Volunteers will survey the state of nature in the Chilterns and benefit from training courses in species identification and surveying techniques, with enthusiasts and experts joining forces to “own their patch”.
The data will then be used to track trends across the landscape and inform practical woodland, grassland and farmland habitat management projects.
Following on from the recent State of Nature report the project is calling for amateur surveyors to work with the experts across 50 1km survey squares to tell the story of the landscape, through understanding the relationship between different species groups.
The project will dovetail with existing national recording schemes (Breeding Bird Survey, Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey and National Plant Monitoring Scheme) to bolster coverage in a ground-breaking new partnership.
Unique to the project is its mentoring programme for those who can identify quite a few birds, butterflies or plants but want to learn more about surveying these local species.
The project will last initially for four years, starting in spring 2020. Volunteer surveyors are needed during the spring and summer.
To register an interest or find out more, contact the project lead, Nick Marriner, at email@example.com.
Chalk, Cherries & Chairs is an ambitious five-year scheme which aims to connect local people to the wildlife and cultural heritage of the Central Chilterns through 18 interweaving projects.
The Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT) is one of 46 Wildlife Trusts working across the UK to protect .wildlife and special places for generations to come.
The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) is a UK charity that focuses on understanding birds and, in particular, how and why bird populations are changing.
Butterfly Conservation (BC) is the UK wildlife charity dedicated to saving butterflies, moths and our environment.
JANUARY brings the first signs of spring – and along with the early snowdrops and primroses, that also means the first echoes of the dawn chorus.
You have to be up early to catch it, but from now until July, the volume is steadily growing, from those first wintry warbles early in the New Year to the most spectacular natural orchestra on earth.
As the first snowdrops start to peek through the frosty January soil and the birds swarm to the birdtable to squabble over scraps of food, the slow increase in daylight means that love will soon be in the air, which means staking out your territory and trying to attract a mate.
During the dark days of winter, life has been all about survival, trying to find enough food during those bleak chilly days to survive the night to come.
But as the days start to slowly lengthen, songbirds start to switch into breeding mode, timed to coincide with the warmest part of the year when food is plentiful and days are long.
The first songsters of the season are residents such as robins and great tits, joined later on by migrants like chiffchaffs and blackcaps to make May and June the peak time to enjoy the chorus.
But listen out early in January and you can already hear them, with the noise growing day by day and more than an hour of daylight being added between New Year and the end of the month.
The collective chirps and tweetings start to grow in volume as the year progresses, starting about an hour before dawn with a few songs from the robins, blackbirds and thrushes before the rest of the gang join in and the chorus gets into full swing.
As with an orchestra, there’s a set sequence. Skylarks, song thrushes, robins and blackbirds are among the earliest risers and their songs are complex and detailed, full of meaning and uttered from high perches.
Then the pre-dawn singers are joined by woodpigeons, wrens and warblers, while great tits, blue tits, sparrows and finches only add their voices when it’s light enough for them to see.
The most formidable defenders of territory, the robin and wren, are well into their flow by the turn of the year, soon to be joined by the blue, great and coal tits, dunnocks and chattering starlings.
Stars of the show are the loquacious song thrushes and glorious blackbirds, their music a clear signal that winter is giving way to spring.
If you’re prepared to get up early and head into the woods with a picnic, the singing last right through until July, but reaches its peak during May and June.
Early mornings are too dark to search for food, and too dark to be spotted by predators. That makes it the perfect time to sing, and because there’s less background noise and the air is still, sound carries around 20 times further than it would later in the day – an important consideration when you are looking for a mate.
Singing is hard work on an empty stomach and after a chilly night, so it will be the strongest, best-fed males who will produce the loudest songs. As the light strengthens food becomes easier to find, so hungry birds begin to move off and the chorus gradually diminishes.
There is another chorus at dusk, which is considered quieter, though some birds – like tree sparrows and blue tits – seem to prefer to sing at this time of day.
The best days to listen are fine, clear mornings with little wind. Dawn chorus peaks half-an-hour before to half-an-hour after sunrise, but the variety of song can be confusing by then so why not get into position early to savour the arrival of the performers as each takes their turn on stage…
Sunday 7 May is International Dawn Chorus Day. All pictures for this article are reproduced with the kind permission of Roy Battell, whose Moorhens website chronicles an extraordinary rewilding story.
MY photographic skills are getting no better, it seems.
