Golf Courses are Avian Havens

Antony Wainwrightin Conservation & Ecology

Golf courses are often considered by many to be of detrimental value to the British landscape but, after over ten years within the greenkeeping industry, I believe otherwise. In truth, golf courses are 'Avian Havens', and that's a fact.

This is due to the principle management regime of all greenkeepers up and down the British Isles and across the world, which is establishment and maintenance of fineturf on our greens, tees and fairways. This management, in turn, provides an unlikely niche for some of our feathered friends, something I'm sure all greenkeepers will be familiar with, and which I will discuss later.

Out-of-play areas, too, such as wooded plantations (coniferous, deciduous or mixed), rough grassland, heath, water features - basically all facets of the modern golf course - will attract a varying diversity of birds.

It is true that a more diverse array of bird species can be attracted using an assorted selection of tried and tested methods in your out-of-play areas, but this article will explore some of the opportunistic species commonly encountered on every golf course, and demonstrate that you don't have to be an eco-minded individual to encourage wild birds onto your course; you just need to maintain the turf that all golfers enjoy.

However, with the golf environmental movement now appearing to be gathering real pace, and many UK greenkeepers practising good environmental stewardship, we can no longer be deemed irresponsible within our industry.

Greenkeeping is the perfect job for me as I can carry out my daily tasks on the course whilst enjoying my favourite pastime - birdwatching - also known as birding, twitching, bird spotting and a whole host of names commonly given to the hobby.

Birds are also excellent indicators of the state of the environment due to their visibility to us, and I have managed to record a total of ninety-four species at Turton Golf Club in the six years I have worked there, some that may be familiar to you and others less so, and I hope to reach the magical one hundred before the year is out.

A few of the highlights during my time here include Merlin, Europe's smallest bird of prey, hunting along the moorland edge one morning as I raked the bunkers; Peregrine Falcon, the world's fastest member of the animal kingdom, regularly spotted as I casually scan the skies whilst cutting grass; Common Crossbills, which is in no way common anymore, seen prising open pine cones with their specialised crossed bill, allowing them to get at the seed before the cone opens its larder to other more common seed eaters; and Whimbrels, a migratory bird that has a long decurved bill for probing into the mud, recently seen flying over the course on their way to their Siberian breeding grounds from North Africa. These are to name just a few, but there are more common birds that regularly grace every golf course that most greenkeepers are familiar with, and some that have the most interesting habits and benefits to us.

One such bird is the Pied Wagtail, one that I'm sure will be familiar to all greenkeepers throughout mainland Britain; in fact, I would put money on them being present on all golf courses on the mainland. It is a common resident within the UK and has striking black and white plumage and a long wagging tail, from which it gets its name. It is usually spotted around the greens or fairways in perpetual motion as it searches for its insect prey, which includes the dreaded adult Crane Flies that can cause so much damage to our turf.

Usually, these birds are present around wetland habitats, but have adapted to the presence of man remarkably well and can now be found in a broad range of habitats, including the apparently sterile environment of fineturf on golf courses. They are attracted here by the intensive management carried out on these fineturf spots by the greenkeeper, which means they can easily locate their insect prey due to the short turf allowing them to better see any invertebrates lurking on the surface.

Emphasis is put on 'seeing their prey' here, because this is a bird that relies entirely on sight to locate food; in which the short cropped turf of greens and fairways provide the ideal environment.

You may find it peculiar that I mention 'seeing their prey' as, surely, all birds have to be capable of sight to be able to feed, but apparently not.

Blackbirds, for example, a common garden bird to us all, can be seen to tilt their heads when searching for earthworms on the lawn. Here, they are listening for the minute sounds the worms make as they traverse their underground burrows. Other birds, such as the Oystercatcher, rely heavily on their sense of touch, using special sensitive cells at the tips of their bills to probe the ground for invertebrates.

As for 'seeing' Pied Wagtails on your course, this should not present a problem as they also build their nests in a variety of man-made habitats from dry stone walls, old machinery and all sorts of niches and gaps that present themselves all around a golf course. The Pied Wagtails are evidently taking advantage through association with us, but it is worth remembering that they too are offering us a service in return, as they clear thousands of potential pests from our turf every day.

This unique symbiotic relationship between greenkeeper and bird, which the Pied Wagtail demonstrates, can also be attributed to other species commonly encountered on the golf course.

One such species is the Common Starling, a familiar sight within towns, parks, gardens and, of course, golf courses. Here, they can be seen, sometimes in large numbers, combing the turf for all manner of invertebrates. Many consider this bird to be a pest due to their obtrusive behaviour, especially at the bird table where they often dominate and boss other species present. However, things are not going well for the Common Starling, as it has now been upgraded to BirdLife Internationals 'Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern'. BirdLife International is a partnership between 116 national conservation organisations and they consider the Starling to be under real threat, showing a rapid decline here in the UK of 80% of the population in the last forty years.

