Sunday, 29 May 2016

HS2 good for wildlife...really?

This week’s blog post is more of an essay based on some ideas raised in the May issue of the BBC Wildlife Magazine. Within its pages was a thought provoking article by a long standing columnist for the magazine and a well known conservation voice. Chris Baines is a nationally respected naturalist who has for the past 30 years and in his article he raised the idea that HS2 could be good for wildlife.
HS2 or High Speed 2 Rail link ( is one of my major concerns. The massive infrastructure project aims to link London to Birmingham and then Birmingham to Manchester promising faster travel time between the various cities. I have followed the development of the case for HS2 since its inception with suspicion and cynicism. For me, the need for it nor the cost of it has been justified. Every major party wants it and regardless of local views it looks like this white elephant is going to happen regardless.

The impact of this rail project is particularly dear to me as it passes through Warwickshire and cuts through many areas of lovely countryside. Stated like that lovely sounds weak and feeble against the overbearing financial and commercial need, but Warwickshire is already rapidly conurbating despite containing no cities within its confines. The treasures on its line may not be much to the planners in London but to us the 250 year old Pear Tree is a vital part of our community (
 ,as are the woods such as Ufton, South Cubbington and Crackley that are bisected by the proposed line.

How then could Baines’ idea of it being good for wildlife be true? I read the article carefully and allowed the ideas to percolate through until I could begin to see where Chris was coming from. The route is fixed and some mitigation is occurring, rare species and meadows will be relocated and tunnels and cuttings are being placed to minimise the impact; however there will still be the baseline damage of its presence and the damage inherent to its construction phase. What Chris proposes is using a fraction of the £42 billion project to regenerate wildlife along the length of the route, suggesting a 480 km long wildlife corridor stretching 1km either side in a buffer zone.
This zone would have new habitats created, existing ones managed and improved and access to people extended. He suggests a cycle path along its length. Suddenly this idea becomes more attractive. Do not get me wrong I am still in opposition to the development but it seems inevitable now that it will go ahead and so perhaps are focus needs to shift to one of damage limitation. Is this defeatism or realism? I’ll let you decide that for yourselves.

Mitigation in projects like this are not always like for like. The government promises not net loss of biodiversity but then again it believes that offsetting the destruction of a wood with the planting of an equal number of trees is not net loss. This is not the case, newly planted trees have fraction of the biodiversity that mature trees do and so will not reach their potential for a generation. A time they may not have as being just saplings with little biodiversity at the start they are more susceptible to predation by other developers such as industry or housing.

 I do not feel we have a good tradition of protecting habitats in this country. This is not a new phenomenon at all; in fact it goes back to the enclosures act starting in the 17th Century.  Today development either industrial or agricultural has created a landscape in which species are parceled up into small enclosures of their own.  This is evident in Warwickshire, if you want to see a particular species you must go out to a specific location. I know if I want to see Yellowhammer, as I did a few weeks ago, I must go to a set location. No more do you walk in the countryside and encounter the wealth and range of species. If I want to see water-birds and waders I go to Brandon Marsh, Butterflies I go to Ryton Woods. How is this any different to zoos in which select species are contained with an enclosure? How are the bars of a cage any different to the hostile sterile farmland surrounding an ancient woodland?

So how does this all fit in with Baines’ view. Perhaps it is time for us to really challenge the development on their grounds, if it is going to happen let it benefit the wildlife for those the route blights. We in Warwickshire will get no benefit to the line, there are no stops in the county and it is in fact likely to reduce the number of trains between London and Birmingham stopping at our existing stations. There is a chance here to show development and redevelopment hand in hand. To create a world class network of wild spaces for all to enjoy, one that supports nature, naturalists, walkers, runner, cyclists, the list goes on.  Sometimes you have to take what you can get, idealism is all well and noble but realism may just be what gets us through.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Swan Update and a Snake

Today I had a busy day, checking my trail cam and doing my usual patch survey and then later checking on the swans.

My trail cam, after a period of problems, is now working well again and this week recorded a resurgence in badger activity.

Elsewhere on the patch it was unusually quite, The Whitethroats were busy singing but apart from that there were remarkably few birds in evidence. I spent a lot of my time counting Banded Demoiselles and the butterflies. I also kept an eye out for snakes. Yesterday had been cool and wet but today was very warm in the sun and I thought that if I checked suitable basking spots I stood a remote chance of getting a glimpse. I carefully approached all the suitable sites but to no avail, but when I was returning from my camera and I had forgotten to look for them I spotted one. It saw me well in advance and was already slithering off the thick patch of drift material. It was a soft tan brown perhaps only 60 cm long and only about as thick as a stick of rock. I first thought it could have been a slow worm but a swift glance at the head showed yellow marks at the neck meaning that it was a Grass Snake.

