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.

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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!

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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…

Dog agility – improving the tunnel and weaves

Over the past couple of weeks, Rusty and I have been working specifically on the tunnel and the weave poles.

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She has done so much jumping over the past few years that as a result she is now really confident with it and will automatically run ahead of me to a jump if I give her a clear signal. However she has not had quite as much practice with the tunnel and the weaves due to them taking longer to set up (I sometimes just do jumping).

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To fix this I have begun to teach her that she can move further away from me with these obstacles and that I don’t have to lead her right up to them every time they are part of our course. It will take some time for her to learn this, but we have made a start and I have already seen lots of improvement which is pleasing!

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When I was teaching her to be more independent with the jumps, I would carry her toy and throw it as she left the ground to encourage her to be more forward thinking. This could potentially work with other obstacles too but it does present some problems – for example when she is inside the tunnel she can’t see the ball being thrown, and throwing it too early whilst she is weaving might lead to her picking up bad habits such as skipping the last poles to chase it.

I also don’t want her to rush the weaves at this stage: she is still finding her feet with them and if I ask her to run too quickly she gets confused and sometimes trips up.

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Instead of throwing the ball, I asked her to sit in front of the obstacle and then dropped it at the other end before telling her either ‘tunnel’ or ‘weave’. She still got the idea of moving ahead to the target, but didn’t rush.

Whilst reading on the internet about the weave poles, I realised that I have been spacing them incorrectly. Having moved them a few inches further apart, Rusty’s technique has improved a huge amount (the video at the end of this post shows this).

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Another tactic to give her a bit more energy coming into the obstacle is to place a jump before it. Obviously if we were doing the obstacles as part of a sequence she would already be going fairly quickly, so I did this to imitate that situation whilst still focusing specifically on the two particular obstacles.

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At one point this actually resulted in Rusty skipping the tunnel, as she gained a lot of speed after the jump and missed my directions. I took her back and she completed it the second time round without any problems, however this does show a clear difference in the way in which she treats the tunnel – if there had been a jump there instead I’m pretty sure she would have flown over it without needing much telling!

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I was also pleased to see that at one point she almost skipped the tunnel, but then corrected herself and ran through. The pictures below sort of show this, but I’ve added the clip to the video at the end of this post as well.

You may notice in the video that I did use the clicker in some of the clips (they were filmed over a couple of days). I’m still working on getting Rusty used to this, but this won’t require too much effort as it just means that I have to make sure I always give her a treat after clicking. I clicked too late in some instances – I kept forgetting, so sometimes she had her treat before hearing the click… It definitely gives me something to work on though.

Thank you for reading today’s post on Wild Call; I’ll be back in a few days time for Wildlife Wednesday so stay tuned!

Wildlife Wednesday – exploring the garden pond

As of today, I am beginning a new series of my blog posts. These will be released every Wednesday and will focus on the wildlife around my home in Norfolk.

In the first of these I will be taking a look at the life in our garden pond: since I used my GoPro to film underwater a couple of months ago I have been really excited to take a closer look at the organisms residing there.

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Armed with my cameras, a net, waterproof notebook and a couple of plastic tubs, I set about extracting organisms from different areas of the pond. It is amazing just how much life there is below the surface – the amount of times I have walked past the pond and not even given it a second thought is ridiculous!

The pond does seem to dry out each summer, which lead me to wonder how so much life exists there if it cannot be supported all year round. Having done some research, I have learnt that any creatures that can fly will often leave and then return when the water levels are up again. Some types of larvae can burrow into damp mud in order to survive, but the other organisms are likely to die. They are reintroduced to the pond by accidentally being carried over by visiting birds or mammals.

Unfortunately I do not have identification books for pond life (I really ought to invest in some keys to help me), so I apologise in advance if I have made any mistakes in this post.

The most common creature that I came across was mosquito larvae. I was able to identify this easily due to the way that these organisms hang vertically in the water, and their particular swimming pattern.

