Friday, 23 March 2012

Pond Surveys

Wednesday 21st March 2012

Armed with a net, a white tray & guides to pond invertebrates and pond plants our group of 5 set off to survey some of the Gibside ponds. Our first port of call was to the pond in the field adjacent to The Orangery which, sadly, was bone dry!
Next stop was Warrenhaugh where there were 2 ponds to survey. The smaller pond had 3 mallards swimming on it, or it did until we arrived!

A red kite hovered overhead as we commenced our survey.

Mallards on small pond -  Warrenhaugh
We netted a mixture of invertebrates including caddis fly larvae, mayfly & stonefly nymphs, midge larvae & pupae, greater & lesser waterboatmen and springtails. Frog spawn was evident in both ponds.

Frog Spawn

Then it was time for a coffee break which was taken in the Pontop Hut before heading off to Parkfields which had another 2 ponds to survey. On the way up to the Parkfields Ponds we noticed that the blackthorn in the hedges was in blossom.

Blackthorn Blossom
Arriving at the larger of the two ponds we came across some of our volunteer colleagues who were busy digging a hole in preparation for the creation of a logpile which will hopefully provide shelter for newts.

Matthew & Mike hard at work

We had our catch of the day at the larger of the two ponds, a small fish of some sort.

Andy examines his catch
 After lunch taken sitting by the Ha-ha in Parkfields we headed off to The West Woods where there were three small ponds to survey.


Dragonfly Nymph

Hopefully we will be able to repeat the survey in a few weeks to see how the pond life is developing.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Wildlife Tracks & Signs

A lot of the wildlife at Gibside is shy and elusive and so not easy to observe but as you walk round the many footpaths there are lots of tell-tale signs of them if you know what to look out for.  Footprints of roe deer and badgers can often be found on the many well-worn tracks that often cross our footpaths.  Look out for these particularly when the ground is wet after rain.  Well-worn badger paths can also be seen running down from the Park fields and crossing the Haha onto the Avenue.
Roe  Deer print showing dew claws.

Path side verges and particularly the grassy slopes of the Avenue and the field in front of the Hall are good places to look for badger feeding signs.  Worms form the bulk of their diet (except in autumn when fruits and berries are greedily consumed) and these are taken in huge numbers often leaving the turf roughly scuffed with lots of small depressions called ‘snuffle holes’.  These holes are not to be confused with similar ones which they dig and use to deposit their droppings in (rather like cats though badgers do not bother to cover theirs) and these can also be seen on the Avenue.

'Snuffle' holes caused by badger

Deer feeding signs are also plentiful and can also be found on most of the path side verges.  They browse lots of different herbaceous plants and shrubs and also have a liking for many flowers.  Look for bramble (blackberry) stems with all the leaves stripped off.  Yew trees are also eaten up to a height of one metre (the reach of a roe deer) and at the end of the Avenue you can see a ‘browse line’ on the yews lining the Hollow walk.  They also feed on the needles of young pine trees and fallen trees and branches. 

Pine needles eaten by Roe deer

Deer droppings, known as fewmets, are deposited in groups and are almost black (darkest green) in colour, shiny and elliptical.  They look rather like those of rabbits but are usually indented on one end and pointed at the other.  

Deer droppings

Male deer, known as bucks, grow their antlers in winter under a covering of velvet and in spring this is rubbed off on young saplings, removing the bark in the process up to a height of 12 to 18 inches. Look out for these damaged trees on roadside verges and occasionally you may find the velvet hanging from them. 

Deer velvet
Most of the woodlands at Gibside are coniferous; particularly pine and lots of animals and birds feed on the seeds found in the cones. Squirrels, both red (still present here) and grey strip the scales off one by one to get at them and the discarded core and  scales can be found littered on the ground under favourite feeding trees.  Woodpeckers also enjoy the seeds but they simply prize the scales apart with their strong pointed bills.  These can also often be found on the ground.

Pine cones fed on by Woodpecker

If you would like to learn more about wildlife tracks and signs there are several good books available including the following: 
Animal Tracks and Signs (Pocket Nature Guide) by Preben Bang & Preben Dahlstrom

A Guide to British Mammal Tracks and Signs FSC Guide by S. Bullion 

And for children: 
Animals, Tracks and Signs (Usbourne Spotters Guide) by Alfred Leutscher & Sarah Kahn
Animals, Tracks and Signs Sticker Book (Usbourne Spotters Sticker Guides) by A L & Chris Shields

Alternatively one of our rangers is leading a ‘Tracks and Signs’ walk on Sun. 25th March at   

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Spring Fever

With spring just around the corner it's a busy time for Gibside's wildlife.  Frogs, toads and newts are all waking from their winter hibernation and heading back to the ponds to join in a frenzy of spawning.

Hares are quite visible lately around West Wood, Hollow Walk and farm fields and are beginning to do what hares do in march, lots of chasing around, cavorting, bit of boxing and generally acting quite mad (hence 'Mad March Hare').

Badgers have been very busy of late spring cleaning their setts, often moving huge amounts of earth from the tunnels in the process and collecting large piles of grass and other vegetation for their bedding.  They drag this bedding back to the sett between their front legs and often drop bundles in the process which can be found on their paths and outside the sett entrances.  Much of this new bedding is used by the sows (females) who will already be suckling their new cubs and these should make their first appearance above ground from early april onwards.

Roe deer tracks are well trodden as family groups travel to and from their favourite feeding areas.   Younger bucks are growing their antlers under a protective covering of velvet while the older dominant bucks already have fully grown antlers and many have already begun removing the velvet by rubbing them on young saplings removing the tree's bark in the process.

Birds are also now getting very active withs males singing from their favourite perches, woodpeckers drumming on dead boughs and many have already begun nest building.  That means it's also a busy time for Gibside's rangers and volunteers with lots of nest boxes to make and attach to trees.  Some of these have cameras installed and hopefully live footage from these will be screened in the Wildlife room at the Stables from April onwards.


Wednesday 7th March 2012

The House at Cherryburn
There had been early morning rain and the weather forecast promised the odd shower through an improving day.  Luckily we got the improvement first and the showers in good time for an early finish. Even so, it must have been the worst Wednesday weather the Conservation Team has had in its six year history.


One of the Cherryburn Alpacas
We were at Cherryburn, which was once home to Thomas Bewick, the finest of wood-engravers and author of "History of British Birds", the first 'field guide' for ordinary people, and now home to a paddock of alpacas; sadly, the donkeys have moved on.  Equally sadly, an old and ailing ash had been felled together with a large holly which had been unmanageably close. We built a log pile of the bigger sections and, because Cherryburn has garden rather than wild woodland, made a fire of the smaller branches. The fire also took brashings from other recent pruning, but laurel was stacked and left to rot down naturally to minimise harm from its cyanide emissions.
Building the log pile
Hard at work
A good going fire

It was good to see our old team-mate Roger once again, even if he has deserted the Gibside regulars in favour of the exquisite Cherryburn.