Week 13 – Wandering in Willows (quite literally)

There is pleasure in the pathless woods, there is rapture in the lonely shore, there is society where none intrudes, by the deep sea, and music in its roar; I love not Man the less, but Nature more.”        – Lord Byron

So the past few weeks when I haven’t been writing, have all been fabulous as usual, although I think I have settled in and got used to it more now. It isn’t such a novelty. They do then to follow a pattern, so it has felt a little bit like I don’t have many new things to say. That, coupled with moving house and getting to know flatmates so being busier in the evenings, and a week away on holiday to Devon has meant I fell off the writing wagon- but, my new month’s resolution is to keep writing. Even just for my own records!

(I also have some news of not only getting one new job to have on the side, but THREE, two of which involve doing surveys, one of which is office based within BBOWT).

 

Day 1

So Monday this week was DRAMATIC. We had to do what we thought would be a fairly innocuous and easy survey day. It took place in the Oxford Science park, so we thought that the rivers would be more like ditches- easy to wade, not necessarily a lot to see, but should be an easy walk (maybe 3 or so Km of river).

The first survey stretch was exactly what we anticipated. We did the whole thing in about 45 minutes absolutely no bother, getting into and out of the river was a bit tricky, but ultimately it was ok.

BUT THEN.

We moved on to the next stretch of river, which involved more of a walk, carrying waders, life jackets and all of our equipment and bags in the warm sun, making me hot and flustered. Then we climbed over a fence, and waded through some fairly rank grassland, with our stuff, over two huge pipes, more grassland, and then 3 metres of nettles that were taller than me. Excellent.

THEN, the water was too deep for me to get in, so just Ben got in and I tried to walk along the bank, but it was too overgrown and the river ran under a major road, which I obviously couldn’t cross. So I had to get in. By climbing through a willow that had fallen across the river, I managed to gain access to the river, which wasn’t too deep by this point. We walked on a little bit and all of a sudden the depth increased, meaning the water came in over the top of my waders. This bit was actually quite fun, both Ben and I were giggling, then we tried to walk up river under the road and the water kept getting deeper, and deeper… and deeper until it reached up past my bellybutton – at which point I decided that it was too much, and we had to turn tail and go back on ourselves.

Back down the river, back through the willow, up onto the bank through the nettles and into the field. We sat down for a bit in the grass to empty our waders then had to walk back, for a couple of miles in wet clothes to try and find a safe way to cross the busy road. It was hot, we were soaking, and uncomfortable, but we carried on.

Again the river was too deep for me to get in, so I fought along the bank and Ben got in. It quickly became too deep for him too, and so he got out, slipped and fell through nettles. At this point, we decided to call it a day, and we walked back in the heat, to the office.

It’s nice to know that I can have bad days too.

 

Day 2 & 3

Rapid hay meadow assessments both days. Which meant two truly beautiful days, which has also improved my botany skills ten-fold. It also gave me a chance to see some more beautiful butterflies, like the Grizzled Skipper (featured below).  On the flip side, it was getting hotter and hotter and hotter.

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We didn’t have enough water, the heat was almost unbearable, and being in a hay meadow there was little to no shade.

It was a really nice way to get to know some of the regular volunteers and other BBOWT teams that we don’t get to interact with on a regular basis.

These meadows are beautiful neutral or chalk meadows, quite specific to the region. BBOWT’s doing their best to manage the meadows as traditionally as possible to try and preserve the diversity of the flora. It then also means that if there is a particularly good meadow, when the sward is cut, it is spread across a poorer meadow so the rich seed can fall into the grass and encourage better growth.

I’m learning so much! But it has been a really tiring week – heat exhaustion is becoming a more of a genuine possibility these days!

 

 

 

 

Week 3 – Walk the line

“That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics”

– Aldo Leopold

Day 1 – Butterfly Transects

More butterfly transects today – but properly, as in we actually had to count the number of butterflies that we saw.

The butterfly survey season officially starts on April 1st, but a survey can only be completed if the temperature is above 13 degrees, it’s not too windy and there is more than 60% sun. If the temperature is above 17 degrees, then sun vs cloud cover becomes less important, as it is still warm enough for butterflies to want to fly. You then record walk the transect, without stopping, recording each individual butterfly that comes into your “box”. The “box”, is the invisible indicator of how close a butterfly has to be to you before you can record it. This is 2.5 meters in front of you, to both sides and above you – not behind you. Then just make a tally of the number of each species you saw in each section of the transect. Piece of cake!

We did 3 transects, two at Grangelands and the Rifle Range, and one on Bacombe Hill. All of these reserves are based on the beautiful Chilterns, walking some sections of the Ridgeway pathway.

