Wildlife Conservation at RAF Halton - September 2015 Update

  |  Published: Sep 19th 2015
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Introduction by Dave Short:

I first submitted a write up about the Barn Owl some months ago, which I hope you all liked. I would like to continue with an outline of what the conservation team have been up to for the year.

It is at this point I would like to thank SERCO RAF Halton for supporting the conservation group by purchasing special rings that are used for putting on bird’s legs as part of a five to ten year project that is being done; but more on that later.

If you feel that you would like to get involved you can contact the Station Safety Health Environment Advisors (SSHEA) office on ext 6640 or anything to do with bats you can call me directly on 07825 159479


January to March:

As always at this time of the year things can be very slow owing to us being in the middle of winter and slowly working our way to spring. Even though things are slow there is still plenty for the conservation group to do, apply for bat licence from Natural England (NE), apply for British Trust of Ornithology (BTO) bird ringing permit and finally a schedule 1 licence for disturbing specially protected species of birds. A winter bird survey was carried out which gave us an idea of what native birds were still around. Russ Barber, myself and Tanzie Holden went around Splash Covert hanging 28 bat boxes and Sgt Steve Kelly set up two wildlife cameras within the fuels training area next to the 25m range. These were able to show us the wildlife that was, and are using that site for hunting and feeding. The biggest surprise was a very shy chinese water deer that came into view along with a badger, fox, heron and a camera loving cock pheasant. A Great Crested Newt survey was also done and a great number of these protected animals were found. I then carried out a final nest box check ensuring all was ready for the 2015 breeding season to start.


April to June:

Now things are starting to heat up, trees showing new growth. Another bird survey for the migratory birds took place after their long winter stay in Africa and other warmer countries with many of these, along with our native species, now starting to nest. Monitoring of the nest boxes now starts in earnest watching for which type of tits are settling down to breed, checking for eggs or nest building, answering the question, are they nesting earlier or later if so why? So many things can be told by this alone even our climate. Sgt Steve Kelly carried out another great crested newt survey within the fuels training area and found that they had also now started to spawn and breed. Now into May and the breeding season is in full swing, the newts have now all spawned with the adults now gone from their spawning ponds leaving spawn and tadpoles. The nest boxes are now showing chicks and eggs with some of the chicks being ringed and recorded as between 7 and 12 in each box. Not only are the birds and newts starting but also the bats are now at their summer roosts to start maternity colonies for the females and bachelor colonies for the males. These are also a protected species with RAF Halton being one of the biggest bat roosts in Europe. Now into June and there are some birds still breeding in the boxes although a majority of them have now finished and the chicks fledged. Now is the time to once again do the box checks to see how many of the chicks survived, nests deserted or damaged and all data recorded. Apart from the box nesting birds there are still others that will go on until August having two or three broods.


Birds Ringed this Year:

During this year there have seen the following birds ringed here at RAF Halton.

29 Blue Tits, 21 Great Tits, 18 Robins, 4 Tree Creepers, 6 Nuthatch

4 Sparrowhawks, 10 Blackbirds, 4 Mistle Thrush and 2 Song Thrush.

As in most places around the UK, the Barn Owls did not breed this year. It is felt that this was because of a dramatic fall with the field vole population, owing to the wet weather.


July to August:

With the bird and amphibian breeding season now slowing down, or even stopped, there is still plenty to see around RAF Halton being the height of summer with the flora and fauna at their most spectacular. It is now that the majority of the more colourful insect life appears by going from plant to plant pollinating as they travel along, ready for natures natural painting of colours next year. Still the conservation group are busy recording all of these events so that others can also enjoy them in the future.


What is to be done this Autumn and Winter?

Well here we are ¾ of the way through 2015 and entering Autumn. Tawny Owls making their territorial calls and pairing up ready for their breeding season that can start as early as February and on until May. However there is still lots to do between now and Spring as far as conservation is concerned; starting with this year’s nesting boxes by going around RAF Halton clearing out old nests and spraying inside them with a safe disinfectant, make repairs where needed and replace those that are no longer useable. Along with this, members of the RAF Halton conservation group will be going around hanging a further 70 or more nesting boxes for the Tit family the Little Owls around the airfield, and over 100 dormice tubes and boxes in various parts of the woodland sites. For the recorded data this is all logged and sent away to the BTO, NE and DIO. I would like to congratulate Sgt Steve Kelly who I trained for his Great Crested Newt permit, and who in my opinion gained the required standards to hold the said licence in his own name. That said these comments will be passed onto NE. On the subject of trainees I am taking on a further two to train as BTO ringers Lee Kidd SERCO MT and Emily Haddock. These young ladies will start with me as from January 2016.


A Short History of Ringing.

The Ringing of birds in Britain was started in the early 1900’s, but actually started as two schemes: one run by British Birds, by the editor Harry Forbes Witherby, and the other at Aberdeen University, by Arthur Landsborough Thomson; This Scheme ended during the First World War, and during the 1930s, after the start of the BTO, the British Birds scheme was transferred to its current location.

At the beginning these men set out to answer the more basic biological questions of the day. Where do our summer migratory visitors go during the winter, and where do our winter migratory visitors breed? All of which are still key questions for conservation, and ones for which we do now know the answers to, but this is not the same for all, species, at the time though, migration routes were only known from observing birds when on their spring and autumn migration.

Now it was known Swallows migrate to South Africa, and over 100 years later this wonder still exists. There is a record of a Sand Martin that was ringed in Hampshire then was re-caught by the same ringer the very next winter in Morocco, it went on then for the two to be reunited again the next summer back in Hampshire.

It would be foolish to think we now know it all, as there are still a very large number of species that we still don’t have answers to these simple biological questions. The wintering areas of species that are in a rapid decline such as Swift and Pied Flycatcher, only to name a couple still remain a mystery, and whilst there is so much known about Swallows, there is next to nothing known about House Martins, with only one or two recoveries south of the Sahara.

The patterns of migration do change, and can do so very quickly. It is known that Blackcaps do migrate and winter around the Mediteranean, however in the 1970s an increase in numbers was noted with wintering populations in Britain.

No doubt these were now our own native birds staying rather than risk the winter weather, however ringing showed that this was not the case, and that these wintering birds were actually from the continent. These birds had migrated west instead of south with the milder winters and better food availability. As the ringing scheme grew, so did the record of ages recorded in birds and very few wild birds reach their maximum possible age because there are too many things against them – predators, weather (climate change), and starvation, and in some cases persecution.

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