Nightingale tagging project

Nightingale by Amy LewisNightingale by Amy Lewis

The British Trust for Ornithology have pioneered a unique project using geolocators to track nightingales to sub-Saharan Africa . . .

“Being able to track these birds as they move between Africa and Grafham Water, seeing the routes they take, where they stop to rest and feed, and for how long, would have been the thing of dreams only a few years ago.


Since 2009 the British Trust for Ornithology have been involved in tracking nightingale migratory patterns with the use of geolocators - the data gathered has presented vital information on the routes taken to reach sub-Saharan Africa, to countries such as Senegal, Sierra Leone, Ghana and the Gambia.

At various sites from Kent to Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, including Grafham Water, in collaboration with and funded by Anglian Water, the BTO have managed to track the routes over Europe, via France, Spain and Portugal - this article 'Tagged' by the BTO's Paul Stancliffe reveals just how much technology has revolutionised way birds can now be tracked.

BTO senior research ecologist, Dr Chris Hewson, says: “Seeing a continual decline in nightingale numbers, we haven’t known whether this is a result of changes in UK breeding grounds, fatalities on the migration routes or in Africa. But, by tracking the birds, we now know which routes they take and the relative costs of each in terms of mortality, which helps us begin to understand some of the causes of the decline.”

Maintaining ideal habitat is crucial for nightingale numbers and the reserves team and volunteers at Grafham Water work hard to ensure that the dense canopy of scrub which nightingales favour is continually regenrated so the birds can stay concealed. Aidan Matthews, Reserves Manager explains: 'It’s particularly noteworthy that a lot of the land now isn’t managed in the way that it used to be, with hands-on activity. As scrub gets older, it starts to lose its interest for nightingales; they like dense ground vegetation, and cover at that level. So the work that we do on the site here which really helps them is clearing the scrub down so that it lays flat, but is still attached to the base and can keep growing, this maintains a dense cover for them.'

A BTO/Anglian Water guide for land manager and conservation practitioners outlines this best practice. 

“The use of these new tags is incredibly exciting; they should help us to inform future conservation action to reverse the declines seen in populations of this iconic bird.