During most months of the year, volunteer birdwatchers visit key wetland sites around the country in an effort to count and record the numbers of waterbirds present. Northamptonshire is no different with its wealth of flooded gravel pits, significant inland river systems, lakes and reservoirs attracting plenty of birds, sometimes in nationally important numbers. The county is well-represented with counters, many stalwarts enduring a variety of conditions for many years to visit their sites and count the swans, geese, ducks, gulls, waders and Kingfisher.
Most counts are submitted on-line and there are opportunities to complete further supplementary counts in addition to core counts. Examples might be dusk/dawn counts of Cormorant or gulls which tend to roost communally.
The WeBS process is managed by a partnership between the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the Joint Nature Conservancy Committee (JNCC) and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT).
An annual report is published which provides indices of some of the more significant species counts and endeavours to summarise the year and plot the health of the relevant counted species. Because this is a consistent process which has been in being for more than thirty years, the data and and species assessments are credible and impossible to ignore. The latest report, which includes the data for the 2010/11 season has recently been released.
Pitsford Reservoir attracts nationally important numbers of Little and Great Crested Grebe, Pochard, Tufted Duck and Shoveler. Clifford Hill GP is nationally important for Mallard, which may include the numbers which are released for shooting at or near the site. Up until recent years, Clifford Hill attracted nationally important numbers of Golden Plovers which reflected this species dependence on the Nene Valley and adjacent farmland. Excessive disturbance has clearly affected this site's ability to now provide the effective loafing and gathering of this charismatic species and positive action is required.
Scarcer species in nationally important numbers within the county places Blatherwycke Lake on the map for Mandarin Duck and Ravensthorpe Res, Pitsford Res, Thrapston GP and Stanwick GP for Smew which now seem to enjoy the East Midlands and Cambridgeshire as their favoured wintering region within the UK. Thrapston GP also featured for Red-crested Pochard, with a high count of 14 on one date affecting the mean average. Ditchford GP is consistently in the top three in the country for Kingfisher, the combination of different flooded pits, the River Nene and a variety of streams providing the necessary variety for this species.
Moorhens have seemingly suffered significant mortality during the last two cold winters and their numbers locally and nationally are depleted. Despite this, Pitsford remains nationally important for this species (and Stanwick GP features too) and is the 10th most important for Coot. Gadwall numbers in the county are generally high with most sites attracting this species in significant numbers. Due in part to a very high count of 1044 in October 2010, Pitsford is currently recognised as a site of international importance for this species. Sadly the counts have been much lower since.
The winter of 2010/2011 was the coldest for 35 years, which nationally resulted in increased numbers of Eurasian White-fronted Geese, some waders and Smew. It also ensured that Golden Plover and Shoveler left the UK for warmer climes. More long-term trends are worrying for some species with an international reduction in Long-tailed Ducks by at least 20% and Velvet Scoter, Pochard and Goldeneye suffering continual declines. The reasons are not proven but climate change, eutrophication and human activity pressures are the most likely. Ringed Plover numbers continue to tumble and even Common and Lesser Black-backed Gull numbers are showing a consistent decline. On the plus side, the Little Egret population is at least stable and may still be increasing.
Getting out there and committing to WeBS counting has its rewards! Occasionally we find something rare or interesting and it ensures that you tend to look in every nook and cranny; it certainly improves on your local knowledge and its birds. The bigger sites attract multiple counters so it is a great way to improve mentored identification and as strange as it sounds, bird counting skills! If you fancy a go let us know and we can facilitate your WeBS involvement with the local coordinator.
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