Friday, 23 May 2014

Jasper: A little bird's tale.

Every once in a while life throws you something that you didn’t see coming but the experience of which will stay with you forever more.  Such an event happened to me last weekend in the form of this little chap.

Meet Jasper.

This is Jasper, a baby nuthatch which came into my care on the day of our country fair at Mottisfont, last Saturday.  The sun was shining and the day was going brilliantly with lots of people enjoying the different stands, from the cider tasting to the have a go tractor.  Michelle and I were manning the Caravan of Love and doing marshmallow toasting and bug hotel making (both of which were as much a hit with the adults as they were with the kids) when Dylan came over to ask me to come and see what a visitor had found.  I followed him to one of our big Sweet Chestnut tree’s which stand in the grounds and there, hunched into the bark at the bottom was a tiny, baby nuthatch, fallen from the nest hole. 

Now it is fairly common to find fledgling birds sitting in hedgerows at this time of year, looking like they have been abandoned or lost but that are in fact, still being cared for by its parents.  Blackbirds, Thrushes, Robins and many birds will keep feeding the young that fall out the nest as long as it is nearby.  However this is harder to do with high tree dwelling birds like woodpeckers and nuthatches that nest up in holes and cavities.  The likelihood of the chick being able to climb all the way back up to the nest is very low.  With this in mind, having looked around for any sign of its parents and seeing none and with the knowledge of just how many cats roam the gardens of Mottisfont I made the snap decision and scooped up the little chick (the whole human scent on the bird putting off its parents is actually a myth; birds have a very poor sense of smell).  

So there I was nuthatch in hand, partially bald and with feathers sticking out at funny angles (the bird, not me) and I was suddenly all it had to rely on.  I went immediately and found some earthworms and to my surprise and delight, the minute I dangled them over his beak he cheeped and opened wide and gobbled them all down, one after the other.

Good start! If a baby animal is willing to eat then it still has strong fight left in it.  I made a temporary nest for him (I say him, but you can’t tell with nuthatches) in a paper cup whilst I finished the country fair and then whizzed off to get a supply of mealworms.  

Mealworms soaked in water proved a hit and Jasper took as many as I could feed him, peeping loudly and baby beak open wide as if he still had to fight for food against his siblings.  I have a few old nests that I’ve collected over time and I chose the mud lined blackbirds nest, with some hamster bedding for warmth, as his new home.  He would sit in it quite happily, blinking at the world and waiting for the looming shadow that meant food was here. 
I fed him at hourly intervals, or more if he started calling for it and I witnessed the hilarious wonder of baby bird hygiene;  every time he was fed, he would then whip round, point his feathered bottom up over the side of the nest and out would shoot a little poo pellet, over the edge.  Chicks do this in order to make sure the nest stays clean of poo and the fact that he was doing it showed all his natural instincts were still strong within.  

Looking up for his next meal to appear.
 It was the usual perfect timing that I was actually due to go to a party up near Bristol that first night so I packed up Jasper and his nest into a small box and took a supply of mealworms and off we went.  Needless to say he was a bit of a talking point, but I was able to tuck him away in a glass fronted cabinet (safe out the reach of cats and children) and feed him every hour during daylight.  When night came he put his head under his wing and went to sleep, leaving me free to party on….until I came to go to bed at dawn, when the rising sun awoke him just as I was going to sleep, and I ended up getting up every hour to feed him whilst trying to ignore the need for hungover unbroken sleep and quietness.  Throughout that day he would start to nestle in the nook of my arm and doze between feeds and his last feed of the evening saw him take only one mealworm and then close his eyes and lean his head on my thumb - it was obviously past his bed time!

By Monday he was getting more active and would happily run up and down my arm and my top, practicing clinging on with his skeletal, long toes which are what allows nuthatches to run up and down trees the way they do.  At work he would sit on my shoulder and back whilst I was at my desk or whilst I was out and about walking.  When I had physical work to do I put him back into his nest to avoid him being squashed.  
See his long grippy toes? Brilliant for tree climbing.
 Each day that passed I could see the changes, a few more feathers would appear, his tail started to bulk out and his colouring seemed to deepen. He developed more sounds, from just having a baby cheeping cry to a sort of annoyed 'tch tch tch!' which he would make when he was offered one mealworm too many and he would turn his head away from it.  He still had two funny fluffy baby feathers that stuck out his head like crazy Einstein hair, but which were firmly attached.

