Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Happy New Year!

It's been a busy but exciting last two months for me. In November, I moved to Bristol to start my career in wildlife film-making as an apprentice at the BBC Natural History Unit. As such I haven't had as much time to get out in the wild recently, but to finish the year I thought I'd take a look back at my top 5 wildlife highlights of 2014:

5. Badgers:



Earlier in the year I had a scare when my local Badger Sett was flooded, hit hard by the UK's 'wettest winter on record'. The Badger's were fine though, and went on to have three cubs in the Spring.

4. Exploring My Local Patch



Becoming a local reporter this year has given me a great excuse to get visiting my amazing local nature reserves. Sydlings Copse (pictured above) is one of my favourites, home to Butterflies,Badgers, Foxes, Deer, Reptiles and a fantastic display of Bluebells in April.

3. Going Cuckoo for Cuckoos

One local Cuckoo provided the soundtrack to my Spring when it arrived in the field behind my house earlier this year. One day I managed to follow it's call back to the source, and caught a brief glimpse of this incredible bird.

2. Sumatran Orangutans



In July my friends and I went travelling for a month in South East Asia. Of course, I couldn't visit that part of the world without seeing one the most enigmatic apes on the planet, so I stopped off in Sumatra to search for Orangutans. Whilst the experience wasn't quite how I envisioned it, it was incredible nonetheless.

1. New Discoveries




My biggest highlight of the year has by far been discovering species on my local patch that I'd never seen before. As well as Waxwings and Short-Eared Owls, I found a Common Lizard in a log pile a few months ago- the first reptile I've ever seen in the UK!

2014 has been an amazing year. Here's hoping for an even more wild 2015!

Happy New Year!

Friday, 31 October 2014

Wood Ants

I've become obsessed with wood ants recently, after finding nest after nest in my local forest. They're fascinating, and so easy to watch (so long as you don't mind getting bitten!). A 'keystone species', colonies can number up to 400,000 individuals and several queens, with workers responsible for tending to the young, foraging for food and maintaining the nests. To capture the busy worker ants in action, I set up a time-lapse camera outside a local nest. 



Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Oxfordshire Goes Wild!

Recently I visited Oxfordshire Goes Wild, an event aimed at getting kids into nature which is now making its rounds in local communities, this year in Bicester. Run by Wild Oxfordshire- which coordinates a partnership of many organisations from across the county- the event saw 22 contributors come together at a local primary school to show children how amazing the wildlife around them really is.

And with such a diverse range of groups in attendance, there was plenty for kids to see and do. The Oxfordshire Reptile and Amphibian Group brought Newts, Lizards, Slow-worms and Grass snakes for children to get up close and personal with. For many this was the first time they had ever seen a British reptile before (it would've been my first time too, had I not spotted a Common Lizard a few weeks ago), and excited gasps offered much deserved appreciation to these often overlooked animals. But the lack of one iconic species echoed its worrying decline in the area-Adders are confirmed at just one site in the whole of Oxfordshire, and the Reptile and Amphibian Group are appealing for sightings through their website.
The kids got the chance to hold live frogs (Photo courtesy of Cynth Napper)
There were plenty of other live animals on show too. David Endacott from the Oxfordshire Bat Group showed off his 26 years of research into the world's only flying mammals with the help of a young Soprano Pipistrelle, who kindly demonstrated her echolocation to the kids. Meanwhile a dozen Brown-lipped Banded Snails were used to show natural selection in action. The yellow and black shelled snails are perfectly camouflaged against long grass, where they can't be seen and picked off by hungry Song Thrushes, but put against brown leaves and they become painfully obvious. 

Aside from seeing the animals, there were loads of other activities for the kids to get stuck in to. Pond dipping and bug hunting were particular favourites among the kids, but what stood out for me was dissecting owl pellets. Unlike faeces, pellets are composed of all the parts of its prey which an owl can't digest, such as fur and bones. Studying the remains allows us to build an incredibly accurate picture of an individual's habits and lifestyle. For example, my owl turned out to be a proficient hunter- he'd caught four rodents in one night, all of them wood mice. 
Making 'bee hotels' was another great activity (Photo courtesy of Cynth Napper)
All in all Oxfordshire Goes Wild was a fantastic success. It was great to see kids interacting with nature in a hands on, meaningful way. It's only through events like these, where children are actively engaged in the natural world, that we can inspire future generations of naturalists. If you live in Oxfordshire and would like to get involved in local conservation, please visit Wild Oxfordshire's website for details. 

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Home

Having returned from my travels, I've relished getting to know my local patch again over the last month. The vast range of species and habitats I'm fortunate enough to have around me are just as diverse and interesting as anything I encountered in Asia, and as the last month has proven, there's always more to see at home.

