Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Get volunteering! By Ben Moyes

I have been volunteering at RSPB Minsmere for 4 years now, and I find it’s not only a great way to connect with wildlife myself, but also to engage other people visiting the reserve with wildlife too.

My main role as a volunteer at Minsmere is being a guide out on the reserve. This entails sitting in the various hides, and talking to visitors that come in to look at the wildlife, and showing it to them. I particularly like talking to children that come into the hides and showing them Minsmere’s speciality species, as I think that if you can get the younger generation hooked into wildlife, it bodes well for the future generation. We need a greater number of young wildlife enthusiasts, so do your bit, by getting your children to a local nature reserve, and show them the wildlife that the area holds.

There are many different roles you can undertake as a volunteer however. At Minsmere for example, you can be a receptionist, caterer or shop assistant. In their own way, they all link you to the wildlife around the reserve. For example, when catering, you will overlook the bird feeders, which are usually very busy with common bird species. Or, you may be outside collecting somebody's tray of food, which overlooks the amazing Sand Martin colony in the summer, where you can obtain really close views of flyby adults as they travel back and forth from their nests.
Purple Swamphen by Ben Moyes

My main interest in the wildlife world is birding, so whilst volunteering at Minsmere, birds are the main species I look for. Of course, you cannot go around the reserve without admiring the Avocets, Marsh Harrier, Bitterns or Bearded Tits. However, I have seen a few rare birds whilst volunteering at Minsmere. These include the Purple Swamphen, and American Cliff Swallow. I was lucky enough to see the Swamphen multiple times whist guiding on the reserve, and it was great to see a lot of people that didn’t know a great deal about birds coming to see this fascinating creature.

American Cliff Swallow by Ben Moyes

Moving away from the wildlife, you cannot fault the café at Minsmere. Every day I volunteer there this has to be one of my highlights! The cake is faultless, so when you visit the reserve, do not go without getting a slice of cake!

Having volunteering hours under your belt looks fantastic on your CV, and also when applying for University courses, particularly in conservation work. So, if you are a young birder, visit your local nature reserve, and become a volunteer. You will learn so many different things about the wildlife you see every day that you would not have noticed before, and it will be a great use of your free time!

Ben Moyes, @Ben_Moyes16 

Monday, 26 June 2017

BTO Birdcamp 2016 & 2017, by Ben Moyes

Launched in 2016, the BTO hosted a Young Birders weekend at the BTO Headquarters at the Nunnery Lakes, Thetford, which was sponsored by the Cameron Bespolka Trust in memory of Cameron Bespolka. The aim of this event was to bring Young Birders from across the UK together, and share their enthusiasm towards wildlife with other young birders they had potentially never met before. After the success of 2016, the Birdcamp was launched again in May 2017, where it was once again sponsored by the Cameron Bespolka trust, and hosted by the BTO in Thetford. 

The Friday evening was the first day of the Birdcamp, where the young birders were able to introduce themselves to each other, before being given a briefing of the weekend and moving to the campsite.

An early start was in order for Saturday, where there were multiple activities hosted on the BTO’s Nunnery Lakes reserve. These included bird ringing, nest recording, Common Bird Census (CBC) Survey and a general birding group. These were all very successful as they provided all of the young birders with some new skills, particularly from the ringing and nest recording activities. 
Bird ringing demonstration at BTO Bird Camp 2017
Bird ringing demonstration at BTO Bird Camp 2017

From my perspective, in 2016, I was a participant, whereas in 2017, I was a helper. In 2016, these activities helped me understand the different methods of conservation work and how these methods could obtain vital information about the lives of some of the UK’s bird species, whether they are residential or migrant birds. In 2017, using the knowledge I had obtained from 2016, I was able to help the young birders in gaining skills from the mornings activities, so they could become more successful at finding nests and be more independent with the bird ringing.

