Tag Archives: Big Garden Birdwatch

Bird nerd part 13: Big Garden Birdwatch 2016: where were they all?

Last weekend was the RSPB’s annual Big Garden Birdwatch, where hundreds of thousands of people around the country spend an hour recording the birds that visit their garden or park. Bird nerd that I am, of course I took part. But my sightings this year were far from impressive.

I didn’t get off to a good start. Sunday was a damp, blustery day. The sort of day when I see far fewer birds than normal. And Jazz, our neighbour’s cat, spent the first 20 minutes sitting under the buddleia, getting into the birdwatching spirit. Not helpful. Dr C offered to chase him off, but I demured – the count is not a competition, it’s trying to get reasonably representative snapshot. As Jazz spends quite a bit of time lurking in our garden, I figured his presence was fairly typical.

Still, I was relieved when he disappeared under the fence. No birds were foolish enough to visit the garden with him around (the pigeon feathers on our lawn hint at what happens to foolish birds). And it would just be embarrassing not to see any birds.

The timer sped on, and my concern increased. Finally, I heard a robin. Heard him, but couldn’t see him. Then eventually he showed himself. I could put something down on my list. Sadly he remained the sole avian visitor to our garden that hour – a big contrast with my results in 2014.

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We have been seeing far fewer birds than usual for this time of year. I think that might be because of the mild weather we’ve had so far. Those that do visit the garden seem uninterested in the seeds, suet pellets and mealworms we put out, preferring the ivy berries. In recent weeks I’ve been recording around 5 species a day – about half what I usually expect in January.

Hopefully this means that the birds are finding plentiful food elsewhere, rather than a dramatic decline in the bird population. Data from the BTO’s Garden Birdwatch survey (collected every week, rather than once a year) will give us a better idea of the impact of our weird winter weather beyond the boundaries of my garden.

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Bird nerd part 8: Big Garden Birdwatch 2015

The last weekend in January was the annual Big Garden Birdwatch, when hundreds of thousands of people from across the UK record the numbers of birds they see in one hour. This year I was down in Cornwall that weekend, staying with my parents, so there were four pairs of eyes to keep watch.

The list of what we saw is a little different from what I’d expect if we were at home (see my report on last year’s birdwatch). Here’s what we saw down in Cornwall:

Great British Birdwatch results from my parents' garden
Great British Birdwatch results from my parents’ garden
  • 4 Blackbirds (we usually get a couple)
  • 2 Bluetits
  • 4 Chaffinches (we rarely get chaffinches)
  • 2 Dunnock
  • 2 Great tits
  • 3 House sparrows (we’d beat them on sparrows)
  • 2 Magpies
  • 3 Robins (we usually only get 1)
  • 30 Starlings (We rarely see more than 10 at home)
  • 1 Woodpigeon (we’d beath them on woodies as well – we usually get 2 or 3)
  • 1 Wren
  • 1 Greater spotted woodpecker (We’ve never seen a woodpecker in our garden)
  • 25 Rooks (there’s a rookery in the trees by their house)

No collared doves though – we usually get 2 or 3.

Chaffinch
Chaffinch
Blue tit
Blue tit
Great tit
Great tit
This chaffinch is too fast for me!
This chaffinch is too fast for me!

Later this year they’ll release the full results, which will give a useful snapshot of how the nation’s birds are doing.

 

Bird Nerd part 5: Big Garden Birdwatch 2014 results

Last week the RSPB released the results of the 2014 Great British bird watch. Once again house sparrows topped the list, with an average of 3.8 seen per garden.

