Sunday, 10 July 2011

coot watch

Glad to see the coot chick is still going strong, and is now almost as big as the adults (although still clearly a chick with its fluffy plumage). I now feel confident it is large enough to hold its own and not be picked off as something's breakfast. Although I had a moment of panic this morning when I could only see the adults... until I heard the now familiar peep peep (audible in some of this clip) and the chick came into view.

The one chick out of ten who made it!  The first five eggs all disappeared before hatching. I was delighted to see that the coots managed a second nestful of five, four of which hatched, one of which survives ... Here were the four who hatched out - not sure which our survivor is!

Sunday, 3 July 2011

RSPB Coombes Valley

As a thank you to all the Birds Friendly Schools volunteers, the RSPB organised a trip to their reserve at Coombes Valley, near Leek, in Staffordshire.
A minicab picked up six of us from Stoke station and took us to the reserve, slowly climbing higher and higher until we had a glorious view of the Staffordshire hills. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and about 20 volunteers and their families met up to celebrate the success of the Birds Friendly Schools Project, run in the West Midlands by Anna Keen. Anna introduced us to her RSPB colleagues, some of whom were lucky enough to have a residential placement at the Coombes Valley reserve.

As soon as we arrived, we saw a nuthatch on the feeders, and two buzzards soaring overhead. Two pairs have been seen at the reserve and it is a good place for other raptors such as sparrowhawks. Goshawks and red kites have also been spotted.

Anna summarised the impact of the Birds Friendly Schools project, telling us we had reached 4000 children. This is really positive and I hope that the project can continue next year.

Guided walk
Two enthusiastic and friendly guides took half of us on a guided walk of the reserve. We looked out across the valley, as Laura told us how it been carved out by glacial floodwater, in the relatively short time of 200 years. The reserve is a great place to see pied flycatchers, wood warblers and redstarts - we weren't lucky enough this time, but there were plenty of birds in the wood singing, and we heard coal tits, jays, great tits, and a nuthatch.  The reserve is a mixture of oak woodland and meadows, and our walk took us down the hill to the main source of water, a stream, where a trout was spotted. There are also many varieties of plant, including common spotted orchid, which was by the stream side.

barn owl box
The reserve is home to a variety of insects, including bats, butterflies, and reptiles, weasels, otters, badgers, foxes, red deer, and grass snakes. There are an amazing 500 bird boxes around the site, including this one for barn owls, and some bat houses. There were some beautiful plants such as pink purslane and vetch.
willow weevil
Bug hunt
cuckoo spit
In the afternoon we were given the chance to try our hand at several outdoor activities - these things are definitely not just for children! Tina, a field studies teacher, took us to the meadow where we learnt how to hunt for bugs - it involved taking a sweep net and making several sweeping movements with it through the

long grass. When we had checked to make sure we hadn't trapped a wasp or bee, we could carefully look inside the net and discover which insects were in there. There were a lot of flies about, and we also saw some froghoppers, bugs that hop like a frog, and start life inside what is known as "cuckoo spit." Part of the woodland walk had a large area with the vegetation covered in these white bubbles, which Tina told us the froghopper nymphs produce and stay hidden inside, until they are ready to emerge as adults.

Pond dipping
We then moved on to pond dipping, which I really enjoyed. The reserve is a good place for damselflies and dragonflies and I saw several blue and red damselflies over the pond. It was great fun to scoop out some creatures with a net and to identify them from a chart, and I learnt that I had found a damselfly nymph, which you could identify from similar creatures by looking closely at its tail and head shapes.

Finally, a few of us followed Anna into the cool of the woodland and we got creative, with some clay. People who had been there before us had made some animals and faces out of clay on the trees, so I gave it a go and came up with a bug!

It was great to meet the other volunteers, and to find out how they had enjoyed the Birds Friendly Schools project as well. It is always affirming to meet with other people who care about wildlife in the same way and who appreciate what is around them, and how important it is to care for it.

If you are interested in visiting Coombes Valley, Hannah gave me a leaflet on several activities such as those we had been doing, which are coming up over the next few months, which are listed on the website. Who knows what you will see!

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Buzzard encounter

I was walking Milo, the collie, in the local, beautifully secluded woodland behind the house. It is a really peaceful spot, and I value having such a natural place on my doorstep, where I can just step away from the sounds of the city (well, most of them).  Just recently I saw a buzzard there, which was very exciting, as I had not realised that they are now living in cities as well, and had not expected to see one in Birmingham.

