Following Titan our satellite-tagged turtle dove in Suffolk

Guest blog by Dr John Mallord, Senior Conservation Scientist at the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science

As you may have guessed, now that you have put away your T-shirts and shorts, autumn is well and truly here. You have probably already seen swallows lined up on telegraph wires, readying themselves to head south. And our other migrant visitors are going to be following suit soon, too. Yet, it was only a little over a couple of months’ ago that we announced, with great excitement, fanfare and numerous media appearances, that Titan, our satellite-tagged turtle dove had arrived back on our shores after his epic 11,000km round-trip to Mali and back.

Titan spent the summer at RSPB Aldringham Walks nature reserve

What’s he been up to in the meantime? Well, you may remember that he arrived back in Suffolk on 22nd June which, although not totally unknown, was really very late, and from the very beginning we were concerned that there just wouldn’t be any females left for him; after all, turtle doves had been returning to the UK since late April, and would have paired up with each other soon after. We took a number of trips out to the Aldringham Walks RSPB Reserve, not far from Sizewell Power Station on the Suffolk coast, where our satellite data was telling us that Titan was holding territory (and only a little over a kilometre from the garden in which he was caught last year), to see if we could find him, and also to see whether there was any evidence that he had a mate.

Photo of Titan on  one of his favourite song posts by Dr John Mallord

Did Titan find a mate?

Well, finding him was not a problem; in fact, a local resident had been seeing him regularly on her walks across the heath, and true to form, there he was on top of one of his favourite song posts, purring away happily. But we were never convinced that he was with a female. Yet he did use to go ‘missing’ for several hours in the afternoon; had he swapped incubation duties with the female for the afternoon shift as they are prone to do? And then, on 6th August, while the RSPB’s Film Unit was out and about trying to get footage of Titan, he was seen on an overhead wire, cooing and displaying to another bird, probably a female.

Photo of Titan with a female turtle dove by RSPB Film Unit.

Titan is fattening up for his migration to Africa

Within three weeks, Titan had left his territory and flown 6km north-west to an area of farmland, and has remained there ever since. We think he may have chosen an area in which to feed and fatten up prior to his departure. But it also means that he has probably given up on any chance of finding a mate. So, although we can’t be sure, the balance of evidence suggests that he may have remained single this summer.

Why did Titan arrive back in the UK so late?

Which begs the question: why was he so late in arriving back in the UK, so late that it probably prevented him from raising a family? Well, we may never know for sure; however, I was at a conference last week where I heard a talk about tracking Honey Buzzards from the Netherlands to West Africa. Apparently, the Dutch researchers had noticed some of their birds taking rather circuitous routes on their way back across the Sahara in the spring. Investigating further, they found that it was a particularly bad spring for sandstorms, whose occurrence peaks at this time of year, right when Titan made his first abortive attempt at crossing the desert, before heading back into Mali (see below).

Conditions on the wintering grounds and on migration could effect breeding success

Whether this was the case or not, it highlights yet another problem that migrants face; that there is a link between the conditions found on the wintering grounds and on migration and the chances of a bird having a successful breeding season. These are called carry-over effects – literally, the consequences of the problems faced by migrants at one point in their annual cycle are carried over to the next. So what now for Titan? As I write, he is still on farmland in Suffolk; last year, he didn’t leave until 19th September. However, our French colleagues have reported that some of their birds are already on the move; and considering that Titan, probably having no chicks to raise, may have nothing else to do but fatten up, he could be on his way very soon.

Follow Titan’s progress as he leaves the UK for Africa on @RSPBScience #titan #turtledove and visit our Titan webpage with updates on his location.

Find out more about our work on turtles doves including Titan at our AGM and Members’ Day on 10 October in London. Tara Proud will be sharing exciting updates on Operation Turtle Dove and showing some exclusive video footage of Titan our satellite tagged turtle dove.

This blog originally appeared on the RSPB Community pages.