Sunday, 29 January 2017

A year in the life of...

Ok, so it's been a fairly long time since my last blog post, but in my defence, I'm lazy! And also have been pretty busy recently. Which I know is no excuse really, so I thought I should bite the bullet and do a quick update blog to get you all up to speed. The longer I wait, the more stuff I have to update you all on! It's a bit long, just to warn you!

Job Update:
My contract got extended for a year until the end of March 2017! Yay! Clearly I can't be doing too bad of a job or they would have just got someone new so that's reassuring :) 2016 was a busy year work-wise though, lots of surveys to be done, reports to be written, and lots of forest plans and funding applications to read through and comment on! 

This year my boss and I worked to implement a few changes to the lek counts as we've now both got experience of the stressful, busy time that is the lek count season. We put some trail cameras out at lek sites to see if these would allow us to remotely monitor some of the smaller leks that are harder to survey. These weren't too successful though, as they just can't get a good enough view of all birds at once, especially if the lek isn't quite where you think it is... Another thing we trialled was installing bioacoustics technology (that's microphones to you and me) at a few leks. Luckily, an ecological consultancy with much experience of this technology came up and installed the devices and have analysed all of the recordings for us! These were semi-successful in that they found out some more information about timings of leks etc that we didn't know for certain before and had previously only guessed at, but we're hoping to get some more detailed information from these recordings; specifically, the number of individual calling males would be great! But we've been told this is super time-consuming to analyse the data in this way and they're doing this for us for free, so we may not be able to get this data, although it would be great if we do! 

The biggest change we made to lek counts though was to get more staff involved! Previously lek counts and cold-searches (to find the leks) have only been carried out by the Capercaillie Team (2 people) and a few other trusted and well-trained people from private estates/Forestry Commission Scotland; all trusted surveyors with many years of experience of counting capercaillie on their sites. Which is all well and good, and it's extremely helpful that these people carry out surveys on their sites (seriously, can't thank them enough!) but my boss and I visit approximately 50 leks on top of this, in the space of about 2 weeks, and it is very difficult to visit all of these leks within this key time period. Ttime is super tight, we work everyday for those few weeks, and there is absolutely no spare time to re-survey any leks at all, so each just gets counted once and that's it. So if we visit a lek just before the peak time or get a low count because of weather conditions, we don't have time to go back and try again; not very accurate. This year, we decided to mix it up a bit and see if we could increase our coverage and accuracy. We recruited the help of other RSPB Scotland staff as well as SNH and FCS staff (who are partners in our roles) to get involved and help us out. This was pretty time-consuming in Feb/March and it took a lot of effort to organise everyone and train them to accurately survey capercaillie without disturbing the birds. It was quite a stressful time, but it was definitely worth it in the end! Due to the help of these wonderful people we were able to cold-search a wider area (and even found a developing new lek!) and were able to count 12 leks a second time, something which has never been managed before (as far as I'm aware) and helps to make our lek counts more accurate! Winner! We're hoping that these same staff who are now trained to safely and accurately survey capercaillie leks will be able to help us out again in 2017, which will help to streamline the process and will hopefully allow us to continue to increase the accuracy of our counts! Result!

I also got involved with capercaillie brood count surveys this year, which was great! Brood counts are done with highly trained dogs and their handlers, plus extra people (like me) to make up the numbers. We all walk in a line through the forest and the dogs find any broods that are around. It's very important the the dogs are highly trained for this specific sort of survey method, as we don't want to lose any precious capercaillie chicks to untrained dogs. Also, this is the reason we don't want members of the public letting their dogs run off through the forest in the breeding season, and why was want dogwalkers to stick to the paths, where chicks are less likely to be hiding. Dogs eat things, it's a natural instinct, but we don't want them eating capercaillie chicks! You can help capercaillie in Scotland by keeping your dog on a lead from March-August and sticking to proper paths and trails through forests. 