The picture below shows two mosquito larvae at different stages in their development. The one on the right hand side is younger and more curled up than the older one on the left hand side.

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I believe that the next creature is a caddisfly larva – initially I was unsure, but then I saw some of them inside ‘cases’. Normally these are constructed using tiny pieces of plant and grains of sand, however I saw cases made out of flat leaves: this is a distinctive feature of the mottled sedge caddisfly larvae.

On the surface of the pond I observed pond skaters and whirligig beetles. Before I began to read about pond skaters I was unaware of the fact that they are actually predators that target other animals that have fallen onto the surface of the pond. They also scavenge on dead animals.

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Whirligig beetles usually stay near the surface, however if they happen to be disturbed they will swim underwater. In the video at the bottom of this post you can see that the whirligig beetle I discovered must have felt threatened by my presence, as it swam to the bottom of the container I placed it in. (In the interest of the welfare of all of these creatures, I tried to limit the time they spent away from the pond to just a few minutes).

This picture of the whirligig beetle isn’t of particularly good quality – they move so fast that it is difficult to capture them at all…

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Just below the surface I came across the common water flea. These transparent filter feeders are abundant in the pond and provide an important food source for beetle larvae.

Common water flea

I initially thought that the next organism was a leech, but was relieved to discover that I was wrong! It is a flatworm, and whilst it is a predator, it wouldn’t have been interested in me as it prefers to feed on larvae and larger dead organisms.

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The picture below shows the common water slater: these are mistakenly believed to be an indicator of polluted water, however this is not true (they are just particularly tolerant of low oxygen levels).

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In the shallows amongst the plants there were numerous pond snails (I am not entirely sure of the exact species). Many people think that these reduce pollution in the pond but this is not strictly true; whilst the snails do ingest a lot of material, they simply recycle it into other forms – so the pollutants are not actually being removed from the ecosystem.

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Much of the life in water is too small to be seen with the naked eye: I feel that I have probably only seen the tip of the iceberg with the amount of life that exists in our pond.

Despite seeming like an entire ecosystem by itself, the pond is not isolated from the world around it. The diversity of life under the surface supports many other groups of animal – for example garden birds, frogs, toads, bats and grass snakes.

The video below shows some of the video clips I gathered whilst pond-dipping. Some were taken using the GoPro in the pond, whereas others were filmed whilst the animals were away from the pond.

I hope that you enjoyed the first post in my new ‘Wildlife Wednesday’ series – stay tuned for more exciting discoveries next week!

 

(The following website was used in the writing of this blog post: freshwaterhabitats.org.uk )

Introducing clicker training

I recently decided to try using clicker training with Rusty; I have always been interested in this method but didn’t really know much about it and always thought that we got on just fine without. Of course, we have managed perfectly well without using a clicker, but I feel that it could prove to be an incredibly versatile tool as I begin to expand Rusty’s repertoire of tricks and as her skills in agility become more advanced.

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The use of a clicker is not confined to dogs – it can be applied to the training of many different animals, including horses and birds (I am hoping that I might be able to use this with some of the other animals too). A friend of mine did a sort of work experience day in a zoo where she got to help out with the big cats: they used clicker training there too. Zoo animals are often trained to present various parts of their body so that they can be examined easily without having to anaesthetise them (for example, to check that their teeth are in good health).

The main reason why clicker training is much better than simply using verbal praise is that the clicker produces a consistent sound which never changes, whereas the human voice will vary in tone and volume, so although we may be repeating the same word it will never quite sound the same to the dog.

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The clicker also enables the exact moment of good behaviour to be understood by the dog – often when Rusty does a good thing I spend a few seconds praising her, which could potentially lead to her becoming confused as to the exact moment when she got it right – but with a clicker, the good behaviour can be marked instantly without interrupting the task being performed by the dog.

