Fat bird of the barley back on NIAB HQ Trial Grounds

25 Aug 2023
Corn bunting perched on wire (Photo by Will George https://www.flickr.com/photos/runnerwill/)
For the 10th consecutive year, NIAB carried out a breeding bird survey of NIAB’s HQ trial grounds to establish the status of its breeding farmland birds, especially Red Listed species.

These are species that have declined by 50% in the last 25 years and show no immediate signs of recovery (BTO, RSPB, JNCC 2015), making them birds of the highest conservation concern.

The headline this year was a pair of Corn Buntings. Known as ‘the fat bird of the barley’ in some circles, a male signing its distinctive jingle-jangle song was first observed at the end of May, and was later seen carrying food: a likely sign it was providing for chicks in a nest. Although seen in recent years, this is the first year of probable breeding.

Breeding Skylark numbers (18 territorial males) continue to do well, making the HQ trial grounds one of the top farmland sites in Cambridgeshire. New birds recorded this year included a Cuckoo and a singing Garden Warbler - both recorded on 8th May.

Birds of highest conservation concern present on the NIAB HQ trial grounds during 2023 breeding season included:

  • Grey Partridge
  • Skylark
  • Corn Bunting
  • Yellow Wagtail
  • Linnet
  • Yellowhammer

Environmental management at the trial grounds includes conservation headlands, and these have been a great success this year. As well as providing feeding and breeding habitat for red-listed birds, at least nine species of butterflies, such as marbled whites, are using these headlands. Flower-wise, Yellow Rattle, Salsify, Tufted Vetch and Bee Orchids were just some of the wildflowers growing in these headlands.

NIAB staff member Kevin Middleton ringing a baby Great Tit (under licence).As well as the trial ground surveys, this year, for the first time, five bird boxes at our Park Farm site were monitored. With House Sparrows present, we were hopeful of this red-listed bird nesting for the first-known time this century.

While this sadly did not materialise, the presence of both male and females is a cause for optimism for the future. Four of the five nestboxes were occupied however, with two broods of Blue Tits and three of Great Tits producing 25 chicks, which were ringed under licence (see image left).

With the nestboxes clearly popular, there are plans to put more up next season, hopefully attracting those elusive House Sparrows, while continuing to provide safe nesting for other species too.

Fingers crossed that the corn buntings have been successful this summer and now remain over autumn and winter.

Surveys are conducted by retired NIAB staff member Bob Jarman, with added sightings from NIAB staff. All chicks ringed in nestboxes were ringed by NIAB staff member and licenced bird ringer, Kevin Middleton.

Corn Bunting image by Will George.