Merseyside Ringing Group was proud to host the North West England and North Wales Ringers' Conference on Saturday 27 November 2004, jointly with the BTO. This marked the 50th anniversary of the formation of the MRG. Over 100 people attended for a day of high-quality presentations.
The conference started in a very auspicious manner with a ministerial letter of support: Elliot Morley MP, Minister for the Environment, is a former member of Merseyside Ringing Group and had hoped to be able to be present, but in the end had official duties in China. Elliot wrote that he had never realised – when he was a teenager crashing through Burton Woods or holding the end on mist-net poles on the Dee, or being beaten up by swans in Chester or thrown-up on by young herons – that the data being collected would influence government policy and international treaties; but that is what it did. Data from ringing have led to protection of our estuaries, laws protecting wildlife, and now a Public Service Agreement setting the Government a target (with Mr Morley as the Minister responsible) to reverse the decline of farmland birds by 2020. The Minister concluded that ‘… we are fortunate in the UK to have the network of amateurs that we have and the fantastic database they provide. It does help conservation. It does influence policy both here and abroad and it is essential to our understanding.’
The conference presentations opened with a talk by Dave Okill, another former MRG member who has lived on Shetland since 1976, and has made major contributions to the study of seabirds. He talked about Storm Petrels, especially their breeding and long-distance prospecting movements around the northern colonies. The Scottish birds must be passing through the Irish Sea, although little is known about them, and Dave issued a challenge to local ringers to get out there and catch Storm Petrels.
Professor David Norman, Chairman of MRG, used the corny title of ‘One good tern deserves another’ to describe the important populations of terns – significant nationally and internationally – breeding around the coasts and adjacent waters of North-West England and North Wales. The colony of Common Terns nesting on concrete islands, provided by Merseyside Ringing Group, in the Corus steelworks at Shotton, Clwyd, is one of the largest in the UK, having grown from small beginnings on a wooden raft 35 years ago. Conservation of Little Terns is more difficult: David’s annual study of the growth rate of chicks at Gronant gives a good indicator of the success of adults in finding food.
The highlight of the conference was the keynote lecture from Professor Franz Bairlein, Director of the Institute of Avian Research ‘Vogelwarte Helgoland’ in Wilhelmshaven, Germany. Franz led the Network on European-African Songbird Migration, funded by the European Science Foundation, coordinating work across more than 50 ringing sites in 18 countries in Europe and Africa, including an MRG site (Woolston). He is now Patron of MRG.
His talk ‘Bird Migration: Where now, after the Migration Atlas? The next 100 years of bird ringing’ covered the ancient, the modern and the future aspects of migration study. Conventional ringing still has a major part to play alongside new technologies such as satellite tracking or the use of chemical and molecular markers that help to reveal connectivity between breeding and non-breeding grounds. The daily cycles of birds wearing individual microchips can be checked as they return to nest-sites equipped with antennae, automatic weighing machines and video recorders, needing an army of students to analyse the results.
In keeping with a speaker who had travelled from continental Europe to the conference, Professor Bairlein urged that we work collaboratively with groups in other countries. But also, we need to plug the gaps in our local knowledge. Until his talk, we had not realised that we are studying ‘meta-populations’, but he showed how our data on retraps and local movements provide vital information on dispersal and recruitment. Franz also pointed out that comparatively little is known about birds in winter, and pressed us to study more of the species that make use of our mild British climate.
Under the title ‘Why don't Pennine Twite go to Blackpool?’, David Sowter from the North Lancashire Ringing Group described how integrated colour-ringing programmes are showing that Twite chicks from the central Pennines migrate to the East Coast as far south as Kent, but do not move to the nearer West Coast. The study has identified that birds wintering on the Lancashire and Cumbria coast are from a population breeding in the Western Isles of Scotland. Detailed studies of the species’ breeding pattern and wintering habits are helping to shed light on its status on the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern.
Dr Dave Leech, Head of the Nest Record Scheme at the BTO, gave a most entertaining and informative talk. In the 65 years of its existence, the Nest Record Scheme dataset has been used to produce more than 270 scientific papers, with some of the more significant recent findings including the impacts of changing farming practices and the continuing influence of global warming. Every birdwatcher can contribute to this knowledge by completing Nest Record Cards for all nests found – in garden hedges, nest-boxes or wherever.
The final talk was given by Malcolm Bennett, Professor and Head of the Department of Veterinary Pathology at the University of Liverpool. His presentation, entitled ‘Biodiversity and Disease - is infection a conservation issue?’ showed that infection (whether or not accompanied by obvious clinical disease) can have significant effects on the population dynamics of wild animals, and introduced us all to the idea that infection may even have benefits to hosts in some circumstances. The relevance to birds, and to ringing, lies in their possible role in carrying infections, especially enteric zoonoses (infections transmissible to human beings), and a new collaborative project with MRG investigating infections in wild British birds.
It may not be to everyone’s liking to spend a day sitting indoors discussing meta-populations and enteric zoonoses, but the audience went home enthused and vowing to do more to put our study of birds in a wider context: we all realised how we can contribute to knowledge that will benefit bird conservation. In between the formal presentations, those present took the opportunity to meet or renew acquaintances with fellow-ringers and to peruse the latest publications and equipment from a variety of exhibitors. As well as the BTO, sponsorship was received from Corus Colors, CJ Wildbird Foods, Biota, Focalpoint and Wheatear.biz. The use of the conference venue was generously given by CLRC Daresbury Laboratory.
Some photographs from the conference, and from the MRG 50th anniversary dinner that followed, can be found by clicking here.