Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Young Rotherfield visitors inspired by raptors

Bird ringing is a great way to enthuse children about wildlife
by Dr Francis Buner,
Senior Conservation Scientist, GWCT

Have you ever asked yourself why bird ringing is still necessary in a century of fast-advancing tracking technology? Well, if you fancy a very in-depth answer I highly recommend this article written by Ian Newton, one of the most influential ornithologists of the present day.

One of Ian’s many fields of expertise is raptors and although many of these beautiful birds divide opinions – think Hen Harriers for example – I personally admire them.

Being a gamebird conservationist, I am often asked whether I hate raptors. No, is my decisive answer. They are fascinating creatures, truly amazing in their abilities to hunt down prey and certainly one of the true wonders of evolution.

Raptors deserve our respect like any other bird even though, in some circumstances, they can have significant impacts on prey populations: for instance the Sparrowhawk can be quite devastating for Grey Partridges, especially where late winter cover is lacking between February and May.

I would argue that there can’t be many children who aren’t fascinated by raptors - especially owls (thanks to the unprecedented popularity of Harry Potter and other more vintage children’s books) and, probably not by coincidence, the Barn Owl made it to second place as Britain’s National Bird recently.

What better way to open a young person’s mind to the wonders of nature than showing them up close. Of course, we must never disturb birds just for pleasure, but the opportunity to collect useful data such as breeding success, adult survival and dispersal, and combining it with teaching the new generation can’t be a bad thing, can it?

Having the opportunity to hold a Kestrel chick clearly makes these children smile!
So, taking advantage of 19 Barn Owl and 9 Kestrel boxes installed at Rotherfield over the past three years, June is the month to check upon progress (please be aware that a special licence from the BTO is required to do this legally). After last year’s record year, we were eager to know what this year holds in stock. Unfortunately, things are not looking quite as good this year. The cold spring combined with presumably lower abundance of voles has taken its toll on the body condition of parent birds. And this despite all the excellent habitat around!

The tally is three Barn Owl broods with three chicks each plus two barren pairs, five Kestrel broods (3-4 young), one Red Kite brood and an estimated 7-10 pairs of Buzzards, 4-7 Sparrowhawks, 2-3 Little Owls and at least 10 Tawny Owls, whose nests we are unfortunately unable to monitor in great detail owing to a lack of man power.

Additionally a Hobby is regularly seen hunting over Rotherfield, but seems to nest off the project area. All in all still not bad for an area of roughly 1500 ha of mixed farmland and woodland in East Hampshire!

Monitoring raptor numbers is of high importance to illustrate the benefits of our game restoration project and its impacts on other wildlife. Being able to spark some young people’s enthusiasm at the same time makes the hard work all the more rewarding.

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Thursday, 11 June 2015

Conservation habitat needs and deserves the same care as arable crops!

by Dr Francis Buner, Senior Conservation Scientist, GWCT

We are very pleased to report our first brood of Grey partridge this season and cautiously take this as an early good omen for the other 28 pairs that we counted in the spring!

However, in order for the pair to bring their fragile brood through the crucial next few weeks, luck with the weather (see Peter Thompson’s most recent blog) combined with the provision of high quality insect-rich foraging habitat is most crucial.

Habitat mosaic where the first brood of Grey partridges hatched this year.
Insect-rich habitat, which must lie at the heart of any farmland bird conservation project, needs to be sparse enough to allow for easy foraging while still providing enough cover from aerial predators such as Kestrels (we of course encourage these elegant red-listed hunters as much as our gamebirds).

We therefore have gone through a great deal of effort and trouble to get where we need to be at this time of the year. To be honest, not all our habitat intended to provide foraging cover looks as it should do, but we are getting better every year as we learn from our mistakes. In conservation jargon we call this 'adaptive management'.

Location of habitat where first brood hatched from different angle.
At Rotherfield we don’t use conservation headlands as they can create a rat problem and attract extra pigeons if left unharvested (which they should be to provide winter food for farmland birds).

We do of course work hard to control rats all year round, but being located on a mix farm with more than 200 dairy cows, rats are always going to be around unfortunately. We therefore provide our foraging cover in form of uncropped cultivated margins and wild bird seed mixes. The latter also serve as the all essential winter cover.

