Are you going out looking for nature this weekend?

Last weekend was a bit of a disappointment nature-wise so I am experiencing nature-deficit grumpiness.  Most of my nature watching is within 10 miles of where I live but an occasional trip further afield adds variety now and again.

Living as far from the coast, almost, as it is possible to be, a trip east to Norfolk or Suffolk is always tempting, particularly at migration time.  I’ve been keeping an eye on the websites of potential destinations such as NWT’s Cley nature reserve, the RSPB’s Minsmere and the NT’s Wicken Fen (which could be en route to either of the above for me) and they aren’t very informative about what i might see if i get in my car and head off to them tomorrow.

The Minsmere webpage has, like many RSPB nature reserves, a section called recent sightings but it is no longer used for that.  Instead I can find a very useful blog about the nature reserve which I enjoy reading (well done and thank you Ian Barthorpe) but it is, by its nature, often a few days old and isn’t there primarily to tell me which spring migrants were seen yesterday.  There is quite a clever thing on many RSPB nature reserve pages on the RSPB website – a feed of sightings for the reserve that have been entered through Birdtrack.  This is a good idea, and quite useful, but doesn’t include non-avian information and sometimes feels a bit random.  I’d give the RSPB and Minsmere 7/10 for trying, and for having some up to date information available.  But it falls a little short of being an up-to-date update of what’s around for me to enjoy if I make the effort to visit.

Cley Marshes is a favourite place of mine.  I saw my first ever bittern there in, I think,  1971, and plenty of birding memories have followed that.  Added to which, looking back from the shingle beach, across the marshes to Cley village and its windmill is one of the best views in southern England (although arguably doing the same from Salthouse beach a little further east is even better).   I can’t find any up to date information on recent sightings on the NWT website  -maybe I’ve missed it but I have tried.  There is, of course, some general stuff about what to see in spring and how great a place for wildlife the reserve is, but nothing to tempt me to visit this site tomorrow – as I might be thinking of doing.  I can’t give the site any more than 3/10 as it really doesn’t tell me anything that I don’t already know about what I might see there.

Maybe I should make the shorter journey to the National Trust’s Wicken Fen? This has a recent sightings bit of its web page but I find (on April 9) that the most up to date sighting is of a brimstone butterfly on 1 March – hardly very informative.  There is a lot of archived information about the wildlife of Wicken Fen on this site – and I found that very interesting and impressive.  But in terms of giving a taste of the ever-changing wildlife that I might see if i head off to Wicken tomorrow then it wasn’t very informative at all and so gets 5/10 (largely on the basis of the large amount of historical information available that at least whets my appetite).

Maybe you think I am being unfair but to me, in this age of websites, laptops, moboile phones and every other gizmo under the sun then I feel that if I am going to a nature reserve to experience nature then an up to date taster of what nature might be available is not too much for which to to ask.

And I certainly haven’t chosen the most embarrassing examples from these and other nature conservation organisations – there are some real howlers out there in terms of errors and omissions.

These three websites are full of information about their visitor centres’ opening times, charges, facilities, events etc but seem to be a bit light on nature.  As a visiting naturalist I’d like a bit more information on nature please.

What do you think?


28 Replies to “Are you going out looking for nature this weekend?”

  1. Totally agree! Shout out to Bert at RSPB Old Moor, who does the recent sightings page every day (almost) in a very enjoyable/humourous way.

  2. Check out Durlston Country Park’s daily diary, written by a ranger following an early morning walk – both an enjoyable and informative read. I too agree that more information should be made available more quickly.

    A collaborative website between the major conservation bodies would be good. One with an interactive map where you can see what nature reserves are near to you, and bring up a list of what’s been seen at each recently?

    1. Pete – that Durlston guy is doing a great job! Yes it must take time, but it makes me feel that there is someone on site who knows about nature and cares about it too.

