wetland bird survey – calling curlews

Yesterday I completed my Wetland Bird Survey count for April. The winter migrants – Lapwings, Golden Plovers and winter ducks – have now returned to their summer territories. As a result the variety of species that I include is much reduced. Mute swans and Mallards are the main species I see, along with a few Grey Herons, Cormorants, Moorhens and the odd Gadwall. 

The real attraction for me is a spring arrival – the Curlew. The first sign I have of their return is that bubbling call emanating from an unseen point in the distance, the flat landscape allowing the sound to travel. I heard and saw several over the course of the morning. It’s a wonderful sight to watch one in display flight, rising out of the rough grass and haze, but I’m conscious that their numbers are far fewer than used to be the case.

The species has experienced a 48% decline across the UK between 1995-2015. Through the work of organisations like the BTO and RSPB, and campaigning from the likes of Mary Colwell, the Curlew has become a touchstone species for the many birds and other wildlife that are under threat. If we support these projects, maybe we will see an increase in Curlew numbers – check out the links below to see how you can help.

BTO Curlew Appeal

Curlew Country

RSPB

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four legs as well as two

With the sunrise that little bit earlier, it was good to be able get started more promptly with my bird count last Sunday. One of the benefits of an early start is fewer people are out and about, which means the birds are less likely to have been disturbed.A few breaks in the cloud allowed the sunlight to show through, and with a thin layer of mist lying across the fields it made for some beautiful scenery.

It has been a dry winter so far, but a spell of rain on the previous day meant that there was splash flooding in some of the fields, more than I have seen this winter. As a consequence there were variously sized flocks of Lapwings in many of these fields. Strangely, when there is splash flooding, one particular field will usually have substantially more water than on other fields, but never any birds. Today was the exception – there was one Lapwing!

In the bushes and trees that line the drove tracks, bird life was very much in evidence. Species such as Great tits, Redwings, Blackbirds and Chaffinches all quite vocal and active. Reed buntings, bolder than other birds, would hop around on the ground just a couple of metres or so away.

Although these trips are primarily for the birds, if I am lucky I will also see some four-legged wildlife. Wherever I walk the mud is always peppered with any number of animal tracks, and I always hope to see one or two of the culprits. Inevitably, any animals that I do see have usually already seen me and I am often only alerted to their presence as they run off – as was the case with a fox and two hares. There is usually a group of 3 or 4 Roe deer to be seen in one area, and this occasion was no different. A particular treat was watching a stoat swim across a ‘wet fence’ and trot off up the track a short way ahead.

When here in large numbers, the Lapwings and Golden Plovers are the main spectacle. Last Sunday the biggest concentration of both species was in just 3 or 4 fields. Numbering several thousand, they really are magnificent to watch, either when on the ground or in flight. I have only been doing this for a little over a year, and I find counting them still a challenge, but hopefully I am getting more accurate with practice. I would love to spend some time here with the camera, but a survey trip is not the occasion – it takes all my concentration just doing the counting! One of these days I will have to make a separate trip and see if I can get some photographs or video of them.

wetland bird survey – swans and sunshine

When I make the half-hour drive to my survey patch, I will often see flocks of Starlings pass over head, all coming from the direction of the Somerset Levels. When there are several hundred they will be strung out in a long line, flying low across the fields, up over the hedges and roads and on to their feeding grounds. Last weekend was no exception, and given it was also a beautiful sunny morning, it felt like a promising day for seeing birds.

A month ago I saw less than a hundred Lapwings for the whole count, but as I arrived it was evident that it would be different on this occasion. As I got my wellies on a flock of about 60 Lapwings flew overhead, their curious calls filling the air. The water in the River Sowy and Langacre Rhyne was high, just about breaking the bank. Here, there were the usual suspects – a handful of Mute Swans and Cormorants. There is scrub and long grass on the banks which play host to Stonechats, and there were several visible, all very noisy.

I covered this first section on foot, and part way along my route a pair of Roe deer watched me from the far side of a field. Evidently my presence proved too much; off they went, their tail flashes showing up bright in the sunshine. Perhaps this was the same pair that I saw here last month? In the bushes beside me a Cetti’s warbler gave song – always startlingly loud. I sometimes wonder if they surprise themselves with the volume of their voice.

On this part of the site I have to cross two bridges. There are often birds here, and with little cover available, caution is required if they are not to be spooked. As I approached, there suddenly seemed to be birds everywhere. A flock of about 160 Lapwings took off from a field adjacent to the river took. Several Mallards passed overhead. I could hear Teal calling – there were 20 or so upstream – and numerous swans populated the river banks further downstream.

