Things to see in January Number 1: Head up to the Hills and Hollows to watch the owls at dusk

January can seem one of the darkest, deadest months when the problem of hibernating/dormant/absent creatures is compounded by the grimness of the weather which altogether makes staying inside the easiest option. However, there are a few exciting sights to be seen in and around Grantham even in this gloomiest of months. The first of these is owl-watching on the hills which rise up to the west of the town.

Dusk comes early at this time of year which makes the days depressingly short but does at least make crepuscular species – those which come out at dawn and dusk – a lot easier to see at sociable hours.

Barn Owl (Tyto alba) after a successful hunt
Barn Owl (Tyto alba) after a successful hunt

If you walk the footpath which continues up a muddy track through an archway of trees at the end of Beacon Lane, you will quickly find yourself surrounded by rough grassland, a perfect habitat for voles and mice and, therefore, a perfect hunting ground for owls!

Short-eared owl (Asio flammeus) hunting
Short-eared owl (Asio flammeus) hunting

Around 3 – 4 o’clock in January, you will begin to see them come out and hunt, especially on the broad open grassland to the right at the top of the footpath. Several barn owls – a native resident species – can often be seen, along with a short-eared owl which has taken up residence this year. My photograph is sadly rather pathetic but you at least get a feeling for this impressive bird – a much better gallery from the Hills and Hollows in previous years can be found here.

The short-eared owl is a migratory species which arrives in the UK in early winter from the northern continent – Scandinavia, Russia and Iceland. They will often stay in one place throughout the winter before flying back to their breeding grounds in the north. You will notice how much larger a bird the short-eared owl is with broad, almost buzzard-like wings. It flies low and drops regularly and dramatically into the grassland hunting its prey – you could almost imagine it falling like a child and getting quickly back to its feet as it progresses up and down a hunting patch. The barn owl by comparison will often perch and watch before gliding over the grassland, hovering lower and lower when it spots something tasty until, at the last minute, it drops silently upon its unsuspecting prey.

Take along binoculars, if you can, and don’t forget to wrap up warm as it gets cold when the wind blows! Even if you don’t see the owls (and I’ve no doubt you will), the view across Grantham from this height can be spectacular! You may need a little patience but, as the darkness falls, the birds will surely appear.

Grantham at Sunset

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What do you need to climb-and-inspect trees for bats?

I have put this post together as a brief guide for anybody wanting to know more about what is required to climb and inspect trees for bats. When I was looking into the requirements, I couldn’t find anything which simply set out the steps so I hope this will be useful!

Climber in an oak treeTrees can be difficult to assess for bat roosts. Sometimes you can spot a feature – a woodpecker hole, split or fissure for example – which you can identify with reasonable confidence as a bat roost, perhaps by signs such as scratch marks, fur rubbing or droppings. But, in my experience, these types of features are the exception. You are much more likely to spot, what Henry Andrews would call, PRF’s or Potential Roost Features – see his website here for perhaps the best resource I’ve come across dealing with the use of tree roosts by bats.

You might want to be have more confidence in your assessment for a range of reasons; perhaps as a local bat group simply gathering data on local roosts, perhaps as part of research into bat distribution or movement, perhaps to protect the bats for example if the tree is dangerous and must be removed.

There are two approaches that can then be taken. Firstly, you could carry out a dusk/dawn emergence survey to watch for bats leaving or returning to a roost. This is quite labour intensive and has a number of limitations, such as the difficulty in being confident that a bat appeared from a particular location and the transient use of many roosts providing little confidence in a negative result. A second option is to inspect the feature closer up, using an endoscope perhaps to look within and see whether there are any bats residing within and whether the feature is actually as suitable as it may appear from the ground.

In order to carry out this “climb and inspect”, you will need two things:

Firstly, a licence to disturb bats with a handling endorsement. This is because bats are legally protected under both domestic and European legislation and it is an offence to intentionally or recklessly disturb them in their place of rest. See the BCT website for more info. This licence requires a large amount of specialist knowledge and experience of bats and their roosts. If you are interested in gaining the experience and, ultimately the licence, getting in touch with your local bat group is the best place to start. If you are already working in a professional capacity, I can highly recommend the Bat Licence Training Course run by Richard Crompton and Sandie Sowler.

Secondly, you need the competence and equipment to safely ascend to the feature. The basic qualification for this is the City and Guilds CS38 – Tree Climbing and Aerial Rescue Operations course. This not only teaches you the basics of climbing but also how to rescue somebody from a tree – if an accident does occur, it is critical that you know how to safely bring somebody down to the ground where they can be treated. This is usually a week long course which takes you through the principals, the theory, the legislation and the best practise for tree climbing before teaching you the practical techniques of climbing. At the end of the week, there is usually a separate assessment taking several hours where your competence will be assessed. As well as the climbing technique and principal, there is a requirement to identify a range of common tree species so this is something to brush up on beforehand. Another hint – you will probably not need to spike up trees for climb-and-inspect work, this is damaging to the trees and is only to be done if you are an arborist who is going to take the tree in question down (or in an emergence rescue situation).

