Saturday 4 December 2021

Naturalist Blonde: Upgrade

It has been a little quiet on the NB front, I know. But, then, it's been an odd year and a bit. While I don't want to jinx us all by suggesting that things are back to normal, for us at NB towers, a new normal is starting to develop.  

So, focusing only on the good parts of the pandemic period, we moved! To what we hope will be our forever home in rural Dumfries and Galloway. We've even found a place with our own little patch of woodland to look after, resident kites and all; it's perfect.

Orchids next door

The move is part of the reason for the downtime on the blog. We have been redecorating some of the rooms in preparation for our first Christmas at home. We've also been spending the summer patching drystone walls in the garden, taking out a few worryingly leaning trees and replanting with hazel, blackthorn and guelder-rose to increase the number of species in the wood, and shifting some turf from the new herb beds to the site of a former firepit. Otherwise, we have been out walking and getting to know the surrounding area and adjusting to returning to the real world and the onset of a new term.

New hazels planted in an area of cleared bracken

One thing that I missed over the summer was the nestbox cams. I had taken them down early at the old house in preparation for the move, then we moved far too late to put them up. While I saw lots of evidence of breeding in/near to the garden (including a lovely goldfinch nest visible from the new office, the active and successful kites and wrens, and spotted flycatchers feeding fledglings at the wood edge), there isn't that much cover and scrub for breeding birds. 

I decided that we needed a few more boxes to help remedy this. Jack was in charge of starting our bird list, and I set about matching box types to birds on the list and adding in a few for dream birds which I know breed within a few miles of us (like redstart). Then I went a little mad on CJ Wildlife and Greenfeathers! As well as increasing our breeding bird numbers, my plan for the coming years is to monitor occupancy, activity and success, and use these numbers to support my teaching. Any excuse to sit in the garden with the bins, right? 

Box Haul!
This weekend I finally cracked and got down to business with siting the various nest boxes. Firstly placing the new wireless cameras in a couple of boxes, then spacing them out through the garden and wood. I was a little worried about drilling into the woodstone box that I'm hoping the redstarts will use but it was a doddle. Lugging the heavy (but hopefully immortal) woodstone boxes up the hill and getting them into position was a different matter. I'm definitely less fit than I was before lockdown began! 

Fortunately, I cheated a little in putting up the woodstone boxes, deciding to use coated bike locks to wrap around the trunk at the junction with a handy limb rather than rely on screws or nails. I am hoping that this will minimise the chance of falling as well as avoid damaging our lovely trees. Of the new boxes, I am most excited about the treecreeper box (box number nine) and an owl box (box number 10), lovingly referred to as Granny's Palace and Nana's Nest respectively.

Upgrading Granny's Palace

First box out!

"Last" box out (I need to borrow a tall ladder for the owl box)

Since moving in we've seen plenty of evidence of wildlife in the garden. On the herpetological front, we have common frogs, toads, newts and lizards. We regularly see stoats, hedgehogs, rabbits, and voles.  There are pipistrelles in the roof (and, occasionally, the bedroom). We see the odd red and (unfortunately) grey squirrel, and have even had a water shrew in the shed, but are low on larger mammals. There was a wonderful mix of fungi too. Birds-wise, we have a mix of the common, upland, and woodland species, many of which have taken to the feeders in a big way. I even flushed a woodcock from the wet area of the woods last week (but have only put the trail cam out in there this evening - what this space). 

What I haven't done is any moth trapping. I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's because Jack put the moth trap bits in the most spider-infested bit of the porch/utility. It's a shame, moth trapping was my life-savour at the start of lockdown when we were in our rented house. Hopefully, as we get into the new year I'll get back to it (before it starts getting light super early again!). Similarly, lack of lockdown (fingers crossed anyway!) and less focus on redecorating should also enable me to get back on the bird-train. Whatever life throws at us, there should be lots going on. Watch this space!

Thursday 4 June 2020

The view from the hill: wildlife during lockdown

For the past two months, we have felt luckier than ever before. As the restrictions came in I have been able to move my teaching online, continuing to work alongside my fantastic, adaptable colleagues and persevering students. 

When not teaching or marking, Jack and I have been trying out hand at brewing and winemaking (as well as flavouring some gin), as well as focusing on the garden and fields around it for entertainment. In the good weather, we've been sowing the seeds flowering plants in the garden, enjoying the antics of the robins, wrens, tree sparrows and bluetits nesting in the garden. 

The first brood, one day before fledging

We have also had a new patch tick (grasshopper warbler) and a new garden tick (cuckoo!), as well as amazing interactions with some of our local mammals, particularly the weasels and hares.