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Three swans flew past, following the line of the river. Initially I just noted down the number, but as an after thought I had a quick look through the binoculars. I’m glad I did as the different shape and colouring of their beaks revealed them to be Whooper swans. I have access to the survey records for this site going back to 2000, and looking through later on I could see no previous instance of the species. In addition this was a lifer for me, so on two counts that already made the day a bit special.

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Larger numbers of Lapwings gather in the fields adjacent to one of the roads that cuts across the site. I can scan these from the roadside, but it takes some time to cover as there are anything up to several hundred in each field, and careful counting is required. Here also were Golden Plovers, the other species that gather in large numbers. In one field there were approximately 1500, and along with a flock of Lapwings, they took flight, giving a wonderful swirling display. When they wheel and turn they look like a shoal of fish, the sunlight catching their paler plumage.

As I drove between two viewpoints I noticed a couple of egrets in amongst some cattle. Were these Cattle egrets? After parking, I used my scope to have a better look and sure enough, this was certainly what they were. This was my second lifer of the day, and again, another species that is not in the records I have access to.

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Cattle egrets have been showing up on the Somerset Levels for some years now, with Catcott Lows seeming to be a particular hotspot for them. In 2008 they bred here on the Levels for the first time on record in the UK, after an influx the previous year. It will be interesting to see if they show up again on my patch over the winter.

In the same way that it is somehow reassuring when the Swallows return in spring, it was good to see the Lapwings and Golden Plovers back here in numbers. In all there were 1450 and 3000 respectively- double the numbers present the same time last year. This count was particularly enjoyable – nice weather, new species and the spectacle of large numbers of birds in flight. What’s not to like?

wetland bird survey – October

A year ago I signed up to take part in the Wetland Bird Survey. Over the course of last winter I completed monthly counts of waders and wetland birds at a site on the Somerset Levels.

The survey is undertaken on specified dates, and last weekend I did my October count. I had hoped that the good weather would continue over the weekend, but it was not to be. Wellies and waterproofs were a must!

Scanning the fields at my first viewpoint, it quickly became evident that there were none of the lapwings and golden plovers that will be present in the winter. However, as I made my way around the site several species were present on the various drains, rhynes and ditches.

Mute swans, variously on the water or banks, were gathered in pairs or small groups – 38 in all. Cormorants were scattered in ones and twos, perched on gates and bridge parapets. There is also a tree which they favour. Why this particular one, I don’t know, but often there will be seven or more amongst its branches. On this occasion there were just a pair. Every so often mallards, in twos and threes, would fly over head. From a nearby field, a lone snipe launched itself skyward, zig-zagging as it called.

While walking along a drove track my eye was drawn to birds in flight above me. Strung out in a ragged line were my first flock of lapwings, just 13, followed soon after by a flock of 23. In another part of the site I saw a flock of 42. It is early days yet and numbers will hopefully increase in the winter – last year I was counting them in the low 1000s. The historical records for the site show that less than a decade ago lapwings were being counted at over 10,000.

As I worked my way around the site, other species made a show. A couple of teal here, a coot there. A grey heron, wings arched, flying ponderously. The dashing flight of a kingfisher – always a delight to see.

While scanning a section of a rhyne, I spotted three birds on the water some way off. They dived repeatedly, and at that distance I could just make out one black, two brown. I couldn’t think of what they were immediately, although I had the nagging feeling that I ought to be able to. The colouring was familiar. It would probably come to me later.

I watched as a great white egret stalked along the margins of a drain. Extending its neck, it leaned out and stabbed at the water. With much exaggerated gulping and shaking of the head, it swallowed its prey and resumed its task. Shortly afterwards, I saw the egret fly off, being chased by a grey heron. Earlier on I had seen another in amongst some reeds, and that was also seen off by a grey heron.

The landscape here is not just about waders. I was walking one section and a flash of white up ahead caught my attention. It was a wheatear, hopping along the ground, then up it flew, landing on a nearby post. Two roe deer grazed on vegetation in a nearby field. In the scrub and bushes alongside the tracks there was a constant movement and calling from small birds – goldfinches, robins, tits, and reed buntings.

By the time I had completed the count I had seen 12 species in all. In terms of numbers, it was a slow morning compared to some of last winters’ counts, but a good chance to refresh my ID skills. Also, the discipline and purpose that doing the survey brings to birding is enjoyable. Besides which, the wetlands are a fascinating place to spend time. The landscape of the Somerset Levels has a unique beauty – even when it rains.

And those three diving birds? Tufted ducks.