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.

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!

In which we find woodmice, bank voles, field voles, and pygmy shrews but no harvest mice

As the alarm went off at 5.20am the other day, I did wonder why I had let myself in for such an early start on a precious day off. The rain beating against the windscreen as I drove through the dark, empty roads didn’t encourage me, either. I pulled up in the near deserted superstore car park, and it crossed my mind that this was not a normal thing to be doing.

The rain had stopped by the time I had got out of the car and wellified myself, and the remains of the supermoon cut cleanly through the sky. Our small group of like minded eccentrics congregated and headed off down an obscure path in the corner of the car park, lighting headtorches as we moved out of orange glare of the street lamps.

The path went under the dual carriageway, beside the river, to an isolated area of  waist-high marshy grasses, visible only in the small patches illuminated by head torch beams. After a bit of searching, we found the cached hoard of straw, food and weatherwriter, and stocked up the black bin bag. It didn’t look at all suspicious, four people walking around deserted wasteland at 6am in the morning carrying a black bin bag. I did wonder what anyone looking out of a window from the houses across the river must have thought.

We headed into the grass towards the scrap of striped tape that marked the first trap point, where two longworth traps (one on the ground, and the other set a couple of feet up on a stake) waited.

There’s always a frisson of suspense as you approach a small mammal trap. Has it been tripped? If so, what will it contain? We had a bumper harvest that morning – 8 woodmice, 2 field voles, 2 bank voles and one fiesty pygmy shrew. But none of the animals we were really searching for: harvest mice.

Field vole
Field vole

As the bright November morning dawned, we were able to get a better look at what we caught. If you think that one small mammal species is much like another in temperament, you’re mistaken. As you can see from these photos, voles are pretty chilled. I didn’t get any photos of woodmice (it was too dark when we found them, and they move too quickly). The tiny pigmy shrew was my personal favourite. You’ve got to admire a creature that, though about as big as a thumb nail, decides to try to bite its captor’s hand (it’s teeth weren’t long enough the penetrate the skin, but it gave it a good go).

Pygmy shrew trying to bite
Pygmy shrew trying to bite
Vole
Vole

The check was part of Surrey Mammal Group and Surrey Wildlife Trust’s harvest mouse project. We’re trying to get fur samples from harvest mice populations in different sites in the county. These samples are then DNA tested to allow us to see how closely related they are, or whether harvest mice at different sites have very different DNA to each other. The point of this is to see how good the connectivity between sites is for wildlife. Connectivity is important, as isolated populations are vulnerable to being wiped out.

This is our third year of the project. In the first year we were able to get enough samples for the lab scientists to identify plenty of DNA markers that will allow us to compare different harvest mice populations. Last year, when we went back to survey the sites that had had lots of harvest mice the previous year, we found very few. And we’ve not had large numbers this year, either.

We repeated the survey that evening, starting and ending in the dark, and found similar numbers of woodmice, bank voles, field voles and a single pygmy shrew, but again no harvest mice. The voles decided that sitting on hands was a morning activity – in the evening it’s all about climbing onto heads. This one seemed to particularly enjoy Derek’s hair – it looked like it was planning to settle down up there. Glen and Keith also got scaled by intrepid vole explorers.

A vole in the hair...
A vole in the hair…

By the end of the check it was bucketing down, and I was very pleased to get home to a warming bowlful of food, prepared by Dr C.

It’s not hugely surprising we didn’t find any harvest mice at this site – it really is cut off from other harvest mouse habitats (I suspect voles and woodmice are a little less particular in the sorts of neighbourhoods they’ll live in). And, while we didn’t succeed in our aim for the checks, it was still great to see small mammals at such close quarters. And it was worth braving the elements and giving up a lie-in to have that privilege.

Bird Nerd part 15: 2015-2016 data – catastrophe

If you have followed this blog for a while, you’ll know that I keep records of the birds I see in my garden. I have finally got round to entering and analysing the data from June 2015 to May 2016. The results make gloomy reading.

I have data from 36 observation days, spread across the year. On average, I saw eight individual birds from 4.5 species per day. This is the lowest average number of birds and species in the six years I have been collecting data, by quite some way. It’s a fall by more than half on the previous year’s average number of birds.

Average number of individual birds and species, 2010-2016
Average number of individual birds and species, 2010-2016

This averages hide a range from no birds at all (one day in February) to 19 birds from 9 species in June. In total, I saw birds from 16 different species.

As the graph shows, I started off with high numbers, which declined steeply in the first couple of months (as is fairly usual for the time of year). But the numbers never really picked up again, and December, which is usually the busiest month, saw very few birds visiting the garden.

Total number of individual birds and species, 2016
Total number of individual birds and species, 2016

How did different species get on?

The most regular visitor to the garden was woodpigeon, being recorded on 81% of observation days, followed by the reliable robin, on 78% of observation days. House sparrows were on seen on 36% of observation days, but turned up in numbers, giving a mean average of 1.8 individuals per observation day.

As the next chart shows, it was a bad year for most of the common species. The house sparrow population seems to have dropped dramatically from last year. I saw fewer starlings, collared doves and blackbirds than any previous year. Numbers of woodpigeons, magpies, dunnocks and jackdaws also seemed to be down on the previous year. Two species had their best ever year in our garden: robins and feral pigeons.

Average number of birds from common species, 2010-2016
Average number of birds from common species, 2010-2016

How does this fit with the national picture?

According to the British Trust for Ornithology’s Garden Birdwatch survey (which my data feeds into), There were low average numbers during the second half 2015. But they report that many of the seed-eating and insectivorous species were seen in very high numbers toward the end of the year,  something my data doesn’t reflect. There were low winter migrant numbers, which could have been driven by relatively mild winter.

