Watching and Observing

Holly Blue under stormy sky

I’ve been a bit lazy and not written about the progression of my garden reserve for a while now and I suddenly thought that I needed to update you on what has been happening and the visiting wildlife that has been observed. As you will all know, this year has been like no other in our lifetimes and I have read many articles about the affect this has been having on our wildlife. After reading a number of interesting articles I realised that I was seeing some of the results of these situations that were occurring nationwide, in my own backyard. With all the extra time that kickdown has given me I have witnessed a number of amazing species and am seeing the benefits of the work that has already been carried out and as is the normal way, there have been a few surprises. So, let’s have a look at what’s been going on

Greater Burnet

As I previously mentioned I had started to extend the reserve by clearing and planting up the garden on the right-hand side of my area. After I had cleared the whole area and tried to remove problem species I planted up the area with various seeds in my collection. Looking at the area now has taught me a few important points. When I planted up the new area I had a couple of Wild Flower seed packets that had been given to me and these were sown along with seeds that I had collected last year. By mid-May I could see quite a few seedlings emerging and noticed that a few of these species were not familiar to me. As some of you may be aware, there has been quite a boom in the gardening world about trying to protect and encourage Bees and Butterflies into our gardens. This is one of the reasons I started the work on the gardens in the first place but have realised that many of the seeds advertised as Bee and Butterfly are garden plants that are certainly not native to South West Surrey. By early June there were a number of species in flower including Quickweed, an American species and a species of Mallow that were obvious garden varieties. My aim to keep the area native was not going to plan

I weighed up the pros and cons of this situation and decided to leave the alien species as they were quickly noted to be attracting regular visits from Garden and Red-Tailed Bumble bees and Holly Blue, Large and Small White butterflies, so they were playing an important part in helping the local insect population.

Garden Bumblebee on Hemp Agrimony

During the mid-summer over 30 flowering species were found in the garden and it has been interesting to see which species are doing well and how some species have spread to new areas and going back to the insects, I took particular notice of which flowers were the most popular with the local insect populations. It was a very interesting point to observe and I concluded a number of rather points after several weeks of observations. Firstly, every single flowering species in the area from the Creeping Jenny to the Hemp Agrimony attracted some kind of insect to feed or display on. This was one of the major aims of the project, so I was pleased and soon noticed the roles the flowers were having in the insect’s lives.

Honey Bee on Black Knapweed

From the two most obvious insect groups that I observed and that’s Bees and Butteries, the favourite 5 flowering species were Black Knapweed, Foxglove, Lavender, Teasel and Wild Marjoram. From late May to early August when these species were in full bloom there was a constant presence of bees and butterflies and I recorded 8 different species feeding on the many flowering Black Knapweed plants that have managed to spread out from where I originally planted them. It’s interesting to note that Red Tailed Bumblebee are known to particularly fond of Black Knapweed as a food source and as a result of this there have been increased numbers present with up to 10 individuals present on a few days.

Greater Knapweed

This was all very encouraging and part of the plan that I first envisaged and over the past few months of closer observations, I have witnessed a few interesting results of species presence in the area. The most obvious species, and I have fortunately observed them on roughly 20 – 25 occasions since lockdown and that is the Badger’s. Now Badgers can be quite a controversial species whenever they live near humans. When I first knew I had Badgers around me I was firstly thrilled as they are a species that I will never get bored of observing. I had also never seen urban badgers before and this has proved to provide me with many interesting sightings over past months.

When Badgers are hunting for food, very little will put them off their pursuits to get to the food they can smell. I have, as I previously mentioned, been putting some monkey nuts (Peanuts with shells) out in the evenings and I have watched the local badgers happily feeding away on them. When I first started planting the area up, a couple of years ago, with flowers and plants and had cleared the area I was well aware that the Badgers may well have a dig in the soil and earlier in the year I did see one digging for worms in the mud. This was a partial reason why I started to feed them the nuts to try and keep them away from sensitive newly planted areas. It was never going to be a full proof plan and I have observed a number of interesting points including the fact that they may eat the nuts I put out for them but they are always looking for other more natural foods and I have put the nuts in 3 different places in the garden and in-between each area they always wander all over the garden and are seen to catch and eat invertebrates and some nights they don’t eat all the nuts I put down. I did have a mad idea one day when out in the reserve and later that evening I carefully placed some monkey nuts in an area of rank vegetation that I was intending to clear and replant. I repeated this for a couple of weeks and noticed that the vegetation was being weakened and was starting to die back. The badgers had become part time gardeners for me and so far, the only thing they have done that wasn’t planned is made a couple of unofficial paths through the flower beds but it’s no problem really. So, no problems with them so far. These are the most human tolerant badgers that I have ever known and I’m still amazed when the neighbours have come out and put their rubbish in the bins and crashed the lids down and the badgers just sit there and carry on feeding.

