A nice morning for a bird survey

This morning I got up early a bank holiday Monday to do my first of two dawn visits to my Breeding Bird Survey grid square. It was a sunny and cool spring morning as I set out, having let out our neighbour’s chickens for the day (more of that in my next post).

As mentioned in my previous post, my new survey location is in and around the village of Clipston, just a 15-minute drive from home. I’m glad it is only that distance away as I realised that I had left the survey forms behind as I arrived at the car park. Half an hour later I was setting off on the survey having been home and back again. Setting off across the playing fields, it was a quiet start but bird numbers soon picked up as I entered the sheep fields and made my way up the hill above the village. Still relatively early in the season, there weren’t too many spring migrants to be seen and it was only after I had finished the survey that I saw a swallow, my second of the year.

The first 1km transect finishes in a wide open sheep pasture and I then had to head down towards the hill and into lower fields to start the second transect. This one is a bit more mixed with sheep fields mixed in with the urban fabric of the village itself, including the church yard and then out into more sheep fields. The central sections in the village were pretty hectic with birds on all sides of me but the survey became easier, from a counting perspective, once I was back in the fields. However, my task in the last section of the survey was made impossible by a field full of ewes and lambs. I tried to stick to the footpath but the sheep surrounded me, both young and old, making a racket and making it pretty clear I wasn’t welcome. So I had to make a retreat and finish the survey before I could walk the last 100m or so.

Overall, the birds found at the site were those I would expect to see and hear in the countryside and villages around here but, hopefully, the second visit will provide a few more including a wider range of spring migrants. I’m also hoping the sheep and been moved on to another field by then!

A new Breeding Bird Survey site

After moving house last year I had to give up my old Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) grid square in Cheshire but finally I have got a new one and yesterday I did a recce.

I’ve been doing the British Trust for Ornithology’s BBS since 2014 and have really enjoyed it. My old grid square was beneath and on the slopes of the Cheshire Standstone Ridge (hopefully soon to be an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) about 25 minutes from my former home. It had a mixture of landscapes with cottage gardens, horse and dairy pasture, a flower meadow and wooded hillside. The site gave me plenty of sightings and from looking at the previous records, I found more birds, and more species, than other surveyors who have held the grid square.

With taking a three-month sabbatical in 2019, I could only do half the survey that year and in 2020 I was locked-down in London and couldn’t do the survey at all. After moving home last year I had to give up with lovely site but early this year I secured a new site not far from my new home.

The new site is in and around the village of Clipston, about a 15-minute drive away, and I spent part of yesterday morning walking the route to get to know it and do the habitat recording part of the survey. The survey itself requires two, very roughly, parallel 1km transects to be walked, with notes taken of all the birds noted by sight or sound. The first transect starts in sheep pasture at the bottom of the low rolling hill looking over the village and then passes through the village itself, including through the churchyard, before finishing in what appear to be horse fields. The second transect starts in the village playing fields, before crossing a road and heading up into more sheep fields and finishes just down the opposite side of the hill from the village.

The pretty village and great views across the Northamptonshire landscape, it’s a nice spot for a bird survey and will hopefully present provide plenty of birds to record. There were certainly quite a few around yesterday but it was the bird I didn’t see that was most notable. Not far from the end of the route, at a cross-road in the public footpath, I found a little owl pellet lying on a fence rail. The glistening of the beetle shell casings was a give-away that it was from a little owl and it was smaller than tawny owl pellets I’ve seen before. I’ve been hearing little owls calling at night quite a lot recently in the valley below our house and it’s nice to know they are at my BBS site too.

For me, there are few nicer things to do in spring that get up early and head out to do a BBS – wandering through the countryside listening to birdsong is a pretty relaxing thing to do.

The seasons don’t stand still

As we are paused in our lives, hunkered down indoors, outside nature isn’t following us. The weather appears to have turned, from the seemly endless months of gloom and rain, to the past week which has been bright, cloudless and, occasionally, almost warm. The world is starting to react to these longer, lighter days with the earliest spring flowers coming and going, and the trees showing the first signs of leaves breaking out from their buds. The ground is drying out from the winter downpours and grass is coming into its first flushes of vibrant green. 

The birds are also reacting, with the residents building up their choruses at dawn and dusk, waiting for the spring arrivals to increase the depth of the music. The blackbirds, thrushes, robins, wrens and dunnocks will soon be joined by the warblers, redstarts, flycatchers and cuckoos, bringing greater intensity to the wave of calls washing across the fields and through the woods. 

