Bluetit chicks growing

The chicks are a week old now, and the change in them has been remarkable. Counting them is still a bit of a challenge, as there always seems to be one chick or another buried under a pile of siblings, but occasionally we do get a glimpse of all eight at once.

They’re a lot noisier now than when they first hatched, and while they still look a little bit like monsters, their feathers are beginning to grow, and they don’t like quite so much like they’ll snap whenever they fling their heads back for food.

The parents have both been kept busy catching insects to feed to the demanding crowd, and disposing of droppings. Sometimes when a chick eats a particularly large insect you can see the bulge move down its throat as it swallows.

In the last day or so one or two of the chicks have looked like they were trying to climb out of the bowl of the nest, and almost making it. They’re getting a lot stronger and their stubby wings are growing.

They’re behind most of the nests in the dormouse site I monitor – the chicks I saw there on Saturday looked like mini-bluetits, complete with proper feathers, almost ready to fledge.

This time next week the chicks may have fledged. They’ve got quite a lot of developing to do before then, but it’s remarkable how quickly they’ve grown already. Of course, life is precarious for chicks, so I’m not counting my bluetits before they fledge. But they’ve done well to make it this far.

Bluetits hatching

My weekend was made when I turned on the TV and saw the bluetits in our camera nest box were hatching.

The newly hatched chicks look so vulnerable, it’s amazing any ever survive to fledge. Their tiny necks look much to weak to support their heads, yet when a parent bird enters with an insect, the chicks manage to fling their heads back and open their beaks.

At first the chicks were silent, floppy little things. It’s hard to count how many there are as it’s not obvious what bits belong to which chick. By the end of Sunday, our best guess was that five chicks had hatched, and three eggs remained.

It’s wonderful to see chicks in the camera nest box. Last year a pair of bluetits started building a nest in it, but gave up. When we put the camera back in this February, we couldn’t remember if we had cleaned the box out last autumn, or if the nesting material in there was last year’s. It took a while to be sure that bluetits were adding to what was in there.

A few years ago we had two successful house sparrow broods, but nesting materials blocked the camera, so we couldn’t see what was going on.

The only previous time bluetits have hatched in the box, none of them survived to fledge, as one of the adults went missing, and the lone parent wasn’t able to keep up the supply of 100 caterpillars a day that each chick needs. I hope this year’s brood will be more successful.

It’s a privilege to be able to witness such a special moment.

How to make an insulated bird bath

Birds need water to drink all year round. Our mini pond and bird bath do the trick most of the year, but during really cold spells they can get frozen solid, leaving the birdies thirsty. To tackle this, I decided to raid the garage for bits and pieces to make an insulated watering hole for birds.

What I used

Materials needed for the insulated bird bath
Materials needed for the insulated bird bath

 

Tools needed to make insulated bird bath: glue gun, scissors, knife
Tools needed to make insulated bird bath
  • A polystyrene box (we used to use it to keep milk cool)
  • A strong black bin bag
  • A glue gun and sticky tape
  • A cold-proof bowl

How I made it

  1. I cut a hole in the lid of the polystyrene box, so the birds can get at the water without the water lising too much heat. I had forgotten how much mess cutting polystyrene makes – I was covered in white flecks which static made difficult to get rid of.
  2. Polystyrene isn’t waterproof or easy to wipe clean, so I covered the outside of the box and lid with black plastic from an opened out, heavy duty bin bag (making sure to leave the hole free). In addition to waterproofing and making the box easier to clean, the black colour will hopefully mean it warms up quicker when there is a bit of sunshine. I used a glue gun to attach the plastic to the polystyrene (until the glue ran out and I had to resort to tape).

    Covering the polystyrene box and lid with black plastic
    Covering the polystyrene box and lid with black plastic
  3. I put the cold-proof bowl in the box, to test how it fitted. I wanted it to come right up to the lid, so the birds could easily reach the water. I ended up having to create a small hollow in the bottom of the box so that lid could fit on when the bowl was in place. This made even more mess, turning me into a snowman. I then filled the gap round the edge of the bowl and the box with more polystyrene.
    Creating a nest for the bowl
    Creating a nest for the bowl

    Insulated bird bath with bowl in situ
    Insulated bird bath with bowl in situ
  4. I put the box in place (somewhere where it’ll get the sun, not too close to where cats could hide) and filled the bowl with water.

    The insulated bird bath in place
    The insulated bird bath in place

Did it work?

Well, on frosty mornings when the birdbath was frozen solid, and there were inches of ice on the pond, there was only a sliver of ice on the insulated bird bath that could be easily broken or removed.

