Saturday, 26 November 2011

Betty, Boar, Beavers, Birds and much, much more

Mid-November sees a break in lectures and this year the college laid on three field trips for those of us who were interested. 

Monday was a visit to the Wildwood Trust in Kent to learn more about their captive breeding programmes.  In particular their water vole programme.  Water vole populations have declined over the years mainly die to loss of habitat and the alien species American Mink.  The Trust often takes in voles which are part of a translocation programme.  Depending on the length of time they are going to be in captivity they will breed from the animals to ensure their survival.  As such it is often the grandchildren of the original animals which are released into the wild.  In 2011 they bred approximately 270 voles there.  We met "Betty" who was the first water vole I have ever seen in the "fur".  We also had a wander round all the cages.  It seems to be a very labour intensive process looking after all these voles but a worthwhile project to ensure their survival.  The girl pictured with "Betty" is a Writtle graduate currently carrying out an internship with the Trust.

Introducing "Betty"

One of the many enclosures housing the voles

Following the voles, we were then guided round the rest of the park by a couple of members of the educational team.  We were shown some small mammals such as pine marten but then moved on to the boar.  it was interesting to see the effect they have on the ground in their enclosure as this would be what it would be like if they were released into the wild.  Although they make a mess of the ground with their trampling and snuffling the disturbance can be good for many species.  The one species it is not good for is the bluebell.  The UK's bluebell woods are the finest examples in the world and boar in the wild could have a catastrophic impact on this.

"Harriet" the wild boar

We also saw bison, wolves, lynx, Konik horses and some sleeping beavers.  The red squirrels were adorable but they don't seem to do very well in captivity showing signs of stereotypies.  This is where the animal behaves in a repetitive or habitual way, such as pacing along the enclosure boundary. 

Konik Horse - another fashionable conservation tool

European bison

Wildwood Trust

One of the red squirrels

After lunch we drove to a Kent Wildlife Trust site called Ham Fen where they have released beavers into a secured area for conservation purposes.  Surrounded by an electric fence the fen is exceptionally boggy, as you would expect, and there were obvious signs of beaver activity with some felled trees and some well-nibbled ones.

Further along the river we encountered exceptionally wet ground and in fact I ended up thigh-deep in a badger burrow.  Covered in mud and with walking boots full of water I marched on (carefully) to see the beaver lodge and their dam.  An impressive construction built in about a fortnight. They are truly amazing animals in terms of their engineering ability.

On Tuesday we headed out to the Dengie Peninsula (a Special Protection Area and an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty); a place which inspired films such as War of the Worlds and The Birds due to it's other-worldly, bleak appearance, and somewhere I've wanted to go for some time.  We were here to start the Big Birding Bash and we went to a few different sites including arable, coastal and estuarine.  Our list of spots (few of which were identified by me!) included:

  • Corn Bunting
  • Chaffinch
  • Goldfinch
  • Carrion Crow
  • Hooded Crow
  • Magpie
  • Skylark
  • Reed Bunting
  • Yellowhammer
  • Brent Goose
  • Oystercatcher
  • Redshank
  • Turnstone
  • Marsh Harrier
  • Little Egret
  • Dunlin
  • Shelduck
  • Curlew
  • Golden Plover
  • Lapwing
  • Mistle Thrush
  • Little Owl (the most exciting for me!!)

Waiting for the owls to show... with some very eerie trees!

Friday was the last day of the field trip programme and we headed off to Hertfordshire to attend a few talks by staff at Rothamsted Research.  Having put a career in research into the melting pot of future ideas I was excited to be going there to find out what it was all about.  The place felt very "sciencey" in an old-fashioned kind of way and these people really know what they are talking about.  Specialists in aphids, bumblebees and long-term research projects it was fascinating to hear them talk.  The focus is very much agricultural research; increasing productivity whilst developing environmentally sustainable solutions.

A trip to the ladies took me back a couple of decades to my Grandma's house when I spotted a little toilet roll doll on top of the hand dryer: fabulous.  The staff canteen was pretty fantastic as well.  Looks like a good place to work overall!

