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the Winterwatchers

All times stated are UK

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  1. Heartwarming stuff

    Keep watching folks! We love it when you discover nature!

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  2. Four things you might not know about kingfishers

    King of the riverbank

    1. Eyes too big for your belly? You may be part kingfisher. When kingfishers catch prey that is too large for them to swallow in one go, they'll hit it against a rock, twig or solid surface. This will kill its catch, break up its bones and make it easier to swallow.
    2. They appear to be thriving in our cities. As water quality in British rivers improves, fish stocks have increased. This mean kingfishers are being spotted along rivers in the centre of our cities.
    3. Don't be fooled by their colours, they're actually filthy! If a kingfisher should ever invite you home for tea, you'd do best to turn them down. Kingfisher nests are really dirty. The bones of the fish they eat will remain in their nests after they've devoured them. Alongside this, kingfishers don't produce fecal sacks, meaning that all their waste remains in the nest, along with their chicks. Nice.
    4. In days gone by they were used to predict the weather, in fact people would kill kingfishers and hang their bodies above their doors. It was said that the direction the beak pointed would dictate the weather. We prefer our kingfishers alive, so we'll stick to Nick Miller's forecasts.
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  3. The Nation's favourite

    Hedgehogs now appear to be declining in the UK at the same rate as tigers are globally – at around 5% a year, both in rural and urban habitats.

    We have lost around 30% of the population since 2002 and therefore it seems likely that there are now fewer than a million hedgehogs left in the UK.

    Hedgehogs hibernate and during hibernation their heart rate decreases from 190bpm to a faint 20bpm.

    Hedgehog in the garden
    Image caption: A hedgehog lurking for a hidden tastey treat in the garden

    Their body temperature also drops from 35 degrees to 10 degrees or less, and they almost stop breathing (breathing about once every few minutes).

    They build nests just before hibernation called hibernacula.

    Most hedgehogs seem to wake up fairly frequently during their hibernation but rarely leave their nests. These arousals last a day or two and, although generally unprompted, they may be caused by a disturbance or unexpectedly hot weather. Should the weather become too cold hedgehogs will not bother to add extra insulation to their original nest, but will go and build another one.

    If the temperature falls below freezing their body functions have to ‘switch on’ again and this may rouse the animal to activity. If you see one walking about it might not have been disturbed, keep an eye on it and it might just go back to bed.

    Hedgehog looks up amidst it's grassy foraging habitat
    Image caption: Hedgehog looks up amidst it's grassy foraging habitat

    Young hedgehogs are regularly found out and about in the autumn. They leave their mothers and need to feed up before hibernation.

    Young hedgehogs can hibernate at 450g (1lb) or less, but are more likely to survive hibernation at 600g (22oz) and will be in better condition post hibernation.

    Any hedgehog found that is 200g or less is orphaned and needs to be rescued.

  4. The Case of the Disappearing Hedgehog

    By Emily Wilson, Hedgehog Officer for Hedgehog Street

    As the Government launches their new 25 Year Environment Plan and focus begins to be on ‘A Green Future’ I can’t help but wonder, how can we ensure a future for the last of the hedgehogs? This is where I pull on my deerstalker hat, get out my magnifying glass and begin my investigation in hedgehog decline, Sherlock Holmes style.

    Hedgehogs are special creatures: I love their gentle nature and amusing behaviour, particularly when they curl into a ball to protect themselves. There is still so much to learn about these night time visitors and hearing how people are seeing less and less piqued my natural curiosity and my campaigning passion. That’s why I joined the Hedgehog Street team, so I could use by master’s degree in conservation biology and several years of working in the conservation and animal welfare sector to investigate hedgehog decline and finally solve the mystery of how to help them.

    Hedgehogs are notoriously difficult to study and no one knows exactly how many there are. But what we do know, is that they are in severe decline. The sad state of our nation’s hedgehogs was revealed by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) own mammal surveys and supported by the findings of other wildlife organisations in the most recent State of Britain’s Hedgehogs report. It is estimated that over a third of hedgehogs have been lost in the UK, in the past decade alone.

