With Big Garden Birdwatch 2018 rapidly approaching RSPB Scotland’s Jess Barrett takes us through all things Birdwatch in this blog.
Get ready for Big Garden Birdwatch 2018!
Did you know that Big Garden Birdwatch is the largest wildlife survey in the world? It’s not long now until we’ll be asking you to spend an hour of your time counting the birds you see in your garden – you can register online – so here’s a celebration of all things Birdwatch and what your sightings have revealed over the last few years.
Scotland’s top five
The birds that make up Scotland’s top five have been the same for many years; you have to go back to 2011 to find a time when house sparrows weren’t top of the spots, and for the last few years starlings and chaffinches have alternated between second and third place.
In 2017 house sparrows were top, followed by starlings, chaffinches, and blackbirds with blue tits rounding off our top five most counted birds in Scottish gardens. How many of these feathered visitors do you get in your garden enjoying the food you leave out for them?
1. House sparrows
These wee brown birds are found across much of Scotland and will be known to many of us whether you live in a town, city or the countryside. I think a lot of us will have wandered past a hedge and hearing a whole flock of them chirruping away to each other at some point! While numbers of these characterful birds have fallen sharply since the 1970s recent data suggests the population in Scotland is increasing. You can help them by creating a safe home for them to bring up their chicks – find out how here.
A murmuration of starlings flying in perfect synchronicity with each other like a dancing cloud across the sky is one of the true delights to see at this time of year. Starlings really are beautiful birds – what might appear to be simple black feathers from afar reveal themselves to be glossy with a glint of green and purple and delicate white dots on closer inspection. Their second place ranking may give the impression that there are many starlings around but in actual fact their numbers have suffered from severe declines. Leaving parts of your lawn long gives these birds a helping hand as it provides ideal habitat for the insects and grubs that starlings love to feed on.
While chaffinches make it into the top three of Scottish Birdwatch sightings they are further down the UK rankings for 2017 at number nine. As many of you may have found from watching these colourful finches in your garden they don’t tend to take food from feeders. Instead they prefer to hop about on the ground under bird tables or around hedges. They are part of the finch bird family and you may also spot some of their relatives in your garden such as siskins and goldfinches.
“Blackbird singing in the dead of night” – these opening lyrics to The Beatles song Blackbird are certainly accurate in our summer months when the dawn chorus can begin as early as 4am! While male blackbirds live up to their name the females are actually brown and the young juvenile birds can look more like their thrush relatives in their dappled chestnut feathers. Blackbirds tend to be solitary birds so you’re most likely to spot one on its own.
5. Blue tits
Did you know that blue tits congregate together in family groups over winter? This means that if you’re spotting a handful of these blue and yellow birds at your feeder at any one time the food you’re leaving out for them could be supporting more than 20 birds in a family group. Back when many people had milk delivered these clever birds learnt to peck through the foil top to get to the cream underneath from full-fat milk!
What the rankings reveal
The results from everyone’s counting hour are put together every year to provide a snapshot of how our garden birds are doing. Each year there’s some species that climb up the rankings, some that go down and some that hold steady in the same place. A tumble down the rankings from one year to another isn’t necessarily something to be alarmed about – the results feed into the long term data that the survey collects and helps our scientists look at changes in species numbers over several decades. With Big Garden Birdwatch celebrating its 39th year in 2018 there’s plenty of information for them to work from!
The results do often unveil how events outside of Scotland and the UK can impact on the birds people count. Last winter’s berry crop in Scandinavia failed which led to huge numbers of waxwings being seen here. Waxwings are often winter visitors to Scotland but the 2017 results revealed they were here in far greater numbers than other years – around nine times more gardens in Scotland recorded them than in 2016. Such an event is known as an irruption. There were also far more fieldfares and redwings in Scotland in 2017 also due to the sub-zero conditions on the continent.
The 2016 results revelation couldn’t have been more different! The milder weather that winter is thought to have been the reason that many smaller birds such as coal tits and great tits were recorded in higher numbers as more had survived. It was long-tailed tits however who really caught many the eye of many taking part in the survey – over a third of gardens in Scotland were visited by these pompom like birds over the survey weekend.
Looking at Big Garden Birdwatch results over several decades also lets us chart the increase in some birds moving further north within the UK. Nuthatches are traditionally found in Wales and central and southern England but over the last 30 years have been creeping northwards. The first record of them breeding in Scotland was in 1989 and they are now spotted as far north as the Central Belt. Over time we’ve seen them gradually moving up the Birdwatch rankings for Scotland though still some way off the top ten!
