Month: August 2015 (page 1 of 2)

New school year, same issue, a lack of wildlife in schools

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Later this week across the UK and next week across Canada children of all ages will be returning to school after a long summer break (that always goes by incredibly quickly).  Life will return to normal and the usual school run will begin.  I cannot help but wonder how many children did something wild over the summer holidays.  How many spent their holiday looking at wildlife, my optimistic side likes to think most, but I fear it will not be that many.

As a wildlife educator my job is to teach children about wildlife and nature, I try to focus on local wildlife, I have never had a bad response from a child, it seems when nature is put in front of them they love it. Therein seems to lie the problem, nature is not often put in front of children, especially within the education system. Yes they learn biology, yes they learn about climate in geography, however they do not always know about wildlife around them.  It is not the schools fault, wildlife does not seem to be on the agenda within the curriculum which is controlled by the government, if a teacher wishes to teach about wildlife it has to be an extra curricular activity.

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We seem to be living in an age where young people are very aware and knowledgeable about the big issues environmentally such as global warming, however struggle to name 5 common garden bird species.  In an ideal world I would love to see schools being given the funds to offer students trips to wildlife reserves, money to set up wildlife gardens and encourage children to learn the names of species and local wildlife.  Some schools do this, but I would love to see all schools encouraged and most importantly funded to do this.  Perhaps I am a little biased but I think nature is hugely interesting to young people and when they are given the opportunity to learn about it they seize the opportunity with both hands.

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There is no easy fix to the issue, many wildlife charities and organisations are working to provide as much wildlife education as possible; we have a number of forest schools and a range of wildlife reserves but this is still not easy for all young people to access.  It needs a major shift in governments’ mindset, they must take the lead and encourage wildlife education in schools, from a young age.  My fear is many children are being left behind, there is a large demographic that does not have the opportunity to connect with nature.  Each year I see thousands of young people, many of whom do not have the resources to visit natural areas, their only chance of connecting with wildlife is within school.  Therefore it is important for us to keep encouraging outdoor activities, to assist schools and keep pushing to provide opportunities for our school children and young people to connect with wildlife and nature whilst asking more from the government.  There is certainly hope, the internet is filled with some incredible and inspiring young people who are connected and fighting for wildlife and conservation.  We just have to ensure that all children are given the opportunity to experience and learn about the natural world.

Let there be darkness- urban birds suffering from light pollution

A journal this week in Biology Letters has shown that urban birds are affected by street lights.  Now, this is not completely new information, as studies prior to this one have shown other animals including birds behaving differently as a result of man-made light pollution.  However interestingly this study was the first of its kind, as it recorded the stress levels of birds nesting under street lights.  An increased level of the stress hormone corticosterone was recorded, this hormone is known to affect bird behaviour, and can lead to the abandonment of their young.  It was noted that the levels of the stress hormone decreased the further away birds nested from street lights.

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The journal was not all doom and gloom as it did suggest a way we can mitigate the issue; birds have been shown to react differently to different colours.  The research team conducted an experiment using different coloured lighting and testing the birds corticosterone levels.  They studied birds nesting under white, red and green light and those nesting under darkness.  The test showed that the birds had high corticosterone levels under white light, however interestingly under green and red light the stress hormone levels were reduced, with green light showing similar results to the birds that nested in darkness.  This study indicates that whilst current light pollution does increase stress hormones in urban birds, a change in the colour of lighting could make a big difference.  As our population grows and urban areas expand, our towns and cities are fast becoming important habitats for wildlife, by making small changes such as a shift in street light colour, we could be helping the wildlife we share our home with (as well as ourselves, it is right to suggest we too could benefit from a shift away from the normal bright white light).

