Monday, 8 December 2014

Winter Wildlife at Gibside

The onset of winter heralds a quiet time for much of the natural world. As temperatures plummet plants become dormant and animals must deal with a lack of food.  Yet winter brings with it some new faces and new opportunities to see wildlife at Gibside.

  • Mammals
Few mammals actually hibernate through the winter, although some, such as badgers, become less active in cold weather.

Most mammals are hard to spot, being small and elusive or nocturnal, but we can still see signs of their passing. With the wet mud and occasional snow, winter can be a good time to find prints. Look out for those of roe deer, badgers and foxes as you walk around the estate.

Badger and roe deer footprints in the mud                   
Bats are one of the few UK mammals that do hibernate, hiding themselves away inside small spaces in trees, buildings or one of the bat boxes installed around the estate. Even then, on warm days they may wake up and are sometimes seen heading out to forage or find a drink of water.

You may be lucky enough to catch a flash of white as a stoat in its ermine winter coat dashes across your path in search of a meal.

A stoat in its winter ermine coat
Gibside is home to good numbers of roe deer and they remain active throughout the winter. The best places to see deer are the quieter areas of the estate, such as the woodlands and particularly Snipes Dene. In winter their coats are a dark greyish brown and the bucks will have shed their antlers, so the males and females look similar. A good way to tell the difference between male (buck) and female (doe) is to look at the rump. Adult females have a tail-like tuft of hair called a tush, which is absent on the males.

Roe deer in their winter coats. In the background you can make out the tail-like tush on the females rump. 

  •     Birds

Birds remain active throughout winter and with food in short supply the wildlife hide is a good place to spot visitors fuelling up at the feeding stations.

In winter, populations of resident bird species are swollen by visitors moving in from colder climates to the north and east.  Along with an increase of familiar species such as robins and blackbirds, some new faces arrive – look out for fieldfare, redwing and brambling. 

Winter visitors include brambling, fieldfare and redwing 

Winter is also a time when many species of birds form flocks and communal roosts. Whilst walking through the woodlands, keep your ears open and you may detect the ‘contact calls’ of these feeding flocks as they move around looking for food.

Look up at the late afternoon skies and you might see groups of red kites circling before coming in to roost together. 

Finally, as winter moves into January, the first signs of new life begin to poke their heads above ground. Snowdrops are one of the first flowing plants to appear, a welcome portent of things to come. They can be found all over the estate, but the Ice House Wood is a particularly good spot.

Andy Mawer
Volunteer Assistant Ranger

Monday, 27 October 2014

Explore the Orangery

This week 27-31st Oct, we are testing a new short trail.  This is a chance to learn more about the Shrubbery and Orangery here at Gibside, learn a little about it's history and an insight into our planting today.

The trail has been created by our trainee historic gardener, Lisa who is taking part in the National trusts 'Passport to your future' programme.  Funded by the Heritage lottery fund it has five trainee Gardeners and three trainee Rangers at various properties across England.

If you would like to try out our trail and help us evaluate it, then please let one of our conservation team know.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

A Day Out At Aukland Castle

Aukland Castle: 9th October 2014

We didn’t recognize most people on the bus. There was Maureen and some of her pals from the Walled Garden, Andy the residential volunteer, our leader Vicky, and a handful of us from the Wednesday Conservation Group. And there were lots of other people, all volunteers. Gibside and many places like it – National Trust or not - depend on volunteers. This was the Gibside volunteers’ annual charabanc outing. Our guides at Aukland Castle last Thursday were of the familiar breed of volunteers: well-informed, enthusiastic and entertaining.

The Entrance to Aukland Castle
Castle Buildings


Carved wooden panel behind altar
Aukland Castle, home to the Prince Bishops of Durham for eight centuries, is quite an impressive place. Its chapel – converted from the Castle’s great hall - is stunning, inside and out, and full of detail – both decorative and historical. We give no further account of it here; go and see it. And whilst you’re there, have a wander in the Deer Park. We did; we saw no deer, but we did see the English Heritage cared-for Deer House, which is an extraordinary, extravagant affair – built to give shelter to deer and provide somewhere comfy for the bishop’s visitors to watch them. It’s hardly surprising that the deer keep away from the tourist bits when there’s so much shapely parkland to hide in.
The Deer House

Aukland Castle Grounds
On a day out, the coach ride matters. For those of us not familiar with north County Durham, our return journey by our driver’s scenic route - in order to avoid the rush-hour mayhem of the A1(M) - was a revelation and a delight. Tony isn’t a proper grumpy coach driver, not like they used to be in the olden days. Throughout the day, Tony was helpful, smiling and pleasant, interested and interesting. That makes a difference on a day out.
Phil Coyne & Steve Wootten

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Autumn's Bounty

Autumn is a bountiful time of year for Gibside's wildlife with trees and bushes laden with nuts, seeds and berries.  Acorns from the Avenue oaks (these are mostly non-native turkey oaks but there are a few native oaks as well) provide a feast for squirrels and jays (a colourful member of the crow family) and much time is spent by both of these caching away the surplus in readiness for leaner times ahead.  Roe deer will also take advantage of such a feast and in quiet times will visit the Avenue to fatten up on the acorns. 