In the afternoon I decided I wanted to confirm the arrival of my Mute Swans. During the week I had noted their hatching and from a distance counted 8 cygnets. I wanted to confirm this and whenever I went down to see she had taken them back on the nest and they were barely visible.

Luckily today the adults had taken the brood out along the canal and I was able to catch them as they returned to the nest for the evening. There are indeed 8 cygnets. This is only the second brood in Warwick to have 8 cygnets in the last 10 years.

From the canal I headed to St Nicholas Park. I had heard one of the pairs had hatched 6 cygnets and the other was still on the nest.
On arrival I quickly saw that both nests were empty, and that a single cygnet less pair were on the Kingfisher Pool. So either the nest failed or they had hatched during the week and all been predated/killed. There were no egg shells in the nest and no grey feathers at all which suggests to me that either no eggs were laid at all or all the eggs were taken.

Whilst looking for the cygnets I spotted a rare visitor to Warwick, a Great Crested Grebe. They visit the lake occasionally in the summer and this one was roosting on the water. It looked sound asleep but was well aware of all around it, quickly paddling free still in the sleeping position when I or a swan approached,

From Kingfisher Pool I moved on to the river and found the Pen with 4 cygnets further down river. She had started with 6 and so had lost 2 in the intervening weeks.

This means that in Warwick from 5 known nests 19 cygnets have hatched so far and 17 survive. A good year so far. Only one nest is unknown at the moment - Rock Mill.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Weekend Photo Diary

This weekend I was reminder of how nice it is to live in Warwick. I have the benefit of a fairly well resourced town surrounded by the countryside. The thing with Warwickshire is that it is a little bit forgotten. It is a little too south in the Midlands to be bothered with and too far north for the Cotswolds to include, we have no major cities although we are criss-crossed by multiple motorways. We have no major lakes, country renowned reserves, no mountains and no coastline. This means it is often overlooked by programmes such as Countryfile or Countrywise. This is not necessarily a bad thing but I do feel we are a little side-lined.

This weekend I managed to get out and about a lot. Firstly on Saturday morning I was faced with a multitude of possibilities, would I check on the Swan, look for Rabbits in Priory Park, look for Farmland Birds up 'Volvo Lane' or visit the racecourse to watch skylark.

I started by cycling down to the canal on my estate to check on my local swans, by my reckoning they are ready to hatch any day now, but still there was no activity. From there I rode north remembering that in a small paddock next to the tow path and cemetery Rabbits could often be seen, and they did not disappoint. A pair of young rabbits sat enjoying the sun among the daisies. It may surprise you to know that young rabbits are called 'Kittens' Note the smaller rounded ears and the disproportionate size of the eye in relation to the body, other than the overall small size these are key indicators of youth.

From the rabbits I continued up the canal through the industrial estate and out in the countryside between Hampton Magna and Hatton. I was hoping to catch Yellowhammer. I was able to hear them but was caught between the canal and hedgerow. So, I turned round and headed for the place I always see Yellowhammer, that is Wedgenock Lane called 'Volvo Lane' by our family. Its pretty flat and runs up to the edge to the hills that ring Warwick. I had nearly given up hope when on the way back I spotted this brilliant yellow bird on the telegraph wire, refusing to give up its tell tale song of 'little bit of bread and no cheeeese'. These birds are so bright that they remind me of canaries.

Aside from the Dunnock, Whitethroat and Pheasants in the hedgerows I also saw an excellent little bird normally reserved for the winter. Flitting along the hedges, trying hard to stay outside the range of my camera where some Linnet. These little grey brown birds have a delightful song when sing.

And so back to home where in the garden I was met by the first of this years baby Starlings. The young themselves look nothing like their gaudy parents and their drabness reminds me of the ugly duckling.

Later that evening I went down to bait my Camera Trap with peanuts, disappointing I found that it was no longer working. Although two years in continuous service isn't bad for an electrical device and I was able to replace it with my smaller Acorn model with which this morning I got the following pictures. Badgers love peanuts.

