A song for Guy

Guy Smith, NFU environment spokesperson asked for the details of species I saw on my BBS visit.  I wonder why.

I’ll do better than that Guy, I’ll list the species seen on my visit last Saturday and compare them with those seen on my first visit to this BBS square almost exactly seven years ago (8 May 2005).  Those species whose numbers contribute to the Farmland Bird Index (which reached its lowest ever level in 2010 (2011 results awaited)) are shown in bold.


……………………………..2005       2012

Mallard                                   1              0

Pheasant                                 4              4

Lapwing                               9              0

Stock Dove                         0              2

Woodpigeon                      19           5

Tawny Owl                          1              0

Skylark                                 23           4

Yellow Wagtail                   1              0

Wren                                     6              1

Dunnock                              0              3

Robin                                    6              2

Blackbird                           10           6

Song thrush                       0              1

Lesser Whitethroat         2              2

Whitethroat                       2              3

Blackcap                              5              1

Chiffchaff                             1              2

Willow Warbler                 2              0

Blue Tit                                 4              4

Great Tit                              3              2

Jay                                         0              1

Magpie                                 1              1

Jackdaw                               2              0

Carrion Crow                      2              3

Chaffinch                             18           15

Greenfinch                         2              0

Goldfinch                            0              1

Linnet                                   1              5

Bullfinch                               1              1

Yellowhammer                 7              0

Reed Bunting                     0              1

Birds                                     83             54

Species                                 25             23


Now I wouldn’t draw any conclusions from the differences between a single visit in 2007 and a single visit in 2012 – the value of my visits to this site are that I have visited it twice each year  and, using standardised methods, counted all the birds on two visits each year.  Anecdotes, whether they are from a single BBS site or a single farm (and farmer’s perhaps clouded recollection of days gone by) are no substitute for data collected by thousands of people at randomly selected locations – so the real value of my results are that they form a tiny contribution to a much much larger well-designed whole.

Now I wonder what point Guy will want to make from these observations?  Shall we wait and see?  No, let’s guess!  Guy will say that there are lots of other species recorded on this plot that aren’t in the farmland bird index.  Yes there are – and that’s because this plot contains some woodland in it – linear woodland along the thick green lane and a few small patches of woodland dotted around the square as would be expected in many parts of southern England.  Many of you could have guessed that from the bird list anyway, I know.

Quite a few of the remaining species contribute to the woodland bird index – which is also declining overall.

I wouldn’t want to make anything of the differences between these two counts but I am somewhat shocked at the changes in farmland birds which they suggest.  I expect the second visit in a month’s time will show a less dismal picture, and I haven’t shown you all the years in between, but the overall picture emerges from thousands of similar little pixels.

Over to you, Guy.


Poor things and real things

Did you watch Planet Earth Live on Sunday night?  I did and there were some enjoyable moments in it.

It seemed to be all about going ‘Awww’ at cute little mammals that were having a tough time of making their way in the world – but enough of the presenters Richard Hammond and Julia Bradbury. I’ll stick with it, because nature is wonderful but I did wish I’d switched over to the snooker a bit earlier. Calling the programme ‘Live’ was asking for trouble when nature is unbiddable and so there is bound to be an awful lot of ‘this is what happened a few days ago’ going on.  It all felt downmarket, shallow and bitty. Not the BBC’s finest hour and it’s  shame becaues nature needs all the fans it can get.  To be fair, maybe this programme will increase the number of animal enthusiasts who will then support serious nature conservation work – I hope it does,  but at the moment it is not my cup of tea.  Is it yours?

, via Wikimedia Commons”]Over the weekend I did hear my first cuckoo of the year (so very late) on my first visit to my second BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey square.  What a relief!  And I visited a BTO Nightingale survey square a couple of times and was delighted and surprised to hear one nightingale on the first visit.  This was in a wood near where I live that is off the beaten track and I had never visited it before.  The nightingale sang beautifully for 20+ minutes on Saturday morning and I glimpsed it briefly a few times.  When I returned on Monday morning it was still there singing away, and perched out in full view for a few moments. But even better, there was another male there too.

Have you heard nightingales singing – ever? Find a way to go out and experience it some time.  Keats wasn’t kidding when he talked about ‘full throated ease’.  Listening to an unseen nightingale belting out its song, in short phrases in the gloom of the evening, when almost every other bird is silent, is a magical European experience.

