One good tern…

Keen to try out another top UK wildlife experience, we headed to Cemlyn Bay, a North Wales Wildlife Trust reserve, seeking out one of the UK’s largest nesting tern colonies. Wear a hat for terns, the Wildlife Trusts’ website suggests, as terns are very protective of their nests and will dive bomb suspected intruders. No hats were needed, however, as the terns had just finished a busy summer of raising chicks, and most of the birds had dispersed.

Even one tern is worth watching though, and we stood spellbound on the beach as the few terns that were left wheeled and turned effortlessly, their finely pointed wings slicing through the air. Every now and then they paused to hover before folding back their wings and plunging into the water.

There were still plenty of birds to see on the islands in the lagoon that lies behind the long shingle spit, including a few more terns, oyster catchers and ringed plovers. A heron stood like a statue in the shallow water whilst a little egret stalked through the water.   On the way round the circular walk that we explored, we saw a heron, possibly the same one, flying low over a field with long slow beats of its huge wings. The hedgerows were glowing with red campion, which seemed to grow more thickly along Anglesey lanes than anywhere else, intermingled with the softer purples of black knapweed and devilsbit scabious.

Another place to add to my list of reserves to revisit then, but next time I’ll come a little earlier in the summer.

Dynamic Druridge

sand dune 2 DrurridgeThe dunes of the Northumberland coast are like no others, driven by the strong sea winds into tall, narrow mounds of sand and constantly changing. “This could look different tomorrow” Steve Lowe, from Northumberland Wildlife Trust told me as we stood beside the dune system along the seven mile stretch of sand that forms Druridge Bay.

coal fragments make patterns in the water on the shore of Drurridge Bay
Coal fragments make patterns in the water where the waves lap the shores of Druridge Bay

Druridge Bay has been shaped by change – the elements, nature and human activity all play a part in creating this fascinating area. Humans have been driving that change for more than 5,000 years. Human footprints found in post-glacial deposits and other evidence, much of it uncovered in a recent archaeological project in which the Trust were partners, date human occupation from the Mesolithic period.

Over time, people changed the landscape from wilderness to farmland. Then the increasing need for coal led to the creation of an industrial landscape with underground and open cast mining. Ironically, this has eventually led to the creation of new wildlife habitat, formed by the subsidence of old mining areas, and restoration of open cast mines.

East Cheving ton nature reserve Northumberland Wildlife Trust
A flowery grass path leads into East Chevington Nature Reserve.
Wetland birds at East Chevington nature reserve.
Wetland birds at East Chevington nature reserve. The grass is full of foraging lapwings.

Steve was showing us round some of the five Northumberland Wildlife Trust reserves that form the core area of the Dynamic Druridge project, which aims to continue the theme of change, restoring, recreating and reconnecting habitats and improving people’s access to the wildlife of the area.

East Chevington nature reserve was restored to create wetland habitats after opencast mining and passed to the Trust in 2003. In their care it has become one of the best birdwatching sites in Northumberland, with huge numbers of birds using the lakes and especially in autumn and winter. A newly planted woodland area provides an ideal place to run Forest Schools, where children can develop confidence through outdoor activities.

Steve took us to the Hauxley reserve next, which is temporarily closed while Northumberland Wildlife Trust constructs the greenest building in the North East. As well as being very environmentally friendly, the amazing thing about this building is that it is being built by volunteers.

Hauxley Visitor Centre architects drawing
The concept design for the new visitor centre. Image by Brightblue Studios

The Trust secured a Heritage Lottery Fund grant to replace the previous visitor centre, which had been burnt down, with an iconic  sustainable building. The project employs a site manager and the Trust staff manage the project but most of the work is done by volunteers. There was a huge sense of camaraderie among the volunteers and the work that has already been achieved was inspiring.

part of the sustainable building at Huxley nature reserve
Duncan Hutt explains how the building is designed to minimise its impact on the environment. Green roofs provide wildlife habitat as well as insulation against heat and cold, and reduce the risk of surface water flooding around the building.

I donned a hard hat and high-vis so that I could go on site, and Ducan Hutt, Head of Estates management at the Trust, showed me around the building. It is designed to minimise its impact on the environment. No concrete is used in the construction, the walls are straw bales rendered with a lime based plaster, timber is obtained locally, much of it from Northumberland Wildlife Trust’s own reserves.

