Tag Archives: Birds

Research seminar: Dr Hazel Chapman – “Conservation ecology of West Africa’s montane forest habitats – seed dispersers and their substitutes”

We start the new term with a guest speaker from New Zealand – Dr Hazel Chapman – who is coming to give a research seminar this Friday at 1pm in Newton NW205, University of Northampton, Avenue Campus. Here’s the details:
 
Conservation ecology of West Africa’s montane forest habitats – seed dispersers and their substitutes.
 
The Nigerian Montane Forest Project (NMFP) is a conservation and biodiversity research program founded on a field station located on the Nigeria-Cameroon border. Run out of the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, the Project is aimed at understanding the ecology of Nigeria’s montane forest fragments for informed management of this fragile ecosystem. The research focus is predominantly plant-animal mutualisms and forest restoration. This talk will introduce the NMFP and present research aimed at understanding how seed dispersal processes are changing in response to forest fragmentation and hunting.
 
Hazel Chapman is an Associate Professor at the University of Canterbury (UC) NZ, where she lectures in evolutionary ecology. Hazel’s research focus is tropical forest conservation and she is the Founder and Director of the NMFP. Since 2004, the Project has seen a stream of international and Nigerian postgraduate students enrolled at UC doing their field research in Nigeria. In addition the NMFP trains undergraduate Nigerian students in conservation biology, and works with local schools and the community. The Project is run almost entirely by the local community. It is home to a 20ha Smithsonian CTFS Forest Geo Plot.
 
All welcome.

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Waxwings in Northants

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This afternoon I spent a very pleasant couple of hours watching a flock of 14 waxwings (Bombycilla garrulus) a beautiful and enigmatic bird  that I’ve mentioned before on this blog.  This flock has been hanging around the village of Roade just outside Northampton since the 29th December, feeding on a crop of rowan berries (Sorbus aucuparia var.) and amusing the locals.  As usual they were very confiding and unperturbed by neither traffic nor twitchers (which at one point, I was told, numbered around 40 people).  Feeding with the waxwings were a couple of blackbirds that may well have travelled down from the far north with them.  Here’s a few pictures:

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The Biodiversity Impact of Waterside Campus: an interim report on the bird surveys

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In previous posts I’ve discussed the work that we are doing monitoring the effects of building a large, new campus for the University of Northampton (see: Monitoring the biodiversity impact of the new Waterside Campus and a video I did of a talk about this project).  We have finally got round to writing an an interim report on the bird surveys we have been conducting (2014-2016), repeating the initial baseline surveys that were carried out in 2012-13.  The executive summary is below and you can download a PDF of the full report here.

As you will see it’s a mixed picture, with some losses and some gains of species, but we are broadly optimistic that the planned landscaping and habitat creation will have a positive effect come the 2018 opening date of Waterside Campus.  It’s important to note that studies such as this which follow up initial ecological surveys and assess the subsequent impact over time are extremely rare as there is no statutory obligation to do so.

Winter surveys will begin shortly and I will report back late next year, time willing.  Any questions or comments, please let me know.

 

Executive summary

  • Surveys of winter and spring bird diversity are being carried out to assess the effects of construction activities and habitat creation on local biodiversity at the University of Northampton’s new Waterside Campus.

 

  • These results are compared to pre-construction baseline surveys in winter 2012-13 and spring 2013, undertaken as part of the ecological impact assessment of the site.

 

  • Results after two repeat sets of surveys (winter 2014-15 and 2015-16; spring 2015 and 2016) are presented, with birds grouped into RSPB Green, Amber and Red categories.

 

  • Winter bird diversity has dropped from 41 species to 31 species; more Red and Amber listed birds have been lost than Green listed species.

 

  • Spring bird diversity has dropped from 40 to 36 species; more Green and Amber listed birds were lost, but the number of Red listed species increased slightly.

 

  • As well as losing species the site has gained birds that were not recorded in the baseline surveys, including Green-listed Coot and Treecreeper, the Amber-listed Stock dove, and the Red-listed House sparrow.

