Wednesday, 8 June 2016

BTO Bird Camp 2016: Trip report by Max Hellicar

Thetford Forest, situated in the heart of East Anglia, contains a diverse variety of wildlife and is an area containing the only breeding populations of certain species in the whole of the UK. Thetford Forest has always been an area which I enjoy visiting and the afternoon of Friday 27 May saw me making my way to the area.

Thetford is an area which I am familiar with from going birding nearby many times previously, but I had never entered the BTO headquarters building before. This was the start of the Young Birder's weekend 2016, hosted by the British Trust for Ornithology, an event which I had been eagerly looking forward to since I first heard about it earlier in the year. A few of us arrived earlier than others so took ourselves on a walk around Nunnery Lakes which produced Kingfisher and Garden Warbler and chatted to the very friendly and helpful BTO staff. Soon everyone had arrived and it was time for introductions and dinner, then off to our nearby campsite at Two Mile Bottom, which was the first time some participants had experienced camping.

The next morning we were up bright and early at 04:30 and ready for some birding action!
We headed back to the Nunnery Lakes reserve and the 20 or so similarly aged birders were divided in to groups, working on different activities, each working on one activity for an hour throughout the morning. The activities consisted of bird surveying/mapping, nest finding, bird ringing, and general birding.

Reed Warbler nest by Max Hellicar
Reed Warbler nest by Max Hellicar
With thanks to Lee Barber and Justin Walker for 
Kingfisher by Toby Carter
Kingfisher by Toby Carter
leading the bird ringing demonstration, Mike Toms for leading the nest recording activities, Su Gough for leading the bird mapping activities and Paul Stancliffe for leading the general
birding activities. One group working on ringing were fortunate enough to see a Kingfisher in the hand, whilst the nest finders found a Yellowhammer nest and the general birding group found a hepatic female cuckoo! By around half past ten all groups had completed the four activities, so headed back to the BTO headquarters to have some well earned breakfast (and lunch)!
It was soon time to get back out birding though, with a trip to Lakenheath Fen arranged for the afternoon! Off we set and after a jolly journey, we were once again eager for some birding. A nice circuit walk around the fen produced some particularly nice highlights including views of Crane, calling Cuckoo, a flyby Bittern and Bearded Tits! At Lakenheath we once again encountered Kingfisher - a blue bullet darting between the reed beds.
En route back to the BTO headquarters, we stopped off in some suitable Stone-curlew habitat where we were delighted to come across a pair of our target birds! Nice scope views of these were afforded, with Stone-curlew being a life tick for some of the young birders. Once we arrived back at the BTO building it was time for a barbecue dinner and some time to socialise with other trip participants - a good opportunity for young birders to make friends with others who have similar interests. This particular event was superb for social aspects because many of the young ornithologists who attended the event only previously knew each other from social media, or didn't know each other at all, so all appreciated the chance to have face-to-face bird related discussions!

Roughly an hour before dusk, we headed back out into the deepest darkest forest to meet Greg Conway. Greg explained some of his work and research over the past few years with a very mysterious and extraordinary bird - the crepuscular Nightjar. Greg's fascinating research included GPS tracking of individuals and was a topic many of us were intrigued to learn more about. As dusk began to set in, the mist nets had been set and it was now a waiting game. 
A handful of nets had been carefully positioned in the area with ringers carefully keeping each net in their sights. After around an hour of anticipation and waiting, a Nightjar was caught! This was a new bird which was previously unringed and once it had been processed and ringed, all of the young ornithologists had superb views of the bird 'in the hand' to admire it's cryptic camouflage plumage which blends in perfectly with the heathland they nest on. We were finished with the Nightjars at around 11PM after the success of seeing one up close, and managed to get a good few hours of sleep back at the campsite.
Nightjar by Elliot Montieth
Nightjar by Elliot Montieth

Sunday morning began with another early start at around 5AM, when we were all eager to set off south east to Landguard Bird Observatory, on the tip of the Felixstowe peninsular. Arriving at around 06:30, we were greeted by the warden of LBO, Nigel Odin, who showed us around the observatory grounds. Nigel inspected the precious night's moth trap catch with us, which produced some nice moths including a Small Elephant Hawkmoth and a migrant Pearly Underwing was an early surprise.
We received an explanation of how Heligoland traps work for bird ringing and a walk along the beach provided views of nesting Ringed Plovers.

It was soon time to wave goodbye to Landguard, and a visit to some mixed heathland and woodland habitat near the Suffolk coast produced nice views of Dartford Warbler and Redstart - both superb birds. After this we visited Boyton Marshes where we had yet more success, with some of the trip participants managing to get decent views of two Garganey!

A well needed pub lunch in Woodbridge arranged by Ieuan was much appreciated by everyone.
On the journey back to Thetford, I am confident at least 90% of us youngsters fell asleep on the minibus. We were awakened by a stop off at some suitable habitat in the Thetford Forest and guided by the birding excellence that is Paul Stancliffe, we were afforded views of Tree Pipit and Woodlark - both fairly scarce Breckland species! After our success here, we headed back to the BTO headquarters to celebrate what a truly brilliant and memorable weekend it had been and say our farewells to each other. 

Personally I feel that this was a fantastic action-packed weekend and the BTO couldn't have done anything better to improve it. The opinions of fellow young birders echoed the fact that this event was a resounding success and I hope that this event has also encouraged other youngsters to continue with their passion of birding and recording and submit their valuable records to help improve the current scientific understanding of certain bird species. After the success of this weekend, I look forward to any future events held by the BTO as I'm sure many others do.

I would like to say a massive thank you to the BTO for hosting such an amazing event, especially Ieuan Evans, Viola Ross-Smith, Paul Stancliffe, and Lee Barber for their extraordinary efforts in organising this event and for being so supportive throughout the weekend, and thank you to anyone else involved with making this event so brilliant. Many thanks to the Cameron Bespolka Trust for funding the event and making it possible, and thanks to Next Generation Birders and A Focus on Nature - organisations involved in arranging the event.
It was great to see such a good turnout of keen young nature enthusiasts, so thank you all for attending and I hope this event has inspired you to keep up the good work for the future.

A great summary of tweets from the weekend by Ieuan Evans is available here. You can find more information about the BTO's incredible work on their website.

Max Hellicar. June 2016.
All photos by Max Hellicar unless otherwise stated (Twitter: MaxHellicar1).

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