30 days wild -what it means to me.

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‘Never cast a clout til May is out’ – an old English saying, meaning don’t go outdoors without your coat  May is almost out now, and June heralds the arrival of the ’30 Days Wild’ challenge from the Wildlife Trust. I thought I’d take this opportunity to write down why I’ve signed up to take part.

2016 is whizzing by,  but I really wish I could slow time down. I have 4 months of my maternity leave left (I know I am fortunate that I can take this long), and I’m just starting to enjoy my life again. I have suffered with postnatal depression and anxiety after the birth of both my children, and life has not been easy.

I usually describe my mental health issues as being like J.K Rowling’s ‘Dementors’. They have sucked all hope, happiness and joy out of life, and destroyed my sense of identity. On bad days I feel useless, a failure and have a constant feeling of despair and dread. My brain flits from one idea to the next, I start a million jobs but never feel like I finish any. I put all my energy into making sure my girls never, ever notice how I feel, which is exhausting to maintain. Over time I have stopped doing things that I enjoyed previously: reading, writing, hiking. Depression sucks the fun out of everything. I have hidden how I feel from everybody apart from my partner F. It took until my second child was 5 months old before I had enough strength to ask for ‘outside help’. 2 months later, and I am just starting to feel a little bit more like my old self again. I have gradually begun to do things for enjoyments sake, blogging  and photographing nature being two of these things.

I guess blogging is my own version of  J.K Rowling’s ‘patronus spell’ (for those of you unfamiliar with Harry Potter, these spells are performed by wizards and witches to defend themselves against evil). Immersing myself in nature, thinking about what I will write about tomorrow, being creative, getting out in the fresh air, walking, teaching my two wild spirits about the world they live in … all things that will help me fend off the ‘darkness’ . I am hoping that the ’30 Days wild’ challenge will give me something to focus my efforts on, and give me something to look forward to doing with my girls.  If I’m having a bad day, I can try and achieve something small, even if it just means going outside to get a photo of the sparrows or check on the house martins nest.  I also like the feeling of being part of an extended community, who are blogging and tweeting their way through their own  30 day challenge. This sense of belonging helps to chip away at the loneliness and isolation my PND causes. I really think the next month will be an enjoyable experience, and I’m looking forward to the adventures we are going to have .

If you feel like participating there is still time to sign up here. Come and join us!

 

 

 

Welsh Wildlife Centre

 The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales,

Cilgerran, Pembrokeshire

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Last week I took the girls to the Wildlife Trust Centre in Cilgerran. I have been coming here for 2 years, and each time we visit I fall in love with the site a little bit more.

I parked the car and unpacked all of the many,many bags I now need when travelling out with a toddler and baby. Somewhere in the wood behind I could here the tak-tak-tak-tak of a woodpecker drilling away at a tree. Once I had unloaded the girls and paid the parking fee (£3 all day, free if Trust member, not too shabby) we headed up the short, buggy friendly path to the visitors centre. This is an impressive structure spread over 3 floors. It houses a shop and a glasstop café (as well as the loo!).  You can wander right out from the café onto a meadow overlooking the Teifi Marshes and Cardigan town centre. There is a nice children’s corner full of colouring activities, and a comfy Seal cushion to sprawl on whilst watching the world go by.DSC_1049

The shop also has ‘activity backpacks’ available to hire, and as the girls were in a good mood I decided we should try one . They don’t cost very much at all (£3 with a £10 deposit) and are full of things to occupy little Naturalists.  You could spend a whole day just completing the 8 activities, never mind using the rest of the kit! The activities range in difficulty from toddler friendly ‘crown making’ and bark rubbing to more advanced wildlife spotting and geocaching . We had the choice of the camo or a blue backpack, C opted for the ‘authentic look’! We took our kit up to the picnic area and spread the contents out on a table. I had a quick look through the activities and decided which were most appropriate for today. The activities range in difficulty from toddler friendly ‘crown making’ and bark rubbing to more advanced wildlife spotting and geocaching . C immediately claimed the binoculars and magnifying glass for herself, and we set off on our adventure.

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Contents of the backpack; magnifying glass, collecting jar, binoculars, map, guides and 8 activities.

From the sheltered picnic area we went to pay a visit to the giant willow badger. As we got closer I noticed something sitting on his nose- a hand knitted bee. It had a label attached to it, which rather reminded me of Paddington bear!

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We dutifully followed the instructions, and C carried the bee down the hill in her imaginary ‘ambulance’, complete with ‘nee naw’ siren!

