Baker Consultants

Devoid of Song: The Trials & Tribulations of a Wintering Bird Surveyor

Martin Ledger, specialist Ornithologist at Baker Consultants, gives an insight into the trials and tribulations of a wintering bird surveyor.

I am now entering my tenth year as a full-time member of the Baker Consultants team.

Over the last decade I have been witness to differing fortunes for many bird species for a variety of reasons during my numerous winter and breeding bird surveys.

One of the more obvious, now regular, sightings are the red kites, now spread almost all over the entire country after their incredibly successful re-introduction programme, and ‘escapees’ such as ring-necked parakeets have progressed beyond the confines of the ‘big smoke’ and headed north (their distinctly ‘un-British’ shrieks having been recorded by myself as far north as Selby). In addition, naturally colonising species such as little egret and Cettis’ warbler are no longer rare sightings, with numbers at sites in double figures now a possibility.

The days of such species bringing out gangs of ‘twitchers’ driving up and down the country to bag the sighting has gone.

In contrast, the numbers of formally common bird species such as greenfinch, spotted flycatcher, house martin, swift, starling and cuckoo, have undergone catastrophic recent declines. The absence of the latter’s familiar call in many woodlands in the UK now must be the saddest loss of all.

At Baker Consultants, we are currently in the midst of wintering bird surveys (usually undertaken monthly between November and February) at a number of sites, containing vastly differing habitats and ranging in size. These include a large working gravel pit in Derbyshire, that we survey on a monthly basis to ensure that any high congregations of geese and other potentially hazardous bird species are immediately logged and the local airport is informed. We are also surveying a large arable site in East Yorkshire to help us inform a planning application for housing and a relatively small grassland site in Lancashire which will, in turn, also help to inform an application for the placement of solar panels.

The breeding bird survey season will soon be in full swing and it typically runs from the end of March to the beginning of July. Previously, three-monthly surveys (April to June) were deemed appropriate for most sites, however new guidelines were published in 2022 that changed this. The requirement has now been extended to six surveys over a longer period of time.

There is also the potential to use a mixture of transects and passive audio recording techniques, which is something we have been pioneering, as it has been proven to successfully find species that went previously unrecorded when only transect surveys are used.

This all means that it is even more crucial that clients contact us as soon as possible, if they feel their site will need breeding, or indeed wintering bird surveys, as missing out on these key survey windows can mean the determination of a planning application can be delayed by up to twelve months – make the call now!

 So after many dull and dreary winter bird surveys almost devoid of dawn and evening choruses and birdsong of any note (except for the persistent robin of course), it’s coming towards that time of year again when those of us with an avian disposition, sink to our knees and cry hallelujah! At last we no longer have to become entangled in unforgiving bramble thickets or jump knee deep into a muddy puddle we thought was shallow to get a glimpse in order to identify that LBJ (little brown job) that’s just tantalisingly nipped across our path and out of view. Now, they will actually SING to us, thus negating all of the aforementioned sorry disasters. To paraphrase a Shakespeare line “If birdsong be the food of love, sing on, give me excess of it!”.

The Baker Consultants team is highly experienced and we are passionate about what we do. If you need advice related to ecology, surveys or conservation, then please get in touch with us via our contact form on the website, or you can call us on +44 (0)1629 593958 or email us on