Inspired by the British Dragonfly Society's stand at the Rutland Birdfair in August, my friend and I decided to do a survey of a pond in a nearby forest. On the face of it the pond doesn't look anything special, and I really wasn't sure if we'd find much. But when you look closer, you see that the pond is actually a hotspot for wildlife.
This woodland pond proved to be a hotspot for wildlife
After a few minutes of sitting quietly by the pond side, a number of bird species began to appear. Coal Tits sat singing in the trees on the little island in the pond, and a Jay flew past with an acorn in its mouth. I even caught my very first glimpse of a tree creeper climbing up the trunk of a browning silver birch. There were plenty of signs that other animals visit the pond often too. Deer, Badger and Fox tracks lay in the soft mud around the pond, and a nearby tree bore scratch marks from the antlers of a Fallow Buck which had been frayed on it in preparation for the rut.
Bucks 'fray' the velvet off their newly formed antlers in the autumn, leaving characteristic scratch marks on trees
But it's once you delve under the water that things get really interesting. The pond is full of aquatic life, and with every sweep of the net we would bring up all sorts of pond-dwelling species. Water Boatman were caught by the dozen, and tapping gently on the surface of the water with a blade of grass revealed to us the 'Jaws-like' ferocity with which they attack their prey. Dragonfly and Alderfly larvae also frequently cropped up in our catch, and we were even lucky enough to salvage the empty case of a Dragonfly Nymph, which perhaps once belonged to one of the Southern Hawkers buzzing around us. 
We think this empty Dragonfly nymph case once belonged to a Southern Hawker
Elsewhere in the forest lies a pile of old logs, which we decided would be a good place to look for woodland insects. To my surprise and delight however, we found a species that I had never seen in the UK before: A Common Lizard. In total three sat basking in the sun on the logs, too cold yet to even seize the flies crawling over their scaly bodies. This provided the perfect opportunity to get a close up look at them, and once they had warmed up they skulked back into the log pile. 
My first ever UK reptile sighting- A Common Lizard
Meanwhile the Badgers seem to be doing well. They've been making the most of the damper weather in the past few weeks, coming out earlier in the evening to search for worms in the soft soil. I've been hearing a Barn Owl screeching in the fields behind my house every night too, so this month I hope to complete my mission from February and finally film a Barn Owl hunting. 
The Badgers have been out looking for worms during the day
This month also sees the start of the Fallow Deer rut, another spectacle I hope to film over the course of the season. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

World Orangutan Day

Today is World Orangutan Day! I've become completely obsessed with these astonishing apes since my recent visit to Sumatra, and today highlights the pressing need to conserve them before its too late. Found in just two locations on the planet (Borneo and Sumatra), Orangutans face a number of threats-most notably habitat loss and hunting-and often end up on 'The World's Most 25 Endangered Primates List' as a result. If you'd like to help out Orangutans, type 'Orangutan Conservation' into your browser and take a look at the fantastic organisations from across the globe which need you to carry on their vital work. 

To celebrate World Orangutan Day, I've edited together some footage of my trek through Gunung Leuser National Park, featuring one very special baby at the end: 


Travelling around South-East Asia was an amazing experience, but its great to be back home. Now I can't wait to get back outside and reacquainted with the extraordinary wildlife that lives on my very own doorstep!

Sunday, 3 August 2014

The Man of the Forest

Last week I arrived in the Indonesian village of Bukit Lawang, located on the outskirts of the famous Gunung Leuser National Park, to go in search of Pongo abelii- the Sumatran Orangutan. The experience was one that I shall never forget, but also one that I didn't expect...

With a name that literally translates as 'Forest Man' in bahasa, it was clear to us from the moment we arrived in the picturesque village just how revered Orangutans are by the local people. And with good reason. Ecotourism brings thousands of pounds into the small community every year, providing locals with a number of jobs ranging from shop keepers and restaurateurs to trekking guides and 'jungle taxi' drivers (people who transport tourists up and down the rainforest rivers in traditional rubber rafts). One local hotel manager even admitted to me, as we were sitting surrounded by Orangutan paintings in his candlelit lobby, that if the tourists ever stopped coming to Bukit Lawang they would be forced to exploit the Rainforest for money. This was a hard truth to hear, but a fair one.

Having arrived in total darkness the night before, on our first morning in Lawang I was greeted by one of the most amazing sights I have ever seen. Our balcony overlooked a beautiful section of jungle, and a river which ran straight past our hotel and meandered into the National Park. On the other side of the riverbank a South-east Asian Monitor Lizard sat basking in the sun, which I watched for a good half an hour until it had warmed itself up enough to slither back into the rainforest. Shortly after a troop of Long-tailed Macaques marched past-all together  more wild looking than their urban counterparts- whilst a dozen Pacific swallows darted over the river, scooping up insects for their breakfast.

This was the first of two days we had in Bukit Lawang, our budget too overstretched to fit in anymore. We'd already used up a lot of money on our flights to Sumatra and our accomodation, and to pay for a two day trek would break us completely. With this in mind we decided to save some money and spend our first day at the old Orangutan rehab centre's feeding platform, assured by our guidebook that a sighting was garunteed.

How wrong we were. Once upon a time the rehab centre in Gunung Leuser rescued injured and captive Orangutans from across Northern Sumatra. Once rehabilitated they would be 'soft released' back into the wild (much in the way an injured Chaffinch might be back home) by letting them go free but still putting out food for them everyday so that they could come back for extra support if needed. Eventually, however, the funding dried up and animals stopped being taken there, and now no Orangutans have been spotted at the platform in over two months. "They're wild now", a local guide told me, "they don't need to come back anymore".

That was good to hear, but now the pressure was really on. We had one day left to see Orangutans and our hotel manager was quick to point out that there was no garuntee of finding them on our trek either. I went to sleep that night with snippets from Attenborough documentaries playing over in my mind. I'd have given anything to find them. If only we had a few more days!

