Bird Ringing

A Thermal Winter’s Tale By Paul Hopwood

We thought you would enjoy reading these words from Paul Hopwood from the West Midlands Ringing Group. He has kindly summed up his winter season to give you an insight to the brilliant work being done by ringers in the depths of the winters night.

A Thermal Winter’s Tale

Not many people look forward to cold dark nights and the clocks going back, but for me its an exciting time of the year.  It’s a well-known fact that some people suffer from Seasonally Affected Disorder (SAD) as winter approaches, whereas I probably suffer from TED - Thermal Excitement Disorder.  By mid-August I can think of nothing other than the Dazzling season ahead; When will the first Woodcock be caught? What will bird numbers be like?  Will I encounter new or unusual species?  But most importantly will I encounter any birds that I have ringed previously.

Our dazzling sessions normally see us out in the field for around 2 hours.  If we have a large catch this is often extended, but in reality, we are never out for more than 3 or 4 hours.  I am not sure how others spend most of a night out in the field, come 11 o’clock I am ready for bed!

I won’t lie, I enjoy dazzling birds at night, but there is a significant amount of useful scientific value to undertaking this type of ringing, and the increase in data that thermal cameras have been a huge part of, will no doubt improve our knowledge of several species in the future.

My excitement usually peaks in August (although I have probably had several conversations with Ben in our group about the season in July!)  and I am already thinking about visiting our farms.  As soon as summer cereal crops are harvested I have itchy feet, and around this time I make my first visits.

These August visits tend to focus on Skylark, they are often at their easiest to catch in August and can be numerous, and ringing sessions may see us catch 30+ birds in a night.  But apart from larks, it is unusual to catch or see much else.    However, Skylark are a red listed species, and my favourite passerine, I simply couldn’t imagine the spring without the song of a lark, and I hope that the data we obtain, has a positive impact on this species.  The number of Skylark ringed in the UK is increasing year on year, and this is a direct result of thermal cameras.

September can be very different, by this time migration is well underway and there is always the prospect of encountering something a bit different, and something a bit special!  In previous Septembers I have caught Dotterel, Wheatear and Quail on arable fields in the West Midlands, all of which are migrant species and not common in the midlands.

But I need to pause here, and rewind to the start of my thermal journey and my ringing career.  If someone had said to me in 2016, I would catch any of these species, I would have laughed and probably sworn!  These species were never on my ringing radar, in fact a Dotterel was somewhat mythical and perhaps a bird I may never see, I was so wrong.

Thermal has opened my eyes to a different environment, the hours of darkness.  A time shrouded in mystery and without thermal technology a foreign environment to most people.   In reality the winters months see eight hours of daylight and 16 hours of darkness – 16 hours that have been seldom explored, and actually missed by most.

There were opportunities for ringing at nighttime BT (Before thermal), wader catches, owls and Nightjar – but these challenging, tiring and in the midlands often fruitless.  But thermal tech changed all of this, and the development of units has resulted in monumental strides in what we know about birds during darkness, we know what species are present, their numbers, their predators and their behaviour – more of that in another blog!

Post thermal this is a new world.   This is where my excitement stems from, we can now get a better understanding of species and inform landowners on what is working and what isn’t working, but that’s not for this blog, lets get back to a winter’s tale.

At this point some context, in the first few seasons dazzling birds 2016/2017, we were excited to catch a single bird, two birds in a night were good, more than two simply spectacular. We were told that the light pollution in the midlands would prevent us from catching, but this was wrong.  Over the next few years, we honed our skills and improved significantly, not least through the further development of thermal cameras.

Roll on to August 2024 and the start of the thermal dazzling season, expectations were high as we had taken possession of a new Pulsar Telos XP50, a spectacular piece of equipment, that after getting used to, was an extremely powerful tool in finding birds, and at some distance!

We got off to a flying start, slightly later in the year than normal, but 15 new Skylark ringed on the 25th of August were just the tip of the iceberg…. albeit we had no frosts or snow during the season! 

Moving to September there was a chance of something more unusual and on the 20th we caught a Dotterel, 3 Wheatear and 6 Skylark in a short session.  I love Dotterel, they are a stunning wading bird and this one, a juvenile was no exception.  I do admit to having a bit of an issue when dazzling wading birds, which I call foot freeze, I think it may be a proper medical condition!!!  In essence my problem stems from my intense focus, I concentrate so hard on my approach, my fieldcraft, each movement of my body, every bit of debris or foliage on the ground, every sound to ensure a stealthy approach, (somewhat of a problem for a 6’2 fat lad) so much so my brain forgets to move my feet, and they feel like they are stuck in mud!  Fortunately, Dotterel are a simple bird, just like their captor!  Their name deriving from old Scottish ‘Doddard’ or ‘Dotard; meaning a foolish old man or middle English from prior to the 14th century and the word ‘Doten’ which meant imbecile!   There are definite parallels between myself and Dotard’s, but I have been called far worse! Put simply Dotterel aren’t the brightest, and every bird I have seen I have caught!

This was going to be a good season, and it continued to improve.  The 10th of October saw us catch the first Woodcock of the winter, these were early and potentially British birds rather than migrants which make up most of the UK Population come November, after the first full moon (the Woodcock moon).

October was crazy, conditions seemed good and on the 21st I caught 44 Skylark and 7 Fieldfare, 51 birds in a session, unbelievable!  A further 50 birds were ringed on the 18th of November.  However, our record night was on the 10th December when I was joined by a young ringer from the group, we caught and ringed 40 Skylark, 14 Woodcock, 5 Fieldfare, 2 Redwing and a Meadow Pipit – 62 birds which was mind blowing and the session of the season.

January was still productive, but as February arrived, the Woodcock developed Zugenruhe, a German word used to describe the migratory restlessness period of birds.  This usually sees Woodcock become challenging to catch and this year proved no different. 

My dazzling season ended on the 6th of March 2024; 527 birds had been ringed in 34 visits!  This total didn’t include species that I had caught at night with mist nest, which were monitored with the thermal camera (again perhaps a further blog).  This was by far my best season, I’d done some serious miles on foot, but by March I was all thermaled out, and was now facing my own Season Affected Disorder – No more Dazzling for 5 months, I just needed to remember what my wife looked like and what she was called!


Common snipe






Golden plover


Grey heron


Grey partridge






Meadow pipit




Reed bunting




Stock dove










Grand Total


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