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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.


They are out there – at night…

15 Oct

The migration of our summer visitors is almost complete – the most obvious example being the absence of Swallows and House Martins who have left for north and sub-Saharan Africa.

Just arriving, amongst other birds,  are the thrushes – Redwings and Fieldfares and Mistle Thrush. They migrate from Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia to spend the winter here in our warmer climes.

They migrate at night in flocks so if you go out into the garden (or on the way home from the Rattlebone..)  you may hear a soft but sharp ‘tseep’ coming from above. This is a Redwing calling to the other birds in the flock keeping distance and direction.

You may also hear a very different sound – a ‘shack’ or ‘shack-shack’  delivered with some urgency. This is a Fieldfare calling on migration.

It needs to be dark, little cloud and, ideally, quite still.

Less than 1 in 50 birds in a migrating flock call so if you hear say 4 calls in the space of a minute that could equate to some 200 birds passing over.

Reports from Scandinavia suggest that the supply of fruits and berries may be quite poor (another effect of the wet summer) so we may get more than usual this winter.


Pity the poor migrants

29 Apr

The unseasonable wet cold weather is set to stay for some time, so the birds that have just arrived from southern Europe and Africa will be finding it really difficult to find food. Some Swallows arrived in the past week and can you imagine the problems they will be having in finding insects on the wing in this weather.

The birds that have already nested will have chicks hatching soon so I really hope it gets warmer soon to bring out the bugs, grubs and caterpillars to enable the parents to feed them.

Not much chance of any photographs and I was going to go on a weekend wildlife photography course next weekend camping in some woods. May have to postpone…

The majesty of the dawn chorus

22 Apr

Having checked the weather forecast a couple of days ago, I booked to join an RSPB Dawn Chorus walk at Westonbirt Arboretum meeting at 4am.

What a wonderful experience especially being lead by someone (Matt Brierley of the RSPB) who can add so much insight and knowledge to whats going on just before dawn and as the various birds start to join in the chorus.

As dawn approaches different birds join in – usually it’s the Robin‘s which start but on this day it was the crow family – Rooks and Jackdaws. Soon after the Robins started followed by the Blackbirds and Thrushes. The occasional vocal Pheasant  has hanging around as were Muntjac Deer sounding just like a dog barking. Tawny Owls could be heard in the distance.

More birds then start to join in such as the Goldcrest and Chiffchaff.

It was fantastic to be out at that time of the morning. It’s not something which is particularly easy (getting up at 3.15am) but absolutely well worth it.

So it got me thinking – how about a dawn chorus walk in Sherston – either the 13th May or the 20th May. Meet at 4am opposite Tubbs Elastics. It will be dark and cold so come dressed for it and no dogs please. Let me know either via a comment on the blog or via email – It will be dependent on reasonable weather!!

And thank you Matt for getting up so early and providing us all that insight when all sensible people were tucked up!

Our northern invaders are soon going home

18 Feb

Many birds perform incredible migrations each spring and autumn and in Sherston our population undergoes significant changes. This autumn we saw significant migrations of our winter visitors from Scandinavia such as Fieldfares, Redwings, Long Tailed Tits, Snipe and Knot.

This winter there seems (a subjective measure) to be lots of Fieldfares and Long Tailed Tits with fewer Redwings.

If you are out for a walk almost anywhere nearby the village you are very likely to see Fieldfares at the moment. They look quite like a Song Thrush and hang around in small flocks. The gray head is quite distinctive – see photo below

If you can get reasonably close, which isn’t easy as they are quite flighty, you will see they have  a plain brown back, white  under wings, and grey rump and rear head. The breast has a reddish wash, and the rest of the underparts are White. The breast and flanks are heavily spotted and the sexes are similar. They are often in the company of Red Wings feed on mostly berries in the winter although fallen apples are very welcome:

Feeding in an apple orchard at Brook End

Fieldfares and Redwings at lunch

The name Fieldfare dates back to at least the eleventh century. The angle-saxon word feldefare perhaps meant traveller through the fields. Alternatively, it may be derived from Old English fealu fearh, literally grey piglet.

If you want to see them don’t hang around – they will back off to Scandinavia in the next 3 – 4 weeks!

It’s estimated that some 750,000 visit Britain each winter which brings me onto another important point. What proportion of our birds are resident all year round?

If you consider that the Fieldfares, Redwings, most of the Long Tail Tits, many of the finches and Blackbirds are visitors it must make up a significant percentage.

In a highly unscientific analysis while walking along the Cliff today I estimated that some 25% of the birds were winter migrants. It will be interesting to see what this may be in the summer when we have a very different set of migrants in the village from southern Europe and Africa.

One final thought… If you see a flock of Long-tailed Tits (there are usually 10 – 20) just stop and be very quiet. The chatter amongst the flock as they keep in touch when the flit from tree to bush is quite something – one of my pub theories is that are the inspiration for faeries!! More pub theories to follow…..

Our exotic winter visitors

12 Feb

For some 15 – 20 years we have been fortunate to have a number of Little Egrets visiting us each winter living mostly along the cliff and up towards Stanbridge. These beautiful white heron like birds only appeared in the UK around 1989 and first bred here in 1996 and illustrate the changing nature of our wildlife.

This winter there seem to be four overwintering here and they can be distinguished from similar Egrets by their yellow feet (not that you can see this in the photo below)

Little Egrets on the Cliff

They are often seen in the company of our local Herons and when they first overwintered here they apparently caused quite a stir among the local Heron population. Neil Forster, our local world famous artist, described it as if Marilyn Monroe suddenly appeared in the middle of some old gray men!!

They arrived in November from the continent and will probably return back there in March.

Little Egrets were once common here and were eaten with great relish by various members of the gentry and royalty with some 1,000 egrets (among numerous other birds) in the banquet to celebrate the enthronement of George Neville as Archbishop of York at Cawood Castle in North Yorkshire  in 1465. They are  also listed in the coronation feast of King Henry VI in 1429. They had disappeared by the mid 16th century, when William Gowreley, ‘yeoman purveyor to the Kinges mowthe’, “had to send further south” for egrets. Given their beautiful feathers they were in demand for decorating hats and further declined until they were restricted to southern Europe by the 19th Century.

They are very flighty birds are are often seen as a blur of pure white disappearing into the distance often with a Heron or two in tow. They feed on small fish, crustaceans, insects etc so it’s clearly important the Avon in Sherston doesn’t freeze for any length of time as they may starve.

Keep your eye’s out for them and if you see any more than four together  please let me know. Last winter there were six.