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.

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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.

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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!).

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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!

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Bagmere

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!

Two visits to Bagmere

Last Sunday I went to Bagmere with Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers (CNCV) to work for Cheshire Wildlife Trust. We got on with our usual task of fighting back the encroachment of tree saplings onto the fenland landscape and burning what we cut.  Unfortunately, the wood has to be burnt on site due to inaccessibility for vehicles and the distance from the road.  However, it’s no hardship for most of us and some (well me, actually) always look forward to the colder months when we can have a big fire – there’s no better way to finish a task than sitting around a fire in the last of the day’s sun, as the flames die down and the last of its heat keeps you warm – marvellous!

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I returned to Bagmere on yesterday to start my winter bird surveys for the season.  Like the breeding bird surveys I do for Cheshire Wildlife Trust, I visit the Trust’s Bagmere and Blakenhall Moss reserves to record bird species.  Unlike the surveys in spring and early summer, the winter versions are simpler as I only note the number of individual birds of each species I see.

Walking around the reserve on Saturday was lovely, the sun had broken through the early morning fog and a bright blue sky emerged.  I spent just less than an hour walking from one end of the reserve to the other and recorded 22 species altogether.  I didn’t find anything unusual but it was good to start the surveys with a reasonably good list.

Unfortunately, as with the four breeding bird survey visits between March and June and last of the previous winter bird surveys in January, I didn’t record willow tits, a red-listed species.  This means that I haven’t recorded them at all so far this year across all the survey visits and several tasks with CNCV.  The Wildlife Trust installed some nest boxes for them in the early spring, in the area of the reserve where I had last recorded them and I spent some extra time in that area to see if they were around.  It would be a depressing finding if they have disappeared – this is only the second full year of surveys I have done at the reserve, with my surveys being the first ever undertaken at the site.

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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.

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!

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!

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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Bird surveys start again…

Yesterday I started another round of bird surveys for Cheshire Wildlife Trust. Following the Winter Bird Surveys (WBS) and Breeding Bird Surveys (BBS) I completed for both the Bagmere and Blakenhall Moss reserves earlier this year, it’s now time to start the winter surveys again.

The WBS is much simpler than the BBS undertaken in the spring of each year. The former involve walking the same fixed route but only the species and number of individual birds are recorded. The BBS requires the noting of behaviour to assess whether each recorded species is indeed breeding on a particular site. In addition, the winter surveys can be done at any time during a day, but it should be dry and with little wind.

The winter surveys are undertaken on two separate visits, one in November/December and the other in January/February. Whilst only two visits are required in total for each site, if I get time I will hopefully be able to do four, one in each month. Very little data has been collected on birds at the Bagmere and Blakenhall Moss sites; essentially data is limited to that collected through the surveys I have undertaken this year. Therefore, I hope a little extra effort will help to build up a greater depth of information and therefore understanding of birds at the two sites.

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I started the November/December surveys with a visit to the Trust’s Bagmere reserve. It was a very clear day with bright blue skies and almost no wind – after being in the Falklands for most of the last three weeks, having so little wind was very different to what I have become used to! There was clearly been a lot of rain while I was away as the site was more wet than I can remember it being over the three years or so I have been visiting.

After a rather quiet start to the survey with very little activity, the number of species started to pick up and I ended with a half-descent list. In fact, I noted more species than either of the two visits last winter and only one short of the combined total for those visits. However, of the 21 species recorded, five were flying over rather than being present on the site. The species recorded included: blackbird, black-head gull, blue tit, bullfinch, carrion crow, chaffinch, great tit, jay, linnet, magpie, mallard, moorhen, pheasant, pied wagtail, redwing, robin, song thrush, starling, water rail, woodpigeon and wren.

Of those listed, the most interesting is the water rail which is a local rarity. While I recorded it during the BBS visits to the site earlier this year, it didn’t appear during the last winter surveys. However, it was disappointing not to record willow tit at the site as it was recorded at Bagmere during the BBS and has been noted on a number of visits I have made to the site while working with Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers (CNCV). The willow tit is also a local rarity and has declined in population nationally by 80% over the last 20 years. Furthermore, this was the only Cheshire Wildlife Trust site to record this species during the last round of WBSs. Hopefully, with more visits to be made to the site over the course of the winter, including with CNCV, I’ll be able to record its presence.