An excellent week of interesting field trips topped off by having to hand in 3 assignments in quick succession.  Perhaps I should have stayed home to concentrate on those - only time will tell!  I'm happy to trade a few marks for a sighting of a Little Owl.

Monday, 24 October 2011

What a brain; what a man; what a bird!

Firstly Autumnwatch has returned to our television screens.  Now, nothing beats getting out and about in nature except perhaps the delectable and divinely fascinating Chris Packham on your tellybox every Friday evening for a couple of months... or so I thought.

Saturday, 15th October 2011 was a day I never in my wildest dreams imagined would ever occur.  Well, obviously the date would occur but what happened on that day was totally fantastic.  I still haven't quite recovered.  Michelle and I attended the very first Wildlife Xpo at Alexandra Palace in London.  We were booked in to listen to three lectures; one of them given by the National Trust's Matthew Oates (butterfly guru and worshipper of HIM - His Imperial Majesty; the Purple Emperor) and the other two by none other than the man of the season Chris Packham.

It was a difficult task keeping my excitement under control.  However under control it remained and the photographic evidence is here for all to see.  (In case you can't spot me my hair is now short and red!)

Chris in action
Autograph signing

With Michelle and the girls from Hanningfield Reserve

So, there you have it.  A day to be remembered.  The best thing about it was listening to him talk about so many of the things we are learning at college and to feel really motivated to get out there and do it!

To add to that excitement, this weekend I was idly looking out the patio doors over the garden and paying particular attention to a row of four chubby little sparrows doing a spot of sunbathing when in swooped a whopping great (relatively speaking) sparrowhawk.  It landed on the bush on the other side of the fence and turned its head to give me a fantastic view of its yellow eye.  Spectacular.  And one of Chris' favourite birds I believe.  Picture below is from a BBC website as I was nowhere near ready with my camera!

The beautiful sparrowhawk

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Another busy week is almost past.  College has been interesting this week but work needs to start on all the assignments that are being doled out.  Work has been particularly manic this week but the train journey into London allowed me to finally read Lawton's 'Making Space for Nature' report which has been kicking about my study for months.  It is closely linked to the Landscape Ecology module I have just started so it makes for good background reading.

I met with some of the Living Landscapes team on Tuesday and Michelle and I have agreed to work on a few bits for the Hanningfield document.  I say a 'few' bits - we are hoping not to have bitten off more than we can chew!  I'll be looking at the geology, topograhy and hydrology section(!) and then we'll both be working together on key wildlife habitats and key species AND managing for biodiversity.  I'm actually very excited about it all.

This weekend sees the 2-year anniversary of my trip to La Brenne with EuCAN as a conservation volunteer... essentially what changed my career direction.  If you haven't heard about my trip (and I'd be surprised if you haven't!) then you can read about it here!

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Hot, hot, hot and back to school!

The leaves on the trees have been turning and falling for a couple of weeks now - seemed very early this year.  To add to the confusion this week has seen temperatures in the south-east of England soar to 29 degrees celsius.  It's October for goodness' sake!  On the plus side it has given me some sunny weather to get out and cut down the widlflower meadow in the garden and to have a general tidy-up.  Still, I'm looking forward to autumn-proper when I can see the structure of the trees laid bare and the birds jumping about within the branches.  Leaves really do get in the way when you are trying to spot long-tailed tits...

I'm two weeks into my 2nd year at college. I'm excited to be back but also feeling quite a bit of pressure to do as well as last year. We hada very exciting and inspiring lecture last week and so I feel ready to dive head first in to the world of landscape ecology and mega-fauna!  But my part-time work is pretty hectic as well so it's fair to say I am not feeling very relaxed at the moment. Our first piece of formative work is due in a couple of days. We're doing a short presentation on fen habitats and looking at why they are declining and how and why they are protected.  Fortunately we can use our trip to Redgrave and Lopham Fen back in August as an example.

On Tuesday this week I'm off to a meeting at Hanningfield Reservoir to discuss how I can get involved with writing their Living Landscape document.

