BTO Bird Camp: bringing young birders together

I was delighted to spend last weekend helping out with the British Trust for Ornithology’s (BTO) second ever Bird Camp. Based at The Nunnery in Thetford (the BTO’s HQ), the event brings together young birders from across the UK to share knowledge and enthusiasm for studying birds and wildlife; various activities give an introduction into some of the BTO’s survey techniques and their avian conservation work, whilst the event also provides youngsters with the opportunity to meet other like-minded people and make new friends.

This year was the second Bird Camp run by the BTO, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the generous funding support from the Cameron Bespolka Trust. I was joining several other young volunteers to help the BTO team out over the weekend, including Max Hellicar, Elliot Montieth, Toby Carter, Ben Moyes and Amy Hall.

I thought I’d attempt to write something of a summary of the weekend’s events, although it will be tricky to summarise such a packed two days!

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Some of this year’s young participants – a great bunch! (c) Amy Hall

From Cornwall to Norfolk – Friday 25th

After a stifling and rather draining 8-hour train journey from Cornwall, I arrived into the pleasant village of Thetford under a blazing hot sun on Friday afternoon. I joined fellow birder Sam Levy in the station car park, with screaming parties of Swifts whizzing overhead. We were shortly picked up by the BTO’s Paul Stancliffe, before making the short trip to the Nunnery. It was great to meet Ieuan Evans and Viola Ross-Smith on arrival, and catch up with familiar faces such as Max Hellicar and Elliot Montieth.

It was also great to finally meet other young birders that I’d only ever spoken to online, such as Louis Driver, James McCulloch, James Miller, Luke Nash, Michael Sinclair and Harry King. We all relaxed in the BTO’s lovely front garden, where we clocked up our first species of the weekend whilst waiting for the rest of the gang to arrive.

After introducing ourselves and chatting to each other, it was time for dinner. After our meal we were given a short talk by Ieuan Evans, who detailed what it’s like working for the BTO, why we study birds and how we can contribute via volunteer surveys like WeBS counts, BBS surveys and CES ringing. We then headed out to set up a brand new Robinson moth trap, with a very promising forecast for a night’s moth trapping.

As the light faded we all headed into our TP-style tents with a buzz of anticipation for the days ahead.

Day 1 – Saturday 26th

Most folk in camp were already stirring by 3.30am, rising as the dawn chorus broke into glorious song about us. We were treated to a reeling Grasshopper Warbler, Song Thrushes uttering their three-phase repertoires, the melodic warblings of Blackbirds and Robins, and best of all the bubbling call of a female Cuckoo, followed by the more conventional cuck-ooing of a male.

Max and I headed over to check out the night’s moth catch, and we introduced some of the camp’s early risers to their first moths. This included an attractive selection of Peppered Moths, Pale Tussocks, Alder Moths, Figure of Eighty, Coxcomb Prominent and Cinnabars, plus the hook-clawed ‘Cockchafers‘ (Melolontha melolontha)

Everyone was split into three groups for the morning’s activities, which consisted of Nest Recording with Dave Leech, Common Bird Census mapping with Paul Stancliffe and carrying out a ringing survey at the BTO’s CES site with Justin Walker. I joined the ringing team for the initial few hours of the day, introducing the importance of this scientific study method and describing the ways we age, sex and take biometrics of the birds we catch.

We were treated to a great selection of some 35 birds over the course of the morning, including Cetti’s, Sedge, Garden and Reed Warblers, plus Blue tits, Robins and Dunnocks. We were also given fantastic views of a superb hepatic rufous-morph female Cuckoo flying back and forth over the site, being pursued at intervals by an enthusiastic male Cuckoo. A Barn Owl also floated past on silent wings, clasping a shrew in one talon!

After ringing for a few hours, I switched onto the Nest Recording group lead by expert nest finder Dave Leech. We spread out and searched the scrub, woodland and hedges for any nests we could find, paying particularly close attention to the behaviour and alarm calls of nearby birds to give clues on their nests’ whereabouts.

We homed in on a great variety of nests during our search: Blackbirds with their straw-lined cup nest and blue-white eggs; a Reed Bunting nest amongst the grass with intricately-patterned eggs (perhaps as a past defence against parasitism from Cuckoos?); the flimsy stick-platforms of Woodpigeons; the ball-shaped structure of Wren’s nests and even a Willow Warbler nest in a gorse bush beside the car park. Some nests contained chicks ready to be ringed, with others still on eggs; nest recording allows us to track the success of these breeding birds and by assessing hatching and fledging success through repeat visits in a season. Find out more about this survey here

After an enjoyable time rooting around in bushes nest-hunting, we all rapidly retreated to our minibuses as a tremendous storm front rumbled northward overhead, accompanied by torrential rain, thunder and lightning. Thankfully it lasted less than half an hour, and we were soon back out in the field, this time helping with a CBS survey. Guided by the knowledge of Paul Stancliffe and the help of local birder David Walsh, we mapped out the territories of singing birds along the Little Ouse river, from Reed Buntings and Garden Warblers to the tinkling song of male Goldcrests.

