Tag Archives: Birds

The uneasy academic and the importance of dipping outside your discipline: reflections on The Urban University conference

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It’s important for academics to occasionally move out of their disciplinary comfort zones and to interact with academics and practitioners from beyond their own silos, experiencing approaches that are alien and hearing voices that are not repeating the normative values of their own subject area.  Time spent in this way can be both stimulating and mundane, enlightening and boring, exciting and frustrating.  Above all, unpredictable.  At an ecological conference I know what I will experience; drop me into one devoted to the arts or social sciences, and anything can happen.  It’s an uneasy experience.

With that in mind I spent the end of last week attending a conference at which I was the lone scientist speaker, and indeed one of the very few people with a science background in the audience, as far as I could tell. The Urban University was sub-titled “Universities as place makers and agents of civic success in medium sized towns and cities” and was largely aimed at urban planners, architects, policy makers, and social geographers.  Not muddy boots ecologists.  However I’d offered the organisers (the University of Northampton’s Collaborative Centre for the Built Environment) a 30 minute talk about the monitoring work we’ve been doing on the bird assemblage at Northampton’s new Waterside Campus, which I discussed in an earlier post. The abstract for my talk is below, co-authored with my colleagues Janet Jackson and Duncan McCollin, plus two of our undergraduate students, Jo Underwood and Charlie Baker.

I had hoped that providing a very different perspective on the role of an urban campus, one focussed on the biodiversity it can potentially support and the ecosystem services that stem from it, might be of interest to this broad-based audience.  In the back of my mind I also thought it might be fun to reverse roles and, for 30 minutes, make them the uneasy ones.  It’s always hard to judge but I got the impression afterwards that the talk was well received and it elicited some discussion and questions.

Overall it was a stimulating couple of days and (I think) I’ve learned a lot, or at least learned more about the approaches and priorities of academics and practitioners beyond my immediate field. The talks ranged from the rather abstract to the very practical, from theoretical discussions to local activism. Particular highlights for me were:

John Goddard‘s overview of the relationship between the university and the city, and the fact that many academics don’t feel a personal link, or responsibility, to the urban centre in which they work.

Allan Cochrane discussing the unintended consequences of a university’s economic and social power, including gentrification and studentification of local residential areas.

Robin Hambleton on universities as a corrective to “placeless power”, i.e. multinational firms that can facilitate enormous social and economic change in an area despite having no geographic connection to the place.  Of course the internationalisation agenda of most UK universities means that they may themselves be in danger of wielding placeless power overseas.

Michael Edwards recounting how UCL academics and students have engaged in local activism in North London, for example fighting destructive planning applications, and sometimes positioned on the opposing side to the university itself.

Wendy Cukier on the experience of her Canadian university’s role as a “changemaker”, and the value of the Ashoka U Changemaker Campus programme, to which the University of Northampton is committed.

Cathy Smith on the medieval origins of the original University of Northampton, which was dissolved in 1265.  By happy coincidence 2015 is both the 750th anniversary of that dissolution and the 10th anniversary of the current University of Northampton’s full upgrade to university status in 2005.

The conference strongly impressed upon me the fact that academics sometimes take their institutions for granted in the sense that they don’t reflect on, or even challenge, the role of higher education within their geographical location. There may even be a danger of this becoming more pronounced as, in the rush to internationalise and chase overseas student fees, we in fact forget the physical and historical roots of our institutions.

Above all the two days I spent trying to navigate these unfamiliar waters reinforced my belief that it can be very dangerous for academics to isolate themselves within their disciplines, no matter how comforting and familiar that may be.  If the only voices that you are hearing (audibly and on the page) are the ones that are telling you stories that you already know and understand (even if you don’t agree with them) then it can be very easy to drift into a kind of disciplinary complacency in which you take the (self) importance and role of your own subject area for granted, without any external perspective on how it might be perceived by those beyond your academic boundaries.

Taking the occasional disciplinary leap could involve as little as going to a seminar in another department, or widening your reading to include areas beyond your subject.  Attending and presenting at a two day conference involves a greater commitment of time and energy, but it’s worth the effort.  It’s an approach to academia that I’ve tried to follow over the past 25 years and I’d recommend it as a way of broadening perspectives.  Sometimes it’s good to feel uneasy.

