Sunday, 23 May 2010

Recent outdoor exploits

Evening stroll

A walk round the local playing fields on Wednesday night resulted in us spotting 12 ducklings in the little pond.  They were very young and fluffy and sped round the lake after their mum.  The pond has quite a bit of litter but there are always ducks and geese around and are clearly thriving there.  We wandered round the pond and up over the small hill.  On the other side of the hill there was another small pond with a couple of coots swimming about, and a beautiful old tree leaning out over the water.  Unfortunately I ended up with 6 bites from hanging around the waters edge looking at the ducklings!

Volunteering at Langdon Nature Reserve

After a long break from Langdon I returned on Saturday to do a spot of volunteering.  It was a beautiful morning and we set out through the reserve towards the lake.  Mick and Dave had been building a fence around the lake to help to prevent dogs swimming.  Unfortunately the lake contains blue-green algae which is harmful to humans and can be lethal for dogs.  We had a new volunteer as well so the four of us set about digging holes for the fence posts.  We were using spades and giant tongs to lift the soil out.  The soil was clay and wasn't too hard to dig out, although it did take Shelley and I some time to complete the first hole!  We dug four or five holes and then had a break.  We sat on the bench and enjoyed the sunshine and looked out across the lake where we saw 6 Canada Geese goslings.  They were swimming all over the lake, sometimes following a parent, sometimes leading the way.  We also saw a Holly Blue butterfly in the meadow.

We hammered on the posts with some very large nails.  Eventually it will have wire tacked along the back to prevent the dogs running straight under it.  Walking back through the reserve we saw several more butterflies and it felt good to be back!

Another visit to Langdon

Sunday was another gorgeous day and I really wanted to spend some time by the lake at Langdon.  I also wanted to show Joel our beautiful "rustic" fence.  We wandered through and saw a little green caterpillar [as yet unidentified], some sort of shield bug, goslings, ducklings, coots, moorhen, spawning carp, holly blue butterflies, a comma butterfly and a swift. We then stopped off at Ian's Garden [next door to the visitor centre] and checked out the vegetable patch and the pond.  There were some beautiful dragonflies on the pond.  We enjoyed an exceptionally delicious ice-cream and I went a bit daft in the gift shop!

A lovely nature-tastic week. :-)

A day out at Tiptree Heath

On Wednesday I attended the Essex Wildlife Trust Heathland Management course run by Tiptree Heath's Community Warden, Joan Pinch.  In the morning Joan told us about what heathland is and explained about the ecology of, specifically, lowland heathland.  We learned about the historic uses of heathland and the problems faced if heathland is not actively managed.  Different management techniques were discussed including grazing cattle, weedwiping, fencing, digging, removing birch trees, bracken bruising etc.  Tiptree Heath is a SSSI and has protection from Natural England.  The whole morning was very informative and was interspersed with tea breaks and lunch outside at the EWT HQ at Abbotts Hall Farm in the beautiful garden.  We had swifts flying overhead, huge bumblebees and the odd dragonfly whizzing past.  The sun was shining and it was just idyllic.

I realised quite early on that I had stupidly forgotten my mobile phone, and thus my camera.  I was devastated.  I do love to take a nature photograph!  So, resigned to missing all the photographic action I focused on enjoying the moment.  After lunch we headed out to Tiptree Heath to see the flora and fauna in action.  Heathland is a strange habitat.  To the untrained eye it looks quite barren.

However, in a few hours we had seen:

  • Common ling heather
  • Bell heather 
  • Cross-leaved heather
  • Heath Milkwort
  • Tormentil
  • Sheep's sorrel
  • Heathwood rush
  • Dog violet
  • Rose bay willow herb
  • Heath speedwell
  • A baby rabbit
  • Early Purple Orchid
  • Creeping Cinquefoil
  • Chiffchaff [song]
  • Bluebells
  • Peacock butterfly
  • Marsh pennywort
  • Grass snake
  • Green woodpecker [yaffle]
  • Aspen
  • Greater Spotted Woodpecker
  • Bracken
  • Wood sage [which is a heathland positive indicator]
  • Campion
  • Hawthorn [flowering beautifully]
  • Watercrow foot
  • Water Boatman
  • Cinnabar moth
All in all it was a very interesting day and despite initial appearances heathland is a place of great natural beauty and interest.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Monkey business

Last June I attended a Primate Evening at Colchester Zoo and won an auction for a private primate enrichment session with the animal trainer.  After almost a year of not pinning down a date Joel and I finally made it to the zoo last Sunday.

