The turtle dove called Lawford touched down close to Constable’s Flatford Mill after completing an epic round-journey to and from the arid, scrub country of Mali south of the Sahara.
Lawford’s air miles have been clocked by RSPB scientists over the last year with a satellite tracking device fitted to his feathers, and which shows how he arrived back this week only two miles from where he began his momentous migration.
By becoming only the second turtle dove to have its migratory route accurately charted, Lawford is giving researchers an important insight into his species’ behaviour and will helpfully put a break on their speedy flight towards extinction in the UK.
Turtle doves – the bird made popular by the festive song, the Twelve Days of Christmas – are teetering on the brink.
Their UK population is crashing faster than any other species, witnessing a 93 per cent decline between 1994 and 2014. Current estimates of 14,000 breeding pairs seem wildly optimistic.
Officially, the turtle dove is classed as vulnerable on the international Red List of endangered species but there are fears it could become extinct in the English countryside within the next few decades.
Lawford’s travels could help unravel some of the mysteries of why turtle doves are disappearing and help explain the fidelity they have with nesting areas.
Named after the Essex village where he was fitted with his 5 gm solar-powered tracker last summer, ornithologists were able to get regular signals to chart his roundtrip across France, Spain, Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania and Mali.
Satellite tracking the birds, which get their name from the soft, purring “turr-turr” of their spring song, is part of Operation Turtle Dove, a combined project that also sees conservationists working with farmers and landowners to provide nesting grounds and feeding habitat in the doves’ last haunts in parts of the East and South East of England.
RSPB Conservation Scientist John Mallord, said: “Research has shown that the main driver of turtle dove decline in the UK is the loss of food for the birds from the countryside due to changes in the farmed landscape.
“Farmers and landowners are working hard alongside Operation Turtle Dove to address this problem, but as migratory birds turtle doves also face many threats and pressures outside this country.
“Between leaving in September and arriving back this May, Lawford will have faced threats such as legal autumn hunting in Europe, had to survive the harsh environmental conditions encountered crossing the Sahara, and find enough food and water over the winter to prepare for his return journey.
“Having overcome all of these existential challenges to make it back to his breeding territory, we now have to hope that he can find a mate and enough food to successfully breed and help sustain the UK turtle dove population.
“If he does, it will be in no small part thanks to the efforts of farmers and landowners who are helping turtle doves on their…