Category Archives: Heathlands

Listing (Part 2: Birds 79-97)

So things are starting to get a little harder. Once you hit around 75, it’s like someone’s slammed on your birding brakes and each new bird is that little bit more work. I decided to get in a weekend of serious birding. (Well, serious for ME anyway…) First off was getting up early for Black Grouse lekking in Wales. On the moors was where I saw birds 79-82:

Black Grouse
Black Grouse

79. Cuckoo
80. Black Grouse
81. Hen Harrier
82. Raven

Listening to the Black Grouse calling at 6am in such a remote location (covered in hail and snow as you can see!) was pretty spectacular. I did a video on my phone in which you can hear the sounds and get a feel for the spooky atmosphere:

Then we embarked on a 2-hour drive to Anglesey, where birds 83-90 were all seen at South Stack RSPB (with a cheeky Black Guillemot in Holyhead harbour!)

83. Fulmar
84. Razorbill
85. Guillemot
86. Puffin

Sea bird colony at South Stack
Sea bird colony at South Stack

87. Chough
88. Meadow Pipit
89. Linnet
90. Black Guillemot

Meadow Pipit
Meadow Pipit

Then, on the way back to our campsite at Pistyll Rheadr, we stopped at RSPB Conwy, but only managed to add:

91. Yellow Wagtail
92. Whimbrel

Birds 92 – 94 were all seen in and around Lake Vyrnwy, Wales:

93. Pied Flycatcher
94. Grey Wagtail
95. Dipper

Pied Flycatcher
Pied Flycatcher

And I entirely accidentally came across two more birds this week. The first on a bush near a railway station, and the second on a roundabout, both in Milton Keynes:

96. Whitethroat
97. Red-Legged Partridge

So, with 5 to go, Charlene and I have decided that a trip to Rutland Water is in order, and we’re heading off this morning, before heading back to record our next podcast, so hopefully you’ll find out what bird number 100 is when it’s uploaded tomorrow… To be continued…

Box Fresh

It’s always a good day when you get to start a new project. Today I went out onto Brownhills Common with Ben and Scott to install 20 of our new bat boxes. The scheme is funded by Natural England through their Countryside Stewardship scheme, and through it we’ll be installing another 30 boxes on the SSSI site. I expect that the scheme will be quite successful, primarily because of the nature of the site. Brownhills Common is an area of heathland which, although comprises a variety of different habitats, lacks the mature, broad-leaved woodland that characterises the other sites in our bat box scheme. Instead, the trees are mainly Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris) and as such there is not much in the way of natural roosting opportunities for bats. (Conifers do not tend to have the tendency to form fissures, natural cavities and loose bark that, say, an oak tree does.) In the wild, it is such cavities that bats look for to roost in, and without lots of natural choice, an artificial substitute can be very inviting to a bat!

The boxes we put up at this site are Schwegler 2F boxes, which we’ve had some success with in my other box schemes (most recently we recorded Noctules using the 2F boxes in Merrions Wood). I also have 20 Kent style boxes to go up (These are wooden boxes and not openable, so would not be checked except with a high powered torch from the ground, and then with an endoscope if anything interesting appears to be inside.) and 10 Schwegler 2FN boxes (slightly larger than the 2Fs and with a domed roof) which have been used to some success in areas of nearby Cannock Chase.

Those of you who are local might also have noticed the 28 bat boxes at Walsall Arboretum, near Hatherton Lake. This afternoon we headed over there to number and geolocate the boxes, as well as give them a winter clean-out and reposition a few of them (raising them higher). As this was their first year in position, they had not been checked during the summer, but to our surprise around 1/3 of the boxes had bat droppings inside today. (We suspect pipistrelle and are pretty certain of Brown Long Eared bat droppings in quite a few boxes!) So all in all I am really excited about the bat box scheme’s expansion for 2016.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One sad little note, is that in one of the Arboretum boxes we found this nest with a couple of unhatched eggs and three dead hatchlings. We have no way of knowing what happened to the mother bird. Quite often we find bat boxes that have both old bird nests in AND bat droppings – they don’t seem to be mutually exclusive. This is probably due to a few factors: the bats and birds use different PARTS of the box (birds in the bottom, bats at the top); the bats and birds are active and using the entrance at different times (birds being diurnal and bats nocturnal) and the fact that the main maternity season for bats in the UK is July, and by this time, many baby birds will have fledged.

