Lecturer in Ornithology and Animal Conservation
University of Birmingham
Involved with the BOU as:
IBIS associate editor
BOU member since: 2000
Most likely to be found . . .
. . . planning and executing scientific activities with the Army Ornithological Society (AOS) on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic where we work on the seabird community. Ascension is now a home away from home. You cannot beat island life.
What does being an IBIS associate editor involve?
It involves being part of an impressive network of ornithologists whose knowledge base covers every conceivable element of modern ornithology. Since 2003 I have handled in excess of 170 manuscripts for the journal. My role involves reading each at initial submission to check that it meets Ibis’ remit, inviting referees to review the science, reviewing the manuscript myself, considering our collective reviews and then making recommendations to the appointed editor as to the editorial decision to be reached. Of course, if the outcome from initial review is positive then we guide authors further in subsequent cycles of revision.
What do you enjoy most about being an IBIS associate editor?
I love receiving raw (i.e. unpublished) science that nobody has ever seen before. It is exciting playing a key role in bringing ornithological discovery to the wider audience that reads Ibis. I feel that the editorial base of the journal including fellow associate editors, editors and the editor in chief is a dynamic entity where everyone supports each other.
What would you say to anyone who is considering submitting a paper to IBIS?
Go for it. The top journals in ornithology are becoming highly competitive and the increasing rejection rates reflect this but good science will always be published and Ibis is as good a place as any to publish. My approach is if at first read I see something exciting in a manuscript, it will always go out for review. The fact that it is Ibis means that the science is almost always of a high standard and therefore the vast majority of manuscripts that I have handled have at least gone to first review.
Why are you a member of the BOU?
I want to be part of a wider ornithological community and that is made possible by the BOU that publishes a great journal and brings friends and collaborators together at good conferences and workshops.
If you’ve attended a BOU conference, what did you get out of it?
I was astounded by the number of old acquaintances (friends, collaborators, former graduate students) that I bumped into at the last BOU conference. BOU conferences are well run and as part of that they provide many opportunities to hear about cutting edge ornithological research and social time when it is possible to reinforce established, and initiate new, working relationships. I have always considered that conferences are great for this because people are ‘away from their desks’ and free (for the most part) from the distractions of modern life (e.g. e-mail, meetings).
When did your interest in ornithology begin?
I was very much a K-strategist in that it took me a long time to fledge into the world of ornithology. I was brought up on a farm in rural Warwickshire where every day I walked around fields full of Northern Lapwings and Skylarks. So, I enjoyed seeing birds every day but I never considered myself to be a birder. It all changed when I went to university as an undergraduate student. I started as a card-carrying comparative animal physiologist but emerged as an ornithologist. This shift of interest was all down to carrying out a final year project on Common Kingfishers in the New Forest. They fascinated me and I have worked on birds exclusively ever since.
What is your most memorable bird-y experience?
As reflected in so many other profiles, there have been too many. I will be strict and select just two. One was my first visit to Ascension Island when I stepped out onto the breeding colony of Sooty Terns to find stretched out in front of me 200,000+ breeding birds on eggs. It was breath-taking and that memory will stay with me forever. The second was taking part in the Christmas Bird Count in central Florida in 2007 when I accompanied three others from Archbold Biological Station. We started at 4:30AM and finished at 10:00PM during which time we amassed 140 species, including an Anhinga in the car park right at the end!
What is your favourite outdoor place and why?
The Mars Bay breeding colony of Sooty Terns on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic. A drama plays out every day as adults invest so much in a single egg and chick, as chicks run the gauntlet of moving through the colony with hungry Ascension Frigatebirds overhead and as newly fledged birds head out to sea, returning only after many years to breed for the first time. Ascension highlights the fragility of life for such long-lived seabirds.
What do you predict to be the future big research areas in ornithology?
I think that there two areas in ornithology that are set for future rapid expansion because of technological advances. The first is in biotelemetry because as GPS devices become ever smaller in dimensions, lighter in mass and capable of longer deployment as a result of improvements in battery design, the range of species (especially those of smaller body size) will expand. The second area is in whole genome sequencing of more bird species that will significantly improve our ability to investigate mechanisms of adaptation in birds living in close association with us.
What would you say to anyone considering research in ornithology?
Join an exciting community of researchers. The key to making significant contributions to the science of ornithology is to ask new questions and think big. It is a struggle at the moment to fund research but think laterally about the applications of your ornithological lines of enquiry and be creative in where you apply for money. But most of all, enjoy the ride.
If you could visit anywhere in the world, that you haven’t yet been to, where would it be and why?
I would love to spend time working on Zebra Finches across the arid zones of Australia. This might sound strange but I worked for 4 years at Oxford on captive ‘zebbies’ on the roof of the Department of Zoology and the birds were sourced from local pet shops. I really enjoyed working with them answering questions about their reproductive biology but I would relish working on free-living birds that have not experienced such intense selective breeding.
What are the big conservation challenges in the next decade?
There are quite a few. The biggest is convincing funding agencies that conservation in its own right is worth funding. In this regard, I worry about the sustainability of long-term population (and ecological) studies of birds because funding ‘packages’ typically last for only 3 years. Unreliable funding streams result in discontinuities in research activities focussed on study populations. These can do irreparable harm to our understanding of particularly long-lived species. I think that urbanisation presents many challenges to birds and we know so little about the biology of ‘urban’ birds. The challenge for conservation biologists is to investigate how (and whether) birds adapt to city life before it is too late for them.
Has your career in ornithology turned out how you expected it to?
I am not sure that I had any expectations of how my career would turn out. I knew that I loved birds and I have been fortunate in them playing such a key role in my academic career. Postgraduate study took me to some wonderful places in Canada and a postdoctoral position allowed me to work at a fabulous field site in the USA. My career is an exciting mix of teaching, research in cityscapes and on remote oceanic islands, and giving something back to the ornithological community through IBIS editorial work. What could be better?
As a comparative whole animal biologist to start with, I always gravitated towards birds because of the unique strategies that they employ to meet challenges head on. As I have learnt about birds, I find myself asking more and more questions. It is the process of finding answers to those questions that gets me out of bed in the morning.
What are your interests outside the world of ornithology?
Travel, reading, art.