Saturday, 31 January 2015

Marine Conservation Society Beachwatch Survey

One of my goals for this year is to gain as much conservation-related volunteer experience as I can. I want to expand my skills in all areas, including practical/field and academic, so that I can build a solid foundation for a career in conservation. One of the possibilities I looked at was volunteering for beach clean-ups in my local area, as a means of doing something vitally important for a good cause. During my online travels, I came across the Marine Conservation Society which is a charity based in the UK working towards the protection of our seas, shores and the wildlife that lives there.
The tide of litter washing up on our shores is not just unpleasant to look at, it can harm and even kill some of our best-loved marine wildlife. Over 170 species including seabirds, turtles and whales have mistaken marine litter for food and actually eaten it, which in many cases has resulted in starvation, poisoning and ultimately a slow, painful death. Plastic packaging and discarded fishing nets also injure, entangle and drown some of Britain’s favourite marine animals, including seals and dolphins.”

They operate a programme entirely run by volunteers called the Beachwatch Survey that runs all over the country. The goal for each survey is to comb a 100m stretch of beach, record and collect each piece of litter found within that space and then send off the data to the MCS, who use it for analysis of the state of our beaches among other vital work. For my local beaches, there were no upcoming events scheduled when I looked, so I decided to register as an organiser and arrange my own clean-up. I'm quite excited as I've never taken part in a beach clean-up before, let alone organised one, and I am looking forward to the challenge of coordinating an event like this, thereby expanding my organisational skills and working towards a worthy cause (one of a great many that rely on volunteers). It's also a brilliant way to get some fresh, sea air after being stuck inside all Winter!
After liaising with Adur and Worthing Council and gaining permission to carry out an event, I have officially scheduled my first Beachwatch for Sunday 8th March. I'm holding it on Goring-by-Sea beach in Worthing, which is a beach I know reasonably well and is my nearest coastal area from where I am in Horsham. I am hoping to get a decent amount of volunteers to take part in the event so will be working hard to get the word out and about!

If you are in the West Sussex area and you're interested in taking part in this survey, you can find the event details here where you can register as a volunteer. It would be great to see as many people as possible helping out and enjoying a bit of fresh, sea air!

Image Credit:

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

BTO Nest Box Challenge: Exploring a Blue Tit Nest

I came across the above tweet yesterday from the British Trust of Ornithology, reminding the public to clear their nest boxes out before 31st January. Now, please excuse my ignorance, but it never crossed my mind that boxes needed old nests removed; I had assumed up until now that we shouldn't interfere with them in case the birds were put off by our scent and that they would clean old sites out themselves. Of course, after reading some more information on the BTO website, and realising that my RSPB apex nestbox actually has a removable panel for the very purpose of cleaning, I got right to it.

The box I put up only last year was nested in by blue tits maybe a month or so after that which was great news for me, and I was fortunate enough to observe the parents flying in and out, firstly with nesting materials, then with all sorts of insects. You can read about my observations of the blue tit family, as well as the nesting nuthatches in the same tree, here and here.
According to Bird Protection Law, it is legal to clean out nest boxes between 1st August and 31st January and obviously it is important to make sure that the box is no longer occupied before you open it up. Even though I didn't actually see the blue tit chicks fledge from the box, I know they haven't occupied it for some months now so I was safe to go ahead with cleaning it out. I made sure I was wearing gloves and a bucket for the nest to go in, and I kept my face well away from it in case of any harmful mould that might have been growing.

This was my first time both seeing a nest up close and clearing it from a box so it was brilliant experience to have. My initial impression was of just how clean the nest was. I was being wary as I expected to see mites and fleas and for it to be quite unpleasant, particularly as it had been sitting in the box all through the damp, winter months. The reality was quite the opposite of my expectations; there was not one single mite, tick, flea or any other insect (apart from one tiny and slightly disgruntled spider) to be found. It had no smell, no mould and no pieces of eggshell. I knew the parents were frequently removing the faecal sacs as I had observed them doing it. It just goes to show what a fantastic job they did of maintaining a clean nest.
I wanted to get an idea of what materials they had used to form the nest, so I prised sections of it apart and had a good look through, without getting my face too close, to avoid breathing in anything harmful. The primary material was moss which had been used in great volume, creating a very densely-woven framework. There was definitely some solidity despite it being a soft structure. Interspersed between the moss were a variety of other components; leaves, straw, bits of animal hair (likely to be horse and cat since I put clumps of both out last year for them), and pieces of thread and feathers, including pheasant. There were also quite a lot ivy berries, some in big clumps at the bottom of the nest box. 
You can see a piece of thread clearly in the top left section, below the leaf.
A few materials, L-R: pheasant feather, moss, ivy berries, leaf.

