S is for Spring, Song and Surveys

As I have mentioned in previous posts, I undertake wildlife surveys for both Cheshire Wildlife Trust and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and this makes spring a very busy season. I undertake Breeding Bird Surveys (BBS) for both organisations, using different methodologies but both types require spending early mornings wandering around in the Cheshire countywide, listening to bird song, counting individual birds and making notes.

I’m one of a handful of amateur surveyors undertaking these surveys across Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s sites. I’m particularly privileged to be undertaking them at the Trust’s Blakenhall Moss and Bagmere reserves as I’m the first person to do bird surveys at these sites and I’m really starting with a blank piece of paper as far as bird records go. Hopefully, my records will give the Trust some useful information with which to help plan the management of the two sites over the next few years.

Blakenhall Moss

The BBS programme for the BTO is of a completely different scale with thousands of people undertaking surveys across the whole of the UK. I’m fortunate with my involvement in this survey too, as my site (a one kilometre Ordnance Survey map grid square) is in one of the nicest spots in the county, around the village of Bulkeley, just below the sandstone ridge that dissects the Cheshire Plain. The two one kilometre transects (survey routes) cover a surprisingly wide range of habitats, from roadside hedges and country gardens, to wide open dairy pasture and hay fields, and from horse paddocks and small ponds to hillside woodland and open heathland. There’s even a good pub slap-bang in the middle of the grid square – one of my favourite habitats!

Bulkeley Hill
The Wildlife Trust’s surveys are undertaken once per month during March, April, May and June, and over the first couple of weekends of March I decided to get a head start and did the first of surveys at ‘my’ two sites. At Bagmere, I recorded 24 species; not a bad number for the site, but some way short of the 41 in total recorded over the course of the four spring surveys last year. It was disappointing not record willow tit this time, as it is a local rarity and I have recorded them there before a number of times. However, water rail are becoming a regular and were recorded again.

The Blakenhall Moss survey was more successful with 31 species recorded during the visit; this compared to a total of 35 recorded across the four spring surveys last year. This good total helped to bring the site bird list to over 50 – thats the total number of species I have so far recorded over the course of two sets of Winter Bird Surveys and this and last years’ BBSs (and this year’s has only just started!). Of particular note again at Blakenhall were the marsh tits, very similar to willow tits and also a red list species, but also a good sized group of wintering teal and one or two pairs of lapwing.

View from Bulkeley Hill
The BTO’s surveys are undertaken during two visits, one in April/May and the other in May/June. I did a recce visit for the BTO survey last saturday to check for any changes to the transects including any alterations to the habitats (e.g. changes to farmland uses). It was a lovely, bright spring morning and I recorded (unofficially as this wasn’t the survey itself) 25 bird species including raven, the first time I had heard them this year, and quite a few chiffchaffs, a sure sign that spring is here! It was also interesting to note that winter migrants to these shores were still around with one big flock of redwings and fieldfares making their way northwards; spring is here but winter may still have a few last gasps to come.

I have mentioned before that undertaking these surveys has significantly improved by ‘ear’ for bird song. I seem to lose some of my memory for these songs and calls between seasons but soon get back into the rhythm. Whilst this improving ear has certainly helped with the surveys themselves, it has also increased my pleasure of going about my other activities; even the walk from the station to my office in Manchester city centre is brightened by the bird song I sometimes hear along the way. However, the real difference I have noticed this year is how the dawn chorus changes over the weeks, with some birds starting to sing earlier in the season than others. As spring first started to stir, I was still leaving home in the dark, but the song thrushes were already singing. As the mornings got lighter, other birds started to slowly join in, with the robins next and then the blackbirds. Now, I am leaving almost as the sun has risen and the birds are belting out their songs, with the wrens, blue tits, great tits, starlings and others adding to the sound and giving it their best.

It’s going to be a busy time over the spring months, and into the summer, and the surveys are just the start – I’ve also got shifts across at the Glaslyn osprey protection site and two weeks on Ramsey Island – can’t wait!

That’s one, now where’s the other?

