Saturday, 30 May 2015

The Wildlife Trust's "30 Days Wild" Challenge

I am incredibly passionate about getting people of all ages back in touch with nature. I think it's such an undervalued and overlooked part of our modern, techy lives and we could all do with having a few more "wild" days to relax, unwind and reconnect with ourselves. The Wildlife Trust has introduced a brand new campaign this year called "30 Days Wild" which is encouraging people young and old to carry out a random act of wildness every day in June.

This act of wildness could be as simple as you reading a book in your local park during a fifteen minute tea break or lying on the grass to watch the clouds. If it involves something from the natural world, you're on the right track. The important thing to remember is not to put pressure on yourself. The whole idea of this campaign is to get as many people as possible outside, reduce "screen time", and hopefully see you discovering something new. Nature can have many positive benefits on the mind and body; it's up to you to find out what they are.

Personally, I never forgo the opportunity to spend some time with nature. I plan to record my experiences by blogging each of my wild days and I've made a list of a few ideas already that include some things I've never done such as a garden bioblitz as well as visits to favourite spots in my local patch.

Here are a few of the things I have planned:

Beach Clean Up

I'm holding my second Beachwatch Survey in Worthing for the MCS on the 13th with a group of volunteers. If you live near a coastal area, you could carry out your own beach clean, whether you have two minutes or 60! You can register for my event here.

Go for a walk at dusk

One of my favourite times of day is when the light just starts dropping and the woods come alive. There's plenty to be seen and heard but make sure you take a torch and watch your step!

Get up to see the sunrise

I see plenty of sunsets but am rarely up early enough to catch it rising! Try watching one of each and comparing the differences in light and colour.

Garden Bioblitz

How many species can you count in your garden in one hour? Don't forget the creepy crawlies!

I encourage you to challenge yourself this June, get outside and back in touch with nature. Be creative with your own ideas and try and get your friends and family to join in too! Visit the Wildlife Trust website for more details where you can download a book full of wild ideas. Good luck!

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Sensational Butterflies and Chuffed with a Chiffchaff

I took a little trip into London town on Friday just gone to visit the pop-up exotic butterfly house at the Natural History Museum. I know the thought of insects flapping around your head in large numbers may not appeal to some, but it's certainly right up my street! Stepping into the tent outside the museum was wonderful, not only for the array of butterflies but for the intensely humid climate that took the edge of a not-quite warm Spring day in the capital.

The thing that most struck me was the size of some of the species, in comparison to our native ones. One of the largest species there appeared a bright, iridescent blue but in actual fact is naturally yellow. The scales on their wings act in the same way as a kingfisher's feathers do, by refracting light and appearing a vivid shade of blue to the human eye. In some lights, I could see a slight yellow tinge to some of the wings but the fact was a hard one to swallow!

I did have one slightly unexpected experience while in there. Naturally the insects were inclined to land on the visitors whenever the mood took them, especially if they happened to be wearing tantalisingly floral clothing (the visitors, that is, not the butterflies!) At one point I was told I had one on my head and I could feel it flapping away across my sunglasses. It appeared to be in no rush to vacate. The operator of the butterfly house came over when he saw what was going on and told us that the particular species currently occupying my head was actually a host-specific butterfly, meaning that it only lays its eggs on one specific plant. As if to completely contradict this, the butterfly decided that the underside of my sunglasses would be the perfect place to lay a couple of eggs! The operator was certainly very surprised and confused by this behaviour and asked me if I wouldn't mind taking off my glasses so he could remove the eggs and the butterfly. Even after removal, it kept showing keen interest in my glasses, but no one could work out why!

I was most fascinated by the window displaying hundreds of chrysalides all in uniform lines. The sheer variety of shapes, sizes and colours was quite a spectacle. There were several freshly-hatched insects, still drying out their crinkled wings, and a few chrysalides were wriggling with the promise of imminent hatching. Some of these looked exactly liked curled-up autumn leaves, others looked like tiny, pastel jewels and one type reminded me of a snail without its shell!

My definite highlight was being able to see a truly striking species of moth only inches away from me. It is actually the largest species of moth on the planet; the Atticus Atlas. There was a male and female in the tent, having only emerged from their cocoons two days before. The guide very gently lifted the hook that the larger female was attached to down for us to have a closer look. Her body was enormous, with long, furry "ears" and translucent spots on her wings that looked almost like very thin tracing paper. She wasn't the largest example of the species: apparently they can grow to nearly cover the chest of a grown man!