Bird banding season- beginning of migration

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Swainson’s Thrush

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Common Yellowthroat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As much as it pains me to say it, summer is coming to an end.  As August draws to a close the birds on Vancouver Island (and right across the northern hemisphere) are preparing for autumn and winter. For many birds this means migrating south. I have continued volunteering with a local bird banding (ringing) group, the attentions of the group has changed from monitoring breeding birds to now monitoring migrating birds. The data being recorded allows them to see the changes in migration times and species across southern Vancouver Island. Although it is very early in the season it can already be seen that the birds are migrating slightly earlier than normal this year compared to others. The past couple of days have seen a steady number of birds and species, which is expected to rise as the season progresses. Each bird caught is banded, aged, sexed (when possible), measured and weighed before being quickly released. Some of the species caught include those pictured above, the common resident Swainson’s thrush and common yellowthroat, as well as other species such as the small fox sparrow (a bird very similar to the UK dunnock), which amazingly is believed to migrate to Vancouver Island from western Alaska for the winter!

I plan on keeping up with the bird banding volunteering, and next month will be helping out with the banding of saw-whet owls, which is really exciting!

The group I have been banding with around the Victoria area is the Rocky Point Bird Observatory- http://rpbo.org/

For bird ringing in the UK the best group to look into is the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO)- http://www.bto.org/

Wildlife in the city: 5 places to see wildlife in Victoria

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As much as heading out for an adventure into the wilderness in search of wildlife is fun and exciting, sometimes it is nice to watch wildlife from the comforts of our towns and cities.  Luckily for us our urban areas attract a host of species, and urban wildlife watching offers an easy and hassle free way to connect with nature!

Victoria, on the south coast of Vancouver Island, is home to a huge variety of wildlife, and many species can be seen without having to leave the city.

Have a look at these 5 brilliant places to see wildlife in Victoria, British Columbia:

1. Dallas Road

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Overlooking the Salish Sea, there is a chance of seeing orca, humpback whale, sea lions, seals, birds of prey (including the fastest animal on the planet, the peregrine falcon) and in the winter a huge number of migratory birds; plus many more species, Dallas Road offers some spectacular wildlife watching just a half an hour walk from downtown. Perfect!

2. Mount Douglas

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Whether you hike or drive to the top, or have a leisurely walk around the base.  Mount Douglas Park is crammed with wildlife, the tall lush forest attracts birds such as woodpeckers and owls; whilst at the top vultures and red tailed hawks soar. Salmon can be seen in the creek, and black tailed deer feed along the forest trails.  The thick forest can feel like the wilderness, and it is easy to forget you are still in the city.

3. Mount Tolmie

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As well as great views, a drive to the top of Mount Tolmie has some great wildlife, the area is one of the best spots to see raptors in Victoria . In one afternoon it is not uncommon to see turkey vulture, merlin, Cooper’s hawk, red tailed hawk, bald eagle, osprey and the occasional sharp shinned hawk and peregrine falcon. As well as raptors the area is home to a large number of songbirds and is a good spot in the autumn to see migratory species overhead.

4.  Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary

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Take a gentle stroll across the boardwalks and along the paths around Swan Lake and you will encounter a host of wildlife.  Anna’s hummingbird, bushtits, spotted towhee, barred owls, great blue heronsred-tailed hawk, Cooper’s hawk, lesser scaup, marsh wrens and red-winged blackbirds are just some of the bird species that can be spotted across the sanctuary.  As well as birds, river otter and black tailed deer are frequently seen as well as a number of dragonflies and butterflies.  It is amazing to have such a large number of species on a site located right next to a highway!

5. Beacon Hill Park

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Beacon Hill Park is located between downtown Victoria and the ocean, with a number of different areas and walkways; there are a lot of habitats to explore, in a relatively small space.  The park is home to reptiles such as lizardssnakes, turtles.  A number of migratory waterfowl use the ponds during the winter, and for the summer the area is dominated by great blue herons, who nest in large numbers.  The park has resident bald eagles, and is a great spot to see hummingbirds, during the evening barred owls can be heard calling in the forest, and racoons are often seen throughout the park.  There are a number of wildflower species, that cover the park during the spring and summer, which in turn attracts a large number of butterflies.

These are just a handful of species and places to see wildlife in Victoria.  We are very lucky here to have such a great amount of wildlife right on the doorstep! Do you have any favourite wildlife spots for me to feature?  Or any tips for watching wildlife in an urban area?

Wildlife from my window- the river otter


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Today’s wildlife from my window is about a species that is a rarity in many countries (including the UK), but here on the west coast of Canada it is very common, the river otter.