  3. Mark, You raise some good points about what the role of a modern reserve warden/manager might encompass..and as you hint, this probably needs to extend to ways of capturing and making visitor records, which may be logged elsewhere such as through Bird Track, available. It wouldn’t be the first time that we might bump into the barriers to daily/weekly updating of web info in a busy schedule…I’m thinking of stalking onfo for access takers on the Heading for the Hills website for example…but then there’s those who tweet (could websites capture these automatically) and those who don’t!
    The big question however is how far we should expect nature to be in a certain place and market/promote it on that basis – or whether we should expect people to travel and experience it in glorious uncertainty, or maybe more likely perhaps with only a tincture of possibility based on generic information. An interesting subject for some visitor experience research?

    1. Roger – good comment, thank you. It’s clearly a question of balance – we could keep the names and localities of nature reserves a secret to increase the excitement of finding them! If I’m in an area that’s new to me I will sometimes look at the webpages of the local nature reserves (if I can find them) to see what they are like. I am more interested to know that a green hairstreak was seen yesterday than that there was pond-dipping yesterday, and if the website says something about which flowers are out, which birds have been seen and which butterflies are on the wing then I get a feel for the place and for the people who run it.

  4. I completely agree, however I think it’s the model that’s at fault in Minsmere’s case – the idea of turning the recent sightings pages into a blog that was handed down to reserves from head office a year or two ago. Blogging every single day is a bit much, whereas updating recent sightings needs to be more frequent, so I think the decision for all reserve webpages to merge the blog with recent sightings was a little misguided. Nonetheless, Minsmere’s facebook and twitter feed are often better places to get the latest sightings and show the utility of social media in this situation.

    1. Matt – interesting. You have to know what there is – and I don’t think the RPSB webpage points you in the direction ofthe social media for the different reserves.

    1. David – yes I’ve now had a look at it and it does look good. But I didn’t know it was there and wouldn’t have looked for it on FB (until you told me). The website isn’t very useful (nor very attractive I think) for enticing me as a naturalist to visit. this shows how difficul;t it is – the wide choice of technology doesn’t make it easier.

  5. As a user it makes me crazy when websites are not up to date – more so when online shopping (what is the point of showing a product only to reveal it is not available when someone clicks to buy it?).

    For organisations running websites, making sure they are up to date must be tricky, particularly for charities, who would have to either employ extra staff to update local sites, train existing staff, or hope volunteers have the skills needed. New technology is changing the way we all work and organisations need to find ways of changing quickly to deal with it, but I guess not everyone has a Bert on hand.

  6. I tend to agree with Roger Burton – there is a pleasure in not knowing exactly what might be seen beyond the general expectations generated by the type of habitat we are venturing into. I think it is helpful if reserves post information relating to significant seasonal events – ‘the geese/ospreys/pied flycatchers have returned‘, ‘the bluebells are showing‘ etc – but don’t think they should necessarily post daily information on which rarity has blown in as it is quite onerous to keep such information up to date.

  7. Bit of a tricky one this…the twitcher in me wants up to the minute info (don’t have a pager) but the naturalist/explorer in me wants to bumble about bumping into all maner of exciting things although for a given reserve/area we’d probaly do some research in advance to find out what we might be likely to see but often its unexpected that makes the day – self founds are always better than someone elses left overs
    I try to get our local info out daily so that visitors to Blackpool have the opportunity of knowing what to look for – covers all manner of flora n fauna not just birds

  8. I am experiencing nature-surfeit grumpiness, so I won’t be going anywhere to look at yet more. I shall spend the weekend repairing vole-damage to dry walling, harnessing myself to an old concrete roller to flatten the mole and squirrel damaged “lawn”, spiking rat-burrows under shrubs to encourage them to leave, replanting winter onions disturbed by aforementioned rats, filling holes in the paving with dry-mix mortar to thwart the mice, sowing brassicas to provide food next winter for hares, rabbits and wood pigeons, clearing wood avens, bramble, old man’s beard, stinking hellebore, black horehound, docks and nettles wherever I find them, strimming damson and dogwood suckers, de-ticking the dog.

