UK Bird News March 2012

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Starlings at all time low in RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch

Starlings at all time low in RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch

Almost 600,000 people took part in this year’s RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch, counting over nine million birds.

In Berkshire over 9,000 people sent in details of their garden birds, and revealed the blue tit has retained the county top spot with an average of 3.2 seen per garden. The cheeky house sparrow has jumped two places into second place, ousting the blackbird, which dropped into fourth place, behind the woodpigeon.

Across the UK blackbird numbers were down 22% on last year, this is likely due to milder weather which enabled them to find food out in the wider countryside rather than relying on our gardens for survival.

The counts also revealed that starling numbers were at an all time low this winter, the lowest number seen since the survey began more than thirty years ago.

In the first survey in 1979, the average number of starlings seen in UK gardens was 15. This year starling figures were at their lowest ever with an average of three seen per garden, in Berkshire this was even lower with an average of 1.8 starlings per garden.

RSPB South East’s Samantha Stokes said: “We’ve generally noticed fewer starlings this winter, both in gardens and at some of the traditionally large roosts around the region.

“It’s thought that this may in part be the effect of the mild weather. Usually in winter, the UK’s resident starlings are joined by hundreds of thousands of starlings from northern Europe, but this year they simply may not have needed to travel as far as the UK if conditions were to their liking elsewhere in Europe.

“However, we also need to bear in mind breeding numbers of starlings are also falling and there may be fewer birds around in general.”

RSPB experts are beginning research into the decline in breeding numbers of this garden favourite. Possible reasons include changes in their feeding habitats and changes beneath the soil reducing their insect food.

The starling declines are mirrored across much of northern Europe too, and because of this drop in numbers, the species is red listed as a bird of high conservation concern.

In contrast to the falling numbers of starlings, the survey revealed some birds prospering. Goldfinches are up to number seven this year. This colourful bird has been steadily increasing in UK gardens and first reached the top ten in 2008.

Without a prolonged cold snap this winter, more of our birds would have survived compared to the last two winters so many species should have a better start to the breeding season.

Samantha added; “Even in mild winters people see a lot of birds in their gardens. It was nine million this year, so the survey is really helpful to get a ‘snapshot’ during the winter months.

“It’s also great that so many people use Big Garden Birdwatch as an annual activity to monitor what is happening in their own gardens”

Starling Pic: Dorset Birder

Brighter future for yellowhammers

Brighter future for yellowhammers

Europe’s largest wildlife conservation charity, the RSPB Northern Ireland, announced the return of the yellowhammer to Co Down. A five-year study has demonstrated that agri-environment farming schemes to benefit wildlife have been very effective in bringing back this bird from the brink.

The yellowhammer, a distinctive lemon-yellow bird, famed for its ‘a-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese’ song, has been in steep decline now for the last thirty years due to changes in farming practices1, with an estimated 5,000 pairs only remaining in Northern Ireland.

“We are incredibly delighted with the results,” said Claire Barnett, RSPB. “It is impossible to understate their importance. It demonstrates that not only do the schemes work, but that there is now a very bright future for these birds which has declined by 65% in recent years. In fact in some parts of Northern Ireland, they are no longer found. But the farmers of Co Down have given hope to this beautiful creature and we hope that this is a sign of good things to come.”

In 2006, the Yellowhammer Recovery Project was set up by the RSPB to attempt to reverse these critical declines in yellowhammer and other seed-eating farmland birds.

The Countryside Management Scheme (CMS), run by DARD, that pays farmers to manage the land to also benefit wildlife, was the key mechanism to help the bird recover. The first aim of the project was to find out if birds were benefitting from this.

Co Down was chosen as the project area, as it is one of the last remaining strongholds for the yellowhammer. Twenty-two farms added specific arable options to their CMS agreements, and a similar number were used as control farms.

An initial survey, funded by Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), was conducted on all 44 farms. During spring/summer 2011 the Agri-Food and Bioscience’s Institute (AFBI) funded the follow up survey.

“The results showed the birds were indeed using arable options, such as wild bird cover, in preference to grassland habitats. On average, populations increased by 18% at sites managed to help the birds whilst they declined by 11% at unmanaged sites3,” Claire said.

For the yellowhammer, while populations increased by over 50% at CMS farms they also went up by 21% at unmanaged farms, demonstrating that the well-managed farms were not just pulling in birds from other areas, but were actually benefitting the wildlife in the wider countryside as well.4 At sites established since 2006, at which the highest levels of management advice was provided, yellowhammer numbers increased by a remarkable 79%.

The Stormont Agricultural and Rural Development Committee (ARD) saw this work at first hand on their visit to Michael Calvert’s farm in Co Down. The former UK-winner of the prestigious Nature of Farming Award showed the MLAs these birds which have now become an important feature of not just his farm, but that of the surrounding landscape as well. Mr Calvert’s farm has been in CMS for several years.

“We maintained rough-grass margins and planted wild bird cover,” he explained. “As we are part of CMS, we were able to cover costs for this. I was amazed to see how quickly they re-established themselves. It makes me proud to be able to ensure that this bird will be there for future generations.”

Yellowhammer Pic: Ulf Gotthardsson

The Birder's Market | Resource | Bird news for Britain / Rest of the World | UK Bird News | Bird News for United Kingdom 2012 |  UK Bird News March 2012

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