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!

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