Getting acquainted with birds in UK vineyards – fieldwork in April 2021

What a wonderful two weeks this has been! Two weeks of lone adventures across the unexplored (by me!) vineyard landscapes filled me with enthusiasm for my project and got me beaming with new-found spring energy. In short, the birds across UK vineyards did not disappoint.

If you’re anything like me then you don’t need much persuading to get out of the house, especially after endless months of home-working, but what I experienced across 18 British vineyards was more than just a walk to the local reserve. These largely unvisited, peaceful landscapes felt serene and dormant, though at the same time teeming with bird life.

In this blog post, I bring you some stories about my encounters with birds on my visits to UK vineyards in April 2021. Before we proceed, I’d like to include a short disclaimer - unlike my previous posts, this blog is a subjective account and whilst, all stories here are accurate, they are cherry-picked to form a memoir of my experience. This post should not be used as basis for statements about bird diversity across vineyards. Data collation and analysis are taking place and later posts over the next 2-3 years will discuss results and findings of this 2-year Birds in UK vineyards Project.

Lesser black backed gulls perching on an old oak, overlooking a vineyard | Photo by: Natalia Zielonka

Norfolk & Cambridgeshire

My journey began in the tranquil countryside of East Anglia, where it seemed that the vineyards hadn’t come out of hibernation yet. The vineyards felt still and empty; there was almost an eery feeling lingering in the air. Undeterred and equipped with binoculars around my neck and a notebook held firmly in my hand, I started my bird surveys. Accompanied by the cracking of frosty grass, I began my exploration of the vineyards, slowly walking in-between two, out of hundreds of identically straight and symmetrical vine rows, in search for birds. It wasn’t long before I was alerted by the alarm call of a little robin, which I quickly spotted perching on the wire of the trellis and assessing me with a side glance. I retreated a few steps and patiently watched; the robin seemed more awake than I was, flying off to a nearby hedge, just to bounce back to the trellis wire, on the ground and back again. After a few minutes of this show, my robin friend returned to where I saw it first, paused for just long enough for me to see it had a worm in its mouth, before taking a dive into the upturned ground at the base of the vine. Knowing that spring is definitely here, I smiled and headed further into the vineyard.

A frosty morning at a vineyard in Norfolk. | Photo by: Natalia Zielonka

As beams of sunshine filled the countryside, all of its residents sprang to life, unveiling the life within UK vineyards. The land filled with drumming and laughing woodpeckers, courting coos of collared doves and woodpigeons and the cheerful chatter of blue and long-tailed tits, all residing in the old oaks along the borders of vineyards. As I roamed across the vineyards, my eyes were drawn to the little buds, which were soon to grow into beautiful grapes. I didn’t have long to contemplate the life of the vine as I was startled by a male muntjac which emerged from a thick hedge on the vineyard edge. We stared at each other, both uncertain of our next move until the buck leaped away. It was clear to me that the vineyards were going to be full of surprises as I was going to delve into their lives. I turned around and left, ready to move on and drive to Kent.

Kent

As I drove away from East Anglia, I left flats behind and entered a landscape of gently rolling hills and dales. Already at my first destination, as I was wrestling with a gate, I became mesmerised by the twirping, tweeting and chirping of the morning chorus on a warm, sunny day. There must have been a dozen of species in my vicinity at any one time, though that wasn’t surprising seeing as I had arrived at what seemed like a haven – imagine mature, greening trees overlooking slopes of brightly yellow rapeseed, whose sweet scent filled the warm air, and meadows buzzing with bees and flies. You can hear the trinkling of a small stream by your side, lined with daffodils and snake’s-head fritillary, delicately pink cherry blossom trees and a pond. A sanctuary for wildlife.

The sunny vineyard landscapes of Kent | Photo by: Natalia Zielonka

It was a warm afternoon as I was setting up traps for invertebrates and enjoying the sun’s warmth on my face, when the unmistakably loud song of a wren caught my attention. Wrens are truly iconic birds; I often describe them singing as ‘belting it out’, though that seems a rather undainty way of describing these seemingly delicate birds. Wrens are one of the smallest birds in the UK, yet they take the top spot for their singing by producing the highest number of decibels per gram of weight out of all UK birds. I was lucky to spot the singer and admire it, as it pushed its chest forward, lowered its wings, and proudly produced its rattly trill into the sky. Over my journey, I’ve seen and heard many wrens around the borders of vineyards, though never within the vines. I look forward to understanding more about their use of these landscapes over my future trips.

