British Animal Challenge: bottlenose dolphins

It’s been a while since I last wrote about my British Animal Challenge, but I haven’t forgotten it. I managed to tick another species on my list this Easter: the bottlenose dolphin.

Easter day was glorious down in Cornwall. Beautiful weather, and ideal for a walk. So that’s what we did. We followed the coast path from Godrevy Beach, up round Dean Quarry (more on that later).

Of course, whenever I’m by the sea I keep my eyes peeled for exciting marine wildlife. A reasonably choppy day means I can spot vast numbers of imaginary basking sharks. But that day wasn’t so good for spotting imaginary wildlife; too flat. Which meant, when I did spot a fin breaking through the surface of the water, I knew it was something real.

Distant dolphins (the tiny black specks) by the Manacle rocks
Distant dolphins (the tiny black specks) by the Manacle rocks. (Sorry for the dodgy picture – I only had my phone with me).

The binoculars came out, and I was able to tell it was some kind of dolphin. Or rather, dolphins. There was a group of five. They travelled parallel to the cliffs, not far out, for quite a while, giving us an excellent, prolonged view.

I couldn’t identify which species of dolphin they were there and then. I could tell they weren’t common dolphins or porpoises, both of which I’ve seen quite a few times before. But I didn’t know what they were.

As soon as we got back to an internet connection, I looked up an ID guide, and concluded that they were bottlenose dolphins. This was confirmed a week later when we went out on a wildlife cruise, and, chatting to Captain Keith found that they’d seen the same group of dolphins in the same place on Easter Sunday afternoon, and they were, indeed, bottlenoses. I also learnt that one of the 5 was a youngster, which I hadn’t realised.

Bottlenose dolphins are between 2-4m long, and impressively intelligent. They use sound for communication as well as hunting, and some have been trained by the military to locate sea mines. They can live for more than 40 years, and jump 6m in the air. They’re pretty impressive animals.

The area we saw them in is the Manacles Marine Conservation Zone, off the east coast of the Lizard peninsula. This is a very special area for marine wildlife, but is under threat from plans to open a superquarry. Aside from the noise of the blasting and loading, pollution risk, increased traffic through the site of special scientific interest and area of outstanding natural beauty, and light pollution, plans involve building a new breakwater out into the Marine Conservation Zone. It was lovely seeing the dolphins there (we often spot cetaceans in that area), but there’s a real question over the future of wildlife in that area. If you want to find out more, visit the Community Against Dean Superquarry website.

Dormouse box check, July 2017

We had a fantastic dormouse box check at my site this month, finding six sleepy juveniles and an active adult.

Juveniles are this year’s young, aged at least 28 days and weighing more than 10g. Their fur isn’t as golden as an adult, but they are still super cute.

Sleepy dormouse
Sleepy dormouse

It’s really encouraging finding them this month, having not found any pregnant females or mothers with young last month – it shows they are breeding already, but using natural nest sites rather than dormice boxes. These youngsters have plenty of time to fatten up prior to hibernation.

I particularly enjoyed this box check as Dan, who’s a Surrey Dormouse Group trainee, working towards his licence, was in charge of the clipboard, directing the volunteers and recording data. This freed me up to actually check boxes for a change. There’s a delightful moment of suspense when you slide the lid of a dormouse box across and peak in; what will be in the box?

The dormice at my site continue to build rubbish nests. We never find textbook examples, with woven honeysuckle cores surrounded by green leaves. It’d be easy to dismiss many of the nests we find dormice in as apodemus nests or bird nests. This site has taught me to investigate any possible nest carefully.

Two sleepy juvenile dormice
Two sleepy juvenile dormice

We found two juveniles in what was little more than a pile of leaves. And there was a shallow, mossy nest, which didn’t look very dormousy, but I checked it anyway. On first exploration of the cavity and down the sides I could feel nothing. I was almost ready to conclude it was empty, but I went back to double check the cavity and ended up finding three dormice.

The check ended up taking quite a while, partly because we found quite a few dormice, and partly because those we did find weren’t in any hurry to get back into their nests. Several of the juveniles we found were awake but sleepy. One decided that halfway through climbing back into its nest was a good time to fall asleep. Another decided to leave its tail dangling out of the box for ages.

Dormouse refusing to put its tail back in the nest box
Dormouse refusing to put its tail back in the nest box

I’ve been checking dormouse boxes for seven years, but they can still surprise, entertain and delight me.

Election Focus 2017: protecting our seas

For today’s Election Focus, I am looking at what the parties say about how they will protect our seas. I have split this into several headings: protected areas around our shores; international marine protection; plans to tackle plastic pollution; and fishing.

Click on the image to see it full size.

