Some Thoughts on My 2013 BTO Breeding Bird Survey Visits

The BTO’s Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) is a corking survey to take part in. On a national scale, you’re making an invaluable contribution to the tracking of the fortunes of our breeding birds, which in turn informs conservation efforts. On a more local level, taking part also provides you with a ready-made 1km square ‘patch’. And it doesn’t matter if, as I do, you only count the birds on this ‘patch’ twice a year for BBS – if you conduct your survey over a period of a few years, it really does give you an insight into how your square’s bird populations are faring.

I cover 2 BBS squares. ST1995 is a rural area near Mynyddislwyn, not far from Pontllanfraith. It is largely made up of farmland with a small number of houses. ST1580 is a heavily populated area of Cardiff spanning areas of both Whitchurch and Rhiwbina, with plenty of gardens and two parks.

Common Redstart (Jeff Slocombe): bred in ST1995 in 2013
Redstart (Jeff Slocombe):  bred in ST1995 in 2013


I have been surveying this square for BBS since 1998, and 2013 was a slightly better season than of late. I recorded a new record total of 38 species (the average is around 34 sp). But, BBS isn’t about the number of different species recorded every year – it’s about the numbers of the birds of each species present year on year.  Here are 2013’s ‘headlines’:

  • Highest ever count of Blue Tits – didn’t expect that!
  • Robins back up to their highest ever levels in 2013.
  • Redstart – bred this year after only being recorded for the first time in 2012.
  • Chaffinches have been on the increase over the last few years.
  • Good to see Starling numbers building up slightly this year (although they’re significantly down on 1998).
  • After a period of decline, Jackdaws were up considerably.
  • Chiffchaffs slightly down this year but, on the whole, appear to be on the increase.
  • Goldfinches – down after a couple of strong years in 2011-12.
  • Blackcaps down from a recent average of 5 singing males to only 2 this year.
  • Greenfinches, after a much better year in 2012, down again in 2013 and significantly down on 1998.
  • Surprisingly, Carrion Crow, Magpies & Woodpigeons were all considerably down in 2013.
Whitethroat (Jeff Slocombe): recorded in ST1580 during BBS for the first time in 2013
Common Whitethroat (Jeff Slocombe): recorded in ST1580 during BBS for the first time in 2013


This square has been surveyed regularly since 2003 and I took over from the previous volunteer in 2009. In 2013, it followed a similar pattern to ST1995: it was a slightly better season than usual; I recorded a new record number of species for the square – a total of 32 (average number is c. 24sp) and both Jay and Common Whitethroat were recorded for the first time. Here’s a quick summary of this square’s headlines from 2013:

  • Delighted to say that this year saw the highest ever total of Swift.
  • 2013 also saw the highest ever totals of Blue Tit, Blackbird, Robin and Dunnock.
  • Woodpigeon, Jackdaw and Carrion Crow, year on year, are definitely on the increase.
  • After being completely absent during the early years, Blackcaps have been recorded over the last three years.
  • Starlings up slightly this year – and a lot of juvs (not counted for BBS) around.
  • Wren numbers have declined since 2008.

Although you can’t draw any conclusions from comparing two BBS squares, it’s interesting to note the differences in the fortune of rural and urban/suburban Woodpigeons and Crows in both these squares.

Although it’s too late to register for BBS this year I’d urge you to consider taking part in 2014. In Wales, we need more squares covered so that we can begin to compile meaningful data for each species on a ‘Wales level’. Give it a go – satisfaction guaranteed!


BBS – A Tale of Two Squares

New recruit, Alex Pollard, sent us this account of her first two outings as a BBS surveyor.

I signed up to do 2 BBS this year – and at first I thought they would be hugely different. One is in Leckwith, Cardiff – with the Cardiff City Stadium in the middle of the square, and the other is in a semi-rural area near Machen.

