Owl boxes, butterflies and climate warnings

With Bob Tompkins

High tide in St Ouen's Bay. Picture: DAVID FERGUSON. (30678437)
High tide in St Ouen's Bay. Picture: DAVID FERGUSON. (30678437)

The worst-casescenario estimate for sea level rises in the English Channel is 4.5mm per year, sufficient inside ten years for overtopping most of our sea walls.

CLIMBING the garden steps alongside our kitchen one morning I came across a wood mouse on the top of the drystone wall and it appeared to be resting. On close examination, however, it was found to have just died, though it was still warm and pliable. There were no signs of injury and so that evening I put it on top of our owl enclosure for the visiting wild owl to recycle.

Two days later we began to come across very young wood mice that had clearly just emerged from a nest somewhere near to where I had found the adult. I suspect that the adult was a nesting female and that the eruption of young was driven by the need for them to find food. We put some finch seed out for them in the hope that this would give them an initial food source until they learned to forage for themselves, but we are not hopeful about their survival, given they were only half the size of my thumb.

Checking the boxes

With the easing of Covid restrictions we are once again able to work in our owl teams and have been visiting boxes to check for signs of activity. This has to be carried out very carefully so as not to disturb any nesting birds while at the same time assessing the birds’ breeding success. The young are big enough to ring at four weeks of age, so their size and number are noted and passed on to our bird ringer so that he can make preparations to fit identification rings on the young birds in the coming weeks. It is clear that breeding is taking place slightly later than in 2020, though conversely the numbers of breeding pairs found so far are up on the same time last year. One of the many things we also do on these visits is to assess the condition of the box and the tree in which it sits. This last winter has taken a heavy toll on both boxes and trees, with many having been seriously damaged or lost, so building replacement boxes and the maintenance of existing ones has increased our workload. It is important when selecting a box location that a strong healthy tree is found, and this generally comes in the form of a mature oak or sweet chestnut, though other species are not discounted.

An example of how strong trees are could be found this week when we visited a site that had both an owl and a kestrel box in a stand of mature oaks. On a previous visit last year we had noted that a large limb on one of the trees had a long split on it caused by the branch twisting badly during a gale, and so once our inspections were complete, we crossed over the hedge into the next field expecting to find that it was down. In fact, the damaged area had hardened, buds were beginning to emerge across the whole of its length and there appeared to be no loss of vigour in its growth.

Butterflies and bees

Due to the lower-than-normal temperatures for this time of year butterflies are yet to make their colourful appearance in any numbers; however, the same cannot be said for the bee family. One afternoon, walking along the edge of a small field to gain access to an apiary of ours (bee hive site), the air was filled with the buzz of bumblebees as they drifted from one bluebell to another in search of pollen and nectar. They were all red-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lapidarius), which are one of five different species of bumble commonly found in the Island and with jet-black bodies and bright-red bottoms are easily identifiable.

Food for the rats

On another day and a different apiary visit close to the wet meadows by Les Prés Manor we were walking along a farm track alongside a field of potatoes when we noticed bank upon bank of earth with holes in them. On close inspection it appeared that the cause of this was that the potatoes had not been planted deeply enough, and having been exposed were being predated on by rats and crows. Given the shape of the planting ridges I suspect that the field has been machine-planted and the drill set to high, resulting in this patchwork of exposure.

It is possible that this is yet another example of the shortage of experienced farm labour brought about by the pandemic affecting productivity in an industry already very hard hit by other factors; a farmer’s life was never easy and is now growingly ever more challenging.

Migrants and residents

Bird migration is now in full swing and evidence of this has come in many forms, with linnets (Linaria cannabina) fleetingly visiting our seed feeders, chiffchaffs (Phylloscopus collybita) freshly arrived from Africa, with their distinctive ‘chiffchaff’ call heard from the treetops, and swallows (Hirundo rustica) flashing by low along the sea walls and catching insects before heading ever north.

I witnessed a strange scene involving a migrant bird and a resident one late afternoon this week when walking the dogs on Grouville beach. There had been a steady though small number of swallows coming in low off the sea, hawking insects as they passed, and at the same time I also noticed two carrion crows (Corvus corone) walking along the strand line in search of anything edible. One of these took exception to a swallow skimming low over its head and so took off in determined pursuit. I doubt the hirundine was aware of the crow as it twisted and turned chasing invisible insects, but it was comical to watch as the corvid tried to mimic the flightpath of the smaller, more agile bird and failed, miserably.

Climate warnings

It is easy to criticise local government and, in some cases, as with the mixed messaging coming from it regarding fisheries, I feel it is justified. That said, I would not want to have to make the decisions regarding the environment and climate change that are going to have to be made as a matter of urgency. The National Trust for Jersey is driving the need to increase the size and scope of the Coastal National Park, and with small reservations I agree with what Charles Alluto set out in last Saturday’s JEP. On the same day an article written in the JEP by John Pinel made us all aware of how we as a species are driving climate change and the urgency with which we need to play our part in reducing emissions and our continual destruction of the world’s key habitats.

John outlined the potential catastrophic increase in sea levels around the world and how that will also affect weather patterns. Those who think this will not impact on their lives, think again. The Gulf Stream keeps our waters warm and prevents us from experiencing Canadian-type winters but it is weakening partly due to the increasing fresh water melt coming from Greenland’s glaciers, which has the potential to cut it off. Current research on sea level rises in the English Channel reveals a worst-case scenario estimate of 4.5mm per year, sufficient inside ten years for overtopping most of our sea walls.

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