Work experience with the National Trust – Phase One habitat surveys

Yesterday I went on another of my work experience sessions with the National Trust at Quarry Bank Mill. Although it rained a little bit, we were actually quite lucky with the weather as Storm Doris had been through the area just two days before!

Whilst our previous two sessions had been focused on the River Bollin, this time we moved onto a different aspect of conservation and learnt how to conduct Phase One habitat surveys.

A Phase One habitat survey is usually the first survey carried out on an area and is a method of noting down the different types of habitat and any other important features present. It can be followed by a Phase Two survey (this is any survey that focuses on a more specific factor, for example a particular animal population).

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When out in the field, notes need to be made quickly but also need to be clear so that they can still be easily understood at a later date. For this reason there is a key which is used in Phase One habitat surveys. For most features this just consists of a series of letters and numbers: letters are used for more broad categories while numbers are then added afterwards to indicate more specific details.

We were given the task of surveying three different fields which were a short walk from the mill. The National Trust has only owned these fields for around eighteen months so not much progress has been made with them yet – they were previously owned by a farmer who lived in a dilapidated house nearby (this also now belongs to the National Trust).

Buying the land was integral to the continuation of conservation projects in the area: due to the close proximity of Manchester airport there were concerns that the fields could have been used for more car parking space, which would have had a significant impact on the flora and fauna living there.

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There is a public footpath across the new land and it is now frequently used by dog walkers – apparently people were reluctant to use the path before because of the farmer having a reputation for shooting dogs!

Conducting the survey on these fields was helpful for the National Trust, as they will be able to use the data to identify the best plans for conservation and to monitor changes over the next few years.

One of the main things we had to note down was the type of vegetation.

An example of this can be seen in the picture below; this is known as improved grassland (B4). This means that it has been ploughed up and re-seeded in the past, has been excessively treated with herbicides or fertilisers, or has been heavily grazed by livestock. These actions drastically reduce the biodiversity of an area.

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The next pictures show a much more biodiverse field. This has been impacted less by human activity and presents a variety of different habitats – ranging from acid grassland (B1) at the top of the field, sloping down into neutral grassland (B2) in the more low-lying areas. (The ranger who accompanied us told us this, as we were unsure. We could tell that it wasn’t improved grassland due to the greater variance in plant species, but we needed the expert opinion to help us with the rest!)

There were some areas with trees that had to be marked down as well: small numbers of trees are marked down with a dot on the map, but if they cover more than thirty percent of a section of land then they are classed as a woodland. At the bottom of the field in the photograph below we can see an example of a broad-leaved woodland (also known as deciduous woodland – A1.1).

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Types of boundary were another important factor – ordinary fencing holds little significance to wildlife but must still be noted (usually drawn on the map), as it can be used to allow livestock to selectively graze a particular area.

Hedges encourage greater biodiversity, but can vary significantly. Intact hedges (J2.1) do not have any gaps and could hold livestock without the need for extra barriers, whilst defunct hedges (J2.2) show large gaps and are incomplete. Defunct hedges usually arise from poor maintenance. Hedges with trees (J2.3) are also noted down.

There were a couple of ponds in the area we surveyed, which of course had to be recorded along with everything else! The ponds we saw were near the improved grassland and the water was discoloured by algae, so they were likely to be eutrophic ponds (G1.1). To determine this properly we should have measured the pH, but we didn’t have the necessary equipment for this on the day.

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Once the rough copy of the map had been drawn out in the field, we took it back with us and drew up a proper coloured version. The codes that are used for the data collection are just a temporary measure to speed the process up, and the neat map relies on a series of colour codes.

I hope that you enjoyed this week’s post on Wild Call – it isn’t long until the end of Winter now and I really cannot wait!

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Feeding preferences of garden birds

I was back in Norfolk last weekend for a brief visit, and it was just my luck that the weather was cold and extremely dull… Apart from walking the dog, most of my time was spent indoors watching the occasional snow showers.

However, having recently acquired a GoPro, this was a great opportunity for me to experiment and get to grips with how it worked.

Before Christmas my dad built a station for our bird feeders and at this time of year the garden birds have really been appreciating it – watching them from inside the house inspired me to set up the camera and attempt to gather footage of them feeding.

After a few failed attempts I managed to set up the GoPro so that I could control it from inside the house using WiFi – this was brilliant as it meant I could conserve battery and only film when there were birds present.

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I was really pleased with how the videos turned out, however while I was observing and filming I noticed things about the feeding habits of the visiting birds which led me to do more research and write this blog post.