A wonderful neighbour has also been kind enough to give us had a number of carcasses (and some really welcome venison), and we have placed them out on the hill. In addition to giving us great images of the local kites (who are only interested in on the day the meat goes out), the spot is also a hub for a curious little badger family. The kites are wing tagged and I hope to find out a little more about them in the coming weeks.

However, my real saviour has been the moth trap, which has bought me several new species (plus numerous old favourites) as well as the creeping knowledge that I must buy a book on micro-moths. The trap (and driving Jack to work) has kept me to a fairly reasonable routine, preventing me from succumbing to daily lie-ins, and the amazing #teammoth community on twitter have stopped me pulling my hair out when I'm unsure of an ID. 

I'm not pretending that it hasn't been strange (and that I'm not longing to do a bit more long-distance birding) but there really is no place like home. So, for now, I'll leave you with some of the real beauties that have graced the trap since the lockdown started.

Small Pheonix

Poplar Hawk-Moth
White Ermine

Is it a bird poop? No, it's a bee moth!

Common Swift
No, it's not a twig, its a buff tip!

Beautiful Golden Y


Tuesday 10 September 2019

Catching up - the view from the hill

I love my home, moving to Dumfries has been one of the best decisions I've made. In addition to being able to work in a fantastic location, I am surrounded by amazing wildlife. So amazing that I spend much less time at my keyboard and much more time outside. 

So while there are fewer blog posts now, I hope that I have much more to show. So, let me catch you up on what has been going on in the 200 meters around my home as I describe the view from the hill.

We are living in a converted barn adjacent to a few outbuilding and a stand of coniferous and deciduous trees where I have placed my feeders. Daily visitors include a horde of chaffs, goldfinch, greenfinch, dunnock, robin, blackbird, tree sparrow, house sparrow, longtailed, blue, coal and great tit, as well as pheasant, carrion crow and feral pigeon. Less frequently we have siskin, bullfinch, pied wagtail and great spotted woodpecker as well as the passing red kite, buzzard, and tawny owls. 

Popular niger

Over the summer I put out two nest box cams, one in the wood which was left as a robin box, one just outside the house with a "blue-tit" hole. The woodland box was left empty (I'd had hopes for redstarts which I know breed on the opposite hill), but the house box was quickly occupied by a bluetit who delighted us by rearing a little brood, but not after the drama of discarded eggs and interloping tree sparrows (who nested in one of the boxes on the barn which unfortunately had no camera, as well as in a gap in the porch).

As the birds sleep we have been treated by the local pipistrelles, who have been roosting above the patio, leaving "presents" on the windows and dropping from the eaves each evening to chase up and down the lane. In the last week, I purchased my first bat detector, a Magenta 5, and have been sitting outside listening to their clicks, whistles and "farts" in the falling light. *thrruup*

Obviously, the moth trap has been deployed when morning commitments and weather coincide (so not regularly), and I'm starting to improve my identification skills. Highlights over the summer have been elephant hawkmoths, gold spot, and, let's face it, any new species! 

Elephant Hawk Moth

Further afield the ponds and plantation continue to hold my attention. The second trip out with the bat detector revealed two noctule bats over the big pond, looking huge in the evening light, repeatedly stooping for prey. The local roe doe has done well, with and adorable set of twins on her heels in the evenings and the tawnys appear to have nested in the plantation and can routinely he heard hooting in the evening (and can be called in on a clear night with a convincing "Kirriik!", something that plays merry hell with my throat and is only attempted occasionally).

Whilst the number of spraints I find continues to be high, I have torn myself away from trying to capture the local otters to focus on another furry resident, the local badgers. After a comparatively haphazard approach to placing the camera trap, I have taken to placing out a handful of peanuts twice a week on a well run track. After a little patience, I have attracted a regular visitor who seems to enjoy the occasional handout. 

I hope to pick up a second trail cam in the coming months so I can focus on both the badgers and the otters, however, I am more than happy to watch my pied friends for a while. Plus, I have the bonus of the fantastic antics of the mice along the wall, which seem keen to avoid the passing badgers to avoid bing a protein-filled snack (keep an eye on the top left in the video above). In the meantime, there are the plants and fungi to begin to get my head around, and thoughts of an owl box for the coming spring.  

Wednesday 5 June 2019

Three lazy weeks in China...

Oh, boy am I tired. Over the past month I have been living and working in China, teaching at Nankai University. Now this was always going to be part of my new job, somewhere along the line, but changes in staff availability meant that I had the opportunity to get there this year. So I’ve been all kinds of outside my comfort zone, environmental ethics and behavioural change is not something I’ve taught before, I don’t speak any mandarin beyond “hello”, “thank you”, “sit down” and “cheers”, and I had never been to China before. Even the flight was a revelation. So long in the air… thankfully in cushy business class.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time to explore with teaching 4 days a week, marking on top and a research workshop on the first weekend, that left me with just one free weekend to myself. In these spare moments, I split my time between exploring the huge local waterpark and the equally huge mall.