The other boxes will go up as soon as possible (within a week or two I should think) and we can then look forward to the first of the 2016 box checks in April!

Tasting the Wild in 2015

My year in review. (In photos!) I’ve had another amazing year – looking back, I’m not entirely sure how I’ve fit it all in!

Wild Encounters

From Chasing Violet Carpenter Bees in Andalucia, hunting for Eyed Ladybirds on Barr Beacon and moth trapping on heathlands around Walsall to mist netting for bats in woodlands, ringing birds (including our Peregrines which fledged four chicks!) and monitoring our amazing badgers, I’ve had another amazing year of wild encounters.

Wild in the Woods

I’ve also done lots of playing in the woods this year, and have concentrated on working on my fire craft skills (from just practicing lighting fires to experimenting with different tinders and kindlings). I’ve made a willow crayfish trap and learned some new basketry techniques, honed my corn dolly skills and bashed the heck out of some plants to make hapa zome flags. Culinary foraging has been limited to hedgerow berries and birch sap tapping this year, but I’m still reaping the benefits of my hedgerow vodka!

Travel

Kind of spent a ridiculous amount of my pocket money on travel this year, with a trip to Andalusia in March, followed by Edinburgh in May, the 5th annual Girls’ Birdwatching Trip (Norfolk), camping in the Derbyshire Dales and hiking from Ft William to Inverness. And I wonder why I have no money now that December is here! Highlights were definitely the seals at Blakeney Point and my first ever glimpse of the Aurora Borealis whilst camped on Loch Ness – amazing! (You can read the blog and see the videos of the hike across scotland here.) I’m planning on Florida, Cornwall and lots more camping in 2016!

Bats

Oh, the bats this year! I’ve been involved for a few years with the Herefordshire Mammal Group, doing mist netting and harp trapping surveys, and this year their project organisers helped BrumBats to undertake some woodland surveys of our own. With help from the Shropshire Bat Group, we surveyed Cuckoos Nook & the Dingle, Merrions Wood and Sutton Park. At BrumBats HQ we are very excited to get stuck into another season of study!  We also had a crazily busy year of bat care, and with this mild weather, are anticipating some winter grounded bats and (most likely) a very busy (and early) bat maternity season in 2016!

Space

The sun and the moon had amazing things in store this year – a total lunar eclipse, and a near-total solar eclipse. Both events had (uncharacteristically) clear skies. Over 600 people turned out on Barr Beacon for the solar eclipse. Amazing that so many people value natural phenomenon enough to come out and experience them together. The atmosphere was just incredible! I’m hoping to be in the USA for the total solar eclipse in August 2017.

Botanising

I had a fantastic summer, spending most of it undertaking botanical surveys of grasslands. I think we’re going to get a few new nature reserves out of it, and certainly some relaxed mowing regimes.

Becoming an Auntie again…

In January I became an auntie again – this time to a little girl – the enchanting Eleanor Hughes, whom I’ve got to spend time with twice this year (which is pretty good going seeing as she lives 3,500 miles away!). Can’t wait to see you in March, Elley!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I hope that everyone has had a merry Christmas full of comfort and Joy, and I’m sending you wish-grenades for a prosperous, healthy and bright new year!

Thanks, as always, for reading. If there’s anything you’d like to see me cover in 2016, please let me know!

Morgan x

Krampus Ruten

So it’s nearly Christmas and you’re wondering what to get for the wife/kids… How about a home made, traditional symbol of Alpine Pagan origin reported to be wielded by a sinister creature of Austro-Bavarian folklore? Enter, Krampus – is he the harmless, yet impish sidekick to Saint Nicholas, or the cannibalistic terror of Germanic children throughout the millennia? You decide…

krampus-1

Evidently, Krampus is the new poster child for the holiday season. He is bang on trend, (much in the way that all of a sudden Polar Bears are a Christmas animal… this is a mystery to me… ) With a new film out, Krampus is the newest rediscovered folklore phenomenon. And as he’s trendier than oiling your beard whilst drinking a flat white, I’m totally jumping on this bandwagon…

Krampus is, depending on which Krampuskarten (Krampus card) you have been sent this year, is either a wench-ogling dirty old man, a child-drowning (and eating) kidnapper, or a pestilence to naughty children, chasing and whipping their behinds with his weapon of choice – the Birch Ruten! These bundles of birch twigs (pictured in the stamps and images above) are exchanged as christmas gifts in Austria. So I dragged my mate Nige out to our local heathland on our lunch break today, as we thought we’d make a few and show you how to do it!

