2017 Retrospective – The Rest!

I like to take the opportunity which the end of the year presents to look back over what I’ve seen and encountered. Some fall nicely into groups so do check out trees, wildflowers, butterflies, bees and invertebrates on their own posts!

The remainder are individual species or places which don’t form a group, but which are an important part of the year just passed. I hope you enjoy!

Easegill Bat Surveys

I was lucky to be invited along to a hibernation check in the caves in Easegill, Cumbria by a friend in the bat group there. We found a number of hibernating myotis and brown long-eared bats in the various cave systems, along with the tissue moths, herald moths and cave spiders which use the same habitats over winter. It was a great day out in some stunning scenery, and the opportunity to do a spot of caving whilst searching for wildlife was a real treat! You can read more, and watch a short compilation video, on this post from January 2017.

IMG_2677

Snowy walk along Stanage Edge

It takes around an hour and a half for us to get to some of the most stunning walks in the Peak District; a bit of a trek but always worth the visit especially if there’s snow to line the fields and de-mark the landscape with its series of hedges and stone walls. I love too how the hills in the far distance can give an illusion of mountains when they become snow-covered!

Smooth newt – Lissotriton vulgaris

I couldn’t resist this photograph when we were undertaking translocations at the beginning of the year. The legislative driver behind the translocation is the great crested newt, but we take the opportunity to move any species we encounter to a place of safety. With the juveniles, such as this little smooth newt, you need to keep a sharp eye to make sure you spot them all!

Common frog – Rana temporaria

Spring is one of the most rewarding times to have a garden pond – when the croaking begins and the surface is a mass of calling frogs. This was taken on a cool March day when the frogs had decided that spring had sprung! In this photo, I tried to capture the turbulence of the water which these amorous amphibians bring to a placid garden pond.

Slow worm – Anguis fragilis

We encountered this slow worm under a piece of corrugated metal in the woods near Woodhall Spa in the early summertime. There had been a rainshower which caught us out and the slow worms too had taken shelter. As the sun came out and the corrugated metal began to warm, the chances of catching one reduced significantly as they are anything but slow when they want to be! These reptiles are in fact legless lizards rather than snakes. Their habit of sheltering beneath these artificial refugia forms the basis of the reptile survey technique we use in ecological consultancy to find out whether reptiles are present on a particular site.

Dandelion seedhead before the full moon

The was taken at Muston Meadows at midnight when the moon was full and I couldn’t resist a walk. The dandelion seedheads glowed white against the dark grass but I was struggling to capture this in a photograph – then I thought this might make an interesting angle!

Dandelion head by the light of the moon

Shropshire Hills

We spent a few days over the May bank holiday in Ireland for a wedding, coming back via Anglesey and spending a night in Shropshire on our way back east. We walked over the Long Mynd at dusk, heading back towards our campsite, and this was the view as we began to descend.

Church of Saint Mary, Whitby

A weekend camping near Robin Hood’s Bay in the summer found us in Whitby before walking back along the coast. This is the taken at the Church of Saint Mary – set above the town and referenced in Dracula. I was struck with this view of the tombstones dark against the long meadow grasses and wished this was a more common sight – cemeteries and churchyards can be beautiful places full of life after death, if they’re managed sensitively for wildlife rather than manicured as bowling greens!

Curbar Edge, Derbyshire

We had a survey site which saw me out in the Peak District until 7pm one evening in August – after which I took the opportunity to see the heather and take a walk along Curbar Edge at sunset. This is the view out across from the Edge as the sun was sinking low on the horizon.

IMG_8965

Vancouver Island

The following are a few photographs from Vancouver Island this year – we encountered some spectacular wildlife and were amazed by the scenery. You can read more in my blog posts here, but below are a few highlights.

Anna’s Hummingbird in Victoria

American red squirrel at Long Beach, Tofino

Black squirrel in Stanley Park, Vancouver

Orca’s from Victoria

Grey heron reflection against the vending machines on the marina in Vancouver

Slow worm – Anguis fragilis

This tiny slow worm was one of this year’s juveniles – we were surveying a site in Somerset and this was one of seven young ones which appeared under a single survey mat where the sun warmed a bank at the edge of the site. When I picked it up, it wrapped itself around my finger but was so small that the nose and tail didn’t quite meet!

