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.

A record for my BTO Breeding Bird Survey

A few days ago I did the third and final spring visit to my British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Breeding Bird Survey grid square. This was the second of the visits to undertake the survey itself, following a first visit back in March to record any changes in habitats from the same surveys last year. It was a lovely warm spring morning with the countryside full of activity, the landscape a lush green and the birds putting on a great show.

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As usual it took me about 45 minutes to complete each of the two 1km transects, recording all the species I saw or heard, including the number of individuals. I also recorded any mammals I saw or their signs. At the end of the survey, which finishes part way up Bulkeley Hill, I walked the rest of the way up the hill and then the long way around back to my car. The top of the hill gives some great views across the Cheshire Plain back towards home and it also gives nice views across the survey grid square.

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Whilst this was the second year I have done the survey of the grid square near Bulkeley, the site has been surveyed for nearly two decades. The first survey of the site was done in 1998 and the average number of species recorded each year since then, before I started the surveys last year, was 26. Last year I noted 32 species in total and this year I noted the highest ever figure of 39. Over the course of the last 18 years of surveys, 55 species have been recorded. Five of the species I’ve recorded in the last two years weren’t recorded previously (raven, linnet, meadow pipit, goldcrest and red-legged partridge).

My, now usual, busy spring is almost coming to a close with only a last osprey shift to come before the change in month brings a change in season. However, summer will also be busy and will hold more wildlife encounters.  I have a new BTO survey to do, I need to complete the surveys at the two Cheshire Wildlife Trust sites I monitor, I’m bound to have a few more trips to Glaslyn and the highlight of my year in nature is still to come – a fortnight on RSPB Ramsey Island.

Another day, another survey

After yesterday’s lovely spring morning, today was much cooler and cloudier but I still ventured out reasonably early to complete the last of this months bird surveys.  Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Blakenhall Moss reserve was the focus again and I completed the survey in just over an hour; it may take longer on the last two surveys in May and June as the undergrowth increases in the woodland.

Over the course of this survey and the visit last month, I recorded a total of 39 species; that’s four more than the total over all four Breeding Bird Survey visits last year.  This visit also took the complete bird list for the site to 56 with the addition of shoveler, red-legged partridge and grasshopper warbler.  Both the shoveler and partridge appeared to be in pairs, so are probable breeders on the site.  This is almost certainly the first time breeding on the site for shoveler following the woodland clearance and re-wetting work that has been done over the past couple of years.

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The grasshopper warbler tested me a bit as I have only heard one once before (close to where I leave my car on the mainland when I stay on Ramsey Island) and only when the particular bird was calling in full flow – a constant, long grasshopper-like call.  Just as I was completing the survey I heard a short, three or four second long low trilling coming from some brash but I couldn’t see the creature it was coming from. Several more short bursts came from the undergrowth, moving a couple of times but I still couldn’t get a view.  After waiting quite a while, I left for home and checked the call on xeno-canto bird sounds library, suspecting that it was one of these warblers. I turned out to be right and it seems these summer visitors don’t give their full call when they first arrive, starting off in bursts before building up to the constant insect-like sound.

These birds are red-listed after significant long-term declines in their populations, although more recent times have seen promising increases.  Checking my copy of the brilliant BTO Bird Atlas, the birds are relatively scarce along the Welsh border from south Cheshire all the way down to Gloucesteshire.  Therefore, finding one at Blakenhall, if it stays, could be good news.

Bluebells

It wasn’t just the birds that were showing well this morning, there were other signs that spring is here.  There were flowering marsh marigolds and the first few bluebells starting to bloom in the woods ringing the Moss and the blackthorn has broken out into blossom in hedgerows across the area.

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A Perfect Spring Morning for a Survey!

I was up early this morning to do the first of two recording visits to my BTO Breeding Bird Survey site out at Bulkeley.  Getting up was a bit of a struggle after what felt like a long week and doing circuit training last night – my aching muscles didn’t really like the early alarm.  However, it was well worth it.

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It was a lovely, bright and quite warm spring morning with a cloudless sky and only the hint of a cooling breeze.   Even before I’d set off on the first of two one kilometre transects, the birds were performing for me with two buzzards soaring above the sandstone ridge of Bulkeley Hill, being mobbed by a raven and carrion crows.  The summer migrants were also quickly in my notes with willow warbler, chiffchaff and blackcap all singing loudly and persistently.  As I made my way into the second section of the first transect, a good flock of 30 jackdaws took flight after feeding in a hillside meadow.

The each transect took around 45 minutes to complete, with frequent stops to make notes and checking the species through my binoculars.  Some sections were quicker than others with fewer species out in the open fields away from the wooded hill. The last section seemed the most intense of all, almost running out of space to make notes at the end.  The birds seemed quite unconcerned about my presence in some places and I had very good views of chiffchaffs and blackcaps – maybe they had other, springlike, things on their minds. Overall, I recorded 29 species, which is just three shy of the total for the two visits last year.

Wandering around the countryside on a beautiful spring morning is a lovely thing to do anyway but doing a bird survey makes it even better.  Listening and watching wildlife immerses me even deeper into the natural surroundings and makes the experience even more intense. While it is sometimes a struggle to get out of bed early at a weekend, it was certainly worth it this morning!

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As I finished the survey I came across two lost scouts, looking confused as they tried to workout where they were on their OS map.  It’s well over 20 years since I took part in the Cheshire Hike; the two-day event these lads were taking part in.  Whilst it might be counted as cheating, I pointed out where they were and guided them in the right direction.    Mapping reading was always a strength of mine when I was a scout but maybe they don’t teach the current generation as well as I was taught as I came across four more lost lads just a little further down the track. I decided I’d done my good deed for the day and left them to work it all out for themselves.

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!

BTO Breeding Bird Survey – Bickerton Poacher

This week I was given a Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) grid square by the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) and this morning I went out to complete the habitat survey for the two transects (survey routes).

The survey site is out near the Cheshire Sandstone Ridge, close to Bulkeley and just by the Bickerton Poacher pub on the road between Nantwich and Wrexham.  The BBS will require two visits, one at either end of Spring, but I’ll go into more detail about what the surveys entail in a future post.

ImageThe two survey transects are very typical of that part of Cheshire, with large pastures, bounded by hedges, with the backdrop of the low wooded hills.  Unlike much of the county, the land is quite rolling but the Cheshire Plain starts only a short distance away.

Spring really is in full swing now, with the daffodils out in full bloom, leaf buds starting to burst and the birds singing for all their worth.  This survey and the similar surveys I’ve been doing for Cheshire Wildlife Trust have given me a better ‘ear’ for bird song and picking out individual species.  I don’t think I have ever appreciated so much the sheer volume and strength of the combined weight of bird song at Springtime.  Just standing by my car at the starting point of the first transect, by the woodland at the bottom of the hills, the sound was so intense and vibrant – the countryside bursting with life!

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