March, 2016

Wildlife

Wildlife
We're about more than just birds (though obviously we like them a lot).

Notes on nature

We love nature... from every little bug on a blade of grass to birds, butterflies, otters and oaks!
  • How we're helping: cranes

    Have you ever heard the mysterious bugling call of a common crane?

    It’s a noise that drifts across wetlands throughout northern Europe and, if you lived in the UK up until around 400 years ago, you probably would have heard it regularly.

    In fact, crane might even have been on your menu  - Henry III's 1251 Christmas menu included an indigestion-inducing 115 cranes. Now that’s a Christmas feast!

    Cranes were widespread back then, but then drainage of their wetland haunts and hunting made them extinct in the UK.

    That was until 1979, when a small group re-established themselves in Norfolk. Whilst this group was doing well, it was small and vulnerable. Along with our partners Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT), Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and Viridor Credits, we decided it was time to bring cranes back in a bigger way.

    How are we helping?

    And so began the Great Crane Project.

    The plan was to supplement the cranes in Norfolk with another population of cranes elsewhere in the UK. To do this, crane chicks needed rearing in captivity, before being released into the wild.

    After careful consideration about where to release the young cranes, the Somerset wetlands and moors were chosen.

    The area offered plenty of food and suitable nesting sites, giving the released cranes the best chance of not only surviving, but establishing a self-sustaining population of their own.

    Eggs were brought over from Germany and chicks reared at WWT’s Slimbridge reserve. From there the young cranes went to crane school!

    This saw the birds' keepers dress in grey, with headgear shaped like a crane's neck and head to boot, to teach the youngsters all about life as a crane (see image below). Once the youngsters finished their schooling,  they were released into the wild.

    Young cranes at crane school. Image by Nick Upton (www.rspb-images.com)

    How are cranes doing?

    A milestone moment was reached in 2015, when cranes released through The Great Crane Project successfully fledged chicks in south-west England – the first cranes fledged there for 400 years!

    Nine pairs of release-project cranes bred this year, with four of those going on to hatch and rear chicks, and four of these chicks successfully fledging.

    Released cranes also dispersed further than ever last year, and started integrating with the native UK population. Brilliant news!

    What’s next?

    With no more releases planned, we’re moving to monitoring the birds and UK-wide habitat creation. Cranes are long-lived and breeding success is slow, but perhaps soon the crane’s wild, bugling call will be heard throughout more of the UK.

    It's all thanks to you!

    Without the backing of people like you, our supporters, we couldn't help give nature a home in the UK. Thanks!

  • Monday's magic moment: Hopelessly devoted to you

    Spring is here and thoughts have turned to love (sort of!) here at The Lodge.

    Birdlife all over the reserve is busy preparing for the breeding season.

    Blue tits are looking for food to fatten themselves up in preparation for the days ahead, a pair of red kites are regularly spotted eyeing each other overhead, and two mallards are wandering the manicured grounds as I write in search of a new family-sized home.

    Tosh, I hear you cry, it's just nature at work. And you'd be right.

    Since life in the wild can be precarious, it would be folly for many smaller birds to to put too much faith in a single spouse. 

    And so large numbers of birds - from the aforementioned mallards to strutting songbirds - will get it on with just about any other feathered friend they can find.

    Female birds, conscious that their nest could be attacked at any moment, may also lay an egg or two in a neighbour's nest as a kind of avian insurance policy. 

    But romance is not yet dead in the bird kingdom.

    On a recent trip to nearby St Neots, I spotted a species that everyone knows mates for life - the mute swan, of course.

    If one swan dies, its partner may remain single and celibate for several seasons - a big chunk of time for a bird that can only expect to live in the wild for 15 years or so. 

    Natural selection is at work here too - it's their survival strategy - and one which is rare among birds.

    Unfaithfulness just wouldn't pay dividends for swans, as they are highly territorial. In fact, pairs often gang up on unwary intruders to defend their territory.

    Such devotion regularly pays off - pairs that have been together for many years often raise more young than those that have just met.

    So, while natural selection encourages smaller birds to practice polygamy, swans' devotion to their mate keeps them gliding on.

    If you like the image above, you'll find it and thousands more like it on RSPB Images. Why not take a look?

  • Monday's Easter treat

    A local news story lately raised a chuckle in the RSPB office.

    Colleague: ‘A Christmas tree in Kent apparently can’t be taken down because there’s a pregnant dove in it’.

    Me: ‘Ha! Christmas.’

    Colleague: ‘Yeah... Also, you can’t get a pregnant dove.’

    It’s true, of course you can’t. I’d just never thought about it. Nor, it would seem, had that particular news site. 

    Since joining the RSPB team last year, I’ve learned all sorts of things I never knew I never knew about wildlife. Like that puffins are as endangered as the African elephant. And that toads can live for 40 years.

    Since it’s Easter, instead of rolling out the usual egg-based puns (you're very welcome), I thought I’d share a few egg facts to dazzle friends and family with over that spring lamb dinner. 

    • Firstly, birds don’t get ‘pregnant’

    Birds produce eggs, like humans. Then, once fertilised, instead of allowing them to develop internally, they lay them and incubate them in the nest. This enables mamma bird to keep flying around in search of food, without being weighed down. Makes sense.

    So, if you spot a chubby chaffinch or a rotund robin in your garden, it’s probably just fluffed up against the cold. Or it’s eaten all the pies.

    • Birds don’t lay their eggs all at once

    Blue tits, for example, will lay 6-15 eggs per clutch – one each day. Then, thanks to some clever evolution, the first will only start developing once the last is laid, ensuring all the chicks hatch together. Birds of prey are the exception. As any Springwatchers will know, the first owl chick to hatch may turn to its younger sibling when food is scarce. Moving on...

    • Why do some birds lay a dozen eggs while others lay just one?

    The number of eggs typically laid depends on where a bird ranks in the food chain. Birds of prey, because they’re at the top, only really need to rear one or two young to keep their numbers up, as opposed to garden birds, say, where only a few of their clutch are expected to survive to breeding age.

    • Why are eggs egg-shaped?

    This is my favourite. As well as allowing for ‘ease of entry’ into the world, the curved shape of an egg is designed for strength, much like a bridge is. With this, being tapered at one end allows several eggs to sit snugly together in the nest, and means if they roll, they just roll around on their axis, rather than out of the nest or off a cliff. Clever!

    So there you have it: four awkward egg questions egg-splained (you didn’t think you were getting away that easily?). And a cute picture of an avocet chick. 

    Happy Easter!