Millport field course by Gavin Arneill

P3

After our 6 days at the FSC marine research centre in Millport, I think it’s fair to say all fifteen of us students that went really enjoyed ourselves.

Leaving Cork on Tuesday morning, we landed in Glasgow international airport after only an hour’s flight. A short bus trip down to Largs gave us a chance to taste the wonderfully healthy deep-fried everything from the local chipper! After a few minutes on the boat, we were on the Isle of Cumbrae. We had a chance to drop our gear to the rooms before heading out to White bay for a couple of hours on the shore looking at species richness in rock pools of different sizes (note: no zonation was studied on this visit!).

During Tuesdays White Bay visit, Dr Rob McAllen, Dr Sarah Culloty, Prof. John Davenport and Mary-Catherine Gallagher collected a few organisms that would make up the following morning’s activity. After the Rocky shore ID Wednesday morning, we went down to Kames Bay for the afternoon to assess biodiversity on the sandy shore. It only made sense that Meadhbh, the smallest of the group, digs out the box cores! We carried out two transects to test the effect of freshwater run-off on the sandy shore biodiversity.

P1

Thursday morning, we hit the sea to carry out a Beam Trawl and a Grab sample to study the subtidal fauna. After the two groups had been out on the boat, we identified all organisms (50+ species) as a group. In the afternoon, we looked at plankton samples taken during the boat trip, as well as a lecture on Leatherback Turtles by Prof. John Davenport.

Friday morning, we had an ID test, where 36 of the many organisms we encountered on the previous days were on display in the lab for us to ID. The remainder of the work was focused around our individual projects, where in most cases we worked in pairs. The projects ranged from shell selection in the Hermit Crab Pagurus bernhardus to Cockle dropping in Carrion Crows.

P2

Saturday, we finished up our projects by 16:30 and cleaned up the lab. After dinner that evening, we went into town to witness the September weekend festival in Millport. With a few thousand people on the streets, a number of performances that can only be described as “interesting” and a 20-minute fireworks display. It was a good send off as we left the island the following morning for a mid day flight back to Cork.

A bit of advice for the Zoology/Ecology students yet to reach fourth year, ZY4020 Temperate Marine Biology is a good module, do not be put off by the words “rocky shore” – the fieldwork on this course we hadn’t done in first, second or third year.

P4

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off

Going to Bird Island, in search of seals

Photo 9 - Blonde puppyHi there. My name’s Cian Luck. I graduated from the school of BEES in UCC with a BSc in Zoology in 2012, and was lucky enough to spend the following year in BEES completing a research masters on the diets of grey seals and harbour seals in Irish rivers. During the masters I got a bit hooked on seals and now here I am, working for the British Antarctic Survey, monitoring Antarctic Fur Seals and Leopard Seals on Bird Island, South Georgia. Perhaps that was a lot of information in one sentence. I’ll start with where I am.

Bird Island is a small island off the western tip of South Georgia, in the Southern Ocean. It measures just under 5 kilometres long and 800m wide at its narrowest point. While its latitude puts it at 54°South we have the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC) to thank for bringing the Antarctic climate to our doorstep. There are a couple things that make Bird Island such a unique and interesting dot in the Southern Ocean.

  1. Bird Island is rat free. South Georgia has long had a huge rat infestation problem (since the old whalers brought them ashore). The rats decimated any ground nesting birds they came across, which was a lot. Bird Island is a rat free haven, home to a wide range of bird species, none quite as charismatic as the enormous Wandering Albatross. Roughly 10% of the world’s wanderers call Bird Island home.
  2. Much of the wildlife (seals and penguins) on Bird Island is dependent on krill. While the waters around BI have a multitude of krill, none of it breeds here, but instead breeds down near the Antarctic continent, and is then swept up to us by the ACC.

 

A view of Bird Island taken from the top of Tonc, looking back towards La Roche, and South Georgia in the distance (photo by Jerry Gillham)

A view of Bird Island taken from the top of Tonc, looking back towards La Roche, and South Georgia in the distance (photo by Jerry Gillham)

A Wandering Albatross coming in to land on Wanderer Ridge (photo by Cian Luck)

A Wandering Albatross coming in to land on Wanderer Ridge (photo by Cian Luck)

 

In summer we can hold up to 10-12 on base and in winter we fall down to 4 people. Our nearest human neighbours are the folks at the BAS base at King Edward Point (KEP) over on South Georgia (about 8 hours away by ship), and after that the nearest humans are 1,000km away in the Falkland Islands. Instead we’re surrounded by hundreds and thousands of seals, penguins, and birds of all sorts. Our base sits on Freshwater Beach. During the fur seal breeding season we get surrounded on all sides by BIG rowdy males, females calling for their pups, and puppies shouting back. Sleep can be hard to come by at first.