How the parties say they will protect our seas
How the parties say they will protect our seas

My reflections

  • The Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems are all a bit vague on UK marine protected areas. How much (more)  will they protect? What does that protection include? The Greens give a bit more detail.
  • Only the Tories talk about marine protection around British Overseas Territories, and their plans sound ambitious. I am not sure if they are referring to the marine protection zone already announced, or if this is additional.
  • Labour, the Greens, UKIP and Plaid Cymru all talk of introducing (or investigating) a plastic bottle deposit scheme to reduce waste. The Green Party seems to be the most ambitious in this area.
  • With Brexit, future fishing policy is a big topic, and now is a good opportunity to improve management of our fish stocks. The Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems all mention sustainability in their plans. UKIP have a lot to say on fisheries, but it’s all about taking back control, with no mention of sustainability.
  • Plaid Cymru and the SNP are both very quiet about protecting our seas.

Election Focus 2017: air pollution

Air pollution is a very important issue,  and we’ve been letting our politicians off the hook on it for too long. When I studied for my MSc in Public Health I learnt about the health effects of air pollution, and was amazed more people aren’t up in arms about it.

It’s estimated to contribute to 40,000 deaths each year in the UK. It makes children ill, and life unpleasant for those of us who work in cities. And it affects the poorest in society the worst – those who can’t afford to live further from major roads.

As a country, we’re really not doing well on this issue. The EU sets legally binding limits on air pollution, which we repeatedly exceed. The government were taken to court in 2015 for failing to do enough, and they lost. Last year a cross party committee of MPs criticised the government’s revised plan and called air pollution a public health emergency.

Given this, you’d hope all the political parties would have robust plans to deal with this problem in their manifesto. Let’s see what they have to say.

I have split this into several headings: legislation, diesel vehicles  (a major source of pollution), other related transport policies, and other measures.

Click on the image to see it full size.

What the parties have to say on tackling air pollution
What the parties have to say on tackling air pollution

My reflections

  • I am not sure if the sentence from the Tory manifesto about planting trees is how they plan to tackle air pollution, or an unrelated point. It’s all in the same paragraph, along with promises to reduce litter and fill in potholes. It’s certainly not a robust response to a public health emergency.
  • Many of the other manifestos spend quite a bit of time criticising the government’s record on air pollution. It’s an open goal and well deserved. But successive governments have failed to get a handle on it (including the Tory-Lib Dem Coalition, and Labour before them).
  • There’s not a single mention of diesel in the Tory manifesto, despite it being a big contributor to the problem.
  • I think the Lib Dem manifesto is the most convincing on this issue.
  • UKIP and SNP give no indication of wanting to reduce air pollution, and UKIP’s policies may well make the problem worse.
  • On a side issue, while searching for ‘air’ in the UKIP manifesto, I came across six mentions of Tony Blair. Given how long he’s been out of power, this seems a bit weird to me.

Election focus: protecting nature

For my second election focus, I’ve chosen the issue of protecting nature. Looking through the manifestos was a lot quicker for this topic than climate change, as the parties had a lot less to say. I’ve grouped what they have to say into the following topics:

  • wildlife legislation
  • protected areas (NB. I’ll do a separate post on marine conservation areas, so haven’t included that here)
  • international wildlife protection
  • fox hunting
  • the badger cull
  • neonicotinoids
  • woodland
  • other wildlife issues

Remember, this is just based on what they say in their manifestos (some of which had lots more detail than others) – I’ve kept my own thoughts out of the table. Click on the image to see it at full size.

What the parties have to say on wildlife legislation, protected areas, international wildlife protection and fox hunting
What the parties have to say on wildlife legislation, protected areas, international wildlife protection and fox hunting
What the parties have to say on the badger cull, neonicotinoids, woodland, and other wildlife issues
What the parties have to say on the badger cull, neonicotinoids, woodland, and other wildlife issues

My reflections

  • The Lib Dems had the most to say on these issues, and generally it looked pretty good to me. I particularly like their promise to set legally binding natural capital targets.  I’m disappointed they didn’t come out and say they would keep the fox hunting ban. Their phrasing on the issue of bovine TB is obviously carefully selected not to upset anyone, but I find it’s lack of a direct statement on where they stand on the badger cull unsettling. The badger cull isn’t  effective, humane and evidence-based, but the current government is fond of saying it is.
  • I was surprised how many of the parties had things to say on woodland – they obviously think there are votes in protecting trees rather than bees or badgers. The Tory promise to “continue  to ensure that public forests and woodland are kept in trust for the nation” made me laugh, given their previous (failed) attempt to sell off publically owned forests. They must think voters have very short memories.
  • Once again the Tories make bold claims (“We pledge to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it”) withour providing any information on how they will achieve it. But they say they will produce a 25 Year Environment Plan. We’ll just have to imagine what might be in that plan.
  • The Greens have surprisingly little to say on this topic – maybe they feel it goes without saying.
  • UKIP don’t have a huge amount to say on this topic, but what they do say doesn’t look too bad.
  • SNP and Plaid Cymru don’t have a huge amount to say on this topic either.

