Friday, 26 June 2015

30 Days Wild Day 24-26: Close Encounters of the Deer Kind

I'm a little behind on my blogging but only because I have yet to figure out a way of slowing down/pausing time so that I can fit everything in! I also can't quite believe we have nearly reached the end of June and therefore the end of 30 Days Wild; just four more random acts of wildness left.

On Wednesday, day 24, I was working on commission work again, as I quite often am. As much as I have tried to in the past, I am unable to work outside as I draw my portraits from a tablet and it's just too bright even in the shade for me to see the details I need on the screen. So I more or less spent the day indoors. 

Before bed, I caught up on some of the book I've been reading recently called "The Fate of The Species" by Fred Guterl. It's a very thought-provoking read about the state of the planet and the various ways we could be pushing ourselves to extinction. Hypothetical scenarios based on scientific research. I'm certainly finding it interesting but also quite depressing when I consider just what sort of state we are leaving Earth in for future generations. We may not see a mass extinction of our species in this lifetime, or the next, but it's definitely on the cards; it's just a case of what will be the tipping point. 

Day 25 was full of surprise encounters involving no planning of mine whatsoever. We had to take a trip into Horsham town centre in search of various items and the car park was busy so we ended up parking on the top storey, open to the elements. Within moments of leaving the car, I noticed a flock of house martins swooping just above us, presumably catching insects. I know they nest in East Street so they weren't too far from home and it was, as always, a lovely treat to see them. 

Back at home, after having only seen a handful of butterflies so far this year, a flutter of colour caught my eye through the kitchen window. I ventured out for further investigation to see a meadow brown resting on one of our bushes. The really exciting moment came later in the evening though. By pure chance, I happened to be stood in our front garden, watching a flock of thrushes rattling between the trees through my bins. I focused further out, across the big lawn of the main house, and spotted a roe deer. I watched her for some time as she moved nearer and nearer our garden and after a few moments, I noticed a much smaller deer just behind her: a very young fawn. He seemed full of energy, bounding around after his mother and it made me wonder whether it was his first trip out.

 I stayed as still and quiet as I could while simultaneously trying to get a few photos-no easy task! The pair moved even closer to me and I realised they were going to cross right in front of me, mere feet away. I could feel my heart beating harder and I think I might have gasped as the beautiful doe and her fawn clip-clopped slowly and casually across the driveway; the only thing separating them from me was a waist-high hedge. I could see the adult's eyelashes. Now, this might sound utterly ridiculous to some of you, but I'm hoping the rest of you will be able to appreciate how I felt. Any close encounter with a wild animal is special, no matter how boring some might consider them.

I was actually quite pleased that, for once, they didn't catch my scent or see me, and bolt. It was a moment to be savoured.

I spent today in Eastbourne with my mum. We went to see the semi-finals of the Aegon International tennis which was the first time we've seen live tennis and was such a fantastic experience. It didn't stop me noticing the wildlife though. When we stopped to get cash out in Southwater, a flock of swifts were swooping across the square, screaming and twisting around after insects, much like the house martins on Wednesday. Later in the day, during the matches, I saw several house martins doing the same above the court. I'm also fairly certain I saw a peregrine fly past with prey in its talons but it was too tricky to keep one eye on that and the other on the match!

After getting cash, we were travelling on the A272 and a gliding figure caught my eye. The sun caught some pale feathers under the expansive wings and my first thought was buzzard, but the second I saw a forked tail, I knew I was looking at a red kite. It was relatively low too, so I got a good view of it and for a change, I wasn't driving when I saw one!

I do so love the more unexpected sightings of wildlife. It's like nature's way of reminding us that it's still there, no matter where you are or what you're doing.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

30 Days Wild Day 23: Lunch With a Kestrel

Pulborough was busy on Tuesday. My four hours of volunteering flew by in a flash and I had plenty keeping me occupied. I did manage to grab a 20 minute break when I went for a quick walk on the heathlands again. It was an extremely close day which is why I think I had a headache for most of the day, despite drinking plenty of water. The fresh air did help to an extent but I soon forgot about my head as I watched a beautiful kestrel glide above me, low enough for me to see the sandy feathers underneath. It landed on the outside of a tree at the bottom of the valley where I followed it to try and snap a couple of photos. It's times like that when I wish I had one of these amazing telephoto lenses!

