Great Crested Grebe
 
 

These articles are written for the Godstone Parish magazine and reproduced here with the permission of the author, Keith Brandwood (01883 742740). If you would like to reproduce them in your magazine, it would be courteous to ask him - he would be very happy to give permission if he gets a credit. He would also probably be able to adjust the article to suit your own area as these are generally aimed for the Godstone and Bletchingley areas. 


NOVEMBER
Long-tailed tits are very much birds of the urban and semi-urban landscape. After the breeding season long-tailed tits flock together in family groups, sometimes with other species such as blue tits and great tits. The increasing numbers of people providing food for birds in their garden have seen these birds turning up in more frequently as they move through the gardens foraging for food.
Surprisingly, long-tailed tit numbers are increasing; one thought being that with more garden feeding it has helped see these birds through the winter months. Long-tailed tits are very small birds and without their long tail would be the smallest bird in the British Isles. Their small size makes them very vulnerable to cold winters, as they lose body heat trying to keep warm and one way the birds try to overcome this is by huddling together at night in dense bushes and trees. The weather in the spring and autumn also has a marked effect on the survival of the birds.
Warm weather in both seasons has a positive effect on numbers, but a wet spring and/or autumn has a negative effect on numbers. Long-tailed tits produce large clutches of eight to twelve eggs during the breeding season in an elaborate nest taking up to a month to build. Therefore a fall in their numbers after a cold winter, numbers can recover quickly after a good breeding season. Interestingly should a long-tailed tits nest fail, say through predation, the pair will often help in raising the young of a nearby nest. This seems to increase the survivability of the young if the parent birds have been helped out by other birds and probably helps the flocking together after the breeding season.
Actually long-tailed tits are not tits at all, but are more closely related to the babblers of India and South-east Asia.


OCTOBER
After two poor breeding years of blue tits, this year up to August shows a mixed picture of blue tits recorded by the British Trust for Ornithology in gardens. As expected the numbers of blue tits recorded in gardens for the first half of the year was down in all regions of the country. However the garden records for June to August, when juvenile blue tits would have left the nest, show that numbers seen in gardens varies across the country, compared to the yearly averages of previous years. Northern areas of England were down, the midlands were generally up, south east England were down whereas south west England were up. Northern Ireland and Wales were up, but Scotland down.
Blue Tits lay only one clutch of eggs in a year, sometimes with up to an average of twelve eggs. This means that in a good year blue tit numbers can quickly recover from any declines.  The birds need to gear the hatching of their young to the abundance of caterpillars, usually found  in broadleaved trees, and this is normally in June. However a number of things can affect the success in rearing their young, such as a lack of caterpillars, a cold June and high winds and rain in June, which sometimes knocks the caterpillars out of the trees onto the ground thus benefitting such birds as blackbirds and robins who collect their food on the ground. This  puts blue tits at a disadvantage as they invariably search for food among the upper branches of trees.


AUGUST
With the run of really nice warm weather throughout June and early July it has become very noticeable that there is a general lack of insects. One can remember seeing groups of small tortoiseshell butterflies or the white butterflies, but now they are generally seen in ones and twos, or not at all. It is well known that a number of butterfly species have declined dramatically in recent years. In the garden, with suitable flowers to attract insects, it is very noticeable that bumble bees, honey bees, hoverflies and many other insects that pollinated our flowers are no longer there in great numbers.
Visiting, for instance, Ashdown forest during the evening one can still get bitten by the midges, but the low numbers of other insects, particularly moths, is very apparent and one wonders why when the habitat doesn't appear to have changed much in many years. The general lack of our native wild flowers has meant that the insects that thrived on these plants are disappearing. The knock on effect of this reduction in insects etc, means less available food for our insect eating birds, and whilst many of our birds feed on a variety of foods as adults, many require insects when feeding their young.
To try and redress the balance and increase the numbers of insects we need to consider growing perennial single flowers in the garden, picking varieties that are known to attract insects. We need to leave areas where possible to nature and allow the return of some of our native wild flowers, and perhaps in some cases we could sow areas of wild flowers and grasses, something that public bodies could get involved in.
Counting the birds in my garden it looks like blue and great tits have had a good breeding season after two poor years.


