Corvids

I am a big fan of corvids and have been wanting to write a post about them for quite a while… so here it is!  I don’t have a particular story to tell, or pet crow to write about (I wish), but just wanted to share some information and my favourite facts about this particular beautiful bird family!

So first things first – which UK birds are actually in the corvid/crow family?

Carrion Crow – An all-black bird that although is known to be fearless, can actually be quite wary of humans – they will however take advantage if food is put out for them in gardens.  They are relatively solitary and can be seen alone or in pairs, but there will be several around in one area as they stay close to their roost.

Chough – A beautiful black crow with a red bill and legs!  They can be found in the west of the British Isles diving and swooping near cliff edges… in fact I saw them for the first time in 2015 around South Stack, Anglesey.

Hooded Crow – The hooded crow is closely related to the carrion crow but they have grey ‘hoods’ and are mainly distributed across in North and West of Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man.  They are more sociable than carrion crows however, so can be found feeding and ‘mixing’ together.

Jackdaw – A small, black crow with pale eyes and a characteristic silvery sheen to the back of their heads.  Jackdaws really make me smile!

Jay – Again, I saw my first jay (that I was aware of) in Anglesey.  They are shy woodland birds and do not move far from the trees.  They are very colourful with mainly pinkish-brown feathers and black-and-white wings, with eye-catching blue patches.

Magpie – A noisy bird, but so interesting to watch!  They can often be seen scavenging together or spread out across a particular area.  Magpies are very distinctive with their black-and-white plumage and long tail, which shines blue, purple and green in the sun.

Raven – Ravens are the largest member of the crow family.  They are all-black like carrion crows but have larger bills and long wings.  I have been told that you probably think you have seen a raven until you actually see one and then realise just how big they really are… and that what you saw in the past was probably just a large carrion crow!  I haven’t actually seen one in real life!

Rook – Rooks have a greyish-white face, thinner beak than a carrion crow and a peaked head.  They are sociable birds, and actually roost and feed with jackdaws.

It is good to know that all eight of these crows are RSPB green listed, meaning that they occur regularly in the UK!

chough© Chough – South Stack, Anglesey – 2015

Corvids are extremely intelligent for their size and are deemed among the most intelligent birds studied.   Some demonstrate self-awareness and even tool-making skills, which I find very exciting!  It’s not surprising though once you know that their total brain-to-body mass ratio is equal to that of great apes and cetaceans, and only slightly lower than in humans.  Amazing right!?

FUN FACTS:

  • Corvids are emotional creatures – they show happiness, sadness and anger.  They are also know to react to hunger and danger by vocalising their feelings… much like me!
  • They have brilliant memories and are masters at hiding, moving and storing food in different locations, and remembering where it all is.
  • Crows form huge roosts together where they rest in the evening, but during the day they separate into groups and tend to stay within a particular area around their roost.
  • They build fake nests in their roost to fool predators and make their colony appear bigger!  (This is one of my favourite facts that I like to tell people).
  • Ravens can be taught to speak basic human language!  Check out Mischief the raven!

Do you have any interesting facts or stories about crows that you would like to share?

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Drama On The Peregrine Ledge

It has been an action-packed few weeks for the NTU peregrine falcon chicks.  After spending a week in Dartmoor (me, not the chicks) with little internet access, I returned on May 26th to discover that all four were out of the nest and exploring the surrounding ledge.  Most of their down had been replaced by stunning feathers and they were looking truly beautiful and elegant.

They have since been feeding themselves, flapping their wings, spending more time on their own and out of sight of the cameras, but on June 1st camera one captured something extremely dramatic (and a little bit funny if you keep watching it) which you can view in slow motion here.

fall1

As you can see, one of the chicks attempted to fly and ended up crashing into its mother causing them to tumble off the edge of the building!  Luckily both were fine and the chick landed on a lower ledge.  As the chick had not properly fledged and was unable to fly, it could not return to the nest, however it has been reported that the adults have continued to feed it!  Despite this, I (and I am sure many others) have been a little worried about the chick over the last few days in the rain and wind… and unfortunately I have some sad news.  After following the peregrine falcons throughout the whole nesting cycle, it breaks my heart to announce that earlier today the Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust reported that one of the chicks (I am not entirely sure whether it was the one on the lower ledge) had “been killed yesterday on the road below the ledge”.  It is assumed that “it got blown off or lost control of a flight in the ferocious wind we have been experiencing”.  Obviously this is a terrible shame as the four chicks were each doing brilliantly, but it is important to know and remember that less than a third of peregrines actually reach breeding age, so the family have still done very well.  Those peregrines that do reach breeding age are expected to live for 6-13 years, but the oldest known peregrine was over 16 years old!  So let’s keep our fingers crossed for the remaining three!

june3

All stills taken from the NTU live stream.

