Birding Club: Week 1 – Identifying Common Species

I have attached PowerPoint slides for the first Bird Club session. Students will receive 12 bird outline templates (6 per page) and coloured pencils. If binoculars can’t be provided by school, eBay or Decathlon are good places to look. Students should bring a small notebook, though this will not be required today.

  1. Ask students what birds they already know. They can discuss in pairs and then feedback to the class. Key questions – What does it look like? Have you seen one before? Where did you see it? Is this bird common? Do you have a name for this bird in your first language?
  2. Teacher runs through some key common species, using RSPB chart.
  3. Students jot down a description of Great Spotted Woodpecker, based on image. They then swap and add to partner’s list. Feedback to teacher and list five common points on board. Encourage correct terminology such as crown and nape.
  4. Students watch 5 minute YouTube video and colour-sketch templates so they have rough images of twelve species. You might have to pause.
  5. Students go outside and use their diagrams to identify species around campus. They can tally what they see.
  6. Class feedback. Key questions including, “Did anybody see anything not on the chart?”
  7. Plenary – Using mini-whiteboards, students write the name of birds shown at the end of the presentation. Pupils are given 30 seconds for each slide, no conferring. Count down from five and all students show answers at the same time.

YouTube link:

PowerPoint slides: Birding Club Week 1


Planning a Student Trip to the Danube Delta


Cruising the Danube, Mihai at the wheel

I am thinking about taking Year 12 and 13 Biology students to the Danube Delta Biosphere Reservation next academic year. A UNESCO World Heritage site, this 6,265km2 wetland mosaic of islands, tributaries and freshwater lakes frequently features in top ten lists of the most biodiverse places on Earth. Whilst this may be a contentious accolade, the Danube Delta certainly boasts a huge wealth of animals with over 300 species of birds and 45 freshwater fish species.

Last week my fiance and I went on a three-day reconnaissance. The weather was terrible, with rain, wind and even heavy snow seriously holding us back from the amount of hiking and birding we had planned. Nonetheless we did manage a day-trip with a guide who turned out to be ideal for school groups. Mihai Baciu is an ex ranger, photographer, multi-linguist and naturalist. He took us out on his boat along with a group of French birders and his assistant for a full day of birding and conversation about everything from golden jackals to cuckoo morphs and the increase in Romanian ecotourism over the past ten years.

The trip cost 50 Euro per person. Lunch was provided, which consisted of a delicious homemade chicken soup followed by Spanish style stew (Mihai’s assistant lived in Spain for sixteen years) washed down with red wine and palinka! I think we’ll opt out of the alcoholic drinks for the school trip, although I can think of a couple of students who would be keen!

A lot of migratory species we were hoping to see hadn’t yet made it due to the unseasonably cold weather, most notably bee-eater and roller, but we still managed to tick off close to fifty including a few firsts including my first good view of a lesser-spotted eagle. Mihai knows the delta and its wildlife like the back of his hand. He is an expert birder, having authored two bird guides specific for the area. Mihai’s passion for wildlife and level of knowledge really shone through. When he overheard me say to my fiance “It actually looks a lot like the Amazon” he proudly responded with “No. The Amazon looks like the Danube”.

danube recce

Cormorants and spoonbills nesting in a tree

I’ll have to have a think about what objectives the trip would aim to achieve. At the moment I think mapping levels of biodiversity through different areas, encompassing varying levels of human influence could be interesting. Measuring dissolved oxygen, pH and nutrient levels using data loggers would add useful data. There’s a side of me that wants the pupils to spend one of the days simply spotting wildlife and enjoying eachothers’ company without any expectation to note down observations or gather data. As AS and A level Biologists, they will develop an appreciation for how lucky they are to have such amazing wildlife just four hours away by car.

I remember paying a visit to Cat Tien national park which was also a four hour drive away from a previous international school I taught at in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, with a view to organising a trip there. I was disappointed with the lack of wildlife, the national park showing severe signs of ’empty forest syndrome’. This site had previously contained a population of Indochinese tigers and is where the last remaining Vietnamese Javan Rhino was killed for its horn in 2010. In hindsight, perhaps I should have ran the trip anyway to show pupils first-hand the problem of illegal poaching and habitat loss. I decided in the end to take the group (Year 10 GCSE Biology) to a TRAFFIC wildlife sanctuary on the outskirts of HCMC, which they enjoyed and did learn a lot from.Hopefully there will be no such need for such a decision in Romania for many years to come, especially with the decline in bear ‘entertainment’.

