Wednesday, 10 September 2014

A weekend of lightbulb moments!

Finally getting round to summing up the most inspiring weekend I've ever had.

A Vision For Nature Conference was held at the Department of Engineering in Cambridge on the 5th and 6th of September. Organised by Lucy MacRobert and Matt Williams from A Focus On Nature, the event was to bring together conservationists from around the UK (and a few from overseas), allowing the next generation to network with those with years of experience in the field, and share ideas, experiences and opinions on Nature Conservation.

I traveled down to Cambridge the day before and met with Matt, Peter Cooper and Tom Mason for a pre-conference drink, chatting about our expectations for the weekend, what were were looking forward to, and already getting the ball rolling on some new ideas for the future.

Friday started early, with the doors opening at 8.30 we arrived around 7.30 to help setting up. It was great to see so many people coming through the doors and registering, and I was happy to finally meet many of the regular contributors to the AFON facebook page.

After a quick introduction, the first talk was a showcase of AFON members, and featured Beth Aucott, who ran the first University Birdwatch Challenge, Ed Marshall, who visited the Isles of Scilly on a 6 week internship with the Wildlife Trust, stayed for longer and is on his way back there to carry out more conservation work, and finally Madison Wales, whose dissertation on Ladies for Nature won the Award in Environmental History. All these short talks provided an insight into the opportunities that AFON members have access to, and did an excellent job of setting the tone for the rest of the conference.

Next on the programme was the first debate of the conference. Andy Clements (BTO) chaired the session on "Should science have the final say in Conservation?" Andy was joined on stage by Debbie Pain (WWT), Rob Lambert (University of Nottingham) and Ralph Underhill (Common Cause For Nature), who all largely agreed that science is an important part of conservation, but probably shouldn't have the final say. The general feelings of the panel were that the majority of people connect with nature without science, and that science can be "dull and boring" to the general public. It is possible to work with nature without graphs and tables, and several points were raised about taking the non-scientific route into conservation - through Psychology, Environmental History, Education, but also Computing, Marketing, and the Arts. It was pointed out that NGOs have become a very professional front to the conservation field, and that more and more less-likely openings are becoming available to those with passion and enthusiasm for the Natural World.

Half an hour for a break was spent networking over tea and biscuits, then we were ushered into the first round of workshops. The choices were a debate on "Natural Capital: are we putting a price on nature?", Wildlife Filmmaking, Introduction to Moth Trapping and The Esssential Path for Wildlife Education. As someone with an interest in Education, I chose the latter, which was run by Stephen Le Quesne. It was very interesting hearing his experience of using the Forest Schools program on Jersey. He set us the task of planning an activity for a group of children with a set list of resources - I must admit that I already had plenty of ideas from my previous work at Chatsworth as soon as he mentioned "blindfolds, strips of cardboard, empty plastic bottles..." The group I was in came up with a whole day of fun (based on one or two of my ideas but expanded hugely!) and I was happy to get some new ideas from them and the other group. Stephen provided plenty of background reading and papers on the topic of Wildlife Education and I loved his use of "You can't buy a stick in a toy store" - definitely given me some food for thought!

Lunch was spent networking with more people, and all too soon the first talk of the afternoon was about to start. "So you want to work in nature conservation?" was led by Nick Askew (Conservation Careers) and featured Niall McCann, Neil Prem, James Borrell and Pamela Abbott. They each had tips and advice on getting into this field, and how to gain the most valuable experiences to help you follow your dreams. Niall and James both spoke of their amazing adventures abroad, while Neil and Pamela spoke more about discovering what matters the most and the journeys that they all took to be where they are now.

After another chance to network over refreshments, the afternoon workshops began, with a debate on "All Creatures Great and Small: species conservation in Britain", Wildlife Photography, Attitudes and Values in Communications and Developing a Career in Ecological Consultancy. This was a really tough choice and I was almost glad that the workshop spaces were filled, which left me to attend the debate. Chaired by the legendary Hugh Warwick (hedgehogs), the panel consisted of Sarah Henshall (Buglife), Jenny Leon (Froglife), Tim Mackrill (Rutland Osprey Project) and Ian Rowlands (Whalefest). Each person had 10 minutes to champion their species and explain why single species conservation is a good idea, then there was a chance for questions from the audience.

