This year’s Welsh Ornithological Society Conference was held at Myddfai Community Centre, Carmarthenshire, on Saturday 10 November, in association with BTO Cymru and RSPB Cymru. With financial support from Swarovski Optik UK, we were able to bring together an excellent line up of speakers, who spoke to a packed house of 120 people on the theme, Marvels of Migration.
WOS President, Iolo Williams, kicked off with the presentation of the first WOS Lifetime Achievement Awards, adding to the official citations with some personal memories of Peter Hope Jones, Graham Rees and Mike Shrubb. Owing to illness, neither Peter nor Mike were able to attend the Conference, but Iolo will be presenting their awards over the coming weeks. Iolo also paid tribute to Pembrokeshire birder Jack Donovan MBE, who died in September.
Iolo aired concerns about the disappearance of CCW, Environment Agency Wales and Forestry Commission Wales planned for the end of March 2013, with the single body, Natural Resources Wales, starting in April. With uncertainty surrounding NRW’s mission, Iolo affirmed that WOS intends to watch its performance on biodiversity conservation closely, and hoped that RSPB Cymru would be doing likewise.
His round-up of the season included a count of 39,202 occupied Gannet nests on RSPB Grassolm, nine pairs of hen harriers producing 22 young on the Berwyn Mountains, high densities of red grouse on the Denbigh Moors but few merlins nesting. Roseate terns nested successfully on Anglesey for the first time since 2006. 27 pairs of avocets nested on the Gwent Levels but no chicks fledged, while all the little ringed plovers on the Wye were washed out in bad weather. He said that all the yellowhammers on Anglesey appear to be dependent on feeding in a single garden, and highlighted a recovery project by the North Wales Wildlife Trust that the WOS small grant scheme is helping to fund.
Jon Green, secretary of the Welsh Records Panel, illustrated his talk with some of the rare migrants that have occurred in Wales, explaining how the WRP works and highlighting some long-term changes. The first great white egret occurred at Gronant, Flint, in 1981, yet in the last five years records have gone “off the scale” and Jon hinted that it may not be long before the species is removed from the list of species considered by the WRP. He also flagged two long-term ambitions, to develop a photographic database of rarities in Wales and a new book reviewing all the scarce and rare birds that have occurred.
Roy Dennis, from the Highland Wildlife Foundation, needed little introduction: his 50 years’ experience and drive to restore populations of lost wildlife is well known. He pioneered satellite-tracking of raptors in the late 1990s, starting with Ospreys as part of the Rutland reintroduction project, and used the wealth of data to show how it has added to our knowledge. He also outlined how it has helped to build consensus along the flyway to Africa and, he argued, assisted with the inclusion of a vicarious liability clause to Scottish legislation that is the subject of a similar campaign in England and Wales. The disappearance of satellite-tagged marsh harriers at roosts prompted Roy’s outrage at the “national disgrace” that is illegal killing of birds of prey, and called for licensing of both hunters and estates, and a minimum year’s training for shooters, as occurs across much of Europe.
After an excellent lunch, lots of chat and a chance to train the Swarovski Optik binoculars and telescopes on red kites and peregrines over the nearby forest, Dan Jenkins-Jones and Kelvin Jones updated delegates on news from RSPB Cymru and BTO Cymru respectively. Dan highlighted that, with 3,289 pairs of Arctic terns, the colony on the Skerries is now the biggest in the UK, and the welcome news that Lapwings increased on the RSPB’s North Wales wetland reserves in 2012. He also announced that the RSPB will remain involved with the Glaslyn Osprey Project during summer 2013 while the transfer to a local community group is completed.
Before Kelvin’s update, BTO Director Andy Clements signed a Memorandum of Understanding between BTO Cymru and RSPB Cymru, whose director Katie-jo Luxton had already signed the MoU as she was unable to attend the Conference. It marks the way in which the two organisations plan to build on their work together. One joint project that is a priority for BTO Cymru is increasing participation is the Breeding Bird Survey, with a mentoring programme to provide training to new recruits. He also featured the Student Ambassadors appointed at four Welsh universities and his work with Merched y Wawr, engaging the public through the Welsh language.
BTO Director Andy Clements showed how geolocator tagging of nightingales and swifts, and the satellite-tagging of cuckoos, has helped to reach beyond the birding community to highlight the problems facing trans-Saharan migrants among the wider public. Over 4000 media stories have been written about the cuckoo project so far, and Andy used the latest data to show what has happened to cuckoos tagged in Wales in summer 2012.
RSPB conservation scientist Danae Sheehan used the results of a study of wood warblers in Wales and work being undertaken in west Africa right now to explain what we know about wood warblers, one of our fastest declining breeding species. The main breeding parameters, such as clutch size, brood size and fledging success, are unchanged since the 1980s, and predation rates are no greater, though the use of nest cameras has helped to identify the principal nest predator as jay. A team of local birdwatchers in Burkina Faso are currently radio-tracking wood warblers at their stopover sites to discover more about their habitat use, and in Ghana, where birds appear to favour large, flowering trees. Danae highlighted the scale of agricultural intensification in the Sahel as likely to be a major factor in the declines of trans-Saharan migrant birds from Europe.
After tea, Tony Cross and Owen Williams reported on their woodcock studies, partly prompted by concern from some in the shooting community about local overshooting of these waders. The Woodcock Network ringed 1200 birds last winter and also satellite-tagged a smaller number that have spent the summer in Russia and are now heading back to Scotland, Northumberland, Wales and Cornwall. Tony suggested that the Welsh woodcock population could be 250,000 to 500,000 birds, making it the commonest Welsh wader, but also the least watched. Re-catching ringed birds showed that woodcocks return to the same site each winter, and some pasture fields hold dozens of individuals. The average flight distance of a migrating woodcock is 650-850 km, showing that they do not just migrate at night, as has been presumed.
The final talk, by Tim Guilford from the Oxford Navigation Group, used a range of tracking data to show how Manx Shearwaters and Puffins, including from the Pembrokeshire islands, forage at sea. For Manxies, Ireland’s Dundalk Bay seems to be particularly important, while the Patagonian Shelf is the key wintering area, and areas off the Caribbean and North America are important as they return. Some of these mid-Atlantic stopover sites, 2000 km west of Britain, are used during and immediately after the nesting season too (as the BTO’s Rachel Taylor tweeted, that’s a long way to do the shopping). By contrast, Puffins leave our shores in all directions after breeding, but the same individuals are faithful to the same route each year. Some birds even winter off the French Riviera. Tim’s talk finished with an on-board Shearwater Cam, giving us an idea what it’s like to fly and feed as a Manxie.
For the first time, WOS live-tweeted the highlights of the Conference on its Twitter account, extending the reach of the event to many people who could not be there. Speakers and delegates added to the conversation using the thread #wos2012, including Andy Clements, Wayne Morris, Richard Facey, Anthony Walton and Rachel Taylor. The feedback was superb, and the re-tweets by well-followed commentators, including Mark Avery, Charlie Moores and Mike McCarthy, helped to take the Conference to thousands more people.