Despite the name, the river otter can be found in a variety of habitats, I often see them at the beach close to my house, but also at local lakes, rivers, (other) beaches and boat docks.  This diversity of habitat often leads to many cases of mistaken identity with its relative, the sea otter.  Sea otters are found on the west coast of Vancouver Island (best place to see them is the Pacific Rim National Park, http://www.dailynature.net/wildlife-spots-vancouver-island/).

So, sea otters are only found in the sea, however river otters are found in both rivers and the sea.  Nice and confusing, however there are three questions to ask yourself when you encounter an otter on Vancouver Island to see which one it was:

  1. Where did I see it?– This first question can give a big clue of what otter species was seen.  As mentioned sea otters are found mostly off the west coast of Vancouver Island, they are starting to move down towards the south, however sightings are still rare.  So if you saw an otter in Victoria for example, most likely it was a river otter.  We can also go into more detail with this question.  Sea otters are only found out in the ocean, they are not often seen close to land, and hardly ever on the shoreline.  So if you saw an otter on the shore, the beach, on a dock or deck, it was a river otter.  If it was out at sea, then it could be a sea otter.
  2. What did it look like?– Sea otters are larger than river otters, in some cases sea otters can grow up to 1.5 metres in length, whilst river otters are at most a metre.  Other than size,sea otters often have lighter coloured fur on their heads than the river otter.
  3. What was it doing?– Behaviour is a huge indicator for otter identification, as certain behaviours are very different from each other.  River otters swim on their front exposing only a small bit of their back, while sea otters swim on their back, with their front exposed; they float high in the water because of their air-filled fur. River otters predate fish often diving down and catching fish in their mouths.  Sea otters however predate marine invertebrates such as sea urchins , various molluscs and crustaceans, they use rocks to crack open the shells of these invertebrates, and can be seen balancing rocks on their front and hitting the prey against them.

 

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So using these questions we can look at this picture of an otter running away and determine which species it is:

Did you get it?? It is a river otter.

Going from never seeing a wild river otter in the UK, to having a large population right on the doorstep came as a bit of a shock when I moved to Victoria.  They are definitely a fantastic species to see from my window!

UK butterflies at risk from climate change and how you can help butterflies in your garden

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This week it was reported that climate change, more specifically drought caused by climate change, is set to have a much larger impact on butterflies in the UK than previously thought.  Six species of butterfly were listed as being most at risk, the ringlet, large skipper, speckled wood, green-veined whitecabbage white and small cabbage white.  It was once thought that a gradual increase in temperature could actually benefit some butterflies, however a paper in the Nature Climate Change journal, looked specifically at the increase of drought, and counter claimed that native butterfly species could see population losses. The six species highlighted were mentioned as the most susceptible to population decline in extreme drought. Past data from the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme about species response and recovery during the drought of 1995 was used to reach this conclusion.

The study is incredibly interesting, as not only does it show the possible effects of drought, it also looks at the impact that habitat fragmentation (habitat loss reduces large, continuous habitats into smaller, more isolated pockets) has on the population and recovery of the butterflies.  It showed that in areas with large expansive habitat and less habitat fragmentation, the butterfly population was less damaged, with quicker recovery .  Not only does the study show the impact of climate change, it puts across a strong argument for habitat restoration and recovery, and the importance of linking habitat across the British countryside for butterfly conservation (as well as the conservation of all species).

So, this is where we can help.  Habitat restoration and recovery creates wildlife corridors for butterflies, this might seem complex and may seem as though this habitat must be huge areas of woodland and meadow, and although this would help, it actually can include a vital habitat often overlooked, the garden or outdoor space.  Our gardens, no matter how big or small are perfect wildlife corridors, a wildlife friendly garden can provide many species with the vital habitat it needs, and link patches of countryside together through an urban area.

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Now it is all well and good for me to tell you how to help butterflies, but I need to practise what I preach.  Butterflies on Vancouver Island (where I live) are facing similar issues.  So in my tiny piece of outdoor space, I will do my research and find a perfect plant to pot for butterflies.  I am calling it my ‘Butterfly Garden Challenge‘ and I would love others to get involved and help create a network of habitat for butterflies.

