You never stop learning as an RSPB volunteer. Whether its bugs, birds or how to make wind chimes out of shells every day is a lesson in something new.
I started off my stint of volunteering a complete novice. I could tell you what a Wren looked like – tennis ball with a beak -, that bugs were gross and talk your ear off about flooding. More often than not my conversations would flow as below;
Expert “Do you know that one?”
Me “That’s a duck ...”
Expert “What kind of duck?”
Me “... One that’s swimming?
This one is definitely a ... Duck (Photo Credit, Andy Hay)
So I got to learning! I tackled the books, cracked out the binoculars and muddled through the world of Mersehead. I’m pretty impressed with myself having at least doubled the number of birds I can identify, the pond life I can spot and am an expert in finding Ragwort.
Ragwort ... It haunts the dreams of many a volunteer! (Illustration Credit, Richard Allen)
Everyone learns differently but here are a few – theoretically – helpful hints and tips to help you learn your birds, bugs and banana muffin recipes
1. Prepare for the long haul
Learning takes a while and I’m impatient. I’ve had to really teach myself over the last few months a spot of patience, resilience and that chocolate makes every revision session better. Just take your time and find a way to learn you can stick to in the long run.
2. Get Outside!
Throw that bird book out the window!
Though a good place to start one thing I’ve found during my time at Mersehead is that it is near impossible to learn a bird from the books. The books don’t tell you how they look when they’ve been through a downpour. They don’t tell you how they look flying silhouetted against the sun (Tip: avoid watching too many silhouette birds, it’s a sure way to blind yourself!). They don’t tell you about the silly little hops and skips! It’s these little oddities from bird to bird that I find can help you identify them, even if you can’t quite see them!
3. Bright and early!
A lot of animals are kind of like students. They function at really weird times of day. Birds and mammals are “dusk and dawners” so be prepared for early starts and late nights if you really want to learn their habits!
4. Bring Mersehead volunteers Banana Muffins
Not so much a hint as an official requirement. It might even be an international law ... I’m sure it’s in there somewhere, try section 8?
You don’t have to be an artist! A quick scribble can help plaster into your brain what your subject looks like and be used for research when you get home. It’s a lot easier to stare at a quick doodle and identify the creature then try to remember key features from memory.
I’m still getting things wrong but that’s all part of the fun! Only this week I realised I’d be referring to the Elephant Hawk Moth as a Rhubarb Moth. I looked at bit silly at the time but it proved I was learning! I’d perfected spotting it by the colour but just now need to remember the name.
At Mersehead we’re always up for sharing our secrets and helping you learn about the creepers, flappers and squawkers on the site ... Especially if secrets are being traded for biscuits.
Come down and see us soon!
Hello, I am Emily, a short term volunteer at RSPB Mersehead. I am gaining some experience after finishing my first year of a Zoology degree with Exeter University; the campus actually being in Cornwall, so quite a trek up here – but well worth it!
So, I have been here for two weeks and how time has flown! It has been a busy but fun two weeks with a wide range of tasks from ragwort pulling to white washing cottages! I have never done ragwort pulling on such a large scale and with so many horse flies constantly targeting you no matter whether you have waterproofs on or not! Also, included in the weekly tasks is the butterfly survey which involves following a transect around the reserve recording the different species present and how many of each. This was an interesting experience as I have never been great at identifying butterflies, especially as they don’t seem to stop for long! Species I am now able to identify as they flutter by are the abundant Meadow Brown and Ringlet and those that appear less frequently; the Painted Lady and Common Blue.
Another group which I have become more knowledgeable about are the warblers (Sedge, Reed and Willow) which I first saw on a very early morning whilst helping the bird ringers – a great close up experience. There are also some great opportunities to get up close with the birds at the visitor centre viewing station which have kept me entertained when working in the visitor centre on the quiet, wet and windy days. A wide range of birds visit the bird feeders and allow you to watch from a couple of metres away! I have seen large numbers of yellowhammers and tree sparrows, both of which I don’t see very often at home so it is a great opportunity to see them up close.
The views around the reserve are amazing too and on a clear day the Isle of Man is visible… there is always something to do or watch and it has been an incredible experience so far working with some lovely people whilst learning a lot about working on a reserve and increasing my knowledge of some species new to me.
Did you know the average garden has over 2000 species of insects? That’s 2000 little creepy, crawling critters sneaking through the undergrowth!
That’s 2000 more than I’d like anywhere near me!
Gosh I hate bugs. Always hated bugs. They just make my skin crawl! It’s something about the extra legs and beady little eyes but even I can’t deny the importance of insects nor how special some of them can really be. For all they make me squirm some insects really are beautiful … from a distance ... away from me.
Photo: Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
Mersehead is full of invertebrates (that’s all the animals missing a backbone!). We have all the usual suspects. Bumble Bees commute regularly to both the Visitor Centre and Sulwath Gardens accompanied by the odd Lady Birds, Cinnabar Moths and Red Admiral Butterflies. Out on the Merse and in the wild grasses there are Cinnabar Moths and Frog Hoppers whilst there’s no end of Shield Bugs, Common Dragonflies, Ground Beetles and Centipedes all over the reserve!
Photo Ben Hall (rspb-images.com)
Insects can be found crowding everywhere from the sand dunes to the marshes, which is a good thing for our birds! During the breeding season for example a Blue Tits twelve odd fledglings require a staggering 1440 caterpillars a day between them! Imagine your Mum having to buy 1440 burgers each day to feed you!
What makes Mersehead really special though are the oddities you find on the site. Not necessarily rare or even scarce but the little things you maybe wouldn’t see on your average day out! This month I’ve been treated to a Gold Ringed Dragonfly and an Elephant Hawk Moth! They were beautiful, elegant and surprisingly friendly as the Elephant Hawk Moth would sit quite happily on your chest! With its Rhubarb coloured wings, I could see why Victorians wore them as brooches. For me it was quite an unusual accessory to go with the RSPB blue that day!
You can get close and personal with all sorts of insects at Mersehead. The best introduction though is at the monthly Mocha and Moths event! This week Kirsty introduced me to all sorts of moths caught out on the trap. She even got me holding – after a lot of protesting – some of the moths! It’s a great event to go to if you’re looking for a mini introduction to some surprisingly cute invertebrates!
I may still not be a fan of bugs but I suppose I’ll give the moths a shot.