The Mighty Miniature

There are some species of wildlife that totally fascinate me and whenever I do see them I generally get a feeling of elation about the wonders of the natural world. All very flowery I know but the fact of the matter is that it’s just true! Some species are not that easy to observe due to their habits and sometimes there habitats as well. A couple of weeks ago I was reminded of this situation when, by chance, I turned my head in the right direction to observe a Weasel run across the footpath a few yards in front of me. I stood there for a few moments and made a squeaking noise and a moment later there for a few seconds, was the head of a Weasel checking me out. It seemed to realise that I wasn’t something she could eat and was gone. This was quite a typical sighting in my experience and when I say she, I wasn’t trying to over romanticise or personify the individual as it was only about 6 or 7 inches long and I know male Weasels are a little larger so I presumed my sighting to be a female.

As with many species today, Weasels are a species that has a large worldwide range and within this range there are differences in body size, colour and habitats. A few people in the scientific community are claiming that there are actually up to four different species across the world. I’m no expert in animal genetics but there does seem to be some good evidence for these claims that may lead to a new species being created in the future. We shall see what happens in the future on this subject.

No matter what genetic decisions are made, the Weasel remains the smallest predatory mammal across much of its range and when you find out about the diet of Weasels it is amazing to see that the size of some prey items is much bigger and heavier than the relentless hunter. Weasels generally eat small mammal such as voles and mice and are small enough to pursue them in their runs and burrows. I once observed a Weasel enter a log pile and emerge 30 seconds later with a lifeless Wood Mouse in its mouth. The usual killing method is a bite to the neck or throat and a friend of mine and I once observed a Weasel run across a bank by a woodland path into a small patch of brambles where a high-pitched scream was emitted from the bramble patch where upon investigation we found a half-grown rabbit with what can only be described as a hole on top of its head. It looked brutal and certainly was for the rabbit. A couple of years ago a photo emerged of a Weasel on the back of a Green Woodpecker that was in flight. Weasels don’t like to give up easily when they are hunting often putting themselves in danger in the process.

Weasels are the smallest members of the Mustelid family which includes Badgers, Otters, Pine Martin, Pole cats and the similarly coloured Stoat. Stoats are differentiated by their larger size and longer tail with a distinctive black tail tip. In colouration terms Weasels are a reddish/ brown on the upper half of their body with a whiteish colouration on the underparts. Their bodies are long and quite sleek in appearance as is typical of a number of species in this family of animals This body is supported by 4 short legs with the back pair being quite muscular. Their bodies are designed to hunt and although small mammal form the basis of their diet they will climb trees and raid birds’ nests of eggs and young. I used to work at a Fields study centre where we had 30 or so nest boxes in a part of the woods and monitored their numbers each year and I recall one year 4 nest boxes in a row had been predated by Weasels and we knew that they were the only predators small enough to get into the nest boxed without damaging the entrance holes. The insides of the nest boxes were trashed and there was occasional piece of egg shell left l. All youngsters were moved from the boxes and I’m guessing that the Weasel would have had to climb the tree serval times in order to retrieve all , 13 in one nest box, youngsters within. As you will becoming aware by now Weasels are very driven little predators. Their family life shows that as well.

My use of the term ‘ family life ‘ is not really a suitable phrase to use for Weasels as with many predatory mammals, much of their lives are spent in solitude. Male Weasels hold a territorial of a varying size but can be over a hectare. Territory size will be defined by prey availability which is also a key factor in breeding success of females. Within in the boundaries of a male’s territory there will be the territories of a female or possibly two. Both sexes will defend their territories all year round and even when the females are ready to mate there will be a fight between the male and female until the larger male overpowers the female. After mating the males has nothing to do with raising the youngsters. A few years ago, one May day, I witnessed two weasels fighting and was so close to them for a minute that I could see it was a pair and I was witnessing the violet courtship before mating. The breeding season is normally between April and June and normally consists of four to six kits.

The female will raise the kits in a burrow that has been built by other small mammals, possibly something she has eaten. She will move the youngsters to another site if she feels they are threatened. We have to remember that although Weasels are fierce predators themselves, they are very small and can get eaten by larger predatory mammals and birds. Young are born naked and blind and only open their eyes after 2 weeks. The
young are normally hunting for themselves after about 4 – 5 weeks or so. Family groups can be seen together when the young are strong and big enough to accompany their mother. These family group will break up fairly soon and the mother will push the youngsters out to find their own territories.

Weasels can be seen in a variety of different habits that offer enough food and cover to ensure survival and over my years of observations I have seen Weasels in agricultural land, farmyards, woodlands, meadows and grasslands, flood marshes, chalk downland, hedgerows and stone walls. This eclectic range of habitats means the Weasel is widespread in the UK and is only absent from some the offshore islands and Ireland.
These charismatic and energetic predators are one of the many joys of our native wildlife, so if you get lucky and manage to see one you may well see some of the things I have discussed here and understand the character of this tenacious little predator. I hope you get lucky and manage to see one.

