Announcing another artist for this blog – Jonnie Fisk

IMG_7555From Saturday lunchtime I will be featuring, every week, the artwork of Jonnie Fisk.

Jonnie says “I’m a 18 year old birder, insect-enthusiast and frustrated artist from North Yorkshire, having been held in rapture by nature for most of my life. My birding is split between the moors around my house, Beaver Dyke Reservoir and the window of any classroom I find myself in. I represent the Next Generation Birders @NGBirders as their PR, marketing and social media rep. My favourite bird is the nightjar.

Jonnie produces art about the interesting birds seen over the previous week.  Here, is last week’s offering.





Red Kites are normal now

Photo: Thomas Kraft via Wikimedia commons

Photo: Thomas Kraft via Wikimedia commons

Yesterday I took the train into London to meet the publishers of ‘A Message from Martha‘ for a chat.

I added Great Spotted Woodpecker to my Wellingborough Station list but looked in vain for Red Kites.  It was a dull day but they are usually mooching around the valley in which Wellingborough Station and the railway line sit.  I have seen as many as seven at a time from the station platform, but I didn’t see any while waiting for the 1102 yesterday.  Never mind, I thought I would probably see some from the train – I usually do.

I can see Red Kites (and Buzzards) anywhere along the line into St Pancras but the best spot is south of Luton Airport Parkway Station where the railway line crosses another valley with an attractive river, some woods, a sewage plant and some chalky open fields.  There are usually a few Red Kites in this bit of the journey but none yesterday. And none on the return journey either until we pulled into Wellingborough again and a Red Kite was flapping quickly across a field – presumably heading to roost as it was just before 4pm.

It is such a sign of progress that I am now surprised not to see Red Kites on this journey through southern England and into London.

Beautiful birds and great conservation success story.



Return to Swanwick

I’ve been attending BTO Conferences at Swanwick in Derbyshire, off and on, for about 35 years.

Over the years some things have changed and others haven’t.


Hardly changed at all:

  • there are always some inspiring talks – Ellie Owen’s was a highlight for me this year
  • there is always a feeling of comradeship amongst birders with a purpose – these are people who enjoy understanding birds through ringing, mapping and counting
  • the food – is firmly in the ‘school dinners’ niche.  It’s perfectly adequate but not much better than that.
  • there is a crush to get to the bar
  • there’s a very friendly atmosphere

Changed for the better:

  • the standard of presentation of talks is higher
  • there are now towels in the bedrooms
  • TVs now exist on site which meant that I didn’t have to drive around Derbyshire looking for a betting shop to watch the Tingle Creek Chase

Changed for the worse:

  • my recollection, which may be wrong, is that this was an ‘event’ in the calendar of anyone doing a PhD on birds, or even ecology, as one met and listened to some of the top people in your field.  Maybe it was never that good – but that’s why I think I started attending. Now there are far fewer young people who fit into that category, and possibly the conference is less of a ‘draw’ to those who do exist
  • birds, and wildlife in general, are facing much greater threats.  In my first BTO conferences I think we lived in a more optimistic world where we were studying birds because ornithology was an exciting profession and we all shared a love of the natural world.  The science was a celebration of the natural world.  These days we are living in a world where birds are still amazingly interesting, and studying them is fascinating, but you can’t help but notice that the big picture is a worrying one.

But there’s no point living in the past, partly because it wasn’t generally better than the present (and it’s up to us to make sure that the future is even better).  What of this conference?

It was very enjoyable.  The BTO is in good shape although I think it faces difficult times ahead.  The organisation was on a ‘high’ because of the publication of the Atlas – a great achievement which I have celebrated on this blog (here, here, here, here, here and here).  Also, the President (Barbara Young) and Chair (Ian Newton) were both stepping down after years of great service and there was an outpouring of affection and gratitude for both of them.  Also, the BTO has a lot of very nice and talented young staff as well as a few old and experienced folk on the books – and that, if managed well, should be a recipe for future success.

But we did have a discussion about the future of the BTO and I’ve been thinking about it since.  Here are a few random thoughts.

The BTO from a member’s perspective.

I’m a member of the BTO and I can’t, now, imagine not being one.  I have come and gone as a BTO member over the years as at times I have looked at my subscription and thought it wasn’t that relevant to my interests.  I feel closer to the BTO than I ever have before so my membership fees are likely to flow towards Thetford for a good few years.

