Working with the sheep

One of the great things about volunteering on Ramsey Island is the chance to get involved (even in a small way) in the running of the farm, and in particular looking after the sheep.  During my last two stays shearing took place, and last year I helped to round the sheep up and separate the ewes from their lambs ready for the shearers to do their stuff.  Today, the ewes were given their anti-fly treatment and had to be rounded up with their lambs from the nursery fields and taken into the barn.  Dewi, the island sheepdog (and without doubt the best dog in the world!), did most of the rounding up, although I did play the role of sheepdog in one field and ‘expertly’ drove a few ewes and their lambs to join the rest (and without as much as a ‘come by’ or ‘away’ having to be shouted at me!).

Here’s a few pictures…

Giving nature (Manxies) a home

Ramsey Island is home to a wide range of wildlife; small and large, rare and common.  At present, however, significant efforts are going into, literally, making homes for one particular species; Manx Shearwaters.

When Ramsey was bought by the RSPB in 1992, there were only around 500 pairs of Shearwaters nesting on the island. The presence of rats had reduced the numbers of this species, and of other ground nesting birds, to levels far below those on the nearby rat-free islands of Skomer and Skokholm.

Back in the winter of the turning millennium, a successful rat eradication exercise was undertaken on the island. Since then, the benefits of doing so have shown in the increasing numbers of ground and burrow nesting birds. The last survey of Shearwaters, undertaken last year, and ‘helped’ by me, revealled that the upward trend was continuing with nearly 5,000 pairs recorded.

Whilst the increasing numbers of Shearwaters is very positive news, there’s still much work to do.  Monitoring the population remains a key activity for the RSPB on Ramsey and this task is made easier by constructing nest boxes through which easier access can be gained to the birds while they are breeding.  The birds usually nest at the far end of rabbit burrows and this makes them tricky to get of off but the nest boxes, with a door in the roof, make the job very simple. The monitoring includes checking on the health of the birds as well as ringing them.

One of my first jobs on the island this time was to help make nest boxes, some of the 100 to be installed on the island’s sheltered east coast.  They’re relatively simple wooden boxes to build, with three of the four sides enclosed, one of the longer sides having a round hole cut into it, no bottom, and a thick roof, one half of which is hinged to give access for monitoring.  Once installed, the round hole is fitted with a three-foot long tube through which the Shearwaters reach the nest chamber.  In total, I put together 11 boxes and they’re now waiting to be installed.



During the last couple of afternoons, we’ve spent a while out on that east coast and installed more than a dozen boxes.  The installation is also quite straightforward but requires a bit of hard graft. A hole just large enough to ‘plant’ the box is dug in the sloping side of the island, deep enough for the front of the box to be nearly flush with ground level. With the box in place, a channel is dug from the hole in the side and the is tube installed. All that is required then is for the back half of the box and the tube to be covered with soil and the job is nearly done. The last touches are to put some soft nesting material on the bare earth beneath the box and put up a small piece of bracken at the box end of the entrance tube; if this gets knocked over, it’s a tell-tale that the box has been visited by a Shearwater (or one of those pesky rabbits).


I’ve installed four boxes so far, and they’re more to be done.
One of the aspects of a stay on Ramsey that makes it so special is lying in bed on a dark night and listening to the odd chuckling and gurgling sounds of the Shearwaters as they come back from the sea and head to the burrows.  Hopefully, making homes for them will help to play a role in further increasing their numbers and make the nocturnal sounds on the island even more special.

A wintry day in north Norfolk

After a late meeting in Boston on Thursday, I decided to take Friday off and head over into Norfolk and spend the day wandering around some of the nature reserves that dot the coast.  Having had a few holidays and long weekends in the area, I know the sites well along the north coast and planned to fit a few in during the course of the day.

After a couple of dawn visits to RSPB Snettisham in the past, with great spectacles of both dawn flight of pink-feet geese and the hide tide wader root, I had thought about getting up very early again. However, looking at the weather forecast and the stage of the moon cycle the night before, I decided a dawn visit would probably be less fruitful than my previous two, so I decided to have a bit of a lie-in instead.  I eventually got to Snettisham at about 9am and as I headed out on the walk to the front, the dark, brooding cloud cover started to release icey snow, made more forceful by the strengthening breeze and rattling on the outside on my hood.

img_1275

Passing the lakes on the way to the front, there were plenty of geese, ducks and lapwings, the latter occasionally lifting in large flocks spooked by a passing raptor.  On getting to the front, I found the sea was out, revealing square miles of mud, and out on that mud were thousands of birds.  Close to the shoreline were shelduck, curlew and a few redshank but out in the distance were masses of others including large groups of golden plover and knot.  As the wind became stronger and the snow came down heavier, I turned and made my way back to the car, crunching on the pebbly shoreline as I went.