The All Over Bird

The other day as I walked through town, I got stuck for a few moments in a large group of people and as I waited for the people jam to start moving a Pied Wagtail landed on the edge of the crowd and busily started feeding in amongst the crowded pavement.

Under your feet!

I have seen this many time over the years and always been in full admiration of this smart, fearless and distinctive little birds. And if you take a look at the life and significance of this species we find another interesting story of our native wildlife. Pied Wagtails can be found in virtually any open habitat in the UK and I have personally seen them in many different habitats from town centres to mountains along with farmland, reedbeds, airports, rivers, beaches, sewage farms, gardens and once on a ferry off Scotland to name a few. They are birds of open country and avoid wooded and heavily vegetated areas but can be found readily in what I call human habitats.
It’s probably worth pointing out that Pied Wagtails are a sub species of White Wagtail, which is a species commonly found across Europe and occur from Greenland to North Africa. They are also found across Asia and have recently been found breeding in Alaska. There adaptability to varied habitats has probably helped them spread across most of the northern hemisphere The White Wagtail appears to be very similar in appearance to our Pied Wagtail but has a distinctive paler grey back and greyer wings. Behaviourally they are identical and I recall from a childhood visit to Venice, seeing White Wagtails on St Mark’s square. The pied sub species that we in the UK know, is only found in UK, Ireland and on the coasts of northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands and nowhere else in the world. which shows the global importance of the birds we see here in Surrey.

One of the reasons I’m writing this article is purely because I find watching Pied Wagtails a very entertaining experience! When they are feeding they are very active and I have witnessed them flycatching insects in many locations from riverbanks to agricultural fields and seen them running as fast as possible trying to steal cake crumbs from feral pigeons. They are mainly insectivorous feeders and will gather in areas where there is a good supply of invertebrate to feed on. They will also eat human scraps which attracts them to our towns particularly during the winter when insects are far less numerous.

Risk taking companion

Nesting birds also show a great variety in choice of nest sites. Nests can be found in a number of interesting locations including cracks in walls, straw bales, under loose tiles, in stone walls and in a tractor cab that the adults successfully raised young from even after the tractor had been used and my friend who was using the tractor, saw the adults flying into the cab whilst the tractor was moving. They are very committed parents. They normally have two broods of 4 – 6 eggs each breeding season and post breeding flocks can often be seen feeding on playing fields in late summer and early autumn.
Birds that breed in northerly areas of the UK will migrate south during cold weather and during the winter some birds can be seen on the Atlantic coasts of France, Spain and Portugal and a few make it as far south as Morocco and Tunisia.

Like a good number of small passerine birds; Pied Wagtails roost communally and can gather in large numbers to use chosen roost sights. Up to 4000 have been seen in a single roost and as I have witnessed just before they go to roost they will gather in flocks in the surrounding area and be very vocal before flying to the roost site.

The choice of roost sites is another sign of this species adaptability for many of the roost sites are located in urban areas and I know of 3 roosts locally which are all in town centres. The one in Guildford is truly amazing as it is located in a few trees next to Friary Shopping Centre and one of the busiest roads in town and I have found it a quite surreal experience when visiting the site in the winter months, witnessing these small birds just sit quietly as people talk and walk by and rush hour traffic roars past. I also find it quite amazing how few of the passing pedestrians actually notice the 100s of Pied Wagtails a few feet above their heads.

 

Evening light, reflected on wagtails

In more rural areas they often roost in reedbeds which offer good protection from land predators and water can actually keep a constant temperature and, in common with the urban sites, roost sites are chosen for warmth and security. Many urban sites are warmer because of the heat of electric lights, machinery and people in the area.

By Steve Duffy

 

Pied Wagtails are a fascinating species and a familiar species to most people but like many bird species, they are declining in the UK and the reasons for the decline are all to familiar a story. The agricultural changes and mis management of riparian and wetland habitats has reduced insect numbers which in turn has seen numbers of breeding birds decline. There is hope that they will be able to use their adaptability in order to survive and although I feel troubled by all the birds that are in decline, I feel that Pied Wagtails will get through. Whenever you next see one and have some spare time I thoroughly recommend you watch and see what they are up to, you may get quite a show.

Back in the Raspberry Fields

I know that I have been casting my mind back a lot more recently and this has been down to the constant number of reports I have read in the last few months that tell of the decline of many species that were common when I was a child in the 70s and the 80s.  This fact really hit me hard the other day after watching the small flock of 21 Linnets on the Lammas fields in Godalming. The other factor is that I’m getting old!

