I realised the other day that it had been quite a long while since I had written about the progress of my wildlife garden/ reserve. As I thought about this, the news of the latest report on the state of the UKs wildlife was being reported by the mainstream media and although the two different points, my reserve and the state of the country’s wildlife may seem very different, there are connections between the two and some hope to be found. So, with this piece I write a “two in one” , information on my back yard and some of the points raised in the latest report on our wildlife.
Firstly, the back yard.
The weather over the summer was quite variable, there was no long weeks of sunshine this year and there were quite a few days of overcast and rainy weather. Even with this variable weather the temperatures overall were warm again with some record temperatures being recorded in July. The reserve has shown progress in the variety of flowers that have come in to bloom with over 50 species now being recorded and with these flowers there seemed to be an increase in the variety of insects that have been noted in the area.
This increase in insects has obviously come from the increase in flowering plants which as we know are vital food sources for many insect groups and not just the obvious groups like bees and butterflies with hoverflies, Hairy Shield-Bug and Bristle Thighed Beetle all being noted.
After all these points I’ve made about the insects and the flowers in the reserve I’ve realised that I have not mentioned that the reserve is only getting about 2 hours of direct sunlight each day which will have an effect on how the plants grow and which insects may occur.
I noted that butterfly activity is at its peak in the sunny couple of hours in the morning and would become less so when the area when shaded. It never seemed to bother Large and Small Whites much and they were ever present from July to September with a few still about in early October.
In nature this is common and environments will adapt to availability to the suns and its movement.
As I look at the site now I am making plans for some winter work to increase the sunlight in the area.
Two bird species have increased in breeding numbers quite dramatically over the last 20 years and one of them, the Red Kite, can now be described as common in many parts of the country, including here in Surrey. The reintroduction of this species has led to 1200 breeding pairs present in 2018. They have been greatly aided by various conservation organisations and have even become tourist attractions as some people have started feeding them. The other species I saw had increased was the Bittern, a heron species that needs large reedbeds to breed in but can be found in smaller reedbeds when on wintering grounds. In 1997 there were only 11 calling males heard during the breeding season and the
the Bittern faced extinction for a second time. Conservationists started a scheme to protect, enhance and create habitats that were suitable for breeding Bittern. 20 years on and the UK has its largest Bittern population it has ever recorded with 188 booming male birds being recorded from over 70 different locations nationwide last year and there have been a few locations around Surrey where birds have wintered so how long will it before there’s a big enough reedbed for them to breed in? There’s the clear evidence that if humanity helps our natural world and its inhabitants nature can recover which takes me back round to my reserve/ garden where 18 months ago there was an area of rank overgrown grassland full of old rubbish and now there are many species of wildlife using the area to feed, breed and prosper. If this was done by more people over larger areas of our country and world-wide we may have a chance to repair some the damage that humanity has caused.
Let’s do what we can and see if people worldwide can make a difference politically and physically.
Over the many years of observing wildlife I’ve heard the phrase ‘never seen that before ‘ uttered many times either by myself or my friends with me. To me, this is one of the joys of studying wildlife and I always know that I will never be bored because there so many facts concerning the wildlife that is around us and without the best memory of our own observations or having so much time to continually observe wildlife we can never know everything about all the species that are present around us. The chance of observing something new is always a strong possibility whenever you go out to look for wildlife and if you see something new it often means you will learn something new as well.
After saying all that, sometimes you get to see things by people telling you of their observations. Over my many years of observing wildlife I have often looked at wildlife that others have told me about. The well-known grapevines amongst birdwatchers have existed for many years and have spread to many other groups of wildlife enthusiasts such as butterflies, dragonflies and moths. These days with internet, mobiles, pagers and various other modern communications; news of wildlife sightings can be shared with potentially thousands of people. However sometimes the old-fashioned way of people actually talking to each other still works and the other day this proved the case when my partners daughter returned home to inform me of loads of large moths in a tunnel by the playing fields in the village. After harassing me for a while, I walked down to the village with her to be directed to said tunnel. I jumped down into the nearly dried out stream and entered the tunnel and turned on the torch on my phone and was amazed to see a large number of Old Lady moths roosting on what you would call the roof of the tunnel.