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Despite the weather and conditions being perfect for the survey (hello the beginnings of a tan!), we didn’t see many butterflies. The best transect was on Grangelands, and this has traditionally been the best transect for many years. We saw Orange tips, Brimstones, Holly Blues and a Peacock. These data (and the rest) will be sent to the Butterfly Conservation Society and analysed to discover what has been happening over the past year.

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The other really good thing about today is that we were finally properly initiated into BBOWT by being taken to the Crazy Bear farm shop to get THE best sausage rolls. It’s a sign that we have been accepted! There is also a small farm/play area here where we saw these very sweet Gloucestershire Old Spot piglets!

10.2 Km walked again – a solid start.

Day 2 – Watervoles

Unfortunately, I have no photos of today as I decided to take the precaution of leaving my phone safe in my bag away from the water, as I am so accident prone!

We spent the day wading down Sandford Brook near Abingdon (literally just at the back of the Tesco car park), which was quite surreal. I really enjoyed being able to survey from the water, it’s quite relaxing, but also easier as finding feeding signs and burrows is a lot easier from this perspective.

Despite the brook being small, and there being quite a lot of rubbish floating in the water from the Tescos, we found a whopping 94 feeding signs! Which was incredible especially given the territory size- although unfortunately there isn’t really a way of determining if there are a lot of individuals present, or a few very active individuals. I am happy to report that the activity has spread further down the brook from previous years, which is a positive sign!

Although I liked being in the water, it is disconcerting to not be able to see you feet sometimes. Plus I have a very overactive imagination, so can’t help but remember the hundreds of scenes from books and films of snake-like monsters lurking amongst the reeds and silt! Obviously that might be a problem, if we were wading down a tributary of the Amazon or something, but not so much in Britain… strange how irrational fears can be sometimes!

After lunch, we then walked another route (just on the bank) that will be used to train volunteers in what signs to look out for. I also had the chance to see a Garden Warbler, but Ben decided to be immature and spent the whole time throwing burdock at me, meaning that I didn’t see it!

Ended up walking 11.4 Km, which is pretty good going!

 

Day 3 – Great Crested Newts

The day of the Great Crested Newt (GCN) course!

I have discovered, that I love Newts. They’re so sweet! It’s also important to protect all of our newts, but particularly GCN as we have a population of global importance! It’s quite worrying what will happen in the context of Brexit, as a lot of the protected species legislation is European. If that is removed… then what happens? More raptor persecution, further species loss and degradation of our already suffering ecosysetms? Just today the news announced that the UK is set to lose at least a third of the environmental legislation. I digress..

The GCN course was wonderful, half of the day was spent going through the theory of GCN trapping, ID and protective legislation, in addition to wider knowledge about British amphibians and what habitat they can be found in.

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I am really looking forward to further fieldwork in this area! We built our own newt-traps and took them down to ponds where we know that there are Smooth Newts and practised using the traps and trying the netting technique. I was incredibly excited that we caught one male and one female and got to appreciate their unique beauty (each Newt’s markings are unique and so it is possible to identify individuals). It was really very special to be able to handle them and see how perfectly adapted and delicate they are. I also got to brush up on my Macroinvertebrate ID skills as there were a lot present in the pond, and I saw my first dragonfly larvae as well.

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The next stage of my licensing, is to complete further fieldwork, setting traps around the pond in the evening, and emptying them in the morning, as well as attempting all of the various techniques. If I can complete these satisfactorily then I will achieve a reference and be able to apply for a license!

A whopping 11.2 Km today. It’s starting to feel weird when I don’t walk!

Week 2 – Through the Deer-proof fence

“Environmental pollution is an incurable disease. It can only be prevented” – Barry Commoner

Day 1 – Deer Assessment Survey

Today we went to a beautiful woodland reserve called Moor Copse. It is a stunning bluebell woodland (with a slight deer problem), but is also unfortunately more famous as a site for several clandestine meetings, than its beauty.

The aim of today was to assess the woodland to see how much of an impact the the deer were having on the woodland’s regeneration. As both Muntjac and Roe deer are present, we were expecting a quite a few signs of deer impact. If we found this to be true then we would then need to inform the reserves team, who manage the reserve, of the impact and advise them on the best course of action (i.e culling more or less deer).

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I absolutely adore this woodland. One of my favourite things about this traineeship so far has been the chance to go, quite literally, off the beaten track, and into parts of the reserve that no one else can see. It felt like walking through a mystic wood, however fantastical that sounds, it’s true. Once you push through the barrier of brambles and scrub, you reach a more open space, with a carpet of bluebells and coppiced hazels, it feels quiet and peaceful, just birdsong and the sound of my own footsteps.

