Monday, 30 March 2015

The green shoots of recovery.

Given that yesterday my usual patch visit day was horribly wet it was lucky that today on my day off that the sun was shining and I was able to get out and down to the Mill. Whilst the sun was out there was still a brisk cold wind blowing.

Wind in my experience is a major issue for bird watching. When it is windy there is a definite reduction in the number of birds sighted. This I think is due to the fact that flying in wind is hard work and birds dislike hard work that expends energy unnecessarily. Instead of flitting about the meadow or along the riverbank they choose to head to the heart of the woods where there is greater shelter, sadly this area is inaccessible to me. Additionally the sound of the wind causes problems in terms of finding the wildlife. It may sound odd but probably 50% of my wildlife watching is based on hearing with the other 50% being seeing.

Obviously bird calls and songs alert people to their presence but there are more subtle sounds that alert me to their presence. Often I can identify the presence of blackbirds by the sound of turning leaves, the clap of a woodpigeon wing beak or the presence of voles by the rustle in the undergrowth. If you listen carefully you can even pick up the high pitch squeaks of shrews. Light wind is okay and once you know what you’re listening for you can quickly distinguish between the random noise of windblown vegetation and the rhythmic motion of something moving, strong winds on the other hand destroy this affect and the subtle movements are lost in the swirling of leaves and nodding of boughs.
As it turns out despite the wind the visit was very productive. In the space of the hour I was walking I identified 25 species by sight and song. Below is a picture of my field notebook as I thought I would explain my routine.

I follow the same route every week and on average it takes me about an hour although in the summer when there are butterflies and dragonflies to count it often takes longer. I make notes on numbers observed taking care not to double count where possible. I use my own hybrid recording code some of which will be obvious to you. This sometimes causes problems in my role a British Trust for Ornithology surveyor. The BTO have a coding system but my own system was developed as a teenager before I had even heard of the BTO and its proving hard to change to the accepted system.
Highlights this week include the sighting yet again of the snipe. I always flush this bird before seeing it and doubt I will ever do anything different. They are so small and cryptic and the vegetation so dense that it will take a miracle for me to spot it before it spots me. This is a shame as I would love a photo of this timid, dainty bird a species which in Warwickshire no longer breeds.

The Chiffchaffs are well and truly back. I have observed individuals over the past few weeks but today there were at least three singing their characteristic name sake calls, elsewhere love is starting to blossom.

The absence of female Mallards on the river indicates to me that they are probably secreted away in the undergrowth on nests. A pair of Kestrels was seen hunting over the site and the eerie warbling ululating sound they sometimes make indicated some form of interaction between them.  Higher up in the skies the resident pair of Buzzards were making use of some thermals to soar above the fields fast disappearing from view. Skylarks could be heard calling from the field and I saw the first Kingfisher in weeks. It was incredibly fast and seemed to be carrying a fish as it flashed past. This is excellent news. Kingfishers can be early nesters but I suspect the fish being carried was a present to woo a female.

Across the meadow the green vegetation is starting to emerge from the brown dead stalks of the willowherb and nettles and I hope that this year will be a bumper year for the grass loving species of butterfly such as the Skippers and Ringlets as the winter cut has substantially reduced the nettle cover, conversely of course this will probably result in a fall in Tortoiseshell numbers.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Swan Update

A few posts back I blogged about the Swan survey work I have been conducting and how I was able to read the Tag of one of the Swans in the park- BEF.

I submitted the details to EURING to get more information and today the email came back. The scheme not only logs your record but gives you information about the bird you have recorded.

The information revealed:

