Friday, 31 January 2014

Skomer Job

I'm incredibly excited, pleased and proud to say I got the Skomer Job! So from 14th April I will be on the island, working for Dr. Matt Wood of Gloucester University, studying the adult survival, nest success etc of the breeding seabirds! 

I really can't believe the luck I'm having at the moment, and finding it hard for all the good news to sink in.

After handing in my final January assignments this morning, I've had a well earned afternoon off. I had a celebratory lunch with some friends, and now preparing for a celebratory night out. It'll be my first proper night out of the academic year, so lets hope it goes well. 

Happy birding to all, and hope none of you get washed / blown away in the coming storm. It's certainly stopping any mist or cannon netting attempts around here!

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Mensa Acceptance

I am delighted and proud to say that I've been accepted to join Mensa! 

I sat the Mensa IQ Test on Saturday 18th, and today a letter arrived with the scores from the 2 test I took. One result puts me in the top 2% of the country, and the other in the top 1%! I'm not usually one for posting things like this online, but I'm proud of this result and wanted to share it :)

My acceptance letter with IQ scores and percentiles

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Weekly roundup

Most of the early part of this week was taken up with preparation for a dissertation presentation on Thursday. This left little time for getting out and birding/ringing.

I gave my presentation at 09:10 on Thursday morning, which went very well, and then spent the rest of the day listening to 20 other talks. They were all very interesting, and have given me some more ideas for routes that my own dissertation can take. By 6pm I was quite shattered and actually had to have a nap. However, I found myself wide awake again by 9pm and decided to join Chris (@CJBridge) and Hamza (@HamzaYassin3) on a drag net attempt for Jack and Common Snipe at a new site on Anglesey. What a brilliant decision this turned out to be!

The drag net attempt wasn't very successful, but as Chris and Hamza marched ahead with the net, I spotted something interesting in one of the pools 30ft away. I had Chris' lamp and, keeping the eye shine in the beam, I gently crept close enough to see that it was a Little Grebe! It then floated into the reeds at the side of the pool, which meant I couldn't see it anymore. Unfortunately there was a small creek (3ft deep) between me and it. I quietly crossed this (in waders), sneaked back to the reeds I thought it was in, knelt down on the bank and then leant out over the water with the lamp. I'd got the distance just right and the grebe was there below me. It was intent on looking into the beam, so I managed to lean out a bit further and catch it from behind, before it had time to dive. This is the first bird I've ever lamped and for it to be a hand caught Little Grebe was particularly special. 

The other two had made it 30m further up the marsh by this point, but a celebratory shout bought them quickly back to me, drag net abandoned! We then took this delightful little bird back to the car for ringing and processing.

My first Little Grebe and first bird lamped !

These are incredibly calm birds when caught and it happily sat in my lap, with no restraint, whilst I put the ring on and took full biometrics. It even sat obligingly on the scales with no pot or bird bag: 

Sitting pretty

Chris had a go at lamping some snipe after this. He came very close to a Jack Snipe, but it decided to fly before he could get close enough to net it. Despite a snipeless night, we all left very happy!

On Friday I had a well earned rest from work, and spent the day birding with Chris. We finished the day off back at the drag net site, this time with Chris lamping on the beach. Remarkably, the first bird he saw and caught was a Woodcock! It was bizarre to catch this bird on a beach, but a very welcome addition to Chris' woodcock totals. He then followed this up with a lovely adult Ringed Plover.

On Saturday morning I finally gave up waiting for good weather and did my WeBS count. 20-30mph winds and driving rain didn't help whilst counting diving ducks in choppy lake water, but I did manage to get a good final count of 470 ducks (Teal, Tufted Duck, Wigeon, Mallard, Goldeneye, Shoveller, Gadwall and Pochard) plus Coots, Grebes, Grey Herons and 2000+ gulls (Black-headed, Herring, Common and Great Black-backed). One particularly bad 10 minute storm had me, Chris and Hamza cowering in a hide whilst 40mph winds kept blowing the poorly latched door open. Thunder and heavy rain added to the atmosphere as all the ducks dived for cover, and the surrounding area turned white with spray from the lake.

View from the hide. Usually you can see green fields all around.

The rest of the day was spent doing more uni work.

Today (Sunday) was a quick trip home to my farm in Shropshire, for Sunday roast, and for my parents to meet Chris' parents. Thankfully the horrible weather eased up after lunch so we all had a chance to get out for a walk! All in all a lovely day and nowhere near as stressful as I was expecting the first parent meet to be. 

