Saturday, 17 February 2018

February Nature News

It's time for my monthly round-up of nature and environment news, from the local to national stories and beyond.

Boost for Bats

The Bat Conservation Trust has released its latest "State of UK's Bats" report and generally it's good news(1). Of the UK's 18 resident species most are growing in number or are at least stable. Both the greater and lesser horseshoe bats are doing particularly well.

It's important to remember though that these figures have to be considered in context- there were major declines in bat populations during the 20th century due to human activity. Roost and habitat loss, disruption of insect food supplies, increased urbanisation and the spread of artificial lighting all had an impact and though conservation projects are really helping, bat numbers have not yet reached historic numbers.

Horrible for Hedgehogs

Similarly, the "State of Britain's Hedgehogs 2018" report was recently published but this was far less positive(2). It shows that since 2000, hedgehogs have fallen by about 50%.

The main reason for this, in rural areas at least, is the rise of intensive farming practices. Many farmers have removed hedges and copses to create larger fields, meaning there are fewer safe places and nesting sites for hedgehogs. Large-scale pesticide use is also reducing the amount of invertebrates which hedgehogs eat. Clearly this is not a good combination.

It looks like things are a little better in urban areas with numbers having levelled off. If you have hedgehogs in your area you can leave out wet dog or cat food to support their nutritional needs and ensure there are holes in your fences so that they can move from garden to garden.

Salmon's Secret

We recently saw how genetic testing of grass snakes showed how different our population is. Now it's genetic testing of salmon that has revealed surprises.

Photo by Sam Billington of the Environment Agency, via BBC News
Scientists have discovered that salmon in chalk streams in Hampshire and Dorset (including the Piddle, Frome, Test, Itchen and Avon) appear to be genetically distinct from others and may be a sub-species of Atlantic Salmon(3). The latter two rivers are one I have spend a lot of time looking at so this is a really important local story.

Chalk streams flow through chalk hills and generally have clear, slow-flowing water and are more alkaline than other rivers.

River Itchen
The scientists are saying that the fish might need greater protection and is they are a separate subspecies they can't simply be replaced with salmon from elsewhere in Europe.

Sorry Starlings

Hampshire County Council have come under fire recently for cutting down some trees near Winchester Fire Station where thousands of starlings were roosting(4). There has been a large murmuration of starlings in the city this year and many people have come to see them.

Starling Murmuration in Winchester by Roy Venkatesh via Hampshire Chronicle
So why would the council do this? Well bird poo appears to be the answer- they were removed "due to the impact they were having on operation vehicles and the health and safety of staff".

This is a really awful story because the council made a quick fix which destroyed a roost site for the starling and an important habitat for countless other species. They didn't consult the public and appear to have made no effort to have come up with a less drastic solution. Some people are saying it doesn't matter and that the starlings have moved elsewhere. But if every little conflict with nature was dealt with in such a dramatic way habitat loss would be even more severe than it is already.

Plastic Purge Continues

Last month I talked about how many companies were pledging to reduce the use of plastic packaging and this has contin

Lots of plastic ends up in the oceans having broken down into microscopic pieces known as 'microplastics'. It's thought that these have a huge impact all the way along the food chain from tiny plankton to larger animals like rays, sharks and whales. Scientists are calling for more studies to find out what impact microplastic have on these animals(7) though they suspect that effects might include reduced nutritional uptake and damage to the digestive system. There's also the possibility that toxin exposure from plastic ingestion could affect growth and reproduction.

Of course, that's far from the only threat to our oceans. A study has shown that in 2017 the oceans were by far the hottest ever recorded (records began in the 1950s) (8). Warmer oceans cause bleaching of coral reefs and the melting of ice shelves. The oceans are so delicate and we desperately need to do more to look after them.


Last summer eight osprey chicks were translocated to Poole Harbour in the hope of creating a population there. All eight have migrated south for the winter but as they are ringed one has been spotted(9).

LS7 was seen on a long sandy island called, appropriately, Ile des Oiseaux in Saloum Delta National Park in Senegal. It's a popular spot for ospreys with 20 to 30 individuals regularly spotted there. They can fish in the rich, shallow delta and rest up happily on the island.

