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.

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.

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!

House Martin Nest Study 2016

My favourite summer migrants have returned – the swallows, house martins, sand martins and swifts. I’m fortunate that three of these species (not sand martins) breed in the area where I live and I can usually see them flying in the sky above my house. I’m even more fortunate that there’s usually a house martin nest on under my eaves; I say usually but in fact there has been at least one nest for the past 15 summers than I have lived here. I thought the unbroken record was going to come to an end last summer when the house martins failed to return around their usual time. There was no sign of them for most of the spring and summer until I retuned home from work in late August to find droppings on the driveway beneath the nest, which was still up there from the previous year. That seemed very late for a first brood particularly compared to the usual May or June in previous year.

The chicks fledged in late September and it wasn’t clear if this was by accident or design. I worked from home one day and in the afternoon there seemed to be lots of comings and goings from the nest. It was only when I left the house later on that I noticed the nest on the driveway and the fledgelings flying up to the point when it used to cling to the eaves. The next day they were all gone and I didn’t see any more house martins around my home again last year.

Over the years I have sporadically kept a record of when the house martins first arrived back at the nest and most records show it was around mid to late April. When the month changed into May, I started to suspect there would be another late return this year. However, when I was cooking my evening meal yesterday I had a spare moment and popped my head out of the kitchen and popped my head round the corner of my house and looked upwards. Up at the apex of the eaves was the ring of mud, all that remained of the nest, but there was something else up there too. At first it looked like a bit of black plastic blown up there by the wind but after I shaded by eyes from the evening sun, the shape was clearly a house martin and there was another flying around just above the roof.

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House martins are ‘amber listed’ in the Birds of Conservation Concern listings and numbers have been in rapid decline.  I’m sure that when first moved into my house, another pair nested under next door’s eaves and there were other nests in the area.  Now there is mine and very few others.  However, the pattern of decline isn’t uniform.  Ramsey Island for example (the RSPB reserve where I volunteer for a couple of weeks each year), didn’t have any house martins before a first nest in 2014 and it had eight nests last year (extra emergency artificial nests had to be shipped across!). Something is certainly happening to house martins but fortunately it’s been noticed and hopefully before it’s too late to reverse the overall declines.

Last year I took part in the British Trust for Ornithology’s (BTO) House Martin Nest Survey. I was given an Ordnance Survey grid square, luckily for me the one immediately nest to the one in which I live, and I made several visits to record the number of nests on buildings and the amount of activity. This year there’s another house martin survey for the BTO. The House Martin Nest Study 2016 requires surveyors to choose a nest/nests and record the activity over the course of the spring and summer. The survey can be done with varying levels of detail and I hope to do as much monitoring as I can, doing daily records of activity whenever possible (holidays allowing). Now that house martins have returned to my home, I’m going to have a very convenient nest to monitor!

The chortling house martin chicks wafting in through my landing window on warm summer evenings as I lie in bed really is one of my favourite things about the season and I’m hopeful that it won’t be long until I hear those sounds once again. By doing the survey this year, I hope that I can make a small contribution to helping to ensure this will always be a sound of summer.

A spring survey at the end of a wintry week

This morning I went out to the middle of the Cheshire countryside to undertake my first of two visits to my grid square for the British Trust for Ornithology’s (BTO) Breeding Bird Survey.  It’s the third year I’ve done this survey and it’s always a pleasure to spend a couple of hours out in the green fields and wooded hillsides observing nature and listening to the calls and songs of the birds.

It’s certainly been a strange spring week with the temperatures dropping and snow appearing on a couple of days.  However, the season is still progressing towards summer with the daffodils on the roadside verges having lost their flowers, the bluebells starting to bloom and the grass growing brighter shade of green. The leaves are coming out on the trees but could they be a little late this year? Some trees are barely showing any signs of leaves at all – it’s May tomorrow!

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The day started cold but bright and as we set off on the first of two one kilometre transects I had to check exactly what I had to do – the long winter has obviously dulled my memory. However, I soon got into the swing of it, for once aided by my assist (thanks Dad – he did the map reading), and started to get the sightings down on the record sheets.

