Sunday, 24 February 2013

Extreme gulling

Above: Klaus, Yellow-leg, Caspian, mattress and Med - can you find them all?

The perfect end to the week; standing on a huge pile of rubbish in a stiff north-easterly with horizontal sleet.  I booked on to the Rainham Marsh gull ID special, lead by Klaus Malling Olsen, author of Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America.  After a thorough health and safety presentation by Veolia, who kindly allowed access to the tip, we were fully briefed on the dangers of wayward bulldozers and sniffing hydrogen sulphide.  Fully PPE-ed we made our way to our prepared viewpoint for a fine view over east London. It was cold.  However, a 2-hour watch provided warming views of 1st winter and 2nd winter Caspian Gulls, 2nd winter and adult Yellow-legged Gulls and 2 adult Mediterranean Gulls amongst the gully masses, mattresses and general trash.  A male Hen Harrier rounded off the watch nicely.

Back in the centre, Klaus took us through the finer points of gull identification, made Caspian’s easy (just think of up-lift bras), poo-poo-ed Azoreans and urged us to find Baltics.  Overall, an excellent afternoon organised and run by the Rainham staff and volunteers.  Thanks to you all.  Can you choose a warmer day next time.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Woodcock on the wane


A long wander through my local Wormley Woods coincided with the arrival of the latest BTO newsletter. Woodcock was the connecting factor.  I saw 2 Woodcock; one flushed by me and one by a dog.  Wormley Woods are very popular with dog walkers and cyclists. Even the remote corner I explored had an off-the-leash labrador tearing through it. I doubt I could find any significant area of the wood without a squidgy tyre print or a doggy do.  I later flicked through the BTO newsletter and settled on the feature on the forthcoming Woodcock survey before shifting to the BTO website.  Woodcock have declined significantly in recent decades. The old CBC recorded a 74% decline between 1968 and 1999.  A quick look at the recent Atlas results appear to show that Woodcock in Hertfordshire in particular have dropped away sharply between the last two atlases, with the Broxbourne Woods complex remaining a very small and tenuous toehold in the county.  No-one really knows why they are declining but, low and behold, recreational disturbance, the drying out of woodland, overgrazing by deer and declining woodland management have been put forward as possible causes.  All four could apply to Wormley Woods.  No doubt the Woodland Trust and Natural England are actively considering these issues at this very moment.

It is undoubtedly good that people get out and enjoy wildlife-rich areas, including nature reserves, as human indifference to wildlife is arguably its greatest threat.  Yet disturbance to the very wildlife that we are encouraging people to visit and enjoy is a real issue that can be subtle in its effects.   Research has shown that disturbance can affect settling rates and patterns of breeding birds, lower their productivity, and can result in reduced densities and delayed breeding.

Studies of Nightjar (formerly present in the local woods but now gone) have found a reduction in breeding densities on sites heavily used by people and dogs.  Increased nest failure due to daytime egg predation was found to be the cause, particularly where nests are close to paths.  The theory goes that as sitting birds are flushed from nests, the eggs are exposed to predation, with the main predator suspected to be crows.

The distribution of Woodlarks on Dorset heaths was also found to be significantly affected by the presence of people and dogs.  Within sites with recreational access, the probability of suitable habitat being colonized was lower in those areas with greater disturbance; this was reduced to below 50% at around eight disturbance events per hour. However, there was no effect of disturbance on daily nest survival rates.  Birds on sites with higher levels of disturbance fledged more chicks (per pair) owing to a strong density-dependent increase in reproductive output.  However, in the absence of disturbance, overall productivity would be 34% higher.

Further afield, a fascinating study on the island of Ouessant in France showed that visitors had a detrimental impact on the survival of juvenile Chough simply by scaring them away from feeding sites.  Annual survival rates of juveniles were found to be negatively correlated with the number of visitors during August.  The time spent foraging by juveniles was 50% less than expected during this peak tourist month.  Food for thought.  Or not, if it happens to be August.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

The Chase

A gloomy view of The Chase Local Nature Reserve in Dagenham, in more ways than one.  A colleague recently drew my attention to the current plight of The Chase and as I was in the area, I dropped in to refresh my memory of the site.  One of East London's largest nature reserves is under severe threat due to Government and Council cuts. Barking and Dagenham Council plans to cut its Ranger Service from 12 to just 5 staff, and to close the environmental education programme for 3000 primary school children taught annually at The Chase.  The reserve will be left unmanaged and the state of the art environmental centre moth-balled.  

The site is 260 ha of lakes, reedbeds, seasonal pools and flashes, acid grassland (horse-grazed and ungrazed), scrub and river with floodplain, notably with some Black Poplars.  Being slightly off from my regular beat, I have only visited the site a dozen or so times, but I briefly reminisced at the spots where Pine Bunting and Great Snipe were added to my London list.  The Chase is an excellent local birding patch but on the evidence of my visit is also very popular with local people for walking, dog-walking, angling etc. 

So at a time of growing realization of the value of green spaces for human health and increasing concerns over childrens ‘dis-connect’ with the natural world and wildlife, the Council decides to cut its service. 

Evidence shows that the proportion of children playing out in natural spaces has dropped by as much as 75 per cent over the last thirty to forty years. This is despite the proven positive effects that contact with the natural world has on children’s physical and mental health, personal and social development, and even academic achievements and life chances.   There is a petition here that can be signed to register opposition to these cuts and although rather late in the day there is surely no reason why these cuts can’t be reversed.  The Council has a meaningless sign at the site: ‘Barking and Dagenham’s building for the future’.   Clearly not a better future.