The Dalmatian Pelican’s Triumphant Return to Britain

“It’s the first one ever seen in Britain!” Such was the response to a rather special visitor to my university-home county of Cornwall over the past fortnight. If you didn’t know, a Dalmatian pelican Pelecanus crispus realised it had a significant amount of trust fund money after fledging the nest, and rather than settle down with the rest of its kind in the Danube delta, decided to travel the world. This spiritual journey inevitably lead it to Cornwall, where it has been no doubt thrilling the local gulls with its stories of ‘mad nights’ vaping with crows in Poland and why every bird deserves the soul reawakening that can only be found by fishing solo in Germany. Maybe.

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The Cornish bird itself, as photographed by my friend Ben Porter.

It arrived very conveniently in the middle of my university finals, and I almost defied my agnostic-atheist views to pray that it stayed a little longer. To my joy, it did hang on, and at time of writing is still gallivanting around the Land’s End area. I went to see it myself twice last week. The first time we were lucky to be treated to a brief fly-by within seconds of arriving at the spot: like a great white biplane, it soared effortlessly regally among the gulls, drifting South-West towards the coast. A day later, it had set up shop at a local RSPB reserve, and this time we were treated to wonderful views of it sat squat in the centre of an estuary, occasionally preening itself or waddling through the mud like a portly drunkard trying and failing to walk in a straight line for the police. Our best views were obtained from a train station platform, which I’m eternally grateful for the porter granting us permission to use. “Five minutes, then yer’ off before the train gets in” he informed us, with a considerable mustering of authority. By the time we were done however, he was so fascinated we were kept back a good deal longer as we explained the situation to him.

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Definitely the pelican, as we saw it from the station platform. Photograph by Billy Heaney.

Regardless of its origins or reasons for being here, the bird that is quite happily settled in Cornwall, oblivious to the hordes of cooing twitchers, is far from the first Dalmatian pelican in Britain. In fact, you might call it something of a homecoming. Surprising as it may seem, the Dalmatian pelican is an extinct British native. Continue reading

Nature Diary: Fishlake Meadows, 19th April

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I challenge you to find anyone who doesn’t recognise the call of the cuckoo. Perhaps with the exception of the most urbanised of people living within city centres, even if you’ve never actually heard it yourself it’s so ingrained in popular culture that from an early age it’s unmistakeable. Not that many people on the whole have actually seen it, probably making it one of the few (if not only) animals that more people can recognise by sound rather than sight.

However, seeing the cuckoo was far from difficult today. At Fishlake Meadows, the Spring choruses are rousing like an anarchic orchestra, with both the residents and the recent migrant returnees putting 110% into their effort to establish territories and seek mates as quickly as possible. Chiffchaffs speed up their repetitive two-beats with increased frenetic, Cetti’s warblers explode into scattered song from their concealment in the brambles, and the sedge warblers drown out the rest in an improvised staccato ramble even the most creative jazz musician would be proud of.

But old cuckoo chimes superiorly over them all. Flying across the reed beds from the old poplars, his flight is unmistakable – cutting wings dart him precisely through the air remarkably sparrowhawk-like, a deliberate move on evolution’s part to fool potential nest hosts to desert their brood, thus allowing the wily cuckoo to swoop in and deposit it’s own egg in a process of natural cunning. Equally admired and despised, depending on the observer. Today, he perches in the bows of a weeping willow, and through my binoculars he is absolutely resplendent. Continue reading

Britain’s hidden wildlife spectacle: Wood Pigeons

woodpigeons_master_tcm9-18492‘Familiarity breeds contempt’ goes the old and slightly clichéd saying. Unfortunately, this applies to many wild animals who are neither elusive, an occasional migrant or threatened with extinction, yet don’t seem to have an appearance or demeanour that woos themselves poetically to humans seeking to find a connection with nature.

