Thursday, 30 January 2014

Guest Blog by Dawn Balmer

I am really excited to introduce my first guest blog. You all know by now how important I feel it is for natural world experts and enthusiasts to engage with primary schools and show the younger generation why they should respect our shared home, Earth.

Well, Dawn Balmer has kindly written a guest blog for me all about her recent talk at her local primary school. Dawn is the National Surveys Coordinator at BTO and was previously Atlas Coordinator for my best Christmas present, the Bird Atlas 2007-11.

So over to Dawn.

Share your passion

Last week I was delighted to lead the afternoon assembly at Raleigh Infant School in Thetford.  This is the school just a five minute walk from home where my seven year old daughter attends.  I was invited to speak to Year 1 and 2 (five-seven year olds) about the new book that I had been involved in writing – ‘the Bird Atlas’. The children were very excited to see ‘Bethany’s Mum’ giving the assembly again; I had previously given one about a year ago on the theme of garden birds, just ahead of them taking part in the RSPB’s Big Schools’ Birdwatch.

I started off with a quick geography lesson showing the children a map of Britain and Ireland, highlighting where the mountains are and told them some of the adventures the volunteers had in reaching the top of mountains in the winter and canoeing around islands off the west of Scotland.  Rather than talk about the detailed maps that form the bulk of Bird Atlas 2007–11, I told them about the special places where birds live and how they fit into the local environment.

They loved the story about the Ptarmigan and how it is white in winter so it is camouflaged against the snow (and their feathery legs to keep them warm) and then a mix of white and grey in the summer to blend in with the rocks. I asked them to spot how many Ptarmigan they could see against the rocks and they found them all eventually!  Closer to home, I told them about the Stone Curlews that live in the fields and heaths around Thetford and how they are also well camouflaged against the stony fields where they live. A stunning photo of a Puffin with a beak full of fish caused the children to erupt with laughter and mumbles of ‘penguin’ could be heard around the room. They really are comical birds aren’t they! Some of the children said they had seen Puffins whilst on holiday, though it’s hard to know how many really had!  There was a quick story about the Wren (the most widely distributed species in Britain and Ireland) and how they are able to nest almost anywhere and also the Tawny Owl (together with a sound recording) which is absent from Ireland, Shetland, Orkney and the Outer Hebrides.

I finished off by telling the children about the project and book – how many pages, how many people had taken part, how long it had taken to collect all the information and write it (we started before many of them were born!). The school runs a series of challenges throughout the term under the banner of ‘Raleigh Writers’ so I ended by encouraging them to enjoy their writing, and told them how proud I was to have been involved in writing such a wonderful book.

It didn’t take long for me to prepare the photos and maps for the PowerPoint, and it took just 30 minutes of my time to get to the school and deliver the assembly. Hopefully the stories I told will stick with the children for a while and perhaps inspire some of them to look at birds a bit more closely next time. If just one of them remembers the call of a Tawny Owl or can recognise a Puffin again, it will have been time well spent.

If you’ve got a passion for wildlife and children of primary school age, then I encourage to you to offer to give an assembly at your child’s school. You will be rewarded with enthusiastic children and it might just spark a life-long interest for one of them. How I would have loved to have heard a talk about birds when I was a six year old!

Dawn Balmer

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Siberian Chiffchaff - Nothing Ventured Nothing Gained!

Yesterday we were at possibly one of my favorite sites and once again it did not disappoint. It was a later start than usual as we were supposed to be there at quarter past seven. We were also doing some more coppicing and habitat management.The day started off slow, however with patience anything can happen...

As we approached the one of the nets we saw something which looked like a Redpoll in the bottom pocket, however as we drew closer we realised what we thought was a Redpoll was actually a Chiffchaff but until we got right up along side it we once again realised it wasn't a local Chiffchaff it was actually a Siberian Chiffchaff, a rarer and much paler race to the common one you would expect to see in your garden or anywhere else like that. 

Siberian Chiffchaff

As we moved on from taking that from the net Peter went on to take out some more birds further down the line; whilst I was watching Peter taking a Blue Tit out I saw the net flick and as I turned round to see what it was I found it was another Chiffchaff however this time it was the common one. 

Our more usual Chiffchaff

What an opportunity this was to study the differences between these two birds up close. The paler Siberian Chiffchaff is the bird on the left looking at the pictures.

In the photo above the Siberian Chiffchaff is on the left. See how much greener our more usual Chiffchaff is.