At the bottom of the hill the path splits, with one trail heading off to the river. We took the other fork, following the ‘Explorer trail’. At 0.75km this seemed the most toddler and buggy friendly option.

 

It still took quite a long time as C kept stopping to examine things with her magnifying glass. We looked at leaves, twigs and even an ant up close. I spotted a blob of ‘Cuckoo spit’ on some plantain. This frothy liquid is produced by the nymph stage of Froghopper insects, and despite its name has nothing to do with Cuckoos.

The path winds through a blackthorn coppice and some deciduous woodland. Eventually you get a fantastic view over the whole of the Teifi Marshes before returning to the car park.

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We weren’t finished yet. C was pestering to go to the adventure playground, so we trundled off along the drive. The playground could fill an afternoon in itself. C and F spent ages on the slides, clambering on the wooden balance beams and popping in and out of the tree house. Eventually they had had enough, and we decided it was time to visit the pond.

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By now F was asleep in her buggy, and with C contentedly munching on raisins I settled on the jetty to take some photos. Whirlygig beetles careered across the surface like miniature dodgems.Metallic flashes of blue and red whizzed between the reeds, damselflies . Most of the blues seemed to be flying solo, but the Large Red Damselflies were locked together. Damselfly mating is a tricky and acrobatic affair.The male holds on to the front of the  female (prothorax), whilst she curls herself around his reproductive organs. The shape their bodies form is called a ‘mating wheel’.

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Large Red Damselflies mating.

I managed to take a few semi decent photos (and got one foot a bit soggy trying to get a ‘macro shot’) before JoJo started to stir .It was time to head back to the visitor centre and hand in the rucksack. It had been an eventful day, and both girls were asleep before we pulled out of the car park. Bonus!

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C and her magnifying glass.

 

For info on how to get here go to the Wildlife Trust website.

 

 

A walk around the garden

Some mornings I cannot get JoJo to settle. No matter what I try her little face scrunches up, she grizzles and squirms in my arms. In a last bid attempt to maintain my sanity, I usually resort to popping her into the buggy and wheeling her into the back garden for some fresh air.

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Today  is one of those days. By mid morning the sky above the farmhouse is blue and thick with bird song. Sparrows nesting in the eaves of the feathering loft chirrup and chatter as we commence our ritual lap of the garden. A chaffinch trills from its vantage point on the roof of the cow man’s caravan. We make our way across  the newly mown lawn and turn into the ruins of the old chicken shed.

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Along one of the walls our log pile is stacked, with a layer of bark and leaf litter at its base. Behind this lies the boundary hedge, a tangled mess of nettles, pink Campion, hawthorn, oak, and sycamore. Bird song drifts down from the branches above; I am an amateur with bird calls, but manage to pick out notes from robin, blackbird, chaffinch and wren. We trundle through the ruined shed and bump across a narrow slate path back onto the grass. JoJo is still awake, eyes heavy but resisting sleep. I head across the lawn towards the farmhouse. A male sparrow peeks out from the old House martin nest on the gable wall, whilst another perches on the satellite dish below. We loop past the side gate, and start to retrace our tracks.

DSC_0090A loud ‘chak-chak’ alerts  me to a jackdaw sitting sentry in a sycamore tree. It has a nest in a  hollow halfway up the trunk of this tree, well hidden from view by foliage. I push the buggy back through the ruins, jamming the wheels on a loose stone the size of a tennis ball. I stoop to release it and notice a spiders web stretching between a pile of bricks and the vacant dog house. An orb spider sits in the middle, waiting patiently for a fly.

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We continue back round onto the lawn, as swallows wheel,dive and roll above us. I walk towards the gate that leads onto the muddy cow track, and looks out across the fields to the Preseli hills beyond. A bird of prey soars above the ox park, its distinctive forked tail identifying it as a Red Kite. I pause to check on my passenger. Fast asleep! Peace reigns at last.

 

 

A log pile house

“Where are you going to ,little brown mouse? Come for a feast in my log pile house.”- from ‘The Gruffalo’ by Julia Donaldson.”

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The Gruffalo is probably C’s favourite book. We know it off by heart, and most walks through a wood entail reciting it whilst keeping a look out for a ‘gruffalo’. For those of you unfamiliar with the plot, a little brown mouse goes for a stroll through a deep dark wood, encountering various creatures before finally meeting a Gruffalo. One of the animals he meets is Snake, who lives in a log pile house beside a lake.

