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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.


Butterfly walk – 2nd August

16 Jul

Butterfly walk – 2nd August 2014.

Following WildSherston, Maurice Avent from Butterfly Conservation has kindly agreed to guide us through his own wildlife reserve not far from Sherston on Saturday 2nd August at 11.30am.

Yatton Down is a 36 acre site Maurice has been managing for many years particularly for butterflys – more details at

Not far from Castle Coombe – directions are:

Directions to Yatton Down: 
From the A420 four miles south of Chippenham (heading towards Bath and Bristol), turn onto a minor road signposted to West Yatton directly opposite “The Crown Inn”. Follow this (narrow) road for about a mile until it drops to the right down a sleep slope. At the bottom of the slope there is a sign pointing left towards Long Dean. Just after this turning is a ‘flattened’ embankment under some large trees, and most people park here. Access to the Down is through a gate immediately opposite this ‘parking area’ on the other side of the road.

Subject to the weather this promises to be a very interesting trip for all kinds of wildlife.

If you are interested please let me know.

We are almost full of birds…

23 Aug
In the UK our bird population reaches it’s maximum in September when most of the birds hatched this year are still here together with their parents. When the autumn migrants start to arrive, such as Redwings and Fieldfares, its estimated there will be some 400 millions birds here with some 84 millions pairs of breeding birds during the summer. That may sound like a large number but given we have some 62 million people living in the UK that’s just over one pair of breeding birds per person and about 6.5 birds each in the autumn.
The top 20 commonest birds in the UK make up 75% of the total numbers (and I am excluding the chicken here..) and some of the commonest birds may surprise you. Our commonest bird, with some 8.5 million pairs is the Wren. This tiny bird is quite hard to spot as it skulks around bushes and undergrowth and there are a few in Grove Wood as well in many gardens. The Robin, many peoples favourite, is the second most common bird with 6.7 million pairs with the Chaffinch following behind with some 6.2 million pairs although I must admit I haven’t seen many Chaffinches this year. Other birds on the list include the Wood Pigeon (of which we have more than our fair share), House Sparrows (of which there are some good populations around the village notably on the High Street), Blackbirds, Blue Tits, Great Tits, Dunnock and Willow Warbler. While many people may not be familiar with the latter two they do occur in reasonable numbers locally. The remaining birds on the list include the Pheasant, Starling, Greenfinch, Jackdaw (another species we have lots of) and the Chiffchaff.
Many of these birds have declined in numbers over the past 50 years for a variety of reasons, some of which we can do something about, others are much harder. Some birds, such as House Sparrows, are limited by their ability to find a suitable nesting location with modern houses not having any suitable spaces. House Sparrows are social nesters so they need a number of next boxes together or even better – a large one segmented into smaller sections. You can put up special nest boxes under your eaves for House Martin and Swifts amongst others. Barn Owls can also suffer from a lack of suitable nesting sites. Some birds, such a the Tree Sparrows on Salisbury Plain, have been helped with large scale winter feeding through local farmers proving the poor quality seed at the end of a seed bin for feeding. Other birds, particularly migratory ones such as Chiffchaffs and Swifts, have problems finding good transit sites during their migrations.
Interestingly we still have House Sparrow and House Martin nests with chicks on the High Street.
Last week we had a visit from quite an unusual butterfly – the Clouded Yellow (see below). It’s an uncommon summer migrant to the UK and we had a pair flying along the cliff. Having spoken to Butterfly Conservation they advised this reflects that the plant life there is really good quality!!
The Sherston Museum of Natural History received it’s first (and only) exhibit. A few weeks ago a half decomposed body of a largish animal was found in the river and it’s skull was kept and cleaned up and passed to me for identification. It’s a long time since I had to identify bones (I used to work as a Palaeontologist) and it was really fascinating, for me at least, as to how similar a Rat skull is to a Rabbit or Hare. There are some amazing resources on the web!! The skull came from a Rabbit and it’s being exhibited on my window sill. Thank you to Graham and Caroline.
The suggestion for a WildSherston event in May next year (see last months Cliffhanger) got some very positive feedback so watch this space….


Clouded Yellow’s on the Cliff

11 Aug

I finally managed to photograph a Clouded Yellow butterfly.  There were two flying rapidly along the cliff in Sherston only stopping occasionally to feed making it hard to catch up with them especially on a steep slope!!

These butterflies migrate from North Africa and can appear in quite reasonable numbers in some years. Given I also saw one on a road junction near Trowbridge in Wiltshire while waiting at a traffic light this must be a good year for them..

Clouded Yellow Butterfly

Clouded Yellow Butterfly

Clouded Yellow Butterfly

Clouded Yellow Butterfly

There seem to be a fantastic number of butterflies around at the moment – a 30 minute walk along the cliff produced the following:

Large White – 6

Meadow Brown – 13

Gatekeeper – 5

Small Copper – 3

Common Blue – 21

Small White – 5

Green Veined White – 5

Comma – 2

Peacock – 1

Small Tortishell – 1

Large Skipper – 1

and of course – Clouded Yellow – 2

The abundance of many species this summer, given the really bad season they had last year, shows how quickly some animals can rebound if given the choice.


