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.

robin-2

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.

DSC_0004 (4)

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.

DSC_0036

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.

Sunset 010

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.

Blackbird and hedge sparrow (2)

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!

Work experience with the National Trust – wildflower surveys

On Saturday I went on another of the National Trust work experience days. This was the first session where I wasn’t freezing cold or soaking wet (or both!) – the sun was shining, the sky was a glorious blue and according to my phone the temperature even reached 18 degrees at one point! It is so lovely to think that spring is finally here.

The purpose of this session was for us to expand our knowledge on wildflowers and their identification.

IMG_20170325_115656

In the morning we had an ‘informal lecture’ sort of thing to bring us up to speed on wildflowers (I didn’t really have much of a clue beforehand!) After a brief re-cap on the anatomy of plants, we moved onto looking at key features which can be used to distinguish between plant families. These include the position of leaves on the stem, the type of leaf and the arrangement of the flower heads.

In the session I made very quick, rough notes but for the purposes of this blog I copied them up in neat – the results of which can be seen below…

IMG_20170325_201743

The different features shown vary depending on the family that a plant belongs to – we learnt the specifics of ten different families (although there are many more than this, we didn’t have time to look at them all so instead focused on the ones we would be most likely to see at Quarry Bank in March). The table below summarises the families we examined.

Family Key features
Buttercup family / Ranunculaceae 5 petals, 5 sepals

Lots of stamens and carpels

Deeply divided leaves

Cabbage family / Brassicaceae 4 petals (in cross shape), 4 sepals

6 stamens (four long, two short)

Pinks / Caryophyllaceae 4/5 petals, often deeply notched

Swollen nodes

Opposite leaves

Pea Family / Fabaceae Flower is zygomorphic

Compound leaves

Rose family / Rosaceae 5 petals, 5 sepals (united at base)

Alternate, compound leaves

Carrot family / Apiaceae Umbel flowers

Compound leaves

Daisy family / Asteraceae Capitulum flowers
Figwort family / Scrophulariaceae 2 lipped corolla

Ridged stems

Mint family / dead-nettle family / Lamiaceae Square stems

Whirls of flowers

2 lipped corolla

St Johns-wort family / Clusiaceae 5 yellow petals

Entire, opposite leaves

Glossary of terms in table (also see diagram above):

  • Carpel – the female reproductive part of a flower
  • Corolla – the petals of the flower
  • Node – area on the plant stem from which leaves and buds grow
  • Sepals – usually found underneath petals, protect flower when it is in the bud (just to add to the confusion, sepals are often green in colour, but when sepals look like petals they are referred to as tepals!)
  • Stamen – the male reproductive part of a flower, produces pollen
  • Zygomorphic – a bilaterally symmetrical flower

Having learnt the theory, we were then given a chance to practice using dichotomous keys with some cut garden flowers. A dichotomous key is a series of questions providing the reader with two choices, which eventually lead to the name of the species.

IMG_20170325_105100

After lunch we then headed out to the Southern Woods, where we began our wildflower survey. (This is an example of a Phase Two survey – see my blog post from the 25th of February for more information on Phase One habitat surveys).

Due to it still being fairly early in the year, there weren’t a huge amount of flowers to be found, however we did find some. Despite being armed with hand lenses and books, it was surprisingly difficult to identify the exact species and we spent a considerable amount of time examining the plant shown below… Now I have a confession to make – I can’t actually remember what we decided this was!

Some other plants that we discovered included the lesser celandine (pictured below)….

IMG_20170325_115705

…and the wood anemone. This particular species is an example of an ancient woodland indicator, so comes in handy when conducting Phase One habitat surveys.

All in all, this was a lovely day out in the fresh air; it felt a little bit more relaxed than our previous sessions with the National Trust, although that may just have been an effect of the weather.

(I’m also just going to apologise for the irregularity of my blog posts recently – I should be back to posting normally again as of next weekend).

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).

img_20170225_110807

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.

img_20170225_110801

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.

img_20170225_102843

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).

img_20170225_111343

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.

img_20170225_114133

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!

Work experience with the National Trust – river pollution and invertebrates

(Before I begin this blog post, I’m just going to apologise for the lack of content over the past few weeks – at this time of year and with my current location it is quite difficult to gather photos and videos, however as we head into Spring I have some exciting new ideas and potential adventures that I can’t wait to share!)

Yesterday I participated in the second session of my National Trust work experience programme. The day began with… pouring rain. Once again it occurred to me that investing in a raincoat with taped seams might be a good idea, because within the first couple of hours I had damp shoulders and arms.

This session was focused on the River Bollin again, but this time we were conducting a couple of different surveys on the river, the data from which will then be collated and used by the National Trust in their conservation projects.

img_20170128_102623

The first survey involved us walking along a stretch of the river, identifying and recording any potential sources of pollution. An obvious example of this is pipes which empty into the water – these are likely to contain waste substances which could have a negative impact on aquatic life forms.

