Thursday, 30 March 2017

Sparrows on top, but a bad year for tits

National Top 20

We've been sifting through around half a million people’s Big Garden Birdwatch sightings – a total of over 8 million birds. And finally, the results are in.


This year saw an increase in the numbers of birds visiting gardens. For example, in 2016, starlings were seen in 40% of gardens in 2016, compared with 50% this year. Thank you to everyone who is giving nature a home in their garden: with more birds visiting gardens this year, there's a reward for your efforts.

A bad year for tits

This year’s Big Garden Birdwatch saw a downturn in sightings of blue tits, great tits and coal tits – all down by at least 10% on last year’s figures


There was an explosion in the number of waxwings visiting gardens this year. A lack of berries in their native Scandinavia prompted an “irruption” of these stunning birds, with hundreds of sightings across the UK, even as far west as Wales and Ireland.

Pied wagtails

These bobbing black and white birds moved up the garden charts to a new high of 29 this year. They are frequently seen in urban areas, dashing about pavements and car parks in search of food, and often gather at dusk to form large roosts in city centres.
House sparrow
Blue tit
Great tit
Feral pigeon
Collared dove
Long-tailed tit
Coal tit
Common gull
Carrion crow

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Mum’s go free this Mothers’ Day at RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands

view point

Enjoy a family day out at RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands this Mothers’ Day (26 March) where mums will be treated to free entry and a free hot drink whilst taking in the wildlife spectacle on offer. Dozens of elegant avocets, one of the nature reserve’s star birds, will be preparing to raise their families, whilst a stroll along the nature trails will get visitors close to budding trees and early spring flowers.
Throughout March families can take part in the ‘Baby Birds trail’ - a self-led quiz to learn more about the reserve’s resident birds and their young ones. Normal admission charges apply to non-members, no additional charge for the event. Available 9.30 am-4.30 pm daily in March.
bluebells in gorst wood
On any day, Explorer Backpacks are available to hire packed with everything needed to discover more about the creatures that call Burton Mere Wetlands home. No booking required, cost £2.50. Families can also have a go at self-led den building close to the visitor facilities, at no additional cost.
Visitors can currently enjoy lunch at the reserve, as the RSPB has teamed up with a local catering van business  offering hot and cold sandwiches, soup and burgers on-site from Wednesday to Sunday every week between 10.30 am and 3.30 pm.

Venue: RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands, Puddington Lane, Burton, Cheshire, CH64 5SF

Contact: For further details visit or phone the visitor reception on 0151 353 8478.

Burton Mere Wetlands is the gateway to the RSPB’s Dee Estuary nature reserve. From the comfort of the reception building, visitors can see nesting avocets and lapwings in the summer and huge flocks of ducks, geese and swans in winter.  Water voles and badgers are resident here, whilst the summer months are alive with flickering colours from the countless dragonflies and butterflies.

Four miles up the road at Parkgate, the vast saltmarsh provides internationally important habitat for thousands of wading birds and wildfowl, but one of the biggest draws are the birds of prey and owls; hen harriers, peregrine falcons and short-eared owls are amongst the most captivating winter visitors.  During exceptionally high spring tides, the saltmarsh becomes flooded and the resident harvest mice, field voles and the like can be seen fleeing the rising water.

Point of Ayr lies at the tip of the Welsh side of the estuary, where thousands of wading birds gather to roost at high tide, and a huge variety of migrant birds stop off to feed and nest on the saltmarsh.  Natterjack toads breed in the sand dunes and the critically endangered Sandhill Rustic Moth thrives here.

A programme of events runs at all three sites throughout the year, please visit

Location and opening times:
RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands, Puddington Lane, Burton, Cheshire, CH64 5SF.  The reserve is open every day except Christmas Day, 9 am until dusk (up to 9 pm in summer). Our visitor reception is open 9.30 am-5 pm, February to October, and 9.30 am-4.30 pm November to January. 