JULY
The red kite has now become an increasingly common raptor in our area, and has now probably bred in Surrey. It is also known that red kites have bred in at least two areas of Sussex.
Almost the entire world breeding population of red kites, numbering up to twenty four thousand breeding pairs, are in Europe, with maybe a few pairs breeding in Morocco. Around two thirds of the European red kites breed in Germany with significant populations in France and Spain. However the Spanish wintering population, which includes many of the German and French kites, have declined by fifty per cent in ten years, making the UK red kites increasingly important on a global scale.
British red kites are mainly sedentary, although juvenile birds range widely during the winter months, with records being received from as far as Spain and Portugal, returning the following spring to the area they fledged from. Small numbers of continental red kites are regularly seen in southern and eastern England during the spring.
Persecution throughout the ages wiped out the red kite in the British Isles, other than a small population that survived in the old oak woods of mid-Wales. This population spread slowly but were restricted to within Wales because of finding suitable habitat. The reintroduction programmes of red kites started in the late 1980s and has been a great success, with various sites being set up in both England and Scotland. Unfortunately there has been a slow population recovery in north Scotland because of illegal killings.
The breeding kites have only expanded slowly out of their introduced areas resulting in high densities of birds within the core areas. This is something that I witnessed myself recently when I spent the weekend at my brother's in the north part of Newbury. Sitting in his garden the commonest bird was the red kite as they soared and circled over the houses and gardens.


JUNE
In the past we have known a great deal about the movement of birds, particularly on migration, from the ringing of large numbers of various species of birds, but always the percentage of birds recovered was very low.
Science technology today gives us satellite telemetry, geolocators and radio telemetry, each system logging a bird's presence in a geographical area, using a transmitter attached to the body, usually mounted on the back, wing or leg. Some concerns have been raised that these devices may hinder the daily lives of birds but there seems to be no evidence that this is the case. Some experiments have shown that in small birds the weight of the device of less than 4.1 percent of the body weight of the bird produces negligible lessening of survival rates.
Two cuckoos tagged in 2014 on Ashdown Forest showed that the birds spent the winter in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A satellite tracking project of ospreys breeding at Rutland Waters showed that the birds spent the winter in West Africa. Some results from these systems have come as a great surprise. A red-necked phalarope hatched in the Shetlands in 2014 made it across the Atlantic to eastern Canada, then down to Florida, across to the Pacific Ocean via the Gulf of Mexico to the coast of Peru where it spent six months at sea between the Galapagos Islands and the coast of South America.
Tagging of nightjars from Thetford Forest in Norfolk showed that the nightjars migrated on a broad front across Europe directly to a wintering area in Democratic Republic of Congo. However their return journey in spring showed a longer route via western Africa. Swifts tagged in the UK show that the birds spent the winter in the southern half of Africa and surprisingly swifts in China, a sub species of our common swift, also spend the winter in the same area as our swifts.
Increasing species of birds including seabirds are being tagged today and hopefully in time will show us their migrating routes, their stop off feeding areas and their winter areas. This will give us the evidence we will need to hopefully provide conservation measures to retain such areas, and concerns we can raise when proposals are made for change of land use that might be inappropriate.


MAY
In June 2015 I wrote an article about the Old Oxted Sandpits, and the wildlife that had been recorded there, including a colony of breeding sand martins. In my article I mentioned that there was an application to infill the remaining section of the pit. The quarry operator have now been given permission by Surrey County Council to infill the remaining section of the pit with inert waste. After a long fought struggle by wildlife campaigners to at least have recognised the importance of preserving the sand martin colony the Council have imposed conditions on the quarry operator that requires him to leave intact the southern cliff face for the summer breeding sand martins. It is hoped that this, and other measures will be enough to safeguard the undisturbed continuance of the long established breeding colony sand martins.
Over the years, nature has taken over the disused pit to a remarkable degree; an amazing array of wildlife has made it their home. These included rare and nationally declining breeders such as the lapwing. Water bodies that periodically form during the winter months attracted birds like little grebe, mallard, mandarin and numerous other waterfowl and waders like common snipe, jack snipe, green sandpiper and even the very rare little ringed plover have been seen regularly in the vegetated margins.
This wildlife oasis that could have easily been left as a nature reserve, will soon disappear. It is hoped that the planning conditions are robust enough to ensure the survival of the sand martin colony.
The only other known breeding sand martin colony in east Surrey is at the working sandpit just north of Bletchingley. It is hoped that local birders will regularly check the sand martin colony over the coming months and report any disturbance, whether authorised or not, by the quarry operator that could impede the survival of this sand martin colony.
My thanks to Brian Thomas for allowing me to glean certain facts from his article in the latest edition of the East Surrey group newsletter.


