Monday, 31 December 2012

Is that slippers you're wearing?

Staring bleary-eyed out of the window this morning, something caught my attention. There was a largish bird on the garden fence. A closer look revealed it was a sparrowhawk, a young male (brown like an adult female, but smaller).

There was something very odd about him. He appeared to be wearing slippers like the ones my mum used to wear in the '70s, you perhaps know the kind: black, fluffy and trimmed with feathers. Around each foot was a tangled mass of dark, downy feathers, and some bits of grass. The feathers reveal what this sparrowhawk had been up to this morning, what sparrowhawks are good at - catching and eating birds. The feathers had got stuck round his toes as he plucked and ate his victim in the dull light of an overcast dawn.

A sparrowhawk is a noble, graceful bird, but this one was dancing about on the fence in a very strange, ungainly fashion.

Sparrowhawks have long, yellow toes and sharp talons which are ideal for catching and holding onto prey. They have long, thin legs so they can reach into vegetation to grab hiding birds. Their broad wings allow for amazing agility in the air and they can fly through startlingly small spaces after their prey.

An unwanted side-effect of the toes and talons seems to be that it's hard to disentangle unwanted feathers from them. The bird's frustration was plain to see as he shuffled from foot to foot, trying to pull the down off with his beak, and then wiping it on the fence. By the time he flew off into my neighbour's garden, some of the feathers had gone but it looked like it might take a while to sort the rest out...
male sparrowhawk above in the cottage garden at Wat Tyler Country Park, Pitsea. I was lucky enough to be in the cottage and see this bird go for blue tits around the feeders. He failed, and seemed to sit there a while, pondering what went wrong? So I sneaked outside and grabbed this picture.

Friday, 16 November 2012

A different side to spiders

The mere mention of the word 'spider' can strike fear into the heart of even the toughest wildlife enthusiast.

It's true, spiders have a bad reputation, but we shouldn't forget that these amazing little creatures are the master craftsmen behind one of nature's most underrated wonders - the spider's web.

Works of art
The crisp, morning frosts of autumn and winter show these beautiful creations off to their best. Ice crystals clinging to the silk strands dance and glisten as the web sways in the breeze, creating a stunning jewelled display.

A spider can create one of these intricate, elegant structures in less than an hour, as this wonderful timelapse footage shows. And just think, it could be happening in your garden right now!
The silk used to spin a web is finer than a human hair, yet five times stronger than steel. Engineers have calculated that a woven cord of spider's silk as thick as a pencil could stop a jet in midair - now that's strong!

Carpets of silk
This spider silk is responsible for a very mysterious and atmospheric sight of autumn. You might have noticed it if you've Frosted seedhead, festooned with frozen spider's silk.been walking recently - shimmering carpets of gossamer silk covering shrubs and bushes.
Though it might look like someone has got a little carried away with the Halloween decorations, this peculiar sight is actually the work of millions of baby spiders.

Up, up and away
When it's time for spiderlings to leave their mother, they climb up to high points on plants, point their abdomens skywards, and start producing silk threads.

Some of these threads drift gently downwards and become tangled in bushes, producing the sheets of silk we see. But when there's a breeze, the silk threads act like a sail, lifting the spiderlings high into the sky.

On a calm day they may only travel a few metres, but if there is a strong breeze the spiderlings can drift thousands of feet up into the sky and travel hundreds of miles - a process known as ballooning.

So next time you're out and about, keep your eyes peeled for ballooning babies and wonderful webs - the nicer side to spiders.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Jays – The time to see them!

I could probably count the number of times I see a jay in summer on two hands, but for the last few weeks it has been difficult to travel anywhere without encountering one of these colourful crows.

With their brilliant colours concealed by the abundant lush green foliage of high summer and their natural tendency for shyness, you could be forgiven for thinking that jays leave our woodlands during the summer. They are still there of course, their raucous calls coming from deep within the treetops may be the only clue to their presence.

