Wildlife Wednesday – our resident woodpeckers!

We have continued to fill up the bird feeders over the past couple of months, and the changing weather has brought with it a greater variety of garden visitors including coal tits, chaffinches and greenfinches.

However, the real star of the show has captured everyone’s attention: it seems to be fond of peanuts and is usually seen in the mornings and early evenings, although it is around all day and we can hear it calling from the ash trees over on the other side of the garden. ‘It’ is the great spotted woodpecker.

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Since its arrival a few weeks ago, I have been trying to capture the woodpecker on camera. To begin with I had no success at all, despite leaving the GoPro out for an hour at a time in the mornings. I managed to take some video from inside the house, but it was quite far away and these birds are too shy to come and feed while people are sitting nearby outside.

Eventually last week I managed to get a short piece of footage of a male woodpecker sat on top of the bird feeding station… however then I really got a surprise, because he had brought with him a juvenile bird!

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Although this species isn’t at risk, it is still great news that they are breeding in our area: I am hoping that we might be able to encourage its less common counterparts – the lesser spotted woodpecker and the green woodpecker – into our garden.

Size 23cm
Diet Insects, larvae, seeds, nuts, tree sap vegetable material – will also take eggs and young birds during the breeding season
Population (UK) 140, 000 pairs
Breeding Between 5-7 eggs which hatch after 12 days, young fledge at 20 days old and remain with parents for 7 days

 

Identifying these birds is pretty easy – if you are lucky enough to have a full view of one then it is a pretty distinctive species. It can be confused with the lesser spotted woodpecker (this was my initial thought upon seeing one in our garden for the first time) however having since gone away and read up on them I have realised that there are actually numerous differences between the two, including the fact that the lesser spotted woodpecker has a red poll and has much less contrast between the white and black feathers on its wings.

However, the juvenile great spotted woodpecker does have a red poll and is overall much duller in colour than the adult birds, so this may lead to some confusion unless an adult bird is nearby to the youngster.

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Distinguishing between the male and female great spotted woodpeckers is made very simple by the fact that the male has a red stripe on the back of the neck whereas the female does not.

When there is not a clear view of the bird or you do not have binoculars to hand, it can be a little more difficult to identify the exact species. The fact that it is some kind of woodpecker should be fairly obvious from the way it hops up the trunk of a tree (these birds have particularly stiff tail feathers to aid them in this – if you look closely you will see that the tail is actually pressed onto the tree as the bird moves) and from its characteristic undulating flight.

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The call of this bird is also easy to pick out once you know what you are listening for (I am struggling to learn different bird songs, but the call of the woodpeckers has really stuck with me). It is a loud, singular ‘tick’… that description doesn’t do it much justice, but you can easily find recordings of it on the internet if you are curious!

This species does have more to it than simply brightening up the bird feeders each day: it actually has some very interesting adaptations which I thought I would mention (information courtesy of the books listed at the end of this blog post).

Woodpeckers are probably best known for how they create their nests (by chiselling a hole in a tree trunk). The force required from their beaks to be able to achieve this could potentially be damaging, so the bones and muscles in their heads have evolved specifically to protect them from this – for example layers of spongy tissue ensure that the brain is well guarded.

In winter when food supplies are scarce, great spotted woodpeckers will feed on tree sap, using their long tongues that can reach up to 4cm away from their beaks. In addition to this they will wedge pine cones into small gaps so that they can remove the kernels, and will use branches to crack open nuts and seeds.

I think that in the process of writing this blog post I have discovered another of my favourite bird species… although maybe I would find all of them as fascinating if I discovered more about them!

 

Sources used in this blog post:

The RSPB Book of British Birds

Collins Wild Guide: Birds

Collins Nature Guide: Birds of Britain and Europe

The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Birds

Introducing Bob (new horse!)

A lot has changed since the last time I wrote on this blog – I have now officially moved back home from Manchester, begun learning to drive and I’ve also started a new job, which so far I am really enjoying.

I have also been doing a lot of horse riding: things are really starting to come together with it now and I am becoming increasingly excited about my future with horses.

One thing that I want to avoid now that I am back home is riding the same horses all of the time. Whilst I am continually making progress with Dusty, in order to keep improving I really need to be gaining experience with a variety of different horses.

A few weeks ago I began searching for a potential horse to part loan… so, allow me to introduce Bob.

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He is a Welsh cob cross standing at 14.2hh and is probably about nine, although his exact age isn’t actually known.