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On Monday  the girls and I explored our very own ‘log pile house’. We  didn’t feel like straying too far from home so decided to go for a mini beast hunt in the garden. At the side of the farmhouse we have the remains of a former chicken shed. It no longer has a roof, but the concrete walls provide shelter for our rather large log pile.

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It was created almost two years ago when we felled some large trees that were overhanging the main road. We intended to use the logs for firewood and they had been stacked neatly to dry. It turns out that we didn’t have to light the fire as often as we thought we would, and as a result the pile has been left virtually untouched. It now provides a perfect home for wildlife

Log piles simulate the conditions produced by fallen trees. They provide a source of food and shelter for mammals, reptiles, insects, amphibians and fungi. An alternative version of the log pile is the insect hotel.

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We started our hunt by looking in some of the leaf litter and bark at the base of the pile. C was very pleased by her first insect find- woodlice. She also spotted a milipede and a worm.

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Worms,slugs and woodlice under the bark.

C isn’t too keen on handling insects yet , but was happy to gently use her ‘bug collecting’ kit to scoop up some of her finds for a closer look. These little pots and scoops can be picked up really cheaply, we got ours from a high street shop. An old clean ice cream or takeaway tub works just as well.

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Practising her fine motor skills!

 

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Handy little bug ‘scoop’ (I’m sure it has a technical name too!).

I am hoping that by gently introducing the girls to ‘creepy crawlies’ at a young age  will prevent them being scared or ‘disgusted’ by them. If they learn to love them, even better!

We carefully turned over some more logs , and made sure to put them back where we found them once we’d finished.Here are some of our finds:

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I love Milipedes!

C was quite enamoured with the Milipede, and even held him in her palm after I showed her how harmless he was. She wasn’t so keen on the Leather jacket, but I can forgive her for that at the moment. Its one that ‘only a mother could love’ I think!!

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Spot the Leatherjacket! These are the larval stage of the Crane fly.

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An acrobatic ‘ Stone Centipede! Once I got him flipped back the right way up he scuttled off as fast as his legs could carry him.

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A ‘Soil Centipede’

After a short while C had had enough and pottered off to look at dinosaurs through her ‘noculars’. Next time i’m going to try and make this activity more  engaging and toddler friendly by using an”I spy” pictorial mini beast hunt with a checklist. When the girls are a little older we can try using a key to identify our finds. I’ll be sure to blog about our next adventure to the log pile to let you know how we get on!

If you want to make your own log pile here are some handy tips (or I guess you could go for the accidentally on purpose/ ‘organic’ approach like we did!!)

  • Choose a site in the shade to help the logs stay cool and dry
  • If possible site it near other wildlife areas e.g hedge or pond. This will make it easier for animals to travel to and from the pile.
  • Try and use a mix of tree species and sizes of logs to appeal to a variety of wildlife.
  • Source logs responsibly-befriend your local tree surgeon and ask if he/she has any spare.
  • Allow gaps between logs to encourage mammals and amphibians to shelter within it.
  • Let nature take over-once constructed, leave the pile sort itself out. Allow it to start to decompose to further enhance its value as a habitat.
  • After a year or so you may need to add in new logs to replace any that have rotted away.

Even simpler to build is a branch pile. Just ‘dump’ some branches in a quiet spot in the garden, and wait to see who moves in!

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Our ‘branch pile’! Here on our farm we have a ‘laissez faire’ attitude to gardening….on the plus side, lots of different micro habitats available!

 

 

 

 

 

Beetling about

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“Notwithstanding their filthy trade, the dung beetles occupy a very respectable rank.” J.H Faber.

After a rather damp and dismal morning, the sun finally appeared after lunch. As F still had jobs to do around the yard (Sunday is not a day of rest for a farmer), the girls and I went for a walk with him on the farm. We headed along the cow track to the ‘Ox park’, a field that the cows had  grazed in the night before. C was making quite a bit of noise (typical toddler) so I figured the chances of seeing any wildlife was pretty low. I was wrong-as we entered the field F motioned for me to be quiet. He had spotted a fox. It scoped us out for a few seconds before disappearing into the hedge. I was quite surprised to see a fox in the middle of the day, but F says he is seeing them more and more during daylight hours. He thinks it has coincided with an increase in numbers, which has possibly forced them out to hunt and scavenge during the day.

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The ‘Ox park’. You can see our dairy herd in the background.

