The Pioneers of Thermal Technology for Bird Ringing and Surveying

The Pioneers of Thermal Technology for Bird Ringing and Surveying

Ben Dolan and Paul Hopwood from the award-winning West Midlands Ringing Group were the early adopters of thermal technology and have quickly realised the enormous benefits to world of bird ringing and surveying. They are fortunate that they have a wide variety of habitats that they monitor, including arable farms that are very sensitively and thoughtfully managed for wildlife. Farms with overwinter stubbles are a haven for birdlife – native and migrant species alike.

They were regularly seeing good numbers of skylark, woodcock and lapwing, all generally very difficult to catch. Night-time offers the best opportunity to locate and catch these birds, whilst they are roosting on the floor.  You would use a lamp to scan a field to pick out the reflection of the bird’s eyes, however identifying a species is difficult and if the bird is looking away you will not detect it. Once a bird has been located for ringing, you would dazzle it by shining a lamp directly into its eyes, this would hopefully stop it from flying away. You would then very quickly attempt to catch the bird by using a hand net. Ben and Paul are highly skilled, but even with many years’ experience and knowledge, success rates were low. They also note that in the process of trying to net one bird, they could potentially disturb many others

However, it was when they borrowed a thermal imaging camera that their eyes were really opened to the benefits it provided and completely changed the way they work. Firstly, the technology allows them to scan the whole field and work out what type and volume of birds and are in the location. They can then plan a pathway that enables them to approach individual birds that they can potentially catch, whilst being mindful to avoid disturbing others unnecessarily. When they see one or two individuals sat away from a larger flock, they can approach them in a manner that stops the flock being upset and lifting in the dark. Once close to the target bird, a lamp is used by one ringer to dazzle, whilst the other ringer then carefully catches it in the hand net. It is a real skill, and when perfected makes a huge difference to the number of birds caught as you can see on the table below

West Midlands Ringing Group Ringing records Pre and Post Thermal Imaging

Once they had honed their skills, they set about educating other ringers, from the UK and further afield so that they could to start catching more birds. The more birds in the hand, the more information we gain, and recaptures show us a huge amount of information on the movement of all these different species. Through talks, demonstrations and social media they have helped spread the word far and wide, and now thermal imaging is becoming common place in the ringing world. An amazing achievement by them both – we are proud to support them in their journey.

Thermal Image of man catching woodcock with hand net for ringing purposes

Nocturnal ringing is only the start of how game changing thermal is for conservation. Devices are much more affordable now and professionals and hobbyists alike have them to hand. The realisation is dawning that you can now monitor large areas from afar, gathering data that was never possible before. This is now having implications across many industries and, when legislation catches up, will hopefully become mandatory when surveying land for developments. Currently daytime surveys are missing out on a huge amount of information – individuals can be easily missed in the day and are not being considered at night.

Paul writes “In November 2021 I visited a field in Worcestershire to conduct an experiment. I took binoculars and counted birds around the field. I noted 2 Skylark, 2 Meadow Pipits, 3 Red Kite, 4 Buzzards a Kestrel and a Sparrowhawk plus passing Redwing and Fieldfare. The larks were not displaying or singing. Shortly before dusk, as light faded more Skylark were noted, with a visible count of 14 birds.

After dark I utilised thermal camera, and counted over 80 Skylark, 23 Woodcock, 30+ Golden Plover and 10 Common Snipe. Two Short eared Owls were also noted. These birds were not visible during the day and without thermal technology would have been missed. Only through thermal surveys has this been identified and we now feel it time for nocturnal surveys to become part of ecological surveys in the future”

Using thermal imaging for surveys like this is only going to shine a stronger light on how important some land is for wildlife and hopefully help guide future development in a thoughtful and compassionate way. The sooner laws change the better.

It's amazing to see what is starting to happen on a national level, but for some of our customers it’s their local areas that they are now viewing in whole new way. Brian purchased a Axion XM30F from us to take with him on his birdwatching holidays. He recently rang up to purchase a spare battery and we chatted about how he has got on using his first thermal device. He started taking it with him on his walk to work to experiment using it at the local park to get familiar with the settings. He was overjoyed to tell me that he has seen Spotted flycatchers for the first time, has watched a family of hedgehogs grow up this summer and now knows that there are at least two muntjac living there. He spotted all of these first with his thermal and said he underestimated quite how much was living on his doorstep. We love hearing stories like this so please get in touch if your thermal has changed your daily walks!


I have included some really interesting links for you –

A link to the West Midlands Ringing group website – I highly recommend reading their Annual Reports


This is one of the papers that Paul and Ben (and others) have had published which is certainly worth a read for anyone serious about using thermal imaging

“Applications of thermal imaging for bird surveys: examples from the field”


I hope you found this article interesting and thank you for reading.

Best wishes, Holly

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