On both Birdcamps, the Saturday afternoon saw us arriving at Lakenheath for an afternoon of birding. On arrival, we were greeted by Dave Rodgers, the warden of the RSPB reserve, who gave us an insight to the work that had been done at Lakenheath to maintain a healthy population of some the UK’s rarest breeding birds (i.e. Bittern, Marsh Harrier and Bearded Tit). This introduction was given to us in both years, which I felt was really inspiring, as it gave the young birders an idea as to the amount of work that has to go in to managing a reserve in order for it to maintain its habitats, and its population of rare breeding birds. After a walk around the reserve, we headed back to base in Thetford. 
RSPB warden David Rodgers giving us an introduction to Lakenheath
RSPB warden David Rodgers giving us an introduction to Lakenheath

An addition to the Birdcamp in 2017 was that the young birders were treated to two talks; One from Amy Hall about her experience at the Cornell Bird Observatory in New York from 2016, where she was given the opportunity to visit here for a week after being selected by the BTO at the end of the 2016 Birdcamp. The other talk was given by Ben Porter, from Bardsey Island, where he shared his experiences of living on the island, and the daily activities he has to complete, including the ringing of sea birds and working in the bird observatory. Both talks were very inspirational to the other young birders, so I felt that the addition of talks from other young birders to the Birdcamp was really successful.

The evening saw us out looking for Nightjars, with the possibility of being able to ring one. This was led by Greg Conway, where the young birders we given some interesting information about the behaviour of Nightjars, including feeding habits and their migration routes. This part of the Birdcamp weekend is always one of the best, especially as on both years we have been able to see a Nightjar being ringed!
A Nightjar being ringed, photo by Ben Porter
A Nightjar being ringed, photo by Ben Porter
Sunday morning gave the young birders the opportunity to visit a Bird Observatory. This happened to be Landguard Bird Observatory, on the Suffolk coast. One of the main interests here on both years has been the moth trapping, which has been very successful both years, with all of the young birders showing major interest. As a helper in 2017, it was great to see how enthusiastic the young birders were in the moth trapping, and this theme carried on throughout the weekend with the introduction of a moth trap at the campsite. 
Young birders at Landguard Bird Observatory by Ben Porter
Young birders at Landguard Bird Observatory by Ben Porter
The final part of the Birdcamp weekend was some birding on the Suffolk coast. On both years, as I come from Suffolk, I had to ‘lead’ this part, as I was aware as to where to find some of the target birds we were looking for. On both years, we managed to see Dartford Warbler, Woodlark and Stonechat, with Redstart in 2016, rounding off a fantastic weekend.

Being a helper in 2017, I was able to use the knowledge I had obtained from being a participant in 2016 to help the young birders gain the best out of the weekend. Whether this was the birds they saw, or how successful they were in the nest recording activity, or even how many new friends they made over the weekend, I feel like every young birder from the Birdcamp had an amazing time, and would happily apply for Birdcamp 2018 in a heartbeat.

Ben Moyes, @Ben_Moyes16

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Urban birding in Cardiff by Ethan Hall, Cardiff University Ornithological Society

Cardiff, capital city of Wales. Home of die-hard rugby fans, thousands of students, and a surprisingly large range of some truly remarkable birds. Whether thats the winter thrushes that visit the splendid Bute Park, the Peregrine Falcons nesting on the city hall clock tower, or the spectacular Starling murmurations over the bay, it is difficult to escape our feathered neighbours. But then again, why would you want to? The bird life in Cardiff is something to marvel at, and hopefully you can check out some of these key spots and find out just what Im talking about.

Bute Park
Bute Park alone is home to some of the most charming and quintessentially British birds. A gentle stroll amongst some champion trees during winter may lead you to see what I believe to be the funkiest bird that visits our shores. With a distinctive hairstyle, the Waxwing is most certainly a bird worth waiting for, and if you find one youre sure to see more. Often seen flocking together and gorging on berries, the Waxwing are truly a sight to behold.

Push further into Bute Park and find yourself along the Taff trail to catch a glimpse of dazzling blue, or if youre lucky enough, a full sighting of the glorious Kingfisher. Unmistakable in their azure and golden colours these birds make their home along the Taff and provide that jump of joy as they lighten up the day with a simple passing sight. Even those who arent keen birders cant help a note of excitement when a Kingfisher flies past, a sure-fire sign that this is a bird no one wants to miss. 

