Saturday, 21 February 2015

Thinking outside the box

What does my job as an ecologist entail?  Well, I guess it can be summed up as ensuring the nature reserves I have responsibility for meet their objectives.  This would normally focus on the key habitat condition or species targets.  One other area of work that particularly interests me is the management of a reserve to enhance the enjoyment visitors will gain from it.  This may involve ‘tricks’ to pull birds or other wildlife close to viewpoints through habitat manipulation, or the provision of the viewpoint in the right location.  On most reserves, the default option for viewing is an observation hide with its standard rectangular ‘box’ shape and narrow shuttered viewing slots.  Surely it is about time we were thinking outside the box.

A year ago, I was fortunate to visit Varanger in northern Norway and meet Tormod Amundsen and Elin Taranger of Biotope, an architectural business with special expertise in birds and birding.  Their approach to birding architecture is new and inspiring.  To cut a long story short, Tormod and I decided to visit a number of sites in the UK in order to promote discussion about the way we view wildlife and how the design or form of a viewing structure should reflect its specific function.

In a hectic 10 days we toured from Norfolk to Somerset to Dorset to Yorkshire and to Teeside, discovering some great projects in development and hopefully inspiring a few more.  Meetings with birders at Minsmere, Poole Harbour and Flamborough Head were particularly enjoyable.  We even managed a few birds along the way; Bittern, Bearded Tits, Water Pipit, Black-necked Grebe, Great White Egrets, a million Starlings, Woodlarks, Spoonbills, Rough-legged Buzzard, Merlin, Pink-footed and Greenland White-fronted Goose.  Site by site, Tormod’s quadcopter and camera captured aerial images to help plan the projects.

So what is wrong with the standard ‘box’ hide?  Well, in some situations very little, but why should we expect one standard design meet all the needs of an increasingly sophisticated viewing audience?  We may need structures to welcome visitors to a reserve, some for close viewing, some for elevated viewing over a habitat or landscape, some custom-built photographic hides, some to get us out of the wind and of course some to reduce disturbance of wildlife, as after all, there is a clue in the name.  Do many hides reduce disturbance? Or do birds just get used to the presence of people in that particular situation?  Viewing screens are a particular bĂȘte-noire of mine. Most magnificently silhouette the observer against the sky from the bird’s eye view. Do you seriously think they don’t know you are there?

The habitat and the viewpoint should form a partnership, each complimenting the other.  This will often involve careful design and management of the habitat as well as carefully chosen viewpoint designs and locations that enable great views of wildlife and habitat. The form of the viewpoint must follow its function.  We need flexibility, diversity and innovation.  Thanks to Tormod, reserve staff and birders along the way, I hope we have generated a whole range of ideas; some of which may be coming to a reserve near you.