“Bundles of Gold-painted birch are hung on the walls year round… as a reminder for children to be well-behaved… so they do not have to endure the wrath of Krampus.” – J.A. Galvan

The ruten below are made by bundling up thin twigs of freshly-cut birch and using a technique called ‘whipping’ (how appropriate!) to create a decorative, yet firm binding. I haven’t bothered to spray paint my ruten gold, as that’s, well, just a bit tacky, but I did make a few tiny ones to hang on my tree! Roll over the images below to see the stages…

Then, of course, you’ll need a cup of tea after all that hard work, so I cracked open the kelly kettle and christened my new hobo stove!

The Moth Diaries (pt 2)

More moth trapping – this time at Pelsall North Common.  A pretty good night, with a few stunning little moths!

Gold Spot moth was the blingiest (yes, it’s a word), and prettiest has to go to Ruby Tiger.  We had loads of True Lover’s Knot moths (gotta love the names!), along with a few Smoky Wainscots.

But the cutest, fluffiest, most adorable moth award has to go to this Drinker moth (I just wish they were the size of, say, Koalas) who hung around for most of the night, generally being adorable and looking like a miniature Mr Snuffleupagus.  We have more moths planned at Barr Beacon, and a return to Shire Oak next week.

The Moth Diaries

August and September mean moth season! The nights are once again short enough that it’s not too arduous to be out until a couple of hours after sunset, and it’s still warm enough that there are loads of moths on the wing. Moths can be found at any time of the year, but late summer is really peak season for moth trapping. This year we’re focusing on Shire Oak Park, Pelsall North Common and Barr Beacon, and we had our first night’s trapping at Shire Oak on Tuesday.

There were loads of moths, but in particular abundance were True Lover’s Knots. Quite a few new species for me, but my favourite has to be the Beautiful Yellow Underwing (below) – every bit as beautiful as it’s name suggests. The final list of moths is ongoing but I’ll publish it when the surveys are finished. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Moth traps vary and can be expensive kit to buy, but if you fancy having a go at moth trapping yourself, try hanging a white sheet in the garden around sunset, and placing a bright lamp/bulb next to it – Moths will land on the sheet!  As for how to identify them, you can pick up the book for around £12 or upload photos to ispot.

If you want to keep up with our moth surveys, follow my instagram and twitter feeds. Happy mothing!

 

Heather Be Thy Name

Had a go today at making an English basket using heather from Brownhills Common.  Thanks to Dave Knowles (aka Obi Wan) from the Forest of Mercia, who advised me on twisting and binding down with white willow, I managed a nice first attempt.  The rest of the basket is made from Dicky Meadows Willow (a variety of Salix purpurea) which I thought worked really nicely, and although it is a bit waxy, I just LOVE the glaucous colour.  Going to use this basket for my Christmas Tree base this year!

 

A Close Encounter on the Common

Part of my job involves lots of explaining.  Explaining why we do what we do for wildlife and the countryside.  Some of you will know that the last 12 months have been a contentious year from a habitat management perspective in Walsall.  To endlessly justify what you’re doing to (albeit well-meaning) people who have a fundamentally single-minded view of conservation (through no fault of their own) can be a thankless task.  But not this week. This week I felt that the months of campaigning, reasoning, theorising and educating have been vindicated by the presence of just a couple of species in a selectively cleared site on one of our lowland heaths, Brownhills Common.  Take a look…

People were worried about the deer.  They thought that the deer would have nowhere to go if some of the trees were removed.  They feared that if we did this heathland restoration work as planned, that the deer would leave.  And who am I to dismiss their concerns outright – all I and my colleagues can do is to explain the science and reasoning behind our management practices and ask the public to trust us.  We are, as they say, professionals.

