This morning I was up at 5.30 to do my breeding-bird survey (BBS) for the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).
Unfortunately my allotted square is about 15 miles away, not within walking distance. It seems sacrilege to start the car engine and pollute the pure morning air which is so fresh and still. Today I was rewarded by seeing a barn owl just after I left home, flying slowly ahead of me and then perching on a branch to peer down at me.
I arrived at Prestwood, near Great Missenden in Bucks at 6.10 am (the radio had just announced that it was International Dawn Chorus Day, which seemed appropriate, and that from tomorrow, 6 May, there will be a daily ‘tweet of the day‘ at 6am, also appropriate).
The aim of the BBS (which I call my ‘early-bird survey’) is to monitor changes in bird numbers and to keep track of breeding populations, over a long period. The same person walks the same route twice a year (early April to mid May and mid May to late June) recording every bird they see or hear, and also how far away the bird is (within 25 metres, between 25 and 100 metres, and more than 100 metres). The route consists of two parallel transects across a one-kilometre grid square, each divided into five segments. I have been surveying my square since 2007.
My survey starts in a beechwood, Peterley Wood, where the young leaves are just coming out. As I stand there at 6.20am ready to start, I am bombarded from all directions by birdsong, and the sounds echo through the wood. So it’s very difficult to identify individual birds and then work out how far away they are. I do my best but always feel inadequate. Robins, blackbirds, wrens, chaffinches and tits all singing for England.
It’s quite a relief to get to the next segment, a path with gardens on the left and a grass field on the right. Most of the song now comes from the gardens.
I reach the road and walk through the pub garden. I always wonder what the inhabitants must think if they look out and see me staring at them through binoculars. I was once asked if I was a Russian spy!
I cross the pub garden where fat rabbits graze, and then I’m in the fields where the landscape opens out.
I come to the end of my transect and then cross fields to start the second one. Annoyingly, it’s during the transition that I see the only blackcap of the day; I can’t count him for this survey but I can record him on BTO’s birdtrack.
On the return trip I take in another wood, some parkland …
… and a graveyard, where wrens, robins and blackbirds sing.
I cross back over the road into another wood where a thrush is singing so loudly and demandingly it’s hard to block him out and concentrate on the tits whispering in the trees. One needs to develop a good filtering system.
And then I’m back in the beechwood and although it’s over an hour later the birdsong on the edge of the wood is still stupendous: blackbirds, great tits, robins—again it’s hard to judge how far away they are. I can only do my best.
And when I come back in June for the second survey, the woods will be looking quite different, and the birdsong will have subsided.