A stunning spring morning

I woke very early this morning, not much later than my usual weekday time. With clear skies and no wind, I took the opportunity to do the second of my two March breeding bird surveys for Cheshire Wildlife Trust. This time at their Blakenhall Moss reserve.

Heading out it was a cold and frosty start but with no wind, it was quite comfortable outside and the spring sun soon warmed me up, hitting my dark waterproofs with strengthening rays.  

The reserve is out in the Cheshire countryside near to Wybunbury but isn’t open to the public. I’m very lucky to be allowed to spend a little bit of time there.  However, it isn’t all fun…the site is getting more difficult to get around due to the bramble cover in places and the higher water levels, brought back up to help restore the Moss. I won’t let a bit a water or a few scratches put me off though and after an hour or so I had completed my walk around the site and recorded a good number of species. 

There were two new species recorded for the site, meadow pipit and shelduck, and it was also good to record pairs of marsh tit and lapwing. Despite the lovely springlike weather, there were still some winter migrant species about with a good sized flock of teal still about and a small group of field fare passing purposely overhead.  In total, in recorded 31 species and the two new ones brought the long term reserve list to 64.

For me, this was a perfect early spring morning – bright blue skies, warming sun, a slight frost on the ground, and spent wandering around the countryside listening to and watching wildlife.

A fine morning for a bird survey

For a Sunday, I woke unusually early this morning, so I took advantage of the opportunity and went out to do the first Breeding Bird Survey of the year at Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Blakenhall Moss reserve.


Unlike other Wildlife Trust reserves, including the Bagmere site I also survey, the methodology hasn’t changed for Blakenhall this year, so it was out to do a familiar route, recording the bird species seen and the most ‘breeding-like’ behaviour observed.

The morning was bright and almost cloudless, with a strong sun but not quite as warm as it looked.  However, I soon warmed up as the route is a bit of a struggle in places, either wading through water or pushing through undergrowth.  The work by Cheshire Wildlife Trust to return the Moss to a raised lowland bog has left the site much wetter (intentionally) and where water isn’t lying, the woodland understory it much thicker than it was.  However, it was less tough than I thought it was going to be and after an hour or so I completed the survey and sat for a while on an old tree trunk, taking in the sun and watching the wildlife.

The birdlife was much as I expected, 29 species recorded in all, but there were a couple of new ones for the site, reed bunting and oystercatcher. Overall, that’s 62 species recorded at the reserve since I did the first reserve survey in early 2014.  I also saw my first spotted flycatchers of the year, three in all; these are one of my favourite of our summer visitors.

Walking around the Moss, there were signs that spring is moving on; the blue bells have nearly finished and the hawthorn is out in blossom, showing that summer can’t be far away.

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.


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.


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!).


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!



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!

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.


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.


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!


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.

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.

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.


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.


Lacking inspiration…

Maybe it’s the winter blues or the need for a bit of a change but I’ve been finding it hard to motivate myself recently when it comes to my usual interests.  However, over last weekend I did push myself out of the house to do a Winter Bird Survey at Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Blakenhall Moss reserve and had a walk around Wybunbury Moss.

Blakenhall Moss

The survey was almost as atmospheric as the December visit to Blakenhall but the lack of sun, made the view much more dull.  The fogginess and general murk certainly made the place feel like it was at its lowest ebb of the seasons.  However, I saw one of the first signs of spring with the bluebell shoots starting to emerge from under the leaf litter; maybe a little early this year.  I was also cheered up by recording a couple of marsh tits during the survey; these are an important species for the site, are a nationally red-listed species in serious decline and are not well-recorded in Cheshire.

Bluebell shoots

Out at Wybunbury Moss, I took advantage of the new section of footpath recently designated and opened close to the church tower and behind the Swan Inn pub.  This new path enables a complete circular walk around the Moss without having to use the footway alongside the road through the village, which altogether provides a nice, quiet wander of around 45 minutes.


