The call of the BBS

I survey two squares for the BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey, and for my own interest, and for you. I made the first visit to each of them for 2014 over the weekend.

The first of ‘my’ squares is one that I have surveyed for the past nine years.   It’s a one-kilometre square of farmland near my home (five minutes drive away) that was randomly allocated to me – in fact it was simply randomly allocated and I snapped it up as being convenient to me.

The ‘ideal’ way of covering the square would be two parallel straight-line transects but the rights of way and crops mean that my two transect lines are more like a cross than two straight parallel lines. Oh well!

It’s important that I didn’t choose the square – it is a randomly selected one and therefore, with its several thousand fellow BBS squares, should represent UK birds well.  It’s the luck of the draw whether ‘my’ square was literally right outside my front door and involved walking through the streets of my rural town counting House Sparrows and Collared Doves, or in a local wood where I would count Treecreepers, or even on my local patch at Stanwick Lakes where there would be lots of ducks, grebes and wetland birds.  All these habitats will be covered by other observers doing BBS surveys but I, as many others, walk through farmland – which is as it should be since c70% of the UK land area is farmed.

I have to make two visits and I have got into the habit of the first one being around the first May Bank Holiday weekend and the second a month later.  My visits start at 6am and are finished around 730am. Like everyone else, I have to record the birds I see and hear in three distance-bands along the transects: closer than 25m, 25-100m and further than 100m, and do that separately for each of 10 200m sections of the 2km walk.

Since this is my 10th go at ‘my’ square i can almost do it in my sleep, and it is early in the morning, but this year the BTo boffins thought up a change to the methods, an elaboration really, to keep me on my toes.

Although actually it was the Tawny Owl that I saw right at the beginning of the first section of the first transect that really work me up!  It flew away down the green lane completely silently but gave me great views and stirred up the local Blackbirds a bit.  I’ve twice seen a Tawny Owl at the very same spot as I’ve started my BBS square, including on the very first time I surveyed it, but not for quite a few years so it felt like a reminder of the past.  Since that very first visit, each time I have wondered  whether I would see ‘the’ Tawny Owl and only once before has it been there so I felt privileged. What a hoot!

Tawny Owls, of course, do hoot, but this one hadn’t. And I had to notice that, as the BTO boffins’ elaboration was that this time, as well as noting down which species, at what distance, on what section of which transect, I also had to record (well it was voluntary – but I couldn’t resist) whether I first recorded each bird by sight or by hearing it call or by hearing it sing. So this Tawny Owl went down as a visual record whereas the Chaffinch and Wren and Lesser Whitethroat nearby were all singing away when I detected them and a Blackbird was calling.  It added a little extra work, a little extra detail, to my 19th BBS visit to this square.

The Tawny Owl felt like a treat. And there were others.  It was a wonderful bright sunny morning – it was a joy (yes, I did feel joyous) to have a reason to be out.  It wasn’t warm, and there were traces of frost as the night had been so clear.  I can’t remember there ever being a frost on one of my previous visits but doing the BBS has taught me that my memory is a bit shaky.

I’ve surveyed this area in mist and in sunshine, in dull weather and in bright, but I can’t remember a morning quite as glorious and life-enhancing as Saturday’s.  I did feel a joy to be out counting birds on such a morning.

There had been two Willow Warblers singing on my walk to the square but I recorded not a single one actually on the transects.  that always happens with something. Usually it is Lesser Whitethroat that rattle on my walk from the road but are silent as I cover the transects but on this morning I recorded a few Lessers as I walked (all recorded by song).

There was a change to the habitat data this year too – shock! horror! One field was in spring wheat rather than winter cereals (or oil seed rape).  this meant that I could see several Brown Hares sitting out in the field which i would not normally have seen, and a few more distant Pheasants out there too.

I write a little about this BBS square in the last chapter of A Message from Martha, where I discuss not the loss of the Passenger Pigeon in the USA a century ago but the loss of farmland birds, including Turtle Doves, from the east Northamptonshire countryside, and the British countryside, and the European countryside right now. There I speculate on whether 2013 might have been the last year on which I might record Yellow Wagtail on this BBS square as the numbers have fallen over the years when i have surveyed this square, but I am happy to relate that I saw a couple, my first of the year, in one of their more usual spots on the walk. Yippee!  What glorious bundles of bright yellowness they are. They were a treat.

I saw a Jay near the end of my walk and couldn’t remember recording one before – so that felt like a treat, except when I returned I discovered that there had been one previous record several years ago (which I cannot recall at all – it’s good that these things are recorded at the the time and computerised).

On my return home, and to my computer to enter the data, I had another treat – I discovered that the Green Woodpecker that I had heard ‘yaffling’ was a new bird for the square. I hadn’t realised at the time. It’s a matter of little importance but it now forms part of a national picture of bird changes and was of interest to me.  I don’t know how many Green Woodpeckers I hear each year – scores and scores I guess, but that Green Woodpecker was more valuable than the others because it was recorded on my 19th visit, in my 10th year, to a randomly selected bit of countryside which forms part of our national bird monitoring scheme.

The data entry was pretty straight forward – slightly lengthier having to allocate every sighting as being seen, a call or a a song – but it felt like proper closure of an enjoyable stroll with a purpose.

It was a glorious Spring morning in England. The sun shone and the patches of frost melted away. The Tawny Owl put in an appearance again. Whitethroats were in song flight above the hedges and Lesser Whitethroats rattled inside those hedges. Skylarks sang over the winter and spring wheat. A Reed Bunting sand from the oil seed rape. There were lots of Wood Pigeons and a few Stock Doves.  A pair of Bullfinches were where I would expect to see them (and hear them).

I was glad that I had answered the call of the BBS.




7 Replies to “The call of the BBS”

  1. I’m pleased to hear about the yellow wagtails, Mark. Off to do my BBS this morning, but it is part of a local scheme, so not quite as complex.

  2. Delightful to read about your BBS survey visit and get a picture of what’s happening down in your area. Your explanation was much clearer than some of the instructions on the BTO website. However, I accidentally touched the ‘Dislike’ button on the iPad while reading your account, so please don’t think I’m a miserable git.

  3. A Redwing just hopped up to the back door. (Eye stripe and orange flash on side.) Isn’t this a bit late?

  4. Since the BBS started in the mid-90’s I’ve done a couple of squares. The data is so important, but it is also very enjoyable. I was telling someone on Sunday how doing a BBS makes you so much more aware of song and calls. Most of the knowledge of vocalisations I’ve acquired over the years has been through doing survey work. I strongly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about birds.

  5. Thanks for reminding me Mark. I shall be setting the alarm for 5am tomorrow!

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