Listen More, Hear More. Look More, See More

Garden Glory Hawthorn

Having already bigged up the year as one of exceptional blossom, showing off my favourite garden tree was irresistible!

The last few days has given many opportunities to walk and enjoy the natural world. Admittedly my work increases my justification to be out and about but fortunately this has only meant travelling a few miles by car on a couple of occasions.

Like many people the increase in time available for a stroll or even just to stop and soak the atmosphere is something I am relishing, the pleasures and joys of discovery just keep coming.

Returning to the military ranges at Ash, with more families than ever before, allows one to appreciate space. Big skies, views , and I mean VIEWS, that I don’t believe can be bettered in Surrey.

Towards London

It’s become a truth that now the overflying of aircraft

Rare sight!

is more unusual than the possibility of seeing special birds like Tree Pipit

Preparing Tree Pipit

Out on the open heath many of the birds are either very discrete or rather unimpressive to look at (like the pipit). Most of the “little brown jobs” make up for their lack of glory plumage with 2 tactics depending on the habitats occupied.

Out on the wide open heath the tactic is to launch up in to the sky and advertise with song. Woodlark, even more than the similar Skylark, take the ascendency to extremes; I have witnessed many disappear out of sight in to a blue sky with the ethereal song drifting on the breeze. A Woodlark song can carry miles, both advertising to a mate and staking claim to a territory to rival males. Not all flying songsters go high, some like the Tree Pipit use a short acrobatic display from a song post to spread the word to a wider audience. Another species that employs this tactic is the Common Whitethroat, a species that looks to be having a good year. Every walk I’ve undertaken over the last 10 days or so has been punctuated with the scratchy song of the Whitethroat. It seems that where there’s a bit of scrub, thorn bush, hedgerow, there’s a plucky bird throwing itself in to the air to deliver, well let’s be kind, the best marketing message to a passing female Whitethroat.

Different place similar view

Whitethroats followed me to Chobham Common! In fact, not really surprising, similar habitat equals similar birds. The land of Woodlark, Dartford warbler, Stonechat, Tree Pipit and soon to be arriving Nightjar also serves up the right recipe for Whitethroat. Another bird also follows the presence of Whitethroat and some of the other highly visible songsters, The Cuckoo.

Distant searching Cuckoo

I had thought that Whitethroat were the most likely candidates for a Cuckoo to parasitise but that may well be assuming a link with Whitethroats on the basis of “visibility”. Goes to show assumptions can be misleading as the research compiled by the BTO indicates that the 4 most frequently recorded host bird species are in fact; Dunnock, Pied Wagtail, Meadow Pipit and Reed Warbler. Still leaves me with a few questions as, of those 4 only the pipit is really found on the open heath. Hmmm, I love a mystery.

During my wanders it seems that its not just Whitethroats that appear to have arrived in good numbers, Blackcaps, Garden warblers and Chiffchaffs are making lots of noise Not strictly “little brown jobs” but certainly discrete and hard to see these three join the group of birds that use the other, a second technique of attracting a mate and defending a territory; stay hidden but shout loud!

Along the Wey

More Whitethroats along the river near Send and Old Woking. The flood plain is dotted with scrubby thorns and bramble patches perfect to display flight from and been seen and heard.

Here the supporting chorus is different from the heath. Sadly Skylarks and Meadow pipits are increasingly hard to see or hear but closer to the river and the wet bits 2 more “hide and shout” warblers can be heard, Sedge and Reed warblers. Often found fairly close to each other neither has what you would call an attractive song, more scratchy stuff!

Home of Reed and Sedge Warblers

If you’ve never walked across this area please do! But do get a map and try and stick to the paths. It’s steeped in history and much of the area is protected both as common land and protected flood plain. It would be a wonderful idea to join up the management and protection of this beautiful are right through from Woking to Guildford and then on to Godalming.

Remains of Henry VIII’s Palace

The value to local people of the river meadows is also reflected in the number and age of churches, worth a visit on their own.

Across the meadows to Old Woking

Some of the meadows are cattle grazed, would be nice if it was all, and of those that are it was good to find the Surrey Wildlife Trust Galloways are back on the land given to SWT by Crest Nicholson, the national construction company. Yes it is possible for big companies to do good things! But it has been quite a while since a gift of this type has been made, sadly.

Sustainable work force

The more you look the more you find. A Reed bunting was no surprise but a Wheatear at the top of a tree (spotted by my wife whilst I was staring up at a Woking Peregrine) was.

