Saturday, 19 March 2016

Snowy owls love ice!

Snowy owls are distinctive and amazing birds living far north of the tree line in the latitude 60° north. Known to defend their nests against wolves, they have been estimated to eat around 1,600 lemmings a year each, and that's a lot of lemmings! For such a large bird it might be surprising to learn that so little was known about their winter movements however, this is all changing. Now Snowy owls are being tracked in great detail in "the most ambitious attempt ever to understand the winter ecology of Snowy Owls".

 Credit: David Hemmings of NaturesPhotoAdventures 

ProjectSNOWstorm is a fantastic collaboration between dozens of scientists and organizations and studies in great depth the dynamics of snowy owl movements and gives updates and maps of the movements of this often nomadic owl showing the great distances they can travel. Some owls seem very settled in their home area whereas others "...roam across hundreds of miles in a few weeks..." and ProjectSNOWstorm's data shows that "some snowy owls move out onto the frozen surface of the Great Lakes for weeks or months at a time, apparently hunting for waterfowl using the cracks that open and close endlessly between immense, wind-driven sheets of ice." Some even head north when the big freeze comes, "spending the winter on the frozen Arctic Ocean".

With permission of ProjectSNOWstorm

Doodle-like tracks on Hudson Bay show where a snowy owl was riding an iceberg, pushed in great loops by wind and tide. (Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth).
Credit: Bert de Tilly

Friday, 18 March 2016

A slow day

The river on a slow day - pics from a wander down by the riverside, the first green flush of Spring covering the ground, the sharp scent of wild garlic in the air. And a plank, nothing much at first but then I noticed it was tied to a sycamore. Presumably it is there as a bridge over the channel. In the floods that plank has been birled round and round, spinning and twisting in the current. The waters have receded leaving the cord too short to bridge the ditch; to untwist it would take quite some time!

Thursday, 17 March 2016


Life has become so much easier since I discovered the ace new bit of kit that is Richard Mumford's Self Advancing Knee Ascender or SAKA for short - it makes ascending quick, smooth and a real pleasure! Used with a R CT foot ascender it's just like zipping up an invisible ladder!


Getting up here is a now a piece of cake!

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Glorious kites

Sunday was a day of pure, non-stop sunshine. A green woodpecker called in the distance and the weather alone was enough to bring a smile to my face however, there was something even better to get me grinning like a Cheshire Cat - oodles of red kites soaring about in the blue above! I was working for the day at Greys Court, Henley-on-Thames, a gorgeous place well known for its resident kites. Through the day we watched them carrying sticks and making food passes and chasing each other about, all right overhead. No fancy pics today but I did get this snap of one passing over as we packed up.

Here is a cracking shot from Justin Burt of a bird in one of the pines at Greys Court just a few weeks back!

With permission of Justin Burt

Monday, 14 March 2016


Jack snipe are fantastic birds. A few moons ago we were back monitoring the jack snipe on our friends bird-friendly farm. Arriving in the autumn, jack snipe move on westwards before returning in Spring to stage on their way back east to the wild, marshy lands of Russia. In between times, where do they all go to?

As masters of disguise jack snipe are known for sitting incredibly tight so you have to look very carefully where you place your feet. There was on hiding beside a little tussock of grass at the water's edge and a second in an area of mud and soft rush, the mud dotted with lots of little 'needle' feeding marks. We ringed these two 'new' birds, and whilst they were in the hand as we took biometrics you could see how specialized the bill is - truly amazing

Friday, 11 March 2016

Intriguing trees

Another sharp frost lies on the grass outside all crisp and white and the pond is frozen again; Winter has not yet let up its grip. Today is the beginning of an exciting new tree adventure which I will write all about soon. For now I'd like to share some intriguing trees with you I discovered a few days back.

I headed out to the woods and happily followed deer tracks through hazel, birch, oak and beech. I'd jumped back onto the track home when I spied an intriguing oak. And then another. It wasn't that they had co-dominant stems, it was as if they were co-existing stems! One 'tree' had four stems and the other five. The stems seem part of the same tree and yet they are very discrete and some distance from each other. Can someone please tell me what is going on here? Thanks!

This is the 4-stemmer. 
Bottom right pic, you can see the 5-stemmer in the background.

Here is the five-stemmer - what is going on here?!