Something which I had not really considered before but became glaringly obvious to me as I watched, was that different species of bird showed preferences for visiting certain feeders. This would of course make sense as diets vary between species, however once I began to think about this my curiosity on the subject grew.

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The table below shows the natural diets of our garden visitors and the feeders I observed them on (we provided the birds with fat balls, a seed mix and peanuts).

Species Natural diet Choice at feeders
Blue tit Insects, larvae, fruits Fat balls, seed mix, peanuts
Blackbird Fruit, seeds, small insects, small molluscs Ground feeding only (crumbs from fat ball feeders)
Robin Mainlyinsects Seed mix and ground feeding below fat balls
Hedge sparrow Grain, seeds, young plants, fruits, earthworms, insects Ground feeding only (crumbs from fat ball feeders)
Starling Insects, fruit, seeds Fat balls
Long tailed tit Insects Fat balls
Greenfinch Seeds, insects Peanuts

 

Something that I find particularly intriguing is that items like fat balls clearly don’t occur naturally in the habitats of these birds, but do prove to be a popular choice – there must be a reason behind this…

All of the species that feed on the fat balls also eat insects as part of their diet. In February, insects are quite hard to come by, so the birds must have some alternative – this is my theory for why fat balls are so popular.

If we look at the nutritional content of insects, we can see that they contain a high proportion of protein and fat – fat balls also contain significant amounts of these substances, so provide the birds with the correct nourishment.

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Certain brands of fat balls also have added calcium – a mineral that is found in some insect exoskeletons. The correlation between the nutrition provided by insects and fat balls suggests that this could be the reason why most of the birds I observed fed on the fat balls.

However, this does still leave some questions unanswered – why, for example did the greenfinch (whose natural diet consists of seeds and insects) not show any interest in the fat balls, but instead visited the feeder containing peanuts?

It is likely that due to me only having a limited amount of time in which to film and observe the birds, I may have missed an opportunity to see this.

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Another factor to take into account is that not every bird is suited to feeding from different types of feeder: the robin cannot perch on a feeder at all, so either has to hover momentarily or feed from the ground. This means that this species is restricted to seeds or crumbs dropped from the fat ball feeders, as it would be unable to access the peanuts or to remove pieces of fat ball for itself.

The more I thought about the feeding preferences of the garden birds, the more interested I became. I still have many unanswered questions, such as how the birds know to choose the correct feeder, and whether this is a learned habit or if (after many generations of birds being fed by humans) it is becoming an innate behaviour.

The video below shows some of the clips I gathered with the GoPro:

Sources I used in this blog post:

The RSPB: www.rspb.org.uk

Ark Wildlife: www.arkwildlife.co.uk

Top Insect: www.topinsect.net

Keeping parrots healthy in Winter

For about the first four years of owning Captain Beaky, I was convinced that the cold would kill him and that he had to be kept inside throughout the Winter months. When we moved into a particularly cold house, I kept a cover around two sides of his cage at all times because I was so worried he would become ill (the house was very cold, more so than people usually imagine when they hear the stories of it!)

A couple of years after this, my dad built the aviary as my birthday present and Beaky spent the summer days outside by himself – I used to bring him into the house in the evenings so that he could have some company.

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It was the following Autumn that I bought Rocky: the people who sold him to me said that he would be fine outside all year round, which really surprised me but I followed their advice and thankfully in the Spring I still had a healthy young parrot! Throughout that Winter Beaky spent mild days outside, and the rest of the time in the house.

This Winter the decision was made to leave Beaky and Rocky out together permanently – due to me being away from home now it is easier for my mum and much better for Beaky in a social sense as when he was alone he was quite reliant on human company.

There are however a few things we had to change in the aviary to ensure that the birds would make it through the cold months without any problems…

The first thing was to ensure that the aviary was sheltered from the wind – whilst the low temperatures don’t cause too much of a problem, cold winds could potentially make the birds ill so they need adequate cover. Sheets of corrugated plastic fit this purpose nicely and are tacked onto the upper half of the aviary (they will be removed in the warmer months). The narrow end of the aviary is left open: this side is well sheltered by the house and having the gap means that the birds can still see in through the kitchen windows so get some entertainment from watching us!

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It was decided that their bath should be removed at this time of year, as Rocky in particular likes to splash around and completely soak himself – this could then result in him being more susceptible to catching a chill, so whilst it is a shame to take away one of his favourite activities it really is for his own good.

Another important factor in Winter (and all year round) is that the birds have a healthy diet.

