The UK is home to a surprising amount of ground-nesting birds, with some of our most common species choosing to make their homes nearer the ground rather than in trees. In your garden, you may have come across a robin’s nest tucked under bushes or taking advantage of the shelter provided by your garden plant pots.
Out in the wider countryside, there are lot of other ground-nesting species too and these are often some of our rarest and most threatened UK birds.
When early spring arrives, we are normally out walking on footpaths, sunning ourselves on beaches and making enough noise that nature avoids nesting near our busiest spots. Usually they will rule out the places near where people commonly walk dogs, run or cycle, to ensure they have the best possible chance of raising their tiny chicks.
But this year, birds have been much more comfortable nesting in usually popular tourist areas, as far fewer people are visiting our beaches and countryside in line with government guidance. Current work restrictions limiting conservationists to essential work only means that many nests are not being monitored or fenced off as usual either.
There are some simple ways in which you can help to protect our most threatened species raise their young this year, just by being mindful of our feathered friends while you are out on your daily exercise. You can find out more about helping the ground-nesting birds found in your local area by using our habitat guide below.
Photo: Ringed Plover nest (taken under license) at RSPB Snettisham - Lucy Hodson
Little terns and ringed plover like to nest in the smaller shingle near the high tide mark, with some famous sites including Winterton-on-Sea and Chesil beaches. These nests are little more than shallow scrapes, with heavily camouflaged eggs helping them to stay hidden from predators like gulls.
This makes it hard for people to spot the nests too and accidental human disturbance can sadly result in multiple nests being destroyed each year.
How can I help birds like little terns and ringed plovers?
There may be signage up around well-known nest sites, but to help those nesting elsewhere there are some extra steps you can take too. Keep your dog on a lead when walking on beaches and coastlines, avoid walking along the high tide mark, particularly where short vegetation is growing and keep your eyes peeled for alarmed birds either hunched down on eggs or calling out and making themselves seen, as these are usually a good indicator there is a nest nearby. If you hear alarm calls, back away to avoid disturbing them further.
Photo: Ringed plovers on popular beach - Sara Humphrey
Many heathland birds such as nightjar and woodlark are very well camouflaged and so are their chicks! While the parents are away from the nest searching for food, chicks are often tucked down in the spaces between the heather and gorse, keeping as quiet as possible to protect themselves from predators such as snakes and foxes. Even experts can often find them hard to spot when monitoring them!
How can I help birds like nightjar and woodlark?
If you do flush a bird, you may be far closer to a nest than you realise, so stop and back away, even if this means retracing your steps and going back the way you came. Sticking to designated paths, bridleways and keeping your dogs on a lead in heathland areas will all help to reduce any risk of nest disturbance. Heathland habitats are very vulnerable to wildfires too, so if you do see any signs of a wildfire, get yourself to safety and alert the fire brigade immediately.
You might be surprised to find that one of our most impressive and threatened birds of prey, the hen harrier, will nest directly on the ground! While you are unlikely to stumble across a hen harrier nest, if you live in the uplands, you may be lucky enough to spot a curlew, golden plover or meadow pipit near its nest site on your exercise walk.
How can I help birds like curlew and golden plover?
While on eggs, birds like golden plover are often very quiet, so you may not realise how close you are to a nest. Sticking to the footpaths, bridleways and walking dogs on leads in upland areas will help avoid any accidental disturbance. Once chicks have hatched, some birds will used distraction displays to draw you away from a nest, so if you see any unusual bird behaviour, back away and retrace your steps.
Photo: Skylark - Sara Humphrey
Farmland and grassland habitats:
Skylarks are commonly associated with farmlands, singing high above the fields or searching for insects amongst the crops but they are quite particular about the short-vegetated areas in which they like to nest. Lapwing will also look for areas of shorter grass or freshly tilled arable land to nest in, before walking fluffy chicks to nearby grazed pastures to feed.
How can I help birds like skylarks and lapwing?
Sticking to the footpaths, bridleways and walking dogs on leads in breeding season can help these species to keep their nests safe. If you witness adult bird trying to attract your attention, it’s a good indicator you are near young and should move back the way you came. Make sure to leave farmer’s gates exactly as you find them too! Many nature-friendly farmers will rotate grazing cattle between fields during breeding season, to help keep their animals fed and provide perfect habitats for these threatened birds at the same time.
Photo: Robin ground nesting at RSPB Sherwood Forest, 2019 - Lucy Hodson
While most people have been spending more time in their gardens, many garden birds are used to us bustling around and really don’t mind nesting humans. You might have spotted blackbirds nesting in your lean-to, robins in your plant pots or pigeons on your balcony, but checking hedges, trees and shrubs carefully before pruning or strimming can help keep some of the more tucked away nests safe too. Leaving patches of grass longer or some foliage to hide in can help newly fledged chicks find shelter too.
What should I do if I spot a threatened species nesting?
If you do spot any birds nesting near you while out on your daily exercise, give them space and please do log it on Birdtrack to help contribute to valuable monitoring projects. If the species is threatened, please mark the record as ‘sensitive’ to protect the exact location. The detailed data is shared with a network of conservation organisations, which work together to protect our most threatened species.
online healing courses
We spend 90% of net income on conservation, public education and advocacy
The RSPB is a member of BirdLife International. Find out more about the partnership
© The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is a registered charity: England and Wales no. 207076, Scotland no. SC037654