So last year I was fortunate enough to have been selected to take part in the British Trust of Ornithology’s (BTO) first ever Young Birders Camp, an event aimed to increase avian knowledge as well as giving support & advice on getting involved in BTO surveying methods, how to get into the conservation sector along with giving young folk the chance to interact with people of a similar age group as well as passion for nature and experiencing the great outdoors.
This year the camp was once again up and running thanks to the support of the mighty Cameron Bespolka Trust whom for both years have helped to the fund this event and many others like it. For the second year running I’d once again be participating & assisting the Camp along with Ben Moyes, Max Hellicar, Amy Hall, Toby Carter & Ben Porter at the BTO’s HQ aka The Nunnery in Thetford, Norfolk.
After the 5hr train journey from Lime Street to Thetford (Such fun…), I soon arrived at the BTO’s Nunnery reserve were I bumped into Max Hellicar, Viola Ross-Smith & Ieuan Evans, which after having a well over due catch up with Max via a stroll round the rather charming village of Thetford, we headed back to base to meet up with the rest of the gang who’d ventured from across the country to be a part of this life-changing event: Louis Driver, Harry King, James Miller, Luke Nash, Michael Sinclair, William Coase, Kai Gordon, Samuel Levy, Angus Jennings, Elliott Roberts & James McCulloch were a few of the folk who’d been selected for this years Bird Camp.
Once we the introductions were over and done with and we all familiarised our self’s with one another, we then headed off for dinner before the evenings talk was given by the BTO’s very own Ieuan Evans. During which he gave us a detailed insight into what life was like working for the BTO as well as encouraging us to take part in some of BTO’s surveys (BBS, NRS, WeBS etc.), and what the results of studies carried out by this tremendous organisation have done for the birds of Britain.
Due a poorly timed throat infection sleep was somewhat a rare commodity over the weekend, which as you can imagine was dreadful to say the least. Yet every cloud has it’s silver lining which in this case was identifying the calls of birds passing over the camp whilst everyone else rested: Tawny Owl, Eurasian Curlew, Common Redshank, Barn Owl & what we believe to be have been a European Nightjar’s alarm call were all noted from between 11pm-3:30am.
For many if not all the Birders, then the greatest and most magical event to witness in the summer is that of the dawn chorus. Which for those who got up in time (or stayed awake all through the night), were rewarded with not just a reeling Common Grasshopper Warbler but also the rich bubbly call of a female Common Cuckoo closely followed by that of the iconic and sadly ever increasingly rare “cuckoo-coo” song of the male.
Once everyone was up the group of 20 young birders were split up into 3 groups that were to be taken down to the BTO’s Nunnery Lakes Reserve and would be taken into the hands of the BTO’s Elite: For group 1 there was a dawn ringing session with Justin Walker, group 2 had nest recording with no other than David Leech & last but not least group 3 had CBS session with birding royalty Paul Stancliffe. My group would be kicking the day off with Justin Walker for some early morning ringing during which the period we spent with him a variety of birds were caught in the mist nets that from which he informed the groups how to age, sex & in some cases race the birds trapped along with a few of the epic flights taken by ringed and satellite tagged birds by the BTO.
After the ringing had been completed a decent selection of species had been trapped including Eurasian Reed Warbler, Sedge Warbler, Garden Warbler, Eurasian Blue Tit, Song Thrush, Winter Wren, European Robin & Cetti’s Warbler with a hepatic type female Common Cuckoo somehow escaping the mist nets after seemingly being trapped. It was whilst we were ringing that myself and Harry King were stopped in our tracks by a rather unexpected visitor via a Barn Owl making several passes over the ringing team which frustratingly avoided all of the 5 lens present.
Following on from ringing the groups then switched over to carry out Nest Recording with David Leech, which if you recall last years post then you may or may not recall a certain someone discovering the sites first Yellowhammer nest of the season. Over the hour and a half we spent exploring the reserve for nests our totals came round to 1 Common Whitethroat, 1 Eurasian Blue Tit, 1 Willow Warbler, 1 Common Blackbird, 1 Eurasian Blackcap with star of the show being that of a Common Reed Bunting that had nested a fair distance away from the lake.
Next up it was time for a session of CBS (Common Bird Survey), with Paul Stancliffe which shortly before myself, Harry King, Samuel Levy, Amy Hall & James McCullum had the chance to spend a little time out and about photographing a superb Eurasian Stone-Curlew which it turns out the views we had aren’t all that common!
When CBS was being carried out with the assistance of local birder David Walsh a pair of Red-eyed Damselfly were spotted by eagle eyed Paul mating with Great Crested Grebe, Eurasian Reed Warbler, Common Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, Garden Warbler & Common Kingfisher being the avian highlights from the surveying work, after which we travelled to RSPB Lakenheath Fen for an afternoons bird race.
On arrival at the reserve the sites warden David Rogers gave an impressive introduction to the site regarding it’s importance to the future survival of species such as the Great Bittern, along with it’s roll in bringing the Common Crane back from extinction in the UK. I’ve only ever visited this almighty reserve once before and it’s by far one of my all time favourite with it’s bio-diversity, attitude towards visitors & all round maintenance of the site nothing more than exceptional. After David’s talk we then split up into our two groups and the BTO Bird Camp Bird Race 2017 was now underway with recent rarities to the reserve such as Marsh & Savi’s Warbler being highly prized birds to have on the lists.
