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Cookham's Big Garden Birdwatch

Updated: Apr 17, 2021

The results are in for this year's RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch.

Brian Clews takes a look at the records for Cookham and Maidenhead

(and check into our meeting on 3rd March).

This year’s RSPB weekend Birdwatch occurred on January 29th – 31st and the organiser’s hopes were that more than last year’s 250,000 participants would be achieved. It seems possible that was the case as many people had difficulty entering their data because the site crashed half-way through the weekend!

In due course, the analysis of these national records will be produced and we will be able to compare the top ten or so species with previous years. However, RSPB do not share the actual data received so normally it is not possible to draw any local conclusions from the event. So, we invited members of WildCookham and Wild Maidenhead to repeat their sightings on our Facebook page so we can see at least some of the results and assess what trends there may be locally.

Local Setting

Our respective areas rest in a semi-rural environment, one where of course some of the greatest pressures have occurred to wildlife. Intensive demands on our land, and pressures for development, puts nature under duress and the Government’s latest State of Nature Report affirms the there has been an overall loss of 13% in wildlife abundance in recent decades, and that nearly half of our fauna and flora has seen a further 25% decline. This includes stunning birds such as the Lapwing which was once an abundant species on our outskirts. More worrying still, given the public’s obvious love of wildlife, is that UK now ranks 189th out the 218 nations that measure their biodiversity standards!

The one local saving grace is of course our gardens! With so many people signing up to our ‘Wild About Gardens Awards’ programme (WAGA) we were confident we could encourage members to copy their RSPB sightings to us.

First look at the data

Altogether, we received counts from 43 gardens across the SL6 area. You can see the full results here:

Garden Birdwatch - local - 2021
Download XLSX • 13KB

The one-hour counts were done over all three days of the event and as the weather varied a little over that period, that may have had an (unknown) affect on some counts. Some just listed species, but most submissions also included the highest number of each species seen.

The winners and Losers

There were no major surprises, apart from the report of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in one garden. This is not impossible of course, but the species is now so rare in Berkshire, the possibility of mis-identification cannot be ruled out (sorry, dear neighbour!) There was only one record in the entire county last year, and only seven sightings in all Berkshire over the previous five years.

Unless it was clearly stated as being perched in the garden, some species reported have not been included in this analysis (such as Cormorant, gulls, and some of the Kite counts). The table below gives the detailed results.

One might have guessed the top four or five even before the count as, for most of us, these are species most referred to in our conversations and photographs. Robin has been the ‘national favourite’ for many years, and in an ‘unofficial’ poll by the Urban Birder, David Lindo, a few years back, the Robin was ‘adopted’ as our National Bird and consequently featured on the cover of the next British Birds book that was published, (by WildGuides).

Historically a woodland species, Robins have done well in utilising gardens increasingly which has resulted in an upturn in their population.

Blue Tit in second place would also not be a surprise, as it has been there or thereabouts for a while (though a 10% drop in records in recent times). And Blackbirds, their numbers swelled at this time of year with continental migrants, are always likely to feature high up such a winter list as this. (Third in our results, 5th in RSPB’s event of 2020) It would be interesting to see where this species would feature during a summer-time equivalent count as, whilst overall populations seem to be increasing, they are producing fewer young year-on-year, so numbers would be bound to decline in due course.

And of course, Woodpigeon has been climbing this list for some time; 4th on our small exercise, and once scarce in gardens. But following an 800% (!) increase in UK populations of late, is now a top-5 regular.

A significant number of Dunnocks were recorded, giving it 5th place, somewhat higher

than on the national event. Potentially, a relatively high percentage of records for the national event come from city dwellers, where the bird probably features less, as it prefers reasonably-sized gardens. The UK population of the ‘Hedge Sparrow’ collapsed by over 50% towards the end of the last century due to hedgerow loss and reduction of countryside insect food, but, no doubt thanks to our 21 million gardens, they are making a comeback.

‘Our’ number 6 was Great Tit, followed by a bit of a gap to Magpies, of which the less said the better! But what a disappointment to see House Sparrow languishing in 9th slot here! It featured in less than half the participating gardens locally. Nationally, it still tends to be top or second in such counts, but clearly our local populations do not reflect the national picture. The Sparrow population in SE England started to collapse around 40 years ago, with parallel losses in both farmland and city centres. There are now only around ¼ left. It is fitting therefore that Wild Maidenhead is championing the ‘spug’ as one of the 4 birds on their Biodiversity Action species list, with offers of free nest terraces to local gardens. Our available supply has been taken up for this year, but we can provide details to anyone wishing to encourage these delightful ‘neighbours’ to nest.

Starling at No 8 matches the national trend (generally downwards for this species), but Goldfinch coming in at No 10 reflects a UK-wide picture of a bird generally regarded as a farmland species suddenly incorporating wetland habitats and gardens in their preferred territories. Having rarely featured in the RSPB programme in years gone by, it was up in 4th spot nationally last year, a function no doubt of the more ingenious feeding regimes nowadays employed, which can include niger and sun-flower seeds, the main preferences of the species.

An encouraging inclusion at No 15 was Blackcap.

This species was always traditionally a summer visitor from Africa, but returning autumn birds from northern Europe that traversed UK on their southern journey to Spain and beyond, started to stay over here for Christmas some good many years back. Doubtless an indicator of Global Warming, it is now believed that as many as 100,000 overwinter across UK, with increasing evidence that a good percentage stay on to breed here and have in effect become a resident species.

Among the lower order representatives, what a shame to see Chaffinch so far down the order. This once-common garden visitor has suffered in numbers for a few years now, and has fallen way behind Greenfinch. The once-common sight of three-digit flocks in our surrounding fields are regrettably a thing of the past. And given how obvious the raucous Ring-necked Parakeets can be, only being found in 10% of our local gardens that weekend is perhaps surprising. Equally so is how few winter thrushes were noted. It has been recognised that Fieldfares in particular seem to be in very low numbers this winter, and our small census appears to confirm that.

Song Thrushes have been in full voice since before Christmas, and one can hear up to three at a time in a typical setting once they start up their orchestra of song, but the duller weekend of the count might explain why only a single bird was recorded.

And finally, our Wrens might appear to be suffering as far as our results indicate, but this is a skulking little individual and I’d warrant there were a few more about, avoiding detection by their habit of creeping around low in dense vegetation much of the time – its Latin name does not mean ‘cave dweller’ for nothing!

So, in very general terms, there is a reasonable match between this small-scale local assessment and the national picture derived by some 250,000 records. Later in the year we can look again at our findings when the 2021 totals are published by RSPB.

In the meanwhile, we have been fortunate to obtain data from yet another national garden bird count scheme, organised by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). They have sent us no fewer than 16,000 lines of data from counts taken in our post-code area over the last 15 years – an enormous amount of information for us to trawl through. A team will be looking at this in the weeks/months ahead to see what conclusions we can draw from this much larger dataset, and details will be circulated at that time.

Thank you to our participating gardeners, and let us all be encouraged to do all we can to support our local birds in our personal little nature reserves, against the well-known backdrop of declines and losses across the wider countryside.

Brian Clews

February 2021

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