Plastic. Plastic Everywhere!!!

‘The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.’

 

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A month ago or so we did a litter pick around the edge of Farlington Marshes, dragging the accumulated detritus off the foreshore. This was a difficult and rather smelly job for the volunteers. There are pinch points around the marsh where lots of flotsam and jetsam accumulate, telling a long story of activities on the high seas for those of an imaginative bent. Stories of shipwrecks and piracy abound and the odd drinks can from the 70’s or foreign object allows one to marvel at the stretch of the currents and the force of the sea to move objects long distances. Our education teams would have had a field day, spinning tales for the kids in the fantastic way that they do, capturing their imaginations about the natural world.

Unfortunately for me when embarking in a life based around conservation, you get rather cynical. What this litter pick brought forth for me was not a dramatized romantic notion of the sea but the disturbing truth that plastic is a major and growing problem out there, one where the true reach cannot be seen.

Some of it is visible and what I found most shocking was the fine, sand like multicolored strand line around the edge of the site. Billions of pieces of plastic forming a rainbow around the edge of the concrete wall. This ranged from pieces the size of a grain of sand to small floating pieces of polystyrene but all massed together as the calm sea slowly receded, leaving the evidence of several life times of wasteful and excessive plastic use.

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billions of fine grounds of plastic and polystyrene 

What you have to bear in mind is that this is the tip of the iceberg. Not even the tip, the first ice crystal at the very tip. Plastic is a colossal problem in our oceans one that is going to have long lasting effects, perhaps even irreversible ones.

Recently a cuviers beaked whale drifted into a harbour in Norway. It was clearly in distress and despite valiant attempts to help it was eventually deamed the best thing to do was to kill it. It was promptly shot and an autopsy was carried out. What was discovered, I found shocking beyond belief. 30 plastic bags knotted into a mass within it’s stomach . The poor whale starved to death. I’m very fond of whales and beaked whales like this are not only truly magnificent animals but so little is known about them, it is nice to have something still mysterious out there.

This is not an isolated incident. either. A cuviers washed up on Skye not too long ago with the exact same issue.

I was confused over why they would eat plastic bags. Cetaceans are generally quite clever animals. Surely they could tell apart a plastic bag from a squid? I then read up on the subject and it makes a lot of sense in the end. Cuviers dive to great depths to hunt squid and other such deep diving cephalopods. At that depth visibility is poor and the way that they feed is through echolocation. A series of clicks and whistles rebound off their prey and they can essentially see what they are hunting but in this method, a plastic bag looks, (or sounds I suppose) just like a squid. Hence a stomach full of plastic. How are plastic bags at that depth! It shows that at all levels of the ocean, plastic has penetrated and is causing issues.

One of the most disturbing things that I have heard is the reference to marine plastic flour. This is the term used for the plastic floating around the ocean that is so minuscule that it is likened to flour. A scary thought when you think of the accumulation within the bodies of sea going animals. Even scarier is the thought that if you eat seafood, you are potentially eating accumulated plastic. That can’t be good!

Well what is the solution? Is there even one? With all these things, mass species decline, global warming, loss of habitat, uncontrolled development, mass agriculture and pesticide use, it may seem like there isn’t one but I fully believe that we can curb it and even reverse it but it requires effort from all of us. I found a quote the other day which I feel is so important I have put in in bold!  Dramatic I know but I feel necessary

 

The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.

 

This is one of the most pertinent phrases out there and a trap that we all fall in to. It is that classic mentality that you carry on an activity because the millions of others around you are and if you were to stop, at minor inconvenience to yourself, it will make little difference. The trouble is, most of the other people around you are thinking that and the wheel of self destruction keeps turning.

It all sound very preachy I know and I”ll be the first to admit that I fall in to the trap over and over again. Plastic is everywhere and unavoidable. Your weekly shop at any major superstore will mean plastic by the bucket load, despite the heavy reduction in plastic bags. Broccoli wrapped in clingfilm, oranges in bags, strawberries in punnets. It all seems a bit unnecessary and goodness knows I’m not going from one shop to another to get all the bits separately!

As with all these things, public demand drives the major distributors to change. Try and reduce and you will fall in to the habit. It takes time to work it all out, what you can buy and from where. In this day and age, nobody wants to spend two hours in a supermarket trying to work out how to buy stuff without plastic but over time, you can work it out.

