Wildlife diary February 2017
The Common Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) is one of the most eagerly looked-for signs of spring, so it was a great delight to see hundreds of these tiny white gems adorning the wood yesterday. Ten days ago there was almost nothing to be seen - just a few buds peeping out from under autumn's leaves. But suddenly, there they were, brightening up an otherwise gloomy damp day.
The flowers occur right across Europe, though in the UK it is considered to be non-native, having been introduced in the 16th century to flower in country estates and gardens - one can certainly see its appeal. Now it has become naturalised and occurs in a variety of habitats including deciduous woodland.
But in Northants it is mainly seen close to habitation, particularly parks and churchyards. The only known site for them in Fineshade Wood is near Fineshade Abbey from where they have probably spread. Many more can be seen in the distance near the lake.
Those pictured here occur on both sides of the Jurassic Way footpath as it passes through the woodland about 500m SW of Top Lodge. But if you are going to go and admire them be warned - the path is very, very muddy!
Scarlet signs of spring
Amid the subdued greys, greens and browns of the winter woodland, suddenly today there was burst of vibrant colour at my feet. There on a decaying branch were several tiny scarlet-centred cups - some shaped a bit like a golf tee and others reminiscent of minute egg cups. Following the branch along there were more - lots of them. I reached 70 on that single branch and then realise that there were many more on other branches nearby,
I'd seen these toadstools in other woods but never before in Fineshade, and I thought they were called Scarlet Elfcups. Back at home I needed the fungus fieldguide to confirm the guessed identification. There are apparently two almost identical species Sarcoscypha austriaca and Sarcoscypha coccinea and, unlike most fungi that fruit in autumn, these can only be seen in early spring from January to April. There are various common names including Scarlet Elfcup and Fairies' Baths, both of which seem highly appropriate.
Although they look very fragile, these toadstools are well adapted to the rigours of late winter and early spring. They must be able to tolerate frost, and their scarlet inner surface is shaped like a parabola. They are angled towards the south and the shape reflects the feeble heat of the winter sun to the middle of the bowl where there are thousands of minute sporagia, containers for the spores. When the sporagia have ripened, the spores are suddenly ejected with an almost silent mini-explosion to float off into the air and disperse.
Seeing these flashed of bright colour on a grey cold February day was a re-assuring sign that spring really must be on the way.
Exotic but secretive
25 years ago Richard Eckton was the Forestry Commission Wildlife Ranger living at Top Lodge and he was responsible for various habitat improvement schemes - new ponds, the deerlawn and the wildlife hide were all his initiatives. He was also responsible for erecting lots of nest boxes, particularly large ones aimed at attracting owls.
One day, on checking one of the boxes near the stream, we were most surprised to find a duck sitting on eggs in the box that was about 12 feet up a tree. Ducks nest on the ground, don't they? And this duck was unlike any we'd seen before.
Gradually the realisation dawned. This was a female Mandarin - presumably one of the ones that had begun to be seen on nearby Blatherwycke Lake.
A very unusual sight - a pair of Mandarin on the pond in front of the wildlife hide in April 2016. Photo: Kurt Hellwing
The Mandarin, as the name implies, is actually a native of China and east Asia. Because of the attractiveness of the males they became popular imports to wildfowl collections during the 19th century. Inevitably some escaped and they began breeding in the wild in the 1930s. Now there are thought to be several thousand pairs breeding in the country. Unlike most ducks they use cavities in trees (or nest boxes!) for their nests and, soon after hatching, the tiny ducklings flutter to the ground to be led by their mother to the nearest water. Despite the male's striking appearance they are very shy and difficult to see but, if you spot a couple of ducks flying through the trees in Fineshade with great manoevrability, they are most likely to be Mandarins.
During late autumn and winter, groups of these ducks sometimes gather in the larger undisturbed ponds in Fineshade wood, as well as, still, on the wooded banks of parts of Blatherwycke lake. At the pond below at least 30 were regularly gathering during last October. They particularly favoured the area at the far end, where there was lots of overhanging vegetation. Now, with spring in the air, these groups have broken up and pairs have other things in their mind. During the last week several pairs have been flying around clearly seeking out suitable nesting places in the wood. Sadly, many of Richard's nest boxes have fallen into dis-repair, but there is still a thriving population of this shy exotic duck here.
Fallen trees and dead wood
Taking a walk through a storm-blown woodland can be a sad experience and we wondered what damage we would find on Friday morning, the day after Fineshade was battered by Storm Doris. At first, as we walked along the vehicle track from Top Lodge into the centre of the wood we saw just a few spindly young trees that had blown over, or the occasional conifer that had lost its top. All the mature deciduous trees in that part of the wood were still in place, though Doris seemed to have trimmed them, breaking off many of their smaller dead twigs and branches. On this sunny spring morning, the large Oaks, Ash, Beech and Wild Service Trees seemed even more full of potential life than before – almost as if their damaged or dying parts had been groomed away. And those parts were lying all around to rot and be absorbed into the soil.
However, nearer the western edge of the wood there was much more damage to mature living trees. Some had blown over altogether, their roots in the air, with clay and underlying limestone attached.
Others had lost very large branches indeed and had gaping wounds on their main trunk. The power of the wind in these exposed areas must have been really great. There has been damage equal to and even worse than this in Fineshade before - residents can remember entire conifer plantations being blown over - but not for some years.
So it can be a sad experience if one concentrates only on the trees. But for other parts of Fineshade’s wildlife, the storm was most beneficial.
For those species that thrive on dead wood on the forest floor Thursday was a real bonus, as it added greatly to the supply. It is said that a third of all forest-dwelling species rely on dead or dying trees, logs, and branches for their survival. There are huge numbers of lichens, fungi, mosses and a vast array of different kinds of insects that will benefit from the storm.
As a Forestry Commission paper pointed out in 2012.
“Dead and decaying trees are vital components of a properly functioning forest ecosystem and play a key role in sustaining biodiversity, soil fertility and energy flows such as hydrological processes in streams and rivers. Deadwood also plays a part in mitigating the effects of climate change by acting as a medium-term sink for carbon.
Until the late 20th century, deadwood in managed forests was removed due to a misconception of the need to sanitise woodland to secure forest health – or simply to keep a wood looking ‘tidy’. Over time this has led to the widespread impoverishment of woodland biodiversity.”
(Managing deadwood in forests and woodlands, Forestry Commission, 2012.)
So it’s heartening to think that Storm Doris might actually have contributed to, rather than degraded, Fineshade’s rich diversity.