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

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!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

Zoos – good or bad?

As a zoology student I find it incredibly frustrating when people ask me if I want to work in a zoo. The short answer to this question is no, but the long answer would probably include an explanation of what zoology actually is – a study of the physiology, evolution, behaviour and conservation of animals (among other things!)

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I have mixed feelings on zoos. My family didn’t visit them much when I was a child; I only have vague recollections of seeing elephants when I was young so when I travelled to Tanzania and Kenya it felt as though I was seeing all of the animals for the very first time.

It was therefore quite ironic that one of the activities for new zoology students in my first week in Manchester was a trip to Chester zoo.

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I went with an open mind but no amount of imagination could conjure up the expanses of grassland, or the watering holes where these animals would gather in the wild – the enclosures were small in comparison and I saw animals pacing up and down next to the fencing. It seemed so wrong to have these creatures kept for human entertainment.

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However, there is a different side to zoos – they can play an important role in conservation.

Many captive breeding programmes have helped to bring species back from the brink of extinction, and some do release animals back into the wild (although sometimes the offspring are simply sold on to live in other zoos).

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They can also serve to educate the general public on the plight facing many animals in the present day, and this in turn could inspire people to change their lifestyle in order to help certain animals (for example checking products for irresponsibly sourced palm oil or reducing energy usage).

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Some important research is carried out in zoos. Near the elephant enclosure at Chester zoo there were signs explaining research that is being carried out into EEHV (elephant endotheliotropic herpes virus) – the zoo funds this research, which will hopefully create a vaccine for elephants both in captivity and in the wild.

Despite my views on keeping wild animals in captivity, I do have to admit that zoos could be crucial in saving many endangered species. That doesn’t mean I want to work in one though!

Community work in Africa

A couple of years ago I had an amazing opportunity presented to me: an organisation called Camps International came into my school to talk about their expeditions around the world. I was easily persuaded and set about raising the money I needed to go – this included having a part-time job, running a dog show and a Christmas themed coffee morning in aid of the cause.

Finally after months of building excitement and trepidation, I set off and spent a month in Tanzania and Kenya with nineteen other students from various schools in England.

One of the main aims of us going was to do voluntary work in the communities. It wasn’t until I was out there that I truly realised how important this work was – there were times when it really hit me how lucky I am and it changed my perspective on a lot of things.

Our first project was on the coast of Tanzania near Tanga – we spent three days working on a house for a lady who was living with her brother; her children had died and she had thought that the house would never be built. In the time that we were there we took down existing walls that were unstable and put up new ones. We made a framework with branches tied in a grid and then filled the spaces with mud – our team worked well together and we had some people mixing mud, some carrying it and some working on the walls.

The groups which worked there after us continued the project and it is now finished and ready for the lady to move in – she really appreciated this as living in her own house would give her a lot of independence.

Our next project was in Moshi, a town near to Mount Kilimanjaro. We went to a school and built some steps outside a classroom – it sounds like a fairly small task but it was actually more strenuous than the work on the house in my opinion! To make the cement we had to carry heavy buckets of sand, gravel and water and then shovel them constantly until they were thoroughly mixed. Then some people started to create the steps whilst the rest of us toiled to keep the cement from drying out in the heat.

Unfortunately I didn’t get any photos of the finished step but got some of it in progress…

We then moved to Kenya – our camp was in between Tsavo East National Park and Tsavo West National Park and while we were there we took part in a variety of different projects which Camps International were running in the area.

The first of these was de-worming goats in the communities – people brought them out to us and we had to catch them and stick a medicine-filled syringe in their mouths. I had actually done this before so I found it quite an easy task, and also de-wormed a calf while I was there as well!

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On the same day we built elephant deterrent fencing. The aim of this is to keep elephants away from the settlements and reduce human-wildlife conflict – therefore protecting the elephants and reducing the likelihood of them being killed. We cut up sheets of corrugated metal and strung the strips on wire, which was then suspended between wooden posts. The sound of the metal clattering in the wind and the way it reflects the sunlight (and moonlight too) frightens the elephants away.

In Kenya we also visited the Marungu Tree Nursery and helped to mix soil with animal manure, which we then placed into small black bags and planted seeds in. Our team was known for beating records previously set by other teams and this day was no exception – by the end of it we had planted around 1350 seeds!

When the trees are older they will be planted on the surrounding hills – they are a huge benefit to the farmers as many of them have nitrogen-fixing properties and they reduce soil erosion.

I will be posting more about my journey to Tanzania and Kenya, so stay tuned!