Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Nesting course

The Hindhead Commons in the Surrey Hills are where I cut my teeth as a young naturalist. This weekend I am back here, helping to lead one of the BTO's Nest Recording Courses. The courses provide the opportunity for people to develop or refine the skills needed to find and monitor bird nests for this key scheme providing information on breeding success and productivity.

Scrubby heathland can be a hot, dusty and difficult place to work but it holds some very special birds, including Tree Pipit and Woodlark. These two species can be a challenge for the nest recorder, wary around the nest and usually nesting in wide areas of uniform habitat. This means watching from a distance when off-nest birds return (visits to the nest can be 40 minutes or more apart, even when feeding chicks) in the hope of pinning down the nest location.

Woodlark nesting habitat in Surrey
With the Woodlark listed as a protected species we are operating under a Schedule 1 licence. The nest itself is placed on the ground, often in heather or other low vegetation, and it is essential to watch where you put your feet and to make sure that you do not damage the vegetation as you move around. The Woodlark pair that we are watching a feeding under the shade of a solitary tree, taking their time and giving no indication that they might have young in a nearby nest. Finally, after just under an hour of patient watching, they take to the air and head a hundred metres east, the lead bird (invariably the female) dropping down into a patch of light vegetation. Over the next 10 minutes we watch her walk towards what we hope will be the nest, though she often disappears from the sight. The important thing is that she is carrying food, as is her mate who has also landed nearby.

There is a crucial moment where she reappears from behind a tussock without the food she was carrying, a decent indication that she has visited a nest and fed chicks. We give it a few more moments and then walk towards the point. One of the difficulties of watching birds back is that distances are foreshortened and two tussocks which might seem close together turn out to be many feet apart. With Tony watching for a different angle, we are able to narrow the search down to a few feet of heather. Even so, the nest is well hidden (see below).

Woodlark nest - can't you see it?
 It is then a case of carefully working through the vegetation to reveal the nest itself and the young Woodlarks within. You would think that the adults would have to make visits more frequently, but such is the abundance of prey in this good weather that a few early morning feeds have packed in plenty of food and the adults can now be more laid back in their approach. These young a too young to ring but Tony will return in a few days.

Woodlark nest with young

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