Saving the turtle dove


Special efforts have been underway designed to encourage Turtle Doves to breed on Langdyke’s Etton Maxey reserve.  Project co-ordinator Martin Parsons explains how the scheme evolved …

Turtle doves were once a common summer visitor to England, but since the 1970’s their numbers have declined by 93 percent.

They are our only long-distance migratory dove, and now face a range of threats including unsustainable levels of hunting, the disease trichomoniasis, and loss of habitat on both their wintering grounds in sub-Saharan and breeding grounds in Europe and England.

There are now around only 14,000 pairs attempting to nest in Britain, and the bird is on the brink of disappearing from our summers.

Operation Turtle Dove

Operation Turtle Dove (OTD) is an RSPB project, partnered by Natural England, Pensthorpe Trust and Conservation Grade, designed to help turtle doves during their summer visit to Britain.

The objectives of the project are:

  1. To increase the amount of feeding habitat available to turtle doves within their core breeding range in the UK.
  2. To provide early sources of food to enable turtle doves to recover from their migration when they return to breeding grounds in late April-May.
  3. To work with farmers and landowners to establish and manage turtle dove habitat within current and new agri-environment schemes.
  4. To deliver free farm advisory visits to farmers within core turtle dove breeding range.
  5. To raise awareness of the plight of turtle doves.
  6. To encourage people to submit their sightings.

Langdke and Turtle Doves

Turtle doves sightings have been reported in the Etton and Maxey areas in several recent summers.

So in 2018 Langdyke Countryside Trust contacted Andrew Holland, RSPB Fens Farm Conservation Adviser, and in October hosted an on-site visit, to explore how Langdyke might help our local turtle doves. 

Turtle doves are seed-eaters, and like to feed on plants such as English vetch, black medick, bird’s-foot trefoil, white clover, red clover and common fumitory.

Almost all of these plants are available on our Etton-Maxey Pit reserve, but to assist with breeding success, a supplemental supply of seed is very welcome.

In addition, suitable scrub habitat such as hawthorn, and a supply of freshwater is required. So to be useful to the turtle doves, the feeding sight must be near water, contain bare ground, and have thick scrub or hawthorn trees nearby.

The carpark at Etton-Maxey Pit was identified as a suitable location.

Feeding

In April Langdyke collected 60kg of supplemental feed, and a team comprising Mick and Keren Thomson, David and Jill Cowcill, and Martin and Kathryn Parsons began putting out 2kg of seed three times per week.

The OTD seed mix comprises white millet (35%), oil seed rape (35%), canary seed (10%), sunflower seed (10%), and wheat (10%). This mix of small round seeds makes an acceptable and nutritious supplement to the turtle dove’s diet. 

Sightings

Turtle Dove Photo: Brian Lawrence

By early June a pair of turtle doves were regularly visiting the carpark, as were a variety of finches and other birds.

On August 5 five turtle dove were seen at 6:30am, and a further supply of 20kg seed mix was obtained so as to extend feeding through August.

Sightings peaked at ten turtle doves (four adult and six juveniles) on August 18. Turtle doves can only rear two young with pigeon milk at a time, so six juveniles is likely to represent a successful second brood.

We are encouraging anyone who has seen turtle doves this summer to enter their sightings on BTO’s BirdTrack system, since this is the monitoring system by which OTD success is measured.

Ringing

In late August the opportunity arose to work with David Neal, an experienced local bird ringer, to try and ring some of the Etton-Maxey Pit turtle doves.

So on Monday August 26  strategically placed nets were installed before sunrise. By 7:30am one juvenile and one adult male had been successfully caught, ringed, weighed, measured, recorded and released safely back into the wild.

A Turtle Dove captured and successfully ringed. Photo: Martin Parsons
The dove is carefully ringed and details taken

Next year

Our plan at Langdyke is to continue with creating suitable habitat and encouraging the required food plants for turtle doves, and to recommence supplemental feeding next spring.

We are also investigating with the BTO whether there is more that we can do by way of gathering helpful data on these precious but endangered birds.

  • Main Turtle Dove photo by Brian Lawrence