You can find the journal here (very long link): http://www.nature.com/articles/nclimate2746.epdf?referrer_access_token=vrHB1p9n3vxrdObHz2-NMdRgN0jAjWel9jnR3ZoTv0MZU7giqESBktZ7UWXZD8w0sr7PYrt7EAj2WRfKsYTfhLNAh05CJ5BKNkW6KraaHqN2G-bk9_KXlwh8JcOy9HnP1XBHSYMZiU9hAs5BGLhcJiz6wqgWq2UdCx0lT21OKhTer1pgT28A3o6riexu_SQXRZjHwl2VGys–txm6BiAnPMoHbtPu5cm5qn7yr2bPKOqdGG-75rABrzW5pA7zOVbXqrVx71dOvAK0ZR9RDuJF99bVMS2pEq9QhJaSEn2xIfahiAxKdoisBJbDqF7Tw4V&tracking_referrer=www.theguardian.com

Also have a look at the Big Butterfly Count; http://www.bigbutterflycount.org/

Success for British cranes as first wild young for 400 years in the West Country fly

Conservationists across Britain are celebrating this week, as the first cranes to be born in the wild in the West Country  for 400 years have flown.  Thanks to the ongoing efforts of the Great Crane Project a once common bird is making a long-awaited comeback in Britain.  This represents a big step towards the target of getting 20 breeding pairs of cranes in the South West of England by 2025.  Currently cranes are mostly found in East Anglia, although in small numbers.

5 places you can see the rare crane in Britain:

  1. Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Hickling Broad Reserve.
  2. RSPB Lakenheath Fen Reserve in Suffolk.
  3. Pensthorpe Nature Reserve in Norfolk.
  4. WWT Slimbridge Reserve in Gloucestershire.
  5. Somerset, mainly focused around Aller Moor near Stathe.

Here is a video from the RSPB showing some footage of the magnificent crane!

Wetland restoration week

TGIF definitely comes to mind as an exciting but very busy week draws to a close.  This week I have been helping out at a wetland restoration project for Northwest Wildlife Preservation Society at their bird and wildlife sanctuary in Cobble Hill, Vancouver Island.

Here is a little bit on how we did the restoration:

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Prior to our work, the site was incredibly overgrown.  The plan was to create 3 ponds within the wetland, whilst keeping as much vegetation as possible. The area is important for red-winged blackbirds, marsh wren and black bear.  With the new ponds we hope to increase species diversity, and provide vital habitat for endangered species such as the red-legged frog.

IMG_7646The wetland, as the name suggests, is wet.  This causes a few issues when attempting to use a massive digger to dig ponds.  The contractor, however had done many similar projects and assured us that using logs, almost as a giant raft, will keep the digger afloat in order to complete the work.  After placing 8 logs onto the ground, the digger was driven onto them.  The contractor then would take one log from the back, and place it at the front, and slowly move forward, then take another from the back and place in to the front, and again move forward.

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Whilst the digging was underway, we had a chance to grab our wellies and tentatively ventured onto the wetland.  It is not often you can actually go inside a wetland and despite falling into it a couple of times, we managed to find this lovely nest (do not worry, the fledglings are long gone), of what we believe to be a marsh wren, you can actually see where the bird has woven together pieces of reed to keep all of the feather, down and soft plant material together.

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As the work continued the ponds were dug, and connected to each other by small channels.  The material was left to the side and this is where we will be planting a number of native wetland species, when Vancouver Island finally gets some rain.  Above, you can see the digger floating on the logs, as mentioned, like a giant raft.

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Spare logs were propped up and hammered into the ground, to create some perches and additional habitat for wildlife. This picture shows one of the ponds, after it was completed.  In time the vegetation will regrow around the ponds, giving the wildlife privacy within the marsh.  The project has been planned and discussed for almost 2 years, and it has been exciting to take part in it.  As we left the site, a pair of sandpipers could be seen on the edge of pond number two and ducks were dabbling on pond number one.  Now the ponds have been dug, we will continue to work on planting in the area, and attempt to keep out a number of invasive species (easier said than done), whilst encouraging as much native wildlife to the site as possible.  Our next project is cameras so we can see exactly what is using our site, so stay tuned for that!