Brood counts were great (but hard work!) and I even got to see a couple of well-grown capercaillie chicks, a first for me! Literally just a couple though, as 2016 was yet again a bad breeding season for capercaillie; the second poor breeding season in a row. The cold,wet weather that we experienced in early June would have hit them hard, as this is when the newly-hatched chicks are roaming around with their mummy hen. It's easy for them to get wet and cold, and it's harder for them to find insect food when it's raining. If the poor weather continues for a few days in a row, it can cause chicks to die as they just can't dry out or can't find enough food to sustain them. Capercaillie chicks grow very quickly and need a lot of high-quality protein (in insect form) to achieve this. 2015 was also a bad breeding season for capercaillie, but we're hoping that 2017 will be better. Finger's crossed everybody.

Life Update:
Bit of a hectic year for me, life-wise! I've ended up having to move house twice this year!! I was in a shared house at the start of the year but the owners decided to sell it so I had to move out of there, which was unfortunate as it was a really lovely place! So after that I moved into a nice wee flat just down the road from the previous place, where I was living with one other girl, my landlady. I probably should have noticed the warning signs: she wanted no references, no deposit, and outright refused to give me a contract/lease of any sort! So maybe this one was my fault, if I'd realised how crazy things would get (she banned me from using many things like the washing machine, shower etc because HOW DARE I think I can use the things I pay to use!!), I probably wouldn't have moved in there. So I moved out of that place in August and instead moved across town to live in my friend's one bedroom flat which she rents out. As luck would have it, the previous tenant was just leaving, so I was able to move in pretty much straight away! It's unfurnished, but I had some furniture from the previous flat (the bedroom was unfurnished, another warning sign perhaps!) and people  kindly donated their old/unwanted furniture to me, so I did pretty well out of it in the end! Long may it continue!

In other news, I went to the doctors and was told I was anaemic, yet again (insert eye-roll here) and once again was told it was just because I'm vegetarian. I asked if there was any other possible cause as I've been anaemic for at least 10 years now and I've never been offered a solution or a believable cause. Anyway, long story short, I got a blood test for coeliac disease (an autoimmune condition where your body hates gluten), which came back as 'extremely positive'. Slightly concerning. But they can't just diagnose coeliac disease from the blood test, so I was sent off for an endoscopy but was told it would be months before I got an appointment and to eat gluten free in the meantime. Not easy for someone who survives on cake! Anyways, I eventually got my appointment through for early January 2017, and had to start eating gluten again for 6 weeks beforehand, which meant I could have the most gluten-filled Christmas of my life! Yay! Made me feel pretty shit really, but I had to eat it, for science! AND there was a chance it was my last gluteny Christmas, like, EVER(!!!) so I just went for it. See 2017 below for results!

Also: CRAFTS. I seem to have gotten more into crafty things this year, I don't know why. I've always loved making things, ever since I was a kid, but this year I've stepped up my game. I guess it's just because I know I'm going to be in the same place for a little while, which makes it easier. So I've been decorating candles (and myself!) with henna (and sometimes glitter), I've been drawing lots of mandalas, decorating little wooden hearts, I made a rug from old t-shirts which were too destroyed to give away, I've decorated some glass jars for utensils etc, and colouring all the colouring books I can get my hands on! So now I have many candles, hearts etc that are just sitting in my house, see my Facebook page or messgae me on here if you might be interested in buying one, they'll just sit in a darkened cupboard otherwise, poor things. Some photos below.
Stormtrooper candle
Elephant candle
Coffee jars
Stag heart


So the big news of 2017 is that I have been diagnosed with coeliac disease...yay? Kind of yay, but kind of boo. Basically, this just means that my body hates itself and if I eat anything with gluten in it (i.e. anything tasty and awesome: bread, cakes, pastry, biscuits, cereal, and loads of other random foods that they sneak gluten into for no apparent reason) then my body goes mental and attacks my insides and I feel awful and sick and get horrible stomach pains etc. I had the endoscopy in early January, which was horrible. Awful. So so so so bad. I swear the sedation did nothing and the throat spray burned but didn't prevent the sore throat I had for a week afterwards. Really hope I don't ever need another! I got my results through just last week, which said that yes, I do have coeliac disease and my life will never be the same again. The good news is all I have to do is cut out gluten (easier said than done!) and then I'll be a-okay :) The bad news is, I want ALL the tasty gluteny cakes! But cutting out these foods will make me better, and is the only treatment for coeliac disease, so we'll see how it goes, I'll keep you posted.

