Saturday, 8 May 2021

Appearances can be deceptive

 Taking advantage of the nice weather yesterday I went for a little cycle up to Warwick Racecourse. The site can sometimes be a little sterile but at this time of the year it is alive with Skylark and Reed Bunting. The council have also being working hard to improve the area. By Jubilee Wood the reservoir has been re dug and opened out with a viewing area and a couple of scrapes have been dug on the common.

At the viewing station I paused to see what was about. The wood is always bristling with Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps and yesterday was no different. There was very little on the small reservoir except for a Coot and a Moorhen but as I sat there I heard a commotion in the reeds.

I have often stated that much of wildlife watching is just as much about the sounds as the sights. I knew instantly that the rustle in the reeds was a largeish animal ad given the fencing around the lake was unlikely to be one of the many dogs. The birds hadn't alarmed and so I was fairly sure it wasn't a Fox. Great Tits are usually excellent at spotting these predators and alerting everyone to their presence. I lifted myself up a little to get a better view over the bramble strewn fence and saw a male Muntjac, it was a fleeting glimpse as I was perched at top the wooden railing to the viewing point. I caught a quick glance as it stumbled by and then held my breathe as through the vegetation I could see it settle down in the sunlight.

Repositioning myself I cautiously found myself a better observation post and started to watch the deer which sat unconcerned perhaps 20 meters away. Of course it had its back to me but I managed to get a nice coupe of photos.

This lovely shot shows the fine structure of the fur the curve of the nose and the scent ducts beneath the eyes. But all is not as it seems.

This wasn't the first Muntjac I have seen, I have had close encounters before, all of them fleeting. Despite having no real predator in the UK Muntjac are still very skittish preferring to bolt and hide than risk it. Their 'fight or flight' response is dialled all the way up to 10 for flight. Sometimes young individuals can be curious but this individual whilst lacking the horns of a mature sexually active male was definitely not a youngster.

I learned very early on, probably by osmosis that if you can approach a wild British mammal then something is wrong. This deer I was convinced knew I was there. I wasn't especially quiet and we definitely made eye contact a few times. Was he relaxed with me? The fence between us certainly leant him a sense of security but there was more to it than that. As you can see the deer seems in good condition, the fur looks healthy and its of a good weight. However the deer was injured.

I scrolled back through my photos to look at the quick shot I got off when I first saw the deer.

I then zoomed in and saw that there was blood on the left front hoof, a little on the top of his head where he had obviously nuzzled the wound. A close up zoom revealed a fresh wound.

It is possibly the result of a car collision but seems more like an injury caused by jumping a fence. Mammals have a high pain threshold and the deer seemed completely un-phased when sat down. The biggest worry at the moment would be infection if it is able to heal up cleanly then the deer should be fine. Knowing that he needed rest I retreated. If I approached to try and help it would only panic it and it would run off causing more injury, much better to let it be and allow it to recover naturally, and if sadly it succumbs then it will provide nutrients for the rest of the ecosystem.

Its interesting to point out that from the first picture you would not be able to tell that the animal is injured, had its hoof not been injured I have no doubt that it would have run off or at the very least been a lot less comfortable with me. Sometimes its worth questioning a photo, they do not always tell a real story. It reminds me of a Great Skua that was hounded to death by Twitchers at Draycote. So intent were they on getting a good view or picture that it died of exhaustion. What then was the price of the photo, and would the story go along with the image, I doubt it.

99% of all wildlife watchers and photographers act responsibly but I think its worth interrogating images both as to how they were taken and what they represent. Any photo exploiting an animal should be listed as so.

So where do I stand on this picture I have taken. Once I knew it was injured I left it alone, it didn't need me watching it over the fence and adding to its stress. I left it for nature to take its course. But the photo, the top one, which is a beautiful portrait of the deer is not something I will ever enter into a competition or use for anything other than to highlight the subject as it was, the Muntjac only agreed to be photographed because it wasn't capable of running away. I had curtailed its choice and that is the sentiment that stays with the image, it is of compassion for the animal something that is not conveyed by the image. Perhaps we need extra metadata to photos to apply context.

Friday, 23 April 2021

Carbo the Cormorant

Being able to identify individual organisms adds incredible depth to the wildlife watching. It helps immerse you in their world and really care about their lives. I loved being able to watch my pair of swans VGY and ZNY. Their orange DARVIC tags made identifying them very easy and over time they came to accept me as much as I did them and would always swim over to see me and were much more tolerant of me around their cygnets than others. Sadly VGY and ZNY ae long passed and the local swans arent tagged anymore, it takes a lot of training to ring swans but I can still identify some by their facial markers. 