Several times I’ve seen Badgers with Foxes and in all honesty, there seems to very little to say as all I have ever seen is them just ignoring each other with a badger eating peanuts and the Fox just walking around looking for food. It was noted that the Fox always kept a few yards away from the Badger and shows who is the top in the reserve.

These top predators seem to be doing well and this is a good indicator to the health of the general area. I have tried to show you in this piece that from the plants in the ground, to the insects that use them and all the way to the top predators the area I have been working on is starting to provide a useful, vital even, resource for the local wildlife. And the plans to improve the site are on-going with a few more plans coming into place.

One major thing is the installation of the pond. Which is currently four days old! It’s just settling in at the moment. We shall see what happens in the next few weeks as autumn starts to creep up on us. Meantime there is plenty to see and not always the most welcomed as I discovered when cleaning my balcony yesterday and disturbed a False Widow Spider. Nature is never boring !

There are Reasons

After you have visited any nature reserve and enjoyed the wildlife that live there, do you ever ask yourself why that particular species is present at that site and what are the reasons why it is to be found there? To understand the reasons, it helps to have some basic knowledge of what a species needs to survive and prosper. From this kind of knowledge, we humans can start to help the wildlife by providing things that it will need to prosper like food, breeding sites, protection from predators (security). Most nature reserves will have a management plan that will work to support a maximum bio-diversity within their given area of management. It’s a lot easier said than done but that is the general aim of them and I have seen the benefits of management plans  carried out on reserves I have worked on and visited over the years.

I adopted this approach when I started work on my own reserve a couple of years ago and already decisions I made two years ago are starting to show some positive results.

When I began working on the site a couple of years ago I decided to try and establish a field edge type habitat that would border the scrubby woodland area.  I had been given some bee and butterfly friendly seeds and as they grew my mind began to wonder about possible species to plant that may attract certain insect species. I thought about butterfly species that I knew were found in the local area and thought about plant and flower species that these species needed. After a few ideas, I chose a couple plant species to try and establish and by the end of the first summer I had sowed some Yorkshire Fog seeds and planted a mature Red Valerian. These two plants are very different but have an equally interesting benefit for the insect community

Red Admiral on Red Valerian

Red Valerian is a flower that familiar to many gardeners and particularly to people of south west England where it commonly grows in walls and railways sidings, in fact all over the place! It is a native of the Mediterranean and was introduced to the UK about 400 years ago and is now relatively common in the southern UK. It has long been noted that a wide variety of insects love it and it was joked when it was given to me that I may get a visit from a Hummingbird Hawkmoth. I secretly hoped that this would happen and contented myself by watching various bee species and the odd Red Admiral paying a visit to this source of rich nectar. Then my wish came true the other week when as I stepped out of my front door a Humming bird Hawkmoth flew in and fed for about 2 minutes on the Valerian and then rapidly flew off. Talk about being in the right place at the right time. I instantly thought of what had been said to me when I was given the plant and thankfully had been able to video the moth and was able to show it a few weeks later to the person who had given me the plant. They seemed quite impressed as well! This little action had paid off and this elegant species had paid me a visit and hopefully they may visit again in future years.

Glimpse of Hummingbird Hawkmoth

 

Now the other species I mentioned earlier is a grass species called Yorkshire Fog, which is quite a common species in native grassland areas and field borders. It is an elegant species that has a delicate feel and look to it with light greens and subtle pink flushes and sand coloured seed heads.

Yorkshire Fog

To a lot of people, grass is a weed and not much use for anything but to the naturalist eye glasses are an important part of the ecosystem they occur in. This is the reason I took a gamble and planted some Yorkshire Fog seeds as I am aware that the Small Skipper butterfly, which occurs locally to me, lay their eggs on Yorkshire Fog. I felt it was a long shot that they may turn up at my reserve due to the availability of sunlight which was limited but none less I planted some seeds and the following year they grew and flowered. This year I noted that it had spread to a few other locations and again thought about the Skipper butterflies. And then one morning when Steve had popped round, he suddenly said look at that skipper and there was a Small Skipper feeding on some Black Knapweed. To say I was delighted was an understatement. Since then I’ve had one other possible sighting and have a distinct feeling that they may colonise the sight next year.

