When the days are wet and cold and all I want to do is stay warm in the house, I pick up my notebook and pen, root out my bird identification guide and sit back for a few hours of observing nature. The garden bird survey has kicked off and this is one of my favourite winter garden surveys.
The survey first began in winter 1989/1990 and 30 years it is the longest running citizen science project in Ireland. Initially it was focused on birds on feeders, but in 94/95 changed to include any bird that appears in your garden.
It runs for 13 weeks from the first week in December to last week in February. Try and record for all of the weeks but 10 out of 13 is the minimum requirement.
The information required is very simple. Each week record the different species that land in your garden and the highest number you saw. So if you see four blackbirds on a Tuesday and this number wasn’t exceeded for the week, you would enter four on the form beside the blackbird. The same procedure applies to all the birds in your garden. Birds of prey that normally dash by or fly over a garden can also be recorded.
This is also a brilliant school project and if you are doing your green flag on biodiversity this would make the ideal project. Every class can take part and it is a great and fun way to encourage kids to develop their writing and maths skills around wildlife.
The completed form can be submitted online and this reduces administration costs for hard pushed charities like birdwatch Ireland. The form can also be posted or emailed.
Anyone can take part from experienced ornithologists to complete starters and it is the perfect way of getting to know the birds that inhabit your part of the world. The form is very easy and can be done online. You enter a few details about your garden from size, to what berried bushes are present and what type of food you put out. Don’t worry if you don’t have any trees or don’t feed the birds your records are just as important. Anyway you might be inspired to plant a few wildlife friendly plants or put up a nut or seed feeder.
Size also does not matter. I remember years ago standing in the kitchen of a tiny urban garden in the middle of a town. The lady and her husband loved birds and the garden was full of them.
There was one moment of shock when she appeared at the window with a hammer. Thankfully she explained that it was only to break up the nuts for “Robbie robin “and “Jenny Wren”.
Every plant was grown and placed to attract wildlife and they also had a bird bath. This provided another attraction for the birds and was also great entertainment. The bigger birds like the starlings would make a big splash while bathing and the little birds got their shower underneath.
There have been massive changes in the agricultural landscape over the last 30 years. Hedgerows that were a major habitat for birds and other creatures have been removed and there has also been a decline in the insect population.
Gardening as a hobby has boomed and while they are they for our enjoyment, people also like to attract and interact with birds. Trees and shrubs create mini woodlands and there are worms, insects and insects to be found.
Many gardeners also feed the birds and this supplements the lack of food in the countryside during the lean winter months.
All of the information gathered since the survey started is proving valuable trends on how the population of birds are faring.
The top ten birds prove interesting but familiar reading. For the last 20 years robin, blackbird and blue tit have occupied the top three spots.
For example for the 2017/18 season robins were recorded in all of the 806 gardens that took part.
Chaffinches were fourth and they are very common in my garden. Magpie is fifth and they have overtaken the great tit. Coal tit seventh and goldfinch eighth. I am delighted to see the goldfinch climbing up the table and this species has made steady progress over the years. The prevalence of Nyger seeds is also another reason while they are more frequently seen in gardens.
The final two places are seen out by the house sparrows and the wren.
I always thought that the wren should be higher placed. Perhaps its shy and retiring nature makes it less visible that the cheeky robin or the cocky blackbird.
If you are doing the survey and live near woodland keep a watch out for woodpeckers. This species are starting to turn up in gardens as they continue their colonisation.
The garden bird survey is an activity that can be shared by the entire family. Discovering nature together in our gardens is a great way to connect and makes a valuable contribution towards understanding our gardens birds for the future.
Please remember to put out fresh clean water as the first frosts arrive. Birds need to bathe regularly to keep their feathers waterproof.