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.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

My patch - a year review

Another 12 months has passed on my patch making it now 15 years since I first started making records. The Saxon Mill never ceases to amaze me. Each year new species are discovered and new pieces of interesting behaviour recorded. There is still so much I do not know.
I know for instance that my hour-long counts each week are but the tip of the iceberg. What resident species have I yet to record? Where are many of my resident's nesting?

This year I recorded 58 species of bird in my small patch over 53 approx 1hr-1hr 30min visits, 4 species of mammal, 9 species of dragonfly and 14 species of butterfly.

Interesting sightings this year include the first sighting of a Little Egret in April and a Sedge Warbler in May.

The counts of Banded Demoiselles were huge this year, 612 (208 in 2016).

So whats in store for 2018... well in terms of wildlife, who knows - the sky is the limit, but I do have some targets.

- I plan to start a new trail cam experiment using baited camera traps.
- Find more nests
- Focus a little more on insects like moths

Either way its going to be fun.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Whose been eating my birds?

The natural world is something I find incredibly relaxing and fascinating and sometimes it is easy to forget that although I get great solace in watching birds and animals they themselves are focused on eating to survive and avoiding getting eaten themselves.

One should avoid becoming oversensitive to the 'cruelty' of nature. In fact, cruelty is the wrong word, a fox isn't cruel catching a rabbit to eat. Cruelty should be replaced by reality. Predator/Prey relations are fascinating things, they are one of the prime movers in the evolution of species and the dynamics involved create amazing adaptations and behaviours.

Occasionally on my patch, I encounter a dead animal. It is surprisingly rare. This is because nature has the best recyclers in the world. If an individual isn't devoured in its entirety then a host of scavengers and decomposition can cause any carcass to disappear in an amazingly short time.

Today I found the remains of a black-headed gull. There seagulls frequent the fields in the winter sometimes in quite large flocks especially directly after the fields are ploughed. In December a few birds still visit the fields and it is one of those that succumbed to predation.

Nearly all the 'meat' had been removed by the time I found the bird lying in grassland adjacent to the crop field. Many of the feathers had been removed but there did not seem to be any wings present. Many experts are able to identify the predator from such remains and I am going to have a stab at exploring this myself.

The crime scene consisted of a single adult gull. Both wings and all primaries were missing. Both legs and skull were intact. It was surrounded by a mass of feathers including down and secondaries.
Each feather seemed to have been plucked rather than bitten. Most mammals bite through the feathers when getting to the flesh whilst birds like the sparrowhawk pluck them out, leaving the shaft of the feather intact.

The key suspects are Fox, Buzzard, Sparrowhawk, Peregrine, Kestrel. Let's examine each in turn.
The intact feathers and the fact that a fox would find it difficult to sneak up on a gull in the field seems to rule it out although as much a scavenger as a predator it could have moved the carcass.

Buzzards certainly have a wide and varied diet but are they agile enough to catch a gull? No, although an injured or sick one would definitely be fair game. Kestrels I think would be too small. They are fast and agile but suspect they wouldn't have the strength to take one down.

This leaves us with both a Peregrine or a Sparrowhawk. Both are viable candidates and occur on my patch. Of the two the Sparrowhawk is more likely as they are much more common on the site. They are ambush predators and could easily take a gull. Peregrines likewise have speed and strength on their side able to dive down and snatch birds from the sky.

Without forensics or witnesses to question I will never know the truth but I can narrow the field to these two raptors, both impressive predators in their own rights. The gull's gloomy end may well be bad for the gull but it means that the predator and all the decomposers can live on. In the words of Elton John - Its the circle of life.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

A dinosaur at the mill

Today in amongst the remains of the snow and approaching rain I made my usual patch visit. I was pleased to run into the Tit Flock, containing some goldcrest. The cold weather had no doubt brought them out from their solitary life in amongst the yews in search of wood. Safety is always greater in a flock and so they had joined the Great Tits, Blue Tits and Coal Tits flitting around the bridge.

Now the vegetation has died back it is once more easier to walk directly beside the river and it was here at the far end of the site that I came across a young cormorant perched above the water.

You can tell it is a juvenile because the front plumage is still so white.It will lose all these white feathers by its 2nd winter. The Cormorant is often seen as a coastal bird and indeed that is its primary habitat. In recent decades, however, the abundance of fish in rivers and lakes has resulted in many of them making inland regions their home.They can often be seen nesting alongside Herons. I have seen Cormorant fishing on the Avon before and know they frequent Brandon Marsh, Coombe Abbey and Draycote Water.

One of the interesting facts about cormorants is that their feathers are not waterproof. This is an amazing thing given their preference for fish. It is why after fishing you will often see them sitting with their wings out drying off.

I have always liked cormorants there is something primitive and ancient about them. If ever a bird looked like its dinosaur ancestors then cormorants do. It is something about the cold blue eye above the patch of yellow skin and hooked beak.

Cormorants are in the family, Phalacrocoracidae and closely related to Pelicans. They have a long lineage. They first appear in almost the same morphology in the fossil record as a species called Gansus yumenensis. It was found in sediments in China from the Early Cretaceous some 120 million years ago. A time in which they shared with dinosaurs like Iguanadons, Compsognathus and Utahraptor. The modern cormorant like the one pictured here was first in evidence during the late Paleogene 66 million years ago. 