The deer will stay, we told them.  And the bees will come…

What you’re watching (above) is Clark’s mining bee (Andrena clarkella), which have moved (in some numbers!) into some of the areas that were cleared as part of this winter’s management programme.  These bees require an open, sandy area, ideally with a sunny aspect, in which to dig their numerous nests and lay their eggs.  Mining bees are solitary in habit, and do not have a hive like honey bees or bumble bees – they simply excavate a hole (quite laboriously as I’m sure you can see from the video.  They then industriously forage for pollen, leaving a store of it inside the nest as food provisions for their larva that hatches from the egg that they lay.  Without the nesting opportunities, we would lose bees like this on our heathlands.  Encroaching coniferous trees remove this habitat, and existing conifers growing taller create huge shaded areas which are unsuitable for the bees.

20140311_164926sm

We were amazed and vindicated at the presence of these bees in the cleared areas, so soon after the management was undertaken.  It goes to show that if you provide the habitat, the bees will come.  So it was an afternoon of amazing close encounters – hopefully the shape of things to come this spring and summer.  We’re currently making big plans for the Brownhills BioBlitz where people will be able to come and meet some of these species. 20140311_170134sm

Bedstraws and Broom Sticks

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANow, I’m pretty much a card-carrying, Non-Botanist (although plants do make a nice place to sit if you are a bee or a beetle!) but I had a fab time on the BCSNats Heathland Plants course last week, taught by my good friend Mark from Arvensis Ecology, who is pretty much a rock star when it comes to teaching entomologists about plants!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


I
 was sort of blown away by the fact that there are, for example, male and female sheep’s sorrel (above)!  We looked at a load of different heathland plant species (which is kind of weird for me as I’m usually looking for lizards and bees on heathlands – its nice to focus on something different and broaden my horizons!) including cross-leaved heath (pictured below with ling/heather, beneath it).  

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFrom grasses to rushes, bedstraws to broom, we looked at the reproductive features, key identifying traits, and were even brave enough to put a few of them through Poland’s Vegetative Key.  (If you’re going to give botanising a go, there’s a couple of things you’ll need:  First is a decent field guide – and the general concensus is that the best all-rounder is the Wildflower Key by Rose, and you’ll also need a 10 or, preferably, 20x hand lens – you can pick up a decent one of these for around £10-15.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I’m now even more excited to get back out onto the heaths, as all my bees and reptiles seem to be more into context now.  Its not all heather and grass up there on the commons! And just to show you that I’m the real Morgan and not some plant-loving alien surrogate, here’s a little ground hopper (Tetrix undulata) for you…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

If this has whetted your appetite for a bit of heathland wildlife, then please come along to the Meet the Species event on Brownhills Common tomorrow at 10!  Here’s the flyer:

mts

Why we manage heathlands by cutting down trees

hath

Here in the West Midlands we are very privileged to have areas of a unique and nationally important habitat that is in decline:  Lowland Heath. In particular, Walsall Countryside Services are the custodians of what is left of the former Staffordshire Heaths, an area of heathland that once stretched from Sutton Park to Cannock Chase!  Currently, what remains of this habitat is represented by parts of Barr Beacon, Shire Oak Park, Brownhills Common and Pelsall North Common.  *They are all LOWLAND heaths, even Barr Beacon, as they all come in at under 300m above sea level.  All of the above sites are managed by Walsall Countryside Services in what is called a ‘Higher Level Environmental Stewardship Agreement’ – a 10-year plan devised through working with Natural England  to decide what is the best way to manage the sites in order to consider biodiversity, protected species, rare habitats and of course, the value of the site to visitors and local residents.  There are numerous plant species that grow in this habitat, which is dominated by heather, cross-leaved heath and numerous other plants which thrive in the acidic soil.   In and around this diverse assemblage of plants, several protected species are thriving.  You might wonder what is so special about this habitat, and what ‘protected species’ we are talking about, as unless you look closely, or know exactly where to look, these species can often be elusive and hard to observe.  Because of this, Countryside Services regularly monitor the sites for heathland bees, butterflies and other invertebrates, as well as reptiles.

