The spark for watching birds might be generated in any number of ways: watching wildlife in your back garden, a TV documentary or a school biology lesson. For school-aged birdwatchers, that interest may be retained during the transition to university life but maintaining and developing it among the kaleidoscope of new experiences is not always easy. University ornithological societies are nothing new, but in recent years the best ones have been remarkably successful in harnessing the enthusiasm of younger birders. For this month’s BB eye, British Birds asked some current students to relate their experiences as members of university bird clubs.
Veronica, Cardiff University
I’ve had an interest in birds since primary school. I had come to appreciate the joy and peace of birdwatching during the stress of A levels, so I thought I would join in some events hosted by the Cardiff University Ornithological Society in 2019. There were bird walks in Bute Park, workshops to help with improving bird identification, opportunities to take part in the BTO/RSPB/JNCC/WWT Wetland Bird Survey at Roath Park Lake and the chance to visit a bird sanctuary. These were all really fun and relaxing events, I made a few new friends and it was a great way to get away from the stress of university-related work. Being a part of the society made me think more about the smaller birds in my garden, in the bushes in the street, the notorious Herring Gulls Larus argentatus and even the city’s pigeons in a new and more positive light. I can honestly say I’ve probably grown to care about the environment more and I have more motivation to take part in helping to conserve the populations of these creatures. I am currently secretary of the Ornithological Society and I love going on walks and surveys, meeting other people, learning about how they became interested in birdwatching, and just talking about birds. From my perspective, university societies are a great way not only to introduce people to birdwatching and conservation, but also to maintain that interest which otherwise may have been lost among the busy life of a student.
Phoebe, University of Edinburgh
As a twenty-something, I am of a generation that has grown up with an awareness of climate change. Eco-consciousness seems woven into our everyday lives – a background but constant and ever-increasing awareness. This affects the way many of us think and, more crucially, the way we act. In my case, the desire to help conserve our natural world has always been lodged firmly in my mind, but a focus on birds has come much more recently.
I discovered the ornithological world only last summer, while volunteering at North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory. On my return to university, and with the help of fellow students Sorrel Lyall and Gavin Woodbridge, we set up Edinburgh University Ornithological Society – there had not been one at Edinburgh for many years. Our twin aims were to give those with little prior experience in birdwatching or conservation the opportunity to learn, and to give those with a background knowledge a platform on which to connect, interact and learn further.
We began as a modestly sized group of keen enthusiasts. Our early trips to Arthur’s Seat, Musselburgh and Blackford Hill gave us the opportunity to share knowledge, enthuse about our shared interests and simply socialise. Our society’s bird list grew rapidly in these first few months, from Dippers Cinclus cinclus and Nuthatches Sitta europaea in the local woods, to Velvet Scoters Melanitta fusca and Slavonian Grebes Podiceps auritus on the coast.
By the end of our first semester as a society, we had grown to over 20 regular members, with a range of ages, backgrounds and, importantly, levels of experience. Our regular trips are now only part of what we do as a society: ringing demonstrations, BTO birdsong workshops, lectures and trips farther afield fill our timetable. As time goes on, we hope to become more involved in making contributions to research and conservation in the region.
Through our society, we hope to give other young people access to knowledge and skills that will improve their understanding, appreciation, and desire to conserve the natural world. Although watching our society grow is gratifying, the progress and development of individual members is perhaps more meaningful. The wide range of experience of our members allows those with a greater level of familiarity to share their knowledge with those just starting. We can see our members instil in one another a perpetuating enthusiasm for birding and ornithology, which we hope will continue, individually and as a society, for years to come.
Toby, Bangor University
I’ve just finished my second year at Bangor University, studying Environmental Conservation, but I became involved with the Bangor Ornithological Society in my first week. We’re so lucky here in Bangor to have so many opportunities for young people interested in the environment – the North Wales Wildlife Trust, RSPB Cymru and BTO Cymru all have offices in the city. As a society we’re fortunate to be linked with the local Bangor Bird Group: every week from October to March there are talks on a wide variety of topics, thanks to the efforts of Stephen Culley and Nigel Brown. All university students have free access to these talks allowing them to mix with birders outside the university bubble.
As a society we run a variety of events, including the monthly WeBS counts at both Bangor Harbour and Porth Penrhyn. Bangor Harbour is a great place to go birding, with huge roost counts of Oystercatchers Haematopus ostralegus, Curlews Numenius arquata, Dunlins Calidris alpina and Redshanks Tringa totanus, and occasionally something rarer, such as a Red-necked Grebe P. grisegena. There are also various day trips to sample the many delights of North Wales: Black Grouse Lyrurus tetrix leks, Purple Sandpipers C. maritima, Dippers, Hawfinches Coccothraustes coccothraustes and so much more.
It is so important that universities have a wildlife-based society, but it doesn’t have to be focused on birds. At the Penryn Campus of Exeter University, the Ecological Society (www.thesu.org.uk/organisation/ecosoc) runs a vast array of events, with subjects ranging from bird calls to spider identification, and these attract many students, some of whom had some degree of interest in the environment, but others who’ve never discovered the outside world before. As well as enjoying and learning about the local wildlife, the society allows students to gain practical skills in ecology and conservation. Well-run university societies dramatically increase the chances for students to discover the limitless possibilities to get involved in the natural world.