To wrap up the day, everyone was invited to Wagamama's for dinner, then we finished the evening at a local pub. I was very happy to see the younger members of AFON there, and spent a good deal of time speaking with the Wilde family (Findlay and Harley) and Mya-Rose. I also chatted to Josie Hewitt, a fellow member of Next Generation Birders who will be attending the Bardsey trip in a few weeks time. It was also nice to speak to several locals who had attended the conference out of interest. I enjoyed sharing the idea behind A Focus On Nature and the overall feeling was that it was about time something like this existed on such a large scale to hold a conference. Hopefully they will continue to support AFON and I hope to meet them again at the next conference!

As ever, the pub is where the best ideas are laid out, and I was collared by Rob Lambert, one of my mentors through the AFON scheme. We discussed my lack of job opportunities and he gave me a literal push in the direction of Stuart Benn, an RSPB worker from the Highlands office who was visiting the HQ at Sandy. I then spent the next hour or so chatting to him, discussing my options and listening to the advice he was giving me. The essential thing that I will have taken away from this conference was the opportunity to speak with the people in the field and have them point out my strengths to me and channel me in that direction...

So... from now on, I will not be applying for every conservation job that sparks my fancy - whether that is as a reserve warden, a fundraiser, office worker, data analyst, conservation officer, ecologist, biodiversity officer, or even field research assistant (even though I loved it!). I will be concentrating my efforts on Education roles, on reserves, at visitor centres but mostly outdoors. I know that I have a lot to do to get there, but having more than a couple of people tell me that my passion and enthusiasm for nature are my strengths, and the fact that I could literally talk for Britain, I would like to use this to enthuse and engage the next, next generation of conservationists to continue the work that has already started.

Right, enough lightbulb moments! Back to the conference!

Saturday started more-or less by being thrown into workshops, with choices from a talk on "What Colour is Nature? Politics in nature conservation", Storytelling, Online Communications and "What can conservation NGOs do differently to engage with young members?" Following the "lightbulb" of the previous day, I had to attend the latter, which was run by Adam Cormack and Ruth Grice from the Wildlife Trusts. We had a quick introduction to young members schemes and benefits across the main NGOs in the UK, and I was surprise to learn that WWF and the Woodlands Trust have nothing in place for young members, while the WWT do not appear to offer much specifically for young members. The RSPB have the Wildlife Explorers, a dedicated youth magazine and careers advice pages on the website (but this had previously been mentioned by people at the conference to not cater for all age groups). The National Trust runs Youth Discovery Holidays and works with the Duke of Edinburgh Award in encouraging young people to volunteer. The Wildlife Trusts run Wildlife Watch groups for up to age 16, with some groups being run with students. We then split into groups to discuss what NGOs should offer young members to encourage membership/ participation, and also how to engage the next generation who may not know how to begin looking at nature. MANY brilliant ideas were shared, and I'm intrigued to see what will be done with our suggestions. I think overall the current ideas need a chance to grow, but one that I loved was that volunteers could gain "credits" for the work they do, to spend on useful nationally recognised courses (ID skills, first aid, brush-cutting etc). I could easily write a whole blog on the ideas that were discussed in this workshop, and may do so later, but for now I'll continue with the conference.

Stephen Moss chaired the next debate, called "Teen Wolf: Unleashing the wild connection in children", so I knew we would be in for some thought-provoking discussions. With Derek Niemann (RSPB), Brenna Boyle (Wild Capital), Sarah Blackwell (Forest Schools) and Ross Crates (Ecologist), there was a good variety of topics for discussion. Stephen started by talking about the "Death of a Naturalist" idea and said that if he was asked 5 years ago, he would probably have agreed with this, but that looking around the room, it made him change his mind. The main reasons for the disconnection between youth and nature were discussed, namely the increased "red tape" for working with children, technology, stranger danger, and having no time for hobbies. Education was also highlighted, with suggestions that Wildlife/ Outdoor/ Environmental Education should become a compulsory part of the curriculum, which I wholeheartedly agree with! The price of nature was also discussed - with it being free, it apparently lacks value and cannot compete with brand marketing. But, because it is free, it is open and available to everyone, so many people maybe take it for granted until it is too late.

