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.

5R0A8283

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.

IMG_9897

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.

IMG_9786

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.

May is spring’s promise

After a long series of a bright, clear and sunny days, I arrive in the valley under low cloud and while it’s still warm, mugginess has moved in. The strength of the sun has transformed the scenery over the last few weeks with most trees now fully out in leaf but still with the fresh bright green of spring. The bracken and ferns are starting to unfurl their fronds under the cover of the old oak tree wood, beginning to shade out the fading blue bell carpet.

Away from the trees, buttercups have spread out amongst the grass, now growing fast, spurred on by the strong sun. At the edge of the drying ditches the yellow irises have suddenly bloomed while the white of the hawthorn blossom stands out from the hedge lines around the fields. 

Lambs in the riverside meadows are weaning but still run to their mothers to suckle, roughly butting her skywards from beneath with some running off to escape their over demanding offspring. In amongst the sheep, white butterflies haphazardly fly over the fields, pausing on the flowers before heading onto the next. 

The birds are subdued by the warmth of the day and a little quieter with many now on nests. There remain many calling in the woods and fields; siskin, chaffinch, blue tit, blackbird, thrush, chiffchaff and willow warbler. The wagtails strut amongst the stands of rush and a pheasant breaks from a hidden spot in the undergrowth. A cuckoo calls in the distance but perhaps now less powerfully and with long breaks in its monotonous routine. Swallows have returned and skim low over the fields after the insects emerging under the sun.

5R0A6053-1

The river is low, perhaps as low as I’ve seen it. The summer-like weather of the last few weeks has  reduced its flow and the level has dropped, revealing some of the rocks at the ford. The plants in the water are growing as fast as those on the land and with less space than they had, they are spreading low across the bed. Small shoals of fish dart from cover to cover, hiding from the keen eyes of the kingfisher. 

As my stay progresses the sun breaks out from behind the cloud and the heat begins to build across the fields, river and woodland. The haze remains but the brightness almost hurts my eyes. The wind has been there all the while and now it masks the strength of the rays coming down from above. I move back under cover and the cool offered by the big oak trees by the gate.

In the nest standing high above the meadowland, the waiting is coming to an end. The first of the three large speckled eggs has hatched and new life has arrived in the security of the bowl. Perhaps it will only be three more days until all of the chicks will have broken out. The parents are starting their tireless summer; the male bringing the fish and the female passing small piece by small piece to the chicks.

May is the fulfilment of spring’s promise, the dream of those long dark winter days and nights. I really have come to love the spring; for some reason I always used to prefer the autumn but my tastes have changed and I long for days like today. Of all the months, May must be the finest with spring in its prime and all the migrant birds having arrived back. To me, it is now the point when the transformation from winter to summer is complete, where the trees are all out in leaf and it’s almost possible to forget what they looked like when bare of green. It’s also the point when there’s still so much more to come; the heights of the summer are on their way and the new life has yet to be at its greatest. 

The osprey season is also well on its way with the first of the egg hatched and the other two not far behind. It’s been a fairly serene season so far this year; yes they were a little delayed in their return but they have settled in well. They do have all their hard work yet to come and the next three months will challenge them as usual but so far so good.

Today was a quiet one at Protection, both ospreys spending most of the day at the nest with only one fishing foray later in the afternoon. The greatest activity came with several dog fights with the local crows, both ospreys taking turns to chase them off talon-first.

Settling down for a night shift

Standing on the bridge, the day comes to a close, with the last of the light seeping away behind the hills. The water passing beneath me barely makes a sound, only the occasional ripple over rocks and a fishing coming to the surface for a fly caught in the tension. Almost mirror-like, the river is undisturbed by any breeze, the air lies still and the sounds carry true across the meadows

A crescent moon hasn’t far to run before it dips behind the horizon but the stars begin to take its place, picking out diamonds across the deep blue of the night-encroaching sky. The clearness above that earlier brought warmth now lets that heat flow away, leaving a chill to fall onto the land as mist slowly rises amongst the stone walls and stands of rush.

The barks of farm dogs echo across the valley bottom and lambs bleat to ewes in the growing dark. The last of the evening chorus falls silent leaving only the owls calling in the dark and the occasional trill of the grasshopper warbler. A huge burbling moth bumbles past like a flying clockwork toy while I watch out for bats passing over the water and under the bridge.

As I return to the caravan, the cool of the outdoors is met by the last remnants of the warmth from the sun still trapped inside. Pulling the door closed, the day is finally left behind, the light gone until dawn brings the new morning at the end of an eight-hour shift. I sit down on the bench and the screen on the desk casts a glow across the room. Out there in the dark, but shown brightly in front of me, is a nest high up in the tree above the rocky island in the meadows, an osprey female sat brooding over three speckled eggs. Also out there in the dark could be hands eager to place fingers around the contents of the nest.

