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…

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!