Similar to Pied Wagtails, Starlings show a marked preference for closely cropped turf in which to forage. This highly opportunistic species is also able to concentrate foraging efforts in the most profitable areas of the turf by using a range of complex cues which we are yet to understand, almost like a sixth sense. As this species is able to hone-in onto these hotspots of invertebrates, they prove to be of major benefit to the greenkeeper as they are able to clear whole stretches of turf from pests; especially the larval stage of Crane Flies, the infamous Leatherjacket.

The benefits don't stop here with this bird as, by probing the ground in search of prey at over 120 times per minute, they also provide an effective aeration programme. So, a flock of fifty individuals can, theoretically, produce 360,000 aeration holes per hour on a stretch of fairway, clearing most of the pests that are present. In addition, each of the aeration holes formed by a starling's probing is further broadened due to a very specialised trait that is unique within the avian kingdom, where their jaw muscles work in a completely different way to all other birds.

Here, instead of using most of their jaw power to clamp the bill shut on their chosen prey, they use these muscles to spring the bill open, further widening the probed ground to expose hidden prey and increasing the benefits of aeration within the turf.

There are other species that rely heavily on closely cropped turf in which to forage that are regularly encountered within the golf course environment. They may not have as much of a benefit to the greenkeeper as the previous species discussed, but are important all the same in the wider diversity of the golf course.

Such species are Black-headed Gull, Oystercatcher, Skylark, Meadow Pipit and Wheatear to name a few. Wheatear, for example, are small passage migrants to most golf courses that pass through during migration periods (March to May and August/September), coming from South Africa to the uplands of Britain and beyond. It has had identified range contractions from lowland Britain since 1968-72, perhaps due to losses of suitable grassland and declines in rabbit abundance. Look for their 'white arses' (from which they get their name) as they fly away from you during these passage times. The white arse alludes to the flashy white rump, which contrasts with the black wings and tail-tip and grey back.

To finish off, I thought it may be worthy of a mention of a bird that actively seeks out the greenkeeper as he/she goes about their cutting regime, especially during cold and wet periods during the summer. I am referring to the Swallow, another migrant to our shores, and one which, I'm sure, will be familiar to us all.

As an insectivorous bird, catching flying insects with extreme dexterity in mid-air, it is prone to struggling to find food during cold weather when insects are largely inactive. This is where the greenkeeper comes into play, as we cut the grass and disturb insects resting on the turf during these cold spells.

Swallows quickly seize this opportunity to feed, and can be seen flying around our machines as they hum up and down and around the course, sometimes gathering into quite sizeable flocks of twenty or thirty feeding birds.

It is quite heart-warming to be helping Swallows during what birdwatchers term as 'a state of emergency' for these birds throughout these cold spells, and can help pass the long summer days when we are at our busiest.

I suppose it could be considered another example of a symbiotic relationship between greenkeeper and bird where they keep us entertained whilst they benefit from feeding, and goes to demonstrate that your course is an avian haven without you having to do anything different to your normal greenkeeping regime.

Bird photographs kindly provided by John R Barlow. Visit to view a selection of fine bird images

Seasonal Sightings

The height of the British summer during July and August is a time of plenty for our flora and fauna, with most of our mammals and birds busily rearing young and a host of wildflowers at the peak of their reproductive cycles. The air can literally be a buzz of activity during this time with thousands of flying insects going about their daily routines.

The following is a selection of what natural heritage can be expected on the golf course during these two months of proliferation.

This is a time when the adult stages of butterflies, dragonflies, bees and moths are on the wing amongst the countless invertebrates that can be invisible to us lurking in the vegetation. Take a closer look, if you manage to get the time, and try to identify how many species you encounter. Maybe you can spot the attractive red and black Cinnabar Moth as it lays its eggs on Common Ragwort, to be followed by the yellow and black striped caterpillars later in July.

Many birds keep a low profile during these months to avoid detection whilst they bring up their families, but the diligent observer can perhaps seek out parent birds visiting nest sites within quiet corners of the golf course.

This is also a time when Three-spined Sticklebacks are spawning in the small ponds that form water hazards on the course, where the young froglets and toadlets are now at a stage when they can leave their watery environment.

Red and Roe Deer are now joined by their offspring, and you may be lucky enough to spot them as they hide out for the long days of summer, whilst moles and hares are at the height of their breeding cycle. Snakes too, including the venomous Adder, will now have eggs which are laid at this time to coincide with the long warm days that are needed for successful embryo development.

All of the above are ultimately dependant on the plant communities which support them, forming various habitats and niches which they inhabit. These plant communities can add a splash of colour to the golf course during this time, and a small selection of flowering plants will now include Bramble, Holly, Honeysuckle, Ragged Robin, Dog Rose, Thrift, Water Lilies and Rosebay Willowherb.