I’m immensely grateful to Steve and Duncan for taking the time to show me what the Dynamic Druridge project is achieving and am already looking forward to coming back to see the completed visitor centre and the rest of the reserves in this beautiful area.

Edited 25.8.16 to correct an embarrassing mis-spelling of Druridge.

Potteric Carr

Looking across Willow Marsh
Looking across Willow Marsh at Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s Potteric Carr nature reserve

The first thing that strikes you about Potteric Carr is the sheer scale of the site and the work that must have gone into creating the rich wildlife habitats there, as well as the amount of work still underway to extend and enhance the site. This 250 hectare nature reserve, on the outskirts of Doncaster, is a haven for wildlife. The wetland habitats attract over 70 species of breeding birds  as well as lots of other wildlife.

Andy Dalton, Potteric Carr Reserve Manager, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust
Andy Dalton, Potteric Carr Reserve Manager, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust

I met Andy Dalton, the Reserve Manager, and Nic Scothern, South Yorkshire Regional Manager, to learn more about how the reserve is managed and what Yorkshire Wildlife Trust have been doing there.

Ironically, Potteric Carr in its current form owes its existence in part to the history of industrial activity in the area. This low-lying part of the Humberhead Levels had been partially drained and was being used for farming and forestry. In the 19th century, the Great Northern Railway was laid across the site, and soon rail lines criss-crossed the site, isolating small areas of land. These could no longer be accessed for farming, and became wilder. In 1951, coal mining activity nearby caused subsidence, creating marshy areas and pools.

In 1968, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust took on 13 hectares of the site and worked with local volunteers to manage the area for nature conservation. Over time, the nature reserve has been extended and now includes a remarkable diversity of habitats including several different marshland areas.

Volunteers at Potteric Carr nature reserve
Nic explained how important volunteer activity has been in the creation of the nature reserve at Potteric Carr. I met two of the volunteers who are hard at work on a Tuesday work party, luckily they were happy to pause for a photo opportunity.

At Huxter Well Marsh, a huge area of reed bed has been created specifically to attract bittern, which used to overwinter on the reserve but never stayed to breed. It has been a resounding success, the first breeding bitterns were seen in 2014 and two juvenile birds have been seen this year, confirming that breeding has been successful.

While we were looking out from the Piper Marsh hide, I saw a golden brown bird with chocolate coloured markings rise up just above the reeds. It was so quick that I just got a glimpse of pointed wings and a head coming to a sharp point before it dropped back down into the reedbed. Andy confirmed that it was a bittern and said it was probably a juvenile, looking for food.

The reedbeds have also attracted other wildlife; marsh harriers started to nest in 2014 too, the first marsh harriers to breed in Yorkshire for 350 years. Unfortunately Geoff and I failed to spot one of these on our way round, although we were looking out for them after Andy had spotted one flying across a field as we were chatting in the cafe.

Coot and chick
Coot and chick

We didn’t mind though, there was so much to see as we wandered round the site, stopping off at various hides to look across the pools and marshland. Each marsh seemed to have a different character. Huxter Well Marsh is full of noise from the raucous black-headed gulls which nest on the islands. Others are havens of tranquility, little egrets silently stalking in the shallows whilst a heron stands motionless waiting for a hapless fish to swim into its reach. On Willow Marsh, we watched the coots busying back and forth, their half grown chicks piping shrilly as the ventured away from their parent.

Wet woodland
Carr woodland is dominated by alder, willow and birch, with shrubs such as dog-rose and hawthorn. The woodland is damp and shady with its of ferns and mosses, and is a very rich habitat for invertebrates, including many rare species.

Wet woodland in another important habitat on this reserve (hence the name: Carr is a type of wet woodland) and Yorkshire Wildlife Trust aims to restore more of this habitat, which should be good for willow tits. The Dearne Valley is a stronghold for this rapidly declining species.

The rich variety of habitats are the product of 48 years of hard work by the Trust and its volunteers, but it doesn’t stop here. The Trust is now working on the next 60 hectares of grassland restoration, and plans are afoot for a new visitor centre. I can’t wait to come back in a few years and see how it is all getting on.

Edited 29th June to correct names. Sorry, that will teach me to write better notes next time!

