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  • From volunteer to staff!

    This week we take a look at how one young man went from bored teenager to RSPB staff member all thanks to volunteering!

    I was 14. A bored, home educated teenager with lots of free time. One spring day, a visit to the Aren't Birds Brilliant! project at Carsington Water changed everything! Set in the Wildlife Centre hide at the beautiful Carsington Water reservoir run by Severn Trent, the friendly and knowledgeable RSPB volunteers welcomed me in and got to work showing me some fantastic birds, most of which I had never even heard of!

     I had never been very bothered about wildlife, I respected it, but that was about it. When I left that hide about half an hour later, I had fallen in love with nature, mesmerised by the hoard of oystercatchers, kingfishers and lapwings. I immediately signed up as a volunteer, and started going in every week to spot some birds and help the visitors see what's around. I loved every minute of it! It really is a fantastic feeling to be able to give a child who's perhaps never even been out of the city a pair of bins and a sparrow to look at and to just see the excitement grow on their face! Mum and dad then get involved too, and before you know it you're filling in a family membership form, just knowing that they will love every minute of it!

    About a year later, I heard about a part time summer Retail Assistant position going at the RSPB Shop on the site, and I went for it- and got it! Three years on, and I am now full time Assistant Manager- all thanks to volunteering. I love my job, and highly recommend volunteering to anyone, it's such a fantastic thing to do, and can lead on to great things! It helped me to come out of my shy little cocoon, gave me confidence, filled up some of my free time and above all, brought me in touch with nature.

      Here at the RSPB Shop at Carsington Water, we are currently looking for volunteer retail assistants (particularly for Saturdays!) to help run the shop and engage the customers, and a couple of enthusiastic, outgoing volunteers to run weekend activities, so please email me if you're interested! Contact Tom at Tom.gillot@rspb.org.uk

  • Writtle College student’s work on BBC Springwatch

    Writtle College student’s work on BBC Springwatch

    Volunteer Jenny Cox tells us about her experience volunteering during Springwatch and why she will continue to volunteer at Minsmere over the summer.

     She readily admits that even two years ago her wildlife identification skills only stretched to the "odd garden bird and butterfly" but now Jenny Cox's surveying ability has developed to such a degree that she landed a conservation student's dream job - working on BBC Springwatch.

    The 23-year-old from Ipswich, who is studying for a Conservation and Environment degree at Writtle College, near Chelmsford, has worked with the RSPB at Minsmere for the duration of the hit television programme and will be continuing to volunteer with them over the Summer.

    She said: "It's been brilliant surveying some of the fantastic wildlife shown on Springwatch and to show visitors the wildlife they have seen in their living rooms in front of their own eyes. Every day was different and there was such a buzz about the place, it was really exciting.

    “My highlight was being part of the audience of Springwatch Unsprung and meeting with the presenter Nick Baker before the show. It was really interesting to see how live television works.

    “I'm a massive fan of Springwatch and the presenters; I look forward to it every year. I'm a big fan of Chris Packham, I grew up watching Michaela Strachan on The Really Wild Show and you can't fault Martin Hughes-Games for his enthusiasm for the show and wildlife!"

    It was while she was on a bird identification course with the British Trust for Ornithology that Jenny heard rumours on, appropriately, Twitter that Springwatch may be going to Minsmere in Suffolk. She applied for a volunteer role with the reserve and was successful, so her induction involved seeing the production village and the now infamous rabbits nesting nearby (they were soon predated, mainly by magpies, providing one of the dramas of this year's series) - all under strict secrecy ahead of the BBC announcing where the programme would be based.

    Hosting the programme obviously boosted interest in Minsmere – the reserve saw a 50% increase on its expected visitor numbers at this time of year - and Jenny's role was to help with this increase in visitor numbers, from working in the cafe to informing them about the conservation success stories on the site such as the bittern, marsh harrier and bearded tit. 

    She said: “Meeting a variety of visitors at the reserve and introducing them to the reserve has been so rewarding and it was wonderful to show people their first bittern or bearded tit. I found I really got a kick out of inspiring people about the wildlife I'm passionate about and I think this is what will give me job satisfaction once I graduate from Writtle College.”

    While volunteering at the reserve, Jenny clocked up her first ever sighting of a nightjar, along with a herd of red deer in the distance.

    She said: “I've had some fantastic wildlife experiences. My personal wildlife highlights have been walking into one of the hides at the reserve and seeing bittern, marsh harrier, hobby, kingfisher and cranes all within the space of 20 minutes, which was utterly fantastic! It was also great to be joined in the hide by the photographers from the BBC.

    “It's a privilege to be able to watch such secretive birds such as Bitterns flying over reedbeds. I took part in Bittern Watch - recording weekly observations of the flights of bitterns - and, after never seeing or hearing a nightjar before, I carried out a survey of them. I also have the opportunity to survey butterflies at North Warren reserve, south of Minsmere.

    "I was thrilled to be offered this volunteering opportunity; it has provided me with an insight into how reserves are managed and the surveying opportunities have been, and continue to be,  really exciting. 

    I've been able to learn from the RSPB staff about managing a reserve for threatened species and the surveying techniques required to monitor species to ensure survival."

    It is a dream position for any Conservation student and shows how her Writtle College degree, which she will complete in September 2015, has given her the skills she needs to succeed in such a competitive environment.

    Jenny, who hopes to work in ecology, conducting field studies, working on habitat creation and management plans once she graduates, said: "When I first started my course I think it's fair to

      say my identification skills regarding wildlife were pretty poor! I could identify the odd garden bird or butterfly​ so the course has improved my identification skills a huge amount to the point where I'm showing people wildlife at RSPB Minsmere and surveying wildlife!