The next morning we set off, with two guides and a honeymooning German couple as our companions. "We have about six hours to find them", one guide announced, "then it will be time to head back". Two hours in and all we had seen were Long-tailed Macaques. Usually I could watch them for hours, but we had a mission and were running out of time fast. The constant smoking breaks weren't helping my nerves either- our guides didn't like using insect spray which can be poisonous to the animals, so stopped to ward off mosquitoes with cigarette smoke regularly instead.

As we got deeper into the jungle we started seeing more. A group of Thomas' Leaf Monkeys, endemic to northern Sumatra, sat grooming themselves in nearby trees. A White-handed Gibbon swung over our heads as we ate a lunch of jungle fruits. We tiptoed through the undergrowth to get  to quiet viewpoints of the river, from which we spotted Hornbills soaring between the trees and Pea Fowl displaying down below us. The guides' enthusiasm for everything around us- the trees, the monkeys, the termite nests- was infectious. Then a phone rang.

Now we were being rushed through the forest, no longer walking at the quiet, careful pace we had gotten used to. I asked the guide what was happening; "My friend says that there are Orangutans up ahead, but we must hurry". Soon I could here excited voices resonating through the valley, and as we reached the top of the hill a crowd of some 40 tourists were staring up into the trees.

There it was above us. A solitary, ginger haze sitting high up in the canopy, obscured by leaves. Luckily my camera had a good zoom. This was a female, and she sat and ate for a while before swinging to another tree, the crowd following her every move. Finally we had found the (wo)man of the forest.

Yet this wasn't how I had expected it to be. Perhaps I'd watched too many Attenborough documentaries, but surrounded by a noisy crowd of onlookers was a far cry from the quiet, personal experience I had hoped for. Children squealed excitedly. Others, trying to tempt the beautiful ape down with bananas, screamed as they were jumped on by hungry macaques. It may as well have been a zoo!

Suddenly a shout rang out, and everybody rushed down the hill to where a mother and her baby had come down for some food. Within seconds of taking the banana she was mobbed by a rabble of camera snapping tourists, some of whom were well within the forbidden touching distance. I stood back, and filmed her for a while with my zoom. "Was she released by the rehab centre?" I asked our guide, puzzled at how tame she seemed to be.
"It's hard to tell", he said, "the Orangutans are so used to seeing people that they don't hide from us".

For a moment I was enraged. Was this the price of ecotourism? Was this baby destined to grow up surrounded by the flashing of cameras, the screaming of children and contaminated bananas from mossie spray covered tourists? At home I'm used to creeping up, noiselessly, on animals from downwind, and doing every thing that I can to ensure I don't disturb whatever it is I'm trying to film. This went against every bone in my body, but surely I was just as much to blame?

But then I looked around properly. The tourists were smiling, the guides were happy, and the Orangutans were completely unphased. When she got bored the mother and her baby simply climbed back into the canopy and moved away. And the crowd- whose money is protecting not just the Orangutans in the National Park but also the Tigers, Elephants and Rhinos that live there as well- left too. Sure it could be run better. Crowds should be smaller, noise should be kept to a minimum and the rules on not feeding or approaching the animals should be strictly enforced. But just as our hotel manager had told us: as long as the tourists keep coming, these animals will be protected for many more years to come.



Monday, 21 July 2014

South-East Asian Adventure

Selamat pagi from South-East Asia!

Last week my friends and I flew out to Malaysia, and I've already been amazed by the sheer abundance and variety of the wildlife we've seen so far.

On arriving in Kuala Lumpur, we first visited the Batu Caves. These are an ancient system of caves in which Hindu temples were built in 1891. The rocky crags provide perfect nest sites for hundreds of Pigeons and Oriental Turtle Doves, whilst the thousands of litter dropping tourists that visit the temples each year provide the local Long-Tailed Macaques with a constant food source.

However, it wasn't the monkeys or the birds we were here to see-it was the bats! Run by tourism Malaysia, the 'Dark Caves' system in Batu was formerly fully open to the public, which caused significant damage to the delicate cave ecosystem.Since the 70s however, conservation group 'Dark Caves Malaysia' has taken over the running of the caves, and now keep them mostly closed off, allowing only a few guided tours in each  week to educate people on the plight of the caves.

We signed up to one of these tours, and were not dissapointed by what we saw. The first thing that hits you is the sound of the fruit bats. As their name suggests, fruit bats feed on tropical fruits and so have not needed to develop echolocation in order to find and catch their food. Instead they emit audible chirps which resonate through the caves like bird call through an aviary. There are insectiverous bats here too, and as you look up you can just about see them flitting past gaps in the cave's roof. Be sure to keep your mouth closed though- one unlucky onlooker on our tour had a fresh pile of guano (bat poo) land on his tongue as he gazed up in awe at the bats flying overhead!

In the absence of sunlight to sustain plant life, it's the guano which fuels this ecosystem. Cockroaches and many other species of insect feed on the nutritious droppings which the bats produce,and devour any carcasses which fall to the ground. This provides prey for other animals living in the cave, such as long-legged centipedes, several types of rodent and an extremely rare type of trapdoor spider. The rodents in turn provide food for various types of snake, including Pit Vipers and Cave Racers. We were lucky enough to see just a handful of these creatures, but they still provided us with a powerful insight into life inside a cave.

Today we're off to Sumatra, in search of the mysterious man of the forest. Stay tuned....

