Saturday, 21 February 2015

Thinking outside the box

What does my job as an ecologist entail?  Well, I guess it can be summed up as ensuring the nature reserves I have responsibility for meet their objectives.  This would normally focus on the key habitat condition or species targets.  One other area of work that particularly interests me is the management of a reserve to enhance the enjoyment visitors will gain from it.  This may involve ‘tricks’ to pull birds or other wildlife close to viewpoints through habitat manipulation, or the provision of the viewpoint in the right location.  On most reserves, the default option for viewing is an observation hide with its standard rectangular ‘box’ shape and narrow shuttered viewing slots.  Surely it is about time we were thinking outside the box.

A year ago, I was fortunate to visit Varanger in northern Norway and meet Tormod Amundsen and Elin Taranger of Biotope, an architectural business with special expertise in birds and birding.  Their approach to birding architecture is new and inspiring.  To cut a long story short, Tormod and I decided to visit a number of sites in the UK in order to promote discussion about the way we view wildlife and how the design or form of a viewing structure should reflect its specific function.

In a hectic 10 days we toured from Norfolk to Somerset to Dorset to Yorkshire and to Teeside, discovering some great projects in development and hopefully inspiring a few more.  Meetings with birders at Minsmere, Poole Harbour and Flamborough Head were particularly enjoyable.  We even managed a few birds along the way; Bittern, Bearded Tits, Water Pipit, Black-necked Grebe, Great White Egrets, a million Starlings, Woodlarks, Spoonbills, Rough-legged Buzzard, Merlin, Pink-footed and Greenland White-fronted Goose.  Site by site, Tormod’s quadcopter and camera captured aerial images to help plan the projects.

So what is wrong with the standard ‘box’ hide?  Well, in some situations very little, but why should we expect one standard design meet all the needs of an increasingly sophisticated viewing audience?  We may need structures to welcome visitors to a reserve, some for close viewing, some for elevated viewing over a habitat or landscape, some custom-built photographic hides, some to get us out of the wind and of course some to reduce disturbance of wildlife, as after all, there is a clue in the name.  Do many hides reduce disturbance? Or do birds just get used to the presence of people in that particular situation?  Viewing screens are a particular bĂȘte-noire of mine. Most magnificently silhouette the observer against the sky from the bird’s eye view. Do you seriously think they don’t know you are there?

The habitat and the viewpoint should form a partnership, each complimenting the other.  This will often involve careful design and management of the habitat as well as carefully chosen viewpoint designs and locations that enable great views of wildlife and habitat. The form of the viewpoint must follow its function.  We need flexibility, diversity and innovation.  Thanks to Tormod, reserve staff and birders along the way, I hope we have generated a whole range of ideas; some of which may be coming to a reserve near you.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

The Golden Wellies 2014

Another year of the RSPB’s internal competition to find the best passage wader site, The Golden Wellies, has come to a conclusion.  There are both league and knockout elements to the competition to test good wetland management throughout the year.  Monthly counts of waders are recorded; they have to be ‘feet down’ on a managed fresh/brackish scrape or flood (not tidal).

The Premier League champions are, yet again, Frampton Marsh (photo top). Frampton recorded 33 species, just ahead of Minsmere (31), Deane Valley (29) and Dungeness (29).  The highlights of Frampton’s year included Lesser Yellowlegs, Dotterel, White-rumped Sandpiper (photo above), as well as 4 Pectoral Sandpipers, 6 Temminck’s Stints and both Red-necked and Grey Phalarope.  Frampton had an average monthly peak of 5,018 waders of 25.6 species, compared to Minsmere’s 481 waders of 23.4 species. Snettisham records the most waders monthly – an average peak of 33,000 birds, but only averaging 14 species a month.

Middleton Lakes had a storming year, topping The Championship with 29 species (including Pacific Golden Plover, Pec Sandp and Temminck’s Stint) and winning the ‘most improved site’ prize.   They are promoted to the Premier League along with Blacktoft (29) and Saltholme (28).  Langford Lowfields (22), Ynys-hir (20) and The Reef (18) were promoted from League One.  Middleton Lakes and Dearne (Old Moor) again demonstrate that well managed inland sites can compete with coastal sites in terms of wader diversity and numbers.

In all, 43 species of wader were recorded during the year, with a peak monthly count across all sites of 106,021 birds being recorded in September.  Monthly peak counts included 10,682 Black-tailed Godwits and 481 Whimbrel in April, 14 Black-winged Stilts in May, 288 Greenshank in July, 125 Curlew Sandpipers and 98 Little Stints in August, and 14 Pec Sands and 38 Jack Snipe in September.  

The Premier League and Championship finished like this:

The Premier League                                                The Championship
1.   Frampton Marsh    33 species                             1. Middleton Lakes           29
2.   Minsmere                31                                         2. Blacktoft                         29
3.   Dearne Valley        29                                          3. Saltholme                       28
4.   Dungeness              29                                         4. Arne                                27
5.   Old Hall Marshes   28                                         5. Leighton Moss                25
6.   Exe Estuary             27                                         6. Snettisham                     23
7.   Aire Valley              27                                         7. Mid-Yare                        22
8.   Burton Mere           27                                         8. Loch of Strathbeg           22
9.   Havergate               26                                         9. Campfield                       21
10. Rainham Marsh     26                                         10. Otmoor                          21
11. South Essex            25                                          11. Ham Wall                     20
12. Weymouth Res       24                                         12. Stour Estuary                18
13. Ouse Washes          24                                         13. Belfast Lough                15
14. Conwy                     22                                        14. Fen Drayton                  15
15. Ouse Fen                 22                                         15. Pulborough Brooks       14
16. Titchwell                 22

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Lee Valley

46 years have now passed since I first started recording birds in the Lee Valley; each year with its notebook neatly stacked on the bookshelf.  Over that time I have seen 265 bird species in my rather arbitrary valley recording area that stretches roughly from Ware down to Walthamstow.  In roughly a third of these years I have attempted the traditional New Year list, over the years noting between a feeble 76 and a magnificent 90 species. This years total was a very reasonable 89 species.  Whilst the number of species recorded over the years has kept steady or even increased, the number of birds certainly has not.

