It’s been a while since I attended this wonderful BTO conference. Last year I was adjusting to being post-PhD. The year before that I was in the throes of writing up my PhD. And the year before that I actually presented at this conference! So it was great to be there just as an attendee, and be able to simply relax and enjoy the performance. It was also great to meet up with friends, new and old, mix and mingle around a shared passion for birds.
The conference’s title, Migrations and Movements, gave a flavour of the general theme, but it wasn’t the day’s only subject, which ranged from antibiotic resistance to art and beyond. Our day began with Niall Tierney of Birdwatch Ireland who regaled us with tales of the birds of the movements of the birds of Dublin Bay, emphasising the area’s importance as one of the foremost wintering area for migrants in the country, supporting over 30,000 wintering birds, comparable to the likes of Lough Swilly (30,000) and Lough Foyle (36,000), as well as Dundalk Bay (59,400). A three-year monitoring project is ongoing, funded by the Dublin Port, under the auspices of Birdwatch Ireland. The region is internationally important for its wintering light-bellied brent geese, knot, and both species of godwit (bar- and black-tailed). Dublin Bay birds have travel as far afield as Iceland, Norway and Scotland, and the individuals can be identified from the coloured rings. So the message was to join the volunteers who have contributed to the 42% of re-sightings and keep all eyes peeled for Dublin Bay birds! Niall’s presentation was charming and informative, with a little local colour indicated by species such as white-van man who may arrive unexpectedly, and there are other taxonomically-related groups who also make the odd appearance. Some of them are (apparently; I wouldn’t know) best avoided.
There has been a revolution in our understanding of migration with the advent of geolocators and recorders. The effect of these was raised in Niall’s talk, but given a much more individual cast by Andy Clements, BTO chief Executive Officer, who took us through what BTO research and surveys have revealed of the interactions between birds and landscape at both local and global scales. The pressure migratory birds are subject to transcend national borders, and, as climate change advances affect birds in many severe and subtle ways. Surveys by volunteers are vital for the monitoring of species and, ultimately, providing the data to influence policy. It was sad to hear from the horse’s mouth, as it were, of the almost-certain extinction of the slender-billed curlew. But very interesting to learn of how the monitoring by the BTO and others provides insight into the patterns of movements of migratory birds. How sandmartin populations are generally rising; swift populations falling; that Ireland is very important for winter populations of goldcrest and meadow pipit; and that the distribution of the whinchat appears to reflect a movement to higher altitude as climate warms. In fact, the only lowland whinchat population left in England is that on Salisbury plain, where it competes for territory with the Ministry of Defence! (So, however, do great bustards!).
I was amazed to learn that, prior to recent use of geolocators in tracking the movements of British Cuckoos, the only hard evidence was a ringing record of an individual who was ringed on 23 June 1928 in Eton, Berks, and the ringing recovery from Eboka, Cameroon, on 30 June 1930. The unfortunate cuckoo had found itself in a cooking pot, but some resident or visiting human must have taken it upon themselves to return the ring to source, hence the record. Apart from the anecdotal, this was the only hard evidence that cuckoos wintered in Africa until 2011 and the attachment of geolocators to five individuals, one of whom, Chris (RIP), had a huge fan base. What the tracking of the cuckoos revealed is that there are two distinct routes by which cuckoos reach their winter home in the Congo rainforest in Central Africa. One is via Spain, the other via Italy, with the Spanish routed necessitating a journey length approximately 3000km more than the Italian. Nevertheless, despite the divergence of journey, the birds from each route end up within 500km of each other in the rainforest.
What Andy’s talk also illustrated was how small a portion of their lives cuckoo spend in their breeding quarters, i.e., here! I find it incredible that a species that is so iconic, whose song is looked forward to and celebrated so warmly, that has made such a contribution to our awareness of the passing of the season and to literature, actually spends so little time here! Less than 6 weeks of their year is spent in their northern residence, with 40% of their year being spent in transit. However, that heralding of the season was given a final modern twist by Andy’s reference to Michael McCarthy’s excitement at how this research has let us “see spring coming from 4000 miles away”.
Andy also took us through the big trends with respect to global warming. Species that winter further south are 73% in decline, whereas those “only” going as far as the dry Sahel and Sudan savanna are generally suffering less. A more detailed look at the swift migration routes offered insight into why this might be. Swifts are among those who go far down, and on their spring return, cross the Gulf of Liberia as they track seasonal rain patterns. Here they have a month-long ‘pit-stop’ to stock up on the rain-emergent insect life that fuels their onward migration. The swifts must take advantage of this food or they would never make the rest of their journey. But seasonal patterns are breaking down with climate change and, nowadays, Europe’s spring begins, on average, 3 weeks earlier than it did 40 years ago. The African rainy season and European spring are losing their historical pattern of synchrony. Thus, when the swifts finally reach our shores, spring is well advanced. Europe’s burst of insect life that the swifts’ arrival used to coincide with is well underway if not already peaked. The swifts are getting the leftovers when they used to get first choice.
Local swifts were also the subject of a talk by local heroes Mícheál Casey and Mark Smyth, who gave insight on how to encourage swift nesting success, north and south, by putting up appropriate nestboxes. These amazing birds are not to be lost: what would our paltry summers be like without swifts hurtling around our rooftops? And while I knew they were fast, I had to marvel again at just how fast: 110 km/hr in level flight! Mícheál and Mark aimed to put geolocators on 12 Irish swifts. They managed 7, and I’m looking forward to next year’s conference to get the update on the swifts’ travels. Meantime, I’m going to look into the feasibility of getting a swift nestbox myself!