Next stop was RSPB Titchwell, seeing a few brown hares in the fields on the way.  The weather had improved markedly by the time I got there and I headed straight out for the coast again. Stopping on the way, I talked to a group looking into the distance and had my first ever view of a water pipit and then (as usual) a very fleeting view of the electric-blue flash of a kingfisher as it darted past.  At the front, I had another first ever view, this time of velvet scoters – all in a nice group very close to the short line.  Further out was a much larger group of several thousand common scoter and I tried for ages to see long-tailed ducks and red-throated divers but to no avail.  On my way back to the car, I had a nice view of a male and female marsh harrier playing in the wind – one didn’t look too happy with the other.  There were also good-sized groups of brent geese busily coming in and out of the reserve making a change from the large number of pink-feet I usually see in the area but strangely missing on this particular day.

Onwards I went again and moved on to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust site at Cley.  The weather had drawn in again and the snow was coming down but I still decided to do the 3-mile walk  around the reserve including out to the sea shore.  With the weather proving troublesome, I didn’t see much wildlife on my way around but found the impact of previous poor weather was just as interesting.  I haven’t been to north Norfolk since the storm surge of late 2013 and the impact is noticeable, with the high shingle bank now flattened and partially spread out onto the reserve behind it.  Walking along the coast was hard-going in parts as a more recent storm surge had loosened the shingle.  While there was no storm surge this time, the force of the sea was still clear to see with the waves crashing onto the shoreline and the wind buffeting me as I made my way west giving a bit of welcome assistance.

On return to the car, I decided on one last stop before heading for my digs for the night and I went off to Holkham.  Parking on Lady Anne’s Drive, I walked along fields on the landward side of the woodland and went up to the hide.  During my brief stop, I had great views of four marsh harriers floating in the strong winds as they prepared to come down at dusk.  Back out into the weather again, I went to the beach but soon headed back inland as the wind strengthened again and down came more snow, starting to settle for the first time in the day.  As I approached the car, the snow was starting crunch underfoot as it froze on the ground; the going becoming more slippery with every metre.

img_1419

I drove on to Blakeney and the White Horse – a fine Adnam’s pub and hotel – which provided a comfy, warm room and lovely evening meal of local produce, all washed down with a few pints of their great beers.  Before turning in, however, I had to go for another walk and went out into the darkened streets of the village.  The snow had stopped and the wind had lessened, making it a nice, chilly late evening wander around the picturesque lanes of flint-faced cottages.  As I reached the final waterfront of the day, I couldn’t see far out along the river and across the marshes but could still hear nature out there.  One of my favourite calls of wild followed me back up the hill to the hotel – the evocative, enchanting, and to me, slightly melancholic call of the curlew.

img_1421

The great thing about Norfolk, I find, is that no matter what time of year you visit, there’s always plenty of wildlife to see.  Despite the slightly challenging weather of this short trip, I managed to see well over 50 species of bird and a few mammals. The good thing about visiting in winter, is that you can have large parts of the lovely place all to yourself.  Norfolk simply has to be on the anyone’s list who has an interest in wildlife and great English countryside.

 

Time Moves On

A subdued atmosphere hangs in the trees as I head down the track today, the sounds of spring have fallen away and the only noises are the thwack of bracken against the wing mirrors and the crack and crunch of twigs under my tyres. There’s a coolness in the breeze coming through the open window and a muffled light, stifled by the thick woodland cover and held back by the patchwork of passing clouds. Out onto the open valley floor, between stone walls and damp meadows, the air becomes warmer but quicker, the breeze increased to windy gusts, chilling in the gloom. The seasons have moved on here, spring prime gone and summer just beginning. The plants have grown to their full height but faded from their bright freshness to darker, fixed tones and early flowers are a distant memory, even some later blooms are starting to fall. The fruits of the dawn chorus are out in the open, young finches, tits and thrushes feed, chase and squabble in the trees and bushes, all under the eye of a waiting hawk. I get a first sight of the other young in the valley, high above the fields in the tall copse. My last visit was spent in wait for eggs to first crack but so much time has passed since then; the chicks are almost in full feather and beginning to flex their wings. It won’t be long until those wings are lifted into the summer air.