This winters mild conditions (so far) are evident by a real lack of wintering wildfowl. Tufted Duck, Pochard and Gadwall are all remarkable by their absence. Four Smew were one of the highlights of the day, but this is a far cry from the 40+ peaks of the 1980’s. Likewise the 4 Goosander noted of the dozen or so currently in the valley is way short of the flocks that approached 100 birds back when we had proper winters.  Despite the mild conditions, 6 or 7 wintering Bitterns are present, one of which revealed itself for the list.

Raven made it onto the list for the first time this year, with 4 birds at Amwell giving a characteristic tumbling display. Others becoming ‘regulars’ in recent years include Ring-necked Parakeet, Little Egret, Peregrine and Yellow-legged Gull.  Caspian Gull would have been added to the list if I had bothered to stay longer watching the gull roost.

Finches and buntings have been difficult to find in any numbers in recent years but this year it is great to see that the Lee Valley Park have retained large areas of stubbles and wild bird crops around Holyfield Farm.  These areas produced 250 Chaffinch, 50 Reed Buntings, 40 Linnets, a dozen Red-legged Partridge, hundreds of thrushes and a Stonechat.

From top to bottom, the highlights were as follows:
Amwell: 4 Raven, Yellow-legged Gull, Marsh Tit, Woodcock.
Rye Meads: Jack Snipe, Shelduck, Pintail, 5 Chiffchaff, 3 Cetti’s Warblers.
Holyfield: Stonechat, Pintail, 4 Goosander, Peregrine, Little Owl, 21 Egyptian Geese.
Cheshunt GP: Bittern, 4 Smew, 6 Water Rail.

Girling Reservoir: 7 Black-necked Grebe, Goldeneye.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Best of both worlds

One of the interesting aspects of a foreign trip is to examine how wildlife reserves are managed away from the UK.  As well as a tour of Cape May sites, we spent a couple of days visiting a dozen or more sites around Delaware Bay.  So how does US management compare with UK management?

Firstly, the area of protected land in the US is remarkable, but it is a big country.  There is not only an extensive system of Wildlife Refuges but also numerous major wetland restoration schemes. The Estuary Enhancement Scheme around the bay has aimed to restore functional tidal flow to marshes, resulting in huge areas of Cord-grass (Spartina) dominated saltmarsh.   Since the introduction of regular tidal flushing at the restored 243 ha Little Creek, the saline mudflats within the impoundment have been heavily used by shorebirds (especially Short-billed Dowitchers and sandpipers) in spring and autumn, especially at high tide when the estuary mudflats are unavailable to them.  The site has a monthly flooding regime during passage periods before deeper flooding in winter.  Grass shrimps are abundant and these and the resident fish form the food base for waterfowl and wading birds.  It is also now more heavily used by Snow Geese (up to 300,000) feeding on the abundant growth of Spartina.  Not many of these restored sites seem to have much ongoing management though, resulting in rapid vegetation growth and a resultant loss of open habitat.

The Wildlife Refuges at Bombay Hook and Forsythe have bunded fresh and brackish lagoons.  These sites are so large  (Bombay Hook is 6,500 ha) that the main access is via a car route, with walking trails and viewing platforms around the site. Maintaining the populations of migratory waterfowl is a major objective at the refuges.  The freshwater lagoons are drained down in spring, providing muddy areas for waders. During the summer, emergent plants grow across the lagoons, providing abundant food for waterbirds when the lagoons are re-flooded in the autumn. This practice of Moist Soil Management is widely used in the US.  In addition, 450 ha of the refuge are planted with crops such as winter wheat, buckwheat and grass/clover leys specifically to provide food for waterbirds. Some of these areas are flooded. We don’t do much of this in the UK.  Most of these sites have high viewing platforms.  They provide good, high, long distance viewing but rarely any close views of birds.

So how does the UK differ?  Well our smaller nature reserves receive more intensive management of the habitats (perhaps too much in some cases).  Where we restore or create new sites, habitat designs tend to maximise the value of a site, maybe again a reflection of the smaller areas we have to work with.  Our reserves also tend to get people closer to the wildlife, either through site design or the range of infrastructure provided. All of this can be seen in the design and management of a reserve such as Minsmere.

Richard Crossley’s vision is to bring these ideas together to create the best of both worlds.  After looking at the pending restoration of Pond Creek Marsh at Cape May, we met with Dave Golden, the Chief of the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife for some excellent discussion on possible designs.  Perhaps we might see the Pond Creek restoration take on a more UK site feel.  Likewise, perhaps we’ll see some US ideas popping up on this side of the pond.

Pics from top: Western Sandp, Little Creek, viewing platform, Forsythe, ducks, Minsmere.