The Glaslyn Valley always seems to be later to react to the coming of the new season, the plants and trees staying in their winter dormancy while other areas are well into their growth. However, we have noted the biggest sign of the coming of spring, the arrival at the top of that copse on the rocky outcrop in the wet meadowlands; the first osprey has landed in her nest and awaits the arrival of her parter.

Under current circumstances, I have no idea when I might been able to travel from my Cheshire home for my first shift of the protecting that osprey nest. For the duration of the lockdown, however long it lasts, I’m living in Kew, across the road from the famous botanic gardens, with a view over the wall from a second floor flat. Whilst there are no ospreys to be seen out of the window, we have our own nest to watch; a pair of magpies are setting up home in a tree only a few metres from our balcony. They’ve been noisily constructing their shaggy nest over past weeks and now seem to be getting on with the business of mating. We assume very we’ll only see one at once as the eggs are incubated.

Whilst Kew doesn’t have the rugged views of the Glaslyn’s natural landscape, it does have it’s visual charms. At present the cherry blossom is out and many of the streets are lined with trees slowly shedding their white and pink confetti petals.

CNCV: Wybunbury Moss in March

Today I attended my first task of the year with Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers. With many other things happening in my life at the moment, it’s been difficult to fit in my usual fortnightly volunteering with the group but today I managed to at least attend for half a day.

After having to do some work this morning, yearning to be outside on what looked like a lovely day, I rushed across to Wybunbury Moss at lunchtime to join in the work. After being there two weeks ago, there was brash to cut and burn while others coppiced woodland on another part of the site.

The view from my desk wasn’t deceiving, it was an almost springlike day. There was as much blue sky as cloud and the sun’s warmth could be felt quite strongly but a keen chilly wind kept the feeling of late winter in the air rather than early spring. As we finished the task in mid-afternoon, a few light showers came along to dampen our enthusiasm. However, just being outside with some lovely sunshine lifted my spirits and blue away the morning work-cobwebs perfectly.

I’ve really missed being with the group over the last few months and hopefully I’ll find a few more gaps to attend over the course of the spring.

English Winter Bird Survey 2018

This is usually a quiet time of year for my conservation volunteering activities but the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has come up with something new for me to do: the English Winter Bird Survey (EWBS).

Whilst I already do a winter survey for Cheshire Wildlife Trust, this new BTO survey is a nationally organised event on the same scale as its Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), which I also do; in fact my survey site for the BBS and EWBS are the same.

My survey site is a grid square out on the edge of the Cheshire Sandstone Ridge, with the base of Bulkeley Hill the start and the Bickerton Poacher pub right in the middle. It’s a lovely location with my two 1km transects having a range of habitats from cottage gardens and rolling pastures to fields planted to crops and steep wooded hillsides.

The methodology for the EWBS is very similar to the BBS with all birds recorded along each transect, split into 200m sections, and the distance from the transect noted (under 25m, 25m-100m or over 100m). The big differences are the way that the birds were first noted doesn’t have to be recorded (i.e. by sight, by call or by song) and the habitat has to be recorded on each visit. The EWBS also requires brown hares to be noted but I think it unlikely I will see any in my square as I have yet to do so in the past five years of BBS visits and during my numerous walks in the area over the past almost 40 years.

The BBS requires two visits to the site, one in April/May and another in May/June but the EWBS requires up to four visits covering December, January, February and March – so giving me something to do in the quieter winter months. The helpful thing about the EWBS is that it can be undertaken at any point during daylight hours, so it doesn’t require an early wake up like the BBS does.

Today I completed by second EWBS visit to my grid square and just like the first, it was a gloomy and cloudy day, perhaps more so. I have to say that there were no real surprises or birds of particular note this time, only a flock of winter thrushes, fieldfares and redwings, brought me to a longer pause, watching them forage in the horse pastures. My first visit was almost equally as quiet but it was brightened by a large skein of pink-footed geese flying overhead as I walked between the end of the first transect and the beginning for the second.

Despite the gloomy weather, I enjoyed being out in the winter countryside and it makes an interesting contrast to when I do the BBS in the spring; the land now at its lowest ebb before bursting into life in the spring. With the seemingly never-ending depressing weather at the moment, the spring can’t come soon enough for me!

A first bird survey of the year

For the past five years I have been doing a winter bird survey for the Cheshire Wildlife Trust at its Bagmere reserve. This has entailed at least one visit in November or December and a further visit in January or February each winter. The process involves walking the length of the site recording each species of bird, the number of individuals and which part of the reserve they were seen within. The site is divided into a number of different areas based on the type of habitat – grassland, woodland and fenland. The winter survey complements the breeding bird survey I also do at the site in the four months from March each year.

