Where we were in 2020, where we are now, and where we are going in 2021
It’s been awhile and circumstances have slowed everything down but things are still moving forward at Costons Lane!
The weather and Thames Water have delayed the pond building until we get the go ahead from TW and it dries out a bit, but we have been working on other aspects of the project! The contractor has lifted the gate (so it opens now!) and will be building the platform for our building and the paths in the front half. Once this work is complete and restrictions lift, we can have volunteer days again! Our first task will be create the wildlife garden. And once the platform is complete we can order our beautiful green roofed recycled shipping container and finally give Ealing wildlife Group a home of its own!
Of course the first priority of a nature reserve is to provide a place for nature to thrive and CLNR is no different. We had a bioblitz last summer, the first of many, to see what kind of plants and animals call it home. As expected most of what we found were insects and arachnids which is very good as the UK is catastrophically losing insect life! We had a few ladybirds, several species of tiny parasitic wasps, two kinds of grasshopper, leafhoppers, dock bugs, blue flea beetles, dragonflies, many different butterflies, bumblebees, honey bees, several spiders we don’t know what they are yet and a few wasp spiders which are always exciting! You can see the full gallery of critters below, the ones we know are named, if you think you can identify any of the others or think we may have got it wrong leave a comment below!
As for birds we saw and heard robins, starlings, house sparrows, wood pigeons, and a red kite and sparrowhawk over head! On different occasions we have also heard wrens, green finches, and black caps as well! No amphibians or reptiles yet, but creating the pond should help the amphibians and of course we plan on building habitat for slow worms and if we are lucky maybe even grass snakes! The mammals we found were grey squirrels (of course,) a curious fox, and a few pipistrelle and soprano pipistrelle bats. We were expecting more bats but again the pond will create food and should attract more, most we saw seemed to be on their way to the river where food is plentiful.
Throughout the summer and early autumn we had several volunteer days, while it was still allowed and safe to do so. The first one was the biggest, with 30 volunteers and the help of the Ealing Park Rangers we moved enormous amount of rubbish out to the entrance to be picked up later! The area was originally an allotment site (abandoned 20 years ago because of the constant flooding) so much of the rubbish was bits and pieces of old allotment detritus. Unfortunately, it was also used as a fly tip so we found toilets, shopping trolleys, old footballs, shoes, batteries, you name it! Park rangers Jon and James cleared a path around the site with a giant mowing machine and later it will properly mulched. Our second two volunteer days were mostly clearing brambles from the area we plan to turn into a meadow to replace the meadow that will be lost when we build the pond. We still found and moved a tonne of rubbish we even found a bathtub! Then the lockdowns came and the weather turned and volunteering stopped for the winter.
So where do we go from here? Anticipating the lockdown easing up in the spring, we will continue to have volunteer days, starting with the wildlife garden. And also exciting news, we have got two shipments of free trees from I Dig and the Woodland trust, so we will have to plan a planting scheme and get planting them out! Then working around the heavy works of pond building and path laying, we will build the bird hides and the pond dipping platform. I plan on setting up a spring bioblitz, as at Boles meadow I’d like to have a bioblitz in every season. After the large projects are complete, it will be different tasks, building and installing bird and bat boxes, different feeding stations, increasing the diversity of plants and micro habitats, and seeing how we could increase our connectivity to other green sites in the area. Later as the building is installed, we hope to build a deck around it to give us more space to teach, and have community events.
So that’s about it, progress is slower than we would like but not too bad considering the circumstances. As always, if you would like to volunteer, pop us am email at [email protected] and put volunteer in the subject heading and let us know what you would like to do. It may be a while until you hear anything back because of lockdown but hold tight and rest assured your help is very much wanted and appreciated! Hope to see you all in the spring!
As the growing season winds down, people are starting to tidy their gardens and prepare them for winter. For wildlife friendly gardens and gardeners however, things are a little different, it’s far less tidy, and far better for the wildlife! Here are 10 things a wildlife gardener can do to prepare the garden for winter that benefit both the garden and the wildlife.
1. Clean feeders, feed the birds!
It’s always important to keep your bird feeders as clean as possible and this time of year is a good time to do it as it the feeders will be very busy over the next few months! Then fill the feeders with fat balls, fat blocks, coconut shells filled with fat, fat pellets, fat filled with berries, mealworms, peanuts! Lots of fat! Don’t use the plastic nets though as birds can get caught in them with tragic consequences! (Also we don’t need more plastic) Don’t forget seeds and fruit, and I was today years old when I found out you can leave out cheese and bacon bits as well (probably go sparingly so you don’t attract too many rats!) A firm favourite with my birds are sunflowers seeds, I think just about everyone likes them, I get the shelled ones, waaaay less mess! Don’t get cheap seed mixes though, they are often made with cheap grains that are too big for anything other than pigeons to eat, I learned this the hard way!
