Nightjar

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I’ve not blogged in a while because I have been busy with others thing (including overtime at work) and also I suppose I was waiting for the warmer weather to appear to give me an opportunity to find something to write about.

Last week we went to Lakenheath Fen on the Norfolk/Suffolk border, a reserve managed by the RSPB. I hadn’t been there before but was aware it has a variety of habitats – woodlands, wetlands, reedbeds, etc. – so I was expecting to get some use out of my binoculars.

Instead it was mostly my ears that took centre stage as there were many interesting bird sounds from the reedbeds from elusive birds that just didn’t emerge, no matter how long we waited. Bitterns booming and never appearing is an experience I am used to, but I had not expected that when wandering down the path back to the visitor centre we would disturb a nightjar!

The sound was so puzzling to a very amateur birder like me – it sounded like a computer game, or a laser, or a machine. We couldn’t spot the creature, didn’t even manage to get a recording, but when googling it days later we realised it could only be a nightjar. I know it’s unlikely and unusual behaviour at this time of year but I can’t think that we could have confused such a distinctive sound.

This was on the 1st of April, on a reserve that had no prior reported sightings. They do nest in nearby Thetford forest so I imagine this one was on its way there and stopped off to see if maybe this territory might be suitable nesting ground.

Other birds that we actually spotted that day include blackcaps, reed buntings, cormorants, marsh harriers, egrets, herons. There were also some garganeys but they were too far away for binoculars to take in.

National Trust returns to its wild roots

 

The National Trust is a much-loved heritage organisation in the UK that protects interesting or historic buildings, manages and conserves the site and land, and provides access to the public. But did you know it allows promises to protect plant and animal life? The commitment is even within its founding principles:

The National Trust shall be established for the purpose of promoting the permanent preservation for the benefit of the nation of lands and tenements (including buildings) of beauty or historic interest and as regards lands for the preservation (so far as is practicable) of their natural aspect, features and animal and plant life. Section 4.1 National Trust Act, 1907

The organisation has arguably lost touch with the final clause of its mission statement and has yesterday vowed to play a more active role in enabling nature to thrive on its land. It aims to do this encouraging its tenant farmers on its 250,000 hectares of land to create wildlife corridors, maintain hedgerows, improve water and soil quality, install ponds, plant new wetland, and establish lowland wildflower meadows.

Considering the Trust owns 1% of all land in the UK, their decisive actions could provide necessary habitats for our most threatened native species, including natterjack toads, cuckoos, water voles, lapwings, and curlews, all of which are gradually vanishing from the British countryside when before the radical changes to agricultural practices they were commonplace creatures.

NT aims to create 25,000 hectares of new habitats by 2025 – a nice, quotable figure, but is their ambition attainable and will it be enough to reverse the devastating decline in so many of our native species as demonstrated by last year’s State of Nature report delivered by the Wildlife Trusts? Over 56% of our species have declined in the last 50 years, a significant blow and an enormous hurdle for any one organisation to tackle alone.

Indeed, is the National Trust’s goal compatible with its concessions to field sports? Read their position on field sports and shooting here. It states that it takes strong action against lawbreakers and insists that those participating in field sports do so in compliance with their codes of conduct; however, the League Against Cruel Sports has little confidence in the National Trust to protect its land and wildlife under its own terms of license conditions. It appears to lack the resources to take proper action or investigate claims of illegal hunting unless there has been a police investigation and conviction.

 

 

Signs of spring

It’s time to ditch the heavy winter coats, set the central heating down a notch, and start preparing the garden because everyone’s favourite season is fast approaching. My walks home from work between 5-6pm are no longer cloaked in darkness and I’m starting to notice bulbs and blossom coming out.

Here are my most encouraging signs of spring that I’ve spotted so far.

  1. Snowdrops and crocuses – these short colourful plants are popping up all over the place, and I’ve even seen roadside verges full of daffodils in full bloom in the first few days of March.
  2. Bees – I bravely took my cup of tea out into the front garden yesterday to hang out with my cat, who was enjoyed the sunshine, though it was still a bit too chilly. Then a bee flew past my face!
  3. A blue tit ventured into my neighbour’s bird house. We’ve only spent one summer in this house but last year there was a family of blue tits in the little bird house on my neighbour’s wall throughout the season. I don’t think they’re nesting yet – just casing the joint.
  4. Cherry blossom. Nothing more beautiful nor welcome. Shame it doesn’t last long.
  5. Cuckoos. One of the most familiar signs of spring is the disappearance of our wintering birds and their replacement with our summer migrants. Cuckoos are some of the first to return, followed by swallows and swifts in May.
  6. Blackthorn – a lesser known herald of spring and all the more potent because of it. Look out for black branches and small white flowers in abundance. Happily, blackthorn bushes come not single spies, but in battalions, and you can see vast hedgerows of them along the sides of roads.

