Sunday, 22 March 2015

Flying Teaspoons and Blackbird DIY

 Nest construction is well under way in our garden. I'll begin with the apex nest box in our oak tree which housed a family of blue tits last year. This year I have observed both blues and great tits inspecting the box and gradually I began to see only the greats popping in and out. Yesterday the greats started to bring in nesting materials, their beaks stuffed with moss, which is a promising sign and exactly what I'd hoped for. I obviously did a decent enough job of clearing out the box.

Over the past week or so, I have noticed a female blackbird spending quite a lot of time in one of the bushes just across from our kitchen window and I wondered whether she might be building a nest there. Balancing on a chair, I ventured a peek through the branches and saw that I was right! A very neat, well-shaped nest it is too. I managed to take a few snaps, though not particularly good ones but enough to see inside and spot the mud lining. She has been back and forth with new materials since I discovered it and watching her sitting and squashing everything down has been wonderful.
Based on when I originally saw nest material start to appear on this site, I have estimated that she has been building for around a week and a half which suggests that she should more or less be done now. I am really hoping that she does choose to lay a clutch of eggs as I will be able to monitor her progress and make observations. With the visibility of the nest site being so clear, I am keen to watch the eggs hatch and the chicks fledge and hang around to be fed by their parents. We shall see what the next few weeks hold!

Today, I actually discovered another new nest site and this was purely by chance. I happened to be taking a photo of a patch of primroses at the edge of our driveway when a "chuck chuck" sound caught my attention and brought my gaze up, where a long-tailed tit, affectionately known as flying teaspoons (!) was perched on an overhanging branch, its beak filled with a white, fluffy material that looked to me like cotton wool. I stood up slowly, keeping my eyes on the bird and watched it flit around, still chuck chucking before it flew inside the hedgerow in front of me. It didn't seem particularly fazed by my which is surprising, given that they are quite a timid species. I was stood very still and quiet so it's likely it didn't know I was still there. 

It was soon joined by another long-tail and the pair of them chuck chucked for a while before darting out of the hedge. I waited for them to leave the area before I had a look at their handiwork, as I didn't want them to become distressed. From what I could see, they are at the very early stages of building a nest as there was a layer of moss, some feathers and leaves starting to form the foundations. Long-tails are similar to wrens in that they build a dome-like structure that fully surrounds them and their chicks. Although there were no signs of a dome just yet, I will most certainly be keeping my eyes on their progress. It can take up to three weeks before they complete it so it will be interesting to see how it takes shape.  
The nest site is quite well-hidden in dense vegetation so the chance of predation is unlikely, though the threat is always there, no matter the location. I'm pleased that they've chosen a spot where I will be able to observe them with relative ease. In the below photo, you can see one of the pair leaving the hedge; the nest is located in the top right section.
I read up on the nesting and breeding habits of long-tails and I am quite amazed that they can lay between eight and fifteen eggs in one clutch! I wouldn't have thought such a compact nest structure would be enough to house that many chicks, once they all hatch out.

I have registered both of these new nests with the BTO Nest Box Challenge as I can monitor the progress of them with relative ease. I now have three nest sites and more importantly, three different nesting species to observe so, assuming they all successfully lay eggs in their chosen spots, I will be kept quite busy!

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Cleaning up Goring-by-Sea!

It may have been heavily overcast and the wind may have had a slight chill to it, but that didn't stop myself and 22 other brilliant volunteers from arming ourselves with litter pickers and tackling the shores of Worthing on Sunday!

I posted back in January about becoming a beachwatch survey organiser for the Marine Conservation Society and the weekend just gone saw my first event go ahead. I was quite nervous beforehand, having never arranged anything like this before, and I was concerned that less volunteers would turn up than the 18 I had confirmed on the site. Particularly as, despite the Saturday being gloriously sunny and (dare I say) Spring-like, the weather on Sunday was that of heavy cloud that was certainly not budging. I was pleasantly surprised when the allotted time came around (an hour after high tide, of course) and lots of people began to arrive, some seasoned beach-cleaners and some (like me!) who were brand new to the game, but all raring to go! We even had several younger (and very eager) volunteers which I was especially pleased to see. 