After checking ourselves for any hitchhiking insects, we headed to Hyde Park for some lunch by the Serpentine. This, it turns out, is an absolute haven for all sorts of bird life. Alongside many species I've seen before but never tire of watching, I was ecstatic to spot two chiffchaffs! This was a first for me. I was able to easily identify their characteristic song that gave them away before spotting them nestled in the reedbed.

The Greylags were all getting a bit territorial with one another and we later found out that some had goslings, which explained their behaviour. I was surprised when I saw a Greylag chase off the Grey Heron at one point though!

F + M Tufted Duck
Egyptian Geese goslings
Male GC Grebe

Here's a full list of the birds I spotted, including my first wild parakeets:

-2 chiffchaff
-30+ Greylag Geese and 1 gosling
-1 grey heron
-Town Pigeons
-Pied Wagtails
-1 Canada Goose
-20+ Egyptian Geese with goslings
-2 Parakeets
-1 Great Crested Grebe
-1 male, 2 female Pochard
-1 male, 1 female Tufted Duck
-Mallard Drakes
-House Martins
-1 adult, 1 juvenile Herring Gull

I believe the Sensational Butterflies exhibition will be available until September this year so it's definitely worth popping along to witness the spectacle for yourself!

Monday, 18 May 2015

Falconry Experience at Eagle Heights Wildlife Foundation

I've recently earned myself the nickname of "Bird Girl" from my close family members. Although it could be a lot worse, I can't help imagining myself as some kind of pseudo-superhero and I'm quite thankful that I wasn't presented with a stretchy Lycra suit emblazoned with the initials BG on the front for Christmas last year! What I got instead, from my dad and step-mum, was a Red Letter Days "Introduction to Falconry" experience. Needless to say, my excitement was not very well contained.

Birds of prey fascinate me. They are such a diverse range of species with a huge variety of skills that they have honed and learnt to use to their advantage in the wild. They are the definition of survival of the fittest and that really is something to be in awe of. If you have read my past posts, you may have already picked up on my captivation with raptors; I've certainly mentioned the peregrines enough times! 

Chippy or Sparky the barn owl-I can't remember which!

My raptor experience was booked with a fantastic conservation park called Eagle Heights Wildlife Foundation in Kent. I've visited the park only once before, a couple of years ago, and had a brilliant time so I was thrilled to be going back and getting even closer to their birds. They have over 150 birds of prey as well as a collection of other rescue animals including a camel and a pack of huskies. The flying displays are really well put together, full of information and very entertaining for all ages.

Before starting the experience, myself and my dad managed to catch the first half of the midday flying display. We had the delight of feeling Kayla the Bald Eagle narrowly missing the tops of our heads as she sailed across the audience, watching Mr Butthead (!) the Caracara refusing to use his wings, instead choosing to comically jog around after his trainer Ron, and witnessing the impressive flying skills of Anubis the tribrid Peregrine/Gyr/Saker falcon. 

Mr Butthead the Caracara

Following a quick spot of lunch, we, and a couple who were also doing an experience day, were met by falconer Emma. She kitted us all out with food bags and flying gloves then introduced us to the four Harris Hawks we would be taking out for the day, following a few all-important safety rules. My hawk Ollie was a juvenile, only about a year and half old, and still had the younger pale brown plumage around his head. He was beautiful and very relaxed, as they all were. 

Once we were all tethered to our hawks, we headed out into the stunning countryside that the centre backs on to. Quite honestly, the weather couldn't have been better, which was a relief since I was convinced to leave my coat behind! We strolled through the fields with the sun beating down on us and a comfortable breeze rustling the feathers of the hawks. 

Ollie the Harris Hawk with Emma

After we had walked through a couple of fields, it was time to untether the birds and start flying them. Emma showed all four of us how to call back the hawks when it was required, then we released the birds up into the trees, where they slowly followed us as we carried on walking. The gentle tinkling of the bells attached to their jesses told us where they were and when they were following, although we made sure we could always see all four animals. They were fitted with transmitters just in case they decided to fly off but that wouldn't have been an ideal situation! Eyes were kept on them at all times.

