Cooling Marshes, Kent, 7th December 2014

Thursday, 31 March 2011

Big Garden Birdwatch 2011: Results

Chaffinch - on the up

On an overcast Sunday morning in late-January, I organised a RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch event in my local woodland nature reserve. Myself and another spotter recorded the highest number of birds we saw in our patch over the course of an hour and submitted the results online. Apparently an incredible 600,000 others also took part, counting over 10 million birds in the process. Today the results of this fascinating nationwide event were announced.

The RSPB website provides a good summary of the findings and highlights in particular the recovery of small garden birds after the freezing winter of 2009-10. Success stories include the tiny Goldcrest (the smallest bird in the UK) which saw a 103% increase in records received, Long-tailed Tit (+32%) and Treecreeper, a bird I was pleased to record on our survey (+113%). This increase suggests that favourable conditions last spring meant many birds enjoyed a successful breeding season. It also appears that many birds were able to survive the widespread, prolonged snow events this winter due to the availability of food.

A look at the nationwide results reveals that House Sparrows topped the chart with an average of 4.16 birds appearing in 64.49% of gardens and Blackbirds came in at number 3 with an average of 3.26 birds appearing in 95% of  gardens! Here's what Londoners were seeing (Greater London top 20):
% of gardens
Blue Tit
House Sparrow
Feral Pigeon
Great Tit
Collared Dove
Carrion Crow
Ring Necked Parakeet
Long-tailed Tit
Coal Tit
Common gull

It's pleasing to see House Sparrows in the top 5 since this is not a bird I see regularly in my area of south east London. Ring Necked Parakeets inevitably make an appearance and it would be interesting to see how these numbers compare to previous years. In truth, only so much value can be placed on this survey but it is undoubtedly a useful method of identifying trends.

For me its real value lies in its ability to stimulate people's interest in their surroundings. Gardens have an enormous role to play in the success of wildlife populations in the UK and it is public awareness, knowledge and passion that represent the best tools for addressing the challenges that our garden birds (and thus our environment) face. The Big Garden Birdwatch is the beginning, lets not forget to look over the fence at what is happening elsewhere.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

On the Move

Last Saturday I spotted my first butterfly of the year, an unmistakable pale green Brimstone, on a scrubby roadside verge in Purfleet, Essex. After several cold months of interminable grey skies this momentary encounter was a reason to smile. Along with the clues adorning trees, shrubs and flowerbeds, it was a welcome reminder that, although it might not have hit its dizzying heights yet, spring is here.
Dog's Mercury (Mercurialis perennis) -
a shade-tolerant woodland plant that flowers early,
before leaves appear on trees and light reaching the woodland floor decreases

Alien-like Goat Willow (Salix caprea) catkins

For us birdwatchers, Spring means the hours of sitting in freezing hides with sodden jeans and only a lukewarm flask of ribena for comfort can be forgotten about (until the summer at least!) And those tormented dreams of missed Waxwing twitches can perhaps finally be laid to rest with the promise of the riches to come. We can again look forward to hearing our green spaces come alive with birdsong. We can also look forward to one of nature’s myriad wonders – spring migration.
Each spring thousands of migrating birds arrive in the UK. The majority of these will be returning from their wintering grounds in equatorial Africa and will have crossed the Saharan desert, the Mediterranean Sea and the mountains of southern Europe prior to alighting in our gardens, parks, woods and fields. Given the distance and the dangers en route (hunting, exhaustion, unpredictable weather events) it’s a miraculous concept but one that clearly works for many birds. So why undertake such an epic journey?

The simple answer is that these birds are seeking food and suitable breeding sites and for many, the British Isles are a perfect destination. The nature of our seasons means that although it may be cold and dark for several months, when the situation improves in spring, the natural world responds with a burst of life and conditions that are hard to ignore. Vegetation blooms and invertebrate numbers rise, providing an endless food supply for birds. This abundance is complemented by the increase in daylight hours we experience.
So what species should you be looking out for in March and April?
This interesting table from the BTO shows the average arrival dates of 24 spring migrants from four bird observatories around the UK. If you’re a city dweller like me, the first migrants you are likely to encounter will be small passerines from the warbler (Sylviidae) family. Chiffchaffs are generally among the first to arrive, followed by Blackcaps and Willow Warblers (it can be tricky however to determine whether or not the bird is a new arrival since both Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps are now known to winter in the UK!)But regardless of their origin these understated birds are worth keeping an eye, and ear out for, since you are most likely to hear their sweet, flutey songs emanating from parks, deciduous woodlands and scrub before you actually see the bird itself.
Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita) photo from RSPB Images - listen out for its repetitive 'chip-chap chip-chap' song
The general consensus so far (and by that I mean a brief consultation with Birder Dave and a look at the Portland Bird Observatory website) is that spring migration is off to slow start this year. But that just means it can only get better.
Have you spotted a migrant on your patch? Or heard an unusual birdsong in your garden? I’d love to hear about it.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Birds on 45 (pt.3)

Another entry in our series celebrating 7 inch pop records with a bird cover stars. This one’s a bit special and features a guest review by Ben from Stereo Sanctity.