Smart male Reed bunting
Top of the tree Wheatear

The more you look……

Beautiful Demoiselle

More and more damselflies are on the wing or waiting in the sun for their new form to dry and harden.

As you may have gathered I am fascinated by all of it, the natural world, and I love the images that are created where the natural and manmade worlds meet. As we crossed the river I noticed these tenacious couple of plants growing in chinks in the bank piling. Nature adapts.

More than just clinging on.

And nature rarely gives up.

Despite pruning, a tree continues.

Remember

Listen More, Hear More, Look More, See More.

I might be a bit angry about some of the things going on, or not, in Surrey’s countryside but if we don’t all get out and enjoy it at the minute how are we going to understand just how important it’s protection and management really are?

 

 

 

 

 

Ah, You Noticed!

Bee and Beauty, thanks to Vala Collyer

 

During these unprecedented times I have noticed a number of unusual activities in our relationships with the natural world. One of the things I have constantly observed is how many people are actually talking about nature and the natural world. Some of the reasons of why this happening are fairly obvious; the fact that people have not got the options that they usually have has actually made many people walk in countryside, a place that many of them have rarely been and possibly never been before. In news articles there has been many references to fact that UK people are noticing birdsong more which is down to fact of less noise from traffic and airplanes whose use has been greatly reduced in the last few weeks. The other morning at dawn I was awake and as I sat and listened to the birds of the dawn chorus, there was very little of the background noise that normally occurs.

The decrease in general noise has been very noticeable to me and I quickly realised that the majority of people who were making comments about bird song were possibly hearing them for the first time or more probably had only noticed them because of the decrease in noise. This point itself is part of a current world situation and if we look at some of the stories from around the world in the past few weeks there are many examples of how lack of human activity/disturbance has benefitted the natural world and the species that live in the world’s habitats and ecosystems. There are already countless examples of how the wildlife of the world has taken advantage of this current ‘ quiet ‘ time and the examples range from the Welsh Goats leaving their natural hill habitats and coming into the villages to forage to Thailand where because of the lack of tourists , large numbers of sharks have been observed for the first time and many years and there has also been Leatherback Turtles egg laying on beaches for the first time in 6 years. To me one of the most amazing examples that has occurred is that the Himalayas have become visible in parts of Northern India for the first in over 30 years because of the massive drop in air pollution over the last few weeks.

These examples raise a number of points. The first is something obvious to me and something that conservationists have been saying for years, and that is that if you give nature some space and quiet, species will recolonise. It also shows how quickly nature will seize an opportunity and benefit from it. For instance, on a more local level, the Jackdaws in Cranleigh have taken over the church and are building nests in locations that they would normally not be able to nest in.
During this unprecedented time there have been many changes in human and animal behaviour and now as I hear the news each day and I listen to various world leaders talk about getting their countries’ economies moving again I wonder if there will be any fundamental changes in the way humanity lead their everyday lives that will have a positive effect on our troubled planet. The signs from various of the world’s leaders does not look particularly promising and the same old boom and bust capitalist rational will continue to be the driving force in America, Brazil, China and most European counties. This has already been tried for many years and the environment and its wildlife has paid the heaviest price for this, as have the millions of people around the world who are still living in poverty. In amongst the various politicians proposed visions of life after the virus, there has been a number of scientists and conservationists raising the potential that we could start to make changes now particularly in light of the situation that most of the world is currently experiencing that will beneficial to our planet, its wildlife and its people. Could the collapse in oil prices prompt a move towards electric cars or the ending of various aircraft companies? Many of which are now requesting help from governments right now. Billionaires asking for government help is too ironic for me!

There are many unanswered questions at this time but there are some positives as I said and I feel the recent connection that everyday people seem to have made with the natural world is a very good thing and as I worked on my reserve the other day I heard a little girl and her dad walking through the woods nearby and suddenly the little girl exclaimed ” it’s really smelly here ” to which her father, who seemed to know a bit, explained that the smell was Ramsons or Wild Garlic and you could just hear her amazement.

In this moment I realised that there is always hope for the future whatever happens after this current crisis we are all currently experiencing.

Small Wonders

For those of us with gardens there can be little doubt that they are probably one of the few calm spaces available to us. Similar to the exercising walk, more time in the garden has meant greater appreciation of the small things, small changes, new life and, for many, greater appreciation of the variety of life that envelops us. That’s not to say life in the garden can lack drama, whether its the daily high speed appearance of madam Sparrowhawk or the almost constant acrobatic bullying of the local Red Kites by any of the local crows.

