Thursday, 28 May 2009

A bird in the bush

I’ve been out nesting a few times over recent weeks, squeezing in visits on those days when the sun has shone and the wind has stilled. This is not the sort of nesting to be confused with that of uncaring individuals who, with criminal intent, seek out nesting birds to steal their eggs, robbing the potential of a future generation for the sake of a collection arranged like stamps. Instead it is the collation of information invaluable to nature conservation and part of a national scheme.

My trips out have been in the company of nest recorders participating in the British Trust for Ornithology’s Nest Record Scheme. Experts in finding nests (though always learning, so they say), my guides have shown me how to find the carefully hidden nests of warblers, finches and thrushes. It has been a tremendous privilege and I feel that I am developing a skill that I will be able to put to good use in future years, sending in my own contributions to the scheme.

Nest finding involves a range of different approaches, a combination of skills that come together to reveal a hidden nest. One of the most often deployed of these skills is cold searching an area in which the species of interest has set up its territory. This involves a careful and steady search of each bramble bush or nettle bed, looking for the nest, while at the same time minimising the amount of disturbance. Ideally the nest will be found at an early stage, while the birds are still building. Its position can then be noted and a return visit planned for when the birds have started laying their eggs. Several more visits follow, carefully spaced to provide the maximum amount of information with the minimum of intrusion. Each visit contributes to a bigger picture, providing information on how many eggs were laid, how many of these hatched and how many chicks survived through to fledging. Visits can also reveal if a nest has been predated, at what stage and, sometimes, by what sort of predator.

Collectively, the information from many hundreds of nest recorders, delivers a powerful overview of how a species is faring, addressing the question of whether or not it has had a good breeding season and, importantly, alerting Government and the conservation agencies to any sudden declines in breeding success that might signal a wider problem. Nest recording is one of those skills that is being lost, the generation of practitioners an ageing one and with few youngsters coming in to replace those lost to old age. Efforts are being made to engage with a new generation of nest recorders and I hope to be one of them.

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