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

Thursday, 19 May 2011

And breathe....

So, my exams finished today and the relief is palpable.... I am already dreaming of walks in the countryside, making full use of my camera, reading novels and the all the other things you can do when you are not totally absorbed in study.  I'm sure I will be desperate to start again by the time we get to August though!

Anyway, I have updated my new Natural History Diary page with some pictures of my recent assignment which saw me scribbling furiously in a notepad and dragging out all my watercolours, pastels and pencils.  Perhaps a little too much time was spent dabbling with the brush and not enough on the writing... 

In all seriousness, it was a fun (albeit immensely time-consuming) exercise which saw me learn a great deal about 30 different species and the management surrounding many of their habitats.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Study Tour of the New Forest

Last month a delegation of 12 Writtle College nature afficionados descended upon the New Forest in Hampshire to commence a week-long study tour.  10 students and 2 lecturers intent on discovering all the Forest and surrounding counties had to offer.

We left the college on a beautiful Monday morning in our little minibus of mayhem.  Stopping at the New Forest Wildlife Park we were somewhat disappointed by the lack of animals on show, but Gavin got to see lots of owls, Kara and Michelle made friends with a little deer and there were some very pretty exotic butterflies.  We then stopped off in Lyndhurst for a wander and a some lunch.  The New Forest Visitor Centre provided us with an insight into the history of the area.  Although for others it was a time for dressing-up...

Dressing up time..

Burley YHA

We were staying at Burley YHA which was pretty good and in a nice location.  Very close to lots of heathland and New Forest ponies roaming around.  We spent a fun evening in one of the village pubs and walked home through the golf course/woodland by torchlight back to our bunkbeds.

On Tuesday morning we had a tour of an area of the New Forest by the Forestry Commission which was very informative and it was a beautiful area.  We learnt about the conservation issues in the area and the history of the forest.  We also visited the New Forest Reptile Centre where we were able to see species of native reptiles (inc. adders, lizards, frogs and toads). 

Learning about the conservation of the New Forest
We then drove down to Lulworth Heritage Centre and took a walk round Lulworth Cove and took the beautiful cliff-top path along to Durdle Dor.  This path offers some spectacular views across the Channel but also of the cliffs themselves - a geologist's delight!  I started off dressed in t-shirt, jumper, jacket, hat and scarf but by the time I was half way along the path I was reduced to a t-shirt.  A very steep climb but worth every breath.

The whole group at Durdle Dor

The next day we visited Radipole Lake which is an urban RSPB reserve in the centre of Weymouth.  A very difficult place to manage as it has public footpaths running through it, and offers seclusion to wayward teens looking for a quiet spot to quaff a few cans!!  Lots of birds to be seen and heard including Cetti's Warbler.  We had lunch looking out over Chesil Beach which was beautiful.

On Chesil Beach

Next stop was the internationally important Portland Bill Observatory where we were afforded a tour around the garden to see the mist nets and habitats available to the birds there.  Many birds stop here to refuel or rest on there way up through the UK from their breeding sites in the tropical south.  Whilst we were there we had the priviledge of watching a Willow Warbler being ringed.  We also had a trip up to the top of the observatory to look out across Portland and the sea.  [Only two weeks later Chris Packham (my idol and inspiration) would be stood at the very same point presenting for the
                                          Springwatch Easter Special.]

Bedraggled, but happy!
We returned to the hostel via Maiden Castle, an Iron Age Hill Fort which I had visited before.  By this point it was very wet and windy, but a few hardened souls braved the weather and took a walk around the site.  On the way back to the minibus we were fortunate to see a flock of Linnet, some corn buntings and a couple of stonechat.

The charismatic Fergus
Thursday, and our last full day of activities.  Time passes so quickly on trips like these.  The day was spent a bit further north in Andover and Salisbury.  We visited the Hawk Conservancy Trust first to meet with Fergus, the Great Bustard.  The trust are involved in a conservation project to re-introduce these magnificent birds back to the wild in the UK.  Following our visit here we taken to their release site and home of the Great Bustard Project on Salisbury Plain.  We were able to see a couple of the birds in their release pen, and also a stone curlew.  Unfortunately when we went out onto the plain we didn't spot any.

Our visit here was followed up by an afternoon in the company of the Conservation Officer for the Ministry of Defence.  We learnt about the conflict involved in managing a SSSI site alongside have it used for target practice and military operations. 

Our trip home on Friday was broken up with a visit to Stephen's Castle Heathland in Verwood.  A SSSI this was a very sweet little oasis in the middle of a town.  Lots of botanical interest here including the exquisite sundew.

Botanising at Stephen's Castle
Beautiful sundew
[Drosera rotundifolia]
A thoroughly enjoyable week of learning and getting to know my fellow students that little bit better through ridiculous drinking games and animal impressions....