Thank you for taking the time to report to us details of a bird ring you found. Information about this bird and its movements is given below.
Ringing Scheme: London Ring Number: W31824 Species of bird: Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)
This bird was ringed by Arden Ringing Group as age 2nd year, sex unknown on 03-Feb-2012 11:55:00 at Stratford-on-Avon, Warwickshire, UK
OS Map reference SP2054 accuracy 0, co-ordinates 52deg 11min N 1deg 42min W accuracy 0.
Colour Marks left below knee ON(BEF)
Colour Marks right below knee M
It was found on 07-Mar-2015 time unknown at St Nicholas Park, Warwick, Warwickshire, UK
OS Map reference SP2965 accuracy 0, co-ordinates 52deg 17min N 1deg 35min W accuracy 0.
Finding condition: Sight record by non-ringer
Finding circumstances: Field Record
Extra Information: -
It was found 1128 days after it was ringed, 14 km from the ringing site, direction NE.
Bird Ringing in Britain & Ireland is organised by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). Each year over 900,000 birds are ringed by over 2,500 highly trained bird ringers, most of whom are volunteers. They follow a careful training process that can take several years to complete to ensure that they have the necessary skills to catch and ring birds. The bird’s welfare is always the most important consideration during ringing activities.
Ringing began over 100 years ago to study the movements of birds. While it continues to generate information about movements, it also allows us to study how many young birds leave the nest and survive to breed as adults, as well as how many adults live from year to year and how many birds disperse to different breeding sites. Collection of this information helps us to understand why bird populations increase or decrease − vital information for conservation. Details of how many birds have been caught and where and when they have been found are available on the BTO website at
Some interesting facts discovered from ringing data....
Oldest bird – Manx shearwater, 50 yrs 11 months
Furthest travelled – Arctic Tern from Wales to Australia 18,000 km
Strangest recovery – Osprey ring found in stomach of a crocodile in The Gambia!
Many thanks again for reporting this bird and contributing to the work of the Ringing Scheme. If you would like to find out more about the BTO please check out our website
With best wishes
The Ringing Team

Films you should see.

Nature documentaries can often fall into the predictable especially for someone who watches a lot of them. David Attenborough is the master of the wildlife documentary but having seen so many that in each series there is rarely anything new for me to pick up. Instead I have found myself drawn more to the harder hitting documentaries.

The first one I watched was Blackfish, a film shown on BBC4 and found myself incredibly effected by it. This was some time ago so why bring it up now? Well as you may have gathered from previous blog posts I work in a school and in the last term part of the biology GCSE syllabus includes Sustainability and Conservation, these topics also dovetail also with the AS and A2 Biology course. A teacher at the school has been showing these films to his Year 10 and Sixth Form classes to supplement their studies.

It has been inspiring to see the teenagers really engage with the material and start to take an interest. They are asking pertinent questions in a mature fashion. This is the way to spread the environmental word. It is important for children to see what is happening in the world and make their own minds up. I m not saying the 60 or so kids that watched the films have all been radicalised into eco-warrriors but it has made them think about the world around them and the world they want to grow up in. We need more teaching like this, careful and provocative and above all not condescending to the children.

This has rambled on a bit now, but I suggest you take a look at these films for yourselves. You might agree with them or even disagree, you may think them accurate or misleading but use them to take an interest and formulate your own opinion and if you can do something about it.

Virunga is a documentary following four workers in the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Virunga is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The film explores the protection of Mountain Gorillas, surviving the war in Congo, and the threat to the park from oil extraction.

What makes this film unique is the way it balances the wildlife and the complex socio-political issues. It is not a film for the faint hearted and contains scenes many will find disturbing. For me the most moving aspects are the work of gorilla worker Andre Bauma and the efforts Warden Emmanuel de Merode takes to protect both the wildlife and his staff.

The film also highlights the bravery of the French reporters who worked undercover to reveal the bribery of park staff by multinational companies and the danger that the ongoing war in the Congo holds.
Produced by Leonardo Di Caprio Virunga was directed by Orlando von Einsiedel and has won the Feature Documentary Award at DOXA in Toronto and the Golden Rock Documentary Award at the Little Rock Film Festival.

It is currently available on NetFlix


Blackfish is a moving and disturbing film about the treatment of Killer Whales (Orcas) in SeaWorld centres.  Like Virunga the film hits hard and there are some distressing scenes but it eminently illustrates why large mammals should not be kept in captivity.

The film follows Tilikum an Orca at SeaWorld in Orlando an Orca responsible for the death of 3 keepers. Rather than focus on the sensationalist aspect of the ‘killer’ killer whale the film explores the deeper psyche of the animals and how they interact with people. It left me wondering how more deaths had not occurred.

The film has stirred up controversy with SeaWorld and some of those interviewed disagreeing with the films portrayal of their animals, nevertheless the film raises important points concerning what is right and ethical regarding the captivity of intelligent animals used to roaming vast distances. 

The End of the Line

This film has a different pace and feel to the other two but is nevertheless just as effecting.
Narrated by Ted Danson the focus is very much on the science behind the problems in out seas in relation to fishing.

Through the careful examination of case studies from around the world the plight of our seas is brought home in a similar to Hugh Fernly-Whittingstall's Big Fish Fight did in the UK and Europe.