If you wish to see a prime example of this, pity the poor wood pigeon. Taking away any prior knowledge or prejudices, you would have thought with their dumpy frame, beady eyes that give it a permanent glaze of bemused curiosity, and the smattering of iridescent indigo in the collar suggesting of hidden beauty, it should at least gain a lot more public sympathy.

Instead, by being so numerous it is either ignored completely or derided indignantly. We should be admiring it’s success for actually coping so well with our intensive-farming patterns, an achievement any animal deserves a medal for; but does their ubiquity simply remind us of the failures we have seen in most other farmland bird populations? And when some go the next level and call them ‘rats-with-wings’, are they simply thinking more along the lines of their urban cousins, the rock dove or ‘feral pigeon’, and the perceived waste nuisances they cause on our streets? Continue reading

The Mammal Life of Fishlake Meadows: Hampshire’s next big nature reserve

Originally published in the Spring 2015 newsletter of the Hampshire Mammal Group. I’m currently running my third season of mammal surveys at the site to be compiled in a three-year report.

Immediately north of Romsey lies 200 acres of land beautifully reclaimed by nature. Fishlake Meadows has a complex history – originally just drained farmland, when the pumps were switched off in the 1980s the site was swamped into a myriad of pools, ditches, reedbeds and wet grassland. Its various owners never knew what to do with it – one of them, a certain Kevin Keegan, even threatening to convert it into a golf course – till the current landowner decided to sell it off to Test Valley borough council in July, who are set to develop an ecological management plan and create a new nature reserve for Romsey.

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On Harvest Mice

It’s been so long since my last post, you’d be forgiven for thinking I’d joined some no doubt disgruntled hedgehogs or adders in hibernation. Since the inspiring launch of the youth conservation movement in Cambridge back in September, I’ve promptly followed up my nature writing workshop at the event with, well, a complete lack of nature writing (bar very slow progress on the book. But that’s another story, literally). Things happened since, nature things, I promise, but university.

Of note however was the best use of my student loan since the end-of-first-year garden party. Last month I welcomed two new room-mates free of rent, a pair of female harvest mice Micromys minutus. Being a naturalist with a penchant for our fellow mammals, and having cared for these fascinating creatures for some time as part of my volunteer duties at the New Forest Wildlife Park, they were a natural choice of companion.

The animals were bred by a private keeper back in Cornwall, and have settled in very well to their vivarium, which is furnished with stalks and shoots for climbing, and a thick layer of hay and aspen shavings – already this is peppered with holes and burrows like swiss cheese, leading to hidden and no doubt very cosy nests. Going up is where they’re truly at home however, and they have proven to be the most efficient distraction from study as you admire the incredible bio-mechanics of their prehensile tail and almost supernatural nimble feet on the most thread-like of branches.

Although I currently just have two ladies, long-term I would like to go into breeding them. It is where it gets complicated however – mix too many of different genders, or keep the young in with Mum & Dad for too long, and the sweet demeanours that steal the souls of anyone who beholds my pets becomes a ferocious rodent equivalent of Luis Suarez. This can be avoided with careful management however, and ideally I would want to use the offspring in educational outreach – they’re very active, engaging, and yes, cute, a rare insight into the secretive world of British mammals, and potentially quite threatened in this country.

The trouble with harvest mice is we don’t really know enough of their distribution to know if they are in trouble. An early mammal society survey in the eighties suggested they were in decline, but new search methods developed since then could potentially gain a more accurate insight of the data – so the organisation is now keen to get as many people as possible out in search of signs of these charming animals. You can find out how to get involved here.

