BBAG - Confirming breeding during the final summer

Farmland and rural areas


A number of the species for which we are seeking more confirmed records are difficult to prove. These notes are intended to help you to improve the confirmation rate in your tetrads, but do not mean you will suddenly find lots of confirmed records where you have none so far. Even some widespread species like Skylark are difficult.

In these notes I will make some suggestions as to what habitats or habitat features are worth checking and some more general tips which might help.


1 - Crops

The decline in ground nesting birds has been linked to the switch to autumn sown crops in the last 30-40 years. Crops sown in the autumn after harvest emerge before winter, and usually have reached a height of 3 to 6 inches before the ground nesting season begins. This seems to discourage ground nesters, such as Skylark, Grey Partridge and Lapwing. Spring sown fields are usually bare earth when nesting starts and support many more birds in the breeding season. Look out for such fields in April, and keep an eye on them in subsequent weeks. Lapwings in particular are conspicuous, but confirming breeding can be tricky as the crop grows. Finding a vantage point from which you can watch for a while is a good way of confirming breeding. The position of a nest can be betrayed by the changeover in incubation between the parents. If the crop is late, you might even spot the young.

Crops adjoining uncropped areas also attract more birds. Good areas to check for species such as Corn Bunting, Meadow Pipit, Linnet or Yellowhammer on the Downs are where wide grass margins, such as those along the Ridgeway or where gallops adjoin arable areas. Standard conservation margins have not proved successful, but wider areas of set aside, particularly if they have a lot of weeds, are also attractive.

Some crops are more attractive to birds than wheat or barley, the predominant arable crops. Those with a more open vegetation structure, such as oilseed rape, beans or poppies (grown locally on contract around the Goring Gap) seem particularly attractive. In addition to the species noted above, look out for Reed Buntings and Yellow Wagtails.

Do not ignore the autumn sown cereal crops entirely. Even though some birds, such as Lapwing, seem to avoid them, they still hold sparser populations of the widespread birds of the countryside, and you might get lucky with a Quail.

Also worth looking out for are areas where bare patches have been deliberately left uncropped as an ELS or HLS measure by farmers operating the current single farm payment system. In lower lying areas prone to flooding or waterlogging bare patches may also occur if we have a wet spring. Some areas may also just be left uncultivated. All are worth checking - the open areas in particular for Lapwing which are opportunistic nesting birds.

Game crops can sometimes be left, usually in field margins. Look out for withered maize or other seed bearing crops left in rows. Pheasants and Partridges may use these areas for nesting.

2 - Pasture

Most pasture is improved grassland, of little attraction for ground nesting birds. There is still a small amount of unimproved grassland. On the Downs these areas hold Meadow Pipit and Skylark. If scrub is present, Yellowhammers, Chaffinches, Goldfinches, Dunnocks, Wrens, Willow Warblers and Whitethroats may also be present. Horse pasture (but not racing stables land which is well managed) often has a similar characteristic, as horses are selective grazers that leave a lot of weeds like thistles which to them are unpalatable. Check such areas on the edges of villages for thrushes, finches, Pied Wagtails, Jackdaws and Magpies gathering food for young or bringing family parties to feed

While improved grassland is poor nesting habitat, when it is newly mown (for example, after a hay or silage crop has been taken off) it is sometimes used by birds that have bred in adjoining arable areas for feeding. Heavily cropped sheep pasture is occasionally used by ground nesting birds, and grazed areas with livestock attract birds feeding young, attracted by the insect life associated with livestock and their droppings. Lapwings will sometimes move their broods to such areas to feed. These areas are worth keeping an eye on to try to confirm species by adults with food for FF evidence.

3 - Hedges and Field Margins

The removal of hedges has been a feature of habitat degradation that has been noted for decades. Much still remains, and although unsympathetic management has also reduced the value of some of these there are still plenty of good thick hedgerows, especially where there are steep slopes at the field edge. Hedgerow trees too add to the possibilities.

Many species use hedgerows as nesting habitat, and they are also used as song perches by some of the species that breed in crops. Thick hedges or linear scrub is a particularly good habitat. Hedgerow species such as Blackbird, Dunnock, Whitethroat and Yellowhammer can be supplemented by Blackcap, Wren, and Bullfinch. Add in trees and the potential grows. Woodpigeons, Carrion Crows, Woodpeckers and other woodland birds, even Red Kites are possible. Field margins with ditches or near rivers are also worth checking for Reed Bunting families or Sedge Warblers gathering food.

4 - Buildings

Rural buildings should not be overlooked. Unfortunately, traditional farmyards with brick and timber buildings with inside livestock accommodation, hay or harvested crops stored with plenty of food and niches for nesting, are now rare. The number of working farms has reduced the number of farmsteads, with many picturesque old barns converted as dwellings. Mixed farming has declined, so few farmsteads have both livestock and stored grain. Most farm buildings built in the last 100 years or so are functional steel, concrete or timber framed structures clad in sheet steel or asbestos. Dairy farming has declined in Berkshire, and modern farming techniques mean crops are often taken straight from the field without being stored first on the farm.

However, farm buildings are still worth checking. Any old fashioned farmsteads that remain in use are still some of the best places to find House Sparrows, Swallows, Collared Doves and Jackdaws. They are few and far between. More modern buildings are still worth checking. A modern frame and cladding building creates nest ledges along the parts of the frames to which the cladding is attached, along the top or girders or where girders join. Check them for nesting Feral Pigeons, Wood Pigeons, Collared Doves and Jackdaws. Pied Wagtails can often be found in modern farmsteads.

