Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Buckenham Marshes

It was a cold, clear day at Buckenham Marshes, with frozen streams and frosty paths. This didn't stop the wigeon in their hundreds though. From stepping foot across the rail line, we could hear their whistling calls and see huge flocks nervously taking off and landing at the slightest shadow overhead. A teal or two were nestled amongst them, looking for security in the flock. Lapwings squared off at each other across the field, and robins laid claim to their territories. Rooks fed together in the fields and took off 'cawing' to the nearest clump of trees as we passed. The odd wren flitted across our path, and a kestrel hovered overhead. A perfect stroll in the winter sunshine.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

If you go down to the woods today...

... you might get blown away!

We were the only people around the entire of Foxley Wood yesterday, not another soul to be seen. Although it seemed like the trees themselves were possessed in the wind, creaking and rattling together like nothing so much as bones. We were mindful to try to keep away from the hanging branches; so many had snapped in the strong winds and were drooping down to the floor, held on by only a strip of bark.

It was far too blustery to see any birds of prey, and the woods were eerily quiet, barely any birdsong or evidence of any animal, although our keen eyes, now trained to look for hints of animals passing as well as the animals themselves, picked out a few tell tale signs.

I picked out the white rumps of two bullfinches as they flew away from the sounds of our approaching footsteps or the sight of our approaching silhouettes. Against the white, blanket cloud covered sky, I also picked out the dark silhouettes of several tree creepers flitting from tree to tree, their relatively streamlined shapes helping them in their efforts against the wind. My hunch was further clarified by finding two of these 'little brown birds', which I had only a fleeting glimpse of, and watching them wind their way up the swaying tree trunks.

As we delved further into the woods, we could hear the chinking alarm calls of blackbirds that we had accidentally disturbed, and could make out the occasional bird; wood pigeons sitting at the tops of trees silently waiting, then clattering off when we approached, or they had seen some phantom predator. The occasional miniature flock of blue and/or great tits trying to keep in the cover of the canopy, rather than risk being blown off course in the open. My husband spotted deer tracks in the mud, probably a roe deer, and I spotted the footprints of a large bird (probably a gull).

Not the greatest wildlife spotting adventure, but you don't always need to see 'them' in the flesh to enjoy a walk through the woods, and know that they are there somewhere, probably watching you from their far more sensible hiding places than walking through the woods, out in the open, blundering through a gale.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Creating a Nature Table

I think it's incredibly important that everyone takes an interest in observing and looking after our natural world. Being a secondary school science teacher, I do, in some respect, have the potential to influence the views of the pupils I teach. Even if ecology and natural history have no place in the new curriculum, that doesn't mean to say they have no place in my classroom.

When I first started at my school as an NQT, four years ago, I began a nature table. I could never remember, even at my primary school, seeing one when I was growing up, and thought it would be a good place to start. It generated some interest in my tutor group when they were year 7, but as they have grown, and as I have gained more responsibility, my nature table began to look dusty and unused.

I decided it was high time for a make over, so I have spruced up my nature table, at relatively low cost, and made it look a little more 'professional'. Here is a guide to how I did it, and I am writing in the hope that other teachers out there might follow my lead, or perhaps others will at home.

Materials required:

- 90 cm x 50 cm rectangle of green felt (£4.50)
- 50 cm strip of medium thickness wadding (£1.43)
- The lid of photocopier paper box
- brown and white acrylic paint
- The items you wish to display!

Steps to make your nature table:

1) Take your box lid and paint all one colour; I decided to go for a pale brown. Then, create a 'wood' effect by taking a darker brown and painting streaks all around the box lid. The idea behind this was to create a 'look-alike' drawer in which to display the objects of interest.

2) Cut out a piece of wadding to fit inside the box to line the bottom. This has two purposes; it creates a much cleaner look, and white is a nicer colour to display objects of varying colours on, and it also cushions the objects. The strip I bought is enough for more than three boxes.

3) Place your items inside the box in a pleasing arrangement, and write labels to identify them. If I had completed this part myself, I would have included both common and latin names, as well as date and place of collection. However, I decided to let members of my Science (STEM) Club identify and label them to get them more interested and involved.

4) On whichever surface your nature table is going to sit, spread out the green felt.

5) Place your box in pride of place, with other natural items surrounding it.