 

  • In addition, most of the “missing” birds are known to occur at sites 500m to 1000m from Waterside and could return following the end of construction and appropriate habitat creation.

 

  • Surveys will continue until after Waterside Campus opens in 2018, and analyses will be undertaken to tease out how these changes in bird numbers are related to changes to both the local and regional environments.

 

  • Outputs from this project so far include two conference presentations and two final year dissertations (one completed and one planned). At least one peer-reviewed research paper is anticipated.

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Biodiversity lost and found: extinct island birds and living African dragonflies

Two newly published studies have caught my eye this week as exemplifying two important aspects of biodiversity research: describing new species and understanding which species we’ve recently lost due to human activities.

Researchers working in the Macaronesian islands of the Azores and Madeira have described five new species of endemic water rails (genus Rallus) that are thought to have gone extinct within the period when humans colonised the islands.  One species may even have hung on into historic times.  All of the species were either flightless or had reduced capacity for flying, making them vulnerable to over-exploitation by humans.  That’s a common phenomenon on oceanic islands, with the dodo being the archetypical example.

What’s particularly remarkable is that these five new species increases the known recent diversity of the genus Rallus by about one third!  The reference for the paper, and a link to the pdf, is:

Alcover et al. (2015) Five new extinct species of rails (Aves: Gruiformes: Rallidae) from the Macaronesian Islands (North Atlantic Ocean) Zootaxa 4057: 151–190

The second paper is a mass-naming of 60 (!) new African dragonfly and damselfly species by a team led by KD Dijkstra, a Dutch entomologist whose work I’ve mentioned previously.  I had the pleasure of teaching with KD on a Tropical Biology Association field course in Tanzania a few years ago and his knowledge of African natural history is astounding.

To put these 60 new species into context, it increases the known diversity of African dragonflies and damselflies by almost 10%.  The reference and a link to the paper follows:

Dijkstra et al. (2015) Sixty new dragonfly and damselfly species from Africa (Odonata). Odonatologica 44: 447-678

Finding appropriate names for all of these insect species has required a degree of ingenuity from the authors and a quote from the paper demonstrates how memorable and creative some of them are:

“The Peace Sprite Pseudagrion pacale was discovered on the Moa River near Sierra Leone’s diamond capital Kenema. Twenty years earlier villagers trapped between rebel and government forces on opposite banks drowned in these tranquil waters. Two years later Kenema became the national epicentre of the Ebola outbreak…… The horntail Tragogomphus grogonfla evokes a Liberian pronunciation of ‘dragonfly’, the sparklewing Umma gumma a classic Pink Floyd album…… and the claspertail Onychogomphus undecim simply its date of discovery, 11/11/11.”

One of the things that I’ve tried to impress upon my final year undergraduate students this term during our Monday morning biodiversity seminars is just how little we still don’t understand about life on our planet.  Discoveries of new species are a regular occurrence, and for most we know nothing about their life histories or their interactions with other species (the aspect of biodiversity that particularly interests me).  In other cases (as with the Macaronesian water rails) the species were gone before we knew that they even existed.  I wish that I could be sure that this won’t happen in the future, but it will, until we (and the future generations that we are teaching) do something to address the problems of habitat destruction and inappropriate exploitation of biodiversity.

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Gull use of urban parks in winter – data I’ll never publish (2)

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For the second in my occasional series of “data I’ll never publish” I want to present a short post about how two species of gulls use an urban Northampton park in the winter.  The park is called the Racecourse (I’ve mentioned it before) and is en route to the campus on which I work.  It’s long been apparent that the numbers of gulls using the park increases from autumn into winter and declines to zero in the spring and summer, when they head off to breed in and around Northamptonshire’s reservoirs and gravel pits, and further afield. During the winter they spend their time feeding on earthworms, squabbling, chasing crows, and generally relaxing prior to the next breeding season.

What I was interested in knowing was just how quickly the numbers built up, whether it was a slow, steady build-up or a rapid influx of birds, and also the relative numbers of the two commonest species to be found there, Black-headed gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) and Common gull (Larus canus).