Taking an early morning stroll in the woods at Chartwell, near Churchill’s old home, I was in a perfect position to capture the drama of a bee systematically entering the bells of a wild foxglove.
Except that, as the evidence shows, the bee was a little too fast for me. Ho hum.
The good news is that reading Britain’s Wild Flowers by Rosamond Richardson has partially compensated for my incompetence by informing me that this is the fairies’ flower whose distinctive flowers might even be gloves for foxes, given to them by fairies so that they can silently sneak up on their prey. How nice an idea is that?
Mind you they are known by a variety of different names in different places, from goblins’ thimbles to dead men’s bells – a sinister Scottish warning reflecting the idea that if you can hear them ringing, you are not long for this world.
Elves hide in the bells, apparently. The Druids revered these flowers and used them in midsummer rituals, while they were also incorporated into an ointment which, when rubbed on witches legs’, enabled them to fly.
Oh yes, there’s more. We know digitalis is poisonous, of course, and yet it is also the source of the most potent and widely used sustances in the treatment of heart disease. Thank you, Rosamond, for radically reshaping my knowledge of this wild flower and its intriguing history.
Next up, butterflies.
Flushed with my success last time out, I’m able to capture another meadow brown in all its glory. But although the scene is idyllic – a field full of bustling butterflies against the backdrop of the Weald of Kent – this is, after all, the only butterfly I have been able to capture on film.
Imagine my delight, therefore, when a small tortoiseshell starts sunning itself in the flower garden at Chartwell. Out comes the camera and a flurry of shots later, it transpires the bird has flown. Well, the butterfly, to be precise.
Instead of the aforementioned tortoiseshell, there a host of flower pictures of where the offending insect had been. You will just have to take my word for it.
Likewise, the nesting house martins are out of focus and the other birds were too quick off the mark to feature in frame – there are some 45 species at Chartwell, apparently, but most of them weren’t hanging around long enough to pose for the world’s slowest and least talented photographer.
No matter. It was fun, anyway and I am enjoying the process of learning a little more about the natural world around me – the plants, birds and trees, for example. And I just have even more admiration for the wildlife photographers who have the patience, skill and stamina to capture nature in all its glory.
Yes, they may have the right equipment too, but they know how to use it – as demonstrated by Vincent Van Zalinge’s wonderful picture of a kingfisher from Unsplash.
Mind you, my picture of the fox wearing gloves came out pretty well, surprisingly. But hey, I don’t suppose you would want to see anything as run of the mill as that…
I HAVE to confess that I’m feeling a little guilty.
There’s me thinking I love all our feathered friends equally, and it seems I have a secret prejudice against one particular garden visitor.
I’ll gush over the antics of visiting robins, blackbirds and blue tits, and chuckle at the acrobatics of the thieving squirrels. But I have been rather less than generous in my welcome to the local pigeon population.
We relish the friendly quacking of the hungry ducks, the cute scuttling of the moorhens and the bewildered meandering of the stray pheasant, so why do the ubiquitous Percy, Woody and their tubby pigeon pals – who mysteriously all have stolid names like Stan, Clive and Norm (from Cheers) – not get the same red-carpet treatment?
The real extent of my subconscious discrimination was brought home to me last year when we stumbled across an injured pigeon. Doubtless indoctrinated by press references to pests and vermin, not to mention the disdain for the birds expressed by the shooting fraternity, I presumed we would be leaving the limping victim to its fate, and natural selection.
Partner Olivia had other ideas and after a quick call to the RSPCA our injured friend was duly delivered to the local vets’.
So where does this prejudice of mine stem from? Don’t I harbour dim memories of Jack Duckworth cooing over his beloved pigeons in Coronation Street, and weren’t many of these birds hailed as heroes during the war?
Our Buckinghamshire visitors are wood pigeons (columba palumbus) rather than the feral pigeons of the grimy London streets, and to be fair their purple and grey colouring is quite gorgeous in its own way, with those striking white neck patches.
But although they do tend to waddle round the neighbourhood like burly gangsters, there’s also something cute about the way they collectively roost in the local hedges, and a soothing reassurance in their constant cooing.
But then even their grubby London counterparts have their supporters, despite being dubbed flying rats or being persecuted as pests, as Steve Harris explains in a feature for the Discover Wildlife website.
Oddly enough, the ancestors of these city slickers were the first birds to be domesticated, thousands of years ago in the Middle East. Since then, the rock pigeon (columba livia) has made an astonishing contribution to human wellbeing.