Eyas Update

It is week four of the NTU peregrine falcon chicks’ development and I am honestly amazed at how quickly they are growing!  I noticed yesterday that the cameras were off for a while, so knew that it was ‘ringing time’.  It was exciting to later read that the Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust and NTU Sustainability team had indeed finally ringed the chicks and found out that there are three females and one male!  To ring the chicks, the team waited for the parents to leave the nest and then quickly fitted a small, lightweight, harmless, metal ring around the leg of each eyas.  Ringing birds is essential for bird conservation as it helps provide information about their movements, locations and lifespans.

Some brilliant photographs taken during the ringing process.  (Thank you for these Emily).

The images below are just a few stills from the NTU live stream that I have saved.  Archie and Mrs P have been providing a constant supply of feral pigeons and other medium sized birds for the eyases and as you can see in the fifth image, their crops have been nice and full.  Although one chick is smaller than the others (and has been nicknamed ‘Diddy’ on Facebook) all four are getting their fair share of food… I even caught one of them possibly ‘gaping’ for food whilst both parents were away, which you can see in the sixth image!

On May 13th, I noticed that all four chicks were starting to grow their flight and contour feathers, and yesterday (16th) the new darker feathers were poking through their down quite clearly (image eight).  The chicks may have changed a lot already, but we still have plenty of development to see.  At this stage they have gained a sharp eyesight and are very interested in anything that moves – whether it be a fly or blowing feather.  Their legs are getting stronger and they are a lot more active in the scrape.

In the next week or so, they will lose most of their down apart from a few tufts on their heads (hopefully – for our amusement) and will be showing off their juvenile feathers.  We may see them flapping their wings and before long, in week six, the eyases may fledge the nest for the first time!  They should remain around the nest-site for a few weeks, during which time they will become adept at flying, pursue other birds and capture their own food, but will still rely on their parents for most of their food.  Around August they will leave the nest for good… and I must say that I will certainly miss watching them!

The Results Are In!

If you remember from My Big Garden Birdwatch Results blog post at the end of January, I took part in the RSPB’s annual birdwatch, and I am sure many of you did too!  The RSPB has been collecting and counting the results from over half a million people over the last couple of months and the results are now available here!

The top 10 birds of 2017:

  1. House sparrow
  2. Starling
  3. Blackbird
  4. Blue tit
  5. Woodpigeon
  6. Goldfinch
  7. Robin
  8. Great tit
  9. Chaffinch
  10. Long tailed tit

Over 8 million birds were counted, with some interesting results.  Goldfinch, blackbird and robin numbers have all increased over the last 10 years.  Waxwing sightings were very high this year (I wish I had seen one) due to “a lack of berries in their native Scandinavia” prompting them to travel to the UK, even as far west as Wales and Ireland!

Along with the increases though, there unfortunately had to be some decreases!  Surprisingly sightings of blue tits, great tits and coal tits were all down by at least 10% on last year’s figures.  Also since the first RSPB Garden Birdwatch in 1979, greenfinch, starling and chaffinch numbers have all dropped too (despite the latter two being in this year’s top 10).

The RSPB is a brilliant charity and by running the Big Garden Birdwatch, they not only encourage people to take an interest in wildlife and give nature a home, but also allow us to know and understand which birds are doing well and which are not.  We can then help, take action, monitor and hopefully make a difference!

Peregrine Falcons

Last autumn I was told about a pair of peregrine falcons that had been nesting on Nottingham Trent University’s Newton building for more than a decade, with support from the university and Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust.  I was eager to learn more so was delighted to find a webpage dedicated to them, containing a live-stream, photographs and FAQs.  Obviously at the time, the nest was empty, but I added the website to my ‘favourites’ ready for the falcons’ return in the new breeding season.

I started checking the live-stream at the end of February this year and first saw the female peregrine falcon return to the nest in early March.  Since then, I have been watching both the male and female preparing the site and making a “scrape” in the box ready for egg-laying and excitingly, on Friday morning (17th March) I clicked on the live-stream to see the female ‘crouching’ and the male having a good old look!!  After a few minutes, a lovely brown egg was laid, the male flew off and the female began brooding instantly.  What a great thing to watch live!

Over the next week or so, she may lay 2-3 more eggs and if all goes well, we will see them hatch in around six weeks, soon after Easter.  Then the fun will begin… feeding, growing and fledging!

