Wednesday, 11 December 2013

No birding but lots of birds

Last weekend saw my now annual pilgrimage to Swanwick in north-east Derbyshire for the BTO Conference. Arriving somewhat late due to hideously slow traffic from east Norfolk I unfortunately missed the Friday evening talk on Honey Buzzards but headed straight for the bar to catch up with old friends. After a good nights sleep I made it to breakfast on time (yes, honest) and was ready for the days talks.
This year the theme was 'The life of birds - a struggle for survival' with the emphasis on the ringing side of the BTOs work but the talks, despite featuring numerous graphs and statistics, were still entertaining and fascinating.
We learnt that Buzzards are doing very well in Ireland despite the paucity of mammal species there. It was a surprise to learn that Ireland had no voles until some were discovered in the 1960s in County Kerry probably as a result of a release in the 1920s, and there is also only one species of shrew, the Pygmy. Going further afield to another island, this time Mauritius, we were told of the success of the fight to save the Pink Pigeon but also of the unexpected problems that the necessary artificial feeding of the birds produces. The birds are living much longer than usual and the old but infertile females hang on to the best territories making life difficult for the younger birds!
The Witherby Lecture entitled 'Through birds' eyes' was delivered by Professor Graham Martin, who explained why to him birds are 'bills guided by an eye'. Remarkably, Tawny Owl night vision isn't much better than ours and humans are actually better at localising sound too. I've yet to try out my mouse catching in the dark skills though. Cormorants can't see too well under water either and hunt by grabbing at anything that moves and then bringing their catch to the surface to have a look at it before deciding whether to swallow it. Shovelers, who are largely filter feeders and don't have to look at what they're eating have their eyes placed in a much better position to look for predators than ducks like Wigeon that do need to see what they're grazing. We also learnt why wind turbines and power lines are such a problem for birds such as vultures. The ridges over their eyes, which stop them being dazzled by the sun, prevent them from seeing forwards when they're looking down in search of carrion. This isn't a problem in the unobstructed environment in which they evolved but can be disastrous when humans erect something as big as a wind turbine in their flight path.
After lunch we had talks on Long-tailed Tit survival (surprisingly the weather in May is an important factor in adult survival), Sand Martins (demonstrating the link between their survival and the Sahel rains), an overview of the Icelandic ringing scheme (Snow Buntings top the list for passerines rung) and a hilarious account of Reed Warbler ringing at a Norfolk gravel workings by Dave Leech (an inflatable baby bath makes the ideal container to hold all your ringing gear if you're wearing a wet suit!).
The Annual Dinner followed the afternoon sessions and the AGM (which I didn't attend) and then it was back to the bar. The bar at Swanwick closes at 10.30 but BTO members know how to party! As I stood on the stairs phoning home there was a steady procession of delegates heading for their rooms returning a few minutes later clutching bottles of whisky, wine and crates of beer. I have to admit to missing breakfast the following morning but only to get more sleep after a very late night.
Sunday morning sessions started with an introduction to social media for the less enlightened members of the audience, followed by a talk on tracking seabirds using GPS locators (more modern technology). Auks were discovered to travel from their breeding colonies to feeding grounds much further afield than previously thought with birds from Fair Isle travelling over 340km. The morning and essentially the weekend, bar the raffle draw, ended with a panel discussion on the future of the BTO. I'll refer you to Mark Avery's excellent blog, one of the panellists, for his eloquent (as always) view on this. So another excellent weekend and hopefully I'll be back next year.

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