Sunday, 11 March 2018


A quick post tonight to highlight a rare sighting made on the trail cam. On Friday at 7.22 in the morning the camera recorded a Weasel.

I have recorded Weasels before but this was the first time a clear image was collected. They are our smallest carnivore and lightning fast. I have my camera set to record both a still shot photo and a video. It is situations like this that show why. The photo has a faster trigger than the video and by the time the video had clicked in 3 seconds later the weasel was gone. If it was set to just video it is unlikely I would have any record, just a 10-second clip of the ground.

I still want to get footage of the Weasel in action as they are a marvel to watch. I was lucky enough to see one in February 2010. The small creature ran lithely through the undergrowth before seeing me and diving into a small hole in a tree. It was obviously uncomfortable in the hole and kept checking to see if I was still there. I waited and watched for awhile getting a few photos and then just as I turned my head slightly it was off, taking the chance to bolt into leaf litter and disappeared. It was without a doubt one of my most memorable wildlife encounters

Friday, 9 March 2018

The fight for Badgers goes on.

This week a government consultation opened that could pave the way for the badger cull to be extended to Warwickshire. I am appalled at the risk to badgers in general and to my badgers in particular, such as the chap in the picture.

I decided I need to renew my fight and have started with letters to both my local MP and Mr Gove the Minister of DEFRA.

I would like to urge everyone to take 5 minutes to email their local MP and ask for the cull to be suspended.

A copy of my email is shown below and I will update you all on any responses.

Dear MP,
I am writing to express my deep concerns regarding the continuing Badger cull as a means to control Bovine Tuberculosis and the threat that the cull zone is possibly going to be expanded to Warwickshire.

This is not the first time I have written to the government, nor to representatives of the Conservative and Labour parties and never received a satisfactory response. There are a number of key issues I would like you to address as my representative in parliament.

1.  The fact that the cull continues despite its efficacy being in question regarding the scientific validity of the scheme.

2. That results and success criteria are not made public.

3. That although much is made of Biosecurity the UK as a whole is lagging in its adoption and several new outbreaks of TB can be directly linked to the cattle movements and not Badgers. The NFU are not pulling their weight in fighting this disease.

4. That the premise of the cull as a means to remove a reservoir of TB is flawed as it does not take into account other potential reservoirs.

5. There are extreme concerns regarding the welfare of Badgers being culled. The shooting policy does not appear to be a humane approach and the monitoring of culls seems extremely lacklustre.

6. That at the start of the cull Badgers shot as part of the programme were not assessed for the presence of bTB making it impossible to assess the extent of the disease in the wild population which would give excellent data upon which to assess success criteria.

7. The structure of the consultation covering the expansion of the zones restricts comments to only those directly – economically at risk from the cull. This does not take into account my social, ethical and scientific opposition to the expansion.

I would like to propose a moratorium to be placed on a cull with the focus placed on biosecurity with culls saved for targeted use only in extreme cases. Policy in this area should be scientifically led not ignored as is the current approach. With the exit from the EU there is potential for new legislation to strengthen both nature conservation, sustainable farming and rural productivity.

As a scientist and ecologist I am appalled at the way many decisions made in government ignore scientific advice preferring to focus on socio-economic factors only or pandering to pressure groups.
I hope that you at least agree with some of my points and that you are able to promote the agenda to revisit the need and mechanism of the Badger cull in the fight against bTB. There is a way that the cattle industry can remain profitable and coexist with the environment, but at the moment the emphasis is too skewed and badly balanced.

Thank you for your time in reading this and in anticipation of your response and action.


Saturday, 24 February 2018

Disability day at the feeders

First of all, I apologise for not posting for awhile but a touch of the flu laid me out for 2 weeks. I am all better now and this weekend I have been out and about, checking my trail cam, counting swans and watching the birds in the garden.

We have a new feeding station which contains mealworms, suet pieces and white sunflower seeds and this afternoon I watched the birds adjust to this new item in the garden in the sunshine. The first to approach was a Starling followed shortly by a Robin which has started to exhibit mating signs and nesting behaviour. 

Most interestingly a single Blue Tit came to feed exclusively on the dried mealworms. This individual had a dishevelled look and a deformed beak - see below.

Such deformities are not uncommon in Blue Tits. In this case, the beak is longer than normal with a hyperextended upper mandible. 

Such deformities are found in many Tit species and the BTO Garden Watch has documented the rise of this possible disease. 

Data from British Trust for Ornithology - 
Such deformities in the beak are not fully understood and is named as Avian Keratin Disorder (AKD). This relates to the fabric of the beak itself which is a keratin sheath over bone. It has been suggested that because keratin continues to grow like our fingernails that the defect is due to the beak not getting worn down but this does not explain many of the cases.

If the beak deformity is too extreme then it will have a negative effect on the ability for the bird to feed itself and die fairly quickly. In this case, the beak has not hindered the birds feeding although it is possible that such birds only survive at feeders and would struggle foraging for itself. It would be interesting to see if the deformities occur in wild populations. Are they an example of over-identification in well-watched gardens or is their survival greater in gardens.