Today, after clearing out the box yesterday afternoon, I observed a pair of great tits flitting around the branches surrounding the box site. One of them flew into the box and remained for some time while the second spent some time perching on the opening then flying to a nearby branch and back again. I didn't see the first bird exit the box while I was watching but it gave me real hope that, not only might the box be utilised for a second year, but it might be a different species. If they do choose to build a nest and lay eggs, it will be really interesting to see how the nest constructions differ, if at all. 
I have registered my nest box with the BTO Nest Box Challenge, which is a survey run to monitor nest sites all over the country. I am hoping that our nuthatches might nest once again in the knot hole a few meters above this box so I will have more than one nest to record observations from. 

Sunday, 25 January 2015

My Big Garden Birdwatch 2015

Getting out of a warm bed at 8am seemed like a crazy thing to be doing on a Saturday morning, particularly after a long and busy week. I had good reason for my crazy weekend behaviour of course; there were garden birds to be surveyed! I had checked the weather forecast the day before and although the high temperature was predicted to be a balmy 4°C, the sun promised to be out for most of the day. Knowing my birds though, I wanted to do the survey earlier in the day when I tend to see the majority of our regularly-visiting species.

By 8.30am, I was bundled up in several layers, a wooly hat and gloves, and headed out to the garden shed to dust off our camping chairs. I had to kindly ask three quite large wood spiders to remove themselves from the chairs I was trying to unload but I'm not too sure they were very happy to be disturbed; well, it was the weekend after all! Chairs dusted off, flasks of tea made, feeders topped up and notebook in hand-I'm old-fashioned and prefer paper and pen when recording birds-we were ready to go. My mum joined me for the watch and we settled in for an hour of birdwatching in the surprisingly mild January sun.

Our birds aren't shy by any means. I do think they have become used to us over the years we've lived in this house and of course they have worked out that we are the ones providing the medley of treats they enjoy everyday. Certain species, such as the robin and blue tits, have no issues with landing on the feeders when we are only a few feet away. In fact, once the ten minutes before we officially started the clock had passed, the robins, nuthatches, blue and great tits had all but forgotten we were there. The coal and marsh tits were slightly more wary but they eventually just got on with things. I will point out that we were not seated close at all; in fact, I moved us back another foot before we started as I didn't want to affect the number of birds visiting by our unnecessary proximity. I chose not to do the survey from our kitchen window as we have a reasonably large garden and it's quite tricky to count all of the birds by peering through one pane of glass. Plus, there's nothing like listening to the different songs and calls and we were not disappointed in that regard!
One thing I noticed in particular during the hour was the feisty behaviour of a bird I wouldn't normally expect it from. There was an individual blue tit who was determined to chase off each and every bird that landed remotely close to him. Not just his own species but the robins and great tits too; he even had an attempt at seeing off one of the nuthatches but that wasn't quite so successful. This blue tit had obviously decided that this year was his year to mate with the best females and he was quite convinced he would get rid of all the competition. This fiery behaviour kept up throughout the whole hour we were out there and well into the rest of the day that followed.

I have a few personal highlights from the count. My first was the appearance of a female woodpecker. The great spotted woodpeckers visit the garden daily when there is food provided; they are usually found hanging off the suet holder or the peanut feeder. Despite their regular visits, I never tire of seeing them feeding and, at such close range, being able to identify the male and female by the red spot on the back of the male's head. The female turned up during our watch and sat in a tree a little way back for a while, taking her time before deciding to venture on to the fat balls. She wasn't around for long but after she had flown off, I could hear a male drumming very close by. I had hoped that both of them would make an appearance together, as they did in last year's birdwatch, but it wasn't to be.
Another highlight was the very brief appearance of a vole. I say very brief because it was just that; just enough for my mum to spot it before it scurried back into the hedgerow. We were obviously too daunting to make the dash to the bottom of the feeding station worth it. There was a fairly frustrating moment during the survey where I spotted what I was convinced was a bullfinch. The trouble was, it was completely silhouetted by the sun and it was sat further back in the branches of the small tree where all of the other species were busy feeding. It was the stocky shape and short, wedge-like head that had me certain it was a bullfinch and, despite me hoping that it would come closer into the light, it hung back and dropped lower into the undergrowth. At one point, when I was distracted by birds further along the garden, my mum whispered that she was sure a bullfinch had just landed in the tree then flown off into the wood. Without seeing it myself and gaining 100% confirmation, I couldn't list it as a sighted species. Very gutting.