Goosander by Jill Pakenham
Goosander by Jill Pakenham
Also making an appearance on the Taff is the Goosander. Not as colourful as the aforementioned Kingfisher, but a great bird in its own right, the Goosander is one of the larger birds to be seen along the river and makes a pleasant change from the never-ending stream of Black-headed gulls.

Outside of the park, it is always worth visiting the clock tower at city hall to get a view of the fastest animal on the planet. It is wonderful that such an amazing predator is right on our doorstep. I am of course talking about the Peregrine Falcons. The best time to see these magnificent animals is probably when they have their young during spring. The additional food they must supply means they can be seen out and about more readily and some cracking views can be seen, especially when the RSPB have their scope set up.

Also within the city, the trees of Queen Street come alive at dusk with hundreds of Pied wagtails coming to roost in them. Drawn by the warmth of the streets, these charismatic birds fill the trees and so many people walk along, oblivious to the hordes above them. It is definitely worth having a perch on one of the benches as it grows dark and just watching them roll in to settle down for the night.

As a mentioned right at the beginning, Cardiff Bay also holds many wonderful birds, but I think we will leave that for another post! Dont forget to follow us on twitter @CUBirds to see what we are up to!

Monday, 9 January 2017

BTO Annual Conference 2016 by Gethin Jenkins-Jones

The BTO’s Annual Conference at Swanwick in Derbyshire is, for many, a very special and much anticipated weekend. As the year draws to a close it is a brilliant chance to bump into old friends, meet new people who share similar interests and to learn more about birds and conservation through lectures given by top experts and amateur citizen scientists. As a teenage birder I rarely get to talk about nature to others, and so this conference is has been very important to me over the last two years and is a weekend I never want to miss.
The Hayes Conference Centre, Swanwick
This year the conference kicked off on the Friday evening with a fascinating talk on “25 years of ringing Choughs in Wales”, given by Tony Cross and Adrienne Stratford. The amount of data they have gathered over the last quarter-century is truly incredible. I was inspired by all the info on movements, population trends, mortality rates and life expectancy they shared with us about this beautiful corvid. I also learned that monitoring this species is by no means an easy task. Seeing photos of their death-defying use of 20 foot ladders on unstable cliffs to visit these nests, I know I’m not going to complain about using the step ladder to monitor my Blue Tit boxes any time soon!

Tony Cross with colour-ringed Choughs
At Swanwick, the first night is always rounded off by something that really gets my adrenaline going: the Quiz. This is the time where knowing the colour of a Purple Sandpiper’s legs or the weight of a Wren really pays off! Among my team mates were Hampshire ringer, Josie Hewitt, and 13 year old Louis Driver who was making his Swanwick debut (and probably reducing the average age of the room by about 20 years!). After being tested on everything from bird trends to calls we had to settle for third place, with only a point between us and the joint-winning teams. So close!
The next day was packed with inspiring talks, with ‘Birds and their Habitats’ being the theme of the Conference. A session on seabirds got the morning to cracking start, and this was followed by a session on woodland birds in the afternoon and urban birds in the evening. As I’m from Wales and very keen on seabirds I particularly liked the two opening talks which came from two young conservationists and their work on the island of Skomer: Elspeth Kenny, who gave a brilliant insight into the social interaction of Guillemots, and Emma-Louise Cole, who, under the title ‘Aukward landings’ (surely the winner of ‘best talk title’ at the Conference?!), gave a fascinating talk on the challenge that auks face as they come in to land on cliff faces and its potential impact on breeding success. It was great seeing Emma again at this year’s conference and with her plans for a PhD taking shape I think she’ll definitely be a name for the future and will become a well-known individual at this conference.

For me, interacting with others is one of my favourite parts of these Conferences. Between talks there was plenty of time to socialise with Emma, Josie and Louis. We had a great time taking walks, relaxing in the lounge and playing pool and ping-pong in the games room. It was also great catching up with fellow young birder Toby Carter (who saw his 300th bird species the previous week, well done him!), as well as PhD student and ringer Hugh Hanmer from Reading University and Sorrel Lyall. Sorrell is a very gifted 18 year old wildlife artist and I recommend you visit her website.

