Nature Notes 10/03/2014

There is some political discussion at the moment about the effect that immigration has on employment in particular and on society in general.  In the natural world, there is no doubt that species that have been introduced into Britain from abroad can have damaging consequences for the local fauna.    Once such species become adapted to the local environment, they are described as naturalised.  The most obvious example in East Berkshire is the Ring-Necked (or Rose-Ringed) Parakeet which has been recorded in the County since 1971.   They are now well-established in various locations in England and Wales.  Its harsh shriek [kee-ack, kee-ack] is frequently heard overhead these days in Eton and they frequently come to raid my bird table!RN Parakeet MV1

Originally from Africa north of the Equator and eastwards to India and Malaysia, this distinctive species has bright green feathers and a crimson bill.  Males also have a black throat and a rose-coloured ring around their throats.  The photo has been kindly provided by the Berkshire Bird Atlas Group.  It nests in holes in trees, and according to the new Berkshire Bird Atlas often occupies the vacated nest cavities of Great-spotted and Green Woodpeckers.  The diet of the Parakeet includes fruit (apples, cherries and plums are favourites), buds and berries but increasingly the birds are happy raiding bird feeders in gardens.

Over a thousand have nested in Wraysbury (in 2003) and there is currently a well-established roost near Slough Sewage Treatment works which regularly numbers up to 500.  Their success has been attributed to the absence of any natural predators, the fact that they breed earlier than most British species, their ability to withstand the harshest weather and their ability to forage widely.

The national expert on naturalised species happens to be Sir Christopher Lever, an Old Etonian who now lives in Winkfield and whose collection of butterflies has recently been given to Eton’s Natural History Museum. He suggests that the 10,000 or so parakeets in England and Wales may originally have been escapees from pet-shops and bird-farms, while some may have been turned loose by members of ships’ companies when they realized that importation would be delayed by a long and expensive period of quarantine.  The British parakeet population appears to have originated from the Indian part of the birds’ natural range.  Whatever their origin, the parakeets seem to be here to stay!

George Fussey

Curator

Object of the Week 10/02/2014

What feature of the museum do you think this is a part of?              

 

Did you guess what last weeks object was?

 

It’s a headdress from our new Robin Hanbury-Tenison ethnographic collection. It was presented to him by Xingu people living in the Xingu National Park.

You can see this object and many other fascinating objects from around the world on display in the museum.

 

 

Birds of Berkshire

The Natural History Museum in South Meadow Lane was built to hold the largest collection of stuffed birds in Victorian Britain. Much of that collection is still in the Museum, over 160 years later!  It also explains why, if you look on the outside of the building, you will see that there are carvings of hawks, peacocks, owls and doves all over it.

The Birds of Berkshire

 Curiously, the first book on birds ever to include photos was written by a 16-year-old Eton boy in 1868 called Alexander W. M. Clark Kennedy. It was entitled the Birds of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire and also happened to be the first book specifically on the birds of Berkshire.

Just before Christmas, I was lucky enough to go to Reading Museum for the launch of the most recent book on local birds, The Berkshire Bird Atlas. Eton College kindly sponsored the publication so that a copy of the book could be delivered to each and every school in Berkshire, a great way of encouraging the next generation of bird watchers.

  It is a superb book, full colour throughout its five hundred or so pages, with superb photography and original line drawings of each species and highly recommended.  There is a wonderful chapter on where to watch birds in Berkshire and it has given me my New Year’s resolution, namely to get out more and appreciate the biodiversity which is all around us, despite the flight path of Heathrow and the never ending M4 traffic.  The great thing is that so many of these sites are local to us in East Berkshire, with Bray Gravel Pits and the Jubilee River and the reservoirs around Heathrow being the most immediate.

 In a little over a decade, the slow-flowing Jubilee River has become popular with waterfowl and this is especially so when nearby lakes freeze over this time of year. Species such as Goldeneye, Smew and Goosander and even rarer species like Ruddy Ducks and Red-crested Pochards can be seen.  The Dorney Wetlands were designed as a wildlife refuge and are easily reached from the car park in Lake End Road, Dorney, not far from the Pineapple Pub.    

Bittern

Bitterns, Bearded Tits and Water Rails have overwintered there since the site was established and in the summer there are numerous Reed and Sedge Warblers and Reed Buntings.

