RSPB Scotland’s Northern Isles manager, Pete Ellis, praises a local Shetland volunteer for four decades of service and other dedicated volunteers.
Last Saturday I had the opportunity to present a good friend of mine with a prestigious accolade – a golden eagle long-service award to mark his astonishing commitment to helping save nature.
Dave Okill has been an RSPB member and volunteer for over 40 years, since before he moved to Shetland in 1975. Since then, Dave’s enthusiastic ringing activities have given him an unrivalled knowledge of the breeding biology of a large range of Shetland’s breeding birds. He has happily shared this insight with RSPB Scotland staff and other volunteers as well as helping RSPB Scotland with reserve management, open days and many other aspects of our work.
Pete (left) presenting Dave Okill (right) with his golden eagle long-service award. Photo by: Jim Nicolson.
Over the years, Dave’s work has included two particularly important discoveries: In 1984, he found a shocking scene on one of his routine visits to ring Arctic tern chicks on Papa Stour. At the time, this small island off the west coast of mainland Shetland was home to Shetland’s largest colony of breeding Arctic terns. In the previous summer, over 1,800 chicks were ringed, but in 1984, Dave found just a handful of live chicks, together with many starved, dead ones. This was the first occurrence in the UK of the catastrophic seabird breeding failures that have become a feature of many areas in the last 30 years and the first indication of how climate change affects the UK’s marine environment.
Arctic terns have the longest migration known to man – they travel a staggering 43,000 miles each year from northern breeding grounds to wintering off of Antarctica. Photo by: OddurBen.
Dave also pioneered the use of data loggers on red-throated divers in Shetland and in 2012, his expertise allowed RSPB Scotland in partnership with the Shetland Ringing Group and British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) to fit data loggers to red-necked phalaropes breeding in Shetland. It was Dave’s long experience in ringing that allowed him to obtain the licences that were needed to do this with such a rare breeding bird.
Female red-necked phalarope. Phalaropes are famous for their reversed roles - the females take the initiative in courtship and then leave the males to incubate and care for the young, while they go searching for new mates. Primarily an Arctic breeding wader, they occur in small numbers in the UK, particularly Shetland. Photo by: Malcie Smith.
The aim of this work was to test whether the phalaropes that breed in Shetland spend the winter in the Arabian Sea like those that breed in Scandinavia. In 2013, one male phalarope returned to Shetland carrying its data logger and we made a startling discovery! This bird had made a round trip of 16,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean and spent the winter in the eastern Pacific off Ecuador and Peru. This journey had never before been recorded for a European breeding bird.
Map of the phenomenal phalarope migration.
Dave, George and Malcie Smith (RSPB Scotland) with the bird and its tiny tag.
Dave’s commitment to the RSPB and nature conservation continues. In recognition of Dave’s 40 years of volunteering, he was presented with the RSPB’s Golden Eagle Award at the Shetland Bird Club meeting on 19 September. Helen Moncrieff, RSPB Scotland’s Shetland Manager was at the event and saw Dave receive his award. She said “I have never seen him lost for words and he was surprised and touched by the recognition”.
You’d think that 40 years volunteering was a rare achievement and it is, but back in February this year another amazing volunteer, Heather Sykes, received her golden eagle award of recognition. Heather is a member of the RSPB Helensburgh Local Group which celebrated its 40th anniversary this year. In the early days of the group Heather was an active Committee member involved in the coffee mornings and bric-a-brac sales they had to raise money for nature conservation. Heather continues to be a key group member supporting the work of RSPB Scotland locally and preparing the group’s newsletter.
I’d like to take this opportunity to say a HUGE thank you to Dave, Heather and to everyone else who volunteers with us to help save nature whether you’ve been doing it 40 minutes or 40 years.
Volunteers are the lifeblood of the RSPB, with nearly 17'000 of them contributing over 1 million hours & making up about 20% of the RSPB's entire workforce! As such, some of our Volunteer Line Managers have provided a few words in praise of just a handful of the many volunteers who give up their time in the name of the RSPB, the length and breadth of the country and even abroad.
