Saturday, 30 May 2015

Nottingham Uni's MSc Exhibition

Isn't Twitter great! On Tuesday I found out that there was an exhibition on in Nottingham, displaying work from students doing the Nottingham Uni's MSc Biological Photography and Imaging. Without Twitter I wouldn't of even known that this course existed! Kate MacRae (known as WildlifeKate) was opening the exhibition with a small speech to all the visitors. It was really nice to catch up with Kate again! I also saw Jack Perks for the 2nd time which was good. I believe that he is a guest lecturer at this course...

It was also really nice to meet some new people, including another lecturer of this course, Alex Hyde. I spoke with him for a while towards the end of the exhibition about my passion for nature. When you fill a room with nature-lovers there are just too many people to talk to!

Some of the students had also already done some incredible things. Lots had had gap years to various countries, and one had even gone to the Crees Foundation in Peru to do research. I am hoping to do either volunteering or an internship at Crees when I am old enough. To summarise, the evening was so interesting, especially some of the students photographs which were very inspiring indeed. I would recommend to anyone in the Nottingham area to take a visit...the exhibition continues until the 3rd of June.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Thinking outside the box.

The inspirational figures in my life can usually be categorised: wildlife photographers, wildlife conservationists, wildlife presenters, and the lucky ones which fit into all three of these categories! I like to do my fair share of everything, but my main interest is finding creative ways to get closer to our natural world. Sometimes you have to think outside of the box to come up with solutions to problems, whether it's deterring poachers in Africa or trying to get a shot of that illusive Bitten among the reeds! I have been ever so inspired by shows such as 'Spy in the Pod' and 'Spy in the Huddle' which have used ingenuitive and creative ideas to achieve their aim. At last years Birdfair at Rutland Waters I even got to see the Penguins used in the program.

After seeing these incredible contraptions I was dying to make my own. As there aren't many penguins around my patch I had to think of a more common animal to try out my new invention with. I visited our local garden centre and found the perfect thing…a female Mallard duck decoration. I then spent the next day in our garage, figuring out the best way possible to transform this cheap garden ornament into a high-tech piece of filming equipment! 

I sawed off the front section of the duck (I felt a bit bad doing it even though it was a fake duck!) I then used an old plastic cup to insert into the chest and I sealed it all up with hot glue. This cup was the perfect size to house my GoPro camera (not luck at all…) I positioned weights and floats inside the ducks body to make the water level lie in the centre of the lens, with half the lens above water and half below. I thought that this would give a really nice composition for my photos. There is also another mount for the GoPro underneath the duck to get completely submerged footage, which is probably better for fish footage. 

I am going to use an old remote-controlled boat to manoeuvre the duck in the water. I have not quite finished this section of the duck get, as I still need to seal it all off, leaving enough room to change and charge the batteries. This RC boat can go pretty quickly so I'm not sure what the other Mallards are going to think when they see it zooming past! On a serious note however, I do need to take care when using the duck as I don't want to injure anything with the motorised fan or rudder. Anyway…so that was a little taster of what is yet to come this summer. Keep an eye out on your local lakes for an unusually fast Mallard!!

Another current project has been my Bird Box project.

I came up with this idea a while back and I began to plan it in detail to ensure I didn't disturb the birds in any way. I bought a relatively small wooden bird box which was suitable for Blue Tits in particular. Using a chisel and a mallet I removed the back panel from the box and replaced it with glass frame (having obviously removed the picture!)

Me and my dad cut a rectangular hole in the wall of our garden shed. We made sure that this rectangle was the same size as the bird box back to make them fit together tightly. Once I secured the box to the shed wall with a staple gun I surrounded the glass panel with layers of fabric to minimise the amount of sound reaching the bird box. We then left the box and waited…and waited. One early spring morning we had our first visitor. It was incredibly exciting, but I made sure to limit myself to one visit per day to take a photo of the progress. Soon enough nest building was underway!

Here are the two individuals, with the female (Juliet) popping into the bird box with some moss to cushion the box with, and the male (Romeo!) having a pit stop at the bird feeders.

Juliet the female Blue Tit
Romeo the male Blue Tit

I can identify the male because he has very distinct feather loss on the right side of his face, possible caused by feather mites according the BBC's Springwatch. For the first few day moss was brought into the box, eventually covering at least 2/3rds of the available space!

