Showing posts from 2015

The Great Flood

It's always seemed odd to me that flood banks have been built along stretches of the River Ouse that serve only to 'protect' the flood plain from flooding. They actually funnel the flood water to towns and villages further down river. Today I've been to the stretch of river just north of Cawood, between York and Selby, where I conduct my annual tansy beetle survey.

Around the corner the road descends into a vast lake
This whole stretch of river has a high flood bank along it, although the fields on the other side of the bank are called Kelfield Ings. There's a clue in the name - why on earth would you build a bank to stop a traditional flood meadow from flooding? This time, the water has reached the crest of the flood bank and gone over, but most of the water on the other side has flowed into the fields from further down river, below Cawood, where the banks are lower. This has protected the next village of Kelfield. In this instance the flood plain has filled up a…

Gorilla Family and Me 1987

Watching Gordon Buchanan's excellent series has brought back memories of the month-long trip I made to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1987, though it was called Zaire in those days. We saw the Grauer's gorillas in Kahuzi-Biega before travelling on to Rwanda and the Mountain gorillas of the Virunga Mountains. Here's an extract from my diary, of the time at Kahuzi-Biega:

Wed 29th July: Got up at six to go gorilla trekking. After a hard climb up a steep hillside we stopped at the place where the gorillas had been seen the previous day. We found a small chameleon. We then carried on through the forest and found gorilla dung and nests used the previous night. Twice we heard gorilla alarm calls and some chest beating, but never saw the gorillas. Gave up about 3:30 and returned to camp - six hours hunting without success.

 Boulenger's pygmy chameleon (Rhampholeon boulengeri)
Gorilla nest, used the night before
Thu 30th: Got up at six again and walked to the park headquar…

Heathland Restoration

Today I led a conservation work day on a private nature reserve, where we've been restoring an area of heathland overgrown with birch seedlings and brambles. This is a monthly event which has been going on for two years now, but we've been making slow progress recently due to the small number of volunteers.

Brushcutting birch regrowth
I decided drastic action was necessary, so I bought a second-hand brushcutter on eBay! Getting the worst areas brushcut before the work day speeds the job up considerably. Yesterday I cleared a badly overgrown patch so that today we could start by clearing up the cuttings and treating the stumps with glyphosate weedkiller.

Some cutting by hand is required, to protect the heather
A painting job
Stumps treated with glyphosate
It is still very mild and we've had sunshine all day. When I arrived this morning, three roe deer ran off. They are often there, but although I freeze as soon as I see them, they just run until they're out of sight and…

Bird and Bat Boxes at Allerthorpe

Over the last two volunteer days at Allerthorpe Common, we've been putting up some more boxes for owls, smaller birds and bats.

Barn owls like to have two boxes close together. This gives them an alternative nesting site. The spare box is often used as a roost by the male bird when there are chicks in the nest box. We put up one box in August last year and now our second box has gone up on a large silver birch tree about 20 metres from the first.

Barn owl box 2
Les, the chief birder of our volunteer group, has made a box to a different design, for tawny owls. We put this up in a pine tree on the other side of the reserve.

Tawny owl box
Bat boxes have been very successful in the Forestry Commission woodlands surrounding the reserve, but we had none in the reserve. We put up a cluster of three boxes on a tree near the main pond. Bats will move around a cluster of boxes facing in different directions to find the most comfortable temperature according to weather conditions.

Cluster of…

Upper Dunsforth Carrs

Today I've been to a volunteer work day on a Yorkshire Wildlife Trust reserve I've never visited before. As its name implies, Upper Dunsforth Carrs is a collection of boggy fields. In the spring, it will be full of wildflowers, but after all the rain we've had in the last few weeks, it is now more like a swamp. We have been mowing and raking up the invasive rush which grows over much of the site. Rotational cutting of different areas keeps it under control.

Collecting up the cuttings
Mower sinking in the mud
The plan was to move into a second field during the afternoon, but the mower sank into the mud at the entrance and we had to pull it out with a rope. After that entertainment, it was decided that we should continue mowing in the first field! While raking up, we came across several field voles and a shrew.

Field vole hiding in the grass
Remains of a field vole's nest

Camera Trapping Badgers and Otters

I set up a camera trap in Badger Wood last week and put out some peanuts and sultanas. As I expected, the badgers were quick to take the bait. They are fattening up for the winter and will readily take an easy meal like this. What I hadn't expected was that a pair would start mating, right in front of the camera trap. After a few minutes a third badger appeared and sat alongside the mating couple for a while. Eventually she tried to join in the action!

Two's company...
The camera trap recorded their behaviour over a period of 20 minutes. Badgers usually mate in the spring, but can mate at any time of year. Their gestation period is only seven weeks, but thanks to delayed implantation the cubs are always born around February.

On Monday, I moved the camera trap to the riverbank where I'd previously filmed an otter. The otters have not been around for over a year, but signs of their presence have reappeared in the last few weeks.