My first word was ‘ wow ‘ quickly followed by ‘ I never seen that before ‘. Previously I had only ever seen single individuals and was unaware that they roosted communally in tunnels near water. I have learnt quite a bit about this species since I observed this roost the other day and the information that was given was by a teenager has also amazed me! It all goes to show that you can never be sure of what you can see out there and its sometimes worth investigating information that people give you as you could see something new or different.
I was very happy and grateful to observe these Old Lady moths and it re reminds me that you never know what you can see in the natural world. Keep your eyes and ears open and you never know what could happen out there.
As we have now actually experienced some typical mid-summer weather in the last couple of weeks, I made the most of my not enough spare time and got out for a few expeditions and at four of the sites I visited, one species seemed ever present and that was the Marbled White butterfly.
This striking butterfly has been a joy to watch on areas of unimproved grassland and open chalk downland areas along the Hogs Back. I saw my first ever Marbled Whites over 30 years ago at a chalk site called Folkestone Warren in Kent and remembered being impressed with this eye-catching yet subtle at times species. I’ve had the pleasure to work at a number of sites where they occurred and have always been impressed by their colours and behaviour.
In my recent wanderings I have been really pleased with the numbers of individuals that were on the wing and at one site along Hogs Back well over 150 were present and we also saw them on the grass verges along the A31 as we went home. The visit to Broadstreet Common near Guildford was nothing short of spectacular with 100s being present. It was almost an idyllic image of high summer in an English flower meadow; idyllic apart from the roar of the busy main road only a few 100 meters away!
Me and Steve who was with me, remarked on the good numbers present. I recalled a paper I had read recently saying unlike many butterfly species, Marbled White is a species that is spreading and increasing in numbers in this country.
Before we look at why this species is doing well in the UK it’s probably worth pointing out a few facts about this eye-catching species. Its name for a start is misleading although understandable as Marbled Whites are not even in the same family as Large, Small and Green Veined Whites which belong to the family called Pieridae. Marbled Whites belong to the family called Satyridae which contains mainly brown species including Meadow Browns, Gatekeepers and Ringlets which are species that are often seen alongside Marbled Whites. There habitat preferences are similar to with unimproved grasslands often being popular for all of these ‘brown’ butterflies. All of the species just mentioned lay their eggs on various grass species and the Marbled White prefers Red Fescue and Sheep’s Fescue although has been recorded on other grass species. These fine leaved grasses provide the caterpillars with all the food necessary to reach a size to pupate. Marbled Whites over winter as caterpillars and are at a very vulnerable at this part of their lifecycle as disturbance of sites can be life threatening during cold winter weather. They normally bury themselves in grass tussocks in cold weather. If they survive the winter they begin to feed on new grass growth in the spring. They enter pupation late May and early June and can be seen as adults from late June through to August.
So, what has happened in the UK over the last 40 years to create the spread and explosion in numbers in recent years. When I was a teenager and first started taking a real interest in butterflies, I associated Marbled Whites with chalk downland and read that it also occurred in Limestone and sand areas as habitats of preference. Since those days this species has spread into new habitats like the previously mentioned unimproved grass land areas. Broadstreet Common near Guildford is a site I have known of for nearly 30 years and it is only in the last 10 years that Marbled Whites have occurred there. So why is this happening? The answer is a very familiar one and probably won’t shock you to find out the biggest reason for the spread of the Marbled White in the UK over the last 40 years is the heating up of our planet. This is the key reason why there are more about nowadays and to a smaller part their colonisation of different habitats as Broadstreet Common shows driven by the warmer temperature we have been experiencing in recent times. Butterflies across the world are feeling the effects of global warming already as the Marbled White and several other species in the UK are already showing. I feel caught between a rock and hard place over this issue as watching the Marbled Whites has been a brilliant experience and to have seen many so close that you could see the slight variations in the markings between the male and females’ butterflies, the male being smaller and darker than the larger females with their brown/orange hues on the undersides of the wing being noted.