Sunday morning and it was time for my usual survey around m,y patch at the Saxon Mill. Despite the good weather things were pretty quiet. Don't get me wrong the birds were all singing loudly but none of what I call my specials were about (Kingfishers, Woodpeckers, Buzzards). I did however see the first Banded Agrions (Demoiselles) of the year. In a few weeks their number will rocket until the whole riverside is covered in a cloud of blue and green.

Out in the main field I noted the Whitethroats had stopped singing as much, this is an indication that they have paired up and are now on nests. A single adult remained singing from a song perch. These dull birds with unsurprisingly white throats have an exquisite song.

Again back home this afternoon and sat in the garden once more I was treated to the arrival of the first juvenile Robin. I reckon it had barely fledged, its mouth was still in full gape, its tail feathers short and ragged and its flight tentative and wobble.

So much to see and hear just on the doorstep.

**** STOP PRESS***
I have just received news that one of the St. Nicholas pair of Swans has hatched 6 cygnets. I ll be looking for them next week.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

To Bee or not to Bee

Forgive the terrible pun but I thought it apt to title a blog post about bees with a quote from the counties birthday boy - Shakepeare.

A few months ago I attended the Warwickshire Recorders Meeting Conference, the first one I have managed to go to. It was a revelation, a great group of people and fascinating talks. One of the talks was by Steven Falk who presented his latest book - the Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland. Now I have to report a vested interest at this stage in that I know Steven. He worked for many years as the Keeper of Natural History at Warwickshire Museums Service. I met him several times and he even reviewed a copy of my first book.

Steven is a consummate ecologist, his passion for the subject is apparent the minute you are in his presence, he has written widely on wildflowers and trees but he is a magnificent entomologist. His book, illustrated by the equally talented Richard Lewington, is a masterpiece bridging the gap between the novices ID guide and a professional scientific key.

In his talk Steven regaled us with some of the stories he gathered during his time researching and writing the book. I attempted to buy a copy of the book but was somewhat deficient in the wallet department instead I ordered the book from Bloomsbury and waited the few days for it to arrive,

The book is beautifully presented with superb illustrations and descriptive text, opening up an entirely new world to me.

Since its arrival I have been dying to give it a whirl, today I managed to put aside some time and the weather was good enough for me to go on a bee hunt.

I started in the garden at the comfrey plants. Comfrey always attract bees and I did not have to wait long before a Bumblebee appeared and started flitting from flower to flower. I decide my best bet for identification was to obtain a photo of each species as I encountered them. This however was a lot harder than you might imagine. Bees move quickly and sometimes erratically and unless the flower is open then they have a tendency to disappear from view. 

The first Bee I identified with the book was this one:

This species I identified as Bombus hortorum, fittingly the Garden Bumblebee.

Also frequenting the Comfrey was a second species that proved a bit more difficult to ID,

After a little searching I was able to identify this Bee as Bombus pratorum, the Early Bumblebee. The most fascinating thing about this bee was the enormous pollen baskets on its legs.

On the brick wall of the conservatory there is a small hole into which a screw once held a trellis. As I passed I noticed another bee taking an interest, this I new had to be a mason bee and is this helped get me to the right place in the book revealing it to be Osmia bicornis, the Red Mason Bee.

These are an innocuous but pretty looking bees that are solitary and nest in small holes in bricks.

Venturing further afield I went down to the canal, ostensibly to check to see if the swans had hatched yet, they hadn't, but I also new several bees frequented the ivy that lined the towpath. Sadly there were none present at all, but on the way home I spotted a number of bees hovering beside a wall and entering cracks at its base. A first glance might make you think they were wasps but they are in fact Bees.

This species presented me with considerable difficulty, the more I looked the more confused I got and the more they looked the same. The book gave me a great starting place, they were obviously of the genus Nomada but getting closer than that was starting to prove difficult, but yet again Steven was able to help included alongside his book he has a vast flickr site with hundred and hundreds of photos, Stevens Flickr Page this helped me to narrow it down to Nomada marshmella, Marsham's Nomad Bee. This took some time due to the arrangement of the stripes on the abdomen and which ones met in the middle and which did not. The picture however nicely picks out the three ocelli on the top of the head, these are simple eyes, nothing more than basic photoreceptors useful for detecting movement.

So what can I say in conclusion? The book is well worth a purchase you will be amazed by the diversity of bees in the country although patience is most definitely required to first get closer enough to see or photo the bee and then work through the keys and pictures to a conclusion. If you love beautiful books, finding out more about nature or love bees then this is the book for you.

If you want to purchase your own copy you can from good bookstores and Amazon