C was having a great time finding cow pats to splodge in. I spent most of my time watching the ground to avoid stepping in the dung, as I had JoJo tucked in her sling. Although they might seem a nuisance, these piles of dung actually provide a valuable resource for some insects. Nearly every pat had a ‘sprinkling’ of little Yellow dung flies. These flies lay their eggs in the pats, and the emerging larvae are ‘coprophagic’ (they eat the dung!) . The adult flies feed on other insects that visit the pat.

Some pats  had lots of little shiny black beetles scurrying about on them. My entomology is a bit rusty, but I think they were Water Scavenger beetles. These beetles rely on cow dung for all stages of their life cycle. They play an important role in distributing and breaking down the dung- a ‘natural’ form of fertilising! They can be affected by the use of anthelmintics (medication used to worm cattle) , so it was reassuring to see them.

The beetles were fascinating to watch. Their tunnels snaked around under the crust of the cowpat, and every so often one would emerge from a burrow, scuttle about a bit and then disappear down another hole. I got a bit messy trying to get a closer look-next time I might try and set up a dung baited pitfall trap rather than resorting to digging about by hand!!

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Water scavenger beetle disappearing into its tunnel.

 

 

 

 

 

Withybush woods

‘Accessible walks’ – yet another thing I have become accustomed to now that I am Mummy to two small children. In deepest darkest West Wales these are quite a novelty I am slowly expanding my list of walks that are ‘buggy and toddler friendly. Two and a half years in I have a few firm favourites. One of these is Withybush woods. It ticks lots of my criteria for walks with both a toddler and a baby. There is a car park, most of the paths are tarmack  or at least easy- to- push-a- buggy on , it is a relatively short distance and has plenty of flora and fauna to keep them (and me!) interested. The only downside to this walk is that the local firing range is just through the trees, so it can be a bit unnerving at times!

The woods are located at the end of an industrial estate in Haverfordwest. They once formed part of the Withybush Estate, which no longer exists.  C was quite keen to get going on today’s adventure, and shot off down the path as soon as I got her out of the car.

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Toddler on the loose!

The sycamore trees at the start of the trail house a rookery, and the inhabitants were quite raucous today. We followed the path until we came to the first stone bridge over the stream which meanders through the woods.

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C hasn’t quite fallen in love with ‘Pooh sticks’ yet, so my offer of a game was met with a resounding ‘no!’. I had a quick squint for otter spraint or tracks, as one of the information boards listed them as a resident of the woods. I couldn’t see any , and although it does look like good otter territory the woods are a favourite with local dog walkers.The banks around this bridge were churned up and full of doggy paw prints. I would be surprised if there were any otters here. DSC_0791

The wooden bridge is quite beautiful in its own right. I love its zigzag shape. F was quite content in her buggy listening to the different bird calls that filled the air. On top of the buggy are the different leaves we collected on our walk. I hope to make a simple identification chart for the girls .

Once we crossed the bridge we turned right to carry on with our figure of 8. The path on this side is tarmacked which is super for buggies. I remember doing this stretch just a few weeks after the birth of C. I was still extremely sore from the c section, and the distance from the car to the pond seemed vast.

The lake used to supply Withybush Estate with wild duck and fish. Now it acts as a haven for a myriad of species. Today we settled on our favourite bench and watched theWhirlygig beetles shooting across the surface. It wasn’t long before we were joined by the resident family of Mute swans. The Pen appeared with her beautiful brood of cygnets. Unfortunately there were only four today – one less than we counted on our visit 4 days earlier.

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Pen and cygnet

The cygnets were having a whale of a time, splashing about and practicing diving. They reminded C of her ‘Ugly Duckling’ story book at home.

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Very downy cygnet!

The Cob was swimming nearby, fending off some Mallard ducks who dared to swim just a bit too close to his brood.

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The family stayed close by for some time before making their way back across the pond towards the nest site. You can’t see it in this picture as it is well hidden in amongst the reeds behind the Rhodedendron bush.DSC_0847C and JoJo were busy enjoying a snack so I had the chance to watch some of the other bird life. I spotted several blue tits, coal tits, chaffinches, a robin, blackbird and nuthatch within a few minutes of sitting quietly on vantage point. I could also hear the distinctive two note call of the Chiff Chaff from amongst the trees behind me. After a while the girls started to get a bit restless so we headed on our way.

A few feet further up on the bank of the lake sat another Swan. It looked like a cygnet from last year as it still had a few greyish feathers. I am suprised the pair hadn’t driven it off from the lake yet. There were also a few Coots milling about on the pond, as well as some Mallard drakes.

