March, 2012

Wildlife

Wildlife
We're about more than just birds (though obviously we like them a lot).

Notes on nature

We love nature... from every little bug on a blade of grass to birds, butterflies, otters and oaks!
  • This weekend... get eggcited!

    It's not long until Easter and eggs are everywhere. Tasty as chocolate ones may be, I say that the real things are much more interesting. Here are my Top Ten Eggciting Eggsamples.

    Tiny cliff ledges are dangerous places for eggs, but safe from ground predators. One of the reasons that guillemots lay quite long, pointy eggs is that they roll around in a tight circle and are less likely to fall off the edge!

    Eggs come in a huge variety of colours - different, subtle shades of blue, brown, buff, white, and spotted, streaked and speckled... but Cetti's warblers lay bright reddish-brown eggs!

    Once their chicks have hatched, many female birds will eat the empty eggshells. It's a great way of recouping some of the important reserves of calcium that are put into the shells. But if the shells aren't eaten, the parents will usually dispose of them somewhere away from the nest so they don't attract attention.

    The grey partridge lays the largest clutches of eggs in the UK - up to 16!

    Magpies, jays and grey squirrels are much maligned for taking the contents of nests. But did you know that great spotted woodpeckers also eat eggs and chicks? They can easily chisel their way into nestboxes, but you can buy metal plates to fit around the entrance hole.

    Many birds will wait until they've laid a full clutch of eggs before starting to incubate them properly. Others don't wait, and get started as soon as the first one's laid. For example, a barn owl might lay up to six eggs, with a day or so inbetween each one.
    The eggs take 32 days to hatch and the oldest chick might be 12 days older than the youngest. That may mean that if times are hard, the smallest, weakest owlets may make a meal for their older siblings (as seen on Springwatch a few years ago). It sounds grim, but it's one way of making sure that at least some survive.

    To avoid... putting all their eggs in one basket (sorry), some birds will lay some of their eggs in the nests of others. It's called 'egg dumping'.

    Leaving your nest unattended can be a recipe for disaster if a hungry predator spots it, so grebes camouflage their eggs with a bit of waterweed when taking a break from incubation.

    At this time of year, we get questions from people who've found eggs buried in plant pots and flowerbeds. There aren't any birds in the UK which bury their eggs (though the Australian malleefowl does, making a mound of rotting vegetation and sand to incubate the eggs). However, foxes do hide eggs as an easy meal to come back for later.

    The goldcrest is (along with its close cousin, the firecrest) our smallest bird, weighing in at a mighty 5g. It's hard to imagine, but its tiny eggs measure 14 x 10mm and weigh only 0.8 g each - that's less than a paperclip!

    Hope you have a great Easter...

  • This weekend...use your ears

    When you next get a second, stick your head out the nearest window (or door!) and listen. If you live near a busy road it might take you a moment to adjust your ears, but listen carefully and you'll hear the beginnings of spring.

    At the moment, it's mainly an incoherent chatter and twitter of birds warming their voices up and trying out new song, but it's a sure sign that spring is just around the corner.

    Whose song is it anyway?

    While the trees are still bare, it's pretty easy to spot which bird is singing what. However, as we head further into the year and trees get greener, soon the only way to tell what birds are around is to listen to them.

    While it can take a bit of practise to recognise some birdsong, there is one bird who makes the whole identification process very easy - the chiffchaff.

    Chiffchaff singing from willow tree.

    You see, this small brown warbler just can't help but sing it's name. Perched in a tree, it merrily goes 'chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff'.

    Although some chiffchaffs live in the UK all year round, now they are being joined by birds from the Mediterranean, so it's a great time to listen out for them.

    Happy weekend all.

  • This weekend...watch hares boxing

    If March is famous for just one thing, it’s brown hares boxing. So, this weekend, why not try to see it for yourself? Now is a great time to see them as the vegetation and crops on the open farmland they call home have yet to grow too high.

    Why do they box?

    Although it looks fun, it’s all part of, well, spring! As the females come into season, the males take more and more interest, following them closely Brown hares boxing. Phot by Nic Relton.until ready to mate. This is known as ‘mate guarding’, it’s essentially the male making sure a rival doesn’t steal his girl away. But if he gets too close, fur will fly as she gives him a punch Mike Tyson would be proud of! The larger male hopefully gets the message and bides his time.

    Timid?

    Personally I love hares. Back in the midst’s of time, or so it seems, I spent a week volunteering out on Havergate Island, one our nature reserves.

    Suffolk’s only island is slap bang in the middle of the River Ore, sandwiched between the giant shingle spit of Orford Ness and the mainland. As well as being associated with the return of the avocet in 1947, it’s also home to a very friendly population of hares. Usually they’re timid, but the ones on Havergate can be anything but! I loved the week I spent in their fascinating company.

    But before my time as a volunteer, I visited the island with my Dad. After looking through the scope at a distant bird (I can’t remember what it was!), we looked down at our feet, where a hare stared wide-eyed back. It had quietly sneaked up on us, but speedily shot off once we turned our focus towards it!

    Where to look

    In short, Havergate is a great place to see hares. Although you can only get there by pre-booking a place on the boat. But there’s plenty of other reserves you may see these boxing matches taking place, including Saltholme which has set up viewpoints throughout March. It’s not just reserves though, keep an eye out on open farmland and downland and you stand a great chance of spotting this enigmatic mammal performing one of the UK’s best signs of spring.

    Have a great weekend, good luck and don’t forget to let us know if you see any mad March hares.