My most pleasing recent discovery was of two heath fritillaries, on a day when it was too overcast for them to contemplate flight, and so windy that the mauve flowers of devil’s bit scabious on which they were feeding swung wildly from side to side. In a normal year the first fritillaries appear in late May or early June, and can then be seen on any sunny day through to July.
One of our more mysterious breeding birds at Blean, and one that most visitors won’t have seen unless perhaps they’ve been up to the wood at dawn or dusk in spring, is the woodcock. Its nocturnal habits make it difficult to observe, but for a few weeks from April to June the male advertises his presence with so-called roding flights, cruising just above the treetops in great circuits, uttering periodic grunts and squeaks – “urgh urgh urgh pittick” roughly describes it. Continue reading
If you have delicate plants or perhaps a fruit tree in your garden, you will be only too aware of the late April air frosts that killed apple blossom, leaving some growers whose orchards are in frost hollows resigned to the fact that there would be no apple harvest for them this autumn. What will be less obvious to most people is that the damage extended into our woodlands and other semi- natural habitats. Continue reading
The classic image of a bird’s nest, seen in every child’s nature book, is of an open structure built in the fork of a tree, but over a third of the species that nest at Blean do so in tree holes, while the majority of the remainder build in dense scrub or close to the ground. Continue reading
Spring announces its presence in a wide variety of ways, from the ostentatious carpets of wood anemones and bluebells that we’ll be enjoying before long, and the swelling volume of bird song, through to some far more subtle indicators, several of which I’ve witnessed in recent days. Continue reading
At this time of year the wood is on a cusp, with bleak winter on one hand and portents of spring on the other: the season could go either way. On a dull, damp, cold day the mood is definitely depressing, the wood grey and soundless. Yet even then there is colour to be found Continue reading
“If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” That was Shelley’s optimistic view of the hardships this joyless season can throw at us. Yesterday (11th January) I heard a great spotted woodpecker drumming for the first time this year, prompting thoughts of better times ahead. Continue reading
When people refer to me as a birdwatcher I am sometimes tempted to reply that I’m really a bird-listener as, particularly in a woodland setting, I am generally aware of bird calls and song rather than plumage, and walking through the wood is like following an auditory trail of birdsong. Never was this truer than two days ago when, cycling through the reserve, I heard the slightly explosive “kip” of a crossbill. A second “kip” was heard, then silence. I knew roughly the direction from which the bird had called but, at a distance of perhaps 200 yards and with many trees between us, there was little hope of ever seeing it. Had I not heard the two monosyllabic calls I would never even have suspected its presence. I say “its” as there was no way of knowing if there was more than one, though crossbills are generally sociable birds, so the likelihood is that lurking in the nearby pines, feeding on the cones, was a small party of these intriguing finches. In the past I used to encounter them rather more frequently, and they have even nested in the wood at least once, but these days, as more of the mature conifers are felled or blow down in storms, there is far less to entice them into the area. Their curious bills, crossing over at the tips, make them uniquely adapted to prising apart the roof-like tiles of conifer cones in order to extract the seeds with their tongues.
In a sad sign of the times, a spate of car break-ins has forced the warden to install CCTV at the reserve car park. This brought to mind the police posters produced many years ago which showed a magpie in the act of making off with some jewellery. And then the next day I saw a magpie in the middle of the wood; nothing so remarkable about that, except that they are generally birds of open spaces, shunning large woods. As you will doubtless be aware, the magpie is one bird that has increased in recent years, much to the despair of many birdwatchers distressed at the sight of the birds systematically working their way along garden hedges, pulling out eggs and chicks from any nests they encounter. When I came to Blean in 1982 it was most unusual to see a magpie on the reserve, but from the late 1980s and into the 1990s sightings became commonplace, even in the centre, up to a mile from the woodland edge. More recently the birds seem to have suffered a decline, to the point where last week’s sighting was noteworthy.
