My northernmost parakeet

A dreadfully dull photo of the Hayes conference centre

A dreadfully dull photo of the Hayes conference centre

It was a cold Saturday morning and there weren’t many other people setting off from my street at 0650.

Heading up the M1 I noticed that the trees, leafless, were pin sharp against the lightening blue sky. They looked as if they were drawn with a very fine pen.  It’s difficult to get all dreamy when you are doing 70 up the motorway but I almost did.

The nest of cooling towers near the River Trent also looked spectacular as I passed them in the distance on my right. Plumes of steam and those lovely curves against a pellucid blue sky. I guess it was about a minute, and about a mile, further on, that I gave them another glance and the orange of the sunrise was now behind them and they looked a different form of spectacular.

Two Pheasants, both males actually, flew across the motorway at lorry cab height and the lorry to which they were heading swerved into the next lane to avoid them. There wasn’t much traffic but under other circumstances it could have been nasty. A couple of telegraph poles onwards, a Buzzard was sitting, looking cold but resigned, and I almost thought I saw him shrug and say ‘Bloody Pheasants! I’m voting UKIP’.

I arrived at the Hayes conference centre for the BTO conference in time for breakfast and before the frost had stopped scrunching under foot. A Nuthatch called as though it didn’t feel the cold.

9781784270506My main reason for coming to Swanwick was to meet people – and there were plenty of people, and I met them.  One of those meetings was with Keith Betton and Nigel Massen to finalise a few things about this book that Keith and I have thrown together (very slowly!).

It will be out in the spring provided I do the things that I said I would do (so I’d better get on with them).

I had a chat with Findlay Wilde who looked very smart in his BTO sweatshirt, and Toby Carter, Ben Moyes and quite a few other young people – I mean seriously young, not just a few years younger than me.

I told Ian Newton something he didn’t know, and which he will find useful, and I haven’t done that very often in my life.

Chis Packham told me some gossip – which was nice of him.

I was told off, quite rightly, by one of the ‘Sodden 570’ for not wearing my Hen Harrier Day t-shirt so I went and got one from the car and wore it for the rest of the day.

I saw Keith Cowieson and we exchanged pleasantries. Always nice to see Songbird Survival.

I arranged to meet someone in London for lunch next week.

There were, of course, talks. Some were brilliant. Two of my favourite talks were Mark Thomas’s about the RSPB’s investigation work (simply because he is a very good speaker) and Dave Leech’s about the subject of his Guest Blog of last week (because, he too, is a very good speaker).

The conference hall is big and holds a lot of people, but that means the back row is quite a long way from the screens. And there are two screens (with the same images on them). There are some consequences of this – the speaker can’t point to both screens at once so some of their audience can’t see what the speaker is pointing out, and lots of ‘busy’ slides are pretty much worthless in that room – you just can’t see them well enough.

Some speakers conspire, through cleverness, to make it even more difficult to interpret what they are saying by superimposing their graphs or tables on amazing images of birds. This isn’t very clever when the bird is more interesting than the data – which is bound to happen now and again. Even worse when the background bird image is a similar colour to the points on your graph and the labels that tell you what they are.

And a slide (I know they aren’t slides really) with 26 tiny graphs on is pretty pointless under any circumstances but if you then say ‘you don’t have to read all these’ then it makes me wonder why on earth you are showing them to me then.

Am I sounding like a grumpy old man? Sorry – I really enjoyed the day and almost all of the talks. By the time I left I was wishing I was staying overnight for the Sunday morning too.

Christine Matthews [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Christine Matthews [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Did you see that woman’s bathroom with the swift nests behind the bathroom wall? Amazing! I want a bathroom from which I can watch nesting Swifts!

Someone told me something interesting about UKIP which will find its way onto this blog one day.

Someone got me to sign a copy of a Message from Martha for them.

I met a few ex-RSPB colleagues.

I saw several people with whom I wished to talk but didn’t get the chance.