The films real impact comes from the bureaucracy and politicking that goes on behind the scenes and how scientific advise is over ridden in the pursuit of short term financial gains.

I have never been a fish eater and so I did not think this would effect me much but when looking for Omega 3 supplements I was soon looking for sustainable obtained stocks and trying to avoid Cod products.

Monday, 23 March 2015


Another quick post this week, things have been very busy at home and work and I have had little time to get out and about, however Easter is approaching and I have plans.

First off I have bought some Badger food pellets to try and see which sets are using which latrine pits. Next I have some new waders and want to get into the backwater and clear some debris and lastly I need to do a full Swan Watch to check who has paired with who and whether any nests are in the offing.

So to this week, I collected my camera as usual but nothing particularly stood out in the footage. There was a slight increase in Wood Mouse numbers and it will be interesting to see if this continues. It was glorious weather on Sunday during my patch visit but time constraint meant I only had half an hour and had to whip round.

Unusually for me I went in the afternoon rather than the morning and soon remembered why - there were people and dogs everywhere, what birds were about were quickly spooked such as this magnificent Kestrel that I had hoped to catch hunting. A Jackdaw chased him and his partner off and then they were both startled by a pair of dog walkers.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Spring has Sprung

In the past 7-8 days spring really seems to be upon us. Last week I commented on my swan surveys and how they seemed to be forming pairs well this week other signs of spring have become evident.

Last saturday I saw my first Bumblebee of the year and few days later the first butterfly, it was a fleeting glimpse and so I couldn't get an accurate ID. Its underwings were very black and I suspect it was a Small Tortoiseshell that had emerged from hibernation.

On Sunday I was accompanied to my patch by a very important guest, my 3 year old niece and my sister. My niece was nearly as well prepared as me. She brandished a small net in one hand and a pair of binoculars in the other, binoculars I must add that she spent most of the time using to look at the ground. It was she who found the first flowering Celandine of the season.

During the week the school pond had been visited by an amorous pair of frogs and much to the delight of the students had laid a mass of frogspawn in the newly enlarged and deepened pond.
Frogspawn is one of the quintessential signs of spring and this year the BBC Wildlife is supporting the Big Spawn Count run by the Freshwater Habitats Trust. You can get involved by keeping an eye out for frogspawn and recording them at: This sorts of citizen science project rely on your help and provide valuable information to researchers. Another good phenology site is the one provided by the Woodland Trust at:

Lastly to bring my spring sightings to a close today whilst on my patch I watched as the Jackdaws took up position in the Old Hollow Alder Nesting tree they have used for years and the basal rosettes of Comfrey just beginning to emerge and the arrival of a Chiffchaff and Skylark.
Jackdaw Nest Tree

First Marsh Marigolds in Flower

Comfrey starting to come up

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Swanning About

Another one of my research hobbies is watching and recording swans. This includes both on my patch and across the town. I started this about the same time as I did my patch watching. In fact it grew out of it,

On my patch a pair of swans used to nest identified by their orange DARVIC rings as ZTG and VGY, Nicknamed unimaginatively as Veggie and Zutger. As weeks went by I came to know this pair very well and they would always come over to see if I had any seed with me. When they had cygnets they became comfortable enough with me to allow me to sit remarkably close to them even out of the water.

Sadly both these swans are dead now, Zutger from a road traffic incident and Veggie I think of old age. Their presence however got me wondering how many other swans nested in the town. The river avon flows through it and there is a canal and several lakes, thus began a semi regular survey of the wet places to ID the swans.

I undertook one such survey today in the brilliant sunshine. Sadly at the moment few of the swans in the area have been ringed making it hard to identify individuals over time, but nevertheless its an interesting pursuit.

Starting in St Nicholas Park I found a pair of Adults at the standard feeding point where all parents bring their kids to feed the ducks. This used to be the territory of a very aggressive male named ZON who eventually mellowed once he found his mate. Today this stretch is undefended and a pair of last years cygnets were still being tolerated on the opposite bankside.

Further down at Kingfisher pool were another pair of Adult. Luckily one of this had an Orange TAG revealing them to be BEF an individual I had previously recorded on the site in January a possible close relative of BEE and BED recorded in 2012. Even more luckily they were out on the bank and amiable enough to be able to read the metal tag containing all the info I need to find out more...

This metal tag reveals that it was tagged as W31824 in the UK. I have now submitted this information to the BTO via EURING and they will send me what data they have on the bird which will include where and when it was ringed and how old it was. I will let you know the follow up information when I get it.