    In response to this worrying decline, PTES and British Hedgehog Preservation Society (BHPS) launched the Hedgehog Street campaign in 2011, which seeks to conserve this iconic species and empower the British public to help hedgehogs in their own back gardens. By putting out some food, or linking up your gardens with ‘hedgehog highways’ you can help hedgehogs. PTES and BHPS are also currently commissioning various research projects into the reasons for their decline and measures that could be taken to reverse the effects.

    A wondering hedgehog in the garden
    Image caption: A wondering hedgehog in the garden

    So why are hedgehogs disappearing? Hedgehogs are affected by us and the way we have changed the environment they live in. Varying from increased human population and development, to climate change and reduced prey availability.

    Rural factors affecting hedgehogs:

    • Widespread use of pesticides means less bugs for hedgehogs to eat
    • Larger fields make it difficult for hedgehogs to travel around
    • Removal of hedgerows means less nesting sites for hedgehogs
    • Increasing badgers – the main natural predator – may have an effect where habitat is already challenging. Though hedgehogs are declining where badgers are not present too

    Urban factors affecting hedgehogs:

    • Garden fencing and walls stop hedgehogs being able to travel very far
    • More people are paving or decking their gardens which directly reduces foraging areas for ‘hogs
    • Busy roads cause hedgehog deaths
    • New developments usually lack any hedgehog friendly features, though this is starting to change
    • Hibernation habitat being lost to over-management or development
    • Tidy gardens aren’t good for ‘hogs – they need log piles and areas of wild grass to feed and nest in
    • Use of pesticides and slug pellets can poison animals and kills the insects that ‘hogs eat
    Hungry hog looking for treats amongst the daisies
    Image caption: Hungry hog looking for treats amongst the daisies

    Hedgehog Street is about joining up the dots. It’s about empowering people with an understanding of hedgehogs, why they are declining, and how easy it is to help them. With their unique, charismatic appearance, hedgehogs regularly make it to ‘Britain’s favourite mammal’ in polls and evoke such an affectionate response from the public that there’s every reason to be genuinely hopeful that we can reverse this decline. After all, we can’t risk losing Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, she’s part of our cultural heritage!

  5. The future of farmland birds

    By Gavin Siriwardena, Head of Terrestrial Ecology & Principal Ecologist

    Many widespread farmland bird species began to decline in the 1970s and have yet to show sustained recoveries at the national scale, despite the efforts of conservation NGOs and policy initiatives like agri-environment schemes. We need to look at this in the right context, however: the problem is enormous. Agriculture covers some 70% of the lowland UK landscape and the causes of the declines, such as the shifts to the autumn-sowing of cereals and from hay to silage, have transformed large swathes of the countryside. With the pressures on farming and the land in general to produce more and cheaper food, also with space for urbanisation, afforestation and biofuels, for example, it is simply not feasible to return farming to how it was in the 1960s, or earlier. Reversing the long-term declines of 50% or more undergone by species like Skylark across the whole country may therefore be among the greatest of conservation challenges. Excellent work, undertaken by RSPB and others, has restored the populations of range-restricted species like cirl bunting and stone-curlew to some extent, but this is a problem on a completely different scale..

    Image caption: Skylark is one of the species that has seen a dramatic decline.

    So what can be done? First, we may have to accept that “traditional” farmland birds will never again reach the levels at which they were found in the past – but we can nevertheless design landscapes to maximize biodiversity and to maintain sustainable levels of species we regard as important. Among other work, BTO research has shown that the abundance of most farmland species, especially seed-eaters, is limited by food availability, mediated by overwinter survival. This points to enhancing winter food availability as a mechanism for increasing numbers, and landscape-scale experiments indicate that this works. However, increasing food supplies for target birds is not easy. Simply dumping seed into farmland would require annual effort on a huge scale and would be highly artificial. Also, any new food resource will not just attract target species: other organisms from fungi, through ants, Pheasants and woodpigeons, to deer and badgers, will compete for it, while anything that attracts flocks of small passerines, for example, will then also attract their predators and could conceivably have negative net effects.

    Cirl bunting
    Image caption: Cirl bunting has seen a recent recovery, but the scale of the issue surpasses this.

