Sunday, 29 July 2012

Percy, or whatever its name is...

Herring gulls call out harshly from the roof of the buildings where they are nesting. Against the bright blue sky and blazing heat of the sun the sound is quintessential of the British seaside in summer. They are certainly not everyone’s favourite bird, stealing the ice cream or fish and chips from right under your nose, or to put it politely pooping on you when you are rushing for a doctor’s appointment…

The more typical view of a herring gull...

For me every species has its place, a part to play on this earth and every individual has a right to life even if that means getting a little help from us.

At this time of year young herring gulls, fully feathered but not quite able to fly start wandering over sand, stone or roof. Roaming, but not too far, calling whenever the adults reappear and begging for food. Sometimes these wanderings can land a youngster in trouble, especially if they become separated from the adults.

One particularly adventurous young herring gull ended up falling down between two buildings. Unable to fly up the one metre or so back to the main roof, it was not clear whether the adults were able to get down to feed the stranded youngster. After at least a day, I climbed out, scooped up the bird and popped him back up on the roof. There were adults around and a frenzy of noise greeted the young bird. However within five minutes it had fallen back down. With the weekend approaching I did not want to take the risk of leaving the bird with no source of food or water, and so took the decision to take the bird to a wildlife sanctuary. Unfortunately they could not come and collect, so I took Percy (named by one colleague to prevent anything more negative happening) or Icarus (named by another colleague for its falling ability) home until the morning when I would take it to the sanctuary.

Ten minutes into the drive home and the bird had pushed its way out of the box, and was perched on the seat watching the scenery flash by, much the amusement of the young girl in the car opposite. Alas this is not how I planned to transfer this young adventurer, not least for the sake of my car seats. Having pulled over and returned the bird to the box, placing a blanket on top to prevent any further acts of Houdini, the remainder of the journey proved uneventful with only the odd toe tapping indicating my passengers presence.

Percy or Icarus... 

An uneventful night followed with white fish providing a tasty dinner and breakfast, before we delivered this youngster to P.A.C.T wildlife sanctuary. Here the bird joined three other wayward young herring gulls, where they will stay until ready for release back at the coast…

P.A.C.T Wildlife Sanctuary near Hingham, Norfolk

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Wet Suited and Booted

I am lying on one of the only patches of dry grass at Cranwich, eyes closed and listening to the sounds of the reed bed around me. The sun is warm on my face, the wind rustling the leaves of the trees and the reeds. I hear pigeons cooing in the woods behind, the rattling song of a reed warbler nearby. A dragonfly zips past me, its wings flutter with a distinctive sound, like crumpling plastic. I open my eyes as a honking group of geese whoosh overhead. I catch sight of a beautiful comma butterfly delicately perched on the head of a pale purple thistle; its wings deep orange and boldly black.

Comma butterfly enjoying the sunshine

For once I am overdressed in my waders, and I am relegated to the dwindling banks. The volume of rain this summer has finally taken its toll. The network of tracks between the pools are flooded with knee deep water and running streams. The bridges along the net rides simply float, no longer attached to the banks. Where once you could wade through the fringe of reeds in water up to your hips it was now up to your neck and wetsuits were the order of the day.

The flooded tracks

I can hear Lee and Dave in the reed bed, not wading to the nests but swimming! The water is cold, you can tell from the pitch of their voices. Searching is not easy with most of the markers under water and the whole landscape within the reeds altered. 

At the far end of the site only nests greater than 80 cm above the original water level have survived, most are below this. Submerged, the nests look ghost-like in the green water. It is sad to see them empty or worse...

But it is not all carnage and devastation as we come across some nests perilously close to the waters surface but with chicks alive inside and still with a chance of fledging...

So close to the edge...but surviving

One more brood of reed warblers successfully ringed
by the wet suited and booted Lee and Dave

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Wiltshire Born and Bred

The truck roared along the country roads, weaving its way through fields of greenish yellow wheat, sandy yellow barley and deep green pastures. Heading off road and onto a muddy track  the truck effortlessly wove its way along the field margins, squelching through muddy pools. Poppy's added a splash of brilliant colour along these edges, brightening the dreary morning cast by leaden skies. Swifts swept low over the wheat, skimming the heads with the tips of their  pointed wings, skylarks fluttered up from their nests, hidden in the crops and the calls of yellow wagtail and corn bunting rang out. 