    On the upside, lifting the spirits, cluster fly season appears to be over, Mrs Cobb thinks she saw a cuckoo this morning, buzzards will be soaring, kite if we’re lucky, longtailed tits and goldfinches everywhere, bluebells (English) in the copse, winter oilseed rape is beginning to dazzle, damsons and Amelanchier in full bloom. So there’s no need to go burning petrol for the purpose of invading the peace of a habitat – it’s all under our noses.

  9. Just go to Birdguides Latest News and that will tell you where all the good birds are across UK. You could even call in enroute to Minsmere for some goodies.

  10. Andrew T, thank you for posting that interesting piece about DNT. Did you read it? When he was young he regularly travelled up from the South East of England to Scotland to go birding/egg collecting. Some people would call that twitching. The note suggests he classified naturalists into arsers and leggers, he did both.

    DNT was also on the Seton Gordon grapevine and if there had been a Nordmans Greenshank to go for, I’d like to bet he would have been there like a shot (literally!).

    I have to say that although I like to benefit from news of whats about as much as the next man I would hate to see wardens coming under commercial pressure to effectively market their reserves on the web to get more visitors through. Perhaps they should take the attitude of “build it and they will come” as shown by Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams. That would be a great name for a popular birding spot.

  11. Technology which was brilliant a few years ago has, I’m afraid, been a victim of its own success. Nowadays there are alot of birders who keep their good birds to themselves as far as national advertising goes. Mostly the person rings ‘friends’ on their mobile and thats as far as it goes – until a week later when you get ‘…….seen flying north on Sunday’! Having said that, I get withdrawal symptoms without my pager. Sad!
    I cannot really understand why any nature reserve would wish not to publicise their good birds or other wildlife as surely more visitors equals more money and potentially more members.
    You could try Titchwell RSPB this weekend – Black Guillemot off shore all day today, still there at dusk and high tides at the moment. Thats a good bird for the south east in anyone’s book. Plus Red crested Pochards and all the normal east coast birds, including lots of Ring Ouzels. Titchwell do pass on the latest news several times a day to RBA, at least. So at least one RSPB Reserve is trying to maximise its goods!
    Where ever you go – have a good weekend.

  12. It’s very hard for places like this to target blogs and sightings up dates for everyone. Do they just do birds? include mammals sightings? what about butterflies? flowers? mosses and lichens?… where do you stop. there will always be somone complaining that there isn’t enough info. most of these sites have specific target audiences so will taylor their blogs to fit.
    With the RSPB’s new change of direction, to be All Nature (not just birds), they should be focussing on other elements of the natural world though

    1. Alasdair – Welcome! and yes I’d like to see the RSPB’s info cover more than just birds in int recent sightings

  13. In my view, Websites are not the ideal place for recent sightings. Twitter, pagers, Facebook, personal texts, and the like are much better for “instant” birding. And if rare birds are your thing, better to sign up to one of the rare bird alert systems.
    Websites for nature reserves ought to tell the story of the reserve, and why it is special, whet your appetite with photos & maps, and perhaps give some seasonal attractions (eg when/where there are fine shows of wildflowers/ orchids/ abundant butterflies). Then go and find out what is special about a place for YOU. If you like it, go back again & again, and see it in all seasons.
    At Wicken Fen you can wander down a network ancient droves, or head off into the restoration land and get your own personal experience. At Cley and Minsmere there are plenty of excellent bird hides you can visit (and find the one without the noisy digital cameras) & pleasant walks along the tracks, boardwalks & beach.

    Nature reserves are NOT Tesco, with their special offers & a huge team whose job is to get you to visit and spend. I would prefer that wardens look after the wildlife and the people who are actually visiting, rather than worry that they have to keep a website updated for the few people who chase their ‘special’ wildlife across the country!!

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