Key for both types of habitats is that they remain relatively sparse during this time of year to allow the bumble bee-sized chicks easy and dry foraging access. To get things right, a well thought-out management plan needs to be in place.

The preparation of a good seed bed together with the right timing of drilling are key for the successful re-establishment of wild flower mixes, especially where they are grown at the same location over many years.
Ideally each field should have at least one hedge with a wild bird cover strip followed by a cultivated margin alongside one side of the field. As reality is often more complex than that, one should provide suitable nesting, escape and foraging cover within at least 100m to a potential grey partridge nest. So, think where they might nest and put your high quality habitat nearby.

When managing the habitat it is important to do this in a rotation. Never destroy all wild bird mixes in one year but try to re-establish around one third every year instead. At Rotherfield we just re-drilled our wild bird seed mixes last week in early June after some serious preparatory work.

Conservation habitat needs and deserves the same care as arable crops! Fingers crossed we get some more rain (but please not heavy rain!) and no flea beetles to get the habitat growing as it should.

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Thursday, 4 June 2015

A breakfast encounter with a grey partridge pair

by Dr Francis Buner, Senior Conservation Scientist, GWCT

This morning – while sipping on my Italian cappuccino - I was greeted by ‘my’ grey partridge pair just outside my kitchen window.

As you can see, they are ringed like all the partridges around my house. They are part of our grey partridge re-introduction project and the rings of this pair tell me that the male is a parent-reared cock (hatched and reared by a captive-bred grey partridge) and released with his siblings and genetic parents as an autumn-covey in October 2013.

The female is parent-reared as well but was released this January together with another nine hens to make up for the male bias that we had in our still fragile founder population.

All in all, we counted 7 pairs around my house and 29 pairs across the whole estate. The one visiting our garden is currently breeding somewhere across the drive as it is normally only the cock that makes use of the free and easy food provided for our chickens.

This morning he was cavalier enough to take his partner for a well-deserved breakfast. Partridges are very faithful birds as they mate for life and we have good reason to believe that they are much more faithful than many of us humans.

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Monday, 1 June 2015

A garden bursting with farmland bird life

by Dr Francis Buner, Senior Conservation Scientist, GWCT

Farmland hedge managed for Grey partridges
with 4m grass margin & 3 year old wild bird mix
Sitting on my garden bench at the back of my cottage garden on the Rotherfield estate in Hampshire, fills me with great satisfaction and joy as I spend a relaxing half an hour after having returned from an office bound day’s work.

As I relax, I am surrounded by what must be some of the most wonderful wildlife-friendly farmland in Hampshire. I can hear an impressive evening concert of at least half a dozen ascending skylarks over an extended overwintered stubble. And I reflect that when I moved here eight years ago I could hear no more than two!

Extended overwintered stubble
From my garden I can also enjoy the sight of ‘my’ nesting lapwing pair in hot pursuit of our local red kite that is circling over the lapwing’s plot for a potential evening meal. Sadly, one of the lapwing’s four chicks was most likely fed to the brood of Kestrels on the other side of my house - a situation confirmed by my GWCT Wetlands team colleagues who attached a transmitter to one of the chicks only a few days earlier.

Then I spot a sight that I really hoped would end my day - one of the re-introduced grey partridge pairs that must be nesting along the improved farmland hedgerow habitat. This specially created habitat consists of a 4m-wide grass margin and an additional 8m wild bird seed mix, one half of which lies currently bare in preparation of its re-establishment next week.

As the light starts to fade, the pair sneak out onto the bare strip from their daytime cover in search of a suitable spot to have a dust bathe.

Re-introduced Grey partridge pair with colour-rings for individual identification. Photo by Markus Jenny

Just next to me, in my own garden hedge, a yellowhammer is singing its distinctive ‘I I I love you’ (this is how we describe the call in my native Switzerland). It sounds like it is in passionate agreement with how I feel about the place and how very lucky I am to help shape it and be part of it.

In the coming months and seasons we will tell you more of these intimate stories and how we are able to witness them once again, thanks to wildlife-friendly farming, legal predator management and a good portion of persistence. I do hope that you will enjoy hearing about them too and that it will enable you to feel part of this wonderful wildlife journey of discovery on your doorstep.

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