What did you see today?

This year we’ve been keeping a record in the office of all the different things we encounter while on the job. There are are lists for birds, plants, mammals, herptiles, moths & butterflies, and poo. Something can only be entered on the list once, there are no winners (because if there were, Simon would thrash everyone and it’d be no fun), we just want to see how much we see in a year between the 10ish of us.

It has the pleasant effect of turning every job, even the potentially dull ones, into a potential new find. Today I paid a visit to a waste water treatment works we surveyed for great crested newts last year which still has some fencing in place, to inspect the fence and check it was still a functional barrier. The filter beds with their revolving sprinklers attract birds in large numbers, who feed off the insects which the beds attract. Each round circular bed has a ring of wires leading from a central pole to the rim. Today the wires were bedecked in carrion crows giving them the appearance of macabre big-tops. Pied wagtails ran around on the stones below them. Some old, now defunct, beds have long overgrown with bramble scrub. A tree sparrow observed and chastised me from above as I walked past, and I caught a glimpse of a rabbit’s bottom disappearing into the thicket.

When I reached the fence line I started my perimeter walk and out of habit rather than necessity I turned over some of the left over carpet tiles, remnants of the bucket traps and carpet tile trapping surveys of last summer. Earth worm heads flinched back down their holes and centipedes flowed over and under stones or clods of earth. The contracted bodies of many slugs clung to the underside of the tiles but there was little else under the mats yet. The myriad of beetles were still absent.

Under an old plastic panel lying on the ground I watched a field vole zoom through its exposed labyrinth of tunnels in the damp, yellow grass. Then, under a tile I found two frogs and toad.  All three appeared still to be in a torpid state and I gently placed the mat back down. I returned to the mat a few minutes later having considered it and decided to move them. Ordinarily I wouldn’t disturb animals in this state but as they were on the wrong side of the fence it wasn’t right to leave them there. So I fetched an empty bucket, lined it with vegetation and placed them in.

I have a fondness for all wildlife, but I love toads. I genuinely love them, they illicit an emotional response in me that other animals don’t. When I look at a toad I get the feeling you get when you run into a really good friend. I can’t help but anthropomorphize them they just have such wonderful faces. This was my first toad of the year and my day was instantly made by finding it and I handled her with the usual care, plus a little extra due to her docile (even by a toad’s standards), dozy condition.

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I don’t anthropomorphize frogs. They exude wildness. Reflexive, instinct driven, dynamic and slightly repellent in their curiousness. If you pick up a frog they throw in everything they have to kick, leap and headbutt their way out of your hands. These two took only a moment to come to life and become alert and escape driven.

I placed them in the hibernacular, constructed for  surveys last year and carried on, finding no more. Towards the end of my walk a buzzard dropped from a nearby tree, in that heavy fall then suddenly weightless swoop of theirs. Jackdaws yapped their disapproval and song thrush and blackbirds went about their business along the field margin. I wondered if I’d seen a raven, sat up a tree on the other side of the site, but it was just another crow. I scanned along the tree line through my binoculars and was rewarded with the sight of a male kestrel, glowing almost pink in the afternoon sun. I followed him as he flew from his tree, over the field I stood in and hung in the sky, treading air above me for a half a minute before going on its way.

Frog, toad and field vole all firsts for the work list. Not bad for an hour’s fence check.

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2017 Ecological To Do List

I recently read Inglorious by Mark Avery. Aside from the compelling subject matter, at one point in the book Mark mentions that in his first blog of the year he sets out a few things that he wishes to achieve over the coming 12 months:

I’ve written it down and published it, and even if no one notices then I need to do it.

Having recently become a father my ecology life outside of work has quietly, politely stepped into the background as I expected it would in these chaotic early days. Naively, predictably I had underestimated how long it would be waiting there, but as 2017 appears on the horizon, and I’m getting >5hrs sleep a night, I find myself looking forward to reintegrating ecological pursuits back into my outside of work life.

So, taking a leaf out of Mark’s book, here are a few achievable goals for the coming 12 months:

Gorse Hill Urban Botany Project

My little local project to create a flora of The Gorsehill Estate is all planned and ready to go, having been put to one side after all the planning (and a couple of surveys) had been completed.  The nice thing about this is that there are no deadlines, it can happen at its own pace, but I suspect that once I get going with it my enthusiasm will gain momentum. My plan this year is to start on some residential streets that can be quickly completed (unlike last year where I started on the canal tow path which was interesting but the biggest job on the list). That way I’ll have the satisfaction of being able to shade off chunks of the estate on a map. My son is now robust enough to join me on these surveys too which will provide me with the chance to wave leaves under his nose, avoiding his ever grabbing hands, and tell him what they are.

Birds

I say every year I’m going to work on my bird ID skills. This year I intend to get down to my adopted stretch of the Mersey embankment, once a month if I can and do some recording. I was given some good advice by a work colleague, Simon, recently. I was complaining that so often when I’m out attempting to work on bird ID I can see but not hear them. Simon’s advice was to find the birds I could hear and have a look at them. It seems obvious but it had never occurred to me to diligently hunt down the mystery singers. So I’ll be doing more peering, loitering and rummaging on my walks this year.

