Did you know, we have just over 300 nest boxes at Ynys-hir for our small birds? In the past few weeks we’ve been busy cleaning out all boxes and mending any problems before the birds start surveying for potential nest sites in the coming weeks. Raising a brood of chicks can leave a box looking (and smelling) pretty bad so we give the birds a helping hand by removing any old nest material from the previous year, this helps keep the vast amount of fleas and parasites away from any young vulnerable chicks.
The target species we’re hoping to attract is pied flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca), but we also get a fair amount of blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) and great tit (Parus major) too. The pied flycatcher is a long-distance migrant, travelling all the way from sub-Saharan Africa to spend the spring and summer with us. Sadly their numbers are declining fast but mid-west Wales is a hotspot for these birds and Ynys-hir is no exception. Pied flycatchers breed here every year and studies have shown that these birds are very faithful to their breeding sites, often returning year after year to raise a brood in the same woodland or even the same nestbox- that’s pretty impressive!
Our interns and conservation volunteers have been working hard in the woodland over the winter to remove sections of bramble (in some places by hand!) to reduce vegetation grow-back in the spring and summer. Having clear areas of understorey to forage is vital for pied flycatcher as they increase their intake of caterpillars and other leaf-munching bugs to feed their chicks. More boxes have been installed in these areas of management so we can monitor the effects (if any) on the pied flycatcher breeding population.
This year we’re also adding 10 new boxes along the red trail for redstarts (Phoenicurus phoenicurus). These birds are spring migrants too and like to nest in rot holes and open cavities but will happily take to artificial boxes provided the hole is big enough (at least 42mm). Their nests look very similar to pied flycatcher, a cup woven from grass and leaves but then furnished with a layer of soft feathers whereas flycatchers leave theirs bare.
National Nest Box Week takes place every year in the second full week of February, this year it’s the 14th-21st February. Why not get into the spirit at RSPB Ynys-hir by making a nest box on Wednesday 21st February 1-3pm Nestbox’s £5 per kit.
My intention was to write a blog all about the wonders of the Greenland White Fronted Goose, their journey from their breeding grounds on the low arctic tundra of Western Greenland to the Celtic fringes of Britain via southern Iceland. And trust me they are fascinating birds, like a lot of other goose species they are highly social, have a fascinating life cycle and are extremely site faithful. It is this last fact that made me want to change the direction of this post. The stark reality is that the wintering Greenland White Fronted Goose population has declined rapidly on the Dyfi over the past few decades, in just the past ten years the number has dropped from 106 in the winter of 1997/98 to 25 this year, so we face the very real possibility that the wonderful high pitched call of these charismatic geese could no longer be a feature of our valley. This is the down side of birds which are so highly site faithful, once they are gone they are gone.
So what do we do? We are faced with a species that doesn’t breed in Britain, whose breeding success is being impacted by a shifting climate in the low arctic, and whose breeding condition is partly dictated by availability of food in southern Iceland in Spring. Well the first thing to do is to recognise that a group of very dedicated scientists and conservationists have been studying these geese for a long time, from expeditions to the breeding grounds to satellite tagging projects there is a lot of data, information and advice available. For example an awful lot of the knowledge I have picked up about the geese has been from reading the work of Dr Anthony Fox who has been studying this species for many years and Carl Mitchell who too has been working for decades to conserve Greenland White fronted Geese.
What comes out from that data is that these geese, like all birds, have a complex life cycle. Their ability to breed successfully is heavily influenced by their body condition when they arrive in Greenland, their body condition when they arrive in Greenland is in turn linked to how much condition they have put on on their stop-over in Iceland and this is all dictated by the condition they are in when they leave Britain. The low breeding success of these birds is in large part caused by the fact that they will not breed if they are not in good condition, in many cases they won’t even attempt to breed if their body condition is not good enough.
