Firstly I should ‘fess up and admit that I may have stolen the title for this blog post from the title Claire used for the write up of the latest residential on our section of the Somerset Wildlife Trust website. I was struggling to come up with something but I feel this fits the avian theme of the week perfectly!
So last week saw us spending five days in the Wiltshire countryside. Sadly Luke, Devon Trainee and writer of Exploring a wild future, had hurt his ankle and couldn’t join us, but we had the two remaining Dorset Skills for the Future trainees, Melissa and Frances, spend the week with us.
Claire, Olivia and I made the journey from Somerset together, arriving at Oxenwood Outdoor Education Centre, our home for the week, just as everyone else did. Once all our bags were inside we tucked into a choice of four delicious soups cooked up by the Wiltshire Trainees, as Rachel, the project head, went over our plan for the week.
We spent the afternoon walking around Jones’s Mill, a Wiltshire Wildlife Trust reserve. The reserves is a mixture of wet grassland, wet woodland and ponds and as we walked around the Wiltshire trainees pointed out some of their handiwork. It was nice to catch up with everyone as we walked, and as always happens there were plenty of stops to try and id whatever we’d stumbled upon.
Back at the centre it was no rest for the wicked. Team Somerset were on kitchen duty so we set to work preparing a dinner of chilli and jacket potatoes followed by gluten free chocolate brownies and ice cream. It may be my own opinion but I have to say we excelled ourselves. The main was just what we needed after an afternoon in the cold and the brownies were perfect! I may have to try out the recipie again.
After dinner we were joined by David Kjaer from the Great Bustard Group, who are working to reintroduce the Great Bustard back into the UK. David has been heavily involved with the project, from travelling out to Spain to collect eggs to wearing a ‘bustard suit’ to help feed the youngsters. Such close encounters had given him the chance to take some beautiful photos of these rather impressive looking birds, to illustrate his talk. Though they seem to have encountered a few unexpected problems David remains optimistic about the future of the project and I look forward to following their future progress.
The wildlife sighting started on Tuesday morning before we’d even all piled onto the mini-bus. A mammal with long ears in the field opposite the centre sent me scrambling for my bins, to confirm that yes it was indeed a Hare. I happily watched it be joined by several others as I brushed my teeth and was even treated to the sight of a Red Kite flying over. As we were leaving we looking at the field to the side of the centre to see a herd of 8 Fallow Deer, one stag and seven hinds. What a way to start the day 🙂
The rest of Tuesday was to be spent at Tedworth House, a Help for Heroes recovery centre, which works closely with Wiltshire Wildlife Trust. Together they have created a woodland camp to give residents at the centre an outdoor space for learning and recreation. The Wildlife Trust helps soldiers to gain experience in conservation skills and gain all the benefits from spending time outdoors. Georgie, the Wilts Community and Volunteer Engagement trainee spends a lot of time working with the project so it was interesting to see what that work entailed.
Our main task for the day was to remove some Dogwood from the gardens so they can be replanted with flowers. The group split in half and we each tackled a bed. Pulling up the roots was really quite difficult, but luckily it kept us warm as it was a rather cold day! I had to step in with a spot of toad rescue when we disturbed one that was hiding amongst the roots. I took it off to the edge of the nearby woodland and tucked him into a nice spot underneath a fallen tree.
We were treated to a tour of the house, after removing all our dirty boots of course! As we were taken around we were told about all of the state of the art facilities they have on site to help recovering soldiers. It was all rather fancy! Lunch was sausages cooked on the bonfire, then we had just enough time to tidy up where we’d been working and wash tools before our next activity.
The rest of the afternoon was spent at the Pheonix centre, their state of the art sports facilities. To begin with we split into teams of three and took part in a series of games, testing all sorts of skills; giant jenga, wheelchair netball shooting, one eyed bowling and indoor curling! It was all great fun and my team, made up of Matt from Wiltshire, Lucy from Devon and I won! (not that we were competitive at all :P). We then tried our hand at seated volleyball. Some of the residents from the centre joined in. Luckily the didn’t seem to mind that we weren’t particulary great at the sport! It was loads of fun though and we all left feeling really grateful to have been given such a brilliant experience.
That evening was spent looking back over the first half of the traineeship (so much scarier saying that this side of the new year!) reflecting on what we had achieved so far and what we wanted to do in the time left to us.
We spent Wednesday in the centre completing some core training for is all. In the morning we were joined by Imogen Davenport, Director of Conservation for Dorset WT, who covered the basics of Wildlife Law with us. It’s a huge area, and the few hours we had could only give us a basic knowledge of things like planning and animal licenses but as it was an area I previously knew very little about I was very grateful to get a chance to learn about it. We had risk assessment training in the afternoon. Most of us have now come across risk assessments in various forms across our traineeships but this was a chance to ensure that we have a basic understanding of it. I wasn’t feel great in the afternoon so spent the session wrapped up in a duvet, with a hot water bottle sat next to a radiator! I did however manage to take the information on board and Claire and I even had a chance to use our newly aquired hedge-laying skills to write a risk assessment with Chris and Olivia.
