Saturday, 25 April 2015

Tilgate Nature Centre

Spontaneous trips are my favourite kind of trip. I could do with a bit more spontaneity in my life. Yesterday, myself and a friend broke from the norm of a coffee in town and took ourselves to Tilgate Park in Crawley. The weather was on our side and seemed to support our visit as it ignored the chilly, overcast predictions and gave us some hazy sunshine and only a few gusts of cold wind. 

I used to visit Tilgate Park a lot when I was a child. I have many happy memories of legging it around the playground, and stroking the pigs and rabbits in the animal centre. A lot of improvements and developments have been made to the park since my childhood and I'm constantly impressed by the amount of work that has been done, particularly in the recently-dubbed Nature Centre. It used to be free to enter this area of the park, where visitors were treated to sights of typical farmyard animals as well as free-roaming peacocks and a few cheeky squirrels. There is now a small entry fee of £2 for an adult which in my book is extremely reasonable considering what there is to see now. It's come on a long way since the 90s.

Egyptian Geese
Male Ferruginous Ducks

My personal favourite area of the centre is the wildfowl pond. It has a long, wooden walkway with a gazebo viewing platform and is a great place for me to improve my knowledge of duck and goose species. I was able to name a few yesterday, like the Tufted Duck and Barnacle Geese, but my knowledge has a fair way to go yet! I had to look up the Red-Crested Pochard when I got home.

Male Tufted Duck
Male Red-Crested Pochard
Female R-C Pochard
Barnacle Geese
While we were looking at the Barnacle Geese, my friend asked me why they were standing on one leg. I've never really considered this but my response was that it had something to do with preserving energy and when I looked it up in further detail, I found I wasn't actually far off the right answer. Birds lose heat from their legs more than anywhere else on the body as they do not have the protection of feathers. Standing on one leg actually reduces heat loss from "unfeathered limbs" so all the while they only have one leg exposed, they are preserving heat in the other, until they swap over. 
African Grey Hornbill 
White-Naped Crane

One of my favourite owls is the Burrowing Owl and they have a pair at Tilgate. I believe this was the female as she was slightly larger than the other owl but what I did notice was that the top section of her beak seemed to be malformed. I didn't notice it the last time I visited, although that's not to say it wasn't in the same state then, I just wondered whether she might have broken it off, either fighting with the other owl or perhaps cracked it on a rock? 

Burrowing Owl

Both the meerkats and the yellow mongoose had pups in their enclosures, the meerpups were born on March 14th. There was a lot of digging going on in both camps so they are obviously well into the swing of learning and honing new skills.

Adult Yellow Mongoose 

Personally, I always find it a joy to see a Great-Crested Grebe, wherever I am. They are such sleek, elegant birds, with fantastic head plumage. This one seemed to be alone which is a shame as spotting a G-C Grebe is second only to witnessing the pair's courtship dance. I imagine that a second grebe was likely hiding among the reed beds.

I was actually surprised that we didn't spot any ducklings or chicks. There were plenty of coots, moorhens and mallards swimming around but no sign of any hatchlings. Later in the afternoon, as we made our way back to the car, I spotted a buzzard lazily circling above us, only just visible through squinted eyes as the sky was still thick with hazy cloud, the sun pushing through the breaks.

Monday, 20 April 2015

That's Nature

I'm afraid today's nest update is in strong contrast to the positive post I published yesterday. In fact, today has not been a good day for nests in general. This is the "other side" of nature as it were, and must be accepted, together with all of the exciting, happy elements.

After discovering that the blackbird eggs had hatched only a couple of days ago at most, I have since been keeping an even closer eye on the nest, hoping to see the parents busy feeding their young. I was puzzled that I hadn't seen either one of them for a day or so. I hadn't expected them to be on the nest anywhere near as often as when they were incubating, but a total absence didn't sit right with me.

Camera in hand, I ventured out with a very uneasy feeling in my stomach. I think I already knew what I was going to find, or not going to find more accurately. Sure enough, I snapped a blurred photo that confirmed all three of the chicks were no longer in the nest. This is such a devastating discovery as I've become rather invested in the blackbirds' lives, being able to watch them so closely from the house. Saying that, it was only yesterday when I typed the words "the success rate is only around 30-40%" so this turn of events really shouldn't come as much surprise to me.

