Easter day survey

A breeding bird survey seemed like the great way to start off Easter Day. I went to my Cheshire Wildlife Trust survey site for the second time this spring and walked from one end to the other recording the birds in each separate area. The Bagmere reserve has a mixture of (very) wet pasture, woodland and fen, providing quite a variety of habitats for different birds.

The weather was just about perfect, with clear, sunny skies, no rain and a very light wind. However, the temperature was in single figures and I can’t quite believe that I still had to go out wearing thermals to do a survey in April! The birdlife also showed signs of the cold weather with the calls and songs still subdued. The only possible spring migrants were chiffchaffs but these could be wintering birds. In the distance, off the reserve, several curlews made their haunting, wild calls; they should be moving up to the  moors but at present will be kept at lower levels by the recent snows.

Again, the willow tits were absent, which is a shame but I’ll just have to see if they appear, along with all the migrants, when I do the last two spring surveys in May and June.

At the end of the survey, I stopped and stood overlooking the fen in the sunshine, listening to a sky lark sing high up in the air above the reserve – just about a perfect 10 minutes of spring.

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Great early spring day

I was up early today and out of the house an hour after dawn to do the first of four breeding bird surveys at Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Bagmere reserve. I’ve been doing the surveys at the site for a few years now and it’s always nice to get started with them – one of the first tasks in my spring and summer of conservation volunteering.

The morning was chilly at first but the temperatures started to rise quickly and with a watery sun adding to the relative warmth, spring appeared to have sprung as I made my way into the reserve. The spring was also evident in the birds, even before I started the survey. There were some displaying lapwings looping over a nearby stubble field and there were plenty of birds singing the dawn chorus in the surrounding woods.

Into the reserve and there were a good number of birds to record with many of the usual species flitting or flying around the meadows, woods and fen. Of particular interest were a couple of water rail, a nice mixed flock of siskins and redpolls, some singing reed buntings and a few snipe flushed from the wet ground.

The scene was set at Bagmere for the spring migrants to arrive, making the intensity of the dawn chorus even greater and bringing even more vibrancy to the reserve.

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After the survey, I went to volunteer with Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers at Wybunbury Moss and spent the morning and early afternoon clearing and burning trees from the woodland edge. This work will help other migrant birds by providing better breeding conditions in the thick cover than will grow in the space left behind.

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Not finished for the day, I then went out on my bike for 20 miles, peddling around the Cheshire countryside on the last light of what felt like the first proper weekend of spring – it can only get better from here (hopefully!).

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Finished with winter

Looking at the weather forecast for the next few days, winter hasn’t finished with me but I’ve certainly finished with it! With only two days of February left, that means only two days left of meteorological winter, I can’t wait for spring to take over.

My last task of the season was on Saturday when I did a final winter bird survey at Bagmere Fen, the Cheshire Wildlife Trust site I monitor. Unusually for recent weekends, Saturday (and Sunday for that matter) was picture perfect – bright, clear blue skies, with a light frost firming up the soft ground beneath. The survey only takes around an hour but its a lovely way to spend a bit of a morning, wandering through a nature reserve looking for the sights and sounds of wildlife.

The survey brought no surprises but winter was much in evidence in the species I saw, with fieldfares and redwings moving through, visitors from Scandinavia for the colder months, and a few groups of starling. I have heard that there’s sometimes a starling mumuration at the site but I’ve yet to see it despite a handful of dusk visits to a nearby watchpoint.

There was disappointment as I haven’t recorded willow tit at the site again, in either of the winter visits I’ve made over the last few months. It’s a key species for the site but I only seem to record it once a year or so over the course of my six annual visits. This is quite a contrast to my recent visit to south-east Poland where these birds and their marsh tit cousins were some of the most frequently seen species.

Well, just two more days of official winter and my busy spring will begin. I’ve got more surveys at Bagmere to do plus another lot out on the Cheshire sandstone ridge, osprey and peregrine nest protection shifts, plus some trips out into nature around and about.

…but I must also remember to push through on my resolutions to do more photography and mountain biking…I’m just hoping the winter weather gives way to springlike conditions soon! Now I must go and find my snow shovel!

