Will you be afraid of bees?

Sitting in the weak spring sunshine, we are enjoying the sights and smells of the garden – admittedly we are probably enjoying it in different ways but you seem contented to sit and watch.

The first bee of the year buzzed past, exploring the wall at the back of our home with an intensity I have rarely given to any wall. The bee undoubtedly also experiences the world differently to either of us.

She, for indeed all bees (except drones) are ‘she’ bees, is either a white or a buff tailed bee. The workers of these species are nearly indistinguishable except by experts (or DNA) and I have neither of these at my disposal.

Bee (taken 2018) Photo credit: Em

The black and yellow bands make her stand out against the plain wall and if baby’s eyes could focus on something so small and fast moving, they would find the colour contrast to be appealing – given how similar she is to the baby books and baby toys that are collecting in small piles around the house.

What will you make of bees when you grow up my little one? Will you be afraid of them and their notorious sting? Will you one day learn of the role they play in nature and in food production? Will there still be lazy bees on lazy summer days when you are old enough to read this? I hope so, because even if you grow up afraid of bees (like your dad) then at least it means there were bees around to be afraid of. I am more afraid of you growing up in a world without the rich variety of bees I grew up with.

Em & baby

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Keeping it local

I’m a big fan of supporting our local shops, businesses and enterprises – it helps the local economy thrive and keeps you in touch with your local community. So I was very pleased to find that a local conservation group were selling bird feed at a very competitive price. Not only does a modest percent go towards supporting the maintenance of some local wetland (see photo below) but the seeds are grown on nearby farms helping farmers to get a good return on the cultivation of a more environmentally friendly crop (compared to say winter wheat – notoriously bad for farmland bird species as it denies them forage and ground cover opportunities right when they need it).

I can’t actually lift the bag I had delivered (it’s not that big I just don’t have any core muscles back yet) but it looks like a nice mix of seed sizes, including some sunflower and millet (and plenty others I can’t identify). Whatever it is though, the local birds are loving it – we have had greenfinch, coal tit, blue tit, long tailed tit, robin, sparrow and chaffinch. Twice this week I have had to tentatively make my way across the patio, slippery with green slimy growth, to refill the feeder.

While bird feed is available at so many outlets now it can pay dividends to the birds to the local community (and your wallet) to shop around – love where you live! Shop local!

Em

Take a deep breath

There’s a particular school of birth preparation that almost all mums have flirted with at one point. It’s called hypnobirthing and as far as my limited devotion to it allowed me to understand it involves the active attention to your breathing and thoughts to help you maintain control of your birthing experience. Like many mums to be I religiously practiced the ‘in-for-4, hold-for-4, our-for-4’ breathing and found it to be a calming exercise (on the big day I actually went for more of a ‘hyperventilate on the gas and air’ approach but each to their own).

This mindful approach to birthing is, however, standing me in good stead with my post-baby nature watching. Time to my own thoughts is a little more of a luxury now and the 12 second repetition of the breathing pattern above works well for taking a brief pause out in nature too.

In for 4 – the fresh morning air when you first open the window or door (no matter what time this actually happens).

Hold for 4 – this hesitation in the natural rhythm of the breath is the jolt – you notice your breath, and in noticing your breath you give yourself space to notice other things that you might otherwise take for granted. Things like sunlight light on a leaf making it glow. Like the colours of the delicate new buds on a tree. Like the sound of bickering jackdaws in a far off tree.

Out for 4 – the release. Without getting all yoga happy about it you could imagine we breath in strength and breath out tension. Or you could just breath out. Your call.

Daffodils – Photo credit: Em

So what did my 12 seconds of nature breathing buy me today? Daffodils, lovely ones, in the sun. A subconsciously happy colour. I even stopped to take a photo – make that two reps of 12 seconds then. And my day is the better for it.

Em & baby

Up with the owls

A new baby can take up to two months to learn the difference between day and night. (And even then just because they know it’s nighttime it doesn’t mean they want to sleep). So I have recently been awake for a greater portion of the night than ever before. Mostly this time is dedicated to the care of my little one, meeting her fickle needs and encouraging her to respect a few of mine. But sometimes, when I am sat up in my dressing gown with my baby calmly resting in my arms I can hear the owls outside my window.

Kee-wik! Whohoohoo! Who-hoo-hoo-hoo go the tawny owls. Sometimes as a pair, sometimes as a solo act.