I myself have been doing my part on Fishlake Meadows, a wetland site where I’ve been conducting a long-term mammal monitoring project over the Summer. Traditionally, harvest mouse surveys are undertaken searching for nests in Winter, but this isn’t so efficient during my survey season. So I tried out the rather ingenious ‘bait cane’ method, only really tried out last year in Cheshire for the first time, involving bamboo canes, plastic cups and tape in the hope of getting poo (god bless mammalogists). By sticking seed in the cup, tied halfway up the cane in the understorey of the reed-bed, a couple of days later any harvest mice that came for a nibble will have left droppings like calling cards, which can then be sent off for analysis. Of my 20 canes, over half had droppings which looked very much to me like harvest mice (the only other possibility really being wood mice, which would’ve been larger). I can’t be certain until they’ve been analysed, which unfortunately is still being sorted out (the poo is in my student house freezer currently – yes, my friends have been notified), but I’m confident this will be the first record of the species for the site.

IMG_8327The harvest mouse survey, and later room-mates, have been but two highlights of a great wildlife 2014 – more on which to come soon. But for now, I leave you with the first poem I’ve written in donkeys years, typed in a spur-of-the-moment five minutes while observing my mice go about their business.

Hidden, hurry, scurry, scatter,

Harvest mouse sleekly writhe,

Through the tangle bramble vine.

For do not tread beyond your cradle,

Or barn owl and weasel will take you to your maker.

But in this world unseen,

A woven home will suit you better,

And see the light as a gift to enjoy,

Time may be short, but by thy whiskers,

Run and wonder, nibble, slumber.

The Birdfair Revolution

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As the train departed Oakham station, the afternoon light through the window beamed intensely, yet was already beginning to haze into a vaguely melancholy shimmer as the day started yawning. Plugging my headphones into my ears, the first song to greet them was ‘Love will tear us apart’ by Joy Division. Very appropriate for the end of Birdfair, I thought.

OK, maybe not. Or at all. I’m fairly sure Ian Curtis had failed romances in mind rather than optics stands and the bird brain of Britain, but when compared to the Birdfair blues, it does indeed feel like you’ve suddenly been ripped away from a fleeting love – the love of course being the mass love for nature amplified thousand-fold, for one weekend a year in a few fields by a nature reserve in Rutland.

Because although Birdfair may (currently) be an event more or less for the converted rather than the masses, to at least feel all this passion in one place brings something very restorative to the soul. With the exception of the odd soddy grump or ego-ridden boasting photographer, the majority of naturalists hold a positive energy of enthusiasm that’s enough to colour any everyday situation when they’re on their own (that’s as long as you can get them talking about wildlife, of course). Now imagine an entire festival of them, and you get some idea of the buzz I’m struggling to accurately describe.

But a strange change is beginning to take hold at Birdfair. It appears, from capture-mark-recapture studies carried out by the University of Metaphors (through a standard methodology of ringing and hair clips), the average age of the attending population across all three days of the event is beginning to decrease. Individuals are being recruited at a younger age than ever before. The beards, anoraks and budgets that might be able to afford a birding trip to Portugal are being diluted by attempts at beards, stylish shirts & braids and budgets that might be able to afford a coffee and bacon bap from the catering tent (just).

Because this year was the year A Focus on Nature, and the Next Generation Birders, took over Birdfair. Alright, maybe the beards and bins did still outnumber the ‘yoof’. It’s still a long way off feeling like Glastonbury despite oft being compared to it. But there were enough of us to turn heads in the beer tent, and even give the security guards something to look at when we were gathered outside it following the barn dance, planning our journey to the Oakham wetherspoons with enough military precision to make a veteran general nod his moustache approvingly.

But before you shoot us down for simply having a knees up (like 99% of people our age), our greatest achievement for being at Birdfair this year was the same thing the event gives to nearly everyone who attends – hope.

Hope that in this time of conservationists cowering under the false pretences of politicians, planting flowers while the garden is being bulldozed, hope when everyone moans about their being no one under 40 into wildlife, hope when species are still going extinct faster than ever before.