So during my walks to work between late August 2014 and early January 2015 I simply counted the numbers of birds I saw in the quadrant of the park that I passed.  Certainly not the most onerous data collection I’ve ever carried out, and done purely because it interested me, not with any view to conducting a serious study.  Here’s the data plotted up as peak birds seen per day, with day of the year on the x-axis, running from 27th August to 5th January:

Gulls on Racecourse 2014

A few things intrigue me about this.  First of all, Common gulls are much more, er, “common”, on the park than Black-headed gulls, despite the fact that Black-headed gulls are far more abundant in the UK during the winter (estimated as 2.2 million versus 710,000 birds).  However anecdotally I’ve observed that other parks in Northampton appear to have more Black-headed gulls, suggesting that the two species are to some extent dividing up the urban parks and other grasslands between themselves, like rival gangs with different local patches.

That’s purely speculative and would be worth pursuing as a student project, to test if (a) this hypothesis is correct; and (b) whether that division of the parks is stable between years.

The other thing that’s of interest from these data is that, as you can see from the 10-day moving average, the Common gulls suddenly increase in numbers around the middle of November.  I wonder whether this is due to an influx of migrant birds coming in from further north and east in Europe and Scandinavia?  At the same time I recorded an unusually large flock of Black-headed gulls: were these also migrants just passing through?

Urban gulls have been getting some bad press recently; but they really are fascinating birds that add a lot to the biodiversity interest of our parks and playing fields.  They deserve further study because we take them for granted and there’s really not much published on their urban ecology.

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The uneasy academic and the importance of dipping outside your discipline: reflections on The Urban University conference

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It’s important for academics to occasionally move out of their disciplinary comfort zones and to interact with academics and practitioners from beyond their own silos, experiencing approaches that are alien and hearing voices that are not repeating the normative values of their own subject area.  Time spent in this way can be both stimulating and mundane, enlightening and boring, exciting and frustrating.  Above all, unpredictable.  At an ecological conference I know what I will experience; drop me into one devoted to the arts or social sciences, and anything can happen.  It’s an uneasy experience.

With that in mind I spent the end of last week attending a conference at which I was the lone scientist speaker, and indeed one of the very few people with a science background in the audience, as far as I could tell. The Urban University was sub-titled “Universities as place makers and agents of civic success in medium sized towns and cities” and was largely aimed at urban planners, architects, policy makers, and social geographers.  Not muddy boots ecologists.  However I’d offered the organisers (the University of Northampton’s Collaborative Centre for the Built Environment) a 30 minute talk about the monitoring work we’ve been doing on the bird assemblage at Northampton’s new Waterside Campus, which I discussed in an earlier post. The abstract for my talk is below, co-authored with my colleagues Janet Jackson and Duncan McCollin, plus two of our undergraduate students, Jo Underwood and Charlie Baker.

I had hoped that providing a very different perspective on the role of an urban campus, one focussed on the biodiversity it can potentially support and the ecosystem services that stem from it, might be of interest to this broad-based audience.  In the back of my mind I also thought it might be fun to reverse roles and, for 30 minutes, make them the uneasy ones.  It’s always hard to judge but I got the impression afterwards that the talk was well received and it elicited some discussion and questions.

Overall it was a stimulating couple of days and (I think) I’ve learned a lot, or at least learned more about the approaches and priorities of academics and practitioners beyond my immediate field. The talks ranged from the rather abstract to the very practical, from theoretical discussions to local activism. Particular highlights for me were:

John Goddard‘s overview of the relationship between the university and the city, and the fact that many academics don’t feel a personal link, or responsibility, to the urban centre in which they work.

Allan Cochrane discussing the unintended consequences of a university’s economic and social power, including gentrification and studentification of local residential areas.

Robin Hambleton on universities as a corrective to “placeless power”, i.e. multinational firms that can facilitate enormous social and economic change in an area despite having no geographic connection to the place.  Of course the internationalisation agenda of most UK universities means that they may themselves be in danger of wielding placeless power overseas.

