Early birds

Loch Lomond NNR

Outdoor work has been on hold for the past few months which means we have missed out on some of the seasonal monitoring we would usually carry out in summer. Normally we would have surveyed the breeding bird population at Loch Lomond NNR during peak nesting activity over April – June. I was really looking forward to these surveys (immersing yourself in bird song for several hours as the sun rises over the loch, what’s not to love?!) so although we’re now coming to the tail end of the breeding season for most birds, we decided to go out and conduct a survey anyway. It’s still an excellent training experience and also great fun (although I’m not sure that waking up at 4am is everyone’s idea of fun..).

The survey involves walking a set route and simply recording all the birds you see and hear. We are particularly interested in species that are associated with wetland and open water sites, including snipe, redshank, grasshopper warblers and reed buntings – all of which are species of conservation concern in the UK. Recognising wetland birds by sound can seem pretty daunting at first but once you are familiar with some of the common calls and songs they become unmistakable.

The survey is an immersive experience as it takes all your concentration to listen out around you and identify what’s calling. I’ll try to recreate the experience for you here so you can get a feel for what it’s like to take part in a survey – so join me as we head out onto the reserve…

Low Mains, Loch Lomond NNR

It’s a beautiful morning and we arrive at Low Mains just as the sun starts to burn through the morning mist. Before we’ve even started the survey a jay flies out of the woodland beside us and in the trees behind us a chiffchaff is already awake and signing away.

© David M, XC320732. Accessible at https://www.xeno-canto.org/320732.

As we start following the survey route, a common sandpiper flies off up the river. It stays low to the surface of the water and gives a distinctive three-note call.

© David Darrell-Lambert, XC447135. Accessible at https://www.xeno-canto.org/447135.

You approach the bend in the river and can hear sand martins twittering noisily as they flit around above your head. They dart in and out of their holes in the sand bank, feeding chicks that will soon be ready to fledge.

© Bernard Bousquet, XC317472. Accessible at https://www.xeno-canto.org/317472.

You keep walking and hear the distinctive song of a grasshopper warbler in the distance. As the name suggests, this is a fast trilling noise like that of a grasshopper.

© David M, XC199526. Accessible at https://www.xeno-canto.org/199526.

A reed bunting lands in a shrubby tree next to you and begins signing. The song is a repetitive ‘srip, srip, srip, srip’.

© Erik Roels, XC142691. Accessible at https://www.xeno-canto.org/142691.

Nearby you can hear the varied song of a sedge warbler. Their song is all over the place: full of clicks, whistles and mimicry.

© David M, XC300904. Accessible at https://www.xeno-canto.org/300904.

Two ospreys then fly over head and you pick up their distant calls.

© Andrew Harrop, XC490854. Accessible at https://www.xeno-canto.org/490854.

As you follow the route along the river you turn a corner and catch a flash of blue – a kingfisher darting off.

In the distance a male snipe is drumming. It’s a humming wobbly noise produced as wind rushes past their outer tail feathers. You keep walking and observe a snipe flying around in a swooping motion – he’s been set off by the other male. He makes a sudden rapid descent, with his wings held out and tail spread, and drums.

© Karol Kustusch, XC552811. Accessible at https://www.xeno-canto.org/552811.

The snipe lands on a branch in front of you and starts calling. It’s a soft ‘chup, chup, chup’.

© David M, XC421747. Accessible at https://www.xeno-canto.org/421747.

On the rest of your survey you hear and see many more grasshopper and sedge warblers hiding in the long vegetation. Along with some more silent and curious inhabitants…

When the route comes to an end you make your way back to your truck after a few hours of being fully immersed in the sounds of the wetland. Time for a cup of tea and cake I reckon!

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1 Response to Early birds

  1. peigimccann says:

    This was a pleasure to listen to this morning, especially the snipe. Out here in the western US, most of us were exposed to a “snipe” through the traditional camp prank called a “snipe hunt.” Little did we know a snipe was a real bird! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snipe_hunt

    Liked by 1 person

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