Small Skipper visits

These examples of plants I have put in my reserve show you some of possibilities that can be attained with some planning. When I started planning the area I obviously thought about wildlife I was hoping to attract to the area and up to now it seems to be working. I have been researching other plant species to plant in order to attract more life to the area and it certainly seems to have endless possibilities. I know I won’t be bored. Plants are a vital part of our world and without them there would be no life at all so if you have any space I suggest you plant some flowers and you never know what you may attract.

The Nightshift

Buff Tip

I can remember the first time I saw moths in close up and remember being amazed at the variety of sizes, shapes, colours and a whole collection of subtle shades and delicate markings that adorned their bodies. Fascinated that some of their English names are what I can only call funny particularly in my 14-year-old mind.

The Maidens Blush!

I was instantly fascinated by this amazing group of insects and coincidentally returned to work at the site where I had first witnessed them a few years later and my interest grew stronger as I regularly dealt with the contents of a moth trap.

Pale Shouldered Brocade

You’ve all probably heard how moths are described as dull and boring looking and how quite a number of people are actually scared of moths. From what I can make out about human nature this fear is more about the fear of the dark than it is about fear of a small nocturnal flying insect. Yes, moths will bump into your head and face when you light up your mobile but they will not hurt you in the slightest. I’ve seen too many moths get needlessly killed by over nervous humans.

The Mocha

Moths and their relatives butterflies are good indicators of the health of an area and like their more familiar cousins, moth numbers have been falling in the last 50 years due to loss of habitat and the intensification of modern agriculture, an unfortunately familiar story. There have been however some additions to the UK list with the warming of our climate, that has encouraged European species to colonise. A few species have also reached our shores by arriving in food and plant products and managed to colonise and establish themselves which can cause a few issues.

Varied Brocade

The total number of species in the UK is roughly about 2,500. Of these about 1600 are micro and pyralid moths. These are generally very small, often with very well marked patterns on their bodies and wings. Many of them don’t have English names and some are so difficult to identify that the only way to truly identify them is by dissecting their genitalia. Not something I have ever done myself but it shows the intricate nature of this group.

Orange Footman

I personally have only started to look at this group of smaller moths in recent times and am realising, again, just how much more there is to learn.
The larger moths are known as macro moths and there are about 860 here in the UK and these will be the type of moths that people are more familiar with as many have distinctive patterns and colours. These patterns fade as the moth gets older and sometimes they are so abraded they are impossible to identify. Adult moths don’t live much more than a week as after they emerge from the cocoon they dry off and, immediately, there sole aim is to reproduce with maybe some feeding as well!

Small Phoenix

The nocturnal nature of most moths is one their intriguing habits and some species, that fly later in the year, even have what can only described as a fur coat to protect them from cold nights
Not all moths are nocturnal and some day flying moths are very striking like the common Cinnabar and the impressive Hummingbird Hawkmoth which as its name suggests, does resemble a hummingbird feeding and I was truly delighted when one paid a two-minute visit to my reserve a couple of weeks back and fed quickly on the Red Valerian that I had planted to try and attract them to the area. Sometimes plans do come together!

Small Magpie

The people who do not like moths may not be aware of the vital role they play in habitats where they occur. Like many insects that feed on nectar, moths provide a valuable service of pollinating the plants that they feed on. As most species are nocturnal, this service is all carried out in the darkness and not realized by most humans. They are also a vital part of food chains and many moth caterpillars are taken by birds and a good example of this is one of the micro moths called Green Oak Tortrix. The caterpillars of this species are eaten by many small birds in an oak woodland habitat and it has been calculated that many of these bird species rely on these caterpillars to raise their young. If you have ever seen a Blue Tit in spring at a nest box, you may notice the little green caterpillars are often the most numerous food item. This shows the vital role that moths play in the ecosystems around us.
Being nocturnal moths are not easy to observe and apart from disturbing them from vegetation you don’t get to see them often unless of course you happen to have a moth trap.

Moth trap at home

These traps have ultra violet bulbs that attract the moth in and they rest on egg boxes inside the trap, which you can then look the next morning when most moths are less active and then release them later in the day. It is one of the great mysteries of nature why moths are attracted to any light, including ultra violet light. Still to this day there has been no scientific explanation to this behaviour and I think this adds to moths almost mythical status.

Magnificent Privet Hawk Moth

Next time you see a moth it’s probably worth having a closer look as you never know what you may find and you could be pleasantly surprised at what you see. As always nature can surprise you sometimes.

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.

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.

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