Having watched over the nest for quite a few years now and having witnessed very little unwanted interference, it’s easy to forget that there are still some people out there who could wish it harm. Within the past fortnight a man from Plymouth was found guilty of disturbing a number rare birds nests, including ospreys, and taking three osprey eggs from Scotland. In addition to doing protection shifts at Glaslyn, I also do shifts protecting a peregrine nest in Cheshire and there were three attempts to interfere with the nest last year. Whilst very much rarer than it used to be, it’s sad that there are still people who would rather harm wildlife for their own gratification rather than leaving it alone and getting enjoyment by simply observing from a distance.

I do wonder if Mrs G is starting to feel her age a bit as during my two night shifts this year she has spent more time asleep than I remember her having been during shifts in previous years. I always used to think how tired she must be even before the eggs hatch as she always seemed to be awake and fidgeting about in the nest throughout each night. Having said that, she’s not the only one who seems to find it increasingly difficult to keep their eyes open in the evenings.

The highlight of my shift was the sky; almost cloudless, it gave me an opportunity to try a bit of star photography…

5R0A5916-1

My busy time of year

I haven’t stopped today and had to force myself not to go for a run. I got up at 4:45am to go out to do a peregrine nest protection shift followed by the first of two Breeding Bird Survey visits to my grid square on the Cheshire Sandstone Ridge. I then came home and cut my grass and mowed my hair (that didn’t take long) and I did the ironing and polished my shoes while watching the Grand Prix (I don’t watch them very often these days). I then wrote two blog posts (including this one) and researched and booked two hotels for the two nights before my week in the Orkneys in June. I finished the day off with a cycle out into the sticks.

After doing a night shift at the Glaslyn Ospreys Protection Site on Friday and then driving around North Wales on Saturday, I thought I would take it easy after the shift and survey this morning but I just couldn’t help myself.

The survey this morning was a good one with 30 species recorded including a passing hobby; a new species recorded within the grid square and not a bird I see very often. It flew at tree height and then swooped low over the fields and lifted over a treeline and disappeared from view; the seraph shape of its wings was unmistakable.

I think I need to go to work tomorrow for a rest!

Stirring from a night shift

The beginnings of first light starting to seep in through the drawn curtains come into my consciousness, stirring me from the last few hours tucked into the warmth of a sleeping bag. Imperceptibly, the night has been fading on the TV screen too, until the light from outside brings a realisation that dawn is on its way. Slipping out from the warm comfort and putting my feet into my shoes, I stand, stretch and put on my cold and damp jacket. I open the door and the cold air meets my face with a harshness against drowsy skin. It’s unexpectedly cold as I step from the shelter of the caravan; the clear overnight skies have lowered the temperature to levels almost down to a frost. Thick dew wets my jeans as I wander down through the long grass to the little bridge over the river.

Standing on the bridge, the cold clings to me even more, the water below seems to take some of my heat away as it flows past. Smoke-like mists rise from the river’s surface and wash over the neighbouring fields before fading to nothing on what little wind there is. As the light grows further, the scene begins to turn from monotone to spring colour. The clouds are hardly moving across the sky and breaks show through to the pastel blue beyond. Across the sides of the valley, greens are beginning to wash across the woodlands; single trees in ten breaking out into leaf but the others beginning to split their buds.

The birds started their dawn well before I ventured out; the wren is calling loudly from deep within a bush, the song thrush repeating it lyrics from a far off tree, the blue and great tits twittering from across the wall and a cuckoo calling its name from the hillside woods. A blackbird sings above them all, its powerful song coming from the top of the riverbank tree. There is one bird, however, that does not join the dawn chorus; having stirred little overnight, the female sits snuggly on top of three speckled eggs high up in the large nest overlooking the wet meadows. Not far from her, the male sits on the perch waiting for the day to begin and time for a first fishing trip once the sun has risen. The ospreys mark the start of the new day quietly, continuing their vigil, waiting for new life to come to their nest.

This was my first night shift of the new osprey season and a quiet one it was. I don’t think I have seen such little movement on the osprey nest during a shift. For much of the night, she had her head tucked in under her feathers between her wings and I only noticed her once leave the nest for a brief wing stretch. It’s not too surprising though as it was a particularly chilly night for the end of April; I was glad for my thermals!

I didn’t spend the whole night in my sleeping bag I have to add. When I arrived on site for my shift at 10:00pm, the last of the light was slowly fading away and I walked down to the river to see if I could locate any bats with my detector. The moon was incredibly bright and I didn’t need a torch when the clouds cleared; it seemed almost like it was still daylight. It didn’t take long for my detector to do its job and I had a few passes of Daubenton’s flying beneath me and under the bridge. 

IMG_8531

During the course of the night, I periodically went for a wander with a high powered torch, listening and looking for any sign of unwanted activity around the nest. The only sounds I had were those of the night; occasional calls of tawny owls and a grasshopper warbler joined in when the moon was out. There was one call I have no idea what it was. At first I thought it was the harsh hissing of a barn owl but it had a burbling pattern to it and came too frequently and for a sustained period of time.

I’ve got a another night shift in three weeks’ time but it will still be a couple more weeks until the first egg hatches.