Environmental volunteering

According to Wikipedia:
Environmental volunteers conduct a range of activities including environmental monitoring (e.g. wildlife); ecological restoration such as revegetation and weed removal, and educating others about the natural environment. They also participate in community-based projects, such as improving footpaths, open spaces, and local amenities for the benefit of the local community and visitors. The uptake of environmental volunteering stems in part from the benefits for the volunteers themselves, such as improving social networks and developing a sense of place.

Participation in such projects can be at a local level (even your backyard), or you can travel to the ends of the earth.  You can put in a lot of time and energy, or just a little time or energy, and you can do it for just a few hours, a few weeks, or for a few hours a week or month for several years.

Volunteering may mean getting close and personal with wildlife – perhaps a bit of radio-tracking work, behavioural observations, etc – but more often is about the interface between people and wildlife.  The bears in the photos are two of about 70 in a sanctuary in Romania where volunteers support local staff, allowing them time to do educational work and to rescue more bears.   

Other projects may involve the restoration of habitat, or building facilities so that visitors may enjoy and learn about wildlife.

But it is also possible to volunteer on your own, collecting data in your own time and at your own pace. Data that organisations can use chart changes in numbers over time, which can then be used to influence environmental policies.

Here are some examples of volunteering that I have been involved in, and some guidance from responsibletravel.com who advertise selected eco-volunteer holidays on their website.

This information is inevitably UK based – other countries will also have volunteer organisations and schemes.


Local volunteering – citizen science

Volunteering on long-term surveys such as a butterfly transect provides data for monitoring the distribution and population both common and rare species – the small tortoiseshell has declined in the past ten years.

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) is the largest organiser of bird surveys in Europe.  Through the efforts of volunteers participating in BTO surveys, the bird populations of the British Isles have been monitored more effectively and for longer than those of most other parts of the world. This has produced a uniquely rich and detailed body of scientific work. This will help us to understand the complex challenges facing wild birds at a time of great change in the environment. 

The Wetland Bird Survey requires a day a month of counting birds on estuaries, lakes and reservoirs, while the Garden Bird Survey only needs you to look out of your window a few times a week.  Monitoring bird nests requires a little more skill (easily learned) and effort, while bird ringing requires a lot more time and dedication to learn the necessary skills before you are allowed to go and practice on your own.  See the website for the full list of surveys to get involved with.

This kind of voluntary work – which ultimately involves gathering data – is known as citizen science.  Other organisations such as Butterfly Conservation, the Botanical Society of the British Isles and British Dragonfly Society, also rely on members and enthusiasts to gather specific data to use for scientific or conservation purposes.  

An example of a short-period citizen science is the Bioblitz.  Organised at sites all around the country, these may be days when “expert enthusiasts” get together to find as many species as possible on that site, or they may primarily function as events to introduce the general public to nature.  

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How the information is put to use

Citizen scientists help uncover mysteries behind House Sparrow population declines

Although House Sparrows are conspicuous birds and can still be found cheeping away in many areas, their numbers have fallen sharply in recent years, leading to their inclusion on the Birds of Conservation Concern Red List. Declines are greater in urban than in rural areas, and in eastern and south-eastern Britain than in other parts of the country (where the population is stable or increasing).  A new study by the BTO has used data collected by volunteers participating in Garden Birdwatch (GBW), the Nest Record Scheme (NRS) and the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) to investigate possible reasons underpinning these trends.

The research focussed on measures of breeding performance.  In keeping with population trends, GBW data showed that annual productivity was highest in Wales and lowest in the east of England, but that there was no difference between rural and urban areas.  The regional difference in GBW productivity was mirrored by NRS data, which revealed that House Sparrow clutch and brood sizes were significantly lower in the east of Britain than in the west.  The number of breeding attempts per year and post-fledging survival did not differ between regions, so are not thought to contribute to the differences in population trends.

The results suggest that the processes driving regional differences in House Sparrow productivity are likely to be complex and operating over a large-scale (e.g. climatic processes), but interacting with local factors (e.g. habitat changes). The absence of productivity differences between rural and urban areas suggests other factors contribute to the varying population trends in these habitats, for instance, differences in food availability affecting adult survival.  This work demonstrates the importance of large-scale datasets collected by citizen science projects in understanding drivers of population change, which is vital for implementing effective conservation measures.

More information about this and other science results on the BTO website


Germany, 1973

In order to maintain the heathland and its unique flora and fauna, trees have to be removed.

There were eleven of us – two Irish, one Norwegian-American, three German, three French, one English, one Turkish.  We did not have a common language though everyone spoke at least one (and mostly two) of English, German or French. We were all students, aged between 16 and 23.  None of us had any idea of what we were going to be doing – or any experience of eco-volunteering.

We were collected from Cologne railway station, and driven for a couple of hours to a forested area near Munster.  A large corrugated tin hut was to be our home for the next three weeks, and that – the leader pointed to a ramshackle assortment of logs and tarpaulin – was the washroom.  The toilets were two huts over pits in the ground.  By mutual consent, we hastily rearranged the bunks and cupboards in the hut so that girls and boys were in separate sections.  And then found a spare blanket to hang in front of the showers give some privacy from the rest of the “washroom”.