After yet another busy lunch networking, the final workshops available were Introduction to Campaigning, Storytelling, "Waxwinging Lyrical: nature writing and environmental journalism" and a debate on "The Lie of the Land: land management in the UK". Once again, the workshops had been filled before I got the chance to choose, so I sat in on the debate, chaired by Aidan Lonergan (RSPB) and accompanied by Robert Law (Farmer), Jane Rickson (Soil Scientist) and Simon Tonkin (Conservation Grade). This debate was not what I had expected. The focus was all on farming, and while I accept that farms make up the vast majority of landscape management in the UK, I was disappointed that other practices were not mentioned - such as woodlands and forestry, hunting estates and the use of renewable energy. Having said that, I was encouraged by Robert's views and efforts to make his farm as wildlife friendly as possible, and that he believes that he is still a Custodian of the Countryside. I do sympathise with farmers who have the goal posts moved every few months by the government for one reason or another.

While everyone filed out for the final tea break, it suddenly occurred to me that I was participating in the next debate, and I had no idea what I would say! Lucy and Matt had asked me a few weeks back if I would like to join in, which didn't take a seconds thought! Now I would be taking part in "Our Vision for Nature: future conservation challenges". Lucy was chairing the debate and I was joined on stage by Matt, Ross, Simon Phelps and Jeff Knott. I told the audience that I represented the number of graduates who were struggling to get that first job in conservation, which seemed to go down well. After quick introductions, we were immediately thrown in at the deep end with questions from the audience, covering what the greatest challenges facing conservation, international vs UK conservation, Patron Saints and role models in conservation, politics, nature reserves and the gender imbalance. As us girls were mostly outnumbered by the guys all weekend, this had sparked some serious discussions over the weekend and I was questioned directly as to whether the lack of female role models in conservation was an issue. Personally, it hasn't influenced my decision making and I had to agree with the audience member who said that by using feminism to try and encourage equality, all you're doing is highlighting that men and women are different and isolating them further. Yes, we should be equal, but calling it feminism isn't the way to increase the number of women in conservation jobs. Also, I don't see this just in the conservation field - most jobs are male dominated, so maybe conservation is actually ahead of the times by recognising there is a problem?

So, after a gruelling question session we were each asked for our Vision for Nature. Mine is for greater youth engagement and education, and allowing them to enthuse others. Simon said he would like a world where you don't have to explain why it's wrong to persecute birds of prey, and for AFON to continue to grow. Matt wants young people to lead the conservation world and for greater connection with nature. Jeff wants an AFON conference where the word "young person" isn't mentioned once. Ross wants every child to be given the opportunity to experience nature.

After we were finished, there was supposed to be a summing up of the workshops by Peter, Matt Collis and Tom. Peter talked about his nature writing workshop, then Matt stood up and spoke about the storytelling workshop that he had attended. Then Tom got up and said that he wasn't going to talk about the workshops at all, but the two people behind the whole conference - Lucy and Matt. They both work full time, and Matt has only just returned from 12 months in Indonesia, so what they had successfully organised and planned is a HUGE achievement and they definitely deserved the recognition. Tom's speech of thanks was heartfelt and emotional and I'm sure that Lucy was not the only one with tears in her eyes by the end (pass the hankie!)

After being presented with a few gifts from AFON members, Lucy and Matt had to close the conference, and revealed that there will be a Vision for Nature report being produced over the next 8-10 months, with the hope of presenting it to the next government stating what we want for Nature. I am very excited about this, and can't wait to help out however I can with this - I have already e-mailed a few of my ideas through, and hope to start the wheels turning on a new project over the coming week or two.

On a personal level, I would like to thank everyone who attended the conference (hopefully the first of many!), the speakers, the workshop leaders, the reps from NGOs and other nature related organisations and companies, the audience and the organising committee.

Hope to see you all next year!

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Sweden... Part 2

As promised, the peak of our season hit us like a tidal wave! And due to a late season, it happened towards the end of the field season, meaning that we were still doing fieldwork the day before we left!

Hatching day!
My last post was (I think!) before we had any babies. Well, we had plenty by the end of the season! Thanks to the long term study of these birds, we knew that they would lay 6-7 eggs, incubate for 12-14 days then the eggs hatch usually within 2 days. So, as soon as we found eggs in a Flycatcher nest, we had a rough idea of when they should hatch. To limit the disturbance to the nest, we only visited before the hatching date in order to catch the female while she was incubating. This was reasonably straight forward, and resulted in an almost 100% success rate! We caught the females to give them a ring, determine species, age and to take biometric measurements and DNA samples, which was all entered into our data program at the end of the day/ week/ season/ whenever someone had a few hours spare!

