Monday, 2 September 2013

Atlassing overtime

This blog rather neglected recently but have been mainly preoccupied with the conclusion of the local atlas, which is all interesting stuff but not very newsworthy! It's not over yet, but with work commitments about to become dominant again perhaps time for a few reflections.

This is our 6th breeding season, and most required fieldwork was down in Borders with the completion of the TTVs; in Lothian we already had broadly reasonable coverage, particularly in central East Lothian, but looking more closely there were actually patches with poor breeding confirmations, which then show up as declines on "change" maps, which are potentially misleading if simply due to less survey effort. The main ones were highlighted on our traffic lights map. Once most of these were done and efforts were also focussed on any remaining "lowland" (approx the Blackbird breeding zone) tetrads with less than 10 confirmed we were approaching a more even coverage across Lothian with all but one 10km square finally having an average of 15-30 confirmed species per tetrad and only 4 tetrads with fewer than 10 confirmed. Nevertheless many hectads west of Edinburgh still have 10-15 species per tetrad fewer confirmed, which predominantly affects moderately common species and will be revealed as declines. It is now apparent that the main reason for these is phenomenal coverage in some of them in the last (1988-94) atlas, e.g. NT17 with confirmations A-U being 46,36,50,47,34,46,35,40,40,31,34,21,44,40,40,20,30,37,38,37. Even with lower numbers in the final 5 tetrads (V-Z) in Edinburgh no hectad in Lothian has matched these in the current atlas.

Personally I made 5 trips to the west (photos above arriving NT17E at dawn on 20/8, House Martin confirmed at large factory complex, Headrig) and collectively I think we reduced the deficit by c. 20%; to have made up the full shortfall would clearly have been a huge effort. I also continued, indeed increased, effort through August, which I always found an excellent period for atlassing but in previous years have been more distracted by returning gulls, colour rings etc. Despite the fact that it is too late for some species, the abundance of young and peak breeding activity for certain species means it can be a very productive time, indeed far better than April; I think we have missed a trick in not deeming it a part of the main survey period, though clearly necessary for TTVs for consistency with other atlasses.

Late summer this year has certainly been superb for Wrens with young families apparent right into the latter half of August, and many late successes also with warblers, more squealing young Buzzards than I can ever remember, but now as we move into September we're down to the core of classic late breeders - waterfowl including Mallard & Moorhen, all gamebirds, all pigeons/doves, hirundines, sparrows and most finches. Below are map comparisons before current season and to date for Woodpigeon, Swallow and House Sparrow. All can be compared with last atlas results online, Woodpigeon, Swallow and House Sparrow. Woodpigeon is certainly improved but still well short of the blanket confirmations achieved last time in the west. Swallow and House Sparrow have come on very well though, the former has dramatically increased within the confines of Edinburgh since our last atlas, whereas the latter is very sparse in many urban areas though with still a few pockets of abundance. Click and toggle images below:

For House Martin we have rather a lot of "possible" codes, particularly in the west, and now is a good time when nest can be more easily located via visiting birds. Another of particular relevance now and coming on well is Tree Sparrow, a lovely little domed nest, "NY", located in a beech hedge at East Fortune last week.

To upgrade Woodpigeon, young birds are now everywhere and an easy means of confirming when small and weak flyers, but also very useful is the used nest "UN" - find some suitable hawthorn or thick scrub and view from inside, there are few places in Lothian where you don't find a nest with a little searching! I tried this today (Sunday) for Bullfinch where I'd seen them recently on Setonhill avenue off the Longniddry railway walk and located 15 nests in 250 m of hawthorn hedge. A couple were Woodpigeon, with one occupied "NY" by a medium sized squab, also a probable Goldfinch, most/all of the rest were thrushes, e.g. Song Thrush first group below and Blackbird, first one a Bullfinch lookalike but too much moss for the latter species. Some Blackbird have very little mud in the cup, but all are deeper than Bullfinch.

Back to the other half of Setonhill on Wednesday added another 10 or so nests, several more thrushes added to group above (upper group Song Thrush, lower group Blackbird), another Goldfinch and 3 more Woodpigeon, including one with two eggs, one freshly hatched, certainly the smallest Woodpigeon I've ever seen:

Another abiding memory of atlassing will unfortunately be the volumes of rubbish deposited in our countryside by thoughtless residents. Especially in the west some have gone to great lengths to fly tip even deep into woods and in the most unlikely places. A classic example round Dalmahoy last week, the black plastic bags of builders waste dumped at intervals of c. 100m along miles of roads, what a job for someone top recover that mess and how more costly to us all in the long run. Worse in some ways, because it is so needless, is the number of bottles and cans, on many smaller roads it is dozens per 100m stretch, way more than the average of 4 plastic/3 drinks on trunk roads, often half drunk - I really struggle to imagine the mentality of these folks for whom it must be routine to heave your waste through the car window, leaving someone else to pay for tidying it up (£20 per person per year in Scotland), instead of the simplest of tasks, putting it in your own recycling box! In course of my atlassing I remove what I can, several recycling boxes full of plastic and drinks cans, added to a couple of sacks of rubbish I clear along the burn in Longniddry - even here the children visiting the community centre seem to thing the best place for their cans and bottles is in the burn outside. You do learn about society in atlassing, the apparent lack of basic education, decency and respect for others that seems to blight so many, maybe a deposit returns scheme would help it could all be so much simpler...

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