Likewise with Half-Tail the dominant fox on my trail cameras was a great individual to get to know. In many cases organisms all look alike and you need to spend an amazing amount of time with them to see the subtle signs. I have spent many hours trying to identify individual badgers on the trail cam but without definite features it can be very hard. The best kind of ID features are physical characteristics that are likely to be permanent, easy to see and unique, defects are often the best and it is such a defect that has helped me to identify an individual cormorant. 

This Cormorant I have named Carbo. Their distinctive feature is their beak. I have posted before about beak deformities (Read it here)and this week I not only saw a deformed Cormorant but a deformed beak Magpie!

Carbo can be identified by the fact that he is missing the tip of his upper mandible. I do not think this was a birth defect, it was probably caused by some kind of accident maybe a collision?

Cormorants are a fascinating species. To me they look so very primitive, I can see them around in the very earliest times of bird evolution. Its something about their very 'dinosaury' look. Their eyes seem very reptilian and their feathers form a kind of scale like pattern also they are less evolved than other waterbirds. They lack a waterproof coating to their feathers meaning that although they are excellent swimmers and underwater divers they must dry themselves out after each immersion. This is why they are commonly seen with wings outspread drying out. It was this cross like shape that endeared them to Knights, some of whom adopted them into their coats of arms.

Originally viewed as coastal birds Cormorants unlike their cousins, the Shag, have adapted to inland life. In fact, for almost all of their European range the Cormorant remains a coastal and estuarine habitats only in the UK do they spread right across the country.
Cormorants were first sighted at the Saxon Mill when I first started recording in 2003 with previous sightings being in Wales or at Brandon Marsh. Over the years they have become an increasingly common sight. This year they have been even more prevalent and over the past few weeks a regular visitor. Carbo has a preference for the upstream stretch of the river and in the picture above loves to sit on a perch a top an old dead tree on the opposite bank.

This week I spotted Carbo fishing in the river and then again perched on his second favourtite perch, an old stump in the river. I know this is where Carbo comes regularly given the large white guano stains on the trunk.

In this photo we can see Carbo a little closer up. This photo was taken on the 18th April, about a month since the other photo and we can now see that they have entered breeding plumage as evidenced by the white patch on the side, something that I had never noticed on a Cormorant before. I keep using the pronoun 'They' as it is very hard to sex a Cormorant.

The beak deformity doesn't seem to have been hampering Carbo even through it means he has lost the hooked beak tip. There are plenty of fish in the Avon, Carbos presence along with otter and heron attest to this and as I see young cormorant most autumns it is likely that they breed somewhere along this stretch, it is my guess that it is a little further up river.

Being able to identify Carbo means that I may be able to find out more about their life and come to understand them better.

Saturday, 17 April 2021

The Sparrow and the Feather - Accounting for Thought.


All kinds of things can trigger deep thoughts in me, many of these thoughts are often nonsensical and sometimes not suitable for broadcast but quite often a chance observation will lead me down a rabbit hole into areas I never considered before, one such event occurred this past week.

Mr Sparrow (c) M. Smith

I was sat in my back garden watching the comings and goings of the local bird life. As is often the case I was drawn to the activity of the local sparrows how mob the garden in little ‘wannabe’ gangs chattering excitedly like school kids or squabbling, well like school kids too. They are social birds and seem to have an enthusiasm for life, they strike me a plucky and at times self-important. I was pondering their character when I was drawn to a particularly dapper male Sparrow who had landed on the fence with a feather firmly gripped in his beak. This was an exciting turn of events. Sparrows nest well in my area and use a nest box on the side of the house. Last year I installed a camera to one of the terraces rooms and unsurprisingly no sparrow decided to use it. This year I hoped for more success although at present the camera does not seem to be working! Perhaps if I watched this male, he would reveal which box they were going to use this year?

He seemed incredibly proud of his feather. He stood boldly on the fence waving it around and repositioning it in his beak to gain maximum purchase in the light breeze. He was pleased to have found himself such a premium piece of nesting material, I was surprised then when his behaviour suddenly changed. As he looked around him, no doubt looking to display his find to receptive females and brag to the other males his gaze alighted on the bird feeder. Instantly his demeanour changed, he dropped the feather and fluttered down to one of the perches. He stuck his head in and took a few beak fulls of seed before flying off. He did not look for his lost feather or even show any awareness that he had even had one in the first place. It was if seeing the food overrode his previous behaviour and excised it from his awareness.

So, what then was going through the sparrow’s mind. It led to me to think about the depth of intelligence such an animal might have. Was the sparrow just a flesh and blood automaton operating purely on an innate system of stimulus and response pathways, on the larger scale is that all that we humans are? Had I seen evidence of two competing innate systems going head-to-head in a priority led battle for survival?

The sparrow, I reasoned, had received the signals of day length and temperature, and responded biologically with hormonal changes to begin the mating sequence. Mating is a strong imperative in all species and particularly in humans can lead to levels of extreme stupidity. The sparrow had started nest collecting behaviour, the collection of the feather was evidence of this, and he had done well. The feather was A grade nesting material, with excellent thermal properties and incredibly soft, Mrs Sparrow would be impressed. However, had the sight of food initiated a different neural pathway that prioritised survival over reproduction, you cannot after all, reproduce if you have starved to death!

