Monthly Archives: January 2015

Student field trip to Summer Leys Nature Reserve – birds, bins and biting winds!

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Field trips are a vital component of any university degree course that includes within it elements of ecology, organismal biology, geography or environmental science.  Learning about the natural environment via lectures, books and seminars is one thing: experiencing it first hand is quite another, and adds significantly to a deeper understanding of complex environmental issues such as nature reserve management.  For that reason at the University of Northampton we’ve always strove to maintain as much field experience as possible within our degree programmes, including long field courses to the South-West USA and Tenerife (as I’ve previously documented), day trips to places such as Wicken Fen, and shorter sessions in and around our campus.

An annual winter visit to Summer Leys Nature Reserve has been a feature of our first year undergraduate teaching for many years, and focuses on the bird life to be found in this flooded and restored gravel pit.  Of particular interest at this time of year are the over-wintering waders and wild fowl, for which the reserve has been designated Site of Special Scientific Interest and Special Protected Area status.  The latter is a European-level designation which reflects the international importance of the Nene Valley for bird life.

This year’s trip took place on Thursday, which was initially bright but cold.  The field trip is not compulsory so many students decided not to turn up.  Those that attended had a great time walking the circuit around the reserve, visiting the bird hides, and learning the intricacies of both duck identification and how a site such as this is managed.

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As we walked and recorded I kept a running total of the birds that we identified. Highlights included three Great White Egrets standing together on one of the islands, the greatest number I’ve seen at one time in the county, and an indication of much more common these spectacular birds have become in the last decade, as county bird recorder Mike Alibone has discussed on his blog.  They have bred in Somerset since 2012 and hopefully will do so in the Nene Valley in the not too distant future    You can just make out the birds in the centre of this image:

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Another highlight was the large number of Bullfinches that we saw foraging along the paths and in the low trees, at least 20, all of which were females.  Some were very confiding and we could approach them to within a couple of metres, such as this one:

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Ducks were plentiful, with good numbers of Wigeon, Gadwall, Tufted Duck and Mallard, fewer Shoveler, a couple of Goldeneye, and a single Pochard.  There were also large flocks of Lapwing and a couple of unidentified waders, possibly Redshank.

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The final total of birds was a respectable 39 species and our half-day trip ended as cold winds brought in heavy cloud, rain and then finally a sudden fall of snow. By which time we were back in the warmth of the campus, enjoying a cup of tea and catching up with emails.

 

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Filed under Biodiversity, Birds, University of Northampton

Bumper Big Garden Birdwatch this year!

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As I posted yesterday, this weekend is the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch, the world’s largest wildlife-watching event, and one that’s been running for 36 years.  I completed my hour of surveying between 09:04 and 10:04 this morning, and it’s been a bumper year!  Armed with a notebook, binoculars, and a cup of coffee, I recorded all the different bird species I observed in the field of view from the tall silver birch to the left across to the patch of brambles on the right (my “garden”, as you can see, encompasses parts of my neighbours’ gardens too).

In 2013 (the first year I did the BGBW at this house) I recorded a disappointing 6 species; in 2014 it was 8 species; this year it’s been a whopping 15 species!  They were (in order of first observation, with numbers of birds):

Robin – 1

Collared dove – 3

Chaffinch – 4

Dunnock – 3

Magpie – 1

Blue tit – 4

Coal tit – 1

Lesser redpoll – 4

Blackbird – 4

Greenfinch – 5

Carrion crow – 1

Great tit – 2

Wood pigeon – 2

Goldfinch – 4

Blackcap – 1

Not bad for an urban garden!  Did you do the BGBW this weekend?  How many species did you count? Was it a higher count than last year?

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Filed under Biodiversity, Birds, Gardens, RSPB, Urban biodiversity

Big Garden Birdwatch this weekend

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This weekend the RSPB will be running its annual Big Garden Birdwatch, a great example of citizen science in support of biodiversity monitoring.  No matter where your garden is or how small it might be, if you have time, please do get involved.  Even a return of zero birds is useful information because it tells us where birds are not occurring.