Tuesday and Wednesday saw Lee, Laura and I go to the Isle of Wight on a 2 day grassland forum hosted by the local National Trust and it was on this trip that Laura came up with the name Jasper for him. Of course this timing meant again, I had to take Jasper with me and so he swiftly became the most well-travelled nuthatch in all the land and made the crossing from the mainland.  
The forum was excellent, we had 2 days of walking around their different grassland sites being shown how they managed them, grazed them, things that worked and things that didn’t.  There were NT people there from all across the South of England and everyone shared ideas and opinions and experiences from their own sites.  For the first day, which was very windy up on the hills were we walked, Jasper kept himself tucked in under my fleece and jacket, nestling in against my collar bone.  I would unzip the coat and pop him a few mealworms when required, to keep him quiet and happy and in return he would stick his fuzzy bottom out and expel a poo onto the floor.  Then I would zip back up to keep the wind out and he was so quiet and content that no one knew he was there until the evening when he was out and sitting on my shoulder at the campsite. 
Still there? Just checking.

 As we drove around from site to site Jasper would sit up on my shoulder preening himself vigorously, shedding baby bird dandruff and feathers as he continued to grow plumage.  Watching him scratching his head with his foot, only to topple off the shoulder as he lost his balance and had to scrabble back up amused Lee, Laura and I no end.  He was a very bold and charismatic bird, seemingly quite content with his lot. When we turned the truck’s air con on full blast he would stand up straight and flap his wings, trying to fly but still unable to manage it. He would lean into the G-force as we went round corners like a pro rally driver and he would also start to peck at my shoulder or my head as if I were a juicy nut to crack, or a piece of bark that might expel a tasty bug.  If he hopped off around the truck exploring, a squeaking noise from my pursed lips would bring him back for his next meal.  I think he kept mistaking my earring for a mealworm as it has a long wooden tapered point that hangs down and Laura kept creasing up laughing as he tried to eat it. 
Laura was concerned that he wasn’t hearing enough nuthatch noise, so she played him the call of a nuthatch from an app on Lee’s phone – he didn’t seem to make too much of it, but did listen with his head cocked to one side, as if dredging up a memory.
Practicing his pecking - on my head.

On the second day of the trip the weather improved and he was able to sit out on my shoulder more as we went round the sites.  I was cautious though, that he shouldn’t fledge on the Island as I wanted him to go back to where he came from, but luckily he was still unable to fly.  Paul, one of the Isle of Wight team, gave me some tips on teaching him to hunt for himself, and many of the other visiting NT folk took photos of him – he became quite a celebrity!

And so two days passed and on our way home on Wednesday evening, Jasper preened himself more vigorously on my shoulder, kept stretching his wings and then started giving fluttery hops from me to the seat, to Laura, back to me.  He seemed to be achieving a bit of air as oppose to just plummeting straight down and I suspected he was beginning the first wing flaps to flight.  

That evening, back at home he favoured my head to sit on now, instead of my shoulder, possibly because it was higher. He also made some good attempts at flying, sometimes getting it right and landing on my head, sometimes missing and sailing over the top and crashing.  As I went around the house unpacking and sorting stuff out, he rode around, hopping between my head and my shoulder and still preening.  Then as I was hanging out my washing in a room he fluttered from me and onto the hat stand where he instantly nestled down in the fold of a scarf.  Ah ha! I thought – he is displaying his own nesting instinct, flying to the most tree like thing I own (hat stand) and finding a nook to sleep in.  This was a sure sign that he was maturing and I turned the light off and left him there.

Can you spot him nestled in the hat stand?

 Thursday morning I was awoken by his cheeping cry and found him standing on the very top of the hat stand calling.  I took him on my shoulder and as I made breakfast he flew from curtain to curtain confidently, clinging on and running downwards like a true nuthatch and I knew the day had come.