The nest site has previously been very successful, with the faithful pair of peregrine falcons returning year after year and 32 chicks fledging in the last seven years.  However, last year, almost straight after the young had fledged, a new male peregrine was spotted around the site and the “resident male was seen less and less often, until he disappeared completely”.  It is believed that as he was old, he gave up his nest and may have died.  The cycle of life continues though, and the new male, who was ringed as a juvenile in London in 2012, clearly liked the site and returned this year with his partner – allowing us to follow them this season on the live-stream.

City centres such as Nottingham and urban areas have been colonised by peregrine falcons in recent times due to the fact that “tall buildings mimick their natural crag or cliff environment” and therefore provide them with safe nesting sites.  Also, peregrine falcons feed almost exclusively on medium-sized birds such as pigeons, so cities are an ideal place for them.

As expected, Nottingham is not the only city centre to be home to peregrine falcons in the midlands… my home-town of Leicester is too!  YES!  “In February 2014, a partnership between the Leicestershire and Rutland Ornithological Society (LROS) and Leicester City Council (LCC) was formed called Leicester Peregrines to monitor the habits and activities of a known pair of Peregrine Falcons in Leicester city centre”.  They had been spotted on several tall buildings including Leicester Cathedral, but did not have a specific nesting site.  As a result, “in January 2016, the Leicester Peregrine Project was given permission by Leicester Cathedral to remove one of the louvres within the bell tower/spire” in order to build a nest-box.  Although they did not use the box last year (they did rear two chicks elsewhere), it appears that this year the pair may have taken up residence.  Hopefully in the next few weeks, a live-stream camera will be installed, or failing that, webcam photographs will be added to the website revealing whether or not any eggs have been laid.

The Leicester Peregrines Team from the LROS hold regular ‘Peregrine Watch Point’ sessions with telescopes and binoculars in the grounds of Leicester Cathedral, starting around 9:30am in St. Martin’s Square until around 2:00pm.  The proposed dates for this year are 19 April, 17 May, 15 June, 12 July, 9 August, 20 September, 11 October, 15 November and 9 December.  As these usually take place whilst I am at work, I decided to nip to the site with my camera at the weekend and spotted the pair straight away.  They were very high up on the spire, but I zoomed in as much as possible and managed to get a few decent photographs.

Peregrine falcons on Leicester Cathedral, 18/03/2017.

I hope to write several posts about both the Nottingham and Leicester peregrines this season and I would love to hear if like me, you are following any pairs too.

My Big Garden Birdwatch Results

So the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch is complete!  I hope you all had a wonderful time identifying and counting the birds and wildlife in your gardens or local parks.

This year I completed the survey at my in-laws house who live further out of the city.  Last year, at my childhood home, the birds played a trick on me and decided not to land, meaning I only counted a handful of birds.  I therefore wanted to see whether the location difference would affect my results.  As you may know from my post about the Robin, my own back yard is pretty small and bird-less.  I have a bird feeder and occasionally put out dried meal-worms, but do not want to encourage many birds as both of my neighbours have cats.  Luckily though, my Birdwatch location had several well-used feeders out ready, so it was as simple as pulling up a chair to the window, getting comfy with a cup of tea and waiting for the birds to arrive.  The hour ‘flew’ by and I managed to record twelve birds in total (from the garden and surrounding trees): 1 great tit, 1 robin, 1 blue tit, 4 woodpigeons, 2 house sparrows, 1 female blackbird, 1 collared dove and 1 carrion crow.  Throughout the rest of the day, many more birds landed in the garden including a wren, and the female blackbird returned on several occasions (she is a regular apparently).  A plump squirrel also made an appearance and stayed long enough for me to take a few photographs!

The lovely robin and squirrel who visited the garden during this year’s Birdwatch.

4, 383, 224 birds have been counted and submitted to the RSPB so far and I am really interested to see the final results from mid-February.  The results will help the RSPB find out what wildlife is thriving and what is in trouble, ultimately leading to “action to put things right”.  The survey started back in 1979 as a small children’s activity, but now has over half a million people taking part each year!  With the 38th year of data now being collated by the RSPB, the insight into UK wildlife is more accurate than ever… and it has already provided some fascinating information, for example between 2006 and 2016, the UK song thrush population decreased by a staggering 98% whereas the UK goldfinch population increased by an impressive 89%.  As of 2014, respondents have also been asked about other wildlife as well a birds in their gardens, so a greater picture is beginning to be painted UK-wide!

Did you take part this year?  If so, what birds and other wildlife did you record?

