This year’s Welsh Ornithological Society Conference was held at Carno Community Centre, Powys, on Saturday 12 November, in association with BTO Cymru and RSPB Cymru. It used the latter organisation’s Centenary to look back over the last 100 years of birds and birdwatching in Wales.
WOS President, Iolo Williams, fresh from the BBC Autumnwatch studio the previous evening kicked off the event with a rallying call to arms. Highlighting some of the successes of the last century, he called for stronger leadership on wildlife issues from those in power, particularly Welsh Assembly Members. He praised the welcome increase in environmental education, but also warned against the loss of field-skills outside the classroom by young people in Wales.
Former Welsh Birds editor and RSPB Cymru head of reserves, Graham Williams, introduced us to the men (and they were, I’m afraid, exclusively men) who had put birds in Wales on the map through the 20th century. Names such as Ingram, Morrey-Salmon, Forrest, Lockley, Tunnicliffe and Condry. The early writers had compiled county avifaunas that provide a baseline to our current knowledge of the distribution of birds, while the later ones ensured the best habitats and bird areas were protected and promoted. His talk included some classic early photos, such as red kite at a nest in 1926, and illustrations by Charles Tunnicliffe that “inspired a generation”. Bill Condry’s concerns, expressed in his long-runningThe Guardian Country Diary, about the loss of unimproved pasture and the march of Sitka spruce plantations, provided a starting point for some of the later talks.
Simon Holloway, author of the Historical Atlas of Breeding Birds 1875-1900, provided a perspective on changes to the birds in Wales and on the climate that has affected their distributions. Some have clearly gained, such as Cetti’s warbler, that was restricted to the Mediterranean rim in the early 1900s, and siskin, which was not confirmed breeding in Wales until a nest was found near Colwyn Bay in 1899. Although Simon was uncertain of the accuracy of estimates that there were 400,000 pairs of puffins at Welsh colonies in the 19th century (including 100,000 on Grassholm), he had no doubt that they were far more numerous than today and suggested that climatic shifts in the marine environment in the 1920s and ’30s hit herring productivity, and thus puffins, hard. He highlighted corncrake as a species lost rapidly to mechanised mowing, drawing on a reference to hearing the call from Aberystwyth rail station in 1926, yet it was gone from Ceredigion within a few decades.
Arfon Williams used the RSPB’s 18 nature reserves in Wales to tell the story of RSPB Cymru, starting with Mrs Jones, the first Watcher to protect roseate terns at Llanddwyn Island. The first reserve was Grassholm, acquired in 1948, home to the second largest gannet colony in the world, but where each nest now contains half a kilo of plastic waste, amounting to 18 tonnes on the island, and killing some of the chicks. Other highlights included the purchase of Gwenffrwd in 1967, home to the classic three Welsh woodland species: pied flycatcher, redstart and wood warbler, all of which are stable or increasing on Welsh RSPB reserves in the face of a wider decline.
Arfon also noted the success of the large-scale moorland LIFE project at Lake Vyrnwy and the wetland restoration on Anglesey that it is hoped will bring breeding bitterns back to the island. At the end of his talk, Arfon surprised Dr Steph Tyler and Graham Williams, former RSPB staff and current/previous WOS journal editors, with special Golden Curlew Awards, produced to mark RSPB Cymru’s centenary.
Following an excellent lunch by the ladies of Carno, Ieuan Evans, head of membership and volunteer engagement at the British Trust for Ornithology, took the opportunity to highlight the recent opening of BTO Cymru’s office in Bangor, to introduce the staff, Kelvin Jones and Rachel Taylor, and to highlight plans for a Chats breeding survey in Wales in 2012.
The BTO’s Dave Leech gave a lively presentation about science in Welsh ornithology, using data collected by birdwatchers and ringers to understand the processes driving changes to Wales’ birds. He used the Breeding Bird Survey to highlight the 63% decline in starling numbers and the 52% fall in breeding goldcrests, which along with curlew and swift, have declined at a faster rate than in England since 1994. By contrast, great spotted woodpeckers (+178%), stonechat (+141%), house sparrow (+87%) and jay (+48%) are all doing much better than over the border. The Breeding Atlas illustrates graphically the decline and range contraction of whinchats and lapwings, whereas goosanders have spread dramatically. A decline in reporting rates of dead ringed birds has led to ringers being encouraged to target species for re-trapping birds in order to maintain monitoring of adult survival rates. The BTO is also promoting more active nest-finding for the Nest Records Scheme, which receives 3000 reports from 35 recorders in Wales each year. Dave used these two schemes to illustrate that pied flycatcher, a declining summer visitor, is maintaining its level of adult survival and first-year survival. More information on the BTO website.
