This month we got together for the booming bitterns survey on the levels, and most of us have been Adder survey trained! Abi has been dry stone walling and pond dipping, Ralph joined Devon Wildlife Trust on their reserves for a week or two, Becky finally found some Marsh Fritillary caterpillars and Leighann joined Abi with leading some school groups.
March saw me use up some of my holiday in order to sort out the new house, but I managed to keep busy at work in between too, squeezing in time to learn some new skills!
The season for Bittern surveys is upon us, and so on one dark and cold night at 3am, I drove down to the Avalon Marshes centre on the Somerset Levels to take part in one of the annual booming Bittern surveys. I was met by the other SWT trainees and around 30 other volunteers who had all braved that middle of the night alarm! We were then put into small groups and given a location to set up camp in for the next hour or so. Luckily, as this was my first Bittern survey, I was paired with a veteran volunteer who had years of experience. So, led by our head torches, we set off to our patch at Westhay to listen out for the distinctive booming noises of the male Bitterns. Unfortunately for me, I wasn’t lucky enough to hear any! But the early start was made worthwhile by having the opportunity to watch the sun rise over Westhay and enjoy the wonderful dawn chorus. All the volunteers were then treated to a full English breakfast back at the Centre, which was some well needed fuel for the day! As all the volunteers filtered off back home to bed, Leighann, Becky, Ralph and I spent the rest of the day helping out Phil on the levels reserves.
Scrub burning on the levels with the volunteer group Early morning sunrise over Westhay Heath
This month I also had my first school groups that I had complete control over! Scary as this was, the days went very well. We had two days set up where a total of 90 children from one school would get the chance to visit the levels! It was decided that each group would be split into two, so on each day one group would spend the morning out on Westhay doing wildlife activities, whilst the other half would stay at Avalon Marshes Centre to learn about the heritage of the area, and then they would swap around. So it was my challenge to plan a wildlife inspired activity to do on Westhay, so I decided on a nature walk around the site, where the children followed bird foot prints and answered questions as they went, followed by a ditch dipping session on the mire. At the end of the day, the children went home tired but happy, which I think is a sign they enjoyed themselves!
Juvenile newt found whilst pond dipping at Westhay
I also spent a few days honing my dry stone walling skills this month. I once again joined the Save our Magnificent Meadows volunteer group early in the month, but also joined Leighann and Olivia (former trainee and current reserves assistant!) for a day repairing a particularly bad section of wall at Chancellors Farm. It made a change to do this just the three of us, compared to with a whole volunteer group and soon realised that it takes a lot longer with only three pairs of hands! However, this extra experience did allow me to check off my AQA in dry stone walling just in time for the end of March deadline!
Posing with our dry stone wall at Chancellor's with the Save our Magnificent Meadows volunteer group
March started with Ralph and I attending a course covering how to survey and manage woodlands for lichens and bryophytes, which rather nicely for me was held in the village hall about a minute walk from my front door. It also meant I got to learn a little more about what I could look for nearby, and found out that a very rare lichen was found in the 1980s by Francis Rose is only a short distance from home - one day I'm hoping I will go looking for it.
Looking forward to next month’s residential, it’s our turn to host, so at the beginning of March I went up to Crook’s Peak to explore for the guided walk that Abi and I will be giving on the first day. Unfortunately Abi couldn’t make it due to car problems, but the clear blue sky and sunshine meant I wasn’t going to miss out on the opportunity for a walk, and I was rewarded with some amazing views!
The view over towards Cheddar reservoir from Crook's Peak
The veteran tree surveys that have been going on at Cothelstone Park have finally been concluded this month after many days of effort on behalf of Ann, the SERC volunteers and I. Whilst I feel as though I could now do a survey in my sleep, I’m quite happy not to have to do any more – at least until next winter!
All us Somerset trainees got together in March to help out with the Booming Bitterns survey on the levels – unfortunately none of us got lucky and endured a 3am start without hearing any booming. However, we did enjoy the slap up breakfast that followed, and with the sun shining, we peeled off the thermal layers as we helped out the Avalon Marshes practical volunteers team with some burning and log clearing. As an added bonus, I got to take home some felled alder logs to season over the winter for my parents’ wood burner.