2. Keep water available!
Keep small bowls of water on the ground and/or bird baths available as it’s just as important for wildlife to access water in the winter as at any time of the year. If you have a pond and should it ice over (not super likely in London but it could happen), melt a hole in the ice so the critters can get in and out and drink, and to make sure your pond doesn’t become oxygen starved. Use a pan filled with hot water to melt a hole, do not bang on the ice to break it as this sends out painful shockwaves that can hurt wildlife. (I’m imagining being inside a ringing bell, not a pleasant thought!)
3. Watch out for Hibernating Animals!
Check bonfire material for hibernating animals such as toads, hedgehogs, and frogs before lighting! (Better yet only build the bonfire when you are ready to light it, then nothing can get into it) Be careful turning compost as it’s warm and could be full of slow worms, grass snakes, toads, frogs and other lovely things you want in your garden!
4. Make homes for the animals!
Don’t bag up all your leaves, spread them on the flower beds, it’s good for your soil and it provides shelter for frogs, and insects, and gives Blackbirds and thrushes, and Violet Ground Beetles a place to forage for food. Leave some pots and piles of bricks laying around for newts and toads ( they like the greenhouse too so watch out for them if you are tidying, I have frogs in mine!) Make or buy some bug hotels for the leaf cutter bees and other insects such as lacewings and ladybirds, or just drill some holes in a log! Place clay roof tiles in the pond for the frogs and newts that may be overwintering in the pond.
5. Leave the Soil alone!
If you can help it, avoid digging your garden beds, as many spider eggs and insect larvae (especially moths) overwinter in the soil.
6 Plant some Winter Berries!
Shrubs that feed wildlife in winter are great for gardens because they also provide beautiful flowers in the spring and summer, lovely foliage in the Autumn and striking berries and stems in the winter! I wrote another post with a list of native berries here (such as hawthorn, rowan, guelder rose etc) but other good non-native garden shrubs for wildlife are Cotoneaster, Pyracantha, Barberry (Berberis), and Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) although be careful with the last one, it can get invasive if not carefully controlled!
7. Leave it Wild!
Avoiding trimming ivy and don’t cut hedges until at least March. Both provide much needed food and shelter for overwintering wildlife. Leave all the herbaceous plants untrimmed until early spring. Leave it messy! Many insects overwinter in hollow stems, ladybirds will all snuggle up on a stem for the winter and if there is one thing you really want in your garden, it’s ladybirds! When you do finally cut the stems down in spring, set them aside in stacks until May so the insects can emerge safely.
8. Clean Ponds!
Winter (Oct through January) is the best time to clean your pond as it is the time of lowest activity. However there are still active critters in there so be careful! Always stack the weeds and debris you clear from a pond on the edge for a few days so things can crawl out and back into the water. Having a little poke around and giving some of the dragonfly and damselfly nymphs, other invertebrates, newts, frogs, and snails a helping hand back into the water is nice too.
9 . Clean out Nest Boxes!
In late winter clean out the nest boxes for the upcoming spring nesting season. Also be aware that some birds will roost communally in nest boxes in the winter to stay warm, especially wrens and house sparrows so making sure they have nest boxes or roosting pouches in you garden in winter could be very beneficial!
10. Help the Butterflies!
There are five species of butterfly in the UK that hibernate in winter as adults, the brimstone, comma, peacock, small tortoiseshell and red admiral. Two of these, the Peacock and the Small Tortoiseshell usually overwinter in a shed or garage, and if you see them there, leave them be. Sometimes though they will try to hibernate in your house, which would be fine if it didn’t get so warm. When the butterflies get warm they wake up and think it’s spring, and that is not going to be a good time for the poor butterfly when it’s still winter and there is no food in sight. So if you find an awake and confused butterfly in your house, the Scottish Wildlife Trust suggests the following:
The best thing you can do if you see a butterfly flying about in your house in the middle of winter is to help it relocate to a cooler spot. Put it in a cardboard box for a while to calm it down and then leave it in your shed, garage or another suitable location. Somewhere cool and dry is ideal. Remember to set it free when spring arrives!
Laura Preston, Scottish Wildlife Trust
So there it is, ten ways to help make your garden a safe haven for wildlife this winter! You will be rewarded come spring with an abundance of helpful creatures to keep your garden ticking along as well as the knowledge that you are also helping them to survive and thrive when so many are in shocking rates of decline across the country. Gardens make up one of the largest green spaces in the UK so we can have a huge impact on the future of wildlife, one garden at a time!
In the dark cold days of winter, nothing is more cheery in the grey landscape than colourful winter berries dotting the hedgerows. However not only are they beautiful , they provide a vital food source for birds, insects, and mammals when little other food is available. All of the following berries can be found growing wild and in gardens in Ealing. They are a great addition to any garden/greenspace to help the wildlife through the winter! (I realise that several of these are technically not berries, but I will refer to them as such for the sake of convenience)
Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)
You can find hawthorn pretty much everywhere in the Borough, on the sides of the A40, up on Horsenden Hill, the Bunny Park, everywhere. Found in hedgerows the fruits are called Haws and are eaten by loads of migrating birds such as Redwings, Waxwings and Fieldfares. Our natives such as Blackbirds, Greenfinches, Yellowhammers, Chaffinches, Hawfinches, Starlings and many other birds enjoy them too!
Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia)
Rowan is another winter bird favourite, including Mistle Thrush, Redwing, Song Thrush, Blackcap, Fieldfare and Waxwing. This feeds more than just birds, caterpillars of the apple fruit moth feed on the berries as well!
Dog rose (Rosa canina)
These beautiful native hedgerow roses turn into the bright red hips that feed birds such as Thrushes, Blackbirds, Redwing, Fieldfare and Waxwings, which then disperse the seeds in their droppings, and some birds like finches actually eat the seeds!
Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)
The beautiful plum like drupes of the Blackthorn (called sloes) provide insects, mammals, and larger birds like the thrushes and hawfinches a lovely midwinter feast. Humans also use them for making flavoured gin!
Spindle (Euonymus europaeus)
House Sparrows, Robins, Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, various Tits, and Starlings, and even mice and foxes eat the berries of the spindle. (It’s poisonous to humans though!). I haven’t seen a lot of spindle in Ealing, but I might just not be looking in the right places though as it’s a sign of ancient woodland. I will keep an eye out for it in our local bits of woodland such as Long Wood, Fox Wood, Horsenden Wood, and Perivale wood. Please let us know in the comments if you spot any out and about!
Holly (Ilex aquifolium)
Most birds leave these until later in the winter; they eat certain berries at certain times in the winter to ensure they have enough to last until spring. Mistle Thrushes, Song Thrushes, Blackbirds, Fieldfares and Redwings all eat the berries. However the Mistle Thrushes don’t mess around, they will aggressively guard their berries to prevent all the other birds from getting any! Small mammals like wood mice and dormice also enjoy them.
Ivy (Hedera helix)
This is another high fat, calorie dense berry that the birds leave until late winter when the other berries have dwindled and the ground is still too hard to forage for worms and insects and nothing else is growing. Some of the bird species that enjoy Ivy berries are Thrushes, Blackcaps, Bullfinches, Wood Pigeons, Blackbirds, Doves, Warblers, and Jays. And despite popular belief Ivy does not kill trees!
Guelder rose (Viburnum opulus)
Another ancient woodland indicator, the red berries are an important food source for birds, including Bullfinches and Mistle Thrushes. Far from ancient woodland however, the berries are a favourite food of Waxwings coming from Scandinavia who can often be seen scarfing them down in car parks! If anyone knows of a local guelder rose landscaped car park, please comment below so we can all potentially see some Waxwings this winter!
Mistletoe (Viscum album)
I almost didn’t include mistletoe because it is relatively scarce in Ealing (and London in general) but can you talk about winter berries and not mention mistletoe? Mistletoe doesn’t grow as a separate shrub, they are parasites and derive most of their nutrients from their host trees. They particularly like Hawthorn, Lime, Poplar, Sycamore, Ash, and in the UK their favourite is Apple trees. They are hemi parasitical however so they do also photosynthesize. Blackcaps love mistletoe, they eat the pith but wipe the sticky seeds off their bills and onto the tree branches, helping the mistletoe find new hosts trees. Mistle Thrushes (unsurprisingly) also enjoy mistletoe berries.
This Friday Dec 4th at 8pm, join Sean McCormack for an online discussion about a potential reintroduction project of Harvest Mice in Ealing. We’ll be exploring whether we have Europe’s smallest rodent species in the Borough, how we might find out with some help from our members, whether we still have suitable habitat and why such a project might be beneficial to people and biodiversity.
This is hopefully the first in a series of talks exploring rewilding and nature conservation in Ealing.
There are 100 spaces; first come, first served. Please do join live so you can take part in the Q&A afterwards. A recording of the session will be posted after for those who missed the live event.
The meeting will be on Zoom, details as follows:
Ealing Wildlife Group is inviting you to a scheduled Zoom meeting.
Macro photography generally means close-up photography, usually of very small subjects such as insects, in which the size of the subject in the photograph is the same or greater than life-size. It’s a specialist area of photography and special kit is required, but it needn’t cost the earth. Remember that most compact cameras have a macro mode, allowing the lens to focus at a short distance. Many standard lenses, fixed focal length or zoom, will focus close enough to photograph natural patterns, groups of flowers and fungi and larger insects etc. No further kit is required. Interchangeable macro lenses for DSLRs come in different focus lengths and most can be used as ‘ordinary’ lenses. I own three macro lenses: a 100mm which I use generally. I also use it for other applications: portraiture and for photographing large format vintage glass negatives in order to digitise them. I have a 180mm macro lens which is more unwieldy than the 100mm but has the great advantage of having a longer minimum focus distance: I can stand further away to get a macro shot – ideal for skittish subjects that will flit off if I get too close. My other macro lens is very specialised and difficult to use. It’s a Canon MP-E 65mm and can go up to 5x life size.
