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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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).

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!