On the way to work he hopped from my shoulder onto the steering wheel and sat happily watching the road ahead (I do wonder if other driver’s noticed!) and enjoying clinging on with his toes as I turned the wheel to drive.  When I went round a roundabout he rode the wheel all the way round until the last bit when he lost his balance and flew off into the gear stick in a fluff of feathers and cheeping.  He soon scrambled up onto my arm and back up onto my head to assume a higher view and sense of authority.

Driving to work - i was unable to get a photo (road safety an' all) so had to draw it, as it was too amusing to miss!)

 We got to work where he was admired by the Thursday volunteers who were admittedly surprised to find a small bird sitting on my shoulder.  He seemed to be pecking at my shoulder more and more which I also took as a good sign that his instinct to hunt and peck at the bark of trees was ever growing.  I wasn’t entirely sure how to do this next bit.  Do I put him on the tree he came from and see if he ran up it?  Do I try putting mealworms on the bark to get him to feed from them?  Do I wait and see if his parents are still around and then see if they hear him call?  

With Jasper on my shoulder I walked towards the tree we found him under still pondering the best course of action.  The grounds were empty as we were not yet open and for the minute it was just us.  I stood in front of the towering Sweet Chestnut and, before I could decide what to do, Jasper peeped a last goodbye in my ear, left me one last poo on my shoulder, then hopped from my shoulder to my head and from there flew straight up into the tree of his birth.
Well!  He had made the decision for me, not even hesitating to know which tree was his and where he came from!  He ran up the trunk pecking at the bark all the way.  As he got higher, I saw several other nuthatches, including an adult, flying around the branches calling and he listened intently before flying to another branch of the tree.  He continued pecking the bark looking for food and started returning the call of the other nuthatches, which may very well have been his siblings, themselves just fledged.  I watched him until he flew into the next tree, a tall pine, and out of my sight, leaving me with a deep sense of satisfaction and happiness, a bird turd on my shoulder and a sudden sense of empty sound – no more cheeping in my ear.  I ambled down the path to my office with my fingers crossed and tried to ignore the sudden silence everywhere i went.

 Throughout the day, I walked past the tree several times and either saw no nuthatches at all, or else several of them all together preening themselves high up in the sun.  I felt a huge sense of relief that he was not sat alone and cheeping for me to feed him – he was obviously off with his family group and back home.  I have kept my eyes peeled again for him today but the weather is so foul that he and his mates must all be sheltering somewhere safe and hidden.  It was only last thing as the sun finally came out, that i spotted, high up in the pine, a group of nuthatches flitting from pine cone to pine cone, pecking out seeds and chattering to each other.

And so there we have it. A little bird’s tale, that blessed me with 6 days of being able to watch the character and instincts of the nuthatch grow and develop first hand and experience for myself the lively, bold quirkiness of this little bird.

So Jasper; live long, live well, remember what I told you about cats and if you ever see me walking by on my way to work –feel free to fly down and say hello.


Chilling on the Isle of Wight; Jasper and Me.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Dukes and Dames

Let me introduce you to two new arrivals into our fold.  Last week Ryan and I travelled to Speltham Down in Hambledon, a small grassland property that we previously used to own.  Residing there, run by the local community, is a community flock of – you’ve guessed it – Wiltshire Horn sheep.  They have a number of ewes about to pop their lambs and they also still have last year’s lambs that are plumping up before heading to the slaughter yard for meat.  Knowing this, and wanting to boost our numbers after the losses of winter, I arranged for us to purchase two of these year old sheep for our flock on Stockbridge.  We arranged to take a ewe of our choice and also one wether (male that has been castrated) as their owner Simon was very fond of him and was hoping to spare him from becoming chops. 

I had been told that these lambs were somewhat tame and would eat out your hand so I envisioned us turning up and merely having to open the truck door and watch them skip in happily, ready to go to their new home.