Not great, but you get the idea!

30 Days Wild Day 22: Chichester Fledge Watch

The big moment is finally here! Well in actual fact, it's already passed as I type this but when I was with the peregrines on Monday, the juveniles hadn't officially fledged yet. We were on "Fledge Watch" all day and those birds certainly kept us on the edge all day. All three of the juvys spent the majority of the day perched on the turret crenelations, flapping their wings repeatedly and a few times looked like they might just make the leap. I got a crick in my neck from looking up all day. 

The adults stayed tucked inside alcoves on the spire during the morning as we had some torrential rain and peregrines really don't enjoy flying in the wet. As much as I would have liked the young to fledge while I was there, I knew the weather would have a big effect on whether they went or not and I wasn't holding out much hope. Still, it was lovely to see them on such great display all day and it meant we had something to show the visitors most of the time. Of course, the most frustrating part for me was knowing that once I went home, I wouldn't be able to carry on following their progress on the webcam. At least during "Hatch Watch", there was always something to be monitored on the camera but with the chicks outside of the frame, I would have to miss the moment they branched out.

I was pleased to be able to get decent views of them before they left though. They are brown and cream versions of their parents with beaks that look almost blue but they certainly have the peregrine call down to a fine art! 

The first two juveniles fledged yesterday and the third went today. I'm hoping someone might have been around to capture some photographic evidence as I feel like I've missed out on one of their biggest moments! Sadly, I don't think the cathedral staff would take too kindly to me camping out on their lawn. I have two shifts at the project next week which is actually the final week of monitoring. I don't want it to end!

Monday, 22 June 2015

30 Days Wild Day 21: Father's Day Nature Walk

I visited my Dad in Burgess Hill for Father's Day. We went to see a certain dino-related film at the cinema (very good, would definitely recommend if the nail marks in my palms are anything to go by!) and afterwards we had a table booked at the local Beefeater which was only two miles away. We decided to walk there rather than drive since it was a warm evening and there was a lovely footpath to follow.

There wasn't a huge amount of wildlife to be seen on the way there, apart from the odd woodpigeon but on the journey home, when the sun had started to dip lower, there were several rabbits out and about, being kept company by six (for gold) magpies. We stopped to look at the view across to the South Downs and I pointed out the song of the song thrush and chiffchaff which my Dad and step-Mum hadn't heard before. The thrush actually perched in direct view for us and sang his heart out for some time before flying off. There must have been at least three thrushes that I could hear in the immediate area.

I was pleased to see such a range of grasses growing in the verges running along the trail. I don't know anything about species of grass but there was definitely a variety there, as well as oxeye daisies, dog roses and thistles. It made a nice change to walk somewhere rather than drive. You see so much more when you make the effort to take your time and take in your surroundings.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

30 Days Wild Day 20: Creatures that Flap in the Night

I stood in our back garden around 9:45pm yesterday with the intention of doing some bat-watching. We have at least three or four bats flapping around our house most warm nights so it doesn't usually take much patience to spot them. However, on this particular night, the bats were not playing ball. I saw one individual which didn't hang around and after that, zilch. I thought this was strange considering the evening was mild and there were more than a few moths and insects buzzing around above me. Rich pickings for the bats, you would think!

It wasn't a total bust though. I had a quick look around the exterior light for any moths and found a rather large, bright orange one thrashing around in a spider's web. It managed to get itself free and settled above the light, staying still long enough for me to get a decent photo. Moths are not my strong point by any means and I did get rather excited by this new visitor as most of the species I see in our garden are variants of grey/brown. After a quick Google search, I was ever so slightly disappointed to discover that my orange moth is called an Orange Moth. Someone clearly ran out of ideas on that day at the office!

Orange Moth

There are a few nooks and crannies in the exterior walls of our cottage which I inspected with a torch and found two False Widow spiders occupied with the remains of their prey. They are easily identified by the light brown legs and contrasting dark abdomen with white-ish markings. I've never noticed them in the garden before and I didn't realise quite how small they are. We do also have a resident Cupboard Spider living in the eaves of our porch. It has been there for a long time and only ventures out of its funnel-like web at night. It is extremely shiny and black with a very bulbous abdomen.