Ahead, farm buildings stand stark grey and brown against the rolling greens, browns and yellows of the fields. Here small wooden boxes line up along the side of the buildings, in the small woods nearby and on fence posts. They provide perfect nesting space for a rather special farmland bird, the tree sparrow. 

A room with a view...
Tree sparrow box overlooking the Wiltshire countryside

Opening the lid reveals a dome of grass and feathers, a small opening at the top reveals a cup within which the chicks are nestled. With a stubby little face and chocolate brown feathers starting to poke through, the chicks are some of the cutest ugly babies I have seen. Once ringed, the chicks are 'posted' back through the nest hole where they disappear into the comforting darkness.

Tree sparrow chick

A little older and almost ready to leave the nest

The long term project here aims to understand their breeding ecology. Year after year the boxes are checked, the contents recorded and the chicks ringed. It is a mammoth task, but well worth it with the data generated being used to answer numerous questions about this declining species. A huge thank you to the maestro running this project and collecting this data, Mr Matt Prior! 

Lee and Matt Prior in classic photo pose!

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Stand Up For Whales

When I was five or six my mum and dad took me to Windsor Safari Park. There with my face pressed against the wooden slats of a gate I saw a mysterious creature pass by in a murky blue beyond. This was my first ever sight of a bottlenose dolphin. I don’t remember the actual display, but as I was walking out, gripping my dad’s hand and circling around the sterile blue water and harsh stone of the pool, a dolphin popped up right next to me. It felt like there was no one else around, it felt like the dolphin was saying ‘hello’ just to me. From that moment, that dolphin started a passion in me, a passion for whales, dolphins and porpoises.

A pod of Fraser's dolphin

I started to learn as much about them as possible, my six year old self even wrote a book about them. I learnt about the different types and read stories of people’s experiences. I was captivated and inspired. As I got older, I became more aware of the threats these amazing creatures face, including being kept in captivity.

My first encounter with wild dolphins was in the Moray Firth, when a pod of bottlenose dolphins came steaming along the coastline and I  bounced up and down excitedly in the hire car. From Wales, to Mull, New Zealand to Africa, to Iceland and across the Bay of Biscay, I loved watching, learning and inspiring others.

A passion that led me to guiding and inspiring others

Thirty years ago we ‘saved the whales’ when following public outcry and ‘save the whale’ campaigns, the International Whaling Commission adopted a moratorium on commercial whaling… and yet in a way we failed. Japan, Iceland and Norway continue whaling under the guise of ‘scientific research’. Even in the last few weeks South Korea has announced plans to resume ‘scientific whaling’; claiming the research is needed for proper assessment of minke whale stocks.

Many whale populations continue to decline, or show little signs of recovery. For many dolphin and whale populations we know so little they are listed as Data Deficient on the IUCN Red List. Over 1000 whales and dolphins continue to die every day, facing threats from whaling, bycatch, pollution, habitat loss and direct takes to name a few.

And yet, research continues to show that these mammals are highly intelligent, social creatures with complex behaviours and vocal communications. Creatures that show a range of emotions and self awareness, that have developed tool use, that can learn new behaviours and teach them to their young, that have culture…

How can we have claim to have saved the whales, and yet in the last few years we have even lost a species? The Yangtze river dolphin, or Baji, has gone, many others such as the Vaquita, a porpoise found only in the Sea of Cortez, is on the brink.

So what do we do? How do we ensure that our children and our children’s children have the chance to see a blue whale, the largest animal to ever live on our planet, or to see a pod of thousands of dolphins making the sea boil, or even to see a harbour porpoise roll through the waves…

The majestic blue whale

We stand up once again for whales and dolphins… 

The stage is set for a new global partnership willing to take action to protect whales and dolphins, and that stage is The World Whale Conference and WhaleFest 2012. Here Planet Whale Nation will be launched, a new global community that welcomes everybody to share their ideas for the benefit of whale and dolphins.

All of us, no matter where we live, what we do or where we come from can make a difference.

Find out more about The World Whale Conference and WhaleFest 2012, including how to volunteer, buy tickets or simply join the Planet Whale Nation Pledge at the Planet Whale website. 

Thursday, 5 July 2012

A Little Cuckoo...

