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 lwvp@oxfordshire.gov.uk

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 email:lwvp@oxfordshire.gov.uk 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 : http://bit.ly/194CenI  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 lwvp@oxfordshire.gov.uk.

For more information about swifts there is a lot on the internet with the swift conservation website: http://Swift-conservtion.org  and the RSPB has a site to record your swift observations: http://www.rspb.org.uk/thingstodo/surveys/swifts/index.aspx


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.