Wildlife Diary December 2016
December 1st. How many fewer Woodcock?
"Woodcock with earthworm" by Ronald Slabke
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons
I wonder how many Woodcock there are in Fineshade Wood. Right now, hidden deep in the densest vegetation, they are out there probing the ground with their long bills for worms and other invertebrates. During the last few days, as I’ve wandered off the main paths, I’ve disturbed three of them (sorry!). All I’ve managed to see is a dark, heavy, zig-zagging, shape suddenly getting up from almost underneath my feet and, within seconds, lost to view amongst the trees. How many more must I have walked closely past, the frightened but stationary bird holding its nerve and letting me walk by? I realise I’ve never, in a lifetime of birdwatching, seen a Woodcock on the ground.
There must be scores, no, probably hundreds, in the wood now and far, far more than in the summer when maybe just a couple of pairs bred here. LINK. Then the males were just a little less shy, flying overhead with their strange roding flight and making peculiar grunts and whistles as they marked out their territory. Yet even then they were not easy to see: you had to wait until well after sunset, enduring the predations of mosquitos and midges, before this most furtive Fineshade resident revealed itself.
The breeding population of Woodcock has reduced massively in recent years and it is now a red-listed breeding species. But in winter the residents are joined by many migrants, exiles from the harsh snows of their Scandinavian breeding grounds. They come to enjoy the relatively mild English winters, where it is rare for the woodland floor to be so frozen that they cannot insert their bills to feed.
So how many are there in Fineshade? Well, very sadly there may be fewer today than there were last week, when four vehicles drove into Westhay Wood (the southern part of Fineshade) carrying guys (yes – all men) intent on exercising their rights to shoot there. They said they were after Pheasants but, as I’m sure they knew only too well, they also had the right to shoot Woodcock. It seems absolutely crazy that a bird that is now such a rare breeder in Britain can still be legally shot in the winter, but unfortunately that is the case. So maybe these shooters, like me, saw a Woodcock erupting from under their feet and, if they did, they would probably have taken aim and tried to kill the bird. It would be a difficult shot and if they were lucky perhaps it would have given them some kind of thrill. It seems very unlikely that they would have taken it home to eat - just one fewer Woodcock.
At the moment there is a petition to parliament, created by Chris Packham, that relates to the shooting of Woodcock and other rare wading birds. It calls for a moratorium to be imposed to allow the impact of shooting to be established by means of an independent scientific investigation.
That seems a very moderate and reasonable suggestion and we commend the petition.
December 10th. Splendid Crossbills
For a birdwatcher, one of the most sought-after woodland birds in winter is the Crossbill, and this male was certainly putting on a great show this morning, right in front of the Wildlife Hide. Many of the Norway Spruce trees on the right of the hide are covered with ripening cones this year and the bird was using its specially adapted bill to split the seeds open. It was often feeding on the very top-most branches of the trees but, after a minute or two's feeding, it obviously needed to drink and repeatedly flew down to the pond just a few metres in front of the hide.
Crossbills are sometimes compared to parrots because of their bright colours, heavy crossed bills and the way that they can manoeuvre amongst the branches of a tree clinging on with their beaks and strong toes.
The male in flight. Photo: Roger Eads
Common Crossbills are another of Fineshade's rather scarce winter visitors, coming from the vast pine forests of northern Europe. They are the most specialised of our finches and need to feed almost entirely on mature conifers, so when the cone crop fails in one area they are forced to travel, sometimes huge distances, in search of new forests. This means their abundance in the UK varies dramatically from year to year. Generally Crossbills do not breed in the Midlands, though Friends of Fineshade with very long memories may recall the very obvious nest that was built by a pair, half way up a Scots Pine alongside the Kingscliffe bridleway near Top Lodge in the early 1990s.
We hope that, having found a good supply of food with water close by, this male will stay a while so that more people can enjoy seeing it. In fact there was a report of what may have been a Crossbill close to Top Lodge earlier this week - it may have been the same bird, or perhaps there are others around.
Update: The next day there was a green female present with the male. Both birds were reported again on Tuesday 13th December.
The male Crossbill. Photo: Kurt Hellwing
Female Crossbill. Photo: Kurt Hellwing
Boxing Day Update
26th December was a beautiful winter's day and four Crossbills were seen. These were not at the hide but quite close to Top Lodge beside the bridleway that leads south towards Kings Cliffe. Two pairs flew noisily in to feed on another large Norway Spruce that is covered in cones.