Shreeeeeeeeee! from the barn owl. Not a pretty noise for sure but as long as you know it’s an owl and not something from beyond the grave it is also a welcome addition to the nighttime soundscape.

Even if i wasn’t pinned down by around 7lbs of milk drunk baby I would stand a very poor chance of seeing these birds. I think I can count on one hand my total visual encounters with them (bird displays at country shows aside). Some birds are heard and not seen, and I’m ok with that. It makes those long nights slightly less hard and is a welcome reminder that the world is still out there, that this is a phase, and once it passes the world will still be there for me to become a more active member of once more.

So to all the parents on night feed duty tonight, I wish you a speedy return to dreamland. But just incase you have to stay in the land of the wakeful for a bit longer, i hope the night owls are there to keep you company too.

Em & (not sleeping) Baby

The first spring

It’s easy to enthuse about the natural world at this time of year, the air is sweet with rising sap and fresh earth, and thin tendrils of bird song can be heard at last now the howling gales have gone. But this year, for me, the arrival of spring is especially sweet as it marks the start of my first year with my baby daughter. Born in the depths of winter we have both been through something of a hibernation, not just physically but mentally and I am ready (more than ready) to get back outside and show her the world. Well, South Devon at least.

So this also marks the start of a new chapter for my blog. Of seeing things afresh and experiencing old places in new ways. It’s not the easiest to get out of the house with a newborn baby. It’s even harder to bird watch when your binoculars keep getting jostled from below by the baby in the sling strapped across your chest. But it’s no less rewarding and comes with the added benefit of being my daughters introduction to the outdoor life. Hopefully it won’t put her off…

Rusty red water – Photo credit: Em

The weather also hasn’t been the easiest for walks with a newborn so we haven’t ventured that far from a cafe just yet (I whole heartedly recommend the river shack in South Devon). The torrential downpours have turned a local waterbody bright red – a specialty of my corner of Devon. The red comes from the iron in the sandstone, worn down into our soils and running off our farmland like bright rusty ribbons. It stains our shoes (and our sheep) a light pinky shade. Not always as unwelcome as it sounds and just as soon as baby is old enough to face outwards (and stay awake for the walk) I can’t wait to point out these colourful creatures. Although she wont be staining her own shoes any time soon.

The promise of spring – Photo credit: Em

The storms that brought the floods have also brought rafts of marine plastics and debris to beaches along Devon and Cornwalls north coasts but in the shelter of Torbay the beaches seemed clean, the water cold but crystal clear. Perfect for a walk with a well wrapped up little one, though she wasn’t so impressed with the impromptu pebble bed we made for her… maybe sand will impress her more.

In short, it feels like we will soon be out and exploring again.

Em & baby

Let nature sing

Is there anything more lovely than the half heard notes of the dawn chorus, curling its delicate tendrils into a half-woken ear? The sweet urgency of the competing gurgle of notes is like no music that we can ever write.

To sit quietly in the woods and let the bird sing wrap around you is particularly delicious in this, the urgent frenzy of the nesting season. For some birds this might be your only clue that they are there. Birdsong makes up such an important part of ornithological work that for some, the loss of their hearing is the loss of their profession. Here in the U.K. ornithologists, like cuckoos, are a vanishingly rare breed.

As generations change, the baseline of what we think of as normal also changes. In ecology this is called baseline shift – each generation has grown up accustomed to a paler version of nature’s technicolour than the one before. The risk becomes that we don’t even know what we are missing. But the first step in dealing with a problem is to acknowledge it. That’s why I am currently in love with the RSPB’s single – let nature sing. 2:32 seconds of the finest bird song I will ever hear. The chorus line might never normally be found together – the mix of diurnal, crepuscular and nocturnal as well as habitats and geographies is too broad for real life. But that doesn’t stop the bittern, curlew, swift, tawny owl, blue tit, song thrush and so many many more from orchestrating a masterpiece.

Buy it. Listen to it. It is good for the soul. Then do what you can to help make sure we can hear it without headphones too.

Em

The Canadian one

If you are anything like me, when you think of Canada you probably imagine wide open vistas, tree soaked hillsides and twinkling blue lakes. Even more so when we are talking about wildlife (you’re reading this blog, so It’s safe to assume we are). You probably don’t immediately think of the urban metropolis, bustling hive of industry and achingly modern life of its big cities. But despite the urban location there is still plenty of wild life to see.

