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_

Monday, 12 September 2016

Fair Isle - an adventure of a lifetime by Lewis Mitchell

I was fortunate to volunteer at Fair Isle Bird Observatory for 3 weeks in July 2016. It was an opportunity for
Fulmar by Lewis Mitchell
Fulmar by Lewis Mitchell
me to gain some experience in bird monitoring, surveying, ringing and habitat management, as well as obtaining contacts which could be essential in searches for employment later on in life. Furthermore, I was able to grow my knowledge of wildlife and improve my skills in wildlife identification.


Leaving home for 3 and a half weeks was always going to be strange. Independence is something I am trying to learn, ready for when I (hopefully) go to university. In order to get to Fair Isle I had to take the train to London, then the coach to Aberdeen, in Scotland, then the ferry to Lerwick in Shetland, which is Britain's most northerly town, the bus to the southern tip of mainland Shetland, and finally the tiny Good Shepherd IV (see picture below) ferry to Fair Isle, Britain's most remote inhabited island. In Aberdeen I met up with Sam Hood who I would be spending some of my time on Fair Isle with. We travelled the rest of the way together.

The Good Shepherd IV by Lewis Mitchell
The Good Shepherd IV by Lewis Mitchell
At the observatory I was made to feel very welcome by all the staff as well as the guests. Food was cooked by the wonderful chef that is Orlando, who on one occasion managed to make carrots taste like cider because he put them in with the pork cooked in cider for dinner one day. That was a taste from home!

Whilst on Fair Isle, I helped in the ringing of the birds, as well as did some work on habitat management and bird surveying and monitoring. I ringed 18 storm petrels, c.20 puffin chicks (or, pufflings) (by putting my hand in their burrows), 3 herring gull chicks and a meadow pipit. All is valuable experience as I become a trainee ringer.  

On 10th July we were clearing the scrape just outside the observatory and came back to the obs for a drink as it was a warm day. Chris (also known to the staff team as Doddy) and Ciaran came to check out our handy-work. whilst stood on the patio, Doddy noticed something in North Haven. "Orca." Doddy mumbled to himself, unsure what was lurking beneath the waves. "ORCA!!!" Doddy, now confident in his discovery, yelled to alert everyone present. Shaking, I raised my binoculars to my eyes, and was greeted with a truly magnificent spectacle of a pod of 5 killer whales in close at North Haven. I was so excited to see this! A once in a lifetime experience. To this discovery, Doddy ran through the observatory, alerting guests on his way, with Ciaran and us volunteers following behind. I rushed to put my wellies on and ran out the door and across to Buness for a closer look. Peering over the cliff edge we saw the orcas within 60ft from us. They proceeded to hunt and kill two grey seals right in front of us. That definitely made my time on Fair Isle brilliant. Here is one of Sam's photos of the killer whales:

Orcas by Samuel Hood
Orcas by Samuel Hood

During our stay the Euro 2016 was on so a few times us staff, as well as a few guests, all huddled in the warden's flat to watch the football games. this was great fun because we had a few passionate German fans in the obs. Also on the theme of football, a game took place on the island between a team from the observatory and a team of islanders and those on a National Trust for Scotland work camp. I think the final score was OBS 12 - 9 ISLANDERS. Here's a group photo:


In preparation for the match, us volunteers decided to have a kick about when all of a sudden a Fulmar burst out from under a van! It didn't have enough room to take off. It proceeded to vomit on the drive. Our bird was successfully caught by Sam and was ringed and safely released. Fulmars are seabirds who use projectile vomit as defence from predators. Here is a picture of a very photogenic one I saw on Fair Isle:

Fulmar by Lewis Mitchell
Fulmar by Lewis Mitchell
At the end of my stay we took part in the sheep round up and shearing. This was a new experience for me. Each crofter on Fair isle has 20 sheep that roam all over the island and then are rounded up by the locals and other volunteers (e.g. us volunteers). We did a lot of fencing, trap repairs, food sampling, bird monitoring and scrape management as well as some gardening for one of the islanders.

One day Oli Beacock, one of the volunteers found a long eared owl in the obs garden which was very wet from the rain. On another occasion we found a grey heron in a trap and it was brought back to the obs to be ringed, and was released after.

We spent most of our free time chilling in the lounge, catching up on sleep and going out across the island watching the wildlife and practising taking photos of many, many wheatears (I must have a few hundred wheatear photos) Here is a good take off shot I got:

Wheatear by Lewis Mitchell
Wheatear by Lewis Mitchell
The puffins on Fair Isle were extremely brave and I was able to get close to them.