I searched the surrounding bushes and ground thoroughly, hoping there might be a clue as to what had happened to the chicks. There were no branches out of place or any evidence of disturbance and the chicks' bodies were nowhere to be seen. We have at least two great-spotted woodpeckers that frequent our feeders on the other side of the garden, and magpies are also occasional visitors, so I have had to draw the conclusion that the chicks were predated by one of these. I am extremely disappointed, for the parents who have worked so hard and for myself as I was so hoping to see them fledge. I can only keep my fingers crossed that the female chooses to lay her next clutch in the same nest, although this is unlikely as whatever predator took these chicks now knows the location of the nest.

Unfortunately, this isn't the end of the bad news. I have also been monitoring a nest that was being built by long-tailed tits in the outer top corner of another garden hedge. I had seen a pair of long-tails flying back and forth across the garden with nesting material, but over the past week or two, they haven't made an appearance. My research told me that once the nest is built, it isn't uncommon for it to be left for a few days before any laying takes place. The timing works out about right for this and having frequently checked for activity close-up, I had determined that it was yet to be occupied and no eggs had been laid.

If this was definitely the case, it was just as well. After my disappointing discovery at the blackbird site, I noticed a large clump of feathers on the outside of the long-tail site. Upon closer inspection, there were feathers everywhere, clinging to the branches and gently rolling across the driveway like tiny tumbleweeds. I couldn't see much on the inside of the bush, more feathers and lichen, but enough to confirm this nest had been destroyed. With the location of the nest being so surrounded by branches, it is likely that this too could have been caused by magpies or crows. Again, I checked for any evidence of eggs but I couldn't see any, nor bodies, so my conclusion is that nothing was inside. I could well be wrong but it's impossible to know without having a camera on the nest.

Not a great day for nesting, it has to be said. I feel deeply saddened but have to keep telling myself that this is nature, this is what happens. Predation is part of the cycle. It seemed in rather harsh contrast that, as I was stood in the garden feeling pretty gloomy after my discoveries, the distinctive call of a cuckoo drifted through the trees: my first of the season.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Blackbird Nest Update #3: We have chicks!

Over the past week, I have been noticing the male blackbird taking a more active role in looking after the nest. He has brought food in for the female several times and sat on the nest briefly while she was away. A couple of days ago, I observed the female fly in with a caterpillar in her beak and through binoculars, I watched her peer in to the nest. I didn't see what she did with the caterpillar and assumed she ate it herself. Since seeing that, I noticed she was off the nest far more frequently which suggested to me that the eggs may have hatched.

Yesterday, I took the opportunity while the female was away from the nest area to check on the status of the eggs. As always, I made extra sure that I was in no way disturbing the nest. I was able to confirm by snapping a very quick photo that the eggs had indeed hatched! Judging by the chicks' appearance and lack of downy feathers, I'm estimating that they are only a day or two old.

When the female returned, she again brought food in and this time around I was able to see the chicks poke their heads out of the nest, their mouths open in wide gapes. Although it would be brilliant if all three chicks fledged successfully, I learned recently that the success rate is only around 30-40%. Chances are this female will lay one or two more broods at this site, so I may get to witness the cycle more than once.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Chichester Cathedral Peregrine Project

This week I started work in a new volunteering role for the RSPB. As you may or may not know, I have been a volunteer at the Pulborough Brooks reserve since 2013, where I work once a week in the visitor centre. It is a varied role with the focus being on retail although I also do a certain amount of meeting and greeting, and giving general advice on wildlife and nature. Despite the fact that I don't very often get the opportunity to go out on to the reserve itself, I enjoy working there and the reserve team are a friendly bunch. That said, I've been looking for other volunteer roles that would take me out into the field a bit more and give me a chance to build up some new skills, so I registered my interest in the Peregrine Falcon monitoring project that the RSPB runs annually from Chichester Cathedral.

Peregrine falcons have been nesting in Chichester Cathedral since 2001 and the RSPB has observed and recorded their progress every year since then. The birds nest in one of the turrets which contains a specially-designed nest box provided by the Sussex Ornithological Society. Traditionally, peregrines would nest on cliff edges, creating shallow scrapes in the ground using no nesting material at all. This leaves them open to the high risk of their eggs rolling off the cliffs and so they have come to realise that cathedrals across the country provide much safer, lower-risk nest sites.

The peregrines are nesting in the turret on the right.

The live webcam has been streaming for several weeks now and the peregrines have laid four eggs. This number of eggs was no surprise as the female laid the same last year and she will always lay the same amount; the number of eggs laid in the first year of breeding determines how many she will lay for the rest of her life. This doesn't necessarily mean that all four will hatch out into nestlings. 2014 saw two of the four eggs hatch but this was likely down to the erratic laying pattern of the female. Normally laying would be completed within a week, with 24-48 hours between each egg, but it took a fortnight for all eggs to finally be laid. This year, however, the laying pattern was much more as it should have been, so for that reason, the hopes are that at least three if not all of the eggs will hatch. 

