The event held over the last weekend in January revealed an explosion in the number of recorded sightings of waxwings. These attractive looking birds flock to UK gardens in winter once every 7-8 years when the berry crop fails in their native Scandinavia. Known as an ‘irruption’, results showed that waxwings were seen in around 19 times more gardens in the South-East in 2017 compared with previous years.
Weather conditions leading up to the Birdwatch meant that this year UK gardens were treated to a range of different visitors.
Along with waxwings, there was also a large jump in the number of visits from other migrant birds, such as redwing and fieldfare, as the sub-zero temperatures on the continent forced them to go in search of milder conditions. The South-East saw numbers of redwing triple while our gardens saw a five-fold increase in fieldfare sightings.
This year saw a 9.5% increase in participation by West Sussex residents compared with last year and the county’s top three most common garden birds (house sparrow, starling and wood pigeon) all saw numbers drop compared with the previous year. Blackbirds, robins and goldfinches enjoyed an increase in numbers.
Dr Daniel Hayhow, RSPB Conservation Scientists, said: “The sight of a robin or blackbird perched on the garden fence is often one of the first experiences we have with nature. So to have over half-a-million people taking part and counting a bumper eight million birds across one weekend is amazing. Using the information from the weekend we’ll be able to create a snapshot of how our garden birds are doing.
“In the lead up to the Birdwatch there was some speculation as to whether we could see a ‘waxwing winter’ and the results prove that to be the case. Flocks of these striking looking birds arrived in the UK along the North Sea coast and will have moved across the country in search of food, favouring gardens where they can feast on berries. With it only happening once every 7-8 years, it will have been a treat for the lucky people who managed to catch a glimpse of one.”
Numbers of blue tits and great tits in West Sussex saw their numbers drop 14% and 13% compared with 2017. Both species are susceptible to changes in weather throughout the year, and scientists believe the prolonged wet weather during the 2016 breeding season led to fewer younger birds surviving than usual, meaning there were fewer to be seen in gardens.
This year’s results also pointed to the positive effects that wildlife friendly gardens are having on bird behaviours. Recorded sightings increased for 12 of the county’s top 20 Big Garden Birdwatch birds between 2016 and 2007 showing how gardens are becoming an invaluable resource for our most common British garden birds.
RSPB Officer Tim Webb said: “Gardens are an increasingly valuable resource for birds. They need food, water and shelter throughout the year and if we all provide these things in our outdoor spaces it will be a huge help to our garden birds, perhaps even playing a role in reversing some declines. We’re increasingly seeing rural birds in gardens and urban settings such as goldfinches. Our theory is that this behaviour change is because they are finding it easier to find food and shelter in gardens.”
The nation’s school children noticed a similar pattern when taking part in the RSPB Big Schools Birdwatch. The UK-wide survey of birds in schools saw over 73,000 school children spend an hour in nature counting birds. Blackbird remained the most common playground visitor for the ninth year in succession with over 88% schools spotting at least one. The top three was rounded off by starling and woodpigeon.
Big Garden Birdwatch and Big Schools’ Birdwatch are a part of the RSPB Giving Nature a Home campaign, aimed at tackling the house crisis facing the UK’s threatened wildlife. The charity is asking people to provide a place for wildlife in their gardens out outdoor spaces; whether it’s putting up a nest box for birds, creating a pond for frogs or building a home for hedgehogs.