Wild Goose Chase

 

Every now and then, among the flocks of ‘feral’ greylag geese feeding on the adjacent farmland, a few birds stand out from the crowd. Occasionally a truly ‘wild’ goose will have joined the resident goose population while on its winter vacation from Northern Europe and Russia.

 

This week, a tundra bean goose, which would have spent the summer on the Northern Russia Tundra, has given birdwatchers at the Reserve the run-around when it appeared in a field in Thrumpton – and could be seen (albeit through a telescope) from the River Path on the Attenborough side of the river.

 

First spotted on Saturday 22nd, it was easy to pick out in a field of cabbages alongside the greylags. It was seen briefly again on Sunday and then disappeared only to be re-found on Coneries Pond on Thursday morning – the first official record of this species within the designated area of the Nature Reserve.

 

The excitement surrounding the arrival of the tundra bean goose is justified when you consider that this is only the fourth time that this species has been seen anywhere near the Attenborough complex. The last record was in 2011 (in the same field) and prior to that two records in the early 80s (1981 & 82).

 

The tundra bean goose is not only a scarce winter visitor to Nottinghamshire but also across much of the East Midlands. Less than 500 individuals appear on our shores each winter and while they do not have a regular wintering area, their distribution is mostly concentrated around South West Scotland and the Norfolk Coast. In contrast the pink footed goose, a close relative of the bean goose, numbers some 350,000 individuals during the winter months and can be seen regularly in the county as large skeins pass overhead on migration.

 

The tundra bean goose looks similar to the pink-footed goose, and is almost identical to the taiga bean goose (a sub-species that breeds in taiga habitats). The tundra can be easily separated from the pink-footed by the dark brown head and neck that does not contrast with the body, which is much browner. The tundra bean goose also has more strongly barred flanks and more contrasting pale feather fringing against the darker upper parts of the body.

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Why Dead Wood is Good Wood:

cicones-undatus-attenborough-front

 

A hugely important, but often overlooked feature of the Attenborough Nature Reserve is dead wood. Whether stacked in log piles by our team of conservation volunteers, or a tree that has died and has been left to rot in-situ, decaying wood is vitally important for many species of wildlife.

 

It is estimated that between 10 and 15% of all species of plants and animals recorded in the UK are dependent on dead wood habitats. Such organisms are known as saproxylic. Not only does dead wood support large communities of fungi, lichens, insects, birds and mammals, but it also provides a steady supply of nutrients and nitrogen to other woodland plants.

 

The value of dead wood at Attenborough was highlighted this week with the discovery of a former RDB1 Red Data Book species of beetle (the most endangered) – found under the bark of a dead sycamore tree near the Education Woodland. A first for the Nature Reserve and also the first of its kind to ever be recorded in Nottinghamshire, the 2.5mm long Cicones undatus (a type of bark beetle) was formerly known from just a few dead sycamore trees in Windsor Great Park, Berkshire.

 

Following its original discovery in 1984, this tiny beetle began expanding its range in the late 90s, possibly the result of recent arrivals from the continent. Yet despite an increase in number, its niche requirement of fungus infected dead wood from sycamore trees means it is still extremely uncommon.

 

The main threat to this species in the UK is currently the ‘tidying’ of our woodlands – the large scale removal of dead wood for aesthetic reasons (to make the woodland ‘look nice’), for public safety or to reduce the risk of disease in commercial plantations.

 

As part of the management of the Attenborough Nature Reserve, where it is safe to do so, dead trees are left standing to provide a habitat for such dead wood specialists. In time they create nesting opportunities for woodpeckers, owls and other birds such as the locally scarce willow tit – which is unique amongst the tit species as it excavates its own nest in the soft rotten wood. In the more public areas of the Reserve, dead wood stumps are left or log piles created.

 

Most of the log piles at Attenborough are a bi-product of our woodland management. Trees are coppiced or felled on the Reserve to create structural diversity within the woodland, create glades for wildflowers and for public safety reasons (where they are adjacent to the footpaths). The trees are then cut in to long logs and stacked tightly in the undergrowth.

 

So next time you visit Attenborough and pass a fallen branch or one of our log piles, just think what rarities could be lying beneath the bark.

 

Great Grebes

 

Attenborough Nature Reserve is experiencing a calendar change in our local great-crested grebe population. Early sightings of their beautiful choreographed courtship dance, which should be occurring in spring, have been observed by our visitors this week.

 

This fascinating courtship display is normally seen between February and June, and typically only after the males get their stunning chestnut brown and black crest plumage. The males displaying at the Reserve over the last week have all been in their grey winter plumage. The purpose of the dance is to attract a mate or re-affirm paired grebes bonds prior to breeding later in the spring.