False Widow

I stuck around outside until it was more or less completely dark but still didn't see any more bats. This was a shame as they are so wonderful to watch; they have such a distinct flying pattern and often I have felt them fly so close to me that I could hear the clicking of their sonar. Maybe I'll have more success another night.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

30 Days Wild Day 19: Birding at Pagham Harbour

OK so I might have accidentally missed a day of this little challenge. Thursday completely got away from me and before I knew it, it was bed time and I had done nothing remotely wild. I plan to make up for this by tagging an extra day on at the start of July and hopefully day 19's blog will more than make amends for the lack of day 18! 

So. Day 19. What a corker it was! It definitely comes under the heading "visit somewhere new" as I took my very first trip to Pagham Harbour nature reserve, managed by the RSPB. Whenever I'm volunteering at Pulborough and talking about Pagham Harbour to the public, I always feel slightly shameful as I'm encouraging people to go but had never been myself! So I decided it was time to rectify that. Funnily enough, a very rare bird called a Hudsonian Whimbrel, normally found across the pond in America, showed up at Church Norton (just down from Pagham) around this time last week. It was purely by chance that myself and my colleague and friend Lauren had decided to visit several weeks ago, nothing to do with the Whimbrel and, incidentally, we didn't see it. 

Lauren was acting as my tour guide since I had no idea where to start and the reserve area is enormous. We began in search of a family of nightingales we had been told were nearby, down the cycle path to the left of the reserve. We tried several spots along the trail and waited but didn't see the adults or juveniles, although we did hear several bursts of the nightingale alarm call, so we knew they were there, just very well hidden in the dense vegetation. What made up for the lack of nightingales spots was the sight of an adult whitethroat (the first time I'd seen one) feeding a juvenile. There was a lot of birdsong going on around us within the vegetation, including chiffchaffs and skylarks and Lauren pointed out to me the call of a blackcap, which sounds exactly the same as two marbles banging together. Very recognisable.

Along the track were the remains of two sparrowhawk kills; one was just a puff of feathers but it must have been disturbed while eating the other, as the body was left behind, minus the head which was on the other side of the trail. Lauren told me they eat the brains first as that is the most nutritious part. Sadly, we didn't spot the culprit.

In this area, we stood for some time listening to at least two, possibly three, reed warblers in the bed to the right of the photo. At times they sounded extremely close to us and we desperately tried to search them out but as it was quite breezy, they chose to remain lower down the reeds where the movement was minimal. A couple of lapwings flew overhead, their white bellies and underwings glinting in the sunlight. 

I was pleased to see a few butterflies about but not as many as I expected on such a warm day; a meadow brown, large white and several red admirals. Looking out across the wetland area, we spotted three little egrets, a grey heron, a lone oystercatcher, sleeping shelducks and a cormorant flying across the air. Cormorants really do look unusual in flight; almost pterodactyl-like. 

Little Egret

The ferry pools were absolutely teeming with black-tailed godwits, both adults and juveniles, the former with beautiful, rufous heads and necks, and the latter looking much more dull and grey in comparison. There was one lone redshank who's much smaller size set it apart from the crowd of godwits, several shelducks including some older juveniles and a pair of little-ringed plovers were scuttling back and forth across one of the sandy banks. They certainly are speedy little birds and blend in with sand so effectively!

As we walked back towards the car park, swifts soaring above our heads, we briefly stopped to look at the dipping ponds. Apparently, not long ago, they had some heavy flooding that filled the ponds with saltwater so it has taken some time for them to recover. Several damselflies flitted around and a beautiful broad-bodied chaser circled the area.

We drove down to Church Norton as Lauren told me this is the best area to see birds, particularly in the winter when all of the waders arrive in vast numbers. One of the most exciting spots of the day for both of us happened in the car park of Church Norton, before we had even reached the trail. A song thrush jumped down in front of us with a snail in its beak, completely unfazed by our presence. Usually, these birds are much more shy and illusive so it made a nice change, especially as, only a few feet from where we stood, the thrush began to bang the snail on the ground repeatedly until it broke apart. It then had a brief peck at the insides before a car came along and spooked it. Obviously we know this behaviour goes on (the broken shells by my pond are evidence enough) but neither of us had ever seen it happening before!