My job title is a Zoological Field Assistant (ZFA), and I’m tasked with maintaining the long-term monitoring of the seals that’s been going on here for the past few decades. During the summer, pretty much all of my time is taken up with the fur seals, with December being a particularly busy month. We have a Special Study Beach (SSB, sorry about all the acronyms, you’ll catch on quick) that’s an enclosed section of beach with a raised gantry that allows me to access the seals without losing an arm or leg. Throughout the breeding season I visit this beach twice a day, every day. Among many other things, I map out which males are holding territories where on the beach, how many females are on the beach each day, and each pup born on the beach gets weighed, sexed, and is given an individual PIT tag (similar to the microchip you might put in your dog). We also give the pups flipper tags once they’re a bit more grown up, in the hope that we can identify the ones that survive long enough to come back and breed on SSB in later years.

 

A snow covered Special Study Beach on Christmas Eve (Photo by Cian Luck)

A snow covered Special Study Beach on Christmas Eve (Photo by Cian Luck)

A male fur seal stubbornly defending his territory against the tide on SSB (photo by Cian Luck)

A male fur seal stubbornly defending his territory against the tide on SSB (photo by Cian Luck)

 

Fur seals make brilliant mums, but they’re just not big enough to stay with the pups the whole time from birth to weaning. They have to regularly go to sea to feed and return with fresh milk to feed the pup. Each year we monitor how long the mothers leave the pups unattended by fitting a number of mums with radio transmitter tags that tell us when she’s ashore and she’s at sea.

 

Puppies are serial nappers (photo by Cian Luck)

Puppies are serial nappers (photo by Cian Luck)

On top of this, we constantly monitor the fur seal diets by collecting fresh scats each week and sifting through the contents. Not only is this a glamorous job but it’s hugely insightful. By looking at the mean size of the krill in the scats we can keep tabs on the health of the krill stock the seals are feeding on.

There’s plenty more fur seal work that keeps me out of trouble for the summer but those are the big three jobs. In winter, my focus changes from fur seals to leopard seals, which only arrive around May. My main job then is the daily leopard seal round where I walk the same route along the beaches and photograph any leopard seals I meet. This gives us some insight into their behaviour and allows us to build a comprehensive photo-ID database, which we can then use to identify any returning leopard seals and new faces.

 

Gil’s not big on sharing food (photo by Cian Luck)

Gil’s not big on sharing food (photo by Cian Luck)

Maurice showing off his spots (photos by Cian Luck)

Maurice showing off his spots (photos by Cian Luck)

 

When I’m lucky enough to meet a lep on land, after I’ve taken my photos, I approach it as quietly as I can (I’m more clumsy than stealthy), and try to measure it. Obviously these guys are top marine predators, so I can’t quite run a tape measure along its back. Instead, I place two walking sticks, one near the nose (this is fun) and one at the tip of the tail, and I then measure the distance between the two. Close enough. Finally, unless a previous seal assistant has beaten me to it, I give it a flipper tag, and then move swiftly away. This requires a lot of stealth and a very sleepy seal; two conditions that are rarely met. Tagging (a) helps us ID the lep in future, (b) provides us with a little skin sample for genetic analysis, and (c) allows us to sometimes deploy geolocators on the tags; if we’re lucky enough to get these back we can find out exactly where the lep has been.

 

This was as close as Max would allow us (photo by Cian Luck)

This was as close as Max would allow us (photo by Cian Luck)

Now that winter is drawing to a close, my leopard seal sightings are coming fewer and farther between, and soon I’ll be getting ready for the fur seal season which kicks off again in November. I’ve been on Bird Island since November of last year and I’ll be here until next March or April, depending on what the ships are doing, when I’ll hand the job over to the next ZFA in line. Time moves strangely here but I’m sure by the time the ship comes to take me away, I won’t be ready to leave.