Use extension tubes – these are simple metal tubes with no glass, weigh very little and are easy to use. They fit between the camera body and lens and increase the close-focusing of the lens with no effect on optical quality. It’s best to use ones with contacts between camera and lens so the metering system still works. Autofocus remains but it is always best to use manual focus with macro photography. If you buy extension tubes, make sure you get ones for your camera system – Canon, Nikon etc. Mine are third-party but work very well. If you are unsure buy ones made by your camera manufacturer.
Use a supplementary close-up lens – These are magnifying lenses that fit onto the front of standard lenses to facilitate close-focusing without any significant decrease in image quality. Canon make excellent two-element close-up lenses that can be used with any manufacturer’s lenses and work very well with telephoto zoom lenses. Make sure you buy one with the correct filter diameter to fit your lens and they come in different focal lengths. Canon make single element lenses, too, but these aren’t quite as good. Look for the identifier “D” which signifies a two element lens. Supplementary close-up lenses can also be used with macro lenses to great effect. I use a Raynox DCR-250 close-up lens. It clips to the front of a macro or zoom lens to magnify the image by about x3 and works very well.
Invest in a macro lens – The greatest benefit of a ‘proper’ macro lens is that they will provide at least a life-size magnification (1:1). Some will go beyond life-size, up to 5:1 (which makes a spider look very scary). Supplementary close-up lenses can be used with them to great effect and can increase the magnification of the bare lens tremendously.
Choose a focal length that suits you best. 50mm macro lenses have limited use as they force you to set up very close to your subject which isn’t always practical. Your subject may be scared off, for a start. Mid-range 100mm lenses are probably the most versatile and the most cost-effective. Lenses in the range of 150mm to 200mm allow a greater working distance and will also provide a more diffused or blurred background to make the in-focus subject stand out. Macro lenses are designed to provide the best image quality at close-focusing distances but will also focus to infinity, so can be used as ‘ordinary’ lenses.
Tips – Try and use manual focus rather than auto-focus. The depth of field is often very shallow and the camera’s auto-focus system can be confused and doesn’t know what you want to focus on. Use your camera’s depth of field preview button to see what’s sharp and what isn’t. If your subject is moving around, try continuous auto-focus. You may get lucky, especially if you fire a burst of shots. Firing a burst may be a good option when using manual focus, too. When in manual focus once the focus has been found try moving your body, and therefore the camera, very slightly closer and further away to fine tune the focus. Take a breath, breathe out slowly, lock your arms, brace your body and gently press the shutter. If the subject is still consider using a tripod. If you are using a tripod enable mirror lock-up. This means that when the shutter is first pressed the camera’s mirror flips up (the viewfinder goes black), then wait a moment for any in-camera vibrations to subside and press the shutter again and the photograph is taken. Consider using a cable release to reduce vibrations further. Often it is best to photograph butterflies, dragonflies, other insects and spiders first thing in the morning when it’s chilly. They tend to keep still at such times and may also have a coating of dew which can be visually very interesting. Wait for a still day, too. Choose a fast shutter speed, 1/500 sec is a good starting point with an aperture of f/8 to f/16 to get a reasonable depth of field and try and get your subject in the same plane of focus – that is to say parallel to the camera and not at an angle. If your subject is parallel with the camera you stand a good chance of getting the head and tail sharp otherwise it will be one or the other. Practice, practice, practice. Bring a small flower indoors and in a bright room practice with that.
First, attract birds to your garden! – Provide bird food in regularly cleaned feeders positioned near to shrubs or trees high enough to be out of a cat’s leap and fresh, clean water in a bird bath. Check out the ‘how to attract birds and wildlife’ advice from the RSPB.
Your garden is a wildlife stage – If birds come into your garden it can be straightforward to photograph them. With a little craft and guile you can get some very pleasing shots.
Set the scene – I use interesting and natural looking sticks and twigs as well as larger pieces of wood to serve as perches for garden birds. These can be positioned on a workbench – the vice is really useful, tied to something in the garden like railings or a garden chair, or otherwise bodged somehow. I have a couple of articulated arms with jaws at each end that are really useful. Position perches near food: the birds will soon come in.
Get to know your birds – Watch their behaviour. They may prefer to be very close to shrubs or other cover, or a particular sort of perch in a particular place in the garden.
Use props – Consider using props for the birds to perch on. Clay pots, interesting looking watering cans and tool handles etc. Use your imagination to set up an interesting scene.
Go natural – Birds will use natural perches, of course. Keep observing and get to know their behaviour and favourite spots in the garden at different times of the day.
Choose an interesting background – I like plain, out of focus backgrounds without any intruding clutter. If you are using moveable perches, do just that and move the perches so that the background is uncluttered and a few feet at least behind the perch in order to throw it out of focus. Move the perches around or take up a position to vary the background. If a shrub is in flower, make use of that. Sometimes moving the perch or camera a just a little makes a big difference to the composition and the background.
Clock the light – My garden faces east, which means that the sun is behind me in the morning and I’m looking into the bright light in the afternoon and evening. Both front-lit (with the sun behind you) and back-lit (with the sun behind your subject) photographs can work really well. Side lighting can work well, too, to bring out texture in the feathers.