Starting a busy spring

Spring and early summer is without doubt the busiest part of my year. I fill weekends with bird surveys, raptor nest protection shifts, some practical environmental tasks, cycling and walking, and my evenings have more cycling thrown in too. With the warmer weather arriving, I also take more holidays during these months, either volunteering or travelling to new places.

My busy spring really kicked off this weekend. On Saturday I attended a Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) training course run by the British Trust for Ornithology. I was meant to go to it last year but the worst bout of flu I ever had put paid to that plan. I’ve been doing the BTO version of the BBS since 2014 and have a lovely grid square out near the Cheshire Sandstone Ridge. Despite now having some experience of the survey, I thought it would be worth having some formal training, if only to check that I was doing everything correctly…and it appears that have been, which is a relief.

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This morning, I was up early and out to Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s (CWT) Bagmere reserve to undertake the first of four BBS visits. The methodology for CWT’s BBS is different to the BTO’s and collects more detail including recording the behaviour of the bird species noted. When I arrived at the site I almost came straight home again as the wind had picked up and the rain was starting to fall. However, after waiting a little while the rain went away and after walking down to the reserve I could confirm that the site was somewhat sheltered from the breeze and it wouldn’t interfere with the survey by masking bird sounds.

The survey recorded a good number of species and the bird activity is really starting to pick up with the chiffchaffs being a great sign of the new season having arrived. There are still plenty of species to return to the site and there were also winter visitors still in the area with a flock of fieldfares passing overhead. There was also a new species for the site; I flushed a noisy oystercatcher as I walked across the first field into the reserve. However, there was disappointment as again I didn’t record willow tit; a species which has suffered from significant declines nationally and I have noted with decreasing frequency at Bagmere.


Next weekend I hope to make the first BBS visit to my other CWT site, Blakenhall Moss, but this is all dependent on the weather. I will also have another of the fortnightly Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers task on the Sunday, heading out to a site at Oakmere to do a habitat improvement task. The following weekend I’m off on holiday (more posts about this soon) and when I return, over the following weekends will be my first peregrine and osprey nest protection shifts.

I’m going to be busy, but I can’t wait!

The Subdued Life of Winter

It’s a month now since the shortest day and slowly, almost unseen, the nights are drawing out and the mornings, at a slower pace, are getting lighter. However, we are yet to reach what should be the coldest part of the year; the two weeks that span the change of month from January to February. It’s below freezing as I write this on a dull Sunday morning, with a light snow shower laying a few flakes on frozen surfaces.

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I was out at Bagmere yesterday morning; Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s small reserve between Sandbach and Congleton. As I have been for the last few years, I was again wandering around the site doing a survey of the birds I could see and hear. As I walked across the wet and frozen ground, there was a hush over the land, just the background rumble of distant roads and the occasional airliner passing overhead. It was as if nature was hiding, the dormant life just a whisper on the cutting breeze passing between then willows and rustling the rushes and brambles. The birds were there but few in number and subdued in movement and song.

As I walked around the reserve, first across the damp and muddy, marshy grassland and then into the old and new woodland, only a few different species were present. There were the usual wrens hiding down in dense clumps of grass and robins occasionally singing from a low branch. There was a small mixed flock of tits moving through; long-tails, blues and greats. There was an occasional overflight of crows, jackdaws and black-headed gulls. A great-spotted woodpecker alarmed from a high vantage point and at the far end of the woodland a pair of treecreepers made their soft calls as they jerkily moved amongst the trunks and branches. However, again, there were no willow tits on the reserve, a disappointment but not unexpected. The highlight, instead, was a water rail calling from one of the ditches, hidden in the long grass.

The subdued life on the reserve yesterday can be contrasted with how Bagmere will be in only a few short months. When I return to do the breeding bird surveys at the site, in March, April, May and June, the grassland and woodland will be alive with the vivid and raucous spring chorus. Those same birds, and those that will have arrived from their wintering grounds in Africa, will be in their prime and life will be at its fullest.