The insulated bird bath on a frosty morning
The insulated bird bath on a frosty morning
A thin layer of ice had formed over night, but this was easily broken, unlike the inches of ice in the pond
A thin layer of ice had formed over night, but this was easily broken, unlike the inches of ice in the pond

I set up my trail camera for a couple of days to see if anything used it. While a song thrush and wren came tantalisingly close, the only animals that I actually saw drinking from it were cats. But lots of cats, lots of times. I have successfully created an insulated cat bowl. Not quite what I was aiming for, but maybe the birds will get used to it.

Next door's cat drinking from the insulated bird bath
Next door’s cat drinking from the insulated bird bath

Modifications

One essential modification is to secure the lid in some way, to stop it being blown off. The stone I used wasn’t up to high winds, so I think tying it on with string would be better.

Riversearch December 2016: jeweled birds

The day was overcast, and the trees lining the river were bare, looking almost desolate. As soon as I got down to the river for my Riversearch survey on the final day of 2016, I felt convinced that I would see a kingfisher.

The river level was quite low, and relatively clear for a change. No signs of pollution. My winter surveys are always the most thorough. The impenetrable barricade of nettles and brambles had died back enough for me to get much closer to the river than normal.

As far as the survey goes, there was little to report (which is good, but not interesting). I was rewarded for tearing myself away from the fireside by a glimpse of a kingfisher, the most spectacular of British birds. But that wasn’t all. As I retraced my steps, back to the car, I spotted my first ever goldcrest. I was very excited about this, as I have long wanted to see one.

As though the kingfisher and goldcrest hadn’t provided enough colour to make up for the dullness of the day, a pair of bright green ring-necked parakeets also made a show.

It was as though nature was reminding me that although 2016 may have felt pretty bleak, there were bright spots in it. As I start 2017, uncertain what it will bring,  I will look out for beauty.

Looking back at 2016

I’m looking forward to shaking the dust of 2016 from my sandals. But it hasn’t all been bad. Here are my highlights and lowlights from the year.

Highlights

I find January pretty tough – I’m not a fan of cold, and the lack of light gets me down. So a fun day out at the British Wildlife Centre with my fellow members of Surrey Dormouse Group was a welcome relief.

Fluffed-up bluetit roosting in our camera nest box
Fluffed-up bluetit roosting in our camera nest box

I love spring, and seeing the bluetits start to build a nest in my camera nest box meant the return home each day was exciting – what’s happened today?!

My Wild Garden 2016 challenge kept me busy over the year, as each month I tried to make my garden better for wildlife. For the first time this year I fed live mealworms to the birds – it was great seeing how well this went down with them, and something I’ll do again in 2017. We also installed an insect house, and it was great watching the bees move in. Perhaps my favourite Wild Garden activity of the year was creating the Bog Garden – lots of digging involved, but worth it. I’m looking forward to seeing how it does this year, now the plants have had a chance to bed in and grow.

Bee on loosestrife in the bog garden

Bee on loosestrife in the bog garden

As always, it’s a delight to watch hedgehogs in the garden, and even more exciting (and entertaining) to watch their courtship.

Dr C gave me a great new toy – a macro lens, and I’ve enjoyed experimenting with that over the year. The Macrophotography course I did with Adrian Davies was particularly helpful. Some of the images I took that day even featured in my 2017 calendar!

Gatekeeper(?) butterfly on bramble flower
Butterfly on bramble flower

It’s been a good year for my dormouse site. In one box check we had 9 dormice (including 7 youngsters crammed into one box!), and we’ve now had dormouse activity in every part of the site, which is great news.

16g dormouse found in May
16g dormouse found in May

And it’s great that the Paris Agreement on Climate Change has now come into force. On a smaller scale, it’s lovely to hear that the beavers on the River Otter are breeding.

Lowlights

Work has been very tough this year (particularly in the first half of the year), so this blog has taken a bit of a back seat for a while. It’s frustrating, as I’ve loads of things I wanted to tell you about, and lots of photos and videos that need editing.

It’s not been a great year for my garden birds – the Big Garden Birdwatch in January, when we saw only one bird. The bluetits that started to build their nest in the camera nest box soon abandoned it. And when I looked at the data over the year from June 2015 to May 2016, it confirmed that we’ve had far fewer birds than normal.

The referendum result was staggering, and, to me, hugely disappointing. It’s still not clear how it will affect many things, including our laws for protecting wildlife and the environment. The whole campaign was a bit of a disaster – even those campaigning for remain failed to make a case on the positive things that EU membership has brought this country, including cleaner rivers, beaches and air, and protection for species like dormice. One thing is clear: we need make sure whatever happens next does not damage this protection.