Sunrise on the day of Storm Ophelia

This photograph was taken of the countryside in Warwickshire on the day Storm Ophelia swept across the UK. At that time, I didn’t realise what was causing the effect but was just taken by the colours – it turned out that the day was to be filled with the pseudo-apocolyptic light brought on by the Sahara sands.

Cattle at Muston Meadows

Muston Meadows is an ancient haymeadow and a National Nature Reserve in Leicestershire. The site is managed with a late-summer hay cut and is grazed in the winter by cattle. I visited one frosty morning in December and they were delighted to have a visitor, charging over before stopping and checking me out. They then accompanied me all the way off the site so perhaps their role is security as well as site management!

IMG_9881

Icicles under Burbage Bridge

On a snowy cold day in December, I took a walk through the white from the Longshaw Estate in Derbyshire, through woodland and across tors and encountering these beautiful icicles hanging beneath the bridge which takes the road over Burbage Brook.

IMG_0108

Clematis seedhead – Clematis vitalba

These are also commonly known as old man’s beard and it’s easy to see why! I came across these seedheads in a hedgerow on a survey site in Bedfordshire where the wind had left them with this shape over time – I liked the feeling of motion which they held  even when still. It seemed appropriate for seeds which are waiting for their time to take to the wind and begin a new plant elsewhere in the landscape.

IMG_9503

Teasel seedheads – Dipsacus fullonum

On the same site as the clematis above, I also found an amazing stand of teasel seedheads. These striking plants are excellent for wildlife – in the summer they provide an abundance of nectar for pollinators such as bees and butterflies, and the winter seedheads will play host to flocks of goldfinches foraging for the seeds.

IMG_9472

Vancouver – Skunks, Squirrels and Stanley Park

After an amazing 10 days in the wilds – from the mountains of Squamish; the temperate rainforests and pacific beaches of Tofino; and the whales off Victoria – it felt a little strange to be heading to a city to finish. But Vancouver had plenty of wildlife delights to offer us.

One of the highlights of any trip to Vancouver has to be Stanley Park. Straight across the water from downtown, you can hike the 8km  around the seawall or explore the trails through woodlands, gardens and grassland in the centre. We were hoping to see sea otters and racoons – both of which are common sightings apparently – but we instead settled for the black squirrels which were to be found in abundance. We even found a guilt-free way to feed them – the ground was strewn with conkers, and although they were there for the taking, the squirrels seemed unable to resist one which had been picked up and rolled towards them!

img_4849
Black squirrel with a horse chestnut in Stanley Park, Vancouver.

These squirrels are black forms of the invasive eastern gray squirrels – Sciurus carolinensis – the same species which have largely deposed the reds from the UK. The population in Stanley Park is said to have originated from breeding pairs given as a gift from the Mayor of New York in 1909 and released into the Park.

IMG_4775.JPG
The progressing shades of autumn shown in the maple leaves in Stanley Park

As with any big city, the feral pigeons were to be found everywhere. These are easily vilified and despised by many city residents, but they are a perfect example of a species whose niche overlaps with the habitats we create for ourselves and which thus thrives alongside us. These birds originated from rock doves which were birds of sea cliffs and mountains – I always wonder whether they would be seen differently if it were puffins who had made the leap into the mainstream.

img_4690
A local offering help to a tourist…. or more likely angling for food!

Herons were abundant around the city – as you might expect for a seaside conurbation – and as in other urban environments, they seemed easily at ease with the bustle of passers by and barely registered your presence. We saw them motionless in the waters off Stanley Park; perched on boats in the harbour; or stalking the boardwalks of the marina.

img_4846
Grey heron stalking away from a coke machine on the marina in Vancouver

Cormorants were another species which made use of the urban infrastructure in close proximity to the sea to roost between feeding.

img_4683
A cormorant having a scratch – this one was perched on Granville Island Bridge

Amazingly, Vancouver is home to some rather impressive mammals such as the coyote. You can see recent sightings on an interactive map which shows their pawprints across the city.

