I’d Thought You Knew?

Angus Hogg
June 2002

“The Great Crested Grebes at Martnaham, with two young? I thought you’d know about them!” Just one comment from a birder some years ago which highlights a problem facing all county recorders. Then there’s “that bird was around all spring, from mid May. Very distinctive. It kept sitting on the fence at the edge of my field, before flying off and catching a bee. Then it would return to the fence line and knock seven bells out of the insect before swallowing it.” All very frustrating! However, strange though it might seem to those of you who know me, the first comment is one of the type which frustrates me most.

The “bee-eating bird” may well have been what you’ve all deduced by now, but it’s gone and, with no back up notes to support the claim, it enters the Room 101 of birding history. It’s that first comment, though! Great Crested Grebes have always struggled in Ayrshire and only started breeding in 1912. They really have no great pressure on them from ladies with funny hats nowadays so, what’s the problem? But, before you can even get around to figuring that out, you’ve got to have some idea of the numbers, breeding success etc. And people can’t do that until birders send in their field notes. Now, doesn’t that sound just a tad obvious! In truth, there’s lots of birds which are assumed to be so common that no-one bothers to record them let alone send in comments on them. I own up right now to being one of the great “ignorers” of Blue Tits, Dunnocks, Wrens, Robins etc, unless one of them does something odd like head-butting a cat! Then, it’s a note to British Birds, and a mention of Potentially Fatal Behaviour by Blue Tit. But, there is a get-out clause for me in there somewhere with some of the species I’ve mentioned. Birds moving into and using new habitats are always worth noting. So, the next time you’re walking through the dark green vastnesses of the Galloway Forest Park, why not make a note of all the singing Dunnocks you hear? They weren’t always there and certainly wouldn’t be now if it weren’t for “those” trees.

While some bird species move into new habitats, others move out of former ones. Own up now – how many of you would have known that House Sparrow was in trouble nationally if the BTO hadn’t told you? I had no idea, but then started noticing the sparrows in my back garden going down in number in the last ten years. Similarly, Yellowhammer is one of these birds we take for granted in Ayrshire. The song is well known to the point where you really wish no-one else is going to tell you the easy way to remember it!! Some countries have experienced recent problems with their Yellowhammer populations e.g. Sweden, due to mercury used in seed-dressing. The conscientious Swedes picked up on that problem fairly early, got the seed-dressing changed and reversed the trend.

Two questions. How many Yellowhammers do we have in the county? And what’s the population trend? Nationally, it shows a big decline. Of course, the Breeding Birds Atlas field work identified areas where you could go to see Yellowhammer, but it was not intended to provide population estimates. Since the mid 1990’s quite a few folk have commented on the bird being quite scarce now in areas where they used to see lots. But, we don’t really know, do we? I recall frequent comments from farmers during the ’70’s about how Lapwings used to “carpet their fields” in the breeding season – well, not quite, but you get the idea. Asked for some kind of estimate on numbers, the facial expression would rapidly change to seriously puzzled (why would that be important?). You could quote examples of birds which have vanished from the Ayrshire scene and have done so before anyone really got to grips with the extent of the decline and its predicted extinction. Corn Bunting is one which vanished quite rapidly. It was still present around Crosshill when I moved there in 1969. By the mid 70’s it had gone, but the important (and slightly sad) thing was that I hadn’t noticed its decline elsewhere. Suddenly, people were struggling to “get it on their year list for Ayrshire.”

I don’t suggest that Yellowhammer will go the same way, but how sure can we be? And, if the species is really declining, what can be done? At this point, accompanied by lots of anxious hand-wringing and hair-tearing, birdwatchers often appear greatly concerned for the future of a species, birds generally, the human population on the planet and even the fate of the universe – something that bird behaviour students might call displacement activity, even if it is well meant. The question we should all be asking ourselves really is “What can I do about it before it gets to the serious problem stage?”

Well, how about some of the following?

  1. Adopt a species which you know to be in trouble (the RSPB’s Amber List is quite useful in identifying some of them).
  2. Choose an area as near to your home as possible where suitable habitat exists for that species.
  3. Draw up a sketch map for that area and make some duplicates.
  4. Visit that area over a succession of breeding seasons and mark on the map the position of every singing male you hear or see in your area. Over a number of years, you’ll soon get an idea if the numbers are going down, up or remaining stable.
  5. If you’re not too hot on birdsong, or find yourself busy doing something else during the breeding season, then use the map of your given area to simply record numbers or flock sizes for your chosen species.

The important thing is that, by doing this very easy fieldwork with a species (or more than one if you feel adventurous), you’re laying down a marker for that bird within a part of Ayrshire at a given period. The figures can then be used both locally or nationally, providing important comparisons. You may even find that your results disagree with those of highly esteemed organisations such as RSPB ar SNH! Now, wouldn’t it be fun to draw someone’s attention to the status of Song Thrush (rare and endangered?) in the county? But, the only way you can do that is by providing the evidence through your own fieldwork. Everyone knows that Song Thrush is still relatively abundant up here and the real problem lies down there in the land of the Sooth-moothers. Yet we don’t have any hard figures to prove it! And, it’s a wee bit perplexing when a national organisation asks you to help out in a nationwide Nightingale survey! That hasn’t happened for some time, which sort of indicates that national oragnisers are following a gentle learning curve. We could help to dispel a few more myths through very straightforward surveys.

So, how about it? Are you up for a wee challenge? Can you carry out a survey of your own, where you lay down the rules and decide on the extent of your survey? Fraser Simpson, from Kilmarnock, overturned the idea that Tree Sparrow was on the edge of extinction as a breeder, through some very dedicated work which covered the same areas between Dunlop, Irvine and Springside for several years. Baseline figures for both breeding pairs and wintering flocks in that area are now available thanks to his hard work and patience. What about the rest of the county? The species has declined seriously in the south, but there could be small pockets still surviving. Maybe somebody would care to pick that survey up?

If Seabird 2000, or Wetland Bird Survey counts, or the like doesn’t appeal to you, then here’s a way out – and you can still keep your conscience happy too! There’s no doubt about it that both the pace and type of change within Ayrshire’s countryside demands hard factual information with which to defend it. Examples of complete, political farces will still occur, witness Bogside, but the need for good basic information still exists. Now, have I convinced you that you’re all able to provide this kind of information, and that it’s relatively unsophisticated yet effective? I hope so. Oh, and I forgot to mention – it’s quite good fun too!