Over the past couple of days, I have begun to incorporate the clicker into my training with Rusty. As she has never worked with one before, I am starting off by asking her for simple commands that she knows well, which I reward with a click, followed by a treat. Every single click must then result in her receiving a treat; if this is not done consistently then the clicker will lose its effect.

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As well as really easy commands, I asked her for some tricks that she knows well. The video below shows our first few attempts at using the clicker (I have no objection to showing our journey, but please bear in mind that I am new to this and did make a few mistakes, for example clicking slightly too late). We did some agility obstacles using the clicker, however I didn’t video this. Next time we do agility training I will make sure to take some footage – I feel that this method will work particularly well with the training of weave poles.

Another thing that I would like to point out here is that I worked on this in a couple of different environments – this is to ensure that Rusty knows that the same rules apply wherever we are. We had some builders working nearby in the outdoor clips as well: these provided the perfect opportunity for Rusty to learn not to become distracted and remain focused on me. Over the next few weeks I am also planning to take the clicker on our walks.

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Obviously at the moment I am using commands that Rusty knows well to teach her the meaning of the clicker, but once I start to teach her new tricks, the idea is to use the clicker until she knows the command and responds every time, and then phase it out due to it no longer being needed.

I will continue to work on this and may have a go with some of the other animals as well, so expect to see more blog posts about clicker training as we progress!

A long walk with Max

On Monday I took Max for our last walk together before I headed home for Easter. The weather was incredible and we had a fantastic time, so much so that I just had to write about it!

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As Max now knows me better and is starting to take confidence from me, I decided that we would leave the park and venture out to a new place. However, this plan of mine involved crossing and walking along a couple of really busy roads, so I was a little worried that we might encounter some problems.

I meet Max’s owner near the park, so to begin with we just walked back through past the lake and along the quieter roads: due to the sunshine there were quite a lot of people around but Max was on his best behaviour, which made me feel more confident when we stepped out onto Oxford Road (one of the busiest bus routes in Europe!).

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At the traffic lights Max showed some signs of being anxious – he cowered away from people walking past and initially did not want to cross between the buses and cars that were waiting, however with a little encouragement he then leapt forward and proceeded to drag me until we had reached a quieter area again.

To be honest I was incredibly relieved that that was the worst he did – I had been wondering whether he might revert to his old trick of leaping up and twisting away from me (it is difficult to hold onto the lead when he does that). I do think however that he used to do that because he was afraid to be close to me, whereas now he comes bounding up to me when I collect him, and is happy for me to fuss him.

Once we were off the roads altogether, I let him have a bit more freedom on the lead and he really settled down. The path we were on is popular with cyclists, so I did have to keep bringing him back to me to get out of their way, but he was well behaved and didn’t do anything silly.

We were out walking for a couple of hours, and unfortunately on the way back we got caught up with a load of parents picking their children up from school.

As I walked past a particular group of people, I called out to let them know I was behind them. One woman turned around and instantly jumped away from Max; I could see that she was quite afraid of him. This really made me realise how much he feeds off the people that are around him – he in turn flinched away from her and began to really pull and lean on the lead again.

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On our way back, I decided to stop by at my flat to drop my coat off (I hadn’t really needed it in the first place so had carried it for most of the walk). I’m not technically supposed to take animals into halls, but there weren’t any people around who would have reported me so I snuck him in…

Max had also become quite warm, so sitting him in the kitchen for a few minutes allowed him to cool down.

A couple of my flatmates came in while I was there and they immediately came over to see Max, stretching their hands out to touch him. At first he flinched and tried to back away, but it only took him a couple of minutes and then he was fine – he actually ended up really enjoying all of the fuss he got!

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This was amazing to watch, as when I first met him in November he wouldn’t come near for me ages, and our first walks together were really stressful because he didn’t want to be near me or any other people that we passed. I couldn’t even walk in parts of the park that were close to the road without him becoming anxious.

It is true what people say, building a bond with a rescue dog is incredibly rewarding.

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.

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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…

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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.

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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)….

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…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).