After giving a safety briefing and dividing everyone up into groups, all 23 of us headed over to the 100m strip of beach I had measured out earlier, with clipboards, litter-pickers and bin bags in hand. At first glance, there was a fair amount of rubbish to be collected but once we all got going and started recording each piece we found, it didn't take long at all for the bags to start bulging! I was both amazed and disgusted at the level of litter in such a small area. 
A huge amount of cable ties were found as well as fishing line, cotton bud sticks and rope. As would be expected, the vast majority of litter recorded was plastic. Happily, I had several volunteers say to me that they were really enjoying it and finding relaxing and therapeutic. I'm inclined to agree with that and after a while, I wasn't taking any notice of the biting wind, just focusing on the stretch of pebbles at my feet.
I estimated with the number of hands we had that the survey would take about an hour and I was more or less on the money. We piled all of our bags together and I weighed each one individually, finally coming to a grand total of 13.45kg! It really was astounding that we had jointly managed to collect quite so much from only 100m. When you stop and think about the amount of coastline we have in this country though, it's really very worrying to think how much litter is sitting on our beaches. If 23 people can pick up seven refuse bags worth of rubbish in an hour, just think how much more could be achieved if this was carried out all around the UK!

Even though the sun hadn't made an appearance all day, there were plenty of smiling faces as we finished up and started heading back to the car park. Several of the volunteers asked if there would be more cleans coming up and I am certainly eager to arrange future events based on the success of this one. It was really encouraging to see just how many people genuinely wanted to give up their time to do something so worthwhile. As one volunteer said, it really gives you a sense of pride.

In a nutshell, we collected:

-55 metal items
-3 medical items
-26 sanitary items
-31 paper items
-15 wood items
-26 glass items
-3 ceramic items
-615 plastic items!
-37 polystyrene items
-23 rubber items
-72 cloth items

A huge thank you to everyone who turned up and donated their time and energy! You were all fantastic!

If you are interested in future beach clean-ups, visit the MCS website.

Friday, 6 March 2015

"For blackberry, read Blackberry"

During a scroll through my Twitter newsfeed this week, I came across an article that I found rather alarming and I know I'm not alone in my reaction. According to this article from The Guardian, the Oxford Junior Dictionary has had a 50-word cull of terms relating to nature in an attempt to make the revised edition more relatable to the "modern child". Words such as "acorn" "otter" "newt" and "heron" have been removed to make way for "broadband" "chatroom" and "database". 

Granted, in a dictionary containing 10,000 entries, 400 of those are related to the natural world but that's not the point. We live in a time where the majority of the first-world population owns at least one hand-held digital device and information is accessible without lifting more than a finger. This does NOT mean that the natural world is any less important and therefore any less worthy of teaching to our children. Surely, at the age of seven, children have more of a need to know about the wildlife they might encounter on their walk to school or while playing in the garden than being able to explain what the definition of a "celebrity" is. 
There lies the biggest problem though. Children are spending less and less time outside exploring, playing and exercising in the fresh air. Many would rather stay inside on laptops and tablets than kick a ball around a field or climb a tree. The decision to remove 50 words related to nature from the OJD is a reflection of this changed attitude. However, as I type this there are endless initiatives, such as Project Wild Thing, underway to try and encourage children to spend more time outdoors, not only to get them more interested in nature but to dispel the ongoing threat of childhood obesity. Of course there is a balance between technology and nature but in the state we are currently in, the latter holds more importance for a seven year-old child, in my opinion. 

"...we should remember that the Junior Dictionary may be one of the few dictionaries a child will ever encounter, and that the selection will influence his or her use of language for life." Henry Porter, the Guardian 

I can perhaps understand slightly outdated words being given the elbow, but "raven" "tulip" and "catkin"? Even in this modern digital era, these things still exist and children referring to this dictionary will not have access to a definition for any of these terms; instead these seven year-olds will be able to define "celebrity" "database" and "democratic". These aren't words that take precedence at such a young age, surely? 

