Monday, 29 June 2015

Changing Times for Wirral’s Breeding Birds

A most unusual swallows’ nest. Photo: John Elliott.

The picture of the motor bike wheel hanging on the wall of a barn at a farm in Hoylake shows the most unusual swallows’ nest I have ever monitored. It was used every year from 2006 until 2012 and young fledged every time. I was always thrilled to turn up at the end of May and find the swallows there again. The swallows did not turn up in 2013, were not there in 2014 and now that I have checked again this year I finally have to admit that they will never be back. It is not all bad news though. There are nests in other parts of the farm now; none with young but four with eggs that are being incubated so I feel confident that the farm will add to this year’s generation of swallows.

Thinking about this I was struck by how fortunate we are on the Wirral that the farmers and land owners are so supportive of wildlife conservation and so positive about helping. Everybody at the Hoylake farm is interested in the progress of the swallows and goes out of their way to support the monitoring of the nests. This happens all over the Wirral so I was horrified to hear from a ringer in Burton that the nest box scheme he had set up in a wood near Burton had been vandalised. Around 20 nest boxes that he had made and installed a couple of years ago had been knocked off the trees at the end of April this year. There were nests and eggs in many of them and one box was a specialised box for little owls. The farmer was annoyed and pointed out that he does get unwelcome visitors on his land from time to time but it is still difficult to understand the mentality of people willing to behave like this. I can report that the ringer in question does have other nest boxes and the little owls shown were ringed on 24th May this year, five healthy young.

Little Owl chicks. Photo: Phil Woollen.

Skylarks have long been a cause for concern in the UK with a huge decline in farmland breeding being recorded in the past twenty or thirty years. However Wirral does not have to rely on farmland for skylarks as the River Dee, with its salt marshes and dune systems, provides the perfect breeding habitat. Anywhere from the North Wirral Coast right down to Burton, it is hard to avoid singing skylarks at this time of year. Everywhere, that is, apart from Hilbre. Skylarks bred on the island up to 2002 but have not bred there since then. The reasons for this are probably complex but we were told that skylarks are very sensitive to the presence of crows when selecting nesting sites. Crows started to breed on the island in 2000 and carried on until 2013. However they were not about in 2014 as a breeding species, are not there this year and we have had a skylark singing regularly over the islands this year. We hope that the presence of crows was the main driver behind the skylarks failure to nest and that their disappearance this year will lead to a skylark recovery.
John Elliott

Another unusual nest was spotted by Richard Ash at Capenhurst Industrial Estate: a blue tit making good use of a cigarette box! 

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