I was eager to compare this year's results to those from 2014, although I knew without looking that the species count was less this time around. Our wren didn't turn up and neither did we have a visit from the woodpigeon or carrion crow. In total this year we had a bird species count of 9 in contrast to 11 last year. However, with both the squirrel and a vole turning up this year, and a mammal count of 0 in 2014, the species count evens out to 11 both ways.
Incidentally, that's two years in row we have had sunshine for the survey and both years have given reasonable turnouts. I wonder what the results would show if we were to have a little of the famous British rain for next year's count? 

I wonder if perhaps I'll be watching from the window if we do!

Here's a few minutes of footage I captured during the watch, including a glimpse of the woodpecker and the cheeky grey squirrel helping himself!

Friday, 23 January 2015


I always look forward to the changing of the seasons. Each one brings the promise of change, of fresh and exciting new natural phenomena to be observed. They also bring with them the knowledge that Springwatch, Autumnwatch or Winterwatch are just around the corner waiting to wow me with more stunning wildlife photography, experiments and live cams.

This past week has been all about Winterwatch which, in my humble opinion, runs nowhere near long enough at only four episodes but those episodes were packed with all of the above and more. I thoroughly relish being able to see so many wonderful species up close and learn about their habitats and behaviour at the same time. I certainly picked up some fascinating facts this time around, so I've rounded a few of my favourites up.

1. Rodents are amazing

Martin's segment on the fourth and final show focused on how rodents manage to survive in such harsh conditions. It was fascinating to learn about the subnivean layer in the snow; the top layer of snow forms a crust and beneath this, as a result of the heat given off by the grass, the snow warms enough to crumble. This allows the mice, voles and other rodents to borrow through the lower snow, therefore being able to move around, going unnoticed by predators, with a plentiful supply of food provided by the grass.

On the same episode, common shrews were shown on a carcass planted by the Winterwatch team, high up in the mountains. It was a surprise to see such a tiny animal surviving in such an area but Chris them went on to explain that shrews have the extraordinary ability to actually reduce their body mass by shrinking their skeletons and internal organs, including their brain and liver. With a reduced body mass during the winter, they require less energy to survive, a condition perfect for times when food availability is low.
 2. Dippers can eat under water

Amazing footage was captured by one of the cameras set up under water of a dipper diving from the icy bank down to the riverbed to feed. The current was strong, as demonstrated by the chunks of surface ice rushing by, but the dipper was unaffected by this. They have several features that allows them to swim underwater, setting them apart from all other British songbirds. Their feathers are waterproof, they can close their nostrils to prevent water entering and the smaller pieces of food they catch, such as insects, they are able to consume underwater. They can store extra oxygen in their blood so that they can forage for aquatic prey and watching this particular dipper in the Cairngorms release a plume of tiny air bubbles as it ascended was a wonderful sight, and from such a unique perspective too.
3. Little Owls aren't native

I was a tiny bit disappointed to learn that the charismatic Little Owl isn't a native species to the UK. During the late 19th century, they were introduced from the continent. Despite never having seen one in the wild, they are definitely one of my favourite owls; they have a fantastic set of facial markings that gives them a range of expressions, helped hugely by their wide yellow eyes. When compared side-by-side to the majestic European Eagle Owl on Winterwatch, I got an idea of just how small the Little is, although the name itself is a dead giveaway!
A few other facts I picked up:

-A newt tadpole is called an eft
-Ptarmigan have feathered eyelids
-Otters aren't fussy with their food!
-Mice hate cheese (who would have thought it!)
-Red squirrels are more curious than greys

Now that it's over, I have Springwatch to look forward to in May/June. With any luck, I'll have as much nesting activity in my own garden as I did last year; I've already spotted one great tit checking out the nest box that was used by the blues in 2014. Let's see what Spring brings!