Puffin by Lewis Mitchell
Puffin by Lewis Mitchell
Here are the best of the rest of the photos:

Great Skua by Lewis Mitchell
A Great Skua looking angry as ever! By Lewis Mitchell
Arctic Tern by Lewis Mitchell
Angry Arctic Tern as I walked through its territory by Lewis Mitchell

I would like to thank the observatory staff for accepting me onto the team and making me so welcome. To achieve this I used the John Harrison Memorial Fund at Fair Isle Bird Observatory, as well as the BTO Young Bird Observatory Volunteer Fund.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

My first solo Breeding Bird Survey by Gethin Jenkins-Jones

I’ve always got a kick out of doing bird surveys. It’s great going out knowing that your records will become a tiny piece of the jigsaw that’ll help answer the puzzles of ornithology. Over the last six years I have had a lot of fun doing various surveys for the BTO including Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) counts, Birdtrack, BTO Garden BirdWatch and the Winter Thrushes Survey. However this year I decided to go further and take on possibly the BTO’s most challenging survey - the Breeding Bird Survey.

The BTO’s Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) is the main scheme for monitoring the population changes of the UK’s common breeding birds. It involves two spring visits to a local Ordnance Survey 1-km square, to count all the birds you see or hear while walking along two 1-km lines across the square. These squares are randomly selected by the BTO and so, on a day around last Christmas, I sat down with my Dad to look at some which were on the list in Glamorgan. One particular square near Blackmill in the Ogwr Valley looked quite promising, with a nice variety of habitats and little disturbance. This was the square for me!

 River Ogwr by Gethin Jenkins-Jones

River Ogwr on the first transect
On a mild early March morning we checked out the site. Although it was just a reconnaissance visit, we also noted the different habitats present in the square – another essential part of the survey. The first kilometre transect seemed pretty promising for the season to come, with a small river nearby, some open lowland fields and a large old Oak woodland stretching along the path. Although just over 500m away, the second 1-km transect suggested we’d see a different selection of birds. Upland farmland was the dominant habitat here, although another Oak woodland at the end of the transect raised hopes of some decent woodland species too. I was very much looking forward to see what species I would get!

A month later on a quiet April morning, at a time when the majority of us teenagers are rarely awake, we left Cardiff and headed west. The day looked promising with good visibility, no rain and only a slight breeze.

At precisely 6:48 – you must note your start and finish time – we were ready to go. Our pace along the track also had to be taken into consideration: not too fast and not too slow. Each 1-km transect is split into 5 x 200m sections on your Field Recording Sheet with each 200m stretch expected to take 9-10 minutes. Although slower than my usual rambles, it gave me more of an opportunity to take everything in and to encounter more species.  The adrenalin began to pick up as I jotted the first species of the morning; a singing Robin and 2 calling Coal Tit within 25m of the footpath. But as so many birds were singing, calling and flying around, the stress began to build up!

Over the next 45 minutes recording the birds had some sort of rhythm to it; a singing Mistle Thrush over 25 metres away, a Nuthatch calling nearby, 2 Ravens ‘cronking’ overhead, and….hello, a Pied Flycatcher?! Yes, a female, and good views too. I pencilled the letters ‘PF’ on the sheet with a lot of satisfaction. It was the wakeup call I needed at such an hour and I began to enjoy the morning more and more from then on.

The longer we walked the easier it seemed to get, especially since we were encountering the same species again and again and I grew in confidence in remembering the two-letter BTO code of every bird. Our first 1km produced some nice birds. Along with the Pied Flycatcher we recorded many singing Willow Warbler (WW), some Blackcaps (BC) and singles of Green (G.) and Great Spotted Woodpeckers (GS).

I certainly enjoyed the survey, but as we finished the first 1km stretch and walked back to the car to travel to the start point of the second 1-km transect, I was happy to be able to switch off for a few minutes. The concentration required for BBS is intense, there’s no denying it!
The ridge of Oak woodland at Blackmill by Gethin Jenkins-Jones
The ridge of Oak woodland at Blackmill

We hopped into the car and after a 2 minute drive we clambered out and strode up the hill towards our second starting point. Before I knew it we were off again, and it was great to see some new species; Buzzard flying over distantly, Skylark singing above, a Linnet going over, calling.
About half way through our first transect we briefly saw another of the day’s specialities, a Redstart which flashed its rusty tail as it flew off. The fact we were on a hill (and most of the time in open country) meant we saw many more distant birds than in the first transect, and we saw more birds than we heard. The fields held many thrushes and Jackdaws that all went down on the Field Recording Sheet.