Lady killer, but this pigeon did actually live to tell the tale!

Much has been made of the great expansion of the recording of garden birds on the schemes promoted by the RSPB and BTO, and this is clearly a good thing. County based recording via Twitter is revealing all kinds of wonderful surprises for the birders and the expansion of recording overflying birds at night is uncovering simply amazing evidence of migration routes that I find staggering and utterly fascinating. Now we know that there is almost no limit to the number of bird species that could be flying over your house at night! Your imagination now really does have justification for running wild.

Back to earth at Hempstead, spring trundles on, oblivious to the anxiety in the world of humans. The details draw me in; it’s fascinating that fruit trees, even those closely related, follow a consistent sequence of blossoming, stoned fruit (blackthorn, plums, cherries), pears then apples (even they have a variety sequence that remains consistent).

Apple blush

How come? Weather is too variable to be responsible, so I’m guessing it’s day length. I love the fact that it seems many plants have means of detecting changes in their environment of a sensitivity that is hard for even our technology to match. Yes I do get that I could probably find a scientific explanation but often I just love to wonder at the complexity and sheer beauty of natural details.

Yellow is still, just, dominating the wild flowers but bluebells and local wood anemones are poised to take over.

Proper Cowslip

Having planted a couple of Cowslip plants over 20 years ago they have proliferated in to most areas of the garden. As a species they are ready hybridisers with Primroses, of any variety. Difficult to see how you can stop this hybridising occurring in a garden context and I suspect the bluebells, which were here when I moved in, wouldn’t meet the genetic standard for a native species. Hmmmm….. that reads like a future topic for Francis to tackle!

Cowslip hybrid

When the wind drops the buzzing of bees has been getting louder.

Bumbles love Pulmonaria

I know I have several species of Bumbles and a collection of many smaller species. Masonry bees in the brickwork, mining bees in the veg plot (actually in the flower bed in the veg plot, there to be kept safe from marauding deer!). Bee flies chasing their host species of bumble and hoverflies beginning to appear.

Don’t ask me bee!

A few butterflies are braving the cool wind but the lack of moths is becoming a  concern to me, as is the absence of the bats that normally circle my lawn at dusk.

Holly Blue on the Bay Tree

This little piece started with the joy that birds can incite but I’m going to voice my sadness which partners this joy for me in my little patch of garden.

My joy, and puzzlement to be honest, at the appearance of a 40 strong flock of Starlings in the surrounding fields is matched with a sadness that Starlings haven’t bred in the garden or house for a couple of years.

The joy of glimpsing 4 Swallow flying over is tinged with the sadness that this is no longer a daily event, no locally breeding birds any more. Rarely will I see or hear Martins or Swifts yet when I was young our road had tens of House Martins nests tucked under the eaves, my school had dozens of nests and I even did a project on them. Swifts used to barrel down the road screaming, a real joy. I’m so sad that local kids just won’t see these things and experience life to its fullest potential.

Curious Jay by Steve Duffy

Watching a pair of surprisingly gentle and caring Jays has been fascinating but where are the missing smaller less obtrusive birds? Linnets nested in this garden and the adjacent hedgerows for much of the nineties, now gone. Skylarks could be heard whilst enjoying a cup of tea, not any more. No pipits and only rarely a Pied Wagtail. I will look back over what’s been seen in and from our garden, it is frankly amazing but what matters is where we are now and what we can do to help and to celebrate the everyday.

 

Every Cloud…..

Spring and the weather can bring great peace and not a little joy if you have the opportunity to get outside in a garden or into local countryside for an exercise walk.

My problem, according to my wife, is that I get distracted by nearly everything that we encounter on our daily walks. Admittedly I am fascinated at changes, small and significant, that get noticed when you walk a route more regularly than usual. A quick stroll gets longer and longer……

Oaks beginning to blush green

It might be the effect that a change in light or the colour of a cloud has or it might be watching the Magpies riding sheep.

Where’s the reins!

This year spring flowers and bloom on trees look more abundant almost as if whilst we are catching our breath, nature is slowly exhaling. Frosts have done some damage to the local magnolia blooms but even they have continued to produce more.

Celandines are still producing yellow carpets on verges and in woods and the next wave, wood anemones and bluebells, are beginning to burst forth.

Celandine strewn stream

Textures and shapes can draw you in and might inspire wether the bark of an alien tree

Or the magic of unfurling leaves.