Only in the future will we see how far the effects of global warming can affect our insect populations. I do advise you to go and have a look at some Marbled Whites if you get the chance for they are beautiful butterflies and should be on the wing for a short while yet for you to find them and it’s worth checking the grasslands near you to see if any are about. Good luck and enjoy
A couple of weeks ago I was looking at bees in the reserve and one caught my eye. I instantly knew it was a species I was unfamiliar was and after a little research and help it was identified as a Tree Bumblebee. I was pleased as it was a new species to me and helped to add more information in my quest to learn about bee identification and their habits and requirements. They are very handsome bees with a unique colour formation amongst the UKs Bumblebees. They have a very gingery fury thorax and its very eye-catching and was the feature that drew my attention to it originally. So far, my observations have all been made of individuals feeding on flowers in the reserve and I have seen them seen them feeding on 7 different flowers so far.
I did some reading up after seeing them on my reserve and discovered a lot of interesting facts about this species.
This attractive Bumblebee has only been recorded in the UK from 2001 when there were first sightings were at a Wiltshire site. Since its arrival it has done something that most other UK bee species are not doing, increasing and spreading rapidly, and is already in southern Scotland and Ireland. It doesn’t seem to be slowing down much in spreading and will probably be seen throughout the UK within a couple of years. I had least 3 feeding the other day out the back on the reserve.
The effects of this species have yet to be studied properly but a positive effect can be seen already with the fact that they will pollinate other plants and flowers. With the drop-in numbers of other bee species, additional plant pollinators are to be welcomed.
Their name comes from their original choice of nest site but now it seems that nest sites can include; bird nest boxes, loft space in houses and even specially built bee nest boxes. They have also been known to use holes in the ground like many of the other bumblebees and this shows that they are an adaptable and opportunistic species. In other parts of their range populations can reach the arctic circle. From the looks of things, and with the continued warming of the climate, it looks like Tree Bumblebees will keep spreading. I’m quite glad as I think they are an attractive and helpful specie to have around in the UK. We shall see what long term affect their presence will have on our countryside.
Keep your eyes open in your gardens and you may well have some around you.
This morning I was looking at the reserve and assessing the work that I need to do. I noted that there was a total of 15 flowering species out and thought t to myself that none of these species were growing here a year ago. I then remembered the date and realised that it was exactly a year to the day that I started working on the site and it seems a good time to chart the progress of impact my work on the local wildlife.
The aforementioned flowering plants have not only bought colour to the site but have attracted a host of insects to the area. A total of 9 bee species have been recorded at the site so far and in the last week I have noted various species feeding on the flowers that I had planted in last 12 months. Bees were one of the many reasons for creating this site and it has pleased me to see the variety of species present. Hopefully even more species will be seen with further habitat improvements.
Being quite an obvious group of insects, they are quite easily seen and one of my neighbours recently said that he had never seen so many bees in the area as he had in last year. This is the kind of thing I wanted to create and for my neighbour to say this recently means that my habitat improvement is working in a relatively small space of time.
It is a basic understanding that flowers will attract insects and insects will attract more insects which in turn will provide food for larger life forms such as birds.
Again, birdlife has become more obvious since the clearance and replanting began. The clearance of the woodland area has created some space and even though I haven’t had my bird feeders going for a few weeks now there are regular visitors to the cleared area including Jay, Song Thrush, Blackbird, Mistle Thrush occasionally and the local Stock Dove dropped in early one morning recently. There are the regular common species ever present and I have a pair of Wrens in the pile of brash that have been feeding young but sadly the local Robins chicks were killed by cats. Its hardcore out there.
In the management of woodlands, the areas with most biodiversity are the woodland edges and although it is very early days in improving the woodland area there are signs that the local wildlife is reacting and benefitting from the changes I have made. Over the course of next winter more work shall be undertaken to try to improve the area. Birds are similar to bees in the fact that some species are very obvious and again this has been noted by my neighbours and I’m having regular conversations with them about the birds that they have seen out there. As I said earlier when my neighbours are remarking on the wildlife, I know that the big plan is coming together.