The hope stemmed from the small(ish) deeds we did that, in the grand scheme of things, actually mean so much. There was AFON’s kids art mural, once again lead to great success by Beth Aucott and her team of helpers – James Rhodes, Charli Sams, Imogen Mansfield & Thea Powell. Our children’s passport, which I co-ordinated the contacts for but in the end was the masterpiece work of Matt Lissimore and Stephen Le Quesne, gave children the confidence to speak to the stall-holders and discover more about nature and conservation under their own steam. The NGBirders, right at the forefront of the RSPB’s stand, were promoting the future of ornithology right among the tops of Britain’s biggest conservation NGO.

Those are only a few of the names of the many young naturalists I had the pleasure to meet again, or for the first time – friends old and new, whom I greatly look forward to working alongside as we take conservation to the next step in our futures, and get it out of its current mess.

Hope is the lasting legacy of Birdfair, and this year even more so. As any Joy Division fan will tell you, the chord sequence of ‘Love will tear us apart’ is strangely upbeat for its mellow lyrics. So perhaps it really does fit the Birdfair blues. Sad that it was so fleeting. But just as the guitars and synthesisers lift your feelings up to that awesomely catchy tune, you leave with an absolute goldmine of optimism for the future.

Nature Diary: The Lizard, 10th March

Skylarks, the first I’ve heard this year, are serenading cloudless skies once more in their simultaneously mad yet exquisite song. Bumblebees buzz languidly over the fields while the first butterflies of the season – peacocks, red admirals, a couple of small tortoiseshells – flitter their way into your peripheral vision before settling centre stage onto sun-soaked embankments. I can start to feel the sun burning on to my skin, and rather unhealthily, I don’t care. It’s only the 10th day of March, yet it feels like the perfect Spring has already settled here in Cornwall after what seemed like an eternity of almost psychologically damaging heavy rain and ‘mizzle’.

But of all the signs of Spring our poets, composers and romantic novelists waxed lyrical over, I find it rather disappointing none of them gave merit to the re-emergence of the natural jewels I was here to find today – adders.

Stumbling upon one of these beautiful snakes curled in the bracken, it’s perfect zig-zag get up perfectly mirroring its home staring up at you with that feral and hypnotising ember eye, is one of the most rewarding sights a British naturalist can discover at this time of year – and thankfully, it was only ten minutes or so before I found one. A plump female, her toffee-gold body sprawled royally across the ground at the foot of a hedge akin to any human sunbather making the most of what little sun we get in this country.

Like any observation of elusive and sensitive wild animals, it’s important to keep a strict coda in regards to where you are and how you behave around adders. Over-excited wildlife photographers have even been cited as one of the primary factors driving disturbance at hibernacula and basking sites, given that the energy cost of constantly moving off when we come barging along when you’re still trying to build it up is dangerously high. So while the temptation to get even closer for that perfect view and photo was itching inside me, keeping a good distance from the bank and rolling each footstep as delicately as possible ensured my presence was barely registered.

Although the thing with rule books is that they are often broken, as my next adder sighting proved. Moving northwards across the reserve, the rough pasture gives way to the maritime heath that the Lizard is famous for. Following the track bisecting this there are frequently placed sheets of tin and felt – reptile refuges, or a herpetologist’s treasure chest. It was while searching for a sturdy stick to lift one with (it’s not unusual for conservationists lifting up these hideaways to be met with a disgruntled adder’s venomous bite the moment they stick their fingers underneath), that my ears picked up that unmistakable sound, like a rope being dragged through dead leaves, of an adder on the move.

Cursing myself for having spooked off an unseen individual nearby, as I looked down I found to my surprise a male adder, slightly slimmer than the ladies and as silver as polished steel, actually slithering lithely towards me. Upon reaching his basking spot a couple of feet from where I was, he curved himself neatly around a mat of brambles and withered grass, leaving me in a state of amazement as I gawped for several minutes at the sight of him, followed by meticulous mental planning as to how I was going to move away without scaring him back off the way he came. Moving backwards as softly as my boots would allow, the adder was still more concerned with warming up his body temperature for the day, and even allowed me to take some half-decent shots.

