On the 2nd of August this year I met Titan. Titan is a Turtle Dove, a unique Turtle Dove; the only UK Turtle Dove to be successfully satellite tagged. He was satellite tagged by RSPB scientists in my home county of Suffolk last summer. He has now made the return trip to and from sub- Saharan Africa giving vital data, hugely increasing understanding of the migratory route taken by ‘our’ Turtle Doves each year.
There are layers of importance to this meeting for me. First, it is always a pleasure to see a Turtle Dove; for a species which has suffered a 91% decline in breeding birds across the last twenty years any sighting is most welcome. Added to that the attractiveness of the species in its own right - both on sight and sound - making any encounter memorable. The fact that Titan has added so much to our understanding of Turtle Doves’ migration, places him at the forefront of migration science. Titan is the only survivor out of a total of seven tagged birds. The reality that only he has made it to and from Africa is an acute demonstration of the mortal peril this species faces. To then overcome the ‘needle in a hay stack’ issue of finding a single bird in dense coastal strip makes the encounter hugely gratifying.
Aside from these physical issues which all had to resolved in getting us both face to face, there was, for me, layers of emotional attachment. I have spent the last few years wholly dedicated to Turtle Doves, pushing myself beyond my physical limits to raise funds for Operation Turtle Dove. As well as the journeys undertaken, we have pursued as much awareness raising as possible, ensuring the plight of our ailing Turtle Dove population is kept towards the top of the conservation agenda. With so many worthy causes and species threatened by extinction this is no mean feat.
Across the last two years friends and I have drawn a self-propelled line from Saltholme RSPB reserve in the north-east of England all the way to Bayonne on the French-Spanish border. 1000 miles of endurance completed in just 27 days. We call our journey Dove Step and it seeks to mimic the migratory route of our breeding Turtle Doves. In doing so our aims are two fold: raise both funds and awareness for Operation Turtle Dove. I should point out that neither my friends nor I are athletes capable of naturally undertaking back-to-back marathon journeys each day. It is granite mental resolve, our belief in what we are doing, which allows us to push ourselves to the limit and beyond. I could not personally have achieved the endurance feats of the last two years without this mental resolve.
In covering much of the English range of Turtle Doves - and the whole of France - we have drawn a line which is comparable to the route taken by Titan. When overlain - our route vs Titan’s - the lines intersect and we also have a very clear steer of where our journey must go next. To date, we have walked 300 miles in England, from Suffolk to the north-east; kayaked channel equivalent distance in the North Sea; cycled 570 miles from Calais to Bordeaux and walked the remaining 140 from Bordeaux to Bayonne. Well over 1000 miles of self-propulsion, for Turtle Doves and all undertaken in just 27 ‘Dove Step days’.
To meet Titan, having spent so much time preparing, pushing so hard and travelling so far, felt almost like closure, a chance to reflect upon the successful completion of this year’s journey. We have a couple of equipment sponsors to whom we are immensely grateful. Thereafter, every other aspect of Dove Step is self-funded as is all the training. This time last year I had only been sea kayaking once and had never touched a road bike. I have now completed a 25 mile expedition at sea and cycled 570 miles in just six days! In pursuing the whole country-crossing this year there was a lot of potential for failure. We relied upon a weather window to launch the kayaks, while cycling on public roads and for 100 miles a day comes with its own dangers, not least riding in proximity to traffic for hours at a time. Finally, having kayaked and cycled for eight consecutive days, whilst familiar, the walking leg was always going to be subject to fatigue given what went before it. With annual leave from our employers limiting the available time, the journey could easily have unravelled at any time. Making the finish line in Bayonne allowed for immediate relief. It was only whilst watching Titan that I started to translate the relief into genuine happiness and pride. I could not be prouder of what we have achieved - as a team and for Turtle Doves.
To date our efforts, via your support, have raised £8k for Operation Turtle Dove. Funds from last year’s journey allowed for 9ha of Turtle Dove seed mix to be sown in the East of England, providing food for Turtle Doves on their return from Africa and again later in the season when they have young to feed. The funds from this year are going towards plugging the last remaining gap in scientific understanding of the lifecycle; what is affecting Turtle Doves on the wintering grounds? To this end, funds will be used to support research over the upcoming winter period. RSPB scientists are launching an expedition to study birds in Senegal in wintering congregations. This tangible application of our support makes it easy to continue with our journey. It makes me feel less helpless and believe that the population could stabilise and we could retain Turtle Doves as a UK breeder. Turtle Doves are of course also indicative of other farmland birds and other migratory birds using the Afro-European flyway, with all the legal and illegal hunting and habitat pressures therein. Whilst Turtle Doves are my favourite, I of course care deeply about all our birds and these wider issues.
The route Titan has taken on migration tells us exactly what we must do next; Spain. Specifically, a crossing of the western side of the country. We will make this journey completely on foot and leave in early 2017 - over 700 miles of back-to-back marathon distances - our biggest challenge to date.
You can find out more about Titan and follow his upcoming return migration via the RSPB website and follow our progress towards our next journey on the Dove Step 3 blog.
Never Give Up!