After seeing these Linnets, I suddenly thought about when I was a child; part of my school summer holidays were spent in Raspberry fields. I was already supposed to be helping my mother pick the soft fruits but spent most of the time wondering about playing with the other kids there in the fields. There was a wheat field at the bottom of the raspberry lines. Often there were small birds feeding on the field edge and they would fly into the lines of raspberries when disturbed by noisy children. Often whilst walking along the lines you could hear a loud twittering, buzzing, whistling and trilling song of the Linnet. I distantly remember nests being found in the Raspberry bushes and remember seeing eggs and young in the nest. I also remember how efforts were made to steer a few bushes clear ‘of the nest site to try and let them carry on undisturbed. As I got older and starting venturing further afield in the Kentish country I realised that Linnets were relatively common birds of grasslands, farmland, hedgerows, coastal salt marshes, sand dunes and a few other habitats that can provide a good supply of seeds of both wildflower and agricultural type. Typical of the finch family, Linnets rely on a good supply of seeds to see them through the winter. The field near me does have a good supply of wildflower seeds and this is the logical reason why I have seen this little flock

 

Now I have to be honest and say my recent sightings haven’t given me the best views as it was in poor light and the birds were quite restless just before roosting. Linnets are members of the finch family and around 14cm in length that look quite slim in appearance. Their winter plumage sees brown streaks on chest and flanks with a white belly and a greyish head and brown flecks across brown wings with a medium length tail with a small notch. Male birds have a pinky buff colouration on the chest but the sexes are much easier to distinguish during the breeding season when the males have a bright pink chest with a flash of pinky red just above the bill in the grey head that all beautifully contrast with chestnut brown wings, a pinkish rump and white belly. Females are typically subtler and lack the pink colours but are beautifully streaked with browns and greys. The habitats that they breed in has to have thick cover for nest building and they like to build in thick hedges, Gorse and Bramble bushes to name a few. Here in Surrey they are often found breeding in stands of Gorse found on the heathland areas. Like other seed eating species, they change their diet during the breeding a bit to incorporate insects that they will feed to their young for vital proteins.

 

Linnets breed across Europe to north Africa and eastwards to central Russia. Birds that breed in northern and eastern Europe will migrate south and west during the winter months and some of these birds will spend the winter in the UK. In the past I have seen, in the early spring, migrant birds on the east coast heading north possibly on their way to Scandinavia or Russia.

The status of Linnet in the UK has been declining steadily since changes in agricultural practices have occurred since the end of the second world war. With the mass use of herbicide and pesticides and the ‘ cleaning up’ of agricultural land   that has occurred in this time, many species of our native wildlife have badly suffered. Like many small seed eating bird species, Linnets have suffered with the loss of winter stubble fields that used commonly occur throughout our countryside. This habitat was a vital winter food source to this and many other species and good fields would often provide food throughout the winter. Linnets scientific name is Lineria cannabina which shows how long their association with seed supply has been observed, for Hemp used to be commonly grown as an agricultural type crop across Europe. Strangely enough back in 2000 a number of experimental Hemp crops were grown around Guildford and in the autumn, I observed a flock of about 150 Linnets along with various other finch species and House Sparrows all feeding on the hemp seed. I think this was one of the last stubble fields I have seen in Surrey. Interestingly enough from the mid 1980s the population decline steadied and levelled until further declines were noted from the mid 1990s and the reason being for this was probably due to the increased planting of Oilseed Rape crops that provided a vital seed supply for the Linnets. This point shows us how birds will adapt to new food supplies and on another level, this shows how government agricultural policy can affect the wildlife in that area but unfortunately most polices seem to have harmed our wildlife rather than helped it. Interestingly enough, of all of the local breeding Linnets I know of, are all in conservation areas and not on agricultural land. Proves the point really. I’m sure there are a few pairs on some farms locally but probably not as many as there used to be.

My recent observations have made me happy to know that there are still in the area and I will try to keep a closer eye on the situation this year and hopefully find a few pairs of breeding Linnet in the loyalty and look forward to hearing their amazing song in the spring being sung by a pinkie brown male bird in a Gorse bush. Keep your eyes and ears open for them when you’re out and about and you will see and hear what I’m talking about. Good luck!

News Update

At least 48 birds were observed going to roost the following evening. There’s a few more about than I realised which is good to see

A little bit is worth a lot.

When I am out and about looking for wildlife I always look at the habitat I’m in to guide me to think about the potential species that may be encountered. If you visit an area with any regularity you will see certain species in certain areas and can therefore gain knowledge about the species and what requirements they like and need within that habitat. I regularly visit the river and fields here in Godalming and within these habitats there are micro – habitats that look to the untrained eye, untidy or messy. I am referring in particular to one micro habitat that anyone who takes time to walk in the country or has a garden will probably be familiar with and that is the bramble patch.