The whole site is a herpetologist’s dream, and along the same track that I saw this adder, a common lizard scuffled away beneath a small shrub of gorse, and slow worms coiled themselves tightly like thick, amber spaghetti under one of the tin refuges. Turning back onto the heath, it’s not long before you come across a huge, shallow and sandy pond, and peering into the sun-lit water’s edge is like entering an amphibian sweet shop.

With every footfall there appears a palmate newt, minute and almost mistakable for small fish as they dart across the pond bed. In the aquatic jungles of parrot’s feather, the common toads, pumped up and horny, take centre stage. I counted two females who were subject to the amorous of attentions of a further half dozen or so suitors, though unlike the sometimes lethal orgies of I have observed of common frogs in my own garden pond, the toads seem somewhat more dignified: The girls each had one male attached in the amplexus grip, while the others dallied around the periphery like fidgety commuters waiting for a late train. Already you could see their strings of spawn, like jelly-encased necklaces of black pearls, tastefully adorning their breeding grounds.

Especially when compared to what you find on the European continent, Britain has a rather pitiful diversity of reptiles and amphibians; yet what we do have is fascinating, beautiful and charismatic at the species level. To see it all wake up again in Spring is a wildlife ritual to be treasured, especially given the fact they’re one of our most vulnerable taxa – isolation from continual habitat loss is a worsening threat for most of our reptiles (especially the adder), and diseases from rana virus to chyrtid fungus have ravaged amphibian populations globally, and are certainly not unheard of on our shores.

So as I saw a further two adders walking back to the car, time seemed to drift away as I stood back to appreciate them . Next time you think about the signs of Spring, spare a thought for the glorious return of our scaly neighbours alongside lambs, daffodils and swallows.

 

 

Nature Diary: Beggarspath Wood, 10th April

It is the first time I have walked in these woods – my ‘local patch’ – since February, having arrived home from New Zealand the day before. Having expected a carpet of bluebells and  simmering sunlight reflecting off lime-green leaves, fresh from the bud, to an ecstasy of birdsong, the revelation of it appearing much the same as I left is curious and somewhat disheartening. When I look ahead, there is no mosaic of different greens, yellows and purples, but the same grey-brown wall of bare trees of a wood still in it’s winter slumber. A winter that has continued throughout my absence, no doubt due to the profound effects our fossil fuel-vomiting way of life has had on our climatic processes. Normally, the gulf stream pushes up West across the Atlantic, bringing with it the warmth that sparks the bursting of this season of renewal by mid-March – but melting ice and its desalinating effects are slowing it’s progress. Such things only serve to remind us of how we are still dependent on nature for our wellbeing and what we term as ‘everyday’ in our lives, and just how fragile it is to our ignorance.

This state of being in the woodland’s year is beautiful in it’s own way. Edward Thomas described a February woodland-walk brilliantly in his long-rambling book  The South Country; “The Earth lies blinking, turning over languidly and talking like a half-weakened child that now and then lies still and sleeps though with eyes wide open… It is not spring yet. Spring is being dreamed, and the dream is more wonderful and blessed than ever was spring. What the hour of waking will bring forth is not known.”

Unfortunately, that dream is still on-going when the woods should be wide awake. As I drift under the bare canopy, I can sense nature’s protests around me. The woodland floor among the more ancient strands of oak and hazel is pea-green with the shoots of the bluebells I had been looking forward to seeing upon my return, but instead they remain in a half-grown state, frozen like agonised racers crouched at the start and awaiting the gunshot-signal of just a few more degrees warmth.

The chorus of birdsong is far greater than when I left it two months ago, when the woods remained silent bar the mumbled twitterings of mixed-species feeding parties, as tits, wrens and goldcrests weeved as one cautious wave through the treetops, picking out the few morsels of food whilst relying on each other for predator protection in the exposed environment. But by now they expect the food to be bounteous, and their song is like a plea of discontent at such shortcomings. Whilst this wintered spring may be little more than inconvenience to our eyes, it is life and death to them. The thought of how many chicks will be successfully raised when the cold and subsequent lack of food is lingering into the nesting season is not something I am keen on dwelling upon.

