31 October 2013

Art meets science – both win

On Wednesday evening I found myself in an art gallery in London, wearing a suit. As someone far more accustomed to donning chest waders and traipsing through reedbeds, the ‘fish out of water’ analogy would have seemed particularly appropriate, were it not for the nature of the event - the presentation of the Dilys Breese Medal and Marsh Awards at the annual Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA) exhibition.

The best clue to proceedings was probably the 10ft high giraffe forged from scrap metal to which all eyes were drawn on arrival, a piece by SWLA President  Harriet Mead, daughter of the BTO Ringing Unit’s inimitable Chris. A diverse array of floral and faunal images cloaked the walls; while styles ranged widely from the abstract through the impressionistic to the feather-perfect, the quality was uniformly outstanding, as one would predict from the prestigious list of exhibitors which included Bruce Pearson, Carry Akroyd, Esther Tyson and Darren Woodhead. Those expecting an air of contemplation and quiet appreciation were in for a surprise, as the room buzzed with the sort of conversation and excitement that (and I appreciate I may be slightly biased here) can only be generated when wildlife enthusiasts gather together. Artists mingled with journalists, BTO supporters and surveyors, exchanging tales of recent observations, experiences and inspirations, their different perspectives on a shared passion reflecting the theme of the evening, that art really does “breathe life into science”.

And true to form, science was given equal billing on the night, the medal and award presentations honouring outstanding individual contributions to the world of ornithology. The Dilys Breese Award highlights achievements in the world of the media, and I was really pleased to see John Ingham from the Daily Express join the list of recipients. My first contact with John was back in 2008 when he ran a piece on Cuckoos and Reed Warblers (before it became my personal obsession), and in recent years he has become an increasingly staunch BTO supporter, helping to spread the word about targeted surveys such as Winter Thrushes and Blackcaps.

The Marsh Awards, developed by the Marsh Christian Trust, celebrate achievements in all walks of life, but tonight the focus was ornithology. Dr Jim Cassels, the winner of the Marsh Award for Local Ornithology, Regional Organiser for the BTO Bird Atlas 2007–11 on Arran. Now, I spent many summer holidays on the island in my youth, so I fully understand that achieving complete coverage of all 139 tetrads is no mean feat, given the sparse population, difficult terrain and distinct lack of tarmac. The fact that Jim, working with the Arran Natural History Society, managed to persuade 700 individuals to submit records is astounding, and I can’t wait to see the end product.

The president of SWLA - Harriet Mead

The Marsh Award for Innovative Ornithology was presented to Dr Christian Rutz of the University of St Andrews, who has pioneered the development of miniature cameras that can be mounted on individual birds, collecting unique information on their behaviour. I’ve seen footage from his corvid-cams on the internet and was gutted not to get a chance to speak to him, as I’ve got a few ideas I’d like to discuss (which may or may not involve Cuckoos and reedbeds…..).  I was equally pleased to see Dr Jane Reid from the University of Aberdeen collect her Marsh Award for Ornithology – Jane is a dyed in the wool ringer, having started training at 16, which gives her a real understanding of the practicalities of scientific studies as well as analytical techniques. Her impressive publication record encompasses everything from Starling incubation to Shag population dynamics, and she is also renowned for providing sage advice to amateurs who want to develop their own ringing studies, particularly during Scottish Ringers Conferences where she remains an oasis of calm in frequently chaotic surroundings!

The final presentation of the night was made to Dr Lars Svensson, winner of the Marsh International Award for Ornithology. This is a man who is a deity in the eyes of many, including myself, having produced the ringers’ bible in the form of the ‘Identification Guide to European passerines’, a unique publication that details the ID features and aging and sexing criteria for every songbird species found on the continent. Without this book we would simply be unable to collect the data that allows us to calculate survival rates in such detail. Such is the volume of information contained within, that I had long presumed ‘Lars Svensson’ was a brand, not an individual, an umbrella term for a room full of dedicated researchers armed with wing rules and eye colour charts. While I didn’t get a chance to confirm his identity through biometrics, I can now confirm that he is but one man – how he also finds time to produce birders’ bible the Collins Guide, I cannot imagine.

Professor Bill Sutherland (right) presenting Dr Lars Svensson (left) with the Marsh Award for International Ornithology

The opportunity to chat to ringing stalwarts such as Andrew Harris and Peter Wilkinson was the icing on the cake and I hope that my attire was convincing enough to be invited back in future years. I’d highly recommend that anyone passing by the Mall Gallery between now and the 10th November has a look around the SWLA exhibition as the artwork on display is truly amazing – don’t forget your chequebook!

Posted by Dave Leech

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