A job for the bird counters

By counting wild birds, we gain information about how different species are faring

A robin sings a territory song atop a cherry treeThe RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch survey has just ended. This is when people from around the UK spend one hour looking into their gardens, or a nearby green space, and count the type and number of wild birds they see.

It's a great survey and rightly popular, though I find myself keeping a sort of running commentary on bird numbers all year round and sometimes forget to complete the formal survey. I shall knuckle down and spend an hour watching, anyway, though I shall be sorely tempted to start on some other task that presents itself.

Weeds will suddenly become apparent, a plant that needs pruning, a blade of grass out of place, but they'll have to wait. It will be interesting to note down what I see, but just by being outside much of the time it is clear to me that there aren't as many finches in the local gardens I visit or work in (borne out by the results of last year's survey), but that blue-tit, long-tailed tit and sparrow numbers have increased. Red kite sightings have also gone up.

There is also the opportunity to complete the farmland bird survey run by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, which counts birds on and around farmland, between 9-18 of February. The market town I live in is semi-rural and surrounded by farmland, and I also work in rural gardens, so it ought to be a straightforward matter to complete two surveys. Throughout the year in these rural gardens, I most often see robins, blackbirds, pheasants and wrens.

In winter woodlands they are joined by migratory fieldfares (Turdus pilaris) and goldcrests. The goldcrest (Regulus regulus) is Europe's smallest bird and weighs in at just 5-7 g (¼oz). Goldcrests are so tiny that a bird scarcely bends a slender pine stem as it forages amongst the pine needles for insects. Distinguishing a goldcrest from a firecrest (Regulus ignicapillus) takes careful observation as they are superficially very similar in colour and size and also move so quickly it can be hard to get a good look at one.

Greener than green?

Stunning, but too greenWorking in rural gardens is a true pleasure. They are often larger than town gardens and they tend to be quiet places, sometimes with fabulous views. Those views bother me a little, for they are much greener than they ought to be, a vivid green that suggests mono-cropping with no, or few, wildflowers to be seen. There the chance of a change on the way, if things go well, as the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology is experimenting with sowing strips of permanent wildflowers across the centre line of fields to support beneficial insects, such as hoverflies which act as biological controls by eating pest insects. I'm interested in this for a couple of reasons – the idea of supporting beneficial insects on farmland makes sense, especially if it can increase crop yields without resorting to pesticides, and it follows that it would also boost insect populations in nearby gardens.

I note that the most rural garden I work in attracts hoverflies and bumblebees in large numbers, but almost no honey bees and it makes me wonder if, amongst that surrounding ocean of bright green, the area has enough forage to sustain feral honey bee colonies. If the views I'm fortunate enough to admire during my working days were to become brightly striped with wildflowers and if those wildflowers attracted insects that act as biological controls, surely that would be desirable. I shan't hold my breath till it becomes reality, but I live in hope. 

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