To help with background research, I turn to Aimee Wallis from the Corvid Dawn wild bird rescue sanctuary, remembering her enthusiasm for the birds from our visit there last May.
She says: “After corvids, pigeons were the second bird I completely fell in love with, mostly because I’d never paid them much attention before, but since rescuing them and working with them closely, I realised just how remarkable they are.
“Not only were they calm whilst being stitched up or glued together, like they knew you were helping them. They never forgot you: even as adults you can build a strong bond with a pigeon.
“They recognise faces, but not only that, they are extremely loving. They also pair for life. They will happily sit on your shoulder, preen your hair and try and follow you to work if they could.”
Back in the day, a dovecote, rabbit warren and carp pond were the three essentials to provide fresh meat throughout the year, and in addition to food, pigeons produced guano so rich in nutrients that it played a key part in agricultural development.
Perhaps best of all, there was no need to catch and breed the birds. Just providing an alternative place to nest, usually a dovecote with rows of ledges or clay pots along its internal walls, was enough – and some designs could accommodate thousands of sitting females.
Typically producing about 10 squabs a year, pigeons were a perfect source of protein until chickens emerged as being better suited to mass production.
But Darwin devoted much of the first chapter of On The Origin of Species to pigeons, and Aimee is full of respect for pigeons as parents. “The male bird produces crop milk as well as the mother and they share parenting equally,” she says.
“They make wonderful pets, you can free fly them and they will greet you from a long day and show up at your window in the mornings cooing away. They really are very special birds, with bags of character.”
Though pigeons were still an important food source in the 1800s, they were stolen from lofts in large numbers as live targets to supply the newly fashionable sport of pigeon shooting. When the practice was made illegal in 1921, clay pigeon shooting was invented.
Even those who use pigeons largely as training tools for bird dogs are quick to praise their stoicism and endurance – even if the idea of surviving numerous retrieves “mangled and bloody” does not sound like the perfect life.
Writing in Outdoor Life in 2015, Scott Linden wrote: “But watching them roost, calmly ruffling feathers on a nest, elegantly circling the loft, even pecking the ground for grit, they are in many ways like our horses. Both exude a calming influence, a soft and peaceful aura enveloping nearby humans. There is therapy in being near them.”
Says Aimee: “One thing people aren’t aware of is these grey street birds are descendants from the war. Pigeon lofts were popular back then and people would eat their eggs and keep a flock in their garden, but sadly that died out and the lofts were brought down.
“Many pigeons couldn’t be caught so they were left to fend for themselves. Once family pets and companions, they had to learn to scavenge around humans that once fed and housed them.
“Thankfully they managed to survive even as domesticated as they were. They stayed among humans in towns as they have no wild instincts as such, only their racing skills that help them escape the city sparrow hawk.
“I continue to crave raising these gorgeous Jurassic little babies each spring and love their speaking voices.”
What about pigeon racing, then? Although the pastime of rearing and racing pigeons is waning in popularity, this year saw an extraordinary story about the “Lewis Hamilton” of racing pigeons selling for over £1m at auction.
The headlines revealed how the sport had become a multi-million pound enterprise in China, with millionaire enthusiasts struggling to outdo each other with extravagant coops and outlandish bets.
But Aimee believes the story behind the headlines is not such a happy one.
“Sadly this industry took off in the wrong direction,” she says. “The pigeons turned from an idealistic garden hobby to a huge money-making business.
“They use the term ‘necking them’ if they don’t come home to their mate on time, which is ringing their necks: this is very common. They exhaust the birds and hundreds over the last seven years have turned up tired and skinny. Nine times out of 10 the owners don’t want them back.”
The sport has been associated with flat-capped pensioners ever since Coronation Street’s Jack Duckworth and workshy cartoon character Andy Capp first expressed their enthusiasm for pigeon lofts.
Yet racing has also attracted devotees as diverse as Walt Disney, Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands and Pablo Picasso, who loved the birds so much he named his daughter ‘Paloma’, the Spanish word for a pigeon or dove.
Pigeons are probably most famous for their ability to find their way home and deliver messages. This was first exploited 3,000 years ago and by the fifth century BC Syria and Persia had widespread networks of message-carrying pigeons. Pigeons carried the news of the winners of the first Olympic games, while Julius Caesar used them to send messages home from his battle campaigns.