Looking back, our mission was clear.  We were clearing trees that were threatening to take over an area of heathland.  At the time, however, we were just following instructions.  I learned the names of trees in German before I knew them in English – Eiche, Birke, Kiefe (Oak, Birch, Pine).  I learned to use a machete and an axe – but was more than happy to leave the chainsaw to the boys.

This camp was one of many organised by the IJGD which was set up after WW2, and is still running camps today. The ethos of the organisation is based around getting young people to live and work together, organising their daily lives as a group (we had to organise our own shopping trips, do most of our own cooking etc) and undertaking ecological or social work under the guidance of a local leader.  We had one leader (who spoke only in German) for the forestry work, and another (who also spoke English and French) who was probably more of a liaison person with the local town council.  

The town council arranged various excursions for our spare time – we “worked” only an average five hours a day.  One day we had afternoon tea in the town hall, and a tour of the premises; another day there was an evening of music in a local tavern; a helicopter ride from the local army base; a ride in a small plane; a pony and trap ride; an afternoon of cycling to explore the countryside; a visit to a brewery to see how the local beer was made; etc.

But that was 1973 – I don’t suppose today’s economy would allow so many luxuries!


Skokholm, Wales, 1988-2018

Skokholm – the Wheelhouse in 2010 above, and 2014 below. Just some of the renovations carried out by volunteers for the love of being on this ‘Dream Island’.

Skokholm Island lies a short distance off the coast of Pembrokeshire.  Until recently there was no running water, no electricity, no telephone, no television.  I visited twice in the 1980s as a paying guest, and maybe twenty times since then as a volunteer.  Volunteering can be as simple as a day helping the wardens get themselves and their food and equipment to and from the island at the ends of the season, or it can be staying on the island to work.

Work usually includes scrubbing and painting the buildings at the start of the season in preparation for paying visitors, and then cleaning and storing stuff at the end of the season to keep it safe from the damp and the house-mice.  But it has also included upgrading the accommodation.  

For any place to accept paying guests, there are certain hygiene, and health and safety, requirements.  One year (early 1990s) we were told that food could not be cooked in the same room as it was served, so suddenly we had to convert the larder into a kitchen, and a small storeroom into a new larder.  The work was done by volunteers – one of whom was so keen to get started he was pulling walls down and creating dust before we’d finished washing the breakfast crockery – and by a group on a government youth opportunities program.  I was cooking that week, and had an assistant who insisted on putting either garlic and/or lemon in everything.

More recently, a considerable amount of work has been done to conserve (in some cases rebuild) and upgrade the accommodation.  Most of the work has been done by volunteers, although professionals have been brought in where necessary – where health and safety issues were concerned (eg roofing, and rebuilding the landing stage), or specific skills required.  

The island now has electricity, thanks to the advent of solar PV panels.  The buildings now have running water – previously it was pumped by hand from the well into plastic containers, and taken to the buildings by wheelbarrow.  The kitchen has a hot water supply thanks to solar panels, and the hot water supply has now been extended to the bedrooms, which also have a piped waste system (previously it was a bucket under the sink), and there are composting toilets which are much more pleasant to use (and to empty) than the old chemical toilets.

Puffins are one of the charismatic seabirds of Skokholm Island, along with razorbills, guillemots, Manx shearwaters and storm petrels.

All this work has been enthusiastically undertaken because people consider the island is a wonderful place to be.  In summer it is teeming with seabirds, in spring and autumn migrant birds of all sorts can turn up.  Despite the living improvements, it still retains its air of isolation and remoteness.  The weather is unpredictable,  the boat can’t always come and go on a regular schedule – often visitors have to wait a day or two to get on, and maybe have to leave a day early (or even stay an extra week) because the weather is bad.

We spent three weeks there in April 2012 – it was wet, windy and horrible a lot of the time.  On several days I found myself preparing vegetable soup for lunch wearing several layers of clothes, topped with waterproofs, wellies and a woolly hat.  

Conversely, we had a week there in September 2018 – a glorious week of wonderful weather, bird migration was slow, but there was a wryneck on the island.  One team of people were cleaning and painting the lighthouse, another team built a new hide overlooking North Pond.  Bob and I were part of another team on a long-term project to transfer all the island biological data from hand-written logs onto spreadsheets.

It’s an amazing place with amazing people.  There is nobody actually in charge, but a group of people who are here because they love the island.  They all have different skills, appropriate to the jobs this week.  There is a list of jobs that need to be done, and when anyone has finished what they are doing, they tick it off on the board, and pick another job to get on with.  And the amount of work that is being done is just amazing.  (Skokholm volunteer, 2012)

Skokholm Island is owned by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales. There is accommodation and facilities for researchers, ringers, and for people who just want a quiet holiday on a lovely island. There are more opportunities for volunteers on the nearby Skomer Island.

The Friends of Skomer and Skokholm organised the work parties with help from local companies such as Dale Sailing.

The island has now regained its status as a bird observatory, and has full-time wardens –  See the island blog.

