Saturday, 12 September 2020

All the Birds of the World from Lynx Edicions - A Book Review

 


Lynx Edicions is fast becoming my favourite publishers of high-quality wildlife literature. I have been collecting their Handbook of the Mammals of the World series, a landmark 9 volume series detailing every single mammal known to science at the time of writing.

Lynx’s first epic work was the 16 volume Handbook to the Birds of the World. Priced at about £120 per volume this was a little rich for my blood and so I was delighted that this year they released a book entitled All the Birds of the World. This mighty tome is not as hefty as one might as imagine, given that it includes a colour plate drawing of every species known to science. By focusing on the image of the bird and removing all written information Lynx have managed to distil each bird to the essential information outlined by Josep del Hoyo Calduch’s full works.

Each species is rendered in a beautiful illustration which is accompanied by its approximate size, nomenclature, taxonomy, number of sub-species, IUCN status and a simple map of its distribution. The genius part of the book is the inclusion of a QR code for each species. This offloads a wealth of images, sound clips and videos to the online resources of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that can be used to supplement the sparse text.



Lynx products excel in their presentation. Each page is a work of art and scrupulously researched by experts. The paper is heavy duty and close. The cover is hardback with a protective sturdy gloss dustjacket and with a strong binding. You also get a large laminated bookmark with an explanation of the information provided and a list of the country codes.

With images taking centre stage the book very much illustrates the beauty and diversity of the avian world. The nuances of speciation are laid out on each page and provide a powerful representation of Wallace and Darwin’s principles of natural selection.

Lynx books are not the cheapest, but they are most definitely of the highest quality. I am biased as a lover of books, but this volume is first rate and a welcome addition to my slowly bending bookshelf.

All the Birds of the World can be purchased from Lynx Edicions

Friday, 31 July 2020

Long term camera trapping study of British hedgerow mammals. 2015-2019


I have finally finished writing up my findings from the first five years of my camera trapping project.
The study explores in detail five species - Badger, Fox, Muntjac, Grey Squirrel and Wood Mouse with some examination of trends in Roe Deer. Brown Rat, Polecat, Weasel, Rabbit and Hedgehog.

The report looks at changes in monthly, seasonal and annual abundance changes and explores the seasonal variation in activity throughout the day and an explanation of key behaviours observed.

The report concludes with an exploration of the methods used and looks at the sort of things that need to be considered when running your own camera trapping study.




Appreciate the space you have

Throughout much of lockdown and the "new normal" the weather has been very kind to us and I have found myself both working and sitting in the garden. 
I would consider the 40 squares metres outside my backdoor a fairly conventional sub urban garden. It has a neat patio with a central lawn bordered by shrubby plants. There is a small pond in one corner and a long leylandii hedge down one side. It sits squarely in a 1970's housing estate on the edge of a small town. It is in many ways completely unremarkable, and yet this little patch is alive with activity.



There are currently 8 house sparrows sat on the lawn eating the crusts of yesterdays sandwiches. These are our most abundant visitors, we are lucky in this area that sparrow numbers seem to be doing so well. They are a gregarious and noise bunch at times. They have a favoured thorny bush into which they retreat when threatened and squabble incessantly. 

At this time of the year the young hatched in the spring are entering adolescences many species especially the tit ones still show hints of yellow where there will soon be white and the young magpie looks like he has been soaked to the skin and then dragged through a hedge backwards. This year we have had a pair of young robins their speckled breasts only now showing the rusting which will develop into the vibrant orange breast. A few young blackbirds dodge the adults. Chased from one side of the garden to the other, unsure why the parents that once fed them now seem so disinterested. A pigeon nests in the hawthorn at the bottom of the garden and has been churning out chicks at a startling rate. The adults parade around the garden and this year seem intent on fighting and or mating at every opportunity.

Starlings are present in smaller numbers than usually, any seed and bread put out is usually devoured in seconds by these greedy gorks, where once tens used to visit now only handfuls. In place of the starlings come the feral pigeons, watching from the rooftops until the bread of seed is throne out and then descending like a mass of evacuation helicopters.

