Bird Surveying

Last April our Digital Officer Andrew helped out on a bird survey on Hadrian’s Wall. Find out why we conduct bird surveys and how you can get involved.

As Digital Officer for the National Park, I spend the majority of my time wrangling websites and social media accounts. Although I’m the person who’s able to promote some of the gems of the area, I’m not necessarily able to visit them all myself.

Posting stories of the practical work of our team; from pathway repairs to peat conservation, dark skies events to guided walks often has me yearning to be able to get out and get hands-on in the Park. In April last year, I was able to do just that. Taking part in one of our important bird surveys alongside Project Officer Abi.

National Park Officer Abi conducting a bird survey on Hadrian's Wall

The week, up until our survey had been bleak; overcast and icy. However, as we made our way to Longsyke Farm on that April morning, we were greeted with beautiful blue skies. After meeting with the landowners, we made our way around a pre-planned route on the lookout for wading birds. Armed with a spotter scope and binoculars with made regular stops, scanning the horizon and identifying bird calls, marking them on our site map.

Over our three-hour survey, we were lucky enough to spot curlew, oystercatcher, pied wagtail, skylark swallow and more. Being able to disconnect from my regular routine and assist the work on the National Park in a completely different way was fantastic.  At the end of the survey we reached a vantage point and spent a while looking through the scope whilst drinking from our flasks of tea. 

A small bird seen through a spotters scope

Spending time with Abi and learning more about the important species that make Northumberland their home was a great experience. I look forward to helping out again this year. And you can too! We are currently recruiting new volunteers to help us with our survey work.

Find out more information about this important project below; including training dates and how to get in touch.

Why do we conduct bird surveys?

We conduct breeding wader surveys for three different reasons.  One of the main ones is on farms the year before their stewardship agreement expires to ensure data is up to date. We are looking for six different wader species; curlew, lapwing, snipe, oyster catcher, golden plover, redshank.

It would be great to be able to see nests or young but most of the time we will be observing birds maybe pairing up, showing territorial behaviour, or feeding.

We concentrate our surveys on the areas where we are not sure if breeding waders are using the areas or not. This allows us to help the farm have measures to support breeding waders in the relevant fields.

Each year we survey between 30 – 45 sites.  It would be great to only have a fraction of these and to be able to cover them in really close detail. We would then possibly be able to see where a pair of birds are nesting and try to observe nest productivity as the spring progresses.  However, our survey method is more about trying to cover more sites and sightings.

We also conduct surveys to provide an estimate of the populations of breeding curlew, for example, in the National Park. Curlew is a species in decline. Sadly, across the UK it has declined by 46% between 1994 and 2010.  Possible reasons for its decline include afforestation of the type of marginal hill land we target in the survey. It could also be as a result of reductions in habitat quality, climate change and increases in predators.

The Northern Upland Chain Local Nature Partnership (LNP) has recently set up a sub-group to focus on curlew.  In parts of the LNP the making of silage may also be a problem for breeding waders. However, this is less of an issue in Northumberland National Park.  Last year the LNP also had an online map for people to report the first sightings of curlew as they returned to the hill. We will repeat that this year.

We have a group of about 20 volunteers who assist us with bird surveys. We simply couldn’t do it without them.  Even though it is a struggle to get up early in the morning, it is often rewarded with observing a curlew or a lapwing through the binoculars or hearing the snipe drumming or the lapwing calls, and feeling like you are the only person for miles.

Survey Methodology

For the survey, it has to be a morning with good weather. Ideally, sunny and dry but not too windy. Wind or rain it is hard to hear the birds. Inevitably bird watching is first about bird listening and then about bird watching.

The aim is to be on-site between one and four hours after sunrise.  We always make contact with the farmer and shepherds beforehand. As it is often lambing time so they need to be aware of us also out early, or there may be cattle in certain fields to avoid.

The average date a curlew lays the first egg is 21st April so we try to make two visits to each area. The first during the last week in April or during May. The second one towards the end of May until the end of June.

On the second visit the aim is to walk the same route only in reverse. This ensures the last fields seen on the first visit are the first ones seen on the second visit.  However, if there was a large area with no bird activity, we encourage the volunteers to instead concentrate on the areas where there is more happening. If we only manage one visit to a site, we would try to survey again the following spring.

The surveyor notes down on the maps the sightings of the birds along with a symbol annotation for what behaviour is observed.  Pencil is better than pen as if it is slightly raining a pencil will still work.  At the end of the survey we try to then account for any double-counting by reflecting on how many, for example, pairs of each species were using the land.

Back indoors a neat copy of the map can be made and scanned electronically.  During the autumn the curlew data are all digitised and then sent off to the North East Records Centre.  We also have a species tick list where all the birds seen during the morning can be ticked. This is not just waders but any birds.

With more volunteers, we could include surveys where we know there are breeding birds but do not have the data to record.  Instead our survey is concentrating on the more marginal and inbye land.  These un-surveyed areas are our “known unknowns”.

Get involved

We are holding two bird survey training course for volunteers. There is no commitment to follow through to the actual survey if, after the training, you decide it is not for you.

Hexham (Afternoon Session) – Thursday 19th March

Rothbury (Morning Session) – Saturday 21st March

You’ll find out the survey methodology, the sounds of the 6 upland birds we are targeting and the methodology for recording on the map what you see and hear.  We also cover health & safety of course and plenty of time for questions.  Then there is an opportunity to buddy up if you want to. Some volunteers like to work in pairs, some prefer to work alone, which is fine.  You will be able to take away a survey pack/maps of a survey area/contact details for the Farming Officer.

For more information about these courses and how you can help us with our survey work, please contact Abi Mansley via email on [email protected]