Tuesday, 12 August 2014

My uni birding experience

As September fast approaches, there are several NGBs soon to be starting their three or more year experience at University. Similarly, there are also many members at an age where university ends with a question mark and whether it is right for you.
I thought, as I am very close to finishing my research masters after a 4 year stint at university, I would give some of you an idea of what to expect from university as a serious birdwatcher through my own personal experiences.
So, way back in September 2010, I started at Bangor University in North Wales. I said goodbye to my parents for pretty much the first time in my life, sat down in my new room for the first time and said to myself ‘right…this is me for the next year!’, and so began my freshers week.

Being a birder, I really didn’t exactly have the stereotypical start to freshers, as on my first full day, I got a text from Chris Bridge saying ‘Grey Phal. Conwy RSPB’. Now unfortunately, I was getting a tour of the uni’s botanic gardens at the time, so I wasn't exactly free, and I ignored it…for as long as I could.
Chris proved to play a huge role in my first year of uni and how much I developed my passion as a birder. Chris was a 2nd year at the time and was attempting to reach 300 for the year mainly done by public transport. That is no mean feat, so as you can imagine, he was a bit of a mad twitcher and went for almost anything that had a train station reasonably close by (with certain exceptions of the Frampton Marsh RSPB Oriental Pratincole).

I hadn't previously met Chris, but a few local birders from Lancs told me about him being at Bangor, so I added him on Facebook. It didn't take long for us to get out birding and I managed to get the Conwy Grey Phalarope in the end after seeing my first Lapland Buntings on the Great Orme down to 10 feet. Magic!
Next up to the table was my first long-distance twitch. I went round to Chris’s the night before to look into how exactly we’d get to the bowling green at Hartlepool Headland to see a long-staying juvenile Woodchat Shrike. Unfortunately, Chris’s Rare Bird Alert account threw a spanner in the works as we were scrolling down the news page when we came across bright red capital letters and double stars reading ‘**GREEN HERON**’. Our hearts stopped as this was a bird both of us wanted and was in fact the No2 on Chris’s bucket list (after Northern Parula…a fair No1). Reading it was in Cornwall, we shrugged it off as best we could and carried on planning Hartlepool. I don’t know what it was, but maybe the fact I’d already seen Woodchat Shrike and Hartlepool from North Wales seemed like a long way for yeartick, but I jokingly said "That Green Heron…..I’m up for it…". Well I’m not entirely sure what happened next as before I knew it, we were on a dark Bangor train station buying a ticket to St. Austell in Cornwall. Madness! After an overnight kip on Crewe station and 5 trains, a taxi and a walk that seemed to never end, we arrived at a group of birders overlooking a darkened pool in the Lost Gardens of Heligan. Before too long, we got superb views of the heron as it walked right out into the open some 30 feet away. Pure magic! A bus journey to St. Austell and 4 trains back home saw us arrive back to Bangor at 2am the following evening and I was up, bright and ready for my Friday 9am Chemistry lecture! I think I even took notes!

Green Heron!!
Anyway, I didn’t go to uni to spend all my money and time on train tickets to get some ticks on my list. I went to get a degree! I studied Zoology with Animal Behaviour which was quite vague in first year to get everyone on the course up to a similar level on everything, which was interesting in certain modules such as Organismal Diversity which covered the biology of pretty much everything from bacteria, to plants, to fungus to animals. At the time, I was really mainly interested in birds, so I guess I didn’t take full advantage of the module. I would probably have enjoyed it so much more now, with my wider interests.

As university life went on and the work load increased, I would ask to go birding with Chris and he’d regularly have to turn me down as he’d be going out bird ringing. This was something I’d previously tried once, but it never really grabbed me. After spending far too long looking out my window, I found a flock of Waxwings, during their wondering influx of Winter 2010/11. Before too long, I got an invite off Chris to come and try and catch some with him and a few mates. As Waxwings are one of my favourite species, I agreed, so to my amazement upon arrival, I was shown a Waxwing in the hand just like that…what a statement! Chris could see from there that I was hooked, I just didn't know it yet.

Waxwing - There are few things in this world better in my opinion

He kept pestering me to try and come out with him and his trainer. Finally, at the end of January, I went out with Steve Dodd to a local farm and experienced my first proper ringing session.  With an introduction to mist netting, and later several introductions to cannon-netting with the local wader ringing group SCAN, I was registered as an official trainee.