It is a different story now though. The autumn leaf drop means there is no place now for these woodland residents to hide and jays are much more obvious through their transformation into ‘hoarders’ and ‘stashers’ of the treasures of the woodland floor.

Daily plundering sorties see every jay meticulously scouring the ground beneath our magnificent oaks for glistening acorns nestled in the golden-glowing leaf litter. One of the wettest summers on record has produced an acorn bonanza and jays have been quick to take advantage. In spite of the abundant food on offer, jays don’t spend the diminishing daylight hours scoffing their bounty and fattening up in preparation for winter. Jays, like most crows, are very intelligent and play the long game by burying their treasure in a variety of well-spaced underground stashes, providing a source of food on which they can depend when food becomes harder to find in the depths of winter.

Regular flights between foraging grounds and their stores in various woods is what makes jays so much more visible now. This is confirmed on the BTO’s Birdtrack website where the reporting rate for Jay routinely climbs at this time of year. However, during early October this year, the reporting rate rose to record-breaking levels. High-flying birds and large numbers were noted in many unusual locations. In Norfolk, for example, at least 668 passed over Hunstanton on 6 October. Such observations hint that some of the Jays being seen may be of continental origin, though the picture is complicated by native birds dispersing from breeding areas in search of food. I have recently seen two jays move through my garden, which is almost unprecedented. My last record if my old grey matter serves me right was a single flyover around ten years ago!

Thanks to David Lee for his excellent image of a jay.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Time to put my feet up?

No never, well maybe….which ever it is, I am now free to choose when I fancy putting them up….lovely!

Yesterday was my last day working for the RSPB and after seven fantastic years, it is now time to kickback and chill out!

The cake was yummy, made from rice krispies and melted mars bars mmmm, thanks Hannah

I am now looking forward to more days like the one below.

NEWS FLASH – The skywatching seats above are very comfortable and at RSPB Minsmere in Suffolk and there will soon be two at a nature reserve in south Essex

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Coco meets her first swans

They hissed at her, raised their wings and then realised she was cool and moved off serenely.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Barking Riverside

Fooled Coco this morning, we walked around Ripple Nature Reserve, a small reserve, afterwards Coco settled on the backseat of the car. I drove just around the corner to Barking Riverside park, got out the car and Coco looked at me as if to say ‘What we have had our walk!’. She soon jumped out and we had a walk along the River Thames. Spotted this Hoverfly Eristalis intricarius. This large hoverfly is unlike the other UK Eristalis species in being a furry bumble bee mimic. The colours are variable but it often has a white tail.

Spotted these cinnabar moth caterpillars feeding on ragwort

and this worn looking six-spot burnet moth

Monday, 13 August 2012

A walk along the River Thames

Took Coco for a walk along the ‘Riverside Walk’ this morning. Really liked the talking post, very informative.

Looking west to the three wind turbines at Fords of Dagenham.

Came across a Buddleja davidii with a few small tortoiseshell along with peacock butterflies feeding on it. I remember seeing loads of these during my childhood.
The Small Tortoiseshell is one of our most-familiar butterflies, appearing in gardens throughout the British Isles. Unfortunately, this butterfly has suffered a worrying decline, especially in the south, over the last few years.
This butterfly has always fluctuated in numbers, but the cause of the most-recent decline is not yet known, although various theories have been proposed. One is the increasing presence of a particular parasitic fly, Sturmia bella, due to global warming – this species being common on the continent. The fly lays its eggs on leaves of the foodplant, close to where larvae are feeding. The tiny eggs are then eaten whole by the larvae and the grubs that emerge feed on the insides of their host, avoiding the vital organs. A fly grub eventually kills its host and emerges from either the fully-grown larva or pupa before itself pupating. Although the fly attacks related species, such as the Peacock and Red Admiral, it is believed that the life-cycle of the Small Tortoiseshell is better-synchronised with that of the fly and it is therefore more prone to parasitism.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Walking The Dog

Took Coco around Mayesbrook Park this morning, we didn't go too early, after all it is a Sunday.