Find a spot – I photograph from both inside the house and from the garden. Often I shoot through an open door and sometimes through the glass. Window glass isn’t optically great and can soften the shot and it must be clean! If the door is open, I’ll be inside the house by a few feet and largely ignored if I stay still or move slowly. If I’m in the garden I’ll usually sit or stand covered with a bag hide. This is a like an unstructured tent which covers me and my camera with a hole for the lens and a netting window for me to see out. It can get hot!
Cameras and lenses and such – One of the benefits of photographing garden birds is that they can come quite close, so you won’t need a very long lens. A 100mm to 400mm zoom is ideal, even a standard 50mm lens can be used to good effect but won’t let you ‘fill the frame’. A tripod can be a good idea because you can set the camera up, pre-focus on the perch where the bird will land, make some test exposures and then simply fire the shutter when the time is right. One you have pre-focused, switch the lens to manual focus so that the focus is locked in. You can always tweak the focus manually if necessary.
Otherwise, use auto-focus set to subject tracking. Canon calls this function “AI Servo”. Nikon calls it AF-C or Continuous Servo. As long as you have the camera’s focus point or points on the bird, the camera will do its best to keep it focused.
Set a fast shutter speed whether you are hand-holding or using a tripod. The bird will sometimes oblige and sit still, but it’s usually a fast-moving ball of feathers. Use a minimum of 1/500sec and the faster the better to freeze the action.
Set an aperture of around f/5.6 or f/8 to achieve a good depth of field to get the bird in focus without having the background anywhere near sharp. For an uncluttered, blurred background try and keep a separation of at least three feet between it and the perch. More is better.
Try setting your ISO to Auto. The camera will continuously adjust it’s sensitivity to the changing conditions.
On an overcast day, typical settings would be 1/500sec at f/8 at ISO 500. Bright sun these might be 1/1000sec, f/8, ISO125. Use aperture priority to dial in a particular value or shutter priority to put the onus on speed. I always shoot in manual: I dial in the shutter speed and aperture I want and with the ISO in Auto, the camera looks after the exposure.
Set the camera’s drive to continuous high-speed to increase your chances of getting a ‘keeper’. A downside to this technique is that the shutter may make a bit of noise and this could scare the bird.
Finally, always keep a camera handy. You just never know what might come in to your garden and if you have a camera nearby you stand a chance of photographing it.
There have been a few times recently where I’ve had to make a decision on whether to share wonderful wildlife news, or hold back and keep it to myself. Mainly to protect the wildlife from disturbance or harm.
In August for example, we finally released some very exciting footage of barn owls using one of the nest boxes we installed last year. The footage was from February! Do you know how hard it was for me to sit on that exciting news all these months? Very! Once we had confirmed footage from the early breeding season, we stopped checking and left them to get on with it. Releasing the footage once the breeding season was over so as not to have a rush of people down to catch a glimpse at a delicate time when they were prone to depart.
As it happens, someone did catch wind of there being activity at the box, and we don’t believe this pair of barn owls bred successfully due to disturbance. Not only that but the interested humans scaled the tree with a ladder and took our trail camera, so we have lost all our footage for the season. I can only hope the camera is our only loss, and they didn’t also take barn owl eggs or chicks! The only silver lining is that a pair of kestrels may have nested in the box later in the season.
The ranger team found a new badger sett location which we’ve staked out with remote trail cameras, and confirmed an active, healthy badger clan living within. Bringing our total number of known established badger setts in Ealing to three (and a few other locations TBC). But we’re always super secretive and never disclose locations of badgers as they are so prone to persecution. There was after all an incident some 12 years ago where badgers were dug out of a sett in Ealing, presumably for fighting/baiting with dogs.
Our newest resident Ealing peregrine falcons, Freddie and Dusty, chose a pretty public place to roost for all to see. Right above the A&E entrance of Ealing Hospital! So even though they are a schedule 1 protected species, we thought it best to go public in a big way and put it to the public to name the pair! The more eyes on them the better, and the less likely they are to be disturbed or persecuted. It’s worked at many peregrine nest sites up and down the country so hopefully next year we’ll have them breeding on the hospital and we can all enjoy watching. Peregrines are not exactly popular with the racing pigeon fraternity, in case you were wondering what the exact threat is to this species.
We’ve had a pair of Hobbys nesting in one of our local parks, a migratory smaller cousin of the peregrine falcon. Apologies to anyone who asked me where they were to go see or photograph them and I refused. They are very secretive at the nest, and the more people that know about them and go see them, the more likely they were to have left or perhaps not used the nest site again this time next year.
Word gets around, one person tells one other person, passers by take an interest in all these people watching a particular tree. And before you know it the Hobbys spook and depart because their top secret location is now receiving daily visitors to have a nosy. It’s not to keep it a secret for only a few to enjoy, it’s to keep the Hobbys safe and happy so we can enjoy them in our skies above Ealing each summer.