Oare Marshes

Kent Wildlife Trust’s Oare Marshes nature reserve on a sunny day © Bryony Chapman

On a wet and windy day recently, Vinny and I went to Kent Wildlife Trust’s Oare Marshes nature reserve, near Faversham, as part of his induction. We met up with Kevin Duvall, who looks after the reserve and several others in this part of Kent.

The reserve is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Protection Area, because of its importance for populations of wading birds and wildfowl. This coastal grazing marsh reserve is made up of wet grassland drained by a network of ditches, reedbed, scrub, shallow lakes, saltmarsh  and the mudflats where Faversham Creek meets the Swale estuary.

Looking out over Faversham Creek and the Swale at Kent Wildlife Trust's Oare Marshes nature reserve
Looking out over Faversham Creek and the Swale at Kent Wildlife Trust’s Oare Marshes nature reserve

Kevin has been working at the Trust for 8 years now, taking on the management of Oare Marshes after having been involved in the site for many years as a volunteer. He also looks after another seven reserves, some of them wetland, some woodland and others chalk grassland sites. Like all of our wardens, he needs to have a wide range of expertise in managing different kinds of habitats. He also has an engineering background, which has been invaluable in dealing with the complexities of managing the hydrology of the site. At Oare Marshes, it’s all about the water levels: judging just how much water to retain in the spring to avoid the reserve drying out over a hot summer. This is essential for the wildlife of the damp grassland and ditches.

This is achieved through a system of sluices, I was intrigued to see that the sluices had bristle strips to allow elvers to negotiate the sluice and swim upstream. The sluice boards are set to maintain the correct water level throughout the year – any additional water flows over the top and out through the ditch system.

It is also important to maintain the right balance of scrub and grassland, each of which provides habitat for different species. Here, as on many of our reserves, we use grazing animals to help manage the grassland. Konik ponies keep the grass under control so that it is suitable for ground-nesting birds in the spring, when the ponies are moved to other sites. They also munch through scrub regrowth that would otherwise have to be cut back by hand. They are hardy, well adapted to the damp conditions and can be out all year round, even in snow. Kevin said that when it does snow, he battles the elements to bring hay to provide extra food for the ponies, but they often ignore this in favour of digging down beneath that snow to get to the grass and roots.  Unlike some hardy pony breeds, our Koniks are very easy going for the most part, but they do have one little quirk. They like to chew the tops of the gates, even when they have been protected with chicken wire, which means regular repair jobs for the reserve team. And you are strongly advised not to park your car next to their field gate, as you are quite likely to come back to find pony teeth marks in the paintwork!

Konik ponies graze the reserve, keeping the vegetation in check so that less needs to be cut back by hand.
Konik ponies graze the reserve, keeping the vegetation in check so that less needs to be cut back by hand.

Of course the Koniks do a great job, but what came across really clearly was how much Kevin values his team of volunteers. Time and time again he would point out work that had been completed with their help. There are a team of around 9 regular volunteers, who carry out regular maintenance on this and other reserves in the area and help on projects such as creating a series of ponds across several sites at Wilderness Down, one of the Trusts Living Landscape areas. Without the help of the volunteers it would have been impossible to get all the ponds finished on time, in fact without our dedicated volunteers we wouldn’t be able to anywhere near as much management on reserves, or all sorts of other work. If you want to be thoroughly appreciated check out our volunteering page and find out more.

Shoveler duck
The Shoveler gets its name from its broad beak, which it uses to sieve from the water various small crustaceans, insect larvae, molluscs, worms, plankton and bits of plant. Image © Kevin Duvall

Oare Marshes is one of the best places in Kent for bird-watching. I’m still very much an amateur, and was very keen to get some advice on how to tell apart all those long legged birds silhouetted against the shoreline. Kevin is clearly an expert, with quality equipment – he brought his telescope, and the difference between the image through that and my binoculars was amazing.

Kevin Duvall at Oare Marshes crop bright
Proper kit – Kevin sets up the telescope to show us the birds on the shore

It is fantastic to walk  around a reserve by the warden, you get to see things that you would probably never spot otherwise. At one point, Kevin stopped near a line of pylons and started scouring the tops through his ‘scope.  Try as I might, I couldn’t see anything special about them but suddenly Kevin said “got it” and there, right on the top spar of the pylon was a peregrine, invisible from the ground and just a blob in my binoculars, but through the scope its striking grey and white markings and even its black moustache were clear.

