We have all been presented with challenges over the last year. Gary Benton, our Head of Living Collection, reflects on 2021 from the perspective of managing the Bird Team during this time and the extraordinary challenges his team faced. Keep reading for a fascinating account from Gary about the humans and birds alike in his team, readjusting to the various changes of last year:
What a strange and worrying time we all had in 2020/21 with the pandemic causing so many changes to the world we live in and certainly causing a wave of uncertainty and challenges at the Trust.
As we moved into the spring of 2021, things started to look a lot more promising at the Trust, so I thought I would reflect on a few of our experiences at a time when we were looking to lead a more ‘normal’ Trust life again!
After the most recent lockdown we managed to re-open our doors in mid-April, unfortunately this meant that we missed a really crucial part of our year; the Easter holidays. By opening towards the end of the Easter holiday time, we missed a key time for our customers to visit us, and obviously the income as a result (although I remember we were just thankful to be open at all so even a small part of the Easter break was a relief!). I remember very clearly that it was a very strange time, not only did the birds need to adjust to seeing more people again, but also our team of dedicated staff and volunteers, all of a sudden, became very public-facing again. This is something that I never thought would be a challenge for us, since it has always been so integrated into what we do on a daily basis, but it was a shock after such a long time spent in and out of lockdowns. It definitely took a bit of getting used to for all of us, but after a matter of weeks, everybody (birds and all) were in a fairly good flow again. Well, not quite all of the birds though…
Interestingly, one of the biggest challenges we faced with birds was with warm weather. In a normal year, we would be coming out of our winter season in late February to early March, and that means the majority of the sun-worshipping, summer season birds are finishing their well-earned winter rest (which is a luxury we can give our birds that they obviously don’t get in the wild) and getting back into the swing of things with flying routines. Even for the most experienced birds, it takes a few weeks for them to get back into a routine and cement that close relationship we have with them again. The advantage of a normal year is that this transition period is normally still at a colder time of year when thermals and good lift are seldom seen, so any birds that are still adjusting, just opt to sit in a tree if they are in the frame of mind of just doing their own thing! This is part and parcel of getting back to routine so you would just expect a little bit of hanging around waiting for birds as they adjust.
The BIG problem we faced in 2021 was aligned with VERY warm weather when we re-opened. So, instead of birds sitting in trees now and again, they found it much easier to just open their wings and float on the thermals while they decided what to do next. Needless to say, we found ourselves watching a lot of our birds flying very high, without the usual confidence that they would come home easily. Needless to say, there were a few long days and evenings waiting for birds to come back home. Never have we been more pleased to be in an age where birds are wearing accurate tracking devices so that we could at least rely on that if we lost sight of any of those birds.
Some repeat wanderers were our young pair of Northern Bald Ibis, Rafiki and Timone, who got into a real habit of high flying as the warm weather continued into the summer. It looked amazing and most days they came home as we called them, but there were the odd occasions where we had wandering ibis not sure where to land. Being youngsters, they weren’t completely familiar with the way home. We noticed that they started to target crowds of people as the closest thing to home, and had to collect them from a kids football match on the edge of Andover where they landed with spectators, a children’s sports lesson on the local village green and also outside the local McDonald’s! We had some very strange looks from people as we arrived to collect two ibis that just waddled back into their transport crates before heading back in the van for a taxi ride home with us.
Luckily, the high flying/wandering was fairly short lived and it wasn’t too long before all of the birds were back to full routine and doing us as proud as ever. Even the ibis managed to finish the summer with an amazing run of flying during the Wings of Africa display.
It was really nice to also start to welcome more and more of our guests back into the Trust as COVID-19 restrictions started to slacken off a little, and we could increase our daily capacity. As we moved into the summer holiday season, we were back to a decent daily visitor number which, aside from being very important for generating income for our conservation work, also allowed us as a team of people and birds to get back to an environment that felt like the old days. We had a very positive period of daily demonstrations during the summer, and also managed to undertake a very successful run of events with our African Sunset Safari events, which were very popular.
As we moved into the end of the summer holidays, the normal movement of children back to school (I can hear parents and grandparents alike cheering as they read this) meant that we would start to see the normal transition of guests that stay clear of all things summer holidays starting to come back through the doors and creating a very different feel around the Trust.
I really like the busy summer period for many reasons but I also like it when the crowd simmers down a little and we start to move away from summer and then spending my favourite month of the year (September) flying birds that are just loving the perfect conditions that September brings. Normally, that includes a boost in wild bird sightings as young birds start to move around and away from nesting areas to explore new territories. It’s a real joy of a month to be watching the skies!
Then as we moved towards October, with colder weather, Halloween and Owls by Moonlight evenings, there was a whole different offering again. November is the transition into the winter season where those high-flying summer birds start to wind down and have that well-earned rest again. The winter team start their season and now we are well into the depths of December and leading up to the Christmas period with our brand new Winter Woodland Lights event looming on the horizon as we edge closer and closer to January. A mix of excitement with a touch of the unknown is in the air as we prepare for that new venture!
Before we know it, spring will be on the doorstep and it will all start over again, but hopefully this time without the same challenges the pandemic put in the way!”
Head of Living Collection