On a recent visit (yes I did see the weather forecast before I left and yes, I went anyway) I was plunged back into the vibrancy of city life by the raucous, urgent effervescence of Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal. Beaver tails, brightly lit diners, Dodge RAMs, maple syrup and armadas of snow ploughs assaulted my senses. Compared to my little corner of South Devon there is an awful lot happening all at once involving many many more people than I have seen in one place for a long while. I think this is entirely forgivable – the population density of Devon is in the order of 170/km sq, while Canada is more like 3/km sq. Of course, what I forgot to factor in is that in a city like Toronto this rises to more like 4,000/km sq.

So, what is a place like Toronto doing on a wildlife blog then? When I set up this blog it was with the intention of celebrating the wildlife that we share our everyday with. And that’s precisely what I found – when you look you can find wildlife in even the most steel and concrete dominated environments. In Canada this means bright red northern cardinals in municipal parkland opposite state buildings, a hodge-podge of ducks on frozen canals surrounded by decaying industrial parks, and ice coated trees right on top of a very hefty concrete wall holding back the mighty Niagara river itself.

Seeing how species are adapted to their habitat is part of the beauty of nature watching:

  • The ducks on the canal clustered around a leaking lock gate, the slight turbulence preventing the ice from closing in and providing the fowl with a small portal to the cold cold river below.
  • In a city park one tree in particular was absolutely buzzing with birds. A mixed flock of sparrows, tits and northern cardinals jostled for space. Getting closer it soon became clear there was a person in the tree, feeding the birds. While this was a bit of a social anomaly for us humans the birds were embracing the feeding opportunity with gusto. We get mixed flocks descending on bird feeders all the time – it helps birds keep a better watch out for predators and members can benefit from shared spatial intelligence about the location of food resources.
  • The water from the great Niagara Falls rises in a vapour cloud, settling on the limbs of nearby vegetation creating an icy exoskeleton. Not all plants could cope with this level of entombment – heck, many plants get sniffy about a light frost. This was serious cold – both my fingers and my shutter on my trusty camera needed some serious attention to restore functionality. To anything that survives that – chapeau.

February is a tough month for wildlife in Canada (it’s a tough month to go wildlife watching in Canada too). Breathtaking in more that one sense, even from this fleeting visit I was excited by how much wildness was apparent. I have a feeling this won’t be my only visit.

Em

Emerging from hibernation

Like some of our wildlife I have been hibernating, not fully, just in a blog sense. It’s a completely inappropriate use of the word really. Hibernation is not laziness or inertia, it is an evolutionary tactic to survive the lean winter months by reducing the metabolic rate, slowing the heart rate and lowering the temperature.

In the U.K. there are three mammal species that hibernate: hedgehogs, bats and dormice. Other species such as butterflies and bees hibernate as well.

Humans do not hibernate. But on a fairly dark damp Saturday in late winter please forgive your author a little amble down the hibernation path. I’m definitely reducing my activity but stopping short of slowing metabolism just yet. So, while in the mindset of a hibernating animal I thought I’d explore it a little more from the comfort of the sofa. An idle google revealed that captive species such as bears, which hibernate in the wild, frequently do not hibernate in captivity – the superabundance of food in a zoo means they don’t need to. I’m not sure I understand how they know it’s ok not to hibernate as it is generally thought that seasonal temperatures, day length etc are the prompt for hibernation. Do they know they are in zoo? Sorry – what a terrible anthropomorphism. Nevertheless it seems something of a vexing question – how do they know not to burrow down under their bear duvets?

Our little hibernators have probably had a sneaky peek at the wider world in the last week – temperatures have been somewhat unseasonal here with a new February record of 21C – around 3C above average.

Emerging from hibernation sounds like waking up with a hangover if I’m honest. The animals are hungry, sleep deprived, in need of the loo and unlikely to be back to ‘normal’ for a little while – bears can take up to a month to slip out of the lethargic post-hibernation phase. Bees waking from dormancy fly away to defecate without dirtying the hive. Female bats will be preparing to move to their maternity roots in readiness for this year’s young.

Timing is everything. If you emerge too early then your breakfast won’t be ready yet and you have to wait hungrily or snack on something less ‘breakfast-y’. Leave it too late and, like holiday resorts from hell, you have to queue for the pool, the buffet has been decimated and there’s nowhere for you to put your towel. Except in a slightly more life or death kind of a way.

