WOS Conference 2013

The Conference celebrated Gwent Ornithological Society’s 50th anniversary

Our Conference returned to the southeast this year, and we were delighted with the support shown. With 120 people booked, the Conference was our biggest to date, and bookings closed before the formal deadline for the first time ever. For those who didn’t book in time, remember sooner next year!

The Conference was hosted by Gwent Ornithological Society, celebrating its 50th anniversary, and we started with a round of applause from delegates. Several of the speakers are GOS members, and we are grateful to the Society for organising the venue and volunteering to cover many of the jobs necessary on the day. The Club also launched Birdwatching Walks in Gwent, published to celebrate the anniversary.

The WOS AGM kicked off the event. Formal minutes will follow, but with no changes to Council, it was a straightforward affair. Among the achievements highlighted were the Society’s continued promotion of BirdTrack, its contribution to studies of Twite and Little Ringed Plover by the Small Grants Scheme, and the receipt of a grant from Natural Resources Wales that will ensure a copy of the new Breeding Birds of North Wales is placed in every library and secondary school in the region.

WOS President Iolo Williams preceded the presentation of three Lifetime Achievement Awards with a dedication to former WOS Chairman Mike Shrubb, previous recipient of the Award, who passed away in September.

Presentation to Roger Lovegrove

Presentation to Graham Williams

This year’s awards went to John Lawton Roberts, Roger Lovegrove and Graham Williams, two of whom were able to join us. And as mentors of a young Iolo, he added some great anecdotes to the official citations. Iolo also presented the inaugural Student Research Award, with a cheque for £100, to Stacey Melia for her study of Osprey chick diet on the Dyfi estuary.

Iolo continued with his customary review of the year, criticising the Welsh Government and Natural Resources Wales for a lack of vision and vigour on bird conservation, and calling on the campaigning NGOs to make a political cost out of government’s failure to deliver.

Choughs had a good breeding season on RSPB Cymru nature reserves

2013 looks like a poor year for merlins and hen harriers in northeast Wales, and for peregrines in many areas, and Iolo urged fieldworkers to help deliver full coverage of a national Peregrine survey in 2014. Ramsey reported Kittiwake numbers down by 50% on 2012, but choughs on RSPB Cymru reserves, little terns at Gronant and Sandwich terns at NWWT Cemlyn Bay all did well.

GOS Honorary Vice President Al Venables reviewed the first fifty years of Gwent Ornithological Society, started – unusually – by a beginner birdwatcher, Bert Hamar. With photos from the archives, Al illustrated how GOS had been a formative proving ground for many young birdwatchers to make a major contribution to our knowledge of birds, in Gwent and way beyond.

Mark Avery urging delegates to become revolutionaries for birds

Blogger and conservation commentator Mark Avery urged delegates to become revolutionaries, with a keyboard and a voice rather than Molotov cocktails. Citing some of his own personal wildlife experiences, he reminded us that we are more likely to value and strive to save the nature that we know, and warned of the risk that each successive generation experiences lower abundance of declining birds and so reduces its ambition of what a healthy environment is. He urged more people to write to their elected representatives in Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, and was encouraged that around half of the audience had already done so. Birders need to become more politically active, unable to rely on someone else making the effort when the opponents of nature conservation are also shouting in the ears of politicians.

One recent political battleground has been the Severn estuary, with multiple proposals for tidal power developments. The BTO’s Nigel Clarke illustrated the importance of the Severn, where up to 20 million tonnes of sediment are moved on each tide, and birds have to follow in order to find their food. Internationally important for seven fish and eight bird species, the estuary is particularly threatened by the Cardiff-Weston barrage, but smaller developments will also have consequences for wildlife.

The biggest proposals would dry out all the saltmarsh in the estuary and cause huge death rates in fish, with 100% of shad killed by pressurised ‘cavitation’ as fish pass through the turbines, likened to a bomb going off inside the animal. Nigel demonstrated the importance of low-tide WeBS counts by volunteers, and cited the studies during construction of the Cardiff Bay barrage to show that waders cannot simply move to new feeding areas. Following that much smaller development, one-third of the Redshanks died.

Nigel closed by commenting that the energy potential of the Severn means that such proposals are not going to go away, but that good data is crucial to defending special places for birds. He also reflected that in the last 20 years, our ability to understand this has become much more sophisticated, but the engineering design for the turbines hasn’t moved on.