Mrs Sparrow (c) M.Smith

During my undergraduate dissertation I studied optimal foraging theory in woodland birds and whilst the outcome of my studies were embarrassingly naive it did leave me with some insight into the complex cost benefit analysis birds undertook to balance energy gain and energy use on a daily, even on a minute-to-minute basis. What then of choice and intelligence? Was a measure or mark of intelligence the ability to choose to override an innate response. Was this what humans did? Was this ability, this flexibility, a competitive advantage that allowed other organisms to survive in new and exciting ways?

Ironically, the New Scientist has just run an article on animal intelligence, I had just finished reading Peter Godfrey-Smith’s excellent book, Other minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life and Chris Packham’s BBC series on Animal Einstein’s had just finished airing, something that perhaps helped channel my thoughts and highlighted the difficulty of assessing intelligence even in human species let alone between those of different genera, families, or classes.

Alongside raw problem solving these is a question of culture and continual mental block humans place on research, always placing ourselves at the top of the tree or at the centre of any level of supremacy. We are the benchmark upon which all else is measured but given the breadth of life is this true? We count ourselves at the pinnacle and yet our species is very new and short lived one in geological speaking. Bacteria have been surviving relatively unchanged for hundreds of millennia, they are more diverse than mammals and able to survive over a broader range of environments. It is our own perceptions that can blinker is to what the sparrow is thinking. Are the sparrows through processes nothing more than a sequence of NOT, AND, and OR gates and if so, are our own thought processes any different all be it more complex and confounded by self-identity and self-absorption.

One only needs to lock eyes with an animal to experience a kinship, some level of understanding, something that changes as we move through the species. I have never ‘had a moment’ when staring into a Bees eyes. A mammal’s core experiences are not that dissimilar to ours after all once you distil it down. Birds however are a step removed, their 3D awareness from flight and different perceptual mechanisms perhaps removes them more from our frame of reference. After all, when caring for injured birds I have had such moments of connections although this could just have been projection on my part.

At the end of the day, we cannot be sure what our nearest and dearest are thinking so why expect to be able to do so for another taxon. Is this pursuit of understanding futile? Maybe, but it is a fascinating journey, nevertheless.


Sunday, 14 March 2021

Morality in Nature?


 Morality is not something often consider in natural history, the very framework of studying wildlife precludes the analysis of right and wrong. In nature there is only life and death something that was brought into focus this weekend and prompted these thoughts.

Much of scientific methodology encourages independence from the test subject in the case of the ecologist these are the birds and animals we observe. I have written before about my views on anthropomorphism and their place in study. I find it hard to be entirely cold and calculating when observing wildlife, spend enough time doing so and you will soon begin to understand the patterns.

I have watched swans for many years and have seen at first hand their different personalities. Whilst their behaviours may only be analogous to our own emotions there is some level of personal processing occurring within them, the more complex the animal the more obvious this becomes. Just look at how Elephants mourn their dead or Orangutan’s care for their young.

So, what prompted this internal dialogue? I spent some of the past weekend photographing birds in my garden. Taking time to practice with my camera and appreciating the common nature of their behaviour. Once I had done this for a few hours I returned inside. It was then that I was called back to the garden to see a Sparrowhawk that had caught something and landed on the pergola.

Sparrowhawks are relatively common to my garden and I have several photos of them perched in the tree and some of them devouring their unlucky prey. A thrill of excitement flowed through me. This was nature in action, an example of a hunter in its prime feeding to survive. It was only when the hawk moved to the birdbath and revealed the deep orange red breast of a robin in its talons that my interest instantly changed to horror.

Two robins visit the garden. They are delightful birds and highly inquisitive. They potter about gardeners looking for grubs and can be quite easily encouraged to feed from the hand. When I supposed the Sparrowhawk had caught a starling or sparrow as it normally did, I was fairly non-plussed, I had some thought of the life ended but in reality, starlings and sparrows were faceless. The robin was something different. It had a stronger identity. Perhaps the identity is born from its cultural relevance in the UK, the iconic Christmas bird or maybe it is their generally friendly nature. Either way this death shook me more. So much so that I followed my mother to frighten the hawk away even though the robin was past saving. The interaction shook us both and left me considering my prejudices. The sparrowhawk was doing what it does naturally, something I was fine with as long as it took from the faceless masses or birds to which I had less of a connection with.