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A cracking shot of the female hepatic Cuckoo by Elliot Montieth. Check out his excellent round-up of the weekend here
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Another cracking shot from Elliot. The scientific name of Stone Curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus) essentially translates to bull-nosed swollen-knee bird! (From the Greek: bous=ox(bull) and rhinos=nose; oideo=swelling and kneme=knee)

The sun soon burnt through the cloud and brought out hordes of Large Red-eyed Damselflies, Large Red Damselfies and even a fantastic Red-tipped Clearwing spotted by James Miller. After the survey ended I also got a chance to join Ben Moyes and Toby Carter beside the car park as they pointed out a fantastic Stone Curlew feeding in the adjacent field.

After some much-needed lunch and a brief refuel stop (including plenty of caffeine!), we all bundled into the vans and headed off to Lakenheath Fen reserve some 45 minutes from Thetford. On arrival we were given an introductory talk by reserve warden Dave Rogers, who gave an overview of the important conservation work of this reserve in helping bring species like Bittern and Crane back from their historic rarity level.

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Steve Rogers giving an intro talk to the 2017 Bird Campers

Splitting into two teams, we initiated or #BTOBirdCamp Birdrace 2017: setting out to see who could record the most species in our time there. With the likes of Marsh and Savi’s Warblers seen that very day, there was all to play for! Guiding one team were David Walsh and Paul Stancliffe, the second accompanied by Lee Barber, Ieuan Evans, myself and Max, Elliot and Ben Moyes. Who would win?

A blustery east wind meant most reed-dwelling songbirds were keeping their heads well and truly down, but this didn’t stop us seeing a brilliant array of wildlife and clocking up a rapid tally of species within 15 minutes: Marsh Harriers quartering back and forth above the reed beds, Hobbies powering overhead alongside scything Swifts, male Cuckoos cuckoo-ing in the Poplar Groves, Cetti’s Warblers exploding into song from willow stands, and even the star reserve birds: Bitterns booming away and Bearded Reelings darting into the depth of cover.

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Common Swifts

It wasn’t just birds we were after either: the reserve holds a brilliant array of habitats for all sorts of insects, and odonata are a particularly apparent group making use of the reserve’s dykes and river ways. We enjoyed great views of species such as Scarce Chasers, Black-tailed Skimmers, Hairy Hawkers, Variable Damselfies and Four-spotted Chasers in the lee from the wind, and encountered Mother Shipton and Cinnabar moths in the long grass; Small Coppers and Holly Blues in the willow stands.

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The smart Mother Shipton moth (Euclidia mi) which feeds on various trifoliums in its larval state

As the wind picked freshened further still, we failed to find the singing Marsh Warbler, but added a few bonus species on the scrapes as we headed back towards the reserve car park: a flock of Ringed Plovers flying overhead, some Common Terns, Oystercatchers and Lapwing, and the electric blue flash of a Kingfisher zipping by.

The bird race results transpired to be a neck-and-neck tie on 54 species, which so happens to be the outcome of last year’s competition too! (though a handful fewer species)

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female Mallard

Still whirring after the day’s events, we headed back to the Nunnery via the local chippie for some much-needed sustenance! Post-dinner, we were treated to a great talk by Amy Hall about the inspiring work of the Cameron Bespolka Trust in supporting young birders and events such as Birdcamp. I also delivered a short talk about my life growing up on Bardsey Island, how I’ve become involved with the work of Bardsey Bird Observatory, and the general role of bird observatories in the long-term monitoring of bird populations.

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Talking about some of the 19 Bird Observatories populating the UK’s coast. Head to the Bird Observatories Council to find out more…

As the sun crept lower in the sky, it was time to set off on our evening mission, and one which we were all rather excited about. I mean it isn’t every day you get the opportunity to see a European Nightjar, let alone help capture one!

We headed to the Breckland forest some 15 minutes from Thetford, in the hope of glimpsing this elusive forest-dweller. Here we were joined by the BTO’s Greg Conway to erect three mist nets and attempt to lure in one of these mysterious birds. Willow Warblers, Yellowhammers and Tree Pipits were singing away as the colour drained from a spectacular sunset, and as dusk descended the other-wordly churring song of male Nightjars rang out across the forest clearings. Positioned at one of the nets with Paul Stancliffe, we did briefly glimpse a bird fly overhead, but had no luck catching one. Thankfully Max Hellicar and (of course) Greg had better luck!

Yep – we caught one! I was over the moon to see one up close, taking in its amazing camouflage patterning, its huge night-vision eyes, long bill bristles and ridiculous gape size suited for pursuing night-time insects. Greg and the BTO’s research is currently focussing on examining both their migratory habits and smaller scale ecology to find out why the species has declined by over 50% in Thetford forest.