I'll never be able to eat this sort-of delicious-looking, slightly OTT on the food colouring rainbow cake :(

In other news, I for some reason am taking part in a bird race with some other folks in the office. Which is cool and all, I don't really do much birding and I don't ususally keep lists so it will be nice to keep track. However, this is mostly because I'm a rubbish birder! I'm doing ok so far (I think) but we'll see how it goes. I've been posting updates on Twitter, so follow me on there (@SarahBirding) if you want to keep track of how i'm doing! Highlights so far: hawfinch (a lifer for me!), American wigeon, and of course capercaillie! It just wouldn't be the same without those big black turkeys :) 

I think that's all so far, check back soon for (hopefully regular) updates of my weird life!

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

I am now a featured blogger!

Just a very quick post to say that I am still alive and will do an update this weekend if I can!

Also, I was recently asked to produce a short blog post for the Scotlands Natural Heritage (SNH) blog, called Scotlands' Nature. It's all about the important national survey of capercaillie that's currently taking place in Scotland right now, to see how the population is doing. It's just gone live today so check it out! Here's the link.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

After the dust has settled...

It's now the end of May and I have been in my new role as Capercaillie Project Assistant for nearly five months now, a busy few months indeed! My first few weeks invovled getting to know the role and all of the beautiful conifer forests that I would be spending most of my time in, then came the survey work. 

Surveying for capercaillie is a bit different to most other bird surveys, in that you actually don't see the birds that often. Mostly, my survey work at the beginning of the year involved a lot of walking around forests and looking for capercaillie poo, feathers, footprints, dust baths, or any other signs that they have been using an area. Once we know where they're using, we can survey the birds! Of course, since this project has been going for many years now, we're fairly sure that we know all of the areas that have any serious activity going on in them, but you never can be sure until you've checked... Anyways, for the first month or so of my contract, this is what I was doing -  walking around forests that have birds in, looking for areas where the activity it centered, so that we can come back and survey them in the lekking season, when cocks do a little display dance to attract in hens to mate with.

Capercaillie droppings
For capercaillie, the lek season doesn't last long at all. Black Grouse, for example, will lek for a couple of months, allowing each lek site to be counted multiple times, at least twice. Capercaillie on the other hand, lek for a couple of weeks in April. So we have to survey (an co-ordinate others to survey) all of the leks in Scotland in the space of just a few weeks. And within those weeks there is a peak of activity when all of the hens come down from the trees to be mated, before going off to nest. Unfortunately, there just isn't enough resource to visit all leks within the peak, let alone twice! But they do all get one count, and this, combined with other survey data, is good enough to get an idea of the size of the breeding population. 