It’s a delicate balance between showcasing and promoting our wildlife, encouraging people to get out and explore, and stepping too far into the realms of disturbing wildlife or affecting its safety. So it’s been on my mind for a while to write about watching wildlife responsibly.
This last week when a very rare migratory bird called a Wryneck appeared on Warren Farm, there was great excitement from birders, twitchers, photographers and general wildlife enthusiasts alike. All flocking to see this ultra rare and super camouflaged woodpecker, with less than 300 of its kind arriving briefly on our shores each Autumn on their migration route from breeding grounds in Scandinavia to wintering grounds in Africa.
I went and saw the bird myself, the day it was reported when it evaded me and the day after when I saw it in full view several times. And I must admit that it was wonderful to witness so many people show up to revel at its beauty and rarity, and take real delight in seeing such an amazing little bird.
I did have one or two moments of unease however when the bird flew off and the assembled watchers all merrily followed it. Could we be disturbing it from feeding up efficiently? Is it worried about all these people? Could we be affecting its ability to make the onward leg of its epic journey by preventing it from feeding?
It didn’t seem at all perturbed when I was there to be honest. But I’ve had one or two concerned watchers get in touch to tell me that some of the people attending to see the Wryneck haven’t always behaved in a responsible way that’s in the best interests of the bird.
I’ll hand over here to ‘Perry Vale’, who details an account of what they saw, and some top tips for responsible wildlife watching and photography. And I’d urge anyone going to see the Wryneck, or any other sensitive species of wildlife to ask yourself if your behaviour is in the interests of that animal’s welfare, or getting a great photo or view for yourself. It’s a fine balance. Over to ‘Perry Vale’:
The interests of birds and wildlife come first
I sometimes see incidents of wildlife disturbance being carried out in ignorance but also by people who simply should know better.
I recently went to a well known and much cherished wildlife site in Ealing to try and photograph a scarce passage migrant bird that had arrived a few days earlier, probably on its way to central Africa from Scandinavia for the winter. The bird had decided to stay in the warmer weather to rest and feed up before continuing its journey. Its presence was publicised on various birding social media platforms and when I arrived at the normally very quiet site there were several birders and photographers present hoping to see it with several more arriving. It’s normally a shy bird and it took quite a while for it to be found where it was skulking in, apparently, one of its favourite trees.
There was a little rush towards the tree which sent the bird flying into some dense bushes and undergrowth. The assembly moved around to the new area and after a fair bit of waiting, an audio recording of the bird was played to try lure it out of hiding. The recording sounded more like an alarm call to me rather than its song – and in any case the bird is likely not to be singing whilst migrating because it’s not holding territory or looking for a mate. The bird flew from the bushes into a more open area, but was hidden on the ground in long grass and vegetation.
After more waiting the patience of the birders – interestingly not the two or three photographers – was stretched and they decided to flush the bird by doubling behind it and walking in a slow line as if they were beaters on a grouse shoot. The bird was duly flushed and flew into a tree where it was seen nicely. I got on the bird and lined up my tripod-mounted camera and long lens when one of the birders stood two yards in front of me. When I moved to one side, so did he. When the bird flew off after thirty seconds or so he supposed that I had got some great pictures of the back of his head.
The bird flew to a more distant tree and then dropped down into the bushes and undergrowth. The birders congratulated themselves on the good views and how the wait was worthwhile and began to drift off having got their ticks. Two or three birders stayed and I moved to the area where it flew to. After another wait those birders moved off to another part of the site. I remained, stood still and quiet and eventually the bird flew from hiding and settled on a perch in good light, and in full view. I was perhaps thirty metres away and got onto the bird almost straight away, getting some photographs before it flew off and I left it in peace.
When I go to the Highlands of Scotland for photography I hire a wildlife guide to take me to places where my target species are likely to be – he has notebooks and diaries that cover over thirty years of time spent in Scotland and elsewhere. In many ways he is my mentor for wildlife photography, fieldcraft and the ethics of the countryside. One of his principles is to allow the subject to arrive and depart of its own free will.
A birdwatcher’s code has been produced by a partnership of several organisations involved with wildlife and whilst quite specific to birds can be extended and adapted to all areas of observing the natural world on the ‘don’t trample that orchid’ principle’. I urge you to follow, or at least be sympathetic, to the code:
Birds respond to people in many ways, depending on the species, location and time of year. Disturbance can keep birds from their nests, leaving chicks hungry or enabling predators to take eggs or young. During cold weather or when migrants have just made a long flight, repeatedly flushing birds can mean they use up vital energy that they need for feeding. Intentional or reckless disturbance of some species at or near the nest is illegal in Britain. Whether your particular interest is photography, ringing, sound-recording or birdwatching, remember that the interests of the bird must always come first.
Avoid going too close to birds or disturbing their habitats – if a bird flies away or makes repeated alarm calls, you’re too close. And if it leaves, you won’t get a good view.
Stay on roads and paths where they exist and avoid disturbing habitat used by birds.
