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Of irruptions and hazy days

12 Nov

For the more experienced (i.e. older) amongst us, cast your mind back to your childhood going on summer days out with your parents. I have vivid recollections of the windscreen getting covered in squashed insects leaving smears and all kinds of marks on the front of the car which my father would spend ages trying to clean off. I also seem to recollect you could buy plastic covers to go over the front of the car to stop the paintwork being damaged… (OK – where is he going with this one..)

The point being is that we simply don’t get the number of insects we used to and, as a consequence, there isn’t as much for food for insectivores (Shrews, Swallows, Blackcaps etc) – so we don’t have as many insect predators as we used to – so we don’t have as many higher level predators such as birds of prey and stoats. (This is what’s known in ecological circles at trophic layers). Given a chance nature can recover quite quickly from population declines but in reality nearly all our countryside is quite heavily managed especially when you compare it to rural France or Poland where there is still lots of messy and unimproved bits as there isn’t as much pressure on farmers.

The more long-term deeper concern is what our children will see a lack of insects as normal.

On a more positive note the autumn bird migration will be almost complete in November with the usual suspects here in good numbers such as Fieldfares and Redwings. Many other continental birds such as Starlings, Jays, Wood Pigeons and Goldfinches will have arrived. In some years the number arriving is quite incredible. For example in November 2010 some 161,000 Wood Pigeons flew over a site in Dorset in 1 day!! (This wasn’t a typo..). In 2014 some 50,000 Swallows also flew over a site in Dorset in 1 day and in 2011 some 10,000 Goldfinches flew over a site in Kent in 1 day.

Sometimes these large numbers are due to the shortage of food for the birds in their summer grounds, or having a couple of successful years breeding when the numbers of individuals can significantly increase. This is known as an Irruption and in some years some unusual birds can arrive here such as 3 years ago when we had lots of Waxwings in the apple tree next to the village school.

If this winter proves to be a cold one and, just having completed a great breeding season for most birds, we may get all sorts of strange immigrants in the village.


The Red-flanked Bluetail – a local destination

6 Mar

I finally succumbed to going on a twitch (sort of). There have been many reports of a rare bird being found not far from here – between Tormarton and Marshfield. An over wintering Red-flanked Bluetail is almost unheard in the UK – almost all the sightings have been in the summer.

Red-flanked Bluetail. Marshfield. 6 March 2014

Red-flanked Bluetail. Marshfield. 6 March 2014

It wasn’t until someone turned up with some mealworms that we could see it. It’s a very long way from home and is unlikely to see any of it’s kind again.

It’s been there for at least 6 weeks (it’s quite amazing it was ever found!!) and some 2,500 people have been to see it so far. When I was there there were only 6 people – all the real twitchers had come and gone long ago – so I still haven’t been an a real twitch – which is fine.

Second Barn Owl box installed

2 Mar

The second Barn Owl nest box was installed on a local farmers land (with permission of course) way up in an old Oak tree.

A particularly intrepid Kev Noble was up the tree installing the frame and the nest box itself and even managed to get down again! The box was built by Graham Smith.

More installations of various sorts to come……

Kev Noble and Graham Smith installing the second box

Kev Noble and Graham Smith installing the second box

Kev Noble moving the Barn Owl Box into place

Kev Noble moving the Barn Owl Box into place

Finally – the WildSherston Facebook page is now live – lots more details on

Their new homes are ready (almost)….

2 Mar

March heralds the start of mass migrations both to the village, with birds returning from Africa and southern Europe, and winter residents returning to Scandinavia.

The Redwings and Fieldfares are off while we should be hearing the call of the returning Chiff Chaff (named after the sound it makes) and the Blackcap. Interestingly we have Blackcaps who overwinter here and return to more northern climes in the spring and a different population who return from further south so, while we may have them all year round, they aren’t the same individuals you might see on your bird feeder

Some birds are already nesting such as the Stock Dove (which looks a bit like a drab Wood Pigeon) and the Rooks are starting to nest in their lofty colonies next to the Church.

Over the past couple of months a number of people have been busy building nest boxes which are going up in various places around the village. Some have been installed in Grove Wood and the first Barn Owl boxes have been put up. Four House Sparrow nest boxes, built by Sherston Scouts, have been installed around the village to provide communal nesting sites for this declining but much loved resident. Many thanks to Graham Smith and Rod Moyes for building the bigger boxes, and John Lloyd for helping install them and to the Scouts for their hard work.

Rod Moyes putting up the first barn owl box

Rod Moyes putting up the first barn owl box

John Lloyd putting up the first barn owl box

John Lloyd putting up the first barn owl box

We spend some time trying to find old building or barns to install the Barn Owl boxes and it became really clear why we have so few Owls these days – they have nowhere to nest. If you do know of an out of the way old building at least 3 metres high where we could put another Barn Owl box please do let me know.

