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.

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.

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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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!

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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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