Think about your fieldcraft. Disturbance is not just about going too close – a flock of wading birds on the foreshore can be disturbed from a mile away if you stand on the seawall.
Repeatedly playing a recording of birdsong or calls to encourage a bird to respond can divert a territorial bird from other important duties, such as feeding its young. Never use playback to attract a species during its breeding season.”
So there you have it folks, I don’t think any well meaning nature enthusiast can stand over the behaviours described above. Yes, people may get excited, yes people may not realise that their one action that disturbs a sensitive wildlife species doesn’t add up as part of all the other disturbance incidents caused by others. And maybe some people just don’t give a damn as long as they get that tick on their bird list, or a beautiful photo. But please, I urge anyone that sees this type of behaviour in the field in future to call it out and explain why it’s just not on!
A lot goes on behind the scenes at Ealing Wildlife Group that isn’t posted publicly. For several years now, we’ve been watching, monitoring and keeping tabs on some of the rarer wildlife species in or near the borough of Ealing. Where threatened or endangered species may be prone to disturbance or persecution we’ve made it our priority to keep an eye, check in with other local experts, get in touch with landowners, developers and the ranger team to make sure that vulnerable wildlife is protected. And for several years now we’ve been watching a few pairs of peregrine falcons on the periphery or just outside the Borough getting on with their daily lives, and in a couple of cases breeding successfully. All with the hope that some day we’d see this incredible raptor species move in to Ealing proper, and expand their range.
Well, the last couple of months has seen a rising number of reports of peregrine falcon sightings around Ealing Hospital. And sure enough, there’s a pair roosting on the West face most days. The falcon, or female bird, much bigger than the male known as a tiercel, has a ring on each leg. On her right, a small silver British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) ring. And more excitingly, on her left leg, an orange ring with a more obvious alphanumerical code. Our talented photographers have been out checking on them and finally we received a photo confirming her ring number from Steve Morey. Using that unique identifier, we got in touch with the licensed ringer who fitted this ring. It turns out our falcon was born in a quarry near Farnham in Surrey in 2018, and ringed as a well grown chick with her two siblings on the 28th May 2018 by a BTO licensed ringer. It wasn’t recorded whether she was a male or female at the time as the chicks were all similar in size. But now we can tell she is a female as she is much larger than her mate, a trait common in birds of prey.
Peregrine falcons are a globally widespread bird of prey, traditionally occupying habitats like sea cliffs and preying on the ancestor of domestic pigeons, the rock dove. In the 1950’s and 1960’d the global population crashed due to accumulation of agricultural pesticides in the food chain, namely DDT. Because they are apex predators, feeding on birds who in turn feed on agricultural grains and insects, the levels of these harmful chemical built up in peregrine tissues and caused breeding failure. They weren’t rendered infertile, but their egg shells became very thin and often broke, resulting in a global failure of the population to successfully raise chicks. When the use of these pesticides was banned enough peregrines had just clung on to make a slow recovery over the following decades. In many respects, it was the release of the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962 which shone a light on the destruction of wildlife by the agrochemical industry which saved the peregrine falcon and many other species. She died in 1964 aged 56 so didn’t live to see the wildlife population recovery she prompted, but her book is recognised as one of the most influential books of the twentieth century.
Tall buildings and feral pigeon populations in urban areas nowadays mimic their natural habitat quite closely and as the population has recovered we’ve seen a movement of these magnificent raptors into cities and towns, where they find suitable ‘rock ledges’ to nest on and plentiful food supplies. But they are still persecuted by gamekeepers, racing pigeon fanciers and egg collectors. There is also a lucrative market for peregrine chicks to be used as falconry birds in the Middle East. So it’s important that their nest sites are protected, and in some cases where they are very vulnerable, kept entirely secret.
Many conservation bodies have discovered that sometimes the best way to protect vulnerable species is not to hide them away however, it’s to tell the public all about them and generate a community of people around them who will advocate for them, monitor them and feel a sense of ownership for ‘their’ birds. And in this case with our new peregrine pair on such a public building as Ealing Hospital, we feel that’s exactly the right approach. They are already in full view of Ealing residents. They are an apex predator, a great indicator species for the health of our local ecosystems and bird life, and what a fantastic species to engage the public with nature. Literally the fastest animal on the planet, with speeds of up to 200mph in a hunting stoop to capture other birds in flight. So let’s celebrate our newest wild residents!
How can we help?
We have been in touch with several other building managers or developments to discuss installing a nesting box or platform on rooftops in Ealing, and now have contacted the facilities manager at Ealing Hospital too. Luckily, they are already aware of the falcon pair and being careful not to disturb them,. One of the benefits they’ve seen already is the reduction of feral pigeon numbers around the hospital which are unfortunately a health hazard with their droppings if they occur in high numbers.
We’re hoping to collaborate to install a nest box in early 2021 to help these birds breed here and establish the hospital as a permanent breeding site. 2021 would be about the right time for our female P4V to breed for the first time, in her third year. This year the pair seem to roosting on the hospital and establishing their bond ready for breeding next year hopefully.