Face recognition software – new technology to transform conservation

I came across something cool today – LemurFaceID.

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A new facial recognition programme developed by Michigan State University has managed to correctly identity different lemurs through photographs of their faces with a staggering 98% accuracy.

Conservationists currently have to carry out their research by capturing wild animals by the use of tranquilizers and humane traps, and sticking microchips in them or attaching cumbersome tracking collars. This very rarely causes any lasting harm but it can – unsurprisingly – distress the animals in the short term. New technology is being utilized in various ways by conservation scientists – for examples, drones for following migratory species, GPS trackers for locating illegal poaches – to improve our knowledge and enable us to better protect endangered species.

Jain (the brains behind LemurFaceID) used a dataset of roughly 462 images of 80 red-bellied lemurs, taken in Madagascar’s Ranomafana National Park, and 190 images of other lemur species to train a facial recognition system, called LemurFaceID. “Training” entails feeding image data through an algorithm that calculates variations between pixels. Each pixel is a string of 1s and 0s, so these algorithms yield mathematically unique patterns, or solutions, that distinguish a face, or a lemur, from one another.

Genius, huh?

5 interesting new species we discovered in 2016

It’s not all doom and gloom and the Sixth Mass Extinction – scientists have been discovering new species as well as pronouncing their imminent demist. As our knowledge and technology improves, researchers are able to access more and more remote areas and discover interesting species that are completely new to science – before it is too late. Here’s a round up of my favourites.

  • The Ziggy Stardust Snake – for good reason this is my favourite new species, and for good reason they named it after the late great Bowie’s alter personality Ziggy, with it’s striking iridescent rainbow head.

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  • The Seadragon – OK, so I seem to be making a list of species with the coolest names. A relative of the seahorse, it has a long narrow body, with dorsal and pectoral fins.

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  • Harry Potter Sorting Hat Spider – again, the cool name theme. It was discovered in a mountainous region of south-west India and it mimics foliage to hide from predators

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  • Four-penised milipede – such a thing exists. 414 legs, 200 poison glands, 4 penises, and no eyes. So it goes.

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  •  Klingon newt – one of 163 new species, along with the Ziggy snake, that were discovered in 2015 along the Mekong delta, a hugely ecologically diverse.

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6 reasons why the goldfinch is the best garden bird

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  1. They look so regal. Like some kind of smartly dressed gent, dropping by for tea.
  2. They are delicate eaters. There’s just something so tender about the big, bulky short bill, carefully investigating the inside of the feeder. They can sit there for ages, not even flying off when the sparrows or blue tits join them on the other perch. They strike me as zen.
  3. Their song is a pretty twitter.
  4. Symbols of fertility. They often appear in artworks involved the Madonna and child, symbolizing fertility in the Italian Renaissance. This is because they often eat thistle seeds and teasles, so they are associated with Christ (the crown of thorns.)
  5. They’re the only birds visiting my garden that like niger seed. Actually, that should really count against them – niger seed is expensive.
  6. They flock in large groups. Walking around Cley marshes in Norfolk a few months ago, we were accompanied by a flock of roughly 20+ goldfinches for a few short thrilling minutes before they vanished.

Follow this link to the RSPB website for more info about the goldfinch. Make sure you listen to the audio!

Brexit is terrible, but….

… it might just save the British countryside by destroying our farming industry.

The European Union pays out €50bn of public money in farm subsidies; to qualify, the land must be kept bare. Consequently, hectare upon hectare of native forests and wildlife has been cleared to claim the funds.

George Monbiot suggests here that the area devoted to sheep grazing in the UK roughly equates to the amount of land used to produce all of our crops, yet lamb and mutton provide 1.2% of our diet. This production is clearly not worth the destruction it causes – and grazing sheep radically alters and erodes the landscape.

