Small worlds .. again.

19 Jun

In last months blog I started to explore the part of life around us that we don’t really see as it’s so small.

A very short walk along the cliff with macro lens for my camera produced the images below. The black fly is a conopid fly of some sort (from someone who knows about the things) and is about 5mm long. For those looking at this in black and white the minute detail is quite remarkable and both insects have small counterweights sticking out from their sides to help in flight.
Following last months article suggesting that drawing something natural, such as a flower, to help appreciate the complexity of what seems simple, a couple of people contacted me who had tried it – and had a very good experience of really looking at something and drawing it. Even if your drawing skills aren’t great pop out into the garden, pick a flower and have a go!!
By the time this edition of the Cliffhanger has been published the latest WildSherston event will have taken place on the 23rd June so hopefully we will have had a good turn out. If anyone has a particular interest in any element of our local wildlife such as bats, wild flowers, beetles or even slugs!! I am sure I can arrange a speaker for a future meeting. If you have an interest and knowledge you would like to share please do let me know.
Finally – I had a thought provoking email a couple of weeks ago regarding cats and the nature of cats. On one hand the millions of cats in the UK provide enormous pleasure and company to millions of people and on the other they kill millions of small rodents, birds etc and they illustrate a microcosm of the balance and tensions in the way we live in this country. In Tasmania, for example, they have regular cat culls to try and protect the local marsupial and bird populations which won’t survive unless the introduced predators are removed.
Cat’s have a deep hunting instinct in spite of being domesticated for many generations and do bring all manner of dead and partially living residents home with them which is sad especially at this time of year when young birds are easy pickings. There is a simple answer which may help some prey items escape and that is for cats to have a small bell. We have a cat ourselves who will soon be wearing one!!
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WildSherston event – 23rd June

12 Jun

The next in the irregular series of talks and activities will be on the 23rd June at Sherston Village Hall (near Malmesbury in Wiltshire, UK) starting at 7’30pm.

We will have three different talks. The first, by Butterfly Conservation, will discuss our local butterfly and moth species. This will be followed by an update on the local river improvement project by the Bristol Avon River Trust and finally Wiltshire Ornithological Society will discuss the 100 species of birds seen in the village.

It’s free and will be a fantastic antidote to the Brexit vote the same day!!

It’s been a while…

22 May

It’s been quite some time since I posted (aside from the one a few minutes ago) so below is a gallery of some the UK wildlife photo’s taken over the past few years… hope you enjoy.

Different perspectives

22 May
We tend to walk around with the same perspective on our environment – we look up and down maybe 15 degrees and only absorb what we are familiar with so we tend not to actually see that much. I was in London a few years ago when Antony Gormley (of the Angel of the North fame) placed some 30 human sized statues on the top of buildings around Charring Cross. This very simple but challenging set of installations got lots of people looking at the tops of the buildings and the architecture that’s up there. It’s quite amazing but most people don’t look up!!
I have tended to focus on birds and butterfly’s and found I needed to look for one or the other when I am out – it’s hard to keep shifting the distance you are looking at on a regular basis (at least for me).
Having seen lots of Masonry Bees in the garden building their extended colony of single burrows I decided this summer was the time to find out more (story for a later date) so bought a macro lens for my camera – one where you get very detailed photo’s of small things.
When you start to explore the small world that exists all around us, nature reveals incredible complexity and beauty and colours (see photo’s – except for the colour bit!). One picture is of the centre of a cornflower, one of a Shield Bug emerging from a dandelion and a 7 mm fly – just look at the details on its feet.
So here’s a challenge…. get something from your garden – a flower or leaf or insect or even a slug – and draw it!! The action of drawing will make you LOOK at the flower etc in great detail and while the results may not win a prize, the process of discovery is such a joy. If anyone does this please let me know.
Finally – June 23rd (Euro referendum day) Wild Sherston talks. Starting at 7.30pm we have a couple of talks arranged – The 100 birds of Sherston by Wiltshire Ornithological Society (did you know there are 100 species of birds around the village) and a talk from Butterfly Conservation on our local butterfly’s and moths. There will also be an update by the Bristol Avon River Trust on the on-going work around the village to improve the river…. and it’s free!!