Friday, 10 March 2017

Holiday to Idyllic Islay, 19th to 23rd February 2017 - Led by Aquila Ecology

On the look out, Debra and Andrea - Chris Cachia Zammit 

Descriptive report
In the depths of winter, in the week when Storm Doris gusted in, I was on a bird-watching trip to Islay – great planning! However, we were spared the worst of Doris’s wrath, being subjected to just a whistling wind overnight and waking to a sprinkling of snow in the morning – our last day on the island. The Scottish mainland, though, hadn’t been so lucky, and as we drove back from Kennacraig the snow was falling “hypnotically” – according to our driver, somewhat worryingly.

But that’s starting at the end; to start from the beginning: we had a calm, if rainy, two-hour ferry journey over to Islay, spotting great northern divers, guillemots, razorbills and other species on the water. Our base was Red Lodge, nestled in a vast wilderness of heather, with a river running past. Andrea Hudspeth, tour organiser/wildlife enthusiast/guide/driver/cook, spotted otter signs – the ‘jelly’ they emit from their anal glands (mmm, lovely) on the paths leading to the river – but, despite setting up a couple of trail cameras, we didn’t capture one on film at the lodge, although the chaffinch and robin were only too pleased to display themselves for one of the cameras (or possibly the food we’d left in front of it). Another bird that showed itself well for us from our vantage point at the lodge was a beautiful male hen harrier – which totally disrupted breakfast one morning when the cry went up: “Hen harrier! Hen harrier!” A scramble for spectacles (me) and binoculars (just about everyone) and a rush to the lodge’s panoramic windows followed, and we stood entranced, watching the raptor scouring the heather for its breakfast.

Accommodation at the lodge was warm and comfortable, with Andrea – aided by Terry Williams of our own RSPB group (super spotter/kitchen assistant/fount of wildlife-related knowledge – dishing up really tasty veggie and non-veggie fare at breakfast and dinner and making packed lunches as we were out birding all day, every day (well, apart from the afternoon when it *really* rained, when we retreated to Bowmore’s shops for an hour).

It wasn’t all rain, though – and that’s the beauty of Islay: you can see the rain rolling in, but also the sunlight following close behind it – and rainbows are a daily, sometimes hourly, occurrence.

For anyone who has read this far thinking, “Yes, great, but what about the ****** birds??, here’s a list of what we saw (birds and other wildlife):

Barnacle goose,
Bar-tailed godwit,
Black guillemot,
Black-headed gull,
Brent goose,
Brown hare,
Collared dove
Common gull
Common scoter
Common seals
Common toad
Feral goats
Golden eagle
Golden plover
Great black-backed gull
Great northern diver
Great tit
Grey heron
Grey plover
Grey seals
Grey wagtail
Greylag goose
Hen harrier (adult male)
Hen harrier (ringtail)
Herring gull
Hooded crow
House sparrow
Lesser black-backed gull
Long-tailed duck
Meadow pipit
Mistle thrush
Mute swan
Purple sandpiper
Red deer
Red-breasted merganser
Ringed plover
Roe deer
Song thrush
Tufted duck
White-fronted goose
Whooper swan
Winter moth
Scouring the sea - Chris Cachia Zammit 

And here’s a link to Aquila Ecology’s interactive trip report:

We didn’t have to work hard to see all this wildlife; we spent our days driving leisurely around the island, either ‘spotting’ from the car and then pulling over for a closer look, or driving to a pre-decided spot, often along the coast, and spending some time scanning the waves. Both techniques paid off handsomely, thanks to our guides’ previous visits to the island and their general enthusiasm for and knowledge of the local wildlife.

Golden eagle - Chris Cachia Zammit 
My highlight from the first technique was also my 100th bird for the year: a golden eagle riding the thermals by a distant mast on a hilltop. We stopped for a while to watch it and then drove on, rounding a bend and seeing it again, near where we’d planned to stop and look for choughs. They weren’t around but, hunkered down on a hillside, a juvenile eagle was being harassed by a pair of ravens – bonus!

As for the second technique, well, that brought about a magical encounter – although we had to visit the spot a couple of times and wait patiently for a long time (it’s not always easy, this wildlife-watching lark). Finally, on the penultimate stop of our last day, at Bunnahabhain, with the snow-covered Paps of Jura to our right, Terry whispered that he’d spotted an otter swimming in the sea, quite close to shore. 
Otter - Terry Williams with a smartphone via his scope – impressive use of technology

I eventually trained my bins on it, and it put on quite a show, swimming along parallel to the shore, surfacing then submerging, and finally came onto the rocky beach to eat dinner, a shore crab. It stayed for a while and then slid back into the water and disappeared, and we set off for our last stop before boarding the ferry back to the mainland with a spring in our steps and a song in our hearts (just me?).

