"To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour."

From "Auguries of Innocence"

by William Blake

Friday, 22 May 2015

Water Vole Surveying Along a Canal, Release of another Emperor Moth and a late Blue Tit nest

Seven or eight years ago I undertook water vole surveys for the local Wildlife Trust after attending one of their Water Vole Surveying Courses. Unfortunately, I eventually had to give them up due to lack of time with the number of family commitments I had then. Of all the surveys I've done in the past Water Vole surveying was the one I enjoyed the most so when I noticed the People's Trust for Endangered Species had launched a National Water Vole Monitoring Programme I decided to register to take part. Water Voles are our fastest declining mammal. A National Water Vole Survey in 1989/90 estimated a 94% loss of water vole sites during the 20th century. The most recent national survey which took place in 1996/98 revealed a further loss of 89%. The aim of the PTES monitoring programme is to make yearly visits to sites that were surveyed in the 1980's and 1990's to gather up to date information on the distribution and abundance of the species and to detect any changes since the last survey and to monitor future changes.

Water voles (Arvicola amphibius) are mainly found along slow flowing rivers, streams, canals, lakes and ponds. They are vegetarian and have been recorded eating 227 plant species, mainly bankside grasses and sedges, marginal and emergent plants and in winter they will eat berries, tree bark and roots. They live in colonies along banks where they dig a burrow system into the bank although on rough pasture land they will build woven nests. Water Voles receive full legal protection and, due to their dramatic decline, have been designated a Priority Species under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP).

Reasons for their decline include:

Loss and degradation of habitat due to river engineering, canalisation, bank reinforcement, lack of riparian management or inappropriate bank management.

Fragmentation of habitat which isolates colonies.

Predation by the non-native mink (Mustela vision) which escaped or was released from commercial mink farms. Female mink, in particular, are very effective predators and can hunt water voles on land, in the water and are small enough to pursue voles into their burrows. A breeding female mink can wipe out a whole water vole colony.

Disturbance of colonies due to activities along the river and on the water course.

Poor Water Quality and pollution (from farm waste, insecticides and herbicides)


Poisoning due to mistaken identity and the inappropriate use of rodenticides.

The PTES survey involves visiting the allocated site(s) in May to walk a 500/600 metre continuous route noting on the way any field signs of water voles, for example, actual sightings, burrows, latrines, feeding signs and grazed lawns. Locations of these in each 100 metre stretch need to be recorded. Field signs (scats/spraints and tracks)of otters and mink, if found, are also noted.

Water voles are rare in Warwickshire. There are colonies in Coventry, Wolvey and Nuneaton and a few isolated colonies elsewhere. Unfortunately, I have had problems gaining landowner permission for the brook I hoped to survey in Warwickshire. In fact, in the end he refused although failed to give any reasons which was disappointing to put it mildly. There were no such problems with the other site I planned to survey - a canal in the West Midlands which I surveyed earlier this week.

When you are surveying for water voles you really don't want to see bank reinforcements such as these

as it means water voles are very unlikely to be present as they cannot burrow into the bank. There were around 300 metres on the opposite bank of the canal which appeared to be reinforcement free
but the whole of the bank on the side I was walking had brick reinforcements so it wasn't really surprising that I found no water vole field signs at all. I will go back in September though just to double check and I may walk further along the canal to see how far the reinforcements go.

Once I'd done the survey I was free to take note of the flora and fauna along the canal.

B had just spotted a Reed Bunting.

Sorry the photos aren't very good - I took the Bridge Camera which I still haven't mastered. It was a bit foolhardy really but I just stuck it on automatic and used it as a point and shoot. Not easy taking photos of moving objects with one hand as I was also holding, maps and survey forms in the other.

Mallard and ducklings

Canada Goose

This Grey Heron was a very long way away taken on full zoom.

Moorhen and Young - sorry really dreadful picture but it was so cute.

It was pleasing to see the number of nestboxes on the farmland opposite

Owl box

An interesting looking footpath into a nature reserve adjacent to the canal.

Sad sight - fly tipping in the car park :( Can never ever understand why people drive to places like this or deep into the countryside to get rid of stuff when they could just as easily visit their local rubbish collection point.

When I made a preliminary visit to the canal a week or so ago I took these photos of dandelions with the Olympus. It really does seem to have been a good year for dandelions.

Emperor Moth News

So far 3 males have emerged from the cocoons - all now safely released.

Sadly, no females yet.... so I haven't had chance to try assembling.

It can take several years for the moths to emerge so in a few weeks I'll put the cocoons back in a cool place and wait until next year.

I've been offered some more emperor eggs/caterpillars and I may take up the kind offer - though will ask for fewer this year!!

Moth trapping in the garden this May so far has been exceedingly depressing with hardly any moths trapped. As its Garden Moth Scheme night I will try again tonight.