Lovely bit of Scots pine forest
The lek surveys are pretty intense, having to fit so many surveys into such a small window is not easy! So we have to search the forests before-hand, so that we know we're going to the right place when it comes to the lek surveys and we don't waste valuable time wandering about. In addition to this, the birds only display very early in the morning, so our surveys involve hiking into the forest, camping overnight in a hide (pretty cold in early April!) and getting up at the crack of dawn to survey the number of males displaying and the number of females watching this display. This all requires special licences from SNH, as capercaillie are a Schedule 1 bird and highly protected under law from any disturbance while displaying, nesting, or with chicks. We take every precaution possible to ensure that the birds don't know we're there, as we want them to have a successful breeding season! So after the cocks have finished displaying, we pack up, search another area, and set up the hide again in a different forest ready for later that night! Very intense, but worth it to know how these birds are faring.
One benefit of lots of late nights and early mornings is seeing the sunrise through the trees
That's all over now, and currently I'm working to collate all of the data from these surveys, a rather large task! Once we've got the data in we can compare it to previous years and see how the birds are doing. In addition to this, I'm visiting forests that have had capercaillie in the past, or new forests that may become suitable habitat in the future, to see if birds are starting to use and re-colonise these areas. There's a lot of woodland to check though! And hopefully there will be even more areas of forest in future years as people continue to plant up areas. Capercaillie are big birds, and they need big areas of forests (preferably Scots pine) with lots of blaeberry and boggy patches in order to survive. If we want their numbers to increase, we need to increase the area and quality of suitable habitat!
I do get to visit some beautiful places
Although the lekking season is over for the capercaillie, it doesn't all end there. The hens should be on nests now and are very vulnerable. Even after the eggs hatch and they can move away from the nest, the hen and her chicks are vulnerable to predation, bad weather, and human disturbance. Human disturbance is a major issue that we're trying to tackle through education and information, ensuring that signs are put up in capercaillie-sensitive areas asking people to stick to the paths and keep their dogs on leads. Dogs can kill capercaillie adults and chicks, and with such a small population, we need every bird we can get! Hens can get separated from their chicks if flushed from the ground by a human presence, and won't come back to chicks if you're still in the area, making them even more vulnerable. So if you're out walking in the forests up in the Highlands (and let's face it, why wouldn't you be?), please keep to the paths and keep your dogs on a lead, and adhere to all signs regarding capercaillie. And if you see any capercaillie poo or any birds, please report it!
All in a day's work for CaperGirl!

Sunday, 8 February 2015

My Next Adventure...

Yep, it's official, starting next week I'm off on a new adventure! I'm travelling back up to Inverness to become the Capercaillie Project Assistant until March 2016! Mega news! I'm so happy to have gotten a full 12 month contract, a big achievement for someone that has just worked seasonally in nature conservation so far. This contract is a joint post with the RSPB, FCS (Forestry Commission Scotland) and SNH (Scottish Natural Heritage), so it should give me loads of awesome experience and connections which will definitely help me to progress in my career with the RSPB, so yay me! Click here to find out more about this joint project to conserve Capercaillie.

A male Capercaillie, resplendant in his beautiful plumage, dancing at a lek to attract females
This role will mostly involve surveying lekking (displaying) male Capercaillie, advising landowners about the management of their land for Capercaillie, and counting how many chicks they manage to raise! For those that don't know a Capercaillie is a big, black, beautiful grouse, male shown above. They are found across Europe but in the UK they are limited to Scotland. They went extinct in the UK in the 1700's due to the felling of Scotland's native pinewoods, but were reintroduced in the 1800's after more forests had been planted. The population boomed as birds spread into the suitable habitat, but numbers soon decreased again as demand for wood increased, especially during the wars, and their habitat was once again destroyed. By 1999, only 1000 birds remained. Their numbers have increased since then due to targeted management of Scotland's forests by the RSPB, FCS and SNH. However, the population is still struggling to increase as Capercaillie need large areas of woodland for feeding and breeding. They really like native Caledonian pine woods (the kind of forest that used to cover most of Scotland) but this has mostly been cut down and replaced with more profitable plantation woodlands, which require specific management to be suitable. They need lots of Blaeberry to eat and Heather to hide in, plus boggy areas for the chicks to feed in, so their management can be quite complicated. This is why they have become restricted to a just few Core Areas in Scotland, with the majority found around the Cairngorms National Park. Due to their low numbers and the small areas of suitable habitat, these birds are still at risk of becoming extinct in the UK for a second, and possibly final, time. It is because of this that the RSPB, FCS and SNH are working together to survey and monitor Capercaillie throughout the year and increase the amount of suitable habitat so that these birds can flourish once more.

