus, a positive feeling, hoping I might have made a difference,” said Harriet.

“Some of the farmers said they would be delighted to have nestboxes because they knew there were owls in the area. I asked if they would be happy for me to go back and ring the chicks.

“I have also been asked to make more owl boxes for a farmer in Lincolnshire.”

Harriet said that one farmer at Wentworth regularly saves barn owl pellets that he finds on his land which she delights in dissecting to find out what the birds have been eating. And they have been eating well, it seems, feasting on bank and field voles.

Since her nestbox project began, Harriet said that another farmer with a rat problem had stopped using poison because of its threat to birds.

Harriet also made bird nestboxes for smaller species like blue and great tits which have been donated to local schools and care homes.

“I went on to make 22 bird feeders to donate to care homes, with the hope of keeping the residents focused to help with mental health in this difficult time,” said Harriet.

“I found it rewarding when one of the residents approached me through her bedroom window and said I have brought joy to her mornings as she watches the birds feed. She had lost her husband and used to go birding with him.”

As if all that was not enough, Harriet keeps herself busy participating in important ornithology research studies which will provide data to help understand and protect birds.

“For the last three years I have been doing surveys for the BTO and RSPB,” said Harriet.

For instance, she is taking part in a BTO wetland survey which requires her to log the species at monitor sites in Greasbrough and Thrybergh each month.

She has also taken part in studies for other wildlife groups, including a survey of otters on the River Don, is studying for an online qualification in ecology consultancy, and is working towards a licence to allow her to work with bats.

Harriet has also undertaken a project to make land which had been the victim of illegal rubbish dumping into havens for wildlife. Now the sites have butterflies, frog spawn and a much improved ecosystem.

Harriet has also been improving habitats for hedgehogs, recently looking after one of the animals which had got into difficulty. She aims to release it back into the wild soon.

Harriet aims to work with nature in the long-run, undertaking surveys and other conservation work.

The ornithologist believes that the difficult year has encouraged more and more people to notice the wild world around them as they go for local walks in the great outdoors.

“People are now starting to discover what we naturalists discovered a long time ago,” she said.

“I have noticed in lockdown more people have been getting out to parks and woods and discovering what is there.

A bird of prey family in one of Harriet’s nestboxes

“When we go out for a walk we do feel better.

“It’s amazing to think nature is around us. I see birds like goosander on the River Don.”

Harriet has always been inspired by the birds and other beasts that she sees during her explorations of the natural world. Her enthusiasm is as obvious now as it was when she saw the kingfisher on her dad’s fishing trips.

“I just find it really rewarding,” she said.

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