I am very fortunate that he is actually kept at a yard I know well (the same yard where Flash, Buddy and Leon live) where there are lots of friendly people who I can ride out with and go to for advice.

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I have only ridden Bob four times so far and am still getting to know him, but I thought that I would talk a little about what he is like and how I am adjusting.

Due to his owner’s pregnancy, he has only been doing light hacking for the past few months and is fairly overweight at the moment. Unfortunately as a result of this, his actual saddle doesn’t fit him so I am having to exercise him in the one pictured below… I guess it is sort of like a bareback pad, only with a bit more support (and stirrups of course). It isn’t particularly comfortable and does tend to slip (we had a funny incident with that the other day where I had to do a quick dismount) but I suppose the upside to this is that it will work wonders for my balance!

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He’s been well schooled and I am starting to be able to encourage him into an outline, but he’s very soft-mouthed and doesn’t like the reins being held too tightly. If my reins are too short on him he over-bends, which I really don’t like to see, but at the same time I can’t have them too long as this doesn’t get us anywhere! I’ve been working on finding the length that he is happy with.

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I was warned that he can spook quite badly: so far I haven’t really seen this side of him – we’ve had a few instances where he’s taken a look at things but apart from that he hasn’t done much except for spooking at some chickens near the school. However to be on the safe side I won’t hack him alone until I know him better.

He has been pretty fresh when schooling, and often when I sit to change my diagonal he tries to break into canter. This is something that I need to be prepared for so that I can prevent it from happening at all – at the moment it is sometimes taking me a good half circle before I can get him back to trot. Due to him being so soft-mouthed, this is where I am really having to ride with my seat more. I have found that a combination of small amounts of pressure with my thighs, a tiny bit of extra pressure on the reins and me talking to him keep him in a consistent rhythm.

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I am excited for the next few months with Bob: I think that I can learn a lot from him and it will be great to spend more time on such a friendly yard.

For more regular updates, you can find my YouTube channel using the menu at the top of this page or you can find me on Instagram (@wildcallblog).

Thanks for reading!

Dog agility – more jumping exercises

Recently I have felt that I’ve been lacking in inspiration for Rusty’s agility training, so it sort of ground to a bit of a halt for a while. We were working on improving her technique with the weave poles and tunnel, however she is an intelligent dog and as a result quickly becomes bored with simple repetitions of an obstacle. I can add in other things and create sequences but due to her inexperience with the weaves in particular I have to ensure that her approach to the weave poles is straight and easy for her to see – unfortunately this does limit what we can do, especially with our few pieces of equipment.

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Over the past couple of days I set up the weaves and some jumps with the intention of just having a play to keep her feeling enthusiastic about her training.

It’s actually quite amazing how versatile a set of three jumps can be: there is a huge number of different arrangements of varying difficulties that can be set out, and even when I think I have exhausted all of the standard sequences, there really is no harm in just making something up and then figuring out how to handle it.

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The diagram below shows one of the exercises we practised. The red route drawn on is the easier of the two options I have shown – although this did still require skills which take time to learn. These include 180 degree turns and rear crosses (both of which I have written about previously).

Agility layout for blog

The first jump is very simple: I can just direct Rusty to it – however then I have to curve my body away a bit and head along the line of jumps to encourage her to turn and come back across the second jump. For the third jump, things become even more complicated as I have to ask Rusty for another 180 degree turn, but I am on the wrong side of the jumps and on the wrong side of Rusty to be able to ask properly. Needless to say, we’ve been struggling a bit with this!

So far, the best I have managed to do is to perform a rear cross (where I cross Rusty’s path behind her as she runs) and then ask her to swing back to the third jump. As you will be able to see from the video at the end of this post, this isn’t particularly smooth but I feel that with practice it may become easier.

The blue route is even trickier… I ask Rusty to jump the first hurdle, then wrap round the jump and jump the second in the same direction. This is then repeated for the third jump. Again, I can’t seem to handle this in a way that makes it a smooth sequence. I have a feeling that this may be because Rusty is constantly looking at me for instruction at the moment, and I really need her to look at where she is going more.

In fact, the other day she was so fixated on me that she walked into a chair! I use a combination of treats and toys as rewards for agility, and I am wondering whether me carrying the tennis ball more frequently is the reason for her increased attention. Although I have been doing this for a while with no problems, I may experiment with using a different reward to see if that helps her – I really do need her to watch her step on the course as it could potentially be dangerous if she doesn’t.

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The video below shows our training recently – there are some other clips in there of the weaves and some other simple jumping exercises as well.