    “The course lectures on habitat management, landscape ecology and biological surveying have provided me with a great knowledge which I was able to exhibit in the interview, especially regarding heathland, wetland and woodland, which are habitats discussed in detail on the course and present at Minsmere. I never thought, when I applied to Writtle College two years ago, that I would be working on BBC Springwatch - and I haven't even finished my course yet!"

    To find out about volunteering at Minsmere visit: www.rspb.org.uk/volunteering and to find out whats on at Minsmere at the moment visit: http://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves/guide/m/minsmere/index.aspx 

    To find out more about the Conservation and Environment degree at Writtle College - including a bursary giving new applicants £1,500 towards their tuition fees - visit www.writtle.ac.uk

  • Volunteering at The RSPB in the Hebrides

    I love getting stories from volunteers who have been inspired and amazed at the time they spend helping the nature around them. This week, Calum Wells tells us why he wants you to come and try volunteering at the RSPB in the Hebrides...

    One of the first things I did in RSPB volunteer work, well, I think it was around the third thing, was walk twelve miles or so up and down hills and then sit in one place for what felt like an age and a half in harsh weather looking for sea eagles. It was surprisingly fun. I have done a lot of RSPB work since then, and I still find it fun. Even when it is frustrating, you do tend to get a nice sense of accomplishment when you finish a bird survey in bad weather or similar.

    There tends to be a strange sense of feast or famine depending on what sort of work you get. During some months there is not one day I spent with the RSPB that wasn't full of hard work, like making stooks and trekking coastlines, and then it see-saws into a month or two of sitting in a field for an hour checking up on tern colonies, where the most tiring part was repositioning every now and then to avoid pins and needles. This means that I am often caught completely off guard to what I am going to do, and in my opinion that isn't a bad thing

    The RSPB have a great many uses for corn, so one day I found myself in a field with a pitchfork shovelling sheaves of corn into a tractor trailer. After we had filled the trailer with almost half the corn from the field we then transported it to another field many miles away and started unloading it and constructing stacks. While we were unloading the corn my supervisor, with his characteristic presence of mind and physical co-ordination, managed to warn everyone of a hole in the bottom of the trailer half a minute or so before nearly falling down it himself.

    Making a stack is a lot more complicated than one might think. You must make sure that it has a very wide base. It must be as circular as you can get it to be. And you must always point the sheaves you are adding to the stack so that the seed faces in the right direction. You must build up on this base and ensure the whole thing tapers to a point. Then you will have a stack of corn around the height of a man that will be remarkably resilient to bad weather.

    What you must not do is what I did, which was to start off on a base that was probably more of a rhombus than a circle, put the corn down any old way, and forget to taper it so you end up with a bizarre-looking vaguely cylindrical protrusion of corn sticking up from the ground and only held together by the net we put over it and the stacks we put around it to ensure nobody glared at it too much.

    Corn buntings are an endangered species, which we’re looking to protect. For a while there have been feed sites that RSPB have been setting up around the islands. More recently the feedsites have been placed in cages to ensure that the corn buntings can reach them but not sheep and cattle. The cages are also to protect the corn buntings from predatory animals, like buzzards or merlins, while they’re feeding.

    That’s meant that I’ve been making cages out of wood and bits of fence. It took a while for us to get a design that works. Eventually we settled on one by a process of trial and error. With two people working on them we averaged around three or four per day. By far the most important job was getting someone to distract Mack, an extremely cheerful dog that doesn't even belong to the house where we were making them, but kept showing up and making a nuisance of himself. This task usually fell to me. Whenever he got too close or interfered with us hammering staples into the wood, or got too close to the power tool, I would have to invent some sort of method of getting Mack to charge back off into the undergrowth whence he came.

    I also learnt that corn buntings are a small brown bird, akin to a sparrow but bigger. They are actually a lot more interesting than my description makes them out to be. It’s just difficult to describe them in a way that sounds interesting! I suppose it’s something to do with the fact that their patterning does so much with a rather mundane colour that somehow isn't dull. This makes them interesting to look at, but the colours used make it a serviceable camouflage as well. It’s a bit like a sparrow, but brighter and better.

    When I did the most exciting thing I’ve ever done with the RSPB I had no idea what I was getting myself into. We all piled onto a boat and set off. It was only after we had gone under a bridge that I realised that we wouldn’t be able to get back until 8 o’clock in the evening, when the tide would be low enough to let us through again. After a substantial amount of time imagining various possible methods of escape we stopped off at an island mostly consisting of beach where some of our party left to conduct some other research. As we sought to continue our journey we realised that a rope had wrapped around the propeller halting our progress onwards.

    After a substantial amount of time trying to find a sacrificial volunteer to dive in and free the propeller we found that it had freed itself and we were able to carry on. When we reached our destination, Hasgair, we split up into two groups and explored either side of the island. Our purpose was to count the nesting birds, which left me in the unenviable position of clambering over rocks with fulmars nesting in them. There is something uniquely terrifying about climbing over a crag only to find three different angry parents preparing to throw up on you on the other side.

    After we had completed our survey and I was no longer in danger of being spat on by a fulmar or struck on the head by an angry skua we all piled back in the boat and I suddenly realised what fun the whole day had been. After an amount of time was spent drinking beverages on deck and feeling good about ourselves, we picked up the others we had dropped off previously and headed for our home harbour, which we reached eventually after breaking down again and being towed in by a fishing boat.

    On reflection, the volunteering I do at the RSPB is often tiring, difficult, sometimes exhausting work that I wouldn't sign myself up for and would definitely not enjoy normally. Somehow, though, it's fun. Somehow, walking several miles up and down hills and through boggy ground full of insects to check up on a single eagle chick, is great fun. I have no idea why. I suppose if I was going to turn this into a recruitment drive, I would ask you to come on and find out. In fact let’s do that, come on and find out.