I am hoping to build up my collection of boxes. So far, we have a 'shell' box, and next on the agenda is feathers. If anyone else has any advice on making nature tables interesting to young people, I would be very interested to know, so please do comment below.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

A hare amongst the wigeons

Only the second time we've ever visited RSPB Buckenham Marshes (not far from our usual RSPB Strumpshaw Fen), and for the second time it was raining. That doesn't seem to put off the residents and migrants though. We hadn't walked far from the car park, when we heard the plaintive whistling of a wigeon. Just off the path, the other side of the stream were a little posse of male and female wigeon. They sat quietly for some time, then one starting making a strange reverberating sound, obviously irritated by his counterparts, and starting snapping at them. We decided to leave them be and carry on towards the single hide.

A hare began trotting, then bolting away from the path, and towards more unseen and unsuspecting wigeon, hiding in a hidden channel. As much as I don't like to anthropomorphise, I'm sure it ran at them intentionally, and for fun, as a huge flock took off, alarm calling, and landed further away on the opposite bank. Their alarm was not helped by a large and solitary marsh harrier flying lazily overhead, seemingly uninterested in an apparently easy meal.

From behind us we heard countless calls of 'jack, jack, jack', and upon turning around, were greeted with the sight of a mixed flock of jackdaws and rooks heading towards the telephone lines. Buckenham marshes hosts a large rookery (according to some sources, the largest in Europe), with tens of thousands of rooks and jackdaws. They settled all along the telephone wires leading from the train platform, and they continued along them for as far as the eye could see.

The final flourish was a flock of lapwings skimming over the ground and water, their wings flashing black and white as they flew and turned.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

A Murmuration of...

Wondering where to go on Sunday to enjoy the glorious weather and the great outdoors, and to see a wildlife spectacle I had never seen before, I saw a tweet pop up from @RSPBMinsmere about their 50,000 strong murmuration of starlings. Decision made.

On arrival, we were helpfully told where to be and at what time we should be ready to view the spectacle. It left us with an hour to enjoy at least a small part of the reserve. We headed to the 'Island Mere Hide', where there had been earlier reports of otters and bewick swans. We saw neither, but were entertained by the huge rafts of coots, a few diving cormorants and a little blue tit intent on stripping bare one of the rushes. This little bird stayed there, continually pulling away at the 'fluff' the whole time we were in the hide, and after we had left.
 We made our way back to the 'Bittern hide' for 3:30 pm, ready to watch the starlings gather and begin their display. Despite being early, the hide was almost full when we arrived, and there was certainly no seating room available. We waited and waited. After there had been no movement, except for the occasional call from a hidden Cetti's warbler, we decided to head outside and take our chances watching outside the hide, dodging either side of tree branches obscuring our view. The afternoon had been so clear and bright that the starlings took a long while to begin their mesmirising display. Eventually, we saw a flock of black dots moving against the orange glow of the sky, and the white glow of Sizewell B power station in the distance. Humble beginnings for such a majestic display. We kept watch. Eventually, the sky behind us became filled with the sound of wing beats, a rush of wind, and a flock flew over our heads and over the hide across the wetland to join the already thousands-strong murmuration traversing the horizon. More, and more, and more smaller flocks joined the larger flock, until I was sure there were more than the 50, 000 reported the previous day. They danced across the open sky, this way, that way, creating wave like movements as each bird adjusted its position to those next to it. The marsh harriers who had been waiting patiently, like we had, drifted close to the edges of the murmuration, hoping for a starling snack. We saw none get caught.

A beautiful sight, a 'tick' for both of us, and that contented feeling of having seen something truly special, one of nature's spectacles.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

On the hunt for red squirrels...

When I first applied to be one BBC Wildlife Magazine's 'Local Patch Reporters', I wrote on my application form that one of my wildlife goals for 2014 was to see red squirrels in the wild. This half term break seemed like the opportune time to to try to realise this ambition.

Luckily, one of my teacher / ecologist friends was staying on the Isle of Wight with her family whilst we were visiting Southsea. In trying to organise a visit for the day, she tantalisingly said that she had been 'reliably informed that squirrels come to a certain hide south of Ryde'. So, we had a plan.