As I reflect over the progress over the last year I am starting to put together species list of the different wildlife families that I have seen in and around where I live and its starting to look quite impressive with 47 Macro moths, 11 butterflies, 53 birds, 7 mammals, 3 Hoverflies
and the aforementioned 9 bee species. To me this is just the beginning and I again have a feeling of hope for the well-being of our environment in the future when I looked at what I have achieved over the last year. Now all we need to do is start serious habitat creation on a much larger scale and is a government responsibility. I wonder how much they have been listening in recent months. Us everyday people can start the small-scale change in our gardens, if you have one, as I have been doing. My project is on-going and I still have many hours of work ahead of me but if the improvements in the wildlife keep occurring I’m more than happy to carry on and we shall see what the next year brings.
Today I realised that I hadn’t I hadn’t reported on the new reserve for a number of weeks now and I also realised many changes had occurred since I had last written about it, that I’m not sure where to start this piece but will go with the important and traditional word about the weather.
So, I’ve reported about how warm the winter was and saw some of the plants in the reserve staying green throughout the cold season. So, the cold weather that moved over the country from mid-April into early May then proceeded to slow down plant growth and many of the seedlings I had planted struggled to grow. These particularly cold night really held back the growth and was only relieved about a week ago with the arrival of some warmer conditions. The reaction of the warmth was the kick started the plants and many species put on rapid growth and some came into flower to join the already flowering Green Alkanet and Common Forget Me Knot. I was encouraged to see plants that I had sown or planted coming into flower for the first time.
These new flowers included ones that I had bought as plugs and ones I had grown from seed and I as write this there is the beginnings of an array of colour with Cut Leaved Cranesbill, Ragged Robin, Birds Foot Trefoil, Charlock, Red Valerian, Germander Speedwell and the first Common/Black Knapweed all coming into flower in the 10 days. It was not only the new flowers that were growing but a whole host of unwanted plants, commonly called weeds, we’re proliferating in places and I have spent a good few hours trying stop their invasion and will have to keep doing so in order to give the new flowers a chance to establish themselves.
In the second week in April whilst talking with my neighbour I discovered that the boundary of the garden/reserve expended into the woodland on the bank behind the flats. This news sent me into a lot of thought about how this area could be connected with the area that I had already started trying to manage for wildlife. The woodland is a mix of broadleaved trees with everything from Pedunculate Oak, Hornbeam and Sweet Chestnut to the more common Sycamore and Ash. These last two species were shading large areas of the new reserve and gardens bordering it. After a couple walks in the woods I found a few old Hazel coppice stools that had been abandoned and grown leggy and old Hawthorn that had been chopped down every few years and done the same. I decided that removing some of the Sycamore and Ash would help some ground flora grow and I could try to create a small area of Hazel coppice that would give the wood land in general more biodiversity. The aforementioned cold weather had held the plant growth up and I felt there was enough time to take some of the trees down and I borrowed an electric chainsaw and spent a few hours taking the shade offenders down. When I took the Ash trees down I discovered that they had the Ash dieback disease Chalara and were destined to die before I felled them. I had better say that I have been trained in the use of chainsaws and looked at health and safety before under taking the work. I only did a few hours work because the leaves started to appear and there were Blackcap and Chiffchaff using the area and I didn’t want to scare them away. They do still seem to be holding territory in the area and the male Blackcap even sat on the pile of brash I had piled up and sang the other day. The woodland work has been started and will start again in the autumn once the birds have stopped nesting and the plants have died back. Exciting times ahead.
Other wildlife sightings have also been encouraging and hopefully are showing the improvements in the local habitat. I was up early one morning and observed a pair of Jay’s feeding for 15 minutes on a whole host of food from animal to vegetable. The Jays were joined for a little while a Song Thrush who was then chased of by a male Blackbird whilst a Mistle Thrush sang in the woods behind. There have been quite a few Bullfinch sightings and I’m fairly sure they are breeding in some bramble scrub on the edge of the woods…
There have been a couple of interesting insects seen with a Grey-Patched Mining Bee seen on a dandelion on April 25th and a Lesser Stag Beetle on the May 21st.
