Wings Over Whiteknights

Last week saw the completion of a landmark ornithological publication. That’s right, forget the national atlas project: we’re talking about  a new and hopefully fairly complete list of birds that have occurred on (or over) Whiteknights Campus! Joking aside, our modest list – though 106 species is hardly a modest total for an urban green space – does provide an interesting opportunity to see how national ecological trends are being reflected here in Reading.

The foundation of the new list was the Whiteknights Natural History report for 1985, compiled by Graham Holloway. That was only a year before the 1986 Wintering Bird Atlas was published and a few years before fieldwork started for the 1998-1991 Breeding Bird Atlas, with which the latest national data is being compared in recent media articles. Marta Calix, a postgraduate student on the MSc in Wildlife Management and Conservation, has scoured the Berkshire Birds database for records from Whiteknights over the last decade or so in order to bring the list up to date for 2013. Take a look – we’d welcome your comments, additions or corrections.

Red Kite by Natalie Bowers (on Flickr, Creative Commons)

Red Kite by Natalie Bowers (on Flickr, Creative Commons)

The most obvious change in our avifauna since the 1980s must be the resurgence of large raptors. Since their reintroduction to the nearby Chilterns, red kites are now an everyday bird in suburban Reading. Also absent from the 1985 records, buzzards are less common than kites but certainly on the increase in the Reading area. On campus they’re most often seen soaring on a thermal over the Wilderness, and can sometimes be seen in fairly large migratory groups in spring and autumn. Another addition to the list is osprey, with one seen flying fairly low over Whiteknights Lake in 2007. Looking to the future, we may well see an increase in osprey passage over Reading as they continue to become more common as a breeding species up north.

Perhaps not the first group of birds you’d think of associating with urban Reading, five wader species have been recorded here, though at least one, golden plover, is a ‘flyover’ only (I was lucky enough to see a flock of about 30 heading south on January 18th this year, when campus was covered in about four inches of snow). Another – lapwing – seems likely to belong in the same category. A single snipe was seen at the lake’s edge a couple of winters back; again, it had probably been displaced by severe weather. The lake has few of the muddy margins or shallow banks that would be good feeding habitat for snipe or many other waders; perhaps this is also why migrant common sandpipers seem not to have occurred in recent years. Finally, woodcock appears on the 1985 list. A curious, cryptic wader that prefers the cover of woodland, it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that they  occasionally continue to turn up on campus in winter, but may well go undetected. Sadly, all five of these species show national population declines.

Common Gull by Mark Skevington (on Flickr, Creative Commons)

Common Gull by Mark Skevington (on Flickr, Creative Commons)

Gulls provide perhaps the most underrated wildlife spectacle on campus. Black-headed gulls are seen all year round, but are most abundant in winter when a sizeable flock is often resting on the sports fields. One or two common gulls are usually mixed in. An elegant, silver-white bird, these are well worth picking out.

At the other end of the campus, the woodland areas in the wilderness have, like much of the country, lost lesser-spotted woodpeckers. Once a year-round resident, the closest individuals to campus are now a few miles away at Dinton Pastures, themselves close to being the only birds of this species in the county. Over the same period, the great spotted woodpecker has gone from being scarce on campus to nearly ubiquitous, noisily evident in almost every area with a reasonable stand of mature trees.

Firecrest by Ron Knight (on Flickr, Creative Commons)

Firecrest by Ron Knight (on Flickr, Creative Commons)

Another woodland species doing well is firecrest, for my money Britain’s most beautiful bird as well as the joint smallest. A confiding individual wintering in The Wilderness proved popular with local birdwatchers earlier this year. I heard it singing a few times in mid-April, and whilst we’re pretty certain no pairs bred on campus, a sizeable proportion of the British breeding population is a mere eight or ten miles away in the extensive blocks of coniferous forest that cover the south-eastern corner of Berkshire. Perhaps it is just a matter of time.

Speaking of breeding birds, most summer migrants on the campus list follow national trends pretty closely. Willow warblers are now strictly seen on passage and have largely been replaced as a breeding warbler by the closely related chiffchaff, formerly uncommon on campus. This fits in with the national trend for this species pair, both of whose ranges have shifted north. Meanwhile, the stilted, high-pitched wheezing of spotted flycatchers is no longer heard here at all, nor is the cuckoo’s emblematic disyllabic song. It may be that the landscape around Whiteknights has become less permeable to birds of the wider countryside since the development of Lower Earley’s housing estates, though of course a whole suite of sub-Saharan migrants is in decline across the continent.

Running through the list, there are plenty of mysteries that warrant further investigation. l see kestrels on campus from time to time, usually on the Earley Gate side of the lake. Do they still breed here? What about passage species like skylark, meadow pipit or yellow wagtail? How regular are they in the skies over campus? Then there are remarkable one-offs, like the golden oriole heard singing in the Wilderness a few springs back.

Whiteknights seems such a busy, bustling place that it’s hard to believe any organism so obvious as a bird could slip under the radar, but they do. So whilst it’s true that we probably know more about birds on campus than we do any other taxonomic group (with the possible exception of plants), do spare them a thought and keep your eyes and ears open. There’s an awful lot to see that I haven’t space to mention here.

If you regularly watch birds on Whiteknights Campus, please consider joining our team for the ‘University Birdwatch Challenge’. Email Chris Foster (c.w.foster@reading.ac.uk) or Dr Becky Thomas (Rebecca.thomas@reading.ac.uk) for more details.

Further reading on the big picture:

–          Bird Atlas 2007-11: ‘The most complete and comprehensive overview of bird distribution and change in Britain and Ireland’

–          The Birds of Berkshire: Atlas and Avifauna.

About Chris Foster

I am a Teaching Associate and PhD student in the School of Biological Sciences. My main interests are in birds and insects, but in the good old-fashioned spirit of natural history I try to keep an open mind and open eyes.
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