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 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.

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.