Five minutes after arriving in the woodland, I heard the cat-like cry of the buzzard - it is distinctive, a sort of meeaw which you can hear here, at the RSPB site. All of a sudden, a bird thudded down onto the path ahead of us, flump! and for a second I thought it was a baby buzzard, fallen out of the nest. It seemed to have big feet. I soon realised it wasn't moving, so I put Milo on his lead and ventured to have a look. I could see it was dead, and on closer inspection it was clear why: it was a headless pigeon. That's right, a pigeon without a head. There was no blood gushing everywhere, so I wondered if it was something which had fallen out of the buzzard's nest. I went along the path in great excitement, and then stopped for Milo to potter in the side. There was a rustle in the trees overhead. I looked up, high, into the tall branches and there, right over my head, was the buzzard. It sat, staring down at me, those amazing eyes watching me looking up at it!  It was fantastic to see it so close-up, but in the next second it took flight and I saw its large, brown wings outstretched as it went towards the lake.

Image: Dominic Harness
I was so excited, Milo and I ran all the way to the lake, (he just thought it was a game), and I checked with my heart beating fast that the coot chick was still visible (and not soon to follow the pigeon). It was still there, thankfully, and is getting larger - just one remains from a second clutch of five eggs, so I am glad that it survives!

I got back to the house, and after relaying my story in great excitement, I came downstairs and went into the living room. I was only in there a few seconds when I saw a baby bird on the inside of the glass, beating at the window trying to get out. It was certainly turning into a weird evening. I think it was a robin, with a speckled breast, and one has been in the kitchen before. They must come in through the back door when it is open for Milo. I quickly opened a window and it flew out, just as someone from next door was coming up the path..."Oh!" she exclaimed in surprise as a bird flew out of the window towards her. What would she have thought if she knew my nickname was bird lady!?

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Bird Friendly Schools Visit 2

I hesitate to admit that my return visit to St Philip's School was at the beginning of May, but it was so good it must be blogged!

Nest site!
I was back in my guise as "Bird Lady", which I was even called by a member of staff! I was delighted to see that the year 3 children had been inspired by my first visit and had continued to keep the bird feeder filled up, and to keep looking out for birds at home and in school. It was obvious that they had been learning more, as they all seemed to know far more birds' names than before, including all the most common ones that they might see at school or at home. The girls (there were only a few of them!) had made a "nest" for birds in the school grounds and were very keen to go and show me. We went out and I had a look at the quite thoughtful collection of twigs and leaves that they had hidden together in a bush. One girl walked alongside me and said, "you know when you were last here, it was really good fun, and since then I've been wanting to learn more about birds"! Well for me, that made it all worthwhile. In fact, all of them made it worthwhile, as they were such lovely children, but she articulated it in a simple and memorable way for me. To have interested one child in nature and the world around them was my goal, but to have such a fantastic, enthusiastic response from them was wonderful.

There were lots more questions this time too: one girl asked how birds knew how to fly to places like Africa. I hope I told her something like the truth when I said we weren't exactly sure and that perhaps one day when they were older, one of them might be the one to discover the reason. The boy who had asked previously if birds were poor, asked me if birds celebrated their birthdays.

So we recapped on the first visit very quickly and it was obvious that they knew the 6 garden birds already! I then asked them to think about habitats, ie places birds lived, and to start thinking about the different places that they could see birds. I had a picture of a town, one of the seaside cliffs, and another of lush green countryside. The children soon picked up on the idea that different birds lived in different areas, and then we began to think why.

Guess the beak!
To do this, the RSPB had provided a large felt board, to which I could stick cut out pieces of several birds. I had a heron; a kestrel, a sparrow and several others. Each was cut up into its various parts of body, beak, tail, and feet. It was the children's job to identify which part went with each bird, by finding out what it ate and where it lived, and figuring out what sort of feet or beak would suit this environment.  Actually it soon became obvious that this was easy for the children to do... They all enjoyed helping me assemble the birds.

After break we had controlled mayhem, or so it seemed to me, although it was all good, relaxed fun. Some of the children took the opportunity to go outside with one of the assistants, to look for birds, while others had some colouring and cutting from the RSPB website - there is a great section for kids of all ages with different level activities:  I thought they would like the peregrine falcon templates, as the peregrine, the world's fastest flier, is quite an exciting bird! I was able to tell them how they, and other birds of prey, have moved into the cities and live on very tall buildings, such as the University clocktower, and the BT Tower. I had the most exciting encounter at work recently, seeing the peregrine really close to as it streaked past a 3rd floor window, yellow talons flashing! Made my day...

Have a go!
I thoroughly enjoyed my experience as a Bird Friendly Schools Project person, and I hope the scheme does run next year, as it is so much fun. I would completely recommend it to anyone who has an interest in birds, as you don't need to have an in-depth knowledge, but just enthusiasm to pass on to the children, and the rewards of seeing them enjoying wildlife is just heartwarming. I think it is so important that everyone is given the same chance as me to become interested in the natural world and to benefit from the simple but rich appreciation of the creatures whom we share this world with. It is even more important that they grow up knowing why we have to protect and save the environment.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Big Schools Birdwatch - the visit!