With the hot, sunny weather we had on the day, it felt as if we were on a beach in the Mediterranean when we tore ourselves away from the thrush. The water was extremely clear and, apart from the odd individual, there was no one but us around. We spent some time watching the Tern Island where breeding common and little terns are nesting. We did spot one individual with an all-black beak which we suspected could have been an Arctic tern but it stayed stubbornly hunkered down so we didn't have much to go on. Lauren manged to spot a Med gull among the more chocolatey black-headed gulls which unfortunately flew off before I could peek through the scope.

The oystercatchers were making quite a racket most of the time we were there and there was one which might have been sitting on a nest, as she didn't move off her spot at all, despite being extremely vocal. I'm quite taken by how white they look in flight, in comparison to their more black appearance on the ground. 

L-R: Black-headed gull, tern, shelduck

Tern Island, 30-40 adult and juvy cormorants to the left.

Oystercatchers and lone shelduck

Possible nesting oystercatcher

We headed over to the right next, where the beach is. There were shoals of fish swimming very close to the shore line and the tide line was littered with hundreds of shed crab skins in various sizes. We set up camp in an area of vegetation that is apparently very good for short-eared owl sightings in the winter. The call of a chaffinch was the overriding sound that punctuated the raspy cries of the gulls. Several small, brown birds kept darting over the hedges then disappearing into the foliage, too fast for us to I.D. them. Lauren suspected they might have been bunting of some sort.

We did spot a bird which looked to be a juvenile goldfinch, with a bright yellow bar on its wing, a couple of greenfinch, and possibly a yellowhammer though it didn't stick around for long! A pair of buzzards hovered above the tree line in quite an impressive way considering the strength of the wind at the time.

As we made our way back along the beach, we stopped to have a look at the oystercatchers again, since they were still making a lot of noise. Lauren put the scope on another little-ringed plover but when I looked at it, I noticed the beak and legs were orange rather than yellow and there was no yellow ring around the eye. We decided based on this that it had to be the little-ring's larger cousin, a ringed plover. I was very excited having only seen the little-ringed before. 

I'm definitely going to make plans to visit again in the autumn/winter time when hundreds of dunlin and knot will be arriving. I'm also hoping to get down to Medmerry soon too, which is the RSPB's newest reserve and is only just down the road from Pagham.

Full bird list from the day:

Common Terns
Little Terns
Artic Terns
Black-headed Gulls
Shelducks (juv + adult)
Ringed Plover 
Little-ringed Plover
Grey Heron
Little Egret
Cormorants (juv + adult)
Song thrush
Whitethroat (juv + adult)
Robin (juv + adult)
Juv. Goldfinch

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

30 Days Wild Day 17: How Volunteering Has Helped Me

I've decided to something a little different for my random act of wildness today. I'm currently in the process of looking for my next volunteering role since the end of the Chi peregrine project is approaching and I want to make sure I have something lined up to fill the space. My search has left me thinking a lot about the volunteer work I have done so far and how it has affected my life.

As some of you may know and most probably don't, I've been self-employed since 2012, working from home as a pet portrait artist. This wasn't what I had originally planned to do, it was purely by chance that I fell into it, but in two and a half years I have had a steady stream of clients, both new and returning, and it has provided a way for me to earn some money while figuring out what direction I want to head in. In Autumn 2013, I applied for the role of volunteer retail assistant at the RSPB Pulborough Brooks nature reserve, partly because working from home can be very isolating and I felt I needed to have some form of interaction with the outside world, but mainly because I had developed a keen interest in wildlife while dabbling in bird illustrations and I wanted to explore that interest further.

I've always been a relatively shy person, particularly when I'm meeting people for the first time, as I'm sure many others are. When I started at Pulborough, I had this shyness and coupled with this, I struggled with anxiety that I had developed when I was at university, something that I still have although I'm learning to control it, and that anxiety used to make it very hard for me to venture outside of my "comfort zone" and try new things. So as you can imagine, despite the fact that I had worked in retail before, applying to Pulborough took quite a bit of courage.