Next came the finer materials, such as hay and hair (some of which was collected from my nest material dispensers)

And finally the nest was sprinkled with feathers for that extra bit of comfort. It looks very cosy...

Over the next week 7 eggs were laid by the female. She then postponed her incubation by a further day before she began the sit-a-ton! Here is a description I wrote describing this spectacular event: "The emerging oak leaves above our shed act as a stain glass window, projecting tinted light through the nest box hole and down onto the hay which lines the bowl. I must have sat for a good two hours watching the female Blue Tit constructing her home, delicately placing every feather around the edge of the nest, as if they were scatter cushions. Her paint brush-flicked eggs lying dormant until she decides she’s ready for the springtime sit-a-thon; her male companion paying her occasional meals-on-wheels visits before returning into the trees again." 

The chicks hatched on the 16th of May, and it was all so magical.


  It's sad knowing that in just a few days both sets of chicks will be gone: the Blue Tits and the Great Tits. It's been an incredible experience watching them hatch and develop into the chicks they are today (Sounds so cheesy!)

 It's not all about the chicks though. It has also been an great experience to watch the parents build the nest, lay the eggs and care for the chicks in the way they have. Because I can recognise the male Blue Tit because of the feather loss on his face it makes everything even more personal. In fact I saw the male on the bird feeders earlier on today, probably getting a well earned snack after all that hard work! Below is my predication chart which I made months ago! The eggs were laid a little sooner than expected but the hatching day (16th of May) was exactly right. There are 7 chicks in the nest (I originally thought there was only 6 but I must have missed one!)

Here are the chicks just one day old, with the female bird coming into check on them. I always have the welfare of the birds first, so I do everything possible to prevent any disturbance. You can only see five chicks in this picture, but I can assure you that there are another two hiding somewhere. The feeding of the chicks seemed to peak mid-morning and late afternoon, with the middle of the day seeming a little more quiet.

After just 13 days the chicks now look like this (below). Their feathers have all grown and they look almost ready to fledge. The more confident individuals have been flapping their wings and parading round the edge of the nest this morning, so I suspect they are going to be gone in a day or two. What I love about this bird box is that you can get so close to the action (and get some nice up-close images) yet remain completely separate from the nest, therefore not disturbing them at all.

I reckon that the chicks will be gone by the end of the weekend. Once they're gone I'm going to get out in my patch with my camera and see if I can spot any of them among the trees. And who knows, some of them may return to this box again next Spring and have their own chicks (and I won't even know!) I'm going to get the chicks ringed next year so I can learn to identify individual birds on my patch...

The Great Tit chicks are also progressing very well. The mother is sleeping next to them as I type this (the chicks are way too big for her to incubate them, she's tried already!) These chicks seem to be taking a little longer to develop compared to the Blue Tits. This could be because they are slightly larger birds, or it could be the fact that I can only see them using the camera, giving me a less clear perspective on their size, unlike the Blue Tits.

The reckon that these chicks will be gone as well by early next week presuming everything goes to plan, but you can never be sure what is around the corner! Lets all keep our fingers crossed for both these sets of birds. 

Keep and eye on my twitter page for the latest wildlife news. Click here.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

30 Days Wild Challenge

In 7 days time the 30 Days Wild Challenge will begin all over the country. Already over 5000 people have signed up to this event that is being let by The Wildlife Trusts group. Did you know? 93% of people living in England live within six miles of a Wildlife Trust nature reserve. However only 1 in 10 children actually spent time in the great outdoors. This challenge was set up to encourage both children and adults to do something wild every single day in June. This could constitute taking a walk around your local nature reserve, spending time in your garden listening to the birds or even building a wildlife garden! 

There are endless possibilities of things you can do, regardless of your location or abilities. Smaller wild acts could perhaps reading about a species you've never seen before or signing a online wildlife petition…

If you sign up to the challenge you receive a starter pack with a 30 Days Wild calendar to record all your wild activities. I would choose to receive this by email as to stop paper being used unnecessarily. Before I take the challenge I'm going to make a long list of activities I could do, ranging from quicker garden jobs to entire days worth projects. I will then pick an event on the day depending on how much free time I have. Below I have listed a few activities that you could do whilst doing the challenge.