Anyway, more to follow soon on what I'm getting up to in and out of college - pertaining to nature, naturally!

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Summer holidays

The latter part of the summer this year saw me take two UK breaks: the first a camping trip in Suffolk with college friends and the second, a week in the Lake District with my family.

Michelle, Matt & Me

In mid-August Matt, Gavin, Michelle and I spent a weekend at Honeypot Camping on the Suffolk/Norfolk borders.  A small but spacious campsite with a couple of lakes and a little "conservation" area of wildflowers, scrub and trees. 

Aside from the usual liquid refreshments, camp stove issues and an over amorous pigeon... we managed to get out on the Saturday and visit Suffolk Wildlife Trust's Redgrave and Lopham Fen which has the Raft Spider as the star attraction.  Fortunately for me we didn't see any!  It's a lovely big reserve and we had a lengthy walk round looking at dragonflies, frogs, and birds.  Stupidly we hadn't taken any lunch and practically ran the last part of the Waveney Trail to get to the pub for lunch.

Redgrave and Lopham Fen, Suffolk


At the beginning of September Joel and I drove to the Lake District to Brockwood Hall where my parents had rented a log cabin for us all, including my brother and his girlfriend.  The idea was that we would do many walks in the countryside stopping off at cute pubs before starting off again.  Sadly the weather had other ideas.  As the tailend of hurricane Katia whipped the west coast, Cumbria suffered from heavy rainfall and high winds.  But that did not stop us. 

Highlights included:

Ambleside: pouring with rain; boys watched a football match in the pub; ladies went for tea and scones. 

Keswick: pouring with rain; The Pencil Museum, Derwent Water. bumped into friends.

Windermere: rain showers; lunch with friends, Jackdaws jumping around the water's edge like ducks!

Coniston: beautiful waterfalls and rivers.

River flowing out to Coniston Water

Seathwaite Tarn: beautiful sunshine; a decent walk up to the Tarn spotting several butterflies on the way including Small Copper, Peacocks and Red Admirals.  Lots of the beautiful herdwick sheep around too.

Seathwaite Tarn

Small Copper
Red Admiral

The delightful Herdwick sheep

 Swinside Stone Circle: another walk - this time dryish with strong winds; lots of mud and bog.  Standing stones provided us with something of interest at the top of the walk; along with a farmer advertising he was farming for wildlife - good to see!

Swinside Stone Circle
Swinside Stone Circle
Although it was wet and windy for much of the week, it was a truly beautiful place.  I would love to work in such a remote location - I'd just have to get used to the rain and the tourists! 

Sunday, 31 July 2011

The Butterflies of Essex

Since returning to adland last month and commuting daily to London I've been craving nature - in any way I can get it.  One of the books I read in the first few weeks back at work inspired me to go butterflying.  The Butterfly Isles is a delightful book about one man's quest to spot all 59 of Britain's butterflies in one year.  He fits this this in around a full-time non-nature job.  I was entranced throughout.

The first opportunity I had to go was a few weeks ago when Joel and I took a trip to Thorndon Country Park (see previous post); then I took myself off to West Canvey Marsh one sunny afternoon.  My impromtu decision to go there was rewarded immediately when I spotted a Marbled White as soon as I left the car park.  This was the first time I had seen one of these so was really pleased.  I was, in fact, to see several of them over the course of the next two hours.  Whilst walking through the first meadow the noise of the insects was incredible - giving the adjacent busy road some serious competition.  I stopped at the first bird hide but there wasn't much to see - only a heron in the distance, a fishing cormorant, a lapwing or two and several black-headed gulls.

So, I focused my attentions on the butterflies.  I saw several Essex Skippers, notable by their similarity to Small Skippers but with black tipped antennae rather than orange.

Essex Skipper
Several dragonflies were flying around, including a few large Emperors.  Then I came across a dragonfly perched on a bush at the side of the footpath: A Common Darter.