My first day as a Public Events Assistant on the project was unseasonably warm and I was quite thankful to be on webcam duty and spending the day in the cool shade of the marquee. I felt a certain amount of pressure as I know the majority of volunteers involved this year are returning participants and so have plenty of knowledge to share from past breeding seasons, in comparison to my limited knowledge-base and experience. Once I got talking to the public, I felt much more at ease and thoroughly enjoyed sharing the few facts I had with interested parties. I know I'll pick up plenty more as I go along, particularly from listening to other staff and volunteers. I certainly got a thrill out of seeing the expressions of wonder and excitement on the visitors' faces. 

Until the eggs actually hatch, there is actually a limit to what we are able to show visitors. The female does the majority of incubation and the male is supposed to bring her food and take over about 15% of the work. This particular pair, however, have been behaving in slight contradiction to this. They have been taking shifts of around four or five hours each on the nest and going off to find their own food. On Wednesday, when I was working there, a wake of buzzards circled high up above the cathedral, riding thermals and showing no interest in the nest site. They were seen off by the female with a few vertical attacks, before she took over brooding at around 11am and spent the next few hours exposed to the direct sunlight and heat of the day. As birds don't have sweat glands and so cannot cool down by releasing moisture as we would, they have to "pant" in order to expel the heat from their bodies and regulate their temperature. The female was panting heavily for the entirety of her shift and I did feel for her, having the task of keeping her eggs warm and herself cool simultaneously! No easy task. When the male eventually returned around 3pm, the sun had moved round and shade had crossed most of the nest box, so he was much more comfortable than his partner and only demonstrated panting for a short time. 

The fourth egg was laid on 7th of April so, based on the 28-33 day incubation period, we are estimating hatching will begin around the 5th of May. It's at that point that having a 24-hour live stream of the nest could prove very distracting, particularly when there is work waiting to be done! Here's hoping that all four eggs hatch out.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Blackbird Nest Update #2

Since my last update on the blackbird nest, I have seen exciting developments. By Friday 3rd April, two more eggs had been laid and I managed to again sneak a peek at them while the female was away from the nest. She has now gone into full incubation mode, only disappearing briefly two or three times a day to feed, as the male doesn't seem to be feeding her or getting involved at all.

**I would like to stress a second time that although I have taken photos of the eggs, in no way am I disturbing the nest, eggs or nesting site when I do so. I make sure this is the case and the safety of the nest and eggs is my priority** 

A Sunny Visit to WWT Arundel

On Easter Monday, myself and my family took a long-overdue trip to Arundel Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. I've wanted to visit for quite a while now as I often hear positive comments from visitors at Pulborough Brooks and back in March, I went along to a talk at The Capitol theatre in Horsham, given by the centre's grounds manager Paul Stevens, about the conservation work and projects being carried out on the wetlands, so I was keen to see the reserve myself. 

Our original plan was to go on the Thursday before Easter but the weather was chilly and drizzly and, although I wouldn't have minded bundling up in a raincoat, we decided to postpone. I'm so glad we did as Easter Monday was the hottest day of 2015! I even caught a touch of sun on my chest and had lines where my binocular straps had sat. 

If you've been to WWT Arundel before, you'll know they hold a zoo license for the exotic wildfowl they have in the first few ponds. Many of these foreign species are under threat in their native countries and so having them here helps to protect their species and educate the public on them. There was quite a variety of ducks and geese and they were all fairly vocal at the feeding platform, where visitors can throw special grain bought from the WWT shop. Especially vocal was a group of Eider ducks. The males emitted a humorous "oooh" noise which was obviously intended to attract the females. The male and female plumage is so different; the sheer contrast always amazes me.

Male Falcated Ducks
Male Mandarin Ducks 

Naturally, given that we are now well and truly into Spring and the breeding season is underway, there were plenty of Mallard ducklings to be seen as they are the first species of duck to breed, many of them so tiny that they can only have fledged a day or two before. My favourite had to be a pair of Moorhen chicks which were absolutely fresh fledglings, judging from their size. I didn't get a photo but just imagine a piece of black cotton wool and you're more or less there!