 Dunnock's skulk in the undergrowth emerging only occasionally emerging at its edge. A wrens trilling song can be heard, a fairly new visitor to the garden as is the song thrush which after years of absence has been sighted on a handful of occasions this year. Rare visitors include the Sparrowhawk who seems most grateful for our bird feeders as is the great spotted woodpecker who loves the peanuts. Only occasional visitors in the summer but more so in the winter are the goldfinches and chaffinches which are often joined by pied wagtails in the coldest months. These are just the common birds, we have had blackcap, reed bunting, brambling and goldcrest all visit at least once.

High above the garden other birds pass, the lazily gliding  buzzard, the languid herring gulls which call to make this central England locale sound positively coastal and the fast zipping screaming swifts and chattering house martins.

These are just the birds. Families of wood mice live in the hedge and under the bin store, grey squirrels hang from the branches to reach peanuts, a single brown rat tries to sneak food from the birds and before attempts were made to stop the rat we used to have hedgehogs, these now are restricted to the front garden. Frogs frequent the pond and lay their spawn each spring. The flowers attract a range of bees and hoverflies who industrially and methodically move from bloom to bloom. Yellow Ants live under the lawn and in the large plant pots will the more familiar black ants restrict themselves to the nest between the cracks in the patio paving.

The buddleia draws in large whites, tortoiseshells, peacocks, red admirals, and painted ladies whilst winds blow in holly blues, commas, meadow browns, gatekeepers and speckled woods. Whilst not living in the pond brown and common hawkers sometimes whirr in and take a turn around the garden.

What I am trying to show here is the diversity of life on our doorstep. This is one pretty average garden. Its not the mega fauna of  the Serengeti but the life stories and the dynamics between survival and death are just as vivid as any Savannah grassland or tropical forest. A little time spent sitting in the garden can reveal in depth stories of infidelity between dunnocks, unwanted attention between woodpigeons and social hierarchy amongst mice.

Ecology isn't something that happens out there. Too often people believe to see nature you must go to nature reserves or that walks in the country are best, and to be fair those are all great things. I would advise everyone to go out and explore the countryside, visit our reserves but don't forget what is on your back doorstep. The nature here amongst the more mundane species is just as important. That which is abundant and local can so quickly become rare and endangered. In my life time song thrushes have gone from common a garden bird to rarity to be cherished when seen, outside our area house sparrows are declining alarmingly and starling numbers are falling.

If we don't appreciate the small things how can we ever hope to stop them  becoming the rare? How can we hope to understand the big issues, the global ones, after all the tropical rainforests and african grasslands are just somebody else's gardens and back doorsteps.

Sunday, 12 July 2020

All in an hours work

Regular followers of the blog will know that I have been visiting my patch every Sunday morning for 18 years over that time I have recorded a wealth of flora and fauna. Today's visit was a fine summers day and so I thought I would outline my procedure and the typical sightings made.

I started today's visit at 10:09 am, the average temperature was 20.4 degrees C and the average wind speed was 0.0 m/s. I follow a standard route from the mill ponds, along the river bank and back along the field and then short extension across some willow carr and back along the river back to the mill pond..

The birds I recorded today were

Mute Swan 2 not the pair that nested on the site and had 6 cygnets
Magpie 3
Blue Tit 3
Wren 13
Goldfinch 19 mixture of adults and juveniles
Common Whitethroat 6 including two juveniles
Woodpigeon 22
Mallard 1
Robin 2
Grey Heron 1
Nuthatch 1
Carrion Crow 2
Moorhen 2
Blackbird 5
Blackcap 3 including a juvenile
Feral Pigeon 3
Chiffchaff 3
Jay 2
Jackdaw 4
Kestrel 2 one of which persistently mobbed one of the Buzzards
Great Tit 2
Skylark 1 singing male
Greenfinch 1
Common Buzzard 2
Swallow 4
Great Spotted Woodpecker 1
Dunnock 1

Butterflies
Large White 21
Peacock 2
Tortoiseshell 1
Ringlet 3
Large Skipper 2 first of the year recorded

Dragonflies and Damselflies
Emperor Dragonfly 1
Southern Hawker 3
Brown Hawker 2
Azure Damselfly 2
Banded Demoiselle 23 (12 male, 11 female)

Other items of note
Marked increase in the calling chirrups of Roesels Bush-Cricket

I finished recording at 11:11am giving a total recording time of 62 minutes. Today's haul stands at:
28 bird species
5 butterfly species
5 odonata species

The species recorded is most likely an under representation of those actually present and there was some effort to avoid double counting individuals.  I make this post as a way of illustrating how much information can be collected in a relatively short period of time.