Blaeberry, also known as Bilberry, the Capercaillies favourite food
The surveys for these birds seem to mostly take place at dawn, as this is when the males get together and dance and sing to attract in the females, so it sounds like I'll be spending a lot of nights camping out in hides so that I can count the birds at dawn! Most people seem to think I'm crazy to want to camp overnight and get up super early to count birds, but I can't help it, I just love it!

Hopefully I'll manage to get some photos as good as this!
I'm not particularly organised right now, but I've found somewhere to live up in Inverness, in a very nice new build house with two housemates who both seem lovely. It's warm, it's got internet and TV, it's got people, it's out near the countryside in easy access of walks, and generally just seems like a nice place to live so I'm happy with that! I may have to get a bike, but that's no issue. I'm slowly working my way through a long list of things to do before I officially move up there next weekend, so wish me luck!

A Small Tribute to a Wonderful Nana.
I started writing this blog for my nana, to keep her up to date with all of my adventures as I travel around for conservation jobs. She got my grandpa to print off each new entry so that she could read them and show them around half of Bolton by the sounds of it! She was always interested in what I was doing and was really supportive of my choice to go running off across the country to do a job that I love. She's an amazing woman and I wish she was here to follow my next adventure. You will always be in my heart.
My beautiful Nana, you will always be missed.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Good Times!

Quite a lot has happened since my last update, as the one that I did in between didn't actually post online... Never mind. I have now finished my job up in Perthshire and am back down south once more! I absolutely loved the job in Perth though, I got to see some amazing places and monitored some beautiful birds! In the latter half of the job I was mainly focused on wader surveys, counting the number of breeding pairs of Oystercatcher, Lapwing, Curlew, Redshank and Snipe across several different locations to see how the breeding populations have changed inTayside since 1992. The outcomes of this were pretty much what we expected with decreases seen in the number of Lapwing and Redshank, although Curlews actually increased in some areas which was unexpected as they are known to be decreasing on a national scale. The number of Oystercatchers increased in many areas, whilst Snipe were up and down across the sites as they are known to be difficult to survey with any accuracy. But overall, a pretty good season for these birds, with chicks and fledged young seen across several of these sites!

However, I think one of the big highlights of this role was surveying breeding raptors. This is something that I had done before in small doses but never quite to this scale, covering large areas of land and monitoring the nests of any raptor species that I came across. It seems to have been a fairly good season for most raptors too, with many of the nests that I was following fledging chicks. I really enjoyed all of the raptor work that I did but I think my favourite was monitoring a pair of nesting Merlin on one of my sites. They proved to be quite elusive at times but I did eventually find the nest with 3 healthly young chicks, all of which fledged successfully! I was also able to help with ringing three Peregrine chicks in a nest that I was monitoring, applying little radio tags so that they could be followed throughout their lifetime - an amazing experience!

Merlin chicks!
Peregrine chicks being ringed
As well as all of this, I also had the chance to visit another RSPB reserve up in the far north of Scotland this year to help out with the monitoring of the seabirds that breed on the beautiful Priest Island. The island is host to a variety of habitats, from heathland to bogs, and rocky caves to boulder beaches and scree, but there is one seabird that can nest in any of these conditions - the Storm Petrel. It is a tiny black and white bird, about the size of a sparrow but it spends it's entire life out at sea, only coming ashore to nest. These tiny birds nest in burrows and will make a burrow anywhere they can - in crevices between rocks, in cracks in the underlying peat, and even in old rabbit burrows. As they are so small they are very vulnerable to predation and can only nest in areas where there are no ground predators such as rats, although predation from other birds is still a possibility so they only come out of the burrows at night, with the adults switching over incubation duties every few days. Priest Island is a haven for these birds as it has no ground predators and is host to one of the largest Storm Petrel colonies in Britain - making it an incredibly important place for nature conservation. It is a SSSI and an SPA, giving it legal protection and it is managed by the RSPB who visit the island every year to survey these birds as part of an on-going study into their survival and breeding success. In addition to this, once every five years the RSPB surveys the breeding population of the Storm Petrels across the island to see how they are doing.