Plant of plenty

The Bramble or Blackberry is a very common plant found throughout the UK in a variety of habitats from woodland to moorland. It can grow in soils that are acidic and low in nutrients which leaves very few areas that you will not find a bramble patch. Brambles are very familiar to most people from the fact they are found everywhere and most of us have picked Blackberries in late summer at one time or another in our lives. Humanity has been doing this for a very long time as there are records of blackberry seeds being found in the stomachs of Neolithic ancestors. If humans and our relatives have been eating Blackberries for so long you can guarantee that the wildlife has been doing the same and this week whilst looking at a bramble patches near home, not only was I inspired to write this piece but was inspired to write this because of observations of wildlife involving brambles.

Why is the Bramble such a good species for a whole host of other wildlife? There are some pretty obvious examples of their importance with the Blackberry its self being the most obvious example as many species will feed on Blackberries. They form a vital food source for resident and migrating birds and gives birds energy that are vital for growing and undertaking migration. I remember when I was bird ringing years ago that when we caught birds in August / September they would leave us with a purple blackberry dropping showing us what they had been feeding on and showing the importance of Blackberries in the food chain. They are regularly eaten by Badgers and foxes and I saw Pine Martins eating them whilst I lived in County Fermanagh and a host of insect will find use for them and so from this range of species you start to understand the importance of this species.

Before the fruit appears the white or pinky white flowers provide a valuable nectar source for Honey Bees, Bumblebees, Butterflies and Hoverflies

Patch in summer

I have often enjoyed good views of a variety of butterfly species feeding on blackberry flowers including species like Purple Hairstreak which can be lured away from their usual tree top habitat to feed on bramble flowers. Even the leaves of the plant are eaten by some moth species caterpillars and grazed by Roe Deer.

If Brambles are left alone they can grow into quite large patches and these larger patches of Bramble then offer species a place to nest, rest, hide and roost. You probably know from your blackberry picking experiences how sharp the thorns on brambles are and when bramble patches get established they are like a mini fortress that some predators would find difficult to gain access to. Many UK song birds will nest in established bramble patches and over the years I have observed many different species in this habitat. Many Sylvia warblers that migrate to the UK each spring will nest in brambles and this includes Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat, Garden Warbler and Blackcap. These scrubland warblers find Brambles perfect for their requirements with good nesting sites, good food4 availability, protection and warmth. All in all, this nightmare of the gardeners, this plant that I have heard people describe as messy is a very valuable part to the UK countryside.
And so, the inspiration for this piece came on two near dusk visits in the last week where in my mind I was meant to be looking for Barn Owl but was distracted by the activity around a bramble patch. I was watching a flock of tits when I saw several birds fly into the bramble patch and whilst searching through the patch I saw3 Blue Titsa Dunnock a couple of Wrens and then a Goldcrest and then another Goldcrest and this turned into at least 4 Goldcrest possibly more hiding in the Bramble fortress. As if this wasn’t interesting enough as I was trying to get a view of the Goldcrest when a small flock of Linnet suddenly flew in and settled in the bramble patch. I knew that there was a more than usual number of Linnets than I have observed here before.

Linnet is one of those unfortunate species that has declined dramatically due to changes in agricultural management. Normally a couple of pairs breed in this area each spring and they are maintaining a foothold but I was unaware that they were roosting there. I was also slightly frustrated as I wasn’t sure how many were actually in there as it was by then getting dark and the birds were in the bramble calling away. I returned the next day at the same time and saw a flock of 13 Linnets! 

Yet again I felt a strong sense of irony as I stood and watched these fascinating aspects of wildlife on my righthand side for over the river on my left-hand side was a busy noisy super market carpark. If I think about all the wildlife I have seen standing on the path by the river there I am amazed how tolerant the wildlife has become of the urbanisation of this area.

Have a good look at a bramble patch next time you are out and about and you never know what may be lurking in there. Looks can be deceiving and because of the way older bramble patches may look in the obsessive neat and tidy world we live in. As I have hopefully shown you, Blackberry / Bramble is a very important species for a whole host of other species and should be left to grow where ever suitable habitats are available.

I’m well aware of how much gardeners hate Bramble as if unchecked it can take over areas but it can be cut and managed and you can still get the benefits of this familiar plant that I have discussed.

January blues?

So, it’s a new year with our new government and as I find a little time today to do some work in the garden I realise that the problems in our environment are ongoing and from looking at the reserve/garden today I see that it is having an effect on us here in Surrey, all over the country and the whole world.
For a few weeks I had been looking at the amount of green vegetation that was still growing and obviously not dead despite it allegedly being the middle of winter.

 

Now , I’m fully aware that I write about the weather in pretty much most of the articles I have written here but Im sure you all understand the importance that our weather plays in the natural world and the un-natural world that humanity has created. For all ages of people who read this, there have been have been significant changes within their lifetimes. The statistics are ever changing with temperature and rainfall records being broken on a regular basis.

