Meet Francoise – the first Turtle Dove fitted with a GPS tag in its wintering grounds of Africa

This blog from the RSPB’s Technical Development officer, Nigel Butcher, was originally posted on the RSPB Community page.

It was with some anxiety and emotion that I left my family early on the morning of the 14th November 2015. My bags were light in clothing but heavy with field kit from radio antennas to the large array of sampling equipment needed for the turtle doves. I was travelling to Senegal via Paris and after the previous night’s dreadful events it was uncertain whether I would make it to or not. Paris was in shock but calm with everything surprisingly running to schedule.

My day seemed very long until arrival when I was met by familiar faces in the darkness at Dakar airport at 9.45pm. I was ready for bed and it wasn’t long before I had my wish as we stayed in the city that night.

Arriving in Senegal and meeting the research team

Chris Orsman (veteran of the Africa turtle dove program) and his colleague Mark Whiffin had arrived almost a month earlier, and they had been visiting a number of sites which our satellite tag data had shown Titan visited at this time last autumn.

Chris and Mark are recording the habitat, the number of birds and if possible observations of where and what they were feeding. They formed a great team with Malang (who doubled up as driver) and Moussa from NCD the local (BirdLife) partner organisation.

Settling into basecamp

Our destination for the intensive work was the BeerSheba Project which has the strapline improving Agriculture, enabling the Church, transforming communities.

The site is about 80km from Dakar and about 1.5 hours by road. My mission was to get 5 tags on birds and get GPS data downloaded remotely from these birds.

The first objective though was to go and see our base camp in the local village called Sandiara, With a number of holes in walls, a lack of locks on doors and nothing to prevent the biting insects getting in, the team decided to put moving in on hold for a couple of days. After dark searching ensued for accommodation in the next town MBour but it all worked out in the end!

Photo of the turtle dove site in Senegal by Nigel Butcher/RSPB

Discovering huge turtle dove roosting sites

Chris had been here in February 2015 and aided by others they had counted more than 30,000 turtle doves leaving the roost. Our first morning at the site was spent counting turtle doves as they left their roost. This time we only counted 7,000.

Preparing to tag turtle doves takes time…

The next task was to find the old net rides that were used on the last expedition as the catching was to commence. It was clear that the season had been wet as much of the ground vegetation was still green and up to a meter in height. With the loan of some garden tools and a bit of hard work, we were ready for setting up the following morning.

I was a bit ambitious with my mission as the catching proved much harder than I expected. The first catch consisted of a net full of buffalo weavers the local equivalent of a starling- difficult to extract from nets, very vocal and not afraid to bite!

A number of migrants were caught and ringed including redstarts, whitethroats, and olivaceous , melodious and garden warblers.

The next morning followed the same pattern, with only the odd resident laughing dove caught.

It was an eye opener and really interesting for me to observe the whole 10-15 minute process of ringing, measuring, identifying the race and taking samples.

Evening catching was much more successful

We decided a new tactic was required so we attempted our first evening catch.

Success! We caught a couple of turtle doves. Unfortunately,limitations of weight, catching birds of the African race rather than European and then to our surprise a number of birds that were still heavily in moult meant no tagging.

Meet Francoise our GPS tagged turtle dove

Finally a week into the trip we had a tag on a bird and he was named ‘Francoise’.

There were a number of technical issues with data communication, (which is basically why I was there). From experience what works happily in the cosy confines of the workshop, doesn’t always in the real world! Anyway better late than never we downloaded the data and Francoise was doing his daily thing. Vital knowledge on feeding areas was our reward and the team after my departure will be visiting all of these locations and hopefully further tags will be deployed.

A total of 17 doves were monitored during my 11 days of which 10 were turtle doves. Some of the lighter birds were radio tagged, not being big enough to carry the heavier GPS tags. The other local species processed were the laughing, black billed wood and namaqau.

Photo of Francoise our GPS tagged turtle dove by Chis Orsman/RSPB

Fantastic memories from fieldwork in Senegal

Well I have lots of them. The food was nice and better than I had prepared for. The Senegalese people, the smiles and waves received as we travelled the 7km track to BeerSheba and the generosity of a neighbour who turned up on the doorstep offering us a plate of rice and vegetables to celebrate a baptism. Also a great opportunity to practice my French again as it was getting a little rusty, and learn some Senegalese phrases too!

Finally, and mostly importantly, the legacy of the first remote GPS data from a turtle dove in Africa. It took time and effort but we got there in the end….

Photo of Nigel Butcher (middle) with the field team in Senegal

Research continues

Fieldwork continues to investigate fine-scale habitat use and broad-scale distribution of turtle doves in Senegal. Four researchers – two RSPB staff and colleagues from local conservation organisation Nature Communaute Development are fitting turtle doves with lightweight GPS tags to enable us to track them and record the habitats they use. We are also undertaking a country-wide survey to understand the factors influencing the birds’ preferred locations – for instance, safe access to roost sites, water sources or good foraging areas.

Find out more about the team’s work on the Ecology of European migrant birds in Africa on our website. Find out more about the RSPB’s work on turtles doves through Operation Turtle Dove. Follow Titan, our satellite-tagged turtle dove, and his progress on @RSPBScience #titan #turtledove and visit our Titan webpage with updates on his location.