Suggestions for future work

Nunsmere in summer. Photo © Peter Twist

Meres are a characteristic part of the Cheshire landscape:
Nunsmere in summer. Photo © Peter Twist.

It has been traditional for PhD theses to include a section on ‘suggestions for future work’, in part to encourage the student to think how the research could be extended, and partly as a humbling recognition that, no matter how good the thesis, it was not the last word on the subject. Similarly with this Atlas: it has been the most comprehensive multi-species survey ever carried out in Cheshire and Wirral, but it should be regarded as a beginning, not the end, and much of it raises more questions than answers. Some of the species texts give examples of projects that could be carried out, by individuals or groups, to fill some of the gaps and further our understanding of the county’s birds, and readers will doubtless come up with their own ideas for study. Some of those suggestions are gathered here, to stimulate the reader and to challenge the county’s conservation and bird-recording societies. This Atlas has shown that there are hundreds of people interested in participating in systematic bird survey work in Cheshire and Wirral, and more studies ought to be organised locally, as happens in most other counties.

Some of the work of most value for the birds themselves will be to use this Atlas as the basis for local, and possibly national, conservation designations for sites. The results herein should form the basis of a review of the criteria for Local Sites (Sites of Biological Interest); in Cheshire and Wirral SBIs have mainly been designated because of their botanical interest, and the status of birds on existing SBIs should be appraised, and new sites possibly proposed. The preliminary Atlas results, on distribution and population, have already been used to help to set targets for the most recent revision of Local Biodiversity Action Plans: thorough survey work will be necessary periodically to monitor progress.

Direct conservation action can help some species, as shown dramatically for Barn Owls and Mute Swans. Provision of nesting sites can make a difference to birds as diverse as Common Terns and Spotted Flycatchers although not yet, apparently, in Cheshire and Wirral. Can we manage the county’s woodland and scrub to meet the needs of Marsh Tits, and the carr habitats to Willow Tits’ liking, before it is too late?

Many simple observations are worthwhile. What is the sex ratio in the wintering Wigeon and Pochard flocks? Does it vary from one year to another? What do the inland Shelducks feed on? Has the habit of stealing food from Coots spread to the Gadwall in Cheshire? Even recording the species of tree that different birds use for nesting, feeding or roosting will be valuable: with a worrying number of diseases afflicting a variety of tree species, we have little knowledge of their likely effects on birds in the county.

Nunsmere in winter. Photo © Peter Twist

Nunsmere in winter. Photo © Peter Twist.

More and more birds are being colour-marked, often in professionally-led studies, and careful observation could help to prove the origins of, for instance, the county’s Whooper Swans, Barnacle and Brent Geese. With the advance of molecular and isotopic analysis, even cast-off feathers can be useful. The call of Bitterns is as distinguishable to their ears as a human voice is to ours, so a recording of any booming bird can help in monitoring their spread. Amongst smaller birds, many Dippers and Stonechats are colour-ringed and reports will help to fill in gaps in our knowledge. To be of any value, records should be submitted to CAWOS and the BTO and not just kept in private notebooks or pagers.

Some surveys would take a little more effort. Are the Goosanders wintering on the south Cheshire meres and the eastern hill reservoirs the same birds, making circadian movements? Coordinated counts and a few observers on their flight-lines could probably provide an answer. Golden Plovers often visit the same wintering areas every year, with some sites used over long periods of time: how about surveying all the places mentioned by Coward (a century ago) and Boyd (half a century ago)? Have our Treecreepers learned to excavate their own roosts in the county’s introduced redwoods? There are so few trees that an investigation would easily be possible.

This Atlas shows the remarkable spread of Buzzards and Ravens in just the last decade or two. Another breeding survey in five or ten years’ time would be valuable in continuing to monitor their status. On the other hand, Rooks appear to be declining and a coordinated count of the county’s rookeries is urgently required.

The gulls breeding in Cheshire and Wirral have been largely ignored, not even being included in the national Seabird 2000 survey. Our breeding population of Black-headed Gulls is probably higher than it has ever been, and a thorough count of all known colonies would be valuable. The habit of rooftop breeding is rapidly developing amongst large gulls and ought to be monitored annually in the county, not least for their potential conflict with man and the likely impact of reduced use of landfill for waste disposal.

Winter roosts are vital for many passerines: in midwinter most birds spend twice as much time in their nocturnal roost as in daytime feeding. Thorough surveys of Jackdaw and Rook roosts across the county would be interesting, as would coordination of counts and mapping flight-lines to Starling roosts.

Much useful survey work could be done close to peoples’ homes. Are gardens as overwhelmingly important for breeding Song Thrushes in Cheshire as they have been shown to be in Essex? How does the density and distribution of our urban House Sparrows compare to that in North Merseyside?

Some of the results from this Atlas are not easy to explain and will need more study. Why have our urban Swallows declined? Why have Redstarts contracted in range in Cheshire during a time when the national population is stable or expanding? What has happened in the Cheshire uplands in the last twenty years to cause the loss of breeding Starlings and House Sparrows?

The recording of many seabirds in the county seems to depend on the chance occurrence of winds to drive birds close to the north Wirral coast: how about organising some ‘pelagic trips’ in Liverpool Bay to count those species that are probably regularly occurring just out of view from land?

Much of our knowledge of the county’s birds depends on regular surveys organised locally as part of the BTO’s national network. Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) counts underpin the conservation designations of all the important wetland sites and annual nest-counts in the heronries show Cheshire’s status among the most significant areas in Britain for Grey Herons; yet both of these simple surveys depend on just a few people and there is a real danger that the county’s sites of national or international importance will not be properly monitored. The annual Breeding Bird Surveys (BBS) are vital for measuring changes in bird numbers, and this Atlas shows that Cheshire and Wirral have led the way in applying the same survey results to derive county populations.

Notwithstanding all these suggestions for further studies, each of which will advance the state of ornithological knowledge of Cheshire and Wirral, by far the most important project in the county will be a repeat tetrad atlas of breeding and wintering birds, probably in around 2024. Make a note in your diaries now!