Whilst we didn’t see a coyote, a nice surprise on our last night was a skunk which wandered out across the road and pottered along the sidewalk foraging for morsels. It was only after it had gone that I remembered the cartoon stereotypes from childhood and wondered if I’d been a little blase! This skunk had the swagger of an old hand who’d been around a few years and was fairly unconcerned with a little attention from passers by. We left it ambling off down a side street, disappearing to a white stripe in the darkness between the streetlights.

On our very last day in Canada, we went to see an exhibition of Emily Carr’s paintings before catching our flight home. I’d never come across her work before but her forest pieces were captivating. They are impressionistic without being abstract and give an overwhelming evocation of the life and flow of the BC forests which we had become familiar with over the two weeks. You can read more about the exhibition and find out more about here work here.

img_4901
Autumn leaves turning orange in the streets on our last day in Canada.

Victoria: Humpbacks to Hummingbirds

Our final stop on Vancouver Island itself was in Victoria – out on the eastern tip.​

​The highlight of our stay there was the opportunity to see orcas and humpback whales on a trip out into the straights between Victoria and the mountains of the Olympic National Park beyond. We went out on a zodiac and bounced across the waves – not the ideal transport for the seasick ecologist but I soon forgot when we found a pod of orcas moving gracefully through the open seas. The waters around here play host to resident orcas who are present all year round; but this pod was passing through; these are referred to as transient. Interestingly, the two groups have different feeding habits – the resident pods are largely salmon-eaters whilst transient pods tend to eat seals and other marine mammals.

img_4399
Members of a transient pod of orcas

After spending 20 minutes watching the orcas, we moved on to watch a pair of humpback whales which were perhaps even more impressive. I know that ‘whales are big’ is about the most basic fact you can learn about them, but I’d never seen one up close before to be able to appreciate just how big they are! They would break the surface to spout at regular intervals of 20-30 seconds and repeat this 5-6 times before arching their backs for a deep dive which results in their tail breaking the surface and following them down to the depths where they would hunt for 5 minutes before returning to the surface for air.

On the way back, we got some great views of the sealions on a small island just off the coast – the smell caught up with you soon afterwards!

img_4417
Steller sealions seen on the way back to harbour in Victoria

I had made some assumptions about the ethics of whale watching, in that it must be OK to be sanctioned, but after returning to dty land, I did a little research on the potential impacts upon these species. From the work I do in the UK with bats, I know that a species which relies upon echolocation for navigation and hunting will change their behaviour in response to noise – this is seen through avoidance behaviour or changes in hunting or foraging tactics. It turns out that there is evidence that whale watching can have a similar impact upon whales.

The sites I found which deal with this issue didn’t really give me a satisfactory final answer. Partly this is because these trips occur worldwide, with different regulatory regimes and some wildly different ideas of appropriate practise. And partly because the research simply isn’t there to assess the significance of an impact – the mechanism is understood and an impact demonstrated in some circumstances but the real impact of this growing industry may only become apparent in the long term.

The whale watching tours leaving from Victoria do follow a strict code of practise, and the various boats we saw watching the orcas observed these well. This would significantly reduce the impact in comparison to unregulated tours, but whether it is enough is still questionable. It was an amazing experience, but I would think twice before going out again. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society express concerns over trips from Vancouver Island to visit the resident population as, by definition, they are much more likely to suffer from the repeated visits from boats on a daily basis whereas the transient pods are likely to receive much more short-term disturbance.

img_4405
Humpback whales spouting off Victoria, BC with the mountains of Olympic Park in the background.

One unexpected reminder of home was walking through the streets at dusk and hearing the trees alive with song. We had watched starlings descending into the city as the day drew to a close and there, in the middle of Government Street amongst the lights and cars, was an evening roost! A free concert for all those who passed by.