As we made our way round the reserve on what seemed to be the hottest day of the year, the list was beginning to steadily increase with some of our target birds being added much quicker than what we’d anticipated: Eurasian Hobby, Bearded Reedling, Common Cuckoo, Western Marsh Harrier & a “booming” Great Bittern all being noted whilst we were being burnt to a crisp in the blistering sunlight in no more than 15mins.
On arrival to the half way point the winds began to pick up dramatically, which as you can imagine brought our chances of encountering either the Marsh or Savi’s Warbler close to nil; Despite it not being the most favourable weather conditions we followed the lottery motto of “Got to be init to win it”, and decided to the give the Marsh Warbler a shot.
Reaching the area from which the Marsh Warbler had been viewed from over its week stay it became apparent that any observations or recordings of the bird was 0% due to the high winds, which was devastating news for those who’d been praying for the bird to stay since news broke of its discovery a week before we were due to arrive at the camp. Never the less our spirits remained high as it was cracking the flags with plenty of quality birds on a top reserve that were still out and about despite the weather delighting the group that included not only a close call with a Common Cuckoo, but a fantastic flyby of a Great Bittern picked up by Amy Hall, a shed load of Western Marsh Harrier & a Eurasian Hobby that passed low over the group…I missed that.
With the end of the race coming ever closer we looked eagerly for any extra additions to the list to ensure our lead: only Common Redshank (on call), European Stonechat and an unexpected flock of 10 Common Ringed Plover which made a brief stop off viewed from the Washland View Point before they departed heading east over our heads and they were our last species to be added to the list.
So then who won the race ? Would it be Team A with Ben Porter, Ben Moyes, Toby Carter, Luke Nash, Louis Driver, Harry King, Max Hellicar, Amy Hall, Samuel Levy, Kia Gordon, Michael Sinclair and myself or Team 2 who had the advantage of the BTO’s Ieuan Evans, Lee Barber & Paul Stancliffe on their side; well as it happens we appeared to of had a bit of a repeat of last years camp were both teams drew on 54 species. Slightly frustrating for the competitive ones amongst us!
After the thrill of RSPB Lakenheath Fen the group were ferried back to base for buffet lunch, a check of moth trap that was deployed the night before followed by talks delivered by Ben Porter & Amy Hall which focused on the roll of bird observatories along with life on the island of Bardsey and the story of the Cameron Bespolka Trust and its part in empowering and giving the next generation of Birders, Photographers & Conservationists from all walks of life.
Both talks were executed with finesse & an out-burst of emotion that touched all those present; it was succeeding these talks that it was time to round off the day with our final event in the darkness of Thetford Forest with no other than BTO ecologist Greg Conway for an evening with the humble European Nightjar.
The European Nightjar is a species which you dream of setting yours upon, yet due to their nocturnal habits combined with their preference in habitat and general small range, are a tough species to connect with. As a result of such issues very little research has been carried out on these beautiful creatures until recently were people from across Europe (including Greg), have come together to try and understand more about the European Nightjar such as there feeding and migration patterns.
This evening was for those who hadn’t yet experienced a European Nightjar certainly something special and if you were someone like me then the most memorable part of any “nightjaring” is the churring. It was as early as 9:30pm that the first of an estimated 4 European Nightjar’s began churring with at first the calls coming from a fixed points, but as darkness took over then the action began to hot-up with the calls encroaching ever more until the point that one almost took off mine and Harry’s heads! Whilst moments later Mr Driver spotted a bird perched on top of a conifer which I’m pretty sure everyone managed to connect with before it lapped round several times before being lost to the darkness.
It was certainly the most magical night of the weekend made only better by the fact that it wasn’t just European Nightjars we saw, but Eurasian Hobby, Tree Pipit, Yellowhammer, Eurasian Woodcock & Long-eared Owl were also noted on call and sight whilst we were out that evening. But to top it all off a stonking adult male European Nightjar was trapped in one of the mist nets set up which for many was the weekends highlight.
The following morning it was once again another 4am wake up call as we’d be starting the day off with a trip to the Landguard Bird Observatory which taking into account the track record that Landguard has: Crested Lark, Lanceolated Warbler, Short-toed Treecreeper, Trumpeter Finch, Red-billed Tropicbird, Spectacled Warbler, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Caspian Stonechat, Stejneger’s Stonechat, Lark & Spanish Sparrow to name a few, it was where we were expecting for first Bird Camp MEGA to be discovered as we were guided round the obs by site manager Nigel Wooden.
As it was expected after last years failure for a MEGA no such MEGA’s were to be found at the site with even the ringing having a pretty shocking low productivity with only a single Great Tit & European Blackbird being produced. The mood was dim however all was not lost as the moths saved the day: Small Elephant & Poplar Hawkmoth, Dark Archers, Cream-spotted Tiger & the sites 1st Beautiful Hook-tip moth brightening the groups atmosphere before we ventured off for a walk along the shore line where we were introduced to some of the sites special visitors.