“Having spent a couple of weeks at a reserve, seeing just how hard the vols work and how committed and enthusiastic they are, I have returned with a new-found appreciation. What an amazing bunch of people.” Suzy Mills, Membership and Fulfilment Manager, UK Headquarters
“Our volunteer has worked extremely hard and has taken on board the task in hand to a very high standard. After initial training, he was able to work with minimal support (which was exactly what we needed from this role). He fitted in very well within the team and I feel sure that he enjoyed his time with us as much as we welcomed having him as a colleague for a time.” Mandy Moran, Infrastructure Engineer, UK Headquarters
“There are a variety of ways volunteers are working with children on school visits, giving their time not only to help and guide the children in their learning but also in supporting the teaching teams in many different ways. Many education schemes could not run properly without the more practical volunteer helpers who maintain the areas in which children work. This could be tidying up, mowing, cutting back brambles and stingers or putting up benches and log circles for children to sit on. With the gift of time from volunteers we can do so much more to connect young people with nature.” Carolyn Maxwell, UK Headquarters
“Our volunteers have made a huge and lasting contribution to the work of RSPB and the Gola Forest Project – they leave a legacy of invaluable data and a team of forest guards much better equipped, in terms of skills and understanding, to help protect this unique and special place. They take with them memories that I am sure will remain with them for years to come and experience that will also help them in their future careers” Juliet Vickery, Head of International Research, UK Headquarters
“Our team of 14 regular volunteers are amazing, without them we couldn’t achieve what we do, they are an absolute asset to our team always going above and beyond, thank you one and all.” Sallie Crawley, Volunteering Development, UK Headquarters
“Once again the successful operation of the Rathlin West Light Seabird Centre has relied on the generosity, in time and effort, of a flow of volunteers taking us, week by week, from April through to September. This year we have been poised to open the lighthouse as part of our attraction, but this has been tantalisingly delayed so far. Nevertheless, our volunteers have enjoyed marvellous moments of matchings, hatchings, and dispatchings among the seabird colony and have shared their amazement and excitement with the many visitors, inspiring them to develop their interest in the wider, natural world of the marine environment surrounding us and the care needed to sustain it safely.” Alison McFaul, Visitor Experience Manager, Rathlin West Light Seabird Centre
"Thanks to Shaun Robson who’s been working on developing the vision for our French’s Farm Reserve in Dorset. He has invested a huge amount of time and expertise gathering feedback and collating complex issues; presenting them back in such a way that we can really start to make long-term decisions about the management of this spectacular site’. Dante Munns, Dorset and Wiltshire Area Manager
“A big thank you to all the Farmland surveyors in County Down who have been setting their alarms for ungodly hours throughout the spring and summer. I know it’s not easy when the alarm goes off at 4:30am to get out of bed and put on your waterproofs and wellies, but the work you have done will help us work with farmers to save some of our most threatened farmland species in the area.” Philip Carson, Conservation Advisor, Northern Ireland Headquarters
“Our volunteer protection team are a God-send! I have been deeply impressed by the hours and hours of dedication to protecting one of Somerset’s rarest (and newest!) breeding birds.” Damon Bridge, Project Manager – Nature Recovery (Damon’s referring to the Great Crane project here)
"A huge thank you to our team of ‘peregrine’ volunteers at Salisbury Cathedral, who again gave their time to show visitors the Cathedral peregrines and their four newly fledged young. We’re all still hugely excited that, after an absence of 61 years these amazing birds have successfully nested for a second year on this magnificent Cathedral – and judging by the reaction of the hundreds of visitors, they are too!’ Philip Sheldrake, Conservation Officer – Wiltshire and Gloucestershire
"I work with a whole bunch of wonderful volunteers engaged with Cirl buntings, they help make my job both easier and more rewarding - I don’t know what I would do without them. Thank you all you cirl bunting enthusiasts you know who you are!" Cath Jeffs, Cirl Bunting Project Manager