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Goslings

Every year at my school in Oxfordshire, a pair of Canada Geese have goslings on an island on the site. Off limits to students, the moated island provides the isolation and shelter these birds need to nest. Usually they have a clutch of about 5-6 in May, of which only 3-4 survive. The rest are picked off by predators such as Foxes or Herons which often visit the island, despite the best efforts of their aggressive parents to protect them. 

This year, however, the geese had eight little goslings, and incredibly all eight have so far survived! I went to film them back in May (see below) when they were still only about a week and a half old. At this age they are tiny and look very un-goose-like, completely covered in yellow downy feathers and lacking the characteristic white chinstraps of their parents.



We know that one male has been coming for several years now. A few years ago this male got his leg caught in a fishing hook while he was raising his young on the moat. The school caretakers came to his rescue, catching him and removing the hook which has left a distinguishable scar on his right leg. We've no way of knowing if the female is the same one which has been visiting for years, but Canada Geese mate for life so the chances are that she is. Canada Geese are long living (the oldest recorded was 27 years old!), so the hope is that this pair will keep coming back to our moat for many more years to come.  


Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Myxomatosis Outbreak

An outbreak of Myxomatosis in the Village has been keeping me busy recently. After being introduced to the UK in the early 1950s to control the Rabbit population, Myxomatosis rapidly decimated Rabbit numbers by 99% in its first two years here.

This particularly nasty insect borne disease causes a Rabbit's head to swell, skin tumours to form around its eyes and conjunctivitis to develop,all of which results in blindness (making it easy for dogs to catch them). It also weakens the Rabbit's immune system, allowing secondary infections (often Pneumonia) to develop, which will eventually kill the the infected animal. Unfortunately (despite increased genetic resistance among Rabbit populations) the disease still remains present across much of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire.

My suspicions were first raised on a recent walk to the local forest, during which my brother and I found nine rotting Rabbit carcasses stretched out across a 200m long footpath. I'm told the stench was horrible (thankfully hay-fever had blocked up my nose!), as not even the Crows would touch these obviously diseased corpses, instead leaving them to decompose. 

Sure enough we eventually found a poorly Rabbit, which was just sitting in the middle of the footpath. Its eyes had sealed over and it seemed completely oblivious to us standing around it, nor did it seem to care when we picked it up and carried it on the long journey home. This animal was just too far gone, and unfortunately had to be euthanised by the vets at Tiggywinkles. 
This unfortunate Rabbit had to be euthanised. Note its swollen eyes and the loss of hair around its face- both symptoms of Myxomatosis. 
Contrary to popular opinion, however, Myxomatosis is not necessarily the death sentence it might seem. Some individuals develop immunity after suffering from a bout of "Myxy", and if caught early enough (before secondary infections have a chance to take hold) can completely recover in the sterile and controlled conditions of a wildlife hospital. This was the case with a Rabbit I was called to last year, which was actually found at my School. It was a young Rabbit, and although its eyes hadn't properly sealed over yet, it was easy to tell that the animal was suffering from Myxomatosis. Thankfully, because we got the Rabbit to hospital before the disease got too bad, it eventually made a full recovery. 

Having said this, not much can be done about treating the disease in the wild. So all we can do for now is monitor the local population for sick Rabbits, and get any we find into Tiggywinkles as quickly as possible.

My top tips for rescuing rabbits:

1. Always support both ends of the Rabbit
Rabbits have weak spines which are easily damaged during their frantic kicking as they try to escape you. So support both ends of the Rabbit to make sure it can't kick.

2. Keep handling to a minimum
Rabbits get very stressed when handled, which will quickly kill them if prolonged for any length of time. So put the Rabbit into a dark, quiet container as soon as you have captured it

3. Block off all escape routes before you attempt a rescue
Even a blind Rabbit can run fast, and there is nothing more annoying than searching through bushes for an animal that has darted into the nearest vegetation to hide. So always block off any escape routes before you attempt a rescue. A finely-meshed net may also come in handy in capturing a Rabbit casualty.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Caught on Camera

I'm in the middle of my A2 exams at the moment, so getting out looking for nature is more difficult than it has ever been. I still try to do what I can in my revision breaks though, such as setting up an 'Apple Cam' outside a mouse burrow in my garden:


I was hoping to have more species come to the apple to feed, but that Crow at the end had other ideas!

I keep my phone on me wherever I go, so I've still managed to take pictures of the interesting things I've seen while I've been out and about over the past couple of weeks: 


A Wasp nest, complete with larvae

A smashed open egg- not sure of the species, but 7 were spread out along the footpath

These Canada Geese are nesting at my school. This year they've had 8 chicks!

A Poplar Hawk-moth, spotted on my way into an exam

The scientific name of this Froghopper is Cercopis vulnerata, meaning 'Wounded Froghopper'- it's helped me with my Latin revision!

A Cinnabar Moth


I have a Biology exam tomorrow. Thankfully most of it's about ecology, but I'll still be glad to get back outside when it's all over!

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Close Encounters of the Bird Kind (Continued)

An injured Pigeon I rescued earlier today reminded me of another common incident I'm called to, which I forgot to mention in my last blog: birds which have flown into windows.The BTO estimates that over 100 million birds crash into windows every year in the UK, fooled by open stretches of sky reflected off shiny panes of glass. While some birds are killed on impact most survive, although impact injuries such as fractured wings or broken beaks are common. Even if there are no obvious external injuries, the impact to the bird's head may have caused it a number of nasty internal injuries such as a brain hemorrhage or retinal detachment. So always get a known victim of 'windows-strike' to a wildlife hospital or sympathetic vet to be checked out as soon as possible!