Whilst at the pool I took the time to watch the Coots and Black-headed Gulls. The gulls are actually dainty little things and despite their swarming and diving for food quite endearing. They are just starting to get their black head indicative of their summer plumage.

From the pool I headed across town and along the canal, halfway along on the way home I found another pair and a final pair near my house. The fact that most of the swans sited seemed to be in pairs bodes well for the breeding season. Spring is here and they will soon be making nests and laying, over the next few weeks I will be checking the known nest sites more regularly to see if any of these pairs last. I will also need to visit the castle to survey the river in their grounds and check the ponds near my work.

If your interested in my swan work I did a small study the results of which are here on my website.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

What was for dinner?

On Sunday when I went on to my patch I found an interesting present left on the bird table.

This small lump is an owl pellet. I have found pellets before and know there are owls on the patch. Each previous pellet I have carefully dissected and did the same with this one. I thought I would share my findings.

The pellet was 35 mm long, 23 mm wide with a circumference of 75 mm. It was made mostly of fur and bones and its dark colour and shape indicates that it came from a Tawny Owl.

Next comes the weighing its full weight was 1.98g. After separating out the bones and fur the components were weighed again revealing that the fur composed of 0.9g and the bones 0.78g meaning that up to 0.3g was sand, gravel and other parts. 

As you can see from the photo the pellet is a mass of bones in a matrix of fur. Using tweezers you can carefully pull out each bone. Some sites suggest wetting the pellet to soak out the bones but I find this slows the process and is much easier when dry.

Once all the bones are extracted you can now begin the analysis of what was eaten.

You can usually work out the number of individuals eaten by counting jaws or femurs. In this particular case things were simple. The pellet contained a single individual, I could tell this as the following parts were present:
- Both clavicles
- Both femurs
- Both pelvises
- Both lower jaws
- An intact set of upper jaws and orbits (damaged brain case)

Now that I know that there was one individual I need to find out what individual. This is done by looking at the dentition. The teeth tell you everything. First of the incisors are long and curl under identifying it as a rodent and the size lead you towards Mice, Voles and Rats.

Next looking at the top of the teeth  I was able to see that the individual was a mouse. Voles have zigzag shaped teeth whilst Mice have lobed teeth. Balancing this with the length of the lower jaw I can assume that the prey item was most likely a Wood Mouse (Apodemus sp.)

The last piece of information I can glean amazingly is actually the sex of the mouse. On the extended part of the pelvis there is a kind of flange. If it is short and doesn't reach the end it is male and if it is longer and reaches the end it is female.

So all in all from this pellet I am able to establish the presence of a Tawny Owl on site that in the previous few days had eaten a mature female wood mouse. Confirming wood mice on the site.

If you want to have a go yourself when you find a pellet an invaluable guide is one provided by the Mammal Society written by Derek Yalden.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Welcome to my world.

Today was one of those windy days that keep all the birds nestled nicely in the sheltered places and woods. As such this meant that my morning survey promised to be low on the bird count given that there is little woodlands that I pass through. So today I decided I would take some photos and introduce you to some of my patch.

My patch starts by the old mill and today there was a 1st year juvenile swan, some mallard and a moorhen.

Just from here a second bridge and a yew lined avenue lead me to the farmland.

My usual route then follows the backwater towards the ruin of Guys Cliffe.

 The old house is now home to Jackdaws and a small colony of Feral Pigeons. Past the house I hug the bankside which is lined with Willow and Alder. Over the years the Alder have decayed and fallen. Many of these old trees were nesting sites for Jackdaws and Woodpeckers and summer perches for young Swallows.

This year there has been a good showing of snowdrops on the far bank. They will be replaced in the next few weeks by a show of daffodils.

Along the river here you can see the rock faces that makes the site a Geological SSSI. In the storms of 2013 the trees broke away from the cliff and fell into the river revealing more of the rock and how the roots had sought out the narrow nooks and crannies

Where the river bends back I leave the river and walk back along the field past the Little Owl Tree. This was a row of three trees that always seemed to have a Little Owl in. Two of the trees were just stumps and probably roost sites, but these rotted away to nothing leaving just the single mature tree.

Next I move on to the patch of land I manage, here the water is still covering the land and leaving thick mud. Again I saw the snipe.

I checked my camera and then put out some bird food on the table attracting the Robin, Great Tits and Blue Tits. I spent sometime last week clearing this area.