Up to 5 White Tailed Bumblebees have been seen on a number of days using the few available flowers that were present and I’m hoping that with the emergence of more flowers they will in turn attract more insects to the area. We shall see what happens.
The state of our planet is very big in news at this point in time and the potential extinction of many species is also being widely discussed. This is starting to happen already and I have watched many species here in the UK decline during my lifetime and still declining wildlife has to struggle or cling on to survival.
This last point hit me hard four years ago when I paid a visit to little site I knew that contained Nightingales. Now Nightingale are a migratory species that arrive in the UK in mid to late April and the male birds sing their famed song to attract a mate. They were always on the edge of their European range here in the UK but numbers have been falling mainly due to lack of decent habitat for them. So, every site that is being used is a precious site for this species. On that May afternoon four years ago, I arrived at the site to find that the whole area where the birds had been singing had been cut to the ground and there were no birds present. I was pretty angry to say the least.
I visited the site in the following years and there were no birds present. Some of the cut down vegetation had started to regrow and a couple of years ago I wondered whether the Nightingale would possibly return because of improvements in the habitat. And so, to last Monday when I found myself back in this place and whilst 6I was looking around the unmistakable song of a Nightingale erupted from a scrubby area. I was delighted and very quickly made some notes of what the bird was doing and where it was singing. After 20 minutes I moved off and was left with a few questions in my head. Where the bird had been singing was an area where I had never recorded them before. I had seen them close to this area in previous years but not in the corner where I had refound them that day. This area had been scrubbing up with Brambles and Blackthorn over the last few years and these two species are known to be favourable to nesting Nightingale. I’m hoping this is a breeding pair and they will stay and breed successfully. We shall see.
This episode reiterated the point that if suitable habitats is present it will be used by wildlife, common and rare alike.
Many species that have undergone population declines in recent times could be helped with a few comparatively simple measures and this example of the Nightingale shows this well with good habitat availability being available.
I am old enough to remember the times where many species were far commoner than they are today and I know that nature has the capability to recover if given the chance and opportunity. This can only happen if land management and wildlife laws are radically changed. We shall see if the new political pressure makes any improvements so we can still hear the incredible song of birds like Nightingales in years to come
Last week apparently saw a monumental decision by the British government, to finally address the massive world issues of climate change and loss of species and habitats across the world. For those of us with half a brain; we know that the world is getting hotter.
When this news appeared a few nights ago I have to admit, I felt shocked. Are politicians finally starting to see the bigger picture about the condition our planet is currently in and how it will worsen for future generations if we continue to live in certain ways. I am encouraged to see this happening, I’ve hoped that this kind of ruling would come into place for most of my life.
For those of us with our eyes and ears open, and particularly those over 40, the decline of the UKs wildlife is obvious. Some of the issues written about by myself and Steve over the last year have touched on some of the issues that have lead to the reduction in numbers of many of our once common wildlife.
There seems to be an awakening in the younger generations about the state of the planet and this to me is vital if we are going to try and halt the decimation of the natural world. I have been encouraged to see the school strikes and the words of sixteen year old Greta Thunberg demanding changes in the way governments protect our (or don’t protect, which often more the case) planet. The youth have got to do something now and as I said it is good to see the youngsters speaking out about their future lives. I have also been encouraged to see that it’s a whole range of different people that have speaking out to demand change with the Extinction Rebellion illustrating the urgency.
The optimism I have felt in recent days is also a feeling of hope. I have for the first time in my life talked to the general public about the state of our planet and where are all the sparrows gone. The facts are out there for all people to find out and these are facts that have come from top scientists and experts in their field. It is now the turn of the governments to actually take proper notice and act fast. I will be honest and feel that the greed and power culture that we are currently living in will prevail with this government and probably in the following one. With the media and political parties currently quite aware for once about the crisis our planet is living in. I know I’ve said this before to you but now is a great time to email your local MP and express your concerns for our environment and its dwindling wildlife. MPs aren’t that keen on losing voters you know. Pressure has got to be put on government from as many ordinary people like you and me if essential changes are to be made
Can you remember the last time you went out and you stood still to observe what was around you? The way of the modern world doesn’t seem to want us to ever stop ourselves from doing something or other is tiresome and frankly a bit unnatural. We can do things, and feel relaxed and comfortable but from what I see here in Surrey that is all too rare for many people. On my local wanderings I have even noticed that very few people are stopping to take in the beautiful riverside scenery that surrounds them. If there not, running, cycling, walking dogs, talking on mobiles, and even listening to music they seem to hurry and not take in the countryside they are passing through. Now I am being harsh on the people I see and undoubtedly many people get as much enjoyment from the area as I do myself and I have often seen anglers, walking groups, occasional photographers, and people with old dogs taking in the area.