Cardiff City Stadium – no, you can’t count Bluebirds on your BBS

After several mornings of setting my alarm at 5am to check the weather, I was rewarded with a fantastic sunny day for the “early BBS visit” having already done the habitat survey and route planning. The first thing I noticed was the chattering sparrows, songful starlings and foraging blackbirds in the residential street. The second was the amount of people out and about early on a Sunday morning! The second transect passed though the Capital Retail Centre car park – a mass of concrete and tarmac. Even so, a few species were present – pied wagtails, lesser black-backed gulls and jackdaws. In total, 25 species were seen – showing that even in built-up urban areas, there are a few birds around.

A couple of days later, I did the second BBS near Machen. On my recce visit I’d spotted a lesser whitethroat, but unfortunately he was hiding for the BBS! There were plenty of willow warblers, blackcaps and chiffchaff singing away. I also had 11 long-tailed tits performing their gymnastics and contact calling which was lovely to see.

Long-tailed Tit (Photo: Jeff Slocombe)
Long-tailed Tit (Photo: Jeff Slocombe)

I flushed a buzzard from her tree and several jays were particularly active. At one point I saw a mallard in a heap – I politely coughed to see if she was sleeping or dead – fortunately she was just asleep, so I could count her! Total number of species was 27, so a similar number to Leckwith. The best bit of this survey was meeting a very enthusiastic dog walker – she was so pleased to see someone doing a bird survey, she wanted to know more how she could get involved.

I’ll be visiting the sites soon for my next “late visit” and also for butterflies (,S1JI,3MU47V,29XIP,1) too. Can’t wait!

Counting Butterflies

In recent weeks a few butterflies have braved the elements, and taken to the wing. I’ve seen Brimstones, Speckled Woods and Orange-tips so far, but as the season marches on, more and more species will emerge, and thoughts turn towards the Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey, an ongoing project is a partnership between BTO, Butterfly Conservation and CEH.

Large Skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus) by rhonddawildlifediary, on Flickr
Large Skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus) by rhonddawildlifediary, on Flickr

Last year volunteers surveyed over 700 sites for the , including 276 Breeding Bird Survey squares, and recorded over 67,000 butterflies of 45 species.

Read about the 2011 findings or, if you are a BBS volunteer, find out how to take part on your own BBS square.

Breeding Bird Survey – Because It’s Worth It!

It’s what makes dragging yourself out of bed on a cold, grey East Glamorgan ‘spring’ morning worthwhile – a new ‘tick’ on your Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) square.

When I looked out of the window today at 6am the weather didn’t look that promising for a nice morning’s surveying/birding at ST1995, my 1km BBS square near Pontllanfraith.  I have to admit that I hummed and aah-ed whether to go at all. I’m glad I did.

The view from my bedroom this morning
The view from my bedroom this morning

The habitat in ST1995 is typical lowland agricultural countryside – fields of improved grassland on which sheep, cattle and horses graze. There are plenty of hedgerows with tall trees, some small copses as well as a farmhouse and a few houses with gardens. I’ve been surveying this square for BBS since 1998 and I’ve grown very fond of it.

BBS involves only 3 visits a year to your square. The first to note down the habitat – much easier than it sounds – and two visits to record the species you see there. Today’s was the ‘early visit’ which has to be completed by the middle of May. The ‘late visit’ is made between mid-May and the end of June.

Despite today’s cold and overcast conditions I’m glad to say that there appeared to be far more small birds in the square this morning than there have been over the last couple of years. No doubt this is the result of the mild winter we’ve just had here in the UK. I recorded a total of 31 species:

Buzzard (1), Lesser Black-backed Gull (1), Woodpigeon (8), Swift (1), Swallow (1), Pied Wagtail (1), Wren (9), Dunnock (5), Robin (18), Redstart (1), Wheatear (1), Blackbird (28), Song Thrush (2), Blackcap (6), Chiffchaff (6), Willow Warbler (4), Long-tailed Tit (1), Coal Tit (6), Blue Tit (18), Great Tit (13), Jay (1), Magpie (8), Jackdaw (12), Carrion Crow (15), House Sparrow (14), Chaffinch (13), Greenfinch (4), Goldfinch (10), Siskin (2), Linnet   (6), Bullfinch (2).