Ospreys on Ile des Oiseaux by Jon Wright
LS7 is the only Poole Harbour chick to have been sighted so far- no-one knows how many of the other seven even survived migration. They expect to only see one or two birds returning to Poole Harbour this year but LS7 may well be one of them as it is found a perfect site to overwinter.

That's all for now but there will be more Nature News towards the end of March.

1: BBC: Most bat species 'recovering or stable'
2: BBC: Hedgehog numbers 'down by half', warn wildlife groups
3: BBC: Genetic secret of English salmon
4: Hampshire Chronicle: Fury as Winchester Fire Station trees- used by city's much-loved starlings- cut down due to bird poo
5: The Guardian: Asda joins wave of supermarkets pledging to cut plastic waste
6: BBC: Queen backs plan to cut plastic use on royal estates
7: BBC: Plastic pollution: Scientists plea on threat to ocean giants
8: The Guardian: In 2017, oceans were by far the hottest ever recorded
9: Roy Dennis: LS7 seen in Senegal

Monday, 12 February 2018

Brilliant Bramblings

The weather has continued to be poor lately, especially on Saturdays which are my main wildlife days. It's certainly been a wet winter!

I've seen the Avon roe deer a few times over the last few weeks, including the doe and fawns I first saw in July.

Roe Deer July 2017
Roe Deer February 2018
It's interesting to be able to see how they've developed in this time. Obviously they have grown a fair bit but you can see that they are still quite a bit smaller than their mother. It's also interesting to note how their coats have changed too. The fauns have lost their spots and all three have changed from their sandy summer colours to their darker winter colour. 

I've also saw one of the bucks at the weekend, potentially these fauns father and certainly a relation. 

Today I visited Blashford Lakes where I spent most of my visit in the Woodland Hide. It was really busy, both with visitors in the hide and birds on the feeders. There were plenty of the usual suspects such as chaffinches, goldfinches and blue tits

It was also a good day for siskins as there were a fair few visiting the feeders. 

At this time of year siskins start to appear more regularly in gardens and on feeders(1). They tend to resort to feeders when the natural seed stock has reduced and visit feeders more when the natural Sitka Spruce seed crop is low(2).

Every now and then most of the birds would suddenly fly back into the safety of the bushes, likely because there was a potential predator somewhere nearby. I did see one of these potential predators, a great spotted woodpecker

Like most woodpeckers this species mostly feeds on insects but over the winter has to supplement this with tree seeds(3). They would be unlikely to predate any of the birds present but in the spring they do feed on eggs and fledglings so they are wise to be wary of woodpeckers.It might be that they simply sense that this is a bigger bird and therefore a potential threat.

The highlight though were a few stunning bramblings

Bramblings are not resident in the UK and instead migrate from the forests of Northern Europe(4). As you can tell from their beaks, they are finches and like other finches mostly feed on seeds. Numbers vary depending on how much food is available but it appears to be a good year for them, as it is for bullfinches and hawfinches. 

I also got this very clear photo of a robin whilst walking round the reserve. 

Robins seem to be particularly abundant this winter. UK robins are generally non-migrantry but robins do spend the winter in the UK from Northern Europe so it's possible there is a larger influx this winter(5). At this time of year though robins are starting to secure their territories ahead of the breeding season so this could also explain why they are more visible at the moment. 

Whilst I didn't spend much time near the lakes themselves today I did spot a few interesting birds:

Green Sandpiper

Distant Kingfisher
I was also pleased to spot some fungi amongst the undergrowth, the stunning scarlet elf cap

Scarlet elf cap is a "saprotrophic" species. In simple terms, this means it digests decaying matter, usually wood in this case, and breaks the composite parts down- proteins into amino acids, lipids into fatty acids and glycerol and starch into simple disaccharides(6). These nutrients are passed through the mycelium, the fungi equivalent of roots, and help the fungus to grow. 

That's all for today but I'll be back on Saturday for my look at February's nature news.

2: Mckenzie, A.J., Petty, S.J., Toms, M.P. & Furness, R.W. (2007) 'Importance of Sitka Spruce Picea sitchensis seed and garden bird-feeders for Siskins Carduelis spinus and Coal Tits Periparus ater' Bird Study 53: pp. 236-247

4: BirdLife International (2012) IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature

6: Clegg, C.J and Mackean, D.G (2006) Advanced Biology: Principles and Applications (2nd ed). Hodder Publishing fig 14.16, pp.296