Wild Weekend 2023.
BTO staff members at the Wild Weekend 2023. Steven Fyffe

Finding the wild side in Northern Ireland

Jemma Davies

Engagement Coordinator

Jemma is excited to be part of BTO NI in a role that focuses on helping people to engage with nature and notice what’s right outside their door, something that she’s passionate about and keen to promote. 

Relates to projects

Jemma Davies is the new Engagement Coordinator for BTO in Northern Ireland. How better to kick off her role than the Wild Weekend at Oxford Island?

The BTO Wild Weekend is part of our wider work currently happening in Northern Ireland (NI), which aims to engage with new audiences and support people in becoming volunteers for our core monitoring schemes. The event was also well-timed in terms of me getting out and meeting birders in Northern Ireland after only a month in my new role – chatting with people in person is often less intimidating than lots of emails coming into my inbox from strangers!

In total, we were joined by about 50 people for a full day of wild workshops, demonstrations and talks at Lough Neagh Discovery Centre at the Oxford Island National Nature Reserve. These sessions were aimed at those who had signed up for the event, but they were helpful for me, too: they reminded me of the big picture of BTO, why our work is important and how valuable volunteers are in helping us to achieve our goal of a better future for birds and for nature.

An introduction to bird ringing

I’m relatively new to the concept of bird ringing and before the Wild Weekend hadn’t even seen a mist net, never mind someone holding a bird for ringing! 

We had the opportunity to see Debbie Nelson, lead ringer at the site, and her team in action catching birds in the mist net, handling them, and ringing them. BTO has been coordinating bird ringing activities in the UK since the 1930s, and running a special scheme called Constant Effort Sites (CES) since 1983. 

This is a standardised ringing programme that involves ringers operating the same nets, in the same locations, over the same time period at regular intervals through the breeding season. There are approximately 120 CES sites throughout Britain and Ireland, with four being in NI.

Oxford Island is a CES for bird ringing, providing valuable trend information on the abundance of adult and juvenile birds, productivity, and also adult survival rates for 24 species of common songbird. Debbie’s enthusiasm and love of ringing didn’t go unnoticed – in my view you need those things as motivation for getting up at 4 a.m. to do a survey!

The ringing demonstration at the Wild Weekend 2023. Sorrel Lyall
Debbie leads the ringing demonstration at the Wild Weekend 2023. Sorrel Lyall

Learning to find and monitor nests

Sandra from Lough Neagh Discovery Centre leads a nest-finding workshop. Jemma Davies
Sandra from Lough Neagh Discovery Centre leads a nest-finding workshop. Jemma Davies 

We’re lucky in Northern Ireland to have Stephen Hewitt (Armagh Regional Rep) as an enthusiastic Nest Record Scheme mentor. Despite being unable to attend the Wild Weekend event he kindly headed out with another keen volunteer, George, a couple of days ahead of time to track down some nests to share on Saturday. 

In both the morning and the afternoon there was an opportunity to join George, plus Sandra and Rosie from Lough Neagh Discovery Centre to see some of these nests and learn about the scheme. We also learnt how, by paying careful attention to bird behaviour, you can find and then monitor birds’ nests.

Monitoring nests is really rewarding and since joining Stephen on a training course recently I find myself paying more attention to bird behaviour that I would perhaps have overlooked before. If you haven’t done any nest monitoring before, you could join BTO’s Nesting Neighbours project, which is ideal for new volunteers. 

It’s important to note that in order to participate in nest recording in Northern Ireland you may need to register for a license – it is a requirement of the legislation here. You can find out more in our nest monitoring Code of Conduct. 

Listening out for birds

Seeing the confidence that people gained as a result of the training was hugely encouraging...it’s amazing how bird ‘noise’ can so quickly become a chorus of individuals singing and calling.  

BTO Scotland’s Ben Darvill and BTO NI’s Sorrel Lyall shared the value of being able to ID birds by their songs and call, and gave some great tips for developing transferable skills when listening out for birds – including some fun impressions and memory aids. The theory was then put straight into action as we headed outside to do some listening exercises and IDing using our ears. 

Seeing the confidence that people gained as a result of the training was hugely encouraging and the BTO team left the day uplifted by the progress that people made in such a short space of time. It’s amazing how bird ‘noise’ can so quickly become a chorus of individuals singing and calling. I previously thought I was OK at my song and call ID, but I’ve come to appreciate that the more you learn the less it feels like you know, so this is definitely an aspect of birding that I’m keen to develop myself. 

Sketching in the field

Great Crested Grebe from Kinnego Hide. Sorrel Lyall
Great Crested Grebe from Kinnego Hide. Sorrel Lyall 

BTO NI’s Sorrel and Katherine Booth Jones led a workshop on field sketching that involved both a theory part and a practical part.

They talked through the benefits of field sketching: for learning ID, to study behaviour, and to improve your well-being. Then they moved on to explaining how to approach field sketching, in terms of choosing a bird to draw (one with plenty of individuals to view!), where to start with shapes and shading, and the equipment that might be helpful.

They emphasised the importance of practising – which is exactly what they did next, visiting a hide and using binoculars and scopes to give everyone the opportunity to have a go at field sketching. 

The characterful Great Crested Grebe was the most popular subject, with some 50 birds in front of the hide – dozing, stretching, fishing and offering some interesting postures to draw.

I must confess that I’m not very gifted at drawing (give me a crochet pattern, a crochet hook and some wool any day!) but I feel inspired by Sorrel and Kat’s skill and enthusiasm to give sketching a go…maybe I’ll start with using photos of birds and then progress to giving it a go in the field.


I enjoyed connecting with like-minded people. Wild Weekend 2023 attendee 
What a great day, it was a fantastic initiation into birds for me. Wild Weekend 2023 attendee 

The fantastic Oxford Island National Nature Reserve was bustling with bird activity throughout the day, with countless Blackcaps, Sedge Warblers, Chaffinches, Dunnocks and Wrens singing away. We racked up 52 species in total, with highlights of Grasshopper Warbler, Pochards with ducklings and Red-breasted Mergansers.

It was a great day full of birds and exploring the National Nature Reserve, and it set the bar pretty high for future events as the weather was fantastic and everyone was keen to learn.

It was wonderful to meet lots of people and to put faces to names – and I’m looking forward to seeing folk again at upcoming training and engagement events across Northern Ireland.

Get involved in Northern Ireland

BTO offers plenty of opportunities, experiences and resources for everyone in Northern Ireland, whether you’re new to birds or a lifelong naturalist.

Events and courses

Events and courses

From Wild Weekends and Bird Camps to ecology training and identification courses, there is something for everyone.



Join our growing community of volunteers by taking part in a survey. You don’t need to be an expert to take part!

Online resources

Online Resources
Jemma Davies, 30 June 2023

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