As I have for the past couple of years since we moved into this house, I’ll do my hour of watching on Sunday morning from the bedroom window.  Hopefully the current cold weather will persist and bring birds into the garden that are normally found out in the wider countryside.

Happy birding!

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Filed under Biodiversity, Birds, Gardens, RSPB, Urban biodiversity

Garden chickens and biodiversity – some thoughts

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Keeping chickens as a hobby is very popular at the moment and many gardeners are finding space for a few chooks in their own patch.  It’s been particularly trendy amongst urban gardeners, ourselves included: we have a run with 6 hens that make us self sufficient in eggs and chicken shit (the latter a vital addition to our soil’s fertility).  They are also fascinating, relaxing animals to watch as they go about their chickeny business of scratching, pecking, clucking, and dust bathing.  They are intelligent, social, inquisitive birds, that I’d recommend to anyone who has the space to accommodate a decent sized run and (importantly) the time to look after them.

There are plenty of magazines, books and websites offering advice on keeping hens on a small scale.  One of the most active and interesting blogs is The Garden Smallholder which generally has some good advice and ideas.  Back in November, however, a post about preparing a new kitchen garden caught my attention, specifically the fact that the writer’s chickens were let out onto the plot and that:

Chickens are great at scratching and turning over soil with their enthusiastic feet, and excellent pest control too

Let’s think about that last point, that chickens provide “excellent pest control”.  It’s a statement that I’ve seen repeated many times in books and articles, and it usually doesn’t solicit any comments.  But the logic behind it is that hens can differentiate between “pests” and “non-pests” in a garden, that they will gobble up the slugs and cutworms, leaving behind the worms, beetles, spiders, and other beneficial (or neutral) invertebrates.  This is nonsense, of course: chickens will eat anything they find and do not differentiate between the different elements of soil biodiversity*.

For this reason we don’t allow our hens to free range on our vegetable patch: we want to keep the soil’s fauna intact, allowing the earthworms to aerate and turn over the soil, let the beetles eat the slugs, give ground-nesting bees some space in which to live, and so forth.  A few weeks of digging with chickens present would destroy all of that.

The vast majority of invertebrates that live in the soil are not pests and a significant  proportion are certainly good for our gardens (particularly the earthworms and carnivorous beetles).  Allowing your chickens to feed freely on these animals will significantly reduce your soil biodiversity, which is a bad thing in its own right (if we accept that these animals are a measure of your soil’s “health” and productivity), and could reduce the numbers of invertebrate-eating wildlife, such as thrushes, hedgehogs and toads, visiting your garden.

If you want your chickens to eat garden pests my advice would be to take the pests to them: scoop up several slugs with a trowel, throw them into their run, and watch the birds excitedly scramble for their treat.  But remember that slugs play a positive role in the garden too, demolishing huge amounts of garden waste in compost bins and (in our garden) eating up cat shit.  That’s a topic for a future post though.

 

*I made a comment to this effect on the Garden Smallholder post but the blog owner saw fit not to allow it to appear.  Draw your own conclusions from that.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Birds, Ecosystem services, Gardens, Personal biodiversity, Urban biodiversity

What do academics do once the research is published?

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At the University of Northampton we run a programme of generic training workshops aimed at research students (MPhil and PhD) from across all disciplines.  I contribute to several, including one called “Getting Published”, usually run with my colleague Professor Ian Livingstone.  This focuses on academic papers/articles (phraseology varies with subject) and covers all of what you might expect such a workshop to feature, including asking about motivations for wanting to publish research*, when is the right time to publish your research**, issues about co-authorship***, and so forth.

One of the key aspects of the workshop is a flow chart of the process of getting published, beginning at “do the research”, moving on to writing it up, choosing a journal, submitting to a journal, peer review, dealing with reviewers’ comments, writing a covering letter, coping with rejection, re-submission to the same or a different journal, celebrating acceptance, etc.  All fairly standard stuff.