I'm now back in Bangor and ready for lectures to start again tomorrow.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Quick update after a busy week.

Last Saturday was the first mist net session of the year. After a slightly late start, I managed to put up a net efficiently (with Rachel helping) whilst Chris and Steve set a 60ft, and we then had a very productive session with 135 birds. I extracted ~24 birds of varying difficulty, and ringed and processed 33 birds, which all went very well. All in all a very fun session and I now feel like I'm thinking like a proper ringer, as well as coming towards the end of my training.

The majority of Sunday (12th) and the rest of the week was spent working. I had an exam on Friday (which went well) and also an important essay due, so preparing for these was the main priority. I did manage to fit in a birding session with Zac for the UBC challenge on Monday (13th) with 30 species seen, including 3 Great Northern Divers, 2 Bar-tailed Godwit and a Greenfinch roost of 100+ birds.
I also squeezed in 2 Beaumaris recces for the wader ringing weekend. Neither turned up any good catching options, but it was nice to get out and be trusted to ID all the species well enough and report sensible catching options.

Monday (13th) was also a good day in general, despite the good UBC count. I got two results back from last semester (72% and an A+), and was told that I've been short listed for the Skomer job I applied for! I'm ecstatic with this news and really hope I manage to get the job. It'll be something very nice to aim towards.

Saturday (18th) was supposed to be for my WeBS count, but a last minute weather change (totally different forecast from 12hrs previous) meant that I wouldn't get an accurate count, so it had to be abandoned. I'll try again on Tuesday morning. I did go into Chester in the afternoon though, and a quick walk along the canal turned up my first nest of the year. 2 cheeping Feral Pigeon chicks (feathers short) were in a nest under one of the canal bridges. The nest record card is filled in and ready to be sent to the BTO, even though I wont be able to follow its success or ever know the final nest outcome.

Sunday (today: 19th) was spent wader ringing in Bangor Harbour. Unfortunately the Dunlin flock, that had roosted there during the week, decided not to turn up, but we did manage to take a catch of 190 Oystercatchers which kept us busy until sunset.

The rest of this week will be busy with more work and meetings, so apologies if I don't post until next weekend.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Hackschooling - Revolutionary Thinking or Past System Forgot? What can be learnt?

Continuing my theme on the educational system, today I stumbled across this video: . It is of a 13 year old boy, Logan LaPlante, giving a TEDx talk on his home schooling experience. It's well worth the 11 minutes! It introduces his idea that anything can be hacked and tailored, so that the system itself is improved, using a "hacker mindset". He has hacked the educational system, created his own learning programme, and, at the age of 13, already seems to have learned infinitely more, important, life lessons than many people my own age (21) and much older. He already has a passion for learning, developed from his own interests, is an intern at a reputable company (BigTruck Brand), has a good life balance and has figured out that being happy is more important than being wealthy (something many people don't realise until it's too late). His industry experience has shown him the practical application of many of the skills learnt in school. How many of us questioned lessons in the past saying: "but why do we need to learn this? When will we ever use it in the real world!" I know I still ask that question regularly. Most of the educational lessons I've learnt gleefully and willingly, are those that I know will have a practical application in the future.

Debate - Past System Forgot?
TEDx talks are designed to "foster learning, inspiration and wonder -- and to provoke conversations that matter" [] , and Logan's talk certainly does this. A quick Google search on Hackschooling (Logan's educational system) produces several interesting links to debates, Facebook pages and articles. The first link [] brings you to a very interesting debate. I was initially sure that everyone would love Logan's idea ... how wrong I was. Mrt432 (username) states that the idea is actually a rehash of the system pre-American 2nd industrial revolution, where wealthy individuals preferentially homeschooled their children, and that this was only an option available to the wealthy. The ensuing debate is thoroughly interesting and eye opening. Unsurprisingly, most people are on Logan's side, and suggest that Mrt432 has missed the point of the talk. However, he has a point. 100-200 years ago, many more children were homeschooled. This is, in part, due to the underdeveloped educational system, but also because it gave the parents (or the governors) the opportunity to decide what was important for the child to learn, and could tailor these to the child (if the teacher was moderately open-minded). 