5R0A3223

It was a quiet shift today with the chicks resting in the cup of the nest for most of it, with a bit of preening and wing flexing; there was more snuggling than arguing. They are also starting to stand properly on straightened legs, bringing them to their full height, although not yet up to their parents size. Mrs G was either sat on the perch or on the nest much of the time or occasionally chasing crows, and I didn’t see Aran until early afternoon when he returned with a trout. It all got a bit panicky for them mid-afternoon when the farmer came into the field by the nest with his dog to check on the sheep. Both adults took to the air and flew around for a while but she returned to the nest after a short time and he disappeared into the distance; the chicks seemed oblivious. He returned later with what looked like a whole sea trout (could easily be wrong as my fish ID skills are pretty poor). It got quite windy towards the end of my shift; I thought the caravan was going to lift off it’s wheels at one stage!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

During my shift I had a strong feeling of time moving on; the seasons, the year, the years, and the subdued atmosphere I sensed on my arrival seeped into my thinking. The five weeks since my last shift has brought changes to the valley; the plants have grown, flowers bloomed and fallen, and birds fledged. I’ve missed the early stages of the osprey chicks’ growth since hatching and they don’t seem far from the size of their parents.

I had a sense that the year is moving past at speed. It doesn’t seem long since the Glaslyn training event in the dark days of late winter, spring has been and gone, and summer is already upon us (although no one has told the weather apparently!); it won’t be long until osprey parents and fledglings start their journeys south. The busiest period of my, now usual, conservation year is coming to an end with bird surveys finished, my two weeks on Ramsey Island gone and not many osprey shifts left.

I also had a sense of greater scale of time moving on. I have a significant birthday to mark soon, one I’m not altogether comfortable with but one to mark all the same. It’s strikes me that there’s only so much time in life to make a difference – whether that time be the hours in the week, the weekends in the year, or the years in a life. It’s easy to let time pass unmarked and let life drift and that risks missing chances to make an impact and a difference. It got me thinking about conservation and what contribution I make. I’ve already had my ‘midlife crisis’ moment, an early one if that’s what it was; it was now nearly five years ago when I started 12 months away from work and began my stop/start journey through conservation – including a month, altogether, with Mrs G and 11/98.

In the decades of my life so far, so much of nature has already been lost. What the new generation is beginning with, the environment, the plants, birds, insects and animals, is so diminished from what my generation started with and that in turn was much diminished from previous generations. There is a risk that the new generation may use what they inherit as the benchmark norm, to see that as what nature should be like, as others have done so before. Those benchmarks are lowering with every new generation and mine only has so much more time to lift it back up to a higher point from which our successors can take it on.

What has been lost over that time was put into sharp focus by the State of Nature report in 2013 – a copy of this sobering document can be found here. The report highlighted many frightening trends including that a group of 155 species it had data for, some of the most threatened in the UK, had declined by 77% over the last 40 years with little sign of recovery and that the UK has lost 44 million breeding birds since the late 1960s.

However, over the last five years, I’ve been involved with a range of conservation organisations and projects, some large and some small, some well established and some just starting out. Whilst what we have now is much diminished, these organisations give hope and there are good signs amongst all the bad. When I came into the world, there were barely any ospreys in the whole of the UK and none at all in Wales. Over time this has changed and not only are they thriving in Scotland, there are now growing pockets of populations in England as well as in Wales. The work of the volunteers at Glaslyn and many others like them, have helped to reverse the decline of this species and bring the growth in numbers – there just needs to be many more people making efforts to bring success to other parts of nature.

5R0A3502

Time moves on…no one knows yet what impact recent decisions will have on conservation, with potentially so much to do, what time will be given in government to the environment and nature? What will happen to the existing legislation and policies? With these challenges, of politics, governance and available time, is the chance for this generation to repair the damage of the past slipping away?

There may be opportunities as well as problems but that’s the exciting thing about time, it keeps moving on…and not always in the direction we hope or expect.