Lunch was OK – the company was better than the food, and that is how I would always like it to be.

Slipping out of the hall a bit early, two of us heard and then saw a Ring-necked Parakeet which is my northernmost British record and it’s now on Birdtrack.

By the time I had to go, I really wanted to stay for more.  It was well worth the commute and it merely confirmed what I know to be true, that the BTO is in pretty good shape and I feel very fond of it.




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  1. Ben Hoare says:

    The 'swifts lady' was my mum Tanya! The BTO was her tenth talk about swifts in 2014 - but the first with Chris Packham watching.

    Her bathroom with its swift nestboxes is probably the only British bathroom ever to have been the location for Wildlife Trusts field outings. It is actually even more extraordinary than the photos suggest.

    Together with Dick Newell, Ed Mayer and many others, mum is trying to spread the word about how building conversions and very well insulated new-build 'eco homes' are impacting on nesting swifts in the UK, and how you can boost numbers nesting on your house or those of neighbours.

    If you run a bird group, WI or local wildlife trust, note mum is now taking bookings (no charge) for 2015... you can get in touch via me at BBC Wildlife Magazine. Details on our website.

  2. Ed Hutchings says:

    Your pheasant anecdote begs the question - how many accidents, even deaths, are caused on British roads due to non-native game birds?

  3. Keith Cowieson says:

    And it's always pleasant to see you too Mark - shame we didn't have time for a longer chat.

    And it's also a shame you didn't stay for the Sunday session - the Young Birders presentation was terrific and very inspirational - the future of BTO-style bird watching (surveying, ringing, harnessing the power of citizen-science, volunteers and general apolitical engagement) appears to be in good hands.

    Rather ominous that Rose-ringed Parakeets have now reached as far north as Swanwick, see here - . Looks like they are well and truly into their 'break-out' phase having achieved critical mass in the south-east. I thought it was very telling when a cheer and much applause met Ed Drewitt's revelation that RRPs are now forming part of the diet of some of our urban Peregrines.

    And I agree about some of the presentational aspects of the talks – a bit more emphasis on visual aids preparation would have ensured even greater impact to the subject matter.

    My favourite talk was Professor Kevin Gaston’s Witherby Lecture – what a tremendous, sweeping, strategic overview of the pressures we are exerting on the natural world. All those who were privileged to hear his address should relay his message and prescriptions to all and sundry - ‘Pass it On!’

    • Richard Ebbs says:

      Certainly Prof. Gaston's talk provided lots of fascinating information to bear in mind when many of us meet our MPs tomorrow at The Rally for Nature!

  4. Keith Cowieson says:

    PS - I meant to finish my Comment above by complimenting Andy Clements and the BTO team for putting together such an educative and thoroughly enjoyable event - thank you and well done all!

  5. Jonathan Wallace says:

    I regularly see or hear up to half a dozen ring-necked parakeets flying around the part of Newcastle upon Tyne where I live, some 150 miles north of Swanwick. I presume these are derived from a local escape and are independent of the population centred around London.

  6. John Miles says:

    Screamer the swift tells the story of these lost nest sites.
    From 4 to 7 books by mid summer thanks to some great sponsors with Screamer even gone to schools in Africa just like the swifts themselves!!

  7. Lorraine Miller says:

    Mark, perhaps you could complete a sighting form for the Derbyshire Ornitholical Society from this link for the Ringed necked Parakeet.
    As a first time attendee I thought the conference was a great experience and showed what a top class organisation the BTO is. I wish is made notes from Kevin Gastons presentation, some excellent facts I could discuss with my MP tomorrow at #Rallyfornature
    Also, as the Mum of one of the young speakers (Evie) am I very feeling very proud, all 6 children were fabulous and I know the other parents feel the same. What a wonderful opportunity for them which they seemed to take in their stride, the BTO rightly understands the need to engage the younger generation, credit must go to Lucy McRobert too for her role in working with the BTO to forge these links.


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