I HAVE written before about the changing fortunes of some of our native species of birds and only last month I commented on the apparent success of the magpie whose population seems to have exploded in recent years. This week, the bad news from the RSPB was that it had added two once widespread species to the endangered list due to their numbers declining steeply over the last few decades. Breeding pairs of willow tits have dropped by over 90% and the lesser spotted woodpecker by 76%. The fact that both species are woodland dwellers suggests that there may be a common factor responsible such as changes in the way woodlands are now managed, but in truth the reasons for the decline are not clear. The RSPB now plans to monitor the species closely to see if the causes of the population drops can be identified. I have never to my knowledge seen either of these birds. Great spotted woodpeckers are common near me and a regular visitor to our bird feeders but the lesser spotted variety has always escaped my attention. They are far smaller than one imagines, no bigger than a sparrow, and because they frequent the top canopy of trees they are frequently overlooked. They are absent from Scotland and are most likely to be seen in the south of England. Willow tits, too, are largely England and Wales dwellers but some are to be found in the southern part of Scotland. Whilst blue tits, great tits and coal tits thrive in suburban gardens, the willow tit is much more specialised. As their name suggests, they prefer thickets of willow, usually found on the edge of bogs, marshes, and inland waterways. Midway in size between the blue and great tit, they have a large black cap extending down the back of the neck and have a generally duller plumage with no significant areas of blue, green or yellow. Both species are year-round residents, which means that halting their decline is within our own grasp if we can identify the precise causes. With migratory species the problems are far more complex, often requiring serious international co-operation. With this in mind, the British Trust for Ornithology launched a project this summer aimed at finding out where British cuckoos spend most of their year when away from our shores. This with a view to coming up with a future strategy to reverse their decline.
During May and early June of this year, five male cuckoos were captured in East Anglia and each was fitted with a small 5g satellite tracking tag attached to its back. These devices are solar powered, and transmit for about 10 hours before going into a 48-hour “sleep” mode to allow the battery to recharge. The BTO is showing the progress of the cuckoos on its website so that everyone interested can follow their whereabouts throughout the winter months and hopefully see them return successfully to Britain next year. Already the project has shown how short a time the birds spend in Britain with the first bird leaving our shores on 3rd June and the last during the night of 22nd/23rd July. All five birds have now made it to south of the Sahara and although captured within 70km of each other are now separated by a distance of some 3,600km. The position of each cuckoo is
updated every two or three days so by logging onto the BTO website you can follow each bird throughout the coming winter and perhaps even welcome them back to Britain next spring.
If you’re interested in an update, log on to www.bto.org/science/migration/… ng-studies.