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. Every year since 2003 I have carried out three one-hour surveys at the same spot, recording the number of times I hear or see a roding woodcock pass over. The annual score has fluctuated between a low of 28 in 2014 and a tremendous high of 82 the following year. This spring, however, the total was a mere 15, easily the lowest in 15 years. Woodcock are waders that have adapted to woodland conditions, but still feed by probing into soft ground with their long beaks, so their decline in Kent may be due to the warmer, drier summers of recent years. Fifty years ago the species was moderately widespread in the county, particularly in West Kent but now, apart from strongholds in The Blean and Bedgebury Forest, the woodcock is all but extinct in the county. Until recently, numbers had held up in Blean Woods, but could this be the first worrying indication of a population collapse?
I’ve written before about firecrests, most recently in early April, when I heard a bird singing in the Dunkirk corner of the wood, but was unable to find it on subsequent visits. Firecrests are the much scarcer cousins of the goldcrest, also to be found mainly in conifers, so I was particularly excited to hear birds in two areas of the wood in mid-June; at that time of year it is much less likely that the birds would simply have been passing through to breeding grounds elsewhere, raising the distinct possibility that one or more pairs attempted to nest here this year. By the time I returned from holiday it was too late to listen out for the song, so I shall never know what the outcome was.
Another visitor of note was a kingfisher along the stream on 11th June. As with the firecrests, this is too late for it to be a bird on passage, and too early to be one of this year’s offspring exploring new areas, with a view to setting up home, so there is the possibility that kingfishers have also nested in the wood this year.
One of my favourite butterflies has to be the white admiral for, not only is it very striking in its black and white livery on the upper surface, with a fine patterning of white, orange and powder blue on the underwing, but it is a species that has re-colonised the wood after an absence of perhaps forty years. It was apparently moderately abundant here in the mid-20th century but then died out, making a hesitant comeback in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This year has probably been its best so far, the broad flash of white on black proclaiming its self-conscious presence on most of the wide rides; on occasion I watched entranced as individuals circled round me, homing in on the delicate scent of my salty sweat! Like the silver-washed fritillary, which is also returning to the wood, but wasn’t so common this year, the white admiral has a huge weakness for bramble nectar so, although they are strong fliers and spend much time swooping up into the canopy, they cannot resist descending to near ground level in order to indulge their passion.
A new species for the reserve’s plant list this month was the diminutive, little-regarded fairy flax. With its thread-like stem, narrow leaves, and tiny white flowers, it was no great surprise that I hadn’t spotted it before, and its presence in the wood was most unexpected, as in Kent it is fairly strictly confined to the chalky soil of the North Downs.
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