Whilst the causes are not fully understood some research has been taken in America. AKD was first recorded in Alaska in Chickadees (North American relatives of the Tits) in the 1990's and was subsequently recorded in Nuthatches and Crows. USGS scientist Dr Colleen Handel began investigating the occurrence and originally started looking at organochlorine poisoning and strontium depletion before coming across the possibility of a pathogenic cause.

Blacked-Capped Chickadee. Photograph by: Alan D. Wilson,
Her studies involved genetic level studies of the birds and revealed an RNA virus in the  Picornnavirus family that she named Poecivrius. This virus was found in 100% of birds studied with the deformities and only 22% of those without it. The paper was published in 2016.

It is likely that the real cause is more complicated than just a virus and although promising this was a small study which so far has not been followed up and there appears to have been no work to identify the virus in British populations.

You can report any sightings of birds with deformed beaks to the BTO -

Whilst the Blue Tit continued to feed a Woodpigeon tentatively approached the bird feeder. He seemed less skittish as usual and his behaviour was slightly off and it soon became apparent. He was blind in the right eye, in fact, he had no right eye at all. It's hard to tell from the picture if this was a result of injury or a birth defect.

The bird seemed well fed and otherwise unaffected, such a disability is rarely seen it usually increases their chance of predation that they do not last long. However, by looking around more and shifting his head the pigeon seems to be doing fine although the loss of depth perception gained from two eyes meant his landing was a little clumsy.


Zylberberg M, Van Hemert C, Dumbacher JP, Handel CM, Tihan T, DeRisi JL. Novel Picornavirus Associated with Avian Keratin Disorder in Alaskan Birds. mBio. 2016;7(4):e00874-16. doi:10.1128/mBio.00874-16.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Oh no the bridge is gone, but I'll still carry on

With the recent storms, a large quantity of debris including some pretty large Alder trunks have come down the river and collected at the bridge over the Avon as the Saxon Mill. So strong was the flood water that the stone support of the bridge has been broken. For safety, it has been closed meaning that my easy access to my patch has been changed to a much longer route. This means that I will be visiting my patch less often.

With the good weather today I got on my bike and ventured around and checked my camera. As I entered my patch I flushed a Woodcock (Scolopax rusticila) that lazily flew deeper into the bit of woodland. This was a portent of what was to come.

Thankfully my camera, at its new secret location, worked well and I got some great shots of Wood Mice, Badgers, Brown Rats, Magpies, Squirrels and Jays.The shots are so much better that I think I may be able to create a database of Badger faces and attempt to identify individuals.

Most excitingly was some footage of the Woodcock foraging for food.

Woodcock are secretive and well-camouflaged birds. I have never seen one on the ground stationary. I have always flushed them by accident, not knowing they were there or seen them flying at dusk. They have broad rounded wings that are very distinctive, forming deep beats as the bird flies.

In the clip you can see the Woodcock foraging. It uses its long straight beak to probe the leaf litter and soil for insects. They have very sensitive beak tips,

Mainly crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) they lie up during the day using their cryptic plumage to hide away from predators unless disturbed like I did when they quickly take flight. 

On a separate note, I have now begun to analyse the data from my hedgerow camera study and will be filtering in results as and when I make them. 

Sunday, 7 January 2018

A winter visitor

After the rain and snow of late, a cold spell is now upon us and it has brought in an unusual and welcome bird to our garden - a pair of Brambling (Fringilla montifringilla).

I haven't seen a Brambling in years and even then it was a very fleeting glance, this time I got excellent views and time to photograph. Easily mistaken for a Chaffinch at a quick glance, this stunning little bird has so much more going on.

Diagnostically key is the black tipped yellow beak. A lovely peachy-red upper chest is complemented with the wing bars and primaries. Like many finches, there are hints of gold in the flight feathers.
The underside is white/buff with neat rows of black specks. On the back, an obvious white stripe down the back and the black and white shading at the neck are also diagnostic.

They are charming birds and in the cold had fluffed themselves up on occasion to look like round pop poms of feathers with little beaks sticking out.

Common in large flocks many Bramblings come to this country from northern Scandinavia in the winter. They breed in the birch forests of Norway and Sweden.

Most often recorded in gardens in March there are peaks in the years they appear. Previous good years for Brambling were 2008, 2011 and 2013. They are more commonly seen in flocks often with other ground feeding finches such as Chaffinch feeding on Beech Mast although checks on my patch around the beech trees revealed none.

Friday, 5 January 2018

A tasty treat

Following the theft of my trail camera in November I have been forced to call to a close my long-term monitoring project on the birds and mammals using a hedgerow. Although this has saddened me, I was hoping to amass 5 years of data, 3 and a half will have to do.

I now have a new camera with greater security and stronger fixings/locks and a new more discreet location to use. I have decided in this case I will still operate on an ongoing 24/7 basis recording where possible but this time I will bait the camera to see what species are attracted. This is something I have been wanting to do for awhile but would have skewed the data with the old survey.