Michael Edwards recounting how UCL academics and students have engaged in local activism in North London, for example fighting destructive planning applications, and sometimes positioned on the opposing side to the university itself.

Wendy Cukier on the experience of her Canadian university’s role as a “changemaker”, and the value of the Ashoka U Changemaker Campus programme, to which the University of Northampton is committed.

Cathy Smith on the medieval origins of the original University of Northampton, which was dissolved in 1265.  By happy coincidence 2015 is both the 750th anniversary of that dissolution and the 10th anniversary of the current University of Northampton’s full upgrade to university status in 2005.

The conference strongly impressed upon me the fact that academics sometimes take their institutions for granted in the sense that they don’t reflect on, or even challenge, the role of higher education within their geographical location. There may even be a danger of this becoming more pronounced as, in the rush to internationalise and chase overseas student fees, we in fact forget the physical and historical roots of our institutions.

Above all the two days I spent trying to navigate these unfamiliar waters reinforced my belief that it can be very dangerous for academics to isolate themselves within their disciplines, no matter how comforting and familiar that may be.  If the only voices that you are hearing (audibly and on the page) are the ones that are telling you stories that you already know and understand (even if you don’t agree with them) then it can be very easy to drift into a kind of disciplinary complacency in which you take the (self) importance and role of your own subject area for granted, without any external perspective on how it might be perceived by those beyond your academic boundaries.

Taking the occasional disciplinary leap could involve as little as going to a seminar in another department, or widening your reading to include areas beyond your subject.  Attending and presenting at a two day conference involves a greater commitment of time and energy, but it’s worth the effort.  It’s an approach to academia that I’ve tried to follow over the past 25 years and I’d recommend it as a way of broadening perspectives.  Sometimes it’s good to feel uneasy.

Many thanks to the organisers of The Urban University conference, particualrly Sabine Coady Schaebitz and Bob Colenutt, for their hard work in putting together such a great couple of days.  Here’s the details of my talk:

Biodiversity monitoring on urban university campuses

Jeff Ollerton, Joanne Underwood, Janet Jackson, Charles Baker & Duncan McCollin

Biodiversity, the variety of species and habitats to be found in a defined area, is a critical component of the natural world, and the ecosystem services that it provides supports modern society in economically tangible ways.  Urban campuses have long been acknowledged as supporting significant biodiversity, as evidenced by the many universities that have written biodiversity action plans.  However there has been relatively little quantitative research published on the biodiversity of British urban campuses, and how that diversity changes over time, particularly with respect to large-scale infrastructure development.  Academics and students in the Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences have been collecting data on the biodiversity of Park and Avenue Campuses for more than 20 years, including plants, invertebrates, mammals, and birds.  This talk focuses on bird diversity as birds are an indicator group for assessing ecosystems, and are arguably the best understood group of species in the UK.  We present data on the birds that have been recorded on these campuses from 1993 to 2015, assessed in terms of their UK conservation status.  We then discuss the potential impact of the new Waterside Campus on the existing bird assemblage of the site, and present preliminary data showing how bird diversity has changed since building work began.  We end by discussing whether it is possible to maintain or even enhance bird diversity and abundance at the new campus.   The location of Waterside Campus, within the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area and in close proximity to internationally important wetland bird sites, means that the University of Northampton has a civic duty to maintain the biodiversity of its campuses.

Note: in the end I actually didn’t include the data from Park and Avenue campuses, there wasn’t time to fit everything in!