Election focus 2017: climate change and energy policy

Thanks to Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election, three years ahead of schedule, I have to leave the lovely world of hedgehogs, dormice and baby birds to delve into the murky world of politics. Over the next week, I’ll try to summarise where the major UK parties stand on various environmental issues, based on their published manifestos.

I’m starting this series with the biggest challenge facing our generation: climate change. Where we mark our X on the ballot paper next week will have big implications not just for the next five years, but for much longer. And there’s a real difference between the parties on this issue as well.

Climate change is a huge issue, and overlaps with many other areas of policy. I’ve split up each party’s position into a few headings, to make it easier to follow:

  1. Targets & commitments
  2. Legislation
  3. Power generation
  4. Britain’s place in the world response to climate change
  5. Homes
  6. Mitigation
  7. Transport
  8. Science & industry

NB. I’m not going to report on all of their policies related to homes / transport etc – just those they link to carbon emissions or climate change.

The manifestos of the parties varied greatly in length, meaning some give much more detail than others. I didn’t ask them for further information, or search their websites. Having said that, the longer manifestos didn’t always mean more information about how they were going to achieve their stated goals.

The following tables are, I hope, an accurate reflection of what the parties say in their manifesto.  Of course, we all know that manifesto promises don’t always materialise, but, without a crystal ball, the best we can judge parties on is their prior actions and what they say they will do in the future. Click on the tables to see them full size.

Where the parties stand on climate change targets and commitments, legislation, and power generation
Where the parties stand on climate change targets and commitments, legislation, and power generation
Where the parties stand on Britain's role in the world response to climate change, and homes
Where the parties stand on Britain’s role in the world response to climate change, and homes
Where the parties stand on climate change mitigation, transport and science and industry

 

My verdict

I’ve tried to be fairly neutral in my reporting of what the parties say, and you can draw your own conclusions. But since it’s my blog, I thought I’d add a few of my reflections, which you can ignore if you want to.

  • The Tories provide very little detail about what they will actually do to combat climate change. They don’t spell out what their power generation mix will be, but their support for shale gas shows that they just haven’t got the idea that fossil fuels are not the way forward. They pay lip service to our carbon reduction obligations, but provide no info on how they will meet them. They even try to claim credit for the Climate Change Act that was introduced by the Labour government in 2008.
  • Some of the parties refer to climate in change in many different sections of their manifesto, showing that they get that this issue is not just about power supplies, but will reflect many aspects of our life.
  • Some of the parties (Labour, Lib Dems, Greens, SNP) present a clear vision of how they see Britain playing a role internationally,  – I found this quite inspiring.
  • Some of the parties (Labour, Lib Dems, SNP) presented the climate change challenge as an opportunity to develop new technology, industries, exports and jobs in the UK.
  • A vote for UKIP is a vote for climate catastrophe.
  • The Green Party manifesto was about a quarter of the length of some of the others, so inevitably has less detail. I’m not sure how the Tories managed to write 88 pages while saying so little about what they will actually do. Labour and the Lib Dems both have quite long, detailed manifestos.

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.

Dormouse box cleaning 2017

The dormousing year always starts with cleaning out the boxes, and doing any maintenance or replacements needed, ready for when the dormice belatedly emerge from hibernation. Often it’s not the most pleasant of tasks – March can be chilly, and getting rid of manky woodmice nests is never particularly pleasant. This year we were lucky – the weather was pleasant, and the boxes weren’t in too bad condition.

My site is still qutie new, and relatively unscathed by squirrels (who, at some sites, get through large numbers of boxes each year, targeting the glue that holds the layers together of the marine plywood we use). This means there wasn’t too much maintenance to do.

We did have a few old dormice nests to remove. Whereas we’d normally leave the old nests on the ground, this time we bagged them up carefully – I can’t tell you why at the moment, but watch this space… There were also a few beautifully mossy old wren’s nests to remove.

Old nest in box
Old nest in box

None of the boxes were occupied yet, but hopefully with the lovely weather we’ve been having we might find some dormice in our April check.

It was a relief to be back out in the woods, after the winter break. I know nothing stops me going for walks in the woods in winter, but it’s so nice to be back in the surveying season again.

 

Horay for hedgehogs

I’m not the only one emerging from hibernation at the moment. A couple of days ago we finally saw our first hedgehog of the year. It’s been a long time coming, as we’ve been finding plenty of ‘signs’ of hedgehogs for a few weeks. 

We’ve been leaving out food for them, but whereas in previous years we could leave the bowl in the open, I think we need to build a hedgehog feeding station to keep out the neighbours’ kittens this year. 

It’s so nice to see the hedgehogs again. I hope the dormice will follow suit for our April box check. 

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.

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This is my diary of the wildlife where I live in Oxfordshire, and sometimes the places I visit. I am a 14 year old young naturalist with a passion for British wildlife, especially Badgers and Hares. I have been blogging since May 2013 and you can read my old blog posts at www.appletonwildlifediary.blogspot.co.uk

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