Jay on Avenue searching for acorns

Female roe deer on Avenue in search of acorns

With the good summer we had this year many trees and shrubs have produced good crops of berries and these will provide food for both mammals and birds.  Badgers take advantage of this alternative food supply and many are busy gorging on yew berries.  Look out for their latrine sites (there are a number on the Avenue) and you may see some of their droppings contain mostly yew seeds.  Birds, such as thrushes, also feed on berries and can strip a bush or tree bare within hours.  Look out also for the first of the year's fieldfares and redwings arriving to join in the feasting.

Badger dropping containing undigested yew berries and seeds 

Redwing a common winter visitor

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Rutting roe deer

Late July and early August is the main rutting period for roe deer and lately there's been lots of activity here at Gibside. A 'courting' pair usually indulge in a prolonged chasing game of follow the leader, the doe leading followed closely by the buck, often nose to tail.  During this chase they will often, on reaching some prominant object such as a tree, bush or stump circle it many times creating a well-worn track known as a 'roe deer-ring'.  Occasionally this may involve more than one object and a figure of eight may be formed.

Ring around a tree stump

Figure of eight and rings around tree-shelters

Thursday, 17 July 2014

My Work Experience at Gibside

My Name is Rosie Plunkett, I am a year 10 pupil at Lord Lawson of Beamish Academy. I came to Gibside for my work experience (a week away from school in a working environment to have a taste of the world of work.) While I was working I decided that I wanted to do a small blog about my time here and add in pictures that I had taken. As a took GCSE Photography at my school it seemed like a great opportunity to document my time here. I hope you enjoy reading about it as much as I enjoyed creating it.

On my first day, I was working with Phil (a ranger) and Andy (a volunteer ranger) I was made to feel very welcome and was told roughly about my schedule for the week, so I was well prepared! One of the first things we did was go on a walk through Gibside that took us along the avenue and down to the river, this was to check up on things, like flower growth and to make sure nothing was out of place. It provided an excellent opportunity to get some photos and as it was such a nice day the lighting was really lovely to capture. After lunch I was taken for a tour around Gibside in the landrover, whilst out we saw a buzzard and a roe deer. All in all it was an amazing first day.

For day two I was working with a ranger called Vicky. We spent the morning going round to all of the first aid kits in Gibside to check that they were up to date and had all the appropriate equipment. This didn't provide much of a photo opportunity but it did give me an experience of working in the more public side of Gibside. Just as we were going to have a small break Vicky got a call from the Stables saying that a swallow had accidently flown into the cafe and couldn't find its way back out. So we went up in the landrover to see if we could give it a hand. It took some time but eventually the swallow was captured and after it was given some time to recover was released back into the woods. It was such a good opportunity to get close to such a pretty bird and I loved seeing it up close. In the afternoon Vicky and I did a butterfly survay to document the amount of them in Gibside. This will help to document the population in Britain and what types turn up were and when, this was also a brilliant opportunity to photograph the butterflies.

On Wedensday (day 3) I was working with Phil again to trim up bracken up near the top of the avenue so the heather wouldn't be swamped and killed. It was tiring work and sore, but it was satisfying to see the progress we had made by lunch time. In the afternoon I worked in the office on my blog for a while, until Vicky took me to help with the catering van that needed to be brought to the Chapel for the evening event of an outdoor Shakespear play that was taking place that night. There wasn't much opportunity to do any photography that day, but it was still a fun day full of learning and activty! That night me and my Dad were lucky enough to be invited to go badger watching with Phil and Andy, We saw 4 badgers and one came as close as 3 meters away! It was such an amazing thing to see real badgers and I got so many amazing photos! 

On day four I worked with Lisa and the garden team in the walled garden and Orangery. At first we were in the green house watering the plants, but then moved on to the Orangery to work on weeding and touching up the plants, and the before and after result was amazing! I got some lovely shots of the Orangery and as it is one of my favorite places in Gibside, I love photographing it!

On my last day I worked with Vicky again, we cleared bracken from the nature playscape and cut dock and hogweed from an area near the walled garden in preperation for the grass cutting that will be taking place in the next week or so.

I have had such a fun time working at Gibside over the last week. I have learnt lots about Gibside and the world of work. I really enjoyed the relaxed and peaceful atmosphere and it was such a nice place to be!

 I took so many photos this week that they couldn't all fit on the blog, so here are some of my favorites from the week...