Like many geese they lose weight in the short winter days simply because there is less light and therefore less time to feed, added to that the cold conditions mean that food is less nutritious and less readily available. In early spring they begin to put on weight, some of this is stored fat but a lot of the extra weight goes into increased muscle mass, in short their bodies start to change from being designed for short flight and fat storage to long haul flight and muscle mass. The more weight they put on and the stronger they are the more excess reserves they will have when they reach Iceland and the easier it will be for them to reach peak breeding condition.
What these geese need from us then is the conditions which allow them to fatten up and build muscle when they need to. This means multiple suitable feeding areas close to their roost site, this way they are not expending energy flying long distances to seek food in winter and can rotate around feeding areas. So we need to know what they eat, where they eat and at what time of year, this is where the satellite tag data comes in so handy. We can see the areas they prefer, these are usually areas with a bit of standing water, topographical features like shallow ditches and hollows and usually fairly remote. What we can then do is look for other areas close by which may have some of these features but not all and work to make them more suitable for the geese. The satellite data also tells us that the geese like to roost on open water on the reserve, in the areas they prefer we can make sure that there is always open water available to them.
So from thinking ‘what can we do’ we can go through a process whereby we learn from what others have discovered, utilise technology and carry out management which will hopefully improve the birds chances of leaving the valley in good condition. It won’t always work and some of the time the geese may choose to feed elsewhere, but we still need to make sure we are providing good conditions where we can, should they chose to feed in the areas we manage.
The last and most important thing we can do is being part of the Greenland White fronted goose partnership, a group made up of several organisations including BACS, WWT and NRW. It is this group which has been the driving force behind all the work which has been carried out to date and who continue to work to preserve this unique species on the Dyfi. We can do our best to create better feeding areas on the reserve but it is the work of the partnership informing land owners over the whole valley that will give these geese a wide range of options in terms of feeding areas and therefore a better chance of breeding successfully when they return to Greenland. Only by working together to gather knowledge, share ideas and work on a landscape scale will we be able to improve the prospects of the Greenland White fronted Goose on the Dyfi.
Anyone who has had the privilege to see these birds will know that Greenland White fronted Geese are a fascinating, hugely charismatic and beautiful bird. They have survived Arctic Foxes and traversed harsh tundra to get to us, they are a part of what makes our valley unique and we will continue to do everything we can to keep them coming back for years to come.
Seasons have shifted and there any many changes to report on at Ynys-hir since the last blog. Firstly, August saw the welcoming of 3 interns for their 9 month posting; Darran, Philippa and Naomi. All will be working on site creating homes for nature and improving the experience for visitors.
Our recent conservation work has focussed on clearing large areas of bramble, holly, and rhododendron from our broadleaf woodland on the green trail to open up the scrub layer for specialist woodland species like the pied flycatcher and wood warbler. Both species are on the conservation red list, meaning their numbers nationwide have dropped significantly. Fortunately our part of Wales has the perfect habitat for these birds and it’s our job to keep it in the best condition. Another part of the management will see our Welsh mountain ponies grazing in the wood over the coming weeks; their hooves churn up the ground and reduce the amount of unwanted vegetation regrowth in the spring.
Elsewhere on the green trail, we’ve created a new Insectacropolis for our minibeast Wildlife Challenge. Rotting log piles, leaf litter and muddy stumps are great places for finding the smaller inhabitants of our reserve like worms, earwigs, and ground beetles which are essential food for hedgehogs, blackbirds and many more species. Sign up for Wild Challenge free on our website and explore the micro-world on the reserve!
We have made some changes to the red route due to the closing of the path at farm corner as we coppice an area of woodland. Our aim is to create pockets of woody regeneration throughout the woodland to generate a more dynamic habitat with trees of different ages. Beforehand we had to conduct a dormouse survey to ensure no disturbance occurred, and it was certainly an experience surveying for nests in head-high brambles!! We didn’t find any nest evidence, however stay tuned for an update of murine management work in the coming months.
As this part of the red trail is now closed, with the help of our brilliant volunteers and warden Russell, we opened up a new route into Covert Du further down the track to access Ynys Eidiol viewing screen and the reed bed.