Redstart (Photo: Jeff Slocombe)
Redstart (Photo: Jeff Slocombe)

Star of the show was a male Common Redstart, the first I’ve ever seen in ST1995 and it brings my square total up to 55 species. Better still, it may not have been a passage migrant as there’s just enough of the right habitat in the square for it to breed. The Wheatear was also a nice surprise – it’s only the third one I’ve ever seen there since 1998, and the first since 2003.

Both nice birds, but admittedly, they wouldn’t usually set the pulse racing when out birding in Glamorgan. But, seeing species like these on your BBS square is a different matter altogether. By doing this survey, you’re not only contributing vital data which helps the BTO map the fortunes of UK birds, you’re getting your own new ‘patch’.

If you don’t already have a ‘square’ I’d heartily recommend getting one. It’ll add a new dimension to your birding.

Volunteers Sign-up for BBS

An enjoyable joint east and west Glamorgan BBS Training Day took place at Kenfig National Nature Reserve on 18 March.  Eleven volunteers were introduced to the BBS (Breeding Bird Survey), its background and methodology.  A couple of sessions on the reserve, demonstrated the practical aspects of plotting transect routes and recording birds and habitat along them.

Volunteers at the Glamorgan BBS Training Day, Kenfig NNR
Volunteers at the Glamorgan BBS Training Day, Kenfig NNR

Thanks go to Kenfig NNR for hosting our event, and of course, all our volunteers for contributing to its success and signing up for their 1km squares to survey.

It’s not too late to take part this year if you are interested – we have a few squares available.  More details about local BBS can be found, or contact:

Wayne Morris
 h: 01443 430284
m: 07890 528926

BBS Training Day

The Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) is the most important national monitoring scheme in the UK.  Since 1994 it has been the means by which we monitor populations of most of our common birds, and establishes bird population trends for the UK.  The trends are published in the annual BBS report.

Goldfinch by Sergey Yeliseev, on Flickr
Goldfinch by Sergey Yeliseev, on Flickr

The survey is designed to be a simple and enjoyable birdwatching exercise.  Volunteers make just three visits to randomly-located 1-km squares, the first to record habitat and to set up a suitable survey route, and the second and third to record birds that are seen or heard while walking along the route.

A training event for those interested in participating in BBS is being held this spring.  We’ll be offering an introduction to BBS, and provide both classroom and field instruction on the methods used.

The course is free and open to all, and though you don’t need to be a world-class birder to take part, you should be able to identify common birds by sight and sound.  We are especially keen to welcome Atlas volunteers who wish to continue BTO survey work.


Kenfig National Nature Reserve (map)
Sunday 18 March

Bring binoculars, boots or wellingtons and a packed lunch

09:30 – Welcome
09:45 – Introduction to BBS
10:00 – Field recording methodology
10:30 – Tea and coffee
10:45 – Field recording
11:45 – Compiling and discussing results
12:15 – Lunch
13:00 – Habitat recording methodology
13:15 – Habitat recording
14:00 – Compiling and discussing results
14:30 – Summing up
15:00 – Close

Please complete the form below if you’d like to attend, or contact Wayne if you’d like to know more:

BBS 2010 Published

BBS 2010 The annual report of the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) has been published for 2010, and as ever it makes interesting reading.

In Wales, Skylarks, Starlings and Meadow Pipits have fallen to their lowest levels since the survey began.  Positive news is available though.   Stonechats recovered from the harsh winter of 2009, and Redstarts, Blackcaps and House Sparrows have seen their biggest increases since recording began.

Indeed, House Sparrows are bucking the UK trend of decline by showing an 87% increase since 1994.  Now we need to find out why?

Risely, K., Renwick, A.R., Dadam, D., Eaton, M.A., Johnston, A., Baillie, S.R., Musgrove, A.J. & Noble, D.G. (2011) The Breeding Bird Survey 2010. BTO Research Report 597. British Trust for Ornithology, Thetford.