September, 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...
  • From boardroom to bat roost

    Standing in a damp, twilit forest on Monday night, our art editor Alun and I both froze as we spotted a female roe deer, watching us, motionless, amid the trees only a few metres away. Spooked by our eye contact, she suddenly shot into the undergrowth and melted silently away, leaving us enraptured at the magic of the moment. It was a bit different from my average Monday evening, for sure. 

    This week, we hosted Mark, Jack and Emma from the team at Sandy, who all travelled up to spend two days with us here in Bristol, where Nature's Home and the other RSPB magazines are produced. 

    And on Monday, after a long but exciting day around the boardroom table, we all decided to gatecrash Mark’s twilight bat-spotting mission up in the woods around Clifton Gorge. 

    We spent a pretty exciting couple of days in the boardroom. Here we are in full brainstorm mode… watch out for the results in Nature’s Home next year! Meanwhile, back to the forest…

    To get to the National Trust-owned Leigh Woods, we walked across the famous Clifton Suspension Bridge, built in the mid 19th century by Isembard Kingdom Brunel. It spans the mighty Avon Gorge at a dizzying height, and gives fantastic views across the city in one direction and into the densely forested gorge in the other. 

    We meandered through the woods around the edge of the gorge as night drew in, exploring different paths. Eventually, we emerged into a twilit clearing – and suddenly there were bats everywhere. Mark produced his handheld bat detector, tuned  in to their known frequencies, and - for the first time in my life - I could clearly hear their clicks and squeaks as they flapped past, sometimes circling around us, sometimes racing to and fro along a line of trees. 

    By day, we produce your RSPB magazines. By night, we wander wildly in the woods…

    We were hoping to spot lesser horseshoe bats, known to live around the gorge, but we mostly identified whiskered bats (we think!) and soprano pipistrelles. They were all awesome, though. Sometimes we saw them before we heard them, sometimes it was the other way around, but it was fantastic to be so close to these wild creatures of the night. Often, they’d drop and flap along close to the ground and once, it looked like one almost flew into Alun’s knee as he walked. 

    Just as our eyes were growing accustomed to the growing darkness, we emerged onto an escarpment to be dazzled by this sparkling view of the Clifton Bridge, slightly below us, glittering like a diamond necklace in the night. A fresh breeze blew off the Gorge, and we were all compelled to stop and admire the view. 

    Civilisation, visible from the bat-filled wilderness of Clifton Gorge. Better in the flesh than in this pic!

    As we turned back, the night swept in and we all needed torches to find our footing. This made it harder to see the bats, but their mysterious squeaks and chattering (audible only via the bat detector) accompanied us all the way back to the gate. 

    We all got home late, but were re-invigorated for the morning’s meeting - in which we planned the Spring issue of Nature’s Home! I’m hoping we can find a bit of room in it for a bat or two… watch this space! 

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    If there's something you'd like to see more (or less) of in Nature's Home, now is a great time to tell us! Email us at natureshome@rspb.org.uk, or log in to comment below.

  • What's in a name?

    You don’t have to be an expert to work out how the blackbird got its name. The names of some birds are strikingly obvious. The blue tit, the long-tailed tit, the pink-footed goose, the goldeneye, these names helpfully tell you if you’re looking at the right species. But not all are this straightforward.

    From call sounds to behaviour, names can tell us a lot about a species. Some birds are named after their method of building a nest, others after the person who first discovered them. Some are downright weird.

    Named after their sound

    Think of the chough, the chiffchaff, the song thrush, the cuckoo – many birds are named after their distinctive song or call. Some are more obvious than others. The original form of the word 'kite' was probably 'kutja', and being closely related to the German 'kuaz' (barn owl) this is thought to actually refer to the screech owl. The 'u' sound of these words is thought to imitate the call of the owl, hence the Old English form of the word 'ule', and the 'k' and 't' could then come from the word 'cat', as in French owls were referred to as 'chat-haunt' (screeching cat). In modern language the word 'kite' has been transferred to a different bird, but the roots of the word reveal a whole range of bird names attributed to their calls – names beginning 'ki-', 'kit-' and 'kiw-'.

    Named after habit, realm or behaviour

    As well as sound, names can be derived from other distinctive features, take woodpeckers for example. Turnstones are named for their habit of flipping stones to hunt for food, weavers for the way they make their nests. The word ‘duck’ is thought to come from the Old English ‘duce’, meaning ‘diver’ and 'cormorant' from the Medieval Latin 'corvus marinus' (sea raven). 'Sparrow' comes from an Anglo Saxon word for meaning flutterer, while 'starling' in the same language means 'little star' – perhaps for the star shape of the bird in the sky. 'Hawk' likewise can be connected to the Anglo Saxon 'have' meaning seizing or grasping. 'Chaffinch' is thought to come from Old English and references the bird's habit of foraging around barns picking seeds from the chaff.