So yes, there is no magic plan to reduce this. Just hard graft and steady but persistent change but it has to be from all of us.

And lastly, recycle. Recycle like you mean it.

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A successful season

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Avocets

It is a turning point in the season and though many of you will be distressed to hear, it is swiftly running into autumn. In fact, the autumn migration has already begun! Farlington is slowly filling with waders, brightly coloured godwits, still clinging on to their rusty summer plumage, dunlin with their black bellies and common sandpipers up and down the ditches across the marsh. There was even a little ringed plover on the scrape the other day.

If you have frequented Farlington throughout the spring and summer you will no doubt have noticed the Lapwing and Redshank buzzing around, calling and dive bombing any crows or other potential predators. These are our regular breeders and both had a good year with 15 territories for the lapwing and 5 for the redshank. There has also been another addition this year to our breeding wader assemblage.

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I am very pleased to announce that we have had, for the first time ever in the known history of Farlington, breeding Avocets! This is a fantastic result for the reserve and we’re all very pleased.

There is no real reason that  I can point out as to why they have suddenly decided to breed. This winter saw record numbers roosting on the site so perhaps some took a fancy. With poor success at other sites in the areas due to a number of very tricky issues they may have just given up and moved on.

It hasn’t been a complete success however. I counted 10 chicks in total from potentially 4 broods. One of these was a second go from a pair that had all their eggs stolen by a crow. I watched it fly in over the course of 30 mins or so and steadily empty the nest. I was, to put it mildly, livid! Out of the 10 chicks, as far as I can tell, only two have fully fledged. Not a great success but when compared to other sites in the local area, a much higher percentage. There may be a few hiding but it looks like the younger ones have been picked off by a Buzzard.

Now, this may sound like a bit of a disaster but we have a bird that has never shown any sign of nesting at Farlington and we have had 4 pairs attempt. We have also had up to 16 adults around. These were probably failed breeders from elsewhere or non breeders that have helped protect the other nests and chicks. It also means that hopefully they will all come back next year and attempt to breed.

You also have to bear in mind that we were completely unprepared for this. They suddenly just appeared and started to breed. We can therefore put measures in place next year to give them a helping hand and boost the local numbers.

All in all it has been really nice to gain a breeding bird rather than losing one which is more often than not the case nowadays.

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Sightings for week ending 14/05/2017

It’s been a pretty mixed week, with the start nice and sunny and the end, some well-deserved rain and we still have migrants coming in! The swifts have started to turn up and there are generally more hirundines across all the sites. Swanwick Lakes had a big flock of house martins over it the other night whilst I was stomping around doing and evening survey.

The seals have been quite obvious recently. If you take a scope to the southern end of Farlington Marshes and look across the mud flats at low tide, there is almost always several, hauled out along the creek that runs near to the aggregates port. Whilst sitting having lunch at Southmoor yesterday, one popped its head up just off the shore. Always exciting seeing a seal. Love them!

For me, the stars of the show this week have been the grey plover on the main lake at Farlington. They are in their breeding plumage and are absolutely stunning. The little terns have also been making themselves known. At high tide they come really close to the sea wall, fishing right on the edge,. Perfect opportunity for some shots of terns disappearing into the water.

The usual around otherwise. A marsh harrier has been spotted a lot, the short eared owl is still around, surprisingly, and the yellow wagtails are regularly in among the cattle on the main marsh. In the bushes there are lesser whitethroat around.

There was a cuckoo calling at Swanwick on Monday, the only one across all my sites this year (that I have heard anyway). There has also been a garden warbler singing away and a firecrest. These are both good records for the site, with potentially breeding firecrest a new record.

We’ve had a couple of rough weeks for butterflies. We have struggled to get our survey work done as it’s actually been quite chilly during the days. Wednesday wasn’t too bad though with highlights at Swanwick and Hookheath being, green hairstreak, holly blue and small copper. There was also a hairy dragonfly and beautiful demoiselle recorded.

Ringing in the Reedbeds

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An exquisite male Bearded Tit

On Sunday we started ringing in the reedbeds at  Farlington Marshes nature reserve. The aim is to concentrate on the bearded tits to try and get an idea as to how the population is faring. It turned out to be a reasonable start and we caught a good number of birds. The females all had brood patches which signifies breeding so things are looking good.