As well as a scoop of mixed seed each day, they also have oyster grit mixed in which aids their digestive system. We add hemp seeds to the mix as these are good for the immune system and are a good source of iron.

On top of this we give them fresh fruit (usually apple although they can have many different types – it should however be noted that avocado is poisonous to birds!) and some form of dark leafy greens (for example groundsel and spinach) as these provide the birds with vitamin A.

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Something else that I thought I would mention here which is not related to the cold weather but is something that happened recently while I was away in Manchester, is that Beaky broke a blood feather.

A blood feather is a feather that is still growing, so still has a blood supply. These are often sore, and if they are broken they can lead to the bird bleeding to death.

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My mum went to feed the parrots one morning and realised that there was blood dripping down Beaky’s tail: I had warned her about blood feathers so she quickly looked up what to do and acted before it was too late.

Some people suggest using flour to prevent the blood from flowing, however it is more effective to remove the whole feather. Having caught Beaky, mum pulled the feather out (apparently this was easier than a normal feather would be) and the skin where it had been just closed over.

Thankfully Captain Beaky seemed perfectly fine after his little incident and is back to his normal self again now. He still has stains on his tail but I should imagine that these will remain for quite some time, most likely until he moults the feathers out in the next few months.

(The video below is just a couple of clips from the aviary recently…. Beaky having his fuss and my attempts at engaging in a conversation with Rocky!)

Winter agility training

Over the Christmas break, Rusty and I had a few agility training sessions in the garden. She hadn’t practised in about six weeks but still amazed me with how much she could remember!

I thought that I would set up a few different types of jumps for a bit of fun – normally we just have straight jumps as these are quick and easy to set up, however in competitions a variety of obstacles can be found so it only makes sense to incorporate them. (I had to improvise a bit when building these jumps as we are quite limited with equipment!)

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Straight jumps – these are the most common found on an agility course and are often placed in sequences with tight angles and complex manoeuvres. They can have wings or may be without – both options can present problems to the handler.

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With wingless jumps it is very easy for the dog to ‘half jump’ it, where they sort of hop over the very edge and leave the handler wondering whether that counted or if they should be taken back to do it again! In particular this occurs when the dog has come into the jump on a tight turn, or can see that they will be expected to make one after landing.

In a competition there are three other types of jumps that are usually found just once in a course; these add a bit more interest to jumping as they require the dog to think a little more about how they are tackling the obstacles (instead of just treating each one as the same).

Spread jumps are the same height as straights, but have an added factor of length as well – this means that the dog has to make quite a big leap in order to clear the jump. A straight approach is favourable with this jump as coming into it on too much of an angle could result in the highest pole being caught by their back legs.

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Long jumps are low to the ground but have a much greater length than any other jumps in the course (the clue is in the name!). When training this jump it is advisable to begin with a short distance and gradually extend it so that the dog learns not to put any paws down in the middle. Normally this type of jump would consist of wooden or plastic planks lined up next to each other, but I had to make do with what you can see in the pictures below…

The final jump type is the tyre jump – this is quite a fun one although it is common place for run-outs. (Tyre jumps found in competitions are raised quite high off the ground which allows room for the dog to run underneath – Rusty was guilty of this when we used to go to agility classes!)

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Another exercise we had a play around with was the pinwheel. This is sometimes seen on competition courses, but is also a useful activity for general training: I have worked on this multiple times with Rusty before and have seen noticeable improvements in her ability to find and ‘lock onto’ her next jump, as well as her trusting that she can run further from my side but still understand where she is going.

On top of that, she seems to find the whole thing quite exciting so it definitely brings a lot to our training sessions (not that I need Rusty to have any more energy than she already does!)

Unfortunately the videos I have of this were taken in the afternoon when it was getting dark, so the stills were just a blur, however there is a video at the bottom of this post showing the exercise. The diagram below shows an example of a pinwheel with four jumps – this can vary but the handler should bear in mind that fewer jumps will increase the angle between each one, which will make it more challenging for the dog.

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The best place for the handler to be is in the middle of the wheel, as it keeps the dog turning on the circle. If the handler were to attempt this by running around the outside of the pinwheel, they would not be able to keep up with their dog and this would lead to mistakes being made (it is common for other jumps to be placed near a pinwheel so as to confuse the dog).

The video below shows some short clips from our most recent training sessions – this includes a clip with a set of weave poles and the tunnel. I thought I would include this because it shows how much Rusty’s understanding of the weaves has improved – she almost skipped the final pole but when I paused her she took a few steps back and corrected it – such a clever little dog!