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Friday 19th September, 2014

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Report from the World Owl Conference

It was a dark rainy Monday night when Tony Warburton, Sue Thurley and I set off for an overnight stop in Manchester, ready for an early flight the following morning. We were on our way to Groningen in the north of Holland to represent the Trust at the World Owl Conference. It was only the day before that British Summer Time had ended and we still hadn’t got accustomed to the early onset of darkness but the excitement of attending the conference dispelled all the gloom. Sue and I were ‘Conference virgins’ and over dinner we quizzed Tony about what to expect, who would be there and what we hoped to achieve for the Trust.

We awoke on Tuesday morning to clear skies and flew off to Holland via Aberdeen in a 50 seat Embraer 145 - the air travel industry’s equivalent to a minibus. When we arrived at Groningen airport we collected our bags and were through the airport in only a few minutes. Too good to be true? Yes. We walked out of the airport, stopped, looked around and…nothing. Not a soul in sight and no taxis. So, we waited and waited expecting a taxi to arrive at any time. Surely every airport has taxis? No! Not this one. Eventually we had to persuade someone inside the airport to phone a taxi to take us to our hotel.

Terry, Sue and Tony at the WOC

At breakfast the following morning we were all wearing our World Owl Trust shirts and lots of people came to our table, introduced themselves and said they too were attending the conference. One of our objectives at the conference was to ‘network’, to make as many contacts around the world a possible. This would help us to increase our knowledge of how owls are doing in more parts of the world and work out if there are ways we can help. Breakfast on the first day, and we had already spoken to people from Canada, India, Germany and Japan, not a bad start!

The conference was attended by 150 people from 30 different countries and included some of the great and the good from the owl world such as Pertti Saurola, Michael Wink and Fred J and H J Koning. Following an opening address by the conference chairman, Johan de Jong, Iain Taylor presented the first plenary session and asked ‘Do Owls Follow the Rules?’ In this session Iain explored the predator/prey relationship and showed that with an abundance of prey the Barn Owl would maximise the efficiency of its hunting by selecting the fattest male voles rather than a random selection of male/female large/small voles. This optimal foraging favours the natural selection of efficient predators such as owls, helping them to follow the rules of species survival.

In all, more than 80 presentations were given over the four conference days, on subjects as diverse as ‘Owls in Sanskrit Literature’ (Reuven Yosef) and ‘A Study of the Mounting Behavior of Spotted Owlets in Maharashtra, India’ (Raju Kasambe) to ‘Feathered Goblins’ (Claus & Ingrid König). For me, the highlight was Karla Kinstler’s ‘Great Horned Owl Vocalisations and Associated Behaviours’ in which she showed how the birds communicate with each other using hoots, chitters and squawks with a variety of postures and behaviours. Karla explained that she had recorded sounds from her imprinted Great Horned Owl ‘Alice’ and from wild birds roosting close to her home in Minnesota USA. She discovered that each bird’s call is unique in the same way that we can recognize each other’s voices but the phrases, for example, a greeting call, were similar for all the birds.

The conference was held in the centre of Groningen at a venue called the Martiniplaza. A purpose built conference centre/theatre. The facility was impressive and so was the catering; on the first day twice as many people arrived than were expected but apart from having to shuffle the chairs a bit you wouldn’t have noticed. There was always plenty to eat and drink and the staff were always smiling and happy to help.

On Saturday we took a break. A coach picked us up from the hotel and whisked us away to the wilds of Friesland for a day bird watching. The farmers receive a subsidy for not scaring the birds away and consequently there are hundreds of thousands of them. Most of these are migratory geese – mainly barnacle geese and white fronted geese, but there are many, many others. Among the species we saw that day were a peregrin falcon, a hen harrier and a great white egret.

In the true tradition of saving the best till last, Tony’s presentation on our work in the Philippines came late on Sunday afternoon. Presentation is not really the right word – ‘performance’ would be better. Afterwards someone said to me ‘He’s missed his vocation, he should have been a preacher.’ Tony preached the word ‘Conservation’ and if anyone didn’t feel stirred and motivated afterwards, there must be something wrong with them.

Tony - The Preacher

So, it was with a great sense of anticlimax, we said goodbye to all our new friends and contacts and made our way home. The conference was a mixture of good news and bad news. Ural owls are being reintroduced to the Bavarian forests and over two hundred long-eared owls were counted in one of many winter roosts in Serbia. On the other hand, the numbers of burrowing owls in North America are declining due to an epidemic that is wiping out the prairie dogs whose burrows the owls use. Overall the message was that some owls are adapting and moving to share the urban habitats we are creating for ourselves but for the others we still need to do more to preserve and restore the natural wildlife habitats.

For more information and to read the resolutions passed at the conference visit: www.worldowlconference.com

Terry Evison

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