The first transect went without a hitch and the second went well until the penultimate section when winter intervened; the heavens opened and down came a heavy spell of hailstones.  We waited under the shelter of the woodland and halted the survey until the downpour had completely finished, leaving it a little while longer for the birds to re-emerge from wherever they had been sheltering.  It wasn’t long until the birds were singing their spring songs once more and we completed the remaining section of the survey in the dry.

Nothing particularly notable popped up during the survey but all the usual summer migrants were present including the first swallows and house martins I’ve seen this year.  I’m hoping the house martins that nest on my own house return soon – or at least at lot earlier than the did last year – as I’ve got the BTO’s nest survey to do this year.

And the cradle will fall

I was working from home last Friday and noticed that there were lots of comings and goings from my house martin nest. I could see them constantly flying past my landing window and assumed that they had finally fledged. As a first brood, I was getting slightly concerned that I had yet to see the chicks fly – this being late in the year. I was relieved then when I saw them flying past.

However, as I left home in the afternoon I noticed something on my driveway – the nest!

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The nest was from last year and perhaps, weakened over the winter, it could not withstand the weight of an almost fledging brood. Whatever the reason for its failure, it seems the chicks were forced to fledge whether they liked it or not.  The birds were still flying up to where the nest had been, trying to cling on to what little remained of the mud home attached to the wall.

When I retuned home on Sunday, the birds were nowhere to be seen. I hope they’ve found somewhere else to roost overnight, particularly with the temperatures becoming more autumnal. Whether the chicks will have gained enough strength to migrate yet is another matter entirely. I’ve not seen many house martins in the area since I returned so maybe they have already moved on.

After giving up on the nest ever producing any chicks this year, I was very surprised and happy to hear and see a brood being nurtured high up on the side of my house in mid-August.  Now that they’ve fledged, and hopefully begun their migration south, I have some renewed hope that I may be able to conduct the 2016 BTO House Martin Nest Study using a nest on my own house – I’ll just have to wait and see!

House Martin Survey 2015

My spring bird surveys are just about coming to an end with only the June breeding bird surveys to do at two Cheshire wildlife trust sites. However, I’ve a new summer survey to do this year and it’s all about house martins.

This will be the fifteenth summer I will have lived in my house and each one has been accompanied by house martins breeding under the eaves. However, last year they only built the nest and didn’t successfully breed, this year they haven’t returned at all. Fortunately, there are martins on some of the surrounding houses but mine appear to have gone.

Whilst the birds did make a bit of a mess on my drive, that was more than made up for by the chortling sounds coming in through the landing window on warm summer evenings and early each morning. I fear that those sounds won’t return. These birds live on average for only two years, so a break of two years breeding on my house may mean they never return.

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It isn’t just my house that they are failing to return to. The rapid decline of this species means they are now amber listed – of conservation concern – but very little is known about them; this is where the new survey comes in. In 2015, 2,000-3,000 randomly selected one-kilometre grid squares will be surveyed to generate estimates of the national population. In 2016, a further set of surveys will be undertaken to monitor breeding activity at individual nests.

I’m very fortunate to have been allocated the grid square next to the one in which I live; it starts about 100 metres from my house. The survey involves three visits (I’ll explain the second two in a later post) and I completed the first last weekend. This visit to the grid square was a recce to make initial investigations into what nests are present in the area.

My allocated grid square is largely rural with a couple of small housing estates and a couple of sections of residential road. I wasn’t therefore expecting to have huge numbers of nests but I only found one within the whole square. I felt somewhat cheated by this as I observed three distinct groups of house martins flying around the area in the east, south and west of the grid square. I felt even more cheated by the fact that I found other nests literally a handful of metres outside the grid square which I’m unable to include in the survey. However, it is just as important what you don’t count in the square as what you do, so even feeling slightly cheated, I must only record the one nest.

Whilst these surveys won’t directly bring ‘my’ house martins back, I hope it will contribute to the understanding of the reasons for their decline. In due course, maybe that understanding will help to reverse the decline and, one day, I may again hear the chortling of house martins coming in through my landing window on a warm summer evening.

You can read more on these surveys on the British Trust for Ornithology’s website.