I also got involved with some adder survey training at Fyne Court, and in the next couple of month's I will be going out with some of the other volunteers to a site that is just a 45 minute walk away from me on the Quantocks to survey for them. We had much better weather for our training, so we were luckily enough to see two small males near Crowcombe Gate.
Male adder on the Quantocks Measuring the adder length
I joined the Wiltshire trainees at Langford Lakes to learn more about butterflies of chalk grassland on a course from Butterfly Conservation, and in the afternoon we went exploring a site where I finally got to see some Marsh Fritillary caterpillars in their webs. They were much smaller than I imagined – no wonder I had never seen them before!
Marsh Fritillary caterpillars hidden in their web amongst the grass
Visiting Rodney Stoke NNR with the Avalon Marshes survey team in late March, we walked up the hill in the woods to find Violet Oil Beetles, but I think the damp, cloudy weather let us down, and we saw nothing more than some pollen beetles and some mating bloody nosed beetles, which squirt a reddish-black liquid from their snouts if squashed (we didn’t try!).
No violet oil beetles at Rodney Stoke - but plenty of pretty dog violets
I started the month heading west to work with Devon Wildlife Trust as I’d arranged with Charley, DWT practical trainee, to spend a week working in each other’s counties to see some new reserves.
I spent most of my time working at one North Devon’s many Culm Grassland sites, Volehouse. These are interesting habitats, strongholds for the marsh fritillary, but not the easiest to work on - wet, rush grassland with tussocks of Purple Moor Grass and patches of bog where it is easy to lose your footing. It was well worth it though to see Snipe zig-zagging away as we walked the reserve. We were clearing scrub along what would become a new fence line to create grazing compartments. With over 2km of fencing to install this is a major undertaking and will certainly take a fair few days more.
We also led the Okehampton/Sticklepath volunteer group in clearing and burning scrub at Meeth Quarry. Although we only worked till about 2pm we got an impressive amount cleared and managed to burn through all the willow which can often be difficult to get going.
I had an early start on the 17th for a 5am bittern survey. This is an annual event coordinated between the various land management organisations based at the Avalon Marshes Centre (Natural England, RSPB, SWT and Hawk and Owl Trust) we were listening for males bitterns booming as they establish their territories before the breeding season. There must have been close to 50 volunteers taking part, rewarded for getting up before dawn with a fry-up from the centre’s staff. Lots of rooks and jackdaws, ducks and moorhens and the unearthly screeching of water rail, but I didn’t actually record any bitterns that morning, which was disappointing as I’d heard one in the evening earlier that week at Shapwick Heath. What’s more the group at the other end of Westhay reserve not only heard bitterns but also saw an otter!
We had a nice bit of fluffy conservation work to carry out, putting out dormice monitoring tubes to check for their presence in Great Breach Wood. There is plentiful hazel coppice and bramble/privet understory which should provide excellent habitat and also honeysuckle which they tend to use as nesting material, stripping the bark and weaving it into a warm protective ball.
Spot the dormouse tube!
I also had training up in the Mendips to carry out Adder surveying as they emerge from hibernation. This is the easiest time to find them as they are still quite lethargic in the colder conditions and tend to stay close to their hibernacula. I’m looking forward to the chance to carry out surveys on some of the potential sites identified the Blackdown hills as this is closer to where I live and include some reserves I have worked on, like Ringdown.
Surveying - rather unsuccessfully - for Adders on Black Moor
Ralph and I completed our training for the safe use of pesticides. We passed the first part and are just waiting to take our PA6 assessment at the end of April.
I had great fun helping Abi and Adel with a forest school session for a local school group. The activities were brilliant with Meadow wildlife ID games and nest building, a game to teach the children about food chains and camouflage, and lots of running around!
All four of us Somerset trainees got up super early to help out on a bittern survey on the levels. Bitterns were heard booming but unfortunately not by us- although the breakfast provided afterwards helped to make up for it! We then spent the day helping Phil, Seb and their volunteers with some jobs on the Catcott reserve.
Early morning on the levels listening out for Bitterns
John Dickson came to Callow to provide some training on Adder survey and monitoring. One of our volunteers Freya and I will be completing surveys on our Chancellors Farm reserve to see how the adders are using the area.
Attempting to find adders in the cold - not so successful!