"Andrew McNinch has been a wonderful addition to our great team of volunteers on the Exe Estuary. He will always help out at extra events when asked and his kind and enthusiastic nature has given our visitors plenty to smile about"
"David Byrne has been volunteering for us ever since accidentally visiting the hide and agreeing to help! His kindly approach to visitors has been a real boost to the reserve and we like to think he’s now happy he was gently coerced into volunteering with us." Steve Henry, Visitor Experience Manager
"I have been in awe of the commitment, energy and abilities of our volunteers at Chesil Beach Little Tern Project from day one! Well done everyone, you should be very proud of your work! Thanks from Thalassa McMurdo Hamilton and the little terns of Chesil Beach." Thalassa McMurdo, Little Tern Project Officer
"Thank you so much to Loran, Robin, Judy and George for all their help over the last 3 years as part of the membership team in Devon and Cornwall. You’ve helped to raise thousands of pounds for the RSPB’s amazing work and have introduced so many people to nature! Good luck for future seasons." Jennifer Few, Membership Development Officer
“We are so grateful to all our wonderful volunteers who have assisted the Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery Project over the past two and a half years. This project is about seabirds and people, without volunteers this project would not be possible. We have a fantastic range of volunteers from those at the RSPB Penzance office who make seabird nest boxes and point wildlife out onboard the Scillonian ferry to the passengers; to the 84 residents on St Agnes and Gugh who are keeping the islands rat-free. We look forward to welcoming more volunteers over the next 2 years of the project. www.ios-eabirds.org.uk” Jaclyn Pearson, Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery Project Manager
Many thanks to all of our wonderful volunteers who give so much to the RSPB, we couldn't do it without you!
For more information on all things volunteering visit our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/RSPBVolunteering?ref=hl
And to find out how you can get involved visit our page at http://www.rspb.org.uk/joinandhelp/volunteering/
There can’t be many seven year old girls who prefer bird song to the songs of One Direction but then Gracie Mae Mortimer is quite unusual.
Not only is she passionate about nature, she’s also just become the youngest volunteer at the RSPB’s internationally renowned nature reserve at Bempton Cliffs on the East Yorkshire coast. “So far I’ve been litter picking around the seabird centre and I’ve helped fill the bird feeders. Next I’m going to learn how to work the CCTV cameras so I can show visitors the puffins on the cliffs”, enthused Gracie.
Gracie’s Mum, Clare, and Dad, Keith, accompany her on her twice monthly visits to the reserve and have encouraged her to be curious about the natural world, as their parents did with them: “As a family, we enjoy being outdoors as much as possible and often walk from where we live in Bridlington up to Danes Dyke to explore the woods. We take a guide book with us and Gracie especially likes trying to identify anything interesting that we come across, from leaves to feathers.”
Gracie’s school, Boynton Primary, has also helped fuel her love of nature. Until funds ran out, they had cameras installed in nest boxes in the school grounds so that their pupils could see the birds inside raising their families.
RSPB Bempton Cliffs volunteer development officer, Ryan Chenery, invited Gracie to become a volunteer after she enquired about joining the RSPB’s junior section, Wildlife Explorers: “Gracie’s got enough energy for ten volunteers and puts her heart and soul into every job. Her Mum tells us she’s no Little Miss Perfect though - while she might be great at litter picking, she’s not quite as good at keeping her bedroom neat and tidy”.
Unbelievably, this isn’t Gracie’s first volunteering role. Four years ago, her Mum and Dad were heavily involved with the Bridlington and Driffield Mencap Society and three year old Gracie helped at fund raising events by folding raffle tickets and setting out the prizes for the tombola.
So will this experience convince Gracie to aim towards working for the RSPB when she grows up? “Well, I might be an archaeologist or a palaeontologist or a seal rescue worker. But I wouldn’t mind being a Puffin Patrol leader at Bempton Cliffs either.”
RSPB Bempton Cliffs would love to hear from potential volunteers of all ages. Anyone interested in helping out at the nature reserve should contact Ryan Chenery on 01262 422207 or email firstname.lastname@example.org