This Pigeon fractured it's left wing earlier today, after crashing into someone's window

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Close Encounters of the Bird Kind

The other day I rescued a Pigeon at work. It had fallen into a gap between two fences and become stuck, but I manged to dig a small hole under the fence and pulled the poor bird out through that. A quick check revealed that the bird was completely unscathed, and it flew off happily after I let it go. Some people said I should have left to die, labeling it a 'rat of the sky' and saying that because Pigeons are so populous they don't deserve to live. I disagreed, however. After all, the Pigeon would have been fine if a human hadn't put up a fence for it to fall down, so wasn't it my duty to help it out? Either way, the incident got me thinking about some of the other brushes I've had with our feathered friends over the past few years.
Like all birds which have been caught by a cat, this young Blackbird needed an antibiotic injection at the hospital
Roughly 90% of all the casualties I'm called out to every year are birds. Of that 90%, probably half are healthy fledglings that people have found in their gardens unable to fly. These birds are usually best left alone, as in most cases the parents will still be close by and will continue to feed their chick until it's old enough to fend for itself. It takes patience to be sure though, and watching the bird from a window for an hour or two is the only way to confirm that the young bird is not orphaned. If no parents come down to the bird within a few hours, it is safe to assume that they have perished, and the fledgling will need to go to a wildlife hospital to be fed by hand until it grows up. 

Sometimes, in gardens regularly visited by cats, it may be too dangerous to leave any fledglings out in the open, even if their parents are coming down to them. This was the case recently, when someone called me about three Robin chicks they had discovered in their garage. After a quick search I couldn't find any nest to put the birds back into, so I left them in a sheltered cage outside, with bars through which the parents could continue to feed them. This way the little Robins were protected from predators, but could still be raised by their parents in their natural environment, and released after a few days when they were old enough.
Raised in a cage- these Robin fledglings were fed by their parents, but still protected from local cats
The other 50% of birds I deal with are injured, usually after being caught by a cat or dog. Many of them have already suffered heavy blood loss by the time I reach them, and go into a condition called Hypovolemic Shock as a result. I've lost too many birds to shock, which is usually exacerbated by the stress of being picked up and handled- they start panting before going floppy in my hand and dying, all within a matter of seconds. 

This began to change when I invested in a heat lamp last summer. Shortly after, I was called to a Pigeon in the village that had been caught by a dog. At first the bird didn't seem too badly affected by the attack- it had shallow puncture wounds to its sides which had stopped bleeding, but otherwise seemed lively enough. Soon, however, it began displaying those soul-destroying signs of shock, although this time I was prepared. I quickly placed the bird under the heat lamp (warmth moves blood out of the centre of the body), and left it in a dark, quiet room to minimise its stress. Uncertain as to whether it would live, I was greatly surprised (and relived!) to find that the Pigeon had perked up completely after half an hour under the lamp, and it survived the journey to the wildlife hospital where its wounds could be treated. My heat lamp hasn't failed me since.
Sitting under a heat lamp in the dark for half an hour saved this Pigeon's life!
My top tips for rescuing birds:

1. Purchase an Aviary Net
Even when injured, a bird will still try its hardest to escape you. Birds with broken wings can still run, and birds with broken legs can still fly, so sometimes catching the casualty in a net can be the only way to secure it quickly and safely. Aviary nets have padded rims which ensure no further damage is caused to the bird whilst you're trying to capture it. But if caught without one, a light towel or jumper thrown over a casualty which can't fly should work just as well.

2. Always hold a bird so that it can't open its wings
The safest way to hold a bird is in a way which prevents its shoulders from moving and its wings from opening. This gives you more control over the animal and helps keep it calm. A small bird (like a Robin or Dunnock) can be held in one hand with its back against your palm and its head poking out between your index and middle fingers. A larger bird (such as a Pigeon or a Dove) needs to be held with two hands against its back-one for each wing. Never put any pressure on the bird's abdomen as this will stop it breathing.

3. Keep handling to a minimum
Birds are particularly susceptible to stress which (as I mentioned earlier) can worsen the shock that any injured animal will already be experiencing. To minimise any stress you may cause to the bird, only handle a casualty when catching or assessing it. If the bird starts to pant, immediately put it into a warm, dark and quiet cage for at least 30 minutes. This will help slow down its metabolism and counter the effects of shock.

4. Transport the casualty in a suitable container
An injured bird should be transported to a wildlife hospital or vet in a container (a box, cage, etc.) that restricts their movement and stops them tumbling about on the journey. This is especially important for birds with broken wings, as being able to flap them about in a spacious cage may cause further damage. If you only have a large container, wrapping the bird's body loosely in a small towel will also suffice. Obviously don't put a casualty into anything that is too small. I was once called out to a Collared Dove which had been stuffed into a hamster carrier. Needless to say, it died. 

5. Never release an entangled bird
Birds can often get caught in the netting and rubbish that we leave lying around. As with all animals which find themselves caught up in such ligatures, entangled birds should never be cut free. Instead, take the bird to a wildlife hospital with any bindings still attached to it. Otherwise a condition called pressure necrosis can develop, which will eventually result in death.  

