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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.


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….)


Dawn Chorus walk – 4th May

29 Mar

The spring migration is just starting to happen and breeding should be underway in the next few weeks – so it’s time for | dawn chorus walk. A number of people joined in last year and enjoyed it – so this year there will be one on the 4th May meeting at 4.15 am outside Stretchline on the road towards Luckington.

This will be subject to reasonable weather. Please wear stout shoes, warm clothes and bring a torch. We should be finished by 6.30 am so you can always go back to bed!!


Last of the fledglings?

6 Aug


The breeding season for many birds is coming to and end after a very difficult spring and early summer.
On a walk around the village in the last few days, a number of nests of chicks were about to fledge including Wrens in Grove Wood where young fledglings were calling for the parents to feed them, Swallow nests under the eaves of houses on the High Street with very vocal chicks and Coots on the Sherston Avon at the bottom of the Cliff where the young are bright red and rust brown in colour. For most local birds these are the last fledglings this year.  Some of the breeding birds in England have already migrated with males Cuckoo’s already back in West Africa.
Butterflies are finally around in good numbers after a very difficult start to the year. The Cliff is a particularly interesting area for butterflies as it has steep slopes which are grazed to keep the more rampant grasses short. Consequently there is a good variety of flowering plants, such as vetches, which a number of butterflies need to feed on. Next time you are walking there keep your eye’s out for what’s around. An easy to spot species is the Marbled White (see Photo) and I will be putting a variety of butterfly photos on the Sherston Wildlife blog ( To identify Butterflies have a look at the web site of Butterfly Conservation ( or buy a book such as the Pocket Guide to the Butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland.

Marbled White – Sherston Cliff 2012

I am always keen to take photographs of local wildlife such as deer, slow worms, badgers, interesting plants etc so if you do have regular visitors to your garden (or nearby) please do let me know on
Finally – It’s good to see a number of Hare’s in the fields around the village.