You can read more of my blog here

http://cianluckthesealofapproval.blogspot.ie/

or if you have any questions you can reach me at

ciack@bas.ac.uk

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Comments Off

Bottlenose Dolphin Research in Spain

bnd1by Mary Kate Bolger

The Bottlenose Dolphin Research Institute (BDRI), run by Bruno Diaz Lopez, focuses on the conservation and research of dolphins in Northern Spain. The BDRI offers students the opportunity to participate as a volunteer, intern, or to take part in a field research course. I was lucky enough to be accepted into a field research course in monitoring coastal bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) populations.

After traveling to O Grove, Galicia, where the institute is based, I was thrown straight into life in the lab. We immediately went out on the boat and within twenty minutes there was more than 20 dolphins around us! Most dolphins enjoy bow riding, but in order to observe their natural behaviour we had to stop the boat so they would ignore us.   After a few hours on the boat we headed back to the lab where the interns began photo identification and transcription while I headed into my first lecture. I learned all about cetaceans in general, the marine environment, monitoring methods, photo identification, bioacoustics, stranding procedures, conservation, and statistical analysis.   I also helped out in the lab with photo identification, we even got to examine the fetus of a common dolphin!

bnd2

The course took place over ten days and we got to go out in the field whenever the weather was calm. I learned that wind is highly important in cetacean research, if its too windy then it is difficult to spot the dolphins and this introduces a bias into the data. While out on the boat, everyone had different jobs. The person in the back of the boat was in charge of taking GPS co-ordinates every 5 minutes and also had to scan the area behind the boat. The people at the front of the boat and on the top deck had to scan the areas to the front and sides of the boat while taking environmental surveys every twenty minutes. During these surveys all environmental factors had to be measured such as wind speed, depth, water temperature, visability, etc. These are highly important factors when monitoring the behaviour of bottlenose dolphins.

This course was an amazing experience and I got a great insight into the world of field research. I highly recommend it to anyone who shares my interest and passion for all cetaceans!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Comments Off

AMIGA Summer School: Environmental Risk Assessment of GM crops

by Ciara Beausang (Environmental Plant Biotechnology 4)

The AMIGA project, “Assessing and Monitoring the Impacts of Genetically modified plants (GMPs) on Agro-ecosystems”, is an EU project which is ongoing in a number of European countries, including Ireland. This project aims to provide information about the impact of the cultivation of GM crops in Europe. I was lucky to have the opportunity to attend the recent “AMIGA Summer School” that took place in Carlow from the 2nd to the 5th of September.

AMIGA Summer School participants

AMIGA Summer School participants

The theme of the summer school was Environmental Risk Assessment (ERA) of GM crops. This was a really exciting topic for me, as I am currently in my final year studying Environmental Plant Biotechnology in the School of BEES, UCC. GM crops have been a bone of contention for some time in Europe. Currently just one GM crop is cultivated in the EU: Maize Mon 810, which is resistant against the European corn borer. In June of this year, the European Council reached political agreement which will give Member States the option to restrict or ban GMO cultivation in their territory. However the authorisation for GM crops has not changed; risk assessment is still carried out by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

The summer school took place in the wonderful setting of Teagasc Crop Research Centre in Carlow and was organised by Dr. Ewen Mullins, a senior research officer at Teagasc. Attendees came from all over the world; Argentina, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Sweden, Romania to name but a few, and had a wide variety of backgrounds; from Masters to PhD students and professionals working in research institutes, universities, state agencies and Biotech companies.

Over the 4 days we had fantastic lectures from experts in the AMIGA project, including Dr. Salvatore Arpaia, the project co-ordinator. The information we gained on statistics, post environmental market monitoring, and communicating the results of GM crop ERA’s was put to good use as we were divided into groups, assigned a specific GM crop, and were tasked with preparing the basis for an ERA . In our case, the crop was Fusarium resistant wheat. We certainly put the speakers’ knowledge to use, asking them as many questions as we could about our crops! We also had the chance to learn in the field with the Blight resistant potato trial that is currently taking place at the research centre in Carlow for the AMIGA project.