And if you take a look around the world at this precise time we see Australia burning, Delhi experiencing record low temperatures and Jakarta flooding to name a few examples of the extreme weather conditions that are now occurring around our globe with more regularity. I won’t repeat myself but looking at the reserve garden I can see the effects of climate change here, where we live.

When I was out the back looking at the plants I could see that some species had set their seed and had died off normally possibly caught by the couple of hard frosts that we have had in early December.

 

For these species the chances of seed production should be good and hopefully ready to start growing in the spring. I noted that many species were still growing new basal leaves, and the usual suspect, Creeping Buttercup were actually invading ground that I had cleared ready for the spring and were starting to undo some of the work I’d already done. I spent 20 minutes digging a few hundred of them out but there is every chance they will regrow if the weather stays mild.

Creeping Buttercup

Looking at this I thought about the articles I have read about how climate change is now confusing many of our species about when to breed or flower. I can see this on the reserve and along with the vegetation some of the local resident birds were in full song and behaving in a territorial manner and although Mistle and Song Thrushes routinely sing and hold territories during the winter months I was slightly surprised to hear Blackbirds in full song just before Christmas. We are living in some rapidly changing times and we are still not totally sure of what the results of this will be and how it will affect the environment and humanity its self.

Back in song Blackbird by Steve Duffy

Well despite all of this the natural world will keep on trying to survive and as I said the resident birds are starting to prepare for the breeding season and along with the already mentioned species I am also hearing Nuthatches, Great, Blue and Coal Tits, and Dunnocks, Wren and Robins on most days.

Blue Tit by Steve Duffy

This winter I have put very little bird food this winter as it’s been so mild and I don’t want a rat invasion again but I have noticed regular Wood Pigeons, Robin, Dunnock and was delighted the other day to see 6 House Sparrow feeding on plants in the reserve and I’m fairly sure these sparrows were feeding on poppy seeds that I had left to go to seed. The plan is coming together and various local species of various wildlife groups are using the area. The regular badger motorway cafe is established and I spotted one the other night on the road out the front the flats on her/his way to search for the next meal. I’m looking forward to see what other species of wildlife I can see in 2020 and will continue, in my own little way, to improve habitats for the local wildlife and see what I can attract to the area. As I’ve said before if people made their gardens more wildlife friendly, we could all help the dwindling wildlife populations and apologies for repeating myself about it but we can all help by doing our bit

What Now?

Okay, so 2019 was not the best of years! For many of us it would be very easy to be overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness and a sense of doom as regards the future of our planet. After giving it some thought and a couple of wonderful walks I have decided to remain, perhaps misguidedly, positive about the coming year. I would far sooner encourage and support action than slide into apathetic negativity.

My deer family

Trying to bring that approach into a county-based environment is actually more manageable than, at first, I had thought. Unless you live with your head in a bucket you are likely to fully understand your responsibilities in trying to cut down emissions and waste. It is up to governments to act on the bigger issues and to encourage or in force organisations and individuals to toe the line.

So, what does that mean to us all at a local level, a Surrey level?

What can we actually do at local level past throwing money at good causes?

I do understand that some people with take issue with some of the following suggestions and neither am I implying that everybody in Surrey is affluent, food banks and rough sleepers clearly indicate the folly of believing that, but they are a few ideas to consider.
It also goes without saying that there are a lot of other priorities facing most residents, health and education are just 2.

Winter heath, Chobham

In no particular order!

• Explore and learn about the environment on your doorstep, take pleasure in the small things.

• Make the time to contribute to recording schemes either by Apps like iRecord or through Surrey Wildlife Trust. Data is an essential weapon in the cause of conservation and environmental politics.

• Learn about your local authorities and councillors, Parish, Borough and County. Engage with those authorities in an informed way and hold them to account when they fail to deliver. Don’t only engage negatively, if they deserve praise or support give it!

• Stick to the facts, the science, rather than empty rhetoric or a polarising opinion which seems to be the political norm these days. Truth and reality should be undeniable.

• If you do spend leisure time in the countryside please do consider the impact you have. For instance; Horse riding is a great pursuit but is everything being done to manage the pasture and hedges where the horse is kept? Golf is hugely important in Surrey, is your club doing everything it can to manage the course for wildlife and to minimise damage to the environment? If you shoot then you might consider reducing the complex impacts of your hobby by concentrating on clay pigeons? And, of course, if you walk a dog then be aware that wild life doesn’t really appreciate being disturbed by our lovely mutts!

I will get off my high horse next week and return to our countryside and wildlife but in the meantime, have a better year!

Winter Heath, Christmas day, Ash ranges.

What is going on?

