Sharp eyes for feathered friends

Year of Birds at Longshaw: Jenny Gerrans from Longshaw with volunteer Megan Carroll (left) looking for birds around the visitor centre
Year of Birds at Longshaw: Jenny Gerrans from Longshaw with volunteer Megan Carroll (left) looking for birds around the visitor centre

Why the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds knows its annual weekend bird count will reveal useful data about the nation’s changing populations

On a day when half a million Britons were carefully logging an estimated seven million British birds on their smartphones and notepads, the bird feeders and woods of Longshaw were strangely quiet.

Year of Birds at Longshaw: Andrew Carmichael  and Emily Irving-Witt looking for birds on the moors

Year of Birds at Longshaw: Andrew Carmichael and Emily Irving-Witt looking for birds on the moors

“Have yer seen anything?” asked an elderly Derbyshireman, as ornithologist Andrew Carmichael and his telescope led a party of 15 birdwatchers onto the moors.

“Not yet,” said Andrew, cheerfully. “Have you seen anything?” The man paused and looked at the surrounding landscape for several seconds.

“No,” he said, adding a forlorn ‘good luck’, as he ambled away towards the empty snow-capped heather.

Birds, as any birdwatcher will tell you, rarely perform to order. But with so many people taking part, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds knows that its annual weekend bird count will reveal useful data about the nation’s changing bird populations.

“The Big Garden Birdwatch is brilliant,” said Jenny Gerrans, National Trust visitor experience officer based at Longshaw. “It gathers so much data from all over the country, and can involve all different generations.”

Longshaw visitor centre has long been an attraction to birdwatchers, with feeders scattered among the yew trees attracting non-standard garden visitors including long-tailed tits, goldfinches, jackdaws, brambling, and a great spotted woodpecker last weekend (eventually).

Last Saturday was the launch of the Longshaw Year of Birds overseen by National Trust volunteer Megan Carroll.

“We regularly get people sitting with their binoculars watching the birds on our feeders in front of this amazing view,” said Megan, “but the idea of the project is to say birds are not just fun and beautiful, we want people to be mindful about birds.”

The resident bramblings and redpolls have often travelled to Longshaw from Scandinavia or Russia, for example, and the increase in great spotted woodpeckers on the nation’s bird feeders could be due to them colonising a new habitat as our woodlands decline, Megan said.

The year will focus especially on two Longshaw birds quite rare in other areas, which should arrive in early spring: the pied flycatcher, which likes the ancient woodland of Padley Gorge, and the ring ouzel, which nests on the rocks, ledges and moorland of Burbage.

Late in March, Longshaw rangers unbung up to 100 pied flycatcher residences. After the flycatcher families left for Africa last August, each south-facing nest box was boarded up with a wooden bung to prevent unwanted blue tit squatters.

“Pied flycatchers are a specialist, picky bird,” said Megan, but they’re usually delighted to move into their Padley social housing project once the doors are open.

Ring ouzels are less discriminating, and build their nests on rocks and ledges, but they’re not keen on noisy neighbours, said Jenny.

“We want climbers and anyone using the edges and moors to look out for ring ouzels from March into the summer, and keep away from their nests.”

The bird, like a blackbird with a white collar, is often found in pairs, who will ‘shout at you’”, said Jenny if you get too close.

Andrew Carmichael helpfully turned up the ring ouzel alarm call on his smartphone: imagine someone twanging an elastic band in increasing desperation.

People should also look after their pets when in ring ouzel territory. “Dogs off their leads will disturb the nests and eat the chicks,” Jenny said.

The Longshaw Year of Birds will include bird ringing demonstrations, lectures and walks such as Andrew Carmichael’s last Saturday, which despite the quiet start, finally unearthed “redwings, mistle thrushes, goldcrests and a bonus pair of red deer,” said Megan.

The Garden Birdwatch data will show a mixed picture of growth and decline, said Andrew, noting that although we may be doing all we can to help our birdlife, falling numbers of some birds might be influenced by factors in Africa, Scandinavia or anywhere on their route to the UK.

“The variety at Longshaw is usually very good, we can get 40-50 species on a summer walk,” he said. But perhaps not on a designated birdwatching day under the grey skies of January. We had a golden oriole here a few years ago,” he said wistfully.

Visit Longshaw Burbage and the Eastern Moors for more information.