The revamp of BTO News, the new logo, the use of social media and simply the liveliness, and friendliness, of BTO staff wherever I come across them, all make me feel glad to be a volunteer and member of the BTO.

In addition, my local contact with the BTO, through my regional rep (a volunteer) is excellent.  I get emails encouraging me to take part in work, reminding me of my BBS commitments and thanking me for what I have done.  All that is excellent.

I’m not a ringer and I have very rarely filled in a nest record so I don’t see much of that area of BTO work, but what I do see, through the areas where I am involved and through generally noticing BTO in the news, is great.  But the BTO doesn’t exist to keep me, or you, happy – although if it doesn’t keep us happy then its job is made much more difficult.

The BTO as a going concern

The BTO is like other wildlife NGOs – it depends on its members but it also depends on getting grants and contracts to keep its financial head above water. I don’t know much about the BTO’s finances, and I don’t particularly wish to, but these are not easy times.  BTO membership is growing – which is obviously good (but I don’t know how much money has been invested in that growth and so I have no idea what the return on investment looks like).

Money from government is likely to continue shrinking.  That’s bad news.  And money from other sources is unlikely to fill the gaps – for example, with most parts of the RSPB facing 6% cuts in budgets to pay for brand-shift and recruitment drives (I am told) the RSPB contribution to WeBS, BBS, Birdtrack and any specific research projects is likely to come under pressure. I can’t think of any BTO partner organisation which is likely to be flush with money for the next few years.

So, I’m not writing from a position of particular inside knowledge, but I would expect the next few years to be relatively tough ones for BTO finances, just like they will be for lots of NGOs.

The BTO’s strengths

The strengths of the current BTO are in mobilising armies of volunteers (like me – and maybe you) to collect data (for free!) which can then be used to inform the world about birds or inform decision-makers about what they should do to make the world better for birds.  The BTO is currently a ‘citizen-science on birds’ organisation.

As I have said before, sometimes to the irritation of the BTO (although I think it is because they know it’s true), the BTO is not a conservation organisation.  What has it conserved?  Science, sometimes BTO science (but not quite as often as you would think if attending a BTO conference), is used by policy makers but it takes an awful lot of work to get any science adopted and used by decision-makers.  And the BTO is not well-adapted to that task of selling science to policy makers – except at a very generic level.

Primarily science-based organisations, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is another example of this, are usually schizophrenic about talking to decision-makers.  They want to claim that their science is influencing the world, but they are nervous about talking to those very people who do influence the world.  And when they do talk to them they are almost paralysed with fear about stating an opinion (except the opinion that some more analysis would be quite useful).

The usual phrase employed, and I’ve heard it so many times from the BTO over the years, is ‘we provide the bullets and XXXX fires them’ (where XXXX is usually, but not always, the RSPB).

I don’t know much about making bullets but I am pretty sure that the essence of being a good bullet-maker is producing the bullets that fit modern firearms, on time, cheaply, well-packaged and to a detailed specification.  Bullets have customers who need to be satisfied.  And so there is little point making lots of bullets which look beautiful to you as a manufacturer if there is no-one buying them.  And that means that you have to have a very close relationship with the bullet-users.

The people who use the BTO’s bullets are other wildlife NGOs (primarily the RSPB), the statutory agencies and government itself. Sometimes it’s industry too.  The trouble with that lot of bullet-users is that they all have less money to buy bullets, and some of them aren’t too bothered about whether they have any bullets or not.  Government can get by without using much science for years at a time – it is public and NGO lobbying which makes government take notice of the science.

I think that BTO science doesn’t have a very strong customer base. All the potential customers are a bit skint, and some of the potential customers have to be forced to buy the product even in the good times!  Making money out of knowledge is difficult.

The BTO has always faced the danger of having too many scientists around who think that everyone wants BTO science – maybe everyone should want it but it’s not very high up the ‘must have’ list of many organisations. And therefore, that’s a problem in the future.

As a scientist, I would say that the biggest two things that the BTO could contribute towards over the next 10 years are understanding the reasons why trans-Saharan migrants are declining and the role of climate change in determining animal abundance and distribution.  These two areas probably overlap quite a lot – but certainly not completely.  Both are difficult. Both are challenging. Both are expensive. Both are continent-wide subjects which probably require a lot of collaboration with others.  Both are international in scale. Who will pay for them? And is the BTO skilled enough to tackle them?