Herptiles

I saw my first sand lizard last year, just a glimpse of a female.  I’d like to see more. So I’ll be getting back out with my local ARG group on their habitat management days in the hope of helping out with their monitoring later in the year.

Saw my first #SandLizard in the wild today. #WellChuffed

I’d also like to contribute to the Biodiverse Society Project which aims to enhance and update the information on wildlife sites in Lancashire and North Merseyside.

Trees

Having recently visited the National Trust property Biddulph Grange Gardens which boasts Britain’s oldest Golden Larch, I thought it’d be fun to seek more oldest British trees. It’d be over ambitious to aim to make it up to the Fortingall Yew in 2017 (one day though), but the Talley Abbey Ash should be doable. If I make it to any other oldest/biggest/tallest example of a tree this year I’ll consider this achieved.

If I do all the above, and see some spiked speedwell and an aesculapian snake,  I’ll consider 2017 a job well done.

Wishing you a happy and productive 2017. What’s on your list?

Bird Ringing CAN course

Back to Norton Priory, this time for the CAN (Cheshire Active Naturalists) bird ringing course with bird-ringing legend David Norman.

Norton Priory in Runcorn is becoming quite familiar to me now. I was there not long ago for the CAN Diptera course which if you’ve read my blog on you’ll know I loved. And I’ve been there one other time too…

Fleur and I were out checking small-mammal traps with Tony of the mammal group, accompanied by Paul who works at Norton Priory. On that day along with a successful haul of field mice, I met an enigmatic character emerging from some trees in the Priory grounds as Paul was giving us a tour. This chap produced a long-tailed tit from the bag he was carrying. I was captivated. I’d never seen a wild bird that close up before. I then had my mind blown when he reached into the bag and gently produced several more long-tailed tits which flew off as he opened his hand. Quite the spectacle to someone like me who has very little birding experience.

As you’ve probably guessed that was David. I didn’t know it at the time but he’s a very well know member of the birding community in various forms from author to ringer. On Friday I was getting a coffee in the staff room and mentioned to Chloe what I was doing on the weekend. That’ll probably be David Norman, she said. And it was.

When Tom and I arrived on Sunday, slightly late, we joined the group of twenty or so other attendees plus Andy, CAN Chairman, in more or less the same spot that I had met David coming out of the trees that time.

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The course wasn’t teaching us to bird ring as that’s a very long process of apprenticeship. It was a demonstration of the process and a chance to hold and release a bird which had been ringed and an introduction by David to the process, history and conservation benefits of studying wild birds in this country. David has ringed over 100,000 birds.

We were treated to close up views of an array of birds. Goldcrests, long-tailed tits, blue tits, great tits, blackbirds, chaffinches, robins, redwings and jays all made an appearance. As someone who hasn’t done any work to do with birds and has limited, garden bird knowledge the thing that struck and enthused me was the nature of a bird in the hand. When you’re used to seeing birds sat in trees or flying you see only a limited aspect of their personalities and that can lead you to view them as rather simple characters.

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(Goldcrest)

With the sight of a small bird held safely in the ringer’s grip, boldly pecking and biting at a finger before apparently deciding to wait and see what happens next, you realise that these are robust creatures that experience trials and adventures every day of their lives. They are primed to face adversity and they fly off in a flurry of what seems more like victory than panic. I’m  anthropomorphising I know. I’ll stop now.

I was first to hold a bird. There’s that moment when the question is asked, would someone like to release this one? You all want to. You wait and see if anyone else volunteers. They don’t. You pluck up to courage and say out loud “me” but everyone else has been running through the same process in their heads and three of you say it within a second of one another. 

I was carefully handed a male redwing. Instinct tells you to place a hand underneath to support the bird but David instructed not to do that so as to avoid crushing the bird’s tail. Its head goes between your index and middle finger with your remaining fingers wrapping around the body. It feels secure this way and it’s reassuringly easy to judge the pressure you need to apply. When handling mammals I’m forever applying too little pressure through over caution, resulting in wriggle-based control problems. Thankfully not so with the redwing in my hand. I held it for a just moment before opening my hand enjoying the split second of action before it was off and away.

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(Redwing in David’s hand)

It was an excellent course and we were also treated to tour of the grounds with Paul and a visit to the bone collection from the sites archaeological dig.

Something that really struck me from the day was David’s answer to a question about how long birds like these were likely to live. He pointed out that the longer they live, the longer they are likely to live with the first year being perilous as young, inexperienced birds face life’s trails for the first time. So some birds may live years but with so many dying in the first few months, an average life expectancy could be described in weeks rather than years.

If I were to anthropomorphise once more I’d say it looks exciting to be a bird. They’re ready and equipped to face whatever weird thing happens to them next, and when Tom dropped me off later I viewed the sparrows in the tree of a neighbour’s garden with an enhanced curiosity.

[Thanks to CAN for the use of their photos for this blog]