The hooked bill helps catch and hold the fish and the feet are placed right at the back of the bird that makes movement on land awkward but makes them powerful and agile swimmers. They are a successful species able to live across much of the globe. It is always a treat to see one so far from the cliffs of the coast.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Twas three weeks afore christmas when all through the house not a creature was stirring...

Despite much scepticism on my behalf I was pleased to wake up this morning to a covering of snow. In this weather, most birds and animals hunker down and hope for it to pass. Those with high metabolisms, however, have little option and must continue to forage for whatever food they can find. The best place for many birds is now in our gardens where ready supplies of food can be found.

It being a Sunday I went down to my patch as usual but took no records. I just revelled in the site of pristine snow, people making snowmen and children sledging. In my short visit, I saw a single Mallard and on the way down a small flock of Fieldfare.

So here are a couple of photos of this winter wonderland.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

A mild winters day

Just a quick patch update today. December may have arrived and autumn slid into winter but today was an almost balmy 10 degrees. The mild weather made my morning visit to the patch much more comfortable.

The vegetation has started to die back and it is once more possible to walk along the length of the riverbank.  There were a profusion of blackbirds, their numbers undoubtedly swelled by German and Scandinavian migrants as well as many Tits and Wrens.

The most interesting sight was a Buzzard. Unable to use the warm thermals to lift them skywards winter tends to see them much lower. The glide on languid wings at tree height and loom out of the shadows menacingly. One such individual did just this, emerging from the trees, alighting briefly on a branch before moving off back into the woods surrounded by alarm calling tits, blackbirds and thrushes.

On other news, my replacement camera has arrived along with a security box. I am still looking for ways to attach the camera and will update you soon on any developments.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

The rough with the smooth

Today was the first weekend for awhile when both the weather was fine and I was not thick with cold. I was looking forward to a spot of birding and then checking my trail cam. Sadly, however, my day was ruined. My trail cam has been stolen. This is the second camera I have lost but disappointingly for me, it was my main camera which I have been conducting research with for the last three years.
The monetary loss is frustrating, but for me, the loss of data is more depressing.

The camera was chained up but the thieves obviously went back to get the clippers to cut through it.

I have not decided what to do about this at the moment, I am loathed to put another camera out for now and will research possible anti-theft devices. It is a product of our times I am afraid and sometimes we just have to live with it.

So that was the rough so what about the smooth. That was meeting a young man and his mother. It is a rare thing to meet another birder and it was nice to meet one so young (12) and so eager. He had exceptional eyesight and an encyclopedic knowledge of birds. He has his own blog that has just started see:  and I shall look forward to seeing what he sees... maybe a little jealously.

I work with young people every day and it is great when you see someone so enthused about nature and conservation. That was me, way back when and it is good to know that a new generation is following up behind.

Whilst we were chatting and ironically given my camera theft we saw Half-Tail the Fox lolloping across the field in plain view. He put the feral pigeons and gulls to flight before going out of sight. A reassuring view until I manage to get myself up and running again.

On a final uplifting note, a Male Kingfisher decided to appear just as I was unlocking my bike. He was fishing right by the bridge and showed nicely. It was possible to see the intricate detailing of the feathers on the crown. There is a little white speckling on the front which suggests this could have been one of this years young.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

R.I.P Lillith the Lynx

This week a story in the news struck a little closer to home than they usually do and it directly related to the post I made on the 13th October about reintroducing the Lynx to the UK. I spent my formative university years at Aberystwyth, a place I have come to hold dear. As part of my 1st year Vertebrate Zoology class we were taken to what was then called Borth Animalarium. We were tasked with wandering around and inspecting the animals for physiological adaptations and comparing species evolutionary traits. I can’t say, that at the time, I thought much of the ‘zoo’. I m not against zoo’s per se, something I have discussed in the past but I do expect certain ethical standards to be upheld.
The animlarium, now called Borth Wild Animal Kingdom was in the news of late because their Eurasian Lynx, Lillith, escaped.  The 18-month-old animal escaped on the 29th October having jumped an electric fence. For those that don’t know Borth, it is a quiet out of the way holiday village on the west coast of Wales. It sits between the sea, sand dunes and Borth bog.

Lillith by a baited trap (from

Of course, a single Lynx escape is not much of a concern; a single animal is unlikely to present a major danger to the ecology of the area. They are not going to rapidly spread and cause an ecological disaster.  As I stated in the last post the Lynx was native to the UK and is well adapted to living in the wild spaces of the country.  The park owners attempted to recapture Lillith using baited cages but as anyone who has ever worked with animals will know that the best-laid plans will often go awry, and Lilith posed helpfully beside the cage but didn’t go in.

Eurasian Lynx are not a dangerous species, they live wild in Europe and as far as I could find no one has been killed by one or even injured. They are a shy and elusive species, I can recall a Natural World programme on the Iberian Lynx in which the lead researcher took years to actually see his first lynx in the flesh. Now, as a counterpoint to this Lillith was a captive animal, more used to human contact and not exactly wild, in fact, her lineage is almost certainly one from captive animals.