Looking at the individual species, the latter half of 2015 does seem to have been bad for house sparrows, collared doves, blackbirds and starlings nationally.

What caused this decline?

I don’t really know what caused the decline. I haven’t changed the food, water or shelter features in the garden for birds. A couple of possible factors spring to mind.

  1. Last winter was very mild, so maybe birds didn’t need to visit the garden so much for food
  2. Cats and kittens: our garden is now used by next door’s cat – he probably arrived during this period. And our backdoor neighbours have got a couple of naughty kittens. So perhaps these are scaring the birds away.

And of course there’s the bigger picture that’s affecting birds nationally: Jazz, Roja and Kiki are not responsible for low numbers of birds nationally. Climate change, habitat loss and farming intensification are part of the longer-term story.

What to do?

I can’t change the weather, so I guess if I want to see more birds, I may need to discourage the neighbourhood cats. I am not sure how best to achieve this, without making the garden unappealing to Fat Cat as well, which would be a shame (she’s not a hunter – she once got scared out of the garden by a baby bluetit). Maybe we could use some kind of cat repelling sound device that we could turn off when Fat Cat is taking her constitutional stroll.

What do you think?

  • Have you noticed any decline in the number of birds visiting your garden?
  • Do you have any alternative hypotheses for why the birds have disappeared?
  • Do you have any suggestions on how I can discourage the neighbours’ cats while not spoiling Fat Cat’s chance for fresh air and grass?

Belated nest discovery 

The mild weather of October has given way to a chilly November. Time to get ready for winter. So Dr C got the ladder out to take the camera out of the birdbox, which is hidden behind a tangle of clematis by our front door.

This year was disappointing for birdbox activity. We had a pair of bluetits who started building a nest, but they abandoned it before laying eggs.

So it was a little galling when he discovered a birds nest on top of the nest box. It looks like birds did nest this year, on rather than in the bird box. And all this time, it was easily watchable from our sitting room, if only we had known to look.

Bird nest on top of the camera nest box
Bird nest on top of the camera nest box

I am not sure what sort of birds nested there – it looks quite different from the many bluetit and wren nests I have seen, but they have usually been in a box, rather than freestanding. Any ideas? My best guess would be robins, given how frequently I saw them in the back garden this spring.

I’ve no idea what happened in this nest. Was it abandoned before any eggs were laid, like the one in the box? Did they lay eggs? Did the chicks fledge. I will never know. I would like to think they did, and that perhaps they will be back next year. I will certainly be keeping an eye out for them!

Do you have any ideas about what made the nest?

Meeting my MP for #SpeakUp Week of Action on climate change

It’s not a huge secret that my political views are left of centre. Over the years I have met a few MPs about various  issues. But I have always struggled to put my point across effectively to Conservatives. How do you communicate with someone who doesn’t share any of your values? I knew I needed a different approach when meeting my MP for the Speak Up Week of Action on climate change.

My MP is a Tory with all the confidence a 25,000 vote majority gives. My previous attempts at communicating with him have not been massively successful. You can see his voting record on climate change – it didn’t fill me with hope that this was likely to be a productive meeting. But I remember one speaker at an eco church event telling us never to give up on our MP. So I needed to come up with a plan of how to persuade him.

In preparation for the Week of Action, the Climate Coalition organised a webinar focusing on how to talk to MPs from the centre right about climate change. It was massively helpful, emphasising the need to think about what they value, and how tackling climate change relates to that. They also talked about not using language that will automatically put them off.

Inspired by the webinar, I met with John and Roger (fellow Christians with a concern for environmental justice) to discuss our strategy. The plan was that we would all meet the MP together. Each of us would talk about why we care about climate change, using language that would speak to the MP’s values (protecting the landscape of where we live, leaving a positive legacy, and action on climate change making sense financially as well as environmentally). We would then ask him to write to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, calling on him to publish an ambitious low carbon investment plan.

Confident we had a good plan, I emailed  the MP’s researcher to double check the arrangements. It was at that stage I learnt that only I would be allowed to see the MP. This was a blow. Added to the fact that my MP only holds surgeries on a Friday afternoon, meaning that I had to take time off work to meet him, it gave the impression that he’s not terribly keen on meeting his constituents. I felt that this was an attempt to give him the upper hand, making me determined not to be phased.

One of the points the webinar encouraged us to make was that we speak for the ‘silent majority’. People are concerned about climate change, and want the government to act. Now, that’s easy to say, but harder to back up, especially to a sceptical Tory. The turnout at the nature walk was a bit disappointing. Hardly convincing evidence of the strength of feeling in the constituency. Luckily we had another string to our bow. We were able to get almost 100 signatures for the big green heart at church, calling on our MP to take action. That gave me confidence to go into the meeting knowing that I was speaking on behalf of many others.

Another of the top tips the webinar gave was to dress in a way your MP would respect, so I dressed in my smartest work dress, and walked across town carrying the big green heart.

The meeting went as well as could be expected. He listened while I said my bit. I refused to be riled when he said a couple of things that I suspect were meant to provoke me. Generally his body language was quite defensive. The bit of the conversation he really engaged with was when I told him my solar panels were generating more electricity than we use each year.

He didn’t agree to write to the Secretary of State, but said he would forward on a letter if I sent one to him. At the end I asked if he had any message for the people who had signed the heart. He said to tell them that he was “on side”. Time will tell if his voting record on climate change improves. But even if he just looks into getting solar panels on his house, that will at least be some progress.

There’s a parable in the Bible about a widow who gets an unjust judge to give her justice because of her persistence (to shut her up).  Climate change isn’t going away, so perhaps she provides a useful example to follow when dealing with MPs whose actions don’t match the importance of the issue.

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