Friday, 20 December 2013

Volunteers love a bonfire

Wherever  possible we try to stack any brash into habitat piles to decompose and provide refuge for invertebrates and small mammals. But the amount arising from the hedgelaying at the Standlake Common Nature Reserve was just too much to dispose of any other way. Volunteers never say no to a bonfire, especially when potatoes and sausages are on offer. The hedgelayers are doing a brilliant job and there will be photos of the completed hedge early next year. 

This huge pile of reeds was also too much to leave lying around. We already have a large amount piled up at the edge of the field in the hope of attracting grass snakes when it gets warmer. Then we will be generating another heap in February when I am hoping to hold a training course for scything reeds if we are not knee deep in flood water. The course will be led by Clive Leeke for LWVP and BBOWT volunteers and staff. Scything is proving to be a very effective way to manage the relatively small areas of reedbed for which we are responsible. It is desirable to cut blocks of reed each year so that there is a diversity in structure across the reedbed, but the cut reed needs to be removed to reduce the amount of nutrient enrichment from the decomposing material. It is always a battle to keep nature at bay and without this management the reedbed would turn into willow carr in just a few years.
We have had reedbunting nesting in the reedbed this year and reed warblers and sedge warblers recorded on site so even this small area is providing some good habitat for these species.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Amazing bird facts and photos

 Dr Graham Lenton brought some amazing facts and his own photographs to illustrate his talk entitled  Why Birds are so Different. These courting albatrosses have a 12' wing span that will carry them for thousands of miles across the oceans. They will dive into the top few feet of the ocean to catch fish and squid and may sit on the suface waiting for the right wind conditions but they only touch down on land for breeding.
 We are all aware of the extraordinary journeys of many birds like swifts but few of us had heard about the journey of  these bar-tailed godwits. They fly in stages up the east coast of asia from New Zealand to Russia and Alaska to breed, then fly the whole distance, some 7000 miles, back across the oceans in a week without touching land at all. Not surprisingly they arrive back looking very bedraggled and exhausted. They have made such an impression on the local people that when they set off north the bells in Christchurch are rung to celebrate their departure.

 Feet are designed for different purposes and different environments with moorhen feet designed so they can walk on the pond leaves and appear as if they are walking on water. More familiar are ducks webbed feet which are designed to give a larger surface area for paddling; but surely they are not helpful when climbing about on the roofs of houses. Graham also answered a question that is puzzling every time you watch a David Attenborough programme about the Antarctic or the film Happy Feet. Why don't penguins freeze with their feet standing on ice all the time? The answer is that they have a well-designed blood supply system that short circuits just above the foot to send most of the warm blood back to the body and just  enough warm blood round the feet to stop them freezing.
Graham also talked about the differences in bills (or beaks) for accessing different types of food. I am familiar with many differences, for example, birds of prey with their bills designed for gutting and tearing their prey and the seed eating golfinch with fine bills for foraging through the heads of teazels for tiny seeds, but I certainly didn't know that great tits' bills change in shape and size at different seasons of the year. For most of the time they are shorter and stouter for crushing seeds but in the breeding season they become finer and sharper so they can probe into tiny holes to gather the insects that they feed to their young.

Defence mechanisms were another fascinating subject and I won't forget the foul mouthed fulmar in a hurry. Be careful not to get too close to one if the chance arises as it will try to cover you in a foul smelling regurgitated mess.
These are just a few of the amazing bird facts and stories from the talk and as I am writing I remember some more. The kestrel that is really the only bird that can hover although kingfisher and barn owl make a good attempt; the hummingbird that flies backwards with its rotating wings; the fairy tern that is too lazy to make a nest, laying its egg in a tiny indentation on a branch so when the chick hatches it finds itself perched precariously on a twig. There were just too many to mention them all.
Thanks to Graham for a really interesting and enjoyable evening.

