Volunteers make a difference in Burghsluis
After the hangover of the Christmas holidays, the volunteers started hare counts in January. Hares indicate the state of the agricultural landscape quite well and are good biodiversity indicators, so it is important to count them regularly and monitor changes in their populations. The volunteers start 30 minutes after dusk (this is the time when the hares become active) and being out in the field after dark at this time of year means that lots of warm clothes and often a hot drink are necessary to keep the shivers at bay.
The volunteers drive at walking pace along farmland transects with big flashlights shining out of the windows and over the surrounding fields (this night-time survey is commonly referred to as lamping). They write down every wild mammal they come across, so cats, roe deer, rabbits and even brown rats are recorded. Of course, the brown hare is what we most want to see, and their black tails, long ears and distinctive movements make them easy to. Perhaps this is why one volunteer, Ingrid, concluded during her first hare count: “It is very interesting to see that the hares avoid the empty fields, it is obvious that they prefer the fields with cover and weeds.”
When lamping, the colour of eyes reflecting in the dark give a first indication as to which species the volunteer surveyors have in the spotlight, but it is important to use also other defining characteristics of identification – it’s no good confusing a deer with a sheep, for example! Additionally, the local authorities are often alerted during a hare count because driving at night across farmland in cars with bright lamps can look very suspicious. Sometimes local residents come to investigate or even call the police - it can prove to be a very exciting night!
Cat during hare count (photo: Eric Mahieu)
Despite the cold and the police, volunteering on a hare count is a great opportunity to see some different types of nocturnal wildlife and we at the PARTRIDGE project are extremely grateful to everyone who takes part and contributes to our important research, including the grey partridge call-back surveys that take place later in the season.
Grey partridges call most intensively when they are trying to form pairs in the late winter/early spring and are getting desperate to find a partner. In the Netherlands, they pair up at the end of February or the beginning of March. The Partridge playback-calls start at the darkest stage of twilight, when the sky changes from pink into dark blue. With the help of a handheld speaker which plays the sound of a calling male partridge, the volunteers hope that other males will respond to the calls and can therefore be counted during the survey.
View during Partridge playback calls (photo: Naomi Oostinga)
Volunteers walk transects between 1 and 1.5 kilometres, along which they pause every 250 meters to play the partridge calls at natural volume. They play the call for 10 seconds, and then wait several seconds for answers. In the case that no bird responds, they repeat this a maximum of three times. As soon as a partridge replies to the call, the volunteer stops the playback immediately, and notes down their location. Partridges get spooked easily which makes them vulnerable to predators, so we try to keep disturbance to a minimum. This call-back survey often tests the patience of our volunteers: sometimes there are very quiet nights, with what seems like no partridges to be found, but there are also nights where multiple males reply. One volunteer, Eric, feels like those nights are a reward for his work: “after a couple of quiet nights I’ve finally heard several calling males. That is amazing!” In any case, a crisp evening walk with a beautiful sunset doesn’t give our volunteers too much to complain about.
The speaker we use during hare counts (photo: Naomi Oostinga)
After the partridge counts, the volunteers start with meadow bird protection. The spring of 2021 was the first year that they started meadow bird protection in this demo-area. Although a lot has been done to boost farmland biodiversity here, the local farmers are not able to spot all the nests of lapwings and oystercatchers because it can take a lot of time to find these nests. Breeding bird monitoring is done, and nest indications are communicated to the volunteers and farmers. However, because of the monitoring protocol, intensive searching for nests isn’t always possible and so the volunteers spend a lot of time in the field trying to locate them.
Co van den Boogert protecting a lapwing nest (photo: farmer Huub Remijn)
Communication in meadow bird protection is key, particularly conveying information about nests with the farmer. Due to great collaboration, three lapwing nests were found and protected at Burghsluis in the spring of 2021. There are different ways to protect the nests, sometimes marking the nest is enough to alert a farmer to its location but we must be careful to mark it the correct way. If markers are too close to the nests, crows will spot them which can lead to predation and affects the nesting success. Sometimes the nest has to be moved temporarily, until the farmer is done working his land, and occasionally a brave volunteer will use their own body to protect the nests!
Lapwing nest (photo: Co van den Boogert)
Beside the fact that our volunteers literally save lives, they also have other important roles in the PARTRIDGE project. They are the guards of the demonstration site at Burghsluis. They live nearby, so they visit the area often and spot coveys of partridges, send beautiful pictures and notice other interesting observations. Because they have good contacts with the local community, it creates support for the continuation of the Interreg PARTRIDGE project. We are very glad that our volunteers continue to participate and put in the effort to make a real difference to their local wildlife. Thank you!
Volunteer Co van den Boogert looking for Partridges (photo: Naomi Oostinga)
Written by Naomi Oostinga, PARTRIDGE Interreg Project Manager at Zeeland Landscape Management Foundation, edited by Amelia Corvin-Czarnodolski, 2021/22 NSR PARTRIDGE project lowlands placement student.