Thank you for reading today’s post on Wild Call, stay tuned for more!

 

Dusty – kissing spines update

Some of the people who have been following my blog for a while may remember that I help out with a horse called Dusty. Last year he was diagnosed with kissing spines – this is where the spinous processes are too close together, causing pain for the horse.

As a result of the kissing spines, Dusty had several problems in his ridden work. These included him being reluctant to work in a proper outline (he would lower his head but wouldn’t actually be working over his back), he would struggle to bend and pick up canter on the left rein and would often trip up.

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Last Summer he had steroid injections in his back to alleviate the pain: these worked for a while and I think his owner made quite a bit of progress with him out hacking (I was still struggling with learning how to ride him properly!) However, after a few months the effects of this treatment wore off, so at the end of February this year Dusty went back to the vets to have his back operated on.

Initially I thought that the surgery would involve pieces of bone being cut away to create more space between the spinous processes (and I think this is what was originally suggested) but Dusty actually had a different type of surgery where the ligament in between the close spinous processes is cut.

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After his operation, Dusty then stayed at a yard in Burnham Market for six weeks of rehabilitation. This began by him going on the horse walker every day for four weeks (and yes, apparently he was bored by the end of it!), followed by him being lunged each day for two weeks. He was then ridden a couple of times at the yard before returning to the field.

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However, the rehabilitation does not stop there! It is important that Dusty now realises that he isn’t in pain anymore – he still has habits such as tossing his head and lifting a back leg when I go to tighten his girth, but seeing as he often does this before I’ve even started to do it up I think that this may be a learned response to the old pain.

I have been schooling him in the field since he returned home: he isn’t really allowed to canter yet but I’ve had so much to work on in walk and trot that I haven’t minded at all. We’ve been doing lots of circles of varying sizes – from large 20m circles to tiny loops around tyres laid on the ground. I also set out a variety of trotting pole exercises – as well as ordinary trotting poles in a straight line, I’ve had some at angles so that I can ask him to bend over them. Spacing the poles in an irregular fashion encourages him to think about where he is putting his feet more, which is also good for him.

Despite all of this (and my best efforts to correct the bad habits which I know have crept back into my riding) I still felt that I wasn’t quite ‘getting it’ – that he was still just putting his head in a pretty position and not actually working over his back.

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In an attempt to fix this, I had a lesson with Dusty yesterday at the field. The lady that taught me is a ‘ride with your mind’ instructor. It may sound a bit strange (or at least that’s what I thought when Dusty’s owner first told me about it) but since I had my first lesson a year ago it’s completely transformed the way I ride.

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Having begun my journey with horses in a riding school, I was constantly told ‘heels down, shoulders back and sit up’. This was fine when I started out, but when I wanted to learn more than how to go forwards, steer and stop it suddenly wasn’t enough and despite lots of help from various different people, I still really felt like there was something lacking in the way I rode.

I’m still a long way from where I want to be, but the ride with your mind techniques have brought me so much closer and as I discovered yesterday, when I am riding properly Dusty is able to work over his back correctly, without me fiddling with his mouth or kicking him.

May2

Over the next few weeks I am going to continue to practice what I learnt in my lesson and I will try to gather some more videos to share. The video below was taken two days before the lesson, so there are a few mistakes in there which I am going to work on but it shows some of what we’ve been up to…

Thanks for reading!

Wildlife Wednesday – observing wild birds

Last Saturday I went to another one of the work experience days with the National Trust at Quarry Bank Mill. This one was focused on the observation and recording of bird species on the estate – the data we collected from this is important as it allows the populations to be monitored so that any changes in numbers can be seen and conservation strategies can be put into place if necessary.

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We set off from the university at five o’clock in the morning and then spent a couple of hours walking and listening out for birds. We were accompanied by an ornithologist who volunteers at Quarry Bank – his knowledge on birds was incredible… what sounded to me like a jumble of many different bird songs coming from all directions worked almost like a map to him: he could point at a tree and tell us what species was perched in it without evening catching a glimpse of the bird! This was an important lesson for me. The majority of my bird watching (with the exceptions being species that I know well, for example the buzzard) has revolved around me walking along with binoculars, scanning the trees trying to spot something. Now I see how backwards this is – if I could learn bird songs then I could identify the species using my ears, and seeing them would just be an added bonus. It does also help if you know exactly what you are looking for.

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There are other important factors to be considered when heading out to watch birds: the time of day is clearly a very important one. Early morning is probably the best time to observe the usual garden birds, although I have noticed that the woods appear to come alive with noise again at dusk so this can also prove to be a suitable time (the fading light can make it difficult to see though).