I hadn’t really considered just how fantastic the process of leaf growth actually is. From small buds, then swelling ones of all shapes and sizes there comes forth these miracles of natural engineering. Each vein a sign of a fold that had formed whist still tightly contained in a protective case. Each species evolved to produce a specific folding pattern, magic!

Hidden views discovered

Great pleasure in realising that local can just be stunning and surprise you with bits of history and culture that you kinda assumed you should have known.

Who’s he?

On our “patch” is a beautifully sited very old church, more on that another time, and whilst walking through we are beginning to find what to us are fascinating little mysteries. For example, a small sign pointed the way to the above grave marker. That means you just have to find out why he is of note, doesn’t it? Much to our surprise, and a little embarrassment to be honest, Sidney was an artist of some repute and has a gallery celebrating his work in a local building. The upstairs of the very building where my daughter went to play school! Who knew? Definitely a place to visit when the restrictions are lifted.

Little dramas play out, some of them not to script. After leaving the churchyard via a beautiful old gate in need of some repair,

 

we first encountered what looked like a very lonely Egyptian Goose, not what you expect in a Worplesdon field,

All alone?

but a couple of days later

happy days, there was 2! Probably a bit late for babies as the first clutch Ive seen this year was in January near Chobham.

More sun, more flowers, more butterflies.Last Sunday first Holly Blue

and yesterday, with the first Garlic Mustard flowers, appeared my favourite Orange Tip

Orange tip, not on Garlic Mustard!

Remember, look for the small and easy to walk past, use all your senses, it really is, still, a beautiful world.

Good from Bad

Well here we are all then, in an unprecedented situation for humanity. And like Steve said I’m not going to enter this hotbed of controversy here other than hoping that all who read this are safe and well, take good care of yourselves and each other. So, we all have had restrictions put on us that have restricted our movements and as you have probably gathered from some of my previous articles; I am a man who likes to get out and about.

Violets.

With this situation in place and living in crowded Surrey I have found myself in my reserve a lot of the time in the last 3 weeks. In all honesty, I have needed a lot of time out there in order to regain some kind of control, as helped by the incredibly mild winter, certain familiar species had run rampant through many of the planted-up areas. To the gardeners amongst you will know about the ‘ familiar ‘ species I am referring to and over the winter I had noticed how many plant species had not died off or wilted due to the mild conditions and when I finally got there to deal with it I instantly realised that this was going to be a big task and regretted for not starting to deal with issue a bit earlier. After 3 weeks of doing a minimum of half an hour daily weeding I have just about ‘ cleaned ‘ the flower beds and there are two very large piles of Creeping Buttercups, Broad Leaved Dock and Pendulous Sedge that I have dug, pulled and scraped out of the ground in order to try and redress the balance. I have already previously mentioned that I was aware that this kind of situation could occur in my new reserve and, given the habitats surrounding the area and the tenacity of the problem species I have been dealing with, is never to be underestimated.

Before
After a bit of effort!
After a bit more!

After I had removed as much as I could I started to think of ways to try and slow down this invasion and stop it happening every year. I realised my best chance to abate the weeds was to plant another strong growing species to try establish themselves before the problem species take over again
I had a little look into the woods just behind the reserve area to see which plants were growing on the woodland floor with the thought of finding a suitable species to plant on the edge of my area to try and stop the deluge of Ranuculus. Before you start thinking that I was stealing plants and going against all the things we are taught about picking wildflowers, I will say that the 20 plants I did end up digging out were A) very common. B) in an area where they were often trodden on by the many members of the public who use the woods and C) planting them 50 metres from where I dug them up was actually helping to extend their range in the area. The plants were Ramsons, wild garlic, and there are several large patches in the woods and when they are in flower they give that pleasant garlic odour and beautiful white flowers that will attract a few insects. Ramsons can form quite dense carpets on woodland floors which is I’m hoping is what my transplants will be doing on the edge on my reserve. As I’m becoming more aware of the power of the invasive weeds I felt that the Ramsons would need some time to get established and as we enter the start of the growing season, I knew all the invasive species would start growing all over again, particularly in the newly weeded areas where I had planted the Ramsons. I had a good think about other plant species that could compete with the problem species and one potential species was found accidentally whilst I looked through my collection of seeds (which was itself quite strange as the they were only wildflower seeds I had) Red Campion which seemed a good species to join in the battle. Their reddish pink flowers are in flower from April to July and are also quite shade tolerant which is good as where I was planting was going to be partially shaded. A common species in hedgerows and woodland and, like Ramsons, can form quite dense areas. I sowed some of the seeds directly into the ground in between the Ramson transplants and I also sowed some into pot that I took indoor to try and give them a bit of a head start.