A spot of white bouncing above the woodland floor some distance to my left betrays the presence of a roe doe. She stops and turns her head towards me, fixing me in her gaze to ascertain whether I pose a threat. Then, just a few metres to my right, a woodcock that had been  resting in the leaf litter has already decided not to hang around, and shoots from the ground in a blurred clap of wings. Its exquisite camouflage and long, straight beak for probing mud for worms making it look as if a couple of dead leaves attached to a twig has magically flown off the ground and gone shooting through the trees. The sight of such an enigmatic & shy bird in the day fills me with child-like excitement, but still brings me back to the out-of-sync seasonality; bar a declining few that stay to breed, most woodcock in the UK fly here from Scandanavia to over-winter. It’s not surprising then that this individual would want to remain here a little longer.

Kenya After-Image: Part 3 (final)

And finally, after an unwanted delay, I’ve got round to completing the last entry of my reflection of Kenya last Summer. Picking up after we left the Mara, we were sadly coming to our final destinations on the trip; however, these were among the ones that left the greatest impression on me since flying out of Nairobi two weeks after we originally flew in.

In the photo above is the Nairobi Giraffe Centre, allowing closer views than one might usually have with these magical animals on a game drive. Much closer at that, with estatic visitors, both tourists and locals, able to hand-feed the giraffes. Or even kiss them, if by kissing you mean popping a pellet between your lips and waiting for a giraffe to lap it up with a slobbering, yet rather raspy, tounge! But the Centre is far more than just a glorified petting zoo, and likewise it’s residents are not your ‘average’ giraffe (if you can have such a thing). It is home to a group of Rothschilds Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardilis rothschildi), one of the rarest of the nine giraffe subspecies. The Centre was originally set up as a captive breeding facility in 1979 in a last ditch effort to save the Rothschild, by then limited to 120 individuals on a single Kenyan ranch. Calves born at the centre have over time being released into five Kenyan reserves, and Rothschilds now number about 500 in Kenya.

Today, the Centre’s main focus is education, but particularly that of local children rather than the Western tourists, which mostly come just to have a photo taken of them ‘kissing’ a giraffe. They have to pay a reasonable fee, but the Centre is free to the local community and school groups, and rightly so. Many of these kids will come from poverty-stricken backgrounds in the slums, where of course there is no contact with the incredible biodiversity their country is famous for. Being able to see a giraffe up-close, let alone feed one, is an education tool far more inspirational than any diagram in a classroom, and by opening the doors to wildlife and conservation this way is just one small step in generating lifelong respect for nature: And hopefully, the conservationists of Kenya’s future. Because believe me, Kenya is one country that needs it more than many others, and is an issue I’ll be going into shortly.

Me with a Hungry Customer!

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Stripes v Spikes?

Today’s post concerns the interesting nuggets of thought to chew on that was raised by Micheal McCarthy in his most recent edition of ‘Nature Studies’ in the Independent, entitled ‘More badgers and fewer hedgehogs. Coincidence? I don’t think so’.  Before I go on, I’d just like to mention that Nature Studies is one of the best natural history columns out there, not surprising considering that McCarthy is a fantastic environmental journalist; I’ve only just started reading his book Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo, and already I would heartily recommend it to others just from the first chapters.

And like all good journalists, a topic that needs a longer than average musing should be brought up from time to time. In this case, it’s the suggestion that perhaps increasing badger populations across the UK are partly to blame for the hedgehog’s worryingly dramatic decline over the last 30 or so years. It could potentially be in the Chris ‘I’d happily eat the last panda’ Packham spectrum of controversies, and as McCarthy points out, with the first cull trials imminent (something I heartily disagree with based on the scientific evidence, but that’s another story) our monochrome mustelid friends don’t really need anymore cause for concern on their reputation. Continue reading