Welcome to the world, little one!

The season was doing weird and wonderful things - started off warm, birds arrived, started making nests, then disappeared! It turned cold, a bit wet and still no eggs. It warmed up (still a bit wet), and still no eggs! Eventually, with the bribery of a crate of beer, the first nest with eggs was found (not surprisingly by the person offering the beer!) and the season got into swing. But because of the delay (assumed due to the weather), it meant that both species decided to lay at more-or-less the same time - usually the Collared's lay before the Pied's. This meant that our peak would be short and busy instead of long and easy-ish.

By this time, we were only visiting nests that had Flycatcher nests in, ever hopeful to find eggs! So our area visits weren't taking as long because we were only visiting less than half of the boxes (tits moved into most of the boxes!) The first hatch checks meant a lot of head scratching to determine if they had hatched today or yesterday! This was easier when done first thing in the morning before they had fat little bellies full of caterpillars and the parents had tipped the egg shells out of the nest!
Great Tit babies
Blue Tit babies

Day 6 chicks - bit of variation between big and little!
The chicks grew quickly, so by Day 6 they were mostly big enough for a ring and to have DNA and some measurements taken. We then visited again on Day 12 to repeat the measurements to show growth rate, and then again on Day 15+ to check if they had successfully fledged. Between Day 4 and 8 we would try to catch the male using a trap in the box. Males feed the chicks as often as the females, so this should have been relatively straight forward! However, males also appear to be trap-shy, and would hover in front of the box, see the trap and think of plan B. We witnessed several males landing in the hole and dropping food into the chicks without actually going into the box. Clever guys, but left us very frustrated! And of course, being polygamous we also had single parent nests (presumably the second female for a male).

When trapping for adults, I started singing "Silence is Golden" by The Tremeloes because if you could hear alarm calls the chances were that they'd sussed a trap and were sitting there complaining about it. If they had been caught, they would sit quietly in the box awaiting their fate - in this case, a new ring, some measurements and a drop of blood less.

Now, in a perfect world, our study birds would hatch all their eggs, rear all their young and fledge all the chicks. Unfortunately, nature had other ideas! Over half of our boxes were predated, with the main suspects being Pine Martens and Woodpeckers (except at Lilla Hult, where Cows knocked many boxes off the trees, despite being very high!) Most of our boxes have a predator cage around them to protect against Woodpeckers, but we think this might have helped the Pine Martens to climb onto the boxes. Vickleby already had a reputation for being "where things go to die" and it was certainly true - I think 95% of the boxes were predated at either egg (mummy makes a nice easy snack and the eggs wash her down nicely) or chick stage (fat little babies!). It was disheartening to arrive at a box to hear the parent alarming and find the nest empty, or the remains of chicks in or around the box. I remember checking a box which had a single D6 chick in it, which was very close to another nest with 7 babies around D10. As I approached, I noticed the complete silence around the D10 nest and went to investigate... a dead male on the ground with two chicks, three dead chicks in the nest and remains of the rest around the tree. From then on "Silence is Golden" was no longer a good song to sing.

Pine Marten calling card - apparently our rings don't taste very nice!
Carrion Beetle munching on the parent Flycatcher.

Another curious incident occurred at the end of the season. I had recorded a nest as predated after walking past one day (chicks would have been D9) and finding a leg with a ring on the roof, and another ring on the ground. The ring on the leg had been bitten flat and when I pulled it off the leg, part of the bone was stuck in there. Back at the house, that ring was found to have come from a chick from that nest, and the other was the female, so we assumed they had all been predated. As this was one of our study nests, at the end of the season we went back to do a habitat survey of the area. When we arrived at the box, there was a rather large Pine Marten poo on the roof of the box! After discussing the toilet habits of predators, I suggested we check it for rings. Sure enough, between the feathers and fine bones we found a ring! Back at the house (and after cleaning in ethanol!) we checked the number and were surprised to find it belonged to a female from a box about 500m away. This box was special because it was found with 11 eggs (average is 6-8). When we observed the nest, we found two females had laid their eggs in the same box and were sharing incubating the eggs, with one male responsible for them! Unfortunately, due to this unnatural occurrence, when we returned to the nest to take D12 measurements, there was only one chick left; presumably the others were older and had already fledged.