By this point we’re about three-quarters of the way through the workshop, so I ask a question:

“OK, you’ve gone through the whole process (which can take anything from months to years) and your paper has been published.  You’re very pleased, of course.  What do you do next?”

Responses at this point are typically a blank expression, or perhaps “What else is there to do?  The paper’s published, we’ve done our job.  Move on to the next”.  In other words, the general feeling seems to be that the process stops when the research is published.  I politely suggest that this is not so, that you’re still only part-way through the process, and explain why, starting with this table:

Clinical:                                  48.9%

Biological Sciences:           37.8%

Environment:                       37.3%

Physical Sciences:              42.3%

Social Sciences:                   55.4%

Business:                                57.2%

Humanities:                          77.5%

These figures are the percentages of un-cited research papers (in 2005, by broad discipline) published in the UK for the period 2000 to 2004.   The total number of un-cited papers is 122,771****.  There are other similar statistics available, some with broader time windows, but they all point to the same conclusion: in all disciplines, a high proportion of research papers are never referred to by other researchers in the field.  And in some disciplines it’s the majority of papers.

That’s not to say that the research is no good, or even that it’s not being read, but it’s certainly not being cited.  Citation is not the only measure of the “quality” of a piece of work of course, but it at least indicates that peers have read the work, and citation is central to a range of widely used metrics, including the h-index.

This usually comes as a shock to the postgrads, as it does to many established academics!  The low average citation rate of papers is mainly a response to the sheer volume of research currently being published, as I’ve discussed previously in relation to the field of pollination ecology.

How do researchers in a field decide which papers they are going to read and/or cite, and which they ignore?  It’s been suggested that academics often have quite conservative citing patterns, referring again and again to the same work or authors in their own papers.  How can a researcher break through this conservatism and have their own work cited?

One answer is to promote your work after it’s published and the workshop offers some ideas on how to do this:

  • Send PDFs of your papers to other researchers, whether you know them personally or not.  I’m always happy to receive copies of papers that I might otherwise miss.
  • Deposit copies with your institutional electronic repository (at Northampton that’s NECTAR)
  • Tell the world about it using social media, either general (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn) or academic (ResearchGate, academia.edu)
  • Send announcements to email discussion groups in your field
  • If you blog, write a post about it (as I did for the pollinator extinctions paper last month)
  • If the work is particularly novel/important/high impact, consider writing a press release with your institution’s press office, or at least a news item on the website.
  • Consider writing up your research as a non-academic piece in a magazine or newspaper for a wider, public audience (see comment below)
  • Present the work (and cite it) at conferences & seminars (the old fashioned way…..)

This kind of “self promotion” is anathema to some academics, for reasons that are not clear to me but may relate to misguided notions about sullying the purity of their work with grubby advertising, something that’s been discussed over at the Dynamic Ecology blog.

But if you don’t promote your work, no one else will do it for you!  Doing research and writing books and papers is a creative endeavour just as much as any of the arts or music.  Would we expect an artist to not advertise the work they do?  Or a musician to keep compositions to themselves.  No, they have exhibitions and concerts, and use advertising in all its forms, to promote their work.

Ultimately a piece of research is only as good as its reception by the audience at which it’s aimed: some brilliant research findings have been ignored for decades because it had disappeared into academic obscurity.  This is likely to happen even more in the future, I’d suggest, given the amount of work that’s being published.

Do you have other strategies for promoting your work?  Or do you disagree with some of what I’ve said?  Feel free to comment, I’d be happy to hear from you.

*”earning money” occasionally pops up as a (naive) reason, so we have to point out that academics rarely get paid for their academic publishing, other than (meagre) book royalties.

**As soon as is feasible, even if it’s a short literature review.

***Make sure everyone, especially supervisors, is clear about which work will be co-authored, which will not, and why.

****Source: PSA target metrics for the UK research base, Office of Science and Technology, DTI (2005)

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Filed under History of science, University of Northampton