Goldfinches have also made their way up the Birdwatch results here. It’s thought that more people leaving our nyjer seeds and sunflower hearts which these gorgeous little birds love might have helped as well as the milder winters we’ve been having. Back in 2004 they were 15th in the Scottish rankings; in 2017 they were into the top 10 at number nine.
Hopefully all this talk of feathered garden visitors has inspired you to take part in Big Garden Birdwatch 2018. It’s all happening 27-29 January – our website has lots of Birdwatch related fun as well as details on how you can take part. Happy counting!
This blog is written by Fiona Weir who is the Programme Manager of the Giving Nature a Home in Glasgow project for RSPB Scotland.
In September 2017 I met with Agnes Leith at her home in East Kilbride. Agnes and her friend Pauline had been in contact with the RSPB about her husband’s nature diaries and I went along to meet them and read the diaries over tea and biscuits. It was clear straight away that they had been a lifelong passion by the words and photos that Agnes showed me.
The diaries had been kept by Hamish Leith, Agnes’ husband, and showcased years of records from bird watching starting back when he was a student at Glasgow University (where he studied medicine) right up to when he died a few years ago. Hamish was a keen bird watcher, but his diaries not only recorded species and numbers they revealed short stories of his accounts with the nature on his doorstep.
Hamish’s words show a snapshot in time recording bird numbers and species in different areas in and around Glasgow, but they also capture short stories about his days out and adventures. The diaries for us are vital as they show a method of recording that is slowly decreasing, but they also provide evidence of bird numbers, such as house sparrows, which we know have declined by 90% over the last 40 years. Hamish counted a huge number of house sparrows on his way into the university in the morning, but we know now with our house sparrow project records in Glasgow, these numbers are sadly no longer there.
Hamish’s diaries showcase a way we used to be much more connected, interested and immersed in nature. Using nature as a way to get out and observe, draw and record what was around us. Now we are fascinated by technology and the use of smart phones to capture a moment, we are disconnected from nature. Being disconnected we are now not aware of what is on our doorsteps and the unique wildlife that can be found in and around our cities.
We are not only using the diaries as a valuable record, we are also going to showcase some of the stories in an exhibition at the Kelvingrove Museum in April. The exhibition will be part of the 30th anniversary celebrations of the Glasgow Garden Festival, and will show different ways of recording over the last 30 years. We will also be getting children and families out and about across Glasgow recording and capturing their own adventures in nature through short stories and citizen science.
Agnes Leith said: "I met Hamish through my brother who brought him home for his tea to our house in Clarkston. He said “I’m bringing home an unusual guy who talks of nothing but birds!” I remember being very impressed with his knowledge of them. Many years later I was his wife!
"To start with I was bored to tears. Horses were my thing back then not birds. However, as he was a busy GP at this time, I helped him by counting nests on his behalf. I remember going out regularly to count rook’s nests in various rookeries for the RSPB and kept a note of whether the numbers were going up. It wasn’t long before my arm was gently twisted into loving this ornithological interest!
"When we had our living room extended, Hamish insisted there was a floor to ceiling window looking out onto the back garden, which I continue to get great pleasure from to this day. He would sit in the garden quietly and one day a pigeon landed on his shoulder. It wasn’t long before this pigeon and Hamish became great friends. It used to sit up on the roof near the back door waiting for Hamish to come home. This resulted in one or two unfortunate instances of the pigeon landing on friend’s bald heads!
"Another day, I walked in to the living room and here was none other than a large tawny owl perched high up on the pelmet of the curtains! I quietly reversed, shut the door and whispered to Hamish who armed himself with his fishing net and big gloves. After only a couple of swoops onto the lamp shade and back, and no ornaments broken at all, it was finally rescued and set free into the back garden. The dentist who I was now 20 minutes late for, didn’t seem to believe my excuse!
"Hamish never left the house without his huge binoculars, even on holidays in Arran where once we had a let house for a month in Kildonan. The house we had was close to the sea and one evening, suddenly Hamish came running down the stairs having put one of our small children to bed. He had looked out the window and seen a couple with a small boy walking by the seaside. As he watched, the small boy stopped, pointed to something in the sand just above the water line, picked it up and stood there. At this point Hamish came charging through the kitchen and out the door. He ran outside shouting at the small boy to “PUT THAT BACK!” He had known it was a young fledgling from a nest in the sand which he had been keeping an eye on. The small boy wasn’t pleased at all."
