Going native on Dartmoor
Published: Jul 28, 2017Recently, Zoo staff have been visiting the uplands of Dartmoor at the crack of dawn - but why?
As a charity, we’re involved in work with many native species, from dormice to cirl buntings and whitebeam to seahorses. In addition, many Zoo staff are keen birders who are happy to help local projects. That’s why some keepers from the Paignton Zoo Bird Department recently found themselves high up on Dartmoor at the crack of a summer dawn searching for birds.
We’re looking into the possibility of supporting the population of pied flycatchers on Dartmoor, with the aim of expanding their nesting range. Paignton Zoo Senior Head Keeper of Birds Peter Smallbones recently organised several long days in Holne Wood looking for suitable nest box sites. All of our data will be shared with organisations such as the British Trust for Ornithology and the University of Exeter. On different days, Pete and Head Bird Keeper Ian Grant were on the open Moor by 5.30am.
We are working in woodland near Holne on the south side of the River Dart not far from New Bridge. The mature woodland supports some of our specialist migrant birds, such as pied flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca, wood warbler Phylloscopus sibilatrix, tree pipit Anthus trivialis and redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus.
There are already nest boxes in one part of the wood, so we won’t be working in that area. As we move south from the sessile oaks Quercus petraea of that area, the trees become more mixed and open, with deciduous trees such as beech, birch, ash, hazel, rowan, holly and alder. Pied flycatchers usually nest in holes in mature oak trees and feed on ants, bees, spiders and similar.
We have identified three areas with suitable habitat for pied flycatchers. These locations will be the main sites for our nesting boxes. The southern section of woodland nearer to New Bridge is not ideal. The wood is less mature and there are a higher number of visitors to that area. We will only install a low number of boxes to monitor the take-up. On the north side of the River Dart there are more sites to be surveyed before we make the final decision on nest box placement. There are some smaller patches of woodland that warrant a good look.
To a different project in a similar area. Zoo staff have also joined up with the Dartmoor Upland Bird Nest Group - a clutch of skilled bird enthusiasts dedicated to studying the breeding of moorland bird species on Dartmoor - local landowners and professional bodies such as the RSPB, Dartmoor National Park and the University of Exeter.
Their area of interest is the open moor on the south west side of Venford Reservoir. This is perfect habitat for ground-nesting birds. For many years, this part of the moor was mined for tin and is now a maze of clefts, pits and rocky outcrops, ideal for these species. Researchers at Exeter University have been carrying out bird nesting surveys for a few years and have monitored cuckoos migrating between Dartmoor and Africa. The Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust is funding part of the project and Paignton Zoo staff are helping with the groundwork.
We found the nests of birds such as meadow pipit Anthus pratensis, skylark Alauda arvensis, whinchat Saxicola ruetra, stonechat Saxicola torquata, willow warbler Phylloscopus trochilus, cuckoo Cuculus canorus, goldfinch Carduelis carduelis and reed bunting Emberiza schoeniclus.
It’s good for zoo staff to go off-site and work with other conservationists; it’s also good for them to put their knowledge and experience into local wildlife projects. Even if they do have to get up early to do it!
Jo Gregson, Paignton Zoo Curator of Birds