Monday, 17 June 2013

My BBS survey: extreme birding

No, I didn't get a BTO Breeding Bird Survey square in the Scottish Highlands or the Outer Hebrides, I got one bang on the city of Hull, squeezed between the M63 and Hessle Road. After my local coordinator offered this square I looked at it from Google Maps and had no doubts as to why it was still remaining, unclaimed and unloved, as volunteers had already chosen more promising areas. A concrete-heavy, roaring urban jungle, with not even a park or leafy residential area, with a motorway and three linked roundabouts. Although it has got a tiny bit of Humber, and a small green area, the transects I was supposed to survey are in the most industrial and road heavy parts of the square, alongside a busy road and an industrial estate.
 Of course I didn't chicken out: this square was made for me. I have always enjoyed the challenge of finding wild things in the city, since I started birding daily in my local park in Spain. If any doubts were remaining this was also the square where I saw my first waxwings last year. I was set to go.
 I completed the early survey in April and the late survey today and can attest this has been quite extreme birding even for me. First, the noise levels are out of this world. I am quite used to birding by ear (and in town), but the heavy traffic of a busy road makes this very hard. I often had to stop and wait for a lull in the traffic to listen for the chirping of an out-of-view sparrow just a few meters away. Flight calls are tricky with this noise, was that a linnet that flew over, or another sparrow? you will never know if you can't hear them. I am sure there must be robins and dunnocks there, but they may have to remain unrecorded. Then, birding alongside a street restricts your view a lot. There is even a section lined with small trees so leafy that meant I could see or hear little.
 Walking along this busy street/road while carrying a large clipboard, checking the transect map printout every now and then to see when I had completed each of the transect sections, and filling the forms, while looking through binoculars checking roofs and buildings, with the camera on the side meant that I most likely looked a bit odd and completely out of place. Surprisingly, I had a single person asking if I was OK. I answered I was making a survey, with no details. My pen fell apart at some point, but fortunately I was able to find all the pieces and put it back together again. Next time I must remember to get a cord for the clipboard to be able to get the binoculars up without having to hold the clipboard between my knees, and a replacement pen!
 But what about the birds? The 'extreme' urban birding payed off indeed. On the unkempt corner of a car park, atop a whitebeam, a Whitethroat sung its raspy song and then burst on a flight song. Later, a flock of starlings flew over from the same supermarket car park where I saw the waxwings. Sparrows called from many derelict shop roofs. Twice, swifts flew past. Linnets fed on a patch of grass by a busy roundabout. To top it all, a pair of Herring Gulls sat proud on a chimney, where their nest and chicks were visible. I had never seen nesting Herring Gulls in the middle of Hull, that was my highlight of the day. I also saw many Lesser Black Back gulls and they must surely breed there too. Sure, the place was teeming with feral pigeons, but to clock 17 species in two visits does not seem bad at all for what I was expecting. And the riot of poppies by a street (photo above) was almost worth the whole trip.
 I plan to visit the square off survey season - possibly do the butterfly survey later in the summer. And I am sure I will be pleasantly surprised by the birds and everything else.
The vigilant Herring Hull parent over the barely visible chick between the stacks on the right.
The tiny chick (possibly a second one) is visible between the chimney stacks.
Lesser Black Back gull

The ever present horse and cart of the rag and bone man

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