An uplifting break in the weather

It seems a long time since I was out in the sunshine, so this morning when I woke to a blue sky, I went to Bagmere to do the final Winter Bird Survey for site this season.  After all the miserable weather and the dark mornings and evenings, a bit of sun can really lift the spirits.

Whilst the sun was shining, the wind was close to being too strong to allow me to do the survey.  However, when I got down into the shallow bowl in which Bagmere sits, it was sheltered from the worst of the wind and I could more than easily hear all the birds in the surrounding area.

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There wasn’t a great deal of bird activity and I didn’t get a particularly great list of species.  Unfortunately, willow tits were again missing from my records; after seeing them at Bagmere last time out there, I hoped I’d get them again.  Some nest boxes were put up for them last year and hopefully these will encourage them to breed.  The breeding bird surveys at Bagmere and Blakenhall Moss (both Cheshire Wildlife Trust reserves) start again next month, so I’ll soon see!

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Not long after returning home, the clouds came across and it started to pour with rain and hail – usual service had resumed!

A last reward from the final bird survey of the year

After being foiled by the weather since the beginning of November in my attempts to complete a winter bird survey at Blakenhall Moss, I finally managed to get it done a couple of days after Christmas.

I do these surveys for Cheshire Wildlife Trust (CWT) at their Blakenhall Moss and Bagmere reserves and need to make at least two visits to each site over the course of the winter; one in November/December and the other in January/February. I did the first Bagmere survey on 1st November in a short weather window but there hasn’t been any suitable weather (dry and still) since or at least on days when I’ve been free.

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Blakenhall Moss

The last breeding bird survey visit I made to Blakenhall was back in May and the site has become even more overgrown by brambles. The reserve sits in a large depression in the Cheshire countryside and the Wildlife Trust has cleared the woodland from the site, except for a narrow band of trees around the boundary. The drainage ditch from the site has also been blocked and the water levels have now risen. This has left only a relatively limited area through which the bird survey can be undertaken, in a large loop through the remaining woodland. However, the bramble growth and the higher water levels made the survey very difficult and I spent more time bashing through the brambles and wading through the water than actually observing and listening for birds. Some parts of the survey route are now almost impassable and I suspect that the next year will see the brambles blocking the survey route altogether.

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Pesky Brambles

Despite the difficulties getting around the site, I did manage to complete the survey, although I suspect the disturbance I caused getting around may have distorted the findings. I recorded 21 species including three of particular interest. I found marsh tit and and lesser redpoll, two red-listed species, and a good-sized flock of teal. The teal first wintered at Blakenhall last year, following the raising of the water levels and the flock has returned but is now slightly larger.

Another positive finding was that the invasive species work that I’ve done at the site with Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers (CNCV) has been a success. There were several areas of the site that were overgrown with rhododendron and several visits were made to clear the largest of the areas of this non-native species. After a full growing season since the area was cleared, I found only a small amount of regrowth and this could easily be removed with one further visit (maybe some of the bramble could be cleared at the same time!).

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A small amount of rhododendron re-growth

Whilst not necessary, I also took advantage of the weather window to do a second November/December survey at the Bagmere reserve and it was well worth it. It has been quite concerning that during the past 12 months willow tits haven’t been recorded at the site. Over the course of the year I have done seven surveys at Bagmere and undertaken several tasks with CNCV but haven’t recorded these birds during any of those visits. As I was on the return leg of this survey, having made my way to the far end of the site, I stopped to watch a small roving flock of birds. Amongst the blue tits and a goldcrest were two other birds but I couldn’t confirm what they were to begin with. Marsh tits and willow tits are virtually identical and I find it impossible to visually tell them apart, however, they make distinctly different sounds. After waiting for a while one of the birds made its harsh call which made it immediately recognisable as a willow tit – they’re back!

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Bagmere

The previous recordings I have made of these birds at Bagmere have been made easy by their willingness to make their calls but perhaps they’ve just been a bit quieter than usual over the past few months and I need to take more time during surveys to ensure I don’t miss anything.

