Following on from 2013, 2014 was also a year of discovery for me. Since starting my FdSc Countryside and Wildlife Management in September 2013, what was previously a supposedly keen interest in animals and nature has become an obsession, a way of life, an ongoing understanding of how things really work – learning the ways of nature and the emerging science of ecology.
2013 was a turning point: deciding what I wanted to do and discovering I could do it led me to enrol on my course in spring with a whole summer ahead for volunteering and discovery. After a harsh and snowy late winter and spring, I couldn’t wait to see the season’s turn and life returning again. I volunteered at country parks, Wildlife Trust reserves and a National Trust garden, learning as much as I could. Throughout the year, I took photographs of every wild plant I came across, storing it and identifying it later – a really helpful technique. Walking with an experienced birder through Watermead Country Park in spring introduced me to the multitude of bird calls and songs. A summer’s day trip to Lundy Island revealed the amount of enthusiasts that would record everything they saw on the island in a book kept in the pub. Taking part in the Big Butterfly Count numerous times during that lovely hot summer was always enjoyable, with the abundance of butterflies compared to the year before. Volunteering at Stoneywell Cottage in Leicestershire from May – October was in part a collection of biodiversity: every species I found was recorded, including the beautiful Slow worms, which generated a county record for numbers.
I was well prepared for the start of college and looking forward to the challenges ahead.
January and February saw a wet and mild winter: not the wettest parts of our region has seen, but some spectacular flooded fields to splash through with swollen rivers and days of rain on end. Spring started early with the delicate pink and vivid green Hazel flowers appearing in January, followed by the snowdrops in February. At college, we covered winter tree identification: observing in detail each tree’s buds, from smooth, pointy Beech to silver, downy Rowan. We discovered the miniature world of mosses and lichens and fascinating symbiotic relationships, as well as the workings of ecology and the importance of biodiversity.
We had a very warm spring, as everything fast-forwarded from March: Soft Pussy Willow catkins, Sweet Violets, Blackthorn blossoms and Celandines appeared. I surveyed my local village for the BTO Breeding Bird Survey in early and late spring: spotting Skylarks and Yellowhammers, as well as the first Swallows and House Martins of the year was very exciting. I also observed birds in the gardens where I worked: Spotted Flycatchers feeding their fluffy young fledgling, a well-hidden nest of Wrens, a whole clutch of Coal tits in their nest hidden in the crack of a tree, the Kingfisher zooming along the river and the young Great and Blue Tits learning how to fly in the branches of a cherry tree.
Newt trapping as part of my work experience with Lockhart Garratt was really interesting: I loved learning about their ecology and finding beautiful male Great Crested Newts and a tiny Smooth Newt Larvae in the bottle traps.
Springtime in the woods saw Orchids, Wood Sorrel, Greater Stitchwort and Bluebells, as well as Cow Parsley, Yellow Archangel and Red Campion: a magnificent display to rival any tropical rainforest.
A college trip to the Great Fen Project in May revealed some things I’d never seen before: in some parts, it was a very man-made landscape, with long, straight lodes and hedgerows. But these were teeming with tadpoles and bursting with Hawthorn blossom. Everywhere there was something to see or hear: a Sedge Warbler’s chirring song, a perfectly constructed Caddis Fly larvae’s case, a Cuckoo calling, bright blue Damselflies mating and rare Black Poplar trees.
Summer saw perfect conditions throughout the growing season – mostly warm, with just enough rain. Although I was in my summer holiday from college and working as a gardener, I always kept an eye out for nature and read books such as David Attenborough’s Life on Earth and Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us.
A holiday to the Outer Hebrides in June was perfect for a nature enthusiast. Plant identification skills came in handy to name the specialised heath and bog plants. Bird identification was also necessary as I saw birds I’d never seen before: Wheatear’s white rumps flashing as they flew away, Fulmars nesting on cliffs, Gannets diving for fish, Red-throated Divers on the lochs and best of all, the magnificent Golden Eagles and White-tailed Sea Eagles in their mountain dominion. Glimpses of the resident Otter in the sea loch by our cottage were the perfect finish to a holiday in this wildlife haven.