Blue Tit Nesting News

Despite activity from a pair of blue tits constantly visiting the nestbox over several months there were no signs of nest building and I really had given up hope. Last week there was another sudden flurry of activity and the female built a nest within a couple of days and she is now incubating six eggs. This nesting attempt is very late compared to usual!


amanda peters said...

It would have been really nice to see a Water Vole, nice place to go back to for another look. Last year OH, had said he had seen one in the little stream that runs through the wild part of the park, could be possible but thinking he could have seen a rat, checked again to day, looking out for signs, but nothing so far.

Might put moth trap out to night and had a look at Garden Moth scheme, should save up for a proper trap, keeping a eye out on Gumtree.

Most of the Dandelions have turned to seed now, fingers crossed there were some females out there for your Emperor moths.
Have put my insect hotels up and hope to buy some more.
Lovely post...
Amanda xx

SeagullSuzie said...

Great to see the bird life along the canal, but quite sad that you didn't get the water vole as hoped.
I think I'm so used to the bridge camera now, that I struggle to remember how I use the Nikon (but I'm sure I've said that before). It's such a marvellous all-rounder that I'd be lost without it!
What a responsibility those moths are.

Ragged Robin said...

Amanda Peters - Thanks Amanda. Its a long time since I've seen a water vole. Despite the surveys the only field signs I've seen in recent years were on the Surveying Workshop in the afternoon when we visited a known colony. I do know a place that's good for them about an hour's drive from home which I keep meaning to go to. Lack of time as usual!!

Good Luck if you put your moth trap out. The GMS is good fun and its nice to know you are contributing to science at the same time :) My trap wasn't too expensive (I had the cheapest option a 15W Actinic Skinner which was about £175 including trap, light, transformer, pots and field guide. I would love a Robinson MV but just can't justify the cost as I already have a trap!

I hope the male Emperors tracked down some females too :) Good Luck if you go to Plantlife survey site tomorrow.

SeagullSuzie - Thanks Suzie. Wasn't overhopeful of water vole sightings having seen those bank reinforcements on an earlier visit. The other site I couldn't survey may have been more promising.

I have to persevere with the bridge. Just too lazy to spend the time going through the manual and learning the features and controls. Its so much easier just to use the Olympus. But, as I know I keep on saying, I must find the time as its so much easier to take when you go out looking for wildlife! You are so right about the moth responsibility. OH has had a real moan about the 3 40 mile return trips I've been on to release them! He's also fed up with the huge cage sitting on the dining room table!!!

Millymollymandy said...

Was just reading your replies to the comments and hadn't realised you were travelling so far to release the moths! Interesting about your moth trap too. I had planned to get one this year, but will probably wait till next year, or maybe later in the summer if improved enough to use it. I was very tempted by the really expensive one but don't think I can justify spending that kind of money, so was looking at the cheaper options like the one you have. But it sounds like it's a bit disappointing. Hmmmm, I'll have to do some research!

Anyhow, a shame that you didn't see any voles, but you had a nice walk in pretty countryside, and you saw a baby moorhen! No sign of mine nesting yet this year. Your photos look fine to me. I never read the manual on my SX50 for ages, and eventually sort of figured it out myself, looking up the occasional thing that I couldn't work out. I'm sure there are still things I don't know about!!

Good news about the blue tits nesting.

Ragged Robin said...

Millymollymandy - Thanks so much for the comment. Yes, it was a bit of a trek to the moth release site! Made worse by awful roadworks en route adding 30 mins more to journey :( Luckily Sutton Park is only 10 mins from canal where I surveyed water voles so was able to make a preliminary visit on one of moth release trips!

Do hope you do get a moth trap at some stage - you will quickly become mesmerised by the moths you catch. When I bought my skinner actinic I was told it would catch more or less the same variety of species but less in number than the Robinson MV. To be honest I think so much depends on your location e.g. whether you are rural or suburban or urban, which county (or perhaps country) you are in and the surrounding habitat. One day would love a mv robinson but couldn't justify price at time and less so now really. Its worth a bit of research. I bought mine from Anglian Lepidopterist Supplies and they were very helpful. Would you buy from a supplier in France? I think most of the dealers will help you make a informed choice as to what is best for your location/pocket!

Sorry for such a long reply! but I did want to ask (if you don't mind) what settings you use for birds and insects on the Canon SX50? I thought macro for insects but not so sure for butterflies if you are going to zoom in would you use Av? For birds I would tend to use Av as I use with dslr but am a bit stuck about aperture number F5.6 of 6.3? - which I normally use with dslr and telephoto zoom.

Am going to make an effort starting today to learn controls on the Canon. I think there is a fish eye lens type effect you can use which sounds fun!

Countryside Tales said...

Shame about voles but as you say not surprising given the bank work hard engineering that's been done. I'm down moth-wise this spring too- still cool at night here. I didn't know Emperor moths could take years to emerge from the pupal state- fascinating stuff.

Millymollymandy said...