Common Darter

The ubiquitous Gatekeeper was all around - with some really fresh, beautiful specimens showing well:


There were several Marbled Whites feeding on thistle throughout the reserve:

Marbled White

I stopped at the next bird hide along the route to have my lunch.  I ate whilst watching the heron in the distance.  It was fishing - slowly stalking and then thrusting its neck forward and coming back up with a fish in its beak.  I was just about to move on when I spotted another heron right in front of the hide.  This bird was fishing as well and I became a bit snap-happy!  I also spotted a coot, a little grebe and an egret flying overhead.

Grey Heron

I spotted several more butteflies including a Comma and a Red Admiral:

Red Admiral
 West Canvey Marshes is a relatively new site managed by the RSPB and it is closely linked to the SSSI Canvey Wick - one of the next places I must visit soon!

West Canvey Marshes

Today, Joel and I took a trip to Northlands Wood, part of Langdon Hills Country Park in Basildon.  Aside from enjoying the walk on a lovey sunny Sunday, I wanted to survey for butterflies for the Big Butterfly Count.  The course of walk took us through woodland, meadows, paths between grassy fields and hedgerows.  It was really lovely and we chalked up the following sightings:

Gatekeeper - 39
Whites - 23 (Lumped together because I am not yet able to differentiate between them!)
Speckled Wood - 15
Meadow Brown - 27
Peacock - 1
Ringlet - 2
Skippers - 3 (either Small or Essex)
Six-Spot Burnet Moth - 2

I purposely didn't take my camera - which I am pleased to about as I would still have been there until dusk!

Saturday, 16 July 2011

*** B R E A K I N G N E W S ***

July's news is as follows:

** Exams all passed!!! **

** Got involved with the draft of the Danbury Ridge Living Landscapes document **

** Found 4 dormice during a survey at Norsey Woods **

** First day of decent butterflying at Thorndon Country Park **

** Garden wildlife habitat "maturing" **

** Back in the rat race **

Ok, so they're the headlines.  Clearly I'm delighted to have passed all my exams and I can't wait to get back to college in 9 weeks...!

Whilst waiting for our exam results, Michelle and I got involved in writing a small section of the Living Landscapes document with Essex Wildlife Trust.  We wrote about lotic ecosystems and the importance of protecting such habitats.  It's not been published yet, but once it does I will post a link to it here. 

The next week we went along to help out at Norsey Woods in Billericay with their monthly dormouse survey.  They have a number of boxes throughout the wood and it took about 10 of us 3 hours to check them all.  The very first box that I opened had a dormouse nest so I was delighted, and quite excited by the likelihood of seeing one of these elusive creatures.

Dormouse nest
 Whilst Michelle and I were looking at slow worms in an open area of the woodland some of the other volunteers found a dormouse.  We abandoned the little legless critters and ran towards the nest box.  Sure enough here was the cutest mouse you could ever hope to see (although harvest mice are up there too...)  The picture below does not do him justice.  He was popped into this little bag to be weighed quickly and then he was carefully put back in the box.  We saw another three dormice during the survey.  One of which escaped out of the box as we tried to remove him - ran up my sleeve and jumped off my shoulder into the tree.

The very first dormouse

A couple of weeks later, on a beautiful sunny morning Joel and I set out for a walk in Thorndon Country Park.  We didn't have too much time and we'd never been there before so we thought we'd just have a brisk walk round and then head home.  I didn't count on catching a glimpse of what I believe was a Silver-washed Fritillary.  It was beautiful but just didn't stay around long enough to get a proper view, not did it settle so that we could get a picture!  However, we ended up spending a lot of time standing at the edge of the paths looking into thickets of bramble and nettle at the other species around.   A beautiful female Meadow Brown and a gorgeous chocolatey brown ringlet.

Female Meadow Brown


Trying to keep the garden an attractive place for wildlife whilst what we want to do with it.  So here is a glimpse at our wild flower meadow..... with the recent addition of a new bird table.  Essentially we have just left a strip of flower bed at the side to grow.  We've got some lovely plants: feverfew, wood dock, pink-sorrel, sneezewort, self-heal, red dead nettle, opium poppies and a variety of grasses.  The sparrows are loving the new bird table as well.  Looking out at them now and they've just scattered as Alfie the Jack Russell next door has frightened them off with his barking. 

