Campus Life – Backyard Naturalist

I often wonder how people are so oblivious to the world around them. I’m not sure if its tunnel vision, or always walking with purpose that makes people blind, but I want people to notice the world around them in all its glory! I went on a Course last week, a graduate career development and progression course, and this word was thrown around a lot… AWARE. Are you aware….. Be aware…. notice everything. It made me think that there are some things I am very aware about, like the natural world and so a new project was born, out of my head, and it’s not so much a project as an ongoing expedition… of educating!

One of my many new side projects is to help people to find natural beauty and wildlife in everyday situations. Now I’ve already done some similar blog posts highlighting areas interest in my local Colchester region, however, now I’m targeting those brains who will lead our future…… STUDENTS!

Now I know students have a bad reputation for working hard but playing harder! But believe it or not there are many of those with an eye for detail but who still are clueless about the natural world. Well I’m inviting all those students to take a closer look at your campus! This isn’t just for students either, it’s for those of you who walk to the bus stop or train station or even go the full whack to work, those who walk the dogs or even enjoy a quick cigarette in the garden. Basically anyone and everyone who comes in to contact with urban wildlife…. and I mean you!

Many Universities boast bountiful grounds with forests and lakes, but how many of you have gone through your university years without ever taking the chance to utilise this resource! In my many years as a student (and yes there have been many!) I’ve spend most of my time on two campuses! The University of Essex and the University of East Anglia. Now I was lucky, both these campuses were designed in the 60’s and both designed around the brutilist architectural movement and both sit within large grounds with artificial lakes. Therefore I feel thoroughly spoiled with possibilities of nature hunting; however, you don’t need grand land to find an oasis in the desert.

Any patch of green, tangle of weeds or lonesome tree is enough to host a variety of life, if you just take the time to seek it. The early morning is the best time to catch the bird life, notice those around you and the sounds when you walk in, on several occasions I’ve spotted green woodpeckers or blue jays; I was once even spooked by a barn owl when walking home after dark! Two weeks ago I even spotted two buzzards circling the campus. Now not everyone is interested in birding and I know that twitchers have a negative association with green anorak’s and thermos’, but if you just learn a few of the more interesting species then if you ever do spot them you won’t be half pleased! Try the RSPB bird identifier as a starting point here and if you want to go all out the purchase a cheap Collins bird guide for £3.00 with postage here.

The next place to direct your eye is the patches of untamed vegetation many would identify as weeds. These grow on the edges of footpaths and in alleyways and are almost certainly encountered every day. These can often connect larger habitats and harbour interesting and rare species of plants and animals. Essex wildlife trust have even produced a handy informative leaflet, highlighting the importance of these microhabitats and identifying some species to look out for such as Greater Knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa) or the Bea Orchid (Ophrys apifera) . These serve as important pollen sources for butterflies, bees and insects.

Image Zoë Devlin, Wildflowers of Ireland

Image Deborah Latham, National Education Network

Waterways are next, seen to many as an inconvenient slurry of eutrophied inconvenience that funnels traffic over narrow bridges and tunnels. However look more closely and you might get a surprise from one of Britain’s cutest rodents (after the doormouse), the water vole, which have recently been making a comeback in to Britain’s narrow waterways and ponds. These turn up in the most unlikely of places and have been seen on my own campus at the University of Essex at the Greensted underpass and the Quays overpass!

Image Terry Whittaker, Solent

When I told some friends that there are at least four species of reptile on campus they didn’t believe me, but some photographic evidence later has got them all involved in surveying the campus to get a glimpse of these more elusive inhabitants. Personally I have seen Red Eared Sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans) a species of invasive terrapin, Grass Snakes (Natrix natrix), Adders (Vipera berus) and Common Lizards (Lacerta vivipara). I’ve also been assured that there are Slow Worms (Anguis fragilis) or legless lizards, although I’m yet to find one! To find these you need to look on a nice sunny day under things like planks of wood, roofing sheets and other materials which could make a warming home. Even a stroll through long grass could startle a grass snake which happened to me just two weeks ago, where it took off at top speeds whilst my survey buddy successfully lunged for it resulting in the capture of the biggest grass snake I have ever seen… 80cm!

If you’re wondering why I’m holding it, then don’t worry grass snakes are perfectly harmless, they won’t even try to bite, they might musk though. Musking is a defence response where the snake releases a smelly fluid which pongs a bit. Lizards are easier to spot, especially when cycling through grassy alley ways on a sunny day! do not however try catch these, it takes a specific touch to grab one without causing damage to the lizard, such as the loss of a tail, which can be detrimental if the lizard must then invest energy in regrowth using up vital stores over winter hibernation!

