Bird Ringing on North Ronaldsay                                       Home

Bird Ringing in General

Ringing is one of the most important tools by which ornithologists can monitor the movements, populations, survival rates and productivity of birds. Fitting a small, metal, uniquely numbered ring onto the leg of a bird harmlessly allows it to be identified as an individual for the rest of its life. Much of our knowledge of bird migration come from the ringing that has been carried out over the last hundred years; the data collected continues to be a vital asset for bird conservation all over the world. Bird ringing in Britain and Ireland is organised by the British Trust for Ornithology. More information can be found on their website

Ringing at NRBO

North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory, like other bird observatories, is an important and effective site for ringing birds, with a particular focus on the species that visit the island on migration. Around 75,000 birds, of more than 200 species, have been ringed on the island, forming an impressive and valuable volume of data.

Most routine ringing takes place, with kind permission from the island’s laird, in the gardens at Holland House, where dense blocks of sycamore and fuchsia provide an attractive refuge for migrants and an ideal site for catching them in mist nets. The nets are opened whenever the weather is suitable during the migration periods.  Large numbers of birds, particularly warblers, thrushes and finches, can be trapped for ringing in the right fall conditions. Opening the mist nets is often an effective means of discovering what secretive birds are lurking in the thick vegetation, frequently revealing the presence of species – often rare and unexpected ones – that might otherwise have slipped by unrecorded.

Above: On an island mostly devoid of trees, the gardens have an inviting appeal for the many birds that visit on migration. As well as the usual small migrants, some surprising species that have been caught in the nets here include Bee-eater, Honey Buzzard and Red-footed Falcon.

Right: Birds caught in the mist nets are carefully extracted for ringing by the observatory staff.

Three Heligoland traps, large mesh funnels in which birds are caught for ringing, are situated just outside the observatory. Migrants are attracted to the vegetation in the mouths of the traps, where they can be easily caught and ringed by the observatory staff. An additional trap for catching larger birds, particularly gulls and crows, often baited with leftover North Ronaldsay mutton bones, is positioned in a nearby field. Visitors are always welcome to watch any ringing that is going on: a rare and exciting opportunity to see birds up close.


Left: A couple of Long-eared Owls provide a bit of excitement for observatory guests during breakfast. Right: A Herring Gull brought back from the gull trap is studied closely to determine its age and sex.

North Ronaldsay is an excellent site for migrating wading birds, which are often caught for ringing at night (by ‘dazzling’ with a torch and a hand net) or, occasionally, by day using a canon net to capture whole flocks of birds at once. The observatory staff collaborate with Orkney Ringing Group on such occasions to process the large numbers of Sanderlings and other species safely and effectively.


During the summer, the main focus of ringing is on the island’s breeding species. Ringing the chicks of our Black Guillemots, Fulmars and Arctic Terns is a useful method of monitoring their success and productivity, as well as providing data on their movements and survival rates. The same is true of the Greylag Geese, Black-headed Gulls and Common Gulls, the colonies of which are visited each summer to survey their numbers and ring the chicks. As well as the scientific value of these activities, splashing around in the swampy margins of the lochs searching for hidden goslings and gull chicks is always an entertaining way to spend a sunny afternoon.

Right: A colour-ringed Sanderling. Colour-ringing enables individual birds to be identified at distance using binoculars or a telescope, without the need to recapture them. Below left: A Common Gull chick hiding in the grass. Below middle and right:The observatory staff ringing Greylag Geese during an expedition into the iris beds at Hooking Loch.


Some interesting ringing recoveries

Birds ringed on North Ronaldsay are frequently recaptured elsewhere in Britain or abroad, and we are sent details of these recoveries by the BTO. Most refer to common migrants that are found on their wintering or breeding grounds, or at other stopover points on their migration routes, and tell us much about the movements of these birds; but occasionally we hear about remarkable occurrences that are unlikely ever to be repeated. An American Golden Plover ringed on North Ronaldsay, a rare enough event in itself, was subsequently shot in Italy, a country in which the species had never been recorded before. The only Shoveler ever to be ringed here was next reported nearly 3500 miles away in Russia. One of our ringed Arctic Terns, later found on a ship off the coast of Ghana, was an interesting recovery made particularly memorable because the sailor who reported the bird was one Captain Cook!

Visiting Ringers

The nature of ringing at a bird observatory, a ‘migration hotspot’ like North Ronaldsay, is that a very wide variety of species are caught using a wide range of methods, making a visit to the observatory a valuable opportunity for trainees and other ringers looking to gain new experience. Visiting ringers and ringing groups are very welcome to assist with the observatory’s work by joining in with any of our ringing activities.

See HERE for booking information and rates.