 "The Oxford Dictionaries have a rightful authority and a leading place in cultural life. We believe the OJD should address these issues and that it should seek to help shape children’s understanding of the world, not just to mirror its trends" Laurence Rose, RSPB 

There's been quite a bit of outrage expressed online over the decision to remove so many relevant words from the OJD. Part of the defence from Oxford University Press is that the environment that children grow up in has changed: they are living in more urban and suburban areas, rather than open countryside where they might encounter various animals, plants and flowers. However, this to me is even more reason for them to be made aware of these words, because what is education if not to inform us about things we have never seen?

 I don't currently have any children but should I be fortunate enough in the future, I would 100% rather they know what a conker is over a chatroom.

Image credits:

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

The Wildlife Trust: My Wildlife Story

In order to discover why nature matters to us all individually, The Wildlife Trust is running a new social media project that encourages anyone and everyone to share their wildlife story with the world through their website or using the tag #MyWildLife. As today is World Wildlife Day, I thought I would share "My Wildlife Story" that I submitted on their site yesterday.

When I was much younger, maybe seven or eight, I declared that I wanted to be either a vet or a marine biologist. At the time, I was reading my way through the Animal Ark series by Ben M. Baglio (under the pseudonym Lucy Daniels) and I was obsessed with all things related to animals. I was determined that I would be a vet, saving hedgehogs and cats and then I developed a passion for dolphins, which was when I switched my dream job to marine biologist. I can confidently say that I have always held the natural world in my heart.

Needless to say, I didn't go on to study veterinary science or marine biology. In fact, I went down a different path altogether, choosing my passion for art and all things creative over nature but I never lost my interest in it. As corny as it might sound, the past few years have been a bit of a journey of self-discovery for me, after plans I made for my future just didn't pan out the way they were meant to. I started drawing birds in my spare time which meant that I was suddenly taking a lot more notice of the feathery creatures in our back garden. As I was drawing, I was learning, discovering species I had never known existed and building my knowledge up, bit by bit.

In 2012, my family and I moved house, from a suburban cul-de-sac property to a chocolate-box cottage in rural Sussex and it was there, in the middle of ancient woodland, that the natural world began to fully reintroduce itself to me, showing me wonderful sights I had never seen before. A great-spotted woodpecker drumming against the bark of an oak. A nuthatch scaling up and down tree trunks like a feathered ninja. A wake of buzzards riding thermals on a perfectly clear day. All of these and more were happening within a few feet of our back door and I had never felt quite so fascinated by anything, and never so hungry for more similar experiences. I was lucky to have the freedom of working from home so my working hours were flexible and I was therefore able to venture out into the surrounding countryside in search of new discoveries. One particular day sticks clear in my mind because it was just so memorable and almost once-in-a-lifetime. During the Summer of 2013, I was walking through a patch of woodland that our house directly backs on to, camera and binoculars in hand and not 500 yards down the path, in a sunny clearing, I came across a female roe deer and her very young fawn, who still had spots on its back. I stood watching the pair for quite some time, as the doe sniffed across the ground for food and the fawn stayed close to its mother's side, until they became aware of my presence and bounded off into the thicker trees. I was amazed to have witnessed such a beautiful sight so close to home!
I've never felt 100% sure of what I wanted to do or where I wanted to take my life until I realised that working in conservation was the answer. It took a long time to finally click but I got there and I'm now actively pursuing it as a career, through volunteer and field work with various conservation charities, citizen science projects such as the BTO Nestbox Challenge and the Woodland Trust's Nature's Calendar and I am planning to start studying for a Zoology diploma this year. My eyes have been opened to so much over the past two years and I'm constantly learning, even when I simply look out of the window and observe the behaviour of  the birds on the feeders. Something that I have picked up on particularly is the value of each individual species, not just the "cute and fluffy" ones. Everything serves a purpose in the ecosystem and this is why it is so important to gain a better understanding of how to protect and preserve the species on this planet.

My wildlife story is one of discovery. A change of location opened up a door to me and cleared away the fog of confusion that had settled on my life. Nature has helped me and now I am hoping that I can return the favour. There's so much we can take away from the natural world but at the same time, we should be giving back as much as we can.