On our final day a representative from each group gave a presentation to highlight our main findings over the 4 days. I had the chance to speak for my group, a daunting task as I was the youngest participant, and the only undergraduate in a room full of experts! But I am glad I had the opportunity. If there is one thing I can take from the summer school, it is that the communication of scientific results is as important as the results themselves, particularly in the case of GM crops.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Sea Turtle Protection in Greece: BEES Work Experience

turtle2by Sammy Ball

After spending 62 days working with Archelon- The Sea Turtle protection society of Greece- on the beautiful island of Zakynthos, I can honestly say that I have had the experience of my life. The organisation deals primarily with the Loggerhead sea turtle, Caretta caretta and works hand in hand with the marine reserve present in the bay of Laganas. Every morning we would be down on the beach for 6am to monitor the turtle activity that took place that night. We would GPS all the tracks on the beach and dig in the sand for the eggs if we had a nest. Sometimes digging could last for an hour, but everytime we uncovered the top egg it was so rewarding! If the nest was in an area with lots of tourists, we would put a wooden cage on top to protect the eggs from being trampled.

The project at Zakynthos has a big public awareness programme where volunteers would work on information kiosks, give informative presentations at hotels and go on turtle spotting boats to provide information to the tourists on the boat and to record the violations and turltes swimming in the bay. This programme gave me a really valuable insight into how important public awareness is within a conservation programme and that a project such as this one can not exist without the generosity of the public. The public awareness work was always great fun and was a fantastic opportunity to get the tourists as excited about the turtles as we were!

turtle3

My favourite part of the project was the night surveys that were carried out on three of the beaches in the bay. One of which was a private, secluded beach that the public had no access to. During these surveys, we would keep people off of the beaches, but the most exciting part was that you got to watch the turtles laying their nests! We would also take down any tag numbers, measure their carapaces, and check both the flippers and carapace for injuries. It was a fantastic experience to be so hands on with the turtles! Occasionally we had nesting turtles that were missing flippers and we had to help them dig their egg chamber in the sand. On one night in particular, I helped a female who we nicknamed ‘Shelly’ to dig, as she is missing her entire hind right flipper and she laid her eggs! This was the most rewarding part of my time in Greece as it can be very difficult to get turtles with missing flippers to nest.

turtle1

Towards the end of my time at Archelon, the first nests of the season begun hatching and I am lucky enough to say that not only did I find the first hatched nest of the season, but that I was also the first person to see the little hatchlings themselves! Nineteen black little hatchlings, the size of a matchbox, emerged from the sand at about 7am and scurried down to the sea. It was a fantastic way to wrap up my time at Archelon and I would highly recommend the journey to anybody with an interest in conservation or marine life.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Comments Off

Feathered Dinosaurs: Questions and Answers

Dr Maria McNamara (Image: UCC/Tomas Tyner)

Dr Maria McNamara (Image: UCC/Tomas Tyner)

BEES scientist Dr Maria McNamara is part of an international research team who published a paper on a new species of dinosaur this week. The discovery suggests that all dinosaurs were feathered. More on this story here.

How do we know how old the dinosaurs are?

The Kulinda locality is Middle to Late Jurassic in age, about 169-144 million years ago, and probably in the older part of this range, say from 169-150 million years ago. Its age is established from regional mapping in Siberia and from preliminary K/Ar dating. The Kulinda locality rocks belong to the lower part of the Ukureyksaya Formation, which covers large areas around Kulinda, and this geological formation (body of rocks with a certain thickness and geographic extent) is dated from associated plant and insect fossils which can be compared, and correlated, with fossils from other places to give the age. More exact study is needed, and perhaps some radiometric dates from the volcanic rocks at the Kulinda locality to narrow down the age range more closely.

How does the age of these specimens compare with that of other feathered dinosaurs?

The Russian feathered dinosaurs are similar in age to some of the feathered Chinese dinosaurs, such as Anchiornis from the Tiaojishan Formation in NE China. In fact, neither the Russian nor the Chinese rock formations are really well dated, and it will take further work by geologists in both China and Russia to determine the ages of the rocks better, and then to discover whether the Kulinda or Tiaojishan fossils are older.

What environments did they live in?

The Kulinda dinosaur bones are associated with abundant, well preserved fossils of plants, insect larvae, and freshwater crustaceans that suggest deposition in a low-energy, likely lacustrine, fresh-water environment. Probably Kulindadromeus fed on the plants that are found with it, including conifers, seed ferns, and horsetails. The dinosaur bones are not in the form of complete skeletons, which indicates that the bones have been transported by rivers, but not far, because some elements are associated, such as bones of an arm or leg, and the skin, bearing scales and feathers, is close to the relevant bones.

