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BTO conference 2012

November 20, 2012

I spoke at the BTO birdwatchers conference on 12th November (http://www.bto.org/news-events/events/2012-11/northern-ireland-birdwatchers-conference). This only few years after attending my first one – such are the dramatic changes that my life has taken. The conference was held at the Lough Neagh Discovery Centre at Oxford Island – a place very familiar to me in the last couple of years. Indeed, my last day of fieldwork of this year was completed there – those final blackbirds.

The program and speakers list give an idea of some of the wealth of work being carried out in Ireland, north and south. Pitching my talk required a little thought.  This was not an academic conference, but rather one which draws on the expertise of academics and conservation researchers. It is an eclectic mix and the large audience consists mainly of birding enthusiasts which means, if anything, they’re even more interested and focussed than any academic audience. These are the real experts, guys – and it’s mainly guys – who’ve been obsessed by birds since before they could read, who leave behind populations of birding widows and families in their wake, who would rather watch birds than eat. These were the people to impress. They are the ones who have jizz down to a T, who know a bird from a fleeting shadow, a single note. They’re not interested in stats, they’re interested in the living breathing creature. So among these guys, I’m a bit of a Johnny come lately. Nonetheless, I had confidence in my data, in the story I had to tell. And I knew they’d be interested.

I met so many people that I’ve become acquainted with over the last few years, and some I have only come back into contact with. A woman who was an undergraduate with me; my ringing trainer who I’ve entirely neglected for two years, but who was still good enough to say to me, just text me any weekend when you’re able to come out; other people who’ve helped me locate my reed buntings. Such a mix of age and sex, and ok, men of a certain age may still have been just about in the majority, but as Graham Appleton, one of the closing speakers remarked, it was good to look out on an audience that was neither prominently male nor grey-haired. And the man I sat next to for most of the day, who described himself, since his retirement, as a late-returner to birding, having been fascinated by them as a child, but then so-called real life got in the way. It was a happy reminder that it’s never too late to sniff out one’s original passions.

The theme of the conference was Movement and Change, which is not a surprising motif given the current prevalence of concern about global climate change. Chris Murphy talked about Little Egrets, the fact that they are now breeding in Strangford. I used to see them with regularity when I lived briefly in Lancaster some years back, but I can’t say that they’ve come greatly to my attention in Northern Ireland. They are one to look out for, a graceful, elegant bird.

Graham Appleton discussed the BTO Atlases, those works of organised individual dedication that culminate in maps of the winter and summer distribution of birds over the last 50 years and more throughout the UK and Ireland. It is fascinating to see the patterns, the gains and the losses, the constant flux.

Many of the speakers were focussed on migration. Phil Atkinson filled in details about the tracking of individual cuckoos that provoked such interest among afternoon BBC Radio 2 listeners, that it caused the site to crash on a number of occasions. I’m not surprised. To be able to follow the particular journeys of individual cuckoos all the way through southern Europe and on down through Africa was fascinating. Of course the expense of the trackers (£3000 per device) means that the sample size is guaranteed to be low, but that is more than made up for by the details of each particular voyage. The bird who started off journeying down through Spain after a little respite in the north of Italy and then changed his mind when confronted by drought. He made his way back to Italy, followed the spine of that country, eventually made his way to Turkey, and finally over to Africa and then on down. Phil also covered the impact that African fires and drought have on migrants.  One dynamic slide showed the flaring and the greening up and down the mid-riff of Africa as inferno and rain danced in a dreadful, relieving, rhythm. And this stuff tied in nicely with Graham’s earlier presentation on the Atlas, as Phil told us the story of how in 1969-1970 80% of whitethroats were wiped out due to drought in the Sahara. These migrants are truly shared biological capital between nations and continents, no more ‘ours’ than the wind.

That high-tech specificity was matched by more old fashioned stuff: Jenny Gill has studied black-tailed godwits for over twenty years. They summer in Iceland, wintering traditionally in Ireland and England, in East Anglia and the Wexford sloblands. A huge increase population over the course of the previous century has expanded both their summer range in Iceland, so they now have a number of breeding sites, whereas in the early part of the 20th century, there was just one with a breeding population of around four to five thousand birds; now it’s around fifty thousand; and they now have developed additional wintering sites in the Netherlands and in Portugal. As Jenny pointed out, the leap of cultural knowledge that this fact indicates, is immense: the east England birds simply don’t know that Portugal exists, whereas the Portuguese birds make their way north again via both the Netherlands and East Anglia. They have broader horizons. Still, a limited number of both breeding and winter sites brings home that fact that these wide-ranging species are so vulnerable in terms of locale. There really aren’t that many places they like to hang out, and if those places undergo drastic change, these stilted voyagers may have no place to go.