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch

It is that time of year again… the clouds are grey, the air is chilly, but there are things to make us smile and feel warm inside.  The days are slowly starting to get longer, Winterwatch is back on our screens next week and of course, the RSPB is holding the Big Garden Birdwatch from the 28th – 30th January.

The Big Garden Birdwatch helps to build a picture of garden wildlife across the UK and we can all be part of the world’s largest wildlife survey!  I took part for the first time last year and had so much fun, despite only counting a handful of birds (it was a cold, windy day).  Amazingly, more than 519,000 people all over the UK took part in the survey and counted an incredible 8,262,662 birds over the weekend!  The top three spotted were the house sparrow, starling and blue tit.  I wonder what the top three will be this year!?

It is easy to do and is great for any age.  Just find a comfortable spot, inside by a window (which I am going to do this year), outside in your garden or even a park.  Then over a single hour on any of the three days, simply count the maximum number of each species that you see at any one time. For example, if you see three blue tits together, and later you see four, and after that two, the number to submit is four (not nine). This makes it less likely that you will double-count the same birds.

I have already registered and received my pack.  If you would like to join me and thousands of others to count the wildlife that is counting on us, you can request a pack here.  If you order it to be sent by post, the RSPB also kindly sends a few little goodies including a coaster, packet of coffee and a lovely recipe for some biscuits (which are delicious – yes I have already baked some).

I will be blogging about my experience and survey results after the Big Garden Birdwatch weekend and would love to hear your results too!

ark1

© This photograph was taken in the summer, but I am sure the sparrow will make it into the top ten list again this winter.

Woodland Conservation Management

With only a couple of weeks left of my Ecology, Conservation and Habitat Management course, it is the latter, Habitat Management that I have been reading up on recently and more specifically, it is Woodland Conservation Management that I have been particularly interested in.

Woodland is extremely rich in species, but unfortunately every single one cannot be individually managed.  Certain groups of plants and animals however have become the main focal points for woodland conservation management, as they ultimately benefit many other species.  Some of the main species may use a range of habitats for example, or may even be very rare and specialised, which are equally as important.

So what are these groups and management plans?

Tree communities

There are around 54 types of tree community today in ancient woodland, and most are genetically the direct descendants of the original trees that grew.  Trees of the same type can be found in all areas of Britain, but no one individual tree will harbour all of the insect/lichen/bird/fauna species that are known to be associated with that type, or even the woodland it is in.  This is due to climatic and geographical variations in different areas of Britain.

To maintain the variety of trees and therefore species that benefit from them, it is important that semi-natural tree communities are managed through natural regeneration (the growth of trees that develop from seeds that fall and germinate on site) and/or by planting new trees of local provenance.

Ground flora

Like the tree communities, ground flora varies greatly from one woodland to another due to location variations and actually tends to be more abundant and concentrated in ancient woodland than in newer woodland.  However, the isolation of ancient woods, could in fact lead to the extinction of some plant and invertebrate species (particularly those with poor mobility), so it is important that such species are encouraged to colonise or re-colonise to avoid extinction from habitiat deterioration.  Open spaces and development of young growth are both vital for certain species.

Epiphytic flora and fungi

Plants that grow harmlessly upon another plant and derive moisture and nutrients from the air, rain, and sometimes from debris are called epiphytes, and many mature trees in relatively unpolluted parts of Britain carry an interesting and huge array of epiphytic flora and fungi (including more than 70 species of lichens alone).  Particularly in the west of the country, these epiphytes are very rich and resemble those that lived in the original forests.

Epiphytes need to be conserved with methods such as partial-cutting to ensure that the mature tree communities they grow on remain in particular woodland sites and continue to naturally regenerate.

Small mammals

There are several small mammals in British woodlands that are rare and thankfully protected, and one of these is the Dormouse.  The Dormouse is an elusive nocturnal mammal which can be found mainly in woodlands in the southern counties of the UK. Over the last 100 years its distribution has declined and it is now extinct in 7 counties where it previously existed. This is mainly due to changes in woodland management and habitat fragmentation.  They feed on a combination of plant materials including flowers, fruits and nuts as well as insects, so it is important to manage sites specifically for them or any other rare species.  Good management will help increase numbers and make the site more ‘valuable’.

Management for small mammals must include the provision of nest-boxes, tracking and surveying, coppicing and the encouragement of mixed species in the woodland to ensure good food supplies.

Birds

Although birds are different to most other woodland groups in terms of being very mobile, woodlands still have to be managed to ensure a range of birds benefit.  Some species prefer mature, native trees or depend on dense close-canopy scrub, whereas others are associated with replanted areas.