Catching the hovercraft from Southsea to Ryde, we spotted several skeins of brent geese fly over. It would seem there is a huge eelgrass bed near Ryde pier which is where they start the winter. Having not seen these birds in a very long time, it set the tone for a successful wildlife watching day!

My friends picked us up from Ryde, and drove us to Alverton. We walked along tracks, spotting a grey wagtail, a very furry moth caterpillar and hearing a Cetti's warbler, buzzards and other interesting birds. There were also some amazing fungi adorning the trees either side of the path. I would hazard a guess at Southern bracket for the fungi pictured above right. Eventually we reached a bird hide, which is reportedly often hijacked by red squirrels. We waited for a few minutes, then we saw a red squirrel picking his way silently along the muddy bank of the river, then promptly disappeared again. I would have been happy at just seeing this one little fellow briefly, as I daren't get my hopes up too high. We spread a few peanuts, and within minutes our little squirrel was back, scaling the roof of the hide looking for food, scampering loudly through the trees. At one point, he jumped over all of us, ran along the fence, towards us, down and up the tree where we had placed some nuts, and came to within touching distance. The agility of this red squirrel out-competed anything I had ever seen the more familiar grey squirrels perform. Soon, he was joined by another, this one much more russet in colour and much more talkative, clinging to a tree just above us and loudly chirruping. He too clambered on top of the hide in search of the seeds and nuts we and other visitors had scattered. We watched for an unmeasurable amount of time. We were so absorbed in their antics that, I at least, had no concept of how much time had passed. Regrettably, we had to tear ourselves away, but had stayed to watch one of this cheeky pair fall asleep in a tree not too far from the hide.

We finished our day shell collecting on the beech, me gathering shells that I could add to my somewhat dusty nature table. Before we set off back to Southsea on the hovercraft, the brent geese bade us farewell, as did a flock of sanderlings and a rock pipit from the harbor.

Page from my nature diary detailing our sightings

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Foxley Fungi

Unbeknowingly to me, last Sunday was #UKFungusDay. We went for a drive to Foxley Woods, part of my local patch which we haven't visited in far too long. Surprisingly, most of the leaves are still intact on their trees. We could hear a number of birds, but did not see very many. That is, until a Marsh tit flew down right in front of us to feast at the edge of the hedgerow. 

The woods were full of beautiful colours, with fruits of the guelder rose bright red and shining in the sun after the early morning rain. Hawthorn berries adorned the trees along the edges of the woods and there were fungi everywhere. I am no expert in fungi, and despite uploading my photos to iSpot, I only have one out of four which have been identified. Nonetheless, they make exquisite shapes and colours in the landscape, on the forest floor or on dead wood, on living trees or anywhere they can lay down 'roots'.

Another thing I love about ancient woodland, or any woodland really, are the noises you can hear if you jut stop and listen. If you close your eyes, you can pick up all of the fluttering and bustling of wind blowing through the dry leaves of the trees, sounding like small footsteps all around. You can hear birds that you may otherwise miss, even if you can't identify them from call alone. One such bird was a trill nuthatch, so loud high up in the branches that I managed to track it down and have, as a result learnt a new birdsong. Another we heard, loud and clear above the noises of the woods, was a tawny owl, it's eerie hoot reminiscent of Halloween and horror films echoing through the woods in the early afternoon. Shortly after, a kestrel caught my attention flying and landing in a tall tree with few leaves.

We left promising we would return much sooner next time.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

September Walks

September is a time of year that I look forward to and dread in equal parts. It is the start of the new school year and, it may surprise some people, especially our new students, to hear that we teachers worry about what the start of term will be like and our how our new classes will be too. At the same time, we look forward to the fresh start of the year ahead, with new and eager faces to enthuse with science and familiar faces with whom we continue to enthuse or attempt to re-enthuse. It also marks the start of summer turning into autumn, with the calendar year beginning to draw to a close, with changing colours in the trees above and new wildlife sightings to be had, with birds reappearing after eclipse and winter migrants starting to make themselves known.

I have visited two well trodden parts of my local patch this month, the UEA broad and Strumpshaw Fen.