Jenny’s work was so in depth, so complete, it was anthropological. She showed how the food availability, which is related to the habitat and its inherent disturbance levels (ie, Irish meadows demand more alertness than a low-tide shoreline), and the length of migration journey all impact where the birds locate themselves both summer and winter. They balance so many competing needs, and culturally, their decisions are impacted by their first-year experiences, so that, somewhat sadly, those in the poorest habitat in winter, also end up in the poorest habitat in their summer breeding grounds. Sounds like a metaphor for human society also – much gets more. However, what was fascinating also was the technology, or relative lack of it. No GPS dataloggers for Jenny, no matter how light they are. Her work relies on thigh-high coloured rings on her birds, and as well as her research team, the efforts of birders to keep her and her team informed of the whereabouts of the godwits on their migratory routes. No doubt this is aided by the site-fidelity of the species, but nonetheless, it was an impressive illustration of how long-time labour-intensive low-tech can garner such quality of information as to essentially tell the local history of an entire species.

Shane Wolsey took us through the efforts to re-settle terns and encourage puffins to settle on number of island off the north Down coast. The shocking stats included that puffins are 56% reduced on Rathlin Island. A solar-powered sound system has been set up, with models of terns and puffins, to invite each species into a new abode. The ‘puffins’ were so loud that the lighthouse-keepers on a neighbouring island complained! While no puffins nested last summer, they did show interest and there is every prospect of some eventually relocating. Shane had us all laughing at his photos, taken from off-shore, of real and model puffins on the shoulders of the island. As he said himself, only when he checked which birds had moved their head from photo to photo could you tell the difference. An interesting avenue for ecotourism is surely indicated.

Eimear Rooney, who’s a colleague of mine, a fellow-PhD student, discussed the findings of her research on buzzards in Ireland. Nobody who’s into birds can have missed the expansion of this impressive bird of prey across the country in the last decade or more. Buzzards have become almost common, not that that dissipated any of the thrill of spotting their wide-angled wingspans lurching through the air, or the their untidy gloom hulking on a fence-post or half-hidden in a canopy. And their other-worldly mews that pierce a country ramble with the sting of wildness. Eimear made the point that, with Ireland’s paucity of small mammals, their is much more narrow in Ireland than in other parts of Europe.

I was the graveyard shift, the last speaker of the day, and I was conscious of the narrowness of the focus of my research, so specifically on birdsong, after all these ocean- and continent-wide, generation-deep, presentations. Mine felt a little like embroidery. It was, as I said, change at the micro-micro- level. But it went well, and I got a good response. I think people are often surprised at just how technical my analysis is, how much understanding of sound transmission and acoustics it requires. And I always enjoy explaining how spectrogram analysis works, sound as image, and there really is something quite magical at how the visual image is a signature for a bird, just as much as its physical appearance or the sound of its song.

Anyway, I must have done something right because yesterday morning I was contacted by a local RSPB group wanting to hear more. So I will, all being well be getting the opportunity to show off promote my research further in the new year. Somewhat to my own surprise, I am beginning to enjoy presentations. I was not remotely near-crippled with nerves as I was last spring in the run up to the second-year symposium. And while I did practice a little, it wasn’t a major issue. Of course I am increasingly familiar with this process, as I am with my own work, and I guess I am indeed gaining in confidence. Indeed I was praised for my ‘diction’, of all things! But I basically just kept reminding myself that was it is simply a story to tell, I had shaped its form already through the narrative of the powerpoint presentation, now all I had to do was deliver it. And it’s not that different from giving a poetry reading, or teaching a lesson in a classroom. I feel myself coming into my own again. The burdens of the last number of years, the emotional turmoil, the strained feeling of just gripping tight and keeping going, could be easing. A sense of going with the flow, taking chances as they present themselves, is emerging.

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4 Comments
  1. Fabulous! I think “showing off” is just fine! Go ahead and call it promoting your research, though! I would love to know how you got started in this field. Have you written about it before? Birdsong is indeed a narrow field of study, but how fascinating. I can easily believe that the conference attendees would be very interested! Going with the flow…sounds great! oxo

  2. chasingavianvoices permalink

    Thanks Debra, with you cheering for me, I think the flow will just keep flowing! I think I’ve described a little of how I got involved with this stuff, random destiny, I like to think of it as, but I’ll try to flesh it out a bit more in the future. At the moment, however, I’m just glad to be writing about this stuff as I go along. Feels good!

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