Project SHRIMP Kicks off on Saturday at Sherston Boules day

8 Jul

One of the key goals of the WildSherston event last May was to create a project to improve our local natural environment. One of the organisations that attended WildSherston was the Bristol and Avon River Trust (BART). BART is a community-led organisation, which aims to deliver education, land and river based management advice and practical river restoration work across the Bristol Avon Catchment. You can find out more about them on their website – www.bristolavonriverstrust.org.  They are only a small charity but they have already successfully completed several habitat enhancement and river restoration projects and are really keen to encourage people to develop a sense of ownership of our waterways by working with communities on stretches of their local rivers.

Over the past few months we have been in discussion with BART about project(s) to improve our part of the Avon together with some local landowners. You may remember Harriet Alvis who used to live in the village who is now the Project Officer for BART. Harriet is a biologist first inspired to work on rivers by seeing the Environment Agency sampling down at Forlorn, and is excited to be part of a project to improve the river in the village!

The SHRIMP project (SHerston River IMProvement) will work with local volunteers with the aim of improving a popular section of river close to the village, running at the foot of Grove Wood and will also be creating a wildflower meadow. We are able to do this thanks to grants from Wessex Water, the People’s Postcode Lottery, money raised from the WidSherston event last year and the local farmers.

 The river already supports small population of fish such as brown trout and bullhead. However, low flows, particularly during the Summer, are insufficient to deal with sediment deposited after the higher flows after heavy rainfall. This sediment has resulted in gravels being smothered, conditions detrimental to spawning trout and habitat for invertebrates.

The project will succeed if local people want to help restore the river banks and help make improvements to the river for the benefit of people and wildlife. We have already seen evidence of otters, kingfishers and water voles in the area and the work will help secure their future. (It was Harriet who first spotted the Otter Spraint which prompted us to put camera’s in the river)

We will be at the Boules Festival talking about our project as well as trying to raise some funds and hoping to find people who wish to sponsor their own wildflower plug patch which will help create a community wildflower meadow. You can donate on the day or through our website (www.bristolavonriverstrust.org) if this is easier.

SHRIMP will need a number of volunteers to complete both the in-stream river improvements and the wildflower meadow. If you are interested in volunteering with this project, please email harriet@bristolavonriverstrust.org  or Geoff Carss at geoff_carss@hotmail.com – No experience needed, just enthusiasm and a basic level of fitness! Similarly, if you have any questions about this project, feel free to drop us a line.

Walk on the wild side….   Do you know your neighbours?

22 May
Sometimes it’s surprising who lives next door! You think you know who your neighbours are and you get a big surprise.

One group of animals we don’t see much of here are reptiles although there are two species that live around the village namely the Grass Snake and the Slow Worm – see pictures both of which were taken in the village. Grass Snakes are completely harmless although can emit a horrible smell if they are threatened and play dead. They are reasonably common but are hard to spot even though they often live in rough pasture, along the edges of streams and in gardens. They can get up to a meter long and have a distinctive yellow and black collar.

The Slow Worm is actually a legless lizard and is much more metallic and can live for up to 35 years. Curiously I recently saw a crow scavenging next to a bush on the Cliff and it found a Slow Worm. It promptly flew off with it presumably to feed it’s chicks.

One surprising local resident recently discovered is an Otter. Harriet Alvis (ex Sherston resident) is now the Project Officer at the Bristol and Avon River Trust (BART) and was carrying out some river sampling when she came across what she thought was some Otter spraint or droppings. Following confirmation based on some pictures, some wildlife camera’s were set up along the river a couple of weeks ago by Nic Fisher and Nick Holland.

