WOS Conference 2016

Delegates getting ready for a day of stimulating talks

We were back to Myddfai, Carmarthenshire, for the 2016 Conference, which was sold-out in advance and a packed audience enjoyed an excellent day of talks, plus the opportunity to mix and chat with friends old and new. The theme was Outstanding in our Field, focusing on the role we can all play in improving our understanding and conservation of birds in Wales.

Five young people were able to attend for free thanks to our assisted places scheme

It was great to see a good turnout of younger delegates, with around 20% of the audience under 30, including some who were awarded free places as part of WOS’s efforts to encourage younger ornithologists. During the Chairman’s AGM report, Mick Green announced the launch of a new Young Conservationists’ Bursary, to help support 18-25 year old birdwatchers to volunteer in Wales. Members also supported an increase in the annual subscription, the first for many years, with free first-year membership to under 26s.

Cathryn Tyrrell was awarded the Derek Moore Student Research AwardAfter the AGM, President Iolo Williams presented a Lifetime Achievement Award to Steve Roberts, a Gwent-based fieldworker who has dedicated his spare time to studying difficult-to-study raptors, such as Honey-buzzard, Goshawk and Hobby. Iolo also presented the Derek Moore Student Research Award to Cathryn Tyrrell for her work on the diet of Pied Flycatchers while an undergraduate at Cardiff University.  Watch the presentation here.

Iolo kicked off the talks with a rattle-through some of the ups and downs evident in Wales this year, including Black Redstarts breeding in a North Wales quarry, 214 pairs of Chough (and a record year in Pembrokeshire), nesting Cranes and Bitterns, but numbers of wintering Whooper Swans markedly down. Iolo’s Welsh news can be seen here.

Students at Cardiff University are doing ground-breaking studies of bird migration

Dr Rob Thomas provided an excellent and stimulating summary of fieldwork by Cardiff University students that illustrate the different ways in which migrants are being affected by climate change, which can partly explain the differing rates of population change. Weighing European Storm-petrel and collecting their droppings in Portugal, for example, shows that the birds’ weight in May/June is related to sae-surface temperature in April, implying that they build up fat reserves when food is scarce (in case it becomes scarcer), but remain lean when there is plenty. DNA analysis of their droppings shows sardines and mackerel are important in Storm-petrel deit, but also that they eat terrestrial invertebrates, such as butterflies! His talk was packed with fascinating stories illustrating how changing climate can affect migratory behaviour. Could, for example, warmer temperatures in Europe result in sufficient insect food for Reed Warblers to make it to sub-Saharan Africa in a single flight? Click here to watch the full presentation.

Our knowledge of birds in Wales is underpinned by long-term studies by expert volunteers

Steve Smith followed with a 30-year study of Whinchats in the nearby Brecon Beacons, illustrating the value of long-term unpaid studies by knowledgeable enthusiasts. He reported that Whitethroats and Willow Warblers are moving uphill into the zone occupied by Whinchats, and also that clutch sizes have fallen in recent years, leading to a reduction in breeding numbers. He also highlighted the importance of Bracken to Whinchats, a plant that is often demonised by upland farmers and some conservation managers. Steve’s presentation covers two videos: the first one is here. The second one can be viewed here.

The BTO’s Emily Scragg showed how remote-download geolocators can provide much more frequent and accurate data, using a study of waders and ducks on the Severn estuary commissioned by the company behind the proposed tidal energy lagoon. Redshank travelled an average of 16km/day and Curlew 10km/day, much farther than expected, and are distributed very differently on a daytime low tide to that at night. Simple technology remains valuable, however, with birdwatchers reporting Dunlins and Shelducks marked with a yellow dye many miles away from the study site, and much farther than a similar study there in the 1970s. Knowing that wintering home ranges of these waterbirds is far bigger than previously known is crucial in understanding the potential impacts of the lagoon. View the full presentation here.