Anyway, we did see some Day 12 chicks, and they were very cute and very fluffy! I was even fortunate enough to see some considering fledging, which was very exciting just watching a little beak popping in and out of the hole trying to decide if it was safe. Due to the parents alarming, we left without seeing the outcome, but I'm confident that those little guys will be back next year!

Day 12 chick - right before he flew out of my hand!
Recovered about 10m away and safely deposited
back in the nest with siblings!
Day 12 chick - ringed, measured, DNA sampled,
and ready to go back in the nest.

At the end of the season, we had a celebratory BBQ with the North and South Teams, where the students put together some presentations on their work, and we drew up some numbers for the South Team season! Seeing all our hard work written as numbers on a blackboard really hit it home how much we'd done in a very short space of time!

South Team figures 2014, with our leader Eryn!
I'm looking forward to seeing some of the results of our work in papers over the coming years, and hope that I might return to Öland one day to admire the Flycatchers once more.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Sweden... Part 1

I’ve been on Öland for almost a month now, and I don’t know where to begin! I’ve been kept pre-occupied with birds, birds and birds (and maybe a snake or moose hunt!) so I guess blog writing has taken a back seat.

Ryd, our local site. Great pond for dragonflies and amphibians!
So, what am I doing here?

My first Collared Flycatcher!
Our target species are Pied and Collard Flycatchers, and we are checking 15 sites across the centre and southern end of the island, which vary from 25 to 200 boxes (a BIG step up from Aber last year with 50!). When we first arrived, we had to sort out the house and second kitchen aka lab. There are many different ongoing projects this summer, and each one requires different set ups, so the first few days were busy doing not much birding! Once that was all sorted though, the real work began!

Vickleby - quite beautiful at the start of the season!
The fieldwork is varied, despite having a strict rotation on sites (every four days we revisit the sites to check for new nests and eggs). The first few visits I’m sure we all felt like we’d be constantly lost in the woods, but now I certainly feel a lot more confident and am getting to know the routes between the boxes. And obviously, the woods are a great place for watching wildlife! It’s very difficult sometimes to stay focussed on checking boxes when you have the allure of wood anemones and marsh marigolds pulling you away from the path, the dancing butterflies (most of which I have no idea on species!), barking deer, following mysterious tracks and trails through the undergrowth (still to see a moose!)

Haltorp North - never seen quite so many buttercups before!
Most of our sites are deciduous woods, with some truly awesome trees (one site has ginormous oak trees that are over 900 years old!). It’s hard to imagine the lush carpet of wild flowers, grasses and mosses not being ever-present, but during the winter the area can be under several foot of snow! Many of the sites have areas where snow melt collects, and these are great for checking out footprints – moose, deer and boar, as well as hare. The terrain is mostly flat (as is much of Sweden, to my surprise!), but with the majority of the areas being in nature reserves, the fallen trees and branches are left to decompose naturally, making finding boxes a bit more challenging when you have to step over or duck under the fallen debris constantly. I’ve given up brushing my hair and am pretty sure I may have dreadlocks by the end of the season; I’m always finding twigs tangled up in it!
Ekerum - famous for these old trees!
Because we work 7 days a week all through the season, we make the most of any time off we get, usually in the afternoons once all the sites have been checked, maps updated, data entered and any odd jobs that need doing on the various ongoing projects (top secret but VERY cool!). We usually spend the afternoons chilling around the house, reading, listening to music, watching films or sunbathing. We also take turns cooking the evening meals, so there are usually a couple of people who will go to the shop nearby to pick up dinner ingredients. When we have a bit longer, we go for “adventures”, which have included a couple of trips down to Ottenby Bird Observatory at the southern tip of the island, a visit to a Nature Book store on the east, and an all day trip to the north, including some paddling in the Baltic, troll trees, limestone stacks and the northern lighthouse. And obviously, birds are always present and admired!

Ottenby and "Long John" Lighthouse! Great birding here, especially on sunny days!
At the start of the season, we checked each site for nests, with anything NOT a flycatcher (aka Tits) being marked so that we didn’t disturb them again. In flycatchers, males arrive before the females and establish territories, so we also did some behaviour studies on territoriality and aggression between males (no males were harmed). Once the nests had eggs, we had to enter the information into the database which then plans out our schedules for future days work. Each day we update the maps for each site too, which I enjoy doing (always loved maps!)