Rushy Common bird hide open day

Thanks to members of OOS a very successful open day was held at Rushy Common Nature Reserve on Sunday. They helped lots of new visitors to the hide to use scopes and identify species that, in some cases, they hadn't even heard of before. It was gratifying to find that some people were surprised to see birds that we now take for granted, for example the gadwall. We didn't spot any great rarities but helping someone to see new species or identify the differences between the ducks was satisfaction enough. 'I can't do ducks' was a challenge to the regulars which they willingly tackled. 'I can't do gulls' was maybe best left for another day. Thirty three species were recorded for the day which wasn't bad as I didn't start recording until near the end. We were far too busy talking bird stories, bird facts and bird identification tips, not to mention size of lenses and different types of binoculars and scopes.
Little grebe put on a good show, with seven visible at one time, and seemed to be about the most popular new spot for many people; one person commented that they didn't look like they could float as they look so fluffy. We were pleased to see them as on the valley birdwatch day in May there were no sightings of little grebe for anyone.

 I was particularly pleased to welcome Alexander and Seb back to the hide. They had visited with their class at Stanton Harcourt School in September and were delighted to have the chance to bring their families to have a look. They both bought keys for the hide so I will hope to see them there again in the future.
Watch out for the next bird hide open day sometime in May.
I am going to run another valley birdwatch on 2nd February. If you weren't involved in the first one and would like to join in please contact me at for more information.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

December bird watching

I have just been compiling the lists for birds seen at Standlake Common and Rushy Common Nature Reserves in December in previous years. What an amazing variety has been recorded. Great numbers of wigeon and teal and some brilliant rarities; a bittern in 2010 and a hen harrier in 2012 at Standlake. Regular sightings of goosander and pintail can be had at Standlake with goldeneye and shoveler at both sites.  Tufted duck are regulars with pochard and red-crested pochard and lots of great-crested grebe (photos from Graham Lenton) not to mention the mute swans and coot in large numbers.

I tried to count the total number of birds at Standlake last week but got dizzy after 750. If you haven't got a key for the bird hides at these reserves don't forget to come and have a look at Rushy Common on Sunday 15th December when the hide will be open to all from 10.00-4.00. Local enthusiasts will be there to share their knowledge and telescopes and answer questions such as  'How do you count 2463 starlings?' 'What is the difference between a yellow-legged gull and a lesser black-backed gull?' For more information email me at

Green cleaning on odd job day

Ian and Colin had an odd job session last week. The first job was to re-hang the fences in the car park that had been nudged over by various vehicles.

 Then we moved on to repair the frame of the interpretation board in the picnic area.

Once that was done Ian used his extensive RAF survival skills training, for making do with what the environment has to offer, as he cleaned the board with a handful of grass. The effect was so brilliant I can now be seen scrubbing boards clean all over the valley

We carried on with coppicing in the mixed thorn and hazel shelter belt in the afternoon. Amazingly the section that we coppiced last winter is regrowing with great vigour despite being under water for nearly three months. The hazel is growing particularly well and this small area has already provided a good number of stakes and binders for the hedgelayers and some good logs for firewood.

Friday, 15 November 2013

December Events
Why are Birds so Different?
talk by Dr Graham Lenton
 at Ducklington Village Hall
Thursday 5th December at 7.30.
Rushy Common Nature Reserve
Open day at the bird hide
Sunday 15th December
Please to book a place. Local bird enthusiasts will be on hand to share their knowledge and telescopes.
Free entry. No dogs in the hide please.
Car park on Tar Road, Cogges, Witney

Escaping the desk

I treasure the days when the outside work coincides with fantastic autumn weather. When I am working with the students from Abingdon and Witney College Pathway Programme as well that is a double bonus. If ever you are feeling jaded with life come and join them; their enthusiasm is infectious. We were continuing with coppicing in the shelter belt along the north shore of Standlake Common Nature Reserve. Some of the students started on this last year but the flooding from November onwards put a stop to any practical work there over the winter.
Dan and Jack were working with saws and loppers for the first time and soon got the hang of it.