Updates by RSPB Cymru and BTO Cymru are a key part of a WOS Conference

Dan Jenkins-Jones provided an update of news from RSPB Cymru, including news of two Bitterns and four Marsh Harriers fledging at Malltraeth Marsh. Although Black Grouse numbers are down overall in Wales, the count at RSPB’s Lake Vyrnwy reserve is up, while nesting Lapwings were up 25% on RSPB reserves in Wales and Manx Shearwater numbers on Ramsey have increased to 4,800 nests since Brown Rats were eradicatedin 1998. He also noted the uncertainty brought by the EU Referendum, putting two major habitat restoration programmes at risk in Wales. Dan’s RSPB update can be viewed here.

BTO Cymru’s Kelvin Jones celebrated the news that more than 400 Breeding Bird Survey squares are now completed annually in Wales, increasing the range of species that can be monitored through the scheme. He also reported that the BTO House Martin survey will be extended into 2017 to allow more data to be gathered, and that Welsh satellite-tagged cuckoo David is now the longest-surviving of the birds monitored, having flown over 75,000 miles. The BTO news can be seen here.

North Wales is one part of a UK-wide RSPB Curlew research project that started in 2016

RSPB Cymru’s Jon Cryer showcased its fieldwork away from nature reserves, starting in Snowdonia, where it is working with farmers and other partners to re-seed meadows with seed-rich mixtures for Wales’ only breeding Twite. On the moors of North Wales, RSPB is trialling heather cutting and control of foxes and crows to help Curlews, part of a UK-wide project, with promising signs already after the first year’s work. Similar work elsewhere in northeast Wales is also benefiting Golden Plovers. The RSPB was “bitterly disappointed” that the Welsh Government decided to continue allowing Greenland White-fronted Geese to be shot, but welcomed its funding for research to understand its habitat use and the birds’ movements on their wintering areas.

Wayne and Dan told how they had become involved in the BTO’s Nest Records Scheme

Dan Jenkins-Jones was back on his feet, this time with Wayne Morris, to explain how they had taken to nest-finding and recording in Glamorgan, for the BTO’s Nest Records Scheme. Almost 5000 nests were recorded in Wales last year, but by only 38 people, and some obvious species – such as Mute Swan – are greatly under-recorded. They appealed for more volunteers, who can be supported by a network of NRS volunteer mentors around Wales.

After tea (and an opportunity to catch up on a Wales rugby score that most people wished they hadn’t seen), Gavin Vella looked at the role mimicry can play in birds’ breeding success, often in ways we don’t yet really understand. For example, he speculated that Jays mimic other predators – such as Buzzards and Goshawks – to deter the real birds away from potential prey. He also featured a Czech study of Yellowhammers across Europe showing the variety in dialects, and showed how different species can filter their songs through background environmental noise.

A superb talk to round off the day

Final talk of the day, by Tony Cross and Adrienne Stratford, featured the first 25 years of their mammoth study of Choughs in North and Mid Wales. They showed how they go about monitoring nesting birds in difficult-to-reach places, and how nestboxes and ledges have been deployed to make cave and mine sites more suitable. Nonetheless, the number of inland nesting Choughs has declined, as old adults are not replaced with younger birds after they have died. Gatherings of juveniles (“youth clubs”) are really important for social development and these birds travel widely, but males especially then return to their natal areas (58% within 5km). Again, we know so much thanks to the thousands of records of colour-ringed Choughs submitted to the pair by birders over the last quarter century.

Who says Twitter users just photograph their lunch (@clwydforest)

The Conference was widely shared on Twitter, using the hashtag #wos16 to reach over 40,000 people – thanks to all those who live-tweeted from the venue and those who engaged with the debate on social media.

Our thanks to all the speakers, and to the team at Myddfai Community Hall, who were so welcoming and laid on what most delegates rated as the best WOS Conference lunch ever. Something to beat at Monmouth on 4 November 2017!

Click here for a summary of the delegates’ survey following the Conference.