Written in collaboration with the RSPB – Anna Allum
National Nest Box Week takes place every year from 14 to 21 February, but did you know not all birds nest in trees and boxes? As we approach Valentine’s Day and are thinking about romance, so too are the birds, who are sensing the onset of spring and are thinking about finding a mate, setting up a home and raising a family. Things really do happen that quickly in the bird world!
While some birds are expert builders and others professional decorators, some species choose to do as little construction work as possible, preferring to nest on the ground. It may come as no surprise that these are some of our most rare and threatened species, being particularly susceptible to disturbance.
Out on the heathland, which covers only 1% of the South Downs, the rare Woodlark simply nests in a depression in the ground among a tuft of grass or heather. They start their breeding season early and hope to raise two or three broods of chicks between March and August. The Dartford Warbler is restricted to lowland heath in the South of England and, while it is most easily spotted singing from the top of a gorse bush, it too nests on the ground and is vulnerable to disturbance.
Later in the year they are joined by the Nightjar, a species that has flown more than 5,000 miles here from southern Africa to breed. Nightjars are ground nesting birds, relying on their superb camouflaged plumage to keep them hidden during the daytime. The female will lay two eggs, timing her laying so that the chicks hatch around a full moon – more moonlight means better hunting conditions for the adults who fly at dusk and dawn looking for moths and other insects to feed their chicks. Once hatched, the female will continue to feed and brood the young for a further 12 days, then abandon her first clutch to start a second. The male will continue to look after the first brood of chicks for a further week until they fledge.
Many of us enjoy exploring the heathland but it’s important to remember that birds don’t just nest in trees and boxes. Incredibly vulnerable to disturbance from predators, recreational users and dogs may inadvertently damage nests and eggs, or scare the adult birds away. Life for these rare birds which nest on the ground is tough, but we can help them by sticking to the path during ground nesting bird season (normally March to September) and keeping our dogs on the path and in sight. This could also prevent your dog stumbling across an adder or, if you are on a Ministry of Defence site, stop them picking up potentially dangerous military debris.
Find out more about our threatened heathlands habitats here: www.southdowns.gov.uk/heathlands-reunited
Learn how you can get involved with National Nest Box Week here: https://www.bto.org/about-birds/nnbw