How are the ‘feathers’ preserved?

The feathers and scales are preserved as carbon-rich films on the rock. These show three types of scales on the lower legs and along the tail, and three types of feather-like structures. The carbon within the feathers and scales appears to have survived (but not necessarily the original biomolecules such as proteins), and so the fine detail of the scales and feathers is preserved with high fidelity.

Why are the feathers preserved?

Normally hair, scales, and feathers disappear during fossilization. This usually happens very early in the long road from the dead animal to the fossil. After the dinosaur died, its carcass would have been picked over by scavengers, including flesh-eating dinosaurs, and perhaps some early mammals, as well as insects. These might well remove all flesh from the bones over a week or so. In the case of the Kulinda dinosaurs, their carcasses did not undergo this scavenging phase, but they were probably washed away by a river and dumped on a slow-moving stretch, perhaps at a bend in the river. They were rapidly covered with muddy sand, and, together with plant and other debris, quickly buried. The mud seems to be still rich in organic matter, so this suggests that there was not a great deal of oxygen in these river-bottom sediments, and the whole site might have been black and sulphurous, so inhibiting further decay.

How important is this new locality?

The Kulinda locality opens a new window on ecosystem evolution. Middle Jurassic terrestrial sites are very rare worldwide, being known mainly from England and China so far. To find a nearly complete ecosystem, from plants to dinosaurs, is very exciting, and each group of fossils requires detailed study. The fossils are also immensely abundant – there are dozens of dinosaur individuals represented – so a detailed ecosystem reconstruction can be made. Of course, to find diverse feather types in an ornithischian dinosaur is of key importance.

How were the specimens discovered?

The site was discovered by Sofia M. Sinitsa, and her team from the Institute of Natural Resources, Ecology, and Cryology, Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, while they were conducting a geological survey in the Olov Depression along the small Kulinda River, close to Chernyshevsk village, in 2009. Four trenches were opened in the lower part of the Ukureyskaya Formation, and they found dinosaur bones. Then, they conducted a further series of excavations nearby in 2010 onwards (during the summer – winters in Siberia are not a good time for such work). In 2012, they invited Dr Pascal Godefroit from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences , a world expert on ornithischian dinosaurs, to be involved.

KulindadromeusBanner

How common are ornithischians?

Ornithischians represent about half of all dinosaurs, and all of them were plant-eaters. They include unarmoured, two-legged forms that ranged in length from 1-10 m, such as Iguanodon and Lambeosaurus. The most abundant were the hadrosaurs of the Late Cretaceous. Other ornithischians sported armour of various kinds, such as the stegosaurs, with bony plates and spikes down their backs and tails, the ankylosaurs, enclosed in a chain mail of armour plates, the thick-headed pachycephalosaurs, and the ceratopsians, with bony frills over their necks and horns over their eyes and snouts. There are 300 or more species of ornithischians so far known, and they have been found worldwide. Dinosaurs are, however, rare in Russia, with only isolated finds reported from Siberia before.

What is the key significance of the new find?

The new find proves that all dinosaurs had feathers.

Up to now, feathers have been reported from numerous species of theropod dinosaurs, the flesh-eating groups, and this has confirmed a remarkable evolution in feather type and complexity through 50 million years of the Late Jurassic and Cretaceous. Feathers in theropods had begun as simple bristles that provided two functions: insulation and signalling (through bright colours and patterns). They were associated with miniaturization of the advanced theropods, called Paraves, and their wide experimentation with flight.

‘Feathers’ have been reported before in two ornithischians, Tianyulong and Psittacosaurus, but palaeontologists had been cautious about the significance of these because they appeared to be rather simple quills, and perhaps limited in extent over the body. Our new find shows that feathers occurred all over the body in a primitive ornithischian, and that there were three types of feathers, including branching, down-type feathers.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Comments Off

The Ranging Behaviour of Domestic Cats

CatDid you ever wonder what your cat gets up to when you put it out?

by Sheila Murphy, School of BEES

Many animals move within characteristic areas called home ranges in the search for food, shelter, or mates. While it is not always obvious why individual animals move, particular patterns of movement can sometimes be explained. For my final year BSc Zoology research project I investigated the ranging behaviour of domestic cats. I used a combination of GPS tagging of individual cats and an online questionnaire completed by cat owners to try and determine the main factors influencing how far cats range. I hypothesised that, due to differences in habitat and lifestyle (for example, less physical barriers and competition with neighbouring cats, and less regulated eating habits), rural cats range farther and hunt more often than suburban cats.