 

Redshank © Tom Marshall
Redshank are found on the reserve all year round, nesting in the damp grassland. They use their long bills to probe in the mud for worms, crustaceans and small molluscs. Image © Tom Marshall

As we approached the mudflats, which from a distance seem barren, I  realised there were birds all over it, feeding on the molluscs and worms hidden in the mud, and these are in turn feeding on microscopic life which is sustained by the nutrients washed down by the river carrying sediment and organic waste from the landscape upstream. This time of year, migrants like the black-tailed godwits are passing through, and hundreds of wildfowl are arriving to spend the winter here. We got plenty of bird identification practice in, spotting things like shellduck, shovelers, pintail and teal in the estuary, and curlew, lapwing, redshank, dunlin, black-tailed godwits and avocets feeding on the mudflats.

There is lots of other exciting wildlife to discover at Oare – we looked out across the water to a distant sandbank, and again, without the powerful ‘scope, wouldn’t have been able to tell that the dark shapes outlined against the horizon were actually a dozen or so basking seals.

It was fantastic to get out of the office for a few hours and see some of the wildlife that we are working so hard to protect. At the end of our wander around the reserve, I felt refreshed and relaxed, all traces of stress blown away, demonstrating the truth of the advice that contact with nature is good for you. Try it yourself – if you live in Kent there is a Kent Wildlife Trust nature reserve within 10 miles of your home; if you have never been to one, go explore, and let me know if it worked!

 

Ten to One

Once or twice a week, at 10 to 1 pm, the conservation team (or those of us who are around at the time) climb the precipitous stairs up to the Sunley Solar. This is the informal meeting space at the top of the farmhouse offices, named after a generous benefactor of the Trust. The ten to ones, as they have come to be known, are a chance to share knowledge and help us keep up to speed with the latest in conservation, or simply to ask if anyone knows the answer to question that has cropped up in our work that day.

meeting in the Sunley Solar
Half of the Conservation team gather in the former attic of the 17th century farmhouse that now houses our offices, so that Chloe can update us on the latest in wetland conservation.

For example, last week, Chloe fed back to us about a conference she had just been to, Wetland Futures, which was focused on those areas where the rivers meet the sea. These wetland areas can look desolate, but the marshes, mudflats and saltmarshes that characterise them are some of our most wildlife rich areas. We are looking at what we can do to improve wetland biodiversity, it is an important area of our work at the moment; Chloe brought back lots of information about projects that are happening around the country, and ideas for things that would work in Kent.

Marine species like the sea walnut can be carried in ballast water and in the absence of local predators, multiply and form extensive populations. The sea walnuts then consume zooplankton, including fish eggs and larvae, reducing the food available to native species, and having a knock-on effect along the food chain and a devastating impact on local fisheries. Image from: http://ocean.si.edu/ocean-photos/sea-walnut-mnemiopsis-leidyi
Marine species like the sea walnut can be carried in ballast water and in the absence of local predators, multiply and form extensive populations. The sea walnuts then consume zooplankton, including fish eggs and larvae, reducing the food available to native species, and having a knock-on effect along the food chain and a devastating impact on local fisheries. Image from: http://ocean.si.edu/ocean-photos/sea-walnut-mnemiopsis-leidyi

She also provided an update on the problem of invasive non-native species, which are particularly difficult to deal with in these environments. It is vital to track the spread of invasive species, to understand how they colonise areas and where we should target work. Anyone can help to do this, simply by recording species that they come across and sending this information to the various recording schemes which record the spread of invasive species. There is even an app for that to make it really easy to do -download the That’s Invasive app.

Ivy bees have only recently been found in Britain, and are spreading across the South.
Ivy bees were first found in Britain in 2001. Since then, they have spread throughout the south of England. If you see a very stripy looking bee, with a furry thorax, on ivy in the autumn, it is almost certainly an ivy bee. They are mining bees, which means they create a nest in the ground. Although they are solitary bees, each creating a single nest, you can get large aggregations of bees nesting in one area.

Sometimes, at ten to one, we go for a wander instead. It gets us away from our screens, provides some low level exercise, gives us time to catch up with what other people are up to, and we usually learn something new as well, or at least I do. It’s the good kind of multitasking. Last week, on a lunchtime walk with some of the conservation team, we were practicing wild walks, Greg was spotting spiders, Paul found a badger latrine and I learned about ivy bees.