Tuesday, 21 March 2017


Craig Ralston (left) and other  delegates at the York conference

KEYNOTE speaker at the BTO conference in York was Craig Ralston, senior reserves manager for Natural England.

His hour-long presentation was on management of  the Lower Derwent Valley National Nature Reserve in East Yorkshire. He described it as “a jewel”. 

The reserve is a particularly strong habitat  for wildfowl, and Craig enthused  about the high numbers (up to 700 birds in winter) of one of his favourite species, pintail. 

Gadwall used to be infrequent visitors, but now they are widespread, second only to mallard when it comes to the reserve's breeding ducks. 
Shoveler - plentiful on the reserve, especially in winter
By contrast, the past 20 years has seen “a massive decline” in Bewick’s swans, not because of deficiencies in the reserve’s management but because birds that used to come to the UK are responding to climate change by wintering in Holland, Germany and Denmark.

Whooper swan - always a pleasure to see in winter
The reserve is also an important migration stopping off point for many waders, including whimbrel, which spend much of summer in Iceland and winter in Guinea.

Craig is keen to spread the word about Natural England’s successes as widely as possible in order to encourage people, adults and children alike, to enjoy wildlife.

“A job is only half done until you tell people about it,” he insisted.

To this end, he or colleagues regularly visit schools, and, from time to time, he has even donned a fancy dress whimbrel outfit to promote the cause at public events in town and city centres.

“To show that  we take health and safety seriously, there is always a cork on the tip of the whimbrel’s bill,” he joked.

The conference, held on March 18 at York University’s Ron Cooke Hub, also heard from Rich Burkmar, of the Field Studies Council, on latest QGIS computer mapping technology, and from the BTO’s  Andy Musgrove on how to make the most of the Birdtrack app for computers and smartphones.

Leeds-born Andy has been a birder ever since childhood when the bird that probably hooked him was a visit to the garden by a fieldfare, a bird he had never seen before.

He became an obsessive note-taker and has scores of diaries recording his finds.

But the onset of Birdtrack has made the process of recording a much slicker and more sophisticated process. What is more, the information is shared across the birding and scientific community.

The data overall has confirmed much, for instance, that, compared with yesteryear,  most of our summer birds are now arriving, on average 10 days earlier in spring  and leaving 10 days later in autumn.

Asked by a delegate to name the ever-elusive bird on the British list which he would most like to see, back came Andy's reply: Wilson’s petrel.

There were also excellent presentations from two of Andy’s BTO colleagues, Greg Conway and Dawn Balmer.

Greg described how efforts were being made - where landowners granted permission - to assess the importance of upland farmland (typically sloped sites between moorland and grass fields) for breeding waders such as snipe, oystercatcher, redshank, lapwing, curlew and golden plover.

The prospects do not look particularly rosy because chicks, if not nests, are vulnerable to intensive silage  management and many landowners refuse “point blank” to cooperate on conservation initiatives.

Dawn (originally from Shropshire but married to a Yorkshireman) is head of surveys at BTO and also a member of the Rare Bird Breeding Panel.

She observed that breeding of some species, such as teal, water rail and hobby, were not well recorded and more information was always welcome.

Perhaps controversially, she suggested that - in the case of water rail - the brief use of callback  was acceptable if done for scientific purposes rather than as a means to obtain a better photograph.

According to Dawn, there are about 80 species that fall in the category of rare breeders - that is to say, fewer than 2,000 pairs.

These are divided into: 

* Very rare (fewer than 30 pairs) such as wood sandpiper
* Rare (between 30 and 300 pairs) such as black-necked grebe
* Scarce (between 301 and 1,000 pairs) such as pochard- 302- 1000 pochard
* Less scarce (between 1001 and 2000 pairs) such as avocet 

There are also some species - such as little bittern, great reed warbler and scarlet rosefinch - which are classified as occasional breeders.

Some species, such as red kite (of which there estimated to be about 2,500 pairs) have now come off the panel’s list entirely. 


Mike Brown (left), introduces BTO regional  representatives

A stall selling secondhand books on birds provided additional interest

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