The other creature I was really hoping to see was a hummingbird. Victoria gets a number of species through the summer, but their reliance on the seasonal resource of nectar means that most migrate for the winter to seek food. With such a fast wingbeat, their energy expenditure means that they can’t go too long without a sugary refill! We were too late for most, but one exception is Anna’s hummingbird – these have the northernmost year-round range of any hummingbird and are regularly counted in Christmas bird lists for the city. On the last day, I read a tip which suggested listening for the male singing from the top of a tree. I had been sitting a few moments listening to what I assumed was some sort of machinery in the street outside our apartment, before realising that this series of buzzes, chips and whistles was the bird I was hoping to see! Looking for all the world like a pair of outsized bumblebees, a pair were skittering around the top of a street-tree, settling briefly before buzzing onwards and out of sight.

img_4476
Anna’s Hummingbird settled in a street tree in Victoria, BC.

The final stop was a few days in Vancouver itself before heading back home – final post coming soon!

Squamish – Sea to Sky

We’ve just returned from an amazing couple of weeks spent on and around Vancouver Island in British Columbia and I’m still processing all the sights and experiences. Vancouver island is extensive, BC is huge and Canada is just colossal – I’m aware that we only scratched the smallest surface of this stunning destination but I thought I’d share below a few of the highlights from the trip. First stop, Squamish!

This town is nestled between the mountains and the sea and claims the title of ‘the Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada‘. I can see why… whilst my fingers itched to join the climbers scaling boulders and pitches all around, we had only a few days and there was adventure enough without taking to the vertical!

img_3666
A view of the Strawamus Chief, taken at sunset from Smoke Bluffs with Squamish town nestled below

The Strawamus Chief hangs above the town and we were lucky enough to have a perfect view of this iconic mountain from our window. At night you could watch the stars wheel overhead whilst mornings would see the peak revealed or otherwise concealed by rolling clouds which permitted glimpses in silhouette before billowing it back into obscurity.

img_3536
Starlapse over the Strawamus Chief

We walked the Chief trail which can take you up to all three consecutive peaks of this enticing prominence. Although time conspired against a view from the peak, the route up from Shannon Falls was spectacular – a combination of natural path and the built elements such as log-steps and boardwalks required to surmount the otherwise impassable. The forest which hugged the base and through which the path ascended was our first real view of the eerily beautiful bryophyte-hung conifers which we were to become familiar with over the next few weeks.

img_3610
Shannon Falls etching its way through the deep conifer forests which crowd around it

img_3795

A grey second day took us out along the Mamquam river which empties into the Sound at the foot of the town. The salmon runs were just beginning and we walked through the gravel banks amongst saplings and driftwood to watch their backs breaching the ripples as they spawned in the shallows.

These runs bring the eagles in the winter where thousands can be seen taking advantage of the fish – the record count in 1994 was 3,769! Sadly we were a little too early  as they peak in November.

img_3689
The humped back of a spawning male pink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuska) breaching the water in Mamquam river.

The salmon die after spawning and we saw many dead along the gravel banks, as well as failing and foundering in the river itself. This seemed a sad sight, but the runs of salmon from the oceans to the rivers, and their subsequent demise in freshwater, are a vital ecosystem function in transferring nutrients from one location to the other. The fish are caught or scavanged by a wide variety of species, from bears and eagles to mink, otter, gulls and vultures. This is transferred to the land through droppings, but also manually moved by bears in particular who will take the fish into the forest but often feed only on the most select parts, leaving the rest to be scavanged or simply to break down and decompose. One study in south-eastern Alaska found that up to 25% of the nitrogen in the foliage of trees was derived from spawning salmon which makes this miraculous migration a key component of the forest ecosystem.

img_3694
One of the many salmon carcasses which contribute to a vital upstream flow of nutrients

Our stay backed onto Smoke Bluffs and we took a couple of walks in the trails which weave through this forest. With huge boulders scattered amongst the conifers, and no shortage of mountain bikers willing to throw themselves down them, the trails were somewhat more challenging than the average stroll through the woods but all the more exciting for it. Whilst the evidence of others was apparent, we found ourselves alone; the sense of stillness and quiet in those woods was unlike everything I’ve ever experienced, shielded by high canopies above with all sounds softened by the sea of ferns which lapped the edges of the trail. Down low too were some beautiful lichen forests, emulating their larger neighbours in miniature.