When we watch and observe wildlife, there are two questions that generally come into our heads (well they do in my head anyway!) and they are what is it and what is it doing. The identification of species can be extremely easy and extremely difficult depending on the species in question. I know I have spent many hours trying to find out the identification of a whole host of UK Wildlife and have learnt a great deal over the years. After identification is established you start to look at what is this species doing and why have I found it here. With these thoughts you are starting to enter the science of behaviour.

The behaviour of our wildlife can be studied on all sorts of levels from casual observations to full blown PhD studies. For us humans who have an interest in the wildlife around us and take a bit of time to observe it, there is nearly always something to see and understand.

When I try to think of the thousands of occasions I have observed wildlife during the course of my life, I realise that I have been very fortunate to see these things, but I have witnessed a lot of wildlife species and a lot of behaviour.

One thing I have realised is that you can never stop learning about the behaviour of wildlife and often you see them do things that you weren’t expecting. The behaviour of a species can depend on many different factors like where they are, when they are observed, the age of individual and the weather to name a few of the many factors and I find it fascinating how individual species can behave differently in different habitats. I recently observed this with two very familiar bird species that are commonly found in a variety of different habitats. Birds in general are one of our most observed wildlife groups and my observation also has a common factor that they involve food, a very important area of a bird existence and all other species in reality. The food in question was provided by other humans as well.

Robin by Steve Duffy

A few weeks ago, I had to attend a hospital appointment and the clinic I was attending was in an outbuilding that had some bird feeders outside the window. I naturally gravitated to a seat close by and watched the comings and goings at the feeding station. I was quite amused to see up to see up to six rabbits grazing on the grass area around the feeding station which was being visited by a good array of species with Goldfinch, Chaffinch, Blue Tit, Coal Tit, Great Tit, Robin and Dunnock all being noted. There was also a Carrion Crow

Carrion Crow by Steve Duffy

and a Wood Pigeon

Wood Pigeon by Steve Duffy

on the ground collecting all the bits that had been dropped. The behaviour of these two species caught my eye and made me ask myself a few questions about this vast subject.

Both these species are familiar and are commonly seen in a variety of habitats which indicates their adaptability and both species have been reasonably well studied and their behaviour is well known. The crow family are known to be highly intelligent and capable of problem solving generally in order to obtain that all important food. Over the years I’ve watched Carrion Crows, feeding on afterbirth of newly born lambs, dodging cars on motorways to eat the run over pheasants, grabbing sandwiches out of bins, catch a live eel and seen their close relative, the Hooded Crow, drop shells on roads to crack them open to show some examples of their ingenuity.

Carrion Crow by Steve Duffy

All this behaviour shows a distinct intelligence and shows why the crows are generally doing well in the UK.
Now the other species I mentioned, the Wood Pigeon, is also a familiar sight in a variety of habitats and in recent times has spread into urban areas and is now a familiar sight in many UK towns. I have observed many Wood Pigeons over the years and watched flocks of 1000s feeding on winter fields, seen them stuffing down acorns, watched migrant birds arriving from the continent and in more recent times they are regularly attracted to bird feeding stations. Wood Pigeons seem to be mainly interested in two things; food and sex. The food issue seems to be relentless in their daily lives apart from when their having sex! So, as I sat and watched the bird feeding station at the hospital, the Wood Pigeon was busily hoovering up all the left overs but seemed to get quite agitated when the Carrion Crow arrived. The Crow was typically flying in and grabbing a few beakfulls of food before flying off. I thought this was quite normal behaviour knowing how wary they are when so close to humans. After a few minutes I watched the crow repeat this procedure but this time was what I can only describe as ‘attacked ‘ by the seemly enraged Wood Pigeon. It seemed a little strange to me as I assumed, the Carrion Crow with its hefty bill and ability and intelligence to defend itself against a Wood Pigeon. The Pigeon repeated this manoeuvre on a number of occasions as I waited for my appointment, all with the same result.

 

Young Wood Pigeon by Steve Duffy

Why was this happening? Did the Wood Pigeon see the crow as a threat to its food supply? Was it an inbuilt mobbing reaction to the crow knowing that Carrion Crows will regularly eat Wood Pigeons eggs and young or was it something else? I was a little puzzled and even more so a few days later as I stood in my partners house and watched the birds in the back garden busily feeding on the delights that had been put out for them. It wasn’t long before a couple of Wood Pigeons appeared below the feeders. They started to feed but were quickly dive bombed by one of resident Carrion Crows who chased them out of the garden as quickly as possible. My mind instantly went back to my hospital visit! I continued to watch for 20 minutes and saw the same behaviour on 3 more occasions. These resident crows had often been observed chasing Magpies, Collared Doves as well as Wood Pigeons

