Highlights of 2013

Well, it’s New Year’s Eve, and like everyone else I am reflecting on the last year. The first part of the year seemed quite hard work, as spring didn’t really seem to spring at all. None of our nest boxes got used, and winter seemed to last until about May, when summer began. The summer was splendid, with lots of sunshine (our solar panels made lots of electricity – it’s so nice getting cheques back from an electricity company!), and the regular company of hedgehogs.

Torpid dormouse
Torpid dormouse

In terms of my year with wildlife, two things really stand out. The first is getting more proficient at handling dormice. They can be surprisingly bouncy (when they’re awake), so getting to handle lots is important to build up the skill to handle them safely without letting them escape. Although this year hasn’t been great for the dormice at the sites I monitor most regularly, I have had the opportunity to help out a couple of times at a site that seems to be teeming with them, which has really helped boost my confidence. A particular delight was getting to handle some mega-cute baby dormice! In terms of my training checklist, I just need to do a nut hunt (for signs of dormice) before I can put in for my license. I have a nut allergy, so I’ll have to do the nut hunt carefully!

Seal
Seal

The other stand-out wildlife experience of my year was snorkelling with seals at the Isles of Scilly. I wrote a blog post about that, so won’t repeat too much here, other than to say it’s fantastic getting to interact with large, wild creatures who are just as interested in you as you are in them!

In terms of lowlights from the year, news of the decline in barn owl numbers, and the badger cull pilot have both been deeply saddening.

I started my blog at the beginning of September, so don’t have a whole year’s worth of posts to choose from, but here are the top 3 most read posts so far:

  1. Snorkelling with seals (September 21st)
  2. Profile: dormice (the cutest creatures in existence?) (September 17th)
  3. The badger cull: an ‘evidence to policy’ perspective (October 23rd)

And here are my 3 personal favourites (excluding the most visited 3):

  1. Whose pawprints are these? (October 12th)
  2. Hog watching (October 6th)
  3. Only connect: children and nature (October 19th)

What are your wildlife highlights and lowlights of the year? And what are your favourite blog posts of the year?

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Dark day

It’s sad, but inevitable. The days are now so short I can no longer walk through the park on my way to the station. That means, for a few weeks, no sight of ducks or geese or coots or moorhens or the heron. No quiet calm of the early morning mist rising off the pond. No time outdoors in daylight.

Instead it’s the twice daily walk along the long, dull road. Trying to leap puddles too big for my meager long-jump skills. A different set of people to say good morning to.

I know it’s not a major thing to get saddened by. But I miss spending a few precious, peaceful moments in the park each day.

I don’t find winter the easiest time of the year. I love Christmas, but after that it’s a long, hard slog. Spring is when I thrive, filled with energy and new ideas.

At least I know that, in a few weeks, I will be able to walk through the park again. And a few months after that I’ll be able to watch the new ducklings scoot about the pond, each intent on their own mission. The seasons come, each in their turn, and bring different glimpses of beauty in nature. I just need to try and remember this at 7.15am in the morning, hurdling puddles under the sodium glow of the street lamps.

Barn owl numbers plummet

Battle to save barn owls after freak weather kills thousands

Barn Owl

A few weeks ago I wrote about the plight of barn owls in the UK. This article in the Guardian sums up the situation well.  Apparently it is not just in the UK that barn owls are struggling. The figures are deeply disturbing. Let’s hope that this winter is kinder to barn owls.

The Barn Owl Trust have come up with a list of 10 ways to encourage barn owls, some of which even town dwellers like me can do. Do have a look and think about how you can help these iconic birds.

Bird nerd part 4: Christmas cards

Christmas really must almost be here. This week we had our first Christmas card (thanks Aunty M!). It was a sweet image of two little birds, snuggled up to each other on a snow-covered branch. You can picture it, can’t you?

Except you’re wrong – it’s not two little robins, it’s two bluetits instead. This is a bit unusual for Christmas cards – robins really seem to have cornered the festive bird market (if you exclude turkeys!). But there’s no reason why bluetits (or other birds) shouldn’t get in on the act.

Bluetit Christmas card

We see robins most of the year in our garden, although I don’t know if the one we see in winter is the same as the one we see in summer. It’s rare for us to see more than one, as they are quite territorial. Quite a lot of Christmas card artists seem unaware of that, and paint idyllic scenes with two or more happily perched in a tree. If that happened in real life there would either be breeding or fighting involved, which is less appropriate for a Christmas card.

