Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Creepy Caterpillars and Beautiful Butterflies

"I've been looking all over the place for you!"

When working in a school, this could mean any number of things, especially when standing at the corner of the corridor that leads to the staff room first thing in the morning before staff briefing... I replied with a tentative "Oh?"

"You've got caterpillars! They arrived in the post this morning, here you go!"

Deposited into my hand was a small box, which yes, did contain five very small caterpillars, much to delight; and much to everyone else's amusement when I announced my new arrivals during staff briefing.

Over the course of the next 20 days, the science department chose five names from a list produced by my year 9 tutor group, my year 10 triple science class and my two year 7 classes. Out of a very long list, we chose: Snellius (after the scientist who came up with Snell's Law), Sherlock, Humphrey, Eugine Phitsherbert and Pingu. My classes watched their development with a mixture of excitement, awe, disgust and doubt. Our creepy caterpillars grew quickly, became chrysalides and turned into beautiful butterflies which we released into the nature area. This is their story in pictures.


12.06.14 (morning)

12.06.14 (afternoon)
Looks like they're getting ready to pupate
All but one are now chrysalides
Over the weekend, the fourth has caught up
After a bit of a fight with the string and the silk they had woven, we transferred them to the hatching habitat
All five had emerged when I arrived at work. We fed them with sugar water and banana.
The red liquid is what they have used to pump out their wings and then expelled.
Release day!
All of the others flew straight out when we opened the lid, but this one seemed reluctant to go...

Sunday, 15 June 2014

The Norfolk Bat Survey

Common pipistrelle sonogram
(from the Norfolk Bat Survey)
I found out about this project through BBC Wildlife Magazine, and I'm very glad I did. The Norfolk Bat Survey is a project that was started in April 2013. It allows volunteers to sign up to their choice of 1 km square anywhere in Norfolk, and they commit to placing out a bat detector for three nights in three different locations within their square. In 2013, 352 people in all took part in the survey; these volunteers surveyed 448 1 km squares and submitted over 250, 000 recordings (Newson et al. 2014). This type of 'citizen science' is really important in raising the awareness and involvement of the community, and it also allows a much larger amount of data to be collected within a given time frame.

Soprano pipistrelle
(from the Norfolk Bat Survey)
I didn't participate last year, but very much enjoyed it this year. I completed the survey in the first week of June, and chose the 1 km square which encompasses where I live. The results from my square were as follows:

Monday 2nd June 2014
490 Common pipistrelle
7 Soprano pipistrelle
2 Noctule

Tuesday 3rd June 2014
33 Common pipistrelle
4 Soprano pipistrelle
(from the Norfolk Bat Survey)

Thursday 5th June 2013
3 Common pipistrelle
1 Soprano pipistrelle

Considering that the first set of results were literally from right outside my window, it gives me a much greater insight into what bats have been visiting. I had my suspicions that some were pipistrelles, but had no idea what the larger bats were. When I listened back to some of the recordings, the Noctule sounded particularly odd compared to the other recordings; much richer and deeper. Stuart from the Norfolk Bat Survey helpfully included some example sonograms of the three species that were detected, as shown above, when I was sent the results for my patch. He also said there has been a much wider uptake of the survey this year, with over 700 volunteers so far this season and over 100, 000 recordings analysed. However, there has been a much greater uptake in some areas than others, so they are looking for more volunteers to cover more of the county. If you would like to get involved, the project runs until the end of September, and you can sign up here: batsurvey.org/sign-up/ !

Not only did this survey give me a valuable insight into the bats where I live, it was also some kind of small personal triumph. After finishing my BSc Ecology (Hons.), I decided to pursue a career in teaching rather than science. Projects like this make me feel as though I can still take part in 'proper science', even though I chose not to follow that career path, and is something I can value not only for myself, but can also share with my pupils and encourage them to get involved too.

Newson et al. (2014) Bat monitoring: a novel approach.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014


Little grebe from Bittern hide
On Sunday 8th June, a fellow teacher sidekick of mine and I decided to take an hour's drive to visit Minsmere in Suffolk. I have been meaning to visit this reserve for a very long time, and have never quite got round to it before. With Spring watch being based there this year, it seemed there would be no better time to give it a try! This RSPB reserve is enormous, and is just as beautiful as they have portrayed it to be on Spring watch. It was a gorgeous hot and sunny day, and we saw more than thirty species of bird, and some other surprises besides.

Tree creeper hanging around
When we first arrived, we decided to head straight to the Bittern Hide, which boasts regular views of bittern and other birds. We saw no bitterns this time, but did have some very good views of a very sweet little grebe. I'm sorry to say that this is the very first time I have seen a little grebe, so there is another first for me this year! Due to the increased number of visitors, they helpfully had an RSPB volunteer stationed in every hide to aid with observations. The volunteer in this hide was immensely helpful, and got me started learning the calls of two different warblers we could hear: the Cetti's warbler and the reed warbler. Emma's wish for near the bittern hide was to see a tree creeper, because she had never seen one before. Luckily, on our way to the next hide, a very handsome tree creeper decided to oblige and complete its ritual dance around a tree trunk for us.