5R0A3569

An early morning chough watch…

5R0A2933

After a traverse across the clifftop, I sit high above the sea, lying back against the slope. The sun is long-risen and already strong on this mid-June morning, warming through the light cloud veil. My perch is cushioned by soft grass-covered earth and sheltered from the keen and cooling breeze by grey boulders, mottled by lichens of white, green and yellow. At my feet, the last of the pink topped thrift blooms jiggle in the wind like little candy floss-topped straws.

The distant views provide a backdrop to my vigil, both back to the mainland and out over the water. To my right, haze covers the distant Pembrokeshire hills, standing above the patchwork of fields hidden by the island’s curves. To my left, a two-masted sailor passes the outlying islets, with a freighter on a different heading in the further distance. The lighthouse is bright out on its rocky stand, lit by the sun gleaming on the white tower and shining back from the glass-enclosed summit. The blue hazy sky reflects beneath in the sea, a swell rolling into the land and hitting the cliff buttresses with white-topped waves. Standing strong against the elements, the tall rock faces tower above the surging and spilling water as it hits and covers the shoreline

It is a peaceful but not silent spot. The pounding of the sea provides a powerful constant base to the passing sounds of the birds. Gulls cry out from above and below, hanging on the rushing air or standing in wait. The coming and going of the razorbills and guillemots, from their busy and crowded perches, is accompanied by their revving moped calls. The ravens loiter on the cliff sides, an occasional cronk or caw highlighting their presence. The linnets chirp as they pass and the pippits pippit away from point to point. Only the fulmar are silent as they float past on their stiff, straight-winged glides.

After a wait, the chough pair appear from over my shoulder heading towards the nest, hidden behind a large carbuncled face, staring out to sea. Their joyous bouncing flight is accompanied by their cries, replying to each other with wall ricocheting bullets. As they approach their hollow, they harass a crow, standing too near for their comfort; they dive-bomb in a looping flight, returning time after time until their focus moves away, tired of their tormenting. They drop into their nest, now full of growing chicks ready to fledge, but not today; the wait goes on.

Monitoring Manxies

One of my main tasks in my first week on Ramsey Island has been helping with the Manx Shearwater survey. ‘Manxies’ are long-distance travelling seabirds which return to breed to the coasts on the western side of the British Isles each year, after spending the Northern Hemisphere winter off the eastern seaboard of South America.

These burrow-nesting birds were severely affected by rats on Ramsey but the eradication of the rodents 15 years ago has enabled the number of Manxies to slowly recover. The last survey in 2012 found 3,835 nesting pairs, and in 2016 it is hoped that numbers will have increased significantly.

IMG_8251

Following a survey of suitable nesting burrows earlier in the year (before the growth of bracken across the island made it much more difficult), the main survey involves the playing recordings of male and female Manxie calls down the burrows to check if any are ‘home’. My small role in the surveys was to help find the burrows into which the calls were then played. With the surveys now complete, the Island’s wardens now need to work out exactly how many Manxies are now breeding here.

5R0A1774 - small

It’s not just when undertaking the surveys that the sound of Manxies can be heard across the Island. One of the most memorable aspects of a stay on Ramsey is listening to the giggling and gurgling calls of the birds as they fly into their burrows near the volunteers’ Bungalow home. The birds only come to land at night, so the calls are an erie accompaniment to many a night’s sleep.

In addition to the natural burrows that the Manxies use for nesting, the wardens have installed a number of artificial nests and another task was to check whether these were occupied. While doing this, the wardens take the opportunity to ring individuals as part of their research and I was lucky enough to be there on one occasion during this stay – and even got to handle one!

5R0A1836 - small

One evening Manxie activity is to go out to the western side of the island at dusk to see the thousand upon thousand of these birds flying southwards, skimming just above the surface of the sea, to the much bigger colonies on the nearby islands of Skomer and Skokholm.

This link to the RSPB website provides a bit more information on Manx Shearwaters including a recording of their calls.

The first few days back on Ramsey Island

I’ve been on Ramsey Island, the RSPB’s reserve off the coast of Pembrokeshire, since Saturday but due to my stupidity have been without the internet until now. I was planning to blog each day but will have to start with a post about the first few days of my two-week stay.

The weather has been a bit mixed so far with the conditions only good enough for boats twice since I’ve been here. Yesterday, following two boatless days, we had a bumper load of visitors with an almost capacity crowd of 78. I did my first introductory talk of the year to a full boat shed, which didn’t go too badly and I even got a business card from a wildlife tour leader suggesting I should do a bit of tour leading myself!