I often see buzzards in the daytime – particularly in summer when the sun is shining I watch them swooping over the tops of the trees. Other birds of prey such as kestrels and marsh harriers do also seem to be around at dusk; I don’t know if it is just chance that I have seen them more frequently at this time though. Nocturnal species such as owls are definitely more likely to be around in the evenings.

Buzzard

One thing is for definite: you are more likely to be able to observe birds at a time when few people are around. During the day when dog walkers and gamekeepers are passing by, birds are disturbed and will retreat into the trees away from the main paths, whereas in the early hours they are not likely to be bothered by a lone walker with a pair of binoculars.

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Walking quietly is essential – birds have remarkably sensitive feet and can pick up vibrations from heavy footfalls. At home I tend to walk in wellies; these are actually very noisy and I feel that walking boots are probably more suited to the role as they don’t rattle around so much.

When we were on the work experience we did make a fair bit of noise as there were fifteen of us walking in a group, and our guides kept stopping to explain things to us – some birds are not at all bothered by this disruption, but more elusive species would have steered well clear of us.

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Another factor to take into account is the weather. During poor weather it is less likely that you will see smaller birds as these will take cover in the vegetation, and the conditions can interfere with the hunting patterns of birds of prey. However, some weathers can later bring life to a habitat: for example after rainfall, worms come to the surface of the soil and garden birds such as blackbirds take full advantage.

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I hope that you enjoyed this blog post, I am hoping to do some more focused write-ups about specific bird species I have been observing at home so stay tuned for those!

Overcoming Rusty’s fear of gunshot noise

When Rusty was about a year and a half old, we moved to a more rural area with lots of woods and fields surrounding us. There are many more bird-scarers and shooting parties in this area, and we often hear them on our walks (particularly in the Autumn time).

I can’t remember exactly when it began, but I think we had been here some time when Rusty began to show signs of fear whenever she heard gunshots.

Initially it began with her simply changing her pace on the walk – if we were heading away from home she would hang back and walk very slowly behind me, whereas if we were going towards home she would run as far ahead as the lead would allow and try to pull.

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Over time the situation escalated until it reached a point where Rusty would be panting, drooling and shaking with her tail tucked between her legs. Sometimes she even tried to crawl into hedges in an attempt to hide.

This was awful to watch and also very frustrating as we didn’t really know how to help her. In the end it took us many months to fix the problem, during which we tried several different techniques to teach her that there wasn’t anything to be afraid of.
In the beginning, I thought that it was best to just ignore the behaviour and carry on as if nothing was happening – the idea behind this being that the dog doesn’t get any kind of attention so that the behaviour isn’t reinforced. Trying to comfort the dog could be interpreted as the owner rewarding it, but becoming angry could convey the message that there really is something to be afraid of.

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This had little effect, so we then borrowed a CD with recordings of gunshot noise and other scary sounds from a friend. This is supposed to be played quietly when it is first introduced to the dog, and then the volume is gradually increased so that they become desensitised to it. I do think that this is a really good idea and if I have another puppy in the future I will definitely use it, however Rusty seemed totally fine with the noises on the CD (a far cry from her attitude on walks!) – I think that this is because the gunshot sounds didn’t have the same kind of echo to them that they do when we are out walking.

We also carried toys on walks so that we could try to distract her – this would work, but only for a limited amount of time: she soon became fixated on the gunshot noise again.

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It was around this time that we were attending agility classes, and when Rusty displayed her fear during training it was suggested that we actually pick her up and hold her. We weren’t supposed to make a fuss over her, just try to make her feel a little more safe. Unfortunately that didn’t work either, and it was at this point that we really did feel stuck! There didn’t seem to be anything we could do to help her.

However, another few months down the line and we had had a major breakthrough… it was spring again by this point, and I can remember one particular walk where I headed over a stubble field with Rusty panting and panicking due to the gunshot noise nearby.
We sat down on a grass bank at the side of the field, and I began thinking about a programme I had watched on TV. It was the ‘Dog Whisperer’ – I imagine most people will have heard of Cesar Millan! When he is working with dogs he talks a lot about the energy we give off, and how dogs can pick up even the slightest changes in our attitude.

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There was one clip that stuck with me, where he pointed out to someone that they needed to be thinking about what they wanted their dog to do, instead of focusing on the things that their dog was doing that they didn’t like.