At times, when all four birds were sat in a tree above us, I felt almost as if I was prey being watched by vultures! I never felt threatened by them, it was just the way they were all intently watching, clearly looking out for signs of food coming out of our bags. So it proved a tricky task to load up our gloves with chicken but keep it out of sight when it came to calling them back. Ollie was particularly cheeky and would snatch the leg from between my fingers before I'd even got hold of his jesses. It took several attempts before I had successfully managed to secure one of the birds in my glove.


We carried out several releases and call backs, all with varying degrees of success. Later in the afternoon, all three birds were back on the gloves but Ted, who had gone out of sight, although I could still hear his bell. Ted was easily identified as he had plucked some of his belly feathers out of boredom a few days beforehand, only because it was raining heavily on the day and he wasn't able to fly! Emma spent several minutes calling him and gesturing with food, and eventually he appeared. When we got him back on my glove, we noticed he had blood all over his beak and talons; a possible sign that he had found himself a snack in the form of a mouse while he was in the thicker trees.

We started crossing the field back in the direction of the centre and were serenaded by the unmistakable Skylark's song as we went. I have heard the song many times before and glimpsed the faint shape of the birds high up above the fields in the past but never had a close view of them. This time, I was treated to the sight of maybe six or seven Skylarks much lower down, singing their hearts out. We suspected they had nests in the field we were walking through and that they were singing so vehemently to distract us from finding their eggs/chicks. Not that the larks knew it but we weren't a threat and neither were the four hawks, who were all showing signs of starting to tire after all of the flying they had done.


Myself and Ollie



Dad with Gwen

One thing both my dad and I noticed was that, by the end of the session, we had really grown comfortable with having the hawks so close to us. I think once I had established that these were trained, happy and reasonably docile birds who were not going to attack, I could relax and enjoy the privileges of being at such a close proximity to them. Emma gave each of the hawks a whole chick to eat at the end of the afternoon, before we returned to the Heights. We had our gloved hands out, palm up, so they could eat comfortably and Ted was perched on my thumb, his talons wrapped round loosely. He wasn't hurting me and he wasn't applying any pressure but I was just aware of the power that these birds have and how they must apply that when they are out hunting in the wild. 

Having grown so relaxed with the hawk on my hand, I didn't want to go back! It had been such a wonderful way to spend an afternoon, witnessing four very happy birds in a natural environment. I will point out that birds of prey in the wild can be very lazy. When they are not hunting, they are more likely to be sat in a tree than expending any great amounts of energy. They are treated incredibly well at Eagle Heights and are flown every day when this is possible and, of course, when they want to! You can't force them to do something they don't want to do.

I can't praise this experience highly enough. There wasn't a moment that I didn't enjoy and if I could, I'd do it every day. Our falconer, Emma, was incredibly knowledgeable and patient with us. We even got back to the centre to find tea and cake waiting for us. That's a bonus in my book!

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Peregrines Become Parents (Finally!)

It's times like these when it becomes increasingly difficult to work from home. From last Wednesday until Monday, I've had the live stream of the Chichester peregrines permanently playing on my computer while I simultaneously attempted to work on my commissions and keep an eye on those eggs for signs of hatching. I feel I've come to know these birds very well indeed with the amount of viewing time they've had from me!

My patience paid off, although there was one point when I was worried we might not be getting any hatching at all! After another shift in Chi on Thursday with still no positive signs, I woke up on both Friday and Saturday morning with the same thought running through my head: "today is the day." It turns out I was right on the latter but only just. Around about 11:30pm on Saturday night, I was just about to switch off the camera when I saw the female suddenly spring up from her seated position in the nest. She had spent that whole day fidgeting and wriggling about, clucking and peering down so I had an inkling that she knew something was happening.

She sprung up, dipped her head and one moment there were four eggs, the next there was a freshly-hatched chick! She picked it up gently and carried it over to the right of the nestbox briefly, before placing it back among the eggs and settling back down on top. I was thrilled to have caught the moment, the one I had been endlessly watching for for over four days or so. I went to sleep happy. I woke on the Sunday even happier; at 5am, a second chick had hatched!

 The female (L) and male (R) with their two chicks

The thing that has blown me away since this all happened is just how much of a part instinct plays in the cycle. These eggs were laid and the parents knew that they needed to be kept warm through incubation. Then the chicks hatched and without missing a beat, the male began to bring in small prey items which are passed to the female for plucking and feeding to the hatchlings. There was no hesitation or uncertainty. This may well only be this pair's second breeding year but they know exactly what they are doing. 

