Interview with David Dinsley, reserve warden at WWT Washington

13th September 2018.

Please can you first tell us a bit about your job as warden at WWT Washington. What does your job entail, and what would be a typical day? How did you become a warden, i.e. what did you do before, what was your education etc?

A typical day for myself, as reserve warden at WWT Washington, begins with opening up the reserve to the public. Whilst doing so I take note of any wildlife sightings in the process and make a note of them for our sightings page on the website and information board in the centre.

Working as a reserve warden, you have the luxury of doing various tasks throughout the year and my tasks vary wildly depending on the season. I could be doing anything from being out surveying Odonata (Dragonflies & Damselflies), conducting annual vegetation management or creating brand new habitats. It really is a mixed bag, in the best possible way. The day ends with a site closure, making sure all visitors have safely left the reserve before it is locked for the night, again making a note of any interesting wildlife sightings.

Before my time at WWT I worked with the RSPB. I was nest protection staff for breeding Hen Harriers in the Forest of Bowland, Lancashire. Prior to that I worked with North Tyneside Council and Durham Wildlife Trust. I gathered a lot of my basic surveying and habitat management skills whilst with Durham Wildlife Trust. I was on a 10 month National Heritage Lottery funded scheme, designed to do so. It was called ‘Wildgrounds’ and the aim was to provide a basic skillset for someone wanting to get into this line of work.

What sort of birds can be seen at the reserve, throughout the year?

Our reserve is made up of a mosaic of different habitats, in turn this gives us a wide range of different bird species. We have a really healthy breeding population of both Bullfinch and Willow Tit, the latter being Britain’s fastest declining resident bird species. During the summer months Wader Lake is alive with breeding Avocet, Lapwing and Common Tern. We also have a well-established Grey Heron colony in a maturing tree-line that borders Wader Lake, one of the most established Heronries in North East England.

The spring and summer months are a good time of year to catch migrating waders; such as Greenshank, Green Sandpiper and Black-tailed Godwit. Recently we had a rarity in the form of a juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper, a rare American vagrant.

You have recently returned from Russia, taking part in a WWT Bewick's Swan conservation project. What is the aim of the project?

The aim of Expedition Bewick’s was to catch and ring as many Bewick’s Swans as possible during our time on the tundra. The birds were ringed with both Darvic and metal rings, the darvic being a larger ring and bolder in colour to allow the birds to be identified in the wild from a distance.

These rings will allow us to monitor these Swans in the future and hopefully chart where and why they are in such decline.

We also took note of breeding birds and young in the local area, I’m happy to report that this year they have had a much better breeding season than last.

Can you tell us a bit about the Bewick's Swan, how does it differ from other swans, and what is its conservation status?

The Bewick’s Swan is currently an amber listed species and the smallest of the three European Swan species. They’re a long lived bird and can live up to 30 years of age, mating for life. Though similar in appearance to the much larger Whooper Swan, the Bewick’s is much smaller with a less pronounced bill and shorter neck, looking almost more Goose like in shape than the larger two Swan species.

What was your role in the team, what did you do out in Russia, where abouts exactly did you go and did it all go to plan? Did you work alongside Russian conservationists?

We were based within Nenetsky Zapovednik and worked out of our basecamp, taking the boats out to search for swans located amongst the tundra channels and lakes, but also checking the open sea. The open sea was actually a hotspot for this year’s catches, with large flocks of Swans loafing on the open water and feeding on Eelgrass.

We worked alongside the Zapovednik rangers, they are incredibly knowledgeable about that area and where to best find Swans. They also know the shallow seas like the back of their hands and do a brilliant job of avoiding the multitude of sand banks. Being stuck for hours on a sand bank waiting for the tide to turn wouldn’t be ideal.

Unfortunately, bad weather caused us to halt catching for a few days. Which was naturally frustrating but ultimately unavoidable.

What did you think of the Russian wildlife and natural habitat that you visited there? Apart from the Swans was there any wildlife highlights of the trip?

The habitat was incredibly unique and saturated with wildlife.

The wildlife was amazing, as a naturalist and birdwatching enthusiast it was a dream. Arctic Skua were commonplace, they would often fly over us to check us out. Very curious birds and would not hesitate to steal the remains of our fish suppers.

Hen Harriers could be seen multiple times a day hunting near our tents, they would fly low over low lying scrub to flush out potential prey items like Meadow Pipit or Citrine Wagtail.

Bluethroat and Black-throated Diver were numerous and fantastic to see in such good numbers. We observed the Diver grouping on the small inland water bodies, once with a flock of 15 at dusk. They would bark and call all day and night, very vocal water birds.

We didn’t have to travel far for nature, near basecamp was an Arctic Fox den. So a couple of times we sat a respectable distance outside, watching and waiting, just enough to peak the curiosity of the cubs. We had them coming out to check us out and that was treat indeed.

Now that the trip is over, what do you expect to happen to the Bewick’s swans that you tagged, will they follow you home to the British Isles, and if so, how long does their migration take, and where do they stop along the way? Do any Bewick’s Swans arrive at WWT Washington each year?

The Bewick’s Swans we tagged will very soon begin their migration to Europe for the winter, stopping off at various points on route. Their wintering range stretches across northern Europe and mostly southern UK.

Though we have had brief appearances by Bewick’s at WWT Washington in the past, we don’t get large numbers during the winter. Unlike our sister centres WWT Slimbridge and WWT Welney, which do get annual flocks of Bewick’s.

Outside of work you also love watching & photographing birds. Do you have a favourite, and if so what is its appeal to you?

Owls are probably my favourite type of bird, they have so much character and a somewhat mystical quality which adds to their cryptic nature.

There’s no better feeling than stumbling upon an owl hunting or scanning through tree cover only to have one staring straight back at you.

The Green Woodpecker is another favourite of mine, it’s very elusive in North East England and my hunt for a decent photograph of one goes on…..

Do you have a good tip for any birdwatching enthusiast or wildlife photographer reading this?

Every season has its highlights, but to me it’s just a case of getting out there at any time, in any weather and seeing what’s out there.


WWT Washington;

WWT Website - WWT Washington page

Nature North East (David's personal pages)