This is what The Wildlife Trust says about their upcoming challenge: 

"This June, The Wildlife Trusts are asking everyone do something wild every day for a month.  The challenge is simple and designed to delight: make room for nature - no matter where you are or how busy your life.  Make this the month when you do something wild every day – and let us motivate you! Everyone who signs up to The Wildlife Trusts’ 30 Days Wild - the UK’s first ever month-long nature challenge - will receive a pack full of encouragement, ideas and ‘Random Acts of Wildness’.  They will also receive a funky wallchart to track progress, a wild badge, and regular blasts of inspiration throughout June straight to their inbox to help everyone make nature part of their lives." 

You could: plant some wild flowers either in pots or in the ground, go for a walk round your local nature reserve, spend an extra 10 minutes in your patch, fill up the bird feeders, change the water in the bird bath, take a few minutes to appreciate the birdsong on your patch, read up about a new species you've not seen before, make a bee hotel with bamboo poles, take some photos around your garden and share them online for others to see, do a bio-blitz in your garden, catch butterflies and use a guide to ID them, get your binoculars out and go bird watching, watch a wildlife documentary, plant some pollinator-friendly plants, make a window trough and plant some herbs for use in the kitchen…

The list is endless. Whether you live in a town or a hamlet there is always something you can do to enjoy the wild. 

If you want to take part in this amazing challenge, click here.

Friday, 15 May 2015

My Silver DofE Expedition 2015

Over the Easter holidays I (along with 5 other school friends) embarked on our Silver DofE Expedition which was taking place in the Brecon Beacons in South Wales. 

The Brecon Beacons is a very harsh environment, with exposure to wind, rain and sun due to the high altitudes. The Army and the SAS often use the Brecon Beacons as a training ground. Here is an extract I got off the internet about the military's relationship with the national park. 

"The Brecon Beacons, particularly around Pen y Fan, are a popular training area for members of the UK armed forces. The Army’s Infantry School is located at Brecon, and the Special Air Service (SAS) use the area to test the fitness of applicants. In July 2013 two members of the Territorial Army died from overheating on a hot summer day while marching 14 miles for an SAS selection exercise. An army captain had been found dead on Corn Du earlier in the year after training in freezing weather for the SAS."

Guess which mountains we summited? Both Pen y Fan (886m) and Corn Du (873m), along with Cribyn (795m) and Fan y Big (719m). In total we walked just over 60km in three days. However the weather was on our side which was a real help. There was one point though when we were walking along a precariously narrow mountain ridge that the strong winds weren't appreciated! It wasn't the winds that were dangerous exactly; It was the occasional sudden lack of wind which made you trip (due to the fact that we were leaning into the wind by a fair few degrees!) 

The path which meandered along the mountain tops seem endless, with every step feeling pointless knowing you've got to make thousands more. With every peak we summited came two more to go. One step forward, two steps back! Even though it was exhausting, the abundance of wildlife really encouraged me to continue, as I never knew what I would see over the next peak. Would it be a red kite or a buzzard? A puddle full with frogspawn or a lizard in a brook?

Along the mountain ridge we saw tonnes of tadpoles in the puddles alongside the track. In every puddle there must have been thousands of the little things, mainly accumulating around the edges. As for them the puddle was a vast ocean and the shallow bays were the safest place to be! I asked on twitter what type of tadpoles these were. But unfortunately I hadn't got close enough images…after all we still had miles left to go until the sun set!

Once we had reached the summit the views were absolutely stunning. With hard work comes great rewards! Previous to this photo (above) being taken we had spent about three hours walking up an eternally steep path, with rocks crumbling beneath our feet and falling to their doom down the practically vertical "path". I was surprised about the number of people walking on these tracks (including very young children), however they weren't carrying their food, clothing, shelter, cooking equipment and water on their backs! Never-the-less it was great to see so many people out enjoying the natural world!