Our "Wild Flower Meadow"

Sadly, I only get to look at my nature garden now at weekends as I have re-entered the world of work.  Back in HR at another advertising agency for the summer.  Hopefully the money earned here will go some way to funding my continued studies...

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Conservation's Dirty Secret

Last night I watched Channel 4’s Dispatches programme entitled “Conservation’s Dirty Secrets”. It proposed to examine the way in which big conservation charities are run and questioning whether the conservation movement has got it wrong by focusing on charismatic ‘megafauna’ and by putting animals before people.

Personally I enjoyed the programme as there are often concerns about how and where donations are spent and the interrelations between charities and big corporations. The programme uncovered rather unsavoury links between conservation charities and big polluting oil companies and the charities gave poor responses to the reasons behind these links. However, this is journalism and many people felt that it bordered on sensationalism (comments via twitter).

To berate a charity for using cute, fluffy animals to get the money in is not, in my opinion, the travesty it was made out to be. If the charities in question are ploughing the donations into a range of conservation challenges across the world then I am happy for them to have a flagship species to help them raise awareness. In terms of educating people overall however this “disneyfication of conservation” is not ideal and a more holistic approach should be taken; more effort made to show why it is important to sustain a variety of ecosystems and species.

The programme also showed the very murky side of putting wildlife before people. Groups of indigenous people in Kenya were shown to be being evicted from their homes and aggressively pursued by armed government officials; resulting in rape and murder. All in the name of a new reserve for the African Wildlife Trust. This is not acceptable under any circumstances. Local people must be considered and involved in these projects for them to work. It is essential for them to engage with conservation, and for them to benefit. This is not a new concept – but it seems an elusive one to many.

Overall I think it raised some important points but it did not give the charities in question much right to reply. It is a reminder to people to check (as best they can) where their donations are going before they give their hard-earned cash and that applies to all charities not just conservation.

As a student of conservation and a member of conservation charities I will not be changing any of my donations as for me the money that is spent on the projects and the good work that is carried out far outweighs any concerns I have about where and how it is being spent. Currently I donate to local and national charities and am not involved with international organisations.  This programme will not stop me from donating to, or working for a large, international charity but I will certainly think more carefully about it.

But don't take my word for it follow the link in the first paragraph and make your own mind up!

Sunday, 19 June 2011

This season is all about the little black caps.....

A sad weekend for me now that Springwatch has ended on television and I can no longer indulge in my Chris Packham adulation on a nightly-basis... however on the advice of the man himself I decided to get out there and experience it first-hand.

It has been a while since I last volunteered at Langdon - about 2 months.  Shockingly remiss of me, however I needed time to prepare for my exams etc and then a month to unwind!  Anyway, I went out this morning to assist with the work party and spent the first hour brush cutting the edges of a Public Right of Way.  Whilst fixing a wobbly blade on the brushcutter Mick received a phone call to advise that one of the cows had escaped from the meadow.  These clever cows manage to squeeze themselves through the kissing gates to make their escape.  They are only young cows but still - it's a tight fit.   We all went down and managed to herd it back through the main gate fairly uneventfully. 

 Whilst we were down there I had my first birding experience of a Common Tern (Sterna hirundo) flying around the lake.  At college a tern was described to me by a tutor as "a gull which has died and gone to heaven".  As soon as I saw the tern I understood exactly what he meant.  From a distance it looked very much like a black-headed gull but upon closer inspection it was slender, elegant and simply beautiful to watch.  Potentially, a new favourite!

Common Tern (c) Wikipedia

To top it all however I had another birding first - a blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla).  This was a male singing his heart out at the edge of the bridleway we were clearing.  Fairly common on the reserve yet I had never seen one.  A truly beautiful song, and attractive little bird too.  An excellent day for my bird spots!

Blackcap (c) RSPB

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Moth trapping.... Mosquitoes 4 - Nicola 0

At the end of May I participated in Basildon Natural History Society's records evening.  We were moth trapping at Marks Hill.  The evening started with the regular members setting up 3 moth traps connected to a generator.  We had a table and chairs set up with a magnifying lamp and several small plastic pots and lids.  The object of the night was to capture whatever flew into the traps or indeed flew around our heads!