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Cuckoo for Cuckoos!

I've only ever seen a Cuckoo twice before. The first time was a couple of years ago. I'd got up at sunrise to go out looking for foxes, but got sidetracked by the melodious call of a Cuckoo close by. I looked up in the trees and saw the beautiful bird calling; a spectacle which I managed to get some grainy footage of in the dim early morning light.

The second time was on Saturday. Once again I was alerted to the presence of the bird by its call, which I followed through the field. After much jumping over brambles and being stung by nettles, I caught up with the Cuckoo which was darting about between the shrubs.  



The zoom on my camera enabled me to get some clear shots from a distance, but when I tried to get closer it spotted me and flew off. Even as I type I can hear the bird calling outside, so I think I'll set up my hide in the field later and see if I can get some close ups of this increasingly rare animal!

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Raiders of the Lost Hearts

A few weeks ago I bought a new bird feeding station, to replace my rusty, old, broken one. It's good. It's much sturdier than my last one, and comes with moisture caps to stop bird poo seeping into the pole and running down my hand every time I take it out of the ground. But for the first time in my six years of feeding the local garden birds, my feeders have started being raided by a mystery bandit.
My feeding station, as it looks before a raid
It all started about a week ago, when I found my peanut feeder on the floor. At first I thought it might have been the wind, but a trail of peanuts leading from the bottom of the feeding station to the feeder's final resting place in the middle of the garden suggested that it had been knocked off and dragged across the ground by an animal.

A squirrel seemed the obvious suspect, and after knocking off my peanut, fat ball and sunflower heart feeders and devouring their contents consistently over the next few days, I decided to set up my trail camera to capture its amazing acrobatic abilities in action. However, what it recorded only deepened the mystery further.
My feeding station, after a raid
 I positioned the camera not far from the feeder at about 11 PM last night. When I got up at 5.30 AM this morning to have a look, the peanut and fat ball feeders were both on the floor again. The mystery bandit must have filled his stomach this time, because after gobbling down all four fat balls it could only manage to eat about half of the peanuts I put out. 
The fat balls were completely consumed
A pile of feathers also lay on the ground, as if a bird (most likely a dove) had been killed there. These definitely weren't there the night before, and whether or not they have anything to do with the animal raiding my feeders I don't know, but they have certainly added more confusion to what was otherwise a seemingly straightforward matter.  
This pile of feathers was found close to the feeding station. A clue to the identity of the culprit? Maybe.
But here's the most interesting part. When I looked at what the camera had recorded, thinking that I'd finally caught the thief red-handed, I found nothing. File 42 shows me adjusting the camera last night. File 43 shows me collecting the camera this morning.  Whatever it was that raided my feeders last night, it must have done so so quickly that it didn't even trigger the camera's motion sensor.  

So what could it be? The animal only seems to strike at night , it must be extremely agile to scale my feeding station and lift off the feeders, and it does this so quickly that it doesn't trip the motion sensor which makes my trail cam start recording. A Squirrel? A Rat? A Ghost?

The scene of the crime!
One thing's for sure though- it's costing me a fortune in bird seed!

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Sydlings Copse

The other day my friend James and I visited my favourite local nature reserve: Sydlings Copse in Oxfordshire. Managed by BBOWT, the reserve is home to a vast range of species, sporting habitats as diverse as woodland, heathland and fen. 

As you enter the reserve you are greeted by an ancient broadleaved forest, carpeted at this time of year in a purple blanket of fragrant bluebells. A Nuthatch sang above us, and we watched for a minute as it flitted about from Oak to Ash. 
The Bluebells at Sydlings Copse
Take a left and you come into an area of limestone grassland. A team of BBOWT volunteers were hard at work here as we walked by, cutting back shrubs and getting rid of invasive weeds to reduce competition for the hundreds of native plant species which have been recorded there. Brimstones, Peacocks and Speckled Woods were among the Butterflies we encountered, basking on the ground in the afternoon sun.
A Speckled Wood Butterfly, basking in the sun.
Then it's back into woodland, and down a few makeshift steps into the valley which runs right the way through the reserve. Sparrowhawks are known to nest here, and well trodden paths through the wild garlic lead to the characteristically 'D' shaped entrance holes of the local Badgers' sett. A stream flows between the age-old trees, and we spotted Fallow and Muntjac tracks along its banks.
We found all sorts of tracks along the banks of this stream, which runs right through the reserve
Across the bridge you come into an area of heathland, which I'm told is a rarity in Oxfordshire. Gorse covers most of this land, attracting legions of Orange-tip Butterflies as well as birds such as Linnets.  We opted to take the wildlife trail through the heathland, which runs alongside a fen that lies at the bottom of the valley.

A Buzzard soared over us as we walked, carried high by the thermals. Meanwhile high-pitched squeaking noises were emanating from the dead bracken around us. At first we thought it might have been coming from a bird's nest, hidden in the undergrowth, but upon closer inspection we realised that we had stumbled into a war zone. Common Shrews are notoriously territorial and the ones around our feet had taken an obvious dislike to each other, erupting into fierce shouting matches and frantically chasing each other through the bracken. 
A section of  the 'Wildlife Trail', at Sydlings Copse nature reserve in Oxfordshire
Further along the path we came across some more interesting animal behaviour. Using a rock as an anvil, a Song Thrush was smashing open snail shells to get to the tasty creature hiding inside. Song Thrushes are the only birds which perform this remarkable act of avian ingenuity, often when the ground is too hard to reach earthworms, as it has been here these past few days. 
A 'Snail anvil'- used by Song Thrushes to smash open Snail shells against
All in all it was a great day out at a fantastic nature reserve. If you have a spare hour or two this Easter weekend, I would strongly urge you to get outside exploring your local patch. 