Well, that’s it for my surveys in 2015 (breeding bird surveys and winter bird surveys at Bagmere and Blakenhall for CWT and a breeding bird survey near Bulkeley and a House Martin Survey for British Trust for Ornithology; and a cliff-nesting bird survey by jet-boat with the RSPB) but there will be more to come in 2016. Hopefully these will include surveys of the house martin nest on my house – it’ll make a change to do surveys from a seat in my back garden rather than bashing my way through brambles and wading through flooded bogs!

Two visits to Bagmere

Last Sunday I went to Bagmere with Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers (CNCV) to work for Cheshire Wildlife Trust. We got on with our usual task of fighting back the encroachment of tree saplings onto the fenland landscape and burning what we cut.  Unfortunately, the wood has to be burnt on site due to inaccessibility for vehicles and the distance from the road.  However, it’s no hardship for most of us and some (well me, actually) always look forward to the colder months when we can have a big fire – there’s no better way to finish a task than sitting around a fire in the last of the day’s sun, as the flames die down and the last of its heat keeps you warm – marvellous!

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I returned to Bagmere on yesterday to start my winter bird surveys for the season.  Like the breeding bird surveys I do for Cheshire Wildlife Trust, I visit the Trust’s Bagmere and Blakenhall Moss reserves to record bird species.  Unlike the surveys in spring and early summer, the winter versions are simpler as I only note the number of individual birds of each species I see.

Walking around the reserve on Saturday was lovely, the sun had broken through the early morning fog and a bright blue sky emerged.  I spent just less than an hour walking from one end of the reserve to the other and recorded 22 species altogether.  I didn’t find anything unusual but it was good to start the surveys with a reasonably good list.

Unfortunately, as with the four breeding bird survey visits between March and June and last of the previous winter bird surveys in January, I didn’t record willow tits, a red-listed species.  This means that I haven’t recorded them at all so far this year across all the survey visits and several tasks with CNCV.  The Wildlife Trust installed some nest boxes for them in the early spring, in the area of the reserve where I had last recorded them and I spent some extra time in that area to see if they were around.  It would be a depressing finding if they have disappeared – this is only the second full year of surveys I have done at the reserve, with my surveys being the first ever undertaken at the site.

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A conclusion to survey season

Last weekend I did my last bird survey of the breeding season, having had a busy few months of recording since the beginning of March. This year I’ve been doing surveys at two nature reserves for Cheshire Wildlife Trust, I’ve completed a Breeding Bird Survey for the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) in a grid square near Bulkeley, I’ve taken part in the BTO’s House Martin Survey and I did a bit of surveying for the RSPB when I stayed on Ramsey Island.

The surveys for Cheshire Wildlife Trust, at its Bagmere and Blakenhall Moss reserves, were done once a month during March, April, May and June, and this year the overall bird lists for the sites increased further. Over the course of the four visits to Bagmere, 39 species were recorded and this was two less than last year. However, I also made a note of species when I spent a day there with Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers and that visit brought the total up to 45. It was disappointing not to record willow tits at Bagmere this year, a red-listed species, particularly as some nest boxes have now been put up for them; I haven’t seen them at the site since December last year. However, it was good to hear water rail on each visit and to add some new species including garden warbler and grasshopper warbler. This year I didn’t record any confirmed breeding species at Bagmere but I did record 19 probables and 12 possibles.

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At Blakenhall, the transformation from woodland to wetland continues to increase the species seen at the reserve. Up until a couple of years ago there would have only been woodland species but now there is a range of both wintering and breeding wildfowl. In total, 47 species were recorded, up from 35 last year and there were five species confirmed as breeding including blue tit, great tit, Canada goose, greylag goose and treecreeper. In addition, 12 probables and 22 possibles were recorded. There were some new species at Blakenhall too including grasshopper warbler, spotted flycatcher, swallow, shoveler, tufted duck and little owl.

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I’ve now completed two years’ of Winter Bird Surveys and Breeding Bird Surveys at Bagmere and Blakenhall, and these have set a baseline for the sites as they were the first surveys of birds done by the Wildlife Trust at the reserves. I’ve now recorded a total of 53 species at Bagmere and 59 at Blakenhall.

