Inspirational stories from volunteers helping to save species in trouble

Volunteers have such an important role to play in helping us to help nature. With Volunteers Week (3-9 June) on the horizon, Will Bevan and Shannon Plummer from the RSPB’s Species Volunteer Network share stories from three incredible volunteers who have dedicated their time to helping threatened species in England and Northern Ireland.

Posted 10 min read
A group of people volunteering at RSPB Montiaghs Moss Nature Reserve, Country Antrim, Northern Ireland
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The Species Volunteer Network

Throughout the year, teams of volunteers across the UK support vital work to help some of our most vulnerable species. The RSPB’s Species Volunteer Network currently supports some of these teams in England and Northern Ireland, providing extra capacity and resources for the recruitment and development of volunteers, as well as opportunities to network with other species recovery teams across the country. The Species Volunteer Network is made up of over 400 volunteers who dedicate their time and skills to carry out this important work. In this article, we hear just some of their stories from out in the field.

Helping Stone-curlews in the East of England

One of our stranger looking birds, the elusive Stone-curlew is a summer visitor to the UK, preferring to nest on open, bare ground within short, semi-natural grass heath or downland, and on arable fields. The UK population declined by more than 85% from 1940 to 1985, reaching a low of around 160 pairs in 1985. One of the main reasons for this was habitat loss due to changing agricultural practices. Targeted conservation action over the last 40 years has led to significant recovery, though the species suffered a major setback in 2013, when cold weather resulted in the death of up to 20% of the UK population. Since then, the species has recovered in some areas and remained stable in others, with the UK population currently numbering around 360 breeding pairs. 

Ed Keeble (Stone-curlew Fieldworker) has been a volunteer fieldworker on the Stone-curlew project in the East of England since 2016. With the volunteer team being instrumental in the recovery of the species in this area, we asked him to tell us about his work: 

Stone-curlew are not like any other birds so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Stone-curlew volunteering is not like other volunteering - heat, dust, long days, and solitude! We have the winter off, but by late March Stone-curlew are sneaking back into their sandy haunts in the Brecklands around Thetford and our mission on farmland is to find and mark their nests, so tractor drivers can work around them."

A Stone Curlew sits in its nest on the pebbly ground.

Stone-curlews nest on the ground which makes their nests and chicks vulnerable to disturbance. Volunteers are working with landowners to help keep chicks safe. © Ben Andrew (

Stone-curlew can be ultra-elusive and so we spend hours field walking and scanning the distant horizon - days might pass without finding a new pair or a nest or indeed seeing another human being, but it is a real hoorah moment when you focus on yet another bump in a furrow and a beady yellow eye glints in the haze.”


The Stone-curlew fieldworker role is highly specialised, requiring lots of training and experience to do effectively, and special licenses needed to intervene and rescue chicks. As Stone-curlew are highly vulnerable to disturbance, this is not done lightly, and only when absolutely necessary. Ed goes on to describe the process involved with finding and moving the chicks:

“Once we have our nest, priority one is to let the landowner know and then work out when it is due to hatch, so we know whether there will be chicks to find and rescue when the field is next due to be worked. Their defence mechanism of crouching and not moving has served Stone-curlew well over thousands of years, but it doesn't work when a tractor approaches and that is when we step in and keep them safe for the time it takes for the tractor to pass.

Of course, finding the chicks is easier said than done - you might think that one of these new-fangled thermal imagers would do the trick, but the ground is often so hot that every single stone (of which there are countless thousands) glows on screen like a bird!  But they can be found and when they are we keep them safe while the machinery passes – allowing the chicks to safely fledge and bolster the population in coming years.

I count myself incredibly fortunate to have the time and opportunity to work with these rare and fascinating birds and do something to help give them a future in these very challenging times.” 

Working night shifts to help beach-nesting birds

To give beach-nesting birds such as Little Terns, Ringed Plovers, and Oystercatchers a helping hand, fencing is put up around key colony sites in East Norfolk and North Suffolk during the breeding season to protect the birds from disturbance and predation. Volunteers and staff are also out at the colonies during the day and night, to patrol the colonies and engage with members of the public.  

Rebekah Wall applied for the role of Beach-nesting Bird Warden in April 2023 “for something new to volunteer for, to improve my mental health, and to be more involved in the current need to support conservation and breeding opportunities for the Little Terns.” 

A Little Tern tends to its nest on the rocky beach.