Please have a look at the news about WildSherston on the 16th to 18th May with a range of talks, walks and events about our local wildlife.

Spring is in the air… isn’t this a fantastic time of year!!!

PS. This made the local paper – on Page 3!! –

WildSherston is underway

23 Jan

New developments… (as published in the February 2014 edition of the Sherston Cliffhanger)

Over the past couple of years a number of people have expressed an interest in knowing more about our local nature – the trees, flowers, bees, birds and how to learn more. This got me thinking about how to help people learn about our fantastic local nature in a fun and interesting way using local expertise and ensure that children have a great opportunity to really get involved.

Wild Sherston is the result and is planned for the 16th, 17th and 18th May when there will be a weekend of talks, walks, hands-on sessions for children and maybe the odd very small celebrity (maybe).

The programme is still just being finalised but it will be something like:

Friday 16th May – speaker in the evening on a wildlife topic of general interest.

Saturday 17th May – lots of activity in the Village Hall and Church with 6 – 7 talks on subjects such as identifying local birds, bats, butterflies, flowers and what to do if you find an injured animal or bird. A number of local and national societies will have stands and lots of experts including Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, Butterfly Conservation, Avon Valley River Trust, a wildlife refuge, British Trust for Ornithology, Forest School, RSPB etc etc. There will be a programme of activities for children and maybe some wild animals to see.

Sunday 18th May – a number of walks around the village some focused on particular topics such as wild flowers, butterflies or birds as well as a nature trail for children.

The arrangements are in hand and if you would like to get involved please let me know – in particular we will need stewards over the weekend. More information in next months Cliffhanger.

The request for help building nest boxes will result in an outbreak of new homes in February but given their size they won’t need planning permission!! A number of people, as well as the Scouts, are building a variety of boxes including those for Barn Owls, Little Owls and House Sparrows. The Owl boxes will be put up in local trees and barn’s (if we can use one) and the House Sparrows, who have communal nests, will have new housing in the centre of the village. Next month should see some pictures of people up ladders trying to attach heavy bits of DIY to trees!.

Finally a picture of a local resident which you don’t often see this close – if you do see a Sparrowhawk it’s often just a blur.

Sparrowhawk Jan 2014


African adventure

9 Nov

September 2013 saw my father and I travelling across Botswana revisiting places we lived some 50 years ago – and haven’t things changed! (not that I remember)

Below is a collection of some of the photographs – mainly birds – more to come when I get time.

These were mostly taken in the Chobe National Park and the Khwai River Camp

Something quizical..

22 Oct
We are now into the full flow of autumn with long queues at Westonbirt. The deciduous trees drop their leaves as a response to shortened day lengths and less sun so the ‘cost’ to the tree of maintaining it’s leaves is greater than the benefit it receives. The tree forms a layer of dead cells (called an Abscission layer) at the base of each leaf so it drops off. The leaves fall to the ground and start to make compost for following years while the tree shuts down for the winter ready for the spring.
The birds are also changing their behavior now that they have finished their post breeding moult. Many of the birds that stay here over the winter go into a full moult once the last chicks have fledged so during September they tend to skulk amongst the bushes keeping out of the way of predators as they can’t fly as well. They grow a new set of wing and body feathers ready for the winter. Birds which are very territorial during the summer such as Great Tits, become very social during the winter.
Some recent research on winter flocks of Great Tits has shown that individual behaviours affect their social lives. A project in Oxfordshire found they could identify Great Tits that were bold and those that were shy. The birds were electronically tagged and introduced into a new environment with sunflower feeders (which could read the tags). They found the bold birds tended to associate with other bold birds while the shy birds also formed flocks. If you see a flock of Great Tits (which can be up to 40 individuals) have a guess if they are a bold group or a shy one. Also bear in mind we do have 5 different species of Tit around the village – The Great and Blue Tits which you will regularly see on the bird feeders, Coal Tits which may occasionally appear, Long Tail Tits which tend to stay out in the countryside in flocks of 10 – 20 and the scarce March Tit (which I have seen in Grove Wood – see picture).
The plans for Wild Sherston are in hand set for 17th/18th May 2014 with Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, Butterfly Conservation and the Wiltshire Ornithological Society, amongst others, participating.
Finally the second contribution to the Sherston Museum of Slightly Odd Things has arrived (following the rabbit skull a couple of months ago) the identification of which forms the first ever quiz in the column. In September, Pat Smith who lives in Wood Close found her curly garden hose had been chewed through. As you can see from the picture (with a lens cover to give a sense of scale) something has gone to some effort to chew it to bits. Any insights as to what may have caused this please let me know – the prize is a mention is next months edition!. If the cause can’t be identified maybe I should send it to Chris Packham..Marsh Tit Nov 2012 2

Any idea what chewed this?

Any idea what chewed this?