July, 2010

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South East

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  • Ant-tastic

    London's under attack.

    Swarms of flying ants took to the skies this week as temperatures and humidity coincided to spark the annual emergence of queen ants intent on establishing new colonies.

    Each year the queens' embark on their adventures, followed by armies of winged cousins. It's an anty-pasto delight for birds. Swifts, starlings and gulls all take to the air to gobble up the tiny six-legged bugs. Far from being an anty-climax, this short-lived phenomenon is incredibly exciting. On Tuesday I was at our Rainham Marsh reserve where a few hundred starlings fluttered their feathery wings in fast pursuit of the tasty ants. It was an amazing sight.

    Another free and wonderful display in London right now, is the peregrine falcons perched on the Tate Modern's chimney. The parents, Misty and Bert, had two chicks this year and the juveniles are still around. We're parking our RSPB trailer next to the Millennium Bridge outside the Tate Modern and have some high-power telescopes to let visitors get a close-up view of the birds, perched 90 metres up the chimney. They're usually obliging, but being wild, we can't guarantee sightings. The trailer's there every day until 12 September, from midday until 7 pm.

    A gorgeous goldfinch, as seen and heard more often in London than anywhere else in England and long may they be free - Image by Andy HayAt the begining of the week there was both good and bad news for goldfinches.

    The bad news is that they're being targeted in east London by trappers who're selling them at £100 a time as singing caged birds. This is illegal and carries a fine of upto £5000 per bird and a possible six-month jail term. We're working with the Police and the RSPCA to turn the tables by freeing the songbirds and putting the trappers into cages.

    The good news for these red and yellow songsters is that their numbers have increased more in London than anywhere else in England. That was the finding of the 2009 Breeding Bird Survey. Finches, tits and robins are all doing well in the capital. Sadly house sparrows continue to decline with a 68% drop in their numbers compared with results from 1995. Our London house sparrow research programme is looking into the causes and trying to find solutions.

    If you capture any good photos of London's wildlife you can enter our picture competition, run in partnership with London Underground. Called Life Between The Lines, we're also keen to hear about projects that help London's wildlife. Images of flying ants are welcome. Images of bird trappers are also welcome, but please send those to the Metropolitan Police, not the photo competition!

  • Watery threads

    The Thames is central to my world this week.

    On Tuesday I'll be at our Rainham Marshes nature reserve downstream of central London at Purfleet, still within sight of Canary Wharf. Led by TV presenter and Londoner Bill Oddie, we'll be celebrating its tenth birthday as a nature reserve.

    We, the RSPB, took over the site from the Ministry of Defence in 2000. It took some five years before it was deemed safe to allow public access. The reserve had been used as a firing range and there were lots of unspent cartridges and other munitions littering the ground. Every last bullet and shell had to be carefully removed by hand.

    Things are very different today. Its unique and medieval landscape is home to a healthy population of watervoles. A species we're close to  losing in the UK. There are of course dozens of different birds, including this last week a white tailed plover... a rather rare sight and a bird that's excited hundreds of people. A great way to mark our first decade. If you know nothing about birds, imagine feeling peckish, the cupboards are bare, you turn to the fridge and in desperation open the salad drawer to discover a long-forgotten bar of your favourite chocolate. Unexpected, welcome and delicious.

    As if this isn't enough, at the end of the week, back up river near the Tate Modern, we'll be kicking off our two and a bit long months of showcasing the peregrine falcons that use the Tate's famous chimney as a daytime roost. They hang-out there like teenagers are drawn to bus stops or shopping malls.

    We'll have staff and volunteers there every day from Saturday 17 right through to 12 September, from 12 Noon until 7 pm . The peregrines have rarely let us down... and no. We don't glue them to the chimney and we don't have to take them up each morning and bring them down each evening.

    Peregrines are living wild in London. More than twenty pairs of them. Volunteers keep a close eye on their nests and help protect the young. These are stunning creatures. They feed primarily on pigeons but also eat other birds and small mammals.

    The thing about Rainham, the Thames and the peregrines is that all three help keep my world going.

    • Rainham is a bit of a carbon-sink and an air cooling water storage area with plants that help clean the London air.
    • The Thames is a life-giving age-less highway for wildlife migrating in and out of the UK.
    • The peregrines help keep our streets clean and remove old, injured and ill birds.

    Apart from that, there is something calming about seeing them. Each is independent but plays a role. It reminds me I'm just a small part of the bigger thing and that some niggling nuisance at work or at home is nothing compared with the vastness of the world. Get me, coming over all new agey.

    Rainham wouldn't exist without water. London's peregrines are mostly clustered around the Thames. London itself evolved beause of its location on the river. Right now, we're baking and water is growing in importance. Wildlife needs water too, so please do put out bowls of fresh water. Resist cutting grass and try to keep it lush. That's good for a wide range of critters from ladybirds and worms right through to blackbirds, cats and picnicking children or sun bathing adults.

  • Vote kingfisher

    If you tried to create something gorgeous, something captivating and mesmerizing, you'd probably end up with a kingfisher. They are simply stunning creations, see the attached photo. This was captured by Peter Hewitt, a visitor to our Rye Meads nature reserve, who's happy to share it.

    Right now, you can see the kingfishers for yourselves at Rye Meads. The parents have just hatched their eggs in a man-made kingfisher bank, right in front of a prime vantage point. You've got about two weeks before the chicks fledge.

    The parents are easily visible as they're having to flit back and forth from the nest to their hunting grounds as they try to keep the chicks fed. Each one needs about 12 to 18 small fish daily and there could be as many as seven chicks in that nest. That's at least 84 fish a day, not including food for the exhausted parents.

    Luckily, Rye Meads can help support them. Elsewhere, especially in the north of the UK, we're growing increasingly concerned as the heat dries out wetlands and threatens wildlife. It's not too bad heat-wise here in the south east but a look at the nearest golden yellow grassy area is enough to show you things are drying out.

    We've been working with partners for some time now on land management techniques that can reduce heat stress. Planting more trees, improving wetlands and even just restricting grazing by farm animals in certain areas can all help improve water retention and reduce water loss. 

    This is all done in partnership with farmers, landowners and utility companies. It's the physical embodiment of our Letter to the Future campaign.Together we can make our money work harder to benefit widelife alongside development. Admittedly it means putting large sums of money upfront, but the longterm financial, environmental and social benefits are repaid several times over. Often reducing extra spend at a later date finding engineering solutions to problems that nature provides for free. Carbon capture, water filtering and temperature or humidity control are all things nature does on a grand scale... FOR FREE!

    The more people that sign the petition, the greater the pressure we can put on the Government to do more to encourage similar partnerships and investments. With huge budget cuts and pressure on future spending we all need to be a little more clever with our investments; prising every benefit we can out of every penny.

    Spin-offs from this strategy include nicer places and better wildlife, the creation of green jobs and local enterprise, plus a boost in tourism to see the amazing nature that is supported by the environmental improvements.

    When it comes to politics, the kingfishers haven't got a vote, let alone to a voice to shout for help. Please add your voice to ours to keep the kingfisher on his throne and water deep within the Northern Uplands.