My recent post, suggesting ways early career ecologists can take charge of their own skills developments generated a lot of positive feedback (Field skills for early career ecologists). So here are another couple of suggestions for ways to circumvent the shortage of volunteering opportunities, get on that hamster wheel-powered scooter (souped up wheelie-bins are so unfashionable these days) and make the most of this summer (or whatever we have that vaguely resembles a summer).
I suggested that developing your bird ID would be useful, but don't forget bird calls. Now this is something that terrifies all but the most hardened bird-watchers. Like most people, I bought a CD of bird calls years ago and found it difficult to fix the different calls in my addled little mind. The problem is that, whilst birds like Chaffinches have a nice, easy to remember call sequence, many species have more complex characteristics, which are a lot harder to make sense of, especially with no one to guide you through the maze.
I don't do many bird surveys, but when I'm doing a dawn bat survey, the dawn chorus is a wonderful thing and it really bugs me if I can't sort out who's who in my head, so I've recently returned to trying to expand my repertoire of calls I can ID. I've found two excellent resources, which have helped a lot.
The first is a series of radio programmes, originally broadcast on BBC Radio Four, in which ornithologists Brett Westwood and Stephen Moss, listen to birds, discuss the calls they hear and explain how they identify each call in a chatty and accessible way. You can buy each of the five series (garden, farmland, coastal, mountain and moorland and water birds) as CDs, though I've downloaded them as audiobooks and listen to them in the car. After listening to each one a few times I found the call characteristics finally started to cement themselves into my addled brain.
The second resource is an excellent app, which allows you to easily record bird calls using your mobile. It analyses them for you and suggests what species they are. Like all auto-id software it has to be treated with caution, but at worst it gives you a starting-point as to what the bird could be. In practice, I find it's remarkably good at picking up fainter calls and the accuracy is better than I expected. The app is called Birdnet, produced by Cornell University and is a free download from the app store. I found it astonishingly effective and easy to use.
There's a more advanced version from the same source called Merlin Bird ID. My go-to person for ornithology advice, Scott Bland reckons it's the bee's knees and Scott knows his stuff (that's a polite way of calling him a bird-geek).