This blog was written by James Conder practical volunteer at RSPB West Sedgemoor, Greylake and Swell Wood

Chough, Golden Pheasant, Collared Pratincole and other improbable sightings at RSPB West Sedgemoor

That got your attention, didn’t it? Before you grab your binoculars and dash for the door, do hold on and read further. As you will discover, we haven’t actually received a windfall of exotic and unlikely species.

Since April, we’ve been conducting surveys at West Sedgemoor, Greylake and a handful of associated sites on the Levels to determine the health of the bird populations that breed here. This is an annual task (last year notwithstanding) that allows us to get a sense of how the birds are doing. We can compare surveys from previous years to see if numbers are rising or falling or focus in on specific areas of the reserves to find out where certain species are congregating. All this data helps influence our decision-making on how to best manage (or not manage) the land to best benefit its wildlife.

Our surveys are principally concerned with the breeding waders that nest on the Levels – curlew, lapwing, redshank and snipe – but we record every bird we can identify. They’re conducted at dawn on days when the weather conditions are fairly typical – light rain is fine, but torrential downpours win you a lie-in. You take a clip board, some binoculars and a map of the area you’ve been assigned to survey. By June, waterproof trousers are another essential, as the waist-height, dew-soaked grass will soak your trousers through and through before you’ve completed the first meadow.

We’ve been recording data for both the RSPB and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), and this is crunch week, the deadline by which all that information must be collated, organised and inputted online. That task has largely fallen to me, and on the whole, I’ve enjoyed noting the rare species our surveyors have spotted and finding out which birds are doing well (newsflash – we have A LOT of mallards, mute swans, skylarks, sedge warblers and reed buntings). The challenges arise when trying to interpret hastily written pencil scribbles on a damp piece of paper clinging to a clipboard on a windy spring morning. And to be honest, some of my colleagues don’t have the best of handwriting anyway.

A survey sheet with various species code written on it.

 James Conder

We record the birds using BTO species codes, which abbreviate names into a (usually) intuitive one or two-letter code e.g. curlew = CU or lapwing = L. However, trying to untangle any of the scrawl besides my own perfectly inscribed notes is tricky. Take the example in the picture. Was it GF (golden pheasant) or CF (chough)? Neither option seemed a likely candidate to sit in a stand of trees besides a coterie of other common garden passerines. Eventually I established the culprit was a greenfinch (GR), highlighting another problem – the code you naturally intuit isn’t always as obvious as you think it is. A different issue is the surveyor who doesn’t keep their clipboard straight as they write their observations (we’ll mention no names, Damon). I looked at one map and pondered for a while why each hedgerow had a resident mute swan (MS), apparently, and irrespective of its name, in full song. Then I turned the map upside-down and all became clear – they were sedge warblers (SW). In addition to the birds themselves, we also record other habitat data. I was thrilled to discover that a great number of fields at West Sedgemoor were home to collared pratincoles (CP), but slowly realised that this was an abbreviated way of describing the vegetation structure as coarse/patchy.

I’ve managed to overcome these hieroglyphic challenges, and in doing so sadly eliminated European white-fronted goose, brambling, great skua and ptarmigan from our sightings list. But I’ve nearly got all those surveys sent to the number-crunchers, and I’ll be excited to see what conclusions they draw.