On our way to the second hide, we seemed to be doing a very good job of chasing a Cetti's warbler, but even though it sounded like it was right next to us, we never saw a glimpse. One of the loveliest things about this reserve though, was how friendly the other visitors were. As we were peering through the trees for our Cetti's warbler, a couple encouraged us to hurry to the hide where they'd just seen a spoonbill and a bittern! We missed the bittern, but the spoonbill had stayed put. I didn't get the best photo in the world, but it at least proves we've seen one... We also had a pair of spotted red shank and some good photo opportunities for little egrets and grey herons.
Little egret

Spotted redshank in foreground, shelduck further back

Grey heron in flight
Common tern
 The second hide looked over the scrape, as did the third hide, but from the opposite side. That meant we got to see avocets nesting (could it have been Audrey?), black headed gulls nesting, common terns, sandwich terns, baby coots and moorhens, amongst others.

As we were walking around, we were constantly surrounded by sand martins on all sides, and the occasional swallow. It was wonderful to see these agile birds up close. Sometimes they were soaring overhead, other times landing on the path above us. Eventually we walked to their nesting cliff, and saw them swiftly entering their nesting holes, feeding and leaving. They seemed to have no time to waste.
Sandwich terns

Baby coots
Avocets nesting
Black headed gull on nest
Sand martins nesting in cliff
 Later on in the evening, we decided to walk back to the bittern hide to try our luck. We still hadn't seen a bittern, but were surrounded by people all day talking about how they had never seen so many bitterns... We passed a group of three visitors with very large cameras. I asked them what they were looking for, and we discovered that a bittern had recently flown into the reeds. We waited... and waited... waited a little longer, and the bittern didn't come out. We continued on, and were stopped by an excited couple who had just seen an adder. They told us to be quick, but careful, as it had apparently been hissing angrily at them. We found it, but it seemed unphased by us; it just wanted to get back under cover.
Adder retreating to cover
On our way, we came across more very fluffy moorhen chicks. When we arrived at the hide, we were greeted by about twenty other visitors with the same idea as us. We all sat, speaking in hushed tones, with the occasional call out of 'reed warbler' or other bird in the reeds. I watched what turned out to be a Cetti's warbler hurrying to and from a clump of reeds right next to the hide, although I had no idea that's what it was at the time. A red deer also appeared and grazed at the waters' edge the whole time we were in the hide. As time was ticking on, we were thinking about leaving. I left Emma with my binoculars whilst I made a quick phone call. When I came back in, I was greeted with the news that I had missed two bitterns and a Cetti's warbler... Ah well... There's always next time!

Moorhen chick
Red deer
Cute baby rabbit in the car park

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Wild Hen Weekend

I am so lucky to have such wonderful friends who know me so well. My bridesmaids organised my hen weekend; everything was a complete surprise. Not only did they take us to make silver charms, for dinner, dancing and afternoon tea, they also arranged for us to go and see the seals at Blakeney point. I've only been once before, and in the depths of winter, so it was lovely to revisit in spring to see both the grey and the common seals. There were also lots of seabirds; black headed, herring, greater black backed gulls and common, sandwich and little turns to be seen.

So, they were my surprise delights over the weekend. On the Monday, I had agreed to help a friend complete a bird survey of a local organic farm. A 4:00 a.m. start straight after my hen weekend was a bit of a struggle, but it was well worth it. We saw a total of 46 species in all, and at least four out of the ten farmland specialists we were after; including yellowhammers, skylarks, linnets and white throats. I was also quite pleased with the number of different bird songs I appear to have learnt over the past year or so. Usually I only hear birds separately, but with so many singing together it was a privilege to be able to pick a few out. With the "bread, bread, bread, bread, cheeeeeeeese" of the yellowhammer, the sparkling song of flying linnets and the delights of the endless cascading song of the skylark in display flight, it really was magical.

Yellowhammer posing, just before treating us to its song

At that time of the morning, we were also treated to wonderful views of roe and muntjac deer and enormous amounts of hares; we saw nearly 20 in just one field! I love hares, and I could happily sit and watch them all day. A couple even decided to have a brief box, behaviour which I have never before witnessed for myself. We also saw some beautiful butterflies, including the silver-studded blue and the speckled wood below. Helpfully, it was still too early for the butterflies to have fully warmed up, so they were very obliging it letting us get close-up photos.

A roe deer, sussing us out from a distance
Muntjac deer

Speckled wood
Silver-studded blue