Grabbing a bite with other young birders
The final day of the conference saw talks on the challenges that face some of our birds as a result of our increasingly intensive agriculture, and also how studying and tracking birds has changed over the years due to a huge advancement in technology. I was immensely impressed by Nicholas Watts’ talk on ‘Wildlife friendly farming’. Nicholas farms in The Fens and owns Vine House Farm Bird Food. In the talk he explained why farmlands birds are in decline and how he has changed his own farm to ensure that wildlife can still thrive. The numbers of Tree Sparrow he sustains on his land are really incredible. Chris Hewson’s talk on ‘Tracking Migrant Birds’ showed how new technology used by the BTO is giving us an unique insight into bird migration, especially Cuckoos. Surely Chris has got the best job in the world!

The Tree Sparrow feeders on Nicholas Watts’ farm
After the talks had ended the conference was rounded off with the raffle draw, and who won a splendid new webcam was none other than Louis Driver himself! I think it’s safe to say I’ll be seeing him again next year!

Louis’ raffle prize – a nest box camera
I really enjoyed this year’s conference at Swanwick and I would recommend attending this annual event to any young birder out there who is interested in conservation and learning more about birds. There is a special discount for young birders, but you’ll still have to find about £125. This price includes the talks, accommodation, all your meals and plenty of tea/coffee and cake. Not cheap for a young person, but it’s seriously worth saving the pounds throughout the year as there is no other conference quite like it, and no better chance to explore your interests. Here's a storify of the conference tweets to give you even more reason to attend, I hope I’ll see you there in December 2017!

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Choosing the university course that’s right for you; a personal experience, by Alexandra Kinsey

I remember feeling under immense pressure as a sixth-former, as I had no idea what I wanted to do. I had quite a mixture of hobbies but none of them seemed to link together. The AS levels I was encouraged to take didn’t go quite to plan, so I left school with one A level, and a few AS levels.

I had mentioned that I enjoyed helping people, and my family were encouraging me to explore areas in healthcare, so I went to college for two years, and undertook fast-track A-levels, alongside part-time work, choosing to focus on Biology and ICT. Then, I went for something that interested me and started BSc Audiology at Swansea University. It was a fantastic course, but after two years and many months of placements around Wales I realised that this wasn’t the career for me.

It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make, and felt quite alone in doing so, but I ended up switching degrees completely and jumping into something I knew I would enjoy, despite worrying comments along the lines of "there is no career in that".

I am now in my final year of BSc Ecology, and have not looked back since.

This brings me on to what I believe is the most important thing:

1)    Go for something that you enjoy.

Whether this involves going to university and choosing a course, or looking for internships or apprentices, getting as much experience in your field of interest is the only way to find out if you will enjoy this career.

If you make the decision to apply to University, then there is still careful consideration needed when choosing a course.

If, like me, you have general interests, rather than specific ones, it may be worth looking for courses with a common first year, or foundation year where you may be able to move between similar subjects as you find out more about what you like. 

This is where: 

2)    Looking at the modules within a degree puts you at a great advantage.

I actually started studying Zoology at Cardiff, but Ecology had more modules which I found interesting as I realised in year one that I enjoyed field work more much more than laboratory work. Thanks to the Bioscience common first year at Cardiff University, I could choose to switch degree from Zoology to Ecology, without having to start again.

If you are preparing for the move to University, I fully recommend: 

3)    Join some societies.

There is Usually a nature or Wildlife and conservation society, and some Universities have an Ornithological society too. These groups can provide a key link to volunteering opportunities, experience or training. Universities list these online, so you can beat the crowds and take your time to find the ones that interest you, and get in contact.

During your degree:

4)    Try to be as proactive as possible...

...and look for experiences outside the classroom. Employers are looking for relevant experience in addition to higher education qualifications.

University examinations may seem daunting, but as long as you:

5)    Stay organised and read up on advised material, you will be fine.