Needless to say that the minute they realised they were being moved from the fields they had known since birth and being put into a vehicle (something which they had never experienced before), all tameness disappeared and battle commenced.  However with 4 of us on hand we soon got them heaved up into the back of the truck with a bed of straw and some sheep nuts for company.  We closed the cab up and made our way back to Mottisfont hoping they would settle down and, 40 minutes later we had the truck parked in one of our Mottisfont fields ready to unload.  We had to unload them one at a time (difficult when they are in a truck at face height, as they just want to leap out at you) as we had to give them some wormer and fluke drugs to ensure that anything they came with will be killed off and not spread to the rest of the flock.  However with Ryan sitting firmly on each sheep to hold it down we got them dosed and injected and then they were set free into their isolation field where they will remain for a few weeks until they can go to Stockbridge.  I am interested to see how the wether will cope with being the sole male – will he become King of the flock? Or will he be bullied and put in his place by 28 bossy ewes?  I’ll let you know!

The new pair

 Talking of arrivals and visits we had a very important visitor a couple of weeks ago, in the form of Dame Helen Ghosh, the Director General for the National Trust – basically the biggest cheese at the very top of the National Trust tree.  She is a lovely lady, very warm and friendly and easy to talk to – she is full of questions and enthusiasm about what we are doing and showing her.  She has been to Mottisfont previously for a day working round the departments but because she spent the whole day in the pay zone only, she promised to come back and have a day with our countryside department.  And thus, one very wet, miserable day at the end of April, we took her round Stockbridge and Foxbury, showing her the work we had going on, the sheep flock and its community lookers and the ongoing transformation of Foxbury from woodland to heathland.  Unfortunately the weather was atrocious which was pretty gutting.  It’s hard to show off the beauty of a chalk downland site that rises above the landscape when you can’t see the view and every living creature is hiding away from the downpour.  But still, Helen enjoyed it, listened to what we gave her and gave lots back so thanks to her for taking the time to come and see us – come back when it’s sunny so you can see all the butterflies I spoke about!

And the main butterfly we spoke about was the fabled Duke of Burgandy, which Helen was particularly interested in.  I hadn't seen them at all this year but had a feeling that this week, with the High pressure that came in today, could be the week.  So after doing the transect today I nipped into our coppiced spot at the bottom of Stockbridge Down and stood still for about 5 minutes and Bingo! They had returned with the sun and i saw at least 4 of them flitting around. A glorious sight.
Welcome back Dukes!

And from that I of course skip tomore butterfly sightings – on my survey last week, which was fairly poor due to the cool wet weather, but I still got lucky enough right at the beginning to spot 2 Grizzled Skippers mating on a Plantain leaf – result!  

Mating Grizzled Skippers

 Now I was roaming through the Duck Grounds yesterday, putting out more dormouse tubes as this area looks like it has potential.  As I have said before the Duck grounds can be pretty treacherous if you go in winter and don’t keep an eye on where you tread.  I waited until this week, when the waters have receded and the ground has dried a bit and then, initiating the buddy system (if I’m not back by 5pm, call me) I set off into this peaty wet woodland to get the tubes out in suitable trees. 

I managed to put them all up with no sinking disasters, although walking a fallen tree over a peat bog bit was a little bit nerve wracking, but I kept to the deer trails and the higher ground and all was well.  Blazing through the Duck Grounds in this way I was able to see the extent of the damage from the winter storms.  There were a fair few fallen trees and whilst we had cleared the ones that were river bank side or by the boardwalk, there were plenty more that had fallen unnoticed deeper in.  And that’s where I came across this Oak with a stupendous root plate.  For the average size of the tree, this root plate was simply massive – about twice the height of me (5ft 8 by the way) and was a great example of how trees in wetter, less stable soil, may grow a bigger and more spread out root plate in order to help give them purchase in the ground and keep them standing.  Despite this though, it hadn’t been enough for this tree and it had succumbed to the winter storms.  

Big root plate - with me in for scale.

Every cloud has a silver lining though as, nestled within the upturned root plate on a shelf of roots and mud, was a blackbird on her mud lined nest.  She flew to a branch nearby as I approached and so I was lucky enough to be able to peer into her nest and see the tangled mass of bald, pink skin and beaks that are baby birds.  I reckon she had a brood of about 4 or 5 – hard to tell as they were all sound asleep and intertwined with each other and I didn’t want to disturb them.  That’s what I love about roaming through our sites – you will always come across some natural wonder, something of beauty or a symbol of the ongoing cycle of life and the seasons.

There's no denying - baby birds are pretty ugly.  A nice brood of blackbird chicks.

