Birdwatch: Turtle doves among the last visitors to arrive for summer

A turtle dove, photographed by Michael Flowers.
A turtle dove, photographed by Michael Flowers.
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THE LAST of the summer visitors to this country are starting to arrive, among them turtle doves whose gentle cat-like purring song is a delight to hear on warm sunny days.

They are a bird that is in desperate trouble with a huge 88 per cent fall in the UK population since 1995.

Many Yorkshire country lovers will still recall a time when they were a common sight perched on high bushes and telephone wires but now they are an increasingly scarce bird in the county with only a handful of remaining breeding sites.

In an attempt to stop turtle doves disappearing completely a joint project by the RSPB and Natural England which began in 2012 is attempting to discover which features in the countryside are important to ensure that they keep returning to the same territories from year to year.

The project, based on farms in Suffolk, has found that sowing bespoken plots with a mix of plant seeds in the autumn creates a seed rich habitat the following year that is easily accessible to birds such as turtle doves that feed on or close to the ground. It has also been found that light cutting of these plots in spring helps them from becoming too overgrown for the turtle doves to use.

It seems that the lack of seeds, which make up the bulk of the turtle dove’s diet during the breeding season, results in fewer nesting attempts and lower productivity.

The intention is to establish a wider ‘turtle dove package’ deployed within the Higher Level Stewardship scheme and which can be set up on farms where there are still turtle doves present or where they still breed nearby.

As part of the project the RSPB and Natural England need to build up a fuller picture of where the few pairs left in Yorkshire are still to be found.

In recent years some turtle doves have left their traditional farmland habitat and become established in Dalby and Wykeham forests on the North York Moors and at Sutton Bank where four were near the visitor centre this week.

Turtle doves are smaller and darker than their close relative collared doves and with distinctive chestnut and black mottled upperparts and a black tail edged with white.

Collared doves stay here all year but turtle doves winter on the southern fringes of the Sahara where droughts have also reduced numbers. Then, as they migrate north in spring, large numbers are shot by hunters around the Mediterranean.

Recent sightings across the region included two bee-eaters that circled over Faxfleet on the north bank of the Humber, one of which was seen later over the south bank at Alkborough Flats. A spoonbill was on the Fairburn Ings reserve, roosting in the cormorant colony, while an osprey, hobby, and ringtail hen harrier was among other sightings.

Temminck’s stints were seen across the country including one at the North Cave Wetland, East Yorkshire where a wood sandpiper was also present. Sanderlings, turnstones, little stints and curlew sandpipers were seen at several sites.