I was off to a bad start when before the traps were even switched on I was bitten by a mosquito or other such horror.  I realised I had made a school-girl error, foolishly not considering that I was going to be in woodland at dusk, I had failed to apply a single drop of insect repellent.  Being allergic to mosquito bites this was a huge mistake.  So, with that attractive "rambler" look of trousers tucked into my socks, my scarf woven tightly about my neck and the velcro on my jacket fastened tightly around my wrists I set about the all-important task of moth capture.

Armed with a few plastic pots I investigated the first moth trap.  My only experience of moth trapping has been to leave the traps out overnight and then examine the contents in the morning.  It is fairly easy to put the moths in the pots then as they are cold and not moving around much.  This was a whole new experience for me.  Trying to catch a fluttering moth in a small plastic tub, whilst avoiding touching, or looking directly at, the bright hot mercury bulb is no mean feat!  We spent several hours doing this and once I got the hang of it I was capturing moths on the ground, on blades of grass, flying around me and from the inside of the traps.  Each pot was taken to Peter who identified them and made a note of the species.  Once we had a collection of about 10 pots we took turns to walk away from the lights into the woodland to release the moths.  My two favourite finds were Pale Oak Beauty and Green Silver-lines (pictures below)

Pale Oak Beauty [Hypomecis punctinalis]

Green Silver-lines [Pseudoips prasinana britannica]
The next moth recording evening is in a couple of weeks and I would love to go again - but this time I will be head-to-toe in repellent and may even fashion a bee-keeper-esque suit from a mozzie-net...

Sunday, 22 May 2011

In search of Ratty...

Feeling a bit worse for wear following the college Summer Ball, Michelle and I headed up to Abbotts Hall Farm to take part in Essex Wildlife Trust's Water Vole training course.  This course would enable us to survey areas looking for field signs of water voles and feedback our findings to the Trust for their records.

On the way in to the course we spotted a little sparrow peering out of a nest box.  He was there for quite a while just watching the world go by.  After a morning listening to Darren Tansley, an incredibly articulate and knowledgeable man responsible for the Riversearch programme, telling us about the basic ecology of water voles and showing us pictures of habitats and field signs, we headed off to see for ourselves.  First stop was a hide looking out across a man-made lake on the reserve.  We looked to see if we could see any water voles from this area.  We saw lots of birds including coots, moorhens, little grebes, tufted duck, mute swan and cygnets, pochard and mallard.

The view from the bird hide

Water Vole burrows in the bank
From the hide we were able to see water vole burrows in the bank on the lake.  The holes in the picture show some above where the water line had previously been, and some were below that water line.  They use the ones below the water line to escape from predators.

Water voles are rather unfortunate to have numerous predators who will attack them from the air, the land and the water.  The voles have evolved a range of escape tactics which can often be successful; they also breed very effectively and quickly.  Populations of water voles in Essex, and across the country, have dropped considerably and the biggest culprit is believed to be the mink.  A female mink is small enough to get into the voles' burrows and take any animal living there.

Darren telling us about feeding stations

Water Vole poo - like brown tic-tacs!
We found a few field signs of water vole presence around the lake.  Some feeding stations, where the voles chop down the sedges, rushes or grasses that they are feeding on and leave little piles of vegetation.  They are quite distinct in that the edges are cut at 45 degree angles.

We also found a few latrine sites where there were small piles of vole poo which look a lot like brown tic-tacs.  One site we found had a feeding station, a latrine, and just above it there were 3 burrow entrances.  Unfortunately we didn't hear the familiar 'plop' sound of the voles vanishing form our footsteps.

Blue-tailed Damselfly

More vole poo - latrine

Abbotts Hall Farm
  On the way back we to the centre we had a wander round the gardens which were really beautiful.  An excellent course and I hope to use my new-found tracking skills during the summer.
Abbotts Hall Farm - pond

Abbotts Hall Farm - beautiful poppies