Figure 1: Cat with tracker

Figure 1: Cat with tracker

There was a great response to the online questionnaire, with over 250 completed, providing lots of interesting information. Ten cats were tracked using a GPS tracker attached to the cat’s collar. Figure 1 shows a cat wearing the GPS tracker.

The results of this study indicate that the sex of a cat, as well as the type of area in which a cat lives, are significant influences on how often a cat is seen with prey and how often a cat stays out at night. Responses to questionnaires showed that a higher than expected number of females was never seen with prey and a higher than expected number of males was sometimes and often seen with prey (Figure 2).

Fig2Cat owners reported that more males than females stay out at night (Figure 3).

Fig3The type of area in which a cat lives is also a significant influence on whether or not cats are observed with prey. A higher than expected proportion of rural cats was seen with prey (sometimes and often), and a higher than expected proportion of urban and suburban cats was never seen with prey (Figure 4).

Fig4The GPS results showed that cats often followed roads and pathways while out and about (Figure 5). The majority of cat owners commented that their cat was most active at night and that cats from multi-cat households kept different schedules to other cats in the house. Only one of the cats tracked in this study lived in a house without other animals, and it would be interesting to further investigate the influence other animals in the home have on the ranging behaviour of cats.

Tracking data also showed that rural cats travelled farther than suburban cats and that male cats travelled farther than female cats. All cats in the study were well fed so I will need further data to examine the question of food supply and distances travelled.

Fig5While a much more in-depth investigation is needed to determine exactly what impact cats are having on native wildlife, this study has successfully shown that certain factors have a significant influence on the ranging and hunting behaviour of domestic cats. As cats do not hunt only to feed, it is not too surprising that diet may not be a significant influence on hunting behaviour; keeping a cat well fed will not necessarily reduce its likelihood of killing wildlife.

I would like to extend my thanks to all the people who completed the questionnaire survey and to those who allowed me to track their cats.

This project was supervised by Dr Fidelma Butler and Dr Amy Haigh (School of BEES).

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

MSc in Organic Horticulture – an inspiring year

Elaine McKeogh, a graduate of the MSc Organic Horticulture writes about her year at UCC: 

The first graduating class of the MSc Organic Horticulture

The first graduating class of the MSc Organic Horticulture

My year spent studying for an MSc in Organic Horticulture is now  complete, with the graduation ceremony held in UCC recently. It was a fantastic year, and a real luxury (in a hard work sort of way!) to have time to sit and think and talk and study about why it is that we grow the way we do, why it’s important to work with the natural resources and biodiversity around us and to minimise the impact that we have on our soils and our environment where we can.

Our type of small scale horticultural enterprise is a model for how to use the land to produce the maximum variety and quality of food without destroying wildlife or the soil on which it all depends. From a small field we are able to produce over 50 different food crops, from salads and herbs to cucumbers and chillis, as well as a variety of soft and top fruits and nuts. We have our own eggs, meat and preserves from various fruits. All in all we produce a lot of the food for our family and supply produce to many families in our area.

We use as much natural fertility from compost, manures and green manures (eg. clover, ryegrass) as possible to make the most of on-site resources. We plant flower strips, have beetle banks and nettle strips and encourage as many beneficial insects as we can, to help us manage levels of pests around our crops and provide habitats for bees. We were doing all of this before the MSc, but now it’s nice to be able to pinpoint exactly why all of this is important and helps our small piece of the planet to stay healthy and keep us healthy too!

I am very aware that we are extremely lucky to have the space in our garden to make this happen, and have also been lucky to have had fantastic teachers over the years, both in UCC (thanks Peter, Eoin and Klaus), and from the start from Jim Cronin in Bridgetown. My overall impression on reflection is that everyone should and can have a little piece of the planet producing at least some of their food for them. It doesn’t have to be a full scale farm, it doesn’t even need to be a field. If you have a corner of your garden that can be used to grow you will be amazed that in no time you can be eating several meals a week with food that has every vitamin intact, no chemical residue and has travelled a total of zero food miles. Window boxes, patio containers and even compost bags can be used to supply regular salads, herbs or a crop of potatoes if no garden space is possible. Growing can be on any scale and the food you grow yourself is the best tasting food you will ever eat. The more people who grow the more we realise how precious food is and how important it is to protect the resources that we have to make this magic happen.

