BTO Bird Camp 2017

Last year, most regular viewers of my blog will remember that I attended a three-day event hosted by the BTO called Bird Camp. In December, the opportunity arose for me to apply for the next one, which I immediately snapped up at. Luckily enough, my application was accepted: a weekend of madness was to follow.

Having left school early on the Friday due to the half-term, I packed up & was soon at BTO HQ at The Nunnery, chatting with old birding mates & already making new ones. Returnees from last year included Elliot Monteith from the ‘small and mighty’ Wirral Peninsula, Max Hellicar & Amy Hall, and I finally met several birders whom I’d talked with over Twitter, including Samuel Levy, Harry King, Louis Driver, Ben Porter James Miller & James McCulloch (believe me the two James’s got confusing very quickly!). A quick introduction from Ieuan was followed by a barbecue dinner & a brief but interesting talk about the work of the BTO from Ieuan Evans. He then layed out the itinerary for the following day: unlike last year, I was able to ‘lie-in’ until 6am, despite much bird-like sniggering from the nearby tents.

Day 2- Staying Local

I awoke to discover that the dawn-chorus goers (i.e. the lunatics) had successfully recorded Grasshopper Warbler, Nightjar, Cuckoo & Tawny Owl whilst I had been sleeping from about 3:30am. I think the extra 2.5 hours sleep was a good trade-off in my opinion! Anyway…

Last year, all 20 of us were on a roster of four activites: this year, it was reduced to three. First up for my group was bird ringing, where we caught a whole host of species under the very capable eyes of Ben Porter, Max Hellicar & Justin Walker. These included Garden Warbler, Song Thrush, Cetti’s Warbler & the ever-vocal Reed Warbler.

Other wildlife around the ringing station included a stunningly beautiful Banded Demoiselle, a Barn Owl which left several photographers seething at the scene, and several Cuckoos, including a hepatic brown morph female.

The hepatic Cuckoo, expertly captured by the ever-present Elliot Monteith

Next up was nest recording with Dave Leech & Lee Barber. By this point we had been joined by Ben Moyes & Toby Carter, two more young birders who had joined us to volunteer for the weekend. Though Elliot Monteith couldn’t repeat his Yellowhammer nest find of last year, the group certainly gave it a good go, with Reed Bunting & Willow Warbler nests being the highlight.

Willow Warbler nest, complete with chicks

Finally, it was time for the CBC with Paul Stancliffe: we spent the next hour walking around one of The Nunnery’s lakes. We surveyed various warbler species, as well as Reed Bunting & Great Crested Grebe. We also found several Large Red-eyed Damselflies, including two that were mating: as you can see, it isn’t just about the birds at Bird Camp!

The mating Large Red-eyed Damselflies.

We sadly had to leave The Nunnery, but what great treasures awaited at Lakenheath!

At lunch, Amy Hall gave a talk about the Cameron Bespolka Trust, the organisation which sponsors the camp & also the organisation which sent her to America last July! I think it goes without saying that I cannot thank the Trust enough for providing this opportunity for us, as it is surprisingly enough one of the only events of its kind for teenagers in the entire country. More on that later…

At Lakenheath, we were immediately drawn to the presence of both Savi’s & Marsh Warblers: eventually, we discovered that we could only try for the Marsh Warbler in the time we had. However, other matters soon had to be dealt with…

After a quick introductory talk by the warden, Dave Rogers, we were away for the now-regular BTO Bird Camp Bird Race: Paul cunningly & perhaps deliberately put all the highly competitive, adrenaline-fuelled hardcore birders on the same team, and we set off through the heart of the reserve.

The warden at Lakenheath addressing the Bird Camp troupe. Credit to Ieuan Evans.

It soon became clear that the wind was going to be more of a hindrance than a help, though we did have a promising start: a (slightly suicidal?) deer ran across the railway, way too quick for my camera (and most others…), and Reed Warblers sang along with the Whitethroats. What the wind did hinder were the Hobbies: none of them showed particularly well, unlike last year when they were hawking insects right over the path. The dragonflies & damselfies that Lakenheath is famous for were also notably secretive. Alas, we made our way up to the Marsh Warbler spot.

Some of the young birders at Lakenheath, from left to right: Samuel Levy, Kai Gordon, Toby Carter, yours truly, Max Hellicar & Harry King. Photo courtesy of Elliot Monteith.

When we got up there, the wind intensified to such an extent that the BTO caps people were donning were being blown right off our heads & not a bird could be heard. As such, there wasn’t even a sniff of the Marsh Warbler. Ah well, we said, because we were soon consoled when a Bittern making a flyby was spotted by Amy Hall & the entirety of the rest of the group managed to catch up with it.

And so came the walk back: I dawdled slightly to look at a Common Darter amongst several of the damselflies which included at least one Variable. Myself & others found goodies like Scarce Chaser, Cuckoo, Barn Owl, Ringed Plover & Common Tern on our walk back from the warbler.

