WOS Conference 2014

Our Conference this year was at a new venue, Ysgol Brynhyfryd in Ruthin, Denbighshire, on 8 November 2014. Around 100 delegates attended, and it was great to see a good number of new WOS members, and a group of students from Aberystwyth University.

Before the AGM, acting chairman Julian Hughes paid tribute to WOS chairman Derek Moore, who had passed away two weeks previously and whose funeral/life-celebration had been attended by several WOS members the previous day. We remembered him with a minute’s birdsong and a photo of how we will remember him best: unbridled joy after seeing a new bird in Costa Rica.

The AGM address highlighted some of the Society’s achievements during the year, including three projects supported by the Small Grant Scheme and a substantial donation to the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales towards seabird monitoring whose funding has been withdrawn by Natural Resources Wales. Julian also welcomed the increased use of BirdTrack, of which WOS is a partner, and he mentioned several advocacy campaigns that WOS has promoted during the year, such as Hen Harrier Day, the shooting of Greenland White-fronted Geese and licences issued to shoot Cormorants and Goosanders. There followed usual AGM business, the minutes of which will appear later.

Faith Jones was awarded the Student Research Award

WOS President Iolo Williams presented a Lifetime Achievement Award to his predecessor David Saunders, and to John Lawton-Roberts, who had been unable to be present to receive his award in 2013. A video showed Iolo presenting an Award to Peter Davis, and then Iolo presented a cheque for £200, part of Faith Jones’ prize for winning the WOS Student Research Award.

Iolo introduced the morning’s talks with a review of 2014, highlights included the first breeding Mediterranean Gulls in Carmarthenshire and Cetti’s Warbler in Flintshire, and the first (two pairs) of Great Black-backed Gulls nesting in Glamorgan for 40 years. Hen Harriers had a productive year in the Berwyns, with young also fledging in Brecon, but Merlins are declining into real trouble. Seabirds had mixed fortunes with some auk populations down in Pembrokeshire following the storm-wrecks of the previous winter. He congratulated ringers in Mid Wales who have ringed 1698 Woodcocks, 195 Snipe, 99 jack Snipe, 624 Golden Plovers (and a Great Snipe), and in the Forest of Dean where another 214 Hawfinches colour-ringed has brought their total to over 1,000 birds.

Ring Ouzels are one of the upland birds in need of favourable management (pic Tim Melling)

RSPB Cymru’s Stephen Bladwell spoke about the trials and tribulations of managing the recovery of birds on the nearby North Wales moors, focusing on Black Grouse, whose numbers have recovered to 330 lekking males. Almost 300 hectares of wet heath and blanket bog have been managed in the last four years, and the challenge is to build the needs of Curlew, Black Grouse, Golden Plover and Ring Ouzel into grazing management at a time when Natural Resources Wales has no strategy for the uplands, or even an upland ecologist. He also touched on the urgent need to manage ffridd habitats (the subject of RSPB/BTO Cymru research) and the RSPB’s bid for EU-LIFE funding for woodland management in Meirionnydd.

Dawn Balmer, BTO lead organiser for the 2007-12 Breeding and Wintering Atlas reviewed the results in a Welsh context and looked forward to further analysis planned using the results. Wales holds 75% of the (range of) the UK’s breeding Choughs, 32% of Pied Flycatchers, 24% of Red Kites, 20% of Wood Warblers and 18% of Hawfinches. Cetti’s Warbler, Little Egret and Dartford Warbler have all spread into Wales since the 1988-91 Atlas but Corn Bunting has gone extinct as a breeding species, as in Ireland. In Winter, 16% of tetrads containing Black Redstarts are in Wales, 15% of Nuthatch and 14% of Willow Tit. She also mentioned that the 2013 Woodcock survey shows a decline from 1767 roding males to 914 in ten years. Work underway by Simon Gillings is focusing on range changes in the uplands, with indications that Willow Warbler, Goldfinch and Greenfinch are all ‘moving uphill’, Whinchats are becoming more restricted to the uplands but Peregrines are becoming less reliant on these habitats as they move into lowland towns.

Former WOS President David Saunders brought a historical perspective to the day

David Saunders finished off the morning with a rip-roaring talk about the people who pioneered bird research and monitoring on Skokholm, Britain’s first bird observatory. His energetic talk was one of the highlights of the Conference, with rare photographs and great anecdotes. From Ronald Lockley’s leasing of the island in 1927 to the first birds caught in the Heligoland Trap built in 1933 (five Willow Warblers), all funded by Lockley’s writing in The Countryman and other periodicals. The Pembrokeshire islands gained international note when the International Ornithological Congress arrived on two naval destroyers in 1934, and to a wider public through Julian Huxley’s Private Life of Gannets, filmed on Grassholm, which became the first natural history film to win an Oscar.

Following an excellent lunch, Geoff Gibbs presented a complete set of Natur Cymru to Iolo Williams on behalf of the journal’s Board, the early copies having belonged to the legendary Bill Condry.

Jon Cryer gave an update from RSPB Cymru, focusing on how birds had fared on their nature reserves in 2014, going on to highlight the Society’s work to improve the Environment (Wales) Bill, Glastir agri-environment scheme and calling on WOS members to respond to the government consultation on its Nature Recovery Plan.

Clwyd East BTO Rep Anne Brenchley received a long-service award

BTO Cymru’s Rachel Taylor congratulated the Friends of Skokholm and Skomer on their receipt of the Marsh Award for local ornithology, and thanked volunteers for helping to grow Breeding Bird Survey coverage in Wales from 200 squares in 2011 to 411 in 2014. Early results from the Peregrine Survey indicate inland birds missing or failing to breed, especially in north Wales, and poor breeding performance generally. She also highlighted the House Martin survey being planned for 2015, and then invited Dawn Balmer to present a long-service award to BTO Clwyd East Rep, Anne Brenchley.

WOS is proud to be associated with the growth in BirdTrack use in Wales (pic by Anthony Walton)

Nick Moran, organiser of BirdTrack, reported that Wales is punching above its weight, with 5.7% of users (more than the 4.9% expected if its use related to the UK population). He ran through how the system works, particularly the value of complete lists, and congratulated the Northeast Wales Bird Report for using BirdTrack lists as a means of tracking species’ fortunes. Nick also highlighted recent and forthcoming developments in the system, particularly at a global level – it is a primary means of entering records for the current European Breeding Bird Atlas. He also showed us some neat animations showing the arrival, departure and nesting abundance of Swallows across Europe, created using BirdTrack records.

Merseyside Ringing Group has been undertaking long-term studies in North Wales

Pete Coffey, from the Merseyside Ringing Group, presented some of the results from a Pied Flycatcher study in North Wales that started in 1965. He showed how cameras and PIT-tags have been used to better understand the lives of these nesting birds. These photos had been used, for example, to see whether males with larger white head markings were more productive (they are, but the difference is not statistically significant). Disease and starvation are the main causes of poor brood survival, however 2014 was an excellent year with 80% survival rate.

Finally, Arfon Williams from RSPB Cymru provided an overview of the challenges facing birds in Wales. He emphasised that in these challenging times, we will have to defend battles already won, such as European Union legislation, where nature is being presented as a barrier to economic growth and employment. He impressed the need for landscape-scale conservation but warned against “natural resource management planning” if it becomes all about people and process and not about wildlife. He called on Natural Resources Wales to champion nature and to join up the dots to deliver sustainable management in Wales’ uplands and woodlands. He said that the Welsh Government had just one chance left to get its Glastir agri-environment right before faith from both farmers and conservationists was lost.