Just over a decade ago I was fortunate enough to spend a few days on Heligoland, a North Sea island off the coast of Germany. It is a bizarre place, with a series of tax-free shops around the small harbour to serve day-tripping German tourists, a conference centre and various houses and apartments. The rest of the island is a mixture of rough ground, old fortifications and dunes. Importantly, however, it is the place where Heinrich Gätke spent 50 years studying the migration of birds and where he established his ‘vogelwarte’ or bird observatory. The observatory, a small building and well-vegetated ‘garden’, sits just below the ridge of the island and pulls in many migrant birds. Heligoland’s position in the North Sea means that it attracts vast numbers of migrant birds, allowing researchers and bird ringers to study bird movements in great detail.
The notion of the bird observatory arrived in Britain in the early 1930s, with the establishment of Skokholm Bird Observatory by the ornithologist and author Ronald Lockley. This small island observatory, located off the southwest coast of Wales, attracted the interest of leading ornithologists and it was not long before other observatories were opened at suitable sites elsewhere around the British and Irish coasts. Soon after the war the BTO set up a committee to coordinate the research efforts of the observatories, helping to standardise recording methods and to pool the new information that was being collated. The results from these early years appeared in a new journal, named Bird Migration, which makes fascinating reading and is something I dip into from time-to-time. The collective reports summarise each autumn and spring migration, charting arrivals and departures for a wide range of species.
Even though interest in the observatories waned a little during the 1960s, with interest turning towards what radar studies were revealing about bird migration, there has been a real resurgence of late as observatories attract a wider audience of birdwatchers and naturalists, keen on learning and experiencing migration in its many forms. Today, 18 observatories form the Bird Observatories Council, with Holme in Norfolk and Landguard in Suffolk our nearest ones. There are others that operate outside of this network, generating more information on bird movements.
The ability to catch and ring migrating birds in a systematic way provides an opportunity to look at how migration patterns may have changed and the extent to which such changes may reflect wider changes in bird populations. Many of the observatories also operate moth traps and collect information on the other wildlife on their sites. All act as a focus for local, regional or even national interest in wildlife and it is wonderful to see them doing so well.