Behavior trial using a dummy male and playbacks. This guy wasn't too bothered!
When I first arrived, I started a list of birds I’d seen – after 3 days it was already outdated and I’m afraid I’ve lost count of the species I’ve seen. A few notable ones are Cranes, Red Kites, Terns (Little and Common), Yellowhammers, Hawfinches, Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Thrush Nightingales and of course, Pied and Collard Flycatchers! In addition to the birds, I’ve spotted several snakes, including a few giant Snoks (Grass snakes) and a few lizards scurrying in the undergrowth. There are also plenty of deer, mostly Roe and Red, as well as Hares, of which there are the Forest (Swedish) and Field (German) variety. There are plenty of interesting insects too, with a number of them being rather annoying to us field workers (ticks, mosquitoes and wasps!) Some of the sites have dense undergrowth, and whenever we return to the car we do a count of the little friends that we have coming to the “bug ball” – mostly caterpillars which we release back for our flycatchers. A number of the sites include areas of grassland (sometimes grazed by over-friendly cows!) which are fantastic of orchids. We visited a local archaeological site nearby where I counted at least 8 species! Definitely something I can see me getting more interested in when I get home.

Wouldn't want one of these as a pet - they're quite clingy!
And that is pretty much it for now – been here a month already and feels like 5 minutes but at the same time a lot longer, due to the amount of work we’ve done. Looking forward to the next 4 weeks when we’ll be working long days and measuring all the babies!

Lilla Hult - super friendly cows!

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Easter bunny has been busy

Last year I monitored Pied Flycatchers at Aber. This species is very helpful by using nestboxes, which have kindly been provided for them for many years by Geoff Gibbs.
Now, this year I'll be doing similar work but on their Swedish cousins, so I've had to pass the reins on to others. Unfortunately, with Easter being rather later this year, the students have all made the most of no classes and gone home, right when we needed them to start checking the boxes! So on Tuesday, 2 days before flying to Sweden I went for a final check of my side, and the first official visit of the season. I was joined by Mark, who will be responsible for making sure the new recruits know what they're looking for.
Compared with our previous visit at the start of April, where we did some repairs to the boxes and checked them all for any early nest building, the woods were a lot quieter. The relative lack of birdsong was quite eerie and combined with the misty conditions, I was glad to have some company! We've discovered that by doing the boxes "backwards" it seems to take less time - walk to the top first and work your way down instead of working your way up and round. Most of the upper boxes were untouched but I was surprised to find four boxes with eggs in! All Great Tits, as each box was being guarded by a noisy parent, but three of these boxes had been empty on the last visit, so it just goes to show how quickly the breeding season can move when they decide the time is right! Unfortunately, so obvious signs of Pied Flycatchers yet, but I did spot a male around the boxes so fingers crossed they choose to use these cosy little homes. I also pointed out a few likely looking holes which may also be used, so the team will be able to keep an eye on these if the nest boxes aren't looking very productive.
Hope the guys have had a good break from Uni, and wishing you best of luck with the site this year. Will be thinking of you from Sweden and looking forward to hearing updates about my babies!