When we approach the nets we pass a small ditch like thing and in this particular session every time we passed a female Kingfisher was sitting on a stick across the water. We had a net set up by the ditch which turned out to be successful; just look at the stunning shades of blue on her back and across the wing.

It turned out that this bird was the same bird we caught a couple of weeks ago and it was great to see it again. It had obviously been feeding well around the brackish waters it was a heavy bird weighing over 41 grams.

What an end to a perfect day.

And finally, Danny I hope your practical exam went okay.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Trichomonosis - PLEASE READ

A bad start to a Sunday morning of ringing, the rain pattered down against the window making streams of water run silently down the windscreen. All I did was mutter bad weather; struck last week and now this week. You may think "well why am I still writing a blog about ringing when all we did was sit in the car at the ringing site and watch the rain", well we didn't. After a while the clouds cleared and a very welcome sun rose.  We got the nets up reasonably quick as we were ready to get going. The birds didn't seem too active after all that rain as I couldn't hear much birdsong, however we did start to get one or two Tits and Finches coming in. 

As the morning went on there appeared to be a lack of Finches around which we had noticed since the New Year. We spent a bit more time studying the birds around the site and noticed that some birds were not behaving normally, especially Chaffinches.  They seemed slow to react when we approached them and they spent more time on the ground than usual and seemed very quiet and docile. Some also had fluffed up plumage. We began to suspect that they might be suffering from a parasite called Trichomonosis. We wondered whether these we're local birds or a flock that had moved in.

Trichomonosis is a parasite commonly found in pigeons but it has affected finches and other bird species. Birds with the parasite find it difficult to feed so they are more likely to use garden bird feeders and that is how they then spread it to other birds. At the ringing site we will be stopping all our activity. Many people in the village just a short distance away are feeding the birds. We will be warning the villagers about the disease and impact it has on birds and asking them to stop feeding the birds for at least 4 to 5 weeks and to disinfect their feeders. This will hopefully encourage the birds to spread out and not pass the parasite on to each other.

You could really help look out for signs of this parasite if you are doing the RSPB's Big Garden Bird Watch this weekend.

I have read up more on this nasty parasite on the BTO website and wanted to add a few more bits of information on here from their site:

Signs of disease 
In addition to showing signs of general illness, for example lethargy and fluffed-up plumage, affected birds may drool saliva, regurgitate food, have difficulty in swallowing or show laboured breathing. Finches are frequently seen to have matted wet plumage around the face and beak. In some cases, swelling of the neck may be visible from a distance. The disease may progress over several days or even weeks, consequently affected birds are often very thin or emaciated. 

Whilst medicines are available for the treatment of trichomonosis in captive birds, effective and targeted dosing of free-living birds is not possible. Where a problem with trichomonosis exists, general measures for control of disease in wild bird populations should be adopted: 
  • Ensure optimal hygiene at garden bird feeding stations, including disinfection (See Further information) 
  • Consider leaving bird baths empty until no deaths occur. Otherwise, be particularly vigilant to provide clean drinking water on a daily basis. Empty and dry the bird bath on a daily basis (drying kills the Trichomonas organism). 
  • Feeding stations encourage birds to congregate, sometimes in large densities, thereby increasing the potential for disease spread between individuals when outbreaks occur. If many birds in your garden are affected, we recommend that you consider significantly reducing the amount you feed, or stop feeding for a period (2-4 weeks). The reason for this is to encourage birds to disperse, thereby minimising the chances of new birds becoming infected at the feeding station. Gradually reintroduce feeding, whilst continuing to monitor for further signs of ill health

Following best practice for feeding garden birds is recommended to help control and prevent transmission of disease at feeding stations all year round:  
  • Routine good table hygiene. 
  • Provision of clean and fresh drinking water on a daily basis. 
  • Provision of fresh food from accredited sources. 
  • Rotate positions of feeders in the garden to avoid build-up of contamination in any one area and pay 
  • particular attention to clearing food remains that fall onto the ground. 

On a positive note;

Of course not all the birds at the site are infected as we caught a large flock of Long Tailed Tits which was nice, we also caught a pair of Tree-creepers; unusual for the location.

Whilst ringing we also get chance to watch birds as we did on Sunday, this time witnessing the Pink Footed Geese flock in their thousands and I have got to say preformed a rather formidable spectacle; a true jewel of wintering birds and what they are capable of.

