30 Days Wild – Day 25 – Wildlife as a distraction


TWT 30 Days Wild_countdown_25This may be one of those things you shouldn’t share. But I always think it’s best to be honest.

Wildlife, especially birds singing, distracts me in my day-to-day life. I’ll be having a conversation with someone and catch a sound on the edge of my hearing. Before I know it, I’ve missed the thread of things.

It can be truly dangerous too. When on a driving lesson a few years back, I spotted a small flock of waxwing and took my eye off the road. Not a good thing to do.

Almost as bad is when it happens at work. If you are a keen birder, this will be familiar.

Sitting in view of windows, in meetings, I’ve spotted things like Song Thrush, Sparrowhawk, and Bullfinch. But that’s okay. That’s just looking. I’m still actually listening to the room.

The real problem arises with songs and calls, where you can’t quite see out the window. As happened to me yesterday (Day 25).

I’m pretty good on the sounds you hear around you, and normally can ID something without any real issue. But every now and again, even in an urban setting, you hear something that’s just not quite right.

“What’s that? I don’t recognise that. Probably just a Great Tit with a slightly anomalous call. Focus on the meeting”

“But wait a minute. Is it? It doesn’t sound like it. Maybe it’s something unusual? Oh, if only I could see out the window…”

Then begins a routing some of you will recognise. Trying to look, without looking like you are looking. There are many ways to do this.

Pretending to tie a shoelace is good for a quick peek. You bend down, you look to your side. You can get a good couple of minutes that way. Faking a yawn or a sneeze can get you a quick glance too.

But that may not be good enough. You can’t exactly whip the binoculars out, but you need a proper look. So you make it look like you are staring at a computer screen, then tilt your head, and now you are there! You can see it! You can have a proper hard stare at the bird and nobody is any the wiser. So you do.

“Oh, of course. Just a Greenfinch. What else can I see? Oh, there are some families of Goldfinches over there…”

You are now in a reverse of the original situation. Your focus is now out the window, and the meeting is on the fringes of your hearing. Until you suddenly realise…

“Wait. Did someone just ask me what I think? What I think of what? Uh-oh.”

It’s at this point you realise with horror that you’ve been looking out the window for a full five minutes! How do you recover from this?

There are two strategies.

One is honesty. You just apologise and ask them to repeat the question.

The other, you still ask them to repeat the question, but you make it look like you need more information. You lean back in your chair. You maybe put your hands behind your head. You stare at the ceiling. Maybe you tap on the desk, or a pad, or your laptop. Then you simply say “Can you just expand on that a little?”

They essentially repeat the question, you give it your full attention, and you can form an answer. Brilliant. Except of course…

“What was that I just heard? Was that the Greenfinch again?”

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SONY DSC

 

* This is a cautionary tale. I do not advocate staring out the window in meetings, lectures, or school lessons. Really.

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30 Days Wild – Day 24 – The pitfalls of trapping


TWT 30 Days Wild_countdown_24Yesterday I decided to setup a pitfall trap in the flowerbeds.

The idea of a pitfall trap is simple, you bury something with one open end, like a jamjar.

You put a little bait in the bottom, though this isn’t vital. I used some jam.

You then cover the top with a flat rock, propped on smaller rocks. This creates space that invertebrates can crawl under for shelter, or because they sense the food.

Because the sides are steep and slippy, the animals are trapped, and the next day you can see what’s been scurrying about. You always check and release the next day, even if you want to reuse the following night.

Sadly, this wasn’t a great success. In the past I’ve managed to get some unusual beetles this way, but this time there was little to see.

IMG_0983The slug above. A couple of ants. A money spider.

The only noteworthy thing was eight specimens of the same arachnid, which I’ve not had chance to ID yet. So if you know, feel free to tell me via the comments!

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In unrelated news, we’ve come home to a deserted blackbird nest. No sign of trauma, no dead baby birds, no angry parents. But no fledglings, and no parents tracking them in hidey-holes unlike the first brood. Not a positive sign.

