Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Post 411 - Brilliant & Totally Outstanding - BTO Bird Camp - part 1

Hey everyone, post 411 & this could be a long one! This weekend certainly was, but how much was packed in? Well so much that I'll probably have to do this in instalments!

BTO Headquarters - The Nunnery!
So what was this weekend? It was BTO Bird camp! Still not sure? Well the British Trust for Ornithology are the best bird science organisation, if you've read any of my bird related posts you'll know I've used a lot of their bird facts to learn about birds. Well they held a weekend camp for young birders, you had to apply to go and I was really lucky to get a place! They had lots of experts lined up to show us lots of things and teach us more about birds.

I was one of 20 that turned up at the Nunnery in Thetford, the BTO Headquarters, on Friday evening. I'd been lucky enough to be given the day off school so Dad and I had a nice drive down and stopped off at a couple of reserves on the way. One I went to was RSPB Lakenheath just for an hour trip round to see what it's like, it's a really great reserve and I managed to see two lifers there, a Hobby and a Cuckoo!

When I got to the Nunnery I was met by Viola who gave us a great tour round. It was great to see the offices, the library and the computer servers that hold all the BTO bird facts that I've used so often. By the time I'd finished looking round some of the other people on the camp had started to turn up. There were a few people I knew already, some I knew from twitter and others that I'd never met so it was really exciting.

Friday night we basically got to know each other and found out what we'd be doing on the weekend, before we then went to the camp-site. We all unpacked and just talked and got ready for bed until about 11 o'clock. Then after sleeping quite well we woke up again at half four on the morning! We all got ready again for our first activity which would be at the BTO's Nunnery Lakes Reserve!

Whitethroat chicks!
Once we were there, we were all put into one of four groups who would cycle round the four activities. Our first one was the nest recording with Mike Toms which was really fun! We were given a stick each and were taken over to some scrubland and told to tap bits of bracken. :) But there was more than that to it, first we had to only tap it in a particular way once in a certain area. The idea was to see if there were any birds nesting in the bushes so they could be recorded and monitored. The first nest was found by Ben Moyes who tapped an area that a Linnet popped out of (sadly this was the one activity I didn't get many photos of because pretty much as soon as I turned my camera on, the batteries died - I had spares but not on me). There were 5 eggs (I think) in the nest that were almost ready for hatching. The next one was found by Elliot Montieth  who tapped a Hawthorn Bush quite a way away and managed to uncover another nest in which an unidentified bird flew away from, we thought it was another Linnet but no, the eggs had black 'squiggles' on them, meaning that it was the first Yellow Hammer nest of the year! The final nest that our group found was a Whitethroat nest, again by Elliot, but there weren't any eggs in it, but there were chicks! I managed to get a picture of them with my phone so it won't be the best quality!

Female Kingfisher
The next activity was bird ringing with Lee Barber and Justin Walker. I'm quite familiar with ringing and while we didn't catch much that was that special it is always great to see birds close up. We got a Long-Tailed Tit family as well as some Sedge and Reed Warblers etc. I got to release some like one of the Long-Tailed Tits and one of the Warblers as well. I also processed some of them by measuring the wing length, ageing and sexing them. The only annoying thing was that we arrived about a minute after the previous group had released a KingFisher! My Dad got a picture of it though which was good!

The next activity was the bird 'census' with Su Gough. This involved a map, a clipboard, a pen and some birds. Basically, we walked around the lake looking out for any warblers, such as Sedge Warblers, Reed Warblers and WhiteThroats. When we found one we wrote it down on the map using the two letter code, RW for Reed Warbler and KF for Kingfisher (which we did as well because Su {who voices over the BTO videos!} said that we might as well). There was a key as well for what the birds were doing, a circle indicates that the bird was singing, a line indicates it was calling, a dotted line indicates that it was definitely a different bird, a line with an arrow means it's the same bird and so on. You do this activity every so often over the year and it helps to understand how birds behave and where they are living on that patch.

Slow-worm! Not a bird but still beautiful!
The final activity was just general bird watching with Paul Stancliffe, we had a great walk round again and Paul was telling us how to tell a lot of the birds apart by their song, such as Reed Warbler and Sedge Warbler, something I want to get much better at as Paul was amazing at this. We saw quite a few birds but sadly didn't see a Hepatic Cuckoo that had been seen by other groups. As well as some Tufted Ducks, Grey and Pied Wagtails, Kingfishers etc., we saw two Grass Snakes and about 5 Slow-worms on top of that!

Elliots Bittern Photo - I must get a better camera!
Mya's Female Bearded Tit - a beautiful bird
Once all this had finished we went down to Lakenheath again, after having breakfast back at base of course. While having breakfast though, Toby Carter brought up the idea of having a bird race between the two sides of the table. We travelled down to Lakenheath and we split into two teams but not before the Reserve manager gave us a talk about the reserve and even showed us some Crane eggs! So the teams were Toby, Ben, Sam Pitt Miller and Max Hellicar versus me, Elliot and Luke Nash, There were others in the groups of course but we were the ones that were being most competitive.  The numbers didn't look the best for our team but we had hope and Paul Stancliffe as well as being joined by David Walsh who happened to be at Lakenheath that day!  The other team was with Ieuan Evans and Lee Barber. We had about 3 hours to see as much as we could! We set off and saw the first 30 or so quite easily, the common ones like Crows, Jackdaws, Swans etc. and then it got progressively harder trying to find the specific birds. We saw things like Cuckoos, Hobbies and Marsh Harriers etc. which brought us up to about 45 when somebody shouted the one word that I've been waiting to hear for 5 years: Bittern! I'll hopefully post a full list in the last instalment. I got quite a couple of lifers, like Bearded Tits, while I was there and in the end it was a draw at 57 species each team! Probably the best result as it was great fun.

The Nightjar's wing being inspected.
One our way back to the Nunnery for tea we got to make a quick stop off at a site where we saw Stone Curlews, fantastic to see and yet another Lifer for me. Finally after tea it was Nightjarring. We went out just before dusk and set up some nets for them. For a quite a while, we didn't see any Nightjars, but we did see hear some Cuckoos, Skylarks and even a Long-Eared Owl! Eventually, after listening to them churring for a while, a fantastic sound, we saw one flying about silently but surprisingly acrobatically. After another half an hour, we saw two flying about! These were lifers for both me and Toby so it was so magical for both of us especially. At the end we went to check the net and there was one in it! It was really special to see one so close, they are a beautiful bird. So we ringed it and measured it in all the ways you would a normal bird and it turned out to be a juvenile Male, I think, it was now about 10.30pm so I'd been up 18 hours.

Me (the little dude) and some of the young birders
looking for the Cranes, sadly I was a bit too short to see them!
I have to thank Elliot and Mya Bambrick for a couple of the photos here, they have cameras that are much better than mine for capturing birds in flight or that are a little way off. My camera's great for the close up stuff though which I hope you can see from some of the photos, but you'll see better in a later installment!

Most of the young birders here have blogs so click on the names to see their twitter accounts which have links to their blogs - they're really great and worth a read.  I met and made friends with some great people on my first day and really hope we`ll be meeting up again soon! (Bird Fair is coming up in August! :-). They were all so knowledgeable and friendly and I loved being part of this bootcamp and learning from these guys - it was great spending time with people who have the same passion for nature and birds that I have! I'll come back to this later.

So the first day was really good, maybe one of the best days of my life. Keep an eye out for the next instalments!

Hope you enjoyed,



  1. An exceptional write up Zach! Can't wait to see you again at Birdfair :)

    1. Thanks Elliot, will be great to see you again too :-)