2nd September 2014 - UEA Broads

The day before the start of term, I decided to don my walking shoes and clear my head by heading to the UEA to walk around the broad and through the woodland. There were lots of people running and using the space, so there wasn't a huge amount of wildlife in plain sight, but the 'lake' still looked beautiful in the fading light. Walking along the boardwalk, I was lucky to glimpse a kingfisher perched on an overhanging branch, and as bad as this photo is, in my family proof of a kingfisher sighting is always required! The UEA rabbits were also out in force and robins were starting to sing by the field next to the horses. 

As I got closer to the end of the walk, I could hear countless small birds in one of the trees, but could not see any of them! I could pick out blue tits, great tits and perhaps long tailed tits too, but I could only guess at some of the others. I think there must have been an abundance of insects in this particular tree to have so many small birds of different species flocking to it.

27th September - Strumpshaw Fen

I've said it many times before, but I love going to Strumpshaw Fen. Whenever I visit, I am rewarded with a peaceful walk and some great photo opportunities. This time, it was with dragonflies, mostly Common darters. There were more of them than I could count, as well as some larger species that I could not see clearly enough to identify, but would hazard a guess at Southern hawkers and Emperor dragonflies. It has been unseasonably warm and dry for September, which may explain their abundance. It wasn't only members of the order of Odonata that we spotted this time, but also many avian species too. There were shovelers, gadwall and other ducks at the reception hide, and we spotted marsh harriers, herons, lapwings, greylag geese and a huge mute swan at the Fen hide and walking around the reserve. We spotted a volery of my favourite small bird, long tailed tits, when we were nearing the end of our walk. This gang must have been at least 20 - 30 strong and we stood and listened to their contact calls for a few minutes before moving on. 

Monday, 15 September 2014

The Galapagos - Santa Cruz

Our arrival at our fourth and final island was somewhat of a shock after our first three landings. There were actually people here, and lots of them, both tourists and locals. Welcome to Puerto Ayora, the biggest town in Galapagos, where over half the population of the entire archipelago live. Although, at least seemingly, in relative harmony with the wildlife. Watching fishmongers fillet enormous fish caught that day with a wild pelican eagerly awaiting one side and a sealion waiting below for anything that may fall off the table, was ever so slightly surreal.

Galapagos mocking bird at the Charles Darwin
Research Centre
Our first taste of this island was the Charles Darwin Research Centre. Although we unfortunately missed 'Lonesome George' by a couple of years, we did meet his two female companions who shared his enclosure. This was also the first and only time that we were able to see a land iguana. The animals here are part of a breeding program to increase numbers in the wild population again. Similarly, there were species of giant tortoise from a number of islands being used for breeding and release programs. Our guide told us, as we were standing by the monument of Lonesome George, how, as a child, he belonged to the 'friends of Lonesome George'. This meant he got to help feed the giant tortoises here and speak on the radio. To me, at least, this seems like a place where people and animals can coincide harmoniously and where the local people love and respect their environment and what a special place it is.

Captive giant tortoise at the Charles Darwin Research Centre

Captive land iguana at the Charles Darwin Research Centre

Wild giant tortoise in the highlands
The next day, our final full day on these 'charmed islands', we hired kayaks in Tortuga Bay, and went looking for, and found, white tipped reef sharks, green turtles and spotted eagle rays. The spotted eagle rays were in large groups, and some of the individuals had an enormous wingspan; easily wider than I am tall (I am 5' 7")!

Me with a wild giant tortoise!
In the afternoon, we were taken to farmland in the highlands where wild Santa Cruz giant tortoises come to graze. There were so many of them, it was difficult to believe really. Some were bigger than others, but some truly were giants, easily 500 - 600 lb. The small cafe by the entrance had three tortoise shells, which really made you appreciate how large these beasts are. We each had a photo with us inside the shells and there was little if any struggling required to fit (although it was a little more challenging getting out again)...

White cheeked pintail who was happily bathing with
the giant tortoises
On the same land, we also got to explore the lava tunnels. Amazing geological formations, created when huge flows of lava cooled down faster on top than below, causing a river of still hot and flowing lava to continue through and out, leaving the outer shell behind. These have then been further eroded by rivers of water during floods and other events, leaving them heavily scarred and patterned inside.

This unfortunately spelled the end of our time here, and the next day, we headed back to mainland Ecuador and to Quito. Most definitely the best holiday ever.

Me in a giant tortoise shell
Ribs and vertebrae inside tortoise shell