Protecting the special birds of West Berkshire

Dartford warbler by Jon Hawkins - Surrey Hills Photography

The Seasonal Wardens update on the rare breeding birds at Greenham and Snelsmore Commons, and how they've been working to protect them.

Each year BBOWT employs three seasonal wardens to help engage visitors in the protection of groundnesting birds at Greenham and Crookham Commons and Snelsmore Common. These sites contain important lowland heathland habitat, with Greenham Common being one of the remaining strongholds in West Berkshire for some key species.  

Clare, Zoe and Chris have been out and about in the wonderful springtime weather speaking to visitors about the birds and the site restrictions, with the main message being to keep to the main paths and the 'Green Zones'.

Clare and Zoe have carried out this role in previous years so they bring lots of knowledge and experience with them, and Chris is new to the team for 2021.  If you see them out on site, please do say hello.

Logtern at Greenham Common

A 'logtern' at Greenham Common

Signage has been a big thing this year to get the groundnesting bird message out. New signs in the form of “logterns” have been installed at key points on Greenham Common to inform all visitors of the protected areas and to share some interesting facts about the site. 

To boost the message we have also been partnering with the local Wildlife Crime Officer in Thames Valley Police who has been supporting our bird protection work under the Wildlife & Countryside Act legislation. You may see him patrolling the Greenham Common car park and perimeters on occasions.

On Snelsmore Common, where fragmentation of the heathland is one of the main problems, signs have been installed to inform visitors and to ask them to stay on main paths rather than following the pony tracks across the heath. Dead-hedging has also been installed across some tracks to encourage visitors to explore the plentiful waymarked routes around the Country Park.


Birds update

Greenham Common is valuable habitat for a number of our threatened bird species. On a sunny day, the songs of parachuting meadow pipit, secretive Dartford warblers and hovering skylark can often be heard (if not always seen!). Stonechat can regularly be spotted perched atop a gorse stem, and the occasional woodlark can be seen foraging on the short turf. 
It is a busy time on the common for the birds as many are making nests, incubating eggs and rearing young.

A number of stonechat pairs have been spotted with young, and a family group of woodlark has also been seen. There appears to be good numbers of linnet present on the common, and a number of Dartford warblers have been seen amongst the gorse where both these species build their nests.

Skylark are unfortunately not faring so well. Skylark numbers have been declining nationally since the 1970s due to a reduction in suitable habitat. On Greenham Common, visitor disturbance can also contribute to failed nesting attempts. This is why the wardens are on a mission to educate as many people as possible about the bird species that are present on the common, and how visitors can help give them the best chance at breeding successfully.

Lapwing - Credit David Longshaw

Lapwing - Credit David Longshaw

The waders on the common are making the most of the habitat work that has been done by our wonderful volunteers over the years.

Lapwing have been seen sitting on nests, so we are hopeful that there will be some small, fluffy chicks running around before long. The little ringed plovers gave us all a surprise when a pair were spotted with four tiny chicks - they had managed to elude us all, despite many checks of the area with binoculars! 

One of the more unusual groundnesting species that calls Greenham Common home for the summer is the nightjar. These enigmatic birds fly over from their wintering grounds in Africa to nest on the ground on heathland and in young conifer woods.

The time of the year has come around again where we undertake nightjar surveys and the first of these took place on 28th May. Several nightjars were heard and seen across many of the sites which is great news.

It is quite the experience standing on a heathland site as the light fades and the song birds fall silent, bar the occasional burst of song from a robin. Woodcock can be seen roding overhead, croaking and chirping as they go. And then, from the darkness, the strange ‘churring’ of a nightjar can be heard. 

As well as surveys, the seasonal wardens are running two nightjar walks, the second of which takes place on 17th June, do join them to discover more about these special birds. 

Listen to nightjar churring and watch their distinctive wing clapping flight, filmed over heathland in West Berkshire by Ruth Coxon.