Thursday, 16 April 2015

African Bird Club - 2015 Annual Meeting & AGM

Before this weekend, the African Bird Club (ABC) was a completely unknown charity to me. I am becoming increasingly keen to expand my ornithological knowledge beyond the British shores, and heard about the meeting through Next Generation Birders (NGB), so decided it was well worth the journey to the Natural History Museum in London...and I wasn't disappointed.

Morning session
Unfortunately, due to transport problems, I arrived 10 minutes late, and missed the introduction by Keith Betton - the departing Chairman and now Vice-President of the Club. Thankfully I missed little of the first talk, given by Sam Kanyamibwa - Executive Director of the ARCOS (Albertine Rift Conservation Society) Network. The Albertine Rift is a region along the borders of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Zambia and the DRC that is incredibly bio-diverse, and in desperate need of active conservation. Sam introduced the aims of the ARCOS Network and outlined much of the conservation work it does within the region. Many of the projects involve discussions and collaboration across international borders, and can therefore be swamped with political issues.

Albertine Rift map (Source:

Sam Kanyamibwa giving his presentation

This was followed by Matthew Boyer's talk, also focussing on the Albertine Rift, but this time based on personal bird watching locations, rather than professional conservation efforts. The two talks educated me greatly on an area I had never heard of before, and it seems that the professional and amateur birders in the area can help each other enormously. Matthew encouraged birders to travel to the lesser-visited sites, which receive less tourist income, but could probably benefit far more from targeted conservation efforts. Visiting 'amateurs' can now easily contribute their sightings to global databases (i.e. BirdTrack's global data entry tool), and the ABC are encouraging them to help transport spare binoculars and reference guides with them, to give to local organisations, and aid education within the area. Local professional groups can gain skills from these knowledgeable 'amateurs', and this sharing of expertise stands to advance the conservation efforts and nature awareness within the region. It is only through greater exposure and conservation education that organisations like the ARCOS Network can achieve their excellent goals.

Matthew Boyer

Active conservation research
Next came talks by Dr Jim Groombridge and Helena Batalha on the Seychelles Paradise Flycatcher and Cape Verde Warbler, respectively. Both of these researchers are working on species restricted to very small island ranges/populations, and are consequently Endangered or Critically-Endangered. Jim's research group (and collaborators) have recently undertaken a complicated translocation of Seychelles Paradise Flycatcher from the sole population on La Digue, to form a new population on Denis Island. His research focusses on conservation genetics, and so the talk covered the uses of genetic information in aiding successful translocations like this. Through these methods, they can ascertain the minimum probable number of individuals needed to guarantee a good genetic diversity within the source population on the new island. This diversity will help the new population overcome challenges presented by their new surroundings, establish a stable population, and then hopefully begin to increase in population size. Jim outlined some of the many problems the team had to overcome to make this project successful, and it was great to hear how genetic research can be used to help achieve these real conservation successes.

Seychelles Paradise Flycatcher - Male and Female

Helena's PhD research on Cape Verde Warblers is mainly about collecting systematic, scientific data on the species. Little is known about their population size and distribution, and Helena aims to change this and gain a true understanding of the species in its current situation. Her passion for the species was apparent throughout the talk, and it was plain to see how this had translated into two very successful field seasons. She is currently analysing the habitat and genetic data collected, and so had few conclusive results, but feels hopeful they will be positive and show a greater population size and genetic diversity than previously thought.

Helena Batalha with a Cape Verde Warbler  

Landscape scale conservation
The penultimate talk was by Dr. Samuel Temidayo Osinubi on his involvement with the African-Eurasian Migratory Landbirds Action Plan (AEMLAP) - PDF of presentation here. Personally, I found this talk the most interesting. I am becoming aware that species or site specific conservation efforts have a limited capacity, in the long term, to make large-scale differences. In order to make the largest difference, landscape scale conservation needs to move towards the forefront of organisation objectives, across the globe. AEMLAP aims to help facilitate this in one of the toughest areas of avian conservation. Unlike shore and seabirds, land-based migrants don't travel down one specific route, with major stop-over points that can be protected. The Afro-European migrants move in a wave, from North to South and back again each year, crossing innumerable international borders and through endless habitat types (inc. gardens, agricultural land and pristine habitats). To protect these species in the long term, a huge, multifaceted conservation approach is required. The AEMLAP has recently been accepted as a new resolution at CMS COP11. Although no countries have signed on to meet the goals of the AEMLAP yet, this is an excellent step in the right direction. CMS (Conservation on Migratory Species) is an arm of the UN Environment Programme and so has the ability to ensure countries meet any promises they make. Hopefully this action plan will see a push by many countries, in collaboration, towards large-scale conservation efforts - we can hope that that will be the consequence anyway.