Dan was particularly pleased to find the remains of a bird's nest.
William and Tommy are now experienced coppicers and were delighted with the area that they had cleared together.
 As well as practical skills the students are learning to organise themselves and to work as a team. Collecting and accounting for the tools at the end of the day is an important part of their learning experience.
 Then the following day I had another day out with the LWVP volunter group. Colin and Dan had only just cleared two trees that had fallen across the Windrush Path when Ken Betteridge passed by with his Thursday walking group, so we saved them from having to do some hurdling on their way to the Rose Revived. We also carried on with the coppicing which is going to be a long term project over the winter as long as we don't get flooded out again.
You never know quite what you are going to see down on the reserve and as well as the many hundreds of coots, ducks, geese and swans on the lake it was a real joy for us all to end the day with a small murmuration of starlings at sunset. I was at Otmoor on Sunday and although there were much greater numbers there we had a much better display before 'our' couple of thousand birds went down into the reedbed. Small was very beautiful on Thursday. 

Tuesday, 12 November 2013


At the first talk of the winter programme Chris Mason of the Cherwell Swift Conservation Project :  gave a fascinating presentation about the swift apus apus (apus means legless).

The swift has declined to such an extent in recent years that it is now on the amber list - birds of Conservation Concern. It is thought that the loss of nesting sites is the main cause of this decline but other factors may include the effect of pesticides on their insect food source or dangers encountered on their migrations to and from southern Africa.

Chris showed us the first half of a film, called Swift Stories, made by local film maker Andy Russell (Different Films). Andy had never made a wildlife film before and knew nothing about swifts so, as he said, he was the perfect candidate to explore the fascinating world of swifts as he would ask all the questions that more expert people wouldn’t think to ask. The original plan was for a ten minute film but he got so enthused by his subject that it is now 45 minutes long, which is why we only watched the first half.

The film is visually delightful as many of the nesting locations are in old houses and castles, such as Broughton Castle. Do swifts have a good eye for prime real estate or is it just that these old building have suitable nooks and crannies that make great nesting sites? Chris told us that originally swifts would have nested in cliffs and old trees but they readily took to sharing space with humans and it is only recently that this relationship is breaking down. The main reason seems to be that as buildings are modernised, or demolished to make way for new buildings the draughty gaps in roofs and walls are blocked off and nesting sites are lost.

The film also focussed on several ‘swifters’ or swift nuts as Andy called them. One of these swift nuts was shown making extraordinary modifications to his house to accommodate swifts and the wiring for a camera so that he can watch the birds in the nests. Other interviews showed just how passionate people are about swifts and how these amazing birds have provided a thread of interest and attachment running throughout their whole lives. They wait with eager anticipation for the first sightings in May and then mourn the loss of them as they head off south in August. The ‘swifters’ all had something new to tell us about the lifecycle of swifts but there are still so many unanswered questions despite many years of study. Just how do they ‘sleep’ high up in the air?  How do the young know where to go when the adults head off south leaving them behind to complete their development into birds that are capable of flight?

Chris Mason is clearly a swift nut, putting in many hours to support local people in their interest in swifts, attending European conferences and talking to groups like ours on wet cold evenings to enthuse about these magical summer visitors. Our initial thoughts were just about putting up nest boxes but Chris has a more comprehensive three point plan of action:

1)    To identify and protect swift nest sites

2)    To encourage the creation of new swift nesting places in suitable sites.

3)      To encourage local interest in swifts, their life history and the risks they face, particularly from building work.

Several members of the audience talked about their sightings of swifts in and around Witney and are going to meet soon to set up a local swift group. If anyone is interested in finding out more about this idea please contact me at

For more information about swifts there is a lot on the internet with the swift conservation website:  and the RSPB has a site to record your swift observations:


Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Nature Detectives at Rushy Common Nature Reserve

The RSPB recently published a report that detailed the lack of connection between children and the natural world. This is something that I am very keen to help to tackle in the project and Class One at Stanton Harcourt CE Primary School were my first official school visiors to Rushy Common Nature Reserve and Tar Lakes. Their topic for this term is 'Nature Detectives' and they readily set to, exploring and finding a wide range of wildlife

They appeared to enjoy every part of the morning whether counting birds outside the bird hide or spiders inside, looking at puffballs or sitting silently for one minute and noting what they could hear around them; a robin, coots and an aeroplane heading for Brize Norton.