Naming the pair…
One of the ways we can engage the community with wildlife conservation in the borough and take an interest in protecting these birds, and by association our important habitats nearby, is to name the pair and make them something on an Ealing wildlife mascot. We’ve been busy collecting suggestions on our Facebook group, so now’s the time to put it to a public poll
Did you know it’s Hedgehog Awareness Week? Well it is, so here are our top tips for attracting and helping these prickly garden visitors, who sadly are in decline in the UK.
Build A Hedgehog Highway
One of the challenges facing hedgehogs in urban areas is getting around enough gardens at night to forage. Solid walls and fences don’t help when you need to travel up to a mile in one night to find enough food. So cut a hole or leave a gap about the size of a music CD in each of your garden boundaries. Encourage your neighbours to do the same so each little island of garden habitat is connected and hedgehogs can get around.
Stop The Slug Pellets
These (and all other garden chemicals) are not only harmful to pests eating your precious plants, but anything else that eats them afterwards. Like hedgehogs, amphibians and the beautiful but declining Song Thrush. There are just as effective organic or chemical-free solutions to slug control. My favourite is a biological control that uses tiny parasitic nematodes that kill slugs but don’t harm anything else. Beer traps also work well, and the slugs die happy. Or you could just garden with plants that are great for wildlife and not so prone to slug damage?
Build A Log Pile
Stack logs, branches and woody cuttings in a pile in a quiet area. Leave a large cavity in the centre and some gaps a hedgehog might be able to squeeze through. Not only will it provide a potential hedgehog home but rotting wood is an important habitat for insects and other invertebrates, hedgehog food! You may also attract newts, toads, slow worms and even stag beetles! The more dead wood you can include in your garden habitat the better.
A shallow dish of fresh water can be a lifesaver to a thirsty hedgehog in the summer months. If you can create a small container pond or full-on wildlife pond even better, but make sure there are ways for hedgehogs to scramble out of a pond if they fall in. Ponds with steep, slippery sides are a death trap for hedgehogs and other wildlife so create a beach area in the shallows or pile up some logs, branches and plants near the side just in case.
Check Compost Heaps & Bonfire Piles
These piles of material can make excellent homes or temporary shelters for hedgehogs too. Always check them carefully before sticking a garden fork in them or lighting that fire.
Make A Feeding Station
With a few simple supplies you can create a hedgehog restaurant that excludes larger diners like cats and foxes. You could even set up a trail camera and see who comes to visit your garden at night. Fun for all the family!
Log Your Sightings
To allow conservation organisations to build up a picture of where hedgehog hot spots are and where they are in trouble, we need the power of Citizen Science! So log your sightings of hedgehogs here and here. We’d also love you to post any sightings or photos you have on Facebook for our members to enjoy.
As the future of group activities looks uncertain with Covid-19 lockdown in place, one question we’ve been asked a number of times in recent weeks is whether there will be any bat walks in the season ahead. It doesn’t look like we’ll be able to lead any sizable group walks any time soon. But all is not lost for you batty fans!
As our Dawn Chorus walk showed, virtual walks and activities are still an option. And a couple of weeks ago I took my bat detector out on my daily exercise at dusk, and transmitted through Facebook Live to see if it would work. And it did!
Bats in May
Now May and warmer weather are here bats are getting really active, feeding on flying insects, replacing lost energy reserves from hibernation and soon giving birth to tiny new baby bats. In fact May is the month most females will be heading to their communal maternity roost. Like a giant bat creche where they all have their babies. We’re lucky in Ealing to have lots of green space and wildlife corridors that bats (and other wildlife) need to survive and thrive. And we need to protect these spaces as best we can. Bats are an indicator species for the health of our wider habitats and ecosystems, so that’s why we’ve focused so much of our monitoring and public educational activities on them.
We’ve recorded 7 confirmed species in Ealing over the course of 38 public bat walks and many outings from members of our EWG bat pack over the past 4 years. And we’re providing all of our bat data to London Bat Group and the Bat Conservation Trust. It’s also an asset going forward for site specific development issues. The species we have confirmed in Ealing to date are as follows:
Brown Long Eared
Bats have fascinating biology, behaviour and habits, they’re much misunderstood. They are secretive and come out at night when we can barely observe them. Kids enjoy staying up late to see them, and a bat walk combines nature with technology. What’s not to love?
I don’t know of anyone who’s experienced bats flying overhead with an electronic detector in hand to listen to their high pitched calls who hasn’t been thrilled or fascinated.
So I’m going to try to schedule a series of virtual bat walks via Facebook live this batty season, so at least if we can’t go watch them together we can have the next best thing.
If you haven’t joined our Facebook group, what are you waiting for? That’s where we’ll transmit the live walks, and the event dates will be posted on there soon as well as on our website.
In the meantime, if you’re having bat withdrawal symptoms, here’s a couple of entertaining bat shaped videos on our YouTube channel:
I look forward to seeing and chatting with you on a Virtual Bat Walk very soon! And if you have any comments or questions, do let us know.