A note about the RSPB sites on Islay
There are two RSPB sites on Islay, The Oa and Loch Gruinart. The former is a windswept clifftop, offering a good circular walk to the American Monument (which commemorates the loss of two troop ships in 1918) and down the other side, and Andrea, Chris Cachia Zammit and I saw fulmars on the opposite cliff, feral goats just below us, a pair of ravens, Highland cattle, a large flock of twite and other bird species. 

Andrea & Chris picking up rubbish - Debra Williams
Terry had stayed in the car park with his scope and bins, observing that we were on a birding holiday and not a walking one, and his decision proved to be a good one, not just on The Oa, but also when Andrea, Chris and I later went for a walk along the white sands of Machir Bay (where we carried out an impromptu beach clean). On each occasion, when we returned to the car, windswept but happy, Terry had seen – amongst other species – a number of golden eagles, a hen harrier, and even a kestrel (an extremely rare bird on Islay). We *weren’t* jealous at all…

Loch Gruinart is a more managed site compared to The Oa: there’s a small visitor centre, with displays and leaflets, toilets, and a tea/coffee/hot chocolate machine – which we made good use of on a couple of occasions. We timed our two visits to coincide with dusk, hoping to see the choughs come in to roost, and we weren’t disappointed as these gregarious, noisy birds flew into and onto the barn where they spend their nights. We were also fortunate to observe three brown hares interacting (it’s that time of year, folks). From ‘chough roost’, it was just a short drive to the estuary where the island’s 37,000 barnacle geese fly into roost each winter evening – what a sight and sound!

Debra Williams

Spotted one of these?

RSPB want to know if you’ve seen a hen harrier in Lancashire

Maler Hen Harrier
As spring approaches, the RSPB is calling on eagled-eyed wildlife fans who enjoy walking in the moorlands of Lancashire to keep a look out for hen harriers, one of England’s rarest birds of prey.
The nature conservation charity has relaunched its Hen Harrier Hotline in the hope of finding out where these birds might be breeding.   
At this time of year, the male hen harrier performs his courtship display known as skydancing, involving a spectacular series of swoops and somersaults. If he is fortunate enough to attract a female, he then proves his worth as a mate by passing her food offerings in mid-air.
Ringtail, female Hen Harrir
Scientists estimate there is sufficient habitat in England to provide a home to around 300 pairs of breeding hen harriers. But last year there were only three successful nests in the whole country.
Hen harriers are in trouble largely because of ongoing illegal persecution. This is because they sometimes eat red grouse, which can make them unwelcome on moors managed for driven grouse shooting. This type of shooting requires huge numbers of red grouse and some game managers feel they need to illegally kill or disturb harriers to protect their business.
Amanda Miller, Conservation Manager for the RSPB in Northern England, said: “The past few breeding seasons have been disastrous for England’s hen harriers and sadly there appears to be no let up in the illegal killing and disturbance of these magnificent birds.
“If we can find out where these birds are breeding, we can deploy specialist staff to protect the nests, thereby giving them the best chance of success. We can also fit them with satellite tags enabling us to track their movements once they have fledged.”
Male hen harriers are an ash-grey colour with black wing tips and a wingspan of just less than a metre. They are sometimes known as ghostbirds because of the pale colour of their plumage.
Female hen harriers are slightly larger, are owl-like in appearance, and have a mottled brown plumage, which camouflages them when they nest on the ground. They have horizontal stripes on their tails, giving them the nickname ringtail and a patch of white just above, on the rump.
The Harrier Hotline number is 0845 4600121 (calls charged at local rate).  Reports can also be e-mailed to  Reports of sightings should include the date and location of sighting, with a six-figure grid reference where possible. A description of the bird’s behaviour would also be useful.
The Hotline feeds into RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE+ Project, a five year programme of hen harrier conservation in England and Scotland. For more information, visit


Follow @RSPB_Skydancer for the latest hen harrier news