 One of the first feeds and the female mantles her prey

 It's been a treat to see the feeds taking place every couple of hours. Despite the fact that the male and female divided the incubation period more or less equally between them (the female took over for the nights), now that they have chicks, the female has gone into full "mother mode" and is incredibly reluctant to let the male brood them. The most I have seen him do is half an hour, just enough time for her to stretch her wings. I have particularly enjoyed listening to the amount of communication that goes on. The female and male call to each other loudly when they are trading food. When the female tears off small strips of meat for the chicks, she clucks as a form of encouragement so that they know food is coming. There have been a few moments when the male has flown in with the intention of taking over brooding and the female has remained sitting, but they exchange several "phrases" as if having a conversation. It's fascinating stuff.

By yesterday, the team were beginning to think that, like last year, we would only have the two chicks as the hatching bracket of 28-36 days was closing fast. For more rural peregrines, the bracket is 28-33 days but I've learnt recently that urban falcons have slightly longer, although I don't know the reason for this. This wouldn't have been unusual to only see two out of four eggs hatch out but we were hoping for more. Fortunately, our hoping wasn't for nothing and in the early hours of this morning, a third chick hatched!

 Male (L) and female (R) with chicks

 Fantastic view of the females talons!

I've been going screenshot mad over the past couple of days as it is all a new experience for me and I want to capture as much as I can. I feel so privileged to be observing this process in such a natural, unobtrusive way. To gain insight into the instinctual behaviour of this species without disturbing them is wonderful and being able to share it with the public in the way that we have been is extremely rewarding. 

There is still the matter of the fourth egg. Given that we have now passed day 36, there is very little chance that the fourth will hatch out. I'm writing this at 11pm so I could very well wake up tomorrow morning to see I've been proven wrong! Either way, the next few weeks are going to be equally as fascinating to observe. At this stage, the chicks closely resemble three balls of cotton wool more than the high-speed, streamlined falcons they will grow up to be. They are going to be eating enough food to double their weight every 7 days so that by week 6, they will be the same size as their parents and ready for fledging. Never a dull day with the peregrines; watch this space!

Male with two chicks in sight, third hidden behind.

All three chicks being fed by the female.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Three Steps Back for the Hen Harriers

Image courtesy of RSPB

A few days ago, the news came from the United Utilities Bowland Estate that three breeding male Hen Harriers had mysteriously disappeared from their nest sites. This species is in such a dire situation that an occurrence like this naturally invoked great levels of shock in everyone who heard about it, including myself. The critical status of hen harriers is widely known, so much so that it has been included in David Lindo's  Vote for Britain's National Bird campaign in an attempt to gather more support and awareness for a species that only managed four successful breeding nests in 2014.

I actually read the news about the disappearances online just before I started a shift on the Chichester Peregrine Project and I now can't help but draw comparisons between the two species. I am in the wonderful position of being able to tell members of the public about the fantastic comeback the peregrine population has made since the 60s, when it was on the brink of extinction. Just like the harriers, the peregrines suffered from horrific levels of persecution. Threats came from landowners and pigeon racers who shot the falcons to protect their own birds and coupled with the poisonous effects of agricultural pesticides at the time, the falcons' population plummeted by 80%.

Since then, steps have been taken to protect the peregrines through the introduction of legal protection and control of pesticides. There are now 1,500 breeding pairs in the UK, many of which have adapted to urban environments, much like the Chi pair, and are repeatedly nesting in cathedrals and other tall buildings. It's taken half a century and a lot of hard work from dedicated people, but the population has made a significant recovery and the species is officially  a "Green Status" bird.

It is this story that fills me with hope for the hen harriers. They were driven to extinction by 1900 but despite recovering their numbers naturally, persecution has driven to them to dangerous levels yet again. The peregrines are proof that it is possible to make a comeback but with the constant onslaught of persecution still faced by the harriers, it is sometimes hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

It is very unusual for one male hen harrier to just disappear from an active nest. So for three to vanish in less than a month is highly suspicious and although no one knows "officially" what has happened to them, everyone will have drawn their own, matching conclusions. There is a glimmer of hope edging this story. According to Martin Harper's blog, one of the nests has been saved by a juvenile male who was thankfully accepted by the female. One out of three egg clutches may still have a chance of survival now.

