Turtle Dove Volunteer Surveys in North Yorkshire

And the voice of the turtle was heard in our land.

Turtle doves (Streptopelia turtur) are thought to be the UK’s fastest declining species of breeding birds. The UK population has declined by 91% since 1995 and has not fared much better in Europe, with populations falling by 78% since 1980.

The turtle dove is usually associated with woodland fringes, hedgerows and open land with bushes, particularly in the South and East of England. The RSPB have focused their interventions for the species in the East of England where, in partnership with Operation Turtledove, they are trying to understand the drivers of decline, trialling conservation strategies and creating feeding and nesting habitat.

The Yorkshire Forest Bird Study Group have been undertaking surveys across Cropton, Dalby, Langdale and Broxa forests for over 20 years, using BTO Breeding Bird Survey methodologies to monitor 26 1km squares. They have felt for some time that there was at least circumstantial evidence from their work that the Yorkshire Forests may provide an unorthodox stronghold for turtle dove in the North of England. This view is supported by the regular recording of the species in the BTO breeding bird survey square in Harwoodale and frequent casual sightings, not least at the North York Moors National Park (NYMNP) centre at Sutton Bank and in the garden of a well-known local naturalist, where birds have been seen in double figures on a regular basis. The Forestry Commission (FC) and the NYMNP have long had an interest in turtle doves and some management measures have already been taken to try to support the species’ conservation.

In early 2016 Richard Baines, naturalist and professional ecologist, enlisted staff from the Forestry Commission and the North and East Yorkshire Ecological Data Centre to support a species-specific volunteer survey to investigate whether the forests should really be seen as a turtle dove stronghold. Volunteer surveyors were recruited from a wide range of local interest groups and following a surprisingly successful meeting in March 2016, the survey got underway in May. An initial tranche of 29 survey squares were monitored across Cropton Forest, using a modified version of the BTO Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) and Common Bird Census (CBC) developed by Richard with excellent support from Samantha Lee (RSPB Turtle Dove Officer) to maximise turtle dove detection. One of the key modifications being to begin the surveys at dawn. The survey recorded 26 positive observation from 11 sites, across two survey visits. In addition, Turtle Dove data was collated from all other available sources including casual records.

The purpose of the survey was not only to confirm the strong breeding presence of the species in the forest, but also to try to understand how the Yorkshire Forests meet the bird’s needs so that this can be fed back into land management for the benefit of conservation. The work undertaken by the RSBP in the East of England suggests that ideal turtle dove habitat has four key components; relatively low but very dense scrub as breeding habitat complimented by a plentiful source of seeds, bare ground and open water (though the size of this is not critical). They have found that restored mineral extraction sites often provide very good turtle dove habitat. Whilst for much of the season, adult turtle doves will forage up to 10km for food, there is a critical period of up to 12 weeks during nesting and early fledging during which the birds need to have all these resources in relatively close proximity. With the help of Leeds University and data provided by the Forestry Commission, NYMNP and others the project is using habitat suitability modelling techniques to try to predict the areas that are most likely to support bird populations.

Photographs of potential Turtle Dove Habitat at Cropton Forest by Simon Pickles

It is easy to see how the mosaic habitat of the forests provide dense scrub, open ground and small pools of open water, but the sources of abundant seed from mid-April through to mid-June are less obvious. There are a number of ideas circulating regarding seed sources including road verges, particularly the forest roads, and pheasant feeding. Additional habitat and botanical data will be collected in future field seasons to further support this work.

An enthusiastic surveyor’s feedback meeting was held during the winter with guest speaker Samantha Lee form the RSPB.  Over 50 people attended the meeting and it became clear that support for the survey was growing. It was decided to maintain 6 monitoring squares within Cropton Forest and to move the main focus of the survey on to Dalby Forest for the 2017 field survey, where another 30 survey squares will be undertaken.

Over the last year the project has been delighted to assist the North York Moors National Park’s recent successful application to the Heritage Lottery Fund for resources to support land management strategies within the Park aimed at turtle dove conservation. The project will continue to provide data as the project develops.

Anyone interested in joining the Yorkshire Forests Turtle Dove Survey should contact Cath Bashforth of the Forestry Commission at cath.bashforth@forestrycommision.org.uk

Article provided by Simon Pickles, North and East Yorkshire Ecological Data Centre

(7th April 2017)

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