The swallow we rescued, recovering from its ordeal


Looking up into the branches of a pine tree in the forest

Common Spotted Orchid overlooking the ruined Hall

Hogween next to the Avenue

Photoshoped picture from working in the Orangery

Outside the Orangery

Small Tortoiseshell butterfly from the survey

Common Blue Damselfly

A badger 3 meters away from us on our Badger watch

Another Badger from the watch, finding the nuts we layed out

People enjoying the sun on the Avenue outside the Chapel

A Broad-bodied Chaser Dragonfly

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Not Many Snakes

2nd July 2014

Walking beside The Avenue, we sought out a patch of helleborine in the hope that their flowers would have opened; they hadn’t. These fairly inconspicuous members of the orchid family have spread from the other side of the track. Numbers are not great, but they are on the rise. Other orchids – mainly common spotted – littered our way. Continuing through the Hollow Walk, numerous butterflies – ringlet, meadow brown and the occasional small skipper – distracted us. But we were going somewhere else.
Common Spotted Orchid

Ringlet Butterfly

Meadow Brwon Butterfly
In the three weeks since we last visited this particular patch, the bracken and nettles had grown dense and high – up to two metres in places – requiring us to scythe a path through. What should have been a simple task at times had the makings of a jungle expedition. The nettles really hurt. But we managed.

Dotted around Gibside, largely out of sight of visitors, are a number of sites managed to encourage grass snakes to bask and breed. These sites consist of a number of artificial cover objects (ACOs) – that is, bits of corrugated iron, and nest heaps. Ideally the site should not be too far from water and also be near somewhere suitable for hibernation, such as a log pile. The ACOs offer grass snakes somewhere to warm up and get going for the day; the piles of warm, rotting vegetation that make up the nest heaps are intended to provide a suitable temperature and environment for the snakes to lay and hatch their eggs.

Our purpose in cutting our way through the jungle was to inspect the sites to see if we could spot any snakes, and to peer under the ACOs for signs of activity. Clearly, by the time we had hacked our way through, any creature capable of escape would have done so. And they had. As always, there were exceptions. Ants and spiders, of course, pay little heed to human activity, and toads presumably think it safer to stay put and not attract attention. The presence of toads under a number of corrugated covers was a sure indication that grass snakes hadn’t visited recently; grass snakes like to eat toads.
Common Toad

The other creatures, apparently oblivious to our being there, were vast numbers of Peacock Butterfly caterpillars dripping from their stinging nettle hosts. Black and numerous, they are one of nature’s less attractive sights, and give no hint of the beautiful adults they will become.
Peacock Butterfly Caterpillar

Peacock Butterfly Caterpillars on Nettle Leaves
 We’re not entirely sure that grass snakes appreciate our efforts to make them welcome in the neighbourhood. Up to now we haven’t seen a single grass snake although, a few years back, decaying eggs were uncovered in one of the nest piles. So they are around somewhere, perhaps.

Phil Coyne & Steve Wootten




Sparrowhawk feeding post & a tree-hugging badger

Sparrowhawks are busy feeding their young chicks at present and prey is usually brought by the male to a site close to the nest, often a fallen tree or stump, where it is collected by the female.  I recently sited a camera close to such a site and caught lots of great shots of this behavior.

Badgers are a favourite of mine and I often spend time unwinding after work sitting close to one of their setts watching them.  A couple of handfuls of peanuts & raisins hidden under logs and stones reveals how resourcful and determined they can be when foraging, moving and turning over heavy obstacles to get at food.  Below is a badger climbing a tree to reach food wedged in bark crevices.


Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Gibside's raptors

Gibside is home to four resident species of diurnal raptors (bird of prey).  Red kites are the largest of these, followed by the buzzard, sparrowhawk and kestrel.  These birds usually use the same nesting territory from year to year, with some even using the same nest.  Last year was a poor year for many nesting birds, with early spells of cold, wet weather and failures among raptors were high with some not even attempting to nest.  Two pairs of kites nested here last year but unfortunately both failed to raise any young and when this occurs it often prompts the pair to move to a new location the following year.  As a result we only had one pair nesting this year in a new location, the other having moved to a new area off-site.  Gibside's pair successfully fledged two chicks and these were recently rung and wing-tagged by FORK (Friends Of Red Kites) members for future identification.

Tree surgeon climbing tree to kite's nest

Red kite chick being rung

Red kite's feet with ring on leg

Young kite after ringing and tagging

Adult kite with wing tag

Buzzards have been very successful in spreading throughout the Derwent Valley in recent years and Gibside has three nesting pairs.  This year two nests have produced three chicks with the third as yet unknown.

Young buzzard recently fledged from nest

Sparrowhawks are a particular favourite of mine, and being later nesters most will only be hatching eggs now or will have very recently.  Last year two pairs bred but only one was successful, raising three chicks. 

Sparrowhawk nest with three chicks 2013

Most years two to three pairs of kestrels nest here and occasionally they have used nest-boxes designed for tawny owls.  None have been used this year however, with owls and an odd pair of stock doves in most of them. 

Young kestrels from an owl box