 

This display starts off with synchronized head bobbing and shaking, which helps them to show off their elaborate spring plumage, for which they were once hunted. The dance continues as the pair dive under water in unison and resurface with pond weed in their beaks. After resurfacing the pair meet their breast together, whilst frantically paddling their lobed feet. This raises the majority of their bodies out of the water making the weed offerings more impressive.

 

But why are these species of grebes displaying so early, especially before they get their summer plumage? There have been scientific studies undertaken in the past 10 years which suggest that British bird’s seasonal calendars are changing slightly, with both migration and nesting dates occurring earlier.

 

Could it be climate change? There is evidence to suggest that the UK’s bird population is being affected by a changing climate. Therefore is the nesting time of the local great-crested grebe going to be permanently altered?

 

If you want to see the grebe’s early courtship behaviour, then why not come to Attenborough Nature Reserve and maybe you will be lucky to witness it first-hand. Maybe you can make up your own mind as to why there is a change in their seasonal calendar.

It’s ‘Blooming’ cold at Attenborough

 

Despite the bitterly cold weather over the latter part of the festive period, staff at the Attenborough Nature Reserve have been taking part in the New Year Plant Hunt – a survey organised by the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland (BSBI) to see which plants are flowering in the middle of winter.

 

The BSBI runs the survey annually between New Year’s Day and the 4th January and calls on members of the public and keen botanists to survey a site, on one of the days, for up to 3 hours recording any wild flowers they see.

 

After rain stopped play on New Year’s Day, we took advantage of milder temperatures and a lot of sunshine on Bank Holiday Monday to conduct our count. In all we managed to record a total of 16 different species in flower including; yarrow, hemlock, white dead-nettle, ragwort and broad-leaved dock.

 

Whilst the figure was much lower than expected, especially given the mild temperatures through much of December, it came as little surprise following the recent freezing conditions on the Reserve. That said, perhaps the most unexpected find of the survey was tansy – found in flower along the River Trent Footpath. This tall plant in the daisy family typically flowers between July and October so was either very late or very early.

 

Last year, across the UK over 600 plants were recorded in flower during the New Year Plant Hunt. This accounted for some 25% of the total species of flowering plant found in the country! In a normal winter you would expect only 20-30 species to have been in flower. This abnormally high figure was probably the result of the survey following on from the warmest and wettest December ever recorded.

 

Why not look out for some early flowering plants on your next visit to Attenborough?

 

 

The whole of the Attenborough complex is of county-wide importance for its flora. Some 450 species of have been recorded in the 50 year history of the site, including three species of orchid and many scarce wetland specialists.

 

2016: A record year for birds (and birdwatchers) at the Attenborough Nature Reserve

red-breasted-merganser-161216-sean-browne

Photo: Red-breasted Merganser – Sean Browne

 

For many keen birdwatchers, regardless of their hung-over state, New Year’s Day will probably include a visit to their favourite Nature Reserve or ‘local patch’ to begin their year list – a personal challenge to see how many birds they can see in just one calendar year.

 

With just hours to go in 2016, it seems that this year has been one for breaking records at the Attenborough Nature Reserve. At the time of writing no fewer than 172 different bird species have been spotted by our visitors, making it the best year since records began. It has beaten the previous record, set in 2013, by just three species.

 

The most notable birds included; whiskered tern, glossy ibis and yellow-browed warbler – all of which had never before been seen on the Reserve. A purple heron spotted in May became only the second of its kind to be seen at Attenborough. Other rarities included; red-backed shrike (only the fourth record in 50 years), Slavonian grebe, black-necked grebe and an unprecedented 40-50 sandwich tern seen in early April.

 

Despite the rare bittern not nesting this year, a big surprise came in late April when local birders spotted two adult Mediterranean gulls hanging around the gull island on Clifton Pond. To their amazement the birds stayed in the area throughout late spring, and successfully bred – raising two chicks. Originally from the Black Sea and of course the Mediterranean, this is the first time this species had successfully bred in Nottinghamshire.

 

The final records of the year came in on the 12th December when a red-breasted merganser (pictured) was spotted near the Nature Centre and on the 21st December when a small flock of white-fronted geese, spotted from the River Path, helped local birdwatcher Simon Roberts secure the all-time record for the number of birds seen by just one birder in a single year – his total; 163 species!