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30 Days Wild – Day 23 – Prep for 24, and a week to go


TWT 30 Days Wild_countdown_23Only a week left after this, and still a lot I want to do.

Today’s wild activity is slightly unusual in that it’s really preparation for tomorrow. So I’m not going to say what it is till then.

I’ve got to try cram a few things in now, including three sites I’ve meant to visit this month and a couple of more unusual activities (for me). So hopefully the last seven blogposts will be rewarding.

Blackbirds in the back hedge are really growing at a rate of knots and it’s almost impossible to go outside now without being told off by the parents. They could fledge before the 30 days is up.

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30 Days Wild – Day 21 – Derby, and another mystery bird


TWT 30 Days Wild_countdown_21The plan for today had been to take a trip to Chaddesden Wood, as I’ve blogged from there before and the ponds are usually good value.

But a miserable day yielded little wildlife, and the ponds themselves look to have been very badly treated, whether by people or dogs or both it’s hard to say. But the surrounding vegetation has been so comprehensively trampled it’s hard not to see it as vandalism.

The only thing seen around the wood was a solitary male blackcap singing, but he was hardly posing for a photo.

Male Blackcap, just about

Male Blackcap, just about

There was also a family of blackbirds about, and I did manage a distance shot of one of the juveniles.

Juvenile Blackbird Chaddesden Wood LNR

Juvenile Blackbird
Chaddesden Wood LNR

Back in the garden where we were staying the birds were similarly wet and bedraggled, and in the case of one nuthatch, some very odd behaviour.

Jump for joy

Jump for joy

This bird behaved a lot like a fledgling, moving around quite chaotically and occasionally flying into things, but from the plumage appears to be an adult, so I’ve got to assume it was just an effect of the weather.

The new baby blue tits were having a hard time of it too, as were their parents.

Baby Blue Tit

Baby Blue Tit

Parent

Parent

And the omni-present grey squirrels we see there.

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Grey Squirrel

The title promised a mystery bird though, so here it is:

Well, it's a pigeon...

Well, it’s a pigeon…

Now, you’ll be forgiven for just thinking “It’s a pigeon”. Or maybe “It’s a baby pigeon”. While it is a pigeon, it’s not a Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus), and it’s not a Domestic Pigeon (Columba livia domestica). It’s something that, while fairly abundant (250k breeding pairs in the UK), is not seen a lot in towns.

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A different angle

My first thought was indeed “Baby pigeon”. But my brain was rebelling against me, and that nagging doubt was there immediately. What wasn’t stacking up? Was it a hybrid?

The picture above gives the best clues, with a darker rump, those little black bands along the wings, a larger eye, the greeny-blue neck. Much smaller. It’s a Stock Dove (Columba oenas). Relatively common, yet a bird I haven’t actually seen in years, and I’ve never seen in a garden.

Whether this is an isolated bird, or one of a pair nesting in the wood (where they nest in holes), I do not know. It hadn’t just been blown in, it had apparently been visiting the garden for a week or so.

So there is a lesson there, one I’ve mentioned before. Don’t let your brain leap to conclusions on IDs. Give it a minute. Be careful that you don’t dismiss diagnostic features of one species as anomalous markings of something more familiar.

Stock Dove Derby, June 2015

Stock Dove
Derby, June 2015

The name ‘stock dove’ may imply domestication (‘breeding stock’), but actually it’s from an old english word for stump/log, a reference to their habit of breeding in holes in old trees.

BTO Pigeon ID Sheet (pdf)

RSPB Stock Dove facts

 

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30 Days Wild – Day 22 – A bevy of blackbirds


TWT 30 Days Wild_countdown_22I try to get into work early, before 8am, as that usually gives the best chance of seeing some wildlife around campus before things get busy. It’s not that the wildlife stops after 9, just that it gets more cautious.

Sure enough, today had a couple of surprises.

The first was a family of blackbirds foraging behind my building.

No, two families.

No, wait, make that three.