If you’ve been along the stone tracks within the wood this winter you may have come across some large stacks of cordwood – logs about six feet long and a few inches in diameter generated by the winter’s coppicing programme. Chestnut, birch, hornbeam and oak are cut every year, but whereas in the past this was to provide material for fencing, charcoal and firewood, nowadays the main objective is to create open areas for flowers and insects, along with bushy young regrowth to benefit a range of scrub-loving birds, and the logs are now a by-product of our management work. Some of the wood is stacked and left to rot down slowly, providing habitat for myriad invertebrates, and a secure nesting site for a variety of birds, but the surplus can now be sold as firewood, demand for which has soared in recent years with the increasing popularity of woodburning stoves, so generating useful funds for conservation. These stoves have the benefit of using a recyclable form of carbon, so do not add greatly to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, although the chainsaw that cuts up the wood and the truck that delivers it all use fossil fuels. There is also now some concern that the stoves release harmful quantities of micro-particulates that are harmful to health, so it seems there is no such thing as truly green energy generators – wind turbines kill birds and consume huge quantities of steel and concrete, while the manufacture of solar panels uses up scarce minerals and commercial solar energy schemes put valuable farmland out of production.
Firewood logpiles in the wood
Last month I was writing about solitary jackdaws that fool me into thinking there is a flock in the vicinity. This month it’s the turn of the crow. An old saying runs along the lines of:
“A crow in a crowd is a rook
And a rook on its own is a crow.”
Reassuringly simple, but unfortunately not very accurate. While rooks are undeniably sociable birds, nesting in colonies and feeding communally in fields, the psychology of crows is rather more complex. They are certainly solitary nesters, but outside the breeding season can congregate in their hundreds. I was reminded of this the other day when a group of 15 crows flew out of the trees in late afternoon. These birds may not have spent the day in each other’s company, but were almost certainly now gathering prior to flying to some previously chosen tree in which to roost companionably for the night. I have in the past recorded as many as a hundred crows making a tremendous racket as they prepared to bed down for the night at the edge of the reserve. Unfortunately, this was in a rather remote part of the wood that I didn’t visit on a regular basis, so I don’t know if this roost persisted through the winter.
Crow courtesy of Dave Smith
A small flock of about twenty siskins, flying like a swirl of windblown leaves early in October, raised my hopes for a siskin “autumn”, but since then I have hardly seen any at all. Similarly scarce have been their cousins, the redpolls. These two species may belong to the finch family, but have none of the ponderousness of chaffinches and greenfinches, behaving with the agility of a blue tit, and so a joy to watch.
Although November has been moderately damp so far, this moisture has been insufficient to counter the drought of July, August, September and the second half of October. Consequently, the fungal crop has been generally rather mediocre, though I have seen some amazing fly agarics (the classic seat for fishing gnomes) for which the description “the size of dinner plates” has, for once, not been an exaggeration.
Fly agaric dinner plates
Over the years the RSPB has created about 12ha (30 acres) of heathland in an area that is rather off the beaten track, and so not seen by most of our visitors. To prevent its turning back into woodland, management was initially carried out by a mixture of mowing and weedkilling birch regeneration. Then, in 2005, we had the loan of some sheep and goats to nibble away at the vegetation. Most of these animals had subsequently to be returned to their owner, Kent Wildlife Trust, but in 2006 we acquired two konik ponies from the Trust. Koniks are a primitive breed of horse, originally reared in Poland (konik simply being Polish for horse!) and are distinguished by a generally grey coloration and a dark line running down their back.
Konik on the heath
For conservationists, their chief merits are that they are extremely hardy and catholic in their choice of herbage. Those two ponies have been steadily chewing their way through all the growth on the heath, a task that was speeded up a year ago when two more koniks were brought in. Unfortunately, a combination of this summer’s drought and a declining area of suitable forage meant that the animals were gradually losing condition, and the decision was reluctantly taken to return all four ponies to the Trust.
After two and a half months with virtually no rain, it’s hard to avoid talking about the drought. My own records show that we’ve been blessed with no more than 32mm of rain during that period, compared to an expected 130mm, a problem compounded by the sometimes blistering heat Continue reading