Since early 2015 I have been voluntarily undertaking the local monthly wetland bird survey (Webs) for the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). This involves counting all of the waterbird species (and some other species) that are using Worth park pond and the Tilgate lakes in my town of Crawley, on a certain date each month. This survey takes place right across the UK, covering a huge area of fresh and saltwater habitats, including estuaries, and contributes a large amount of data to the BTO which can be used for conservation purposes. 

I won’t pretend that the area I cover is of huge importance; the lakes I survey hold about a hundred mallard and a few coot on the better days, and they’re all in public parks frequented by dog-walkers and children with bags of bread, so it’s hardly wild and not much of a birding experience. All the same, it does contribute some data on how local waterbird populations use small inland water-bodies through the year, and it does force me to focus on and enjoy common species that I might usually give short thrift.

During the winter the lakes and ponds are frequented by a few hundred gulls – mostly Black-headed but also some Herring and Lesser Black-backed. There are resident populations of Moorhen, Coot, Mallard, Mute Swan, Canada and Egyptian Geese and Great-crested Grebes which I get to watch raise their broods through the spring, with mixed success. Grey Herons and Cormorants are regular visitors in small numbers, particularly in the winter – as is the odd Kingfisher and Grey Wagtail. There were a few Mandarin duck on Titmus lake, which brighten up a winters day, but they have disappeared this year.

This month’s survey was quite interesting, by Crawley standards, although Worth park pond was very quiet, as it has been since an outbreak of blue-green algae poisoned the whole pond – although it was nice to see the pair of outlandishly plumaged Egyptian Geese again as they were absent last month. Tilgate Lake looked quite nice in the winter sunshine, with the slanting rays illuminating the bright white plumage of the fluttering gulls (72 Black-headed and 4 Herring, if you’re interested).

Moorhen may be dominant on the smaller Worth pond, but at Tilgate the Coot are much more numerous with a ratio of 12 of the latter to 4 of the former this month – in spring the Coots’ large, messy stick nests are dotted all around the shore of the lake. The resident pair of Mute Swans were herding their four well-grown young around the lake; they breed each year on a small island amongst a stand of tall bamboo, and are very well fed.

The dark, angled forms of three Cormorants were resting on the pale branches of a dead tree in the lake, looking suitably aloof and disapproving of the squabbling Black-headed Gulls below which were fighting for breadcrumbs. Best of all however, were three smart Pochard idling about on the water, two males and a female, which were by far the most interesting birds on the lake as I have only ever seen a single, rather dodgy-looking, male here before and these looked like proper wild ones. Pochard are a declining species nationwide, and usually prefer deeper, quiet lakes – so I was quite pleased to find these, not least because they were a break from Mallards.

P’chard and the boys hanging backstage after a gig.

There is a smaller, quieter pond just above the big Tilgate lake, called Silt lake, which rarely has much on it but is good for dragonflies in summer. On this occasion it was largely frozen over, with just a single Black-headed gull sitting on the ice, but just as I was literally thinking that it was a good time of year for a Kingfisher to show up, I saw a Kingfisher perched on a distant branch! I’ve seen them here before, but they’re certainly not guaranteed and any day with a Kingfisher in it is a good day, I think.

My final survey spot is another small lake in Tilgate park, Titmus lake, which is surrounded by woodland and is also on the edge of a small exotic animal park, complete with a waterfowl enclosure from which all sorts of dodgy duck occasionally escape onto the lake proper. It’s my personal opinion that visiting this lake is a total waste of time, as there is rarely any birds on it beside a lonely-looking Moorhen and an equally depressed-looking Pink-footed Goose that’s gotten out of the nearby enclosure. This month there was a Grey Heron and 48 Black-headed Gulls, not even the Moorhen showed it’s face. What was nice was seeing the two Grey Wagtails that flew past and down into the nearby stream, flashing their glowing limoncello-coloured undersides as they went.

I may not be contributing huge volumes of data from my sites to the BTO, unlike the Webs surveys done on large reservoirs or estuaries, but then I’m not sure I could cope with having to count 10,000 Brent Geese and 8,000 Dunlin on a freezing winter day. It is nice to take a closer look at the common birds on your doorstep too, and as I survey them each month I get to see how they vary in number throughout the year and how successful (or not) their breeding season is, something I might not otherwise do. But the main reason I volunteered for this survey in the first place was to contribute something, even just a little, to the conservation of British birds – seeing as I get so much enjoyment out of watching them.