Many thanks to the organisers of The Urban University conference, particualrly Sabine Coady Schaebitz and Bob Colenutt, for their hard work in putting together such a great couple of days.  Here’s the details of my talk:

Biodiversity monitoring on urban university campuses

Jeff Ollerton, Joanne Underwood, Janet Jackson, Charles Baker & Duncan McCollin

Biodiversity, the variety of species and habitats to be found in a defined area, is a critical component of the natural world, and the ecosystem services that it provides supports modern society in economically tangible ways.  Urban campuses have long been acknowledged as supporting significant biodiversity, as evidenced by the many universities that have written biodiversity action plans.  However there has been relatively little quantitative research published on the biodiversity of British urban campuses, and how that diversity changes over time, particularly with respect to large-scale infrastructure development.  Academics and students in the Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences have been collecting data on the biodiversity of Park and Avenue Campuses for more than 20 years, including plants, invertebrates, mammals, and birds.  This talk focuses on bird diversity as birds are an indicator group for assessing ecosystems, and are arguably the best understood group of species in the UK.  We present data on the birds that have been recorded on these campuses from 1993 to 2015, assessed in terms of their UK conservation status.  We then discuss the potential impact of the new Waterside Campus on the existing bird assemblage of the site, and present preliminary data showing how bird diversity has changed since building work began.  We end by discussing whether it is possible to maintain or even enhance bird diversity and abundance at the new campus.   The location of Waterside Campus, within the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area and in close proximity to internationally important wetland bird sites, means that the University of Northampton has a civic duty to maintain the biodiversity of its campuses.

Note: in the end I actually didn’t include the data from Park and Avenue campuses, there wasn’t time to fit everything in!

Something for the weekend #6 – eco-gentrification, neonicotinoid pesticides, bees, birds, and bacteria

The latest in a regular series of posts to biodiversity-related* items that have caught my attention during the week:

  • One of the unintended (and sometimes intended) consequences of greening our cities may be “eco-gentrification”, as property prices increase and low income families are displaced – this interesting article from The Guardian discusses the phenomenon and its possible solutions.
  • The evidence against neonicotinoid pesticides, and specifically their effect on bee populations, continues to mount.  In this recent blog post, Philip Strange provides a very useful summary of the findings of some recent studies.  The latest research was also covered on the BBC News website and I was struck by this quote from Nick von Westenholz, CEO of the Crop Protection Association, which represents the firms that produce neonicotinoid pesticides:  “The latest studies in Nature must be seen in the context of ongoing campaign to discredit neonicotinoid pesticides, regardless of what the real evidence shows.”  As if that’s how science actually works! All of us scientists gang together to discredit things.  Clueless, and clearly fighting a desperate rear-guard action.  There was also some interesting expert reaction on the Science Media website that’s worth reading.
  • The tree of life just got more complex: a newly discovered phylum of prokaryotic microbes has genetic features in common with the eukaryotic domains (animals, plants, fungi, etc.) and provides clues as to how complex, multicellular life may have evolved.  Here’s links to the abstract of the original paper and to a summary on the BBC News website.
  • Finally, as I write this, the results of the General Election are coming in and it looks very likely that the UK will have a majority Conservative government for the next five years.  What that means for controversial, large scale developments such as HS2, and for wildlife, biodiversity, and the state of the UK’s ecosystems more generally, remains to be seen.  It could be a bumpy few years.

Feel free to recommend links that have caught your eye.

*Disclaimer: may sometimes contain non-biodiversity-related items.

How do animals respond to solar eclipses? Please share your observations.

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If you have been anywhere in the Palearctic during the past 48 hours then you can’t have missed the fact that we experienced that most rare of astronomical phenomena, a solar eclipse.  The eclipse was total only as far north as the Faroe Islands and Svalbard; further south it was partial and here in Northampton the eclipse was perhaps 80-90% total.

It’s been big news with lots of public interest.  As well as explaining the astronomy of eclipses, various commentators on current affairs and science programmes have talked about how animals respond to eclipses.  This is a topic that’s intrigued me ever since the August 1999 eclipse.  During that event I was carrying out field work in a Northampton grassland and as the eclipse reached its maximum the bumblebees and butterflies on the site stopped flying and foraging, and settled into the grass.  Once the eclipse had passed they carried on as before.  I don’t have any hard data to demonstrate the effect, it was purely an observation of what was happening around me.

