It’s not all about Birding!

It is an extraordinary thing that one of the British Isles, best bird migration highways has been overlooked, until now. At Alderney bird observatory (ABO), we have had the privilege of being the first to consistently monitor the island’s incredible bird migration and begin to do this unsung location some justice.

I took a career break from the metropolitan police service early 2016 to come and explore the potential of Alderney with a view to establishing the Channel Isles first accredited bird observatory. The dream became a reality as the Bird Observatories Council proclaimed Alderney as the British Isles 20th observatory in February 2018.

From the outset, largely because of where Alderney is situated just off the French cotentin peninsula, I felt confident we would see good bird migration through the island, but numbers and variety of birds soon far exceeded expectation. Just a couple of weeks into the job I observed the visual migration of 16 Ring Ouzels in off the sea that all came to rest on the fourth green of the golf course adjacent to the observatory. I thought: “This is going to be awesome!” This was further confirmed by one of my first bird ringing sessions resulting in the catching of over 40 Firecrests! Recoveries of ringed birds soon began to illustrate to us that Alderney is situated in such a way that it facilitates birds passing through our location in Spring heading not only north to the UK but also many more travelling northeast continuing along the continent into Northern, Central and Eastern Europe with the reverse effect during autumn migration.

We have an incredibly long migration season here that can begin late February with early movers such as Black Redstarts and Firecrests.

The return migration continues uninterrupted with Sedge Warblers and Willow Warblers appearing from early July right through to my favourite part of the year when thousands of incoming Thrushes and Finches arrive from October to early December.

Some of the most satisfying aspects of the project have been the improvements to the conservation management of the island that the ABO has instigated and set in motion.

This has included the introducing to the ‘island conservation strategy’ a temporary footpath closure clause for the benefit of wildlife, and the islands first winter seed crop that brought us our first Cirl Bunting record this spring.

This year the observatory successfully lead a project to eliminate rats from the islands’ Common Tern colony resulting in fledged Terns in Alderney for the first time in over 15 years.

Life on this wonderful island has certainly been made easier by the huge support for the new observatory from the local people island wide, and the cooperation and assistance of the States of Alderney. No two days as warden are the same but it’s certainly not all about birding! Everyday involves hours at the desk dealing with emails, enquiries, bookings and other organisational work.

The states of Alderney backed the bird observatory project from day one and in 2017 invested around £300,000 into renovating.

The maintenance of the observatory and grounds, organising events and tours, managing ringing trainees, the list goes on to comply with the national Bird observatory recording standards and maintain our accreditation status, we undertake a daily census walk recording migration – ours takes around 3 hours. We also fit in as much passerine ringing and moth tapping as we possibly can!

Over the last 10 months, renovations have been completed at The Nunnery, a building set within the walls of a Roman Fort overlooking Longis Bay and the French coastline. In July, we host our first official guests in our brand-new self-catering field centre accommodation. A strong committee of knowledgeable and dedicated volunteers has developed along the way making our success story a fine team effort.

As we are unpaid, assistant warden Justin Hart and I both work in other jobs to sustain ourselves; Justin works as a green keeper on the golf course and I run island tours for the visiting tourists and lead tours on Alderney.

Though there is always a long list of jobs outstanding at the end of most days, I’m sure I can safely speak for us both that we feel extremely lucky to be involved in this exciting project.

For my part, being here from the first day when our observatory began operating has been and continues to be a very special experience indeed. It’s just one of those locations where you can get out there and find your own birds.

John Horton

John Horton has a world bird-list of over 5000 species and has spent time birding in locations such as The Congo Republic and Venezuala. He highlights his most memorable birding moment as seeing a Spoon-billed Sandpiper in the hand, the bird caught and ringed (thought to be a world first ringing) whilst John volunteered with The Bombay Natural History Society in Tamil Nadu SW India on valentine’s day 1989.