Over the weekend I attended the BTO's Annual Conference at Swanwick in Derbyshire. I drove up early so that I could go for a walk in the Dales; only the second time I've ever visited the area. I managed to see a couple of new ferns although sadly not the rarer ones that I was looking for, but it was an enjoyable afternoon exploring habitats that I rarely see and topped off with a singing Dipper near my car at dusk.
But on to the conference. Friday evening kicked off with a talk by Steve Roberts on Honey Buzzards. It was a bit light on results from his research but was entertaining. I was amused that Gilbert White got the blame for the fact that all the books say that Honey Buzzards nest in Beech trees. Everyone since then appears to have just copied his comment about a single nest! Steve's frustration with this rings bells with me as I feel similarly when I see books stating that Dartford Warblers nest in gorse bushes and Wood Warblers nest in Beech woods. Do all authors just copy each other? One particularly interesting fact that Steve has found from nest cameras is the number of frogs that the adults bring in (alive) for the chicks - I thought they just fed on wasps nests.
The Nest Records Scheme meeting presented provisional results from the 2013 breeding season. I must admit that I had managed to eliminate from my mind just how bad the spring was, I guess it just merged into 2012 as we just seemed to have a 15 month winter. The NRS results brought it back home to me however; 17 out of 26 species that they have analysed the results for showed delayed nesting by 8 - 12 days; despite this, productivity was about average for most species although clutch sizes were small for tits and Pied Flycatchers - indicating that the adults struggled to get into breeding condition; Tree Sparrow clutch sizes were also down and nest failure rates were up; Reed Warblers had a very poor season, probably due to very late reed growth; many Barn Owls failed to breed at all. Conversation in the bar afterwards revealed just how bad things were for one Tree Sparrow colony. One of the few remaining colonies in south-east England has declined from 60 pairs in 2012 to 8 pairs this year.
On Saturday Lianne Concannon gave a talk about her PhD research on the Pink Pigeon which is endemic to Mauritius. One has to feel sorry for students when they have to carry out their research in such places but are there really so few valid research topics in the UK that so many students have to go swanning off to the tropics? Having said that, Lianne appears to have done some worthwhile research. Pink Pigeons were on the brink of extinction but intensive conservation work has meant that the population has recovered to about 350 individuals. In recent years the recovery has stalled however and Lianne's research aimed to find out why. It appears that the artificial feeding of the birds has resulted in lots of old females which occupy territories but are no longer able to breed successfully.
Pip Gullett reported on her PhD on the somewhat more mundane topic of Long-tailed Tits in Sheffield. The result which surprised me most is that the average length of their breeding season has decreased by 25% since 1995. This has obvious implications for their ability to have repeat nests if their first attempt fails but is currently being compensated for by improved adult survival rates.
I skipped the AGM and apparently missed out on someone having an extended rant about the proposal for Chris Packham to become the new BTO President. I don't agree with Packham on lots of things and I think the BBC make him look a bit of a dick on Springwatch but when he has the freedom to say what he wants, he shows that he is both knowledgeable and willing to say unpopular things so overall I think that his appointment is positive. Who else is there at the moment anyway if you want a celebrity figurehead?
On Sunday morning there was a new feature for a BTO conference - a panel discussion on the direction that the BTO should be taking in the next 10 years and the issues they need to address. It was both entertaining (especially Mark Avery) and informative and I hope that this sort of thing is repeated at future conferences.
Obviously there were lots of other talks and interesting chat in the bar but that'll do for a flavour of the conference. Highly recommended for anyone interested in birds beyond the twitching scene.