Early May next year is the ideal time to take a group the the Danube Delta. Apparently June-August is out of the question due to extremely high mosquito numbers making it unbearable. I want to inspire pupils, not put them off! Bee-eater and roller will surely have arrived by the start of May so we can observe them nesting alongside one another in sand banks. What a cacophony of colour that will be!

Mihai Baciu’s website can be found here and I fully recommend him:


Suggested Additions to the Biology Key Stage 4 National Curriculum


Hey, look! A sparrowhawk!

My previous (and first) blog post was about why I think it would be better, in terms of overall impact and straight-forward application, to bolster natural history content in the biology component of the current national curriculum for science rather than introduce an entirely new GCSE in natural history.

Science GCSE courses are broadly split into two levels – core and extended. The terminology, grade boundaries and grade limits might change slightly but the basic principles remain the same. For Cambridge (the examination board that I am currently teaching at GCSE), students can achieve up to a C if they pursue the core route and an A* for extended. Practical assessment is not differentiated. The expectations for factual recall and application are of course greater for students sitting extended papers compared to core but the topics are the same. A core student, for example, would be expected to describe factors that limit rate of photosynthesis where an extended student can explain this in terms of enzyme activity. I think that there is an argument for an intermediate option where the maximum grade is a B but that’s a matter for another day!

The national curriculum provides the basic blueprint for what a course should contain. Examination boards must build around this to create a syllabus that will get the green light from Ofqual, the UK government’s examination and qualifications regulator. As outlined above, core students will follow a basic path that ticks the curriculum’s boxes without deviating too much; extended courses go into greater detail. This detail could be morphological, behavioural, whether or not the species is invasive, and so on.

Here is the main point that I would like to see included in the national curriculum for England, possibly replacing the current expectation that students can identify species using a dichotomous key:

Identify and describe twenty-two UK species: four mammal; four bird; three reptile; three amphibian; three fungus; three plant; two fish.

I am sure that lots of people would choose different clades to these and I would be interested to read any contributions. I am not suggesting that these are the best choices but you see the basic idea. This gives examination boards the foundations around which to build syllabus content, allowing plenty of room to play with for extended students. Rather than prescribe species, I would leave it open for the awarding bodies to decide which to include but one would expect some cross-over.

These would be my preferred choices:

Mammal: Red fox; Common hedgehog; Red squirrel; Harbour porpoise

Bird: Great tit; House sparrow; Wood pigeon; Sparrowhawk

Reptile: Adder; Common lizard; Slow worm

Amphibian: Common frog; Smooth newt; Common toad

Fish: Three-spined stickleback; Basking shark

Fungi: Wood mushroom; Death Cap; Cauliflower fungus

Plant: Willow tree; Oak tree; Bird’s foot trefoil

Remember that these are just suggestions and the very bare bones of what would then be built upon by the examination boards. Acquiring the ability to name these twenty-two species would give around 700,000 students annually a light introduction into natural history and add to their daily lives whether they choose to pursue it further or not. As mentioned, a more detailed extended/supplement syllabus could include describing three life-history traits for each species for example.

You might think that this is all a bit basic and perfunctory. I ask you to remember that this is a straightforward, easy to implement step towards improving young people’s engagement with nature. Most people reading this blog will have a strong passion for wildlife. We must keep in mind that we can’t impose the full extent of our personal interests, as important as they may be, upon every 14-16 year old in an English comprehensive school.

Familiarity with common species is important nonetheless, which is why I think improvements should be made. The national curriculum prescribes guidelines for subject matter that all Key Stage 4 comprehensive and the majority of private school pupils learn, thus the inclusion of identifying UK species would impact the many thousands who couldn’t care less about a sparrow hawk and budding naturalists alike. But most important of all, it gives every pupil following the regular programme of study the opportunity to discover or further nourish an interest in natural history. We would expect some to delight in the extended content, whilst impacting others only insofar as them taking a bit more notice of wildlife in their local park. I would like the UK to produce over half a million young people every year who can say “Hey, look. A sparrowhawk!” once in a while, whilst keeping options for further study wide open for those more interested post-16.