After our walk along the single were we encountered the sites breeding Common Ringed Plovers, the time now came to say a farewell & thanks to Nigel & Landguard as we headed off in the search of one of Suffolk’s most iconic species, Dartford Warbler. On return to last years site at Upper Hollesley Common we were expecting (more like praying), for fairly similar observations to that of last years trip to the site, but as it is within the birding world no two encounters are ever identical.
Over an hour had pasted and there might not had been any sign of a Dartford Warbler yet but in all honesty I was pretty happy with the others birds which were out and about including that of singing Woodlark, Common Chiffchaff & Yellowhammer whilst a pair of European Stonechats attended to their young & a Western Yellow Wagtail bombed it over our heads. With everyone else out scanning for the Dartford’s I thought I’d have a quick look about to see what else was about in heathland as now my AS Exams are over I’m looking to boarded my knowledge expand into the realm. So besides the countless Grasshoppers that were impossible to nail I did however manage to pick up my first Small Copper of the year which was pretty pleasing.
The clock was ticking and time was running out for the Dartford’s appearance, it was thought by myself & Harry King that this was going to be an unfortunate dip, up until the point where a hysteric David Walsh came rushing out of the undergrowth with belted news of an adult male on the path adjacent to the one we where currently surveying from. Everyone rocketed over and set up position to catch a glimpse of the bird and sure enough after a short 10min wait the chase was finally over as the bird made a brief & distant flyby to its nest before it was time to call it a day at Upper Hollesley Common and made our way to the final destination for the camp at RSPB Hollesley Marsh’s.
The reserve is one of the RSPB’s most recent creations that’s situated within the lower coarse area of the Alde-Ore estuary and holds host to a wide variety of bird, plant & insect species that includes the likes of Garganey, Black-tailed Skimmer, Scarce Chaser, Pied Avocet, Little Tern, Barn Owl, Western Yellow Wagtail & more recently Red-veined Darter & Varied Damselfly (Infact it was James McCulloch who discovered the reserves 1st Varied Damselfly record!). Once again and like that of Lakenheath the groups split up and we took our separate ways with one half taking off towards the estuary to scan for Little Tern & Red-veined Darters whilst the others headed off to the sites viewing platform to take a look at what was to be found on the scrapes.
Pied Avocet, Eurasian Teal, Gadwall, Western Marsh Harrier, Little Egret & Yellowhammer were a few of the birds we had from the hide with closer inspections revealing that at least 4 of the Pied Avocets bared coloured rings which I managed to photograph and I shall now await for details on the ringed birds to be sent back; our best guesses at the time were that they were either the birds from Boyton Marsh (10min drive away), which had relocated after the nests were predated on or from a French breeding scheme. But we’ll have to wait and see…
Crossing over to the view the estuary we were alerted to the presence of a Red-veined Darter which had set up a hunting platform on the side of the path we were walking up. As darters are an area I have yet to get indulged myself in I was pretty excited to be informed by David Walsh that these are infact a fairly rare species to the British Isles and are an irruption species set to colonise the UK with only a handful of unstable colonies found in the found of Britain. A bit of high point of the weekend for me and as it was coming ever closer to the end it only seemed to be getting better & better; yes the wildlife we’d come across was epic, however as a result of events that had taken place over the past 6 months it was really the social experience of it all that made it all worth while for me.
So then folks that’s BTO Bird Camp 2017 pretty much in a nutshell for yea and it’s hats off to not only the BTO’s Viola Ross-Smith, Justin Walker, David Leach, Lee Barber, Greg Conway & Ieuan Evans, but also to the Cameron Bespolka Trust who once again if it wasn’t for there support none of what you’ve just read wouldn’t have happened and if you can then please do take a look at the Website and take a look at more of the projects, groups & events that the trust is helping to create and support. If you want to make a difference then feel free to make a donation as it’s the Cameron Bespolka Trust who are helping to make fundamental difference in shaping the future for those with a love for the wild.
For many people including myself then coming across people of a similar age with the same addiction for wild stuff is something rare, but it’s thanks to events like that supported by the CBT that unite young birders from all walks of life and expels that isolationism which so many have gone through and as a result not been able to reach their full potential nor feel as accepted or comfortable being who they are as they should be.
To conclude this post then I’ll end on a quote by know other than Edmund Burke “The only thing necessary for triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” and in a world where evil now has a firm grip on society, then it’s down & thanks to those such as the BTO & Cameron Bespolka Trust who are making good in the very dark world we currently live in.
Thanks for reading,
Ieuan Evans – @_Ieuan
Viola Ross-Smith – @Viola_RS
Greg Conway – @Conway_greg
Justin Walker – @arcanelove
Lee Barber – @Lee00Barber
David Leach – @Rock_nester
David Walsh – @DavidWalsh
Max Hellicar – @MaxHellicar1
Kai Gordon – @Kai_Gordon
Angus Jennings – @angus77
William Coase – @CoaseWilliam
For those who are interest the Amy Hall has worked her computer magic to produce a short film on the weekend that I highly recommend a watch of – BTO Young Birders Camp 2017