15 April 2020

The joy of garden nesting

BTO Scotland’s Steve Willis and BTO Northern Ireland’s Stephen Hewitt share their passion for monitoring garden nests and pass on some tips for how to get involved in this rewarding activity.

NOTE: If you are new to nest monitoring and want to record the progress of a few garden nests and nest boxes then Nesting Neighbours is the ideal interface - it’s simple to use and provides some really nice feedback on how other people’s nests are doing too. If you already use Demography Online (as a ringer or Nest Record Scheme participant) then please continue to do so, signing up to NRS if necessary. The data from both systems go into the same underlying database and contribute to the statistics. These schemes collect information on breeding success which helps us to understand the impacts of factors such as climate change and food availability on the number of young produced, and the influence this then has on population trends. Participation is therefore very valuable as well as rewarding. Scientific studies have shown that, as long as observers are careful and follow the BTO's Code of Conduct, making several visits to a nest to record the contents does not increase the probability of it failing. It is completely legal to look inside a nest in England, Scotland and Wales as long as you do not touch the contents and the species is not included on the list of scarce protected birds. If, like Stephen, you are in Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland, you must apply for a licence prior to monitoring a nest of any species. A separate licence is needed for photographing nests.

Steve: Since the Covid-19 lockdown, like many people I’ve been working from home. My home office has a view out over the garden, and I started noticing a female blackbird regularly visiting a particular evergreen shrub in the shade of a big holly tree. It looked like she was building a nest! I was aware of the Nesting Neighbours project and I wondered if I should give it a go, though I must admit I hadn’t done any nest monitoring before. A chat with Stephen (who is an old hand and infectiously enthusiastic) had me sold! I had a read of the guidance pages and then went out to take a look…

The Blackbird nest is in the coniferous shrub in the centre of the picture (Steve Willis).

The nest was about one metre off the ground in a dense coniferous shrub so to look down into it I needed to very carefully move a few small branches apart. Peering inside, I could see four beautiful speckled blue eggs! It felt like such a wonderful privilege to be getting such a close view. The female was off the nest at the time but I could hear the male singing somewhere nearby. I beat a hasty retreat and watched from the kitchen window. Reassuringly it wasn’t long before the female returned. I visited the nest again a few days ago - five days after my first visit - and this time the female was sitting tight, obviously incubating. I think I’m getting the hang of it!

I’m under strict orders from Stephen to follow the breeding attempt through, whatever happens. Nests fail naturally for a number of reasons, including predation, and this is a regular occurrence with early thrush nests. Information from all breeding attempts is important, not only the ones that succeed.

These Blackbird eggs are a beautiful speckled blue, but the colours can vary a bit (Steve Willis).

When I’m not doing various bird-related things, I enjoy a bit of woodwork, and although I already had one nest box up in the garden, I was inspired to make another out of some odds and ends. Here’s a short video of the build process. I might have put it up too late for anything to use it this year, but fingers crossed! If you want to have a go at building your own, the plans are here!

Stephen: Steve’s right, I am an old hand (though not that old, Steve!). I first got into nest recording about eight years ago when encouraged by the then BTO Northern Ireland Officer Shane Wolsey and Carl Barimore from BTO HQ. In a normal year I make regular visits to local patches in County Armagh. I absolutely love the process of searching for nests, tuning in to the subtleties of bird behaviour, song and call, and getting to know the types of places that different species favour. Every nest I find gives me a wee buzz and following a breeding attempt through to fledging is very satisfying! Of course it doesn’t have to be tricky at all - if you have tits nesting in your bird box then ‘nest finding’ is very straightforward!

Here’s a Song Thrush nest that I found. Note the hard, dry inner lining (like chipboard). The holly berries round the rim are a bit unusual, but apparently thrushes do occasionally decorate their nests (Stephen Hewitt).

I’d really encourage anyone who is considering garden nesting to give it a go. It is hugely enjoyable - absolutely - but remember you’ll also be collecting priceless information. By recording the number of eggs, fledglings and the outcome of nesting attempts, volunteers are helping to reveal how our wild birds are doing every year.

Many people start with a box, and monitoring these is straightforward if you have a nest box camera installed or if the lid can be removed. Just check the box every five days or so - easy! Before opening the box, give it a gentle tap to let anything inside know that you are coming, and then lift the lid just enough to see inside. Make a note of what you can see but take care never to touch eggs or chicks - if there is a bird incubating then simply replace the lid and come back later to count the contents. There are guidance notes here which give more detail.

If you enjoy nest monitoring (and I’m sure you will!) I’d really encourage you to ‘graduate’ to open nests, too. They are easier to find than you might imagine. You can sit quietly and watch the adults like Steve did, or carefully search trees, bushes and ivy. There are few things that compare with the thrill of pinpointing an open nest. Peering into a Dunnock’s nest at five recently-laid bright blue eggs takes some beating and provides vital information to help us understand how well this amber-listed species is breeding!

A Dunnock nest found by Stephen, near Lurgan, Co. Armagh in 2018.

Nest monitoring is a fantastic way to learn about bird behaviour, too. You’ll get to know the characteristics of each species, and you might notice differences between pairs. A particular male might have a characteristic song, with repeated phrases or mimicry. Some males sing throughout the breeding attempt, even whilst carrying food (male Blackcaps sometimes sing quietly while incubating!), whereas other males go very quiet once paired. Female behaviour can be interesting, too. They sometimes seem agitated when their eggs are about to hatch, giving repeated alarm-calls, even when seemingly undisturbed.

Nesting also throws up interesting questions; for instance why do female Song and Mistle Thrushes sometimes decorate the rims of their nests with berries and petals (see photo above)? And why would a female Whitethroat choose one of the decorated nests built by her mate, only to remove the decoration before laying?

Typically I monitor around 100 nests each year (my record is 117!) and for that reason I submit my data via the Demography Online interface. If you’re monitoring more than about twenty nests per year then this is probably the way to go, but for a smaller number of nests the Nesting Neighbours platform is ideal.

So there you have it - garden nest monitoring is really rewarding, hugely valuable, and you’ll learn a lot about ‘familiar’ birds through doing it. Go on - give it a go!

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