Seven adults, ten fledglings. All in the same space of grass, next to a few trees. This from a normally territorial bird. I can only assume there was some great natural bounty to be had there.

Also, not for the first time, I was surprised by how tame the younger rabbits are. On this occassion one paused in the middle of washing itself, looked at me standing two feet away, then simply resumed as if I was no threat. Obviously I am no threat, but rabbits are usually so skittish.

Day22’s lesson? Get up and get out.

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30 Days Wild – Day 20 – Derby Museum Nature Gallery


TWT 30 Days Wild_countdown_20

It’s easy to think that you can only engage with nature by going outside, or at least looking out the window. But as a former museum man, I’m very keen to encourage the connection between the wildlife you can experience outside, and the learning you can gain with a trip to a museum.

As I was in Derby at the weekend, and as they have recently redeveloped their nature gallery, this seems a good way to combine the two points.

I should start by saying I last visited Derby Museum around five years ago, and pretty much hated it. The displays were hideously old-fashioned and a number of really bad habits had crept into their practice that meant a really bad experience for visitors. So I’m delighted to say the whole place, not just the nature gallery, now feels clean, clear, and professionally operated. There has obviously been a lot of hard work by all the staff. But let’s focus on nature.

Photos throughout were taken on mobile phone, so apologies for blur and shake!

Buy a bird

Buy a bird

On the way to the gallery you encounter a clever fundraising scheme, ‘buy a bird’. A small donation gets the names you want under a randomly selected little bird.

The gallery from the main entrance

The gallery from the main entrance

The gallery draws the eye and feels fresh. If I were feeling hideously critical, I’d say the sense of structure through the space is lacking, but I actually quite like the sense of discovery that comes from having things a little more open. But broadly, you can see rocks and fossils at this end, mammals, birds and insects to the far end.

Five ways

Five ways

I’ve spoken before on the Five Ways to Wellbeing, and it’s great to see Derby making use of this idea with cards in the gallery to take away. This helps that connection between outside and in.

Learn more

Learn more

They also have really detailed booklets of extra information accompanying the displays, which can then be bought in the shop if you want.

Sometimes modern galleries can be too sparse, but there is no such fear here with a great array of specimens either out in cases, or cleverly mounted in drawers under the main cases.

Shiny

Shiny

Allenton Hippo

Allenton Hippo

There is a good mix of material, from the familiar to the more obscure. It’s also good to see Derby taking a leaf from Leeds’ book and mounting their hippo bones (from the time hippos wandered England 100,000 years ago.

There are also some interesting oddities, like the ‘fossil’ bird nest in the centre of this image.

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It’s not a true fossil, it’s a souvenir created by ‘petrifactors’ in the 19th Century, people who placed commonplace objects under water that contained high concentrations of dissolved minerals. The minerals then form around the object over a few months, and can be sold to museums and tourists.

20150620_112348Another trap museums can fall into is to hide anything that isn’t an obvious ‘display specimen’ away. But here we see a range of items that museums sometimes back away from, such as eggs and skins. We should be clear however, egg collections are historic and no responsible modern collector would encourage this practice.

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It’s also good to see plenty of insects out, and displays like these give the tiniest insight into the astonishing variation in this section of the animal kingdom.

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Botany isn’t quite so well served, though a few herbarium specimens are found in some of the drawers.

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In the shop, they have drawn out the theme and developed their own merchandise with their volunteers, which is a smart bit of practice.

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What I hope is that galleries like this create enthusiasm, especially in families. Such a well-packed gallery should do this and get people interested in what they can see. It would be worth exploring some links to specific local sites (for example The Sanctuary), maybe even tap into the collections to draw that out. But considering where they were a few years back, this is a tremendous platform on which to build.

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It’s also worth remembering, before I finish, that the nature stuff doesn’t begin and end with the nature gallery. These were all in the ceramics gallery:

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I’d also recommend you read Elle Kirk’s blog about the same gallery as she goes into some really interesting stuff.