The survey was carried out by almost half a million volunteers  across the UK. It involved watching a garden or park for an hour during one weekend in January, and recording the maximum number of birds of each species seen at one time.
So how do the results compare to the average number of birds I saw in my garden this January? The table below shows the mean number of birds observed per site in the UK as a whole, Surrey, and my garden. As you can see, the results are pretty similar.
House sparrows also topped my list. Unlike the rest of Surrey and the UK, I didn’t see any goldfinches. Dunnocks did make it onto my list though.
Top 10 bird species seen: Big Garden Birdwatch 2014 and my garden
Top 10 bird species seen: Big Garden Birdwatch 2014 and my garden
But how does this compare to previous years? Compared to last year there has not been a huge amount of change in the average numbers of birds seen for the top 10 species nationally. For my garden, there has been a drop in the number of starlings, and smaller drops in the numbers of several other birds, but that may be down to the mild winter meaning birds don’t need to visit the feeders in my garden as much as last year.
Top 10 birds seen in my garden in January 2013 vs January 2014
Top 10 birds seen in my garden in January 2013 vs January 2014

Big Garden Birdwatch 2014

It’s the last weekend in January, which means it’s time once again for the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch. I’m doing my hour of observation as I type, (lunchtime on Sunday) and conditions aren’t promising. It’s tipping down with rain, and blustery with it, so I don’t expect to see many birds. I put out food first thing this morning, but had to refresh supplies before I started counting as most of it had already gone.

Last year more than half a million people took part across the UK. The data generated by this annual event helps us keep track of how garden birds are doing across the UK. Headline findings from last year’s event included the continuing decline of starlings and house sparrows, both of which are ‘red listed’, which means they are of highest conservation concern. We have to hope that this year will see better results for them. On a more positive note, sightings of siskins, fieldfares and jays increased last year compared to 2012.

So, what I have seen in my garden over the last, blustery hour? No big surprises.

  • 5 house sparrows
  • 2 starlings
  • 1 dunnock
  • 2 blackbirds
  • 2 collared doves
  • 2 woodpigeons

I think if the weather had been kinder I would have expected to see a robin and a bluetit or two, based on my ‘bird nerd’ sightings over the last couple of weeks. But who can blame the birds for finding somewhere sheltered to keep out of the rain. Now I’ve finished my hour I think it’s time to light the fire and settle in for the afternoon!

Amateur ecology

Over the last few years I’ve been doing quite a lot of reading about wildlife, as well as going on courses. One of the biggest surprises I’ve had is there’s so much we don’t know, even about some of our most familiar species. For example, we don’t really know what water voles do all winter, or where basking sharks go. Linked to the realisation of how much we don’t know about our wildlife, is the discovery that normal people, like you and me, can make a meaningful contribution to scientific research about wildlife.

The other day I read, in Hugh Warwick’s book The Beauty in the Beast, about Denis Summers-Smith. It was inspirational. Denis is a mechanical engineer and an amateur birdwatcher, who has written five books and over forty scientific papers on the house sparrow. He has discovered many things about house sparrows, including that they mate for life. And all this has been done in his spare time…

For those of us not quite ready to write a book based on our own discoveries, there are many citizen science projects that rely on the contributions of hundreds (or thousands) of volunteers to gather data from across the country. The commitment and expertise involved varies considerably.

For example, each year in January the RSPB run the Big Garden Birdwatch. Almost 590,000 people took part in it in 2013. This involves spending an hour counting the different types of birds that come into your garden on a specific weekend. From this, they can analyse the data from across the country, and spot any significant changes in the bird population. This is important to inform conservation work.

Many other organisations run similar surveys. This BBC Nature article contains a good list.

At the other end of the spectrum, the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme is rather more indepth, requiring trained and licensed volunteers to carry out box checks each month (except over winter). The data collected from this programme is providing new insights into these lovely creatures. At a dormouse conference I attended a couple of years ago, it was very exciting to hear scientific presentations based on data that I helped (in a very small way) to collect. We now know much more about this species than we did before the programme started.

Like many girls of my generation, I gave up studying science after I finished my GCSEs, despite getting my best grades in science and maths. I didn’t think science was for me. I didn’t realise how exciting science could be, and the range of things it could involve. It has been thrilling to learn, somewhat belatedly, that science is for me, and I can contribute to finding answers to questions about our native wildlife. These answers may help us better protect our beautiful and vulnerable creatures, for this generation and those to come.