Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Garden bird listing

Garden bird listing is a remarkably rewarding hobby and can even contribute to scientific research, e.g. through the BTO's "Garden Birdwatch" scheme and "Birdtrack" or the RSPB's "Big Garden Birdwatch". The results of systematic bird observation are often fascinating, revealing trends and occurrences one tends not to be aware of through casual observation. For example, some species which you may assume are common in your garden may disappear during the breeding season when they go elsewhere to breed, e.g. the Robin. This sort of observation can pass unnoticed unless you do make systematic records.

The following section describes the birds of the three UK gardens - a couple of "landlocked" suburban gardens, one in NE Scotland and one in SE England and our current garden in a housing estate near the coast in East Lothian. They include a total of over 100 species.

There are also two novelty entries - a "compound" list for my wife's family home in Festac Town, Lagos, Nigeria and a "yard" list for my brother-in-law's home in San Jose, California.

A Kincardineshire garden Annotated species list Log (map)

I have kept a garden bird list for species seen in or from my parent's garden in Banchory, Royal Deeside, Scotland, since about 1984, with most observations between 1985 and 1990. The list stands at 63 species and includes 4 migrant geese and duck species, 4 migrant waders and 9 finches/buntings (including Brambling, Yellowhammer and Reed Bunting). A stray Pheasant was a long way from adjacent farmland, as was a Cuckoo. Other interesting passerines included Common Whitethroat, Blackcap, Spotted Flycatcher and breeding Goldcrest, whilst Waxwing was a regular winter visitor and we even watched a flock perched outside our kitchen window drinking from the roof gutter.

A Hertfordshire garden Annotated species list Log (map)

I kept a garden list for our house in Garston, Watford, England from January 2000 until we moved out in August 2004, with the final total the final list being 65 species. Here many of the common birds in the Scottish garden were scarce or absent, e.g. no breeding Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush or Coal Tit. But this was compensated for by an abundance of House Sparrows and Starlings, and by a number of other species absent or rare in the Scottish garden. These included Skylark, which could be heard singing over the airfield to the north in spring, together with Lapwings there in winter, regular Linnets, Jays and woodpeckers. Other less frequent visitors have included Hobbys, Little Owl, Common Redstart, Brambling and Nuthatch, with overhead Cormorant, Canada and Greylag Goose, Mallard, Red Kite, Common Buzzard, Grey Wagtail and a small flock of Common Crossbills. Finally, there's Common Redshank and Sandwich Terns which were heard passing overhead at night.

The best record was a Serin, seen and heard flying over at 9.30am on Sunday 26 August 2001. This small continental finch species had only been recorded in Hertfordshire on three previous occasions. A male of the species, most likely the same bird, was seen in Watford town centre three days later.

A Lothian garden Annotated species list Log (Regional map)

In 2004 we moved to Longniddry, Lothian, and started yet another garden list! This garden should have good potential for interesting species, being within a mile of the coast (Gosford Bay), but the view out is unfortunately very limited. The best birds so far have been Whooper Swan, regular Peregrines, 13 species of wader including Ringed Plover, Grey Plover, Sanderling, Greenshank, Bar-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel and Common Sandpiper, 2 terns (Common & Sandwich), Waxwing, Grasshopper Warbler, Common Redpolls and regular migrant Common Crossbills. The total number of species recorded reached 85 in September 2008.

Bird records

Detailed records of the birds seen in each of these gardens can be found in some of the following linked documents.

Weekly records for all gardens

These spreadsheets contain the following information:

Weekly record sheets for both gardens (1985-1987 for Kincardineshire and 2001 to 2004 for Hertfordshire, 2004 to date for Lothian); these also give peak numbers of individuals observed on any one day or in any movement, and (2002 onwards) records of amount of food eaten and observation periods, and (2003 onwards) record of song heard (bold borders)
Watford year lists and target list for 100 species
Watford yearly comparison worksheet
Comparison tables between the species lists for the two gardens
Plots of weekly totals Records of other animals
Excel spreadsheet - c. 400kB

Garden log

Logs of more interesting records for each garden are:

Hertfordshire garden log (final update 6/8/04)
Kincardineshire garden log (updated 5/3/05)
Lothian garden log (updated daily, 2007)

BTO Garden Birdwatch

Birds recorded in the Hertfordshire garden according to the rules of the BTO's "Garden Birdwatch" scheme:

Garden Birdwatch Excel spreadsheet - c. 100kB (updated 31/12/03)

Whippendell Wood survey

Information on species present in local woods can be found in the following survey sheets from Spring 2002:

Whippendell survey (Excel spreadsheet - c. 40kB)
Whippendell survey (HTML version)

A comparison of garden lists

A comparison of the two garden lists makes interesting reading, and some comparisons are set out in the linked spreadsheet (requires Microsoft Excel).