Once you are qualified to climb, there are a few more things you will need before you can start:

1) The climbing equipment. The basic kit consists of a harness with leg-loops, rope, prussock cords, caribinas and a secondary support strop. These must all conform to the minimum legal requirements.
2) The safety equipment – this includes a helmet with a chin-strap, a knife with a retractable blade, a first aid kit and sturdy (steel toe) boots. High visibility jackets are also useful, especially for a groundsman. See point 3…
3) A groundsman! If something happens in the tree, you must have somebody with you who is qualified to climb and perform an aerial rescue. This might be required is for example there is a problem with your equipment meaning you can’t descend upon it, or if you were to hit your head and become unconscious. You should only ever climb if you have this second qualified climber on the ground the entire time that you are in the tree.
4) The kit to inspect the feature – an endoscope is either an eyepiece or, commonly now, a screen attached to a fibre-optic snake which allows you to see around corners and in deep, dark cavities of trees where bats might be hiding. This has the potential to cause disturbance to bats which is why the relevent licence and experience are critical. Other pieces of kit which might be useful include binoculars, a torch and a mirror!

If you were climbing for your own pleasure on your own land, this may be all that you require. However, if this is being undertaken in any kind of professional capacity, you would also need the appropriate insurance in terms both of personal safety and public liability.

For more information on the assessment and CS38 qualification, you can see the assessment criteria provided by NPTC here.

I work for a local Ecological Consultancy based in Grantham and we do offer professional climb and inspect services in the East Midlands area and beyond – if you would like more info then drop me a message and I will get in touch with you!

Potential Roost Feature (PRF) worthy of closer inspection!
Potential Roost Feature (PRF) worthy of closer inspection!

Where did the Grantham red kites come from?

“I watched her fingers slowly spreading wide upon her knees, unconsciously imitating the fanned feathers that tipped the incredible wings. She watched its head cock deliberately from side to side, eyeing possibilities beneath, while the triangular tail tilted to turn the thermals to its command. It circled on slowly as we passed by, at rest in motion.”

Red Kite

Red kites (Milvus milvus) must be one of the most impressive birds you are likely to see around Grantham, and they are becoming a more common sight every year. They are large birds of prey, with a wingspan of 180cm – that’s the height of a 6ft person! Kites are scavengers and are therefore often seen around roads where the abundance of roadkill offers a plentiful supply of food. However they do also eat small mammals, from voles up to rabbits, and even live birds occasionally.

They are quite distinct in flight, the deeply forked tail is held flat and rotated from its centre to allow them to soar where they will on wide, angled wings. The call too is unmistakable, a high pitched whistle like that of a buzzard, but longer with quavering variation which almost sounds as though its voice is breaking half way through. They can be seen on the ground or roosting in trees, but they tend to be shy and quickly take to flight which is where you are most likely to see them.

The ‘Status of Birds in the Grantham Area’ in 2009 listed the red kite as a “formerly rare migrant, reintroduced birds now recorded annually in small numbers”. In the last three years, the birds have become a much more common sight both over Grantham and the surrounding villages extending out past Denton and into the vale of Belvoir where I saw a juvenile bird circling earlier this year. Other good places to see them are on the Viking Way, in the woods behind Belmount Tower and a drive down the A1 towards Rutland Water almost always rewards you with a view.

So where did these birds appear from?

Red kites were driven to the brink of extinction in the UK and their current resurgence is thanks to a reintroduction programme carried out over the last 20 years. The second release site in the UK was Rockingham Forest, around 45 miles to the south of Grantham. Seventy red kites were brought there between 1995 and 1998 where they were reared and ultimately released. These birds were mostly of Spanish origin with a few from the population which was already establishing in the Chilterns. (find out more about the Rockingham Forest re-introduction here.

This follows previous reintroductions in Scotland and the Chilterns; following the success of these schemes, further reintroductions have been carried out in Leeds, Dumfries and Galloway, the Derwent Valley and most recently in 2010, in Grizedale Forest in Cumbria. These chicks were taken from the Rockingham population, so successful have they been since their introduction – at this point the RSPB estimated that 200 chicks had been raised from the local population.

So the red kites seen in Grantham are birds which are expanding and extending their range from their initial base in Rockingham Forest. They never fail to make my day when one flies low over the house or circles in the blue sky outside the office window. The reintroduction in the UK has been an unmitigated success and with any luck, more and more of the country will soon be able to count these birds among their scenery.