Now as you know from my previous writings that when I go out for a walk; the number one priority is to observe wildlife. Yep I can be obsessive about it sometimes, I admit! Over the many years that I have been going out and doing this I also learnt the simple but sometimes highly effective idea/trick of standing still. I generally try and pick a good place to stop at its not always random although as nature can be very random and you never know what can happen and I recall being in Guildford the other year and whilst walking in a crowd of people, I saw a Peregrine wheeling about the sky and instantly stopped in my tracks causing the person behind me to bump into me! I apologised and stepped aside to get more views of the Peregrine.
Finding a good place to stand is key if you want to see wildlife and these, in my experience have often been by water, woodland edges, viewpoint and good old trustee gates. In recent years I found a wet field with a marshy pool full of Reedmace that was bordered by a track. I have started to walk this way quite a bit in the last two years and have found myself standing on the track looking at this Marsh pool.
Last week I stood and saw a male Stonechats suddenly appear on a Reedmace head, then there were 2 with a female joining him. I watched the for a couple of minutes and then noticed another bird on the Reedmace and there was a male Reed Bunting busily ripping through the seed heads. From the hidden depths of the marsh a Water Rail squealed as well. Feeling very satisfied I took a step to my left and heard the local Tit flock going crazy and saw the male Sparrowhawk flick over the hedge into the woodland having missed his dinner.
In 20 minutes, I had seen all these species plus a whole variety of other birds and probably only moved 2 metres in total. This example of what you can see when you stand still and I will continue to do this and see what I can find. The other good thing about carrying out this practice is that it teaches you patience for today I stood in the same place and saw nothing apart from the Wood Pigeons that deposited its dinner on me!
Late winter and early spring were the times when you would expect the conservationist to be busy getting ready for the forthcoming coming season. As I always make reference to the current weather in my pieces that I write here I realise that I may have become predictable but that is one thing, particularly in recent times, that is not predictable and that is the weather.
February’s temperatures were again record breaking with 17°c being noted in Scotland during the month.
The warm weather was causing a few events on the reserve and raising a few questions in my head. As you know, the first plantings were carried out in June last year and many of those plants flowered late and many of them have retained their green basal leaves throughout the winter. In what I would have called a normal winter these basal leaves would have shrivelled up and possibly died. As I looked at the plants a couple of weeks ago many of the plants were starting to grow new leaves encouraged by the warm weather.
The seasons seem to be moulding together and this past winter has emphasised this point. I’m going to be keeping a careful eye on the plants of last year and how they
have coped and managed to furthering of their species.
It has also been interesting to note the evidence of gardening work of the past. After I cleared the rank vegetation off the area last year it has been completely and is now an open area so when I noticed plants emerging through the compacted soil I realised that the area had been ‘ gardened ‘ before and I was witnessing the re-emergence of plants that had been dormant for many years. I left the Crocus and most of the Daffodils in place as they looked pretty in the early spring and I also noted an Early Bumblebee feeding on one of the Crocus proving their importance.
The work preparing the rest of the area for planting continued and carried on to dig over the remaining unworked areas removing buttercups, dock and brambles as I went along. These species will forever be needed to be removed if they are to be prevented from taking over the area.
With the weather being so warm I decided to sow a few areas of already prepared soil and in three days seedlings were starting to show. The growing season is starting and the local birds are starting to breed and there have already been bees visiting the area. It’s all just beginning and I look forward to the visiting wildlife that will hopefully be using the reserve in the forthcoming months.