Buildings associated with horses are also worth checking. Swallows seem to like horse shelters and stables. There are often areas of scrub around farm buildings and stables which are worth checking for scrub nesting birds such as Dunnock, Wren and Whitethroat.

Rural housing should also not be overlooked. Older buildings with cavities or gaps, or if there is plenty of vegetation, especially if it is unkempt may be where you will find you tetrad's remaining House Sparrows of Starlings. House Martins sometimes use isolated rural housing, and if any villages in your tetrad have House Martins flying around, do not forget to watch them and check under eaves for nests. The gardens of village and isolated rural houses should also be checked for some of the common garden birds for which we still need more breeding evidence, such as Robins, Song Thrush, Tits and Blackbirds.

Tips for improving the level of breeding evidence.

First of all, if you have not already done, check your TTV records. If you did not record breeding evidence, can you now remember if a species recorded in both visits was present in or about the same place, and therefore should be recorded as "T" for holding territory?

If you can, visit your tetrad or the area you intend to cover at the beginning of the season to see where there might be spring sown crops. Skylarks and Lapwings often take up territory early in the season, and some early breeding birds like Mistle Thrushes may already be showing signs of breeding activity. Note likely areas and possible territories to revisit them later.

Make at least two or three visits throughout the season. Revisit areas where you have recorded target species. Note that spring sown species such as Oilseed Rape grow quickly, so do not leave repeat visits too long.

"Stake out" possible nesting sites, particularly buildings. If you see Swallows flying in and out of stables or farm buildings, but cannot get a view in to see if there is a nest, carry out repeat visits looking out for newly fledged young. If there are House Sparrows calling, look out for birds entering gaps in roofs, such as under the edges or along valley gutters, carrying materials for nests or food. Look out for adults feeding young or begging young. If you can get permission to enter farm buildings it helps, but it is surprising how easy it can be to scan under the roof of a modern open barn to inspect the rafters for nests.

Depending on the weather, there is often a period in the spring when a lot of first broods leave the nest. The period around the spring bank holiday around the end of May can often be productive. Check out hedgerows for agitated parent birds, such as scolding Whitethroats, Blackcaps or Wrens and see if you can spot lurking fledglings nearby. Thereafter second and replacement broods, family parties and foraging parents should keep you busy for the next two months.

Do not be discouraged if you find it difficult to prove breeding. Some birds are difficult, as the results of the previous (1987-9) tetrad atlas results show. The "FF" status, an adult carrying food or faecal sacs, is often the best you can get. Look out for birds foraging on open ground, in gardens or perched on fences or bushes, or flying into bushes. Let's hope we get a good breeding season like we did in 2009 when there were plenty of young birds around by July, but take care with birds with mobile young still in juvenile plumage, such as Starlings, which may have moved out of their breeding area.

The challenge of proving breeding can make your birding more rewarding and give you the opportunity to sharpen up your field skills even if, like me, you are not a very good nest finder.

Urban and suburban areas

Many tetrads include urban or suburban areas. There may be a tendency to avoid these areas in preference for quieter, greener parts. But they are important: one sixth of Berkshire is built up; they are the preferred habitat for some species (eg House Sparrow, Swift, Black Redstart, Peregrine) and gardens, which constitute nearly 10% of the county area, probably carry the highest densities of many of our commoner species. Tips for individual species are given in the breeding confirmation spreadsheet; here are some general tips:

  • Towns and villages can be noisy - early Sunday mornings are best for locating most species.
  • Brown-field sites around old factories, gasworks, railway sidings etc are worth checking for species such as Whitethroat, Garden Warbler, Bullfinch that are not often found in gardens. They are often quieter places where you can sit and watch to confirm breeding of a range of species.
  • Alleyways at the backs of houses are quieter and hedges along them can be good for nests of Woodpigeons, Magpies etc.
  • Canals, rivers and streams (sometimes small and difficult to access) going through built up areas can provide breeding sites for Sand Martin, Pied and Grey Wagtail, as well as water birds such as Coot, Moorhen, Mallard.
  • It is often helpful to engage with people in their gardens or fishermen on canal banks. Ask what they have seen, where House Martins or Swifts may be breeding etc.
  • Beware: some people are disturbed by strangers with binoculars peering at their house and may turn nasty!


Early in the season while leaves are still buds gives a better view, easier to find the birds. Although April is the start of main surveying period many species are nesting during March. Examples are Rooks, Song and Mistle Thrushes, often the Tit species including Long-tailed Tit, Nuthatch and also Tawny and Little Owl, maybe even House Sparrow. These records will be used where appropriate so if you see any of them please submit them despite any BTO messages concerning the recording season.

Listening is key - song and calls locate most birds in Spring and then it's a case of following them to their nests (B or ON or NY) or partners (P), or protecting their territories (T). Taking a reminder of a birds call or song is useful if you can't remember them - there are 'apps' to download for phones etc

Woodland pools are good for patient waiting, often birds will come to drink which may allow identification of family parties (FL) or watching them return to nests nearby (NE or NY)

Look for holes in trees near hole nesting species and wait for them to use them (NE, NY or B)

In the breeding season birds will normally be within close range of nests so follow each sighting of a target species until it disappears into the right type of tree or bush (our advice table gives more help on this species by species).

In conifers get underneath the branches and look up to see nests.

Levels of breeding evidence most usually or easily found in woodland will be birds carrying food FF - Food For Young and ON - Occupied Nest, and NY - Nest with Young.

BBAG - 5 March 2011

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