While I stood in the grounds of Chichester Cathedral on Monday waxing lyrical to the visitors about the peregrine renaissance, there was a bittersweet undertone. When one species is thriving, there are countless others still suffering and fighting battles that, after events such as these, already seem lost.

The important thing to remember is that they aren't lost.

Further Information:

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Chichester Chicks and Intruders!

Today marked day 30 of incubation in the Chichester peregrine nest. I was on volunteering duty and really felt like today would be the day we would finally begin to see signs of hatching. Each time there was a glimpse of the eggs as the parents shifted around on the nest, myself and the rest of the RSPB team would be peering intently for any suggestions of pipping, which is when the chicks begin to make small holes in the shell using their "egg tooth". Even on our high-quality HD camera, we saw none. The female was incredibly fidgety at times, struggling to get comfortable on the eggs on several occasions and this is out of character for her, as she would normally be straight down on them with one little wriggle before settling in for a few hours of incubation. We were almost convinced that the fidgeting was a positive sign of imminent hatching but so far, we haven't been proved correct!

 A poor-quality snap of the male during a shift-swap with the female this morning

This didn't mean the day was a wash-out. In fact it was the opposite if we are being literal, as the sun was definitely making up for yesterday's horrifically strong winds and rain. The warm weather seemed to bring a lot of other feathered species out to play, including a lone sparrowhawk early on in the day. It didn't hang around but simply drifted across the city before heading off to the East. A flock of six or seven swifts spent the day twisting and diving through the sky just above our marquee, their scree scree calls punctuating our conversations with the visitors. One of them showed interest in an old nesting sight set inside the brickwork of the building connected to the cafe which suggests that hopefully they will choose to nest their again this year. This will be a fantastic bonus sight to see for visitors, volunteers and staff alike.

The biggest event of the day was the return of an intruding female peregrine. Over the past few weeks, there have been two different individuals identified, both female, although one is a juvenile, and both have been seen off by the parents. Today, the intruder arrived above us, followed closely by our male who had only come off the nest an hour and a half before this appearance. He was absolutely intent on getting rid of her and managed to execute several collisions with her which seemed to do the trick. It was quite a spectacle and I was pleased to have been there to see it as I've managed to miss all previous intruder occurrences this year! There was a small group of the public with us at the time who were all thrilled to see it too.

I think we were all surprised that there were not more buzzards and red kites out enjoying the thermals during the day. There were none of the latter but of the former there were only two appearances. During the first half of the day, a pair were gliding very high up showing no interest in the nest site and this resulted in only a brief spell of chatter from the female on the nest. Another one arrived in the afternoon, flying lower this time and with the male peregrine in tow. He didn't need to waste his energy on chasing the buzzard off as a rather brave herring gull had this covered. I was quite amazed at how close the gull was getting, as he swooped down on the raptor but never made contact. At the same time, I was presented with my first ever example of a peregrine falcon in a stoop. As the buzzard headed away from the site, the male peregrine remained airborne and quite suddenly he went from a glide to tucking his wings tightly in to his body and dropping into the characteristic dive. It wasn't a fully vertical one but still fairly steep and it brought him quickly and neatly on to the North side of the cathedral spire, out of our eye line.

The garden of the Cloister's Cafe, where we are set up, is a haven for various species of songbird, many of which are simply not fussed by the presence of humans. A wren, who has nested in the roots of the lilac bushes, spent much of the day to-ing and fro-ing with a full beak. Based on the frequency it was visiting, it was determined that it must be feeding chicks. We were serenaded all day by a very chatty blackbird who spent most of the time perched on the wall beside our marquee. At one point he flew across the garden so low that he almost brushed my head-not an easy task given that I'm only 5' 3"! A pair of blue tits hung from the bottom of low-hanging tree branches, picking off insects from the leaves. A dunnock jumped around the undergrowth before flying to sit on top of a low roof and released a brief but beautiful stream of song. A charm of eight or so goldfinch were also in the trees for some time, chattering and chasing each other through the air.

So although we are still waiting oh so patiently for the tiniest sign that these chicks are starting to arrive, today was certainly not uneventful. It is heartening to see such a broad range of species inhabiting a space that is only the size of an average suburban back garden.