With all of this in mind I am keen to share whatever I know about growing food and self-sufficiency with anyone who has an interest and would like to produce some of their own. Our Good & Green training group started recently for homegrowers who would like to learn or improve their growing skills to get reliable results for their efforts. We will run a weekly low cost training session  and support group with specific topics and advice on all of the main crops in our garden.

The debate about how we can feed the world starts in all of our own homes. We can all grow the best food for ourselves – but be warned… it’s addictive!

The MSc Organic Horticulture is now accepting applications for the academic year beginning September 2014. See here for details.

Elaine runs Good and Green in Ogonnelloe, Co Clare. More information on her work at goodandgreen.ie and a snapshot in the video below.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off

Great Tit Project by Will O’Shea

One of our nest-boxes in Bandon and nest building progression from left to right over the last two weeks. The final picture is of a nest ready for eggs.

One of our nest-boxes in Bandon and nest building progression from left to right over the last two weeks. The final picture is of a nest ready for eggs.

Great tits are one of the most common bird species found in Ireland. As regular visitors to garden feeders, their scientific importance can easily be overlooked. For my PhD, I’m using great tits to investigate the impact that certain behavioural and cognitive traits have on the lives of individuals living in different habitats.

Our study is based on 8 populations in West Cork over which 305 nest-boxes are spread. From the first week in April, the boxes are closely monitored as nests progress from construction to egg laying and finally fledging of juveniles. Last year we had 83 pairs nesting in various sites, which included great tits, blue tits and coal tits. This year we’re expecting an increase on that figure, which will keep us very busy for the next few weeks!

Currently the birds in our sites are still at the nest building phase, however we’re expecting to find our first egg in the very near future. I’ll keep this blog post updated regularly with news from the nests!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Comments Off

UCC Swiftboxes

nestboxes2John O’Halloran gives us the background to the UCC swiftboxes at the School of BEES.

Inspired by some photos taken by Derek Mooney in Azerbaijan of Swift nest boxes and the conservation status of this poorly known bird, we decided to erect nest boxes with webcams at the School of Biological Earth and Environmental Sciences , University College Cork .

The Common Swift Apus apus (or Swift) is a medium sized bird somewhat similar to Swallow, but much larger, a faster flier and noisier!  Soon they will arrive in Ireland and spend about three months in our cities and towns, screaming across the sky.  It is one of my strongest childhood memories of spring, when swifts used to arrive in our primary school yard and nested under the eaves of my old primary school.  I remember, as a young child, watching and listening to them as they screamed and flew into the school yard, having traveled thousands of miles from Africa, oblivious to the cacophony of children screaming in the yard.  This experience in part inspired me in my career in ornithology and zoology; the fact that these birds spend their entire lives in the air, only dropping from the sky to nest in buildings in our cities and towns since ancient Roman times.  Amazing!

nestboxFeedThese amazing birds will arrive in early May,  some weeks after our Swallows and Martins and will depart early too in August, choosing to spend their short summer in Northern Europe. Their scientific Apus apus name comes from an ancient Greek word ‘without feet’.  These birds have legs so short they are almost invisible and never choosing to land except briefly to cling to buildings to build their nests.  In fact, if they do land on the ground they are helpless and vulnerable to predation.

Back in my primary school days, I recall finding a young Swift apparently having fallen from its nest (most likely premature fledging) being helpless and picking it up and making it airborne by casting it gently to the wind.  Today many modern school yards are silent to the sound of the Swift as refurbished buildings have excluded them from nesting.  Nest boxes can replace these lost nesting habitats.

At University College Cork in collaboration with RTE’s Derek Mooney we have set up 6 swift nest boxes with web cams deployed.  We hope to attract these iconic birds to nest in these boxes in the coming days. To help attract them to the boxes we have been playing a recording of Swift calls for 24 hours, seven days a week for the last 10 days.  We hope that these recordings will attract the birds to nest in the boxes and by observing them using the nest cameras we will gain a deeper understanding of their biology and gain a glimpse of secret lives of these amazing birds.

We wait in hope!

John O’Halloran, Professor of Zoology, University College Cork

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off