I can't believe that I was nervous about going to volunteer for the RSPB Bird Friendly Schools "Big Schools Birdwatch" as I had the time of my life! Two boys from the Year 3 class greeted me at reception and took me to the class room, for a morning of bird fun and bird watching!

All the children were so keen to tell me which birds they already knew, and what they had seen from the window. I was impressed to see the bird feeder and the bird box hanging on a tree near the class room, and the children had already begun recording which birds they had seen outside.

I began with a quick introduction, explaining I was from the RSPB and that we would be learning about birds, and going outside to look for them. To warm up I asked each table to name 2 birds: most of them knew some garden birds already such as magpie, robin, blackbird. Others knew more unusual birds like raven. I cannot tell you how keen they were, it was wonderful to think that all these children are taking an interest in the natural world!

Then I asked who wanted to be detectives - hands shot up in the air! We could be detectives by looking at different birds, to find out which birds they were. I explained that different birds look different: we can tell what they are by looking at colour, size, where a bird is, what sound it makes, and also by what they are eating.  There were 6 birds to show the children, and I had a beautiful big colour picture of each, together with a silhouette to show the actual size, and their favourite, the RSPB soft toy bird that makes a bird sound!  So I looked at each bird in turn, pointing out the colour, the shape, what they eat, and any interesting fact about them. I was delighted that children were saying other colours, and making comments about their sharp beaks, or their skinny legs, or their long tails. And once they got the idea, they started asking me, "what noise does this one make?" and so for each bird I would produce the soft toy bird, and the children could press the bird and listen to the noise. These went down very well and everyone wanted a go, so each table had one bird to share.  The children were amazed to learn that blue tits can take their chicks 600 caterpillars a day, and that starlings mimic sounds such as mobile phones. I was really impressed that a quick question on each bird at the end showed that they had been listening and picked up main facts such as Mrs (female) Blackbird is actually brown!

Next, I explained that we would be looking at the birds outside in groups, and counting what we saw. Over 2000 schools are taking part in the Big Schools Birdwatch and the RSPB uses the information to see which birds need help and which birds are doing okay. For their survey, you have to count the highest number of birds you see at any one time, rather than counting the same birds over and over again. So there was a game to show this, but in the event of going outside, I decided it didn't really matter if the children didn't get this - it was most important to encourage them to look for birds. (It would be easier to explain the counting technique to older children. The Birdwatch is available to 7-11 year olds).  Each child was given a card showing one of the six garden birds (blue tit; robin; starling; thrush; blackbird; house sparrow). I stood at the front holding a picture of a seed feeder. When I called out one bird, children with that bird card would come to the front, to the feeder. I encouraged them to walk like that bird, or to sing like that bird.  They were very good and pretended to feed at the feeder. Miss Wilson counted them for us and put it up on the board. Finally one bird type came up twice, and we counted 8 of them in total. But in fact there were only 4 in the room - so one bright child said we'd counted them twice.  And that's what we were supposed to realise... But as I say, outside, there was too much excitement to care about counting!

So after break the children went outside in groups of 5 or 6, with clipboards and pictures of birds they might see. They were very excited to be going outside, so there was little chance of keeping them nice and quiet for birds to show up - however, they have perfect birdwatching grounds and a lovely garden area where there is the feeder and nest box, plus a bird table. Next to that was a playing field with trees at the back. And the playground was also surrounded by trees, which were good places to spot birds.  The children thought most birds were blackbirds - probably because they looked black against the sky! - so in some cases I let them think they were, if I could not see what it was, and in others I would say, it's a crow, or it's a seagull, because these are much bigger. There were 2 crows making a noise on the nearby church, so they could hear the distinctive cawing sound; then there were lots of magpies in the trees, so they could see they were black and white. One group were lucky to see a blue tit come into the tree. It was hoping to get to the seed feeder, but in our excitement we scared him off - but at least he came! We also saw some pigeons in the sky, one group thought they saw a robin, and one group saw 2 little birds on top of the school - I could not get a good look but thought they were wagtails - and explained that they wag their tails!

It was so lovely to see them all looking and all excited and they were all desperate to tell me what birds they'd seen and how they'd fed this bird at home, or seen this bird somewhere else. One boy said he'd seen a red kite, one boy must have had parents from Africa as he knew all about African birds and said how they eat them. One boy asked me if birds were poor! So I explained they didn't use money but had to find enough food each day. They were all so keen it was hard to keep up with all the hands in air, (when they remembered to do this) and I hope I gave enough encouragement to them all.