APRIL
One of the local group field trips in April is to Seaford in Sussex for a sea watch. A sea watch is basically spending hours watching the sea and recording the sea birds that are passing up the British Channel. To get the best out of the day one needs to be at Seaford by at least 6.30 in the morning, and ideally the wind needs to be from the south or south east, with perhaps the weather being cloudy, but with no evidence of sea mist. Some people like to watch from the beach but personally I like to position myself on a low cliff with a comfortable seat and flask of tea!
The movement of birds up the Channel can start in March but late April is perhaps the most ideal time if the weather conditions are right. One can spend quite a while watching the sea and seeing absolutely nothing, then there can be a rush of birds of various species. Flocks of dark-bellied brent geese move through on their way back to their breeding grounds in Siberia, and large numbers of common scoter duck are on their way to the arctic, occasionally accompanied by a few of the rarer velvet scoter. Sandwich and common tern can usually be seen in large numbers.
Sometimes one may be lucky to see an arctic tern among the common terns, but it can be difficult to identify them unless one gets a good view. Other terns that may be seen are little and black, although they usually pass through a little later, usually early May. Red-throated divers are usually seen.  A small number of black-throated divers may be seen and, very occasionally, a great northern diver may be spotted. One of the highlights of the day for many birders is seeing the skuas. The arctic skua is the one most likely to be seen, but great skuas are often spotted and the pomarine skua is the one everyone is hoping to see. The skua passage continues into May. Sometimes flocks of Bar-tailed godwit, whimbrel and curlew pass up through the Channel.
Other than watching what is passing up the Channel, there are still summer migrant birds coming in off the sea. As many of these birds are small they can be difficult to identify, but last year I watched an osprey coming in from the sea. For some of the bird species the sea passage continues into May, so if the weather is not good in late April, it is always worth making a second visit in early May if the weather conditions are right.


FEBRUARY
As expected, a number of our common resident birds had a poor breeding season in the year 2016. The weather in southeast England during March, April and May was wet with above average rainfall, although July and August saw dry weather with above average temperatures. Based on a five year average a number of birds suffered because of the poor weather during the spring.
Blue tits started nesting later than usual with smaller egg clutch sizes. Brooding of eggs was down, and young juvenile birds leaving the nest were down twelve percent. Hopefully if we have a good spring this year blue tit numbers should recover quickly. As blue tits only produce one clutch of eggs in a season their clutch sizes are large, sometimes laying ten to twelve eggs. Great tits suffered from the same problems as blue tits. They started nesting up to five days later than the average, produced smaller egg clutch sizes which were down by up to seven percent and therefore brood sizes were down. Juvenile birds leaving the nest were down by nearly four percent. Again great tits produce a large clutch of eggs and very occasionally will have a second brood, although this is rare in the British Isles. Hopefully with a good spring weather wise their numbers should recover.
Blackbirds started nesting at about their normal time but egg clutch sizes were slightly down and juvenile birds leaving the nest were down by twenty three percent. Blackbirds usually lay a clutch of four to five eggs at a time and nest three or even four times during the breeding season, so given a good spring their numbers should recover in time. This winter saw perhaps larger numbers of blackbirds coming in from the Europe: it is possible to identify blackbirds that have come from the continent if one gets a good view of the bird.
Other birds that suffered included song thrushes and robins, although some birds fared better than average including nuthatch, wren, dunnock, chaffinch, house sparrow and starling. A quick footnote: waxwings were reported in mid- January at Crawley and East Grinstead.



JANUARY
The robin is a very familiar bird to most gardens and is perhaps the favourite bird for many
people. It can be found in almost every area of the country. The robin is one of the very few birds that can be heard singing in every month of the year, and during the spring its singing is to establish a territory and a mate. However, its song during the autumn and winter is saying no other male is welcome in this territory, and they become very aggressive in the defence of their territory, to the point that fights can involve the death of an interloper. It is estimated that up to 10% of all adult robin deaths are caused by other robins.
The reason why robins defend their territory during the autumn and winter is not fully understood. It was thought that it was to ensure it had sufficient available food to see it through the winter, but during the autumn food is generally abundant and therefore there is no requirement for robins to be as aggressive as they are. During the winter when the weather can become extreme one would have thought that robins would be more aggressive in defence of their territory, but the opposite is true. They become more relaxed, even allowing other robins into their territory to feed.
Robins in our country are generally resident, but during the autumn we get a movement of robins from Eastern Europe into the British Isles, and according to ringing records some of our robins travel further than we imagined. A robin ringed at Ewhurst on 31st July 1966 was recovered in Switzerland on 18th April 1969, and a robin ringed in Wiltshire on 27th September 1981 was recovered eight and half years later at Farnham Surrey. However as some ringing records show, some robins can live for several years. Generally the life span of the average robin is about eighteen months, so over the years your garden will have had a succession of them.