Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Lesvos - a cracking island!

Lesvos - green and wooded in many places

I have just returned from a great trip to the Greek island of Lesvos in perfect time to coincide with peak bird migration. The island lies just 7 miles or so off the Turkish coast and as birds follow the coastline northwards, they tend to pass through the island, often stopping to refuel before moving on.
The island is rapidly becoming well known by the bird watching fraternity and the only tourists I bumped into had an array of binoculars, telescopes and long lenses attached to cameras, immediately identifying them as “birders”. I consider myself a bird watcher rather than a birder – the later always seems to be in a hurry to move onto the next site to acquire another “tick”, whereas I am happy just to pootle about looking at the flowers (which where spectacular) and butterflies, as well as the birds. Having said that, I did meet many relaxed, pleasant folk, from numerous different countries, who were fully enjoying the wide array of wildlife associated with this undeveloped gem of an island.
I have always found April the most amazing time to visit the Mediterranean as it is so green and vibrant at this time of year, before the long hot summer days of constant sunshine turns everything to various shades of brown. It was a treat to constantly hear the rattling song of the Corn bunting from almost every vantage point, whilst gently purring away in the background came the summer sound of Turtle dove, two species that are in real trouble here in the UK. You only need to take a look at the little fields of poor quality, weed filled crops to see why they still thrive on this island.
I will undoubtedly return!!             

Friday, 19 April 2013

And the Woodcock are off!!

Although the spring migration of woodcock is rather delayed this year, it has now started in earnest! It is amazing how much we are learning about this largely nocturnal species through radio tracking – a small backpack fastened onto the bird which allows us to follow them to their breeding grounds in Scandinavia and Russia. They do often travel amazing distances in “one hit” before stopping to rest and feed.
We have also found that many are quite site faithful, coming back to our shores to over winter, sometimes to be re-captured in exactly the same field! Of course, not all woodcock migrate, some are resident and they will be sorting out breeding territories now and the males will start “roding” soon – flying at dusk around their woodland territories, all the while emitting a strange grunting and squeaking sound.
I will blog more about this later in the season, but in the meantime, why not follow the migrating woodcock, by clicking on: www.woodcockwatch.com
It is truly fascinating!

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Willow tit, willow tit - are you there?

I spent a most enjoyable morning in North West Hampshire today surveying woodland for willow tit. The willow tit has declined alarmingly of late and now seems to be absent from much of the south east of England, although North West Hampshire and parts of Wiltshire do seem to be hanging onto them.
Willow tit are quite difficult to identify during most of the year as they are remarkably similar to the more common Marsh tit, however in the spring they have a very distinctive call which once learnt, can separate them easily from Marsh tit. However, at low densities, it is my belief that they don’t bother calling that often. This was confirmed to me a couple of years ago when I spent an hour in a wood where I was fairly certain Willow tit presided, but having heard nothing at all, I left the wood and walked across a small field to another nearby wood. As I entered the “new” wood, a willow tit called and almost immediately one replied from the wood that I had just spent an hour in!!
As a consequence of this little episode, I now equip myself with a small IPod and speaker with the recording of a willow tit song. I walk through the wood, stopping now and then to play the recording. Usually, if willow tit are present they respond by singing back almost immediately. Some people don’t like this method as they believe it might disturb the birds, however, as soon as I get a response, I stop playing the song and move onto another part of the wood, so I really don’t think it can possibly have any detrimental impact on the bird at all.
I was accompanied by the estate owner this morning, who was absolutely delighted to hear and see Willow tit, which he had not observed before. This particular estate manages their woods very well, with a mosaic of coppiced blocks rotating around the woodland, so that they have areas of recent coppice, middle aged coppice and blocks which are ready to be coppiced once again. They also leave some bits of the woods completely unmanaged. I congratulated him on his excellent management and told him that this is why he still has willow tit, because they like thick shrubby areas to forage in, but also need unmanaged areas of old dead wood to excavate out their own nest holes.
We had located 4 calling males in all by the time that rain stopped play, which just shows, if you manage the habitat correctly, the wildlife responds!        

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Soil association meeting

From left: Alistair Leake, Emma Hockridge & Peter Melchett

I had a meeting yesterday with Peter Melchett and Emma Hockridge of the Soil Association, hosted by Alistair Leake, (project head of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust’s Allerton Project) at Loddington in Leicestershire. The meeting was arranged to thrash out some of the detail of how a future organic Stewardship scheme might look like when the next version is launched - probably some time in 2015. There is currently much activity on how all future stewardship schemes might evolve, but of course a lot depends on how CAP negotiations also pan out! Still, we had a good practically based meeting and I think improved the current scheme somewhat – we shall wait and see!       

Friday, 5 April 2013

Marlborough Downs Nature Improvement Area celebrates first year achievements

Teresa Dent speaking

I spent a pleasant evening yesterday with farmers and assorted others, around 70 in all, celebrating one year of the Marlborough Downs Nature Improvement Area (MDNIA). We were privileged to have Poul Christensen, Chairman of Natural England, Stephen Moss the broadcaster and Teresa Dent, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s CEO and Chair of the MDNIA) speaking to us.  There are 12 NIAs across the country, trialling “landscape scale” conservation, but this particular NIA is the only farmer led one, so very much a bottom up approach is being followed.
There was a great sense of enthusiasm in the room, with around 41 farmers being involved, working together over some 25,000 acres of land to connect important habitats and create new areas for species. Jemma Batton, from Black Sheep countryside management, very ably “herds” all these farmers in a collective direction, up-dated the audience on what has been achieved so far. New ponds created, crops planted to produce bird seed over-winter, large areas surveyed and lots of nest boxes put up for a range of species is just a flavour of what has been taking place.
There is much attention being paid to these NIA’s, not least from Government, so let’s hope they prove to be a successful format for the future.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

IVY - a great habitat!

Cut ivy stems

Why DO people cut ivy off of trees? OK, on the odd occasion it can completely envelope the canopy of smaller trees such as hawthorn, which is obviously detrimental, acting too as a large sail it can also help to bring the tree down. However, in most cases ivy does not adversely affect the tree; it is simply using it as a support, that’s all!
I was out walking last evening and stopped to watch two gorgeous little long-tailed tits feeding on ivy berries, which I’m not sure I have ever seen before. Usually they feed on insects, but due to this cold blast of weather that we are all experiencing at present, I expect any self respecting insect is hidden well away and difficult to find. Ten minutes later, I came across a tree that had had the ivy cut to stop it growing, no doubt in the common belief that it would eventually strangle the tree to death.
Ivy is brilliant in the fact that it is one of the very last plants to flower in the autumn, providing nectar for some butterflies and other insects which are just about to go into hibernation overwinter as adults. It then goes on to produce berries in the late winter, when all other berries have been eaten and so provides an important food source at a lean time of year. Ivy also provides shelter during the months when most trees become leafless. The first butterfly that we often see in the spring is the sulphur yellow brimstone, which cleverly hides away in ivy overwinter; by hanging upside down it closely resembles a dying ivy leaf!
Also, a number of birds such as the little wren, blackbird, song thrush, robin and spotted flycatcher all love to hide their nests away in an ivy clad tree.
So, let’s all give ivy a break – it is a fabulous habitat for a wide range of species!