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We crossed the stone humpback bridge which marks the end of the lake and headed back along the path towards the car park. I tried to keep a mental tally of the different trees we passed. around the lake were sycamore,ash, beech, oak and holly. The marsh land behind the lake was covered with alder, bog myrtle and willow. We crossed the bridge and were back amongst more beech, sycamore, hazel, lime and horse chestnut trees. C was quite tired now, and wanted carrying on my shoulders. Fortunately it wasn’t long before we reached the car park. C said goodbye to the rooks and told them we’d come to visit again soon.

Nest swap

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Sparrow interloper with House Martin nest

The other morning I had to resort to using the double buggy at nap time. Neither C (2.5 year old) nor F (6.5 month old) would succumb to sleep and were becoming progressively whingey . Going for a walk seemed like the perfect solution. The motion of the buggy was guaranteed to send at least one child off to sleep, affording me some peace. I strapped the girls into their seats and listened to the bird song filling the air. The sparrows that nest on the farm yard were chattering away, collared doves were kee-keeing to each other and the jackdaws were shrieking. Within a few steps both girls were fast asleep.  As I wheeled the buggy through the garden gate  a cacophony of sparrow chirps and cheeps made me glance up at the roof of the farm house. A male sparrow sat perched on top of the sky dish, tilting his head to get a better view of the strange four wheeled contraption beneath him. His mate suddenly flew by and disappeared into what I thought was a swallows nest, attached to the farmhouse gable wall. I had seen some black and white blurs dashing across the yard for a few weeks now and had assumed  that the swallows which nest in the cowshed had returned early. However I now knew I was wrong. The birds that I had seen swooping around above the farm were actually  house martins. What a silly mistake! The only reason I realised my error was because one of them  was clinging to the gable wall a few feet above me and several feet to the left of the sparrows. There was glob of mud by the bird’s feet, and others flew in circles close by. They were trying to build a new nest.

I ran back inside to grab my camera, but when I got back the bird had gone. Only the patch of mud remained. The girls began to stir so I quickly got on with our walk.

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The view down our country lane

 

I headed out of the gate and onto the road which runs right alongside the yard.At this time of year the hedgerows are teaming with wild flowers but my identification skills are pretty basic. I can pick out red campion and cow parsley but that is about all without the help of a guide. On our return three black and white birds with forked tails perched on the telephone wires. I couldn’t get close enough to get a decent photo but I am pretty sure they were some of our House Martins.

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Three Martins on the telegraph wires.

 

The following morning I checked the site of the new nest. Still nothing apart from the first blob of mud and no sign of the House Martins.

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The single blob of mud just below the gable roof.

 

 After I settled the baby for her morning nap, I sat down at the computer to try and find some information about House Martins. I realised I knew hardly anything about them. My first port of call was the RSPB website, which has lots of easy to understand facts (great for my current ‘baby brain’ state!). I soon discovered that House Martins are a member of the ‘Hirundine’ family, which includes Swallows, House and Sand Martins. They are on the Amber list of UK bird species due to a decline in population numbers in recent years.

BBC Nature has a great guide to identifying swifts,swallows and martins . The main identifying features of House Martins are their

  • Dark blue black plumage over its head and back
  • Purely white underside
  • White rump
  • Short forked tail

More info on identification can be found here.

House Martin nests are formed from mud (which we have more than enough of on the farm!) mixed with grass. A single nest can take 1000 beak-fulls of mud to create! Nowadays House Martins are quite happy to nest under the eaves of our houses, but natural nest sites are on cliffs. There are still a handful of these sites around the UK, one of which (quite close to us) was featured on Iolo’s secret life of birds.

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One of the nests left from last year.

 

 Our farm is an ideal spot for them to nest. They like mixed agricultural land (we tick that box!) and feed on aerial insects (we have plenty of these too!). Their nests often found in ‘colonies’ of four or five close together. Sure enough there are 3 nests dotted under the eaves of our farm house. Two I remember have survived from last year, but one of these is now home to a sparrow family. Apparently it is common for sparrows to take over nests, and harass the adult birds or destroy eggs, although there are ways to prevent this. If only I’d known sooner!

House Martins are migratory birds and arrive here in April . Once Summer is over they head for Africa, though little is known about their wintering grounds. The BTO have been running a House Martin survey for the last few years in order to gain more knowledge about these birds.  I have signed up and am looking forward to participating!  I’ll keep the blog updated with the goings on of our nests. In the meantime, if you have any stories about House Martins local to you I would love to hear them.