Bearded tits, actually called bearded parrotbills now (formally bearded reedlings) are one of Farlington’s iconic species. They draw in a lot of people as the site has a very good population, especially for its size. The only issue is that they are very difficult to see. Normally all you get is a fleeting view of them as they bounce over the top of the reed before quickly dropping down. This makes monitoring very difficult and really the only way that we have a chance of getting a population estimate is through ringing. This also helps us look at longevity of individuals and location within the reed bed itself. All very useful stuff which can help influence how we manage the site.

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A very handsome male Reed Bunting

It was a good session catching bearded tits, reed bunting, Cetti’s warbler and sedge warbler. The whole reed bed was alive with the chatter of segdes and there were even some reed warbler there. These will build up steadily as they migrate in and then disperse leaving the breeding population.

The lapwing have begun to settle down and there seems to be a good number of redshank on the marsh and in the hay field. Hopefully we will see a higher than average year for these this year but its still early days. The lapwing are in low numbers but this is the same across many sites at the moment so hopefully they are just late arriving.

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The very noisy Sedge Warbler

Luxury Penthouse to Rent, Riverside View, Fishing Rights and Natural Surroundings Included

DSC_0974We spent a very happy day last Thursday at Swanwick Lakes nature reserve playing at the edge of the water. This of course was made all the better with the t-shirt weather that we had. The aim was to build a kingfisher nesting cliff to entice them to stay on site all year.

Kingfishers generally nest in river banks and excavate nests out of loose soil, digging a long tunnel with a chamber at the end. I don’t think anybody who has seen a kingfisher would expect this of them and it does seem like a strange thing for a bird to do. It is however a good strategy as the small cliffs at the side of the river tend to drop straight into water and so are very tricky for predators such as stoats to access. I’ve also seen them nesting in the root bases of fallen tree. These often form pools where the root base has been ripped out of the ground and so creates a perfect little spot for them to nest.

A lot of sites have Kingfishers in late summer and through the winter but don’t have them in the spring and early summer. This is generally because of the lack of suitable banks in which they can nest. The late summer individuals will be the first brood which are then self sufficient and then all of them rove around a bit in the winter. You get a number along the coast as well, especially in cold times when fresh water is frozen over.

So if you have a site ‘sans bank’, you have to help them out a little bit if you want them to stay all year and everybody likes a Kingfisher so many reserve officers take on the challenge of enticing them in. Enter the fake Kingfisher cliff.

This is how we went about it.

Step 1. Find a suitable spot. This is on the edge of a lake with a some deepish water in front of it, preferably with a bit of a bank already. We found a good spot on toms lake.DSC_0962

Step 2. Dive in two stakes on the edge of the bank. You then clad the front with boards. You also need to box in the sides.

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Step 3. Back fill with soil. This builds up the bank behind it. It’s good to have a team of volunteers/minions to do this

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Step 4. Place the nest box. Once you have the soil high enough (the entrance hole needs to be a metre or so above the water) you then need to place the box at a slight angle, so the box is a tiny bit higher. You also need to line the bottom of the box with clay or soil so its a bit more natural.

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Step 5. Cover with soil. This surrounds the box and you want a good layer over the top. You can leave this loose so you can access the box to clean it out.

Step 6. Fill the tunnel section with loose sand/soil. The Kingfishers like to excavate a little themselves.

Step 7. Clad the front with clay. This makes it look more natural (we haven’t done this yet).

Step 8. Sit back and watch the Kingfishers flock in.

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Hopefully step 8 will be the case but they are tricky little things. I’ve seen boxes on other sites used but in other places they aren’t touched. There has been one at Swanwick for a few years now but has never had any success. It may be a number of reasons but we intend to put three up in total to maximise our chances of success. Hopefully one will look attractive.

 

 

Sightings for week ending 12/03/2017

Its been a busy week down Farlington this week. Lots of Bearded Tits, a Marsh Harrier, Kingfisher, Barn Owl, tons of Curlew, Brent Geese and Shelduck and still a Short Eared Owl or two. There was a leucistic duck by the building Tuesday which I think was a Gadwall, despite being positioned next to a Pintail.

