June, 2017

Our work

Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

Natures Home magazine uncovered

Behind the scenes at the RSPB magazine and much much more...
  • Another day, another origami challenge

    As deputy ed Emma recently blogged, there’s lots of fun working on our two magazines for primary-age RSPB members.  

    Wild Times (for kids up to 7) and Wild Explorer (8-11 ish) are packed full of fun ways to engage kids with nature; whether it’s making bird-seed cakes, dens in the woods or torch-on-a-bedsheet moth lures. Then we work in lots of nature know-how and wild challenges for older kids, and colouring, cutting and sticking for younger ones. (Trust me as a mum of two kids under 7 – it’s all about the cutting and sticking). 

    Our pages are packed with things to do (whether indoors or outdoors), including puzzles, things to make and outdoor challenges. But it’s not just the pages that entice their little souls into a wild world of amazing wildlife…

    We even cram extra activities onto our address carrier sheets! 

    The mags are sent out to each young member with a cover sheet, laser-printed with the address. That’s a whole extra sheet of paper, right there, ready to be packed with two more sides of nature fun.

    This week, we’ve finished off the first-version proofs of the September-October issues, and the team at RSPB Sandy are having a look to see which bits might need amending. Meanwhile, Emma and I turned our attention to the address carrier.

    I recall making little origami fortune-tellers in my schooldays – they were easy and lots of fun. So back when we planned this issue with Jack, we came up with the idea of creating one with a wildlife design – probably marine, to tie in with the issue’s theme. Jack proposed doing a basking shark (I’ve seen them close-up in Cornwall, they’re huge, harmless and awesome!). And then we developed the idea into a two-person activity by lifting the origami flaps. 

    On Tuesday this week, we grabbed some squares of paper and started bringing the idea to life. 

    Computer-generated prototypes… it took a few goes to get the inside of the mouth right. Basking sharks are plankton-eating filter feeders. 

     Then our designer Nicole created the origami design template and added it to the address carrier layout. 

    We printed out the entire address carrier design, cut out the shark and folded it.... Success!

    Yup, that works!

    Following the fortune-teller idea, we added the names of different animals to the underside of the flaps in the shark's mouth, with the idea that you would have to do an impression of the animal you landed on. Of course we had to test these, too – I particularly enjoyed pretending to be a hungry chick in my office chair! The things we end up doing in the line of duty...

    And here's the finished activity – an early proof.

    I have a captive audience here at home to test ideas on, so this weekend I'll be testing it out on my young ones! There may yet be a few tweaks to make, but come next issue we hope our young members enjoy making, and playing with, this extra bit of fun bundled into the mag.

  • Slugs: a discovery

    I began my blog last week by expressing how hot it’s been. This week, some parts of the country saw a month’s worth of rain in a few days. The important thing to remember though is that there’s still plenty of wildlife to see at this time of year regardless of what the weather is doing. With the rain hammering the bathroom skylight as I got ready for bed, this friendly looking chap scaled a sheer cliff face without the need for ropes and climbing axes, or arms and legs for that matter.

    I share my home with lots of different creatures – read all about it here (Photo: Sophie Lightfoot)

    This intrepid climber got me thinking: I know almost nothing about slugs. I thought I’d do some investigating and share what I find out on this blog.

    There are around 40 species of slug in the UK

    The one I found in the bath is either a tree slug, Balkan threeband slug, or greenhouse slug – it's hard to tell when they are still juveniles apparently. In the UK, slugs range from the ashy-grey slug, up to 30 cm when fully grown and the biggest slug in the world (yes, the biggest slug in the world lives in the UK), to the relatively small common garden slug that can be up to 3 cm when fully grown.

    All terrestrial slugs evolved from terrestrial snails

    Instead of lugging your house around on your back, why not enclose it in your own body? While many slugs now have shells inside their bodies, some slugs – semi-slugs – have tiny shells on their backs. They kind of look like little saddles – think Tinys from the Neverending Story, zooming around on racing snails.

    A slug is basically a wet foot

    Imagine moving around by secreting mucus from your bare feet onto the floor, scrunching your toes up, and propelling yourself forward. Pretty elegant I’m sure you’d agree. Slugs move by creating rhythmic muscle movements on the underside of their body known as their foot. To lubricate their path, they secrete pedal mucus and just glide along. A slug can follow its mucus trail back home once it's finished its very important slug business.

    Slugs can smell through their eyes

    Pretty handy if you come across something that both looks horrible and smells horrible. Just shut your eyes and it’s gone! The optical tentacles at the head of the slug contain a light sensitive dot, can be regrown if lost, and provide the slug with a sense of smell. The two tentacles below are used for feeling around and taste testing. What a great system.

    Slugs have massive dentistry bills

    With around 27,000 tooth-like protrusions called denticles covering a tongue-like muscle called a radula, kissing a slug would be slightly uncomfortable. Fortunately a slug would never catch you during a game of kiss-chase, but I won’t be dozing off anywhere damp anytime soon.

    Slugs eat, and are eaten

    Most UK slugs are herbivores, chomping their way though leaves, flowers, fruits, mushrooms, lichens, and decaying plant matter. Some slugs eat carrion, and there are a few carnivorous species that hunt other slugs and snails. It’s a good thing they’re not hunting anything faster as they’d get hungry, quick. Slugs also provide food for some UK favourites: thrush species, hedgehogs, toads and some ground beetles.

