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.

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 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.

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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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.

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!

Mr Angry disturbs bird survey

This morning was perfect for my first Breeding Bird Survey of the spring for Cheshire Wildlife Trust (CWT).  With a milky sun peeping through the cloud, a light breeze and (relatively) warm air, I set out to count the birds at the Trust’s Bagmere reserve.

After two years of doing both Winter Bird Surveys and Breeding Bird Surveys for CWT, there’s a bit of a change this spring. The Trust has been developing an amended methodology, so things are a little delayed this year.  Instead of having one transect at Bagmere (and the Blakenhall Moss site that I also survey), it is divided into compartments of different habitats.  Bagmere is divided into several grassland, woodland and fenland compartments, in which the birds are recorded separately to show what birdlife the different habitats support.  This morning was my first outing with the new methodology and it worked well and clearly showed some differences between the various areas.

As I’ve written before, a bird survey on a spring morning is an idyllic way to spend a bit of time, wandering through the fields and woodlands, listening to the birds singing in their breeding prime.  Today was as good a morning as there has been when I’ve done a survey and Bagmere was lovely with the flowers starting to show and the leaves beginning to unfurl on the trees.

All was peaceful…apart from this whitethroat who called out in alarm as I passed on the way out and the way back.  He seemed to see me as a great threat and flew from bush to bush berating and scolding me until I was outside of his territory.

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