Thousands of people across Scotland are expected to watch and count their garden birds for this year's RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch.
The world's largest garden wildlife survey, now in its 38th year, takes place on 28, 29 and 30 January 2017. The public is asked to spend just one hour watching and recording the birds in their garden or local public space, then send their results to the conservation organisation.
In our increasingly urban world, ensuring there is still room for wildlife is key to the survival of many familiar species. Big Garden Birdwatch provides valuable information about the birds using our gardens in winter, enabling RSPB Scotland to examine trends and declines in their numbers. It is also a chance to take time to enjoy the nature on our doorsteps.
More than 36,000 people across Scotland took part last year and counted 626,335 birds and even more are expected to take part this year.
In response to demand, for the first time this year the Birdwatch will take place over three days, including the Monday, giving workers the opportunity to take a screen break and participate from their office gardens. [note 1]
Keith Morton, Species Policy Officer at RSPB Scotland said: "It's great to have so many people across Scotland taking part in Big Garden Birdwatch each year. Your results provide us with a snapshot of not only how birds are faring this year but also, with over 30 years' worth of data, help us see changes in bird numbers over the long-term. Your results also paint a picture of the birds that are visiting Scotland at this time of year and how conditions overseas can have an impact on what we see here. However many or few birds you see during your Birdwatch hour, all your survey information is valuable so please do submit your counts."
Last year house sparrows retained the top spot position, with chaffinches and starlings rounding off the top three. The milder winter temperatures in the run up to Birdwatch 2016 benefitted smaller birds such as long-tailed tits, coal tits and great tits. The percentage of participants' gardens in Scotland that were visited by a long-tailed tit saw a massive 166% increase, with over a third of gardens of those taking part recording one. [note 2] However, across the UK, song thrush numbers in gardens continued to fall with a decline of 70 per cent since Birdwatch began.
This year, if there is another cold snap this month, we could see some more unusual birds appearing in Scottish gardens. Look out for Scandinavian visitors such as redwings, fieldfares and waxwings in search of berries. While redwings and fieldfares come to the UK every winter, waxwings come in large numbers only in some years when food supplies are scarce in Scandinavia. Waxwings arrived on the east coast in their hundreds earlier this winter and have since dispersed more widely - having now been reported as far west as Wales and Ireland.
As well as counting winged garden visitors, RSPB Scotland is once again asking participants to log some of the other wildlife they have seen throughout the year, such as foxes, stoats and moles. It's unlikely that this other wildlife will be seen during counting hours over the next three days, especially as hedgehogs and slow worms are currently hibernating. With the survey taking place across the whole of the UK there are some species on the other wildlife list that are not found in Scotland, grass snakes and stag beetles, but we'd like to know if any of the other wildlife on this list visit your garden or public space.
Keith added: "Wildlife across Scotland is having a really tough time. Last year's survey showed that only 19 per cent of people see hedgehogs in their gardens at least once a month in Scotland, 14 percent fewer than in 2015. We're including this part of the survey every year now as it helps us monitor how our other wildlife is doing." [note 3]
David Wembridge, Mammal Surveys Co-ordinator, People's Trust for Endangered Species, said: "Mammals are a less showy lot than birds, but their presence in gardens is as important a measure of the natural value of these green spaces. Recording wildlife, in surveys like Big Garden Birdwatch, gives us a connection to our wild neighbours, particularly those we might overlook."
Dr Fiona Mathews, Chair of The Mammal Society, said: "Gardens can offer fantastic habitat for wild mammals, simply leave things a bit untidy and watch what happens. For example, a bramble patch and a pile of fallen leaves can provide a good nesting site for hedgehogs, while bats will feed on night-flying insects attracted to blackberry flowers."
Dr John Wilkinson from Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC), said: "It's great to see that the Big Garden Birdwatch is again recording species such as grass snakes and slow-worms, whose habitats are declining in the wider countryside. Slow-worms are a gardener's friend: you can encourage them into your garden by having a compost heap which is left undisturbed over the summer so they can give birth there - they will repay you by demolishing your slugs!"
Big Garden Birdwatch is part of our Giving Nature a Home campaign, aimed at tackling the housing crisis facing our wildlife. Gardens provide valuable resources for many species, especially in urban areas where natural habitats are disappearing. The conservation organisation is asking people to invite wildlife into their own gardens, balconies and outside spaces - whether by putting up a nest box for birds, creating a pond for frogs and newts or planting a window box for bees. Wherever you live, you can help give nature a home. [note 4]
To take part in Big Garden Birdwatch 2017, watch the birds in your garden or local park for one hour at some point over the three days. Only count the birds that land in your garden or local park, not those flying over. Tell us the highest number of each bird species you see at any one time - not the total you see in the hour.
To download your free Big Garden Birdwatch pack visit rspb.org.uk/birdwatch
Results will be published in March 2017.
The parallel event, Big Schools' Birdwatch takes place during the first half of spring term, 3 January - 17 February 2017. Further information can be found at rspb.org.uk/schoolswatch