 

Thanks to all the birdwatchers for submitting their records throughout the year and special thanks to Sean Browne for collating the data for the Reserve and letting us use his images. Good luck in 2017 and keep your sightings coming in to: enquiries@attenboroughnaturecentre.co.uk

A Christmas Home for Wildlife

juniper-shieldbug-dec-2016

Photo: Juniper Shieldbugs – Tim Sexton

 

At this time of year we unintentionally invite wildlife into our own homes as we decorate our living space with fresh greenery; mistletoe, holly, ivy and indeed the Christmas tree. The warm environment of our centrally heated houses awakens any invertebrates that might have been hiding away or hibernating in the vegetation, and they emerge to explore their new surroundings.

 

For most people these unexpected visitors will be quickly removed either out of the window or into the vacuum cleaner. However for some, including me, it offers the possibility to discover some interesting creatures at a time of year that is typically quiet for many insects.

 

One such creature is the juniper shieldbug (pictured) which emerged from my table centerpiece – an arrangement of holly and Lawson’s cypress with candles in the middle.

 

The juniper shieldbug is a fairly large green shieldbug with distinctive pinkish-red markings on its back. As the name suggests, the traditional foodplant is juniper, where the larvae feed on the berries, but in recent years the bug has begun to use Lawson’s cypress.

 

Previously confined to southern juniper woodlands, this species has become more common across southern and central England in recent years, and there are now even scattered records in the North and Scotland. This expansion of its range has been facilitated by the widespread planting of juniper and more particularly cypress in gardens.

 

Despite being first discovered in Nottinghamshire some five years ago, it is still one of our county’s scarcer species – although this may be the result of under-recording.

 

This juniper shieldbug spends the winter as an adult, emerging and mating early in the spring. New adults may be found from late August onwards.

 

Last year, a small groundbug (Orsillus depressus) became the first of its kind to be spotted in Nottinghamshire after it was found in some cypress used in the Nature Centre’s natural Christmas decorations.

Close Encounters of the Bird Kind

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Robin at Attenborough – Jacqui Grafton

 

As we approach Christmas you may by now have received a greetings card or two depicting a festive robin. You might have even seen the epic homebound journey of the robin in the recent Waitrose Christmas advert. However, it is the visitors to the Attenborough Nature Reserve over the last week who have been getting really close encounters with robins, as friendly birds around the site have been feeding from their hands.

 

Despite their cute and fluffy appearance, robins are actually very territorial and can be extremely aggressive towards each other. Unlike most other species of bird, male and female robins maintain feeding territories throughout the winter and both sexes sing to defend them from each other.

 

They use their bright red feathers and their song to initially see off rivals – the better the song and brighter the feathers, the fitter the individual tends to be. Whilst most disputes can be settled on looks and sound alone, about 10% of encounters end in a fight to the death. It is largely for this reason that ¾ of robins die before they are one year old.

 

The robin’s song varies in intensity throughout the year but is at its strongest around Christmas time when they start to pair up and establish a breeding territory. When robins are looking to mate the female must approach the male with caution as she doesn’t want the male to mistake her for an intruder.

 

Primarily a woodland bird, the robin became associated with humans as the result of the rise in popularity in gardening in the late 18th and 19th century. Much as they do today, robins would have followed gardeners around, waiting for them to disturb the ground and exposing tasty invertebrates – in much the same way as they would have done with woodland animals such as wild boar for centuries earlier.

 

It was around the same time that the robin became associated with Christmas. During the Victorian era British postmen wore red coats, and gained the nickname of robin or redbreast. As the postmen became more frequent around Christmas time, the birds subsequently became popular on Christmas cards – as a representation of them.

 

If you want to escape the Christmas rush, why not come for a walk on the Reserve and bring a bag of seeds and mealworms with you. You might be able to tempt a robin from the bushes yourself.

A Moth for all Seasons

december-moth

December Moth – Tim Sexton

 

Winter can be a difficult time if you are an insect. The winter climate in the UK means that the vast majority of species are unable to remain active through the colder months of the year, and temperatures below zero can prove fatal. With the leaves off the trees and few flowers to pollinate it is also difficult for them to find food. For these reasons many insects simply shutdown until the spring, hibernating as either an adult, a larvae or as an egg.

 

For a few species of moth though, the winter is far from a challenge and they not only survive, but thrive at this time of year. The aptly named winter moth and December moth (pictured) are often most abundant in early December and the weather over the last few days has given us the perfect opportunity to look for them.

 

Moth trapping at this time of year can often be a thankless task with few (if any) moths in the trap the following morning to record. However, every once in a while, when the night time temperature rises above 10oC, there is every chance of a bumper haul.

 

Unsurprisingly, with the night time temperature mid-week not dropping below 11oC we had our best trapping session for a number of weeks.