Since then I’ve waited over 15 years for the next opportunity to observe how solar eclipses affect animal behaviour.  Unfortunately there are few pollinators flying at the moment so I had to content myself with watching the gulls, woodpigeons, carrion crows and other birds on the Racecourse park adjacent to the university.

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This time I took some video footage before, during and after the eclipse, noted the birds’ behaviour, flying, calls and singing.  And guess what? As far as I could tell the eclipse had no effect on the birds!  They behaved as if nothing was happening.  Even a mistle thrush than had been singing all morning from a perch in one of the boundary lime trees continued its song as the moon passed in front of the sun.

That really surprised me!  I was expecting the birds to at least reduce their activity as has been noted in previous eclipses.  But they didn’t as far as I could tell.  Perhaps it was the type of birds I was observing?  Or the time of year?  Or the fact that the eclipse was only partial?  Lots of questions but it’s difficult to do repeat observations for this kind of science – the next British total eclipse is not until 2090!

What did you see?  Did you notice any effect of the eclipse on animal behaviour?  Or did you, like me, see no effect of the eclipse.  I’d be interested to hear your observations.

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Monitoring the biodiversity impact of the new Waterside Campus

Waterside winter 2014-15 - 2

All human activities can potentially have an impact on the biodiversity of the local environment in which they occur.  That impact can be positive or negative, depending upon how the activity is managed, how impact is mitigated, and the metrics that we use to measure the effects that are occurring.  This is particularly true of large infrastructure developments such as big buildings,  housing developments, roads, and, a category close to home for me at the moment, new university campuses.

I’ve written before about the University of Northampton’s plans to build the new Waterside Campus on brownfield land close to the River Nene, here and here.  It’s a huge project, likely to cost in excess of £330 million on a site covering about 20 hectares.

As you might imagine, such an ambitious scheme has not been without its controversies and there is much debate within the university about changes to how we work and interact with colleagues and students, provision of teaching and research spaces, etc.  There’s also been much discussion within the town, though the general feeling amongst the public (as far as I perceive it) is that bringing the university closer to the centre of Northampton will provide a much-needed economic boost and add significantly to the town’s life.

But what effect will such a development have on the wildlife in and around this peri-urban site, given that it’s in the middle of the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area and very close to internationally important bird sites?

Over the past few months, together with my colleague Dr Janet Jackson, I’ve been taking part in meetings with the Waterside project’s landscape architects (LUC), other partners from the NIA project board, and the local Wildlife Trust. We’ve been discussing the current plans for the green infrastructure of the campus and thinking about how these can be enhanced.  It’s been a fascinating process as initial disagreements have been negotiated towards compromises and additions that everyone is happy with, balancing budgetary, function and space restrictions with habitat creation and landscape enhancement.

There’s too much been discussed to give a full account at this stage, and it’s possible that some details will change over time, but  the current Ecology Strategy document produced by LUC shows that there will be more than 10 hectares of habitat creation on the site, including species-rich grassland, woodland patches, brown and green roofs, swales and damp areas, and recreated brownfield habitat.  The latter is particularly exciting and something of an experiment, as much of the (albeit limited) current wildlife interest on the site relates to the brownfield element, including the “urban tundra“.

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To put the 10 hectares into perspective, the adjacent Wildlife Trust Local Nature Reserve of Barnes Meadow is only 20 hectares in area, so it’s potentially increasing that site by 50%.  It’s rare for academic ecologists such as Janet and myself to be able to influence large building developments, so this has been an exciting opportunity for us to make a contribution that (if all goes to plan) will have a positive effect on biodiversity conservation in the Nene Valley.

But how will we know if the Great Waterside Experiment has been a success and that the biodiversity of the new campus is at least as rich, and preferably richer, in species than it was before building took place?

Monitoring of the wildlife is key to this.  Fortunately we have some base-line surveys of birds, plants and invertebrates (including bees and butterflies) from before building started that we can compare with later surveys during and after the campus build.  That process has already started, and with my colleague Dr Duncan McCollin and with two keen second-year students, Jo and Charlie, we have already completed three winter bird surveys to get a sense of how the current site clearance and ground works is affecting the presence of birds in and around the development, including those using the River Nene.  The plan is to continue these surveys up to and after the campus opens in 2018, to give us a data series showing the influence of the campus on bird diversity and numbers.