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Something for the weekend #6 – eco-gentrification, neonicotinoid pesticides, bees, birds, and bacteria

The latest in a regular series of posts to biodiversity-related* items that have caught my attention during the week:

  • One of the unintended (and sometimes intended) consequences of greening our cities may be “eco-gentrification”, as property prices increase and low income families are displaced – this interesting article from The Guardian discusses the phenomenon and its possible solutions.
  • The evidence against neonicotinoid pesticides, and specifically their effect on bee populations, continues to mount.  In this recent blog post, Philip Strange provides a very useful summary of the findings of some recent studies.  The latest research was also covered on the BBC News website and I was struck by this quote from Nick von Westenholz, CEO of the Crop Protection Association, which represents the firms that produce neonicotinoid pesticides:  “The latest studies in Nature must be seen in the context of ongoing campaign to discredit neonicotinoid pesticides, regardless of what the real evidence shows.”  As if that’s how science actually works! All of us scientists gang together to discredit things.  Clueless, and clearly fighting a desperate rear-guard action.  There was also some interesting expert reaction on the Science Media website that’s worth reading.
  • The tree of life just got more complex: a newly discovered phylum of prokaryotic microbes has genetic features in common with the eukaryotic domains (animals, plants, fungi, etc.) and provides clues as to how complex, multicellular life may have evolved.  Here’s links to the abstract of the original paper and to a summary on the BBC News website.
  • Finally, as I write this, the results of the General Election are coming in and it looks very likely that the UK will have a majority Conservative government for the next five years.  What that means for controversial, large scale developments such as HS2, and for wildlife, biodiversity, and the state of the UK’s ecosystems more generally, remains to be seen.  It could be a bumpy few years.

Feel free to recommend links that have caught your eye.

*Disclaimer: may sometimes contain non-biodiversity-related items.

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BREAKING NEWS: Living population of the dodo discovered in Mauritius!

Very briefly, I’m hearing exciting reports over the web that a small population of the dodo has been discovered living alive and well in Mauritius, hundreds of years after it was thought to have gone extinct!  Here’s the source.  More information will be posted as and when I get it.

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How do animals respond to solar eclipses? Please share your observations.

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If you have been anywhere in the Palearctic during the past 48 hours then you can’t have missed the fact that we experienced that most rare of astronomical phenomena, a solar eclipse.  The eclipse was total only as far north as the Faroe Islands and Svalbard; further south it was partial and here in Northampton the eclipse was perhaps 80-90% total.

It’s been big news with lots of public interest.  As well as explaining the astronomy of eclipses, various commentators on current affairs and science programmes have talked about how animals respond to eclipses.  This is a topic that’s intrigued me ever since the August 1999 eclipse.  During that event I was carrying out field work in a Northampton grassland and as the eclipse reached its maximum the bumblebees and butterflies on the site stopped flying and foraging, and settled into the grass.  Once the eclipse had passed they carried on as before.  I don’t have any hard data to demonstrate the effect, it was purely an observation of what was happening around me.

Since then I’ve waited over 15 years for the next opportunity to observe how solar eclipses affect animal behaviour.  Unfortunately there are few pollinators flying at the moment so I had to content myself with watching the gulls, woodpigeons, carrion crows and other birds on the Racecourse park adjacent to the university.

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This time I took some video footage before, during and after the eclipse, noted the birds’ behaviour, flying, calls and singing.  And guess what? As far as I could tell the eclipse had no effect on the birds!  They behaved as if nothing was happening.  Even a mistle thrush than had been singing all morning from a perch in one of the boundary lime trees continued its song as the moon passed in front of the sun.

That really surprised me!  I was expecting the birds to at least reduce their activity as has been noted in previous eclipses.  But they didn’t as far as I could tell.  Perhaps it was the type of birds I was observing?  Or the time of year?  Or the fact that the eclipse was only partial?  Lots of questions but it’s difficult to do repeat observations for this kind of science – the next British total eclipse is not until 2090!

What did you see?  Did you notice any effect of the eclipse on animal behaviour?  Or did you, like me, see no effect of the eclipse.  I’d be interested to hear your observations.

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Monitoring the biodiversity impact of the new Waterside Campus

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All human activities can potentially have an impact on the biodiversity of the local environment in which they occur.  That impact can be positive or negative, depending upon how the activity is managed, how impact is mitigated, and the metrics that we use to measure the effects that are occurring.  This is particularly true of large infrastructure developments such as big buildings,  housing developments, roads, and, a category close to home for me at the moment, new university campuses.