I leave you with a final photo of the Cherry tree that adorns the entrance to the top carpark of Stockbridge Down – I have never seen a blossom of equal colour and vibrancy and it just screams at you to come in, park and take a stroll across the stunning ‘roof of Hampshire’.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

May the Fourth be with you...

 Although both the dates have now past, let me take the opportunity to wish you a happy Beltane, May Day and Star Wars Day (May the 4th….say it out loud).  April to May is one of the best times of year, when flora and fauna abound.  In one glance you can take in greens of every shade and texture on the trees, hawthorn scenting the air near the hedgerows and the rapeseed of the fields glowing golden on the horizon.  Newly fledged birds flutter awkwardly along the field margins as they try and master their wing technique and, as always, the butterflies are constantly flitting in and out of sight, each week bringing more species into flying adulthood and so bringing with them more colour variety as they emerge.  Only today on Stockbridge I saw my first Blue of the season – a stunning little Common Blue that fluttered alone among the Orange tips and Brimstones.  I also spotted two Dingy Skippers for the first time this year – both in areas I hadn’t seen them previously on the Down which is always a promising sign.

Can you spot the Orange tip egg on this Ladies Smock?  Tiny little orange egg in the middle.

 And talking of Stockbridge, the sheep flock are sporting some truly horrific hairstyles as they continue to shed their winter coats.  Some have random hump backs of lifted wool whilst others look like they have been trying out Mohican styles all down their backs.  They do look like a drunken shearer has come and started shearing bits of them and then got bored and wandered off – I can assure you this is not the case, and that this wool loss is all natural to them.  However the sooner they shed the lot the better!  On the plus side I am picking up lots of lovely soft clumps of wool which I need to find a use for…
Chilling in the sun - you can see the shabby hairstyles!

Now I often mention survey work that we do across our estates, be it butterfly, reptile, bird, flora or other things.  There is one animal in particular I am determined to find across our wooded estate at Mottisfont.  It relies on mixed broadleaf woodland, with good understorey and species diversity, but is also heavily reliant on Hazel, Oak and Ash.  It will eat nuts, fruits, flowers and tiny insects and builds its home out of stripped honeysuckle.  Whilst named as a mouse, it is not actually a mouse at all but is a rodent; I am talking, of course, about the Hazel Dormouse.  These are elusive little creatures that look like a miniature ginger hamster, with a long furry tail and prehensile toes.  They are almost entirely arboreal, spending their lives climbing from tree to branch which is why they need a good under canopy structure to enable them to get about – they don’t like crossing open ground but it isn’t unknown for them to do so.  

Our woodlands at Mottisfont host ideal Dormouse habitat in some areas.  We have a lot of mixed woodland, hazel coppice, Ash, Oak, Cherry, bramble, honeysuckle; everything they like to feast on, connecting hedgerows round every field edge and between every woodland (the only major barrier being the river to the East of the estate) – and yet there have been no records of Dormice found here. 
In order to search for dormice, you can put up Boxes and tubes to establish a presence/absence scenario.  Even then though, the Dormice will not always choose these things to nest in, and may prefer to make their nests in a natural place such as in the intertwined branches of honeysuckle.  Also it may take them a few years to find and decide to use the boxes/tubes that are put out for them.
To this end, I want to determine once and for all what we have here as I cannot see how we can’t have them, based on the habitat I know we have.  I bought 50 boxes off the PTES (Peoples Trust for Endangered Species) with whom I have contacts and do some work with, and also had the local countryside college of Sparsholt make another 35 as part of their curriculum. 
Myself, Ryan and Andy, one of our volunteers, put out the first 50 in one of our woodlands.  We spread them throughout the entire woodland, following a grid pattern that ran up and down the length of the site.  Boxes should always be put up along ‘edges’ – near ride edges, hedgerows, margins between different habitats – as this is where Dormice will most likely discover them.
The next 35 were then put up with the assistance of Sparsholt who brought their students out to learn about dormice, the purpose of the boxes they had made, and what makes a good place to fix them.  These were put up in another woodland of ours.
Then, for all the other woodlands across our estate, I had 64 dormouse tubes that were loaned to me by the Hampshire Dormouse Group and which I put out with the help of two work placement students back in March.  The major issue with these boxes and tubes is disturbance.  People spot them and open them up to look inside, thus disturbing the resident.  If this is done too many times, the creature won’t bother nesting in the box and will find somewhere less disturbed.  So please, if you spot any of these boxes on our estate, please resist temptation and do not look inside!
Between the 85 new boxes and 64 new tubes, I must surely determine, one way or another if we have dormice – if there are any furry tailed, ginger rodents on this estate -I will find them.  I hope.
A Tit nest full of eggs - in a dormouse box