Skokholm accommodation and library block, with new roof and solar PV panels for lighting (no more gas or oil lamps). Comfort for volunteers, as well as for the paying guests that come to enjoy the puffins and other wildlife on this island. (2010 top and 2014 below)

Conservation and wildlife volunteering 

Article from Sarah Bareham of responsibletravel.com

With an ever-expanding array of volunteer opportunities available it can be increasingly difficult to understand which projects are of genuine value to conservation efforts,  which are having little impact and worse, those which work against community and conservation aims. However, with the right preparation and research well-intentioned prospective volunteers can ensure their time and effort will not go to waste, or cause harm.

Responsibletravel.com’s main advice to any traveller looking for volunteer opportunities is to ask questions, and plenty of them. To be truly sustainable a project should be driven by the needs and expectations of the host community and for a conservation or wildlife project to be successful in the long term local people need to see the value in supporting it, they should be the ones which own and lead it, with volunteers providing support to help them meet their aims. For example, through its close work with local people this brown bear conservation project in Romania has started to change attitudes towards bear welfare among the general public, with more and more realising that capturing wild bears for entertainment purposes is not only a betrayal of animal welfare, but of the country’s own natural heritage. 

We encourage prospective volunteers to speak with their placement and find out what the long-term aims of the project are, and how their work will fit into this. Volunteers should have a clear and defined role, and should undergo a selection process that matches their skills to the opportunities available. It should be possible, upon questioning the potential placement, to find out more about the project’s history, how it is monitored, where your payment goes, what role the volunteers play and to be able to speak with previous volunteers to understand more about their personal experiences.

Conservation projects with long term sustainability at heart are also likely to offer education programmes for local communities and schools. Educating the younger generation as to the importance of the project, and engaging them at an early age increases the likelihood of long term success. Ask whether this is part of the work your prospective placement does. It may mean you will also be volunteering closely with local children – there are a number of issues to consider if this is the case. 

With wildlife rescue projects volunteers should be aware that the more contact wild animals have with humans, the less their chance of successful reintegration back into the wild. If the project you are considering aims to rehabilitate and release animals be aware that hands-on contact with wildlife will be very unlikely, reserved only for those with specific knowledge and skills, such as veterinarians. If you are invited to play with, interact and pet the animals it is unlikely that successful reintroduction into the wild is their real aim. The Born Free Foundation’s guidance notes on issues in wildlife volunteering, sanctuaries and captive breeding programmes for conservation are a useful resource for prospective volunteers. 

https://www.responsibletravel.com/holiday/33237/turtle-conservation-in-greece

All holidays and volunteering opportunities on responsibletravel.com have been carefully screened for their commitment to responsible tourism. We have also worked closely in the past with the Born Free Foundation and Care for the Wild, whose Right Tourism campaign holds a wealth of information on what travellers can do to ensure their work is contributing to the protection rather than exploitation of wild animals. The Born Free Foundation also has a Travellers Animal Alert system where volunteers concerned about the in poorly run sanctuaries can report the establishment for further investigation.

For carefully screened wildlife and conservation volunteer placements in Europe go to responsibletravel.com


Bookshop

These are just a few of the books based on data collected by volunteers who simply enjoy being out birdwatching, mammal-watching, moth trapping, etc. Click on covers for more information about the books


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The naturalist in France in winter

The naturalist travelling through France in winter can expect bleak weather with little sunshine and drizzly, icy rain. 

Paris, for example, sees an average of 37°F (3°C) and two inches of rain in January. You’ll find colder, snowier temperatures in the northeast of 37-43°F (3-6°C), and in the mountain regions of the south. However, it is milder along the coasts, 43-46°F (6-8°C) on the Atlantic (west coast) and 48-55°F (9-13°C) in southern France (Mediterranean coast).

As with most of northern and central Europe, the most obvious winter features are the birds. Large areas of water both inland and along the coast attract vast numbers of wintering wildfowl. However, a few mammals can be seen, especially in the mountains.

Common Cranes

Lac du Der-Chantecoq

Lac du Der Chantecoq is the second-largest artificial lake in Europe. It was dammed in 1974 as part of the plan to reduce the flooding further downstream in Paris. Der is from the Celtic word for Oak, and Chantecoq was the name of one of the villages now submerged. It is now an internationally recognised place for wintering wildfowl, as well as for the thousands of common cranes (above) that stop by on migration.
Information for visitors

Wigeon

La Brenne

La Brenne is an area dominated by some 3,000 lakes (actually Medieval fishponds) to the south-west of Paris. In winter, it is home to vast numbers of wintering ducks. Gadwall, shoveler, wigeon and teal mingle with scarcer species such as smew, red-crested pochard and ferruginous ducks. Up to 4,000 cranes also spend winter in this area. Information for visitors Downloadable leaflet in English

Dark-bellied Brent Geese

The north and west coasts of France in winter

The Atlantic coast of Europe is part of a major flyway for birds moving from eastern north America, Greenland, Iceland, northern Europe and Russia to wintering areas further south. The mudflats in the wide shallow estuaries, and lagoons formed by sandbars, provide stopping-off places for these migrants to rest and refuel. Some are also major wintering sites for thousands of waders (shorebirds), wildfowl and other water-birds. Where you have waterbirds, you have predators, and there seems to be an abundance of marsh harriers at most of these sites. The best wintering sites along the French coast include:

Baie de Somme – the largest natural estuary in northern France. Its vast sand, mudflats and grassy areas provide refuge during cold weather events, especially for waders and ducks. During the average winter, the Baie de Somme is internationally important as it holds over 1% of the individuals of the biogeographic populations of pintail, shoveler and common shelduck. Information for visitors