Unlike at Blakenhall, I didn’t see any signs of spring at Wybunbury and even the birds seemed subdued.

Unlike me, it appears others have had more motivation than me recently, as I found the results of the work put in by my volunteering colleagues the previous weekend.  They (Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers) had spent the day clearing an area of small ponds and undergrowth within the woodland surrounding the Moss and had also laid more log pathway to make it easier to walk along the permissive path through the site.

With the first signs of spring starting to appear, I’m hoping the first ‘greenshoots’ of motivation and inspiration will also start to grow – I certainly need something to give me a bit of a kickstart to the year!

Winter Bird Survey – Blakenhall Moss

A couple of days ago I did a second bird survey of the winter at Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Blakenhall Moss reserve.  I have to do one survey for November/December and another for January/February but if I have the time, I plan to do one per month (and the same for the Trust’s Bagmere reserve).

I recorded 28 species on this visit, which brings the total for the winter surveys so far to 35.  The Marsh Tits were present, unlike the first survey, and a flock of around 30 teal was still at the site.  Following the removal of the majority of the trees from the site and the raising of the water levels, to return it to its former moss state, the recorded bird species has changed with wetland birds now adding to the woodland species still present on the site.

The cold, bright and frosty morning made for a very atmospheric walk through the remaining areas of woodland around the outside of the site.  The flooded woodland looks almost like a mangrove swamp.

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Battling through a Breeding Bird Survey

I’ve just finished the fourth and final visit to Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Blakenhall Moss Reserve to undertake the Breeding Bird Survey for the site.  Wandering around a nature reserve recording the birds heard or seen, seems like an idilic way to spend an early morning in summer; however, it was a bit of a battle today.


As I’ve mentioned before, the Trust bought the site last year and has blocked the drainage channels and cleared the majority of the woodland to hopefully restore the Moss to its previous bog-like state.  This has brought about a transformation to the reserve, which is now open in the centre and has large areas of standing water.  Throughout the time I have been doing the surveys (March, April, May and June), the raised water level has provided a few obstacles, with water overtopping my wellies, hidden timber to trip over and mud to get stuck in.  With the undergrowth having grown so much over the course of the spring and early summer, the brambles and nettles now also provide more obstacles to get over, through and around.  All this is then added to by the lovely mosquitoes which seem to like me quite a lot and they followed me around and bit me for much of the hour and a quarter it took to complete the survey.

With the final of the four visits completed, I can now submit my records to the Trust.  In total, over the course of the four visits, I noted 35 species, with a reasonably consistent number (26, 25, 23 and 26) recorded each time.  Of these species, five were confirmed as breeding including:

  • Mallard (destroyed nest found in March)
  • Great Tit (fledglings seen today)
  • Canada Goose (four goslings seen today)
  • Coot (three chicks seen today)
  • Buzzard (at least one chick heard in a nest today with an agitated adult nearby)


I also recorded 16 ‘probable’ breeders; this is based on the numbers seen either during one visit or a number of visits, pairs seen or agitated behaviour indicating a nest may be nearby.

Also of note were seven species that are unlikely to have been breeding at the site last year but have now been attracted by the new areas of water; these species include mallard, canada goose, coot, greylag goose, little grebe, grey heron and lapwing.  Of course, with less tree cover at the reserve, the number of woodland birds will have decreased significantly since last year but hopefully only in total numbers of individual birds and not species.

While I was at the site, I also recorded three species of mammal, either by seeing them (rabbit) or finding signs (mole hills and badger tracks – see below).  I also noted small white and spotted wood butterflies.


I’ve really enjoyed doing the surveys for the Trust and I’ve learnt a lot over the course of the surveys, both at Blakenhall Moss and the same surveys completed at the Bagmere reserve – hopefully, I will be able to continue doing the surveys next years – now I just need to find some new activities to fill my weekend early mornings!