In my mind these Carrion Crows were defending a food source that they used regularly and by chasing the Wood Pigeons and other species mentioned away they were protecting a valuable food source and were prepared to aggressively defend this valuable food source. So, the behaviour of these two species appeared to be completely different at these two locations and looking at some of the reasons I’ve explored here I feel it’s safe to say that the aggression shown by both species was about protecting food but am still questioning the apparent reversal of aggression shown at the t wo different sites. As I said earlier there are potentially many reasons why these species behaved in the ways I observed them and I could waffle on about possible theories but in an ideal world I could spend time at both sites observing the behaviour to try and uncover more evidence to aid my understanding. This is starting to sound like a PhD study! I’m not that intelligent and unfortunately have real life to contend with as well but what I have tried to show you with my simple observations is an introduction of what you can observe yourself if you take a little time to watch our wildlife. As I said earlier there are always several factors that influence how species behave and the more observation, the more knowledge gained which in turn may lead you to more understanding.
Next time you are out looking at wildlife I suggest you take a few moments longer when you see a species and see if you can note any behaviour patterns, you never know where it may take you and the species in question. Go and see what you can discover!

Peace of Mind

I was recently asked a couple of questions relating to the benefits I find from going out in the countryside at this time of year, made me think about the countryside as the core part of my life, offering a constant amidst the surrounding chaos. In some ways I would admit I cannot conceive of living without knowing I am able to find solace and comfort in, and with, all things green and natural.

Still green path

Over the last couple of weeks I have taken advantage of breaks in the rain to have strolls with my wife and then with my son. Though I love walking on my own the right company seems to add another dimension, shared experience and another pair of eyes and ears. As autumn progresses to winter the countryside quietens but there are different things to wonder at. Walking from Wood Street towards the Hogs Back might be muddy but in the crisper, colder light the sense of slowing down, pause, is palpable.

Sleepy oaks

There is however new life and signs of continuing activity to be encountered.

Next years crops showing

It’s been a great year for many fungi which are increasingly fascinating my wife. Looks like a better field guide is needed. Good timing….

Not so much a fairy ring, more snake

The time of berries is here but have to admit that most seem consumed by the time I write this. One consequence of this reduction in hedgerow food means my bird feeders appear to be used to excess. More on that another day.

Glorious Spindle

I walked with my son Tom from Sheets Heath in a loop including the Basingstoke canal. Part of the area I roamed with friends in my youth, where it all started if you like. What struck me was this bubble of countryside hadn’t really changed very much over nearly 50 years. Trees must have grown and yes you can now walk over much of Brookwood farm, which was a real no no in my youth, but the feel of the place is as my senses remember.

 

Birds now tend to be encountered in small groups and as winter progresses these may join up to form large flocks to create the misleading impression of a quiet countryside, unless of course you bump in to  one of these super flocks. On the day we did find a real surprise in the shape of 2 Firecrests! These gem like tiny birds were feeding in the trees by the canal but were too fast and tiny to capture on camera. I had never seen Firecrests locally and this was a real treat.

Where Firecrests roamed

Sheets Heath is remnant of heathland that is one of the areas that has been grazed for a number of years and was, I think, the first road inSurrey to be cattle gridded. It is an indication that there may be reasons to object to grazing on heaths but in reality beneficial conservation grazing really can be become normalised over time.

We did notice one of the other effects of the blurring of seasons, the remarkable inconsistency of tree leaf loss, even between trees of the same species.

Late November

As we returned to the car a final surprise, lots of this fungus…

Coral like fungus

Haven’t noticed this species before, another reason for a new book!

 

 

Will Things Change?

 

Surrey Sunrise

The environment, the natural world, wildlife decreases, climate change and various other environmental issues under a variety names have never been in the general media as much as they are currently. Every newspaper will have a story somewhere about the perils that the natural world and humanity faces in the time we live in. Personally, I am pleased that more awareness to these serious issues is being made more public and also the fact that many more young people are challenging the way we live and the affects humanity has on the world environment, these are all moves in the right direction. I am slowly starting to feel that public pressure is working and was encouraged to see and hear people at the Extinction Rebellion demo in London the other week and to see how many people had gone out to let politicians know that it’s not just few hippies that are worried about the environment. I met and talked with many different people on the day I went up and in general felt encouraged that 1000s of people are willing to talk about the issues and hopefully make a difference.
We are, as always, are in the hands of government and as you have probably gathered from some of my previous articles I have, in the past, had little or no faith in politicians when it concerns the environment and so you can imagine my joy to find out that we were having another General Election on December 12th. Its obvious that the public pressure about environmental issues is starting to have an effect on the various political parties that will be standing at this next election. Good job as its about 50 years or more too late.

With this added political madness of an election I have been trying to keep tabs on what the various parties are saying about environmental issues and what they propose to try and do to halt the destruction of our country and planet.
There have been a few interesting things said already but I’m still feeling sceptical about some of these big claims
So, we currently have all the political parties claiming that they will make a significant change in policy, trying to halt the environmental crisis. Whoever wins next month has a lot of big promises to live up to and despite my scepticism and fears I also feel quite intrigued to see what actually happens and as always, cling to the hope that serious change will happen. We shall see …..