Camera trap on the riverbank
After three night…

Autumn Task Days

I had some tansy plants left over, which have occupied my patio all summer, so I decided it was time to get them planted out. In August, I planted 600 on some 'waste ground' at Acomb Landing (in York), which had been covered with Himalayan balsam, but is potentially excellent tansy beetle habitat. So this week I've cleared some more ground and planted out the last 500 of the plants I'd grown over the summer. On Wednesday heavy rain was forecast, so it was a race against time to get the last plants in before the deluge started. At least they got watered in well.

New growth on the August crop
 One new clump planted and ground prepared for the second
On Thursday I went to a Yorkshire Wildlife Trust task day at North Cave Wetlands. I hadn't been there since June and of course things were looking very different. Huge flocks of geese are arriving for the winter. We cut back the willows growing along the banks of one of the lakes and used the cut whips to build a rustic …

End of an Era for YWT Volunteers

At the end of this week, John Wollaston retires. He's been Yorkshire Wildlife Trust's East Yorkshire Field Officer for the last 10 years. He's managed most of the volunteer work days I've been on since I retired seven years ago. If ever there was an 'unsung hero' of conservation, it's John.

 John Wollaston (photo: Paul Robinson)
As well as having the huge range of practical skills required for his job, he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of natural history, being a skilled birder, botanist and entomologist. He's equally able to guide parties of academics around Askham Bog nature reserve, or inspire groups of primary school children at Kiplingcotes.

Mowing brambles at North Cliffe Wood, so next year's bluebells will be the best ever
There was always a relaxed and friendly atmosphere on his volunteer work days, masking the fact that many required meticulous planning. He'd arrive with a trailer loaded with just the right materials to build a section …

The Secret Life of Badgers

Last night I went to a fascinating lecture given by Mike Noonan, a DPhil student with the Oxford University Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCru). This was organised by Yorkshire Mammal Group. WildCru have been studying badgers at Wytham Woods in Oxfordshire for the last 25 years.

The main focus of the talk was the development of new tracking devices for monitoring badger movements above and below ground. They are now collecting a vast amount of data, which is challenging many of the previous assumptions about badger society.

Every movement is being tracked
The new collars have three components that measure how a badger is moving and where it's moving to, above or below ground. A 'tri-axial accelerometer' records the pitch, yaw and roll of badgers (!) giving a good idea of what the badger is actually doing at a given time. Radio tracking only works well above ground, so they are using magneto-inductive devices to track badger movement below ground. Previous coll…

Autumn Update from the Badger Sett

The badgers I watch had no cubs this year, so it's been very quiet around the sett. During the summer they lost interest in peanuts. I saw them coming out and setting off across the wood or into the fields, but they stopped coming to the food I was putting out. I hoped this was because natural foods were in good supply and they had no need of my supplementary feeding. Next morning of course, the food was gone, but they'd taken it at two or three in the morning, long after I'd given up watching.

Over the last couple of weeks I've been putting food out again and now they're showing more interest, coming to it as soon as they emerge in the evening. At this time of year it's almost totally dark by the time they emerge, so really all I can see is the flip-out screen on my camcorder, with its infrared light illuminating the badgers.

A message from the badgers for National Badger Day
I had a simple idea for a short film for National Badger Day. Badgers are never …

Checking Bat Boxes

Today I've been with the East Yorkshire Bat Group, checking bat boxes in Allerthorpe Woods. Six species have been recorded there in the past.

Checking bat boxes
The first few boxes we checked contained only spiders. Then we found boxes with bat droppings inside and finally one with two bats. They were Soprano pipistrelles, one male and one female. I'd assumed the sub-species of Pipistrelle could only be distinguished by the frequency of their echo-location calls, but apparently there are physical differences too. The Sopranos have yellow colouring around the mouth, a distinct pattern of veins in the wings and they smell different from Common pipistrelles.

Soprano pipistrelle
The boxes were clustered together in groups of pine trees, with two or three boxes on a single tree in some places. After checking a group, we realised we'd missed a box out, which was easily done. Going back to it was well worthwhile, because it contained nine Natterer's bats. They were put in a b…

Building Tansy Enclosures

After a two week break in the Greek islands, which was lovely, I returned to my local patch last week. On Friday I went to a conservation work day at Poppleton Ings, on the north side of York. This is part of Yorkshire Wildlife Trust's River Ouse Floodplains project. While I was away, the volunteer group started building stock-proof enclosures which will be planted up with 600 of my home-grown tansy plants. This will provide additional safe habitat for the endangered tansy beetles which, in the UK, live only along a 30km stretch of the river Ouse around York and on one site in Cambridgeshire.

Judy and Emily hard at work (while I wander around taking photos)
These enclosures are an odd shape, to better divert flood waters, and the posts and rails are wired together to deter vandals (who will try to use them for firewood). We completed building the second enclosure and got some of the plants in.

Wiring the framework together
A completed enclosure
Mating tansy beetles