Stuart Benn, from RSPB North Scotland, brings us this blog on lynx - a closer look at their possible reintroduction to the UK. All photos were taken by Pete Cairns.
For the last few years, I’ve been one of the people within the RSPB thinking about whether lynx could ever be reintroduced to the UK. During that time I’ve spoken to many others both here and abroad, listened to their experiences and learned from what they had to say – it has all been very helpful and illuminating. However, by far the most useful advice I’ve heard is that ‘working with carnivores is 10% biology and 90% psychology’. To fully understand how big cats or wolves can survive in our modern landscapes you really need to understand people, their beliefs, motivations and backgrounds.
This was brought home forcibly with the recent escape of ‘Lillith’, an 18 month old lynx from a zoo in Wales. The events of the following two weeks, culminating in her being shot dead, told us a little bit about lynx but a lot more about people.
According to press reports, on or about 29 October, the young lynx scaled a tree in her enclosure and then “made a giant leap over an electrified fence”. Despite the deployment of search parties, trackers, thermal imaging equipment and baited traps, Lillith largely evaded detection – sightings were few though one of these was by a local farmer who, within a week of her escape, said that he saw her in his fields next to seven dead sheep. He blamed their deaths on the lynx and this call was taken up by the Farmers Union of Wales and the National Sheep Association who said, “There cannot be a clearer warning of the damage lynx will do if they are released into the wild.”
By 11 November, Lillith had moved into ‘a heavily populated area’ and the decision was taken by the local council to kill her as she “presented an even greater danger to the public”. The council’s decision provoked substantial reaction online with the majority condemning her killing, whilst students at Aberystwyth University held a vigil for her. However, the killing of Lillith was supported by the Farmers Union of Wales who said that the lynx could have attacked a child and, “it is no coincidence that the places targeted for campaigns to release lynxes are remote rural areas” and “if they are really as harmless as some people say, why aren’t we considering their release in heavily populated areas such as Surrey”.
Let’s try and unpick some of these statements. I think it can be agreed that lynx are undoubtedly elusive – I have stood outside pens that held lynx but have been unable to spot them even though they only had some shrubs for cover. I have spoken to people who have lived and worked in lynx country all their lives who have never seen one. To see a lynx is an extremely rare and unforgettable experience.
The other assertions don’t bear up so well under scrutiny, even allowing that Lillith was born and bred in captivity and perhaps might not have behaved precisely as a wild animal would nor that Wales is considered an unsuitable place to reintroduce lynx were that ever to happen. Only one sheep of the reported seven was sent for post-mortem and, though it was said to have died from ‘traumatic injury’, the cause of that could not be established. Whilst lynx can and do kill sheep, their preferred prey is roe deer with them killing one every three days on average. In parts of Europe, lynx and people live alongside each other in areas more heavily populated than Surrey without any issue. Millions more (including many Britons) holiday amongst lynx (and, incidentally wolves and bears) without a second thought.
So much for the facts, but as we’ve seen, those are only likely to take you so far – predators divide people and how you relate to them depends chiefly upon your world view and that will dictate which facts you wish to believe.
That may seem like a rather pessimistic perspective with the future being no more than a ping pong match between proponents and opponents of lynx reintroduction as they defend their position with no end in sight. But I don’t see it like that, and my optimism stems from experiences elsewhere.
The UK is not unique in the issues we would need to address in any discussion about lynx reintroduction – what effect do they have on deer and livestock, how are farmers compensated for agreed losses, what is their value to tourism and marketing, how do they impact upon smaller predators like foxes? All these and more have been looked at abroad and addressed.
But, most tellingly, there they have been discussed and addressed in a collaborative manner with all the main players round the table building a common knowledge, plugging information gaps, drilling down into people’s hopes and fears, working through issues, agreeing ways forward, building trust, taking time, listening. I think that is the model we must follow here not the old-fashioned ‘top down, we know what’s best for you’ or scaremongering approaches.
And at the end of all of that a decision would be reached which might be not to proceed with a lynx reintroduction if there are just too many irresolvable differences, or it could be to move on to a trial and wild lynx would be back in the UK after a gap of 1000 years. Either way, it would provide a new way of working amongst all these seemingly disparate sectors and that is an extremely laudable aim in itself.