If you still haven’t seen much wildlife by this point then the next tip is a sure-fire way of seeing some of our coolest mammals. However, you must take to the campus at night, for these flying mammals are tucked up in bed all day and only emerge as dusk falls. There are 18 species of bat found in the UK, and I know at least 4 are found on the University of Essex campus and are relatively widespread and easy to spot. Now although you might not be able to identify them to species level as this need analysis of the echolocation print, you can definitely hazard a guess depending on their behaviour. If it’s teeny tiny and fluttering around your head, then it’s most likely the Common pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus), if it’s skimming the surface of a pond or lake then its most likely Daubenton’s bat (Myotis daubentonii). you can use this guide to listen to the different calls if you fancy a challenge at identifying them. Bats are essential to keeping pesky insects at bay such as moths and that nemesis the mosquito, they also pollinate plants and in fact have been estimate to be worth approximately $22.9 billion a year in agricultural services, plus they are pretty cool! Bats can be found all over the place, maybe even in your house, cats often catch them, if this happens wrap it in a towel and attempt to release the poor victim.

There are a range of other interesting mammals in Britain that you might not even be aware of, as much as I hate to link Wikipedia, it actually has a good species list found here. This brings me to my next unlikely spot, which my friend recently spotted hopping around the bicycle racks at The University of Essex… the Least Weasel one of 5 species of Mustelidae found in the UK along with the Stoat, Mink, PoleCat and Pine Marten. These are cute but veracious predators like the domesticated ferrets. They can hunt don’t prey as large as rabbits but mainly feast on mice and small rodents.

Image Kevin Law, The Animal Files

So now ive covered Birds, Plants, Mammals, Reptiles but there is one more group who are not the favourites for some nut include some hidden treasures, the insects.

loosely insects refer to Butterflies, Moths, Dragonflies, Spiders, Grasshoppers, Flies, Bees, and Wasps although not all belong to the Insecta class. Now some of these listed may make a few of you feel uneasy and I understand but I just want you to know that everyone has its purpose and kills things even more annoying such as mosquitos! But im not going to lie, some spiders do bite and so I understand if you get your boyfriend/mother/brother/neighbour/cat to eliminate the problem, although I prefer the humane glass and out the window technique!

On to prettier things, there are about 55 resident butterfly species in the UK and many are under threat from habitat destruction and climate change (yes climate change! It’s not just Polar Bears that will be affected!). Climate change means the butterflies move to where their ideal temperature is found which may not necessarily coincide with suitable habitat and means that previous butterfly hotspots are seeing a decline in biodiversity. Species to look out for include the rare Swallowtail (Papilio machaon) to which those in Norfolk have possibly the best chance of spotting one from May to July. The Adonis Blue (Polyommatus bellargus) which is found in chalky areas in the mid-south to south-east, Or The Pale Clouded Yellow (Colias hyale) which is an extremely rare migrant found in coastal cliffy areas. My buddy Nathalie Gilbert has this summer been running an ‘Encounters with Butterflies’ programme in Norwich to get people involved in butterfly spotting and research locally.

Swallowtail Butterfly Image

Adonis Blue Butterfly Image Jim Asher

Pale Clouded Yellow Image Guy Padfield

Bumble Bees are possibly my favourite all insects… well alongside dragonflies. They are hard to photograph, requite tonnes of patience but highly rewarding!

Buff Tailed Bumble Bee (Bombus terrestris)

Variegated Flutterer (Rhyothemis variegata)

If I havent got someone excited about spotting wildlife in their urban environment then id be quite disappointed, im already excited to see what I can see this week, my camera hasn’t had a run around in a few weeks, needs some shutter action!

If you do manage any snaps and want help on identifying, this great site sponsored by National Geographic ‘Project Noah’ can help!

Happy Hunting!

P.S a few sites where you can get involved in local wildlife

University of Essex Green task Force
Essex Wildlife Trust
Colchester Natural History Society

RSPB Events
Wildlife Extra Events
Natural history Museum Urban Tree Survey
BBC Breathing Places


3 responses to “Campus Life – Backyard Naturalist

  1. Pingback: Sharks. Shark Finning and Hunting.?·

  2. Woah! such a great way to show everyone what they have been missing all these years!
    I myself am graduating in a beautiful campus and always spend hours and hours just looking at the amazing nature!! When I decided to prove to everyone just like you, I identified around 50 different bird species inside our campus and surprised everyone 🙂

    And yeah, Project Noah is really great!

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