For me A-levels were more difficult as you had to give a specific keyword to get the mark. In University lecturers mark your work, so there’s much more of a chance to show them what you know in so many different ways. These people chose a lectureship because they are passionate about this area, so give them something exciting, like current research papers, or question the science.

And finally:

6) Consider your health and well-being.

Sometimes our work load increases and this may put pressure on us and other aspects of our social and personal well-being. It is important to take time to relax, stay healthy and get out as much as possible. If you feel you are struggling, Universities offer a range of personal services which can help students who feel under pressure or who are struggling with work related or personal issues. These services are invaluable and I cannot recommend them enough.

One of the reasons I chose Cardiff is because it is such a green city, with parks, lakes and reserves in and around the City. One of my favourite breaks is to have a walk around Roath Lake Park, have a look at the birds and other wildlife and perhaps grab an ice cream or take a ride on a peddle boat.  Also, I enjoy going with a group of friends at dusk, to see the amazing abundance of bats, feeding among the trees and over the water.

This brings me to wish you the very best in your future career, whichever direction you choose to take. Apply yourself, steady yourself with the help of loved ones around you and seize new opportunities to make memories that will last a lifetime.

Thank you for reading.

Alexandra @I_amkinsey

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Student Birding - By Cardiff University Ornithological Society (CUOS)

Cardiff University Ornithological Society (a.k.a bird club) is a gathering of students that share a common interest in, and appreciation of, all things feathery.

Anyone with a love of birds can join, no matter their level of experience! Our current members range from beginners to fully-fledged twitchers. We organise many activities and events, with the aim of enriching our understanding of birds and their fascinating behaviours. In addition, many of our members want to develop careers in ornithology, we try to facilitate this by hosting talks from professional bird researchers, ringers and even popular Wildlife TV presenters.

CUOS also gets involved in the conservation of UK bird species that desperately need help to survive.

This academic year CUOS has been given the exciting opportunity to take on BTO’s monthly Wetland Bird Surveys (WeBS) at Roath Park Lake (Cardiff). This is a fantastic opportunity for our members to gain experience in undertaking a national survey, and also to improve their wetland bird identification skills.

Many of our members do not have prior experience of bird surveys, nor expertise identification skills of wetland birds. However, the committee (experienced WeBS counters) have planned a range of teaching sessions so that everyone can take part. Roath Park is a perfect spot for beginners to WeBS and birds in general, as there are a fantastic range of species at numbers that are easily countable.

In October we did our first WeBS and recorded a fantastic 19 species!
The highlights of the count for us were: Little Grebe (4); Pochard (1); Shoveler (17); Teal (10); Tufted Duck (51); Wigeon (1) and Kingfisher (1).
We felt especially lucky to see a Pochard on the lake as it was early in the year to spot one.

We look forward to our future WeBS and hope that this is the start of something special for the society that will get passed on through generations of students and inspire more young birders to get involved with important surveying.

Follow us on twitter @CUBirds!

Thursday, 6 October 2016

The Martin Garner Spurn Young Birder of the Year competition, by George Dunbar

This Spring, I entered the Martin Garner Spurn Young Birder of the Year Competition by submitting my entry to the BTO. There was an online questionnaire about my birding experiences. The form was easy enough to fill out, one of the questions asked "What got you into birding?". For me, this was regular, monthly visits to WWT Martin Mere. I was never interested in the captive birds, only in the 'real' ones! Here, I saw my first Marsh harrier, Ruff and many other species. Anyway, back to Spurn...

Entries from up and down the country were assessed by BTO and Spurn Bird Observatory. When I received an E-mail to tell me I was one of five young birders to reach the final, I couldn't believe it! I was elated and couldn't get downstairs to tell my parents quick enough! After parents, I was on the phone to my birding mentor, David Bowman who was just as excited as I was that I'd made it!

Next, revision! Any species that I wasn't too strong on (Gulls and waders) I looked up the key ID features to try and make picking them out in the field more likely. With having an inland patch, I don't get much chance to do sea watching or ID many waders. However, I had a trip to Bardsey Island coming up where I'd be able to gen up on my sea birds. My patch (Woolston Eyes) had begun to liven up with wader passage so I had an opportunity there too. My routine was a morning of ringing then going into the hide afterwards to do some birding for a few hours before heading home to catch up on school work (obviously just as important)..!