Priest Island
View across Priest island
I went along to help out with this five-yearly survey. This involved camping out on the island in the only spot where there are none of these birds nesting and going out each day to survey a different area of the island. We didn't do any surveys at night as we didn't want to disturb these birds or prevent them from re-entering their burrows. The survey itself involved playing a tape of Storm Petrel calls and counting how many birds sing back to the tape, announcing their territory. However not all birds will respond all the time, so we had to use study plots to calibrate these results. At no point did we try to catch the birds or find the burrow entrances as we wanted to cause the least amount of disturbance possible whilst surveying them. This is all part of a long-running study with very experienced staff and I'm very happy that I got to be a part of it! I'm not sure of the final numbers but I'm hoping that the population of Storm Petrels on this island is remaining stable or increasing, despite some issues with habitat destruction caused by visitors to the island knocking down walls where these birds breed, or disturbing the birds in the breeding season. However, a recent paper on the subject shows that they may be declining at this site - you can read the abstract of this paper here.

Another big plus of my job this year was that it was based near the city of Perth, providing me with easy access to supermarkets, shops, restaurants, cafes, pubs, clubs, a cinema and much much more! So I was able to have a bit more of a social life which was very enjoyable! I even went rock climbing a few times with people from the office (even though I'm a bit rubbish!), as well as meeting up with them for drinks and clubbing, hill walking, and I even managed to get to yoga a few times. Pretty good going really! We also took a team trip to the Isle of May to visit the lovely seabird colony there, climbed Ben Vrackie as the leaving do for the summer staff (i.e. me!) and I helped out the Orkney Seabird Heritage Project by making a paper mache Arctic Tern!

Rock climbing in Dundee
Beautiful sunny day on the Isle of May!
The seabird colony on the Isle of May
The team at the top of Ben Vrackie! Not my photo but I thought it was too great not to use it! Hopefully I will be forgiven.
Alex the Arctic Tern, now all the way up in Orkney for the Heritage Project, which will be coming to Edinburgh at some point I think. Check the website for more info.
So what now, you ask? Well at the moment, not a lot. I'm back home, looking for jobs and hoping something good comes my way and taking the opportunity to relax a bit whilst I sort stuff out for going to Mauritius. Yes, that's right, MAURITIUS! I've been accepted to volunteer with the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF) for six months starting in January, where I'll be helping out with the seabird project - you can find out more information about this project here. It sounds like it's going to be an amazing experience, and everyone that I've spoken to that's volunteered with MWF previously has really enjoyed it and highly recommends it! So I've put in my application for a visa/work permit and am now just waiting to hear if it's been accepted before I can book flights and insurance and sort out everything else. It's not paid, but I'm really looking forward to it and all the more reason to find a job in the meantime! Watch this space!!
I had a great time on holiday in Mauritius a few years ago and I'm really looking forward to going back!

Sunday, 15 June 2014

A Season of Surveys

Well, it has been a long, LONG time since I last posted anything! I've been keeping very busy up here in my new job in Perthshire (although I guess it's not that new any more, since I'm more than halfway through my contract!), but it feels like only a few weeks since I started! How the time does fly. This role is pretty much a bird surveying role, which often seems to involve lots of early starts and late finishes, as the birds that I'm surveying (and pretty much all birds, in fact) are most active at dawn and dusk. So I've been up with the dawn and asleep after dark, working some strange hours, with a bit of a break in the middle! I'm definitely enjoying it though and I've seen some beautiful birds and amazing sights! Unfortunately my camera's been playing up a bit (think I've dropped it a few too many times) so I've not taken as many photos as I would have liked, but here's a bit of an insight into the wide variety of survey work that I've been doing for the past few months, with a few photos here and there.

