Get an exclusive insight into our work in the south east region and meet some of the people who make it possible.
It’s been a great year for rare birds breeding on the south coast of England. Black-winged stilts, great crested grebes, little egrets – and now bee eaters, the vibrant-coloured red-headed little birds more commonly found in much warmer southern climes, have produced young for the first time on the Isle of Wight.
The chicks are expected to fledge this week.
Birders and nature lovers celebrate, but the sudden arrival of exotic visitors has a darker side. The birds are arriving and choosing to breed in the UK because of the rise in temperatures linked to climate change.
The other issue is that egg thieves still target the nests of these birds and they are vulnerable if not guarded. To suddenly have to put a 24-hour watch in place from a standing start as the RSPB had to do at the reserves at Cliffe Pools in Kent, Medmerry in West Sussex and now on the Isle of Wight with the National Trust, is a strenuous feat of organisation.
RSPB staff at the two reserves in Kent and West Sussex organised a 24-hour rota of people to keep an eye on the black-winged stilts’ eggs, many of whom were volunteers. The watch took place between May 29 and June 13 when the eggs hatched.
Thirty-four volunteers watched the stilts’ nest for 260 hours at Medmerry.
Volunteer co-ordinator Roger Johnson from Worthing made sure all the volunteers were registered, checked and had their hours logged, and took part in several of the watches himself.
“I saw the third stilt hatch, which was very lucky,” he said. “The stilts weren’t very close but fortunately we had good telescopes. We saw the third stilt emerge all wet from the contents of the egg, on the afternoon of Saturday about 3pm. The other stilts had come out of their eggs the day before.”
“The volunteers were wonderful. Quite frankly we couldn’t have done it without them,” he added.
On the Isle of Wight at the end of July, bee eaters made a nest in a burrow on the National Trust’s Wydcombe Estate. The NT warden spotted the nest after becoming suspicious that the birds were still around at a time of year they would usually have left the island.
The RSPB were alerted and the two organisations started putting protection in place. “People were already coming to look for the birds, word had already got out,” said Keith Ballard, site manager at the RSPB’s Brading Marshes reserve.
Technology plays a major part in birding these days and the NT called a halt to any social media about the bee eaters straight away. “It was good to act so promptly,” said Keith. Within three hours the nest was protected with an electric fence, and the 24 hour guard was in place shortly afterwards.
Working together, the NT and the RSPB set up a rota of volunteers, supported by staff from each organisation. The Isle of Wight Ornithological Group also put forward volunteers to help. “We needed to have people who we could trust, and the RSPB volunteers are all registered and already checked,” Keith said.
Initially the rota was made up of 20 people, with back-up from staff, and help with night watches from a member of the RSPB investigations team trained in bird protection.
“The following Monday we saw that visits to the nest by the adult birds had increased from 4 or five a day to four or five visits an hour, so we realised that the chicks had hatched,” Keith said.
“At that point it was good to publicise in order to reduce threat from egg thieves.. However, there is a risk of disturbance to the nest and there is still the risk of a vindictive attack.”
The 24 hour watch is still maintained to prevent deliberate or unintentional disturbance , and there are parking and crowd issues to manage now. A suitable viewing area where people will not disturb the breeding activities has been created for visitors, which offers good photographic opportunities.
“Numbers of volunteers have probably doubled or trebled by now, “Keith said. “They have been helping with parking and showing members of public the birds.”
Police on the Isle of Wight visited the site and mapped the area after some suspicious vehicles were spotted. They set up Operation Bee Eater so that any incidents could be followed up.
“This was very helpful because if you are reporting any problems you can be put straight through to someone who knows the background, and you do not need to waste valuable time explaining,” said Keith.
“It’s been a really good example of partnership working, and lots of people have got to see the adult birds, which is great.”
“Everyone who comes to see the birds is really excited,” said Stephanie Peault, the RSPB’s People Engagement Officer who has been showing the public the bee eaters. “They are unusual birds and very colourful, and no-one is expecting to see a bird like that on the island.”
Stephanie comes from La Rochelle in western France, and she is familiar with the species because she lives next door to a colony of bee eaters which at its height contained 100 pairs. “I have been really impressed with the local people on the Isle of Wight who are really keen to make sure the birds stay and come back in subsequent years.”
More than 2,000 people have come to see the bee eaters, and more than 95 per cent of them have had a good view, said Stephanie. “We did not expect so many people to come but we are very glad that they have, and they go away very happy,” she said.
Picture by Jo Morris
More than 60 people attended the Arun and Rother Connections project’s Water Matters event at Pulborough Town Hall on Saturday. The aim of the day was to share ideas about water issues locally, and look at finding solutions.