Luckily Miss Wilson was very good at keeping their attention and getting them to be quiet when they got over-excited. At times it was a bit chaotic: we were waiting for the second teacher/assistant to come back in, before we could go out bird watching and everyone was colouring in and cutting out, and having fun. Whilst the bird watching group went outside, those left inside had a bird "snapper" to make (a bird's head with snapping beak) and some birds to colour in and put on their wrists, and others were drawing pictures. (These are available on the website). Neither Miss Wilson nor I could figure out the bird snappers, which was a bit poor, but luckily the other teacher could! (I should have prepared this at home). I was really touched when one girl presented me with her picture of a blue tit, and one boy gave me his snapper to take home. One girl even said "hello bird lady!" to me at break, which was great!

To finish off, I told them I would be back after Easter, and gave each child a "hide" poster, which they could stick to the window and look through a gap in the middle at the birds; and on one side they had lots of pictures of birds to identify. One boy helped me to hand out the posters, which was really kind!

Miss Wilson was apologising that they were quite a handful and said that there were 24 boys in the class (I'd not realised until she said!) but I thought they were wonderful. It was so fantastic to see such enthusiasm and eagerness to learn and tell us about things they knew, and to have fun. When do we forget to be this excited about life!? It was actually a lesson for me as well as them! And I learnt how lovely children are and how full of life. Imagine having as much fun every day as I had today, it would transform your life! Never mind about being nervous, I can't wait to go back and see them after Easter. I thought that if I made a difference to just one child, it would be worth it, but I can see that all of them were interested in looking at birds, and were constantly telling us when they saw a bird out of the window, and I hope that they will keep doing this!

Friday, 3 December 2010

Peregrines in the city!

A flash of yellow caught my eye this morning as I saw a peregrine falcon up close and swoop by! Wow!

We are lucky enough to have a pair of peregrines on the clock tower at the University and as I was looking out from an office window on the first floor, a magnificent peregrine swooped low past the window - its bright feet made me look twice and I saw its beautiful striped body (bluey grey and white) and hooked beak. What an amazing bird! 

It then went and sat on the 12 storey Muirhead Tower, no doubt using its incredible vision to look for pigeons in this cold weather... It then swooped back past the window a couple of times. It was wonderful to see this beautiful and large falcon so clearly and so close by! My manager was with me and it provided an enjoyable excuse to talk about birds instead of work.

Falcons such as these are now nesting in cities on tall buildings and you can see them now on the BT Tower in Birmingham and at the Tate Modern in London - the RSPB runs a date with nature so you can observe these birds through telescopes.

Find out more at the RSPB website where you can see a picture of the bird and hear its cry, which I often hear from my office as it flies round the clock tower.

Nothing beats an unexpected encounter with nature like this, and I've been happy all day as a result! 

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Birds friendly schools!

Although I am no longer working at the Nature Centre, I have taken on a new volunteering role with the RSPB. I will be a volunteer for the Birds Friendly Schools project in the West Midlands. This project is to tell schoolchildren all about garden birds - what they are called, what they look like, and how to help by feeding them. It involves three visits to a primary school, and works with one class of children who are between 7 and 11.

The first visit is to the school teacher, to explain how the project works and how the second and third visits will go. During the first visit, you give the teacher a nest box and a bird feeder, and some seed, so that the class can begin to start feeding the birds over winter. My first visit should be taking place over the next couple of weeks.

The second visit is in January, by which time you hope that some birds have been coming regularly to the feeder, which will be hanging somewhere in the school grounds so that the kids can see birds coming to it. The nest box should also have been put up, and birds may use it for roosting (sleeping overnight). Did you know that wrens like to roost together and you can get many wrens sleeping in one box! 

During the second visit the children do the Big Schools Birdwatch - similar to the Big Garden Birdwatch which has been going 30 years. You count the birds coming to your playground or garden for one hour, and these results help the RSPB see the population of birds nationwide; which are increasing or dropping in number. The results vary according to your local environment.

The results of your survey and the national survey form the basis of your third visit and so you can explain to the children how different birds live in different areas, and how they have different features (beaks, legs etc) according to what they eat, where they live etc.

I have attended training by the RSPB and I am very impressed by the quality and amount of resources given to me to give to the school and to use on my visits, to help make it interesting and exciting for the children. I was feeling nervous about it, but I am confident that I know a lot about the birds we are focussing on (six main ones) - and other garden birds. I have been feeding the birds in my garden, which is important in this snowy weather.  I am sure I can be enthusiastic, as I love birds, and I hope I can inspire at least one child to enjoy them too.

I am currently trying to contact the teacher at the school (in Smethwick) and arrange a time to visit. I will keep you posted with how each stage of it goes!