If you live south of the Wash-Severn line (and not in Devon or Cornwall) there will be a nightingale somewhere near you even though they are thin on the ground.  It’ll be singing in the evening and early morning (and occasionally during the day – but then, so does everything else) for several more weeks.  Listen for the short phrases, the whistles, the variety, the croaks, the chug-chug-chug phrases and the loudness.  Listening for nightingales might give you an excuse to experience planet Earth live – really live!



For farmers

On Saturday I woke before the alarm and that was early!  It wasn’t because I had gone to sleep before knowing the result of the London Mayoral election and the fate of the several hundred pound bet I had on Boris (that result was never seriously in question) but because I was going out to do the first visit to one of my BBS sites.

It’s routine for me but because some in the farming community always seems so suspicious of the results of the work of myself and thousands of other volunteers giving up our time for free I thought that I’d write this blog as a record of how it works.  Perhaps it might correct some of the miconceptions about the scheme from some farmers.

I’ve been surveying this 1km x 1km square for several years.  I was contacted by the local BTO rep (another volunteer – like me) and asked whether I would cover a Breeding Bird Survey square locally.  I was given a list of a few randomly selected 1km squares and chose the one nearest to where I lived.  So that’s the first important point about this scheme – the sites surveyed are chosen at random and that means that they are representative of the country as a whole.  They cover all habitats and areas.  There is no reason to think that the results are biased by location in any important way.

Having agreed to survey this site I have to do it in the standardised way set out in the scheme.  This means covering the site by a set route (ideally two parallel transects), in a set time of the year (April-June), at a set time of day (earlyish in the morning) and a set number of times (twice) a set distance apart (about a month).  The details can be found here for anyone interested (more about the scheme; details of the methods).

The route of my survey deviates from the ideal two parallel transects because if I tried to do it like that I’d be tramping through fields of wheat and oilseed rape and that wouldn’t be much fun or very popular.  Luckily, my square has two rights of way, green lanes, that cross it and make life a lot easier, but unfortunately one runs north-south and the other east-west so they are hardly parallel!  So my 10 separate sections of survey are based on this cross – and that’s very sensible and wasn’t my choice – it was what the wise people in the BTO told me to do before I’d even visited the site to have a look at it.  How clever of them!

So, with that modification, I do an early visit at the very beginning of May (quite often this bank holiday weekend) and my second visit about a month later (near my son’s birthday).   I tend to leave the house at 0530, park the car at c0545 (you can see I was pleased this random square was close to me), walk down the footpath to the edge of the square and start recording at c0600.  I then stroll along the route, stopping every now and again, and record all the birds I hear or see in the three distance categories required (I always have to check what they are as I never remember them!).  I record all the birds with their own codes on a map or in a notebook . After a little more than an hour I have covered the whole route and recorded all the birds.

I don’t want to make too much of this but it is a fairly skilled task – recording these birds.  Many of the sightings are actually hearings so you need to know your bird songs and calls.  On Saturday I never saw the lesser whitethroats, chiffchaffs or song thrushes I recorded – but I know their songs.  And there was a funny-sounding whitethroat which I spent a couple of minutes searching for just to make sure that that was what it was – I wouldn’t want to realise weeks later that I’d heard a Marmora’s warbler (some hope!).

I’m glad I can do all of this square from rights of way very easily as otherwise I would have had to contact the farmers on whose land I would have walked.  I wouldn’t have minded doing that except that I would guess it would mean contacting four different farmers and I don’t know who they are or where they live so that would have been a pain (I do now know one of them, but I didn’t when I started years ago).  But this does mean that the farmers whose land I survey are in blissful ignorance that their birds are being counted so carefully each year.

And you might think that is it, but when I get home, and I am very good at doing this straight away, I enter the sightings onto the BBS website.  I like to get that job out of the way immediately.  By 0900 the data I had collected that morning were entered and safe.

Now it remains for me to go back in June and do it all again.

And in 2010 3239 squares were covered in a similar way.  These are spread all over England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and I wonder how many people were out doing what I was doing when I was doing it, and what they were seeing.  That is a very large sample of bird records from randomly selected sites covered in a standardised manner.  And that’s why we can be confident about the reliability of these data when they are analysed by scientists at the BTO at the end of the season.