This story got me vexed when the news came that Lillith had strayed in to a caravan park near Aberystwyth and had been ‘humanely destroyed’.  The order to kill the animal came from Ceredigion County Council and a local marksman despatched her.  It is this ending that has caused me the most concern. The council stated that they ordered this action as they believed the lynx to have become a threat to public safety despite no records of anyone being harmed by the species. Tranquilising, which would have been more suitable was not even considered.

My concern comes from the reaction to this species as a danger. We as a people in the UK have become detached from wildlife and this unfamiliarity has allowed fear and ignorance to take hold. In this country, we have few wild animals that cause human harm and seem unable to coexist now with those that are. Take for instance Australia, this country has many creatures that can kill you but they have found a way to coexist because this is a way of life for them. We are detached and too fearful, I find this sad. 

Sunday, 29 October 2017

A quick catch up

It’s been a few weeks since I last made a post. My master’s course has just restarted and my attention has shifted slightly. I am now in a better pattern of work. In this time I have seen a few things and several items have piqued my attention, which I hope I will be able to post over the next few weeks.

The mild autumn has prolonged many species life cycles, this weekend has been the last weekend when I haven’t heard Roesells Bush-Crickets. On Wednesday whilst I was clearing a path I saw three Red Admirals. There were also several Common Darters in flight and last week there was still a Brown Hawker ovipositing.

On the camera front data continues to roll in. I have now definitely confirmed that there are two foxes using the site. There is Half Tail – who obviously has only half a tail and Full Tail who I think is self-explanatory. This week Full Tail had a limp of the right paw. Another reappearance, have been Wood Mice. I had begun to wonder if the new camera was less sensitive and wasn’t detecting them but recently their incidence has increased. Wood Mice have short life spans; in fact, multiple individuals will have lived and died in the period of my study. The population obviously fluctuates and this little patch within site of the camera goes into and out of usage.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Will or Should the Lynx return?

Eurasian Lynx (By miep CC-BY-SA-2.0-DE)

Those that have followed my blog will know that I am interested in the principles of Rewilding. One of the pillars of rewilding is the reintroduction of species to complete an ecosystems assemblage. I am still gathering my thoughts on where rewilding should fit into the conservation landscape and so I am trying to read articles and books as they come up. Last week a short blog post brought my attention to the reintroduction of the Eurasian Lynx to the UK.

Reintroductions in the UK have a fairly good record, Red Kites and Sea eagles are good examples of success stories and current projects include beavers, bustards and cranes. Further possible reintroductions include wolves, which has been under discussion for years and the Lynx.
The Eurasian Lynx is native across Scandinavia, Turkey and Russia into Asia and is already the topic of reintroduction programmes in France, Germany Italy, Austria, Slovenia and Switzerland (Harris and Yalden, 2008). The Eurasian Lynx first appeared in the fossil record in the Devensian (Pleistocene Ice Age). It was common across Europe and Asia up until the fall of the Roman Empire when human interactions caused their extinction in several places including the UK. The last recorded date was in c.450AD in North Yorkshire Harris and Yalden, 2008).

Distribution Map of the Eurasian Lynx

The Eurasian Lynx lives in primarily deciduous, mixed or coniferous woodland but can be successful in open sparsely wooded, semi-deserts and thick scrub. Interestingly compared to other lynx species they do not prey mainly on lagomorphs (Rabbits and Hares) instead they are specialist hunters of deer and other ungulates which is where they bring them into competition with man, as a potential risk to livestock (Wilson and Mittermeier, 2009).

Lynx are one of the most charismatic species of cat, whilst they may lack the majesty and raw power of Lions, Leopards and Tigers they have a certain subtle charm which is leant to them by their elusive nature. On a practical basis, the Lynx is a good fit for UK ecology. We have all our large predators and deer numbers in the UK are too large, for many species culls are necessary to control populations. The Lynx could be a solution to this problem. Feeding mostly on deer will reduce their numbers and in doing so reduce the damage deer do to woods and young trees. In fact, the presence of lynx is correlated to the limitation of damage to forestry industries (Harris and Yalden, 2008). Male lynx typically have a territory size of 100-450 km2 which overlaps with the up to three female territories which are smaller at 45-250 km2 (Wilson and Mittermeier, 2009). 

These large territories and the possible conflict with sheep farmers would restrict their reintroduction to remote areas. Currently, the Lnyx UK Trust is investigating the viability of reintroduction through, research, education and eventually release. They already have an impressive list of stakeholders and have run detailed consultations and applications for trials in Scotland. This is a once native species which could undoubtedly have both environmental and socio-economic benefits, benefits which include the original articles premise that lynx could help boost tourism in release areas.

A Eurasian Lynx in Bavaria (By Aconagua CC-BY-SA-3.0)

There are of course problems; British people are unaccustomed to large predators in the wild, one of the key problems with attempts to reintroduce wolves. Lynx offer a less dangerous option than their canine but there is still an ingrained cultural perception that needs to be addressed. Whilst other reintroductions have been very successful, in France lynx took large numbers of sheep something they did not do over the border in Switzerland. Sheep farming is a key industry in this country and any reintroduction would need to assuage the fears of farmers.

