Part 1 Wild Life Good News in West Sussex from Colin Brooks
A female Red-flanked Bluetail has been found by the Monarch's Way on the edge of Houghton Forest near the roundabout at the top of Bury Hill. It has been seen for several days, most recently in the area where the Monarch's Way footpath to The Dentures meets the bridleway to Trot Row.
The Red-flanked Bluetail is an extremely rare bird in the British Isles. Through to the end of 2009, only fifty nine had been seen. The first for Sussex was a bird on Stanley Common near the Hampshire border in November 2010. It may well be that the Houghton Forest bird is the same one and that it has spent the winter here; if so, it would be the first Red-flanked Bluetail to do so.
Red-flanked Bluetails are about the size of a Robin and are in the same family. The female bird is predominantly olive brown with a whitish throat but its tail (which it frequently flicks) is a distinctive metallic blue and it has orange flanks. Males are slaty blue above.
A few birds breed in Finland but most are in northern Asia across to China. They spend the winter in south East Asia. Most of the birds found in England have been in October and are birds in their first winter that have migrated in the 'wrong' direction from the area where they were born.
Photographs of this stunning bird can easily be found on-line.
Part 2 Bird Life along the Monarch’s Way from Colin Brooks
In a previous Newsletter, I drew attention to the Bird Atlas organized by the British Trust for Ornithology. Birdwatchers undertook surveys, each lasting two hours, of as many as possible of the 2km tetrads of which the nation is composed: these were undertaken both for the winter season (November-February) and the breeding season (April -July). We were also encouraged to send in casual records, sightings of birds seen when we were out shopping or watching cricket. The Atlas fieldwork was undertaken in the years 2007-2011. The results are now being analysed and the Atlas will be published in a couple of years time.
In the interim, some results are available at http://www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/bird atlas/results by following the link at the foot of the page to the county of your choice. And a lot of information about the state of the nation’s birds is available at http://www.bto.org/about-birds.
I thought that it might be of interest to provide information about provisional Atlas results from some key areas along The Monarch’s Way – starting, like the Way, in Worcester. The city stands in the 10km square SO85 (to help discover the grid reference of any area, I recommend the Bedfordshire Natural History Society’s wonderful website site :http://www.bnhs.co.uk/focuson/grabagridref/html/index.htm). During the winter months, a remarkable 121 species were recorded in that 10km square. In the breeding season, 112 species were found, of which breeding was confirmed for 56.The presence of a major river is obviously a great advantage: it must account for the winter sightings of Whooper as well as the expected Mute Swans, of six species of goose, and a remarkable fifteen species of ducks. Twelve types of wader were recorded together with seven gulls. It’s not easy at this stage to tell whether species’ range is expanding or contracting: we’ll know that when the Atlas is published and comparisons are established with previous Atlases. But it seems very likely that, for example, Goosander, a diving duck, is increasing its range. It was seen on the Severn in the centre of Worcester in the winter and was reported in the breeding season, though there was no indication of a local breeding attempt.
Not all expanding species are particularly welcome. The impact of the alien Ring-Necked Parakeet (seen here in winter) on orchards and on other hole-nesting birds may prove to be harmful. During the breeding season, eleven species of duck were recorded, with breeding proved for Mandarin Duck, Mallard and Tufted Duck. Among waders, Oystercatcher, Little Ringed Plover and Lapwing all bred. Five of the nine Warblers reported were proved to have bred. Peregrine and Raven, two other species known in outline to be expanding their range and their numbers, both bred in the area. The Atlas records include a number of exotic species (like Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo) and a number of birds clearly just flying through (like the Merlin visiting in winter or the Wheatear hurrying to its northern breeding grounds in the spring). The Severn valley is an attractive flyway for birds moving north to breed or south to winter. Of course, walking The Way through the city and out to Fernhill Heath you will not, on any one occasion see anything like the total number of species recorded over the Atlas years. But this information should alert you to the riches of bird life even in an inland county and in a relatively built-up area. I should think that an observant walker might expect a total of 50 different birds in both winter and summer. Good walking – and good birding! Colin Brooks
Bird Life in Gloucester
The British Trust for Ornithology’s Bird Atlas 2007-2011: the breeding and wintering birds of Britain and Ireland, which I have mentioned in previous contributions, has now been published. The Atlas provides measures of distribution and of abundance, mapped on a 10km sq. scale, and compares the 2007-11 results with those obtained in the earlier survey periods (for breeding in 1968-72 and 1988-91; and for wintering in 1981-4). The bulk of the text (p.158 to 649) is taken up by the accounts of individual species, but in many respects the interpretative chapters are of equal interest; chapter 6, for example, sets what has been revealed in the 2007-2011 fieldwork in the context of the past forty years. Between 2007 and 2011, over nineteen million individual records were generated by some forty thousand observers, all but a handful unpaid volunteers, in a striking display of what some refer to as citizen science (or the ‘big society’ at work).
The result is fascinating and compelling, at once reassuring and disturbing. Conservation efforts have had some striking successes, but they seem largely to have been unable to stem the decline of many of our birds, including a number of once familiar species. The causes of decline are many, with several out of the control of the people (and the government) of the United Kingdom; and the story is often the same across Europe. Summer migrants from Africa might be hit by troubles on their wintering grounds (or on their way to and from our shores). Climate change appears to be having a range of profound effects. Summer migrants like the Cuckoo and Spotted Flycatcher, which are declining quite rapidly in numbers in the south of England are holding their own in Scotland: the suggestion is that by late April, spring is too far advanced in the south for them to find satisfactory conditions for breeding. A number of woodland species are in trouble: Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers and Willow Tits are shrinking both in abundance and in range. Farming practices are surely implicated in the decline of the Lapwing, the Grey Partridge, the Corn Bunting and the Skylark. The Turtle Dove, whose purring used to brighten many a May morning, has suffered as much as any other bird, its range and its numbers apparently in freefall. The Atlas suggests (p.442) that “conditions on the wintering grounds, hunting pressure during migration, agricultural intensification in the breeding range and a shorter breeding season leading to few breeding attempts” might all be involved.
The national Atlas presents results at the 10km square level. Much of the data was collected at the 2km level. A number of counties are now publishing their own Atlases, giving information at that much more detailed level. Among them, and one of the first to publish, is Gloucestershire, whose authoritatively presented and handsomely produced The Birds of Gloucestershire was published by Liverpool University Press at the end of 2013. Here there is a wealth of material to inform all who are walking the Cotswold sections of The Monarch’s Way (22 to 27). Walkers will find, for example, that the Skylark, seriously affected by the replacement of spring- by winter-sown crops in many parts of the country, is almost holding its own in the Cotswolds; but their chances of seeing a wild Grey Partridge have fallen almost to zero (although numbers are released for shooting). Publication of the Sussex avifauna is imminent; similar publications for Hampshire and Shropshire will follow.
It will be by referring to county avifauna like Gloucestershire’s that future generations, concerned at the state of the environment and appreciating that evidence has to be the basis of public policy, will be able to contribute to what we have to hope will be the gradual improvement of the state of the country’s birds. Please make a note of interesting sightings and submit your records to the BTO’s continuing Bird Track scheme: simply noting where you have seen or heard Skylarks, not to mention Grey Partridges, will be of inestimable value in keeping our knowledge and awareness up-to-date.