In 1850, Paul Julius Reuter’s fledgling news service used homing pigeons to fly between Aachen and Brussels, laying the foundations for a global news agency, and the birds’ homing ability was extensively harnessed in the two world wars.
There’s even a display at Bletchley Park telling the extraordinary story of pigeons in wartime, when the avian secret agents saved countless lives – of 54 Dickin Medals (the animal’s VC) awarded in World War II, 32 went to pigeons.
The exhibition has been organised by The Royal Pigeon Racing Association, which also offers advice on its website for anyone interested in the sport (although animal activists PETA kicked up a storm in 2013 with claims of cruelty and calls for the sport to be banned).
The birds’ achievements are also recognised at the moving Animals in War memorial at Brook Gate on Park Lane. Along with millions of horses, mules, donkeys and dogs, some 100,000 pigeons served Britain in the First World War and 200,000 in World War II.
They saved thousands of lives by carrying vital messages, sometimes over long distances, when other methods of communication were impossible, from behind enemy lines or from ships or aeroplanes.
Stars like Ewan McGregor, Ricky Gervais, John Hurt, Hugh Laurie and Rik Mayall teamed up to tell something of the birds’ story in the 2005 animated film Valiant, but it was something of a box-office flop and reviews were mixed.
Amazingly, despite decades of research, we are still not precisely sure how pigeons find their way home over terrain they have never seen before with such apparent ease.
How extraordinary. They have played a vital role in medicine (one study even trained pigeons to detect cancers), they have saved countless lives in wartime and they continue to entertained tourists in their millions, from Trafalgar Square to Venice’s Piazza San Marco, yet they are still widely regarded as a nuisance.
It seems wrong, somehow. Sorry, Percy, Woody and friends. You have been much wronged, but I for one will be looking with fresh eyes and a new respect at the “small blue busybodies” of Richard Kell’s poem, “strutting like fat gentlemen/With hands clasped/ Under their swallowtail coats…”
THERE’S a lovely autumnal chill in the air as we return to Spade Oak quarry for the first time in a few months.
This time we leave the car at Little Marlow and cut across the fields to the top edge of the quarry before circling round the gravel pit to the railway line and back up the other side of the water.
The sun’s out but the temperature’s dropping as evening approaches. Although we only find out later, this is a good slice of Walk 16 of the Chilterns AONB website, which takes walkers on a three-mile level ramble from Bourne End station to Little Marlow and back, savouring the picturesque village and nature reserve on the way, along with a very pleasant stretch of the Thames Path.
Our circuit of the lake is uneventful and a little on the chilly side; the last time we were here, the rabbits were lolloping around in the evening sunshine and the lake was busy with all kinds of birds, from cormorants to moorhens.
There’s a lot less going on today, it seems – at least that’s how it appears on the surface. But with a little help from the Buckinghamshire Bird Club it’s possible to piece together a more detailed picture of what you might be able to see here, especially if you come armed with binoculars and know what to look for.
At this time of year, gull and cormorant numbers are beginning to build up and just before winter gets under way redwings and fieldfare start to appear in the hedgerows, particularly along the railway bank.
Winter is one of the more interesting times to visit for bird enthusiasts, it seems, with good numbers of the commoner ducks including wigeon, teal, gadwall and shoveler.
The biggest concentrations of birds can be found around the large sand spit, best viewed from the west bank, with better views of the main island from along the south bank by the railway line.
The list goes on, with buzzards and red kites over the fields and woods to the north of the lake. while the riverside meadows may attract geese, pipits, wagtails, various migrant passerines and sometimes waders.
Having made a mental note to return with binoculars, we nod our way past the anglers who are taking advantage of a similar amount of life under the surface of the lake.
This is one of nine venues frequented by members of the Marlow Angling Clubon the look-out for carp, pike, tench, bream, rudd, roach and perch. Busy place, this quarry.
The waft from the sewage treatment works is a little riper than usual as we round the south side of the quarry, but the smaller gulls love the place amd sometimes there can be thousands of black-headed gulls gathering on the lake during the last hour or two before dusk.
Back in Little Marlow, the 12th century St John the Baptist Church has provided a picturesque backdrop for the antics of such famous fictional detectives as Poirot, Miss Marple and Lewis.
It also provides the focal point for a conservation area that incorporates the 16th century manor house and a score of other listed buildings: not to mention a couple of welcoming pubs for thirsty ramblers eager to take the weight of their feet.