img_3675
Lichens growing within a bed of moss upon the rocks in Smoke Bluff park

One our last day, before heading on to Horseshoe Bay to catch the ferry across to Nanaimo, we caught the Sea to Sky Gondola for a bird’s eye view of the landscape. Sea to Sky is the name of the route and the region, and it’s not hard to see why – the view from the 885m high peak out across Howe Sound shows what a stunning combination of the elements this place is!

img_3768
The view out over Howe Sound from the top of the Sea to Sky Gondola

At the summit station were creatures which I first thought to be butterflies, but on closer inspection realised were grasshoppers. I think these are Trimerotropis species and their sustained bouts of flight were unlike any I have seen our UK species do. These noisy ascents would last 10 seconds or more and had the air of a display about them – this is something which females of the genus are known to do when receptive to mating. Whilst conspicuous on the wing, they were perfectly camouflaged against the rocks, disappearing if you took your eye off them only to reappear precisely where you left them!

img_3801
Trimerotropis grasshopper on the rocks at the Sea to Sky summit

Next stop – Vancouver Island!

 

Bonfires and Wildlife

Where we see a bonfire, wildlife tends to see a home.

In the lead-up to November 5th, lots of people will be building bonfires. Many people have now got the message that hedgehogs may take up residence in these piles, but many other less obtrusive species will also be drawn to them such as reptiles, amphibians and small mammals.
Creating brash piles and log piles is one of the key ways we look to enhance a site for a range of native species. During the cold winter months, our native reptiles and amphibians often seek out places such as this to hibernate until spring, unfortunately just at the time when people are creating bonfires. Many species will see these wood piles as a potential home, unawares that they are crawling into a wicker man which will soon be put to the torch.

The only way you can be sure that you are not endangering the wider range of wildlife who may take up residence in a bonfire, not just the hedgehogs, is to make it just before you light it. This might mean piling the logs and wood nearby in preparation, and then moving them to build the bonfire on the 5th November.

 

Walking in the footsteps of Laurie Lee

Cider with Rosie has to be one of my favourite books, with its evocation of life in a wooded Gloucestershire valley at a crucial time when the world around the village was changing but where a more ‘traditional’ country life still persisted. I have wanted to visit the landscape ever since reading it, but it is always that little bit too far or not quite convenient – however a recent site visit took me back past Stroud and so opportunity knocked to call in at Slad – the village where the book is set.

img_6085_29736812282_o.jpg
Look carefully for tiny eyebrights in the grass – their white petals paint-splashed with yellow and purple

I parked up at Swift’s Hill – a SSSI which overlooks the valley and took a look around the grassland before setting off on a walk. The sward is clearly past its summer finery but many flowers still studded the hillside – small scabious, devil’s bit scabious, knapweeds ad eyebrights – frequented by these beautiful little Lasioglossum solitary bees with endearingly long antennae.

I then picked up the Laurie Lee Wildlife Way which takes you down the steep hillside and across open pasture field to an apple orchard where the mustard-green mistletoe nests amongst the branches.

img_6116_29767112741_o.jpg
The view across the valley to the village of Slad with mistletoe hanging from the apple trees in silouette

Next, the path takes you down across the river and into the village itself, before heading up the other side of the valley and into the darker woodlands of Frith Wood where the trees crowd over the pathway to form a shady passageway between the trunks. After crossing the road, and walking beneath some truly majestic beeches, the track winds up a steep wooded hillside and releases you into the meadow of Snows Farm – managed for wildlife and thronged with flowers such as yellow agrimony, blue harebell and scented wild basil and marjoram.

img_6135_29222589594_o.jpg
An old trackway with majestic beech trees lining the way

The way continues then through woodland and wildflower grassland, ending in Laurie Lee wood – a recent Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust aquisition – before ending back at the high open hillside of Swift Hill.

img_6257_29222475364_o.jpg
The view out across the valley with Russian Vine covering the foreground

One of my favourite aspects of the walk was the totems displaying Lee’s poem’s written black on perspex so that the view was visible behind the words. This means of display was an excellent way of placing the poems within the landscape which was so important in inspiring his work.

img_5179

After reading Cider with Rosie, I read ‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning’ where Laurie Lee talks about leaving this very village on foot and working in London before making his way to the continent and walking down to the south coast of Spain. The steep valleys and hillsides would be fine training for a long distance walk and I could certainly feel my flatland legs when I got to the end, but this was a magnificent way to spend an afternoon through some of the most quintissential Cotswolds scenery you could hope for. Woodruff and wood sorrel leaves covered the woodland floors, whilst the dead flowering stems promise bluebells in the springtime so I will certainly be back to explore this beautiful place again.