Knot

Baie du Mont Saint-Michel – has the fifth largest tidal range in the world, and includes sand/gravel beds supporting large bivalve (shellfish) populations.  Up to 100,000 waders winter at the bay, including over 1% of the populations of oystercatcher, knot, and dunlin. Marine mammals such as bottle-nosed dolphins and common seals also visit the site. Information for visitors

Golfe du Morbihan – A large, almost enclosed, estuarine embayment and saltmarsh complex at the mouths of three rivers. Vast mudflats support large areas of eelgrass (Zostera species) and an extremely high density of invertebrates. Up to 100,000 waterbirds winter annually at the site, and numerous species of migratory waterbirds stop by in spring and autumn, and nest in the area. See this post for more detail.  Information for visitors

Baie de Bourgneuf, Ile de Noirmoutier et Foret de Monts – a complex site of sands, mudflats, saltpans, marshes, reedbeds, oyster basins, saltmarsh, dunes, etc. More than 60,000 waterbirds use the site in winter. Information for visitors

Marais du Fier d’Ars –  Another coastal complex with more than 31,000 waterbirds using the site in winter. Of particular importance for dark-bellied brent geese, avocets, dunlin and black-tailed godwit.

Greater Flamingo in winter

Camargue

The Camargue, the Rhône River delta, is the premier wetland of France. It comprises vast expanses of permanent and seasonal lagoons, lakes and ponds interspersed with extensive Salicornia flats, freshwater marshes, and a dune complex. It is of international importance for nesting, migrating and wintering waterbirds. Tens of thousands of ducks, geese, swans and other water birds, including greater flamingo, occur in winter.  Other birds present include great spotted and white-tailed eagles, and penduline tit and moustached warbler – the latter apparently easier to see at this time of year.
Information for visitors

Click here for a flavour of the area from Luca Boscain

Eagle owl

Les Alpilles

Les Alpilles (the Little Alps) are easy to access – and not often snowy!  This limestone ridge provides good flying conditions for raptors at any time of year, so eagles can be seen.  But more importantly, the village of les Baux attracts wallcreepers, blue rock thrush and eagle owl (try behind the Hotel Mas de L’Oulivie) and citril and snow finches can also be found. Wallcreepers head back into the high Alps for the summer so their time in the lowlands is limited. Tourist information

Mountains

High mountains are often not the most exciting places for wildlife in winter. The sub-zero temperatures limit plant growth and insect activity. Birds often migrate to the lowlands or to warmer climates. On the other hand, there is likely to be a concentration of food around human habitation, and ski resorts can provide interesting bird-watching. Alpine choughs, alpine accentors and snowfinches, for example, forage around ski resorts, and can be observed at close quarters.

Alpine Ibex

Mammals often move to the lower slopes or seek shelter in woodlands. However, mammals may also be easier to find as their tracks are more obvious in the snow, or in muddy areas. And it’s often easier to see into the distance when vegetation isn’t in the way. This Alpine wolf-tracking holiday in France is an example of the specialist trips available.

Chamois inhabit both the Alps and the Pyrenees. They spend summer above the tree-line, but descend to around 800m to live in pine forests during the winter. In the Alps, Ibex are also found high in the mountains, Females spend the winter mostly on slopes that are too steep for snow to accumulate. However, males sometimes come down to valleys during the late winter and spring.


Bookshop

Click on book cover for more information about these books which give much more detailed information about these and many other sites

Note: Buying books through these links brings me a small commission (at no extra cost to you) which helps with the costs of maintaining this website.


More places to go nature-watching in winter

The Lauwersmeer in winter

The Lauwersmeer National Park, in the northern part of the Netherlands, provides a fantastic winter feeding ground for geese and other birds that breed further north.

Winter birdwatching in Bulgaria

The northern-most part of the Black Sea coast (near Romania) has been dubbed Bulgaria’s ‘Geeseland’. Tens of thousands of geese and other wildfowl spend the winter here, where the Black Sea keeps the climate is a few degrees warmer than further inland. Here are some suggestions for the best places to visit.


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The Lauwersmeer in winter

It was cold, bitterly cold.  The Dutch birdwatchers apologised for the cold – it wasn’t usually like this in November.  The gas stove in the camper froze overnight and I had to wait for the sun to warm things up, just to get a cup of coffee. But, it was the cold that brought the barnacle geese southwards to winter here.  And that was what I had come to see. (November 1989)

Why the Lauwersmeer in winter?

  • 68,000 barnacle geese
  • 25,000 white-fronted geese
  • 33,000 greylag geese
  • 650 Bewick swans
  • 2,450 pintail
  • 1,350 shoveler
  • 5,700 gadwall
  • 2,350 black-tailed godwit
  • 1,200 spotted redshank
  • 380 Eurasian spoonbill

The spectacle of the geese alone is enough of a reason to visit, but there is plenty more to see. Those listed are present in internationally important numbers, and the numbers are the average peak between 2006-2010.

This has also been designated a ‘Dark Skies’ area, so if there is a reasonably strong aurora borealis, there is a good chance of seeing it here in winter – if there is no moon or cloud.