You wait ages for one then……

28 Jul
Marbled White with Trombidium mite

Marbled White with Trombidium mite

The late start to the natural year, due to the delayed end to spring, meant there were very few butterflies around until very recently and then the very warm spell caused them to appear to large numbers. Have a walk along the cliff and you will lot’s of very busy butterflies in the hedges, brambles, blackthorn and in the grass.  Many are quite easily identified including (this quite a list..) the Small Skipper, Peacock, Meadow Brown, Comma, Gatekeeper, Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell, Ringlet, Common Blue, Small White, Green-Veined White, Marbled White. It’s quite possible you could see all of these in a single 1 hour meander around the Cliff.
The photo above is of a Marbled White with a small red dot in the middle of its body. This is a parasitic mite which can occur in quite large numbers on a single butterfly although, apparently, it doesn’t harm the butterfly too much. This picture was taken on the Cliff last week so keep your eyes peeled.
There is a really good identification guide available at and if you do identify any please add your findings to the site – your contributions really do help. It’s a good way of getting children outside and maybe, for example, get them to identify say 8 different types.
There is a fantastic site for butterflies about 5 miles away called West Yatton Down near Castle Coombe. It’s possible to see 26 species on a single walk.
The fine weather has enabled a number of reptiles to be much more active. Much to my amazement one of our cats brought home a Grass Snake (see photo). Luckily the snake was OK after the removal of said cat. It was playing dead until it saw a chance to make a break. Grass Snakes, which are completely harmless to humans (but they do like a nice frog or toad), can get up to 2 feet long and are easily identified by the yellow band behind the head.
Common Blue

Common Blue

Small Skipper

Small Skipper



Grass Snake July 2013

Grass Snake – the yellow band behind the head is really clear

It’s all happening…

26 Jun
House Martins collecting mud for their nests

House Martins collecting mud for their nests


Linnet on the Cliff

Linnet on the Cliff

Swallow just after it diver in the river

Swallow just after it diver in the river

This time of year is very exciting with many birds, animals and insects breeding and their young starting to appear. Around the village we have lots of Jackdaws nesting in chimneys and under eaves with House Martin chicks almost ready to leave their round mud nests which can be seen on some houses on the High Street. It’s also possible to see them collecting mud to repair their nests in the stream next to Stretchline as well as Swallows diving into the water for a bath. (Swallows are the ones with the red patch – doesn’t quite come out in the Cliffhangers black and white pictures..)
If you take time to sit at the top of the cliff with a pair of binoculars it’s quite amazing what is nesting,flying and crawling around the steep slopes. There are Bullfinches, Tree Sparrows and Linnets (see photo) amongst others as well a good variety of butterfly’s such as the Common Blue, Peacock, Brimstone and Comma’s to name but a few. There are some 15 types of butterfly you may find around the village so with a bit of patience you may spot quite a few just on walks around the village. A number of the species only live as adults for a few weeks but with a bit of background reading (try as a good source) you can plan to see specific species. Lots of moths and other insects are around with some beautiful Damselfly’s along the river in Grove Wood.
There are a couple of birds we are unlikely to see this year as the water level in the pond on the cliff is much lower. Last year we had Coots nesting and up to a year ago there were Little Grebes (or Dabchicks) but there isn’t enough depth of water to attract them to breed this year although there is a Little Egret around which is the first time I have seen one here in the summer.
In July the bird populations will increase as a result of the breeding season with many chicks fledgling and many birds will be starting a second round of nests.

Not bad for an Octogenarian…

27 May

June article for the Cliffhanger.

The national treasure that is Sir David Attenborough has been very busy of late. Not only has he been ‘tweeting’ every day on Radio 4 (tweet of the day) with one bird being discussed every day for 2 minutes with some 265 episodes, he has just launched a major review of the state of our environment entitled State of Nature covering the UK and our overseas territories.

As you may expect, the report makes quite mixed reading with some birds, animals and plants doing well with others almost disappearing from our countryside. On the downside

  • Turtle Doves have declined by 93% since 1970
  • Hedgehogs have declined by around a third since the millennium
  • The small tortoiseshell butterfly has declined in abundance by 77%in the last ten years

And we have seen this in the village withy, for example, Hedgehogs being really quite scarce. One species of plant, the Corn Cleaver, used to occur in arable fields but efficient farming methods, including herbicides, mean this plant is only found in three locations in the UK.

It’s not all bad news and there are two great examples in the village. Around the village there seem to be increasing numbers of House Sparrows. They have declined by some 70% but around the High Street and nearby they do seem to be in greater numbers. This year, for the first time as far as I am aware, there is a colony of Starlings nesting in the Blackthorn on the Cliff. The noise from these gregarious birds is quite something when they fly in to feed their chicks.

We are also fortunate that some of the more cryptic species (I mean that they are hidden) seem to be holding their own. Slow Worms, for example, seem to be around the village in reasonable numbers. These legless lizards often occur in gardens and burrow into the soil in search of slugs and worms. They have a number of quite amazing characteristics – they give birth to live young, they can discard their tail if attacked and then grow a new one and can live up to 30 years in the wild. Their main predator are cats against which they have no defence. They can be seen in gardens and in grassy areas but can be very hard to spot The photo was taken on the Cliff in May this year and I have seen them on the steep parts of the Cliff.

Slow Worm on Sherston Cliff May 2013

Slow Worm on Sherston Cliff May 2013


Overall the State of Nature report makes quite difficult reading and it makes a very valid point that different parts of nature need different types of help. If, for example, we want to help Barn Owls we can put up more nesting boxes as the lack of suitable nesting sites can limit their ability to increase in numbers. Helping migrating birds or insects is much more complex as it may, for example, be really important to protect sites in west or North Africa where they stop over while migrating.

So what can you and I do to help? The first place to start is to get out and understand what we have around us. Join The Wiltshire Wildlife Trust or Butterfly Conservation or Buglife or the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers – they all offer ways of helping make a difference either through physical activities or more sedate one such as helping raise funds or helping in visitor centres.

We do have fantastic local wildlife which can be really quite surprising – just look for slugs mating at this time of year – quite amazing (if somewhat gross….)