It then occurred to me that all of my thoughts were revolving around Rusty’s fear – I would walk along wondering why she was so afraid, questioning when it had begun and feeling annoyed that we couldn’t just go for a relaxed walk.

As I sat there with Rusty drooling and shivering next to me, I began to imagine her calmly lying in the grass. We set off walking towards home again, and I worked really hard to only think positive thoughts – I pictured her skipping along next to me, stopping to sniff in the hedgerow and running over to beg for a treat.

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I was completely astonished to find that she stopped pulling on the lead and her shaking subsided… Once home I explained everything to my mum, and from then on we began to use this on walks. It is surprisingly difficult to avoid thinking negatively, especially if at first it doesn’t appear to be working, but with time and patience it paid off.

Now, Rusty is much happier with walking when there is gunshot noise. She will sometimes come over to us for reassurance, but apart from that she no longer seems too bothered.

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This experience definitely taught me how important my thoughts and energy are when working with animals – I use this all of the time now, especially when things aren’t going exactly to plan!

Wildlife Wednesday – deer tracking

When we first moved to Norfolk, I can remember walking round the garden and seeing a small deer scampering away from me into the undergrowth. Ever since then, I have tried many times to capture this creature on camera – most of the time this has not been particularly successful, however recently I changed my tactics and now finally have some videos to share!

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The deer which are most common in the woods and fields surrounding where I live are muntjac – these are not native to Britain: they were introduced from China in the 20th century as an ornamental species. Being an invasive species they don’t actually do much good in the niche they have filled in the ecosystem – rare plant species and woodland birds have suffered as a result of their release.

However, they are still a part of the wildlife in Norfolk and have proved to be very useful while I find my feet with tracking larger mammals in their natural habitat.

Standing at around 50cm in height, muntjac have short legs and relatively long bodies, meaning that they are quite low to the ground. The patch of white underneath their tails is unlike that of other deer in that it is a vertical stripe and cannot be seen when the tail is lowered.

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There are various signs that muntjac leave in their habitat which can be used to determine their presence.

The first of these is footprints: as shown in the picture below, these would at first glance appear to be just like the prints of other UK deer species, but there is a significant difference in the size of them, with muntjac prints not generally exceeding three centimetres in length.

I found these ones at the side of a ditch – the deer would either have been stopping there for a drink or may have just been crossing over.

Another sign is the characteristic paths formed when the deer repeatedly use the same route through the undergrowth – this particular one shown here has been there since I first saw it four years ago! When the surrounding foliage is taller, these paths create tunnel-like structures.

Muntjac deer also bark – to the untrained ear this can sound similar to a dog, but it is a rougher, lower sound. I often hear muntjac barking if they have been disturbed.

When heading out to watch the deer, I set off in the evening at around half past seven. At the moment it begins to get dark at around half past eight, so this gives me an hour to walk and observe.

I felt that the evening was a better time than early morning as I never see anyone in the woods at night, whereas there are often dog walkers and game keepers in the earlier hours.

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The route I have been using takes me around to the far side of the wood – I don’t really know if this has an effect on my success with finding the deer, but I feel less exposed than if I were to enter the woods by walking down the main path.

Once in the woods, I try my absolute hardest to walk quietly… when wearing wellington boots this is much easier said than done! (My walking boots are currently in Manchester). I walk quite slowly, taking care with where I place my feet to ensure that I don’t snap any twigs underneath them.

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If I see a deer, the best thing I can do is stand very still. I usually walk with my camera set up and ready for action, so I simply have to press one button and then just watch. You will see in the video at the end of this post some very wobbly filming where I am moving in an attempt to get a better view of the deer but have disturbed them in the process… I have since learnt that it is much better to just remain still and quiet.

Considering that these were the first few occasions on which I went out specifically to watch deer, I’m pretty pleased with how the footage turned out.

In the coming weeks I hope that I may be able to travel a little further afield to find some other species. There have been deer other than muntjac in my area, but sightings of them are rare.

Last year I accidentally disturbed a large deer: as it ran off into the trees I realised that it was a little bit too tall and leggy to be a muntjac, so my next guess is that it was a roe deer. Despite keeping my eye out, I haven’t seen a deer that size since…

About two years ago I also came across this fawn – clearly I didn’t want to get too close and I didn’t have a decent camera at the time, so this photograph is terribly blurred but I believe that this could be a roe deer? Maybe some of my readers can enlighten me!

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I hope you enjoyed today’s post on Wild Call – maybe you might feel inspired to go on a deer watching adventure of your own…