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Birdsong and Bluebells

This morning I took advantage of the good weather, and went for a walk in my local woods. Whilst it was nice to hear an array of birds singing all around me, and catch the occasional glimpse of a Muntjac darting through the trees, it's the plants which are really starting to steal the show as Spring tightens its grip.

The trees are getting green again- a welcome relief from the dull, bare branches that have haunted our fields and forests since Autumn. Bluebells are starting to blossom as well. There aren't many that have done so here yet, but those that have are already attracting a range of insects to their beautiful blue-violet petals. Wood Sorrel, Lesser Celandine, Primrose, Dog-Violet, Stitchwort, Cowslip and Speedwell are among the other plants I came across on my amble through the woods earlier.  

Insects are already visiting newly blossomed bluebells

I've had some 'hare-raising' encounters over the past month, with testosterone levels in the male bucks going through the roof. Thankfully the Hares have stopped paying much attention to me and started paying a lot more attention to each other, allowing me to get some decent shots of them charging across the airfield and bashing each other on the head in very short scrapes. Unfortunately I still haven't seen any prolonged bouts of boxing yet, but I might still get the chance as their mad behaviour continues over the next couple of weeks. 

When I get some time, I'll put together a short video of my local Hares and post it on this blog for you to see.




Friday, 4 April 2014

Badger Sett Update

Just a quick blog this week, to give you an update on the local Badger sett. I still haven't found any evidence of  the Foxes moving back into their old den yet, so this year I guess it's just not meant to be. The Badgers on the other hand have been very active, and as you can see in the video below, they're always happy to put on a show for the camera:




That pesky Badger at the end there ruined all my footage for the rest of the night! Next time I'll have to strap my trail cam down!

Monday, 24 March 2014

Bad Hare Day

Last week I was snowed under by revision for my Biology ISA exam, so I didn't get a chance to post a new blog. As fascinating as doing an investigation into leaf sizes on different parts of a tree is, I relished the opportunity to get out looking for wildlife again when I had some spare time on the weekend.

I began at our local airfield, looking for Mad March Hares. It had been a couple of years since I last tried to film Hares boxing, and I was quickly reminded of how difficult it is to do so. Hares dig small impressions in the ground called 'forms', which they can lie in for many hours during the day. This excellent camouflage is good for the Hares-which just look like clumps of earth on the ground- but bad for anyone trying to spot them. 

But spotting hares is only half the battle- it's keeping up with them which is the real difficulty! Hares can run at speeds of up to 70 km/h, so once spooked shoot off into the distance, well beyond the zoom of my camera. As a result I have to sneak up on a group of Hares very slowly and very quietly (with ears like those it's no wonder they have excellent hearing), and only after half an hour of silent shuffling was I able to get close enough to get a few shots of this pair: 


Unfortunately I didn't see any boxing, but then I wasn't there for very long. Though with all the spare time I have on my hands this week, I hope to go up to the airfield as often as I can, so fingers crossed I'll catch them boxing then. 

Yesterday I rescued my first fledgling of the year. It was a young Collared Dove, found between two ferns at a local garden centre. Usually with fledglings found on the ground, the advice is to leave well alone. Young birds will often fall out of the nest before they can fly, but their parents will still come down to feed them, so long as it is safe to do so. The best thing to do is to watch the bird for a while to see if its parents come down to it, and place it out of reach of predators, such as cats, if needs be. 

However, on some occasions it is necessary to intervene. Yesterday was such an occasion, as one of the Dove's parents was confirmed dead (it's body had been found the day before), and the other was nowhere to be seen. The Dove was also very small, even for a bird of it's age, and its bony keel and empty crop suggested to me that it might not have been fed for some time. With this in mind, the decision was made to take it to Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hospital. 

Found between two ferns, our first fledgling of the year!
Now that we've had our first fledgling, I'm sure there will be many more to come!





Monday, 10 March 2014

Prickly Encounters

The fantastic article on Hedgehogs in this month's BBC Wildlife Magazine has got me thinking about some of the prickly encounters I've had with the nation's wildlife icon...

I think the first time I ever saw a Hedgehog in the flesh must have been when I was about six years old. It had spent an afternoon wandering around my garden, curling into a ball whenever we approached it before disappearing underneath the neighbours' fence. In hindsight, the fact that the Hedgehog was out during the day means it was probably quite ill, and really we should have taken it to a wildlife hospital. That's a mistake which I'll never make again, having rescued a number of Hedgehogs since setting up my own wildlife ambulance service, Oakley Animal Rescue, back in 2010.


This Hedgehog, found out during the day, had a tick attached to its right eye
By far the majority of Hedgehogs I have rescued since then have been found out during the day (ODD). There are many reasons why a Hedgehog might decide 'to go ODD'. For example, if a 'hog has not built up enough fat to see it through the winter, it will have to fill up it's days (as well as it's nights) with extra foraging in a desperate attempt to put on some more weight before hibernation. 