A lovely nest to find in the boxes - wren.  They make a fully round nest of moss with a small entrance hole- cosy!

 Leading on from this, is the surveys of the boxes.  This is done throughout the spring to autumn months by licensed surveyors.  I am training for my Dormouse licence and so I go in the company of a lady who already holds her licence and kindly checks our boxes. (April checks we found bird nests in almost every one, which is quite normal for new boxes and that time of year – at least something is living in them!).
I also go along on surveys at other sites and properties in order to get more handling experience of Dormice for my training and last month I went to a private woodland near Andover where Dormouse boxes were present, to help with their survey.

April is usually not a month where you find many, if any, dormice in boxes – but this year, with the mild winter and the warm spring – we got lucky.  5 dormice were found in separate boxes, all in torpor, which is when they are curled up fast asleep in a hibernating like state.  These ones would have been in torpor due to the cold night that passed.  They had obviously been on the move as not one of them had built a nest in the box – they were all found just in the bottom of the box curled up, like they had got in after a night out at the pub and collapsed into sleep where they fell.  One even had a flat sided face as he was squished into the corner of the box!
Dormice in torpor are one of the most sickeningly cute things you will ever see.  They use their furry tails to cover their noses for warmth and if you hold them to your ear you sometimes hear tiny little snores!  I had to resist the temptation to slip one into my pocket as a keepsake.
Fingers crossed that our boxes and tubes at Mottisfont one day hold the same thing…
Beyond. Cute.

 Another type of surveying that has just been done is a kick sample on Stockbridge Marsh.  Sparsholt students came and did kick samples of the tributary river that flows alongside the Marsh, in order to ascertain the water quality.  Kick samples are very simple; you get in the water, hold a large net just in front of your feet and then slowly and continually kick up the sediment for 1-3 minutes.  Then you bring up the net with all it contains and empty it out into a sample tray to see what you have caught.  The invertebrates all have a number status when recorded, that add up to the water quality – things like Stonefly larvae are numbered as 10 as they are only found in the very cleanest waterways.

The samples that the students kicked up showed a fantastic array of invert life – the trays were humming and trembling with the sheer number of things in there, water beetles kicking around, caddis fly larvae creeping over the bottom, freshwater leeches oozing along looking for their next meal, may fly larvae, the list was endless.  They even thought they found a stonefly larva but then they lost it in the mass of things in the tray.  However the end result was that the water was of very good quality (I expected nothing less) and my favourite things to watch are the Caddis fly larvae.  These amazing little creatures build themselves a case like cocoon in which they dwell, and which they stick themselves out the end and drag themselves along with the case on their backs.  Depending on which part of the river the live in, will alter their case accordingly – those that inhabit the flat gravels on the bottom of the river have a case that is made of tiny flat stones, polished smooth by the waters flow.  Those that are found in amongst the vegetation use tiny twigs and bits of leaf for their case – they really are mega adaptable and great fun to watch as they clamber around, sometimes picking up a smaller caddis to add to their own cocoon!

Caddis fly larva in its case of tiny stones and twigs
One final thing – now is the time to walk our 6 mile estate trail that leads you round our Mottisfont countryside estate.  I walked it at the weekend and it is beautiful, with birds such as Whitethroats, Black caps and Yellowhammers all dancing along the hedgerows, grass snakes basking on the field margins and the constant rustle of small mammals scurrying through the fallen leaves.  The Bluebells are still magnificent in places and – well need I say more?  Go and see it all for yourself, you won’t regret it.

Wild Hops in our estate hedgerows - fancy a beer anyone?

Me lurking in the Bluebells of our estate