The wildlife in the Brecon Beacons was incredible. During our three day/ 2 night expedition I saw bats, swallows & house martins, chaffinches, a common lizard, 4 buzzards, a grey heron, a red kite from literally metres away and lots of corvids! As I didn't have many opportunities to stop for photographs I took a notepad with me and recorded the species I'd seen at the end of each day. By the end I had seen 77 individuals (18 species in total). I was really pleased with this result. It wasn't only the animals themselves I saw, I also encountered footprints, heard lots of birdsong, and found evidence of birds of prey...

We hiked through lots of different habitats, including moorlands, woodlands, waterways, farmland and small villages. I was disturbed by the amount of deforestation however. But there was also an equal amount of reforestation about so that was great to see. You have to remember that wood is such a great material as when harvested properly (like it was in the Brecon Beacons) it can be completely renewable, whilst still absorbing Carbon Dioxide and provide homes for wildlife of all sorts.

After four days pretty much outside 24/7 I couldn't wait to get home and have a bath! It was a very memorable expedition and I am already looking forward to the qualifier at the beginning of the summer...

Monday, 11 May 2015

The Badger Cull

It didn't work in the trials. It costs £3,350 - £5200 per badger to be culled for the tax payer. So why are the tories making £12 Billion in cuts?! For a badger to be vaccinated however it only costs £662. If a human contacted Tb we wouldn't be sat her debating whether to shoot them or vaccine them. So why are the Conservatives already starting to get ready for more badger slaughter?? 

Today, Liz Truss was reappointed as the environmental secretary. Previous to the election last Thursday she said that she was going to do "whatever it takes" to get the badger cull re-started, to prevent TB among cattle. Now that the Tories are back in power our nation of animal lovers (who Liz later called "animal welfare protesters", almost as if the thought of animals having welfare was ridiculous) are gearing up for a tough 5 years ahead. I'm not going to reel of facts and stats about the failures of the trials as it would frankly be embarrassing for our country.

Whilst reading an article by the Telegraph I spotted this: "Protest groups, who argue that culling badgers is inhumane and an attack on wildlife, criticised the announcement by Mrs Truss." If it's not inhumane, what is it?! Kindness?! Should the badgers be thankful? When done properly a clean and quick shot to the head should't cause too much pain, but that's not the point. It shows that humans think that they can murder an innocent animal just because it's that easiest way to solve a problem. If we lived in a society ran by these morals then our NHS wouldn't exist and our graveyards would be simply overflowing. I'm not saying that something shouldn't be done to solve this problem, as equally innocent cows are dieting, and farmers are losing their livelihoods; What I am saying is that our wildlife shouldn't be at an expense.

Vaccination is the way forward. Our "successive governments have invested more than £43 million on vaccine research and development since 1994," so why aren't we making that money worthwhile. Organisations such as the The Badger Trust, The National Trust and The RSPB have already vaccinated hundreds of badgers, with the help of volunteers. The government needs to help fund this, hopefully providing an oral vaccine in the future for an easier and quicker vaccination process. The badger culling trials have been going on over the last few years. As I wasn't near a culling zone it was hard for me to get actively involved. However I provided information to the people in my local area, urging them to join the online campaigns. I ordered leaflets to post round my village. I signed all the online petitions and I emailed and emailed and emailed everyone I could possibly think of. 

I also made posters to display round my village and the surrounding areas. Unfortunately I think they were soon taken down but at least some people may have read them! 

As the badger cull now seems to be picking up again, possibly being extended around the country, I (along with lots of other people) are going to be going everything we can to be protecting these animals. There is no point of the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 is we are just going to break it! Same with green belt land.

We will not give up.
Stay active for wildlife over the next 5 years!

What can you do?
  • Sign the online petitions against the badger cull.
  • Educate your friends and families about the pros of vaccination.
  • Email your local MP's and express your opinions.
  • Make posters to put up around your local areas informing people about the unnecessary badger slaughter.
  • Go on campaign marches!
  • Get out in the field and join a patrol walk.
There is plenty to get involved in.

My Vision for Nature

In the build up to the elections the organisation A Focus on Nature (AFON) launched a campaign to show how the younger generations care about the future of our planet.

 The idea was to write a blog post of a selected topic and then share the blog with your local candidates/MP's and spread the word of social media too. My blog was shared on their website on Saturday (2 days after the election). I wrote a letter to the MP in my constituency sharing my blog post with him. 