Nearly half of the average farmer’s income comes from EU subsidies, so it’s quite reasonable to believe small to medium farmers when they say they will go under without the subsidies. But why should public money fund such a destructive and unproductive industry?*

Monbiot suggests an alternative: we pay our farmers to be conservationists instead.

The only fair way of resolving this incipient crisis is to continue to provide public money, but only for the delivery of public goods – such as restoring ecosystems, preventing flooding downstream, and bringing children and adults back into contact with the living world. This should be accompanied by rules strong enough to ensure that farmers can no longer pollute our rivers, strip the soil from the land, wipe out pollinators and other wildlife, and destroy the features of the countryside with impunity.

*I’m talking in general terms – I know there are huge differences in types of farming in terms of productiveness, and sheep grazing is probably the most extreme example. Overall, it is just my opinion that mostly it does much more harm to wildlife than good.

 

Spy in the wild

I’ve been enjoying this new BBC series called Spy in the wild.

They send these robot cameras in various disguises to live amongst the animals, blending in and secretly filming. The animatronic spies are very amusing.

Here’s a good clip that also shows how intelligent and curious animals can be:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04px5zw

What has been interesting is that technology becomes the narrative – the animal families engage with the cameras, seeming to know that they look like themselves but that something is not quite right. A group of monkeys accidentally drop one monkey spy and they all gather round and mourn it.

Ok, so the best photography is actually captured by the real human cameramen who shoot from a distance, but it’s a new way of doing nature TV that is showing some interesting behaviour.

 

How to help wildlife in winter

Dramatic headlines at the Daily Express suggest we are in for an awfully cold winter. It’s long overdue after several years of mild winters and hot summers. Freezing air is set to sweep in from the North Pole, bringing the UK four solid months of total whiteout.

It probably won’t be that bad in the end.  However, it will still be cold enough for wildlife. So how can we look out for our furry friends of the forest this winter?

Put out food.

  • Birds will appreciate their usual seed mix, with the valuable addition of an extra feeder for fat balls.
  • Squirrels don’t hibernate but instead rely on caches full of nuts that they’ve been busy collecting and hiding. Leave out nuts for them, as well as chopped fruit.
  • If you’re lucky enough to have badgers nearby that visit your garden, you might consider leaving them some leftover meat and cheese, as well as peanuts and fruits. They can’t always access earthworms when the ground is frozen and this is their favourite meal.
  • Despite a bad rep, foxes play a vital role in the ecosystem by predating rodents and rabbits, keeping those populations under control. They will happily snaffle up your leftover meat, bread and other scraps.

Melt a hole in your pond.

  • Animals need water and cannot get at it if it’s frozen. But don’t smash ice as this can frighten the wildlife within it; instead, place a saucepan of hot water on top to gently melt a hole.

Let your garden get messy.

  • It’s a horrible chore to sweep up all those beautiful orange leaves in autumn, so don’t bother yourself too much. Leave an area of your garden to go wild so that animals can hide and nest in it. Leaf mould is broken down by earthworms and feeds the soil underneath, as well as protecting it from winter weather. Chose an area of your garden you don’t mind losing – leaf mulch can bleach a lawn – or pile up leaves in a heap as compost.

Let your ivy flower.

  • Ivy flowers provide nectar to butterflies and bees, and as the berries ripen the ivy then provides food for birds. Overwintering insects and mammals even hide in the tangled ivy.

Don’t cut back hedges with berries.

  • Hedges, particularly hawthorn, can provide a much-needed source of food for robins, as well as some birds who migrate from Scandinavia to the UK for winter.

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Birding Diary #2

Yesterday we made the most of the last of the autumnal sunshine and went for a walk around Hickling Broad in Norfolk. The Wildlife Trust promises hen harrier, kingfisher, cetti’s warbler, and otters, but in reality we walked around and saw absolutely nothing for ages. Each hide we went in opened onto a small area of water that was totally unpopulated by bird life.

And then as we walked back towards the under-maintenance visitor centre we heard a “ping…ping” amongst the reedbeds, so we hung around. Suddenly, a party of bearded tits emerged. Bearded tits! I’d never seen any before. I was too slow off the mark to get my camera out of my boyfriend’s rucksack (our sightings had been so poor that I hadn’t even retrieved my camera yet). But we enjoyed watching them without technology as they were only a few feet away and it felt like such a privilege.

It’s always worth venturing out into nature – even in winter, even on a day when you’re disappointed by the lack of wildlife, something magical can suddenly happen.

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