And here are three bonus extras including a sinusoidal birch growing at 45 degrees and a tiny, stunted hard-done by hawthorn.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Looking for the long sleepers

On Sunday I went looking for the long sleepers. It was a wonderful, sunny, Spring day and the ground was still hard with frost. Out of the sharp breeze there was real heat in the sun and there seemed a real chance of something very special, somethings that like the first warm rays of sun: adders!  I last saw there here over twenty years ago, these stone-cold smooth reptilian marvels. Back then we were lucky and found four basking adders. Today I found only the perfect places and holes to underground spaces. I lay back in the arms of the sun and watched a cock sparrowhawk zip past me twice, heard the faint talk of ravens on the wind, and dreamed of the slow cold, long slow, long cold sleepers tightly coiled, somewhere in the dark recesses of the jumbled moss stacked stones.

"Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life."

The publication of  Rachel Carson's epic book Silent Spring over fifty years ago "spurred a reversal in national pesticide policy, led to a nationwide ban on DDT for agricultural uses, and inspired an environmental movement that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency." So powerful was this book that it is still a source of great inspiration and ideas. She wrote that “[t]hose who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life. Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” The world is full of the amazing, the strange, the bizarre and the very beautiful and so we should never feel alone or weary of life. Here are a five fantastic facts I discovered recently that I wanted to share with you.

1. The Ringtail Salamander does not take a single breath

How's this for amazing - "The Ringtail salamander, of Costa Rica can spend its entire life without taking a single breath and instead relies entirely on gas exchange through its skin."

Here's one to put you off your breakfast! A species of bat in Mozambique's Gorongosa National Park, have huge parasitic flies that live right on the face of the bats. Be warned, the pictures are pretty spooky!

"The vet of the oldest living land animal in the world, Jonathan the tortoise, reveals the key to his longevity. Joe Hollins, who lives on the remote British Overseas Territory of St Helena in the South Atlantic, said that the giant Seychelles tortoise's secret was "being very chilled". Jonathan was landed on the island in 1882, fully grown and aged at least 50. He is now believed to be 183."

"The British species of Tadpole shrimp is actually the oldest known animal species in the world and it is at least 220 million years old! This means it was swimming around in pools when the dinosaurs were roaming our planet"

 The "Taken from recent research into the development of eyes in spiders, this microscopic image shows what a common house spider looks like as it develops inside an egg. For some reason, it’s disturbingly… cute? This little cthulhu-like spider embryo is nearing the final stage before hatching and appears to be stuck in a tiny self hug. A Spider Embryo is Strangely Adorable"

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

There's big bears in them there woods!

If you go down to the woods today, you're in for a big furry, sleepy-eyed, and probably pretty hungry surprise: Grizzly bear No. 122 is awake and ready for action - see here! He is a powerful animal and even black bears have to watch out, gulp - see Grizzly bear eats black bear on popular Banff hiking trail!

Grizzly bear No. 122
With permission of PARKS CANADA

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

The Unwelcome House crows

Around 20 years ago 2 Indian House Crows arrived in port from one of the many container ships. A small population of these House Crows slowly grew until two years ago an eradication programme began. Dr. Dr. Thom van Dooren is a Senior Lecturer in Environmental Humanities at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia and a couple of weeks back he gave an interesting, questioning lecture about the House Crows of Hoek van Holland entitled ‘The Unwelcome Crows: Hospitality in the Anthropocene’,

"In 2014, after 20 years of peaceful co-existence, the government of the province of South Holland began the process of eradicating this population, worried that they may one day become a pest or threat to biodiversity. Just across the water from Hoek van Holland is the Port of Rotterdam – Europe’s largest port – and an ‘engine’ for the global patterns of production, trade and consumption that are today remaking our world, ushering in what many are calling the ‘Anthropocene.’ 

Telling the story of this little group of birds in a way that holds this port and its impacts in the frame, this lecture will ask how we might be required to rethink our responses to, to learn to live with, others in this difficult time."  

House Crow feeding chicks by Emanjsr2611

Given the vast scale of the human change in the form of Rotterdam port, it seems ironic that 20 crows could threaten the status quo. Whatever your viewpoint, living in our shadow places these quirky birds (see vid) are both the champions and the victims of a world that we have created. The lecture was thought-provoking and raised lots of interesting issues. And as to solutions? Solutions, there are many solutions out there, many alternative possibiliites, but "What I'm saying now is we are as gods and have to get good at it."
Stewart Brand.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Raven talk!

