The increasing rigour of pre-development surveys in the last ten years has led me to some strange places in which to watch birds. The particular form of survey which has predominated in my experience is associated with wind farm proposals, and is termed vantage point survey. The principle behind such surveys is to evaluate the use by birds of airspace to be occupied at some point in the future by wind turbines. In practice, for the observer, this means watching from a convenient and well placed spot, and counting birds flying over or across the landscape. While the science behind such an approach is clear, the experience of doing the survey can be anything from crushingly boring to intensely gripping, but always requiring 100% concentration.
Only rarely does the weather allow us the luxury of removing outer garments – standing still does not lend itself to keeping warm on all except the balmiest of days. For myself I remember a cold day in December when I decided to use a deck chair to observe from. All was well until the end of the watch when I tried to stand up and found I could not feel my legs for the cold, collapsing to the ground. It took me several hours and a hot bath to warm up again.
You get to know the vantage point regulars very quickly and eventually in great depth – the busy, hovering kestrel, monotonously circling buzzards, skittish golden plovers and buoyant lapwings. The odd rarer bird, such as the fleetingly seen large white (gyr?) falcon I saw last year, causes a racing of the pulse, and like fly fishing it keeps you hanging on for the next one. Estimating flying height and distance is difficult at first, and to my mind requires a good knowledge of the site, a knowledge of the bird species, due consideration to weather conditions and visibility. To say it becomes easier with experience is not to belittle the vigilance with which such estimations are made.
The sites are often that curious mixture of rural and industrial – the agribusiness farm with giant tractors hauling giant ploughs, or the landscape dominated by pylons and power lines, or criss-crossed by major roads and railways. All are tied together by the inherent openness and exposure to the wind, and other commonalities such as the predominance of wildlife of open spaces such as golden plovers, meadow pipits, brown hares and skylarks.
The solitary observer, motionless in the landscape, also has a great opportunity to observe wildlife without themselves being observed. Frequently, open fields are crossed by wary foxes, scattering hares and skylarks, or hedges are shadowed by sparrowhawks hoping to pick off the odd unlucky chaffinch. Sometimes the eyes are briefly averted as a motorist has a pee behind a hedge. Odder sites are provided by the wildlife, such as a bat being chased by crows in full daylight, or a kestrel repeatedly robbing a barn owl as it brings voles back to its nest, or the sudden convergence of hundreds of gulls seemingly from nowhere on a ploughing tractor.
More spectacular still are the dynamic cloudscapes and incidental movements of small parties of birds at great height, perhaps on non-stop migration to distant tundra nesting grounds. For consultants like us, with their feet very much on the ground, these surveys can provide a reminder that there is an immense aerial dimension that exists for birds about which we still know rather little.