Welcome to the LDV NNR ringing blog, this blog is designed to share the experiences, findings and tales from a group of dedicated ringers. We specialise in conservation orientated research projects, largely focusing on wildfowl, waders, owls and birds of conservation concern, in and around the Vale of York NNR's.

NB - Whilst the purpose of this blog was initially designed to cover our nationally important wildfowl ringing activities, regular readers may have noticed the increase in posts detailing wildlife found across the valley (ranging from plants, fungi, butterflies, dragonflies & other invertebrates). Ringing posts will hopefully resume over the winter months, and will run alongside wildlife and work posts.

Friday, 24 April 2015

22/04/15 - Skipwith delights

Skipwith Common has been the place to be recently, with Woodlarks singing, Green Woodpeckers ‘yaffling’, Great Spotted Woodpeckers ‘drumming’ and Tawny Owls ‘too-wit too-woo’ing. Adders, Grass Snakes and Common Lizards have also been seen basking in the sunshine on the warm sunny days. Below are a few photographs and information on some of the wildlife that we've been fortunate to come across. 

Early on a morning one of the team has spent the odd hour on the Common to try and ascertain a count of reptiles - this is done early before they disappear off into the undergrowth once they've warmed up enough. We haven't seen any Adders during the last few weeks but we did come across this male sunning itself on the heath at the end of March, along with two others. At this time of year, similar to Grass Snakes, Adders need to soak up the sun’s rays after a winter spent in hibernation. Following the long winter and months without feeding Adders need to warm up their bodies to build up their energy and strength, and to allow their muscles to work properly. Once ready they will go in search of a mate, however before mating male Adders shed their old skin, then once in pristine condition they will do battle with other males for the female’s attention, wrestling in what is known as the ‘dance of the Adders’.

Adder - 30/03

Adders are Britain’s only poisonous snake, and have a sinister reputation due to their ability to subdue their prey using venom, however they are not a threat to people unless disturbed – upon seeing one make sure you observe from a distance - never approach or pick one up! Adders can often be quite difficult to spot amongst the bracken, but if you are fortunate enough to see one please note down any records, along with other wildlife seen on the Common in the boxes provided. 

Grass Snake - 02/04

Common Lizards have been seen more frequently, often on a daily basis. Despite the rather cold day’s last week, full of rain, sleet and strong winds, on the warm days either side we still came across several lizards basking on the boardwalk adjacent to the Bomb Bay loop. We were fortunate to have prolonged views of one individual as it flattened its body against the wood to maximise the amount of heat it could soak up from the sun’s rays. At this time of year lizards are emerging after a winter spent in hibernation, the walls around the Bomb Bay loop and the boardwalk are the best place to look for them on a warm sunny day. Along with several adults, we also came across one of last year’s young (pictured here), we knew this by size, with it only being c7cm, compared with adults which reach c15cm (nose to tail).

Common Lizard - Juvenile - 30/03

Common Lizard - Adult - 02/04

Along with looking for reptiles on the heath we've also been keeping a close eye on the ground too - whilst scouring the heath we spotted this Minotaur Beetle – an impressive ‘beast’ despite its size! Minotaur Beetles are a type of large dung beetle, favouring sandy grassland and heaths. They feed on rabbit droppings and sheep, deer, cattle and horse dung – plenty of which can be found on the Common! Their nests are made up of a series of tunnels, after laying their eggs in the chambers they will then drag dung back to their nest using their strong legs. This individual we spotted will have over-wintered in one of the many burrows, more than likely with its mate, where it will have remained throughout the winter, surfacing on only the really mild days.

 Minotaur Beetle - 17/03

There's plenty of Gorse on the Common which is really bringing colour to the site at the moment, and whilst watching the first few bees of the year looking for nectar on the flowers at the end of March we also came across a number of Gorse Shield Bugs. At this time of year adults emerge during the warm days in spring and can often be found sunning themselves in clusters on Gorse flowers. We came across several ‘groups’, packed tightly amongst the Gorse spikes and piled high on top of each other. Gorse Shield Bugs have two colour forms, at the end of the last year we found and photographed the new generation which started appearing after the summer during August, they were fairly distinctive with their purple/red markings. The individuals which are emerging now are predominately green, at first glance they could be confused with the Green Shield Bug – but the habitat (usually Gorse and Broom), and the red antennae gives them away. 