The House Martin Survey is being undertaken for one year only, to help to assess the state of the house martin population in the UK. My second visit to my allocated grid square added another nest to the one recorded during the previous visit in June. However, it was only the first one that appeared to being used, with adult birds visiting to feed chicks. Fortunately, there are more house martins in the area, with colonies just outside my grid square. It was also nice to see a good dozen or more floating around in the evening sky last night when I was at a BBQ only a couple of hundred metres from the boundary of my square.

My hopes were raised that the old house martin nest on the side of my house might still be used this year as I saw birds making fleeting visits over a couple of days and I found droppings beneath the nest when I came back from my two weeks on Ramsey Island. However, those hopes have gone as the birds’ interest didn’t last long and it’s now too late for a pair to breed in the nest. Maybe next year!

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I really enjoy doing the bird surveys, not only because I’m doing something practical to support conservation efforts, but also because it’s lovely to spend a couple of early hours on spring mornings wandering around nature reserves. However, I have to say that the bird survey I helped with on my first day on Ramsey Island was the most fun and memorable of the year. The seabird survey by jet boat in warm summer sunshine was spectacular and a world away from the freezing cold March morning at Bagmere when I crunched my way around the hushed, snow coated reserve with my fingers, toes and nose being nipped by the frost.

Bird surveys start again…

Yesterday I started another round of bird surveys for Cheshire Wildlife Trust. Following the Winter Bird Surveys (WBS) and Breeding Bird Surveys (BBS) I completed for both the Bagmere and Blakenhall Moss reserves earlier this year, it’s now time to start the winter surveys again.

The WBS is much simpler than the BBS undertaken in the spring of each year. The former involve walking the same fixed route but only the species and number of individual birds are recorded. The BBS requires the noting of behaviour to assess whether each recorded species is indeed breeding on a particular site. In addition, the winter surveys can be done at any time during a day, but it should be dry and with little wind.

The winter surveys are undertaken on two separate visits, one in November/December and the other in January/February. Whilst only two visits are required in total for each site, if I get time I will hopefully be able to do four, one in each month. Very little data has been collected on birds at the Bagmere and Blakenhall Moss sites; essentially data is limited to that collected through the surveys I have undertaken this year. Therefore, I hope a little extra effort will help to build up a greater depth of information and therefore understanding of birds at the two sites.

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I started the November/December surveys with a visit to the Trust’s Bagmere reserve. It was a very clear day with bright blue skies and almost no wind – after being in the Falklands for most of the last three weeks, having so little wind was very different to what I have become used to! There was clearly been a lot of rain while I was away as the site was more wet than I can remember it being over the three years or so I have been visiting.

After a rather quiet start to the survey with very little activity, the number of species started to pick up and I ended with a half-descent list. In fact, I noted more species than either of the two visits last winter and only one short of the combined total for those visits. However, of the 21 species recorded, five were flying over rather than being present on the site. The species recorded included: blackbird, black-head gull, blue tit, bullfinch, carrion crow, chaffinch, great tit, jay, linnet, magpie, mallard, moorhen, pheasant, pied wagtail, redwing, robin, song thrush, starling, water rail, woodpigeon and wren.

Of those listed, the most interesting is the water rail which is a local rarity. While I recorded it during the BBS visits to the site earlier this year, it didn’t appear during the last winter surveys. However, it was disappointing not to record willow tit at the site as it was recorded at Bagmere during the BBS and has been noted on a number of visits I have made to the site while working with Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers (CNCV). The willow tit is also a local rarity and has declined in population nationally by 80% over the last 20 years. Furthermore, this was the only Cheshire Wildlife Trust site to record this species during the last round of WBSs. Hopefully, with more visits to be made to the site over the course of the winter, including with CNCV, I’ll be able to record its presence.

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As usual, it was a lovely way to spend a spare hour – wandering quietly around the countryside, immersing myself in the sounds and sights of my surroundings, although as it is approaching the end of the year, the sounds are nothing like the cacophony I listen to during the early morning Breeding Bird Surveys.