I’ve written before about the University of Northampton’s plans to build the new Waterside Campus on brownfield land close to the River Nene, here and here.  It’s a huge project, likely to cost in excess of £330 million on a site covering about 20 hectares.

As you might imagine, such an ambitious scheme has not been without its controversies and there is much debate within the university about changes to how we work and interact with colleagues and students, provision of teaching and research spaces, etc.  There’s also been much discussion within the town, though the general feeling amongst the public (as far as I perceive it) is that bringing the university closer to the centre of Northampton will provide a much-needed economic boost and add significantly to the town’s life.

But what effect will such a development have on the wildlife in and around this peri-urban site, given that it’s in the middle of the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area and very close to internationally important bird sites?

Over the past few months, together with my colleague Dr Janet Jackson, I’ve been taking part in meetings with the Waterside project’s landscape architects (LUC), other partners from the NIA project board, and the local Wildlife Trust. We’ve been discussing the current plans for the green infrastructure of the campus and thinking about how these can be enhanced.  It’s been a fascinating process as initial disagreements have been negotiated towards compromises and additions that everyone is happy with, balancing budgetary, function and space restrictions with habitat creation and landscape enhancement.

There’s too much been discussed to give a full account at this stage, and it’s possible that some details will change over time, but  the current Ecology Strategy document produced by LUC shows that there will be more than 10 hectares of habitat creation on the site, including species-rich grassland, woodland patches, brown and green roofs, swales and damp areas, and recreated brownfield habitat.  The latter is particularly exciting and something of an experiment, as much of the (albeit limited) current wildlife interest on the site relates to the brownfield element, including the “urban tundra“.

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To put the 10 hectares into perspective, the adjacent Wildlife Trust Local Nature Reserve of Barnes Meadow is only 20 hectares in area, so it’s potentially increasing that site by 50%.  It’s rare for academic ecologists such as Janet and myself to be able to influence large building developments, so this has been an exciting opportunity for us to make a contribution that (if all goes to plan) will have a positive effect on biodiversity conservation in the Nene Valley.

But how will we know if the Great Waterside Experiment has been a success and that the biodiversity of the new campus is at least as rich, and preferably richer, in species than it was before building took place?

Monitoring of the wildlife is key to this.  Fortunately we have some base-line surveys of birds, plants and invertebrates (including bees and butterflies) from before building started that we can compare with later surveys during and after the campus build.  That process has already started, and with my colleague Dr Duncan McCollin and with two keen second-year students, Jo and Charlie, we have already completed three winter bird surveys to get a sense of how the current site clearance and ground works is affecting the presence of birds in and around the development, including those using the River Nene.  The plan is to continue these surveys up to and after the campus opens in 2018, to give us a data series showing the influence of the campus on bird diversity and numbers.

The initial results are currently being analysed and it appears that the current phase of building has reduced overall bird diversity by about 30%, and that red and amber status birds (of most conservation concern) have been affected more than green status birds, as this figure demonstrates (click on it for a closer view):

Waterside bird surveys

These rough figures hide a lot of detail, however.  For example, there has been some addition of species in 2014-15 that were not recorded in 2012-13, including Coot, Treecreeper and the amber-status Stock dove.  More importantly, some of the amber status birds that we didn’t record on site in 2014-15, we know from additional surveys are still present in habitats within 500 metres of the development, for example Dunnock, Green woodpecker, and Bullfinch.  Similarly, red status birds such as resident Starling, and winter migrant Fieldfare and Redwing occur within at least one kilometre of the site.  Hopefully as the building work progresses towards completion these (and other) species will return, so at the moment we’re not too concerned by their disappearance from the site.

Later in the spring we will conduct a couple of breeding bird surveys, and continue surveying for the next few years until the campus opens in 2018.  Only then will we see exactly how successful our influence has been.  In the mean time I’ll report back as and when we have more data to share.

Waterside winter 2014-15

 

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