We were met at the zoo by Jez the animal trainer [of Zoo Days fame!] and he took us to our workshop.  We were faced with a multitude of materials with which to try and engage the primates and give them something stimulating to do within their enclosures.  In the wild animals would be hunting for food and rather than the keepers just giving them food in the zoo they like to get the animals to work for it.

The materials we were faced with included:  fruit, string, sellotape, rope, cardboard boxes, yogurt drink bottles, hay, leaves, twigs, hessian sacks, paper cups, old clothes, perfume, cocoa powder, old fire hose, bamboo sticks and my favourite.... meal worms!

We had just under an hour to assemble a variety of 'toys' for four different types of primate:  Orangutans, Buffy-Headed Capuchins, Squirrel Monkeys and Red-Ruffed Lemurs.  Our toys included:

  • Boxes and yoghurt drinks bottles stuffed with food and hay and taped up
  • Encasing stuffed boxes and toilet rolls in clothing and using cable ties to secure
  • Egg boxes stuffed with fruit and meal worms and leaves
  • Food inside a box inside a box inside a box inside a sack
  • Stuffed clothing with a spray of perfume
  • Fruit kebabs

Orangutans - Rajang and Tiga
These huge guys received three toys and we went into their enclosure to tie them up.  As we went through the cages at the back we were face to face with Rajang, a 41-year old orangutan.  Without the glass there, and just behind bars he was enormous.  Once we had placed the toys in the best locations we retreated and both organutans were permitted access to the main enclosure.  Rajang had a good sniff around where we had been and seemed interested in some of the toys.  To Jez's delight Raj climbed up to reach some of the toys which is very unusual because apparently he is pretty lazy.  He carefully took apart the box enclosed in the scented vest and received the reward of tomato and apple.

As he was playing with the stuffed pyjama bottoms [with a hint of cocoa powder] Tiga came in from the outdoor enclosure draped in an E.T. style cloak.  He quickly disrobed and made his way round all the toys where he climbed right up to the top and undid the knots on the highest toy.  He then dragged it back to the ground and undid more knots in the rope and fire hose and reaped the rewards.  Then he checked out the already empty vest box, then proceeded to Raj's toy.  Raj was having none of it and there was a bit of a squabble.  Tiga outsmarted him however by climbing up and undoing the top knot and yanking it away from Raj.  Poor Rajang was left with nothing as he chased Tiga and the treats outside.  It is always fascinating to watch these animals when visiting the zoo but it was even more amazing to see them working on toys that you have created yourself.

Buffy-Headed Capuchins
Next up was a family of buffy-headed capuchins.  We passed by them in their cage as we headed to their enclosure.  Here we hung the box in a box in a bag for them.  We made our way back out to the window and the keeper let them in to the enclosure.  They sensed immediately that there was something worthwhile in the sack and took turns to try ripping it open.  Given that Jez and Joel and really had to squeeze the boxes into the sack it was stuck pretty fast.  Eventually the monkeys just tore away at the cardboard and sent it flying along with the hay stuffing.  They were right inside the sack clawing away at it, ultimately just leaving a big mess for the keepers to clear up!

Squirrel Monkeys
There were about 30-odd tiny squirrel monkeys in this enclosure and we were not able to go in because they can give a bit of a bite.  So, the keeper took our toys in and hung them up.  She barely got a chance - the monkeys were all over her trying to grab at the toys.  Although these nimble guys managed to get at everything they didn't seem to realise that if they just pulled the hay out of the yoghurt bottles they would get a snack - instead they chose to try and chew through the plastic!  The bottles were turned over many times by monkeys almost rugby tackling each other and running off with the 'ball'.  It was fun to watch.