My last point concerns the general principle, animal and plant assemblages are what make ecosystems work. Many of our habitats are in danger or unhealthy because they no longer support the balance of species that they once did, they lack that holy grail – biodiversity, however at what point do we decide species are needed. The reintroduction of the Beaver has a good case, it is an ecosystem engineer as well as a keystone species and can help control flooding, also it only recently became extinct. For a reintroduction relevance is important and I think the lynx’s ability to control deer numbers solves a problem in the UK, I would dearly love them to be part of our fauna again and would support any efforts to do so but in the back of my mind lurks the fear that perhaps the money and effort would be better spent on saving the species we currently have rather than bringing in old ones. Surely it is cheaper financially and ecologically to stop them going extinct in the first place rather than having to reintroduce them at great cost further down the line.

Harris.S and Yalden D (2008) Mammals of the British Isles: Handbook, 4th Edition. Mammal Society. Southampton

Wilson. D and Mittermeier. R (2009) Handbook of the Mammals of the World 1. Carnivores. Lynx Edicions. Barcelona.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Same old, same old

On Facebook this week the Zoological Society of London had a brief post with a fact that both astonished and saddened me. One Elephant is poached every 20 minutes in Africa.

This figure jumped out at me. The trade in ivory seems just as strong today as it was in my youth. It feels as if nothing has changed in the past 30 years. In the 1930’s there were an estimated Five million elephants in Africa today this is now just 600,000.

A quick google search has unveiled a range of infographics that help put the plight of the elephant into focus.

This infographic illustrates the decline of elephant populations in Tanzania. Where once poaching, habitat loss and human conflict resulted in losses up until 1989. Today however poaching is once more on the rise.

This infographic illustrates the steep rise in illegal killings most of which were to provide ivory for markets in the east.

This last infographic shows the route of the ivory trade. As you can see, even today and even with CITIES protection ivory is still traded to Great Britain.

Earlier this year China banned its domestic trade in ivory. This on the face of it would be excellent news but the fact is that this so far has not translated into a reduction in poaching. It is possible that the illegal markets are still viable economically or that people are stockpiling the ivory in the hope that they can control the trade for greater profit.

It all well and good castigating Africa and China for the ivory poaching. It's hard to deny an African man with a family to support the value a single tusk. An integrated approach is needed, not only must trade be curtailed by stopping the poachers but we need to address the socio-economic factors that make it more profitable for poachers to kill elephants to make money. We need to continue to reduce the market like China has by banning the use of ivory. But what about the UK, are we leading the way... far from it. We still allow certain trade in elephant ivory and plans to ban ivory sales were quietly dropped by Theresa May in the last Conservative Manifesto. This is still an important issue and it is possible that the African Elephant could still go extinct in my life-time, one of the last of this planets mega-fauna.

For anyone interested, they really should look up Hugh's Ivory War shown last year on BBC -Trailer
Unfortunately it is no longer available on I-player but there are links and clips.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Things that go bump in the night

Last week my trail cams batteries ran down. When I installed a new set the settings of the camera were reset meaning that the shots taken were single JPEG pictures this is not necessarily a problem, in fact, the photos actually give excellent quality shots of the animals captured by the camera.

However, I choose to take video clips as they help in identifying the species. You can pick up a lot about a species by how it moves and there is more chance of seeing other parts of the body as it moves through the field of view. This would have been immensely useful for two of this week's

Unknown Number 1: The Black Sausage

This shot shows a long thin mammal in the top right. I can say clearly what is not - it is not a badger, a fox, a deer. It is too big for any of the rodents, weasel or stoats. It could be a Mink or it could be a second visit for the elusive Polecat, either way, this shot is not good enough to say either way.

Unknown Number 2 - The Giant Rat

In this second shot, a mammal can be seen in the bottom right. The eye shine shows a pair of eyes forward facing and close-set. There is subtle evidence of a thin hairless tail. It seems to have larger hindquarters, my working assumption is that this could be a large rat, similar individuals have been seen occasionally over the years.

At the weekend I readjusted the camera to a hybrid setting which takes video and photos and hopefully both mammals will decide to show themselves again and be identified.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Why are there barely any bears in Africa?

Recently my attention became drawn to an unusual natural curiosity; I wondered why there were no species of bear in Africa. Bears are remarkably adaptable and generalist species, they are capable of living in forests, grasslands and mountains. Their diet is omnivorous and on the whole wide-ranging across species. On the face of it, there seems to be no logical reason for the absence of this species from this continent. There are obviously no bear species in Australia and this is easily explainable. In fact, mammal fauna in Australia is unique. It is home to a unique marsupial assemblage which resulted from the split of the continent from the supercontinent Gondwana, its final separation occurred in the Mesozoic (251-140 million years ago) trapping primitive mammals on its shores. Africa, however, has a range of modern mammal taxa and niches indicative of the other continents.