Perhaps somewhat controversially, I would say that the BTO’s outstanding skill at the moment is in organising large numbers of talented amateurs rather than in doing amazing science.  There isn’t anything much wrong with BTO science (but nor is it world-beating stuff) but the BTO really is a world leader in getting amateurs to do fieldwork on a grand scale and with real scientific merit.  But how sell-able is that skill?

Should the BTO use its expertise in this respect with other taxa? It already is to some extent with dragonflies, butterflies and mammals.  I think that the answer is probably yes – but, yes, in this way.  I would like to see the BTO reaching out to other organisations and collaborating with them on developing the insect monitoring or plant monitoring schemes that will fill voids that exist at the moment.  That’s a big and slow job – and depends on the enthusiasm of others as well as that of the BTO, and depends on someone finding the money from somewhere.

UK nature conservation is hampered by the lack of data for many taxa – birds and butterflies are well-served but others are not.  The State of Nature report published this summer is notable in being only a little better informed that its equivalent of 20 years ago.  Bird knowledge has stormed ahead and left other taxa even further behind.  This is not something that birdy-folk should feel too guilty about!

The biggest contribution that the BTO could make to nature conservation in the future would be if it boosted the quality of data for non-birds.  But would BTO members live with this (I would, but I am unusual – I think) and would anyone pay for it?

The BTO is in excellent shape right now. That is good! But it will be the decisions made now that will determine the shape of the BTO in 10 years time. What will Swanwick 2023 be like?  I intend to be there, so I’ll let you know then!



The State of the UK’s Birds 2013 was published yesterday.  It’s packed with beautiful photographs, clear graphs and maps and lots of information.  It’s not all bad news – but there is quite a lot of bad news there.

This is how the story was covered by the Guardian, Independent, Daily Mail, Telegraph, Mirror, Express.

The question is – who is going to do something about it?  No doubt, Owen Paterson, 2nd in the poll for Wildlife MP of 2013, will want to increase his chances of winning in 2014 by going for the maximum rate of modulation (ie 15%) and not taking the advice of the NFU or CLA and going for a lower figure of, for example, 9%.

He will, won’t he?


Caroline Lucas – Wildlife MP of 2013

312px-CarolineLucasMEP_Oxford20060411_KaihsuTaiThrough gaining over 600 of the 1546 votes cast, Caroline Lucas was far and away the choice of readers of this blog as the MP who had done most for wildlife in 2013.  Here are a few lessons that might come out of this poll.

First place: Caroline Lucas, Green Party, 39% of the votes cast

From the first vote that was cast (by me) Caroline Lucas was in the lead in this poll – she was never headed.  For a while, in the middle of last week, she had more than 50% of all the votes cast.  Maybe this shows that people will vote Green when they think that the Greens have a chance of winning?  I imagine it certainly means that ordinary people can recognise a hard-working, knowledgeable and passionate MP when they see one.  I’m glad that Caroline won this poll.





By Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs  via Wikimedia Commons

By Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs via Wikimedia Commons

Second place: Owen Paterson, Conservative Party, 24% of votes cast

Owen Paterson came a distant second in this poll.  Some have criticised me for including him at all.  That’s a bit odd, I think.  The point of a poll is to see what people think and the number of votes for Mr Paterson shows that he has a lot of supporters out there.  I’d rather he had come last (although I am perfectly happy that Nick Clegg actually came last) but I’m very glad that he got trounced – which wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t been included in the poll!

There is an interesting lesson to be drawn from Owen Paterson’s strong showing in this poll – get your voters out! From Monday through until Thursday Mr Paterson was in third place and languishing far behind.  But then, two things happened: first someone in an NGO forwarded my ‘newsblast’ to lots of their friends which led to a surge of over 100 votes for Mr Paterson in a very short period and a forum on a farming website started drumming up support for the Secretary of State.

All this activity to get Mr Paterson’s supporters to vote, which I admire rather than decry, resulted in the Secretary of State being a distant second in the poll rather than a distant third.