So is Logan's hackschooling idea actually a modern remodelling of the old system? It affords him the opportunity to learn in his own way, to his own timetable, about the things that matter to him, without the constrains and demands of the curriculum. It also allows him to get out and about in the real world; something that the children of the poorer classes in the 1800's knew too much about, and something that the majority of children in the modern educational system know far too little about. He has shown that it is possible to blend classroom style learning, and its core educational lessons, with a more practical based approach to produce a well rounded, happy and healthy individual. I appreciate that his particular form of homeschooling is almost impossible to emulate across the entire nation, but surely some lessons can be learnt?

Health or Wealth?
When asked "What do you want to be when you grow up?", Logan's response is simple: Happy. His hackschooling ethos revolves around the notion that being happy is more important than earning a high wage by passing exams and getting into top jobs. Our (and other country's) educational system has removed the "fun" parts of educational learning in favour of an exam driven, test passing curriculum. [Interesting video -]. In my opinion, this system produces children that are more concerned with their income and social status than their own personal happiness. The two, however, need not be mutually exclusive.

Watching "Secrets of the Body Clock" on the BBC [ - 34mins in] this week, showed a school where students enjoy learning, get high grades and seem to be "balanced, happy and healthy", despite following the national curriculum. The school's policy? Let the older students start at 11:30. Scientific research has shown that the reorganisation of the teenage brain means that this is actually the optimal time of day for them to start learning, and by changing the start of the working day to this time, the students are actual healthier and work better. This proves that a significant change from the "tried and tested" school norm can actually work to produce student that obtain high grades but are also healthy and happy. The school puts the students health before the mainstream teaching methods, and may actually produce students that obtain higher grades, and have a drive for learning, that isn't seen in most English schools.

My Experience
Logan's hackschooling system is tailored to his own interests. As such, he learns very fast and already converses as a level far beyond that expected for his age. He reads the current literature, something I was not taught to do until at university (18/19 years old), and forms his own opinions based on personal research, rather than regurgitating the opinions of others. I feel that this form of learning is invaluable! During my early school career I always enjoyed learning. I think this was, in part, due to the fact that I didn't know what my strengths were, or what I wanted to do post-education. By my GCSE years, I knew that science was my "thing". I therefore found learning in arts based lessons far less interesting. By A level I knew biology/zoology was the way for me, so my interest in physics and maths dwindled...though I did still enjoy them. During my gap year I discovered birding and wardening. I've developed this enjoyment over the last 2 years and now feel like it's my future. 

So now I know what I want to do and what makes me happy, where am I? Stuck completing my degree. I appreciate that this is important given the current system and job application process, but I'm starting to question how important it is. Through the people I've met, it seems that a degree is non essential. Practical experience, contacts and enthusiasm are the important things in this career line. And once you've started earning in that area and get some job history behind you, your educational achievements become, more or less, obsolete. I have been blighted by depression this academic year because I know what makes me happy but university commitments are preventing me doing it. Whenever I go birding, ringing or volunteering I feel guilty that I'm not doing uni work. This only serves to add to the depression and sap the enjoyment out of the only things that cheer me up a bit. I am seriously questioning the value of an education that makes me this unhappy. 

Logan knows what he wants to do. Ok, he may not have been exposed to other subjects that could have made him equally happy, but he's happy doing what he does, and he's good at it. I know that I'm happy birding, ringing and wardening, and through my experience am now quite good at it. The last year of my education is preventing me from doing this and sapping the fun out of life. What good is an education that teaches me that grades are more important than my own personal happiness and health?

Wealth = Happiness?
My final point is this. Does the education system teach us that wealth is happiness, and that you therefore can't be happy if you don't earn a "good" wage. All people should continuously aspire to be better, but I don't view having more money as making anyone better. My idea of a better person is someone that helps others, looks after themselves and their community, and can die knowing they've made a genuine difference to their own and someone else's (or many peoples) life. When I tell people that I want to go into wardening, most first responses are "That doesn't pay very well does it". I find it funny that this should be the first response. I can't deny that it isn't something I think about. I've grown up in the same society and educational system as those people. The first question should be "Does it make you happy?" or "Will it bring you job satisfaction?". I feel that I wont be considered successful if I'm not in some high powered, high earning position. This is a pressure that almost my entire generation will feel. Its silly. I know wardening makes me happy, what it pays shouldn't matter so long as I have a bed to sleep in and food to eat. Those basic needs are the important things in life, not whether I can afford the latest 3D TV, go on fancy holidays or brag that I earn more than my friends. Good physical and mental health are far more important than material possessions.