Sweet People - Et les Oiseaux Chantaient (Polydor Records, 1978)

It’s not often you see a Cirl Bunting in the UK these days (unless you’re lucky enough to live in Devon) but it’s probably even more unusual to find one in the basement of a second hand record store in South London. However that, I think, is what we have here; the dark ‘chin’ and bold, striped head pattern suggest a male Cirl Bunting in breeding plumage. In bird terms you wouldn't find a Cirl Bunting languishing in a dusty bargain bin, they'd be on ebay attracting a bidding war. They are a rare and cherished british bird.

Ok, this one is only gracing a record sleeve but it’s a curious and oddly brilliant record at that. I have no idea who the mysterious ‘Sweet People’ were but given the title of the single (which, unless my understanding of GCSE-level French is wrong, translates as ‘and the birds sing’) we can assume they were plying their trade across the channel. Whoever they were, they were onto a good thing, as Ben explains...

"I’m no expert on vintage easy listening music, but in purely practical terms this gem of a charity shop disc gets my vote as the ‘best easy listening record ever’. I wish I had a USB turntable so that we could share it with you.

One side is accompanied by bird song (Cuckoo and House Sparrow – ed), whilst the other is built around the sound of waves crashing against the shore. Each track consists of a few simple, pleasing musical phrases, which are established at the outset and repeated continuously with only slight developments and changes in instrumentation along the way. The ‘Ocean side’ features some marvellously subtle, miraculously un-irritating harmonica playing, a strummy guitar sound and a distantly evocative melody, all faintly reminiscent of something off Neil Young’s ‘Harvest’, perhaps? The ‘Bird side’ is a touch more jazzy, in a hazy sort of way, gentle electric organ tones perhaps seeking communication with our avian friends.

Both sides boast a rich, deep, relaxing mixture of tones, tailor-made by experts to make human ears happy. An archetypal senile old grandmother could nod her head along with this, and remark how nice and relaxing it is. And no archetypal sneering punk-ass record nerds would dare to tell her otherwise, because SHE IS RIGHT. It is very nice and relaxing, and that’s all there is to it.

Remarkably, the instrument tones and other sounds on this record sound equally natural whether played at 33 or 45 rpm, and the overall pace and feeling of the compositions doesn’t seem to change much either way. Given the choice, I’d probably play it at 33 so that it’s a bit longer and more tripped out, but granny may prefer to stick to 45, as the label recommends."    

It is no exaggeration to say that 10p has never been better spent.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Wading Wonders: Two Tree Island

Despite near-constant rain and drizzle, a trip to Two Tree Island NNR in Essex on Saturday turned out to be thoroughly enjoyable. Although for us the conditions meant a lot of time was spent huddling in the hides and de-misting binoculars, the birds thankfully, were not not deterred.  

Highlights included watching c30 Avocet skim their distinctive bills through the shallow waters of a lagoon and Black-tailed Godwits probing the mudflats for worms and molluscs. My favourite moment though was when this Curlew flew in and landed right in front of our hide:

Wader go...Curlew, Two Tree Island NNR, Leigh-on-Sea, Essex
A trip to Two Tree Island is highly recommended; jutting out into the Thames between Southend and Canvey Island, the island acts as a catchment area for many bird species, both resident and migratory. This is due to the wide range of nationally important habitats in the vicinity which includes salt marsh, saline lagoons, inter-tidal mud flats and grassland.
Two Tree Island: looking west towards the lagoon
It’s less than an hour from London, easy to find and offers good opportunities to see waders up close. Why not share your favourite birdwatching day trips from London?

Species list, Two Tree Island, 26/2/11:
Avocet, Black-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Grey Plover (after some debate!), Redshank, Brent Goose, Oystercatcher, Turnstone, Teal, Black-headed gull, Great black-backed gull, Herring gull, Shoveler, Little Grebe, Mallard, Dunnock, Pied Wagtail, Woodpigeon, Skylark, Blackbird, Starling, Shelduck, Cormorant, Carrion Crow, Magpie.