Today was particularly gloomy but there were 500+ Dunlin feeding on the mudflats west of the marsh with a few Black Tailed Godwits and Redshank mixed in. There was also one solitary Avocet roosting on the lake. I haven’t seen any Avocet around for a little while, despite the high numbers earlier in the year.

Spring really descended on Thursday. We were working in tshirts at Swanwick Lakes, basking in the warmth on the edge of the lakes. Whilst we were sat at lunch we had a Brimstone, Peacock, Comma and a Red Admiral pass by! These are the first butterflies that I have seen this year.

I think Saturday will be the better day this weekend and so will be a good opportunity to see the last of the waders and wildfowl. The numbers have certainly dropped significantly in the last couple of weeks and it will be sensible to keep an eye out for the first of the summer migrants. Reports of Wheatears and House/Sand Martins have been arriving across the country for a week or so now!

Helping out the beardies

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We have spent a couple of days working in the reed bed at Farlington. I love reed beds, they’re one of my favourite habitats. Once your in a few metres, you have a huge sense of isolation with all the reed towering above you. The best part of the Farlington reed beds is that as soon as you step in, you are surrounded by Bearded Tits making their classic ‘ping’ call.

Reed beds are an unusual habitat with lots of interesting traits. They are essentially effemeral, only existing naturally for a reasonable short length of time (in the grand scheme of landscapes). They doom themselves as they grow each year, die and steadily raise the level of the soil, eventually drying out the area within which they are growing and then getting out competed buy more vigorous plants. I suppose that you can say this about many habitats as succession eventually changes them into the climax community, normally a woodland.

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Cutting reed, great fun!

So, if you want reed beds to stay as reed bed in the long term you have to manage them and the key to reed bed longevity is to cut them and remove the cuttings so that they don’t build up. Some places even graze them, short stocky ponies that don’t sink are often the beast of choice. The simple rule is if you cut the reed in winter, you promote the reed. If you cut in summer, you suppress the reed and allow other species to grow. Like most things it isn’t all together that simple but that is the basic premise.

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Raking reed, great fun!

Water levels throughout the year play a vitally important role.You don’t want to flood freshly cut reed in the summer as it will drown. You also need to flood the reed bed, preferably in sections to allow invertebrate species to thrive and support the species higher up the trophic levels, species such as Bittern, Bearded Tits, Reed and Sedge Warblers, Cetti’s Warblers. These are all reed bed specialists, many of which are in decline due to the lack of large reed beds in the UK.

Bearded tits are one of the most iconic species at Farlington. I meet a lot of people who have come to the site just to see them. They are however very tricky to see. A warm still day is best and you can see the floating over the top of the reed or between the patches of reed by the sluice. During winter they feed on reed seed and therefore need grit to help digest this. During the breeding season they switch to high energy invertebrates to feed their nestlings.

They nest quite close to the ground , preferring older dense stands of reed. There is evidence to suggest that newer reed stands, (reed that was cut that winter or the one before) have a higher seed density and support higher invertebrate numbers, suggesting that a mix of older and newer stands will yield the highest number of birds.

With this all in mind we have cut some small patches of reed bed this year. This also creates edge habitat which species such as reed warbler prefer, nesting very close to the edge of the reed. Cutting sections maximises this usable area. It also allowed us to collect the cut reed to turn in to nest boxes for bearded tits.

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Great work from the team, lots of bearded tit nests

Last year there was big issues with the water levels in the reed bed and we think that the bearded tits may have really suffered as their nests may have been flooded out. They are also restricted to the dryer sections of the reed bed in which they can nest. An RSPB reserve up north called Leighton Moss have used nest ‘wigwams’ to great success, opening up more reed bed to the bearded tits and maximising the area that they can use. We though that we’d give it a go. they may not get used and they are certainly doing quite well but I was keen to have somewhere safe that they can nest in as a back up in case of severe flooding again. It’s also quite cool.

Making the nests was surprisingly difficult. You bundle a load of reeds together. You then tie off both ends. The secret is to tie them off super tight. I mean SUPER tight. This stops the reed slipping but also makes the next stage really hard. You have to tease the reed out into a wigwam shape with a nice little cavity in the middle in which they can nest.