Do you know, I only discovered the fish eye effect a few weeks ago? There are too many hidden menus!! I use the camera on manual mode now since I learned how to use a camera properly on an online course last year. I found that I get better pictures by underexposing slightly, especially shooting things like moorhens on my pond, which used to come up too bright. I do use the macro function a lot, I'll use it for butterflies if I get really close, but usually do the take from afar first of all zoomed in, then try to creep up closer and closer.

Before I knew how to do it in manual, I used TV for birds to get the speed (but need good light for faster speeds). I also used the P mode for most other things. I don't think I bothered much with AV because there is little choice unlike a DSLR which (depending on lens) can give you so much more choice, especially if you want to take pics of flowers with shallow depth of field and get great bokeh (blurry background). I think P is fine for macro for butterflies because I've got plenty of good butterfly photos close up from before I knew how to use it in manual mode. In fact I can't always keep changing settings manually fast enough when it comes to bugs which move a lot so sometimes change it back to P anyway.

The one thing I note with this camera is that it's not so good with ISO higher than about 400, so shots in the shade tend to be less sharp due to the noise/grain. But it's not a mega expensive camera with mega expensive separate lenses so you can't expect to have everything! It's main raison d'etre is the superzoom! I hope that helps a bit.... :-)

Millymollymandy said...

Sorry didn't answer all the questions. I haven't even looked to see if there are any French moth traps available. I was also looking at the Anglian site and also Watkins and Doncaster. I think it was one of the Skinner traps I was looking at, with a wooden base. One of the kits that comes with a moth book and some pots to put the moths in. But not yet decided! Haven't looked at postage to France either, that could make it too expensive!

Ragged Robin said...

Countryside Tales - Thanks for the comment :) Many people seem to be having disappointing moth catches at the moment. I tried a different location last night - further up the garden but still only caught 2 Heart and Dart (although new species for year). I was surprised to learn about length of time it can take Emperor Moths to emerge. County Recorder's latest females took 2 years but can take 3 or 4!

Ragged Robin said...

Millymollymandy - Thanks so much for all the advice re: the Canon Bridge - it really is very much appreciated. My son did try Sports mode for birds (thinking it would give faster shutter speed) but results were worse than Av. Will try Tv for birds and when we get some sunshine and butteflies/insects in the garden will use macro. The range of apertures is very limited!

I think my main problem is that I keep trying to use the techniques and settings I use with the dslr and, as you say with limited aperture range, this may not be the answer! Super zoom is the main reason I wanted the camera to use when I go to nature reserves to save taking a bag of lenses with dslr!! Went halves (well my half was joint Cmas/bday pressie from OH) with son late last year so he could use it on days out and for general photography as he wanted a better camera and I would use it for nature photos.

I really do need to learn the controls though as when we were out the other day I couldn't even work out how to view the photos I had taken and nearly ended up deleting the lot :( I'm also having problems adjusting to the fold out viewing screen as I only use the view finder on the dslr but view finder on Canon I can't seem to get on with! Really its just a matter of practice and spending time on it. I spent hours going through a magazine teaching you all the settings on dslr and what they did.

We have joined a Photography Club but sadly its mainly geared towards dslr's so am not learning a lot to help with Canon but my son enjoys it which is all that matters and its making me think more about the effects of light on photos.

re: moths - I think either of the 2 companies you mention would be good for buying a trap. The Skinner one sounds like mine and I think its cheaper now than the price I paid! I would love to try mine in a better location. Have often wanted to take it on holiday but son and daughter still come with us so there is never any room in the car boot especially now OH has a much smaller car.

Good Luck with the moth trap research and decision making and many thanks again for advice re: Canon :)

Millymollymandy said...

It really is a matter of time, practice and perseverance - I too got mine after having bought a DSLR so found it very confusing. Think it took me about a year before I got properly used to it! You will get there in the end. :-)

Ragged Robin said...

Millymollymandy - Thanks so much for your very kind comment and advice! Good to know I am not the only one to find it confusing! As you say its a matter of time, practice and perseverance :) It will be such a useful camera to take to nature reserves with it having the zoom and macro facilities all built in :) Thanks again :)

David Turner said...

Such a shame you didn't manage to find any Water Voles at the canal or manage to gain access to the other site which you had wished to survey. Deliberately awkward & obstructive land-owners can be so infuriating :-(

Nice images of the countryside and the wildlife around the canal nevertheless (apart from the fly-tipping of course!), and speaking personally I enjoyed all of your photos :-)

Hope all is well and kindest regards :-)

Ragged Robin said...

David Turner - Thanks so much for the comment David. I think to be honest the reinforced banks along most of the stretch meant it was unlikely to be a good site for water voles :( Yes, was very disappointed re: landowner. I know he had turned down another survey recently but I had to tread carefully in case it jeopardised the one and only person who surveys the site at present (botanically). She actually approached him on my behalf which was very good of her. I think the Wildlife Trust were thinking it would have been a good place for a reintroduction scheme so its doubly sad :(

Hope you are well too and that the decorating is proceeding to plan :)

Best wishes Caroline