Since the charity relies on the generosity of busy people giving up their time for free, volunteers are valued extremely highly by the RSPB, as I'm sure they are by other organisations too. From day one at Pulborough, I was made to feel very welcome by all staff and fellow volunteers. My role is a varied one, involving general retail work, membership recruitment, giving advice and information about wildlife and talking about the RSPB's work. It's been over a year and a half since I started there and in that time, I have noticed myself becoming more confident in many respects, particularly when it comes to talking to the public.

Up until the beginning of this year, my role at Pulborough was the only extra work I was doing alongside my commissions. I have spent a long time trying to figure out what I really want to do with myself and ultimately what kind of impact I want to make. At the end of 2014, I realised that I want to be doing something that can truly make a difference, no matter how small, and have a positive impact on the natural world. I had picked up a lot of new knowledge about nature while at Pulborough and it had only peaked my interest in working within the field even more.

2015 has been all about me setting the wheels in motion to make this change. My entire academic foundation is in the arts as that was the field I had originally intended to work in, so I was starting with basically nothing to go on. I knew I needed to get experience by doing further volunteer work as well as venture back into the land of studying. Of course, as I've mentioned already, having anxiety makes it all kinds of difficult for me to reach out to people and start new ventures. I decided I was not going to let that hold me back this time and I gave myself the motto of "Be Brave" to be repeated in my head whenever I was too afraid to do something.

My volunteer work for the Marine Conservation Society as a Beachwatch organiser has been particularly helpful in my quest to banish my anxiety. For someone who has always hated public speaking of any kind and still struggles with shyness from time to time when faced with strangers, organising events and being in charge of people I've never met before seemed like an absolutely mental thing to voluntarily do! However, I knew for a fact that if I pushed myself to do it, not only would I gain a little more confidence, I would also develop important skills such as organisation, delegation and surveying. "Be Brave" was used in this instance and I have since successfully carried out two beach clean-ups with two brilliant and friendly teams of volunteers.

When I did my first Beachwatch briefing to the group in March, I was incredibly nervous and had been for the couple of days running up to the event. A couple of family members and friends were there and I think that helped but at my second one, earlier this month, I had no one I knew there and I still managed to make it through. What I've really learnt is that the further I push myself out of that pesky "comfort zone", the bigger the rewards are.

Now we come to the peregrine project. I very nearly didn't apply for this when I first came across it on the RSPB website. Don't ask me why; I have no clear answer! I kept thinking "I can always do it next year", "it's a long way to travel and you don't know the area" and various thoughts along those lines. In the end, though, I gave myself a mental shake and talking to, applied my motto and sent the email. I had actually worked with Lauren, the person running the project, at Pulborough in the past so I was pleased I would at least know one face, even if it meant I'd be working with a brand new team of people.

I can't even tell you how relieved I am that I took the plunge. I was initially apprehensive because it was my first year on the project, my peregrine knowledge was sparse and I knew most of the volunteers had been doing it for years. I didn't want to make a fool of myself. Writing this now, it seems laughable that I these thoughts went through my head. Everyone has to start somewhere, right? We aren't born with a wealth of knowledge; we have to pursue it over time. The further we get through the project, the more I enjoy it and most especially, the more I enjoy talking to the public and teaching them. It really is a fantastic feeling to talk about a subject I am so passionate about and see the enthralled faces of visitors young and old as they absorb the facts.

To you, it might seem utterly ridiculous that I get so worked up over a small thing like volunteering or trying something new, but that's anxiety for you. If you're unfortunate enough to have it too, then maybe you can relate. It's pretty hard to explain the feelings I get to those lucky ones who don't have them. I'm so glad that I have pushed myself this year. My knowledge and skills base is expanding with everything I do and I honestly feel like volunteering has had a huge impact on me personally. This time two years ago, I never thought I'd be saying that I enjoy talking to the public!

If you're considering becoming a volunteer, just do it! I cannot recommend it highly enough. There are so many benefits for both parties and it doesn't have to be time-consuming; you give only the time you can afford to give. I've put a few links at the end of this post that will send you in the right direction.

If you've made it through this entire, rambling post-I salute you.