From the day I arrived I've been thrown into fieldwork, checking out sites, calling landowners for permission to survey on their land, and counting nesting birds! The first birds on the list were Black Grouse. Not quite so well known as the Red Grouse (also known as the Famous Grouse), which are shot regularly on sporting estates. Black Grouse are also classed as gamebirds and have an open season for shooting, although it is illegal to shoot them in the breeding season. However, as Black Grouse are declining in numbers across the country, very few estates actually shoot these birds. In early spring, the males (or cocks) gather in groups (called leks) to do a little dance and attract in the females (or hens), and this is how we survey them. The RSPB works closely with the Perthshire Black Grouse Study Group to survey as many Black Grouse leks as possible each year. These surveys involve a pre-dawn start, arriving at the lek site before sunrise to count the number of displaying males. But despite the early starts, these were definitely my favourite surveys, it was so amazing to see these birds in all their dancing action! I love it when they wiggle their little white powder-puff tails!

Searching the hills for lekking Black Grouse
4 lekking male Black Grouse, taken through a telescope in the rain so not the best quality photo!
As part of this role I've been given a licence by SNH (the environmental government organisation in Scotland), which allows me to monitor breeding raptors. Most birds of prey are Schedule 1 species, which means they have the highest level of legal protection and a licence is required to go anywhere near these birds in the breeding season. You may have heard about the struggle that Hen Harriers face in the UK due to illegal persecution, but other raptors are persecuted as well, including Peregrines, Buzzards, Red Kites and more, often by sporting estates, which want to stop these birds from taking the Pheasant/Grouse chicks on their estate so that they can raise lots of adult birds for the shoot. But not all estates are like this. Many sporting estates are happy to have these raptors on their land as it shows that they have a healthy ecosystem. The Langholm Moor Demonstration Project has shown that raptors can live and breed successfully on shooting estates without having a negative impact on grouse shoots, so it is possible for the two to work in harmony. The RSPB work closely with raptor friendly estates, and part of my role involves surveying raptors and monitoring any nests that I find to see how well they are doing. I've also been checking out lots of potential nesting sites for Peregrines, as part of a national survey organised by the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) this year. Hen Harriers and Peregrines are beautiful, amazing birds and I'm very lucky to be monitoring these and other birds of prey.
Sitting above the low-lying clouds, surveying for Hen Harriers and other raptors
Visiting some beautiful places looking for nesting Peregrines
The other big surveys that I do are lowland wader surveys. This involves walking through lowland farmland areas and recording any breeding waders that I see or hear, especially displaying birds, as well as any nests, eggs or chicks that I find. These surveys have to be carried out within 3 hours of dawn or dusk, so more early starts, but I do love my job so it's worth it! Especially when I find eggs or chicks! And there have been quite a few chicks around this year! I'm looking at 5 wader species; Oystercatcher, Lapwing, Curlew, Redshank, and Snipe, and surveying the breeding success of these species.

Beautiful sunset after surveying waders
One of my wader survey sites
Lapwing nest
Curlew nest
Lapwing chick!
I'm also surveying Black-throated Divers, and I'll be surveying a few other species in the coming months, so I've still got a way to go yet but I'm loving every minute of it! I've even managed to have a bit of a social life! It's much easier to go shopping or go out on the town when there's an actual town nearby! But more on that later...

P.S. Happy Father's day to a wonderful dad!