Gorse Shield Bug - 25/03
Lately we've posted about Roe Deer that are seen regularly on a daily basis around the valley, however recently we were fortunate to see this group of Fallow Deer – with at least 26 individuals present. This is the first time we’ve come across so many for quite some time. Fallow Deer are known to be present in the area, largely between Crockey Hill and Wheldrake, along with a number of individuals occasionally seen on the Common. Fallow Deer tend to remain far more elusive than Roe Deer, and can be told apart quite easily due to their tan/fawn colour and white spotting. They also have a white rump patch characterised with the black horse-shoe and fairly long tail. During the winter they lose their summer ‘coat’ and become a lot darker, with the white spots fading. The young when born (June/July) will resemble their parents, being a rich chestnut colour and heavily spotted.

 Fallow Deer - 30/03

Friday, 27 March 2015

26/03/15 - Changing of the seasons

The last two weeks have been full of the signs of spring and the changing of the seasons, at the beginning of the month whilst working in the office one morning, in carried one of our favourite sounds - the trumpeting and bugling of Whooper Swans - arriving from the south. We managed to spot one herd of 89 as they dropped down onto Wheldrake Ings, but from the sound we thought more may have already arrived on site. A quick trip down there revealed that there had been a major arrival, with a staggering 362 present on the floodwater – this is the largest herd ever recorded on the Ings and represents around 3% of all the wintering Whooper Swans in the UK.

Although the birds were on the water (meaning we unfortunately couldn’t read any potential colour-rings to see where they had come), we can however suggest what these birds were doing thanks to two satellite tagged birds that arrived in a similar way a few years ago, and the behaviour of spring herds in recent years. It appears that birds that have been wintering on the Ouse Washes in Cambridgeshire (including WWT Welney) depart there just after dawn. These birds then arrive here in the Lower Derwent Valley around 2-3 hours later, and spend the day in the valley, loafing, preening, drinking and resting up before they depart shortly prior to dusk. In the case of the two satellite tagged birds they were then logged heading over Loch Lomond north of Glasgow at around 11 pm before heading out over the sea from the Scottish mainland at around 1am, arriving in Iceland some 12 hours later – that’s a nonstop flight of 18 hours after departing the LDV. It also means that the valley is an important spring migration stop-over site in which to re-fuel and rest before their long journey to Iceland. We wish these magnificent birds well on their journey which could see them fly as high as 27,000 feet and in temperatures down to -40 degrees and look forward to their return in the autumn.

Whooper Swans - Wheldrake Ings - 11/03

Grey Herons have been seen frequenting the local heronry lately and soon it’ll be time to start having a look around the heronry for signs of activity, last year we visited the heronry on the 31st March and found a number of egg shells beneath the trees. Herons are one of the earlier nesters, with some records being as early as February for birds on eggs. Herons have bred in the heronry here for at least 40 years, along with Little Egrets in 2010, which went on to produce two young. Herons are rather sociable birds, breeding in close quarters and are known for nesting in long established heronries, with data going back as far as 1928 when the first survey by the BTO took place. Last year thirty young herons were ringed on just two visits, with six re-sightings being had since then.

 Grey Heron - North Duffield Carrs - 04/03

The recent warm days have brought out the first reptiles of the year with both Common Lizards and Grass Snakes seen during the second week of the month. Despite the recent cold starts, by mid-morning the sun has been giving off enough heat to lure some of our reptiles out into the open, with a Grass Snake showing regularly around the bomb bay loop, basking in little pockets of sunshine. After a winter spent in hibernation, Grass Snakes start to venture out into the open during March/April as the weather warms up. At this time of year they need to spend time basking to warm up their body, early morning is the best time to look for them, before they warm up enough and disappear back into the cover of vegetation. After spending the first few days around the hibernaculum they will then start to move away in search of food and a mate.

 Grass Snake - Skipwith Common - 11/03

Barn Owls are still treating the staff, volunteers and visitors to long and prolonged views, with several individuals hunting almost daily from morning - afternoon at Bank Island, Wheldrake and North Duffield Carrs in particular. Last week we were spoiled with unbelievably close views of this individual which we observed hunting for long periods of time. It was present in the field adjacent to the office, from as early as 9 o’clock in the morning until dusk.

Whilst sightings of Barn Owls hunting in the day time are common at the moment, it seems to have brought about the question as to why….. Owls usually only hunt during daylight hours during the summer months when they are feeding hungry broods, meaning they have to hunt for longer to supply the demand for food at a time when darkness covers less hours. They are also forced to hunt during daylight when wet or prolonged cold weather reduces feeding opportunities. Given that this winter has been mild and relatively dry, we are left wondering if perhaps the vole cycle might be at a low ebb and the owls, although hunting regularly, just aren't finding enough food. Five birds have been picked up dead around Bank Island and Wheldrake Ings over the last few weeks – which leaves us wondering if these birds are starving… One of the fresh birds we picked up last week only weighed 200g which would suggest this to be a possibility. Perhaps our recent small mammal trapping might shed a bit of light on the vole population at Bank Island and help to answer a few questions.

