I grew up in Bristol and went to Bristol Grammar School where a couple of masters (Derek Lucas and Tony Warren) were instrumental in fueling my interest in birds. I was in the Young Ornithologists' Club.
In the school holidays I practically lived at Chew Valley Lake - a bicycle and a pair of binoculars were all I needed.
My parents liked nice scenery and walks in the countryside and that gave me plenty of opportunities for birding.
I spent a few years when rare birds were very important to me but aside from the very occasional lapse they aren't any more!
I did a Ph.D. on pipistrelle bats but most of my research before joining the RSPB was on bee-eaters in the south of France (nice eh?) and great tits and marsh tits around Oxford. However, the first scientific paper I wote was about the lekking behaviour of great snipe.
I joined the RSPB staff in 1986 as a researcher, became Head of Conservation Science in 1992 and Conservation Director in 1998 - all have been great jobs!
Ex-Environment Minister, now Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Ben Bradshaw is interviewed in today's Independent on Sunday (probably because he has moved up from 24 to 8 in the paper's Pink List). Although he was not my favourite Environment Minister (maybe I should tell you who was some time?), because he allowed more cormorants to be killed, he makes a good point in his interview. He is quoted as saying 'It's great being in charge of a department whose role is to spread pleasure and happiness. It's almost as if, at a time of economic uncertainty, people need that cultural and sensual nourishment even more.'.
Well, we do need all that. And aren't all government departments supposed to be giving us cultural and sensual nourishment? Certainly Defra should. The smell of flowers, the pattern on a butterfly's wings and the song of a skylark all nourish us. Nature is part of our cultural heritage.
I feel very mixed emotions about the current enthusiasm for valuing wild nature. In one respect it must be true that a lot of destruction of nature happens because we don't value it properly - why else would we be cutting down rainforests that are doing such a good job for us. If only we valued them better for their carbon storage, water purification, flood alleviation and food supply then we would never cut down rainforests to grow palm oil. So a hard-nosed economic appraisal of the value of nature and wildlife seems like it could be very useful.
But the song of the skylark is difficult to value in terms of anything other than cultural and spiritual nourishment.
And we aren't a very cultured nation or species if we don't regard the song of the skylark as being important just as Mozart's Magic Flute is, or the BBC, or the Olympic Games. So maybe nature conservation ought to be part of Mr Bradshaw's Department's remit in Culture, Media and Sport? Or at least we should behave as though we are all naturally cultured.
I wish I lived in Kent because there is a fantastic showing of Heath Fritillary butterflies at our nature reserve at Blean Woods. This has been covered in the Independent and the Daily Telegraph this week. The photograph in the Torygraph is great. Get there soon or they'll be gone!
I said I'd come back to Birdtrack. This is a website where you can put your UK and Ireland bird sightings and they will be kept safely. This is good for you if you are the type of person who likes to be able to be able to review what birds you've seen but don't want to have to spend time going through lots of old notebooks. And it's good for ornithology and nature conservation too, because your sightings are available to the BTO and RSPB (and Birdwatch Ireland) to build up an even better picture of bird distributions, arrival and departure dates and trends in numbers. We do know a lot about birds but there is plenty that we don't - and Birdtrack will fill in some of the gaps.
There's a little bit of effort involved in logging on to the system and setting up your own sites but after that you are away.
Here are a couple of simple analyses I've done with my own records that I find interesting.
From 1992-98 I had the same office at The Lodge and kept a window list each year. So I know the first day that I saw each species. In 1992 spotted flycatchers were a common sight but they became rarer and rarer as time went on - I haven't seen one at all so far this year! And during those seven years it seemed that the spot flys arrived later each year:
1992 18 May
1993 19 May
1994 10 May
1995 22 May
1996 21 May
1997 24 June
1998 3 June
Maybe not completely convincing because we don't know which days I was in the office. But suggestive and interesting - at least to me. And possible because I put the records into Birdtrack and it's so easy to look at them in this type of way.
Here's another example. At Stanwick Lakes, my local patch in Northants, I keep a list of which species I see on every visit and all of them go onto Birdtrack. So far this year I haven't seen a turtle dove at Stanwick, and yet I'm sure they used to be quite regular. Well here are the results for the last five years:
2005 6 records in 13 visits
2006 2 records in 4 visits
2007 1 record in 4 visits
2008 1 record in 10 visits
2009 0 records in 9 visits
It certainly looks as though they are a lot rarer these days. The same thing is happening right across the country - and that's where Birdtrack will be so powerful over the years - the patterns of arrival dates and numbers added up across thousands of observers (including you?) will paint a clearer, richer picture of the ups and downs of bird populations.
Give it a try! Your records of barn owls, kingfishers and any other species are really useful - particularly if you can keep full lists of all species you see.