View across one of the lakes
The willows here are impressive
Impressive willow

Wildlife? Plenty including both Green & Great Spotted Woodpeckers, loads of ducks, geese and swans as you would expect. And this Grey Squirrel sat in one of the willows and totally unphased by Coco, mind you she is on the small side!

Grey Squirrel
Speckled Wood
Mute Swan

Have you seen ripe blackberries yet?

While walking in the countryside, who can resist the lure of a ripe blackberry? Not me, that’s for sure.
I was out and about over the weekend and spotted several clusters of glistening ripe berries, but also plenty of green and pink unripe ones. So it seems that blackberry season is not yet in full swing around here, but it’s not far off.
Everyone knows that blackberries are delicious (the BBC Food website has an array of delicious-sounding blackberry recipes). They’re also good for you! But did you realise how important they are for wildlife?

Butterflies like commas (pictured above) love to sip on blackberry juice. Wasps and flies are also partial to it. And a bramble bush makes a fine perch for dragonflies like migrant or brown hawkers, which might try to snatch some of the smaller blackberry-slurping insects.
Blackberries also go down a storm with birds at this time of year.
Before migrating to southern Europe, north Africa or even through the Sahara, birds like blackcaps, whitethroats and garden warblers use sugary berries as an energy-rich food source. Their bodies convert the sugar to fat which will fuel them on their long journeys.
As evidence of this, watch out for purple poos near you!

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Where have all the Swifts gone?

Have you looked up into the skies recently? Notice something missing? The swifts have gone. No longer are they racing around in flocks over our homes, showing an impressive turn of speed and ‘screaming’ their excitement. Their summer show is over for another year and I for one miss them already!

By the time you read this, most swifts will be well on their way to Africa where they will spend the winter, leaving just a few lingering youngsters. When we go on our summer holidays, we prepare by arranging for a neighbour to feed the cat and water the plants, and stopping the milk delivery, some of the things we think about before going away. For the birds preparing for their long haul flight, preparation of a very different kind is needed.

Take a few minutes to watch birds like swallows, house martins and warblers over the next few weeks. You’ll see that they spend a lot of time feeding; filling up on the abundance of insects and natural fruits available at this time of year.

They’re not feeding for fun though. They’re busy stocking up – and turning all that food into layers of fat for their big journey ahead. For birds like swallows, this can be as much as 200 miles every single day until they reach their destination south of the Sahara Desert. With around 5,000 miles to cover in total, that’s a whopping 25 days of flying before they can start their holiday!

It isn’t just birds that migrate though. Take a close look among the butterflies and bees collecting nectar from the flowers in your garden for the small, but perfectly formed, marmalade hoverfly. These beautiful little black and orange striped insects arrive in large numbers in August. They are easy to see in most gardens – usually perched on a flat flower with their wings held out.

Huge arrivals have been noted at the coast, on beaches and in coastal towns, proving that marmalade hoverflies cross the sea between Britain and Europe – quite incredible when you see how small they are!
Marmalade Hoverfly – Episyrphus balteatus male David Nicholls
When I was a child, on my summer holidays on the Norfolk Coast, I remember an ‘invasion’ of little orange and black flies. They were everywhere: on my bucket and spade, on my Dad’s car and on the door of every amusement arcade and fish and chip shop. I now know they were marmalade hoverflies.

Butterflies do it too. Painted ladies, red admirals and the dazzling clouded yellow arrive in large numbers in August. These late summer arrivals are the offspring of butterflies that bred in southern Europe earlier in the year.

And moths. The hummingbird hawk moth – causing confusion to some who think they have seen a real hummingbird as it hovers at flowers – migrates too. They love gardens and the flowers that we grow in them, as does the silver y moth, named after the ‘y’ shaped mark on each of its wings.