2016 has seen a lot of beloved public figures die. Among them, perhaps the most famous tiger in the world: Machli, the lady of the lake. I was lucky enough to see her in the wild, back in 2006. She has had a long life for a tiger, and brought up many youngsters that will continue her legacy. But it’s still sad to think she is no longer ruling the temples and lakes of Ranthambore.

Bengal tiger
Machli

Let’s hope next year brings peace, reconciliation and restoration between people, and between humans and nature.

In which I moan about light pollution on the darkest day of the year

Today’s the shortest day of the year, so it may seem churlish to spend it complaining about light. But don’t get me wrong – it’s not sunlight I have a problem with. I can vaguely remember what it’s like, and I’m keen to renew the acquaintance. It’s light pollution that I want to talk about today.

It’s obvious how water pollution can harm wildlife – the dramatic decline of the otter in the mid 20th century is a well known example. And we’re hearing more about the health effects air pollution has for humans (and presumably wildlife are affected too). But there’s less awareness of the problem of light pollution.

Last week there was a story on the BBC website about how robins’ behaviour is affected by light pollution. A study by Southampton University found that robins that lived closer to lit paths and noisy roads were much lower down this dominance hierarchy – the birds in these territories displayed less aggressively.

Robins aren’t the only creatures affected by light pollution. Other birds, reptiles, amphibians, moths and bats are also affected negatively. But some species can adapt to make the most of it, like the common redshank, getting longer to feed because of artificial lights.

Another disadvantage of light pollution is that it stops us seeing so many stars. Where I live, in a street-lit town, I’m never going to see the Milky Way. On holidays to more remote, darker places, the stars at night take my breath away.

Light pollution is a subject that’s too close to home for me. My bedroom overlooks a recently refurbished office building that’s floodlit throughout the night, meaning that, despite the blackout lining of my curtains, my bedroom never properly gets dark.

In some places things are being done to reduce light pollution. The funding cuts for councils means many are now looking to save money (and reduce carbon emissions) by turning off street lighting in residential roads late at night. In fact, my council are introducing this to the town I live in next month. My road is a major traffic route, so the lights will stay on. But other, quieter roads, will have their lights turned off between midnight and 5am in the morning. Hopefully this will benefit at least some of the local wildlife and residents.

As for me, I’m looking forward to a trip west, where night will be dark, and, if the skies are clear, I’ll be able to see the Milky Way.

A bit of hope in 2016

2016 has been short on good news, and I have been a bit despondent of late. Luckily this little fellow arrived in the post on Friday, to remind me that not everything has been a disaster this year.  I’ve called him (unoriginally)  Justin.

Justin Beaver
Justin Beaver

To recap: a while back beavers were found on the River Otter in Devon – the first wild beavers in England for centuries. At first the government wanted to get rid of them, citing the chance they may harbour parasites as the reason. But Devon Wildlife Trust, with the support of local landowners and residents,  persuaded the government to let them monitor the beavers and the effect they have in a trial, before making any final decisions. The beavers were trapped, had health checks, and re-released back on the River Otter.

Tree gnawed by beavers on the River Otter
Tree gnawed by beavers on the River Otter
Local shop displays support for the Devon beavers
Local shop displays support for the Devon beavers

This year Devon Wildlife Trust have been crowd funding to cover the costs of the trial. I donated a while back, and Justin is my reward. The timing of his arrival is good, as I had just found out that two pairs of beavers have successfully bred on the River Otter this year, one having two kits, and the other five.

I’m intrigued to see how the trial goes. Beavers, like humans, shape the landscape they live in. Chopping down trees, creating lakes and changing the course of rivers. I got to see some of the effect they were having when I visited the River Otter. There’s evidence that the changes beavers make may benefit other species, and reduce flooding downstream. But can we learn to live with a species that can make such dramatic changes in a short time?

Fresh growth from beaver-felled tree
Fresh growth from beaver-felled tree

If the trial is successful, it will give me hope that native species we have driven to the brink of extinction may, one day, make a comeback. If Devon Wildlife Trust can’t raise sufficient funds to cover the cost of the trial to 2020, the beavers will have to be rehomed in captivity. I hope it succeeds, and one day I will see a beaver in the wild. If you’d like more info, or to donate to the crowd funding appeal, visit SupportDevonsBeavers.org

Craft fair 2016

For the third year running I entered the world of commerce,  setting  my photos to work raising money for charity. The craft fair I had a stall at was ideally timed for Christmas shopping. Once again I was selling cards, bookmarks, large prints and calendars featuring my wildlife photos. As ever, the craft fair was a great opportunity to talk to people about wildlife.

Craft Fair stand 2016
Craft Fair stand 2016

This year my bestsellers were the 2017 calendar (now sold out!) and the kestrel and barn owl bookmarks. I am really pleased bookmark sales have been good this year, as I sold hardly any in previous years, but I really like them (if I am allowed to say that). It’s also good the calendars have all sold, since they obviously have a use-by date.