So where does this revelation leave me. For one I can acknowledge how connected I become to wildlife, how I seem to value one species above another and accept that nature will do as nature does. Lastly that to be a good naturalist one needs to allow one’s emotions to embrace the world where instead the ecologist may stand remote and calculating, the naturalist does their best work when immersed in their subject and connected to it on the deepest level. What the robin incident showed me was the conflict between the scientific ecologist in me and the naturalist, and I think it is a blend of these two approaches that help me to understand the natural world all the better.


Sunday, 21 February 2021

Mink confirmed


Aside from the fabulous Otters otter cam is proving excellent at recording other wildlife as well. Since its first placement the camera has picked up wood mice, muntjac, roe deer, badger, and fox. All these have already been recorded by the main camera in the hedgerow, but one species known to frequent the site has never been caught on camera, until now.

This month a mink has been recorded on otter cam. Normally cursed by conservationists and rightly so this species was last seen in 2005 on the site. At this time, a single brown-black individual was seen swimming across the river before hiding inside a hollow tree stump on the bank side. Although no mink has been seen either by myself or a camera since then Mink were definitely there, their presence noted by the footprints left in the mud.

Quite often Mink are mistaken for Otters but once you have seen both it is obvious which is which. An easy reminder is that mink ride high in the water, almost floating on the surface whilst otters sink below the surface with only the top of the head and tail visible.

Mink are not native to the UK. They were imported in 1929 for fur farming, escapes and intentional releases by animal welfare activists quickly led to a self-sustaining population. The mink released were from North America and not of the native European species and the native species such as Water Voles had no defence. The voles tend to avoid predation by hiding in their burrows but Mink are small enough to follow them in. They have been responsible, alongside habitat loss for drastic species threatening declines in Water Vole and are probably the main reason Water Voles are not found on the Warwick Avon at present.

The individual recorded on the camera is a sleek black mink and has been recorded on three occasions, it is unclear if it is resident on the site or like the otters move through the site. I have mixed views on the mink’s place in UK fauna. On the one hand it is a voracious killer decimating Water Vole and water bird populations whilst on the other it is a species just trying to survive and doing this well in an environment, we introduced it to. For vole populations to recover mink eradication is necessary and that is hard for any wildlife lover to countenance.  Should one species be persecuted to save another? The ethics are tricky. On a similar path I am more comfortable with the idea of not culling Grey Squirrels despite their impact on Reds. Aside from the squirrel pox issue these two species could coexist and the latest research regarding the impact Pine Marten have on Grey Squirrel populations. For Mink however there does not seem to be a natural way to control numbers, they seem to coexist with otters and especially on the Avon there is ample food for both species to survive without competition.

Whilst I was hoping that there were no longer Mink on the site but I cannot begrudge a living being doing its thing I just hope it moves on before the  Swans nest.

Saturday, 6 February 2021

The Gall of it

The storms in early January battered my patch and the surrounding area bringing down a few trees. One such trees was one of the old willows beside the path. Unfortunately for the farmer who is losing crops left right an centre from wider paths due to social distancing has lost even more crops as people are forced to make a wide detour around it. 

Luckily, for me the fallen tree gave me an option to investigate some interesting growths on the upper wisp like branches. During the winter it is easy to spot strange dark masses at the tops of trees. Often these attract my eyes thinking they are small birds sat in the tree.

Getting close up the growths very much looked out dried out clumps of moss.

This straggling masses are woody to the touch and emanate from the wood beneath. It could have been a moss but this doesn't feel right and in this wet weather should have been a nice dark green. I little research led me to one possibility Mossy Willow Catkin Gall.

Galls are created by insects, mites and viruses that cause undifferentiated cell growth at specific points. Many people will be familiar with spangle galls on leaves of the masses that grown on acorns. Many are caused by ichumenoid wasps which lay there eggs inside this mass of tissue.

Little is known about the Mossy Willow Catkin gall in fact its name describes pretty much all we know. They look moss like with fibrous projections that in the summer are a rich green colour. They are found on willow trees and grow from catkins explaining why they are seen from the thin twigs upon which these reproductive parts grow.

It was originally believed thy were caused by mites however it is now suspected that the mites are merely associated with the galls and that the primary cause is a virus.

Catkins are sensitive and delicate structures and those infected seem to be high up in the trees near the tops this leads me to suspect a wind borne pathogen that is carried on the breeze which infects exposed catkins at the top of the trees where there are less leaves to shield it from the breeze.

Galls are fascinating as are the creatures that make them and in the summer I will look for more on the leaves and record the species.

For more information on Galls go to:

Sunday, 24 January 2021

Experimental Video Log

Creating a series of video logs has been on my mind for awhile. I had the idea of creating a series of videos on field craft and natural history. I am by no means an expert in creating such content but nevertheless I decide to do a little experiment this week.

I used my i-phone to record a couple of clips showing my local patch in the snow and then stitched it together in a very very basic software programme.

In the future I want to use it to create a series explaining the nuances of camera trapping and other interesting ecological things.

Don't get too scared I have no plan to film myself.