We headed over to Salisbury for the evening to hear a Local Group talk by Nigel Lewis on his work with Bird of Prey boxes. Many of his boxes are out on Salisbury Plain; due to his aim that if you were to ever to do parachute jump out there where ever you land you should be no further then 500m from a BoP box! Nigel makes all of his own boxes and has witnessed a vast array of species use them; including ducks! He gave his presentation using a projector and slides and it was wonderful to hear how one man’s hard work has helped to secure a healthy population of Barn Owls in the county.
Thursday had to be be favourite day of the week. We were up early to spend the day at Langford Lakes. First on the agenda for the day was a ringing demonstration. I’d been very excited about this since I knew we were scheduled to do it. Lots of people I know through A Focus on Nature and Next Generation Birders (check them both out if you’re a young conservationist) go out bird-ringing so knowing a little about it, I was really keen to see it first hand. By the time we’d arrived members of the West Wilts Ringing Group had the nets set up and the first birds in the bag ready to ring. As they processed the first bird they talked through all the measurements that they were taken and what they did with the data. All data collected goes towards the BTO Ringing scheme, which can provide information on population sizes, movements of birds and how long they live for. As none of us are training to ring we obviously couldn’t help process the birds but we were allowed to release them. The first one I released was a male chaffinch, it felt so light and delicate in the hand! I then was feeling brave a released a Blue Tit; people weren’t lying when they said that they’re feisty and will bite!
It was amazing to see birds up close. Even though we were dealing with common species, by seeing them in the hand it was possible to pick out details that I’ve completely missed before like how much green there is on a Chaffinch or just how subtly beautiful the plumage of a Dunnock is. I can see why people get up stupidly early to go along to ringing sessions and I think I may have to take up a friends offer to go with them in Somerset!
The rest of the day was spent in a photography work shop led by the wonderful Iain Green. He started the session off with a talk on tips on how to take good wildlife photography. I enjoy taking photos of everything on my phone, but have no real desire to get properly into wildlife photography because I know I can’t afford the gear and I’m content to look at the stunning photographs produced by some of my very talented friends. Despite this Iain’s talk was still very interesting and engaging. He was interrupted at one point by one of the ringers knocking on the door and announcing that they had just caught a kingfisher in the nets. Queue a rush of twenty people leaving the room. Luckily Iain joined in with the rush and managed to get some photos that put all of ours to shame (you can check them out in his blog post here). After all the excitement Iain managed to finished his talk and joined us all for a wander around the reserve in an attempt to get some photographs. To begin with I borrowed a fancy camera off Chris but in the end settled for taking photos with phone to tweet and watched birds.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was the bird ‘expert’ (using that term in the loosest sense) of the group so spent my time happily naming birds as we came across them. I had a very frustrated moment when I was looking at lots of Tufties and came across something that wasn’t right. The bird kept diving so it was hard to get a good view of it through my binoculars, but there was too much white on the breast and a white patch on the cheeks. My first instinct was to say Goldeneye but as I’d never seen one I started to doubt myself and no one else had seen it to help me confirm it. Luckily for me I’d thought to put my Collins in my bag. Flicking through the pages I was pleased to see that my instinct had been right, now all I needed was the bird to reappear! I was maybe a little too excited when it came back into view from behind an island a few minutes later but it’s a good feeling to know that I am learning and improving on my wildlife knowledge all the time. As well as the Goldeneye and Tufties there were plenty of other water fowl to keep me happy (I rather like ducks at the mo) including Pochard, Gadwalls and Shovelller. I also saw the largest number of Coots that I’ve ever seen in my life!
Dinner that night was beef stew made by Wiltshire, with the meat coming from cattle that graze some of their reserves. Those of us that are doing the Volunteer Management course all sat down together to have a run through our booklets and then it was time for some fun and games. In honour of Luke we played our favourite group game ‘Mafia’ and actually managed to win!
We were up, packed and out of the centre first thing the next morning and headed to Morgan’s Hill for a visit to the final reserve of the week. It was a beautiful winters day, frosty but clear and we didn’t feel the chill once we got moving. The reserve is a SSSI for it’s orchids and butterflies as well as the general quality of the chalk grassland. There were some lovely views from the reserve, including across to the Lansdowne Monument, our point to reach for lunchtime. As is always the case when we’re put together for a walk there was much stopping and starting as we paused to look at whatever had caught our eye. These included a recently deceased shrew, a flock of Yellowhammer and some lichens on an old tree.
We made it to our lunch point all safe and sound where we were met by Rachel. There was just time to eat our sandwiches, have a final group photo and give a big thank you to Rachel and the Wiltshire trainees for another fantastic week before we were ferried back to the cars in the minibus.
Sadly it was then time for us all to head home. Despite Rachel dropping into conversation that they don’t expect all of us to make it to the next residential as some of us may have jobs by then (so soon?!) Team Somerset are already looking forward to welcoming the rest of the trainees to our home county!