I know it's a long blog with no pictures so thanks for reading and taking action.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Long Eared Owl at Marton Mere

 I was really looking forward to Sunday afternoon as I was going out to Marton Mere to meet David McGrath. I was really excited when he told us we would be taken on a tour by himself around the nature reserve. 

We started off our walk on a gritty path along the the mere, getting good views of an Owl Box with actual Barn Owls roosting in it. As we moved further down the track we came to some scrub type land and hidden within the density of leaves and twigs sat a Long Eared Owl, perched, barely moving. Apparently there had been three seen together at once, however I was really pleased with just the one (my first ever Long Eared Owl) and got great views through all the scopes from Dave the other particularly kind people with us on the tour. Believe me, that is a Long Eared Owl in the picture below.

Reverting back to Barn Owls; as it soon became dusk, well almost dusk, the adult Barn Owl popped it's head from within the next box and tried to decide whether it was the right time to hunt, and it was. Soon after this picture was taken the Barn Owl flew from the next box and twirled above it once or twice then set off around the area to hunt. We kept catching sight of it hunting along the edges of the mere and over the scrub land.

Of course like most reserves this one gets rare visitors and David said it was very rare to get Pintail on the mere. As soon as he said that, I spotted three coming in to land on the mere, possibly to roost. David was speechless and I just had a big grin on my face.

When it was almost completely dark the 400 or so Teal had almost completely vanished from the centre of lake and had gone into roost within the reeds. They were the first ones I had seen this year, and a bird I never get tired of seeing.

We didn't get to see the otters or the Bittern, but if Dave lets me, I would really like to visit again.  Thanks David  and everyone else for their time and help; definitely a reserve I would visit again.

Also a big thank you to John Poland who gave me a copy of his brilliant book The Vegetative Key to the British Flora.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Meeting the King

The weather has been really bad over the Christmas holidays; windy, wet, more windy and then even wetter. So it has been quite frustrating, but we have managed two sessions so far this year, and here are the details.

2nd January 2014

There was a beautiful sunrise over the countryside where we were ringing.

I was really excited about our first ringing session of the New Year and it didn't disappoint; my first Brambling of this season put in an appearance and got us off to a great start for 2014.

Lesser Redpoll also made an appearance and were reasonably active in the session, catching a steady number as the morning moved on.

A bird we hadn't caught for a while was the Great Spotted Woodpecker so it was really nice to be able to handle this species again (it was a re-trap). 

5th January 2014

Onto my second session of ringing of the New Year. This time we were at one of my favorite sites, we didn't catch many birds, but even though the session didn't let us down...  

The final bird I ringed for my Christmas Holidays was a juvenile female Kingfisher. How many times have I seen a turquoise blue flash zip down the river or shoot across the vision of my eyes, hundreds, but only ever once or twice have I seen it perched up on a small branch or river bank. Never have I seen one in the hand which was the main reason why it was so amazing that I had the privilege to ring this bird...

You can tell it is a female because of the orange lower mandible. The greenish colour on it's wings shows that it is a juvenile.

What an end to a fabulous Christmas Holiday, I hope you have had a good one too. Back to school for me tomorrow, I bet it stops raining next week!

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Parkgate - Owls & Harriers

It was a 10m tide at Parkgate on the Wirral today, so we went to see all the birds being flushed off by the high tide. We got off to a great start with this Hen Harrier which was hunting along the edge of the water as the tide came in.

This Carrion Crow was not too impressed by the Hen Harrier and spent some time mobbing it.

I also got a new lifer today. Two Great Egrets were feeding at the edge of the water line, the first time I have ever seen a Great Egret. I also counted at least 12 Little Egrets in one group together and lots of Grey Heron.

A male Shoveler was showing well on one of the pools made by the high tide.

As the tide continued to push in, a Stonechat moved closer to where we were watching from. This one let me get quite close. There were also quite a few Skylark dipping and rising across the marsh.

My second and final lifer of the day was this Short Eared Owl which consistently flew back and too past where we were standing. It was amazing to watch. I am having to use mum's picture for the owl because I was so busy enjoying it, I forgot to get a picture of it.

Other birds seen today were Teal, Redshank, Curlew, Black Headed Gulls, Moor Hen, Mallards, Peregrine, Sparrowhawk, Meadow Pipit, a very friendly Robin, Pied Wag Tail, Oyster Catcher, Pink Footed Geese and a pair of Mute Swans.

There was a man trying to get closer to all the action in a small boat, but we got a bit worried when he started having to empty water out of it!

A brilliant day.