To give beach-nesting birds such as Little Tern pictured here, a helping hand, volunteers are helping to protect the birds from disturbance and predation at key sites © Ben Andrew (

Rebekah jumped at the chance to do night shifts, and recalls that “during the induction, one of the staff spoke about the night shifts, the golden hour that we could witness, and the experiences we could obtain. Instantly I knew I wanted to do as many night shifts as I could, fitting it around my day job.” 

“I began my first night shift at 10 pm in the middle of June, wrapped up warm with many layers, thermals, waterproofs, a woolly hat, gloves, flask filled with hot coffee and snacks. Sitting in a camping chair can be very comfy until it gets very cold. Fortunately, blankets were available to use, and sudden spurts of bats and moths flew over one’s head and gave me a buzz, excitedly looking for more wildlife in the sky.” 

A favourite memory was watching the Little Terns wake up in the morning and “to witness them fly up, fluttering over the sea and quickly diving in to catch the first meal of the day for their chicks. Listening to their calls which are so distinct, it made my heart flutter, and the first time I saw a chick, my heart burst into happiness, knowing for a fact this is the environment I want to be in. How small they are! Little balls of speckled fluff.” 

“During the night shifts, you literally have to be the watchful eye, a protector to help the success of the breeding Little Terns. To physically chase away the predators with a shaker (a bottle with small stones and pebbles in it).” 

A flock of Little Terns gathered on the shoreline.

Little Terns gathered on the shore at dawn in East Norfolk. Volunteers help the team to do night shifts, detecting and deterring potential predators such as Foxes using ‘shakers’, thermal imaging cameras and powerful torches. Whilst doing so they experience spectacular sunsets and sunrises. © Will Bevan/RSPB.

“Working as a bird warden is so much more than looking after the birds, you are able to gain transferable skills, work as a team, get the chance to take part in other events such as witnessing Kestrel chicks being ringed, working on RSPB sites such as Berney Marshes which is engulfed in magical greenery and wildlife, or taking part in public days such as ‘’Smooch your Pooch’’ promoting responsible dog walking during the breeding season.

Being given the chance to take part in volunteering with the RSPB has been an amazing opportunity that I have thoroughly enjoyed, and I look forward to the next season.” 

An RSPB volunteer event stand and photo booth called "smooch your pooch" .

Picture booth for 'Smooch Your Pooch' dog walker engagement event (left) and the stand for the event with information, dog leads and treats (right) © Rebekah Wall.

Supporting volunteers to help Red Kites in Northern Ireland

Jacqui Forster (Red Kite Project Volunteer Coordinator, Northern Ireland) became the Volunteer Coordinator for Northern Ireland’s Red Kite Project in September 2022 and since then she has gone on to learn everything you need to know about this incredible species.  

In 2008, Red Kites were reintroduced to Northern Ireland. At this point, the species had been extinct for around 200 years across the country. Now, there are around 24 breeding pairs, but RSPB Northern Ireland believe there are more that have yet to be reported. While they have been primarily spotted in County Down, sightings have come from across Northern Ireland, even as far as the north coast and Fermanagh.  

Volunteers are actively monitoring the Red Kite population for the European Winter Roost Watch and monitor nests during the breeding season where chicks will be monitored and tagged under licensing.

A Red Kite in flight against a blue sky.

Volunteers are helping the Red Kite population of Northern Ireland to recover. © Ben Andrew (

Jacqui’s role involves managing groups of volunteers working on species recovery projects, dealing with queries, and recruiting new members to the team. It’s not just her new-found knowledge of birds that helps make Jacqui’s volunteering experience so rewarding; it’s the people too.

For me, it really has made a big difference. I have something to share with other people and it makes other people stop and think”


Jacqui is passionate about making sure the volunteers she works with feel valued. By getting to know each individual, she discovers what it is that drives them: “That can help me to make sure their volunteering experience is enjoyable, something they look forward to doing”.

Similarly, Jacqui is always keen to hear ideas from volunteers on how things could be done better: “That’s it, that’s how we’re going to grow. That’s how we’re going to make sure that every little thing is done to the best of our abilities – by making sure we get everybody’s input".

How to get involved

If you are feeling inspired by our volunteers and would like to get involved in species recovery projects or any other volunteering roles, please go to the RSPB Volunteering Opportunities page.  

If you can’t find the sort of volunteering role you’re looking for from our listed opportunities, please do get in touch so we can help you find the right role for you! You can contact us directly at

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