In Kent, I arrived at some of the largest vineyards of my project, and was taken aback by the huge expanses of land covered by uniformly planted vines, stretching down the slopes and up again, as far as the eye could see. At one such vineyard where I spent many hours conducting surveys, mixed charms of 50+ finches kept me company. Finches frequently travel in mixed-species groups, and they can be easily identified in the air as they fly in quick bouts of flapping followed by gliding with their wings closed. They almost give the impression of being joyful, as they can often be heard chirping, as they pass just above your head. Over my time across UK vineyards, I’ve watched charms of goldfinches, linnets, and greenfinches with a few passing lesser redpolls, which are winter migrants to most of the Southern UK. These were delightful to watch, as they bounced between trellis wires and the ground, before suddenly taking to the air and crossing the vineyard, then falling back down to the ground. I’ve spent many hours squinting through my binoculars, trying to follow these fast-moving flocks and get a glimpse of what these little birds are doing. As finches are mostly seedeaters, I’ve noticed many feeding on the ground vegetation, including on common groundsel and dandelions, as well as using the wire trellis to clean their bills!

A goldfinch perching on trellis wire. These stunning birds were frequently spotted perching on the wires before taking a dive to the ground where they fed on the ground vegetation. | Photo by: Natalia Zielonka

Sussex

Sussex had some surprises and breath-taking views in store for me. I’d like to imagine that one of the vineyards could be seen from space, thanks to the hundreds and hundreds of brightly coloured, and roundly shaped dandelions carpeting the vineyard from edge to edge. The view was spectacular, and it made me sad to think that dandelions are often undesired weeds across many pristine lawns. This couldn’t be further from the truth here as the vineyard was full of finches and pheasants, feeding in between the vine rows on the dandelion seeds and flowers. A much more skittish animal was also enjoying a feast – the hare. These majestic mammals stood tall in the vines, or crouched low in soil grooves trying to hide from me – and successfully so until I unknowingly got too close, when the hare would burst into its 45mph sprint, leaving startled-me behind. As my journey through Sussex continued, and I left the beautiful dandelion vineyard behind, the hares didn’t leave me. Hares prefer mosaic habitats of grassland, arable fields, and woodland, so perhaps it’s no wonder that they were so numerous across vineyards, which provide plenty of hiding places in the ground depressions alongside vines. I do wonder how many leverets I walked by. I hope the answer is many as this beautiful species is on the decline.

A hare hiding in a ground depression between vines. Hares were common across this vineyard where they feasted on the bright dandelions. | Photo by: Natalia Zielonka

There are too many memories from my journey to recall in one blog and as Sussex is a stronghold for vineyards, I could keep you sitting here for a while, so I’ll limit myself to a couple more stories; the first features members of my favourite group of birds - waders! When visiting vineyards, I didn’t expect to see waders, though in Brazil vineyards where I recently worked, Southern lapwing were plentiful! Anyhow, Eurasian lapwing in between vines didn’t fit into my schema, until I heard the unmistakable ‘peewit’ of a lapwing and saw the dramatic display of a male up in the air overseeing the vines. I can’t not smile when I see this species. Lapwing breed across arable fields and grasslands, and the vineyard where I saw this pair was relatively new, with a lot of the ground still exposed, and uneven with lots of flint scattered about, providing suitable breeding conditions. One of the common reasons for nest failure in lapwing, as well as in other waders, is (unintentional) destruction of nests by farm machinery; this vineyard pair didn’t seemed to have a nest yet, and we shall see if they are still occupying the vineyard when I next visit.

The lapwing vineyard was full of life, perhaps thanks to the rich surrounding landscape neighbouring it. During my visit, I didn’t feel alone for a second, as I was surrounded by the beautiful singing of skylarks, meadow pipits flushing from under my feet and the call of passing curlews, which pulled at my heartstrings. Whilst the skylarks and meadow pipits seemed to have made themselves at home within the vines, the curlews flew over the vineyard, before landing in a neighbouring arable field, where they likely went to feed.