 

Along with a single mottled umber and two winter moths, the vast majority of the moths in the trap were December moths (14 in total). Complete with a shaggy fur coat, it is not difficult to see how they are able to stand up to the cold. In fact December moths are even capable of flying at temperatures close to zero.

 

While the name suggests otherwise, December moths can actually be found on the wing from as early as October in some years although they are most frequently seen in December.

 

Unusually for winter emerging moth species, both male and female December moths are able to fly (female mottled umber and winter moths are flightless). Although the sexes look similar, male December moths can be separated from females by their noticeably large, feathered antennae. The antennae are used to ‘smell’ the female’s pheromones and so find her as quickly as possible in the narrow window of opportunity that they have in which to mate.

 

Despite being widely distributed in the UK, the population of December moths has declined by some 70% in the last 50 years.

Strictly on Ice

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With temperatures dropping to a rather chilly -5oC this week, you may be forgiven for thinking that the Attenborough Nature Reserve is a quiet place for wildlife during the winter months.

 

However, despite a number of the shallower lakes and smaller water bodies around the Reserve freezing over entirely during mid-week, the numbers of wetland birds have been steadily increasing.

 

In fact, winter is one of the best times to see waterfowl at Attenborough, when many different species migrate to the UK from their breeding grounds in Northern and Central Europe. Some species, such as wigeon, fly many thousands of miles from as far away as the Bering Sea in Eastern Siberia to escape the much colder winter climate there.

 

Even the most unlikely species such as the coot (pictured), with their somewhat ungainly flight, migrate to our shores from the continent in good number during the autumn.

 

Since 1929 the area of the Trent Valley that is now the Nature Reserve has changed dramatically as the process of gravel extraction created large, often deep areas of open water. As these ponds take longer to freeze than smaller ponds in the surrounding landscape, we regularly see an influx of birds when the temperature drops below zero.

 

Over the last few days we have had reports of up to 500 coot, 300 wigeon, 50 goosander, large skeins of pink-footed geese overhead, three pintail (an uncommon winter duck in Nottinghamshire) and two bittern (one of our rarest winter visitors) spotted around the Reserve.

 

The Reserve has a special designation of Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) which was given in-part due to the nationally important numbers of winter ducks that the Reserve regularly attracts. Some 25 different species of duck have been recorded on the site in the large 50 years along with a host of other wetland birds from grebes to gulls, waders, rails and herons.

 

It is for this reason that once a month, from September to March we carry out our Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) count. At our last count in late November, we recorded over 2,500 individual birds across the site.

What do you get if you cross a sheep with a rainstorm?

floods-sheep…A wet blanket

With over 30mm of rain falling in just 12 hours at the beginning of the week, it came as no surprise that some of the footpaths around the Attenborough Nature Reserve quickly became flooded. As the rain continued through Tuesday, the River Erewash, which feeds the Reserve, swelled pushing large volumes of water in to the lake complex.

 

By Wednesday morning a couple of the footpaths were impassable and floodwaters had covered much of Glebe field and L-meadow where our rare-breed sheep had been grazing. Whilst there wasn’t any further rain forecast and the River had already peaked, the Reserve team made the decision to take the sheep off the site as they were now struggling to find food and had just about finished grazing for this year anyway.

 

A task that would otherwise be relatively straightforward was complicated by deep water at the entrance to the meadow, which the sheep had to pass through before getting on to the trailer. Volunteers assisted Shepherdess Agnes and Graham, the Reserve Officer, came with his chest waders to help too.

 

In all the team had to round up 26 Herdwick ewes and a ram.  Once in a holding pen they had to encourage the sheep to go knee-deep in the water and then onto the trailer. Luckily the animals are well travelled and were easy to load.

 

The sheep’s job on the Reserve is to carry out aftermath grazing in our wildflower meadows. In late summer, soon after cutting the meadow for hay we put sheep on to the area where they control the re-growth of vegetation and create a desirable sward height in our wildflower meadows for the following spring.

 

Our flock of Herdwick sheep (originally from the Lake District) have been specifically chosen as they are tolerant of the wet conditions found on many of our Reserves in Nottinghamshire – although even they struggle when the meadow becomes inundated with water. Herdwicks are much hardier than traditional breeds of sheep and prefer to eat the more woody plants like hawthorn and bramble – which are undesirable if you are trying to encourage wildflowers to grow.

 

The sheep will now return to the rest of the flock and carry out their grazing duties on one of our other Nature Reserves. The Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust owns over 600 sheep (both Herdwicks and Hebrideans) along with rare breed cattle such as Lincolnshire Reds and Dexters – some of which you may have spotted at Attenborough earlier in the year.