Image credits

Saturday, 17 January 2015

The Illusive Jay

During the Autumn and Winter months of 2014/2015, I have endless sightings of jays on my local patch. Most frequently, I have seen them drop out of the trees or glide across the road as I have been driving down our country lanes. The flash of white on their rump and wings is unmistakable. They do often pay a visit to my garden and spend their time around the bottom of the feeding station, tidying up the discarded seeds normally tossed aside by the fussy nuthatch! On several occasions in the past months I have heard the jay's rasping call as well, which, for someone like me who only has a very basic knowledge of bird calls and songs, is an easily identifiable sound to hear. You'd be hard-pressed to confuse it with calls from any other fellow corvid family members; it is wonderfully distinct. You can listen to a sample of the jay's call here.

Any time I spot a jay in the garden, I instantly rush off to get my camera, which is, naturally, always at the farthest end of the house. As I'm hurrying back to the window, setting my camera to maximum zoom (I'm not fortunate enough to have a zoom lens for the SLR), I almost know without looking that the jay has already gone. It's as if they can sense what I'm doing and scarper before I have a chance of success. I can only assume they are not a fan of the paparazzi!

Nonetheless, I'm very glad to say I have managed to snap a couple of shots more recently. The trick is to move to the window very, very slowly as this bird as an uncanny ability to detect the tiniest movement, even from the upstairs bathroom window. Clever things. 
These are by no means good-quality shots (zooming and cropping were my best friends here) but certainly enough to satisfy my need to capture this beautiful bird on camera. I love the delicate, blue wing feathers. Today was a particularly good day for jays and was a first for me; I spotted three of them on the big lawn outside, all pecking away at the ground, presumably hunting for acorns buried by the squirrels! It made me laugh when I read a while ago that jays are known to follow the squirrels around in the Autumn, waiting patiently for the rodents to bury their hard-earned cache, then swooping in and promptly digging them back up again. Cheeky.

I managed to get a photo of the three jays together today but it isn't fantastic. I'm so pleased I spotted them though, as the most I've ever seen at one time is two and they generally don't hang around for long. These three, however, spent a decent amount of time foraging.   
Next weekend is the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch which I will of course be taking part in, to count and record the birds I see in my garden, but I'm not holding out much hope of adding even a single jay to my list this year; if a camera is enough to spook them normally, me sat outside with my notebook and flask of tea will certainly scare them off! 

**For more information about the Big Garden Birdwatch, visit the RSPB's website here:**

Friday, 16 January 2015

FAQ: What materials do you use?

I quite often get asked about the materials I use to create my portraits. It's a question that pops up frequently on my Facebook page and Instagram so rather than go through the lengthy process of replying to each query individually, I thought I'd write a post on the subject, so that I can provide a little more detail. (I am by no means saying it isn't worth my time to reply individually!)

Pencils: I use Faber Castell Polychromos pencils. When I first started pet portraits, I was using watercolour pencils, but this is mostly because that's all I happened to have at the time. I've since progressed to the Polychromos and I really love them. They have a high pigmentation and a wonderful range of shades to choose from which really helps me build up base layers to make fur look really rich, particularly black fur which, believe it or not, is far from black!

I would like to try out some other types of pencils in the near future, such as Prismacolour, so that I can make some comparisons and maybe discover something that works even better for me!
Paper: The paper I currently use, and have used for a while now, is Daler Rowney Murano pastel paper, in the colour stone. I stumbled across this paper when I was trying out various textures and colours and after doing a few portraits on it, I found that it suited my techniques very well. Being a pastel paper, it has a slight raised texture to it which is brilliant for holding the pigmentation of the Polychromos. I love the shade and I think that it complements pretty much every type of colouring of the animals I draw; it provides a really nice base colour that makes the drawing pop out. It also means that I can apply white pencil to bring the highlights to life even more than I would be able to on white paper.

Finish: On the subject of highlights, the final material I use is Daler Rowney FW Acrylic Ink in white. I use this to sharpen and brighten the important highlights where the white pencil isn't quite enough, for instance, for the shine in the eyes or for whiskers. I am very sparing with the use of acrylic ink but it does help to finish the piece off and give it that final burst of life.
Digital: For the actual piece of art work, I do not use any digital tools; it is all done by my hands using the materials I've discussed in this post. However, I use Photoshop to create the mock-up that I will work from for the piece, which allows me to try out different compositions and see how they work before physically drawing them out. I also use guidelines on PS, much like the "squaring up" grid technique, to draw the outline so that I get the important features in the right place and in proportion. Finally, I use a Canon scanner or my Epson A3 printer/scanner to scan in the finished portrait ready to share with you!