Here is my Vision for Nature blog:
What came first, the chicken or the egg?
Now think about this: What came first, a child’s fascination of the natural world or their desire to protect the natural world? I suspect for most it was the former. The endless hours of jumping in muddy puddles and jam-jarring frogspawn. Don’t get me wrong, I strongly believe in this traditional, physical contact with nature. It is sometimes the best way to get young children into the wonders of the natural world. However for me, it was the latter.
I have always loved climbing trees and rolling down hills but most of my childhood years were spent trying to protect the natural world and its raw beauty. I spent my time, not catching butterflies, but making persuasive posters to staple to trees around the village concerning the dangerously low population of the African Wild dog (still dangerously low!) My parents always used to say “that’s for the big people to worry about,” which I knew was true, but I also knew that one day I was going to be one of those big people, trying to make a difference. There is one crucial piece of information though; I rarely got sad about these problems, as I didn’t really see the point. I was however disappointed when things didn’t improve like I wished them to, but I suppose all that did was make me try harder. What I’m trying to say is that, in educating young children about the problems within the natural world, you are not placing a burden upon them but just giving them balanced opinions. It certainly didn’t harm me.
When they’re told that spring won’t come
That tides will never rise or fall
That the drone of the bitten will no longer hum
That mother earth’s chant will not call

When they’re told that there will be no dawn
That the clouds won’t ever loom above
That species will never be hatched or born
Nor will they experience trust or love
When they’re told that deer won’t rut
That beavers won’t build their homes with the wood they’ve cut
That corals of life will decay and wilt
As will the forests where sets are built

When they’re told that offspring’s cries
Will be heard from cities and New York skies
That it’s our fault and ours alone
We killed the vulnerable and took their home

When they’re told, no change will come
They wont repent the things they’ve done
For habit and greed are all they know
They refuse to change for friend or foe

What would your reaction be, after reading my heart-felt plea?

I can understand after reading that poem you may be thinking ‘what a depressed person…’ but I can assure you; I’m quite the opposite! This poem, which I wrote when I was 12, was meant to make people think. To make them think about the beauty of our natural world and the devastating effects of ignorance towards nature. For me, and many of you too, the natural world is simply magical. And there is no better way to experience its wonders than by simply sitting, listening and watching. I have recently installed a glass-backed bird box in our garden shed. The birds are totally unaware of my presence because there is a one-way acrylic panel separating us, allowing me to delve into their microscopic world. The emerging oak leaves above our shed act as a stain glass window, projecting tinted light through the nest box hole and down onto the hay which lines the bowl. I must have sat for a good two hours watching the female Blue Tit constructing her home, delicately placing every feather around the edge of the nest, as if they were scatter cushions. Her paint brush-flicked eggs lying dormant until she decides she’s ready for the springtime sit-a-thon; her male companion paying her occasional meals-on-wheels visits before returning into the trees again. I can tell them apart due the male’s loss of feathers around his beak, possibly caused in a fight for females or something similar. Every time I see him on the patio bird feeders I get goose bumps, and an overwhelming feeling of pride. Nature is truly magical.
Anyway, lets get back to the main point of this blog. My Vision for Nature: By 2050 I would love to see the natural world included more in primary school and secondary school syllabuses, not only including the pure mechanics of biology, but also natural history, animal behaviour, and general animal welfare.  For generations we have learnt about global warming in Biology, and the deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest in Geography…but has this changed anything? No. The problems are still with us, and they’ve only got worse. But lets stay positive! My idea is this. The textbook would be built around an alternate page structure, with the left hand page educating the reader about animal behaviour of a particular species, their most remarkable adaptations, their communication abilities and so forth. This would educate the reader about the magical world of flora and fauna, hopefully bring to the fore their innate connection with the natural world.  On the right hand page, the reader would be informed of the future of this species, whether good or bad. It would also suggest ways of how to help the species in a clear, but exciting, way therefore not making the information too over-whelming! I believe that this balanced structure would not only lead to balanced opinions, but also an all-round knowledge of the natural world, including the harsh realities. The students would be assessed in the form of exams, but the majority would be coursework, allowing them to get outside and conduct individual projects. Education is key. But we need to educate in the right way, showing the next generation that every single person can do something to help the natural world. Like I said, if done with positivity it can be the opposite of a burden; It can be truly magical. As yourself, are you doing all you can?