History of the Lauwersmeer

With much of the Netherlands at or below sea-level, repeated flooding was a common occurrence throughout history, especially as sea levels have changed naturally.  The Lauwerszee formed after a flood in 1280, and took its name from the river Lauwers that used flow through the area. Since Medieval times, farmers have reclaimed bits of this flooded landscape on a piecemeal basis. It was only after the disastrous floods of 1953 that a large scale scheme for the area became a reality.

The options were to reinforce the existing 32km of dykes around the Lauwerszee, or to build a new 13km dam to separate it from the vast mudflats of the Waddenzee.  Local people preferred the latter (more expensive) option. The new dam, incorporating a new harbour at Lauwerzoog, was closed on 25th May 1969.

Since then, it has been called the Lauwersmeer, which is more appropriate for a freshwater lake.  New flora and fauna moved into the site, and to protect this new nature area, the Dutch authorities declared it a national park in 2003.

Teal – Anas crecca

Ecological development

Within a few years Salicornia had covered over half of the of the 5000ha of sand-flats around the Lauwersmeer.  This provided a huge stock of food for autumn waterfowl. Up to 60,000 teal Anas crecca (photo above), 65,000 wigeon A penelope, and 50,000 barnacle geese Branta leucopsis took advantage of the bounty each autumn in the 1970s.

In addition to providing food for wintering and migratory wildfowl, the Lauwersmeer has become an important breeding area for many waders.eg lapwing Vanellus vanellus, avocet Recurvirostra avosetta, black tailed godwit Limosa limosa and redshank Tringa totanus, and for raptors such as kestrel Falco tinunculus, short eared owl Asio flammeus and marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus.

As the level of salt in the soils fell, so the vegetation changed. Perennial grasses replaced much of the Salicornia by the 1980s.  In autumn this provided food for the 30,000 greylag geese Anser anser (below) which pass through on migration. They strip the seed-heads but left the grass blades untouched.  Then they moved on south, leaving the grasslands to the barnacle geese.

Greylag Geese – Anser anser

Some of the brackish areas were extensively colonised by Phragmites and Salix as they dried out. Nowadays management is aimed at a fairly constant high water table with much of the area flooded during the winter. Waterfowl and breeding waders don’t like this taller vegetation, so cattle graze the area to to keep the vegetation open and low.

As the creeks and channels of the old inlet became fresh water, water plants such as Potamogeton pondweeds start to colonise. Coot, wigeon and gadwall consume the leaves and seeds of this submerged vegetation. Then, in mid October, up to 600 Bewick swans Cygnus columbianus (below) arrive in the area to feed on the tubers, before moving on to farmland to feed on the remains of sugar beet and potatoes after harvest.

Bewick/Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus

Arrival of the Geese at Lauwersmeer

Now, in November, huge flocks of barnacle geese begin to arrive from the north.

The Barnacle geese had previously wintered in western Germany, despite being hunted there.  However, increased disturbance plus drainage of their traditional wintering grounds forced them to move.  Damming the Lauwersmeer created a large area of suitable grazing, so the geese, sensibly, moved to the Netherlands, where they were protected.

The geese can recognise the most nutritious vegetation, perhaps by its colour, and so large flocks will descend on the best fields available.  You’d think you were looking at a domestic flock in a field surrounded with wire netting. . . . Until they take flight.

Barnacle geese, with their small bills, graze on short grassland that is regularly cut or grazed in summer.  They like the fine leaves of meadow grasses, but feed principally on stolons of clover (starch rich storage roots), probing their short bills into the mat of grass stems for the stolons lying beneath.

Barnacle Geese – Branta leucopsis

Geese of all species commonly graze young sprouts of autumn grown cereals, moving onto such fields as soon as growing shoots are a few centimetres high.  After a few days a field appears brown, but the crop is not destroyed –  the shoots sprout again, often more strongly than if geese had not been there. Sheep grazing and mechanical rolling have the same effect, so the geese are saving the farmer a job!.  If grazing takes places later when the plants are taller, the crop can be set back permanently but, fortunately, geese are less attracted to taller growth.

When the other species of geese have finished with arable crops they, too, switch to grass. As the grass is hardly growing at this time of year, they cause little damage, but it is common practice for farmers to fertilise a few fields each winter to encourage early growth.  Such fields look brighter green and the geese recognise them as good feeding, then there is conflict between farmer and goose.

It is not easy to assess damage to crops; experiments use domestic geese penned on plots to simulate effect of wild flock.  The results show no measurable differences when the crop starts growing again. Much of the vegetation passes straight through the bird and back onto the ground, with only a small amount digested and the rest recycled as fertiliser. 

Often several thousand geese occupy in a single field, though counting is next to impossible when you are faced with such a seething mass.  They keep up a constant bickering, threatening any neighbour that comes too close.  The birds on guard duty (usually males) watch carefully as other large birds flew overhead. They believe in safety in numbers, so if one bird is spooked, the whole flock is spooked.  It is much more difficult for a predator to pick a victim out of a moving flock.

Barnacle geese in flight.

Watching Geese at the Lauwersmeer

It is possible to drive all the way around the Lauwersmeer, sometimes in sight of the water, sometimes just through farmland. However, the geese spend a lot of the day on the fields, away from the water, so can usually be seen quite easily from the road.

