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!


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.