 Their work in school afterwards clearly shows how much they got out of the morning and hopefully they will be taking their families back to Tar Lakes for another visit. They didn't seem to mind the rain and were as full of questions at the end as they were at the beginning. I hope that this will be the first of many visits from local schools here.


Lost in reeds

The reedbed at Standlake Common Nature reserve is nearly 1.0 hectare in area which makes it large enough to need some management, but not large enough for cattle or machinery to be employed. Luckily, I have some willing volunteers who seem to enjoy the opportunity for some extremely hard work. We started off with the volunteer group with scythes and wondered if we would ever make any impression on it.

 Then a couple of days with the students and staff from Abindgon and Witney College helped to clear some of the heaps of cut reed. They also removed some of the fencing that had been used to prevent geese from grazing off the young reeds  when the bed was first planted, several years ago. As usual the students set to with their usual sense of fun and worked really hard even when they got soaked on the second day.

Now, after another couple of session with the volunteer group the reedbed is just how I want it for the winter. As well as clearing some large blocks of reed we have cut several channels leading from the lake around blocks of  reed that have been left standing. As the water level rises through the winter there will be a network of channels and bays for shelter for the ducks. Then in the spring new growth in the cleared areas will provide a different habitat for invertebrates and small animals and birds to feed and shelter. Hopefully, the volunteers will be back again to carry on the process next winter. They look like they were enjoying themselves to me, even though they gave me a lot of stick over it.


Friday, 11 October 2013

LWVP Winter Talk programme

Lower Windrush Valley Project

Programme of Winter Talks

Wednesday November 6th 7.30pm at the Methodist Church Hall Witney

SWIFTS-Love Them or Lose Them’ a talk and film ‘Swift Stories’ by Chris Mason Co-ordinator of the Cherwell Swift Conservation Project

Thursday December 5th 7.30pm at Ducklington Village Hall

Why Birds are so Different’ a talk by Dr Graham Lenton     (  about why birds have different bills, feet and wings and how they are adapted to their food and environment. Bird calls and song will be discussed together with the colour of birds and its meaning

Tuesday January 21st 7.30pm at Stanton Harcourt Village Hall

Water Voles in the Windrush Valley’ a talk by Julia Lofthouse BBOWT Water Vole Project Officer

Wednesday February 19th at Northmoor Village Hall

          Talk TBC.


For more details contact: tel: 01865 815426 or just arrive on the night. There is no charge for these talks.

Rushy Common and Tar Lakes aftercare monitoring visit

Taking a good look over Rushy Common Nature Reserve
It's October, so time again for the annual monitoring visit with Oxfordshire County Council Minerals and Waste Team, the OCC Ecologist Planner and the Planning and Estates Manager from Smiths Bletchington to review progress. All mineral extraction sites have a five year period of aftercare following the completion of restoration to whatever landuse was agreed in the planning application for the site. This was the final aftercare visit for the nature reserve which now goes into a twenty year period of long term management before it is returned to the landowner.
An example of decisions made in these meetings is this pond which is one of two that were created in the nature reserve attached to a ditch that takes runoff from the neighbouring fields. It was realised that the ditches would be affected by this nutrient rich run off so they have now been separated from the ditch. Other aspects to consider when reviewing the management of the site include; the frequency and effectiveness of mowing the grasslands; weed control; hedgerow management; how to manage the vegetation on the islands in the lake, and many more that arise as the site develops..
The original plans for this site were designed in 1994-97 and it is interesting to hear how the plans would have been very different if the site had been designed today. However, it is very pleasing to be able to record nesting success by common tern and barn owl, good growth of a wide variety of plants and grasses and the successful establishment of areas of trees and scrub.
Tar Lakes is now in its third year of aftercare as an amenity lake with unrestricted public access. There are different issues here largely to do with the public access which can create problems that require unwanted solutions. For example, it was planned to have a conservation area between the two smaller lakes and special wild flower seed mixes were sown to create this special area. However, dogs and their owners were walking through the area so extra fencing had to be installed. The visual effect is not the most pleasing but, as time goes by, the bushes will grow and hide the fence. The positive side is that the flowers are growing and birds are using the site in greater numbers, such as these goldfinches enjoying feeding on the seeds of teazels.
The rest of the site is developing well with good establishment of trees and shrubs around the edges and there has been a great profusion of invertebrate life with thousands of damselflies in the summer months. The site is proving to be more and more popular with local people and will have many more delights to offer as it develops.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Part of the Bigger Picture