Take a stroll down your garden at dusk and you’ll see them flitting from flower to flower in your garden like little ghosts. They love the buddleia bushes in my garden. It’s great to see so many of them enjoying the nectar of the flowers.

So, as you sit back enjoying the break, remember to keep an eye out for the travellers of the natural world and see if you can spot them taking a break from their amazing journeys near you

Friday, 10 August 2012

Hunting High And Low

Although I find most birds endlessy fascinating, there always seems to be something particularly magical about catching a glimpse of a bird of prey – whether it’s watching a sparrowhawk that’s just landed in my back garden, or seeing buzzards catching some thermals in the air above me.

But what makes birds of prey so good at, well, being birds of prey? Below I let you into a few of the secrets that make birds of prey top predators.
Barn Owl
Heart-faced assassin

Barn owls have the keenest sense of hearing of any known animal. By just listening, they can calculate exactly where a noise is coming from, helping them catch some 2,000 mice, voles and small animals every year!

Their secret? Having a face shaped like a satellite dish and ears that are positioned ever so slightly askew from each other.

As sound waves hit their dish-shaped face the sound is channelled into their ears allowing them to work out the direction that the noise is coming from. Kind of handy when most of your prey likes to remain hidden in vegetation.
Keen-eyed Kestrel
Another bird of prey whose prey would also rather stay out of sight is the kestrel. But rather than hearing, a kestrels main weapon is its eyesight.

Voles are a much-preferred meal for kestrels, and while they might be small and difficult to see when scurrying about under long grass, that poses no problem to a kestrel.

Voles and other small rodents lay scent trails of urine and faeces, both of which reflect ultraviolet (UV) light. And while UV light is invisible to you and I, kestrel are able to see it.

Bad news for small mammals, great for kestrels looking for their next meal!

Not so slippery customer
Having spotted a fish from 30 m up in the air, an ospreys next meal doesn’t really stand a chance.

With (nearly always) perfect accuracy, ospreys take a near vertical plunge dive towards the water with wings half-folded and feet thrown forward at the last moment plucking the chosen fish clean out the water.

While you could probably have guessed that ospreys have great eyesight, have you ever wondered what other weapons they have to help keep slippery fish in their grasp?

Well, ospreys have big feet and an opposable toe, allowing them to get a firm grip on their catch, while sharp spines on their feet give extra grip.

To protect themselves as they hit the water, ospreys also have a patch of dense feathers on their chest. Pretty neat!

Fast living
Clocking up speeds of nearly 200mph when in a hunting ‘stoop’, peregrines are one fast bird.

But being able to hit such top speeds wouldn’t be of much use if you couldn’t breathe! As you would expect, peregrines have that covered.

To protect their lungs from the damaging change in air pressure such a feat produces, small growths on their nostrils change the airflow and reduce the pressure experienced, making breathing easier!

Peregrines also have a third eyelid which allows them to clean their eyes while still being able to still see! Definitely useful when you move at such speeds.

What other techniques do birds of prey use? Do let me know in the comments below, as I’m sure I’ll have missed some…

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Times they are a changing, well at least for some!

The breeding season is over, migrants are preparing to leave the country and the birds around us are a-changing.

Well, most birds!
Wood Pigeon - Ben Hall
A pair of woodpigeons in my garden are bucking the trend. I have been watching them flying about carrying twigs. They rummage around in gardens for suitable building material before flapping into the air with their awkward cargo and disappearing into a fir tree at the bottom of my neighbours garden.

Pigeons and doves are some of the few species that can breed at almost any time of year. Their food sources enable them to be more flexible than other birds – blue tits, for example, are largely dependent on certain caterpillars, so a breeding attempt without those creepy-crawlies is a non-starter.

I even remember seeing a pair of collared doves participating in some festive fornication during the Christmas holidays one year!