Now I’m not telling you to go to uni and become a ringer in your spare time. It is a massive commitment and incredibly time consuming if you've got other things important to you. I am mainly promoting getting into volunteer surveys, whether that be Wetland Birds Survey (WeBS), Breeding Birds Survey (BBS) or Nest Recording Scheme (NRS). I chose to do ringing because I felt this would give me an edge to my birding knowledge as you learn so much about bird biology and the complexities of the finer details in bird ID e.g. Marsh Warbler and Reed Warbler separation. Learning a lot of my previous bird knowledge through local patching Brockholes Quarry (now Brockholes NR LWT) in Preston, I developed a fascination for migration and through ringing, you get to have your hand in the hopeful discoveries of new and exciting information and knowledge about migration in the birds you handle. A super example of this is hand catching a Black-headed Gull in Cumbria, ringing it with a BTO metal ring and colour-ring and then 17 days later, it was seen in Oslo…how incredible is that!?

I used this extracurricular activity within my course too as I did my undergraduate research project on Blue Tits and Great Tits in a woodland in Greater Manchester investigating how territoriality of male tits affected the nest building of females. I did a colour-ringing project on the Blue Tits with thanks to Kane Brides in order to identify the sexes of the almost non-sexually dimorphic Blue Tits. I achieved a first class mark in this project.

In first year, I had basically given up local patching because I really missed my local patch back home and Bangor just didn't really appear to have the habitat that I wanted. I guess student life in 1st year didn't exactly favour too many dawn raids on the windy front of Bangor Harbour though. In 2nd and 3rd year, I basically gave up twitching somewhat because it’s so expensive without a car and also, the workload was getting a bit more time consuming. I did find however that the work became easier to do as the course progressed for the simple reason that it became so much more interesting as it was more focussed and in depth. Twitching was out the window, so I had to fill the void somehow, so I decided I would focus on local patching a bit more. Matthew Bruce became my patching buddy as he was very keen to get better as a birder after having an interest for several years but not much of a drive to get out there having few birding peers.  We mainly checked Bangor Harbour and Bangor Mountain at first, but when the phenomenon of Footit was introduced to us, we turned up the heat of competition and ventured far and wide. The furthest we walked in a day was Bangor-Malltraeth Marsh and multiple walks along the coast from Bangor-Llanfairfechan. These two locations both caused serious mileage totalling 18 mile round trips each! Blisters and not all that much sleep seemed to be my main memory of January 2013! Into 2013, Ros Green joined the party. She was another different perspective of birding to add to the pot as she’d only really shown an interest in birds the previous summer, so unlike Matthew who had some decent knowledge but previously lacked enthusiasm, Ros had little knowledge, but lots of enthusiasm and it was soon clear she’d be a fast learner.  

Doing what I do best: Birdtracking.
Of course, there can surely be no single blog post, about being a birder at university, written by me. that does not mention Birdtrack! A Focus On Nature introduced the University Birdwatching Challenge to the table during late 2013 and I took it massively under my wing. Bangor University campus happens to be located next to some decent habitat and 2850+ records of 109 species later; I well and truly took full advantage of the competition. It’s not just UBC though as my patch covers a much larger area, so I have inputted over 12,000 records on patch to date in 2014 and  have learnt so much about the local birds as a result.

So, if I can give three main pieces of advice to people starting uni or thinking about it, they are:

  • Make birdy friends. NGB was built up to what it is now, by friends from universities networking with other young birders. Your passion will rub off on others and vice versa so you will get better as a result.
  • Make sure you don’t pigeonhole yourself on your course and get involved with volunteer surveys with BTO, RSPB etc. I strongly believe my experiences outside of uni, throughout my time at uni will help me get a job more than the course itself.
  • Go birding! It’s easy to have a lie in, check Facebook, look in books, read up on birds etc, but you’ll never be a good birder if you don’t go birding! Birdtrack has massively opened my eyes and hopefully if you take it on board too, it will change yours.
I really enjoyed my time as an undergraduate and decided to stay on studying the Welsh Twite population in a Research Masters. I am very nearly at the end of this and close to starting out in the real world with lots of experience and seriously improved knowledge to help me land my dream job!

How will your decision to attend or opt out of uni affect you?

-Zac Hinchcliffe
When Zac's not counting birds on patch (or making references to Star Wars), he's usually ringing birds on his regular Bangor site or is depressed that he does't have the money or time to twitch the latest big thing. Zac is 22 and currently studying a Research Masters at Bangor University and investigating Welsh Twite; adding a touch of science to his birding.

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