Here is a brief introduction to just a few of these species:

Common Lizard

llanymynech (8)

Very few people have seen lizards in the West Midlands.  They are absolutely dependant of the type of habitat that heathlands provide, and because the heathlands are rare (and getting rarer!), so are reptiles.  In the past two years, common lizards have been seen on 5 occasions on Pelsall North Common alone – so much that Walsall Countryside Services have adopted a 1km square on Pelsall North Common as their site for participation in the National Amphibian and Reptile Recording Scheme (NARRS).  We hope to record more reptiles in the future.  Managing the habitat (and where we can, extending the range of that habitat) can help these creatures to thrive.

Slow Worm

3622976006_ccda3d7f17_o

Another reptile which has recently been recorded is the Slow Worm – actually not a worm at all, nor is it (as many people first think) a snake – but actually a type of legless lizard.  In 2012, the species was recorded on Barr Beacon, which was the first record of the species in Walsall for over 35 years!  We are currently managing the habitat with creatures like the slow worm in mind!

Tormentil Mining Bee

tarsata

One of the UK’s smallest bees, measuring only 8mm in length, the Tormentil Mining Bee is a Biodiversity Action Plan target species.  Our population on Pelsall North Common is a huge priority for Walsall Countryside Services, as the nearest and most recent record to the south is from Sutton Park in 1904, and to the north, Chasewater in 2004.  This means that our population may represent the only surviving group of these specialist heathland bees in the area.  Without the heathland, this species would simply die out (and quickly!) as it is what scientists call ‘Oligolectic’, meaning that it is completely reliant on one or two species of plants – in this case, Tormentil.  Tormentil is one of the plants that will disappear when succession takes hold of the heath, taking the Tormentil Mining Bee with it.

Green Tiger Beetle

IMG_1526

This stunning beetle was recorded in Walsall for the first time in 2012!  Walsall Countryside Services cleared some scrapes in the south-facing bank of Barr Beacon’s heathland, in order to create nesting opportunities for mining bees.  Much to everyone’s delight, the Green Tiger Beetle moved into the bank that very same year.  It is important that this species is allowed to establish itself and become a thriving population, and so the management of the site is now tailored to this and other heathland specialist insects.

Great Crested Newts

newt

The great crested newt has a bit of a stronghold in Walsall – particularly in the north of the borough, where we have breeding populations on Pelsall North and Brownhills Commons.  Many people don’t realise that although the great crested newt is an amphibian, it is essentially a terrestrial (land-dwelling) animal which happens to still breed in water, and the rough, grassy terrain with lots of cover that heathlands provide is just as important to this animal’s success and wellbeing as its aquatic habitat.  The great crested newt is a protected species, and a high priority in conservation.

 So, why does managing habitat mean that we have to cut down trees like conifers?

Basically, the name of the game is Biodiversity, which in a nutshell, means getting as many types of animals and plants to thrive in a habitat as possible.  Because birch and pine grow really well in acidic soils (which all heathlands have) they can soon encroach on open heathland if left to their own devices.  This leads to shading out heather and other plants (including Tormentil), making the area unsuitable for many of the heathland species that depend on the open habitat.

Plantations and woods that have grown on former heaths (like those at Barr Beacon and Brownhills Common) become dominated by a few species of trees, directly reducing biodiversity.  No heathland means no lizards, slow worms, newts, tiger beetles or tormentil mining bees.  If we don’t act, we will lose them all.

Fortunately, the remedy is simple – we remove the majority of the trees, increasing sunlight and biodiversity comes flooding back!   Amazingly, heather seeds can survive for over 75 years, in the soil, and will germinate readily when the conditions are right again.

Our management of heathlands has resulted in the presence of some amazing species on our sites, including the species mentioned above, but many more as well, from birds to butterflies and many other species of heathland specialist animals.

Walsall Countryside Services are also working with the Wildlife Trust under the Nature Improvement Area programme, to plan to extend and where possible, connect areas of heathland to enable movement of species between sites and reduce genetic isolation of insect populations.

So if you see a few windswept Countryside Rangers taking down trees on Brownhills Common or other heathland sites this winter, you’ll know what we’re up to.