What us is this data though? data collection is a passion of mine as a scientist and I process this data annually to track annual and seasonal patterns. I have collected these findings into a report which covers 2004 - 2014 available from Lulu.com if anyone is interested. https://www.lulu.com/en/gb/shop/mark-c-smith/the-natural-history-of-the-saxon-mill/paperback/product-19z2g96z.html. It takes a great deal of time to arrange this data and I hope to update this in  five years to cover the past twenty.

If you are not interested in crunching the numbers then can I suggest the excellent online systems. I use bird journal to keep my records neat and tidy (https://www.birdjournal.com/version-five-desktop-app) which I then export and upload to the BTO Birdtrack online system - https://www.bto.org/our-science/projects/birdtrack

For mammals the Mammal Society have released an incredible mapper app - https://www.mammal.org.uk/volunteering/mammal-mapper/ and works on both apple and android devices.

Enjoy watching wildlife, enjoy taking not of what is around and then contribute to the vast datasets that are being accumulated that help us track the fortunes of our species and act as a dataset to lobby government policy. Even the smallest sighting record is worth its weight in gold.


Thursday, 25 June 2020

It's all about mass

With all the good weather recently I have found myself often sheltering from the heat in the shade beside the water at the Saxon Mill. From the terrace there are several spots where you can sit comfortably and look out over the mill pond and into the murky water to watch the fish.

Look carefully enough and you can see a pike


Today was one such occasion. We are experiencing a mini heat wave, by 10 am it was already 24 degrees C in the shade, and out in the open heading for 30! I had gone down the mill to exchange the batteries and memory cards on my trail cams, and to leave some peanuts out for the badgers, in hot weather like this they struggle to dig up earthworms. On my way back I stopped at the mill pond and looked to see what fish I could see.

I was lucky enough in late may to catch sight of a pike hunting the shoals of roach. I had heard that they were common on this patch. They lurk on the river bed beneath the lily pads and wait for fish swept through the mill race and then strike. It was amazing to watch.

Today there were no pike hunting nor did there seem to be many roach of any significant size. Instead I was mesmerised by the mass of smaller fish, fry, shoaling beneath me. The shoal perhaps number 300 individuals and it moved with one mind, just like you see in the wildlife documentaries. Occasionally you saw a flash of silver as one fish twisted to one side and signalled a change in position. As I watched them, they seemed to be doing circuits of the lily pads a though struck me.

Here were around 300 young fish in just a very small stretch of water. Even if you discounted the deeper parts of the mill pond there were enough shallows to estimate that this particular section only represented one one hundredth of the available habitat and this would be an underestimation. This then would mean potential for 30,000 young fish striving to make it to adulthood and bear in mind that this is only a tiny fraction of the number of fertilised eggs that survived to hatch.

Where do all these little fish go? They certainly don't all become big fish, 30,000 fish appearing in the river each year would soon be noticeable and fishing as a 'sport' would be come redundant a literal shooting fish in the barrel. Predators are all over the place winnowing out the weak and unwary and of course there is disease or injury. Grey Herons and Kingfisher are common right along this stretch of the river and as I have already mentioned pike are abundant. Regular readers of this blog will know that Otters are on the increase in the river although I doubt they would bother themselves with the tiny fry I was watching.

When I talk about mass, I am referring to biomass, the net weight of biological material. During the summer this mass is evident in the number of leaves on a tree, the rapid growth of the vegetation and all the insects upon which this fry and fish will feed upon. We are mid-way through the Banded Agrion flight period at the moment. In last years flight period I recorded a total of nearly 800 individuals during my weekly 1 hour visits. Again this is only a tiny proportion of those that survived the egg and nymph stages and a tiny proportion of all those that took wing that season.