Wood Warbler by Allan Drewitt
Wood Warbler by Allan Drewitt
Before long we were walking under the canopy of the Oak woodland and we pricked our ears upwards. A Redstart and Willow Warbler was a good start, although nothing prepared us for what we heard next. Among the chorus of bird song the cascading notes of the Wood Warbler echoed through the wood. Get in there! Dad was beginning to get jealous he didn’t have this square for himself. Scribbling down this species gave me more pleasure than the Pied Fly. I’m quite lucky, I thought, to have this square. Wood Warbler, Pied Flycatcher and Redstart: Welsh birds at their best!



Exhausted but happy!
Our final 2 x 200m sections were some of the best as we could still hear the woodland species to our right and also pick up farmland species to our left. Skylarks singing and, in the distance, a Red Kite was circling the area, making the day even more spectacular, another 2 singing Wood Warblers and some Swallows which were nesting in a nearby barn. As we walked further up the path I finally saw the finishing line – marked in yellow paint on the road by my father on our recce in March – which told me that I had at last completed my first BBS survey. Halleluiah! I don’t know if it’s the survey itself or my lazy teenage habits, but I was so tired that the road looked very comfy and all I wanted to do was to lie down on it, and that’s what I did!   You can see the finishing line between my feet.

I very much enjoyed doing this survey. You don’t need to be an expert to take part, but you should be able to identify common birds by sight and sound and even though the high levels of concentration needed to do it properly are challenging, I can’t wait to go there again next year. In a few years I will be able appreciate it even more by comparing the birds recorded year after year and see how the wildlife will change over time. For me, there aren’t many things better than that!

Gethin Jenkins-Jones, Cardiff


Thursday, 4 August 2016

Cuckoos and Wrens by Sebastian Seely

An amazing series of photos taken by Peter Allman at the National Trust's Calke Abbey in Derbyshire caused quite a stir on social media last week. They show a juvenile Cuckoo being fed by a Wren (below). Lots of people got in touch to ask about this behaviour and about the behaviour of Cuckoos generally. Young birder Sebastian Seely has been here on work experience this week and spent a few hours in the BTO library researching answers to these questions...
Photo by Peter Allman
Photo by Peter Allman

It has been known for birds to feed juveniles of another species even if they did not raise them themselves, as they are attracted to the sound of a hungry chick and have a strong instinct to feed them. However, in this particular case, the cuckoo has been observed being fed by the wren numerous times, so it is far more likely that it was raised by the wren in its nest. This is a relatively common occurrence in other European countries, however this is a relatively rare occurrence in Britain, there are only three or four records of it. This is probably most likely due to the fact that a wren nest isn’t really an ideal place to nest in as it is very small, and close to the ground. It could also be because wren nests are generally well hidden and hard to find, as well as being dark inside as a result of its dome-shape, making it more difficult to see and record cuckoo chicks.

How the cuckoo lays the egg in the wren’s nest is very much the same as they do for most bird species’ nests; the cuckoo simply clings to the nest, places her cloaca against the nest hole and squirts the egg in. The egg will then slide down inside the dome-shaped nest so it is quite unlikely that the egg will break. Sometimes the female cuckoo will take one of the wren eggs out with her beak, to make room for her own or just to eat as a snack.

The wren will probably not realise the cuckoo egg is not one of its own, and if it does, a wren will probably not try to reject it, because with rejection comes cost. For example, because the wren has such a small beak, it will find it very difficult to remove the egg so it may fall on its own eggs, smashing them, leaving it with no achievement at all. 
Cuckoo chick in a Reed Warbler nest. Photo by Kevin Carlson
Cuckoo chick in a Reed Warbler nest. Photo by Kevin Carlson

As the cuckoo egg hatches, the chick will push the wren eggs, one at a time onto a curvature in its spine and push them out of the nest hole. The specially constructed wren nest makes it quite difficult for the cuckoo chick to eject the eggs so if it does not succeed in removing them all, it will outcompete the other wren chicks when they hatch as the cuckoo will grow into a much bigger bird very quickly.

Cuckoo chick being fed by a Dunnock. Photo by Derek Belsey
Cuckoo chick being fed by a Dunnock. Photo by Derek Belsey
These photos also prompted many questions regarding why the cuckoo does not imprint on the wren as it is the first thing it sees, the same way a duckling can imprint on a human. The cuckoo may well spend the rest of its life thinking it’s mother is a wren, but it does not matter because after a few weeks it will become independent and most likely instinct will tell it to migrate to Africa, to eat caterpillars and to recognise and mate with other cuckoos. Some female cuckoos are known to lay their eggs in the same species’ nest as they were brought up in, suggesting that they do “remember”, their host parent or maybe just the habitat it was found in. Perhaps it’s a bit of both.

Sebastian Seely