So, keep an eye out for strange goings-on in your garden, on your way to the shops or in the park – you never know what you might see!

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Sky Birds

Our swifts have been back in the skies above our garden for three weeks now. We occasionally see a few swallows passing through, but I can’t remember ever seeing a sand or house martin over our garden, while our swifts are ever present through the summer.
They truly are the masters of the air, which isn’t surprising as pretty much their whole life is spent on the wing. At the end of the day as the sun slowly disappears below the horizon, you can watch the swifts circling higher and higher in to the darkening sky. They quickly become indiscernible dots, barely visible with binoculars, then, they are gone, to spend the night sleeping on the wing. I can’t prove they sleep while they are up there, but I can imagine them catching forty winks. Early morning as the sun rises they descend, and you can if you are looking be lucky enough to see them appear again, almost as if by magic.

Throughout the day they will feed on airborne insects, they are expert bug munchers, hovering them up as they fly. I find it fascinating watching them do this. Although you almost never actually see their prey. The way they are able to manoeuvre tight turns so smoothly, at times they flutter their wings to stall themselves as they take the catch. Then, with still wings and without appearing to change their body shape, they accelerate, cutting through the air at speed, and in seconds they are out of sight. They do absolutely everything on the wing, including mating and I’m surprised with all the advancements in photographic technology, that this most intimate of moments has not been captured on film. Maybe it has and I have missed it, either way there is a challenge for someone?

Often, you are aware of their presence, not by seeing them but hearing them. This for me is one of the key sounds of summer. A fairly high pitched short scream, often emitted as one chases the other during their courtship display, or really excited short screams as a group of them chase each other, and I’m sure they do this, simply because they can!

Masters of the sky, certainly, but on the ground they are the complete opposite. If they ever do become grounded, they are literally helpless. Rather than feet and legs they have claw like feet in the centre of their belly, these are perfectly adapted for nesting on cliffs and ledges, but useless on the ground. With their long wings, once grounded they literally cannot flap them without hitting the ground and therefore can’t take off from the ground. Some years ago, I was fortunate to find one grounded and so was the swift. I couldn’t see why it had become grounded, when I picked it up, it didn’t appear to be injured, so with my heart in my mouth, I tossed it in to the air, without having any idea if it would fly or crash back to the ground. It flew! And I hope went on to have a long life.

You may think the common swift is my favourite bird, and I do spend hours during each summer watching them from my garden. But, they are not quite my favourite, I will tell you next time which is my favourite and of a magical time I had with a pair a few years back. Have you a favourite?

Note: Swifts need your help.

They’re some of the last spring migrants to arrive, but the first to leave. You’ve probably seen them speeding through the air, screaming their heads off, or swooping into crevices in buildings.

But they’re in trouble. Swifts are now on the Amber List – they’re birds of Conservation Concern. Their numbers have declined dramatically in the past 10 years; we’re not sure why, but one of the possible reasons is that their nest sites are being destroyed.

We’re working with swift groups around the UK. Your information will help our knowledge of swifts so that more nest sites can be provided and protected. Tell us where you see swifts and help us to help them.

Friday, 1 June 2012

RSPB Frampton Marsh

Yesterday I paid my first ever visit to Frampton Marsh, and I was not dissappointed. A major new extension to this coastal wetland reserve includes a reedbed, large freshwater scrapes and wet grassland. These habitats have all been created to bring the wildlife of the Wash closer to you.
New facilities include a visitor centre with toilets; the centre has a refreshments area where you can get a hot or cold drink and a snack. There are three hides – two with 360-degree views – and over 3 km of new footpaths to explore.

Although I chose the worst day of the last three weeks to visit, it was dull, overcast and wet! I could see it is a cracking nature reserve, perfect for a relaxing walk or watching wildlife. Not the greatest image of a tree sparrow you will ever see, but they were feeding just the otherside of the panoramic windows in the visitor centre, along with yellowhammers…wonderful!
Tree Sparrow
A visit to Frampton Marsh will appeal to a variety of visitors. There is plenty to do for families from bug hunting, pond dipping or you could just enjoy a picnic and grab a cup of tea from the visitor centre.

