Monday, 9 January 2017

BTO Annual Conference 2016 by Gethin Jenkins-Jones

The BTO’s Annual Conference at Swanwick in Derbyshire is, for many, a very special and much anticipated weekend. As the year draws to a close it is a brilliant chance to bump into old friends, meet new people who share similar interests and to learn more about birds and conservation through lectures given by top experts and amateur citizen scientists. As a teenage birder I rarely get to talk about nature to others, and so this conference is has been very important to me over the last two years and is a weekend I never want to miss.
The Hayes Conference Centre, Swanwick
This year the conference kicked off on the Friday evening with a fascinating talk on “25 years of ringing Choughs in Wales”, given by Tony Cross and Adrienne Stratford. The amount of data they have gathered over the last quarter-century is truly incredible. I was inspired by all the info on movements, population trends, mortality rates and life expectancy they shared with us about this beautiful corvid. I also learned that monitoring this species is by no means an easy task. Seeing photos of their death-defying use of 20 foot ladders on unstable cliffs to visit these nests, I know I’m not going to complain about using the step ladder to monitor my Blue Tit boxes any time soon!

Tony Cross with colour-ringed Choughs
At Swanwick, the first night is always rounded off by something that really gets my adrenaline going: the Quiz. This is the time where knowing the colour of a Purple Sandpiper’s legs or the weight of a Wren really pays off! Among my team mates were Hampshire ringer, Josie Hewitt, and 13 year old Louis Driver who was making his Swanwick debut (and probably reducing the average age of the room by about 20 years!). After being tested on everything from bird trends to calls we had to settle for third place, with only a point between us and the joint-winning teams. So close!
The next day was packed with inspiring talks, with ‘Birds and their Habitats’ being the theme of the Conference. A session on seabirds got the morning to cracking start, and this was followed by a session on woodland birds in the afternoon and urban birds in the evening. As I’m from Wales and very keen on seabirds I particularly liked the two opening talks which came from two young conservationists and their work on the island of Skomer: Elspeth Kenny, who gave a brilliant insight into the social interaction of Guillemots, and Emma-Louise Cole, who, under the title ‘Aukward landings’ (surely the winner of ‘best talk title’ at the Conference?!), gave a fascinating talk on the challenge that auks face as they come in to land on cliff faces and its potential impact on breeding success. It was great seeing Emma again at this year’s conference and with her plans for a PhD taking shape I think she’ll definitely be a name for the future and will become a well-known individual at this conference.

For me, interacting with others is one of my favourite parts of these Conferences. Between talks there was plenty of time to socialise with Emma, Josie and Louis. We had a great time taking walks, relaxing in the lounge and playing pool and ping-pong in the games room. It was also great catching up with fellow young birder Toby Carter (who saw his 300th bird species the previous week, well done him!), as well as PhD student and ringer Hugh Hanmer from Reading University and Sorrel Lyall. Sorrell is a very gifted 18 year old wildlife artist and I recommend you visit her website.

Grabbing a bite with other young birders
The final day of the conference saw talks on the challenges that face some of our birds as a result of our increasingly intensive agriculture, and also how studying and tracking birds has changed over the years due to a huge advancement in technology. I was immensely impressed by Nicholas Watts’ talk on ‘Wildlife friendly farming’. Nicholas farms in The Fens and owns Vine House Farm Bird Food. In the talk he explained why farmlands birds are in decline and how he has changed his own farm to ensure that wildlife can still thrive. The numbers of Tree Sparrow he sustains on his land are really incredible. Chris Hewson’s talk on ‘Tracking Migrant Birds’ showed how new technology used by the BTO is giving us an unique insight into bird migration, especially Cuckoos. Surely Chris has got the best job in the world!

The Tree Sparrow feeders on Nicholas Watts’ farm
After the talks had ended the conference was rounded off with the raffle draw, and who won a splendid new webcam was none other than Louis Driver himself! I think it’s safe to say I’ll be seeing him again next year!

Louis’ raffle prize – a nest box camera
I really enjoyed this year’s conference at Swanwick and I would recommend attending this annual event to any young birder out there who is interested in conservation and learning more about birds. There is a special discount for young birders, but you’ll still have to find about £125. This price includes the talks, accommodation, all your meals and plenty of tea/coffee and cake. Not cheap for a young person, but it’s seriously worth saving the pounds throughout the year as there is no other conference quite like it, and no better chance to explore your interests. Here's a storify of the conference tweets to give you even more reason to attend, I hope I’ll see you there in December 2017!

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