    Our recent results from testing agri-environment interventions show that the right management – delivering the resources whose availability limits populations – has positive effects at the national scale, slowing declines. Retaining seed-rich stubble fields after harvest and throughout the winter has positive effects on a wide range of seed-eating species. Specific crops sown to provide seed work in some circumstances, but ensuring sustained benefits in the long term – and in all types of farmland – may need new versions of the seed crop approach. The latter is an example of where the development of revised, and more effective, interventions is required to turn declines into increases. Continued monitoring of effects, so that unforeseen consequences of management can be identified and fixed, is then vital. We know that interventions that address the critical limiting factors for populations can have broad benefits across the countryside. To have large-scale effects they need to be popular with farmers, who we know do a better job for the environment when they are actively engaged. Whatever you think of the situation, Brexit presents an opportunity to reshape the rules around agricultural subsidies and to introduce a new system of support for farmers that engages them as custodians of nature while also protecting their livelihoods, offering a glimmer of hope.

    Stone curlew
    Image caption: Stone curlew
  6. Garden Invaders

    Brett Westwood

    Wildlife expert

    If you feed your local birds, you might have noticed a lot more coal tits around this winter. According to the BTO - the British Trust for Ornithology- these small black, grey and white birds were reported in 70% of gardens in November 2017 and numbers are still high.

    Over 11,000 people take part in the BTO Garden Birdwatch survey and normally record coal tits in 40% of gardens, so why the sudden increase this winter?

    Coal tits are woodland birds, especially in conifer plantations, but some come into gardens in autumn and winter to cash in on the food that we put out for them. In poor cone years, when trees such as spruce and larch produce fewer seeds, we see more coal tits at our bird-tables. That’s why these diminutive birds have visited our gardens in larger numbers to supplement their diet and the connection has been confirmed by an army of garden watchers. They’re birds are easy to identify, with brownish backs, white tummies and black heads with a large white patch on their nape.

    View more on flickr

    Watch one closely and you’ll see that their behaviour at the bird-table is different from the larger blue tits and great tits. Instead of hanging around on the seed-dispensers, they dart in, grab a morsel and dart away again. They will hide the food away, either in a crack within some bark or in a tree hollow. This behaviour is called caching and will provide a useful backup larder for the coal tit if conditions get tough or garden food supplies dry up.

    How will coal tits feature in the RSPB Big Garden BirdWatch during January 27-29? Follow the link

  7. Masters of camouflage

    Brett Westwood

    Wildlife expert

    Snipe, Jack Snipe and Woodcock are among our most beautiful waders, but are also some of the hardest UK birds to see. All are superbly camouflaged to blend in with their backgrounds and we normally only see them when we flush them from cover.

    Jack snipe
    Image caption: Jack snipe

    Snipe and Jack Snipe both like marshy places where they feed among rushes and wet grass, their stripy plumage making them almost invisible to the eye. Snipe have longer bills than Jack Snipe and are larger. They also fly more readily and zig-zag away giving a rasping call. Jack Snipe sit tight and only fly when you almost tread on them! Unlike Snipe, they are usually silent and don't fly too far before dropping down into wet vegetation.They are winter visitors from Scandinavia and don't breed here. The name Jack is an old term for small or diminutive.

    Common snipe
    Image caption: Common snipe

    Woodcocks are larger than the snipes, about the size of a woodpigeon and are found mainly in woodland. Their russet and brown plumage is an excellent match for their daytime habitat and, when they lie up among dead leaves on the forest floor they are impossible to see until they fly off with a heart-stopping rustle of wings. At night woodcocks fly to farmland to probe for worms with their long stout bills.

    Image caption: Woodcock

    They sense danger with their huge dark eyes which are positioned high on their heads to give 360 degree vision. Although our resident woodcocks are declining, up to a million arrive here from Scandinavia and from as far as Russia, flying by night across the North Sea.

    Because tiny goldcrests also arrive at the same time, some people believed that they travelled on the woodcock's back and goldcrests were known in places as "woodcock pilots" .

    Camouflaged woodcock
    Image caption: Camouflaged woodcock
  8. Cairngorms Part II

    Wildlife cameraman Neil Anderson shows us around his spectacular homeland, the beautifully rugged Cairngorms in the Scottish highlands.

    The perfectly camouflaged ptarmigan
    Image caption: The perfectly camouflaged ptarmigan
    • Ptarmigans are very social; their migration flocks can number in the hundreds and they continue to live in flocks even out of the migration and breeding seasons, however these flocks are generally segregated into male and female flocks.
    • The ptarmigans Latin name is Lagopus muta - Lago meaning “hare” and pous which means “foot”. Ptarmigans have features on their legs, which help keep the ptarmigans legs warm in icy cold conditions.
    • Both male and female ptarmigans are almost completely white in the winter, helping them camouflage against their snowy landscape. Even their eyelids have white feathers, which prevents heat loss.
    Mountain Hare
    Image caption: Mountain Hare
    • Mountain hares have three layers of fur for keeping the warm in and the cold out.
    • Mountain hares are smaller than the brown hare, being generally shorter (50-60cm) and lighter (2.5-4kg)
    • In summer, mountain hares have a grayish-brown coat with light underparts and in winter their coat is white, with black ear tips. Twice a year they moult, once in late autumn and again in spring, when they lose their winter coat.
    Snowy stag of the Cairngorms
    Image caption: Snowy stag of the Cairngorms
    • Red and roe deer are the largest and most widespread land mammal in the Cairngorms National Park.
    • About 80% of the Scottish red deer population live in open-hill habitats year-round.
    • In the summer red deer feed on grasses, sedges and rushes and in the winter they graze on dwarf-shrubs, including heather and bilberry.
  9. Helping Eagles Soar

    White-tailed eagles; the centenary of their extinction in the UK and subsequent return – a conservation success!


    By Dave Sexton RSPB Scotland Mull Officer

    White-tailed eagle Haliaeetus albicilla.
    Image caption: White-tailed eagle Haliaeetus albicilla.

    It always brings a lump to my throat. The thought of the last known white-tailed eagle in Britain in 1918 sitting atop a wild, wind-swept cliff in Shetland searching in vain for its mate. Indeed, looking for any other of its kind. What must it be like for the last one of a species? They must feed and preen as normal of course but for many hours a day, sometimes for years on end, they sit and watch…and hope.

    This last sea eagle had been widowed eight years previously in 1910 but returned faithfully every year after to the eyrie they’d raised chicks in together “to gaze out over the wide horizon and wait”. Sadly, no new mate would ever appear over that wide Shetland horizon as all over Scotland sea eagles were being ruthlessly persecuted – shot, poisoned, collected and their eggs stolen. From what had once been the commonest, most widespread eagle in Britain nesting the length and breadth of our country from the Isle of Wight to the far Northern Isles, its population was reduced to a tiny remnant. A few years previously in 1916, the last recorded breeding attempt had already occurred on Skye. Doubtless a few immature birds and even some unpaired adults still drifted, lost and aimless, along the remotest sea cliffs but for all intents and purposes, sea eagles were already extinct as a breeding species. What a desperately sad and shameful period in our history.

    White-tailed eagle, adult in flight over sea
    Image caption: White-tailed eagle, adult in flight over sea

    Folklore has it that this last British sea eagle was a female and an albino. There’s a poignant black and white photograph taken sometime between 1912 and 1918 by Harry Brewster Macpherson who travelled to Shetland from Strathspey to record this remarkable bird for posterity and it remains the only known photograph of an original British sea eagle ever taken. Harry might not have realised then that the bird sheltering on the cliff below him was probably the last of its kind.

    But like all folklore, it’s sometimes rather more fiction than fact! In truth, the bird probably wasn’t an albino. As some observers at the time noted the primary feathers on the wings were ‘light brown’. Whilst undoubtedly striking in appearance this sea eagle was more likely to have been leucistic. Furthermore, this sad, lonely female was almost certainly a sad, lonely male. Research by John A. Love who, with Scottish Natural Heritage, helped pioneer the successful reintroduction of sea eagles to Scotland beginning in the 1970s, has shown that early local reports of this bird refer to it as being ‘much smaller’ than its original mate. Sea eagle males are noticeably smaller than females. And just one final bit of myth busting! This widowed, single, leucistic male probably wasn’t the absolute last of his kind! Reliable reports persisted into the 1920s and even occasional later ones of sometimes a pair but normally of lone birds roaming the Highlands and Islands. However, for now, our almost white single bird in Shetland is the last proven, documented individual. Despite three decades of protection by islanders and RSPB Watcher James Hay even this bird was eventually shot in 1918 by ‘an old man’ no longer able to ignore financial inducements offered by collectors. Effectively this was the end for sea eagles in Britain.

    White-tailed eagle adult stooping for fish
    Image caption: White-tailed eagle adult stooping for fish

    Even if a few lone immatures continued to frequent the wider landscape, they too will probably have eventually been killed. Fast forward 40 years and conservationists, amateur and professional, were already trying to realise the dream of bringing this native bird back. RSPB Scotland director George Waterston, so famous for his work with ospreys, also had a long held ambition to bring sea eagles home. Indeed, with his cousin Pat Sandeman, they made the first attempt to do just that by releasing three Norwegian sea eagles at Glen Etive in Argyll in 1959. Whilst one of the three survived for at least a year before being caught in a fox trap, one of the others ended up in captivity and the fate of the third was unknown. About ten years later a further four immature sea eagles from Norway were released on Fair Isle involving another ornithological legend Roy Dennis. Whilst both releases involved too few birds to be ultimately successful, important lessons were learned for the next ‘official’ reintroduction attempt on the Isle of Rum starting in 1975. This was to become phase one of three of releasing birds gifted by Norway to the west and east coasts of Scotland, concluding in 2012.

    The detail and successful results of this translocation project are well documented elsewhere but it was the first tantalising reports of sea eagles wandering away from Rum and on to the nearby Isle of Mull which first gripped my fascination (my family might say obsession!) I was on a birding trip to Mull with my friend Eric Kidd in May 1980. We’d already seen our first ever otter in the wild and had watched golden eagles displaying. Then on a late afternoon drive along the shore road by Loch Spelve, we screeched to a halt as we’d both simultaneously glimpsed the massive, plank-like wings of an adult sea eagle flapping hard across the loch being pursued by a mob of angry hooded crows.

    As they all vanished behind a ridge, we looked at each other in disbelief; we’d just witnessed conservation history. Sea eagles really were back home at last. Soon after, I began to pester long-suffering Richard Porter and Mike Everett in the Species Protection Department at RSPB HQ begging for a job to protect the first known nesting attempts. My persistence eventually paid off and I was given a contract in 1984 to watch over an active nest on Mull with my colleague Mike Madders and boss Roger Broad. History was not to be made that year, however, as the single infertile egg failed to hatch. Undeterred, we were both back.

    Adult white-tailed eagle in flight over the sea, Scotland.
    Image caption: Adult white-tailed eagle in flight over the sea, Scotland.

    Finally, 1985 was to be their year. And ours! This pioneering pair of Norwegian – now Scottish – white-tailed eagles hatched and fledged the first wild-bred chick in the UK for some 70 years. That year we all witnessed wildlife conservation history (along with some heartache and near heart failure along the way). One of the two chicks which hatched died after a few weeks so we were down to one surviving chick. The pressure was on. It too very nearly didn’t survive long after fledging. Late one gloomy July day, we watched in horror as it ditched in the middle of a choppy grey loch and as dusk fell, appeared to slip beneath the waves. Sick with anguish and anxiety, we returned at dawn to retrieve what we knew would be a body. But there, sitting on the shoreline with his proud parents, was our chick; rather soggy but otherwise none the worse for his unexpected baptism in a cold Mull loch. Unable to contain my joy at finding him alive and well, I fell back into the dew soaked heather with the early morning sun on my face and wept tears of utter relief.

    Unlike the lonely old sea eagle in Shetland in 1918, this very special, lone young eagle would also go on to ‘gaze out over the wide horizon and wait’ but he would see many others of his kind soaring over distant mountains, their echoing calls drifting towards him on the sea breeze. Tùsanaich a’ Tilleadh – Iolaire sùil na grèine: the return of the native - the eagle with the sunlit eye - was underway.

  10. Uncovering the mysteries of blackcaps

    BTO Garden BirdWatch

    Claire Boothby, Garden BirdWatch Development Officer

    No matter the week, or how busy I am, I will always take time to relax and watch the birds in my garden. Many of you who feel the same way will have taken part in the annual RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch, which does a fantastic job at promoting the monitoring of garden birds. If you enjoy their annual count, I urge you to carry on recording throughout the year with the BTO Garden BirdWatch Survey.

    One bird that I haven’t been lucky enough to see in my garden is a blackcap. However, they are an increasingly common sight, recorded in approximately 13% of gardens (average 1995-2017) during winter, with peak numbers recorded in February. Our year-round survey has provided a fantastic opportunity to understand these birds, which up until 30 years ago were rarely seen in the UK over winter. The results show these birds, which have migrated from breeding grounds in continental Europe, are attracted into gardens by the food we put out, particularly by fat products and sunflower hearts. In fact, many garden birdwatchers comment on the aggression of these birds, and how they chase off other birds coming to the feeders. Our breeding blackcaps, on the other hand, are quite different in behaviour; they rarely use garden habitats and are recorded in fewer than 6% of gardens on average across the breeding season.

    Male blackcap at pond
    Image caption: Blackcaps are an increasingly common garden bird, as we’ve learnt from Garden BirdWatch data.

    Garden BirdWatch data has already enabled us to link this new wintering behaviour to an increase in garden feeding and a warmer winter climate. Despite this, there are still many questions that we want to answer. Where exactly are wintering birds coming from and do any of the breeding blackcaps stay over winter? Is there a genetic difference in the birds that migrate to the UK? How faithful are wintering blackcaps to specific gardens and when are they leaving and returning? Scientists from BTO, as well as Oxford and Exeter Universities, are looking at just this. The project uses a combination of genetic analysis, colour ringing and the use of geolocators, and is focused on gardens of those people who regularly record blackcap in their gardens during the winter months.

    A blackcap being fitted with a ring
    Image caption: A blackcap being fitted with a ring to help us learn more about its behaviour. Photo by Dawn Balmer.

    Last winter 36 blackcaps were fitted with tiny geolocators, devices that record the light levels experienced by each bird. From the times of sunrise and sunset, scientists can determine the bird’s location on earth and therefore track its movement during the year. Many more birds were colour ringed, each with a unique combination of rings which can be easily observed in the field. On 26 November, we received the exciting news that the first blackcap with a geolocator was recaptured, meaning that we can now see the movements of this particular bird since it was originally caught 9 months before in the same Hampshire garden. We’ve found that this one bird travelled from Glynne’s (a longstanding BTO Garden BirdWatcher) garden at the end of March, spent the summer in eastern France, and then returned to the same spot in early November.

    Each geolocator gives us another piece of evidence and information on these birds, and I am pleased to say that another four birds with geolocators have returned this winter. Data have been retrieved from two of these so far. The information given each week to BTO Garden BirdWatch by approximately 11,000 citizen scientists helps us monitor bird distributions and behaviour across the year. This information is crucial for research, not just on blackcaps but all garden birds and other garden wildlife. You can help this particular project by looking out for wintering blackcaps with colour rings and noting down the colours and position on the legs.

    If you see a blackcap with colour rings please get in touch by emailing, or talk to us about Garden BirdWatch by emailing, or phone us on 01842 750050.

  11. Sounding out tawny owls

    Mike Toms, Head of Communications and Tawny Owl volunteer


    British Trust of Ornithology

    The call of a tawny owl is a familiar winter sound for those of us fortunate enough to live near a bit of woodland or within a well-wooded suburb. The calls, which are uttered by both members of the pair, are used to advertise ownership of a nesting territory. They also communicate information about the calling birds to other tawny owls; it is known, for example, that tawny owls can recognise their neighbours by the structure of their calls. Despite the apparent familiarity of our ‘brown owl’, this is actually a species for which much key information is missing from our understanding, something that has recently resulted in the tawny wwl being moved from the green to the amber list of Species of Conservation Concern. Being nocturnal in habits means that the tawny owl is not well monitored by the core schemes that are used to assess the changing fortunes of Britain’s birds. In order to tackle this, a series of periodic surveys – using standardised methods – have been used to secure a reliable (and repeatable) estimate of population size. The plan is to run the next national survey over the 2018/19 winter, starting in October when tawny owl pairs begin to broadcast their ownership of woodland territories, and running through until March, when most pairs will have eggs in the nest.

    Tawny owl on a post
    Image caption: Listen out for tawny owls in your garden to help science. Photo by John Harding.

    The tawny owl survey is part of a wider suite of research into Britain’s owls that is being led by BTO. Some of the funding for this work will come from the BTO Owl Appeal, launched just before Christmas. The funding will also support a citizen science study of tawny owl calling behaviour, satellite-tracking of short-eared owl and the collection of information on the breeding success and survival of little owl, tawny owl and barn owl. By bringing together information on breeding success and survival, alongside estimates of population change, it can be possible to identify why a population is changing and to recommend conservation action to halt and reverse the decline. Much of our knowledge on owl ecology comes from nest box schemes, operated by researchers and volunteer owl enthusiasts. The willingness of tawny owls to take to suitable nest boxes makes it possible to support a study population in an area of forest or woodland and to collect information in a standardised way that can then be used by BTO to unravel what is behind the population changes we have seen over recent decades.

    Little owl walking
    Image caption: The Owl Appeal will fund research on all UK owl species, including the little owl. Photo by Austin Thomas.

    Volunteers will continue to play a central role in collecting this information. There are many individuals, like me, who spend winter evenings catching and ringing tawny owls, and summer evenings checking nest boxes and monitoring breeding attempts. To be able to see such amazing birds at close quarters is a huge privilege, something that we were able to share with BBC Springwatch last year, and to have the support of the BTO directing our efforts means that we can do our bit for Tawny Owls and their conservation.

  12. Insects in Winter

    Brett Westwood

    Wildlife expert

    You don’t see many insects on a winter’s day, but that doesn’t mean they’re not around. Many insects spent their winter hidden from the cold and predators. They don’t hibernate like some mammals and reptiles, but enter into a state called diapause in which they slow down their development, but are able to spring into action if the temperature rises.

    We often see this when a small tortoiseshell butterfly flutters at our windows on a sunny winters day. The best way to help, is to release it into a cool, dark place such as a shed where it will continue its winter rest. On sunny winter days, honeybees will be foraging among early flowers such as crocuses or winter-flowering heather.

    View more on flickr

    Early bumblebee queens will also emerge to stock up on sugary nectar. Look on evergreen plants such as holly or ivy and you may even spot a ladybird or a green shield-bug, basking in the reflected sunshine. There are plenty of flies around too, from bluebottles basking on tree-trunks, to frail winter gnats, wispy as columns of smoke, which dance to attract mates. Look out for drone-flies too, these hover-flies are brilliant honeybee mimics. They hide in cracks in timber or tree bark until the first rays of sun warm them up and then emerge to bask on fences, leaves and the first emerging flowers, as early as January.

    View more on flickr

    How you can help winter insects...

    Build a log-pile

    All sorts of creatures will shelter there and the bigger, the better! If it’s big enough, a hedgehog may move in too!

    Keep part of your garden messy

    Don’t tidy everything away. Leave some hollow stems in the garden for beetles, bugs and flies to hide in.

    Make room for evergreen plants

    Evergreen plants provide excellent shelter and basking spots, so hold onto your holly and ivy! Ivy berries in March are popular with birds such as over-wintering blackcaps. Plant early-flowering plants like hellebores, crocus, flowering currant and lungwort, all brilliant for early bees!

  13. Saving the cirl bunting

    Cirl Bunting Project Manager Cath Jeffs writes about her involvement in playing an important role in the remarkable recovery of the rather special cirl bunting.

    Quote Message: By 1989 the population stood at a perilous 118 pairs and had been lost from the majority of its former range. South Devon, where interestingly it had been first recorded in the UK, held the remaining hope for the species... In 1993 a Project Officer was employed to work with farmers and promote cirl friendly management. This is where I came in, I joined in 1996... 25+ years later and cirl buntings are back from the brink, the less than 120 pairs is now over 1000 pairs. Birds in south Devon have been joined by a small population in Cornwall, established through a reintroduction project, and they are flourishing at our wonderful reserve at Labrador Bay. The support of the farming community has ensured cirls have a brighter future and I have been privileged to work with great people and a bird that has made us conservationists look good!

    Read more on Cath's blog.

    Cirl bunting photographed at RSPB Labrador Bay, Devon
    Image caption: Cirl bunting photographed at RSPB Labrador Bay, Devon
  14. Chris Packham's top six moments

    Packham's picks

    Chris Packham

    BBC Springwatch presenter

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    Video caption: Favourite film?

    The sanderlings film as shot by Sam Oakes featured stunning footage of these wonderful birds on the shoreline. A charming and considered film.

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    Video caption: Animal behaviour?

    Seeing that mouse frozen to the spot when the barn owl landed just inches away - you'd never see that in the natural world but using our cameras we captured some amazing behaviour of a mouse stock still for over five minutes.

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    Video caption: Top moment

    This male lesser horseshoe bat unfurls it's wings for the camera - a beautiful and seldom seen sight.

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    Video caption: Science explained

    Martin demonstrates that although the chimp's brain is larger, the neural density of a crow's brain is superior. Size does matter!

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    Video caption: A personal favourite

    When Chris saw a great grey shrike in the Forest of Dean, he rated this as his best personal experience this Winterwatch. Our 'fiercest passerine', which according to Michaela might look like a long-tailed tit, would eat six of them for breakfast!

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    Video caption: Top spot

    When our camera trap recorded this stoat in ermine, Chris was over the moon. He's never actually seen one in the wild, but this glimpse still had him reeling.

  15. Inspired by sanderlings...

    Whilst watching Tuesday's Winterwatch show Alan De Witt was inspired by our sanderlings film and wanted to share this very special story

    Lily Moffatt

    Autumnwatch Digital Assistant

    In August 2015, Alan spotted a ringed sanderling on the beaches of the northern Norfolk coast. He was particularly interested as he noticed it had several rings on its legs and so took a photo of it.

    Sanderlings are wader birds, that feed along the tidal line by dashing in and out of the surf in search of a tasty morsel of food. They breed in the high Arctic in the summer and migrate southwards, as far as Australasia and the southern sandy beaches of the continental coasts of Africa.

    Alan was particularly interested in this sanderling and wanted to investigate it further. He reported the sighting to the International Wader Study Group, who were extremely helpful and Alan started to find out a little more about his sanderling.

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    Sanderlings of the East Atlantic flyway are colour-ringed between their breeding grounds in north-east Greenland and the non-breeding locations on the coasts of West Africa.

    Alan found out from the IWSG that the sanderling he photographed was known by the code R6WYWR, a bird weighing a mere 59g and one that was an avid traveller. On October 8th 2010, R6WYWR was first recorded west of Axim, Ghana. Incredibly, this sanderling would have had to have flown all the way from the high Arctic, over 4,500 miles away!

    This incredible wader was also recorded in France, most likely on its way back from the sunny beaches of Ghana and in Portugal, likely on its way to its breeding grounds in the high Arctic.

    Unbelievably, this little wader has been recorded 35 times in Ghana, Africa; the last time in 2015. It wasn't until Alan was visiting the Norfolk coast in August 2015 that he photographed this wonderful wader feeding along the shoreline on its way back to Africa.

    This inspirational story may lead many of us to think about the birds we see and it may lead us to ponder over how many thousands of miles they may have travelled- just because of their breeding ecology. You may think you're well travelled...but I doubt you have anything on these incredible little waders!

  16. The magic and mystery of the yew tree

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    • They are some of the oldest living things in Britain. The one above is thought to be 2000 years old!
    • They can live to 400 to 600 years of age.
    • Ten yew trees in Britain are believed to pre-date the 10th century.
    • The foliage and seed coat of yew contains a cocktail of highly toxic alkaloids. Hawfinches feast on the seeds and can crack open the shells with their powerful beaks.
    • Yew hedges are incredibly dense, providing a wonderful home to birds and wildlife.
    • Some churches were built around yew trees. As they guard the doors of the church, they are a symbol of long-life and long afterlife.

    This wonderful piece from naturalist Brett Westwood and Richard Mabey explores the natural history of the yew tree.

    View more on flickr

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    Video caption: Brett Westwood explores our relationship with the 'churchyard tree', the yew.
    View more on flickr
    View more on flickr
  17. Freya - Our glorious golden eagle

    Back in Spring 2016 we were lucky enough to have a camera on a golden eagle nest in the Trossachs in South West Scotland. A five year old mother was on her third breeding attempt and on May 11th 2016 a single beautiful chick emerged from her egg.

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    Video caption: The latest highlights from our golden eagle nest camera

    We watched her grow up fast and at 8 weeks old she was fitted with a radio tag. This way we could harmlessly keep up to date with her when she fledged, which she successfully did four weeks later.

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    As part of Autumnwatch 2016, we put it to the audience to name her and no, Eagle McEagleface was not even in the top three! She was named Freya and by Winterwatch 2017 she hadn't moved far from her nesting grounds.