Friday, 16 December 2005

Practical birdwatching

Birdwatching is often regarded as a recreational pastime, an excuse for getting outside and enjoying the Norfolk countryside. However, it can also serve a practical purpose by providing valuable information on the distribution and numbers of Norfolk’s birds. The submission of records gathered during recreational birdwatching, to the County Bird Recorder or to national schemes like BirdTrack (, is something that many birdwatchers do routinely. However, fewer birdwatchers take part in the systematic surveys that underpin much of our knowledge about the changing fortunes of our avifauna. This is a shame, not least because participating in such surveys can lead you to visiting parts of the county that you would not otherwise have gone to. Last weekend, for instance, I visited a survey square that I had been jointly allocated for the Norfolk Bird Atlas – a project that aims to map the distribution of birds across the county. This took me to part of Breckland that I had only previously viewed in passing.  Sat between the A11 and Bridgham, the landscape was a mixture of arable farmland, pasture and small blocks of woodland.

Although there had not been any overnight frost, it was damp and decidedly chilly but at least we would be on the move in order to cover all the ground. The aim was simple, to record the birds that we saw within the square and it was not long before our tally began to rise. Within a few minutes we encountered a flock of about 30 linnets, delightful little finches that were once popular as cage birds. Seen in flight, the flock was heading for one of the little blocks of game cover, rich in the small seeds favoured by these birds. There were other finches too: chaffinches and greenfinches in good numbers, fewer goldfinches and a single bullfinch. The bullfinch can be difficult to connect with, perhaps because it is rather secretive in its habits and has such a soft call note. We were also treated to a couple of winter visitors, with a handful of fieldfares and redwings, though nowhere near the number we might expect to see later in the winter. The highlight of the morning was the sight of a barn owl. A pale individual, probably a male, was perched in the lower branches of an oak. Effortlessly, the bird dropped from the branch to pounce on something in grass, where it remained for half a minute before rising up into nearby tree. A brief view but nonetheless sufficient reward for our efforts. After an early start, and nearly five hours in the field, we had some very useful data for the Atlas and had seen some really nice birds, making the survey work a pleasurable way of spending Sunday morning

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