The water park was gorgeous. A welcome splash of green in what I was finding a disorienting and oppressive level of urbanisation. Each time I dropped by I spotted something new, white-cheeked starlings and crested myna on the first day, light-vented bulbul the next. Spotted doves, azure-winged magpies, night heron, red-throated flycatcher, a few fast and unidentifiable warblers in the canopy, as well as a very vocal oriental reed warbler who was happy to pose for pictures. At the university, hoopoe, tree sparrows and white-cheeked starling were nesting in the university buildings.

Aside from that, I ate amazingly well, wrote lots and got some quality sleep. On my last weekend, I shut myself away in a hotel near Beijing airport and worked on finishing yet another manuscript draft whilst watching HBO and Nat Geo Wild, making plans to “do it properly” next time; arrive a week early and do some proper birding, explore the wetlands. Until then, here are my favourite urban birds of Tianjin...

Red-throated flycatcher

Oriental Reed Warbler

White-cheeked starling

Light vented bulbul

Crested mynah

Black crowned night heron

Sunday 17 February 2019

Flying into February

Last month I renewed my efforts to reach 400 birds before I get to forty. Starting the year on 262 and ticking off ring-billed gull, common crane and taiga bean goose in January. Of course, with the annual flock of bean geese still lurking around Slamannan, Tom decided that he had to tick them too (as if he needed to get further ahead of me...). After a flurry of messages, a whistle-stop tour of Scottish sites was planned, starting with Strathclyde for Iceland gull (for me) and ring-billed gull (for Jack and Tom), then up to Slamannan for the geese. By 8pm on Saturday, Tom was pulling into the drive and we were making plans for the next day's birding.

Of course, it snowed. The 80-minute drive from Dumfries to Motherwell was a scenic/hair raising trip through snow-covered hills and icy roads. When we arrive at Strathclyde it was to 50p sized flakes of snow and, typically, no birds. I mean, there were birds... just not the ones we were after. We picked our way diligently through the flocks flying or loafing on the ice-bound rowing lake, all the while our fingers cramping with the cold, but with no success. It was with a gloomy feeling that we got back into the car 45 minutes later and headed north.

When we arrived we seemed to be out of luck again. No sign of the birds in the fields between Slamannan and Fannyside, despite bumping Tom's poor car along every minor road open to traffic, the wheels skidding on the thicker lying snow. Almost conceding, we tried one last road, eventually giving up and swinging back the way we came. As we drove back in the opposite direction, Tom slowed to take in a couple of whoopers that Jack had spotted in a distant field, then - behind them - two lone geese that had been separated from the rest of the flock. Success! A quick photo later, we were off on our way. 

From just south of Sterling we set our sights on the lesser scaup that had been seen at Stranraer, stopping on the way for the chough at Turnberry (a super little bird which Jack picked out as it foraged on the beach). We arrived at Loch Ryan with the tide low, minimal daylight and a bitter wind. A large flock of scaup sat out on the water, but too far away to pick out their lesser counterpart. Luckily, two red-necked grebes sat in clear view and a mix of waders covered the mud. However, even these weren't enough to distract us from the chill, and after 15 minutes we decided that it was time to head home for a well-earned rest and a whisky. 

There was only one bird that I'd dipped in January, green-winged teal. I'd darted out of work to see a one at Caerlaverock, but with limited light (and warmth), I hadn't managed to connect with it. On Valentine's Day, Jack and I decided to make another attempt to see the bird. After a late breakfast of bacon pancakes, we made it to the WWT reserve at 10:30, to be told that the bird had again been seen on Folly Pond. 

 Only 7 years and 135 birds to go... 

Things are warming up around the house as well, all the birds are singing and there are new visitors to the feeders. The starlings have found the fat balls, smart with their yellowing bills, and a reed bunting has taken up residence in the scrub. At the camera trap, the otters continue to mark their territories, and my thoughts turn to the badger cubs soon to be born and the need to find the sweet-spot to places the camera to be ready for their first appearances above ground in a few month's time.

Sunday 13 January 2019

Watching Winter Wane

Since returning from our round robin of parent's houses over the Christmas period, I've been longing for warmer weather, longer days and time outdoors. There is still plenty going on around the house (as you'll see below), but my thoughts are turning decidedly to spring. With another birthday gone I've also been kicking myself about my lack of progress regarding my 400 before 40 challenge. Still sat at just 261 birds and now 33, I have decided that (now I have a permanent job and a comfy home) I will be making ticking off the birds a priority this year. 