And if you are on the road across the dam, look out at the Waddenzee to, as the mudflats teem with birds – probably best watched on an incoming tide.

Other skeins of barnacles flew in, the groups getting larger as the light faded. Eventually the cold got the better of us again and we prepared to leave.  Suddenly the noise increased and half the flock took to the air in a swirling cloud, victims of their own nervousness.  Within a few minutes, they settled back into the field to feed again.


Lauwersmeer: resources for visitors

Bookshop

A Birdwatching Guide to the Netherlands

With information to over 100 sites, this is a complete guide for birdwatchers visiting the Netherlands.

PS. I haven’t seen this book myself, but it is the only one I can find in English. And also www.birdingholland.com recommended it on their facebook page.

Note: Buying books through these links brings me a small commission (at no extra cost to you) which helps with the costs of maintaining this website.


Other Barnacle Goose winter sites

  • Barnacle geese breed in four main areas: Svarlbard, Greenland, Arctic Russia, and the Baltic.
  • They move south in winter with the main areas being the Waddensee (including Lauwersmeer) for the Russian birds.
  • Other populations head for the Solway Firth (eg Caerlaverock) and Islay in Scotland, the RSPB Ynys-hir reserve in Wales, and the north-west of Ireland. 
  • You can also see smaller numbers elsewhere in Britain and Ireland, and across the northern and central Europe.

The Green Belt of Segovia

Why Segovia?

The old city of Segovia is almost surrounded by a green belt of shallow ravines, with easy walking/running paths, through trees and along a river – a lovely sheltered way to enjoy the birds, butterflies and botany, not forgetting the frogs and lizards.

Segovia is home to a unique population of urban red-billed choughs. Over ninety pairs nest in buildings and natural sites, and several hundred come to roost in the city each night.

The Roman aqueduct is probably the best-known of the ancient monuments, but there is also the cathedral, the Alcazar and a host of other cultural (and culinary) delights to the city.

The Plaza Mayor and the Cathedral in Segovia. You can watch griffon and black vultures, and other birds of prey, while enjoying refreshments in the main square.

About Segovia

Segovia lies about 100km by road to the north-northwest of Madrid, along the Camino de Santiago de Madrid – the old pilgrim route from Madrid to Galicia. Segovia is 300m (1000ft) higher in altitude than Madrid, and thankfully therefore a few degrees cooler in summer.

It is an old city, dating back to pre-Roman times. It gives the impression of a hilltop town, yet only the cathedral shows above the surrounding landscape. That’s because the ‘hill’ is a promontory within a canyon. The city walls are integrated with the rock face. The Roman aqueduct towers across the lowest part of the old city. The cathedral is said to be the last Gothic Cathedral built in Spain (16th century). If the medieval Alcázar (fortress) of Segovia looks familiar, then you’ve probably seen the Walt Disney film ‘Cinderella’. The narrow streets give the place an ancient feeling – drive a car here at your peril! There is plenty to keep the history and culture buffs happy.

Inevitably there is a new part to the city, sprawling into the distance. And new industrial areas too. But tourism seems to be the main function.

Nature-watching in Segovia

Red-billed choughs coming to roost in the evening

Red-billed Choughs

We were in town for a three-day workshop about red-billed choughs. Hard to imagine that a city could hold more breeding pairs than the whole coast of Pembrokeshire (where we live). They breed and roost in many of the old buildings, including the cathedral and the aqueduct. During the day they are mostly out feeding in the surrounding countryside. Outside the breeding season (this was a warm October) they are most easily seen returning to roost in the evening. The main roosting site varies, but from the Plaza Mayor you can see if they are heading for the cathedral, further west to the Alcázar, or any of the other tall buildings.

And while you are looking up for choughs, there’s a good chance of seeing black and griffon vultures, booted eagles, peregrines, any other birds of prey in season. Of course, there are the ubiquitous house sparrows and town pigeons – the latter causing problems for the choughs as they also nest in cavities in buildings and people want to keep them out.

The Green Belt

The path through the green belt

According to an information board, the green belt of Segovia (formed by the Eresma and Clamores rivers) was declared an area of outstanding beauty in 1947. The Green Belt comprises a series of linked parks, gardens, cemeteries, rough ground, and the rivers Eresma and Clamores. A network of compacted gravel tracks run through the green belt, alongside the rivers, through the various parks, etc, so it is all very accessible. There are also a number of drinking water fountains en route.

We started at the Terrazas de San Valentin, on the south side of the city. Here, the Clamores river is not much more than a trickle, emerging from the rocks under Segovia. It continues through the Huertas de la Hontanilla, past St Andrews Gate, through scrub and shady trees.

Then through the Area natural del valle Clamores, from where you get a glimpse of the Alcázar high up on the city walls. Even higher up, there were griffon vultures drifting across. Then the Clamores becomes a larger river, shallow and slow, with Iberian water frogs at the edge.

Just beyond the Alcatraz, the Clamores joins the Eresma, the path goes along the south bank, over a bridge, and back along the north bank, through Pradera de San Marcos.

Further along is the old Royal Mint, with a weir across the river. In the background, the Alcazar dominates the skyline.
A kingfisher posed nicely – not at all bothered by people – and a few mallard inhabited the shadier areas.