I think it speaks well of the health of the Avon in Warwick that we see such good numbers. They represent a link in all those important food chains and food webs that tangle and weave their way around the ecosystem. It also highlights the losses incurred by species. Think of all the eggs laid by some insect or fish species only for one or two to make it to adulthood. This is what we ecologists call R-strategy.

R-strategists produce masses of low cost offspring that they 'know' will struggle to survive. They take the machine gun approach to life, if you fire enough shots you're more likely to hit the target. The converse of this, something that most mammals do, is the K-strategy. Here you invest all your energy into a few offspring but you make darned sure they make it to adulthood, by feeding them, teaching them and protecting them. These a more akin to the skillful sniper. They take measured calculated shots that increase the chance of hitting the target.

Back to the fry, they are one component in a vast array of interconnections and complexity, they feed on the invertebrates in the water who in turn have fed on each other and the aquatic vegetation. They in turn are food for the predatory fish and birds, who are in turn prey for something else. Its only when you start to piece this intricate patterns together that you can begin to understand the fragility of some systems. Ecology is elaborate, intricate, delicate and profligate it is why I hold it so dear and champion it as the science of kings.

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Swallows on the Avon

Today on my Sunday morning survey I was lucky enough to spot some young swallows down by the willow. Each year swallows frequent the fields around the mill, it is amazing to watch them as the swoop low over the corn and zip around the trees and on occasion around me hawking for flying insects.

So far the number of swallows this year had seemed low and I was unsure of how successful their breeding would be. There are a range of farm buildings at the top of the hill where they nest. Swallow numbers have gradually declined since 2011 although they still remain healthy as a population.

This year I first saw a swallow on the 17th May which is on average 3 weeks later than in previous years. This is no doubt due to bad weather in the Mediterranean during early April. Such long distance migrants are susceptible to adverse weather conditions, in this case high winds caused the death of many (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/apr/10/high-winds-kill-thousands-of-migrating-birds-in-disaster-over-greece)


Three young swallows were perched in a willow beside the river, usually the sit in the isolated hawthorn in the field or in one of the tall dead alders. Here they were well protected by the vegetation. You can see that this individual did not fledge too long ago. It still has fluffy down on the chest and there is significant colour surround the beak wear the gape remains.

The adults hunted across the fields and along the river but only seemed to feed the left most individual perhaps because he was more accessible. Eventually the juveniles moved of to practice flying and one of the males stopped for a perch. This is a lucky shot, away from the nest sites and on wires when the are gathering to migrate south it is uncommon to see adults settled.


Here you can see the bold red chin and mask and really see the long wings and streamer tails. They are such slight and elegant birds it amazing that they have the stamina to fly such vast distances each year.

Saturday, 23 May 2020

Badger Hygiene

With lock down in full force I have had extra time to spend on my patch of land. I have moved one of my cameras to look at the nearby Badger sett.

I am pleased to say that it seems they have had two cubs this year,



There are at least 3 adults.


One of the more interesting aspects of behaviour observed is that of cleaning, especially apt at this time of hygiene awareness.

Badgers are well known for keeping a tidy home, they will replace bedding regularly and ensure they use communal latrine pits well away from the sett.

Personally they love nothing more than a good scratch. In a group setting a clan of badgers will reinforce relationships with mutual grooming in this case however this is a solo effort.

The following video shows a single badger, possibly a female, scratching for a good minute and a half,




The grooming shown is clearly not to make the fur smarter as the badger is incredibly dusty when it finishes, it is in fact entirely focused on removing unwanted guests on the skin and in the fur.

Badgers like all mammals suffer from a range of parasites chief among which are Biting Lice (Trichodectes melis), these are not normally a problem unless the individual is ill or weakened. Badgers are also prone to fleas, Paraceras melis, and hedgehog and mole flea species. The last major parasite is the Tick, these are common in all mammals and are normally sheep ticks although in this case the lack of sheep in the area is likely to mean any ticks in this clan come from deer.

As you can see the scratching is quite thorough and the individual seems to enjoy it. We all love a good scratch after all.