Extreme bird counting

For many of us, Big Garden Birdwatch is a cosy cuppa watching wildlife from your window. But wildlife surveys can be a much more challenging affair, as Amy Burns and Fionnbarr Cross from our Lower Lough Erne Islands reserve reveal.

The challenge to count

Amy and Fionnbarr look after our Lower Lough Erne Islands reserve, situated in the county of Fermanagh in Northern Ireland. It’s a true watery wilderness, made up of 46 islands dotted across the second largest freshwater lake in the UK.

In winter, the reserve is a haven for hundreds of wildfowl and other wetland species who seek food and shelter from colder climes, including whooper swans from Iceland and wigeons, teals, goldeneyes and tufted ducks from continental Europe.

Each month between October and March, the wardens undertake a Wetland Bird Survey to record the numbers of wintering wildfowl in various areas on the reserve. But with so much wetland and wintry weather to contend with, counting is not a straight-forward endeavour.

A boat is needed for this extreme birdwatching

Bobbing about on a boat

Fionnbarr describes the challenges:

“These counts are always carried out from a boat; we have a lot of shoreline to cover around the long peninsulas and wooded islands at the west end of Lower Lough Erne. We wait for calm conditions; there’s nothing worse than trying to steady yourself and your binoculars in a rocking boat while trying to decide if those are wigeons or mallards or teal amongst wet rocks, never mind how many of each there are.

“In normal times there are two of us on the count; one to control the boat and count when possible, while the other is free to concentrate on the count and the note-taking. This allows for a comparison of figures, or division of labour when a mixed flock of ducks bursts up out of a sheltered corner.”

Counting birds in their hundreds

The sheer volume of birds can further complicate things, as Amy explains:

“Some counts can be incredibly eventful with hundreds of birds grouped tightly together, evading an accurate count through synchronised diving. As well as wintering wildfowl, we regularly record kingfishers, curlews, little egrets and one year we got a great white egret, the first county record for the species.”

Flocks of whooepr swans can be hard to keep track of

Expect the unexpected

These monthly bird counts are certainly not plain sailing, Amy continues:

“It’s not just the birds that entertain us during these counts. We’ve been treated to close encounters with foxes, red squirrels and even Irish hares foraging along the shores of the islands over the years.

“During one count we had tied up to a jetty to get lunch and huddled under the cover in the boat, as it had begun to snow, when an otter appeared. It stayed for several minutes, hunting not a stone’s throw from us. That experience generated so much excitement that I forgot that I couldn’t feel my face with the cold. Many a count we’ve returned home not being able to feel our feet, hands or face due to the cold, and on days like those I have been known to smuggle a hot water bottle on board.”

White-fronted goose | The RSPB

A gander at geese in a bog

The team also carries out surveys in Pettigo Plateau, an extensive area of blanket bog to the north of Lower Lough Erne, that attracts up to 100 Greenland white-fronted geese in the winter. Despite their numbers, these geese can be elusive because of the numerous possible locations in which they could be. Fionnbarr describes the count:

“Count days involve driving a route round the Pettigo Plateau and stopping regularly. At several sites I park by the roadside and scan the bog for tell-tale signs, flashes of white flanks or the flicker of a white beak front.  At other stops and viewpoints, I use tripod, telescope and binoculars to try to locate them.

“Looking for these geese can often be frustrating, though. Occasionally an early morning visit to one of the flocks’ known roost sites, small remote lakes in hollows in the bog, can be successful. Another ploy is to wait at dusk on calm nights to listen for birds flying. But if there is a moon to feed by, they don’t fly to roost until well after dark, or they may choose another roost site.”

Goldeneyes are a common sight on this bird counting endeavour

Joy and excitement

Despite the difficulties of these counts, both Amy and Fionnbarr are nothing but positive about their experiences. “Finding the geese always fills me with joy and excitement,” explains Fionnbarr, “They are such beautiful birds to see and they are the essence of wildness. The feeding flock is silent except for an occasional squeak between birds. But at the slightest suspicion of danger, all raise their heads poised to move. If reassured, they return to feeding – leaving one or two alert guardians. When alarmed, they lift vertically and head off in a frantic chorus of squeaky calls.”

Why do we count the birds?

Wildlife surveys are a cornerstone of conservation, and a vital tool to understand change. Amy explains: “Like Big Garden Birdwatch, the Wetland Bird Survey involves hundreds of people taking part across the UK, gathering information on bird populations. This allows organisations like the RSPB and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) to monitor trends in species, the status of our wetland habitats, and to inform government policies to safeguard these special areas.”

No doubt it’s a love of nature and a recognition of the value of these counts that spurs these ‘extreme counters’ to continue. As Fionnbarr admits with a smile: “It is a privilege to be part of the survey and to know that the data we gather will strengthen the efforts of all of us to save nature on our waters.”

Green Heron | The RSPB

Expect the unexpected

You never know which rare birds you might see in the Big Garden Birdwatch