Year 3 of our Bird Monitoring programme.

This has been the third year for a group from the Durham Wildlife Trust young volunteers to visit designated spots on the upland to count birds, in May and in July. The moor is a haven for a range of endangered birds on the BTO list of endangered British birds. We mention five below within our monitoring programme; though a number of others are spotted time-to-time elsewhere, proximate to the moor, benefiting from the wider management of the area.

Understanding the changing weather helps us understand why there may be shifts in bird numbers year to year – it is the one factor beyond anyone’s control. Our wild birds are at the mercy of the elements.

The upland temperatures and volume of rain always (or always feels) lower and higher respectively than is recorded in the nearest town along the River Wear below. 2019 has seen a return to average spring temperatures, following last year’s highs, and early summer has also stayed within average range.

The big difference since summer 2018 has been in levels of rainfall. Significant rainfall through the winter has been good news for some. Winter rains swelled the watercourses down the fell, stripping away at banks. Sand Martins have taken advantage of the eroded banks and this Spring have nested in the bare earth along the Upland burns.

Good news too for the Curlew and Lapwing populations. Curlew and Lapwing are far more protective of their nests than grouse, as we have noted previously.

The inability to control corvid population in the brief absence of DEFRA’s general licence, and the slightly later breeding period, means the both species on the BoCC4 Red endangered list have benefited at this location from the overall land management to support ground nesting birds.  

Most striking from the monitoring report is the number of corvids (Jackdaw, and especially Rooks) who appear on the list again in such large numbers. The appearance in 2018 of Buzzards, Kestrels and even a Peregrine Falcon was most likely down to these birds having range further, or spend more time in the day, in search of prey, and would have out-competed the lower corvid predators.

The deterrence factor of birds of prey is well recognised, and may have accounted too for the absence last year of the Stock Dove, also on the BoCC4 Amber endangered list. The Stock Dove has returned in 2019, and the climate conditions having generated strong grass growth has provided ample seed heads on grass and wildflowers as food for this rare bird.

That same damper, though warm, climate has created an abundance of insect life, which has attracted Swallows up the fell.

On our small monitoring programme it isn’t often a Red Grouse is spotted. On the first weekend they are on nests, and on the second they are in longer grasses and often higher up on the fell. We have to rely on local reports on the health of the Grouse populations.

The Red Grouse remains an entirely wild bird on the BoCC4 Amber list, neither reared nor released commercially, and ultimately reliant on nature being kind to grow numbers. Landscape management plays its part, but it is the climate and weather that ultimately shapes the story. 2019 has brought it’s own challenges.

Last year, 2018, a late cold Spring left Red Grouse hens in poor condition when nesting, along with an exceptionally warm dry early Summer that followed, resulting in a catastrophic drop in Grouse numbers. It was always a worry that it would take time for the population to recover.

The sudden removal of general licences to shoot pest predators left managers standing, unable to intervene, while watching corvids sitting on fences and walls; waiting to snatch eggs when grouse hens left the nest. In late spring a few days of cold rains arrived, soaking the moor and trapping many Grouse chicks in heavy grass and further reducing numbers.

Despite the challenges, 2019 has seen a rise in Red Grouse numbers. It could have been better, but the recovery has been satisfactory. The Black Grouse, on the BoCC4 Red list, which breeds slightly later, has fared slightly better, though is still in recovery having suffered a setback in 2018 after a number of years of consistent growth in numbers.

The value of our small monitoring project with Durham Wildlife Trust and the Young Volunteers will gain significance as we add information year on year. What we have identified over the three years is the ups and downs of bird populations, based on sightings. With nature there is always change, never a constant.

Notwithstanding the dedicated conservation management efforts on our uplands, the greatest impact on our Upland is the weather.  The ever-changing climate will be our greatest challenge going forward. As we build a year on year snapshot of bird populations it may be possible to spot trends and place them in a context from which we can learn, and apply to assist our understanding of improved landscape management.

This small project is the essence of acting local while thinking global.