I started running the project over New Year and have already started getting footage of Wood Mice, Brown Rats, Foxes, Grey Squirrels and Badgers. My first bait attempt was two Ham Bones bought from the supermarket designed for dogs.

Magpie picking at the bone

Brown Rat passing by

A Wood Mouse on the bone, tiny compared to the rat!
The most interested in the bones were the Magpies that spent a lot of time picking at them. Interestingly Wood Mice and Grey Squirrels were both recorded feeding on them.

Unusually the Foxes seemed interested but didn't partake this was due to their unfamiliarity of the setup. They are clever creatures and were well aware of the camera and were spooked enough by its presence to avoid it.

Lastly and most excitingly are the Badgers and boy are they showing evidence of behaviour, first of all, they solved the problem of continually visiting the bone - just take it with you.

Secondly, I manage to get two 10 sec clips which have been put together to show a badger foraging. You can see how it snuffles through the leaf litter using its powerful sense of smell to root out food. Given the large amount of rain and the nearby flooding it's no surprise that worms were abundant, The clip shows that the badger gets the scent of the worm and then dives in. The earthworm makes a bid for freedom trying to burrow away however once the worm is in the badger's jaws it expertly pulls it out and devours it.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Pecking order

Amidst the slushy snow that arrived overnight the birds in my garden struggled against the cold. Whilst I ate my breakfast I watched with interest as each species behaved differently. Sometimes it is just be watching the commonest of birds the most interesting things can be observed.

Here then is a photo essay of the birds in my garden this morning (Apologies for the picture quality but it was cold and so most pictures were taken through the patio window!).

The first bird I saw was the Pied Wagtail. We only ever see the wagtail in the winter months. We can get up to two at a time but never more, unlike the town centre which can get small flocks of between 20 and 30 that all roost together. For such a small and seemingly cheerful bird, it was interesting to note that today he was near the top of the pecking order. Usually placid and cautious he guarded the ground feeder where the seeds were zealously seeing off Blue Tits, Sparrows and even the Robins.

The usually feisty Robin would normally be chasing the smaller birds off however a second Robin seemed to take all its attention. Robins are well known for their aggression between each other. Even in this cold weather, they had made the decision that it was more important to defend territory and then feed itself. This shows some measure of long-term planning, its energy levels were high enough that the pay off in the long run of having access to a stable food source was more important than the short term food gain and the possible loss of the food in the future.

Here you can see the Robin in an aggressive pose with tail up low beak and wings out.

Also on a territorial defence footing were the Blackbirds, at this time of year there is a large influx of Blackbirds from the continent. Our native birds are joined by individuals from Scandinavia, the Low Countries and Germany.
Whereas the Robins fought consistently the Blackbirds were able to tolerate each other's presence a little more only chasing each other off if they got too close to each other.

The usual bully boys, the Feral Pigeons, Starlings and Woodpigeons all relaxed their aggressive behaviour and focused instead on feeding. They have large bodies more insulated from the weather but have strong flight muscles that need refuelling, in this case, they opted to eat rather than chasing off competitors of other species.

The ubiquitous House Sparrows seemed to behave no different than normal. They whizzed around like a mix of a squadron of fighter jets and a horde of excited children. Chattering and squabbling and diving into feed whenever a feeder was free. The picture below shows a male with his feathers plumped up against the cold. Birds do this to trap a layer of air next to the skin that creates effective insulation against the cold.

The Hedge Sparrow or Dunnock likewise did not change behaviour, skulking around the edges bothering no one and being bothered by no one.

The last two species to mention are two rare visitors to the garden, both with different strategies, the Goldcrest and the Blackcap. Both are warblers although the Blackcap is considered more of a spring/summer bird.

The Goldcrest is a specialist of conifers and is tiny in comparison to the other birds. It remained cautiously in the leylandi darting quickly from branch to branch. Their small size means they have a high metabolism and must feed nearly constantly to ensure they can survive each night. They have dainty beaks that they use to hunt out hibernating insects and spiders in the branches.

Like the Goldcrest the Blackcap is insectivorous. It can usually be seen hunting green caterpillars in the spring, but insects are scarce in the winter. Like many warblers, Blackcaps are actually migratory and spend the winter in the Mediterranean or North Africa however they are many that have started to overwinter in the UK. Some might not be British birds but individuals moving south from Scandinavia. Like many birds they can change their diet, Sparrows feed their young insects but feed mainly on seed themselves whilst in this cold spell the Blackcap could be seen pecking at peanuts and taking seed from the grounder. Seeds are excellent food in this weather, containing important energy stores like fats and oils. Its is because of well stocked gardens that this usually summer only visior can now stay all year round.

These were not the only birds to visit today, Blue Tits, Great Tits, Chaffinch and Goldfinch all entered into the web of politics which is the English garden, vying for space and food.

What is on exhibition here is a model called Optimum Foraging Theory, something I studied in detail at University. It dictates the optimum time to feed, how long to feed and what to feed on, It guides organisms by causing them to evaluate costs and benefits of their actions. What is interesting is that their motives may seem strange to us, perhaps nonsensical but survival is the name of the game and each has adapted itself to ensure it lives to see another day.