Unfortunately the National Trust can only control what enters the river in the section that they own, and there is a sewage treatment plant upstream that releases waste into the water body. Under normal circumstances there is a limit to how much can be deposited in the river, but if there is a period of high rainfall then the limit is discounted and the treatment plant can release as much as they want to. This clearly has a significant impact on the health of the river: the water turns to a cloudy green-brown colour and gives off quite an unpleasant smell.

img_20170128_111439

Another slightly less obvious source of pollution that we noted was the presence of tributaries flowing into the river. Whilst they just seem to merge in as part of the water body, many of them travel down from farmland – if farmers have been using pesticides then these may run off the fields into the water system and could result in the death of aquatic organisms.

If fertilisers enter the river, they can cause eutrophication – this is where plants (particularly algae) in the river grow excessively, leading to overcrowding and competition for resources. The plants then die and much of the oxygen supply is consumed by decomposers as they break down the dead matter – the shortage of oxygen then causes other creatures to die.

img_20170128_105613

An additional problem that the National Trust have to deal with is the damage caused to the river banks by people and their dogs – allowing a dog to go down to the water and have a paddle is a really fun thing to do as an owner, and we saw several dogs enjoying this. The downside to this activity is that it accelerates the rate of erosion of the banks – large amounts of sediment are deposited into the water; this is another way in which pollutants can enter the system.

In the photo below you can see a particularly popular spot for dog walkers – we were allowed to walk onto it to check for pipes, and the effects of dogs were very visible. The National Trust can plant trees along the bank to prevent this erosion from happening (this blocks the dogs’ access and the roots stabilise the soil) but are reluctant to do this in all locations as they do not want to discourage dog walkers altogether.

img_20170128_105609

The second survey we conducted was investigating the life forms in the river – once kitted out in our waders we each took a turn going into the water with a net to take a sample. Facing downstream, we had to disturb the river bed with one foot whilst holding the net in front of us to catch any escaping creatures. Once three minutes had passed, we then carried the net and its contents to the bank where they could be examined more closely in order for us to record what was present.

img_20170128_133702

For the most part we just discovered freshwater shrimp and mayfly larvae (plus another species of invertebrate that we couldn’t identify) – however these are a good sign that the levels of water pollution in this area are low. Other species such as the water louse and the sludgeworm are indicative of high levels of water pollution – thankfully we didn’t uncover any of these!

img_20170128_141027

A small fish was also caught – however we were focusing on invertebrate life so after a few photos were taken it was returned to the water. The rangers were unsure of the species but due to the flattened shape of its underside it was likely to be a bottom feeder.

img_20170128_140549_1

Once we had completed the survey, all material and creatures were returned to the water and we headed back to Manchester. The sun finally made an appearance just as we were leaving on the bus – typical!

Work experience with the National Trust – rivers

Last weekend I left the city for a day to participate in a work experience event run by the National Trust. It was the first of six days which will be spread over the next few months, offered to students studying biological science related subjects at the University of Manchester.

The sessions are held at Quarry Bank Mill, Cheshire, and are based around conservation work that takes place there – the first one was focused on the river Bollin, which runs through the estate.

dsc_0003-6

In the morning we were taken to the weir to see the work being done to protect fish species – the weir is almost seventeen foot high so creates an impassable barrier for migrating fish (for example salmon) which would be trying to swim upstream to breed.

This has resulted in a loss of salmon from this section of the river, as they would no longer be able to breed there (the water further downstream is not oxygenated enough for young fish to survive).

dsc_0002-3

For this reason, a fish pass was installed – this runs next to the river and enables fish to bypass the weir and swim upstream. There are two channels: the first was simply a wide tunnel (allowing fish to swim through), whereas the second one had a ‘substrate mat’ – this gives eels something to wind around so that they can also move up the river. The mat was placed on a slant in the water so no matter what the depth, any size of eel could swim through.

There was a submerged camera looking into the fish pass, enabling National Trust rangers to monitor which species pass through. The camera is activated by movement, so a lot of the time the images obtained are of debris being carried downstream. However, this year for the first time, they have footage of a salmon moving upstream. This is fantastic news as it shows that the fish pass is working, and that hopefully salmon will begin to breed in the river Bollin again.

The picture below shows the fish pass: it was a bit difficult to photograph due to the metal grill over the top, but the right hand side is for the eels (you can see the slanted substrate mat) and the left hand side is for other fish. The red light source is there to aid the camera at night – fish cannot see red light so this does not disturb them. The camera is in the wall on the far left, behind a plastic screen.

dsc_0007-4

In the afternoon we walked to a different point on the river and collected data such as the river width, depth and flow rate. Monitoring these factors allows rangers to keep track of any significant changes in the river ecosystem, so that their conservation efforts can be more effective. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to get any photos of this part of the day as I left my camera in the truck (we were wading into the river so I didn’t want it to get damaged – not to mention the fact that by this point my fingers were numb!)

Hopefully this has given a little insight into the conservation of rivers – my next session with the National Trust is at the end of January so I will write another blog post about it then.