Today the Glaslyn female osprey returned to her nest after spending the northern winter in West Africa – now we just have to wait for her other half to turn up (hopefully).

So much effort has been put in by the volunteers at the Bywyd Gwyllt Glaslyn Wildlife community interest company to get both the protection and visitor sites ready for their arrival.  Yet, there is no certainty at all, each year, that they will make it all the way back to North Wales.

So, it’s so far so good…and fingers crossed!

From Spring into Winter and Back Again

Out I drive, across the flatness of the Cheshire Plain and on towards the Welsh Border; the startling sun shining down, my shades reducing the glare. Up into the low hills I go, the road no less winding but certainly more undulating. The open skies and the warmth inside mask the wind on which a buzzard floats, just above the neighbouring ridge. Onwards I press, wanting an open-topped sportscar not an Autobahn saloon; maybe that’ll be another day!

As I pass Bala and its reservoir, I start to climb up into the mountains and the weather changes. There is a line, a break, between the brightness and a dark, brooding gloom. The hopes of a fine spring day soon fade as I pass under the divide and the cloud encloses the scenery. Above the lake, I take a sharp right turn and forcefully make my way up the hill, cresting the ridge and out onto the open moors, with the slim and twisting quiet road laid out in front. Finally, after turns and straights, and more turns, past sheer plunges, I drop down into the villages and then onto an open, flat plain once more.

I approach a familiar junction and turn, slowing to make the car narrow enough to pass through the gateway. Onto the track I drive, passing between wall and slope to the valley bottom; there are no hints of spring here and the birds remain hushed by the lingering cold and damp. The signs of last autumn remain; leaves still cover the ground and the track is split by a line of fallen twigs and mulch. The bracken, once bright in its closing year rustiness, has withered further and is left almost colourless, like the surrounding landscape, subdued by the monochrome skies. The new season seems a long way off here and it is only the mosses coating the walls and trees that add any pigment to the otherwise washed-out scene.


The Track

Surely spring must be here now? I’ve been to the training day for the Glaslyn osprey protection volunteers! As has been the case for the past three years, the season will be dotted with shifts down in the Glaslyn Valley, helping to protect a pair of nesting ospreys, and their precious clutch of eggs, from the backward, childish, and just plain illegal, advances of collectors. Maybe, one day, the actions of a few dimwitted idiots won’t have to be stopped by a group of passionate and proactive people that truly care about the world around them…but that is a slim hope. However, I have to confess (and don’t tell anyone), but I kind of like the Glaslyn Valley, and the attentions of a few egg collectors just gives me an excuse to spend more time there. As long as these idiots continue trying to satisfy their senseless needs, there will be people ready and waiting to stop them.

The Track

Yet again, I have been truly impressed by how much a group of volunteers has achieved in such a short space of time. Just over a year ago, the RSPB passed the project to protect the Glaslyn Ospreys to a group of volunteers, who set up a public interest company. Although last year was a big learning experience, the ospreys were successfully protected and fledged three chicks. Even more hard work has been put in since the birds left in the early autumn, which has resulted in big improvements this year with a new visitor centre nearly completed. However, the project can’t be run without a large group of volunteers, either at the protection site or visitor centre, but also without monetary donations. Time given for free only goes so far and the plans in place need financial support. So, if you have a few quid lying down the back of the sofa, or in a jar by the door, perhaps you could give it to a good cause and help to generate a thriving population of Welsh ospreys (by the way, they’re not just Welsh – the offspring of the Glaslyn pair currently breed in both England and Scotland). You can donate via the Bywyd Gwyllt Glaslyn Wildlife website.

On the way home, to my surprise, the break in the weather was in exactly the same place. As I approached Bala, the gloom of the middle of the day was left behind and a bright spring day reappeared. Even better, there were some spectacular lenticular clouds to be seen on the way, making concentration on the road ahead a little more difficult than usual.

Lenticular Clouds

So a day started in spring, spent in winter, and finished in spring again – perhaps I was a little too hopeful that the season had changed…and summer is definitely a long way off!