Unfortunately, no matter how hard I try, it may be too late for me to change my mindset and definition of a successful person. The mere fact that I think Logan is successful helps prove this. I deem being invited to do a talk for any organisation a success, and doing so at 13 makes it all the more impressive. However what I should be impressed by, and what defines him as successful, is the fact that he is putting his health and happiness ahead of his want or need for money.

The lesson I've learned from Logan's talk: Don't get bogged down in making a living, make a life! 

Other interesting sites:

Friday, 10 January 2014

University Birdwatch Challenge

Today was the first day of the year I'd made a real effort for the University Birdwatch Challenge. This is an inter-university competition, set up by A Focus on Nature, to encourage university students to birdwatch, and then BirdTrack, all the species on their campus: .

So far there are only 4 officially registered teams (Bangor, Aberystwyth, Cambridge and Manchester), but hopefully more will join soon. It was this competition that was the main driver behind me setting up the official Bangor Uni Birding Group. So far I've had 5 or 6 students interested in joining the Bangor team, and becoming regular BirdTrackers, but I suspect it'll take a few group sessions before these people are comfortable IDing on their own. I've produced step-by-step guides to set up BirdTrack accounts, with the correct recording site, so it's only the ID skills (and perhaps enthusiasm) that will let the team down now!

Zac has yet to return to Bangor (he's currently the country's best BirdTracker this year), so I started the challenge off today at our university botanic gardens (Treborth). 

In 2 hours I managed to spot 26 species, despite helping a lecturer set up a practical at the same time, and count 169 individuals. This included 5 Siskin, a largish Blackbird flock (assumed continental migrants), 58 Herring Gulls and a hungry looking Sparrowhawk. It was nice to get out and about and test my call ID, which I haven't had time to practise much recently. I was glad to know I could still pick out Bullfinch, Goldfinch and Siskin, above a group of people talking. Also interpreting the alarm calls as a sign to look up gave me some great Sparrowhawk views.

The particular highlight was non-birdy however. 2 Red Squirrels had happily discovered the feeders put in place for the practical, and we got great views of these cute critters. Despite several attempts on Anglesey, I still hadn't seen Red Squirrels in Wales, so I was very pleased that my first were on University grounds and felt like an apt reward for giving myself the morning off work.

I'm aiming to set up a campus bird race in March (once uni deadlines are quieter), with some other environmental societies, to really get more people bird tracking!

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Christmas / New Years Update

I hope you all had a good Christmas and New Year, and have managed to get out birding or ringing at least once this year so far!

I enjoyed a lovely Christmas break at home with my family. There really is nothing like waking up to a cup of tea, rolling over to look out of my window and seeing Redwing, Song Thrush, Fieldfare, Blackbird, Mistle Thrush, Treecreeper, Goldfinch, Dunnock, Long-tailed Tit, Blue and Great Tit all feeding 30ft away!

We had a couple of nice cold mornings, a wonderful Christmas dinner cooked by my sisters and a long Boxing Day walk on the moors near Llanfair Caereinion.

Icy start to the day...
...but with a warm winter sun
Gets better the longer you look at it
My family on the Boxing Day walk -
(Right to Left) - Dad, Mum, Jen, Mel and her boyfriend Nath.
Enjoying the featureless view, driving rain and biting wind
A break in the clouds gives a good view back to the Breidden hills

Chris joined us in Shropshire on the 27th for a couple of days, then we went back to his on the 29th. We then headed back to Bangor on the 31st for one final 2013 woodcock lamping session. After failing to catch 5 times when I was with him, I didn't have my hopes very high, but with wind and rain in our favour, he finally made a catch!

Lovely juvenile

This little juvenile was caught very quickly, stayed perfectly still for ringing, processing and pictures, and then flew off without a sound when released; an altogether different experience to my first woodcock mist netted on the 16th November.

We went out again on the 1st, to a different site, and our luck was definitely in. Chris managed to catch 3 more juveniles!

I've spent the last 2 days applying for jobs and getting some university work done, but the next 2 weeks will be solid university work. I've got an exam and 3000 word essay due on the 17th, plus 4 blogs to write, a presentation to put together, progress to be made on my dissertation and a few more jobs to apply for. I am certainly looking forward to the end of this degree now and getting out into the ornithological, conservation, working world!

Happy New Year and happy birding to all !