Woodland management for birds is therefore concentrated on maintaining a mixture of age classes, by reducing the amount of old habitat deterioration and creating new suitable habitats.

Butterflies and moths

Many woodland butterflies and moths inhabit areas of young growth where nectar sources and food-plants for their larvae can be found.  There has been declines in several species for many years however, and this is due to many things including woods becoming isolated which in turn weakens the ability for colonisation, as well as a reduction in coppicing which would produce new growth.

Understanding the complex life cycles of butterflies and moths provides an insight into what they need from woodland habitats and could provide the answer to effective conservation.  Each stage may require a different habitat, from sheltered, warm places to areas that are plentiful in food sources, so management must concentrate on providing nectar-rich areas and suitable habitat for egg-laying and larval development.

Saproxylic invertebrates

These animals depend on dead, decaying or living wood and fungi to survive, so it is important that areas of mature trees, or even individuals are maintained and protected, to avoid dead wood being removed which would ultimately reduce or destroy the specialised habitats of many saproxylic invertebrates, including beetles and flies.  Populations of such species rely on old wood being in a specific condition, so it is vital at these sites that the continuity of prime wood and trees is considered.

 

Mutualism and Parasitism

Over the last three weeks, I have been introduced to the world of Abiotic and Biotic interactions.  I have an interest in the different behaviours and relationships of organisms so found these particular topics highly fascinating.

Mutualism

Association between individuals of two species for mutual benefit.

Now, I have seen many examples of mutualism documented on television, but up until now have never really researched this relationship.  There are countless mammals, birds, insects, plants, fungi, bacteria etc which interact with one another symbiotically.  One of the most obvious mutualistic relationships is the interaction between pollinators and flowering plants.  The plants gain by having their pollen transferred from one flower to another and the pollinators gain a reward of nectar.

An example of mutualism that I found through my research is between the Oxpecker bird and Rhino or Zebra.  The Oxpecker will land and sit on the Rhino or Zebra, where it will eat ticks and parasites off their skin.  The bird gains food and the mammal gains a personal ‘pest-controller’.  Another interesting point is that the Oxpecker will also fly upwards and call a warning sound if in danger, which of course also benefits the Rhino or Zebra.

Mutualism is a +/+ relationship and Ecologists describe Biotic relationships in terms of who benefits and who loses…

+ signifies that one party benefits

– signifies that one party loses

0 signifies that one party is unaffected

Parasitism 

A relationship between two organisms where a parasite gains from a relationship with its host.

Whereas mutualism is a +/+ relationship, parasitism tends to be +/- or +/0 relationship.  Initially the host may not be affected, however as a parasite continues it’s aim of gaining nutrients, a favourable environment or even the use of biochemical processes, the host inevitably suffers and dies once the parasite has reproduced.

One particular +/0/- interactions that I find to be the perfect mix of both amazing and disturbing is the Green-banded Broodsac, Snail and Bird cycle!  The ultimate goal of a Green-banded Broodsac parasite is to live inside the warm interior of a bird and feed off it. The larvae of this parasite live in bird droppings, which is eaten by snails. Once inside, the parasite grows and moves through the snail, protrudes out through the eyes, develops green bands like a caterpillar and pulsates in a similar way to a caterpillar. The parasite even manages to control the brain, making the snail move to somewhere noticeable.

Birds are consequently fooled into seeing two caterpillars and thinking they are getting a double snack, eat the snails’ eyestalks and therefore the parasite. The larva moves into the birds interior, lives and breeds… the bird then passes out the eggs in it’s droppings and the cycle continues.

Green-banded Broodsacs benefit – they achieve the goal of a warm interior and food for reproduction.  Birds gain a small meal but nothing much else (they apparently do not mind the parasite’s presence).  Snails infected with this parasite often live longer than snails that do not have it, but other than gaining a meal, the snails lose as they are ultimately turned into ‘zombies’.

Parasitic plants

As defined earlier, parasitism is a relationship between two organisms, and this of course includes plants.  There are over 4,000 species of parasitic flowering plants in the world – the most famous probably being Mistletoe, but after some interesting reading, I discovered the ‘Corpse flower’.  It is the largest individual flower in the world and is found in the forests of Malaysia and Indonesia.  It is nearly 1 meter in diameter and weighs up to 11 kg. As the name suggests, the corpse flower smells like rotting flesh in order to attract carrion-feeding flies as pollinators, whilst it’s sticky fruit is spread by rodents.  It cannot photosynthesize on its own, so being a parasite, steals it’s nutrients from the roots of neighbouring vines!

Do you know of any other interesting parasites or mutualistic relationships?