Thus began a search of the literature to uncover the answer. The earliest mammals were small rodent-sized organisms and the lineage of the bear can be traced back to the Palaeocene species Cimoloestes before the origin of true carnivores and the development of carnassial teeth.

The distribution of the extant species of bears today. Note the lack of any bear species in Africa or Australia (Wikimedia Commons - Copyright Free)

Early bears resembled modern day Raccoon Dogs.
(Copyright: CC-BY-2.0 Mizunoryu)
The first true bears begin with Parictis a raccoon-sized mammal in North America which led to Amphicynodon and Cephalogale, a wolf-hound sized animal, found in 37 million-year-old Chinese deposits. Radiation of the species led to Phobercyon, Pithocyon and the aquatic bear Kolonomos.

Modern bears (Ursidae) exist in three sub-families Ailuropodinae, the Giant Panda, Tremarctinae, the Andean Bear and the Ursinae, all other bears. These three lineages common ancestor was Ursavus elmensis. This species lived 20 million years ago; they originated in Asia and spread to North America. They were about 30 inches tall, adept climbers with distinctive omnivorous teeth and probably similar to modern-day Racoon Dogs.

The Giant Panda was for many years a subject of debate concerning its ancestry and growing up I can remember it not being listed as a bear, today, however, it has been shown that the Giant Panda descended from Ailurarctos which lived in Yunnan Province in China 7-8 million years ago, it too had links to Ursavus.

The Giant Panda was considered separate from the bears for
many years. (Wikimedia Commons - Copyright Free) 
The Tremarctine Bears (also known as running bears) evolved during the middle Miocene as the world became drier. The humid forests were replaced by temperate forests and scrubland. These species became more specialised carnivores and became larger in body size. They first dispersed into North America and then when the Panamanian land bridge surfaced 2 million years ago into South America. Key running bears were the 600 kg Short-faced Bear (Arctodus simus) and the 400 kg vegetarian Florida Cave Bear (Tremarctos floridanus). These two species were remarkably successful surviving up until only 10,000 years ago. The Tremarctine bears faced increasing completion from big cats and the late Pleistocene extinction of the large herbivores. Their extinction also matches the appearance of mankind and arrival of Ursine bears such as the Brown Bear. Today only one Tremarctine species remains the Spectacled Bear of South America.

The Short-faced Bear (Arctodus simus). (Copyright: CC-BY-SA-3.0)
Asiatic Black Bear (Ursus thibetanus)
 (Copyright: CC-BY-SA- 4.0 Rhealopez168)

Ursine bears evolved from the Little Bear, Ursus minimus, they evolved 5 million years ago but underwent great change and radiation during the Ice Age 2.5 million years ago. Rather being large and fast the bears in Eurasia became slower and predominantly omnivorous. The little bear spawned the modern bears (Sun Bears, Sloth Bears, American Bears, Asian Black Bears, Brown Bears and Polar Bears). The Little Bear most closely resembled the Asiatic Black Bear (Ursus thibetanus). It spread right across Europe and Asia becoming isolated in Asia during the Pleistocene.

Brown Bears split off from the Little Bear 1.2-2.8 million years ago although there is some evidence they could have split from the Etruscan Bear or the Cave Bear (Ursus spelaecus). The Etruscan Bear led to the Eurasian Cave Bears 500,000-100,000 years ago. They were large (400 kg) and similar to their American Florida Cave Bear cousins. The Cave Bear had a distinctive domed forehead and weighed 500 kg; it vanished in the late Pleistocene. Regardless of the exact ancestor Black Bears and Brown Bears separated at this time as part of a massive radiation of species which somewhere included the Sloth Bears and the Sun Bears. The Brown and Black bears spread across Europe and Asia, crossing the Bering land bridge to colonise North America.
The most recent species to evolve is the Polar Bear that evolved from the Brown Bear lineage some 200,000 years ago. This specialised polar hunt is exclusively carnivorous whilst the Brown Bear retained a generalist omnivorous diet.

The huge Cave Bear (Ursus speleacus).
(Copyright: CC-BY-SA-3.0)

In this discussion, it is possible to see waves of bear evolution occurring in Europe, Asia and the Americas. Climatic changes and the creation of land bridges led to a dispersal and radiation of the species across the major continents. In this story, the Tremarctine dominance in the Americas gave way to a Pleistocene invasion of Eurasian Bears it is clear that Africa is not mentioned at all. This indicates that whilst the species proved adaptable to most continents something restricted their spread onto this particular one.

Whilst I claim that there are no bears in Africa there is, in fact, evidence that they had been. Atlas Bears (Ursus arctos crowtherii) lived in North Africa and were a sub-species of Brown Bear. They covered much of Moroccan, Libyan and Tunisian mountains and forests. They had slightly more orange fur and a shorter face more reminiscent of their Miocene relatives. It is believed the Atlas bear was hunted to extinction, first by the Romans who used them for sport in their coliseums and later by other hunters. The last Atlas Bear was killed in the 1870’s.