A few more specimens:

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30 Days Wild – Day 19 – Blackbirds in the hedge


TWT 30 Days Wild_countdown_19With all the apparent feeds the blackbirds are doing this week, it was obvious they have new chicks.

Still, it was nice this afternoon to wander past the hedge and spot two bald tiny heads sticking out.

I suspect there are three or four in there, but could only clearly see the two. I’ll take pictures later, but I never want to disturb the nest too much, and their mum was nearby.

The nest is a lot nearer the outside of the hedge than last time. Much closer to the house too.

I’m hoping they get a smoother run of things this time, but nature is unpredictable. We’ll see over the next few weeks.

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30 Days Wild – Day 18 – The aftermath of spring


TWT 30 Days Wild_countdown_18Baby everything everywhere at the moment.

Plenty of goldfinches at home. Constant chatter of baby blackbirds and magpies at work. Plenty of rabbit kits too.

The lake is ringed in goslings, ducklings, baby coots and moorhens.

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30 Days Wild – Day 17 – Garden Life


TWT 30 Days Wild_countdown_17Life continues in the garden.

After the drama earlier this year, the Blackbirds have built a new nest and, over the past two days, have started taking food in, suggesting new chicks. Hopefully they’ll have a slightly more serene path into fledging, but with the volume of cats locally, along with the magpies, we can’t be sure.

20150615_195227It’s not just the blackbirds that have been productive. The first baby goldfinch has appeared, looking scruffy and streaky, no real indication of the elegant adults they will become. Only one so far but that usually means the flock will rapidly grow to twenty or more in the next couple of weeks. Good job I’ve plenty of food in!

We’ve also suddenly got a bullfinch back this week. Just the male. The bullfinches never seem to be a year-round bird like the goldfinches, like the various tits, the blackbirds. We see them only at specific times of year. Really wet spring days. Really harsh winter days. And spring/summer, around the point their chicks hatch. So hopefully, like last year, this precedes a brief flurry of baby bullfinch visits.

On the right you can see the largest of our foxgloves, or multi-storey bee-feeding stations as they mainly function here. This largest plant has now passed two metres, standing 2m 21cm last time I measured it (7 feet and 3 inches if you prefer Imperial). It’s around a metre taller than any other foxglove, and the tallest plant in the garden bar hedges and climbers.

What’s remarkable is it stands perfectly straight without any staking, whereas all the others have a significant lean. We’ll be collecting seeds from it as it’s presumably excellent stock!

It’s hugely popular with the half-dozen bee species we have around, and the bumblebees don’t even bother flying between individual flowers now, simply climbing drunkenly from one to another.

Foxgloves can get to about 2.5m so we’ll see if it keeps going.

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30 Days Wild – Day 16 – Mystery bird identified


TWT 30 Days Wild_countdown_16Earlier today I posted a little ID puzzle for you as part of 30 Days Wild. Namely, what is this odd duck?

What am I?

What am I?

Any ideas?

Regular readers may have had a clue, if they recalled a post from May on birds around Heslington Lake. In there, I mentioned a male mallard and female pochard, with some ducklings, that were hanging around together.

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Mallard x Pochard Heslington Lake, June 2015

Among the big differences from mallards you can see here are the slate grey bill and black feet,in addition to the dark plumage and white breast. While there are other ducks that have that dark bill/feet, there’s only a pochard I’ve seen in this location.

But there is still an oddity here. The male I saw was a ‘classic’ mallard. But the plumage here is more like that of the Bibbed Mallard or Cayuga, domestic breeds of the same species. So what’s going on there?

A few possibilities. There are plenty of domestic duck breeds around the lake, including bibbed cayuga. So we could be dealing with some recessive genes getting expressed in the mix. Alternatively, as duck mating can get a little frenetic and confused, it could be the mallard following the pochard and her ducklings around wasn’t actually the father!

Father? Father?

Father? Father?

Whatever the answer to that one, this is two interesting hybrids in two years, following on from the goose.

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