Ravens are amazing birds, intriguing, intelligent and very vocal. Searching the web yesterday I came across this cool vid of a guy with a lovely Welsh lilt chatting to a wild raven that sings an amazing water song. Definitely worth a listen; how does it even make that call?!

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Amazing inspiration - James and the Giant Redwoods!

Giant Redwoods are incredible trees. James Aldred gives us a taste of the pure magic of being there amongst them, among them, and most importantly, UP them. And when I say 'up them' "dangling on a thread like a spider" that is OVER 100 METRES OF UP! One day I hope to be introduced to these amazing trees. Until then, I will carry on dreaming, and climbing! Please note: this is on iPlayer Radio so apologies to folks outside the UK if you can't access the links.
"Ever since he was a boy, James Aldred has loved climbing trees. And over the years, James has dreamt of searching out some of the world's biggest trees including the world's tallest living tree, a Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) in Northern California called Hyperion, which measures 379.3 feet tall... Hyperion at nearly 380 feet tall is about 3 times the height of Nelson's Column!"


"In the second of two programmes, NATURE follows James and three other tree climbers as Michael first leads them to The Grove of Titans; which as its name suggests is a grove of some of the world's biggest trees by mass. Despite the fact that James and the others had seen pictures of the trees in books and on the internet, nothing could have prepared them for the colossal size of these trees. But there was another surprise in store for James when Michael led the way to Hyperion, the world's tallest tree and not only did James get to see this tree, but he also got to climb it. It was a dream come true and an unforgettable adventure."
Image by
 Check out this top site too with images and info on the incredible Grove of Titans

And for more of James magic see James and the Giant Atlas Cedars and James and the Giant Tree. Happy listening!

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Langholm's lang-luggit hoolets get lucky!

Lang-luggit hoolets, aka the gorgeous long-eared owls, are fantastic birds living up in the wilder parts of Scotland. Along the forest edge of upland plantations is a good place to listen for them (see here for calls). As part of our licensed monitoring we ring and measure the chicks when we can, which for these birds means before they leave the nest at around only 24 days of age! By the time I found this family one fine warm May evening last year, these long-eared owls had fledged and left their tiny, scrappy nest, the scattered youngesters shouting out their distinctive squeak like a rusty gate. As these owls don't build their own nests, their always on the look out for an old crow or pigeon nest but these often get blown down in the winter. We are keen to encourage them to stay and working with the brilliant Making the Most of the Moorlands our plan is to offer them a fine alternative to keep them cosy. So with the excellent assistance of Rick from Making the Most of the Moorland we rigged a trio of super-chic baskets near last years old nest, which had long since been blown down, and they looked ace to us, so we'll just have see what them hoolets think of them! Here is one of the baskets in situ:

Each nest basket gets a lining of fine sticks and here is the champion nest liner at work, as seen from 12m up.

Getting up these Sitkas require a certain amount of elbow grease and luckily it is great fun too! Using a flipline and climbing irons is the only way for these trees and I was trying out a new prusik for me, the brilliant Blake's hitch, on my climbing line.

Ok, here is another basket in place and ready for go...can you find it?

We put three baskets in three different parts of the wood to give the owls the final say on the what the ideal location is, assuming of course it does choose one of them at all! We will just have to wait and see. As we walked back across the moor the sun came out and that was a fine reward for a good morning's graft.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Oystercatcher nestbox To Let!

Oystercatchers are fabulous birds. This week a flock of 30 were feeding in a sheep field nearby, first I've seen for ages. Soon they'll split up into pairs to head to their usual summer haunts to call and display and breed. They nest on the ground so our heavy Spring rain storms play havoc with their eggs and the first and sometimes their second clutch gets washed out to sea which is always sad to see, the birds stalking around mournfully at the side of the swollen river, their nesting island deep under a raging torrent.

Sometimes they do choose a higher spot to nest in. Check out Kevin Maskell's amazing image and also A Yarn Over Needles blog. Back in the day in Porsanger, Norway, folks came up with a great idea for a fresh supply of eggs for food, see this pic on Mindenpicture. This bit of river always floods and so here is our Plan B, an oystercatcher tray on a fence post. There are big drainage holes in the bottom and a couple of inches of gravel, what's not to like! So fingers crossed for an orange beak sticking out over the edge in a few weeks time!