All in all it’s a bit of a make or break time of year for our wildlife. There’s lots of good advice about what you can do to help but the basics are:

  • Never put out milk or fish-based food for hedgehogs – only leave fresh water and meat-based cat or dog food
  • If you find an injured/unwell bat call the Bat Helpline – 0345 1300 228
  • If you find an injured/unwell hedgehog call the British Hedgehog Preservation Society – 01584 890 801
  • Not sure what to do if you find a baby bird? Often the answer is nothing!

(Tips courtesy of Warwickshire Wildlife Trust).

Hopefully our wildlife has made it through winter and migrants will start returning soon. It might be a bit early to say so, but it does feel like spring is coming. I might even be tempted out of doors soon.

Em

Painting a picture of the painted dog

I have to admit, I’d probably have put the painted dog higher up my ‘must-see’ list for my last summer holiday to South Africa if I had known a bit more about them. The big 5 (lion, rhino, leopard, elephant and buffalo) steal the lime light from the other safari wildlife but in the case of the African wild dog, the lions had better watch out, I think this ‘sub 5’ star steals the show.

This is one of many reasons I am so pleased that it has been chosen as one of the species for the latest BBC Natural History series ‘Dynasties’ and am looking forward to it’s airing in a few weeks time.

So, given that I knew so little about them just a few months ago, what has changed? In short, all it took was an introduction. Driving through one of their few strongholds, Kruger NP, the burst of tan and black suddenly visible against the dirt track was as unexpected as it was welcome. African wild dog! Painted wolf! Hunting dog! A multitude of names to describe this tortoiseshell-esque canid, for it is indeed a dog and not a wolf. With a population size of around 400 in Kruger this was a lucky sighting. The meeting was all too brief but it left a lasting impression and a thirst to find out more – the thirty odd words in my ‘travel sized’ field guide couldn’t tell me enough.

Painted dog, photo credit: Em

Painted dog photo credit: Em

Helpfully, the November issue of BBC Wildlife magazine has a great feature on these fantastic beasts, though it paints a far from rosy picture – these are feisty, tenacious and relentless hunters that make you glad you weren’t born an impala…

But mostly, I’m pleased to see this animal in the spotlight because its very hard to have empathy for an animal which you know nothing about. In the not too distant past this dog was reviled with a bounty on its pretty painted head. They represent a largely irrelevant threat to farming livelihoods with the ineffective bounty being little more than slander against the dog, but like many human vs predator debates, it is a politically charged topic (see badgers and raptors in the U.K.) The name, African Hunting Dog derives from this historic misconception and is one reason why the rename is a timely change.

With fewer than 1,500 breeding individuals estimated to be left in the wild, the painted dog is classified as endangered, and its population is still decreasing. The reasons for the decline are crushingly common – habitat fragmentation, persecution and disease. This unholy trinity dogs many a species but that doesn’t mean we are any closer to an effective answer. Conservation programmes, education and retraining, support for wildlife tourism, agricultural advice and grants to support sustainable agricultural methods are part of the solution, but effective change needs political will and the buy in from those who live alongside these animals – something that takes time and persistence. Time that, sadly, the painted wolf is running out of.

But there is room for hope. Last year’s Natural History Unit blockbuster – Blue Planet 2 shone an uncompromising light on the massive plastic elephant in the room and has resulted in some genuinely unexpected movement in corporate and political arenas as well as awakening a real passion in the hearts and homes of many. I hope that the ‘Blue Planet 2 effect’ can weave it’s magic once more.

Em

Autumn

If the year is a show then this year’s autumn has been a number worthy of London’s west end. The synchronicity of the leaf fall, the colours and, as with any good performance, lighting has been critical. When the low angled sunshine pierced the foliage is was as if the trees were lit from within.

In jettisoning their leaves, trees are preparing and protecting themselves from the coming winter. The yellows and browns are actually just the lack of green as the trees break down their life giving chlorophyll and store the nutrients in the trunk and deep underground, like a bear laying down fat for hibernation.

But for me the highlight of the seasonal palette is the fiery red, and that’s not merely the absence of another colour – that has to be made. The red colour comes from a pigment called anthocyanin which has been variously suggested as providing a tree with antioxidant protection, as being a means of attracting birds to feed on autumn berries or as an indicator of stress and poor soil conditions. Clearly there is more going on than purely a visual display for the benefit of leaf-peepers (yes – that’s a thing).

Regardless of the science behind it I have been enjoying the autumn in Devon this year. These photos were taken just before a storm blew in which has now shaken most of the leaves from these riverside trees. Autumn’s act is coming to an end, soon it will be time to look ahead to winter’s finale.

Em