The spring surveys are lovely, giving me the opportunity to observe the progress of the season with the increasing number of bird species appearing with each visit. In contrast, the winter survey visits, like the one I did today, are often cold, damp, cloudy and fairly bleak. The birds were quiet and subdued, waiting out the worst of the weather until the rush of spring and the time to breed again. However, while a little less than the spring surveys, I managed to find 19 different species today including two new ones for the site; sparrowhawk and kingfisher. The latter was a real surprise as there is little open water in the area through which the survey is conducted, although there is some further into the fenland part of the site.

There was also a bit of relief to todays survey with willow tits found again. These are a red-listed species and are becoming increasingly rare, with Bagmere one of the last locations in Cheshire to have them. Over the last few years of surveys they have appeared less and less, and they weren’t recorded at all during my spring visits last year. Therefore, to find two of them today, identified by their harsh alarm calls (play the second of the recordings here)

Since 2014, I have record 68 species at the site with the number climbing up a little each year. With the work the Wildlife Trust has been doing on the site, including clearing a lot of the willow scrub, it will be interesting to see how the range of species changes in the coming years.

Eye to eye with nature

It’s just past mid-July but driving down the wooded track under heavy cloud cover the scene has a hint of autumn. The bracken is drying and turning brown and the leaves are fading on the trees. These, however, are not the signs of an early changing season but the result of the ongoing drought affecting the country. The heat, strong sun and lack of rain over the last few months has starved the Glaslyn Valley of water and the usual damp woodland is parched dry. I stop before I leave the cover behind as I spot a fox sauntering across on of the track-side meadow. The grass is freshly cut into rows and it picks its way along the edge, stopping to catch eyes with me before purposely heading off into a neighbouring field.

Passing through the gates and under the oak tree by the caravan, I wander through the long grass down to the river. As I approach the bridge there’s a high pitched whistle and a darting away but the kingfisher soon returns and I meet eyes with nature again but this time only a couple of metres away. The moment lasts a second or two before it shoots off along the banks, round the bend and out of sight. The river itself has fallen even further than my last visit with rocks now peeping up above the slow and low trickle of the water, the flow much narrower than before.

As I head back to the caravan, my legs damp from drops on the grass from a rare shower, the field is bouncing with young life. In amongst the bushes are countless fledgling great, blue and coal tits with a few chaffinches too. The are chattering loudly as they flit between cover and squabble on the bird feeders hanging from the trees. There’s a family of woodpeckers, initially frightened off when the see me but they too return to feed on peanuts.

At the top of the fir tree, the nest is emptier than it was, I see only one chick when I first look and it soon momentarily disappears from sight. Not a first fledgling flight but its second, following on from his sisters’ the previous days. He soon returns and over the following hours he and the other chicks come and go, taking both short and longer flights, visiting the nest, perch and nearby trees, practicing their art while waiting for another fish to sustain their energies.

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The chicks seem to have grown so quickly this year, more than usual. They’ve gone from tiny hatchlings to fledglings in the blink of an eye. Maybe the amazing weather has saved them energy that usually keeps them warm or perhaps the fishing has been easier with the lower water levels – but they really do seem to have burst into their full-sized selves in no time at all.

With the cloud cover for much of my shift, it was nowhere near as hot as my shift a three weeks ago and I was glad I brought a jumper with me. It wasn’t cold but even average summer temperatures could seem a touch chilly compared to the recent heat.

Despite the lack of rain, bar a momentary shower, the area along the banks of the river still looks quite lush, albeit with a brown tinge. The grass has grown long and there are plenty of flowers still dotted about. However, there’s one flower I found that I didn’t welcome catching my eye. I’m not sure whether I’ve seen it here before, at the protection site, but the Himalayan Balsam isn’t a plant I want to see appearing along the banks of the river. Over the last few years, I’ve spent many days clearing this invasive species from other riversides. Some days it’s seemed like a losing battle; after spending hours pulling up the plants, there was always so much more to do as the lack of effort in previous years had allowed it to prosper and take over. Perhaps this is an opportunity for some practical conservation tasks in the Glaslyn Valley on top of the osprey work, bringing the community together to help prevent the Balsam from taking over like it has so much elsewhere. It would be desperately sad to see the lovely waterways of this corner of Wales dominated by a plant that shouldn’t be here.