Trevor Theobald, from the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, ably stood in for the absent Steve Sutcliffe, talking about Skomer and Skokholm, which hold 150,000 pairs of Manx shearwaters: half the UK population and a high proportion of the global number, yet close to some of the busiest shipping lanes in Britain carrying oil and liquified gas. Trevor showed how studies have developed from Ronald Lockley’s observations and migration experiments in the 1950s to the use of technology today. GPS shows that Manxies from Skomer regularly fly north to the Calf of Man and the Antrim coast to feed. Data loggers show the birds’ movements south to winter off Argentina, then back in spring via the Carolinas in North America, and also the importance of the Atlantic shelf off southwest Ireland for females that feed up before coming in to lay. He showed how males and females have differing migration strategies, and the astonishing speeds and distance they can travel: one male Manx shearwater travelled 7750 km in 6.5 days – an astonishing 49kph if flying continuously!
Tony Cross, consultant ornithologist to the Welsh Kite Trust, celebrated Wales’ most successful conservation effort, which started with Edward Cambridge-Phillips in Brecon in the 1880s and was formalised with the setting up of the British Ornithologists’ Club Kite Committee in 1903. Tony’s deep knowledge of kites shone through as he showed how the species had recovered from just two known nests (Carmarthenshire) in 1932 to an estimated 1000 pairs in 2010. An attempt to reintroduce birds from Spain to Radnor in the early 1930s failed, but mitochrondrial DNA studies in the 1990s showed that 25% of Welsh female kites were descended from a German female that arrived around 1970s. This study is currently being repeated by Aberystwyth University to determine whether the successful English and Scottish reintroductions have contributed to the recent population growth in Wales, as no tagged reintroduced birds are known to have bred successfully here. Modelling predicts continued growth to 3500 pairs by 2050, providing confidence to export under licence 250 kites from Wales to Co. Wicklow, Down and Dublin in Ireland. Egg-collecting and deliberate poisoning are much less of an issue now than in the 1980s and early 1990s, though Tony highlighted the uncertain impacts of rodenticides, which appear in every autopsied red kite.
Derek Moore, chairman of WOS, provided a light-hearted journey through birdwatching during the last century, starting with the ‘collecting’ (“nothing was ever ‘killed'”) that continued from the late Victorian era. Derek’s personal contact with Bill Payn – a compatriot of Richard Meinertzagen – gave him an insight to the collector’s mind. Derek considered the publication of the Roger Tory Peterson illustrated Birds of Britain and Europe in 1954 as the landmark that shifted Britons from collecting birds to watching them. Derek’s talk was littered with personal anecdotes, such as persuading his neighbour’s son to give him a motorbike lift to see Britain’s first breeding collared doves in North Norfolk in 1955, only to see one on a rooftop in his Suffolk village later that week. He reminded us that with no nature reserves in Wales one hundred years ago, conservation is still relatively new, and that it took pioneers using mist-nets, draw-tube telescopes and heavy photographic equipment to develop the birdwatching we know today. Digiscoping, smartphones, the internet and birding personalities have further advanced birdwatching in the last two decades, drawing in more women and young people, though we think he doth protest too much about the passing of the tweed suit and trilby of the 1950s, and the wax jacket of the 1980s, as the uniforms of birders…
Dee Doody had posed a tricky feathers quiz that challenged delegates during the refreshment breaks, though the winner achieved an impressive 14 out of 19 correct, despite Dee throwing in three non-Welsh googlies: capercaillie, white-tailed eagle and snowy owl. He then showed us some superb film of nesting ospreys, a species that has been added to Wales’ breeding avifauna in the last decade.
WOS vice-chairman Julian Hughes reviewed the day and looked ahead to the next 100 years. Among his headlines were the need to remain vigilant about threats to undermine Wales’ existing protected areas, such as its estuaries that hold more than 300,000 waterbirds each winter. He highlighted the challenges of managing the wider countryside between protected areas in the face of changing climate, technology or even abandonment of current land-uses, and urged support for Glastir, Wales’ new agri-environment scheme, as the best chance yet for birds, providing it was sensibly deployed. He called on the Welsh Government to ensure it meets the 2012 deadline to put in place a network of Marine Conservation Zones to help prevent Wales’ important seabird populations following the North Sea colonies into a headlong crash. He stressed the significant role that wetlands in South Wales could play, in tandem with big projects in the Somerset Levels, in providing a suitable space for wetland birds such as glossy ibis and great white egrets moving north, especially if eastern Britain’s drought stress is exacerbated.
He featured the work of Tony Cross and Adrienne Stratford, who have colour-ringed more than 2000 choughs since 1991, as an example of dedicated ornithologists building our knowledge of Wales’ birds, and welcomed the WOS small grants schemes as a way in which the Society is contributing to such volunteer-led work. Finally, he echoed Iolo’s morning call for building greater support for Wales’ biodiversity among residents of and visitors to Wales, providing a louder voice that politicians cannot ignore and urged delegates to engage with young people to get into the countryside and add to our understanding of Wales’ birds.