We also see bluetits throughout the year, and are more likely to see several at once, so perhaps this card is more realistic than some of the robin ones I’ve seen.

Generally we see most of our birds more frequently and numerously in winter, when fewer other food sources are available, so Christmas card designers have plenty to choose from.

If you asked me which of our garden birds I associate most exclusively with winter, it would have to be the pied wagtail. Wagtails only tend to visit our garden when it’s very cold, and usually snowy. They’re not as colourful as robins (or bluetits), so perhaps that’s why they don’t feature on many cards.

Have you had any unusual bird Christmas cards? Which garden bird do you think would be best for a Christmas card?

Hibernation

I’m writing this sat cosily in front of a fire, but feeling sorry for myself as I have a cold. It’s been a hectic few weeks, out every evening for one thing or another, and lots happening at work. Right now, I can’t help envying the hedgehog who is hibernating in our hogitat. I wish I could hibernate.

Hibernation is a very clever strategy for getting through the winter, when there’s not much food around for some animals. Comparing it to a long, deep sleep fails to do justice to it. The body temperature of hibernating animals drops to match its surroundings (but always kept above 1 degree C so it does not freeze). Their heart rate slows, and they can go almost an hour between short bursts of breathing. This reduces their energy consumption by around 90%.

Hibernating animals rely of fat supplies built up during summer and autumn. By now nearly all hedgehogs and dormice will be hibernating. Those who aren’t are likely to be underweight individuals looking for more food before they hibernate. While hibernation uses much less energy than being active, they still need enough fat to keep their bodies ticking over, and also to help them wake up.

On warmer winter days hibernating animals might wake from hibernation, and may even stir to find food or drink. But each time the animal wakes it uses up some of its precious fat reserves, so mild or variable winters are not good for hibernating creatures.

Hibernation is not without its risks. It can take hibernating animals several hours to wake, so they cannot respond quickly to threats like predators or floods. A considerable proportion of hibernating animals do not make it through the winter, not having enough fat reserves. But then winter does kill off a lot of more active animals as well.

Of UK mammals, only bats, dormice and hedgehogs properly hibernate. Other mammals, such as badgers, will reduce their activity, and stay snuggled down sleeping in their setts, but not shut down so much. Given the risks of hibernation, maybe I’d be better off imitating the badger instead… If you don’t see me for a while, you’ll know what I’m up to!

Barn Owls vanishing

Barn OwlLast month I was staggered to learn how bad things are for barn owls. According to the Barn Owl Trust, this year there are fewer barn owls in Britain than there have ever been. On top of this, the poor spring has meant that there have been fewer young successfully reared than usual.

Barn owls are instantly recognisable, iconic birds. When flying they are large, ghost-like white shapes in the gloom. Perched on a fence post they are neat, heart-faced birds. Their shriek is startling (no polite hoot for them).

Until I went to a talk by the Barn Owl Trust, I’d always assumed that barn owls were doing ok. I’ve had many encounters with them, both in Devon and Hampshire. But thinking about it, I don’t remember seeing any ever in Surrey, nor anywhere else in the last 2-3 years. This is very sad.

There has been a long-term decline in the numbers of barn owls in Britain since the 1930s. Barn owls are farmland birds. While, back in the 1930s, pretty much every farm had a barn owl, now only one farm in 75 is home to a barn owl. This long-term decline is probably largely due to changes in farming practices, with more grassland being intensively grazed, and silage cut twice a year, rather than grass being left to dry into hay. This has reduced the habitat for the small mammals (voles and mice) that make up the barn owl’s diet.

The number of suitable nesting sites (barns, as the name suggests) has also declined dramatically, with many barn conversions not leaving room for barn owls, and new farm buildings often not providing suitable space and access.

Poisons used to kill rodents may also be a threat to barn owls, although the evidence on this is still sketchy. What is known is that more than 90% of dead barn owls studied in 2012 contained rodent poison. What effect this has on the owls is unclear, but with exposure being so common, any problems these poisons do cause would be a large-scale threat.

On top of this long-term decline, the weather in Britain in the last few years has not been good for barn owls. Heavy snows mean the owls can’t hunt so well, meaning more die of starvation. And the poor spring this year has meant breeding has been less successful than usual.

The Barn Owl Trust is working to preserve these beautiful birds. If you would like more information about barn owl boxes, rodenticides or anything else barn owl related, I suggest you look at their website.