I arrived at the Spurn Migration Festival for 7:30 as the competition started at 9:15. I got out of the car, put on my boots and then heard the sound of people running as someone screamed "KENTISH PLOVER AT RIVERSIDE!" I was offered a lift and off I went, unfortunately when we got there the bird had flown off so the run through driving rain had not been worth it! I caught up with a few young birders and made my way over to Westmere Farm to register with my parents. The other young birders and I made it to the Warren just in time to dry off a bit before the briefing from Nick Whitehouse. Everyone was as soggy and frustrated as each other but the competition had to go on!
There were four parts to the competition. Sea-watching, Wader ID (Estuarine), Bushes and the dreaded Lab Test - *gulp*! Each section of the competition had a different assessor attached to it and we took it in turns going out and doing each part.

Firstly for me was the Lab test, and to be honest, I just wanted to get it out of the way! For this part, we were given a stuffed bird and asked to point to certain parts of it (eg. primaries, mantle). It was a test of our technical skill and the ringers amongst us were at an advantage! The second half of this was listening to various calls/songs and having to ID them. I, for one, was pleased to have revised my calls the night before!

Next was across the road from the Warren to scope some waders! I was asked to ID three species and was then asked a few questions about waders. For one of them, we were given a list of wader species and asked to pick out which didn't breed in Iceland - a real tricky one that my assessor confessed he didn't know previous to asking other people!!

It was then back across the road and up to Numpty's to do the sea-watch. Apart from the gales blowing out to sea and the torrential rain, the conditions were...perfect! Again, we were asked to ID 3 species out over the water. I got lucky as I was the only one to have a Red-throated Diver go past for the competition, and even better was the fact it was in Summer plumage! 

Finally, off to do the Bushes. This replaced the Visible Migration Watch that last year's birders did as the almost constant rain on Saturday meant almost all migration overhead had been brought to a standstill. You guessed it.. we were asked to ID 3 species and also some flight calls and, for me, the flight calls were Tree Pipit, Yellow Wagtail and Snipe. This was concluded with some questions on separating 'Eared' owls in the field and describing the breeding and wintering range of a songbird that visits the UK in large numbers...the Wheatear.

We headed back to the Warren for a buffet lunch that had been kindly organised by Nick Whitehouse. Once everyone had their food, Nick announced the winner, it was very close, but it turned out to be me! I was stunned. Never in a million years did I think I'd win a competition like this one. I guess putting in hours and hours of serious birding a few times per week had worked for me, but more than anything, it was because of all the help and patience that the guys at Woolston Eyes had given me! Days spent in the hide watching the comings and goings, explaining why something is what it is and picking up some of the extensive knowledge of the birders there!

I'd always been a nervous person when having to go up on stage in front of a lot of people, but on the Saturday evening, it was more excitement! I was going up, with four other like-minded young birders, in front of a crowd of people that were all there to support us. It was a brilliant evening and I was very pleased to receive my prize, a new pair of Swarovski binoculars from TV Presenter, Mike Dilger, and Director of the BTO, Andy Clements. It was very inspiring to meet them both and they provided all five young birders and  the others in the audience with much encouragement to pursue careers in wildlife and conservation as it would be us that it is handed down to.

While at Spurn I met lot of great people too, I caught up with a few other young birders and met a few of the Spurn regulars. It was also a real pleasure to meet Sharon Garner and to accept a copy of Martin's book, Winter Challenge Series. Also, David La Puma, the head of Cape May Bird Observatory, and Björn Malmhagen, head of Falsterbo Bird Observatory.

I'll definitely be back birding at Spurn soon as it really is a very special place and there's not really anywhere else like it (in the UK). It's a great place for young birders as all of the staff are very knowledgeable and will do anything they can to be of help!

Finally, I'd like to thank both Spurn Bird Observatory, the BTO and also everyone that attended for making it such a special weekend. It was a brilliant weekend and hopefully even more people will start to visit.

George Dunbar, @GeorgeDunbar_