Investigating ‘cognitive ecology’ in the European nightjar


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We have designed our application systems to identify candidates who are likely to be successful in research regardless of what opportunities may have been available to them prior to their application.

Various support and guidance on applying for an ACCE DTP studentship, including how to apply; what we’re looking for (including our assessment rubric); details of financial support, training, and placement opportunities available; and details of our recruitment process, can be found at, in the ‘prospective applicants’ tab.

Project overview


This project aims to use new, state-of-the-art tracking technology to track at very high resolution the movements of first-time breeding nightjars from shortly after they arrive from migration. Much of the remaining heathland where nightjars breed is (increasingly) patchily distributed and nightjars often have to commute over unsuitable urban environments to reach discrete foraging patches. The aim is to understand how nightjars learn where resources in the landscape are, the ecological barriers that constrain the routes they form between them, and the spatial cognition that they use to navigate across this heterogeneous landscape. 


The student will have access to several years’ GPS-tracking data (2018-2023) from several heathland sites in the Poole basin (Dorset), but the main project will be to work with an industrial CASE partner, Lotek, to set up and use Automated Radio Direction Finding (ARDF) systems across the heathland sites in the area. As well as setting up base stations, this will also involve catching nightjars and fitting them with VHF transmitters. By using ARDF, we can record at very high temporal resolution (every ~2 secs) the location of nightjars carrying these tags. The system is ideal for observing how nightjars develop their routes across the landscape (e.g. whether spontaneous short-cuts are used - a signature of sophisticated spatial cognition).

Novelty and timeliness

The novel use of ARDF to collect high resolution data on the breeding movements of a mobile bird in unprecedented detail and will allow us to understand the spatial cognition of a highly mobile bird (inferences normally restricted to laboratory animals navigating in mazes). By revealing the mechanisms under-pinning space-use we can also understand urban barriers that reduce availability of resources in the landscape. Potential applications of the work are timely owing to current pressure to develop heath-adjacent sites to alleviate the housing crisis.

Candidates are strongly encouraged to contact the lead supervisor before making an official application.

Essential and Desirable Criteria


The candidate should be interested in gaining quantitative skills, getting involved with technological components of the project (some electronics and computing) and open to the prospect of long periods of fieldwork, often at night.


It is desirable but not essential for the candidate to have some experience with any of: (i) computing technology hardware such as raspberry pis, (ii) biotelemetry in the field; (iii) analysis of animal movement data and (iv) bird handling (ringing), but training in all of these aspects will be provided on the project.


How to Apply

Notes and details of how to apply are available here:

All applicants to ACCE must complete the ACCE personal statement proforma. This is instead of a personal/supporting statement or cover letter. The proforma is designed to standardise this part of the application to minimise the difference between those who are given support and those who are not. Candidates should also submit a CV and the contact details of 2 referees.

Part-Time Study Options

All ACCE PhDs are available as part time or full time, with part time being a minimum of 50% of full time. Please discuss potential part time arrangements with the primary supervisor before applying to the programme.

Project CASE Status

This project is a CASE project. Your project will be co-supervised by the non-academic partner organisation, and you will spend 3-6 months on a placement with your CASE partner in their workplace. You will experience training, facilities and expertise not available in an academic setting, and will build business and research collaborations. Your CASE partner will also contribute an additional £1000 per year to your Research and Training Support Grant.




Open to students worldwide

Funding information

Funded studentship

NERC ACCE DTP programme starts from October 2024.
UKRI provide the following funding for 3.5 years:
• Stipend (2023/24 UKRI rate £18,622)
• Tuition Fees at UK fee rate (2023/24 rate £4,712)
• Research support and training grant (RTSG)
Note - UKRI funding only covers UK (Home) fees. The DTP partners have various schemes which allow international students to join the DTP but only be required to pay home fees. Home fees are already covered in the UKRI funding, meaning that successful international candidates do not need to find any additional funding for fees.



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