My days at the Lower Windrush Valley Project are rarely routine and Wednesday 25th September was no exception. I spent the  morning with the volunteer group at Standlake Common Nature Reserve coppicing hazel to provide stakes and binders for the hedgelayers to use the following week. It is always satisfying to be able to use our home grown produce for projects. It was also the first time that Louise had done coppicing and she quickly developed an eye for it and a good technique.

Then it was time for an hour at my desk and a quick change before I headed up to London for an evening reception to celebrate the work of RESTORE; a new European funded partnership, headed by the RSPB set up to restore mineral sites for biodiversity, people and the economy across North West Europe. Surrey County Council and organisations from Belgium, Holland and Germany are the other partners. The project began in 2012 and runs to 2015 and can already showcase some very positive restoration sites with a view to influencing future practice.

The speakers were all very interesting and although I haven't the time to cover them all the following three made a big impression on me as they related to specific aspects of our work at the LWVP. Sue Armstrong-Brown, head of Conservation Policy at the RSPB, highlighted how many targets for the maintenance and improvement of threatened habitats and species are already being delivered on these sites and their huge potential for the future. She also talked about how important many of these sites are for people, for their recreation and enjoyment of the natural world.
Nigel Jackson, Chief Executive of the Mineral Products Association was very positive about the willingness and, in many cases, the enthusiasm of the minerals operators to engage with the highest standard of restoration to secure maximum benefit for wildlife. He also said how much he regrets the loss of the Aggregates Levy Sustainable Fund Grant Scheme that was such a good resource for many environmental projects and enabled some really useful work to be done here in the valley. He has written to the minister to express his frustration about this.
Even the MEP Catherine Bearder had some pertinent points to make. Apparently she is known as the 'Bees and Elephants MEP' as she is always trying to include her passion and concern for the environment in whatever portfolio she is working on. She said how even at that level people's eyes glaze over at the mention of 'biodiversity'. They don't understand the concepts or the issues and how important care for the environment is for the future of our everyday lives. There is clearly a great need for more environmental education which is an aspect of the LWVP that I hope to develop in the future.
On the train on the way home it was time to reflect on the threads that connect these top policy makers with those who prefer to make local efforts to improve biodiversity on the ground. This was an international celebration of the work that is going on around us in the Lower Windrush Valley ranging from the companies like Smiths Bletchington that want to leave a positive legacy for the future to the individual volunteers like Louise who want to do their bit to make a difference.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Sluice replaced

Talk to people about replacing a sluice and I expect eyes would rapidly glaze over. But we have had a great time completing the job this week. Ian was project manager and kept everyone on track and seemed happy to spend most of his time in the ditch.
The timber was sourced from Deep in Wood ( Bessels Leigh who provided oak from Eynsham Hall.

 The precision engineering of the frame, made by Fletchers of Carterton, provided a perfect fit for Nigel's loo seat which was sourced from Waterfront in Glasgow.

The lake acts as a flood reserve so no water should go through into the lake from the Thames now unless it is such an extreme event that it flows over the banks. The level of water in the lake will rise during the winter with the groundwater levels and rainfall and will hopefully cover some of the shoreline and islands to reduce vegetation growth. It is hoped that in the spring water will drain out of the reserve and not back into it,  as it did in 2012. This should then provide better nesting and feeding conditions along the islands and shores for the breeding waders and other birds.
Now we can only wait to see what the elements throw at us and whether our work will make a difference.
Great job Ian. Thanks