We had talks from Mark Holling of the Rare Breeding Birds Panel and from Ewan Weston, Golden Eagle Project Officer. Mark made us aware of the importance of logging any sighting of rare birds that look as if they may be attempting – or succeeding! – at breeding (unfortunately, to include our legendary curlew; a species that threatens to go the way of its slender billed relative ….). So, pairs, nest defence, clutches, young, that sort of thing. And Ewan filled in us in on the wandering of juvenile golden eagles in Scotland. Despite some human poisoning and predation they are doing rather well.
Kerry Leonard kept us up to date with the latest on Northern Irish seabirds, and Richard Holland, who is sadly to leave Queen’s University Belfast in the very near future, took us through the next chapter in the story of antibiotic resistance in the gut bacteria of gulls. As might be anticipated such resistance is most prevalent in the gulls that forage close to specific sites where they are more likely to come into contact with either human effluent or contaminant from antibiotic use in agriculture. As Richard kept emphasising, it’s not the gulls’ fault they end up with these things. It’s ours! But it was a window into just how quickly antibiotic resistance is spreading in bacterial pathogens, and how, by 2050, predicted human death rates from bacterial disease will exceed that of the likes of cancer and heart disease. Along with the perennial problem of the overuse of antibiotics in medicine, and more chillingly, agriculture, there is an additional issue with the lack of investment by pharmaceutical companies in developing new antibiotics. It looks like the miracle of antibiotics, as experienced by the post-world war two generation, is barely going to last a century.
Because, in the days I lived much closer to it, Lough Swilly was a favourite haunt of mine, the talk by Andrew Speer of the Irish National Parks and Wildlife Service on Inch Wildfowl Reserve was of particular interest to me. As well as the years of more casual birdwatching and walking, it brought back one magical morning I spent fieldworking at that reserve. And it was great to hear the Donegal accent! Andrew got more than a laugh or two as he explained how he contrived to get local shooting clubs not only to cooperate with him, but also with each other, so that ultimately they ended up doing the monitoring of the legalities for him! Anyway, the Lough Swilly Greylag Goose project was ultimately born and it was a gratifying story of how community involvement can bring a sense of collective relationship that embeds regard for wildlife in the environment that we all share. The snippets on the other species were also worth hearing. And while, as Andrew put it with respect to the interbreeding between Icelandic graylags and local feral individuals, “How wild is wild?”. As Orgel put it ‘evolution is cleverer than you” (that is, us!). If the wild is indeed what is outside our control then maybe, like Cheryl Strayed, “How wild … to let it be”.
And speaking of letting things be, we also had the great pleasure of Mark Avery, formerly of the RPSB, now author and environmental campaigner, outlining in detailed, passionate and robust terms, why driven grouse shooting should be banned. This is not something that affects us much in Northern Ireland, or in Ireland as a whole, but it was somewhat horrifying to learn of the systematic butchery of red grouse (also known as willow ptarmigan elsewhere in the world). These birds’ populations are maintained at an artificially high levels on the moors due to a mixture of ferocious predator control and management that includes the provision of medicated grit that reduces the spread of disease. During a shoot, of course, the grouse are systematically driven towards the 6-8 shooters that have paid up to £33K a day for the privilege of blasting birds out of the sky. The record shoot, from the Forest of Bowland (another area I happen to have personal acquaintance with, so it had extra resonance for me) is of 2900 grouse in a day. Shot by 6 or 8 men. That’s 483 or 362 per shooter. How could they possibly eat (or as somebody in our audience remarked, pluck) that many grouse? Where’s the sport? Where’s the skill, actually?
Anyway, it’s not the shooting per se that annoys Mark and so many others, but he tells the story better than me, so I’ll just briefly say there’s a huge cost to Joe and Jo Bloggs of providing this ‘sport’ for the better off in terms of land management, insurance and water bills. However, one of the more scandalous aspect of the predator control is its implied association with the erosion of hen harrier population from England. This has been in the news a lot of late, but clearly something is making this species, legally protected since 1954, vanish mysteriously. And Mark pulled no punches in stating that, yes, the presence of hen harriers reduces grouse populations so that there ends up being no shootable surplus. Big surprise. Harriers and shooters occupy essentially the same ecological niche when they hunt grouse, and it’s a fundamental law of competitive exclusion that you can’t have two species in the same niche. One of them will go to the wall. And no surprise with this either, it’s the hen harrier that’s going to the wall. Which would you rather have, the glamour of a hen harrier? Or the expense of a toff? I know who has my vote, so I’ll just finish this rant by saying, as Mark urged, sign the petition to ban driven grouse shooting asap.
Throughout the day we marvelled as Julian Friers completed a masterly painting of a sparrowhawk in a birch wood. We basked in the praise of Shane Wolsey (BTO NI), Julian Greenwood, and Chris Wernham (BTO Scotland), and enjoyed the beautiful surrounds of the Discovery Centre at Oxford Island. The food wasn’t bad either. Thanks to Shane and all the other folks who made such a wonderful day possible. Looking forward to next year already!