The results are published each year – here is the latest report for 2010.

The work is funded by the BTO itself, the RSPB (through the goodness of its heart) and by the statutory nature conservation organisations across the UK.  When I say ‘the work’, what I mean is the data storage, analysis, coordination and communication of the results.  Most of the ‘the work’, certainly in hours, is done by people like me for nothing.  I’ve done some calculations of these costs before and they still look about right – we all, Government, farmers, foresters, shopkeepers and birders, get a very good picture of breeding bird changes for a government input of about £40k  pa contribution to c£1.2m worth of work.  [In fact the number of squares covered has gone up so the volunteer contribution has gone up too].

Sometimes farmers, particularly NFU spokespeople who should know better, question the validity of the trends that come out of all this work.  That’s a bit rich – in fact it’s a bit poor!  That’s why I have written this little explanation of how the data are collected.  I’m happy to try to answer any questions about this scheme and – I dare say – so would be the BTO (or RSPB or JNCC).  Ask away, anyone, especially sceptical farmers.

And here is a question for the NFU – how about making a contribution to the costs of this scheme? It’s a major way of measuring your industry’s environmental impact (there are others too, of course) and you must be interested in that.


10 ways to make a difference – and some are free

It’s a tough time for NGOs – here are some ideas for worthy causes to help.


Good to see that the RSPB has the chance to buy a fantastic site on Loch Lomond.  It came up once before and I was sorry that it didn’t work out then. And I haven’t noticed much land purchase recently so it’s good to see this one come through.  Donate here.

WWT project on world’s rarest duck, maybe the world’s rarest bird, gets a boost from hatching some cute ducklings.  This is a great project too and WWT are asking for your support as well.

RSPB asks you to email your MEP (bet you don’t know who they are – do you?) and ask for a wildlife-friendly Comon Agricultural Policy.  Sounds dull, but it is important, quick, easy and free so what’s your excuse for not doing it?

FoE are dipping their toes in nature again – they are campaigning about bee declines (and asking for your money) – they should be encouraged to move further into UK wildlife areas.

Buglife would like some money to save the ladybird spider which I wrote about last summer.

Plantlife is following up its great woodland report with an appeal, a very moderate pitched one, for money to imrprove woodland management.

Butterfly Conservation are raising money to save the chequered skipper. I wrote about chequered skipppers a while ago and wish someone had saved them round here!

Join Pond Conservation to help their excellent work.  Membership is the best way to help NGOs – it builds their cap[acity and their influence.

The Grasslands Trust has some interesting and novel ways to give them money without it costing you anything – clever!

How about persuading your company to become a corporate member of the Marine Conservation Society?  That won’t cost you anything.


Wet Wales? I hope not

The Wales Coast Path opens officially today – 870 miles from Chester to Chepstow (and a very similar distance from Chepstow to Chester).  That’s quite a stretch isn’t it? And since you can walk Offa’s Dyke too, you could do a 1000+ mile walk around Wales if you really wanted – you could call it a ‘Walk on the Wales Side’.  I quite fancy it – 2 months stroll around the Principality? Maybe there’s a book in it.

To mark the opening there is going to be a Wales Coast Bird Race where any records from the Coastal Path, including out to sea and up to half a mile inland will count towards the total.  That’s quite fun.

You can guess how many the total will reach and send your guess via Twitter to @WCPBirds .  I’ve guessed 139 species because I think the weather might be a bit rubbish, but otherwise I guess the total would be higher.  Or have I gone too high – what do you think?

, via Wikimedia Commons”]Yesterday a bee-eater was seen at Great Orme, the wind is from the east and at this time of year anything is possible.

I wonder how many species RSPB nature reserves such as Conwy and Newport Wetlands will contribute?

In any case, I will be keeping an eye on progress on the Visit Wales blog and through Twitter.

There probably won’t be 264 species which is what Team Sapsucker managed in Texas last week equalling their own ‘world’ USA record of last year.  The day started with yellow-crowned night heron (it’s on my USA list) and ended just before the next midnight with purple gallinule (not on my list), with fire ants (not on my list) and a puncture (yep, had one of them in the USA) in between.


, from Wikimedia Commons”]