    Named after a person

    Some species are named after the person who discovered them. This is true of Montagu’s harrier and Cetti’s warbler. The Prince Ruspoli’s Turaco, a colourful bird found in Ethiopia, was first found in the 1890s in the luggage of an Italian aristocrat, who had been recently trampled to death by an elephant (source). Some names don't refer to one specific person. The word 'robin' is thought to have its origins in 'Robert', which can mean either 'winner over all' or 'bright and famous', while 'magpie' contains the fond 'Maggie', nickname for 'Margaret'.

    Ruspoli's turaco was named after the Italian aristocrat who first discovered it. Photo: public domain

    Named for humans

    Some bird names come from the relationship that species has with humans. 'Peregrine’ comes from the Latin 'peregrinus' meaning foreign. The literal translation of the Latin taxonomic name is 'pilgrim falcon', which is a reference to the birds being captured for falconry fully grown while on migration rather than being taken from the nest.

    Named in a muddle

    There are, however, some names that came from more obscure origins. The English name for the puffin is thought to come from the word ‘puffed’ and is in reference to the fat nestlings of the Manx shearwater. The two species were confused, and so the term ‘puffin’ applied to the wrong bird. Confusion is a factor in many bird names. The albatross was mixed up with alcatras, a frigate bird of similar appearance, and the turkey confused with the guinea fowl, which was transported to Europe from Africa via Turkey.

    There are some instances where we simply don’t know where a name came from: the French word 'grebe' is from an unknown origin, and barnacle goose mixed up in confusion with the brent. The word ‘penguin’ is one of the most hotly contested. Thought to be derived from the Welsh pen gwyn, meaning ‘white head’ this name was given to the now extinct great auk but, once again, people got confused and sailors who first saw penguins mistook them for auks.

    I gathered all my etymological research from oxforddictionaries.com, lauraerickson.com and Word Origins... And How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone by Anatoly Liberman. In this book, Liberman says: historical linguistics is an area for specialists, and specialists seldom agree on anything." This seems particularly true of etymology, where I found many conflicting ideas on the roots of names. I have tried to offer the most commonly held origins in this blog, but if you know of any alternative name meanings, or have any great examples to add, please let us know at natureshome@rspb.org.uk

  • Homing in on nature

    With autumn very much bedding in, I thought I'd do a stock take of my wildlife. I say “my” wildlife because I'm referring to all the regulars I hear and see as I get on my bike or jump in my car in the morning, and all the creatures I share my home with whether I like it or not. I blog about this sort of thing quite regularly. You might've read about some of my rescue missions, or about the creeps that crawl in the night in a past blog. This blog's aim is to get you thinking about your wildlife, and your home through the year.

    What do you hear as you open the front door?

    I hear a green woodpecker every day. I've only just realised this if I'm honest, and I've never bothered to try and work out where it goes or even if it's the same one. It's call is unmistakable, and I usually hear it in the morning chuckling away.

    Who doesn't like a wasp nest in their brickwork? Every morning, one of these busy buzzers collides with my face (Photo: Jack Plumb)

    What do you see as you leave or come home?

    Just yesterday a friend identified a flower on the verge I park my car next to. I had noticed it before and thought it was particularly hardy for something so delicate, but it was great to get an ID. Most mornings as my car pool bundle into my car, just near my foot is vervain (Verbena officinalis).

    Thanks for the help Donal (Photo: Jack Plumb)

    What sneaked in through a window this morning?

    I could probably start a living minibeast museum with the amount and variety of creepy crawly that's come into my house this year, but my highlight is probably having a shower with a bumblebee on a particularly bright spring morning. An instance of joy, immediately followed by panic as I realised it wasn't waterproof and needed saving.

    Shower bee knew it had a good thing going on - all the honeysuckle it could eat and communal showers (Photo: Jack Plumb)

    What invited itself over for dinner yesterday evening?

    We've enjoyed watching Johnson, then Thompson, and now Johnson II do their ground beetle laps of the living room most evenings this year. The cellar spider society in the bedroom have kept to themselves and dealt with a minor invasion of spiders the size of your hand, and the kitchen skylight has been a meeting ground for hornet mimic hoverflies.

    Shelob lives in the shed (Photo: Jack Plumb)

    Any other memorable encounters?

    As we came home from the pub this year we bumped into a hedgehog. I knew they were around in the graveyard behind our house, but a close encounter firmly cemented the warm fuzzy feeling of knowing you live in a place fit for nature.

    What have you seen, or heard? Do you keep a list of the species that visit your garden? Let us know by emailing natureshome@rspb.org.uk

    Jack