RSPB Frampton Marsh is situated on one of the best wetlands for wildlife in Europe: The Wash. There are lots of different habitats to explore including reedbeds, wet grassland and freshwater scrapes and don’t forget to go up on to the sea bank and look out over the saltmarsh, which is one of the largest in the world! The reserve is free to visit and the visitor centre is open daily from 10am to 4pm (until 5pm on weekends in summer). Binoculars can be hired free of charge and for those budding nature detectives, you can hire a wildlife explorer backpack from the visitor centre which can be taken out around the reserve.

There are free games available for children to play, these are themed on the wildlife of the reserve. The ‘Kids’ Zone’ in the 360 hide has a specially created area in the center for children’s activities. Dogs are welcome on the public footpaths and sea banks, but not on the trail around the reedbed or to the hides. There is even a dog hitching post and water bowl outside the visitor centre.

And the wildlife comes pretty close too!

Tuesday, 22 May 2012


Spent today with the Essex team at Minsmere Nature Reserve on the Suffolk coast. The sun shone beautifully and still is, as we travel back to Essex. The reserve has undergone some new and exciting developments and initiatives this year. These all add to the visitors enjoyment; from a discovery area for families and schoolchildren to a fantastic new island mere hide. We saw stone curlews, marsh harrier, little gull, bearded tits and some even saw a bittern. We also saw red Deer, rabbits, dragonflies and caterpillars….superb day out!
New Information Board
Children can learn about some of Minsmere’s wildlife whilst playing in the new 'Wild Zone'. There are tunnels to explore and become sand martin chicks. There’s a forest of logs carved to look like reeds, with a huge willow-woven bittern nest and eggs in the middle. There’s a play tree, where they can become squirrles, and a migration maze where they can discover how avocets, sand martins and wigeon migrate to Minsmere. Four listening posts introduce some of the sounds of Minsmere.

From the Wild Zone, you can explore the Wild Wood Adventure, with its seek and find activities, den building and river-watch hide for younger children, before seeing some of Minsmere’s wildlife for real from the Wildlife Lookout.

The Wild Zone and Wild Wood Adventure offer something exciting for families on a visit to Minsmere. The Discovery Centre, which is used by visiting schools as a great focal point for their visit, is also used for public family fun days during school holidays.
Sand Martin Tunnel
I just had to have a look inside the new sand martin tunnels (why should kids have all the fun!). Loved it and a fantastic way for children to explore and learn.

The new shop and cafe looks as though it has always been a lovely light, airy and open space, it’s hard to even remember where the old walls started and finished. And the Dyson hand-driers; I love them, no more wiping hands down the back of my jeans!

If you have never been to this RSPB flagship nature reserve, you really should, there honestly, is something here for everyone. And don’t forget to try the homemade cakes…mmmm…..yummy

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Wow What A Day!

Wow, wow, wow, I am knackered but what a great day. Up at silly hour this morning 03.45 and led a dawn chorus guided walk at 5 am. I gotta say though, it really is worth making the effort to get out early at this time of the year. There are no distracting background sounds, all you hear is the superb sound of the natural world going about its daily business. We had nightingale, cuckoo, warblers, thrushes, robin and many more…wonderful.

Spent the rest of the day to 5 pm, running our visitor centre. Making apple bird feeders and running adventure trails with the visiting families, terrific. I am lucky to have such an enjoyable job.

Trying to stay awake now to watch the champions league final!

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Meet Coco

This is my little mate Coco, ‘ain’t she cute? She is around 16 months old and a rescue dog. What is she? Well she is a cross Shih Tzu & Chihuahua and a lovely little dog.

Coco - mans best friend