The evening sunlight dappled the pools at, yep you guessed it Cranwich J The resplendent greens, browns and gold of the bushes and trees shone in the golden, evening light, their reflections shimmering in the calm, clear waters. After a day at work we headed to the reed bed in order to check some of the reed warbler nests and ring any broods that were old enough. Calculating the age of nestlings is important for ringing the chicks, too young and the ring will slip off the foot, too old and they are liable to go for walkies! One nest today had an extra special inhabitant… a cuckoo chick!

The cuckoo, a summer visitor and a brood parasite; rather than going through the effort building a nest, brooding eggs and feeding ravenous chicks, the cuckoo lays its egg in the nest of another birds. Species high on the ‘hit list’ for cuckoo’s are meadow pipits, dunnocks and reed warblers. Once a nest is selected, the female swoops in, eats one of the existing eggs and lays her own; the whole process takes less than 10 seconds! Once the egg is laid, the female leaves never to see its offspring again. On hatching the blind, naked chick proceeds in removing the other eggs, scooping them up on its back and shimmying the egg up and out, until it is the only remaining occupant. From this point on it dupes the adult birds into feeding and raising it as their own, amazingly the chick’s call mimics that of a full brood of chicks, so that it gets four times the amount of food. Brutal, but clever!

A cuckoo egg laid in a reed warbler nest

This amazing bird, like so many, is in decline and is now listed on the Red List of British Birds of Concern. The reasons for these declines are complex and numerous, with many studies now looking at each stage of the life cycle. We have all heard of the BTO cuckoos that have been fitted with satellite tags, which tracks the adult birds throughout their lives, including during their migrations south. 

Just as important are projects looking at nesting and chick survival, and here ringing of nestlings such as those at Cranwich comes into its own.

So there nestled deep within and completing filling a neatly woven nest, wrapped around the reeds, was a cuckoo. With longer sheaths on the feathers than any other chick I have seen, the cuckoo looks like a miniature porcupine.

Me and my new friend, Spike!

So far this year the survival rate of the nine cuckoo’s found at Cranwich has not been great, with only two having definitely fledged. Finger’s crossed this one survives…

Safely nestled back in the nest, and ready for more food!

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Ringing in the Reeds

The margins around the pools at Cranwich had really filled out. Meadows of vibrant green, pale yellow and yellowish-brown grasses, their heads drooping with the weight of seeds, rippled in the breeze. The bright white petals and brilliant yellow heads of ox eye daisies added a splash of colour. Carpets of tiny yellow flowers hugged the ground beneath. From amongst the grasses, flowers and brush, squadrons of bright blue damselflies took to the air, zipping from perch to perch. In the nettles and shoulder high, deep green grasses of the banks, the beautiful deep blue and green of banded demoiselles gleamed in the late afternoon sunshine.

Around the edge of the pools, fresh green reeds rustled, bending over in the stiff breeze that created miniature waves across the waters surface. It is amongst these reeds, woven around stems of old and new that reed warbler nests are to be found. 

Reed warbler nest 

As part of the reed warbler study at this site, the team, led by Dr Dave Leech, has been methodically searching through the reeds, recording each nest found. The aim is to record the number of eggs and chicks, to ring the chicks and to record the outcome i.e. whether it fails, is predated or is successful.

Hungry reed warbler chicks

In the afternoon sun, amongst the damselfly’s and demoiselles, we carefully made our way through the towering reeds heading for a number of specific nest in order to hopefully ring the checks. The strong winds of recent days had taken their toll, had the chicks survived? For some the answer was no, the nest at a sharp angle, empty, the chicks gone… But for some the answer was yes, tiny, defenceless, begging for food and receiving…a ring! We can only hope they continue to survive, perhaps to be caught in the CES nets or even one day by another ringer, who knows where…

Ringing a reed warbler chick amongst the reeds

Topping of all the hard work that has been put into the Cranwich reed warbler project over the last few years, and adding incentive for the future effort, was the capture of the sites first foreign ringed adult reed warbler.

In the cool of yet another early morning, reed warbler with the ring number Z61916 was pulled out of the net. Having spent the winter in Africa and during its northward migration this bird was caught and ringed in the San Sebastian area of Spain. The job now is to work out if one of the numerous nests found at the site belongs to this bird, now there is a challenge!

Lee and Daria with the spanish ringed reed warbler
Thanks to Laura Backburn for the photo