Sunday, 20 April 2014

AFON & BTO Young Birders Workshop

I have been a member of A Focus On Nature since September 2013 and have gained a lot from them. I was invited to the New Networks for Nature "symposium" last November and really enjoyed the 2 day event networking with people from around the UK who work in the Nature field, including researchers, guides, wardens, photographers, artists, writers and conservationists. After asking for some binocular advice, I was offered a pair by Opticron, who sponsor AFON members, and am looking forward to using these in Sweden.
When I heard about the Young Birders Workshop, I knew I had to attend! It was held at the BTO head office in Thetford, which is a LONG way from Bangor! So I arranged to stop over with Matt (from ringing) who now lives in Rugby and was one of the "young" birders speaking at the event. Matt was also giving Ed a lift, so it was good to spend the evening speaking to him about his photography and writing, which I have enjoyed looking at through the AFON facebook page. 
An early start to get down to Thetford for 9.30 was hampered slightly by missing the intended junction and taking a detour down the motorway. Following Sat Nav seemed to be taking us a long way, so I cracked open the road map and found a better route, even enabling us to stop for McDonalds breakfast! I hate Sat Nav, so was quite happy to be playing navigator.
We arrived about 9am, which gave us some time to network before the event started. I was busy chatting to Peter about AFON when I got slightly (well, 3 seconds worth) star struck because Andy Clements, Director of the BTO came over and joined in our conversation! He asked where I had come from (picking up on the slightly Scottish twang) and when I said Bangor, he said that he had studied there. When he asked what I did, I said I had 2 days left at Asda, then I was off to Sweden to monitor Pied Flycatchers for the summer. He then told me about watching them in Aber when he was a student, and was very interested when I mentioned that I'd monitored them there last year. Someone then called him over, and we were told to take our seats for the start of the workshop. Andy opened with a quick welcome, and he name dropped me, which I consider a bit of a claim to fame... wonder if he'll remember me when I drop him an e-mail in a couple of months asking about a job?
The workshop started with a 4 minute introduction by some BTO staff explaining about their jobs and how they came to work for the BTO. I found this very informative as many had not followed what I considered the the traditional path of University, post grad with a few years in the ornithological field before getting the job. I was surprised by how many had come from IT background, but guess I shouldn't have been considering that I am one of the thousands who use the various programs and databases the BTO use to collect data from around the country (Birdtrack, IPMR etc). 
Following this, we got to choose 3 45 minute workshops to attend, each one highlighting a different area of the BTO's work. I chose to learn about Nest Recording from Dave Leech, who ensured us that when he first started he knew virtually nothing about nests. It was great to learn some tips about finding "wild" nests from him, although I must admit I quite like that many species will nest in boxes that we provide for them! We got a quick test on bird songs, as this can be used to help locate nests, and I was disappointed only get 1 out of 4 correct - definitely something I hope to improve over the summer! We then went outside into the grounds to find a few nests. I was surprised that the Chaffinch nest looked so much like a Long Tailed Tit nest, and that the female was definitely not going to leave her clutch of eggs. The Song Thrush left her nest, allowing us to see her clutch of three eggs using a handy mirror on the end of a pole. Dave then took us to a Blackbird nest and being a Ringer, he took a chick out of the nest to show us briefly the aging characteristics that are inputted to IPMR. 
Marsh Tit
I then joined an Introduction to Bird Ringing workshop, run by Jez Blackburn and assisted by Jacquie Clark (both of whom are very well known to Ringers) They had 4 bags waiting for us, and I liked trying to guess what was in the bag! The first bird was a "life tick" for me, as I don't recall ever seeing a Marsh Tit before. I've recently followed a few discussions about identifying the differences between Marsh and Willow Tits, but one of the main features is that Marsh Tits have a pale line running along their bill, which Jez showed to everyone in the audience. I was slightly jealous of Harry, who got the chance to release this lovely specimen as he was the only person who had not handled birds previously. I had guessed that one bag had a Blackbird in it due to the bouncing around, and we had two male Blackbirds and a lovely male Blackcap to finish the session with.
The last workshop I chose was Better Birding by Nick Moran, who I had spoken to at New Networks for Nature. His talks are always interesting and it was mostly a discussion on ways to improve your birding, whether that is by learning birdsongs, taking part in surveys such as WeBS, BBS, NRS, CES or RAS, keeping more records and submitting them to Birdtrack, reading more journals or publications or having some friendly competition and motivation by birding with friends. 
After lunch, which involved lots more networking, we sat down to hear from some Young Birders. It was amazing hearing about their experiences so far, and how they got involved with birding. Many have parents or other family members to thank for their passion for birds, and it was great that many of the parents had come with them too. As Lucy pointed out at the end, those of us who are currently looking for jobs in the field need to watch behind us with these youngsters snapping at our heels!
Following this, there was a discussion about Young Birders. There were some concerns raised about isolation and sometimes bullying by other youths towards birders. I understand where they came from, but my advice is simply to do what you love. If others don't understand why you spend your weekends out in all weathers looking for birds, then try and engage them. My friends quickly accepted that I had very different hobbies to them, and any friend worth keeping will have to deal with this. We also had a bit of a discussion about acceptance by the older generation of birders, including hide etiquette (something I must admit doesn't interest me much as I'm not a twitcher).
The day ended with more networking before the long journey home to Bangor. I thoroughly enjoyed the day and hope to visit Thetford again when I return from Sweden. Massive thanks to Lucy, AFON and BTO for organising a great day, and to Matt for driving down and back, and putting up with my "feedback" on his talk!