A map and brief details of Dorney Wetlands appears on the website www.birds ofberkshire.co.uk  where you can also find details of the excellent Atlas!

George Fussey, Curator

 

Nature Notes

Residents may have noticed the distinctive silhouettes of large birds of prey gliding slowly overhead in recent months.  Supremely graceful, these fork-tailed raptors are Red Kites, and they are part of our heritage in the UK and a real success story in conservation work.

In the Natural History Museum in South Meadow Lane we have a very fine specimen of a green parrot from New Zealand, called a Kakapo.  Once, Kakapos were widespread in New Zealand.   For years they had no predators, but that all changed when European settlers arrived in the eighteenth century.  With the introduction of species from the UK, such as cats, rats, ferrets and stoats, this flightless parrot was soon under threat.  Now, critically endangered, there are only 126 left in the wild.

Similarly, Red Kites used to be super-abundant in medieval towns and played a vital role living on human waste and keeping the streets clear of carrion and rotting food. They even featured in Shakespeare: he mentions their annoying habit of stealing linen from the washing line for nesting material! Persecuted over the centuries, Red Kite numbers went into a terminal decline and they were extinct in England and Scotland by the 1880s.  By the late twentieth century, only a few breeding pairs remained in Wales and all seemed lost.

However, successful reintroductions of birds, mostly from Sweden and Spain, have led to a rapid rise in numbers, so much so that they were named as ‘Bird of the Century’ by the British Trust for Ornithology.  For example, some birds were released in the Chilterns in 1989, and these, and numerous other introductions, have formed breeding populations and spread steadily over the last 15 years.  They still feed off carrion and frequently, these days, road-kill.  They are a lasting reminder that we can, through conservation, reverse the trends of centuries if we really try!

George Fussey

Curator

Object of the Week – 01/08/13

Did you know what last week’s object of the week was?

Acorn Barnacle

Well done if you recognised last week’s object was our Acorn Barnacle (Semibalanus balanoides).

Barnacles are Crustaceans that have adapted to a sessile life; once the young barnacle larva has found a place to live, it attaches to a surface and will stay there for the rest of its life. They feed by filtering food particles out of the water with their feathery arms. Unlike most other Crustaceans they do not shed their external shell.

When Darwin undertook his study of Barnacles this was only some years after they had been reclassified from Molluscs (their hard external shell had led anatomists to believe they should be classed with limpets). Darwin had only intended to study one species of barnacle, but after spending over a year studying them he realised the extent of the work there was to be done on the taxonomy of the group.

Object of the Week – 25/07/13

Darwin spent eight years studying this group of animals. Do you know what this is?

 

Did you know what last week’s object of the week was?

Manuscript page on loan from College Library

Well done if you recognised the object last week was our original manuscript sheet from Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. It is one of 42 surviving sheets that make up the only handwritten original copy of the manuscript that was Darwin’s most influential work.

Our sheet was given by Darwin to Ann Thankeray Ritchie, the daughter of the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. We know she visited Darwin in 1882 just seven days before he died.

Don’t worry if you can’t read Darwin’s handwriting because we have a translation next to it. But you’ll have to visit the museum to see it!

Object of the Week – 18/07/13

It may not look like much, but this piece of paper is one of our most treasured objects. Do you know what it is?

 

Did you know what last week’s object of the week was?

Song Thrush striking a snail against their anvil

Well done if you identified the Song Thrush from the photo last week, caught mid snack with its favourite food the brown-lipped snail (Cepaea nemoralis). There is a great variety in the colour and banding pattern on the snail’s shell, (it is highly polymorphic) and this is partly due to the feeding habits of the Thrush. 

Song Thrushes break open the shell of a snail by hitting it against a hard stone called an anvil. Thrushes are territorial and return to the same anvil, leaving the broken shells of their prey scattered nearby. This allows us to build up an accurate picture of their diet.  

Thrushes hunt by sight and select whichever snails have the least effective camouflage. This is dependent on their habitat and also the time of year. For example;,snail populations that live in woodlands with lots of dark leaves on the ground would favour snails with shells that are darkly coloured shells with lots of banding. In this way different populations of polymorphs continue to exist in their respective habitats.