The initial results are currently being analysed and it appears that the current phase of building has reduced overall bird diversity by about 30%, and that red and amber status birds (of most conservation concern) have been affected more than green status birds, as this figure demonstrates (click on it for a closer view):

Waterside bird surveys

These rough figures hide a lot of detail, however.  For example, there has been some addition of species in 2014-15 that were not recorded in 2012-13, including Coot, Treecreeper and the amber-status Stock dove.  More importantly, some of the amber status birds that we didn’t record on site in 2014-15, we know from additional surveys are still present in habitats within 500 metres of the development, for example Dunnock, Green woodpecker, and Bullfinch.  Similarly, red status birds such as resident Starling, and winter migrant Fieldfare and Redwing occur within at least one kilometre of the site.  Hopefully as the building work progresses towards completion these (and other) species will return, so at the moment we’re not too concerned by their disappearance from the site.

Later in the spring we will conduct a couple of breeding bird surveys, and continue surveying for the next few years until the campus opens in 2018.  Only then will we see exactly how successful our influence has been.  In the mean time I’ll report back as and when we have more data to share.

Waterside winter 2014-15

 

Clever crows!

Clever crows

Back in October I was staring out of the window of the office that I share with my colleagues, something I often do when I’m pondering a question or trying to add a tick to our “Birds Seen Out of the Window” list*, when I spotted something odd.  A pair of crows had focused their attention on a brown patch of lawn and appeared to be eating the grass.  I’m not much of a birder but I do know enough about crows to realise that grass is not a regular feature of their diet.  The same behaviour was observed a few other times after that, and on other occasions magpies were seen doing the same thing.  What could be going on?

Once I’d taken a closer look at the patch of dead grass the explanation was clear.  During our first year undergraduate induction week about a month earlier there had been a barbeque set up on that spot which had leaked hot fat onto the grass.  What the birds were eating was dead grass coated in lard, a useful source of fat to store for the cold conditions of the oncoming winter.

That’s one of things I love about urban birds such as corvids and gulls: they are adaptable and will exploit any resource that becomes available.  But how had they located the patch of fatty grass?  Were they simply exploring the lawn and stumbled across it by accident?  Seems plausible especially as they often feed on earthworms on the adjacent parkland.  Could they smell it?  The acuity of birds’ sense of smell has been the topic of considerable debate, but that’s certainly a possibility.

I was reminded to post this (originally half-written before Christmas) by a story on the BBC news website this morning about a young girl in the USA who receives gifts from the crows in her garden.  If you’ve not read it, please do: it’s a wonderful example of positive interactions between humans and the rest of biodiversity.

Crows (and other corvids) get a bad press, being often described as “evil” (surely a term that only applies to humans) and blamed for the demise of “nicer” birds – a reputation that is not completely justified, as a recent post on Kaeli Swift’s crow research site demonstrates.

So, learn to appreciate (even love) the crows in your local neighborhood; they will reward you with some entertainment as you watch their behaviour, if not necessarily with gifts.

 

*currently standing at 19 species and rising every month.

A Christmas vignette (re-post from 2013)

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First posted Christmas 2013, I thought it was worth re-posting as it’s as resonant this year as last.

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This afternoon I booked half a day’s leave to go into Northampton town centre to pick up some final Christmas gifts.  A crowd of shoppers in Abington Street was eager to lay their hands on the freebies being distributed by that traditional Yuletide apparition, The Coca Cola holidaysarecomingholidaysarecoming Big American Truck.  As red and shiny as Rudolf’s nose, it was pedalling its cheap brand of Christmas sentimentality to a willing audience.  

Shopping completed and daylight fading fast, I headed back to the multi-storey car park, again passing the Coca Cola queues, skirting them, determined not to be sucked in.

The car park was cold and ugly, as they tend to be.  But on the second floor, level with the bare crown of a tree that emerges from an adjacent pub garden, a mother and her young son stood.  Hands full of shopping bags, they had paused to listen to a male blackbird singing as the dusk drew in.  As I passed I heard them chatting about its song: both agreed it was beautiful.

Driving out of the car park I wound down my window: the blackbird was still singing.

I could give a very academic spin to this tale and talk about the cultural and spiritual ecosystem services that are provided by such birds, which nourish us in ways that no amount of corporate marketing ever could.  But I shan’t: it was a perfect Christmas vignette and a perfect contrast to the earlier soulless commerciality.  And that’s sufficient.