Fossils bear remains have been discovered in two locations in Sub-Saharan Africa; South Africa and Ethiopia. These bones relate to one of the ‘running bears’ from the late Miocene and Pliocene. The species, Agrotherium africanum, had primitive teeth and was probably primarily herbivorous and a scavenger it is thought the genus became extinct from competition. This paragraph, I think, holds the key to why there are no bears in Africa, Competition and the Sahara.

Much of the evolution of the bear occurs in either Asia or North America with the resultant species spreading out in either direction east and west. In the Americas, the species were able to radiate south once the Panama land bridge was established and today we still have bears along the Andes. In Asia the Panda thrived in the bamboo forests, the Asiatic Black Bear across south-east Asia and heading southwards the Sloth Bear appeared in India. We know bears existed along the Atlas Mountains north of the Sahara desert but none south of it. It is likely that like for many species the desert acted as a considerable barrier to the southerly expansion of the bears. This barrier stopped the colonisation of Africa by any of the modern species of bear in the past 1 million years.
The only surviving Tremarctine Bear
- The Spectacled Bear/Andean Bear (Tremarctos ornatus)
(Wikimedia Commons - Copyright Free)

As we now know there were Cave Bears found in Ethiopia and South Africa but they evidently died out without spawning new taxa, this suggests competition coming into play. To explore this we must look at the evolution of the Order Carnivora as a whole. This line includes all mammal carnivores which appeared in North America 42 million years ago from Miacids. This order very quickly splits into two orders, the Caniformia and the Feliformia. The Feliformia included all the Cat families and were predominantly successful in Africa and Asia whilst the Caniformia that included the dogs, arctoids, racoons, weasels, seals and bears were most successful in North America, radiating into Europe.

Therefore the bear lineage became a mostly northern hemisphere line that was unable to successfully spread south through Africa and those that did found themselves out-competed by the dominant feliformia predators like the big cats. Today where there are bears or dog species there are fewer cat species and vice versa.

This is not a watertight explanation but I think draws together the ancestry of the bear along with biogeographical information. With modern taxonomy and the development of improved genetic testing evolutionary theory is coming on leaps and bounds and every year a better picture is gained. There is still much to be discovered and for that, we need both the paleontological evidence and DNA sequencing.


Bears of the World [Accessed: 16th September 2018]

Benton, M.J. (2015) Vertebrate Palaeontology. 4th ed. Wiley Blackwell. Oxford.

Macdonald, D. (1992) The Velvet Claw. BBC books. London.

Prothero, D.R. (2017) The Princeton Field Guide to Prehistoric Mammals. Princeton University Press. Oxford.

Wilson, D.E & Mittermeier, R.A ed. (2009) Handbook of the Mammals of the World. Vol. 1 Carnivores. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

BBC Wildlife Magazine Retrospective

The BBC Wildlife Magazine is one of those British institutions like David Attenborough himself that inspires confidence, respect and quality. I first began reading the magazine in 1991 aged 13, back then the magazine was very different to the one we see today. Some part of me misses the more direct and harder style of that earlier age. Today’s issues remain of excellent quality but there is a subtle feeling that within its glossiness some of its scientific edge has been lost.
The first issue I bought

Since that first issue, I have collected and read nearly every single issue. For some time I kept them stacked beneath my bed before several years ago when buying a new bed I realised the futility of keeping them all. With great effort, I abandoned my older issues keeping only those from 2004 onwards which I put into binders and added indexes.

Today after my usual Sunday nature watch on my patch I stopped at the pub for a cool drink and sat on the terrace reading the latest issue. It was whilst reading this that I thought about something that has been on my mind for awhile. How much of what is happening in nature today just the same as in the past, have we made progress? Are the problems today the same as yesterday or are we facing a whole new set? Either is not a particularly heartening prospect for different reasons.

Following up on this thought I pulled out my earliest issue I still had and started to compare it with the latest one. The issue in question was from January 2004, it was priced £2.90 and had the image of a Scottish Wildcat on the front. The issue included a free gift of a Pocket Guide to Pebbles. The editor back then was Rosamund Kidman Cox who edited the magazine for a few months more before publishing passed to Immediate Media and Sophie Stafford took over the editorial chair.
2004 Issue

Much of the magazine is recognisable there were sections on highlights, discoveries, letters, news of the earth and tales of the bush and a wide range of in depth articles and opinion. In the highlights there was a small piece on the rise of the Buzzard; it stated that Great Britain was now home to 50,000 pairs; today that value is more like 70,000 pairs. Richard Mabey’s regular column discussed the US Wildlands Project that extolled the three main tenets of Reconnect, Restore and Rewild. The first two I remember being important factors in the early 2000’s my own thesis in 2001 was concentrated on metapopulation theory and habitat fragmentation, and rewilding has been growing a pace in the last 10 years.

Sadly not everything has changed; this month’s article on Black Rhino conservation in Samburu, the species is still in as much danger now as in 2004 especially as new laws in South Africa now allow the domestic trade in rhino horn. Many of the 2004 issues articles still have a resonance today; Chris Baines discussed the plans to merge English Nature with the Countryside Agency and Rural Development Service. Such plans did, in fact, come true with Natural England being born some two years later. This body continues to operate today; I will leave you to decide if it is better or worse than what came before.