However, on Twitter, Guy Smith (@essexpeasant, NFU Presidential candidate and occasional commenter on this blog) immediately decided that the poll was closing because of the great wave of support that was flooding the poll from Paterson supporters and tweeted ‘Do I get the impression this poll has been closed because people were voting the ‘wrong’ way?‘ to which I replied it was very difficult to know what impression Guy Smith gets or why he gets them.  Guy Smith came back with ‘I’ll keep this simple. Has the poll been closed , if so why?‘ to which I replied that it closed at 9pm because I had to write a blog of the results for this morning and I wanted to go to bed!

This morning the paranoia continued with @Connorfield56 posting on Twitter ‘Interestingly the vote shut very quickly as OP started to gain ground. AW one narrative suits ALL!‘ Now I don’t quite understand that second sentence but the first is most peculiar.  This poll, as most of you know, ran for a whole week and then, yes, I guess, it stopped suddenly – how would it stop slowly? Try turning a light off (or on) gradually!  I do tend to be a bit coy about when polls will finish because I don’t know how well-supported they will be , or how close they would be or how interesting they would be.  Having said that, I posted on both Facebook and Twitter that this poll would end on Sunday which is when it did!

The Paterson supporters who feel they had victory snatched from their grasp should do three things: look at the results carefully (OP was miles behind); take it from me, that at their rate of vote-accrual it would have taken weeks for OP to overtake Caroline Lucas even if voting patterns had remained like those of the weekend; realise that if you had mobilised earlier then maybe you might have got closer – you were very slow off the mark which is nobody’s fault but your own.

Let me say again, I admire the farmers on their forum (and whatever other means they used to generate support) and the NGO staff member emailing fellow supporters (although perhaps using your work email address for party political purposes is borderline in acceptability) because they demonstrated that they wanted their candidate, espousing their views, to win.  And they did something! And it might have worked had not Caroline Lucas not been so overwhelmingly popular with, it appears, a wide range of ‘ordinary’ people.

By Kieran O'Keeffe from Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran O’Keeffe from Wikimedia Commons

Third place: Barry Gardiner, Labour Party, 14% of votes cast

The former Defra Minister was third.  There were signs, too, that someone had been rounding up support for Mr Gardiner as he came with quite a late run at the weekend.  Perhaps a newsletter or email around party members or constituents? I have no idea but Mr Gardiner did make up a lot of ground in a short period of time.










By derivative work: Busillis (talk)  via Wikimedia Commons

By derivative work: Busillis (talk) via Wikimedia Commons

Fourth Place: Zac Goldsmith, Conservative Party, 12% 0f votes cast

Zac was in second place for the first half of this poll.  He was only overtaken by the second and third-placed MPs late in the day.  I’m a bit sorry that he didn’t at least beat Owen Paterson as Mr Goldsmith is the type of Tory whom I would find it difficult to vote against.  He is doing a great job in being an outspoken and green member of the Conservative Party and I’d have liked him to have been placed second (or even first, I admire him so much!)








Fifth place: ‘none of the above’, 5% of votes cast

I’m glad this candidate didn’t do better, but I’m sorry he (or she) did this well. There really is no point in voting for ‘nobody’ when ‘somebody’ has to win.

Joan Walley from her website

Joan Walley from her website

Sixth place: Joan Walley, Labour Party, 5% of votes cast

Joan Walley is doing a great, though largely unrecognised, job chairing the EAC.

I’m sure she is too busy to notice or care about the number of votes she received.

I was pleased to be able to give her a bit of profile through this poll.





By John_brigden_and_nick_clegg.jpg: Tyh8 uipd derivative work: Maximus0970 (John_brigden_and_nick_clegg.jpg) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By John_brigden_and_nick_clegg.jpg: Tyh8 uipd derivative work: Maximus0970 (John_brigden_and_nick_clegg.jpg) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Seventh place: Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat and Deputy Prime Minister, 3% of votes cast














Just for the record, I tweeted news of this poll to a range of wildlife NGOs, to the NFU and CLA, to Conservative, Labour, LibDem, Green, UKIP and SNP political parties, to Guardian, Telegraph, Daily Mail, Independent newspapers, to a variety of magazines including the Spectator and New Statesman (and Private Eye) and a to a few celebrities.  My aim was to make this poll as widely known as possible rather than it be very restricted to the regular readers of this blog.