BBS 2021

Last weekend, the May Bank Holiday weekend, it was back to normal and I made my first visits to ‘my’ two BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey squares in the Northants countryside. Let’s call the two sites BBS1 and BBS2.

Actually, when I say back to normal, there is no such thing as a normal Spring as each is different and it always seems that each is abnormal in some way. This year, both visits started at around 6am with a frost on the ground, and followed a long period of unusually cold April weather. The crops in the fields (see BBS1 above) were well behind their usual state, the vegetation in the field margins had hardly got going and the birds were behaving as though it were late winter rather than mid-Spring. For example, there was a flock of Yellowhammers, which looked like four pairs gathered together, feeding in one field whereas one would usually encounter those birds already firmly on territory with the males singing ‘A-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheeeeese’ to the world. The BBS software actually flagged these eight birds as an unusually high number as I entered the data, asking me to check that I hadn’t mistyped the number of birds or perhaps the species concerned, and I was quite impressed by that.

This is the seventeenth year I have covered BBS1 and the tenth that I have surveyed BBS2 (after a previous surveyer had covered it in earlier years) and I’ll be making the second visits for 2021 to both in four weeks time when it should feel more summery. Regular readers of this blog will have read quite often that I feel while in the field that there are fewer birds than usual but when I get back to my computer and am entering the data then I find that everything is pretty much as usual. The same happened this year and I take that as a small example of the triumph of data over memory – and a small endorsement of the approach of bird monitoring through this and other schemes. Whatever I feel, and whatever the data show, my records for two BBS squares will be added to the records from just over 4000 others, all randomly located across the UK, to contribute to the overall picture.

But I haven’t done the second visits yet so that report for 2021 is a long way off. By the way, I understand that the report for 2020 will appear next week and I’ll be interested to see it. It will be a cut-down version of the usual report because of movement restrictions and constraints in different parts of the UK.

I can tell you, but you might not be immensely impressed, that I added a new species of bird to each site, but that’s the type of thing that makes one keep going back and adds that extra bit of interest to the process. On BBS1, after 17 years, I recorded my first Kestrel there. When I saw it I knew I hadn’t seen one in recent years but I wasn’t sure whether there were a few records from over a decade ago – there aren’t. And on BBS2 I didn’t need to check anything to realise that the two piping Oystercatchers by the River Nene were my first for that site. And as my sharp-eyed BTO Regional Representative (Barrie Galpin) spotted (he’s very good at giving rapid, positive feedback to the volunteers like me who collect and enter all these data), I recorded Cuckoos on both sites. It’s because there is a scheme like the BBS that my anecdotes are turned into something infinitely more useful at telling us of bird population trends.

Although BBS2 starts and ends in a village, all of BBS1 and most of BBS2 is a stroll through farmland so one gets a peek at local farming too. The crops are behind their normal stage and both sites had less oil seed rape and more beans in them – I guess those may be responses to a neonic ban? The fields were dry and cracked because of the lack of rain and for the walker along the footpaths and green lanes (which fortuitously cover my survey squares) this meant no mud-caked footwear for me, a boon, but for the farmers I guess it’s another worry.

There were noticeable other changes in BBS2 where a new fenceline now runs along my route and there were, for the first time, cattle on the other side of the fence, and a fence and kissing gate are now removed which makes access easier for all and possibly for some who would otherwise be excluded. A hawthorn hedge planted a few years ago has shot up during the 11 months since I last saw it and looked very good. There have been other bits of hedge management too with a very good stretch of hedgelaying in one place – if I hadn’t left my mobile phone at home by mistake I’d show you a picture. All these changes are positive. The patch of soggy, reedy wetland in one field that has been the top spot for Sedge Warblers is now a new pool which held a Mallard and a Moorhen with a brood of chicks and won’t be good for Sedge Warblers for a few years, but there was a singing Sedge at the end of the site.

Walking round farmland I have sympathy for farmers. Finding ballons in the hedgebottoms is unsightly and a danger to any livestock present but I was surprised to find this dumped computer monitor something like 250m from the road on BBS1. There is sometimes flytipped material where I and others park their cars at this site, and more rubbish dumped just off the road, but this was a long way from the road and so just felt even worse.

I’m struggling to imagine the process by which it arrived at its resting site. It clearly wasn’t thrown out of a plane so either somebody walked a long way along a footpath carrying this monitor or they came equipped with an off-road vehicle to do it. Surely, it would have been easier to take it to the local recycling centre?

In previous years, I had got into the habit of coming home from both these surveys with a cup of coffee and some croissants but that is a habit I have now shed. Covid-19 will have changed our lives in all sorts of little and temporary ways, and some big and permanent ways too.

I entered the data online, the least enjoyable part of the process but it has to be done, as quickly as possible after each visit. It helps to understand one’s scribbles if they were made only a few hours ago rathers than weeks before. And if, like me, you aren’t 100% accurate in using the BTO 2-letter codes for species as you record the data, this doesn’t matter once you’ve entered the data provided that when I think I’m entering a record of a Greenfich (GR) and find I have entered a Golden Pheasant (GF) I correct it there and then. I always have to check whether a yaffling Green Woodpecker is a song or a call too (it’s a call).