On my first full day, the sheep shearers came across in the late afternoon to de-fleece the 96 Welsh Mountain ewes. I was a bit more actively involved this year, particularly in the first task which was to split the ewes from their lambs. The lambs were born over a few weeks from mid-April and have grown a lot since, so the task of dividing them from the ewes wasn’t without some of effort.

The shearers again amazed me with how quick they could get a fleece off a sheep with about one and a half minutes being  the standard. The closely-cropped ewes were soon reunited with their youngsters in the farmyard, all making a racket until they found each other.

5R0A1532

I’ve also helped with manx shearwater surveys and did a house martin survey at the farmhouse (despite what others have said, I was definitely not asleep!).  We also went out on Gower Ranger yesterday (the boat that links the island to the mainland) to do a kittiwake and fulmar survey of the cliffs that could not be seen from the island – a great way to do a survey!

The weather forecast indicates that boats may not come across for the next couple of days, so it will be quiet around the island again but I’m sure there will be plenty to get on with.  There will also be more time to look at the scenery and wildlife which are as good as ever.

5R0A1873-1

 

House Martin Nest Study 2016

My favourite summer migrants have returned – the swallows, house martins, sand martins and swifts. I’m fortunate that three of these species (not sand martins) breed in the area where I live and I can usually see them flying in the sky above my house. I’m even more fortunate that there’s usually a house martin nest on under my eaves; I say usually but in fact there has been at least one nest for the past 15 summers than I have lived here. I thought the unbroken record was going to come to an end last summer when the house martins failed to return around their usual time. There was no sign of them for most of the spring and summer until I retuned home from work in late August to find droppings on the driveway beneath the nest, which was still up there from the previous year. That seemed very late for a first brood particularly compared to the usual May or June in previous year.

The chicks fledged in late September and it wasn’t clear if this was by accident or design. I worked from home one day and in the afternoon there seemed to be lots of comings and goings from the nest. It was only when I left the house later on that I noticed the nest on the driveway and the fledgelings flying up to the point when it used to cling to the eaves. The next day they were all gone and I didn’t see any more house martins around my home again last year.

Over the years I have sporadically kept a record of when the house martins first arrived back at the nest and most records show it was around mid to late April. When the month changed into May, I started to suspect there would be another late return this year. However, when I was cooking my evening meal yesterday I had a spare moment and popped my head out of the kitchen and popped my head round the corner of my house and looked upwards. Up at the apex of the eaves was the ring of mud, all that remained of the nest, but there was something else up there too. At first it looked like a bit of black plastic blown up there by the wind but after I shaded by eyes from the evening sun, the shape was clearly a house martin and there was another flying around just above the roof.

5R0A7767

House martins are ‘amber listed’ in the Birds of Conservation Concern listings and numbers have been in rapid decline.  I’m sure that when first moved into my house, another pair nested under next door’s eaves and there were other nests in the area.  Now there is mine and very few others.  However, the pattern of decline isn’t uniform.  Ramsey Island for example (the RSPB reserve where I volunteer for a couple of weeks each year), didn’t have any house martins before a first nest in 2014 and it had eight nests last year (extra emergency artificial nests had to be shipped across!). Something is certainly happening to house martins but fortunately it’s been noticed and hopefully before it’s too late to reverse the overall declines.

Last year I took part in the British Trust for Ornithology’s (BTO) House Martin Nest Survey. I was given an Ordnance Survey grid square, luckily for me the one immediately nest to the one in which I live, and I made several visits to record the number of nests on buildings and the amount of activity. This year there’s another house martin survey for the BTO. The House Martin Nest Study 2016 requires surveyors to choose a nest/nests and record the activity over the course of the spring and summer. The survey can be done with varying levels of detail and I hope to do as much monitoring as I can, doing daily records of activity whenever possible (holidays allowing). Now that house martins have returned to my home, I’m going to have a very convenient nest to monitor!

The chortling house martin chicks wafting in through my landing window on warm summer evenings as I lie in bed really is one of my favourite things about the season and I’m hopeful that it won’t be long until I hear those sounds once again. By doing the survey this year, I hope that I can make a small contribution to helping to ensure this will always be a sound of summer.