Interestingly the following issue (February 2004) had an article on the Badger Cull Trial which had begun in 1996, this counterpoints this month’s article on the latest Scientific findings on the bTB and Badgers. In 2004 the Krebs trial was still running and all the questions raised now were being asked then, in fact, the article ends with this now somewhat sad sentence – “maybe the authorities will realise that culling is a response out of all proportion to the threat posed by badgers to our food industry”. Even then there was scepticism as it was pointed out that then 70% of DEFRA’s TB programme was spent on badger control rather than cattle protection measures. Today we are still a year away from the end of the proposed cull cycle, more and more areas have been added to the cull zones and the science remains to show that controls in animal husbandry and control have more affect than the bTB reservoir in natural populations, same old, same old.
This months issue - available from all good newsagents

To close on a lighter note I cast a gaze over the listings pages and recalled fond memories of halcyon days during which Big Cat Week was on the TV, Countryfile remained at 11 am on a Sunday morning and Nature still broadcast on Radio 4. The BBC’s Natural History Unit also reviewed in this month’s issue has gone from strength to strengths and continues to push the boundaries of technology and knowledge, the programming today is as epic as it ever was and the BBC Wildlife as a magazine is the same. Whilst I may feel there the magazine has lost some of its hard edges, this is no bad thing, the magazine is more inclusive and representative of the wider community and has increased its reader involvement with more questions, activities, their photographs and its local patch reporters project. Long may the BBC Wildlife continue and as long as it does I will be subscribing.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Rewild: The Art of Returning to Nature - By Nick Baker

In recent years my understanding of nature conservation is shifting. It is being moved by a growing groundswell that seems to postulate a new approach. The old movements of the 1980's and 1990's for nature conservation with neat heavily managed nature reserves protecting a collection of core species is starting to make way for larger ideas surrounding ecosystem services and rewilding.

A brand new approach to conservation and its relationship to society seems to be entering gestation and it is unclear if this still a rather nebulous idea will grow and flourish or arrive, forgive the imagery, stillborn.

The concept of rewilding has been of immense interest to me since I first read about the reintroduction of Wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the US. It led me to read the excellent book, Feral, by George Monbiot back in 2014 and reviewed here on this blog. So it was with some interest that I saw a review of a new book in the BBC Wildlife - ReWild: The Art of Returning to Nature by Nick Baker.

Nick Baker has always been a favourite presenter and ecologist of mine. I remember him from his time on the Really Wild Show and have loved many of his many series. His love of all kinds of creature is instantly relatable and his enthusiasm, knowledge and passion shine out brightly. I quickly ordered the book and finished it today.

To start off I must confess the book wasn't exactly what I was expecting. From the title, I assumed there was more information on the case studies of rewilding and the natural approach to nature conservation and this was indeed referenced but it wasn't the main thesis of the book. Nick used rewilding as an 'in' to discuss firstly how detached how we as animals are detached from the wild life around us and then to reintroduce us to them by taking us step by step through our five senses and explaining how they can be tuned or rather re tuned to nature.

He extols the virtues of silence, the night, walking, tasting, hearing and listening; and yes listening and hearing are two different things. As I worked through the book some chapters resonated better with me than others, but Nicks charm filled style of writing carries you along and his anecdotes and personal accounts colouring each section. It got me thinking that an autobiography of his travels would be interesting as, if you count up the countries he mentions throughout the book you'll very nearly have the full UN membership. In fact, I cannot find an autobiography but hope fervently that one day he will catalogue his experiences.

The book overall then despite not being what I expected was a joy to read for the most part. It is more a  book for a dabbler in conservation or perhaps for those that have completely lost touch with their wild side rather than an expert or experienced nature lover. Nevertheless, it encouraged me to sit more and watch and has some excellent ideas for improving fieldwork.

You can buy the book from all good bookshops - and Amazon

A Moorhens Tale

Autumn is starting to show its hand, the Robin's song has changed and there is a different quality to the air in the morning. Bird-wise we have entered a lull between the seasons. The Saxon Mill was remarkably quiet, a lone Chiffchaff sang its song and the Whitethroats have all left for Africa and in the skies, the Swallows were starting to gather in swooping clouds.

Adult Moorhen

Sat beside the river waiting for the Kingfisher to show I found myself watching a juvenile Moorhen. At this time of the year, they have lost the cute a cuddly black fluff and are now something of a drab black and brown bird. It pottered along the edge of the water in a skittering careful manner, it was joined by a second and I heard a third unseen to my right. I began to think about how successful this bird actually was on my patch, more so perhaps than the other ubiquitous waterbird, the Mallard.

Mallard are common on the river; more so in the winter than the summer when they pair up to mate. However, ducklings last only a very short time on the river. Each year I see one maybe two broods and they rapidly diminish. 1st Year juvenile survival is 0.518 and appears much higher on my patch. The river is a dangerous place for small nestlings, struggling to survive to fledging. Under the water the river is teeming with Pike whilst above ground there are two pairs of foxes in the area, Mink frequent the area and Otter have been seen as well. They are not safe from their own kind either, Kestrels and Sparrowhawks are common on the site, but these are unlikely to present to much of a threat instead their avian foe is the Grey Heron. All these predators would make short work of either a duck or moorhen chick but it seems that Moorhens at least have a greater survival rate on the river.