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Himalayan Balsam

The ospreys are real success story in the Glaslyn Valley and a sign of what can be achieved by people coming together to help wildlife but the Balsam is just another sign of there being so much more to do to protect, conserve, restore and enhance our environment. It’s easy to get depressed about such things, not helped by constant news of climate change and politics, and their real or looming affects on nature and the environment, but every step in the right direction counts, no matter how small.

A hot osprey shift!!!

The car windows are already open as I turn onto the track, the air under the woodland canopy is cool and fresh compared to the open above the road and valley bottom pastures. The undergrowth has continued to grow in my absence and now brambles flick my wing mirrors as I trundle slowly down the lane. There are few other sounds coming into the car above the crackle of tyres over stones and fallen twigs. The birds are quiet except for an occasional whistle or chirp in amongst the leaves and bracken.

As I break cover, the dazzling light of the mid-summer sun strikes down harshly on the ground. The blue above highlights electric tones in the oaks leaves but the detail in the view is cast out by the mix of dark shadows and unfiltered glare. The heat of the day is continuing to build, both forced down from the cloudless sky and rebounding back up from the hardening ground. Weeks of heat have been stored in the tarmac road, stone walls and bare soil, and each successive day brings no respite. The grass is losing its spring green and lustre, stems are drying out and becoming crisp beneath my footsteps.  

There is still life here, however; there are butterflies flittering over the meadowlands and the young blue and great tits are feeding on the grain left out for them under the trees. Above the river, families of swallows and house martins feed on the abundance of insects rising up from the water, and a small group of swifts scream over head. The river itself is low, the lack of rain has drained its strength. The blooming of weed within the water is now starting to fill from bank to bank, giving respite to the shoals of small fish struggling with the shrinking depth and are increasing danger from the kingfisher’s vision.

The three chicks high up in the tall fir tree have grown beyond recognition since my last visit, now well feathered and wings starting to develop in strength. In the heat and strong sun there is little protection for them but their mother stands above , providing what meagre shadow she can.

I had only a short four hour shift today but it was long enough to enjoy the quietness of the valley. Perhaps a short shift was a good thing as the protection caravan was as hot as a sauna (although lacking the steam). With no clouds to speak of, the site could have been unbearable without the shade of the trees and a increasingly keen breeze. I’m not used to this, the words ‘osprey shift’ and ‘hot’ don’t normally go together for me; today must have been the hottest shift I’ve ever had.

The heat didn’t stop Aran from continuing his fatherly work and provided four fish in the day including a brown trout, two tench and a sea bass. The two tench are unusual compared to the sea fish he normally goes for but perhaps the hot and fry weather has made them more accessible.

It’s another few weeks until my next shift and the chicks may not be far off flying by then. They seem to grow so quickly and go from fresh hatchlings to fledglings in the bat of an eye. However, there’s still plenty of summer to go until they make their first long flights to Africa – if the weather stays like this we will have had an outstanding season.

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A last task of spring?

With only 11 days to go until the summer solstice my visit yesterday to my Breeding Bird Survey gird square really seemed to mark the change from spring to summer. The weather was warm and dry, the landscape in its prime and the birds plentiful in the fields, trees, hedgerows and woodlands. The early freshness of spring has now worn off the countryside with deeper greens setting in but there are new flowers coming out replacing those earlier blooms.

I’m really lucky to have this particular grid square. It is a mixture of fields and woodlands on and just below the hills of the Cheshire sandstone ridge with the start point for the survey being in the village of Bulkeley and the route crossing over the Nantwich to Wrexham road and passing the Bickerton Poacher. These hills are my favourite part of the county so when I was offered the square five years I go, I didn’t hesitate to accept it.

Over the course of the two visits this year, I recorded 39 species, the second highest number recorded over the 18 years since 1998 that the square has been surveyed (it wasn’t surveyed in 2000, 2001 and 2013). Since I took over the square in 2014, I’ve seen an average of 37 species compared to 26 before. In total, 63 species have been recorded over the years and I’ve added 14 of those. This year I added garden warbler and hobby to the list.

Wandering around the countryside surveying the bird life is a lovely way to spend a morning but it’s made even more lovely by the countryside itself, and I even have a favourite little spot. Towards the end of the first of the two one kilometre transects is a small meadow and yesterday it was looking beautiful with the grassland flowers really starting to show well.

I do have one more survey to do, at my Cheshire Wildlife Trust survey site, but that will have to wait until the last weekend of the month – I just hope the weather allows me to complete it.