    Slugs like it wet, cool and foggy

    Great news! If it’s sloshing it down, go on a slug hunt. If it’s too hot and dry, slugs will encase themselves in a kind of thin cocoon-like structure to maintain moisture levels, so it’s probably best to just stay in and complain.

    For better or worse, I don’t think I’ll ever look at a slug in the same way again.


  • Swifts – my shameful gallery of photo fails

    This week, I've been finding all my evening entertainment in our resident swift colony. But let's just say the photographic evidence leaves something to be desired. 

    I have absolutely loved this ‘heatwave’. I used to live in Sydney, Australia, and this week’s weather has reminded me of innumerate summer evenings on my little apartment balcony overlooking the vast Pacific, with groups of wild rainbow lorikeets splashing noisily in the bird bath, and licking mango juice from my fingers with their tickly black tongues.  

    Gratuitous rainbow lorikeet shot – just because I still love these old Aussie friends. 

    So this week, after each long, swelteringly hot day of RSPB magazine-making, I’ve been recreating that Antipodean scene on my typically English back patio, but with friendly collared doves in the birdbath and the gaggles of friendly lorikeets replaced by my favourite British summer bird (albeit a much more aloof one): our resident swifts

    On such deliciously balmy evenings, I’m not interested in watching TV (except Springwatch) or being indoors. Having got the kids in bed, you’ll find the two of us chatting on the back patio, with the swifts soaring metres above our heads. The sound of 20-plus swifts shrieking through the sky is a summer lullaby to my children. 

    Every now and then, our conversation is interrupted with a ‘wooooaaaah!’ as half a dozen swifts zoom really, really close to us in perfect, noisy formation. 

    And all week, every evening, I’ve been trying to take photos of them on my phone. It has really NOT been going well. 

    A ‘woaaah’ moment, captured in this – the first of many swift photo fails. 

    Swifts move seriously fast. They’ll happily zoom around at over 50mph on those boomerang wings of theirs. Peregrines can stoop faster, but swifts hold the speed record for level flight. That’s definitely faster than I can move my camera. And they’re precision fliers – turning on a sixpence in mid-air without warning. When they’re flying high, it’s easier to at least get them in shot, but they come out looking like this. 

    I have about 100 similarly indistinct photos sitting on my camera, if you’re interested. 

    And when they’re flying low, you can see them more clearly, but the speed at which they flash past usually results in shots like this: 

    They’re too quick for me! 

    They never touch ground, so apart from the odd second or two on a windowsill or eaves, they don’t keep still long enough to snap. 

    We have at least one swift family nesting in the edge of our attic. The adults will loop a couple of close fly-bys before hurtling straight at the building at full tilt, and we suddenly hear the ‘thwump’ of feathers as they slip through the tiny gap under the roof tiles, to be immediately yelled at by an unknown number of shrieking swiftlets hiding in the eaves. 

    Sometimes, part of the adult – a wing or a tail – remains visible for a moment, overhanging the edge of the building, or they might perch for a second on a windowsill, but by the time I get the camera going, they’ve vanished inside. Then there’s no telling when they’ll emerge again. It might be moments later, or not until the following morning. I’ve run down my phone batteries from training its camera on the eaves, to no avail. 

    They usually wait until the moment I give up and put the camera down, then I’ll see a brown head and shoulders peer mockingly down at me, before the parent launches into the salmon-pink sunset. She joins the wheeling flocks and they fly low over my face, laughing heartily at my total abject failure to snap this spectacle. 

    Go on then. Giggle away. 

    I’m intrigued by their lives, and listen to them socialising. They clearly all know each other, these guys – it’s the same families turning up year after year, and the adult hidden in my eaves will shriek loudly in response to calls from others zooming close by. Perhaps they’re her children from a previous year, or her siblings.

    Perhaps they’ve asked her to join them for dinner and she’s just telling them, “Yeah yeah, I’ll be out in a moment, Mbuyi – I’m just getting these pesky kids to bed!” (I like to give them African names, since that’s where they spend most of their time). 

    There’s certainly an awful lot of late-night chatter between those in the eaves and those in the air. I’m dying to have a look at the family hiding in my attic, but I daren’t disturb them – even though my favourite summer shoes are up there somewhere! 

    Eventually, my camera and I are defeated by darkness. I head indoors and their screaming fades, albeit only slightly. Apparently swifts can power-nap on the wing. I wonder how they manage to zoom around at insane speeds while sleeping, and not even crash… imagine if we humans could do that – the global economy would be steaming. 

    My swifts returned from central Africa to their ancestral breeding grounds – our street – on the last day of April and, judging by the cacophony in my roof, the family is doing very well. This is despite earlier spells of cold and wet weather. Swift chicks are unique in being able to enter a torpid state and survive without food or parents for several days, so the parents can commute away to seek sustenance in more benign regions. I thought I might have lost them. All seems back on track now, though. 

    Last year, they vanished suddenly, one day in August. The young will launch themselves from my eaves from their first flight, head straight off back to Africa, and the skies will fall silent. It’s a sad day for us, but they’ll be back next year to start families of their own. And then I can start another season of patio-based photo fails. 

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    Have you managed to successfully snap any swifts, swallows or even house martins in flight? All tips and inspiration welcome – share your snaps by emailing us at the magazine!