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!

 

Tanzania and Kenya throwback – when I went exploring on the beach

It is almost four months since I returned from my expedition to Tanzania and Kenya… I definitely miss being there in the sun (and having to drink six – eight litres of water every day!)

Our first camp was near the city of Tanga and was situated right on the coast – we were pretty much camping on the beach. Every morning as I ate my breakfast I would sit in awe watching the sun rise over the Indian Ocean, and days working in the village often ended with a swim in the sea.

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One day we were given the afternoon off to relax, so while the tide was out I went for a walk with my camera. The beach was teeming with life and I had a fantastic time observing and photographing it.

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The beach was surrounded by mangroves which when the tide came in became submerged. Their roots are incredible structures – they grow like this to maximise oxygen absorption (the roots need oxygen but there is very little in the sand).

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There were also these huge structures that at first glance just looked like rocks – it turned out that they were ancient coral reefs that had died and formed little islands of their own.

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Below are a few photos of interesting creatures/shells that I found on the beach…

Giant clam shell

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Interesting seashells (despite much searching, I have been unable to identify these)

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Crabs (also very difficult to identify! The red-brown one may be a rock crab, but I’m not entirely sure)

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Brittle star

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When I first came across the creature pictured below on the beach, I was completely mystified. It seemed like a strange shell structure sunk into the sand, but it was unlike anything I had ever seen before. However, recently when I was learning about the evolution of eyes as part of my zoology course, I saw a picture of it in an article that I was reading.

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It is the West Indian fuzzy chiton… the thing that surprised me the most is that the shell actually contains many tiny mineral eyes! This bizarre creature has eyes made of aragonite – the same material used for the rest of its body. The images produced will not be of the greatest quality, but they are enough for the chiton to be able to detect predators and respond by clamping themselves into the sand.

I cannot believe I was lucky enough to see such an incredible creature on my travels.