Dartmoor bird research: Bringing together Exeter researchers and local birders

Sara Zonneveld is a PhD researcher in Biosciences, she is working as part of the Dartmoor Upland Bird Nest Group to build a better understanding of the breeding ecology of ground-nesting birds and Cuckoos on Dartmoor. Sara and the group are using this information to support the conservation of birds on Dartmoor and beyond. Sara explained more about the work…

Our research team consists of Professor Charles Tyler, and two PhD students (Lowell Mills and I). However, we are not just a team of scientists. The Dartmoor Upland Bird Nest Group is a collaboration between University of Exeter scientists and local volunteers which was formed in 2008 when Charles met two volunteer bird nest recorders on Dartmoor.

They all had a shared interest in the birds and habitats of Dartmoor, and from their friendship the Dartmoor Upland Bird Nest Group was formed. Over the years, more people joined, making up the diverse team of researchers and local birders that form our group today.

The research we do is dependent on detailed bird breeding data, such as the timing of breeding, breeding success and breeding locations. This information is recorded by finding and monitoring nests, a task that requires an incredible amount of field skills and knowledge of bird behaviour. The nest recorders in the Dartmoor Upland Bird Nest Group are highly skilled local birders and volunteer nest recorders, who together have decades of experience in monitoring bird nests.

Over the past eight years, these volunteers have monitored more than 1,300 nests of 30 plus species on our 2km² study site. At the University we use this data to research the breeding dynamics and breeding requirements of our charismatic Dartmoor upland bird community. One of our main research topics focuses on the Meadow Pipit and Cuckoo, studying their breeding, diet and habitat use. Additionally, we aim to understand at which time of the year disturbance needs to be reduced to allow ground-nesting birds to breed successfully.

Our group now also works closely together with other organisations. Nationally, all our nest data is shared with the British Trust for Ornithology’s Nest Record Scheme. Locally, we work closely with both Devon Birds and the Dartmoor National Park Authority to help grow our research and communicate our findings.

Our project highlights the importance of skilled volunteers and local support in facilitating scientific research. None of our Dartmoor bird research would have been possible without the dedicated volunteers in our group. In addition to collecting much-needed data, our volunteers provide us with important insights in bird behaviour and pass on their valuable field skills. The passion and knowledge of these local birders drives the research that our team is able to do here at the University of Exeter.

Although our field-work has been volunteer-run for the past eight years, there are equipment costs and running expenses that need to be covered. To be able to expand our project and collect more data to address crucial bird conservation questions, we are currently crowdfunding to support our fieldwork for the 2016 season. Any help would be greatly appreciated, please find out more on our crowdfunding website.

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