Another thing I’ve learnt is that if you know what you’re looking for, deer signs are really easy to see. Young brambles and ivy are like deer chocolate; addictive and irresistible. This creates obvious browsing lines, where the growth of ivy suddenly starts again above where the deer can reach. Other signs are where stems abruptly stop after being nibbled, or all of the leaves have been stripped off. They also create racks (basically deer tracks, don’t ask me why they’re called racks instead), couches – where they scrape away leaves to the bare earth and sleep, and wallows, presumably where they wallow like any other animal, although we didn’t actually see any. Another cool thing is that deer hair is actually hollow, so if you find any and try and bend it, it will either snap or create a definite point, whereas if you try and bend other hair, it’s not possible to do the same. If there’s a lot of food available, deer will be selective, eating young bramble leaves and ivy, before moving on to more mature leaves or even browsing bluebell leaves.

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There were also more dormice boxes which we checked- there were no dormice, we were just excited.

There’s also a Heritage site- full of 50 year old rubbish from when Irish labourers built the motorway in the 1960s. It’s kind of spooky, like people left in a hurry and ended up leaving their precious belongings. Other highlights of the day included finding tree snails! I didn’t even know that these were a thing, but they are and they’re tiny! Apparently there are hundreds of species, so one day maybe i’ll get round to doing some research. I also saw some Badger poo, which was quite gross. It looks like really slimy black dog poo, in a latrine that the badgers dig a short distance away from their sett. But it’s important to be able to recognise different types of poo, as sometimes it’s the only sign that you might see of an indication of a species being present.

Another 10.8 Km walked!

Day 2 – Water Voles

Yeeeesssss, today was a day I was looking forward to! BBOWT are in charge of the longest running Water Vole Restoration project in the whole of the UK, so having the chance to be a part of it is kind of a big deal!

We went to a lovely place on the border between Oxfordshire and Wiltshire, near Shrivenham. It’s not actually on a reserve, but on a private farm so I won’t mention the place name. Another beautiful day though, full sunshine, so we cracked out the suncream for the first time this year.

Water vole surveys are fairly simple in their construction so long as you can distinguish between rat poo and water vole poo! We spent the whole time walking along the south bank of the river, unfortunately it was too deep to wade, otherwise the process may have been easier. We each had long sticks (almost staffs really), which we used to move vegetation out of the way of the bank so we could search for burrows, latrines (areas where lots of water voles poo) and feeding signs (where the water voles have bitten off vegetation at a 45 degree angle). This can be quite tricky to avoid falling in… which the other trainee (Ben) didn’t manage! At least he didn’t go in head first like the last year’s trainee, but it was quite funny! I didn’t manage to get many pictures as when I was going to help I discovered a Mallard’s nest – priorities!

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So a basic summary of the day is that I learnt the difference between rat poo and water vole poo (rat poo is pointed at one end and water vole poo isn’t and they’re both roughly the size of a tic tic…). This also involved handling lots of poo, including a rather fresh otter spraint. I also spent a lot of time kneeling in nettles attempting to reach various poo items, but that wasn’t too bad. Not as keen for when they apparently grow up to be taller than 7 feet!

Other beautiful wildlife moments of the day included flushing a barn owl out of a hollow tree, spotting a kingfisher and a sparrowhawk!

Walked a mere 8.4 Km today, pitiful!

Day 3 – Modified Breeding Bird Transects

Today we visited two reserves, Whitecross Green Wood and Asham Meads. In order to do a breeding bird survey, you have to walk a set transect route and count how many birds you see or hear, then rate them on a scale one 1 -4, depending on how many metres they were away from you… The transect route is also split into several sections (about 200m each in length), and you have to do this for each section.

I have discovered, that I am really not very good at this.

This is because, you have to be very good at recognising birds in flight, or separating individual songs from the overall cacophony, whilst factoring in the sheer variation of each species songs, plus the number of different calls they each have, plus the species that mimic each other. Apparently I’ll get better, I have since been gifted MP3s of all British bird songs, so if I do some homework as well then I will get better!

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Whitecross Green Wood is (yet another) lovely reserve, full of wild garlic and wildflowers and is excellently managed for both butterflies and birds. It is another site with a deer problem, so it does get actively managed for that too. The picture above was taken in the deer ex-closure, and it was amazing to see how much more growth and ground cover there is here, compared to the rest of the wood.

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Asham Meads, on the other hand, is rather bleak! It’s the first reserve that I’ve come across that I haven’t immediately taken to. It is a rather wet reserve in the middle of farmland, that is protected because of the presence of curlew (not that there are any). It does have it’s charm, but it was more like a walk through a windy field than anything else. It does have some lovely blossom, but didn’t have a lot in the way of bird-life.

Ironically, just off the reserve we got to see two Greater Spotted Woodpeckers engaging in courting behaviour, chasing each other up and down and round several trees and near-by telegraph poles, so that was really nice to see!

Another cheeky 10.2 Km walked as well. Next week, we might get to start butterfly transects, as the butterfly survey season officially starts on April 1st, although I have already seen a couple of brimstone and red admiral butterflies about!