Blean Woods NNR Mid-October to mid-November 2016

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

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

Fly agaric dinner plates

sulphur-tuft-2

Sulphur tuft

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

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.

Michael Walter

michaelwalter434@gmail.com