Experts were on hand to give advice about dealing with flooding, drought and finding sites for projects such as rain gardens.
Dr Andy Tilbrook, steering group vice chair of the Pulborough Parish Neighbourhood Plan, used an interactive map to engage visitors and to find out about the issues in their area. He is part of the team working on the Pulborough neighbourhood plan, who hope to put measures in place to address local water issues.
The flow of information certainly went both ways: Pulborough Angling Club, who had a stall at Water Matters, suggested tree-planting on the banks of the Rother to replace lost trees, identified a candidate for the ARC oral history project and volunteered to help deliver ARC’s angling taster sessions.
Another visitor to Water Matters who regularly walks along the river bank suggested improvements to the trail between Pulborough village and the RSPB’s nature reserve at Pulborough Brooks, which are being investigated.
A possible new site for a rain garden, which is basically a shallow depression planted with vegetation for storing rain water, was identified in Pulborough. Dusty Gedge, president of the European Federation of Green Roof Associations, said: “This has been an ideal opportunity to get people involved in making water work in their communities. We are really pleased to have found a possible site for the third of the four rain gardens which will be funded through the ARC project.
“If people can see at first hand what benefits collaborations like this can bring, they pass that message on to other communities and the whole thing snowballs.”
Dusty is pictured below looking for a suitable rain garden site
Rachel Carless, ARC project manager said: “I enjoyed talking to a wide range of people on the day and several areas of potential collaboration with community members and local groups were identified. I am particularly excited about exploring the potential to build the 3rd ARC rain garden at a site we identified in the heart of Pulborough village. The project should benefit from some really excellent local knowledge and expertise.”
Water Matters was run by Communities Matter on behalf of the Arun and Rother Connections (ARC) project. The £2.2m project has received £1.1m from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and its partners are the RSPB, Natural England, the Arun and Rother Rivers Trust, West Sussex County Council, the Environment Agency, the Sussex Wildlife Trust, and the Sussex Downs National Park Authority.
RSPB volunteer Dave Braddock has been checking out the butterfly species at the RSPB’s Hazeley Heath reserve in Hampshire. The clue is in the name – Hazeley is part of the RSPB’s heathland restoration programme and one of its many virtues is that it is a haven for rare butterfly species.
Hazeley is a new reserve – only a year old, so finding out all about the habitats and the wildlife is crucial. So far Dave has found 25 different species of butterfly, including rare purple emperors (female pictured right) and grayling, silver studded blues (pictured below right) and the silver washed fritillary.
The Big Butterfly Count begins tomorrow – the ask is for people to go to a wood or a park or a garden and spot butterflies or moths for 15 minutes, and then record what they find at http://www.bigbutt
erflycount.org/about . If you go to https://www.bigbutterflycount.org/species you can identify any if you are not sure what they are.
The count lasts u
the end of August – so there is plenty of time to get out and find out what butterflies and moths are flying
about near you, just waiting to be discovered. Changes in butterfly numbers provide an invaluable guide to the state of the environment.
Here Dave writes about his experience of volunteering and why you should not judge heathland solely by its appearance:
When I had more time on my hands this year I decided to do more volunteering for RSPB. I flicked through the volunteering website and was amazed on the opportunities available to me across the country and beyond. I wanted something more local so after a few pages I came upon several vacancies at the new Hazeley Heath reserve in Hampshire. After an interview with Izzy and Emily I found myself signed up for several volunteering roles. That evening I was telling a friend about what I had done and he replied."Why do you want to volunteer at a heathland for? They are boring!!!"
The next day saw me arriving at Hazeley nice and early and I was confronted with the view below. Perhaps my friend was right. Heathlands are boring!!!. I could have been on an estuary this morning watching and working with the waders instead of being at this barren, lifeless place. Was it too late to change my mind?
The problem with heathland restoration, it is not a pretty sight. You are in for the long haul and need to be patient. I said to myself
volunteering is volunteering. I have a blank canvas here so it can only get better - I will give it a month.
Four months on and I'm still here, loving every minute of it. The last photograph shows the difference. Spring and summer arrived and I am surrounded by a sea of pink. Birds, plants and insects are everywhere. I do work parties with a great bunch, supported and supervised by Isabel Morgan, the warden. Butterfly and reptile surveys are turning up something exciting each visit. Each day I'm there I find something new to look at and photograph. Around every corner there is something waiting for me to discover. I'm the proverbial kid in the sweet shop.
I hope to share with you over the weeks the secrets that I have found.
You can never plan long-term but I'm starting to get really attached to the place, so in years to come when I hang up my volunteering boots I can look back and say Heathlands are boring!!!
Pictures by Dave Braddock