Billy Stockwell is a 16 year old nature lover, who is captivated by the wonders of wildlife, whether in his back garden nest boxes or the Peruvian rainforest. His passion has developed throughout his life so far, and he has great ambitions for the future. Follow his blog and his twitter at @StockwellBilly

I shared this blog post on my twitter page, and I emailed a link to Kenneth Clarke, my MP for the Conservative Party. It is really important to show that you care about our planet.

I got a really nice email back from Kenneth, explaining that he understands our duty to protect out remaining wild spaces. He also revealed that he too was a great fan of bird watching!

In other news, both female are incubating in my two monitored nest boxes. Below are video clips from the boxes, first the Blue Tit mother, and second the Great Tit mother...

Monday, 4 May 2015

It's Election Time!

With the forthcoming elections, I thought I would do a blog post about the different parties policies regarding the environment. 

Some might say the economy is todays most pressing issue, or that the NHS is more important. However, I stick by my view that the natural world should always come first. Let me give you some facts to show you why this is.
  • Globally our planet has lost 50% of its wildlife in the past 40 years alone. 
To put that into context: The Earth is 4.6 billion years old. Lets scale that down to 46 years. We've been here 4 hours. Our industrial revolution began one minute ago. And we have lost half our wildlife in under 12 seconds.
  • We rely on the natural world every single day to provide us with medicines, natural resources and food. Yet we still are disrespectful towards it. 
It is estimated that in 100 years there will be no forest left. Every second an average of 1.5 acres are cleared to rear your food. We use 121 natural remedies for our medicine that is only found in the rainforest, yet we still burn 7.3 million hectares of it per year.
  • We are not the only species on the planet.
There are 6.5 million (known) land species on Earth. The total coverage of land on Earth is 57,308,738 miles squared. Therefore each species should occupy just under 9 miles squared each to be fair. I do understand that there are obviously lots of smaller animals which have smaller territories. However, there are equally lots of huge animals which need equally huge amounts of land. Humans occupy 83% of the Earth, according to the National Geographic (including agricultural land). This is ridiculous. 

  • We need the natural world to stay alive.
20% all our Oxygen is produces solely by the Amazon Rainforest. Bees pollinate our crops, contributing £200 million to the economy each year in the UK. However, bee populations are in rapid decline all over the world, with many species already extinct. 

What I'm trying to say is that these problems won't just go away. We have caused them, and we need to fix them. Not everyone has the determination to get out and actively help. But that's fine. All I'm asking you do to is think carefully when voting this week. Get the tories out for starters. I personally favourite the Greens, but Labour also have some good environmental policies as well. 

The Conservatives will:
  • Carry on with HS2
  • Appeal the ban on fox hunting
  • Continue badger culling 
  • Protect the sport of shooting 

Labour will:
  • End the badger cull
  • Ban wild animals in circuses 
  • Keep the hunting ban in place
  • Tackle global warming and air pollution

The Greens will:
  • Ban the use of chicken and rabbit battery cages
  • Put and end to the badger cull
  • Expand our national parks
  • Reducing pesticide use, helping bees
  • Aim to ensure everyone is close to a green space
  • Protect woodland strictly 
  • Expand the network of marine conservation zones
  • End grouse shooting 
  • Produce a strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions 

So, vote Greens on the 7th of May, to do your part in protecting our natural world for future generations. 

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Quick update!

My predictions were wrong, the eggs arrived early! 

There are now 7 eggs in the nest box, and the female seems to be spending increasingly long periods in the box, hopefully indication that incubation is not far away! I am using a webcam to keep an eye on them, meaning I can now film them from my laptop. There are a few led lights on the webcam which I use in daytime filming. 

My predictions suggest the first egg was laid on the 23rd of April, presuming one egg is laid per day. 

These photos of the eggs were taken from my iPhone while the mother was out feeding in the daytime. 

Like I said earlier, I have positioned a webcam looking into the nest which connects with my laptop, ready for when the chicks hatch! I can record video & sound and take snapshots all from my laptop which is really useful. 

Watch the clip below to see the female Blue Tit up-close!