The Alameda de Parral is more formally laid out, but is still home to plenty of butterflies, birds, and lizards. Beyond that, the Senda de los Molinos continues on the south side of the Eresma, or you can follow tracks closer to the old city. The most easterly part of the green belt is the Parque del Santo Angel de la Guarda around the cemetery.

St Mary of Parral’s Monastery from the city walls at St Cebrian’s Gate

Even in October, we found some 30 species of birds along the route. Not many plants in flower at this time, except for ivy. The powerful scent of its flowers attracted a variety of butterflies, bees, and other insects.

Other nearby places of natural interest

Shady woodlands in the gardens of the Palacio Real de la Granja de San Ildefonso

Palacio Real de La Granja de San Ildefonso

This Royal Palace lies some 12km south-east of Segovia – and as a popular destination, it is accessible by bus. The palace is huge, and the gardens are amazing. Tucked into the base of the Sierra de Guadarrama, this was a summer residence. The gardens are wooded – there are specimen trees several hundred years old – and the water features are extensive. This makes it a relatively cool shady place.

The Palace itself is only open in the summer, but the gardens are open all year round and provide a pleasant general nature-watching experience. There are plenty of eating places in the village, and we had an excellent meal of local dishes at a small restaurant opposite the Calle des Jardines.

Ski resort at the Puerto de Navacerrada in the Sierra de Guadarrama, south of Segovia.

Sierra de Guadarrama

Designated a National Park in 2013, some parts of the park are accessible by bus from Segovia. It is the fifth-largest National Park in Spain, covering nearly 34,000 hectares. The Puerto de Navacerrada (37km south of Segovia) is a small ski resort with plenty of parking space, and a variety of footpaths through the woodland or over the open mountain areas. Also accessible by train from Madrid or Segovia. We found rock buntings and citril finches here, and a few late mountain flowers. Mushroom-collecting is a popular past-time. Cerule’s Rock lizard – a local species – was much in evidence – and there was an abundance of grasshoppers and crickets.

Hoces del Rio Duraton Natural Park

Hoces del Rio Duraton Natural Park

An hour’s drive to the north of Segovia takes you to the village of Sepúlveda and the incredible Gorge of the Duraton River. From the Talcano Bridge there is a gentle path alongside the tree-lined river. The walls of the gorge got higher as we went, and we had occasional glimpses of griffon vultures above, and dipper in the river.

Read a post about watching the vultures here

From the big car and coach park closer to the Hermita de San Frutos (Patron Saint of Segovia), the view is quite different. A stark landscape with the river in the gorge below, and griffon vultures by the dozen, the score, no, by the hundred! And flying past within ten metres at times. If you want to photograph griffon vultures, this is the place to do it. Then there were the butterflies – unfortunately mostly at the end of their seasons and often looking quite tatty, but proof that this site would repay a much longer visit at some other time.

Griffon Vulture

So there you have it

I wouldn’t normally go nature-watching in a city, but did so here because of the chough event. It turned out to be much more than I had expected, and there is plenty more for a future visit. I would imagine that spring is a good time – before it gets too hot. There is plenty of scope for birds and butterflies, and probably for botanising too, along the paths of the Green Belt. We explored only a small part of this.

Segovia is also a good base for visiting sites further afield, though if you hire a car, the old city is not an easy place to drive in, with its narrow streets, semi-pedestrianised areas and one-way routes. Buses and taxis seem to be the best way to get around, and there are coach trips to more distant areas.

If you (or your travelling companions) are into history, culture and/or culinary delights, there is plenty to keep you occupied here.

Two excellent books (I have them both) about birds and nature, including the Segovia area. Click on the covers for more information.

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Related posts

Madeira – The Laurel Forest at Ribeiro Frio

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The Island of Madeira is a popular stopping point for cruise ships, but where does the naturalist go to make the most of a day ashore?

If the weather is at least reasonable, I’d recommend taking a bus ride north to the mountain village of Ribeiro Frio.  The route winds its way up through Funchal, through commercial forest, then the edge open plateau of the top of the island, then down into the Laurel forest and the village.  

Best to leave the bus at the restaurant at Ribeiro Frio (just south of the village) from where there are several options for walking, birdwatching and botanising.

If this area is in the clouds, you might prefer to continue on the bus to Santana or Porto da Cruz on the north coast.

If the weather is good, another option is to get off the bus at Poiso, and walk the 4km to Pico de Arieiro near the top of the island – best in clear weather.  But leave enough time to walk back to catch the bus back.

The Madeira Islands were known to the Romans as the Purple Islands. It is likely that the Arabian sailors knew about the archipelago in the 14th Century – it appears on a 1351 Florentine map named as “Isola de Lolegname” (Island of Wood).  The official date of discovery is 1419 by Portuguese seamen.  And within the next ten years most of the endemic forests were burnt away to make room for agriculture. Some forest still remains on the steep slopes on the northern half of the island.  This woodland is most easily accessible at Ribeiro Frio.

Ribeiro Frio

Just below the bus stop a track is signposted to “Balcões”  (Balcony or viewpoint) and an easy half-hour walk leads to a magnificent view over a valley.  Alongside the path is the Levada (water channel) do Faial, and a selection of laurel forest plant species, such as Madeira mahogany Persea indica, Bay tree Laurus axorica, Madeira orchid Dactyloriza foliosa, and Yellow foxglove Isoplexis isoplexis.

