Saturday, October 01, 2016

Spring Part 4 - the Cotswolds

My parents' place in Ascott-under-Wychwood, in the Cotswolds outside Oxford, sits on the edge of British agricultural land that might have come from central casting. A large field behind carries  sprawling crops of rape, wheat or, occasionally, peas from year to year, in a pattern that is repeated across the surrounding hills. A modicum of sheep farming breaks up the arable land on the slopes opposite, and there's a fair spread of reasonably well-maintained hedgerows and game covers, and even a few copses, dividing the fields from one another. A Constable-esque river, the Evenlode, meanders peacefully through it all. There are bucolic pubs in the surrounding villages. It's about as quintessential an English country scene as you can imagine.

A fine old oak tree in one of the fields on the far side of the river from the house
Anyone who reads about birds in the UK will know that this kind of countryside is in deep trouble. Dad has been recording birds in the small area around the house for more than 20 years and some of the problems that bird populations are encountering in this environment have been obvious even on this micro-level. In the year Mum and Dad moved to Ascott, there were Grey Partridges (Perdix perdix) in the field behind the house, their covey visible as a grey smudge against the white of frost on winter mornings. I haven't seen a Grey Partridge in England for 10 years or more, and it would be inconceivable to expect one near the house these days. Hirundines too have declined dramatically around the village. House Martins (Delichon urbicum) stopped nesting anywhere near the house some 5 or more years ago. Tree Sparrows (Passer montanus) used to visit in the winter and early Spring. But not recently. And both Marsh Tits (Parus palustris) and Willow Tits (Parus montanus) came to the garden occasionally until around the mid-noughties, but have not been seen since.

These observations, coupled with the relentless drip-feeding of ghastly statistics on declining farmland and migratory birds, can be a cause almost of despair. Three years without a Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) in the village, and you begin to think they'll never come again.

The fishermen's pond, with scrub behind which used to house an annual calling cuckoo.
I'd had a good Spring, to date, when I visited Mum and Dad's house with my son in early May, but I wasn't expecting things to get any better, birding-wise, during the course of that visit. British agricultural land has become an ornithological desert, hasn't it?

We were lucky with the weather, which allowed us, unlike previous visits, to get out and about and look and listen for the birds for whatever birds might be there. It was well into Spring when we were there - the end of the first week of May - so if I was going to see or hear anything out of the ordinary, now was the time.

Not out of the ordinary. A Blackbird (Turdus merula) with Cowslips behind.
First let's talk about some generalised good news, namely birds whose numbers have increased, and in some cases gone through the roof, against what seems the overall trend; Stock Doves (Columba oenas) are now regular garden visitors in Ascott, though I'm sure that wasn't the case twenty years ago, the same applying to Reed Buntings (Emberiza schoeniclus). And it goes without saying that Little Egrets (Egretta garzetta) - two of which I saw by the River on 5 May - Red Kites (Milvus milvus) - one of which overflew the village on 6 May - and Ravens (Corvus corax) - which I saw in the field behind the house on two successive days, would have been inconceivable rarities then. Finally, Goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis), which now also appear in the garden almost every day have more than doubled in numbers in the UK over the past twenty years and are now regular, to my astonishment, in central London. I've seen them off Portobello Road.

Next, the middle ground, namely birds that have generally held their own, again against the overall trend. There was a fine male Pied Wagtail (Motacilla abla yarrellii) holding territory near the remains of the motte-and-bailey castle on 6 May. And there was a gorgeous pair of Bullfinches (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) near the railway crossing on the same day.

And now the surprises. Such is the relentless slough of bad news over migratory birds such as Turtle Doves (Streptopelia turtur), Cuckoos and House Martins, that it comes almost as a shock to find healthy numbers of any long-distance migrant. But at least three Sedge Warblers (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus) were singing around the fishermen's pond on 8 May, and three Whitethroats (Sylvia communis) were holding territory in hedgerows around the village the same day. I heard a single Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus) calling, and there were plenty of Blackcaps (Sylvia atricapilla) and Chiffchaffs (Phylloscopus collybita) as well. There were singing Skylarks (Alauda arvensis) too. This was a soundtrack of my childhood, growing up near Canterbury, and there were at least three pairs holding territory around us on this visit. Far fewer than I would have heard as a boy, but more than I had expected, and far better than none at all.

A singing Sedge Warbler.
There were genuine surprises too. Good ones. I don't remember having seen Linnets (Carduelis cannabina) near the house for years, and neither does Dad, but there were six on the far side of the river on 6 May, and at least four on 8 May. Not bad. Yellowhammers (Emberiza citrinella) have declined by 25% across England since 1995, and that's been noticeable near us too. But there were at least six birds when we walked along a short section of the Oxfordshire Way on 8 May and a pair along the lane near the house to boot.

Best of all were two birds that I feared I'd never see or hear again in the village and which really have suffered huge declines across the country. Spotted Flycarchers (Muscicapa striata) are down by 61% on their numbers of two decades ago. But there was one, against the odds, near a footbridge over the river on 7 May. And, yes, there was a Cuckoo - a bird whose numbers have dropped by 68% over the same period, and whose call had been absent from the village for at least three years - calling over two successive days from the shrub by the fisherman's pond.

Of course all of this may just be the confounding of low expectations but, no, the British countryside has not become a birding desert, and nor is it likely to, despite our unconscious best efforts. Cities provide lesson enough that the worst can't be true all the time. The Cuckoos are still out there; fewer in number, more thinly-spread, struggling against greater odds than they were in the past, but battling through each year nonetheless. Despair is not going to help them.

For a statistical assessment of bird population trends in the UK, without the histrionics, see the British Trust for Ornithology's Breeding Birds Survey results.

Unsurprisingly, not a desert.

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