Ramson transplants.

After 2 weeks there are already signs of life in the potted seeds.
I also added one more species to help stop the invasion, Wild Strawberry, which again is a species that can grow rapidly and form dense covering. I was given a single plant last year which I planted in midsummer and by the end of the summer had already flowered and fruited and spread. I have only planted a couple of plants and will see how they get on in the battle. Some of you may be well aware that the species that I have planted in order to try and dissuade invasive species can themselves be quite invasive and I have cleared them in several gardens I have worked in the past. I was well aware of this myself before I planted them and knew that I could be pulling them out in a few years if they got established over the course of this year. In their defence they all produce flowers that are vital nectar sources for potential visiting insects and will offer a visually beautiful show of colours hopefully.

Perfumed Ramsons!

We can only wait and see what happens in the forthcoming weeks as spring progresses. And as I’ve quite a bit more to do!

As I have spent a lot of time out in the area I had cleared and planted up over the last couple of years I started to look at the gardens next to my plot which were all totally overgrown and in a state of poor condition. With a lot more time on my hands I took the decision to try and clear and dig over the ground to prepare the ground ready to replant and further extend the area of the ‘reserve ‘. On one side I began to dig over the earth removing the sods of earth as I went along. This area had once been garden but had not been touched for at least 6 years and most of the area was covered with grass and various other weeds. So far I have managed to dig over about a third of the area and still have a fair amount of digging and weeding to do before I plant up the new space. On the other side of the garden, the other overgrown area was a bit more of a challenge as there were a few major issues. Bramble invasion I could deal with and happily hacked back the sections where they had invaded. I then began to cut the rank grass down and soon discovered that the grass had grown through matting that had been laid years ago in order to prevent weeds growing! This was going to be a massive job and one that I have yet to start, ah well, I’ve got some time.

New Extension.

With all this activity was there actually any wildlife using the area?
It is massively reassuring when I see the local life in the area I have created and with a bit more time on my hands I have felt very rewarded to observe some things that have been seen. I began to put out some monkey nuts in the evening and the locals Badgers soon made an appearance and have seen them a few nights. I can hear, when my window is open, the cracking of the nutshells and know that they are about or so I thought for the other night I heard the shell cracking and took a look out the window and saw a big dog Fox waltzing around and occasionally cracking a nutshell. Due to a change in lighting at the flats where I live the reserve area is now much darker than it used to be and observations are a little bit harder to make.

Signs of Badger Banquet.

During the day time there has been a lot of Bumblebee activity with at least 3 different species observed, Buff Tailed, White Tailed and Early. I’ve seen a White-Tailed Queen investigating the walls at the bottom of garden looking for potential nest sites. Often in the mornings I’m seeing many bird species feeding around the area where the night shift has fed including Wood Pigeon, Magpie, Blackbird, Robin, Dunnock and for the last week a Song Thrush has been regularly seen. Bullfinches have been fairly regular and the male’s mournful song has been heard on a few days. Summer migrants have started to arrive and there was a Blackcap up in the woods along with a Chiffchaff.

As nature bursts into life , we shall see what this strange years brings.

Back to basics

Its no longer possible for me to excuse lack of posting  by claiming too busy, but I promise that Francis and I will try and avoid constant reference to what seems to fill most media space at present.

We are both fortunate to have access to gardens and exercise through walking locally. So back to some simple truths and the basics of our joy in the countryside.

Spring has been rushing forward with only short pause for some pretty hard frosts, with the first wave of white and yellow wild flowers.

Stitchwort

Early blooms are at least a food source for the early mergers of the insect world, bees and overwintering butterflies in particular. In some ways these early flowers are often ignored, unless they are part of a mass display of primroses or cowslips, because they don’t really contrast in colour against the grass.

King cup

Overwintering butterflies like Peacock, Tortoiseshell, Cooma and Red Admiral are all on the wing when the wind drops.

Comma

Survivors like these show their age with worn or faded colours but have can have the advantage breeding early. Just as likely that the weather can catch them out and if they don’t find a sheltered spot will perish.

Bees are a lot harder to photograph but we will try, as the variety is amazing and in my garden the mimics, fly species, are also active often following true bees around presumably waiting for an opportunity to parasitise their host species.

Stay safe and get back to basics, find a little joy in the small local things wherever you are.

 

 

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.