The balcony itself (a viewpoint) juts out over a 200m drop. If you have visited the site in the past, and been put off by the rather rustic and fragile-looking wooden railings, you’ll be pleased to know they have been replaced by much more sturdy iron ones. Here is probably the best place for birdwatching – the endemic races of sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus granti, kestrel Falco Tinnunculus canariensis, buzzard Buteo buteo harterti, blackbird Turdus merula cabrerae, chaffinch Fringilla coelebs madeirensis, and firecrest Regulus ignicapillus madeirensis and the endemic Trocaz pigeon Columba trocaz can all be seen from here.  However, nothing is guaranteed except perhaps the chaffinches, which have learned that tourists mean food.

The Madeiran chaffinch is similar to the European chaffinch, but the male has much more blue on its flanks. The birds at the Balcões are very tame, and easily bribed with seeds or apples.

On clear days, you can see the the island’s central chain of mountains – Pico de Areeiro, Pico do Gato, Pico das Torres, Pico Ruivo and Achada do Teixeira. Even a cloudy day may allow occasional glimpses:

In the valley below is the Ribeira da Ametade, and it is possible to walk along the track at the bottom from a point some 7km north of Ribeiro Frio. There is no direct way down from the viewpoint.  This whole valley is a protected area within the Madeira Natural Park. 

Trocaz pigeons keep their distance, but can be seen with luck and patience. We saw as many from the restaurant as we did from the Balcões. They are found only in the laurel forest, and numbers are low.

This bright jewel of a bird is the Madeiran firecrest, weighing only 6g (1/4 ounce).  It is continuously active, often hidden in the vegetation, but can be very confiding, as was this individual foraging in the heather by the Balcões.

Adjacent to the gift shop and restaurant is the government trout farm, where the fish are reared to restock the rivers, as well as for food.  Here there is a break in the forest, allowing growth of flowers such as the native Erysimum bicolour to attract butterflies like the Madeiran Brimstone Gonopteryx maderensis 

On the opposite side of the road to the trout farm is the Parque Florestal (Forest Park) – a botanical garden of Laurel forest plants. Over 100 flowering plants are endemic to the island, many of them hidden within the Laurel forest. The Parque Florestal is best visited in late spring and summer, and is especially useful if you don’t have time to look for the plants in the wild, or want to check the identity of something, as most are labelled. It’s open all day, every day, with no charge for entrance.

Madeira has three species of endemic cranesbills, all with large pink flowers from spring to winter. The Madeiran cranesbill Geranium maderense (above) is endemic to the island’s Laurel forests and has flowers of 3 – 4cm diameter.

By the trout farm, concrete steps lead up to a levada path which takes you to another kind of forest – full heather trees.

Tree heath Erica arborea (above) has small leaves and white flowers with red anthers and stgmas.  It grows well above 700m, and old specimens can be 5m tall.  It was formerly used for charcoal-making, becoming quite a scarce plant.

Besom Heath Erica Scoparia maderincola (left) also grows to tree proportions, and these two species are often found growing together.   Besom heath has broader, longer needle-like leaves, and reddish bell-shaped flowers. It grows from sea level to to 1400m, and plays an important role on the island, condensing the mist into small drops that feed the water tables.  Its wood was formerly used in furniture-making, and it is still used to make brooms (hence the name besom) and fencing hurdles.  The latter are especially characteristic in the landscape around Port Moniz in the north-west of the island.

Going west from the Ribeiro Frio restaurant, is the Levada do Furado to Portela (above). This 12km hike is considered to be one of the best on the island, but involves steep drops and rock-cut tunnels, so is not for the faint-hearted.  

You also need to be aware of the time in order to be sure of catching the bus back to Funchal at the end. If you suffer from vertigo, you can still do the first kilometre or so of the walk, then turn back to Ribeiro Frio when you’ve had enough.

Further information

Tripadvisor lists a number of tour operators who provide guided walking and driving tours which may include wildlife.

Wildlife specialist operators include MadeiraWindBirds. We went on a night watch with them to see petrels and shearwaters coming to their nests after dark, and found them to be excellent and helpful guides.

Bookshop

On our first visit in 1996, we found a few books about the cultivated plants on Madeira, but nothing about the natural history.  

In 2006 this had changed, with the publication of a delightful book called Madeira’s Natural History in a nutshell by Peter Sziemer and available in several European languages. Note that this book is probably a lot cheaper to buy in Madeira than from elsewhere.

Click on the book covers for more information. We have used the ones that were available at the time of our last visit in 2016. (Buying from this source earns me a small commission, at no extra cost to you, that goes towards the cost of this website)

Levada Walks

Walking the paths beside the levadas (water channels) is a popular past-time.  If you plan to take any of these paths, please make sure you have up-to-date information.  We followed one from a 1996 book, and found the end of it had changed due to building and road works.  Another one we had followed in 1996 and found a bit hairy then, was no longer considered a safe route in 2014.

The original Levada-walking guide was Landscapes of Madeira which is frequently updated, and is now also available as a pdf for use on tablets, etc.  We would recommend this, but have not tried any of the other books now on the market.