Saturday 20 October 2012

Counting canal birds, Linlithgow to Philpstoun, for BTO

Every month I do a bird count along the Union Canal from the canal basin (it has a cafe!) near my home in Linlithgow to the old shale bings just east of Philpstoun. It's voluntary, as part of the BTO's Wetland Bird Survey scheme (WeBS). As close as possible to a specified date each month volunteers across the UK go out individually or in groups to count all non-breeding waterbirds in their designated patch. 

The data is the main source used in assessing the conservation needs of these birds' populations and habitats so it's important that counts are scientific. You have to stick to the same way of counting each time. My rule is that I count all waterbirds on or obviously using the canal and/or one field-width on either side of it. I start my count at roughly the same hour each time - first thing in the morning is best as birds are actively feeding to replenish energy lost in the cold of the night. If weather is particularly wet or foggy or icy that gets documented as it may lower the numbers of birds seen.

Being a WeBS volunteer also gives an excuse to get out -not that one should be needed- and regularly explore an area. There's a lot to be said for getting to know your local locations. You start to notice much more than on one-off visits. I now know for instance that if I walk the towpath to fields five minutes east of my house I'll almost always see yellowhammers - the males with their stunningly bright canary-yellow chestnut-streaked heads. Remember their call by the mnemonic 'little bit of bread and no cheeeeeese'. 

A kilometre further and there will be tree sparrows in and on the hedgerows and garden feeders at Park Farm - brown-capped birds with males and females identical unlike their house sparrow cousins. In spring and summer the wires above the popular Park Farm Bistro are laden with swallows and martins. A quarter of a kilometre further is the flood field - the name tells it! I see gulls here, mallards, often curlew and lapwings. Sometimes oystercatchers and widgeon and on recent counts I've watched beautiful little snipe probing the damp soil around the edges of the flood, unbelievably well camouflaged even once I've spotted them through my 10x magnification binoculars.

When I get home I record my waterbird sightings on the BTO website and write up the walk for my own interest. I make a list of every bird species I saw on my count, not just the WeBS ones. It's really interesting to look back on my records from the past few years.

Anyway, I thought I'd start including my monthly write-up on my blog. So, welcome now to canal count number one.........

WeBS Count, Union Canal, Linlithgow to Philpstoun, Sunday 16th September 2012

Started 8.40am. 
Breakfasted at flood field, 9.30am - 10am ish. 
Turnaround at Philpstoun Bings 10.50am. 
Finished 12.15pm.

A beautiful morning. Gently breezy. Not cold. Mists over fields and low winter sun through some cloud cover. A good day, especially after large amounts of rain in recent weeks and a very large amount in the past in couple of days.

All this precipitation definitely affected this month's count - the often slightly flooded field was very very flooded indeed, stretching tens of metres into the adjoining field. On and immediately around the flood I saw:

waterbirds: (these can be included in my WeBS count)
mallard - 43
oystercatcher - 5
goosander - 1
lapwing - 10
curlew - 6
widgeon - 25
black headed gull - 130
common gull - 2

These numbers are massive compared to most months. Keep reading my future reports - you'll see!

other birds making use of the flood field:
swallow - 4
pied wagtail

As I normally do, I ate my breakfast pot of cereals and sunflower seeds on a stone wall overlooking the flood field. I love this spot. I love the time spent sitting and watching, having already counted the birds on the water. I often spot more once I'm sitting quiet. I couldn't find any snipe this time but felt sure they were there. They're small and tentative and almost impossible to see even when you know to look. Their head and back is streaked with the browns and tans of an autumn woodland, their beak is a long dark screwdriver, probing for worms. Once as I sat here a great-spotted woodpecker alighted on a dead tree across the canal beside the allotments, started drumming the wood in courtship or in search of insects.

Total count for the morning:

Water birds:
moorhen - 5
mallard - 48
oystercatcher - 5
goosander -3
lapwing - 10
curlew - 6
widgeon - 25
mute swan - 4  
cormorant - 1

black-headed gull – 132
common gull - 2
herring gull - 9

The swans were interesting - On my August count I'd met members of the Lothians & Fife Swan Study Group where the towpath passes behind the houses at Philpstoun. They were ringing two adult swans and I was able to watch. Amazing to be so close to such powerful elegant birds. The swans I saw today were the same, with their two surviving cygnets. Three of the four birds had coloured rings on their left leg - the adult male green with white lettering NVP, the adult female green with white lettering NVS. The larger juvenile with light green leg ring with black lettering PCF. The smaller cygnet hasn't yet been ringed - it's underdeveloped and may not survive to adulthood. If it does it'll be ringed too. 

Anyone can look for swan leg rings. The rings are bright and the lettering easy to read without disturbing the birds, particularly if you have binoculars or can take a photo on your camera. Note the colour and letters, plus time, location and any other potentially useful info and send to the group through this link.
If you notice other ringed birds and can get a photo or accurate ring reading you should send in the data here.

The cormorant was interesting too – I rarely see them on the canal. This one was by the beaver tree - the imagined beavers of my childhood that is. 'The beaver tree' was a top excursion spot just a ten minute walk from our house. Mum would wrap up snacks for Roan and I in Dick Whittington bags of tea towel hung on bamboo-stick and carried over our shoulder. We'd walk like this along the towpath to excitedly search for beavers before continuing to the remains of an old bridge where we'd clamber up and sit looking over field and canal. Munching on chocolate crispy cakes or chocolate biscuit slab and half-apples and chunks of cheese. In summer to autumn there were blackberries atop the wall beside us.

All other birds seen on the walk were:
blue tit
long-tailed tit
great tit
bullfinch (heard only)
house sparrow
tree sparrow
redwing (1 – just east of Philpstoun. The first I've seen this year.)
wood pigeon
collared dove
swallow (6 – this surprised me, shouldn't they all be headed south by now?)
siskin (1 – feeding on canal-side seedheads at west-end of Philpstoun)
treecreeper (1 – seemingly accompanying a flock of long-tailed, blue & great tits -does this happen??- in the shadow of the Philpstoun bings, at my turnaround point)
linnet or twite or redpoll or...??? ( I must try to learn these birds. Flitting to and fro around, and perching on, telegraph wires across the first fields east of Linlithgow. Mingling with yellowhammers, goldfinches, greenfinches and chaffinches.)

And one more canal sighting, an hour and a half after I'd finished my count, as I was walking from station to house having met mum on the platform to receive a chunk of home-made apple cake as she passed through from her printmaking in Dunfermline (and here). A sparkling kingfisher... Definitely a WeBS-worthy bird! Sadly too late for my count - got to stick to the rules. It buzzed out from overhanging bushes opposite the ramped path down to St Magdalenes and whirred away along the water in the direction of our house. Exactly the same spot that I watched one perching for five or ten minutes on 28th August early this year.

If you've got this far you'll see that this posting is mostly text. I don't normally take camera or sketchbook on my count, I'd get too distracted. The purpose of the morning is to count. I'm including my notes from the walk though, this time on the back of a tea box. See if you can make sense of them! Also a one-minute sketch of two jackdaws that looked particularly poetic as they perched on a squinty chimney pot on the old house at Philpstoun. Perhaps it'll become a little painting one-day.  

WeBS count sheet, 16th September 2012

jackdaws at Philpstoun, biro on tea box, 16th September 2012

1 comment:

  1. Hi Leo,

    Yes in winter treecreepers will join groups of other tits and goldcrests. The groups will flit through the woods.