Look out for the nest generation

Oystercatcher nest by Amy Lewis

Birds are beginning to nest, and not all of them in trees. Many birds nest on the ground and it’s really important to avoid disturbing them. We’re here to help you learn more about ground nesting-birds and how you can help them.

Is there any better time for a walk than spring? Longer days, warmer weather and new life emerging everywhere; the air filling with birdsong and the scent of blooming flowers. It’s also nesting season for birds, but did you know that not all birds nest in trees?

Which birds nest on the ground?

Lots of birds nest on the ground in the UK and we’re lucky enough to have some really important ground-nesting birds in Lancashire, Greater Manchester and North Merseyside, including:

  • Curlews
  • Lapwings
  • Redshanks
  • Snipe
  • Skylarks
  • Yellowhammers
  • And more

As you can imagine, nesting on the ground leaves these birds incredibly vulnerable to predators which is why, as hundreds of thousands of years have rolled by, they have evolved ways to go undetected. One of these is some of the best camouflage in the animal kingdom; another is extremely well-hidden nests. Coastal ground-nesting birds lay eggs that are patterned like pebbles among rocks on the shoreline, while birds like curlews and skylarks make hollows in long grass.

Hiding their precious eggs in this way worked really well for ground nesting birds before we humans entered the picture, but as they’re so well camouflaged, we don’t always know when a nest is nearby and can end up disturbing the bird.

A lapwing nesting on the grass with two chicks next to her

Lapwing and chicks by Darin Smith

What do we mean by ‘disturbance’, and why is it such a threat?

Disturbing a ground-nesting bird means causing that bird to leave the nest, even if you didn’t intend to. Once a bird has taken flight it may stay off its nest for several minutes – imagine how long the eggs and chicks will be exposed for with repeated disturbance. A ground-nesting bird can end up spending more time off the nest than on it, which has tragic consequences:

  • Birds failing to lay eggs
  • Eggs chilling and failing to hatch
  • Chicks dying from cold or lack of food
  • Eggs and chicks being eaten by predators, including crows. If alerted by the signs and calls of a distressed parent, they’ll seize their chance to snatch any young or eggs.

Ground-nesting birds are some of the most threatened bird species in the UK, with many of them on the ‘red list’ of birds that need urgent action to stop them from dying out. Lapwings, curlews, skylarks, woodcock and ringed plovers are just a handful of the ground-nesting birds on the red list, and you can find them all in our region.

A woman walking a springer spaniel and a labrador on their leads through a woodland nature reserve

Image by Peter Cairns/2020VISION

Ground-nesting birds and dogs

Exploring with your four-legged friend is a lovely way to experience the great outdoors – even more so when you’re a responsible dog walker. Though your pooch might look cute and playful, to a ground-nesting bird they’re a big and scary predator. An excitable or inquisitive dog wandering or bounding through the grass or heather could easily trample eggs or scare adult birds off their nests, leaving chicks vulnerable to cold, hunger and predators. Some dogs may even take birds in their mouths, either because they want to play or, sadly, to attack. Unfortunately we’ve seen this happen to lapwings on some of our nature reserves.

Keeping your dog on a short lead on nature reserves and open-access land means you can still go on an adventure together, keeping ground-nesting birds safe at the same time. Some of our nature reserves are dog-free zones because the wildlife there is so sensitive to disturbance, so in this instance, please leave your dog at home or take them to one of our dog-friendly nature reserves.

Find a dog-friendly nature reserve

How you can help ground-nesting birds

Ground-nesting birds are under threat from all sides, including habitat loss and climate change. By making sure you don’t disturb ground-nesting birds you’re removing an added pressure and giving them a fighting chance of survival. Here are some really important – but really easy! – things you can do to help:

A blackened bird egg sitting in the ashes of a groud-nesting birds nest destroyed by fire

A ground-nesting birds nest destroyed by fire

  • Stick to footpaths on our nature reserves and in the wider countryside.
  • Watch where you step – ground-nesting bird nests are extremely well-camouflaged and you often won’t see one until it’s too late.
  • Respect the messages on signs that have been put up to protect ground-nesting birds.
  • If you see signs of distress from birds (like loud alarm calling, flights back and forward or even dive-bombing), back away and choose a different route.
  • Keep your dog on their lead on nature reserves, open-access land and anywhere signed between 1 March – 31 July (bird breeding season). Many people don’t realise, but this is actually the law as well as part of the Countryside Code.
  • Don’t use disposable barbecues – these are one of the main causes of fires which destroy the homes of ground-nesting birds, and any nests in them.

By doing these few simple things, you can help to protect not just ground-nesting birds, but other vulnerable creatures like common lizards, brown hares, roe deer and delicate wildflowers.

A lapwing chick hiding amongst dew-covered grass

Lapwing chick by Margaret Holland

Nature is amazing – let’s keep it that way.