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As usual, it was a lovely way to spend a spare hour – wandering quietly around the countryside, immersing myself in the sounds and sights of my surroundings, although as it is approaching the end of the year, the sounds are nothing like the cacophony I listen to during the early morning Breeding Bird Surveys.

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.

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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)

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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.

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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!

Breeding Bird Survey – Getting back more than I put in…

Today, I completed the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) for Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Bagmere reserve.  The site is located at the centre of a triangle formed by Sandbach, Holmes Chapel and Congleton and is only a short drive from where I live (well it should be if I hadn’t been caught in rush hour traffic today!).  The survey has involved visiting the site once per month during March, April, May and June, and recording the species of birds seen, the number of each species and their behaviour.  Now at the end of the four visits, I can assess what birds are possibly breeding, probably breeding or confirmed breeding on the site.

Over the course of the four visits, I have noted 41 species at the site. A number of these have been flying over Bagmere and therefore are unlikely to be breeding there (e.g. Lapwing, swallow and jackdaw) but many of the others are either possible or probable breeders.  I was quite excited that in the earlier visits I had recorded both Willow Tit and Water Rail but these species have not put in an appearance more recently but I think I can put the former down as a probable breeder at least. Today I saw young Blue Tits and Great Tits, so these are likely to be recorded as confirmed breeders for the site.

One thing that has struck me over the course of the four visits is how Bagmere and the birds have changed as the Spring has progressed.  During my first visit, the trees were bare, the temperatures were low and there were still some avian winter visitors around (Fieldfares and Redwings).  When I did the surveys in April and May, the grass was starting to grow, the trees were coming into leaf and the migrants gradually started to arrive. My visit today found the reserve in its prime; all of the summer migrants had arrived, the grass was almost too long to walk through, the trees were in full leaf and the flowers were blooming.

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While undertaking the surveys I have also noted the other fauna I have seen within the reserve and today I saw both Spotted Wood and Meadow Brown butterflies (pictured below).  I also saw two brown hares during the May visit to the site – for me, a lovely moment and highlight.

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One of the things that makes this task so special is that I’m the first person to do a full BBS for the site and my list of species is the first complete one done for Bagmere (I think so, anyway).

I have gained so much through doing these surveys. I don’t think I have ever noticed the seasons change as much as I have this year.  I have always thought I was in touch with the changing of the seasons but these surveys have taken it to a whole new level. The surveys have also improved my ear for birds and I now seem to be able to cut through the general cacophony of the modern world and pick out a single bird singing amongst the trees or undergrowth.

I started doing these surveys to help Cheshire Wildlife Trust with its work but I have received far more than I have put in – I think I have really learnt and grown by doing them – I just hope I can continue to do the surveys for the years to come!

May Breeding Bird Survey – Bagmere

With an extra day at home following my return from Ramsey Island, I went out and did the third of four spring Breeding Bird Surveys at Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Bagmere Reserve. The reserve has changed hugely since my last visit with the trees now all out in leaf and the willow tree ‘fluff’ floating on the breeze and sticking to my clothes.  The warm sun made it feel like summer rather than spring.

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The reserve was strangely quiet this morning and I only recorded 17 species, compared to the 28 and 24 species I recorded during the March and April surveys respectively.  However, I did record five new species for the site; blackcap, whitethroat, sedge warbler, sky lark and reed bunting.

The whitethroats were particularly excitable and angrily called at me as I strolled past.  This summer migrant is amber-listed for conservation but still has over one million breeding territories in the UK.

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While the survey is focused on breeding birds, I noted mammals and butterflies as I made my way around the site.  Two large brown hares ran past me, momentarily stopping to check me out, and then loped off into the long grass.  I also identified large white, small white and painted lady butterflies as well as the small pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly, for which the site is known.