Within a couple of days the somewhat grainy picture of a female Otter was taken much to everyone’s amazement given (as far as we know) otters hadn’t been seen here for many years. They are very secretive and typically nocturnal it’s not surprising they hadn’t been seen and they may have been here for quite some time given they have been filmed in Malmesbury and one was seen on the road in Easton Gray. Although the Otter hasn’t been seen since, Nick has some great film of a Kingfisher eating a fish – it’s on the village Facebook site as is the film of the Otter.

Also along the river are a few Water Voles (aka Ratty in Wind in the Willows) with their typical holes and lawns. The females graze the area at one side of a hole so it’s much shorter than the surrounding area – hence being called a lawn. Water Voles are getting scarcer and scarcer so we are lucky to have some living here.

All of this excitement has lead to discussions with BART and various people in the village about developing the work that was started with Grove Wood and extending it to other sites and environments. Local landowners and farmers are being very supportive. Things are still at the planning stage about what can be done to improve the river and some of the adjoining water meadows and we aim to have a stand on Boules Day (11th July) to share our plans. If anyone is interested in helping on the stand or afterwards, when the real fun starts, please do let me know.   

P.S. A number of the nest boxes we installed last year are in use by Blue Tits, Bats and something is in one of the Barn Owl boxes. I don’t know what yet as they are protected and you need a special licence to open a Barn Owl box – which I don’t have but I know people who do!!

Grass Snake July 2013

Slow Worm on Sherston Cliff May 2013

Slow Worm on Sherston Cliff May 2013

Otter somewhere near Sherston May 2015

Otter somewhere near Sherston May 2015

Water Vole April 2015

Natures going nuts

21 Mar

I missed last months article as I was on a trip seeing exotic birds and animals such as the Forty-spotted Pardalote, Eastern Quoll and the Duck-billed Platypus – and spring is really getting started with some early warm weather which bodes well for a great breeding season.

Our summer breeding birds are really starting to get into the swing of spring with our resident Rooks taking centre stage. Rooks are one of four members of the Crow family around the village – we also have lots of Jackdaws, some Carrion Crows and a small number of Ravens. Jackdaws are the smallest and are often seeing on top on the houses on the High Street and nest in gaps on roofs or chimneys while Rooks build nests in trees such as those next to the Church. They are very social birds and have a distinct bare patch of skin at the base of the beak unlike a Carrion Crow. There are a number of rookeries around the village and they may move location from year to year with a couple of new ones at the back of Grove Road.

The rookeries we get in the village are relatively small (although you may not think that from the noise) with one in Scotland having some 2,500 nests with rookeries of up to 50,000 nests being recorded elsewhere in Europe. There are a number of collective nouns for Rooks and include building, parliament, clamour and storytelling (great pub quiz question!!)Chiffchaff on Sherston Cliff March 2012

Male Chiffchaffs (see the picture) are already singing along a number of hedgerows and the ones I saw along the Cliff may be one of the few resident birds who are claiming their territory early before the migrant Chiffchaff’s return from southern Europe. The early warm weather has encouraged butterflies as well with a number of Brimstone and Small Tortishell’s along the cliff. Both these species over winter as adults typically in sheds and garages and can be seen on warms days even in January.

Many birds will start to nest in March and April although some birds have adopted a different strategy. Both Wood Pigeons (of which we have lots and lots) and Stock Doves can nest all year round and I found a freshly hatched egg on New Years day!! Our local Herons will be well though the nesting season by now. They are also communal breeders with large nests and typically lay their eggs in February. A heronry is quite a sight and there is an easily accessible one at the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust site at Lower Moor Farm in the Cotswold Water Park – so get along and have a look. Otters are often seen from the viewing hide.

While in Australia I was fortunate to visit Tasmania where there is necessarily a very different approach to wildlife conservation. The lack of any significant predators for millions of years means the local marsupials and birds are easily killed by cats, stoats, rats etc and on Bruny Island, like many parts of Tasmania, they have regular cat trapping training sessions!!! They also have a fascinating concept of Men’s Sheds….. something new to me!!

WildSherston won’t be happening this year as we have other things happening – hopefully a few talks and a joint project with the Bristol and Avon River Trust to improve our local rivers – watch this space..

Spring Bluetit 1