The weekly record total plots show that in an average week during the breeding season more species are recorded in the Scottish garden than the English one. This difference is due mainly to the regular observation of Oystercatcher, Black-headed Gull, Herring Gull , Song Thrush, Coal Tit and Siskin in the Scottish garden, with none of these being regular in the English garden. However, during the late autumn migration period, the situation is reversed, with the Scottish local breeders, Black-headed Gull, Song Thrush and Greenfinch significantly decreasing as birds disperse south, but the average weekly count in the English garden being boosted to around 25 species (over 30 at the peak) by the influx of thrush and finch species, together with acorn-gathering Jays, roving Great Spotted Woodpeckers and other migrants including hirundines.

In winter, similar numbers of species occur in both gardens. The Coal Tit and Siskin which are regular in the Scottish garden are compensated for by the Lesser Blackback which is normally absent in winter in Scotland and the more abundant Wood Pigeons, Pied Wagtails, Wrens and Redwings in the milder southern garden.

There are also interesting differences between the overall species lists for each garden, though these mainly relate to species which are rarely recorded and thus have little impact on weekly totals, though Oystercatcher is an exception in that respect. Including the new garden, those species which have so far only been recorded in the Scottish gardens are as follows:

Pinkfoot, Goosander, Peregrine, Pheasant, Oystercatcher, Golden Plover, Grey Plover, Curlew, Great Blackback, Cuckoo, Tawny Owl, Waxwing, Common Whitethroat, Spotted Flycatcher, Treecreeper, Redpoll, Bullfinch, Yellowhammer, Reed Bunting

and those only recorded from the English garden being:

Canada Goose, Red Kite, Hobby, Stock Dove, Little Owl, Green Woodpecker, Sand Martin, Common Redstart, Jay, Serin, Common Crossbill

Most of these differences reflect differences in national distributions and abundance. In fact, none of the observed differences in occurrence or abundance are particularly surprising, and all would surely be borne out by the more detailed BTO records (c.f. the "Garden Birdwatch" scheme and the full Breeding and Winter Atlases) but it is fascinating to uncover these trends from one's own simple observations.

The "changes" worksheets in the Excel spreadsheet effectively illustrate the year-on-year variation in species recorded. Thus it can quickly be seen that the reason for the higher average weekly totals in 2002 in the Watford garden is due to the presence of Wrens, Robin and Song Thrush during the breeding season (all substantially absent during 2001). These more than compensated for the reduction in Skylark records as the song flight of this species became even more remote (could only be heard in still conditions) in response to redevelopment of the nearby airfield!

Some other interesting garden bird pages (= "Yard" bird pages in American) are listed here. On the Swedish link, several yard lists of over 200 species are given, the highest being 266 from Oland. One American list from Cape May stands at 300 species. I'm not aware of a UK equivalent of the Swedish Club 100, but I've heard of a high total for a residence in Cley, Norfolk, where some 325 species have been recorded within the parish boundaries.

Surfbirds include garden/yard lists in the "Rankings" section of their site. The highest UK total listed, from Hoylake, Merseyside, stands at 168 species. Some incredible sightings are given for other yards, of which Yellow-nosed albatross (a southern hemisphere species) seen from a yard in New Jersey will really take some beating!!!

A comprehensive UK site, with full species info from the Birdguides library
Toadsnatcher's garden in the fenlands
A West Midlands garden
A garden wildlife site for Llansadwrn, Angelsey, Wales
Garden birding in Dundalk, Irish Republic
The Swedish "Club Yard 100"
Beautiful garden wildlife site from Texas
A journal from Hernon, Virginia
Garden or yard list for my wife's family home in Festac Town, Lagos, Nigeria