Virtually good RSPB science

Photo: Tom Morris, via wikimedia commons
Photo: Tom Morris, via wikimedia commons

On Wednesday evening I attended the launch, at the Royal Society, of the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science.  In answer to the question ‘Where is this centre?’ the answer is ‘nowhere and everywhere’ – it’s a virtual centre (click here).  Have a walk around the virtual centre – I did and it’s a nice place, although I kept wandering out of it into the general RSPB website by accident and being offered bird food at 20% off.

Dr Mike Clarke said that in these days we need science as much as ever – and it seems to be a bit thin on the ground in places! Quite right!  Did I see the Defra Chief Scientist in the audience?

Dr Alienor Chauvenet was presented with an RSPB Conservation Science award for an outstanding PhD thesis. Dr Chauvenet’s thesis, written while she was at the Institute of Zoology and Imperial College London, developed a model for planning the translocation of threatened species and applied it to the endangered New Zealand Stitchbird.

Dr Anthony Waldron and co-authors received an award for a scientific paper of great importance to conservation for their study ‘Targeting global conservation funding to limit immediate biodiversity declines’.

The RSPB’s own Dr Ron Summers received an award for an outstanding contribution to RSPB science. Richly deserved Ron!

Dr David Gibbons showed a few examples of RSPB science and most of them can be found in this latest report on RSPB science which is well worth not just a look but also a read.  There are some excellent examples of good RSPB research in here (some are of very good research).

Photo: US FWS, via wikimedia commons
Photo: US FWS, via wikimedia commons

[[This whole paragraph is a digression – you can skip it if you like!] I was sorry not to see (in the report of elsewhere in the ‘centre’) one of the images that David used in his talk because I had been wondering what it looked like and would like another look at it. The news that came from the RSPB a few weeks ago about the Red-necked Phalarope from Fetlar which had wintered off the coast of Chile was one of those fascinating and potentially important discoveries.  And it certainly comes into the ‘Aren’t birds brilliant!’ category for me.  David showed a map of the estimated locations of this single bird which had been tagged one year and then had had its tag removed (and the data downloaded) when it returned the next year.  I’d wondered why we hadn’t seen a map of this remarkable journey on the RSPB website or in the media coverage of the incredible journey.  The map showed that the single bird had headed across the Atlantic, headed down the north American continent and then spent lots of time (lots of dots) off the Pacific coast of South America.  This is the only known instance of a western European bird species wintering in the Pacific (I think) and is all the more fascinating because Scandinavian R-n Phals head in the opposite direction to the Arabian Gulf – which is where we might have expected ‘our’ birds to go too.  I dimly remember that there might even have been a correlation between sea surface temperatures in the Arabian Gulf and R-n Phal numbers in Shetland – but we all know that correlation is not causation. The map of locations had a huge amount (well, quite a lot) of scatter in it.  I’m guessing (on the basis of my ecological nous) that it didn’t spend a little while inland in Morocco on its travels – and there were other ‘wayward’ locations too – but despite that it looked pretty clear that the bird had wintered in the Pacific. How amazing! It is just one bird, and somebody I spoke to about this described it as an anecdote – which I thought was a bit harsh.  It’s an anecdote in the same sense as a ring recovery is an anecdote – it’s a single instance which, provided we believe it (people can mis-read rings, or mis-report geographic locations just as bits of technical equipment can malfunction), tells us a lot about the species.  Yes it would be nice to have a few more examples to back it up but what if a second R-n Phal ended up in the Arabian Gulf – that would be an anecdote too! Maybe some go one way and some go the other way? If the second goes to the Arabian Gulf it doesn’t mean that the first didn’t go to the Pacific, does it? Yes. I’d like to see some more examples, but there is nothing to be ashamed of about the first example.  However, when I searched for Red-necked Phalarope in the RSPB Conservation Science Centre I couldn’t find anything (can you?). [End of digression]]

The room was full of people, mostly scientists, with whom I would have loved to chatter – and I did do a bit of chattering – but I had to head off to an evening of chattering with friends but I’m sure the remains of the evening were a great success.

I’ll look forward to an RSPB Science blog appearing in a room in the virtual science centre – it’s virtually certain I’d say.

I’m not too keen on organisations blowing their own trumpets about the quality of their science (see here) – it comes much better if others do that – but the RSPB does have quite a bit to trumpet in terms of its science as you can see if you wander, virtually, around its science centre, or read this report or even click here or here.  I hope that with a standstill budget, I am told, which means a cut in real terms, RSPB scientists can keep doing such a great job.


And now to declare an interest – I was Head of Conservation Science at RSPB from 1992-1999 and Director of Conservation (and thus the responsible director) from 1999-2011. So these are my mates about whom I am writing.



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3 Replies to “Virtually good RSPB science”

  1. Hi Mark,
    The red neck phal's migration and it's route reminded me of a brilliant bit on Radio 4, I think it was called Artic Terns @ 66 degrees north, in the programme they too had tagged populations of Artic Terns in Iceland,UK,Scandanavia and North America. The one's this side of the pond migrated in a predictible route but stopped halfway for nearly a month, the ones on my side of the pond did like wise and stopped off halfway at the same point before heading south, the interesting bit was the journey heading back north, they first headede North East (africa) but instead of heading for Northern Europe they the veered off North West to the point of Jamaica before turning back North East towards Europe a "s" shape migartion, I think with radio tags we're only just starting to reveal little secrets of the life of birds, try and catch up with the radio story Mark if you haven't already there are other examples that'll make you smile.

  2. "I’d wondered why we hadn’t seen a map of this remarkable journey on the RSPB website or in the media coverage of the incredible journey."

    Perhaps the map is being saved for publication in a paper. Most journals don't like to publish stuff that has already been made freely available elsewhere.

    1. Paul - might be that. Bit of a conflict between getting the story in the papers and then not showing the evidence on which it is based? Showing where a bird goes is hardly 'testing a hypothesis' is it? But it doesn't seem to be a 'study' - at least I can't find it in the virtual centre. It's a lovely map.


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