Sightings have continued well into the new year, both at the wildlife hide and at other sites across the wood. For example, Michael Tew reported a pair in the Wild Service tree in front of the hide on Tuesday 10th January at 12:20. A pair were also seen by a FC ranger in another part of the wood on 23rd January.
All sightings have just been individuals or pairs, and so far no larger flocks have been recorded. The call and song of the Crossbill is quite distinctive and often the way in which the birds are first located - you can hear many recordings of the call on this website.
A male and female were reported at the Wildlife Hide on 21st March 2017.
December 19th. Snowberries
It is sometimes stated that the berries are poisonous to humans, but in North America the plant was used by many native peoples as a medication, both for external conditions such as skin disorders and injuries, and for a variety of internal ailments.
The plant has inconspicuous bell-shaped flowers, which are pale pink or white, and occur in little groups over the summer months, gradually changing into the fruits that give the plant its common name.
Take a walk from Top Lodge down the hill past the tree house and at this time of year you are bound to see straggly shrubs 1-2m high with large white berries. This is the rather well-named Snowberry, Symphoricarpos albus. Break open one of the white berries and you’ll find spongy flesh that looks very like snow, and deep within the granular mass two whitish egg-shaped seeds.
There are not many other berries left now in the darkest part of the year – blackberries have long gone, the marauding winter thrushes have had nearly all the haws and even the fruits of the spindle tree are disappearing fast. So why is it that when most of the other berries have been eaten the Snowberries remain to brighten a dull December day?
The answer is that Snowberry is not a native species, so little of our native wildlife has evolved to benefit from its fruit. The shrub originates from North America but was introduced into the UK from about 1817, typically being planted in wooded areas to provide dense cover for game birds. It is said that, in hard winters, the Pheasant (another introduced species) will eat the white berries with their seeds. The leaves of the plant are also eaten by the caterpillars of the largest moth to appear in Britain, the Death’s-head Hawk-moth, yet another non-native species.
Snowberry is now widely naturalised throughout the temperate regions of northern Europe. The plant is strongly gregarious, spreading by prolific growth of suckers rather than by means of its seeds. You can see these patches of growth in Fineshade, but in some nature reserves it is cut back to discourage further spread. It is steadily invasive; however, it is not listed in Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act – exotic plants which represent a threat to natural fauna and flora such as Japanese Knotweed, Himalayan Balsam and Rhododendron.
Mammals at the Wildlife Hide
There have been many mammalian visitors to the wildlife hide recently. For a start there's been large numbers of humans, many spurred on by the reports of Crossbills seen from time to time. There was certainly another sighting of a red male Crossbill on 28th. But there are mammals to be seen outside the hide too.
The photo on the right was taken by Terry Tew on 29th December - a small rodent feeding on the seed which falls from the bird feeders. Could this be a mouse or rat? No, rats are much larger and have long tails and larger ears. A Wood Mouse is about the same size as this, but again it has much larger ears and is more sandy in colour. Could it be a Shrew? No, they have pointed snouts and tiny eyes. So the stocky body and blunt, rounded muzzle suggests that this is a vole.
Bank Vole. Photo Terry Tew
Red Fox crossing the deer lawn in front of the Wildlife Hide. Photos Terry Tew
There are three types of vole in the UK: Bank Voles, Field Voles and Water Voles. The last of these is much larger and the habitat is wrong. Bank Voles occur in woodland whereas Field Voles favour open grassy areas. Bank Voles have a reddish-brown coat and a tail that is about half the length of the body. The tails of Field Voles are even shorter - indeed their alternative name is Short-tailed Vole. So, we think this is almost certainly a Bank Vole.
Voles play an important role in the British ecosystem as they are an important prey item of many other species. In Fineshade they would be sought out by Tawny Owls and Kestrels, as well as the larger birds of prey. A vole like this would easily be taken by an Adder and many of the larger mammals such as Weasels, Stoats and Foxes.
Given that they are preyed on by so many other species it is fortunate that voles breed prolifically and can have up to five litters of six youngsters during one breeding season.
Much earlier in the morning of 29th December, while the frost was still covering the vegetation, this rather splendid fox was also seen crossing the deer lawn in front of the hide. It's certainly not just a bird hide - there's a variety of other wildlife that can be seen there too.