Like this!

Thanks to

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Spring has sprung...

Spring has sprung:
the skylarks sing;
and off my nose
the hailstones ping!

Ok, so the skylarks - incidentally these are the first I've heard singing this year - were doing their best to fill the air with promise and living, and it was wonderful to hear. Deep in a wood from out of sight, every now and again, came the soft deep call of a raven. She will be incubating and even from over 1km the contact calls were distinctly musical and unlike anything a crow or rook can make. I will return when the air is warm and the chicks have hatched to see exactly where she has built her nest. I suspect it might be in a Scot's pine, probably an old nest from previous years. As I stood watching, the sun vanished behind a big cloud, the sky turned black and a multitude of hailstones pined off my nose; this was Spring in Scotland alright!

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Climbing an amazing Sequoia again....and again!

To paraphrase F.H. Clark, It is a pleasure to linger in a redwood! 

In his Annual Report of the State Board of Horticulture of the State of California, for 1891 he writes most poetically and in obvious awe of the redwood forest. "We seek their companionship with quiet satisfaction; for, in striking contrast with the heavy shade and gloomy depths of our great pine forests, the shadows in the densest growth of redwoods are made soft and semi-luminous by rays of sunlight piercing the feathery foliage, glistening through the pillared glades, illuminating the warm brown and somber gray trunks of these grand trees. And this commingling of light and shade gives to daylight in the redwoods a peculiar softness in keeping with the stillness of the scene."

John Muir goes further than to merely identify the forest as a place of aesthetic beauty and tranquil contemplation. Way back in 1901 in Our National Parks (chapter 1) Muir was asking us to feel the slowness of time, to try and contemplate the differing rhythms of nature operating on such vastly different scales and most importantly, I think  he recognised that just being in the forest had health benefits. "Wander here a whole summer, if you can...give a month at least to this precious reserve. The time will not be taken from the sum of your life. Instead of shortening, it will indefinitely lengthen it and make you truly immortal."  We had to wait a further 108 years for scientists to identify some of the very specific health benefits of Forest Bathing which has been shown to positively affect human immune function.
I don't know how hanging around up IN a redwood compares but it sure makes me feel happy and gives me a deep sense of contentment. It can also require quite a lot of hard work to get up there safely! Here are a few snapshots and chat from a couple of sorties up this beauty of a Sequoiadendron giganteum.

First step was to use my super-slick Zing-it throwline to pull up the 11mm Blaze, figured into a choked SRT rig with a chunky maillon thru an alpine butterfly. Then it was a gine puzzle to figure out which of the branches were safe enough to use (i.e. NOT pointing down or stumps or twigs), it was quite a challenge!!

The STEIN Outreach MKII Retriever is a big help to grab throwline when I chuck it over a nice limb out to the side. Some time later (!) the main stem started to get real thin and I was climbing on branches up to the top where it was thick with cones. And check out the amazing view below!

The sun started to sink to the horizon and popped out of the clouds. It turned gorgeous and it was hard to leave!

To reduce impact on the tree I used my fancy fimblSAVER to stop the rope rubbing on the bark of this big limb, the one I first climbed into the tree on. All went smoothly - I dropped down on DRT and on the ground, proceeded to retrieve the fimblSAVER. Which got stuck! Tried jigging and shoogling the rope in every direction but it was no good. I tied up the rope as it got dark and packed up for Take 2 on the morra.

DAY 2 
I decided to rig for extra safety today. On the way down yesterday I had put in a throwline round the main stem at around 25m so I had that to send the access lines straight to the top.

There was a bit more friction on the line than I'd hoped to just rigged a single access line. The girth was over eight and a half meters so I used the old 13mm arb as a base tie (wrap 3, pull 2) and for fun tied an extra anchor on the end of the access line.

Climbed up to the limb with the stuck rope and heck, there was no way that was coming off yesterday! It had got nicely wedged under a small twig and that serves me right for not checking out the situation before I descended yesterday. 

At the top I pulled up my sack with the thermos in, plus the big tape measure - it was measuring time! The line dropped to the ground and I zipped down to place the weight in exactly the right place at the base of the tree. Back up (I love the ascending part so was very happy to do it twice!) I checked off the height at 30m then used the magic stick to measure the last few metres. At 34.26m it was a beauty; happy days!

"One should go to the woods for safety, if nothing else." John Muir