Chiffchaff were commonly heard singing from the edges of vineyards. | Photo by: Natalia Zielonka

I cannot move on before bringing you another story – an experience that will stay with me for years. It was the golden hour, the vineyard and surrounding woodland were lit in the warm and soft glow of sunshine, and I was just fitting the final few traps within the vines. I sensed movement behind me, so I turned around to see 3 bramblings, perching on a trellis wire and preening their feathers. They are beautiful finches, and I was lucky to see these three as they are sure to be soon heading to Russia and Scandinavia, where they breed. I paused to admire them in the low sunshine, which brought out the orange on their chests. This sighting was wonderful and as I marvelled at how lucky I was to be witnessing this, a red kite dived down at the 3 resting birds, hoping to catch an easy supper. Within a second, just as if someone burst a bubble in the air, all birds disappeared. The red kite left empty-clawed, and the three bramblings flew off into the woodland. It’s not often that you witness the attack of a bird of prey so close by; all of this happened within 2 meters of me, as I was likely hidden by the sloping ground.

The South West

I arrived in the South West after two weeks on the road, which seemed to have taken a toll on my car, but after a smooth visit to a nearby auto-store (with a coffee machine), both my car and I were energised and ready to explore. A couple of my best bird sightings come from the South West, so let’s dive in.

The rolling slopes and dales of British vineyards. | Photo by: Natalia Zielonka

Many of the project vineyards are found deep within the UK countryside, away from big roads and cities, and some are naturally more remote than others. A long, narrow country track (almost an off-road experience for a hatchback) led to one such vineyard, and it was along this track that I saw a flock of about 20 wheatears. I think of wheatears as very elegant, thanks to their straight-cut facial markings, particularly seen in males. Though these birds have a green conservation status in the UK, they can only be seen on passage in Norfolk where I live, so it was real treat for me to be able to watch them on the country lane. This was a promising start to the day, I thought, as I arrived at the vineyard to start my morning surveys, where I was thrilled by the sight of corn buntings perching on trellis wire neighbouring arable fields, as well as a pair of common whitethroat, and a flock of fledgling house sparrows. Spring seemed more advanced in the South West, as the trees were fully green, the hawthorn seemed to have lost most of its blossom, and the vine buds were opening.

The end of my trip was fast approaching as I visited my final two vineyards, feeling unaware of where the time had gone and how it could have passed so quickly! It was a Sunday morning when I was chatting to a vineyard manager, and as much as I was engaged in the conversation, I couldn’t help myself looking past my companion and into the sky where 6 buzzards were majestically circling above the vineyard, as a lonely crow struck one of the buzzards, in an attempt to deter the group away from its nest. The signs of breeding birds in the trees, woodlands, and hedges neighbouring the vineyards were plentiful, from blue tits coming in and out of nest boxes and song thrushes gathering worms and little bugs from the ground to take back to their chicks, to dunnocks collecting moss for their nests.

A dunnock cautiously looking at me after displaying at the edge of a vineyard. | Photo by: Natalia Zielonka

After over two weeks of being immersed into the birdlife within UK vineyards, I felt that I’d seen a lot, but a pair of Canada geese waddling in between vines, and trying to navigate the trellis as they took off, took me by surprise on my final day of fieldwork. It seems that UK vineyards harbour a wide diversity of birds, some sticking to the bordering habitats, whilst others venture deeper in, smoothly flying (or hopping) in between the wires and vines, clearly thriving as they do so. I cannot wait to be back to collect more data and shed some light onto what affects the diversity of birds (and other species) across the expanding UK vineyards.

This pair of Canada geese seemed at home waddling in between vine rows. | Photo by: Natalia Zielonka

About the author

My name’s Natalia Zielonka, and I’m a PhD candidate at the University of East Anglia. I’m supported by the UKRI BBSRC Norwich Research Park Biosciences Doctoral Training Partnership, and my great supervisors are Dr Lynn Dicks (based at the University of Cambridge) and Dr Simon Butler (UEA). If you have any questions then please don’t hesitate to contact me on [email protected] and via Twitter: @Nat_B_Zielonka.

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