What a way to end Day 1!

Day 2 – Sunday 27th

We had something of a lie-in on Day 2, not awakening until around 5.30am. Once again we headed straight to the moth trap and were treated to a lovely selection of species: Poplar Hawkmoth, Orange Footman, Scorched Wing, Bordered White, Angle Shades and Light Brocade to name a few. It was great to see people like Louis Driver already gaining a massive interest in this activity and vowing to head straight home and buy a trap!

The plan for the day was to head straight off to Landguard Bird Observatory along the east coast, before visiting some prime Suffolk birding sites under the excellent guidance of local birders Ben Moyes and David Walsh.

First stop was Landguard Bird Observatory, where Nigel Odin gave us a thorough introduction to the area and the observatory’s work. He also showed us some of the fantastic moth species attracted to the observatory’s moth traps overnight, which included a Beautiful Hook-tip (new to the site), Cream-spot Tigers and Small Elephant Hawkmoths

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Cream-spot Tiger
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Painted Lady

With something of an impressive track record for mega rares and scarce birds alike, we were all in anticipation of a Trumpeter Finch or something popping up in front of us as we wandered around the site. Alas, it was not to be – Ringed Plovers, Linnets and a couple of Whitethroats provided the greatest interest as we walked about the shingle and beach. It was good to see of the plant species inhabiting this unique habitat, however, such as Detander, Rest Harrow, Yellow Horn Poppy, Sea Kale and Dove’s Foot Cranesbill.

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Sea Spurge was well at-home on the arid shingle substrate

Next stop was Upper Hollesley Common, where we hoped to catch up with some heathland and Suffolk specialities. The first target species wasn’t a problem: a cracking male Woodlark was in full song-flight as we stepped out of the vans, and Stonechats, Yellowhammers, a single Yellow Wagtail and some passing Swifts gave appearances too. The second target species proved far more tricky: we waited around for over an hour searching the heath for the Dartford Warbler, but not a sniff of call or song was heard.

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Yellowhammers were very much in evidence atop the Hawthorn bushes on the heath

Running out of time, we were ready to pack up and head on when David Walsh appeared with the exciting news that he’d found one along a track nearby. We all piled over to the spot, only to wait another half hour under the intense sun before one finally popped up a little way away. A scramble and clutter of scopes ensued, before at least most of the group were given their first views of this long-tailed Sylvia scrub warbler.

Our final destination for the day – and Bird Camp 2017 – was the wetland area of Hollesley Marshes. This RSPB reserve is a relatively new creation, situated in the Alde-Ore estuary and consisting of marshes, wetlands, salt marsh and lush meadow habitats. The perfect haunt for species like Pied Avocets, Lapwings, a variety of passage and breeding waders, and an abundance of invertebrate life too.

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Heading into the Hollesley marsh reserve

We again split into two groups to cover the reserve, and spent an enjoyable afternoon being treated to fantastic views of the breeding Pied Avocets, calling incessantly as they harried passing crows and harriers; Lapwings displaying over the damp meadows, Common Terns fishing offshore, two adult Mediterranean Gulls drifting overhead, and a variety of wildfowl and waders within the reserve offering a good opportunity to test ID skills and utilize the scopes kindly donated from Opticron for the weekend event. Closer scrutiny of some of the reserve’s breeding avocets revealed at least four to be bearing colour rings, which Elliot and Max obtained exact combinations for and we await the news on their history!

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Birding our way around Hollesley Marsh (c) Max Hellicar

It was particularly exciting to see several Red-veined Darters amongst the Black-tailed Skimmers and Broad-bodied Chasers beside the paths: this species is a scarce one in the UK, occurring in small irruptive movements every few years during the springtime. The pterostigma on each wing is characteristically orange outlined with a thick black border, enabling easy recognition from other similar darter species…

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female Red-veined Darter

And thus concluded Bird Camp 2017! I must say a massive thanks to the whole BTO team for such a brilliant event and their endless enthusiasm and knowledge: Ieuan Evans, Viola Ross-Smith, Lee Barber, Paul Stancliffe, Justin Walker and Dave Leech; a big thanks must also go to David Walsh and Ben Moyes for their expert guidance around the reserves and birding spots; and finally this event wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the Cameron Bespolka Trust, so please do head over to their website to find out more and consider donating to their inspiring work.

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posing a Reed Warbler prior to release on our morning CES session at Thetford (c) Max Hellicar

To conclude – I am incredibly glad I was able to come along and help out with this year’s Bird Camp. Whilst we did see some some fantastic birds and wildlife, it was meeting such an enthusiastic and knowledgeable bunch of young birders and people that really made it so rewarding. I can’t wait to see these young birders develop in their interest and passion – keep an eye on their blogs and twitter feed!

Take a look at this superb video Amy Hall composed over the course of the weekend too.

Thanks to Elliot for composing this list of links…do head over and have a look:

The BTO team@_BTO | bto.org

The young birder crew

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