Male Wood Duck
Emperor Goose
Male Shelduck

One species of duck that I found particularly fascinating was the White-Headed Duck. My first sighting was of two females and I was instantly reminded of a duck-billed platypus! They have wide, flat beaks, similar to a Shoveler and their tails stand out for their width too. The males have the white head and a wonderful blue-coloured bill which leaves them looking a little less platypus-like in comparison to the brown females.

Female White-Headed Duck showing her tail
Reedbed Boardwalk

The reedbed boardwalk was a great way to experience this particular habitat. It felt very relaxing to be surrounded by gently swaying reeds. I was keeping my eyes peeled for signs of Water Rails, Bitterns and Warbler nests but as I suspected, I saw none of these. There was a nesting Moorhen right at the edge of the walkway, clucking at two male Mallards as they drifted by her. 

The reserve was much larger than I expected and we did have to stop for some lunch half way round. Refueling with tea and cake is of great importance. I had to take my coat back to the car as I simply had no need for it with the wonderful weather we were having-even the breeze was warm-and as I did, I saw that the car park was full and cars were queuing to get in. When the sun comes out in the UK, especially on a bank holiday, Brits instinctively come pouring out of the woodwork, Pimms in hand, in search of the nearest beach, park or attraction. I was pleased so many had opted to see some nature.

After lunch, we headed straight for the boat jetty. This was the part I was most keen to experience as I was really hoping to spot a water vole. If I remember correctly from Paul Stevens' talk, there are 120 breeding pairs of water voles at Arundel which is a fantastic number. I knew, however, that they can be pretty tricky to spot so I was trying my best not to get my hopes too high...

Rightly so, as we didn't spot any! Even the wooden platforms dotted around for the females to use as territory-marking latrines were clear of any droppings. Our boat guide did point out evidence that the voles had been in the area by the broken reeds; they bend each reed down and turn their heads to the side to bite through, leaving a 45° angle. Despite not seeing the water voles, there was plenty more to see, including a pair of Mute Swans building a nest together, with one pulling up grass and passing it to the other who was placing it on the nest. It was fascinating to see their teamwork in action.

From the Sand Martin hide, I managed to spot a female nesting Lapwing and a male close by (as seen below to the left of the photo). The air was full of raucous calls from the Black-Headed Gulls out on the scrapes but no Sand Martins were nesting in the holes of the sandy hide. Greylag and Canada geese were also abundant.

At the end of our visit, I felt a little overwhelmed by the sheer amount of wildfowl there was at the centre. It would be impossible to go away feeling disappointed at any time of year there as each season brings new species and new behaviour and activity to witness. I'm reliably informed that the water voles are more active during late Summer, so I think another trip may well be on the cards!

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Blackbird Nest Update #1

As you can see from the above picture, the first blackbird egg has been laid! Since my my most recent post about the blackbird nest, there has been very little activity at the nest site. I assumed this was because the female finished building the nest but wasn't yet ready to lay eggs, although I did worry that, because I hadn't seen her for about a week, she might have changed her mind about laying there. 

It turns out I was worrying over nothing. When I went to make a cup of tea at 8am, I glanced out of the window and I was thrilled to see the shape of the female blackbird sitting on her nest. Her fan-shaped tail was what alerted me and I could also just about make out the top of her head. Through binoculars I was able to spot her eye and beak as well. Of course, it was great to see her back at the nest site and I knew the possibility of her having laid an egg was extremely high; this realisation really ramped up my level of excitement.

When I came back from Chichester this afternoon, (I'm a volunteer on the Chichester Cathedral Peregrines project, more on that in a future post) I had a quick peek at the hedge she's occupying and saw that she was away from the nest. I'm fortunate to be able to see inside the nest quite easily, by standing on a chair and using my handheld camera. I always make sure I am in no way at risk of disturbing the nest or damaging it; you can tell by the quality of the photos I'm getting that I'm only sticking my arm into the hedge. There it was, a bright blue egg speckled with brownish-red spots! Well done, Mrs Blackbird. I'm glad I was able to confirm that she has started laying as these are all observations that I can list for the BTO Nest Box Challenge. If only the long-tailed tits would make it so easy for me to see inside!

One thing that really did concern me was that, since taking the above photo at around 2pm, I haven't yet seen the female return to incubate the egg. This was worrying as I was sure that several hours of exposure would make the egg far too cold. I did some reading up on this subject and confirmed from several sources that blackbirds don't start full incubation periods until all of the clutch has been laid and even then, the vast majority of incubation is done by the female with only the occasional bout of help from the male. I'm expecting an egg a day to be laid until she has between three and five so hopefully by Easter Monday, I will see her begin incubation properly.