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VIDEO: East Anglian turtle dove helps scientists solve migration mystery of UK fastest declining bird

The migration route of a UK breeding turtle dove has, for the first time, been revealed by the RSPB – providing valuable data in the conservation fight to help save the species from UK extinction.

Last August, the RSPB fitted a small, light-weight satellite tag to a turtle dove from Suffolk before it embarked on its mammoth migration journey. In a UK science first, the RSPB was able to track Titan, the tagged turtle dove, on his 5,600km migration route from Suffolk to Mali, and back again, all in real time.

RSPB officers with one of the turtle doves
RSPB officers with one of the turtle doves

Flying mostly under the cover of darkness, Titan flew across epic landscapes such as the Atlas Mountains, Sahara Desert and the Gulf of Cadiz. The satellite tag also uncovered that he travelled around 500-700km per night flying at a maximum speed of 60km per hour.

Titan’s outbound journey to Africa, where he wintered for six months, took around a month to complete. On his return the avian jetsetter spent two weeks making his way through France, initially following the Atlantic coast, before leaving from Dunkirk and touching down in Suffolk. The latest satellite reading shows that Titan has returned to the same area he was first found and tagged in Suffolk.

The turtle dove population has plummeted 96 per cent since 1970, making it the UK’s fastest declining migrant bird. This decline is so dramatic that the population is halving in number every six years; should it continue at this rate the species may be lost as a breeding bird in the UK within the next couple of decades.

East Anglia is on the front line of efforts to save UK turtle doves as the region supports nearly two-thirds of the current breeding population. Learning more about the bird’s migration route is part of a wider drive to save the species, known as ‘Operation Turtle Dove,’ with much of the conservation work taking place in the eastern region.

RSPB officers with one of the turtle doves
RSPB officers with one of the turtle doves

Sam Lee, Operation Turtle Dove Farm Conservation Adviser, said:“We are delighted to hear that Titan has returned to Suffolk and made history in allowing us to track his progress.

“As one of the turtle dove’s last remaining breeding areas in the UK, Eastern England has become an important focus for conservation efforts. A major part of this is our work with farmers to establish measures to encourage wildlife such as the planting and management of ‘turtle dove seed mix.’ This can help to address the shortage of food plants which is one of the drivers of the turtle dove’s decline in the UK.

“Over the past year, free advice has been delivered on over 11,000 hectares of farmland and proved that agri-environment schemes (see notes) can be a win-win for farmers and wildlife.”

Dr John Mallord, RSPB Senior Conservation Scientist, said: “This is the first time that we have ever been able to track a UK-breeding turtle dove to its African wintering grounds. Previously we largely relied on ringing the birds, which didn’t give us half the amount of data Titan’s tag has. On top of his wintering grounds, we also have his migration route, where he stopped to rest and refuel and how long he spent in different places.

One of the turtle doves
One of the turtle doves

“Our aim now is to build on this new information, which will be used to help us to target our conservation efforts far more effectively on precisely those areas the birds are using when they leave the UK.”

For more information on Titan’s journey and how the RSPB and Operation Turtle Dove partners are helping to stop turtle dove declines visit: rspb.org.uk/titan

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