Big Farmland Bird Count on the Old Land at Lark Rise Farm by Vince Lea

The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust have established a great scheme for farms to explore their winter bird populations, the Big Farmland Bird Count. For details see http://www.gwct.org.uk/farming/big-farmland-bird-count

This takes place in the second week of February and only requires a half-hour count to get a representative picture of the birds on the farm, and because so many farmers across the country are taking part we can compare our farms against others.

I undertook the count on the ‘Old Land’ at Lark Rise farm, this comprises the first parcels of land which the Countryside Restoration Trust acquired in Barton, Cambridgeshire. The first thing I did was to visit the feeding station and bird hide where I topped up all the bird food to try to draw in as many birds as possible, with the intention of counting those at the end of my half-hour. I then set off to Telegraph Field, the first bit of land which the CRT bought back in 1994, and started the count here at precisely 9 am; I had half an hour to try to see as many birds as possible, the race was on!

The first birds to go in the notebook were Song Thrushes – two were singing lustily in the dense scrub along the Bourn Brook, followed by Woodpigeons, with about 40 loafing around in the top of the oak tree. Song Thrushes sometimes start singing in November, today they all seemed to be staking out their territories and it was really good to hear and see a total of 8 during the count. The Woodpigeons we would probably rather not have so many of as they consume a substantial proportion of the crops – especially Oilseed Rape – and are the most abundant farmland bird these days. The scrub held various common species such as Chaffinch, Robin, Blue Tit and Blackbird, and the winter visitor, Fieldfare. Nearby a Buzzard was sat on a fencepost hoping a small mammal might make a move in the meadow.

The brook had a pair of Mallards but with just a couple of minutes to explore a short stretch I was not able to find any other waterbirds such as Moorhen, Kingfisher or Heron which often frequent this area. A Kestrel was checking out a different patch of meadow for mammals but at this time of the day I had little hope of seeing any Barn Owls, despite going past one of the occupied nest boxes. It is difficult to select a suitable half-hour that will get every species logged but nonetheless a shame to not record this iconic species which is doing so well on our farm.

The willow trees along the brook held both Green and Great-spotted Woodpeckers, and another tree had a single singing Starling, probably hoping to borrow an old woodpecker home for his nest site later in the spring. The nearby hedges had a few Yellowhammers adding to the colour mix of the selection so far… by the time I left the brook meadows I had logged 20 species, with less than 10 minutes left.

Moving back towards the bird hide I covered the larger open fields, and was rewarded with the only Skylark of the count, one in full song. Most of our Skylarks spend the winter in flocks on stubble fields and it wasn’t possible to include one of these valuable patches of habitat in my count, but hopefully the volunteers who plan to survey the other parts of the farm will visit some of the good stubble fields at Lark Rise. The hedgerows here had Long-tailed Tits, and a Treecreeper in song in one of the larger hedgerow trees.

The bird hide and feeding station is in Warners Corner, our largest field, and one area of this field is dedicated to a large meadow – I tramped across this area to see if I could put up anything lurking in the long grass, and sure enough 3 Meadow Pipits came up. Sadly these seem to have stopped breeding here but are regular in winter. The meadow also held numerous Rooks and Jackdaws probing for invertebrates in the turf. As I approached the hide, a large swarm of birds rose up from the paddock behind – about 100, mainly Fieldfare with a good few Redwing mixed in. I guess a Sparrowhawk had just visited but I didn’t see it so it didn’t go on the list!

The final patch of habitat to check before I got to the hide was the small spinney, where quite often a Woodcock or two spend the day. I entered the area and fairly soon one popped up – they are impossible to spot on the ground until they take flight but once airborne are really distinctive with their short broad wings and long bill. A particular favourite of mine, though not quite so highly rated as the close relative the Snipe – often Snipe visit the large meadow but none seen today sadly.

I got to the bird hide quite hot after my 28 minute rapid hike round the land, and hoped the next couple of minutes would help boost my tally. Unfortunately the suspected Sparrowhawk visit was still having an effect, and birds were very wary and sparse. I added half a dozen Greenfinches as the last species, and a few more Yellowhammers and Chaffinches to the tally, but little else. By the time I had totted up the various counts and made a few notes, the birds were coming back and at 9:45 I finally saw a Reed Bunting – too late to add to the count! A Pied Wagtail also flew past as I got on my bike… grrr.

The most surprising absence from the count were any partridges – at this time of year Grey Partridges seem to be everywhere when I visit the farm, but not today. Likewise Bullfinches eluded me despite their relative regularity but it felt like a good representation in a short time. I look forward to receiving counts from other parts of Lark Rise Farm and the other CRT farms, as our team of volunteers makes its way across our properties – and I will carry out a count at our Norfolk property of Mayfields at the end of the week.

Table 1 below shows that of the 30 species seen during the half-hour count, 4 are on the Red List of species of high conservation concern, and 7 are on the Amber List of moderate concern. The remaining 19 species are either Green (least concern) or not listed. The commonest Red List species were Yellowhammer and Song Thrush, while Dunnockss and Stock Doves were the commonest Amber species, but generally rather few individuals of these categories were seen compared to the Green and non listed species such as Fieldfare, Woodpigeon and Rook. Giving the species a points score reflecting their conservation status produces a final score of 408 points.

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