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Why counting wetland birds is ‘sum’ challenge...

PUBLISHED: 12:32 21 February 2018

Conducting the Wetland Birds Survey. Picture: Adam Pimble

Conducting the Wetland Birds Survey. Picture: Adam Pimble

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Wetland birds are counting on us, says Robert Morgan of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust.

A rare treat: Smew (Mergellus albellus) in the foreground.A rare treat: Smew (Mergellus albellus) in the foreground.

The trouble with birds is they don’t stay still; their ability to fly, swim, dive and form constantly moving flocks seems a punishment meted out to those of us tasked with counting them. Add to this, standing in a bobbing boat facing a biting north-easterly wind, streaming eyes, chilled hands and dew-drop nose; it often feels more like an endurance sport than bird-watching.

Despite these occasional discomforts, one designated Sunday every month Norfolk Wildlife Trust staff and volunteers carry out a tradition that runs back more than 70 years. The Wetland Birds Survey is a nationwide count carried out by both individuals and wildlife conservation bodies on the same day across over 2,000 sites. In the Broads all the main NWT reserves are covered. Our team visits Barton and Cockshoot Broads, ending the day at Ranworth Broad; leaving shortly after sunset having witnessed the impressive numbers of cormorants and gulls dropping in to roost.

After the Second World War (and the lifting of security around reservoirs and coastal areas) many amateur bird watchers, understandably desiring the tranquillity of the countryside, took up their hobby again. Many, anecdotally, concluded that wildfowl numbers had dropped sharply. This prompted in 1947 a government-funded scheme run by the British section of the International Wildfowl Research Institute based at the Natural History Museum. It was tasked with surveying a number of waterbodies in the London and Birmingham area. Carried out overwhelmingly by an army of volunteers, the scheme continued to grow from strength to strength.

By the winter of 1951-52 the National Wildfowl Count (NWC) had risen to more than 500 census sites. At this time the NWC was jointly run by The Wildfowl Trust and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and continued to focus on ducks and geese. During the 1960s, development pressure on our larger estuaries grew. There were proposals for tidal barriers, barrages, marinas and even an airport in the Thames Estuary on Maplin sands; this idea raised its head again with the now-infamous ‘Boris Island’.

In 1969 the Birds of Estuaries Enquiry was launched, focusing on birds that relied on our mudflats, it of course widened to include wading birds. Although it was understood that a great number of waders passed through or wintered on our estuarine mudflats, it was this study that highlighted, on a global scale, their importance to so many species. What was viewed as ‘just mud’ was now being seen as a special and irreplaceable habitat.

In 1993 an integrated scheme managed by the BTO was launched. The Wetland Bird Survey, commonly referred to as ‘WeBs’, not only included ducks, geese and waders, but also divers, grebes, herons, gulls, terns and any other bird that choses to hang-out in wet places. The gathering of this hard data is the backbone of the science that is essential when influencing decision makers concerning wildlife protection. It is more often than not collected by a volunteer with the obligatory stumpy pencil and scrappy note-book, staring out at a near-empty lake; two mallards of questionable heritage bobbing between wind-induced waves, teasing a short-lived twitch from the freezing bird watcher (a nil result is still important data).

With perseverance comes pleasure, there is of course the satisfactory knowledge that one is adding to our understanding of wetland birds and their protection.

Just as importantly, the WeBs survey has led to so many personal and wonderful wildlife experiences, otters and kingfishers of course; but the beauty of a whooper swan flock, pure white like clean sheets, stretched out against a lead grey December sky is stunning, or thousands of wild geese whiffling through the air to land on a sodden marsh. Then there is the rarity, a precious jewel sparkling among the gadwall and teal, a male smew! A reward for the hardy during the inevitable spell of Arctic weather that brought it here. So yes, wetland birds are counting on us.

If you are interested in volunteering for Norfolk Wildlife Trust have a look at the website www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk/volunteer and get in touch. Robert Morgan is Assistant Reserves Manager (Broads South).

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