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Britain is voting again, this time for our favourite insect

In a year where we have been asked to vote for our national bird, favourite flower and of course our government, Britain has been given the chance to vote again, this time for our favourite insect.  Now having all these wildlife votes may seem a little strange, but they are highlighting species that are often overlooked, and giving us a chance to have a conversation about native species, in this case, insects.  It also helps to give us a little bit of appreciation towards our wildlife and the diversity we have in the UK.  The insect vote has been set up by the Royal Society of Biology, and is a pretty impressive list.  It is actually quite difficult to pick, the list includes some more common garden species such as the small tortoiseshell and the ladybird, to more uncommon species such as the stag beetle.

I have already voted, and I chose the stag beetle.  I am far from an expert on insects, and it is something I am working on, but there are two insect species I have seen that really left a lasting impression; the hummingbird hawk moth and the stag beetle.  I have only seen stag beetles on around 3 or 4 occasions; the first time I saw them was in Leicestershire at an outdoor centre called Conkers, near Ashby-de-la-Zouch.  We were walking along the path and noticed these 2 huge insects fighting.  After identifying them as stag beetles (they are very easy to i.d as their size is much larger than any other UK beetle) we watched the 2 males use their impressive jaws to fight, when seeing the jaws and the way they fight, you can really see why they named them after the stag.  We watched them for a while until one male gave in and scuttled away.  This beetle left such an impression because of its size, and its stature, they hold themselves in a very grand way (I realise that sounds like a strange way to describe a beetle), but they really do, they seem to know they are top of the pile and they own it.

Because they rely on old trees and rotting wood to live in and feed on when they are larvae, and take up to 6 years to develop before they pupate and become adults, stag beetles are at risk from extinction in the UK.  This species is suffering from habitat loss and fragmentation, often rotting wood is destroyed before the larvae can develop into adults.  The attention they might get from this vote will highlight their plight, and help us to look at ways to save the mighty stag beetle.

You do not have to agree with me though! Every species on the list would be a worthy winner, have a look and vote for your favourite here: https://www.rsb.org.uk/get-involved/biologyweek/favourite-uk-insect-poll and whilst you are there, let the Royal Society of Biology know about your flying ant day, they are collecting information and doing research on the flying ant.  Instructions for this come once you have voted.

 

Celebrating super natural British Columbia

 

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Today is BC Day and across British Columbia (BC), British Columbians are enjoying a long weekend whilst celebrating our wonderful province.  The slogan on our license plate reads ‘beautiful British Columbia’ whilst the tourist board likes to call it ‘super natural British Columbia.  The province certainly lives up to these slogans, so I thought I would do a small blog to celebrate just some of the wildlife we have in British Columbia.

For someone from the UK, it is often hard to get the true scale of Canada, to put the size of British Columbia into scale, it is 4 times the size of Britain, and BC is Canada’s third largest province.

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British Columbia has the greatest biodiversity of any province or territory in Canada, with a wide range of ecosystems spread throughout the province.  It is home to some of the world’s rarest temperate rainforest, which contain North America’s oldest trees.  The Pacific coastline is nutrient rich and home to some of the best marine life on Earth, the province is the last frontier for some mammal species in Canada, such as the grizzly bear, and home to some endemic species like the Vancouver Island marmot.  The Rocky Mountains create a solid spine through the province; they begin in the south, where you can find Canada’s only desert, the Rockies continue north to the boreal forests, home to the illusive Canada lynx.  As mentioned the Pacific coastline is nutrient rich and where the temperate rainforests are found, this forest is Canada’s Amazon, filled with species from coastal wolves to black and grizzly bear; the oceans are filled with marine life such as sea otter, humpback whale, orca and the Pacific salmon; whose migration keeps the forest and oceans alive.

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I feel very lucky to be given the opportunity to live and work in British Columbia, what I find wonderful about the province is that despite living here for 3 years and visiting for many years before that, I still feel I have only scratched the surface.  There is so much to see and do, living here however, can mean you start to take it for granted.  Days like BC Day are great for reminding us that we are really lucky to live in such a wonderful place!

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