To help assuage my restlessness and lazy-birder's-guilt, I have been planning for a year of nature, starting at home. With so many birds visiting the feeders and such a good array of wildlife around the house, we're wiring up the garden. After a couple of eBay bargains, we now have a bird box camera set up, and a feeder camera (which I intend to use for small mammals) on the way.

I've had the trail camera out around the house as well, with a super successful week between the 4th and the 9th, during which I picked up badger, roe deer and fox at the same location, with plenty of otter spraint nearby too. After a quick battery recharge, the camera went back out yesterday at the spraint site with fingers crossed for the next 5 to 7 days. 

Continuing with the nocturnal theme, the moth trap will also be out as soon as the weather improves and we have our eye on a Batbox baton detector for our fluttery friends.

I also managed to get out birding. knowing that I will be making numerous trips between Glasgow and Dumfries over the coming weeks, I have been keeping my eye on RBA for any potential lifers I could pick up en route. Luckily, on my first trip, a prime candidate appeared. A ring-billed gull at Strathclyde Loch, basically a two-minute drive from the M74. What more could I ask for?!

On Thursday I finished my course at 1 and by 1.30 I was pulling into the car park. There are always plenty of gulls around here, and I wandered to the southern end where a cloud had gathered around a couple feeding the mallard and tufted ducks... but it wasn't in with the common, herring and black-headed gulls here. Making my way back I returned to stand in front of the path from the car park again. I focused in on every gull, no matter the size or initial impression, determined not to miss anything, when suddenly, the blinking bird flew down about 10 meters in front of me. 

I snapped away, following it as it moved north, and became aware of another 2 birders to my left. We stood for a further ten minutes, happily shooting the gull before it finally lifted and went to perch atop a buoy. Checking my watch (2.05 now), I headed back to the car. Bird 262 in the bag.

The next day there was a shout of green-winged teal not 5 minutes from work, at Caerlaverock. For two hours I clock watched, waiting until my last meeting after which I could dart out and try to catch the bird. I knew it had been seen during the previous week and hoped that it would remain where it was. I was wrong, an hour and a half in the bitter cold until the light finally gave out, and I slunk home in a mood (but a thankfully warm car).

That night I sat with my bird books and tried to plan out a year of catching all the breeding species and regular migrants in southern Scotland that had previously gotten away from me; wood warbler, nightjar and bean goose. Jack's dad mentioned that the crane was still present at Coldstream, and I made up my mind to head out there the next day.

Feeling thoroughly annoyed at having to get up early at the weekend, we bundled into the car at 8 and were on site by 10.45. Chris had said that we should be able to spot the bird in the furthest fields if we scanned from the path at the north end. So when I didn't immediately see a tall, long-necked silhouette I was immediately on my guard. I didn't want to dip two birds in two days... Trying to manage my expectations, we began to walk the circular route around the fields.

The wind was bitter as we made our way along the flood bank, and the disappointment of the previous day was still fresh in my mind. Happily, after 10 minutes of stop-start walking, bringing up the bins to scan the fields every few minutes, we finally locked in on the crane. Instantly relaxing, we quickly made our way to the draw level with it as it fed, snapping a few quick shots. After getting the scope onto the bird we watched as it fed, then skirted further along the embankment with the river at our backs, setting up the scope again and alternately watching and shooting. 263 in the bag, two new birds in 3 days.

As the bird began to pace to the far side of the field, a passer-by mentioned that the Great White Egret was again further up the river. Scooping up the scope, we headed along the path for 20 meters before spotting the bird stalking along the far bank. Another life tick for Jack. The bird seemed alert and nervous, and seconds later, just downstream, two otters surfaced. They were fighting against the current and the kit was whistling away, but within a minute they were gone again. Feeling the wind cut in again, we headed back to the car.  

It may be cold and grim right now, but some of those winter blues are leaving. There are still migrants on the doorstep to ogle at, and the promise of new birds soon. I just have to lose the laziness and remember to get outside. Wish me luck!

Friday 7 December 2018

One day birding in Arrecife.

As usual, I headed off to Lanzarote intent on getting in some birding alongside the workshops and talks of MICRO2018. But, yet again, it wasn't to be. I only managed around a 2-hour stroll along the front at Arrecife, staring longingly at the distant gulls and up at the surprisingly green slopes. My one day off, a particularly lovely Thursday, was spent marking. You're welcome, students.

However, that two hours did give me sandwich terns, whimbrel, ringed plover, grey plover, yellow-legged gull and both little and cattle egret, as well as Spanish sparrows and ring-neck parakeets in town. Considering the price of the flights and my accommodation, I may have to head back soon, especially with Houbara Bustard, Spectacled Warbler, Trumpeter Finch, Cream Coloured Courser and Andouin's gull on offer....

Cattle Egret at the bus station

Spanish sparrows at the dog park

Grey plover near the harbour