Helpful Links:

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

30 Days Wild Day 16: Lunch With the Bees

I'm feeling pretty wiped out at the moment, after a full-on weekend and volunteering both yesterday and today. Monday I was mentally tired after talking to the public all day and today I'm physically tired after moving heavy bags of bird seed around; I'm not complaining though because it means I don't have to exercise this week! During my lunch break at Pulborough Brooks today, I went for a quick walk down the first part of the trail, where there are thick hedgerows usually filled with wildlife. The sun was shining so it seemed a shame to waste it by staying inside.

Here are a few of the photos I snapped on my walk. The bees were all very obliging and didn't mind being papped as they carried on with their business. The same goes for the young rabbit who didn't bat an eyelid or stop chewing grass as I walked past only a foot away. A chiffchaff sang from his perch in plain sight at the top of a tree which made me happy as he is only the third one I have ever seen in the flesh.

Last night, I dreamed that I laid a bug 'trap' in the woods behind our garden. When I say trap, I don't mean a deadly one. I've been meaning to try out the one I saw Martin Hughes-Games demonstrate on Springwatch, where you dig a plastic cup into the ground and see what falls in there. I think perhaps my brain was just reminding me while I slept, so I might try and do that tomorrow for day 17.

Monday, 15 June 2015

30 Days Wild Day 15: The Pigeon and the Peregrine

Are you fed up with peregrines yet? If you are, I'm afraid we can't be friends. I will never tire of them!

We are exactly half way through the "30 Days Wild" challenge already! The past fortnight really has flown by. Today was another volunteering day with the Chi peregrines and even though it has only been five days since I was last there, the chicks have changed so much yet again. They only have small tufts of white down left now and I've been desperate to go up the turret and give them all a good brush; they just look so scruffy! 

They are five weeks old now so only have one week left before they will be fledging. One of the female chicks, number 63, has been particularly adventurous and restless today. Several times she hopped up on to one of the castellations and had a good look around. Through the scopes, I managed to see her poking her head out through the gap which was the first time I've seen her in the flesh, so to speak, rather than just on a screen. My money's on her being the first one to take the plunge!

Feeding time this evening. I think the one standing on the box is 63, judging by her head tufts.

Both adults spent a good portion of the morning perched on the cathedral but as the day brightened a bit, they took advantage of the warm air and breeze to do some flying. We didn't see them for some time apart from occasional glimpses of them very high up. I was watching them above us for a while and counted at least three falcons, possibly four in total, and there was definitely some kind of fight going on between two of these, so I took it to mean there were one or two intruding peregrines, possibly the females from a few weeks back. Unfortunately, they were far too high for me to do anything other than speculate.

The parents didn't bring any food in for a good few hours after a brief 11am feed and, after some time, the chicks were showing signs of being hungry; having been asleep for most of that period, they were suddenly wide awake and perched in row, cocking their heads up in search of their parents. Eventually, about 20 minutes before we were due to pack up for the day, the female flew in, squawking loudly and carrying a big prey item. She did several loops of the cathedral before dropping out of sight and then reappeared but flying very low. Once she had landed on her favourite prey-plucking spot, we focused the scopes on her and saw that she had brought in a very large pigeon, probably feral. She was gaping a great deal and made no attempt to start plucking the catch. Instead, she left it where she'd landed and re-positioned herself on one of the pinnacles above the nest turret, near where the tercel had landed in the meantime. Our explanation for this behaviour was that she had really struggled to bring such a large prey item in and consequently had to take some time to catch her breath before delivering the food to her chicks.

Falcon with her prey
The tercel

I was pleased to see a bit of activity from the adult birds just before leaving, since we'd gone most of the day without seeing them! They always make up for their absence in some way or another and this was a prime example of that. The Cloister's garden, where we are based, is always buzzing with wildlife as I mentioned back in May and today was no exception. I was particularly taken by a goldfinch picking at insects hidden beneath the leaves of an overhanging tree only a few feet away from me. They are one of the prettiest birds to be seen in a garden but it isn't often I get to see them at close range. I just love that yellow stripe!

 By the time I'm next on shift at the project, the chicks may well have started fledging already. I really can't wait to see them in action, learning how to be the fastest creatures on the planet!