On Monday, after BBS2’s data were entered I cut the grass in the back garden as a) it was long, b) the fortnightly garden waste collection was the next day and c) the forecast was rain. By lunchtime it was raining and it has rained every day since. The grass might get a trim in places but it entered No Mow May on 3 May and will stay in it well into June now. The farmers will have been pleased by the rain and I was pleased to have timed my BBS visits and grass-cutting to avoid it.


12 Replies to “BBS 2021”

  1. Rained stopped play here! Well not really play I did my first BBS type vist to the other side of the NR 10 days ago, as it was a first there was nothing to compare with although I failed to record on the day the Whitethroat and Sedge Warbler pairs ( one of each) that I know are there. Little Ringed Plover and common Sandpipers are the stars of the plot along with more Song Thrushes than blackbirds singing.
    Currently I am rebuilding our chicken run in 3 modules to be fitted together when they are complete but I am at the stage where I need to work outside and rain stopped play. I was also hoping to do the first visit to my nest boxes on the small holding as the two I check to determine when this happens have sitting Pied Flycatcher and Great Tit, rain stopped play now tomorrow or the next nice day. Log delivery today too ( about 1/2 ton and its raining!

  2. Making a start on my Cambs BBS has been a real struggle…….much harder to persuade myself out when I dont have normal sensation in hands and feet (due to medical drug reaction), but this week I did get to BBS1, one of the first ever squares set up (i atrial pre-year in fact) which I have done from the outset. My route changed last year after 2019 missing, due to the field adjacent sections 1-5 being bought by the National trust as a new carpark. Careful discussion w BTO have come up with a compromise new route, I have a new place to park, the farmer was as convinced as ever that his songbirds are doing OK apart from those pesky National Trust Buzzards which eat all of them… and he was unimpressed by me pointing out Lapwing – a l ikely first breeder for the square. Definitely fewer birds on that land year on year………next week, BBS second square, again a new route has been forced upon me… no longer do I have informal access along a field and down to a marvellous little bit of habitat creation as apparently there have been too many non-residents visiting the area and the site is strictly for village residents…..(sigh)….Not worked out where to park yet but its going to be an even longer walk than in the previous 10 years (and this is the second significant route change!!) that square has lost cuckoo and spotted flycatcher, but may retain turtle dove if they make it back this year, and it has also lost all the horses in livery which mean the semi-obstructed rights of way are now freely acessible again…….when was this survey thing ever straightforward?

  3. I’m never disappointed to log on to your blog Mark and read an account of your BBS visit rather than the latest horror story of raptor persecution or the shoddy workings of NE/DEFRA. An everyday tale of fieldwork.

    Your description of the triumph of data over memory strikes me as fundamental to the science and a realisation gained by most who take part in fieldwork. It occurs to me that it is also understanding which is generally lacking and not taken into account in the arguments put forward by the likes of Songbird Survival and the shooting lobby. It’s part of what sets the two camps apart. I also wonder if many in the upper levels at DEFRA/NE might have missed that page too.

  4. You might think councils would pull out the stops to make recycling more accessible, since we all have had a lot of time on our hands to sort out our clutter and therefore there will be a lot of clutter looking to cross its rainbow bridge to find its next forever home. But they haven’t. Book an appointment for several weeks ahead instead. In the meantime, those still owning a CRT monitor feel they must make a long walk of shame to dump their embarassing junk.

    Ballons! Ban them. There is some pressure on DEFRA to have sky-lanterns banned an’ all. And why not? All forms of release on a journey with no defined end point should be banned. And bird rings unless they are biodegradable, like their wearers. All are forms of littering which if I remember correctly is illegal. Considering the alacrity with which people are prosecuted for dropping a biodegradable apple core you would think councils would be all over this. But they aren’t.

  5. “ I always have to check whether a yaffling Green Woodpecker is a song or a call too (it’s a call). “

    I’ve always thought the yaffle or laugh of the Green Woodpecker was its song. Certainly it has a consistent and precise early April peak of output – as opposed to its similar but less maniacal call. But since I still keep making mistakes re bird sounds, I’m ready to be corrected.

    1. Murray – well I think the same, but that’s not how the BTO coding treats it so I have to check. I don’t know much about Green Woodpecker biology – does anyone? It’s quite possible that both sexes of Yaffle do yaffle, I guess.

          1. And for a laugh — Greens have been observed to drum occasionally. It’s an interesting confusion. But as long as woodpeckers keep knowing what they are doing, things should be OK.

  6. Drumming of green woodpecker is quite distinctive when you get used to it. Yes, they don’t seem to drum at any old opportunity like the Great-spots do, but if you spend enough time in a yaffle territory you’ll pick it up. A slower and almost ‘deeper’ drumming

    1. That’s very interesting Louise. I must be missing this. Have you an idea of how often you hear this drumming and in which weeks it is most prevalent? For example, the yaffle sound here is most frequent in March and April with a sharp peak of output in weeks 13 onto 14.

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