Mallard with large brood at the mill, most of these ducklings won't make it another week

Mallard clutches tend to be larger than Moorhen and their food sources and predators are the same and yet the Moorhen seems to do better. This could be due to the ability of the Moorhen to have two broods compared to the Mallards one. This would certainly boost numbers and aid survival but whilst watching the juveniles I began to think that perhaps behaviour and morphology have a part to play.

Moorhens are more cryptic in behaviour than Mallard, yes females have excellent camouflage but once hatched the young are more vulnerable for longer. Newly hatched chicks of both species are highly vulnerable in the first couple of weeks but as they grow the ducklings remain more vulnerable. The Moorhen juveniles become more mobile, they are more wary on the water and faster on the land. They skulk in the shadows instead of being visible on the water. At the Saxon Mill where there are abundant predators it is the Moorhen that has greater flexibility in both hiding and evading predators and so their breeding success is greater.

Moorhen with Chick - less than a week old

If you compare the breeding on the river to that on the canal survival between the Moorhen and Mallard is more even with many more ducklings evident and predators are fewer.

It’s interesting how even the commonest of birds can have such interesting lives.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Recent Camera Trap Sightings

With the change from my old Bushnell Camera Trap to the newer version, I have lost several weeks of data and I am still trying to obtain the best location height for it. At the moment the field of view on the new camera is smaller than the old one and so does not catch the animals quite as well as it used to. Tomorrow I am going to attempt lowering it a bit although this does present a risk...

On the whole, the animals are used to the camera as it is, they rarely concern themselves with it although occasionally making eye contact. Occasionally, however, some animals will take an interest a prime example occurred this week when an unknown animal, possibly a badger took a good sniff of the camera.

Still on Badgers, this week their activity increased a little and a possible cub was sighted. An interesting clip, shows a badger using its incredible sense of smell to locate food underground and then use its powerful claws to excavate the prey. It follows up by marking the site.

In other clips Half-Tail the Fox made a single appearance and 3 separate muntjacs have been identified. A small youngster, a full grown female and a full grown buck. All were seen separately and represent individuals, they are possibly a 'family' that post breeding have gone their separate ways.

Young Muntjac



Sunday, 6 August 2017

The Beauty of the Small Copper

In the past couple of weeks, I have seen several Small Copper butterflies. They are deceptively small butterflies that are in the middle of their second flight period of the year. Whilst, not a rare species nationally I rarely see many each year and each sighting is a treat if you can wait long enough for one to land.

Like many British butterflies, their predominant colour is orange. They have striking speckled patterns on the fore wings and a beautiful band of orange on the edge of the aft wing.

This individual was probably newly emerged as its colours were still vibrant and the wings were perfect with no scale loss. Eggs are laid on dock plants and it is on this abundant plant that the caterpillars feed.

The beauty of the species can only be seen when settled.

Only then is it possible to see the gently striped black and white antennae ending in a black top dipped in yellow/orange.   Close up you can see that the majority of the butterfly is chocolate brown punctuated, like the orange, by black spots. A frill of fine silvery hairs edge both sets of wings.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Trying out a Moth Trap

For my birthday this month, I got a Moth Trap. I have been toying with the idea of getting one for some years now. Moths are a taxa that I am not particularly familiar with. I spend much of my wildlife time in daylight and so do not really come across them.

They are fascinating species and have a wide range of morphologies and life cycles. In fact, there are far more species of moth in the UK than there are Butterflies. After a bit of research, I asked for a portable 6 watt 12 volt Actinic Bulb Heath Trap -

The trap arrived in good condition but needed a separate battery for operation. It is simple to assemble and well constructed. Metal panels make it durable whilst plastic funnels and veins direct moths into the collecting chamber whilst also keeping out the rain.

After reading up a little and watching a few you tube clips I set up the trap last night on the patio in my garden. I left it on over night and with some trepidation, I checked it this morning. I was hesitant as on some clips traps had attracted hundreds of moths and I did not think I was up to such identification challenges. As luck would have it the trap contained only a few moths.

As I carefully removed the egg boxes I managed to trap and/or photograph 12 moths. Only three managed to escape one Macro - the largest in the tap and two micro.

Of these 12 moths, five were Macro Moths and 7 Micro Moths. I then began the task of identifying them - I used: UK Moths and  British Moths and Butterflies. Below are the ones I have identified, most of the micros are too difficult for me and if you think I have something wrong let me know, I am very much a beginner at this.

Plume Moth - Amblytilia acanthadactyla 

Riband Wave - Ideae aversata 
Possibly a Black Owlet - Scythris grandipennis

Single Dotted Wave - Ideae dimidata

Cabbage Moth? -Mamestra brassicae

Large Yellow Underwing - Noctua pronuba

Common Carpet - Epirrhoe alternata

These are the micro moths I have been unable to identify:

I look forward to repeating the procedure next weekend and then venturing down to my land to increase the species list down there.