You can read more about the Laurie Lee WIldlife Way here. I didn’t have a copy of the route guide but found the walk quite straightforward to follow for the most part – however there are places where crossroads are not signed so it’s a good idea to pick up the leaflet or to take a map with you as backup!

img_6105_29736927302_o
The view across pasture fields to the orchards, with the wooded hillside rising to the right hand side

Tortoiseshell Wood

Tortoiseshell Wood is a wood with an associated wildlower meadow, just off the A1 around 10 miles to the south of Grantham. It is owned and managed by the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust – I spotted it on the Wildlife Trust’s Nature Finder App which I can’t recommend strongly enough as the best way to find great spots for wildlife wherever in the country you find yourself. How I have lived so close to this site for so long and not visited, I do not know!

The woodland boasts an impressive array of native woodland flora – you can find out more about the site including a list of species highlights, locations and access on the Wildlife Trust website here.

Native bluebells at Tortoiseshell Wood
Native bluebells at Tortoiseshell Wood

We parked on the verge of the road which runs to the south and walked up through the meadow – this was low mown and well before it’s peak although there were still impressive numbers of cowslip and early purple orchid to be seen. The hedgerows on the approach hint at what is to come; greater stitchwort flowers fleck the green backdrop of arum lily and dog’s mercury.

Greater stitchwort flourished in the hedgerows around, as well as within Tortoiseshell Wood itself
Greater stitchwort flourished in the hedgerows around, as well as within Tortoiseshell Wood itself

Once into the woodland, we followed the long loop path around the woodland. Our native bluebells – Hyacinthoides non-scripta – are coming into their peak at the beginning of May, just as the earlier species such as wood anemone are starting to go over.

A particularly pink patch of wood anemones
A particularly pink patch of wood anemones

Lesser celendine with its bright, glossy yellow flowers attracted a range of pollinators whilst the early purple orchids flourished unobtrusively against the bluebells.

Early purple orchids amongst the bluebells
Early purple orchids amongst the bluebells

We found patches of water avens, with their gently nodding heads like an apricot-orange snakeshead fritillary.

The gently nodding heads of water avons
The gently nodding heads of water avons

Yellow archangel – another ancient woodland specialist – was just coming into flower, as was the deep purple spikes of bugle.

The orange-flecked, chick-yellow flowers of yellow archangel
The orange-flecked, chick-yellow flowers of yellow archangel

Sweet woodruff formed banks along the southern boundary with little white pebbles of expectant flower buds, whilst dog’s mercury held its green seeds aloft, the unobtrusive flowers of March and April already gone over. Soft yellow primroses, mauve violets and white greater stitchwort nestled in amongst sedges, rushes and grasses to create a truly special experience. If your only experience of woodlands is the recreational conifer plantations of monoculture pines with brambles and bracken below, you’re in for a treat!

Violets flowering low within the ground flora
Violets flowering low within the ground flora

The dappled rides of the woodland were buzzing with insects including hoverflies, bumblebees and solitary bees, as well as the first damselfly I have spotted this year. The woodland canopy is as alive with birdsong as the woodland floor is with our native flora and just to cap off the visit, we heard a cuckoo calling from the hedgerow on the way back to the car.

IMG_8867Take a look at the Lincs Wildlife Trust website and make the time for a visit in the springtime – this is what our native woodlands should be like!

Bluebells and celendines lining the path at Tortoiseshell Wood - a Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust site
Bluebells and celendines lining the path at Tortoiseshell Wood – a Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust site