Friday, 26 June 2015

A day in the life of an over-worked research assistant!

The Cromar Farming With Nature project is an ambitious venture with a huge workload, as you will appreciate as you browse these pages, and the person who, perhaps more than any other, is charged with making it happen is local girl Alison Espie. Alison is a skilled field surveyor and land manager with responsibility for all those tasks that don’t have a dedicated project officer, so to give an idea of what this means, here is a brief description of a typical day in early summer.

The first thing on the list most days is farmland bird counts. Like all the projects CFWN is undertaking this is very important as farmland birds are largely declining across the UK. For example, some species like the Grey Partridge and Tree Sparrow have declined in number by more than 90% since records began in the late 1960s. It is crucial therefore that we monitor them in The Howe as farmland birds are, naturally, very sensitive to the way in which the land is managed and so could be quick to respond to any ‘Greening’ measures or similar that might be introduced in the future. The counts during the breeding season (spring and summer) need to start early to capture the social behaviour that is most intense at this time and which makes surveying local populations so much simpler, so Alison rises very early to be on-site around sunrise. For the next three hours or so she walks around each field on her route with eyes and ears peeled, recording everything with wings that she sees or hears. So far this effort has revealed a large number of ‘typical’ species like Meadow Pipits, Yellowhammer, Thrushes and Crows, plus a few more notable species like Red Kite and Twite.


As most people are reaching to turn off the alarm-clock, Alison is winding up the bird counts and preparing for her next job. After a quick breakfast, this often means amphibian surveys at this time of year. Most amphibians in the UK have, again, declined in the UK as their habitats have been lost. This year in The Howe we are trying to focus on identifying potential habitats that might support amphibians, rather than counting the number of individuals present, so much of the early spring was spent noting the location of ponds and various wet bits of ground that Alison is now revisiting to check for the presence of eggs/larvae/adults of any of the UKs native species.

This hasn’t proven easy because firstly there aren’t a huge number of ponds around (lots of wet patches and semi-permanent puddles and the like though) and secondly the cold spring that we’ve had has made survey work pointless much of the time: the recommended water temperature for surveys is 10°C which we’ve struggled to reach until quite recently! That said, there have been some notable exceptions with some ponds currently heaving with tadpoles.


So after a few hours wandering around checking ponds, Alison is probably beginning to flag a little, so what better way to end the working day than with some raptor watches?! This group of predatory birds is of significance for different reasons: some, like the Kestrel and Barn Owl, are declining as their habitats change and they are finding it harder to make a living, whilst others like the Buzzard and Sparrowhawk have greatly increased in number and, some would say, are a potential threat to other, less common species now. By picking a good vantage point from which a large area of land can be observed, we can assess the local populations of some of the more conspicuous species (like Buzzard) because they announce their presence when breeding with circling displays and loud calls. The more secretive species, like Sparrowhawk, will be more of a challenge…


By the time the raptor watches are done, so is Alison! It’s afternoon and the early start is catching up with her so after a quick catch-up with any admin it’s home to start preparing for tomorrow when she’ll do it all over again…

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