Dr. Osinubi outlining the 'official' definition of a migrant

Tracking Africa's birds
The final talk was by Andy Clements - Director of the BTO. He summed up the amazing technological developments of the past two decades, and how these have allowed for some incredible advancements of knowledge recently. His major example was with the current Cuckoo tracking project. Before live tracking technologies were developed, it was not really known where cuckoos went when they weren't in Britain. There was one sub-Saharan ringing recovery of a British ringed Cuckoo, but nothing else was known about their migration route or wintering grounds. This tracking project has been running since 2011, and has revealed that there are two distinct migration routes through Europe and across the Sahara, with markedly different mortality rates between them. Also the main wintering grounds are in the Congo, but with stop-over sites just south of the Sahara in ~October, and in West Africa in March and April, before the Northerly migration. Its simply incredible that 100 years of ringing data showed little-to-nothing of these migration details, but just 4 years of tracking data have revealed so much! Andy went on to discuss some of the future potential of tracking devices as they get smaller and lighter. Who knows what these technologies will reveal over the next decade!

Andy Clements presenting

The speakers (minus Dayo) - Left to right: Sam
Kanyamibwa, Jim Groombridge, Matthew Boyer,
Andy Clements and Helena Batalha.

As with most conferences, some of the most interesting conversation and information sharing was had during the breaks. I met a fellow NGB member, Sorrel Lyall, during lunch which was great! I haven't met many other female members, so it was good to make the connection and discuss the ABC meeting with another young birder. Some of my post-presentation questions also made the rest of the audience aware that we were NGB members. Keith Betton has been talking with us (NGB) recently, and a good chat about NGB and the ABCs future aims means that we are both now keen to form an association. It is hoped that by encouraging young birders to join the ABC, and gain special access to their publications, we can encourage more conservationists / interest into the continent.
I also managed to talk to Helena, Dayo and Andy personally (3 speakers), and ask a bit more about their research / backgrounds. It's so great to come to these meetings and meet the people who are actually 'doing science', and making a real difference within the avian conservation world.

Tea-break chatting / networking

Post-meeting drinks in the pub afterwards also allowed for long chats with Chris Magin - the RSPBs International Officer for Africa -, Keith Betton, and Debbie Pain - Director of Conservation at WWT. I learnt so much from talking to Keith and Debbie, and can't recommend post-meeting pub conversation enough. These people are all leaders in their field and incredibly knowledgeable. I am only just entering the professional birding world, and so am incredibly naive in many areas. Talking to learned people such as these has opened my eyes to many conservation issues I wasn't previously aware of.

One month ago, I didn't even know the ABC existed. I had never really thought about birding or working in Africa, and I didn't know anyone who had. The informative research and policy presentations in this meeting have shown me that there's a whole continent with very difficult conservation issues, that I had never really appreciated before. There are plainly some very excellent organisations already working to conserve the African avifauna, many of which migrate to Britain annually. I met some great people who are very passionate about African birds and actively conserving them, and where extremely informative and articulate when answering my questions. I am now very keen to join the club and look for opportunities to engage with this conservation effort, ideally in a professional capacity.

*Unless stated otherwise, photographs are taken by Nigel Birch.


  1. I am not sure if my previous comment got through, so I will repeat. I am annoyed that you have used my photos without permission. It would have polite to have asked particularly as you must have realised the Flickr site was set to prevent downloads.

    If you had asked I would readily have given my permission. However, as you did not please remove my photos from this post immediately as you do not have my permission to use them. You should also remove the link to the flickr site as, to prevent others doing what you have done I am using alternative ways to distribute my photos to those that want them.

    Thank you

  2. My deepest apologies Nigel. I made this blog post at the request of Keith Betton, who said I should use your photos and sent me the link to your Flickr site. I wrongly assumed, therefore, that he had checked this would be ok with you. May I retrospectively ask for permission? I entirely understand your annoyance, and will happily remove your pictures if this is still not acceptable to you.
    Many thanks,
    Ros Green

    1. Thank you for your apology which I accept. Under the circumstances you may use the photos

  3. That is great dear; I also wish to go to this event, so it will be helpful if you can share location of meeting room that you have hired for occasion. Thanks in advance.