Marsh Harrier James M
This Marsh Harrier made a close flyby at Lakenheath. Photo courtesy of James Miller.

We returned to HQ to pick up some grub (i.e. anything we could get from the local chippy!) and also to witness a talk by Ben Porter about his life on Bardsey & the work of Bird Observatories. Then it was time to dance with the creatures of the night…

We met up in the King’s Forest with Greg Conway, the BTO’s Nightjar expert, who gave us an informative talk about their work with Nightjars. With the locally-rare Tree Pipit duly spotted & photographed, we stood in the forest, and waited…

By about 21:15 the first birds started churring until we slowly peaked at three birds all audible & visible around us. Photography was a struggle, but we would have better opportunities later. The birds went quiet just after 22:00 so we headed to the minibus to await the net-attendants. With the first set of nets drawing a blank, we all waited nervously to see if Moyes & Carter and co. had caught any.

Turns out they did, and they would have caught a Long-eared Owl too had the nets been placed 1 yard down a track!! Not to worry, because we soon began cross-examining the male Nightjar we had caught under the knowledgeable & watchful guidance of Greg. The bird was then released & it flew away into the darkness.

The Nightjar in the hand, courtesy of James Miller.

We quickly retreated to the tents for a lie-in. A big day awaited…

Day 3- Visiting the Neighbours

I was awoken by the panicked cries of members of my tent screaming ‘We’re late! We’ve got to go!’. Fortunately, I was not in the same position as the two James’s and co. (they did actually oversleep), but rather my tentmates had decided to be funny, considering I had slept through their antics the previous night, and woke me up at 5am. Cheers fellas!

We set out for the revered Landguard Bird Observatory, famous for chalking up rarities (indeed, as I write, an Iberian Chiffchaff has been reported there. Typical!). Our arrival was serenaded by the warden, who guided us into the observatory. We were also greeted by a wonderful Painted Lady butterfly.

The Painted Lady at Landguard- gorgeous!

Our deviation from birds continued when we checked the moth trap: highlights were Landguard’s first Beautiful Hooktip, as well as Cream-spotted Tiger, Poplar & Small Elephant Hawkmoths & lots of Angle Shades!

The exquisite Cream-spotted Tiger from the moth trap

We soon started exploring the Landguard reserve: unfortunately, we didn’t find any major rarities, though the commoner fare showed quite well, including the resident Ringed Plovers.

One of the resident adult Ringed Plovers at Landguard

We soon headed out back to the bus for our day’s exploration of middle Suffolk. First up was Hollesley Common: last year, we had been extremely lucky to find the Dartford Warblers there very quickly. Hopes of a repeat were soon dashed, and it took wild screams from birder-in-residence David Walsh & a little messenger in the form of Louis Driver to communicate the news that there was one over the other side of the heath. It showed briefly again for the rest of us, before disappearing. We then disappeared into the Wilford Arms for our pub lunch.

After lunch we made our way to Hollesley Marshes for the various delights that it offers. David Walsh offered a telescope to anyone who could find a Wall Brown butterfly: game on! Out comes a Speckled Wood

We made our way to the main scrape to uncover a showy Swallow, several colour-ringed Avocets & two Linnets.

The showy Swallow perched on a fence

We then made our way to the sea: on the way, we found several Red-veined Darters, a recent UK colonist found only in several sites in East Anglia (including two in Norfolk). This was coupled with two Mediterranean Gulls which flew over our heads.

Sadly, we then had to make our way back, where we said goodbye to some of the party who had to leave early for their trains back. We got back to base & I was soon back home.

What an amazing weekend! We recorded 103 species, two more than last year, and I made loads of new friends & caught up with some old ones. Now the question I ask is: why doesn’t this happen more often? In terms of events like this, one can only draw comparison to the NGB weekends & certain other localised events like the RSPB Conservation weekends. I feel that this sort of thing needs to happen more often so us young birders can meet each other more frequently.

So, thank you for taking your time to read this post. More will be out concerning the rest of my half term later on. Please find below a list of the participants with their blogs & Twitter handles (where appropriate) if you want to check out other like-minded young people interested in nature

Elliot Monteith (@Elliot_Monteith)-

Louis Driver (@birderlouis)-

James McCulloch (@My_Wild_Life)-

James Miller (@JamesNaturalist)-

Ben Moyes (@Ben_Moyes16)-

Toby Carter (@TobyWarbler)-

Amy Hall (@AmyHallWildlife)-

Samuel Levy (@samuel86902343)-

Harry King (@HarryKing152001)

Max Hellicar (@MaxHellicar1)

Ellie Micklewright (@emwright_7)

Kai Gordon (@Kai_Gordon14)

Angus Jennings (@angusj77)

William Coase (@CoaseWilliam)


One thought on “BTO Bird Camp 2017

  1. great blog post Luke
    If you think 2 James’ are confusing, I have 5 in my class including 2 James Millers!
    I agree there should be more events where we can meet up


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