Before any serious change in the UK starts, we the voters have our own personal decisions to make about who we may vote for and we have to ask ourselves what are the most important issues that this country faces. I read an article last week saying that despite the pressure from many people and despite all the scientific data that has been accumulated about environmental issues, the environment in general is only the 4th most important point that a poll of UK voters named. I find this an equally worrying statistic despite many of the points I raised earlier about being in the news on a daily basis, the British voter still needs to wake up more and think more about the state of the planet we all live on. Unsurprisingly the number one reason given in the above-mentioned poll was Brexit, which in my nature conservationist mind has been a very dangerous distraction from the environment crisis.

I ask all readers of this site to think of environmental issues before you vote and I’m certainly not going to talk political viewpoints or make suggestions on how/who you should vote but if you genuinely care about our planet and its wildlife you will be thoughtful about where you put your mark.

Surrey Moon

Missing the Point?

Feeling like a mushroom?

 

Having kept my powder dry for a couple of weeks, and aware of the fact that nobody is likely to listen, I have finally decided to put words to my concerns both for Surrey and the rest of England.

Call be narrow minded or over focused on one issue but I find the existence of “elephants in the room” hard to ignore.

Much is being written and spoken about the climate emergency and the collapse of biodiversity in the UK. Comment and commitments are continually being made by national and local government, pressure groups, NGOs, in fact it seems that everybody has something to say on the 2 topics.

The government finally put forward an Environment Bill (without any certainty that it will now become a reality) and we can now all read the latest State of Nature report. Nearly all of it perfectly laudable in its intent and desired outcome. So what is my problem?

It is stating the obvious  that an essential part of protecting Biodiversity and helping to reverse its dramatic decline is to protect what Biodiversity you still have. To at least attempt this requires immediate, constant, sustainable management which requires immediate, stable, sustainable funding. 

Hoped for improvements in funding countryside management through the use  of planing system and offsetting or the expansion of the principles of Natural Capital are at this time hopes and do not address the fundamental question of who pays, right now, for the management of countryside and the protection of our increasingly appreciated but threatened Biodiversity?

In Surrey we have  the largest public open space (largely sites of major importance to Biodiversity) landowner, Surrey County Council still bizarrely promoting the importance of enhancing Biodiversity on one hand whilst maintaining the ridiculous position that managing the countryside should and could be self financing! I could puke at the stupidity of it.

Council Folly

Treating Biodiversity as some weird kind of political issue extends to national government as well.

The flagship wildlife sites, Biodiversity hot spots, are meant to be the designated National Nature Reserves. There are presently 224 of these wonderful places in England, some small but most are hundreds of hectares. So you would think that at least the management of these gems would be secure?

Of the 224 NNRs the majority of them, about 150, are managed by Natural England. By my very rough estimate that means about 60,000 hectares of land is meant to be managed by an organisation that has been financially gutted by successive governments. Natural England’s annual budget has been cut over the last 10 years from £242 million to under £100 million and its staff from around 2500 to around 1500. Now I know that managing the NNRs is only one part of the duties of Natural England but I also know that cutting the overall budget has had real and pretty dire consequences for the teams trying to manage these supposedly critical reservoirs of Biodiversity. We now live in a political world where even the Chief Executive of Natural England stating they have insufficient funding to manage the NNRs raises little comment, not even criticism from ill informed MPs.

What I find even more bewildering is that we are not really talking about huge sums of money, 10s of £millions not the £billions promised to tackle climate change or build HS2. Surrey County Council should be contributing at least a £million to manage their estate and I would suggest that a sustainable budget for the NE managed NNRs should be ring fenced and protected from cuts.

Why is the funding for managing sites of such importance to Biodiversity so ignored or marginalised? If you are a conspiracy theorist then there is plenty of scope for imagination to run wild but my tendency is that the overwhelming majority of politicians either just don’t care or simply don’t believe that government should have a role in directly managing land at all, least of all land important for Biodiversity. My suspicion is that the latter group of politicians think it’s easier and maybe better for conservation land management to be undertaken by charities like the RSPB and National Trust.

Recent history shows that even the Royal Parks were not regarded as important enough for the tax payer to fund directly and have quietly been charitablised. There have been past attempts to sell of the state forestry land and an aborted attempt to shift the Natural England NNRs to a further new charity, the first became such a hot political potato that I doubt that any government will repeat the attempt but the second I fully expect to be revisited.

What is so wrong about using tax payers money to protect Biodiversity directly through the conservation management of land that all of us as tax payers own?

Why is it politically acceptable to spend billions on anything related to climate change but not Biodiversity?

When you vote do ask yourself these questions.

A real product of people power