RSPB Conservation Scientist, Jonathan Groom, gives an update on the Native upland woodland expansion survey in the Perthshire hills.

Making Nature Count: Top 10 in the Perthshire hills

I reached my first milestone in the study recently. I completed my first round of Breeding Bird Surveys. It is standard practice in such surveys that two visits are made during the breeding season; one during mid-April to mid-May and then a second during the mid-May to mid-June period. Anyone who participates in the BTO Breeding Bird Survey annually or in the recently completed Bird Atlas project will be familiar with this. The main reason for the second visit is that it accounts for later arrivals of migrant bird species (and maybe also providing breeding evidence for our resident species). This I feel will be particularly important this year with the general late arrival of the migrants.

From my initial visits to each plot I can now present the bird species that were most prevalent in terms of percentage of plots surveyed in which they occurred. I am almost certain that any ornithologists or birdwatchers out there would be able to guess the top two without hesitating. They are two species that, though very abundant, probably go largely unnoticed by many. Yet anyone who has been for a walk in the hills recently will have almost certainly heard them and probably seen them in passing, maybe without even realising it. I guess the main reason is that they are probably two of the littlest brownest jobs to grace the pages of a bird guide! Yes that’s right I can now reveal the joint top two species are: Willow warbler & Meadow pipit.


Photos: Jonathan Groom, Tom Marshall (

These two species account for the vast majority of all my records, with the Meadow pipit perhaps edging the number one spot in terms of overall numbers, and are also the only two species to be found in 100% of the study plots. For the record, I would like to take the opportunity to champion these oft-dismissed species. Ok, I’ll admit they aren’t the most glamorous to look at (although if you do get a good look at one you may be surprised, particularly if it’s a well-marked Meadow pipit or a Willow warbler with a nice bit of yellow in the plumage) but it is perhaps their vocal contributions that make them such an enjoyable part of upland bird surveying.

First of all, the Willow warbler’s repeated descending melody is simple enough to learn to recognise and once learnt really acts as a harbinger of spring. It’s a song that I certainly tend to start taking for granted around this time of year, but as soon as it’s gone, I’m counting the days until I hear the first one heralding the beginning of next spring. The Meadow pipit (along with other members of its family) has a very distinctive style song and display, with a series of melodic cheeps and trills that perfectly match its fluttering rise-and-fall display flight and is always nice to see.

So what else makes up the Top Ten most widespread birds throughout my survey sites. Many of them are common and familiar, but there are certainly a couple of surprises there:

 Joint #3 chaffinch, robin, Coal tit in 92% of sites

 Joint #6 dunnock, Red grouse in 83% of site

 Joint #8 wren, Black grouse in 75% of sites

 Joint #10 Hen harrier (!) in 67% of sites

Obviously there is considerable variation in abundance between species, but this gives a good indication of what species are going to be most affected by this use of habitat. The most pleasing results are that the black grouse and hen harrier are so widespread throughout these areas.  All my valuable sightings regarding the black grouse and hen harriers are being shared with the appropriate individuals and groups as these species are of particular conservation concern in the UK.

This seems like a good representation of upland species and it is particularly pleasing to see stonechat making a return to the hills – many other upland workers had commented on how few there were after the cold winters of 2009/10 and 2010/11, and this was a view certainly shared by myself.

I am sure that this list will change as the migrant species will be under-recorded from this set of visits and already species like whinchat and cuckoo are starting to appear. Once I’ve finished my second round of visits I will be able to see how the arrival of these species will affect the overall rankings of species and I will report this on my next post towards the end of June.

Other wildlife has been fairly scarce. Certainly, the changeable and often rather wet weather at the moment seems to have kept the reptiles and butterflies in hiding again, but I have been lucky enough to come across some Palmate Newts and managed to rescue this truly monstrous slow-worm from quite literally falling into a stream!

On the mammal front, I have been seeing a lot of brown hares on my morning drives to the study plots, a rare sight elsewhere and even managed this surprisingly low-altitude Mountain Hare on the moor outside one of my plots.

*The next 10 species to make up a top 20 are as follows (in no particular order):  goldcrest, Mistle thrush, kestrel, curlew, Lesser redpoll, Wood pigeon, siskin, stonechat, Carrion crow, snipe, skylark.

Read previous posts on this subject here.