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

14 October 2013

Adopted Avocet suffers identity crisis

BirdTrack Organiser Nick Moran was surprised to find an interloper in the Oystercatcher roost at Snettisham RSPB reserve in late September.

Avocet M8 seemed happy enough with it's equally pied roost mates and interestingly the story took a much stranger turn when we heard back from the ringer.

M8 was ringed as a chick at Dunkirk, near Ely, in Cambridgeshire earlier in the year and had already featured on the inside back cover of BirdWatching magazine (September 2013). Here it was seen being fed a leatherjacket by one of its apparently adopted parents; an Oystercatcher! Once M8 had made the switch from natural parents to adoptive parents, it remained with them exclusively before fledging and departing.

So whether Avocet M8 now thinks it's an Oystercatcher is an intriguing question, and we wonder if it now feeds side-to-side sweeping (as an Avocet should) or is trying to probe (as an Oystercatcher would). It might also make finding a mate later in life an interesting proposition!

10 October 2013

Sandwich Tern: a potential US first from Northumberland

Earlier in the autumn we received a very interesting report from the USA, of a ringed Sandwich Tern that really sounded like a BTO-ringed bird. Sandwich Terns aren't the commonest bird anyway in northeast USA, but interestingly in recent years most authorities have split the (Eurasian) Sandwich Tern from the (Nearctic) Cabot's Tern. The American Ornithologists' Union have yet to follow suit, but if they do then a record of a ringed bird is a sure-fire way to confirm its identity.

For such an important record we were eventually able to confirm the ring number with the finder and this was indeed a bird from Northumberland: DB67406 had been ringed as a chick on Coquet Island in 2002. With just one previous record of a 'possible' in Chicago in 2010 (details here), this bird could well turn out to be the first Sandwich Tern record for the USA.

DB67406 was seen by biologist Jeff Spendelow, who studies the use of staging sites by Roseate Terns in the Cape Cod area of southeast Massachusetts. It was first seen on one of his study sites on 31st July, but it wasn't until 21st August that Jeff was able to read its ring, with it also later seen at nearby Chatham on 7th September (in red on the map below). Several other intrepid American birders managed to paddle out to the islands to see the bird, but it was hardly 'twitchable'! Photographs of the bird do also show many of the features used to seperate Sandwich from Cabot's Tern, but you can't argue with a bird ringed as a chick in Europe!

Interestingly, there is an equally unusual record the other way round, with a Cabot's Tern from the USA being found dead in the UK (in green on the map below). NAW 110386842 was ringed as a chick at Beaufort, in 1984 and was found dead in November 1984 at the rather bizarre location of Newhouse Wood in Herefordshire. It was reported independently (as a tern/gull) by two observers so is genuine, and is the first record of Cabot's Tern in Europe. There have since been further records in Europe (including a possible Cayenne Tern in Wales), but this remains a most bizarre first.

View Sandwich and Cabot's Terns in a larger map

Recent work at several Sandwich Tern colonies in the UK has seen large numbers of chicks being colour-ringed, an even better way of keeping track of their movements. At Coquet, 52 chicks were colour-ringed this year alone, with a further 102 on the Farne Islands. Of the latter, 11 have been seen further north in the autumn, from Musselburgh to Findhorn. Birds have also been colour-ringed in Norfolk, Grampian and The Netherlands, so plenty to keep an eye out for.