The other thing I am pleased about with this year’s calendar is that most of the photos were taken this year. I haven’t had much time to process my photos this year, but I have taken quite a lot, and some of them made the grade for the calendar.

Disappointingly, I only sold one large  print. Since I do the same craft fair each year, I wonder if I have saturated that particular market. Do you have any suggestions for other photo products I could sell, next year?

And another 10 Christmas present ideas for wildlife lovers

It’s the first of December – advent calendar doors are being opened around the world. Tonight is Gala Night in the town I live in, where all the local shops put on a bit of an extravaganza for late night Christmas shopping and general jollity. If you’re in need of some inspiration for what to get the wildlife lover in your life, you might want to check out my previous posts on the subject:

and some new ideas below.

  1. Window feeder for birds: these trans
    Window bird feeder with mealworms
    Window bird feeder with live mealworms

    parent bird feeders stick to your window, giving good views of whatever’s taking the food. We’ve had one for years, but never really used it until this year, when we started feeding live meal worms during spring. The robins loved it, and we got plenty of good views from the comfort of our own dining room. You can get them from various places, including the RSPB. If the person you’re shopping for isn’t too squeamish, you could even get them some mealworms to go in it. They’re ugly, but just about every bird and mammal that visits our garden loves them.

  2. Wildlife-related clothing: this one’s probably found its way near to the top of the list today as it’s so darned cold. I’ve got my eye on a badger jumper to keep the chill away. PTES have some good designs, as do Sussex Wildlife Trust.

    Close-up of insect house
    Close-up of insect house
  3. Solitary bee house: bees of all sorts have had a tough time over the last few decades, but they’re essential pollinators, so we need to help them out. We were given one last Christmas and have really enjoyed seeing the leafcutter bees make use of it. The charity BugLife have a selection. As do NHBS.
  4. A wildlife calendar: I’m a bit biased, as I sell calendars of my wildlife photography to raise money for charity, but I think calendars make great presents (as long as the person you’re buying for doesn’t have too many already). Mine have pretty much sold out this year, but there’s plenty of thers out there. Wildlife Photographer of the Year always produce great ones. The RSPB has a good choice as do WWF and the Wildlife Trusts calendar looks super.
  5. A good thermos: I’ve come to hot drinks quite late in life – I still don’t like coffee or normal tea. But having a flask of steaming hot drink to warm you up on a cold walk or wildlife survey (or football match) can really make a difference. Some are better than others – look at the details on how long it will keep a drink warm for before you buy.
  6. Membership of a wildlife organisation: I’m a member of many wildlife organisations, from huge international charities to local species-specific groups. There are loads out there, and many offer gift memberships. The benefits of membership will vary between organisations, but might include a regular newsletter or magazine (some of these are really good), access to events for members, and opportunities to get into the wild to help nature. And of course, the membership fee supports the work the organisation does. Some of the bigger ones offer special memberships for children as well – I remember being given membership of the children’s wing of Devon Wildlife Trust when I was growing up, and enjoying the activities that were part of that. If the person you’re buying for is particularly keen on a specific species or type of wildlife, see if there’s a group that matches. (Some that spring to mind that offer gift memberships include the Barn Owl Trust, the Wildlife Trusts, WWF,  the Mammal Society, the National Trust, RSPB)
  7. Dormouse Christmas tree decorations
    Dormouse Christmas tree decorations

    Something beautiful and handmade: One of the members of the dormouse group I’m part of makes fantastic wildlife-related ornaments, jewelry and decorations. I fell in love with her dormouse Christmas tree decorations, but she does wonderful birds, butterflies and other mammals as well.

  8. Books: Books are always on my list. Check out what natural history books your local bookshop has to offer. I quite fancy ‘That Natural Navigator’ by Tristan Gooley, as I like the thought of being able to navigate without a smart phone or GPS.
  9. A sea safari: In Britain nowhere is that far from the sea, which holds some of our most exciting wildlife. A holiday is not complete for me if it doesn’t include a boat trip, and you can’t beat the thrill of seeing dolphins race and play, or the leisurely trawling of a basking shark. Look out for your local operator, but make sure they’re members of the WISE scheme (which means they’re accredited to run their trips in a way that’s safe for wildlife). Dr C still hasn’t booked me on a whale watching cruise of the Bay of Biscay yet (see 2014’s post), but maybe I can persuade him to let me go for a day trip at least.
  10. Wildlife Gardening Information Pack: This was part of my prize for winning the small private garden category of the 2015 Surrey Wildlife Garden Awards, and I’ve found it packed full of ideas – highly recommended!

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