This was the case with the very first Hedgehog I dealt with; a scrawny animal we affectionately named 'Henry', who was so small he could fit quite neatly into an outstretched hand. After being placed in a box with some straw to nestle under, Henry was rushed off to St. Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hospital where he spent the winter in comfort.


An underweight hedgehog will need to be fed up in a hospital to stand any chance of surviving the winter
Heatstroke may also cause a Hedgehog 'to go ODD'. You might not expect to find a heat-stricken Hedgehog on an autumnal October afternoon, yet this is exactly what happened in 2011 when a freak heatwave brought temperatures of 29 °C to the south-east of England. 

The 'hog in question was found flat out on a pavement, so severely dehydrated that it was unable to even curl itself into a ball once it had been scooped up off the sizzling floor. Worried that it might not even survive the journey to Tiggywinkles, we quickly wrapped it up in a a wet towel and offered it oral rehydration solution. It soon perked up, and could safely be transported to the hospital for further treatment. 
This heat-stricken hedgehog perked up after being wrapped in a wet towel and given rehydration solution
My favourite experience with Hedgehogs so far was at Secret World Wildlife Rescue last summer. During the week I spent there I got the chance to take care of more Hedgehogs than I could shake a stick at. These unfortunate animals were in for all sorts of reasons, from being sprayed bright green with fence paint to being poisoned by slug pellets. Nothing was more exciting though than hand-feeding a litter of orphaned hoglets, whose very survival depended solely on the dedicated team of volunteers that work at the hospital.

Rescuing Hedgehogs has brought me much closer to an animal which I otherwise would probably never see. I strongly urge anyone with a passion for wildlife to help out at their local rescue centre, and make a real difference to the animals on their local patch. 


Always wear gloves when handling Hedgehogs
My top tips for rescuing Hedgehogs:

1. If you see a Hedgehog out during the day, it needs your help!
Many animals (such as young birds and deer) may appear to be in danger when in actual fact they are not, and taking them to a wildlife hospital unnecessarily can actually be detrimental to their well-being. This is not the case with Hedgehogs, and any found out during the day will almost certainly be sick. So if you do come across one which is ODD, get it to a wildlife rescue centre to be assessed straight away! Even if it turns out to have nothing wrong with it, it is always better to be safe than sorry, and the Hedgehog can always be returned to where it was found once it has been given the all clear.

2. Handle with Care
Hedgehogs don't have those prickly spines for no reason! Always use thick gloves when handling them to avoid hurting you hands.

3. Never release an entangled Hedgehog
Hedgehogs often find themselves entwined in netting, chain links and all manner of rubbish that we leave lying around in our parks and gardens. If the trapped casualty is cut free from a ligature immediately, a condition called pressure necrosis may arise which can kill the injured Hedgehog. So always take the casualty to a rescue centre with any netting, rubbish, etc, still attached!  

4. Be wary of diseases
Like many animals, Hedgehogs can harbour a variety of diseases which can be passed to humans through direct contact. These include Salmonella, Leptospirosis (Weil's disease in Humans) and ringworm. To minimise the risk of catching an infectious disease, wear protective clothing (gloves, face masks, etc.), never touch any urine or faeces and always wash your hands after handling an animal.

5. Never underestimate a Hedgehog
Hedgehogs can run deceptively fast over short distances, even when injured. If the 'hog makes it to cover in low vegetation then you may very easily lose it, so be sure to block off all of it's escape routes before you attempt your rescue, and be prepared to throw a towel or jumper over it if it decides to flee. 

Happy Rescuing!

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

March Madness

March has arrived and with it Winter slowly seems to be slipping away as Spring begins to take hold. I've heard Skylarks singing, seen Robins collecting twigs for their nests, and admired the copious Snowdrops and Daffodils that have been popping up all over the village. Yesterday I even saw a bee!
Spring is on the way!
But as Winter fades away, there is one animal I'm particularly excited about filming this month: The European Hare. Hares are famous for the mania that consumes them at this time of year, as testosterone levels reach their peak in the male 'bucks'.

Unfortunately for the bucks, the female 'does' aren't always too keen on all the extra attention and will often rebuff the males' unwanted advances by lashing out violently with their fists- an act known as boxing. To further test the resolve of their senseless suitors, a doe will also challenge competing bucks to a race. She charges across the countryside at speeds of over 70 km/hour, and only the male that can keep up with her for longest (and hence the fittest) wins the right to mate with her.

Although the breeding season of European Hares lasts from January until August, in April testosterone levels in bucks start to decrease and their madness begins to subside, so this month is my best shot at filming this awesome behaviour. I've only ever filmed my local Hares boxing once, briefly, a few years ago. To film them do the same again this year would be a major wildlife aim of mine ticked off the list!

This morning I went back to the Badger sett to set up my trail cam again. The water in the flooded entrance to the sett had receded, and what's more a strong, musky, vulpine smell lingered in the air around it. Could it be that the Foxes have moved into the recently abandoned Badger sett, effectively switching homes with their mustelid neighbours? To find out I'm going to have to monitor the mound with my trail cam over the next few days, but I'll post an update on here as soon as anything new comes up. 

                 A clip of last year's Fox Cubs, shortly after they emerged from their den for the first time in April 2013

The Barn Owl still hasn't shown up, despite weeks of intensive searching. I'll be keeping an eye out for it over the next few months, but for this month at least I'm going to focus all my efforts on finding Mad March Hares.

Let the madness begin!

Billy