Last ringing session before I leave

Yesterday I joined Steve and Rachel with Chris and Bethan on Arthurs heath. The earliest start of the year so far (meeting there at 5.30) allowed us to enjoy the full Dawn Chorus as we were setting nets. I helped Steve set four nets, clearing the rides of gorse, brambles and willow branches which had sprouted since last year. It always takes ages to set the nets, but Steve has promised that when I get back he'll do some actual net-setting training with me to work towards my C-permit. The first net round was pretty good with about 12 birds, and it was lovely to catch the first Willow-Chiffs of the year. Having not handled any warblers over the winter, I needed some help remembering the aging processes, but after a while I think I got the hang of it again. I found myself using the Svensson Guide quite a lot, as this will be my guide when I get my C-permit and am working in the field (It is also one of the books I plan on reading while in Sweden!)
About half way through the session Steve and Chris came back from extracting and Chris handed me a bag and said "Don't let it go". I had no idea what it was but Steve didn't think I'd ringed one before. I pulled out a large-ish warbler type bird... Rachel asked me to describe it so I started saying it had a pale, white-ish belly and throat, and was grey-ish brown on the top, but other than that, no distinguishing features... making it a Garden Warbler! We caught one last year on Anglesey but I didn't ring it, so yet another ringing tick for my list! They are really big compared to other warblers, so hopefully I will remember this next time!
It was interesting seeing the different stages of breeding between the birds - we had a few brood patches present on females and many males with a cloacal protuberance, so soon the heath will be full of baby birds!
After the first couple of net rounds, the numbers dropped to just a handful each and as I was going straight to an Agility show afterwards, we decided to call it a day around 9am. I helped take down the nets I'd set with Steve and as we got to the last net, we found Chris and Bethan extracting from it - typically, we caught an extra 6 birds as we were taking down.
Overall we caught 41 birds:
Chiff Chaff - 9
Willow Warbler - 8
Dunnock - 6
Blue Tit - 3
Wren - 3
Goldcrest - 3
Bullfinch - 2
Redpoll - 2
And singles of Great Tit, Garden Warbler, Blackbird, Robin and Long Tailed Tit.

A lovely morning in the sun was a good send off from Wales... hopefully I'll add to my totals in Sweden and come back a bit closer to that elusive C-permit!

Monday, 7 April 2014

Summer in Sweden... why not?

In January I saw a post on the NGB facebook group about a project monitoring breeding populations of Pied Flycatchers in Sweden. I monitored nestboxes in Aber last year, so thought it might be a good opportunity to learn more about this species and to work with researchers and ringers in a different country. After a few e-mails, my place was confirmed and I was left wondering why all jobs couldn't be so easy?
I've always loved travelling, and have never ventured into Scandinavia so a trip to the library for some books was in order. Thankfully, I won't need to know too much about the birds before I get there as we will all be trained in the field to ensure that the data collected complies with the existing methods of the project. However, I have decided that while I am there I will be attempting to read the Ringers Manual cover to cover (something I have not yet managed!), as well as getting to grips with sexing and aging passerines.

Photos from Aber 2013

A female Pied Flycatcher on the nest.
Pied Flycatcher eggs in a nestbox

Hungry little Pied Flycatcher chicks
All snuggled up
Aren't they cute!

Whilst I am really excited to be given the opportunity to do my hobby, in a new country, AND get paid for it, I will be leaving with mixed emotions. Summer is obviously the busiest time of year for ringers, and I will be missing out on most of the CES visits and Puffin Island trips this year. It also means that I have had to pass the baton on for Aber, but I'm sure that Geoff will manage to get this years volunteers organised for visits. I have said that I will do the first visit on the 22nd April (2 days before I fly!), just to check which boxes are showing signs of nest building and which have already been claimed by the Tits (I'm almost expecting to find some eggs given the early Spring and recent warm weather).

I will be returning to Bangor in July, but I'm pretty confident that by then the prospect of returning to retail work will be so unappealing that I will have had another spurt of job applications. Hopefully this experience will boost my CV, leading to a job related to my degree.