Bird surveyor in Redbourn tweets ahead

RSPB volunteer can identify 150 species

WHEN it comes to twitter, Ray Tucker is literally a tweet ahead of the flock.

He can identify the chatter, chirps, cheeps and chiding of about 150 different birds.

Ray has been traipsing farms in Herts, Beds and Bucks since 2004, after the RSPB advertised for wild bird surveyors.

He recently visited a farm on the edge of Redbourn, where he explained his volunteer work to the Herts Advertiser.

At the heart of Ray’s efforts is a deep unease about the decreasing number of birds on St Albans farms and in neighbouring counties.

He explained: “I’m concerned about the wild birds because over the past 20 or 30 years there has been a massive decline in farmland birds, for example house sparrows, which used to be everywhere you went.

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“They have declined about 70 to 80 per cent in the last 20 to 30 years but they are not the only birds on the decline; there are at least 126 [under threat] in the UK.”

Farmers welcome Ray’s visits as his surveys of bird species on local fields show whether efforts to provide food sources and habitat have helped boost numbers.

Ray’s calling to recognise bird calls is a far cry, however, from his previous occupation as a marine surveyor in Saudi Arabia.

Ray, who worked on board a ship for an American company which was surveying for oil, said: “I didn’t have time to look at the birds there.”

Apart from having good hearing, his experience surveying for oil also means Ray has an eye for detail.

He was also once an assistant warden for the RSPB, helping to look after the only nesting pair of golden eagles in England 20 years ago.

Tools of the trade for surveying wild birds are good hearing, good eyesight and exercising plenty of patience.

And there is one more thing; the ability to get up early to hear the dawn chorus – that can mean a 5am start in summer. Ray can rack up, admittedly fairly slowly, eight miles strolling a farm.

He identifies species through either birdsong, or by seeing them in the wild.

Asked whether some were similar, Ray said that the chiffchaff and the willow warbler looked almost identical, but they had completely different songs.

Ray said: “The chiffchaff has a monotonous ‘chiffchaff’ like its name, whereas the willow warbler has a beautiful song. It begins in a crescendo, like a waterfall, it is strong, then tapers off.”

Of the thousands of birds he has heard or seen over the years, there is just one that mesmerises Ray – the secretive nightingale, an endangered species which has suffered from past farming practices such as the removal of hedges and heavy use of pesticides, resulting in a decline in insects and habitat.

At Holtsmere End Farm, near Redbourn, Virginia Corbett said she liked to encourage a good environment for birds.

But she pointed out that that muntjack deer, an introduced species native to Taiwan and southeast China, had an impact on wild birds’ habitat. Virginia added: “They eat a lot of the undergrowth, and birds nesting on the ground are exposed.”

Virginia said that it was “brilliant” that Ray could identify birds from sound alone, and she found it encouraging to know conservation efforts were working. She added: “It’s like rediscovering your farm.”