Red-Ruffed Lemurs
Finally, the one I had been looking forward to the most.  I didn't want to get my hopes up too much but I had a feeling we would be able to get into the enclosure with these guys.  I was right!  We arrived and tied the fruit kebabs onto the hammock suspended from their climbing frame.  They worked hard to get the bits of fruit from the scewers.  They were immensely cute and we even got to tickle one.  He was called Jess and enjoyed a bit of a tickle under the arm!  He even stretched out his arm so that you could get better access.

And that was the end of the enrichment session.  We spent the rest of the day wandering around the zoo watching the meerkats being fed, a bird of prey demonstration and we saw the new baby pygmy hippo - Ayo. 

The auction money went towards some of Colchester Zoo's conservation programmes.  I will continue to use my newly acquired enrichments skills on my hamsters - make 'em work for peanuts!

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Dormouse Survey Course, 4th May 2010

Essex Wildlife Trust run several courses throughout the year and this was the first one that I signed up for.  A day spent learning about the habitat of, and monitoring techniques for, the hazel dormouse.

The course was run by Rebecca Banks from the Essex Biodiversity Project and was held at the LNR at Norsey Wood in Billericay.  We started at 10am with a presentation on the ecology of dormice, their prime habitats and how surveying has been carried out across the county.  We were introduced to the nest tubes used over the spring/summer and the nest boxes used for the dormice to hibernate over winter.  We then went out to look at some of the habitat where dormice have been found within the woodland.  Norsey Wood is a delightful woodland.  The last time I was there was back in March and things were very bare and wintry.  Today however was very green and spring has definitely sprung.  Bluebells carpeted the woodland floor and it was beautiful.  We followed one of the footpaths along and then cut off into an area of quite dense trees and scrub.  Rebecca asked us to alert her when we spotted the first nest tube.  We all kept our eyes peeled and spotted the first one in a small tree.  Once we had found one it was easier to find the others.  The tubes are usually put out along a linear transect and are a set distance apart.  We looked at what made a good spot for the tubes and that they should face in towards the centre of the tree or bush they were fixed to.  They need to be positioned to allow any rain to drain out easily and fixed securely with wire.

We headed back to the education room to have lunch and a chat.  After lunch we set to work on making some tubes of our own.  This involved some prescored corrugated plastic, some plywood, small blocks of wood and a nail gun.  It was great fun: we all made 5 tubes each and numbered them.  Then we headed out to place them in the woodland.  It was quite straightforward to make, and really good fun.  Whilst we were folding and nailing everything together Rebecca was stripping cabling to reveal two pieces of wire which she cut into lengths for us to use to secure the tubes to the branches.  We all headed back out to an area where the Ranger had instructed us to position the tubes.  Starting with number 1 we positioned each box, moving in a linear fashion, keeping track of where we put each one, noting the type of tree, the height from the ground and any adjacent landmarks, e.g. ditch, large Elder tree etc.

I was really pleased with the locations chosen for my tubes, finding sturdy branches with a good about of potential food sources and shelter.  Once we had put them all back we went back to the centre to pick  up some nest boxes.  The boxes are wooden and these ones had been made by the local prison.  We carried 3 boxes to the first location we had been at and Rebecca showed us how to put them up using more wire.  These were considerably more tricky and required two pairs of hands.  The best set-up for dormice is to have a selection of boxes secured in a coppice stool facing in different directions.  We managed to secure two boxes in the time we had left.  Normally monitoring suggestions are that you should put out at least 50 tubes or boxes.  The tubes are put out in spring and are left untouched until you can be confident that the dormice have gone into hibernation for the winter.  At which point you can remove the tubes and inspect the contents to see whether there is any evidence of dormice.  The nest boxes tend to be put out once evidence of dormice have been found in an area.  They are used for hibernation and these must only be inspected, at the most once a month, for population studies by a licensed person.

It was a fun day, and I can but hope that one day I might catch sight of one of these elusive animals, even if it is just their fluffy tail disappearing up a tree...