And that's it! Nothing special really, just good, old-fashioned pencil and paper. If you have any other burning questions about my process, I would be happy to answer them so feel free to leave a comment here or email me at

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Why I Love Birds of Prey

A few days after Christmas, I went for a ramble along one of my favourite local routes, in an attempt to clear the festive fuzz from my brain and breathe some turkey-free air. It was what I consider to be the perfect Winter's day; the sky was clear, the sun was blazing and the air was crisp. The lack of clouds was a blessing for me as it made spotting birds a lot easier. I saw a pair of redwings chasing each other around an oak tree then a little further down the lane, another one take sudden flight from the hedgerow and fly low across the field. The trees were bustling with the usual suspects; blue and great tits, blackbirds, woodpigeon. Robins eyed me from the branches and carrion crows littered the fields.

My highlight, though, was a bird I never tire of seeing, or hearing for that matter, since on most occasions I hear them before laying eyes on them. The unmistakable caw of a buzzard drew my gaze high up and I had to shield the sun with my hand in order to fully focus on the three raptors circling above. I am so fortunate to get frequent sightings of buzzards where I live and a great number of these have been directly above our house. Once, an adult flew so low across the house that I could see the pale under-feathers on its wings.

On this occasion, the birds were obviously hunting, gliding effortlessly in large circles above the fields. One dropped down low to the treetops and the crows feeding in the fields became agitated by its presence, taking flight and cawwing loudly. I carried on up the lane, following the buzzards as they moved higher and nearer to the woods surrounding my house. I lost sight of them briefly but could still hear their calls echoing through the trees. When I next spotted them, I had more or less reached home; the three birds were performing acrobatics between themselves above the fields neighbouring the house. I watched two of them spin through the air, attached to one another by their talons for only a moment before breaking apart. I presumed one of two things was going on; either they were fighting with each other or they were passing food between their feet. I couldn't say for sure since I was lacking binoculars and they were too high for any specifics to be made out.

As I said, I never tire of seeing and hearing them and I doubt I ever will. It's a particular joy in the Summer, when they are extremely active and I'm guaranteed to at least hear the buzzard call a few times in a day. There's something about them that is mesmerising and I think that's a view that I carry through to all birds of prey. They are fascinating to see in action, whether I see a tawny owl drop from the low branches in front of me while I'm driving at night or I'm marvelling at the brilliant strength of a kestrel hovering in high winds.

Rather oddly, my favourite raptor (a word that is the Latin for "to seize and carry away", as I discovered today) is one I've never actually seen in the flesh, and that is the osprey. I'm always fascinated whenever I catch segments on tv showing them in action; the coverage of Monty and his mate on Springwatch made for wonderful watching. They are such striking birds and it is definitely a dream of mine to see at least one in its natural habitat.

I think it is the strength and intelligence of raptors that has me so besotted. Owls may not be able to turn their heads the full 360° and might not be quite as wise as they are often portrayed in children's books, but their brilliantly-honed hunting skills are enough to set them apart. The marsh harrier can dismember and eat a dragonfly while on the wing and a vertically-plummeting peregrine reaches unbelievable speeds; these are birds that are experts in their fields.

I was lucky enough to receive a falconry experience as one of my Christmas gifts and I am so excited. I have handled owls in the past but only small breeds so I'm looking forward to learning more about other birds of prey and getting some hands-on experience.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Take Two

Yesterday, I shared my first completed portrait of 2015 on my Facebook page. It is of my aunt's cat Twinkle and was quite a challenge as her fur is flecked with orange and white so it took some real concentration. At the forefront of my mind while I was working on it was the fact that I've drawn her before, when I very first started doing pet portraits in 2012. In fact, I was working from the same photograph that I referenced for the portrait the first time around, so I was keen to compare the two pieces once I was finished, to get a sense of how I have progressed in two years. 
On the left is the most recent version and on the right, the 2012 piece. It makes me cringe to look at the older piece, because I'm so self-critical. My style was very different; much looser and certainly less detailed. It's a good exercise, though, to see how much I have developed my skills since then, however difficult I find it to look back. 

Of course, I still have plenty of space for improvement and I'm hoping that in another two years time, I will have honed my technique even more.