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The Essential Role of Bird Observatories: A Personal Perspective 

Bardsey Island is a wave-battered isle jutting off the tip of the Llyn Peninsula into the tumultuous Irish Sea – its jagged nose to the south-westerly swell and its humpback mountain affronting the mainland to the east. For ten years now, I’ve been lucky enough to call this remote Welsh jewel my home.

Bardsey Island

As my fascination for wildlife developed, I was taken under the wing of staff at Bardsey Bird Observatory – the island’s field study establishment for studying Bardsey’s diverse wildlife. I was patiently helped improve my identification skills and given the job of entering my sightings into their database during the winter when no-one else was around. I received my first moth trap and accompanying copy of ‘The Moths of Great Britain and Ireland’, which stimulated an obsession with moths and insects that hasn’t ceased since. As I became more competent with field recording and bird recording, I was gradually introduced to another key element of the observatory’s work: bird ringing. I’m fairly lucky to say that the first bird I ringed was Bardsey’s most populous resident: the Manx Shearwater!

By my early teens I had become fully involved with the invaluable work of the observatory, helping with daily censuses of breeding and migrant birds, recording the island’s wildlife, communicating with visitors and gaining my C permit for bird ringing after two year’s enjoyable training. I also became more aware of the wider importance that observatories such as ‘BBFO’ played at a national scale, and its integration into a whole network of similar establishments Worldwide.

So what exactly is a Bird Observatory? The first British ‘obs’ was pioneered by Ronald Lockley on Skokholm in 1933, with eighteen more established around the British coastline since (with another in its infancy in the Channel Islands).

A manxy chick being weighed

Their primary function is in the long-term monitoring of bird and wildlife populations, often carried out on a daily basis using standardised census techniques. With many observatories sited at strategic coastal migration hotspots, their database of records provides a valuable baseline for population changes over the last seventy-odd years. Bardsey’s own log data – stretching back to 1953 – was digitised and incorporated into the Birdtrack database back in 2013, which comprised 700,000 records from 15,000 complete lists. This represented 3% of the entire Birdtrack database at the time!

Ringing a peregrine chick

Bird ringing is another key function of bird observatories, carried out under the British scheme through the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology). With hundreds of thousands of birds ringed at these hubs, the resulting recoveries and information we’ve gained has helped enormously in our understanding of bird migration and population-level demographics such as juvenile and adult survival rates.

More recently, observatories have been the centre of key research projects through collaboration with universities and NGO’s – for example by using GPS loggers to track seabird foraging movements. Such studies can then input into guiding conservation policies by protecting key areas.

Young birders on Bardsey

Whilst I’ve been incredibly lucky to grow up alongside a bird observatory, young people all over the country can easily participate in their activities and receive the same invaluable training that has helped me so much in my development as a naturalist. Bird observatories now more than ever are welcoming volunteers and interns to help out with their activities, and this is being encouraged enormously by grants such as the BTO’s ‘Young Bird Observatory Volunteers Programme’. This awards grants up to £200 to young people wanting to visit any of the UK’s bird observatories, and I’d seriously recommend anyone eligible for this grant to apply!

As I embark on my third year of a Conservation Biology degree at the University of Exeter and seek a career in the conservation sector, I am incredibly grateful for the skills and training I received from my time on Bardsey. And with the ever-mounting threats piled up against the natural world, their work now more than ever is key to providing governments with the evidence we need for instigating change at a policy level.

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Ben Porter is a young naturalist and aspiring wildlife photographer from the small windswept isle of Bardsey, North Wales. He is currently studying Conservation Biology with the University of Exeter and hopes to work in the field of conservation as an ecologist or researcher. Growing up on a remote island, Ben spent his spare time training as a bird ringer, moth trapping, photographing the isle’s wildlife and volunteering for Bardsey Bird Observatory. You can follow him on Twitter: @bardseyben and on his blog: https://benporterwildlife.wordpress.com/.