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Yorkshire Photo Blog

So I've decided to do something a bit different today - as I am now back home in Hertfordshire and have decent internet access - a photo blog! And here it is, a description of what I've been up to in Yorkshire over the winter, told through the use of my own lovely photographs!
When I first arrived, there was little water on the lagoons, creating great conditions for wading birds such as Ruff, Curlew Sandpiper and Redshank to feed on the small invertebrates living in the mud
Stray/injured/lost birds are often brought into the RSPB, and this young Gannet, named 'Captain Beaky', was no exception. He came down in strong winds and was too weak to fly off, and was brought to us. So we cared for and fed him until he was strong enough to be released at the seaside.
A view of one of the pools maintained for breeding Bitterns to fish in. We spent a great deal of time creating 'Blue zone', an edge habitat between the pool and the reedbed where insects congregate and provide food sources for reedbed birds and fish.
Cleaning out and repairing the 70+ nest boxes that are maintained over winter each year for the large population of Tree Sparrows to nest in come spring. Tree Sparrows are similar to the more common House Sparrow, but don't like human company as much and tend to nest away from people.
Typical view out in the reedbed when cutting the plots of reed. We cut over 5 hectares (5 football pitches) of reed over the winter to create a mosaic of different habitats across the reedbed, creating better conditions and more insects for Bearded Tits to feed and breed. After a week or so of cutting, it became a bit of a maze out in the reeds, and I managed to get lost more than once!
Out in the reedbed, following behind the Softrak as it does it's thing, cutting paths and plots in the reedbed, creating a lovely mosaic of habitats to keep the reedbed in tip top condtion.

Putting up some new lines of fencing out in the reedbed to replace some old fencing and control where the ponies can get to, ensuring that no part of the reedbed gets too munched by them! This was a long, difficult job, but actually one of my favourites!

And here they are! The beautiful boys themselves, doing a great job of munching the reed on the edges of the lagoons, creating edge habitat which is good for all the birds, mammals and beasties that live in the reeds.
The massive tidal surge on 5th December resulted in a rather muddy, sticky reserve, with rubbish, reed litter, and mud covering everything. The clean-up operation took about 3 weeks, but we managed to re-open after Christmas.
The paths and hides (see next photo) got totally covered in mud and silt, which we had to scrape off with massive snow scrapers, shovels, and stiff yard brushes. We scraped off a layer of stone and spent some time drying out and scrubbing hide floors, but we got it to a decent condition in the end!

The good thing about the tidal surge though, is that it brought a lot of water onto the reserve, filling up the lagoons and re-wetting the reedbed and the grazing marsh, helping to create good conditions for the breeding season and attracting in a lot more ducks and geese!
The mud and silt on the paths also allowed animal tracks to be seen more clearly, including those of weasels, badgers, foxes, deer and birds of all shapes and sizes
You do find some odd things washed up in the reedbed...
Things were back to normal after Christmas, and we spent some time cutting up some of the coppiced wood from last year and stacking it up for use as firewood! The driftwood that was washed up came in handy too!
We also spent some time clearing up the yard and the area around the workshop and office, in preparation for some improvements, which involved removing some trees, bushes and old fencing, and just generally tidying up the space!
As well as spending time at Blacktoft Sands, I also visited the RSPB reserve at Fairburn Ings, where I saw a lovely range of ducks, geese, woodland birds, and even a few Kingfishers! Well worth a visit.
A view of sunset over one of the lakes at Fairburn Ings.
In addition to all of the practical work, I also helped out with people engagement, including writing out information boards to go along the nature trails to the hides! Of course, the picture isn't by me - far too good to be my work!
So here is the result of the new Softrak reed cutter/bundler - giant bales of reed! The plan is to use these reed bales to create little logs of reed which can be burnt on a fire as part of the biofuels project mentioned in my earlier post.

So there you go! A brief round-up of some of the habitat and site management things that I got involved with whilst volunteering up at Blacktoft Sands over the winter. I really enjoyed my time working on this site, especially as it's so different to what I've done previously! But at the end of March I'm heading up north once again, this time to Perth (the one in Scotland, not Australisa!) to survey a wide variety of bird species across Perthshire! I won't be based at a reserve this time, I'll be moving about all over the place, surveying wherever the birds are! I'll have my own flat and I'll be given a car to use to get around, plus I'll be getting paid! Hooray! So wish me luck for the season ahead!