It might also be worth mentioning that Barn Owls mainly hunt by sound, and in most parts of the world they are nocturnal because their prey is nocturnal. In the UK there is evidence to show that diurnal hunting has become more frequent over the last 100 years. It is thought that this could be a shift in diet from mice and rats which are nocturnal, to Field Voles, which are more active during the day. Whatever the reason, the daytime hunting birds are certainly proving a popular attraction to local and visiting photographers, this individual was snapped by Dan Lombard whilst volunteering with us for the day.

 Barn Owl - Bank Island - 11/03

Roe Deer are a regular and daily sighting at the moment in the valley, with groups of seven seen at Wheldrake Ings and six at Bank Island. Although Roe Deer are often solitary for much of the year, they do form small groups over the winter – often comprising of several adult females (does), yearlings and a single male (buck). The males start to grow their antlers over the winter, and by the spring they are covered in soft velvet. Over the coming months the males will start to shed their velvet by rubbing their antlers against trees or branches in time for the autumn rut.

Having mated following last year’s autumn rut, the females will be giving birth soon in the meadows during May and June. People often find these fawns and think they have been abandoned, however the females will be watching from a distance and will return so please don’t be tempted to approach or move them!

Roe Deer - Wheldrake Ings

Friday, 13 March 2015

11/03/15 - Close encounters

During the last few weeks we've been fortunate to have close encounters with some of the wildlife on the site whilst carrying out the day to day jobs. At the end of the month, whilst putting up some more of the owl boxes around Escrick Park and repairing some of the old ones we were fortunate to come across a pair of Grey Partridge tucked in the long grass at Bank Island - with sightings few and far between it was a real treat to almost stumble upon these two. 

 Grey Partridge, male - Bank Island - 23/02/15
Grey Partridge, female - Bank Island - 23/02/15

Sadly Grey Partridge have undergone a dramatic decline in the UK over the last 30 years, in line with many other farmland bird species. Changing land management practices, intensification and speed of management operations have perhaps contributed to such declines, and possibly the competition from the vast numbers of Red-legged Partridges that are released each year for shooting. Small numbers of Greys still remain around the Lower Derwent Valley with pockets of populations in Thornton, Thorganby, Storwood and North Duffield.

Grey Partridge, male - Bank Island - 23/02/15

Earlier the same week whilst walking the floodbank and repairing parts of the fences that were damaged in the floods last year we came across a number of Redshank, 22 in total along the stretch from North Duffield to East Cottingwith. A small number have been present over the last few months but numbers are starting to increase now as the winter progresses into spring. Some birds move through the site on passage and others arrive to stay and breed on the Ings. These wintering birds tend to favour the riverbank, especially around North Duffield Carrs and Thorganby Ings where these photographs were taken.

 Redshank - Thorganby - 17/02/15

During the 1970’s wintering numbers were rather low (less than a hundred), building up to a peak of around 3-400 during the 1990’s, then reducing once again to fewer than 100 in recent winters. Redshank are medium sized waders with bright red/orange legs, a white rump and white wing panels also help make them distinctive and easy to identify in flight - also listen out for their noisy alarm call!

Redshank taking off - Thorganby - 17/02/15

Last week on Wednesday the team were at North Duffield maintaining the hides and having a general tidy up of the site, whilst there a quick scan down the river was had and we couldn't believe our luck when up bobbed the head of an Otter! For the next half hour we were very fortunate to have good and prolonged views of one of our rarely seen but much sought after species. It seemed oblivious by our presence and carried on feeding, frequently catching eels. Twice it hauled itself out on to the riverbank to eat some of the larger prey items, before eventually slipping its way back into the water and disappearing as suddenly as it had appeared.

Otter - North Duffield - 04/03/15

The Lower Derwent Valley is designated as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) for, amongst other things, Otters. The valley has always supported a reasonable population of Otters and numbers have increased over recent decades. This has not only re-addressed some of the natural balances (the Otters pushing out the Mink which has allowed the populations of some species such as Water Voles and Moorhens to recover), but it has also meant visitors to the NNR and the local area stand a better chance of seeing these elusive animals. They are still hard to see, although their tracks and spraints are regularly found, and their images are captured frequently on camera traps that are set around the reserve - as always please let us know of any sightings of any wildlife seen on the reserve via the log books in the hides.

Otter - North Duffield - 04/03/15