Arfon Williams encourages delegates to voice their concerns about delivery of Glastir

Following lunch, RSPB Cymru’s Daniel Jenkins-Jones and Arfon Williams provided an update from the Society. As well as choughs mentioned by Iolo earlier, it was also a good year for lapwings on its Welsh reserves, with an increase in breeding pairs and good chick productivity. Black grouse leks were smaller, to be expected following poor weather for 2012 chicks. In other news, Dick Squires had retired after almost 40 years involvement at Ynys-hir, where a new hide had been recently opened, and money from single-use carrier bags in Tesco supermarkets had helped to fund a range of projects, including new woodland conservation work in mid Wales.

Arfon highlighted the need for birders’ engagement in a forthcoming review of the agri-environment scheme Glastir. The design of the measures is good and the money is available, but the delivery of the scheme isn’t working. WOS members will be encouraged to voice their views later this month.

Moira Convery (2nd from left) and Jerry Lewis (right) receive BTO long-service awards

BTO Cymru’s Kelvin Jones used his slot to thank Breeding Bird Surveyors for yet another record year of participation, providing much-needed information to inform countryside policies. Nigel Clarke also presented Moira Convery (Ceredigion) and Jerry Lewis (Gwent) with long-service medals for their voluntary work as Regional Reps (photo, right).

Tony Fox made a welcome return visit to Wales to tell the story of the Greenland White-fronted Goose, which he began studying in the 1970s. The global population of this form is 22,000 birds, all of which winter in Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Numbers in Wales have fallen dramatically, with birds no longer wintering at many former sites, and the Dyfi population dropping from 400 birds to 55 – and none have appeared so far this winter.

Greenland White-fronted Geese have been the subject of a concerted WOS campaign to ban their shooting

Detailed studies had shown that hunting in its wintering and breeding areas had been contributing to a decline in the population, but since bans were introduced and wintering sites had been adequately protected in Ireland and Scotland, these populations had increased by 6% each year. Iceland also banned shooting of Greenland White-fronts in 2006, supported by hunters, in response to declining populations. The number of young produced by Greenland White-fronts has been very low since the early 1990s – 95% of birds now produce no chicks – and there is uncertainty why. The most likely explanation is that warmer sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic is leading to deeper spring snowfall in Greenland, just as the geese return to breed.

An international management plan agreed by all range states adopted measures to prevent all avoidable losses of these geese, including a ban on shooting, and now Wales and England are the only countries not to have implemented this. Tony welcomed the Dyfi wildfowlers’ continuing voluntary ban on hunting, but called on the Welsh Government to make this a legal sanction across the country while the population is declining. Drawing on Mark Avery’s earlier clarion call, he urged delegates to write to their AMs, and to sign an e-petition set up by Aaron Davies.

The final two talks of the day were homegrown in Gwent: long-term studies of Hawfinches by Jerry Lewis and Honey-buzzards by Steve Roberts. Jerry has colour-ringed over 800 hawfinches since 2000, about 30% of the UK total in that time. Recapture rates by several ringers in the Forest of Dean/Lower Wye Valley suggest a minimum population of 550 birds, and probably many more. Measuring wing-length shows that some birds winter here from Scandinavia, but not every year, and there is also interchange with another colour-ringed population, in mid Wales.

Honey-buzzards’ secrecy makes them a particularly difficult bird to study

RSPB scientists have worked with Jerry to put radio-trackers on females to find the nests, so they can be studied to determine whether egg or chick predation is a factor in hawfinches’ increasing rarity. Remarkably, this tracking also showed that birds travel up to five kilometres between nest and feeding areas (where they are ringed), a big distance for a passerine.

Dedication to a species was similarly illustrated by Steve Roberts, whose work is revealing more about the secretive life of the honey buzzard. Crawling around under forestry plantations, shinning up trees and using camcorders in nests are just three ways he’s getting to know this bird. The high quality images from the cameras, initially deployed to read colour combinations on the legs of parent birds that had been ringed as chicks, were superb. The cameras have also shown that frogs make up 50% of the diet of chicks in some years, explaining how the species can rear young in a wet climate where wasp and bee nests can be in short supply.

Steve’s anecdotes we’re the perfectly entertaining way to complete a day of varied and fascinating talks, and we are hugely grateful to all the speakers, and to Subbuteo Natural History Books who once again supported our Conference with their attendance.