Back at home, there were more opportunities to participate in surveys with Lockhart Garratt. I gained experience with habitat surveys, where we found a large Badger sett with plenty of activity evident and helped with a reptile survey, recording the number of Common Lizards and Grass Snakes found under tiles. Learning how to conduct a Bat survey was interesting: how different species of Bat squeak at different frequencies on the bat detector and how they can occasionally catch a meal using sight rather than echolocation.
Spring and Summer in the gardens at work saw quite a number of Honeybee swarms, which were absolutely fascinating to hear and see up close: in a swarm the bees are calm and approachable. I also observed a Tree Bumblebee nest and an underground wasp nest that I left well alone!
At home, I was lucky enough to have the space to create a wildflower patch: this was brimming with Cornflowers, Oxeye Daisies, Poppies, Corn Marigolds and Red Campion, perfect for invertebrates. I’d also created an unintentional nature area around our horse’s muck heap: the nettles and other weeds I had left uncut and unsprayed, and was rewarded with Beetles, Ladybirds and the caterpillars of Garden Tiger Moths, Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock Butterflies. Two swallows built a nest in my pony’s stable, successfully rearing five chicks in two broods over the summer: watching them grow every day and fledge was wonderful to see, especially when they learnt to swoop and soar in the sky.
I tried Moth trapping for the first time this summer: on warm nights in June and July, I discovered just how interesting and diverse they are. I couldn’t believe how many moths came to the traps and how beautiful each one was. I loved the tiny, furry Sallow Kitten moths and the huge, elegant Poplar Hawkmoths, the bizarre Early Thorn, shaped like a leaf and the wonderful Elephant Hawkmoth, with stripes of bright pink on its body.
Autumn was dry and warm with some windy days. Hawthorn berries and other fruits were thick on the hedgerows, providing a feast for the birds and mammals. Fungi emerged whilst late summer flowers lingered, the colours of leaves and fruits seemed especially beautiful this year. College commenced, with some habitat survey assignments: a good opportunity to practise what I’d been learning. We also conducted small mammal surveys, practising how to correctly ‘scruff’ a Wood Mouse as well as carrying out Otter surveys along the River Ise corridor by Kelmarsh House in Northamptonshire. We managed to find perfect Water Vole prints in the soft mud (not recorded there for seven years!) as well as Otter prints and spraint. Surveying an abandoned quarry in Pitsford for an assignment revealed it wasn’t as barren as it appeared: beneath the yellow rocks scattered near to newly formed ponds, we found over twenty Smooth Newts in less than an hour. Being extremely observant is such an important skill for an ecologist to have.
Winter has been quite mild and dry, but with some pleasant frosty mornings that were much missed from last year. I love seeing the tiny frost icicles coating every part of grass, dead Hogweed stalks and Knapweed seedheads, sparkling and backlit by the sun. I went along to some bird ringing sessions with Stanford Ringing Group at Stanford Reservoir: the early morning starts (5.30am) were worth it to see some familiar birds up close. It was fascinating to watch the process of catching, weighing, measuring and ringing, as well as how to determine the age and sex of certain birds by looking at details on their feathers. I was lucky enough to handle some beautiful Tree Sparrows, Reed Buntings, Redwings and Long Tailed Tits, as well as measure some Blue Tits and see a Sparrowhawk at close quarters!
A college trip to Epping Forest was extremely interesting: observing the strange mix of man and nature and how they have left their mark on the land and on the huge, knobbly ancient pollard trees. A visit to Wicken Fen finished the term at college. This is another site with a long history of man and nature; this reserve impressed all the students with the various wetland habitats, the huge flock of Lapwing in the sky and the friendly Konik ponies (used as grazing tools, along with the Highland cattle). Standing next to the last untouched Godwin plot really impressed upon me how interesting succession is and how arresting this natural process can also benefit species other than humans.
Finding evidence of an Otter on the River Swift in Misterton near to my home finished off the year for me. I can’t wait to see what next year will bring, but I’m especially looking forward to seeing the first Swallows and the Bluebells.