A 10 year study on Dartmoor ground-nesting birds – talk by Sara Zonneveld on 28th January 2019

Sara comes to us with a wealth of ornithological research experience as a resume of her research career shows. Since 2017, she has been working as a SWEEP impact fellow (alongside the Dartmoor bird work she presented to us), on a project that brings together academics, policy-makers and researchers to solve some of the challenges of managing the natural environment in the south-west. 

She started the work on Dartmoor ground-nesting birds in 2013. Before that she worked on a range of projects in different countries as part of her undergraduate and masters degrees, for example a large field study on Great Tits at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany, and a project on Collared Flycatchers on Gotland (Sweden). 

Her current PhD at Exeter University focuses on understanding the factors affecting breeding success in ground-nesting birds and Cuckoos in Dartmoor National Park. A combination of extensive field surveys, ArcGIS and ecological modelling is used to understand the effects of habitat, weather conditions and other biotic factors. Her main interests centre around understanding how ecological factors affect bird breeding and distributions.

The complexity of land management and conservation of essential habitats can only be un-picked and understood through studying nesting behavior and success. Sara outlined the methodology of her team’s work and how data can be used to determine conservation policy.

She outlined the main factors influencing breeding birds success rates, these can be listed as: Predation; Site location; Vegetation; Timing; and Land Management. She discussed how the ecology of breeding was influenced by these factors and showed us how the data and observations were painstakingly made.

The study of ground nesting birds, in particular, Stonechat, Meadow Pipit and Whinchat led to a study of Cuckoo breeding success. Forensic analysis of Meadow Pipit rearing of Cuckoo chicks was brought to bear with observation of foraging for, and make-up of prey (DNA mapping techniques to examine chick’s fecal matter eliciting vital information here) used to feed the Cuckoo chicks showing how the broad ecology of the habitats was essential to success.

The research information showing greater understanding of nesting behavior and breeding success is promulgated both regionally and nationally and is combined with Sara’s work on the SWEEP program which seeks to consider the wider implications of human interaction with Dartmoor. This project tries to predict the future use of the national park with an expanding population around its periphery and looks at the benefits to humans but also recognizing the costs to Dartmoor and its wildlife.

This excellent presentation so eloquently emphasized how the future of our unique national park needs, more than ever before, to be an intricate and carefully balanced system that works for all stakeholders but most of all for cherished wildlife.


John Lloyd