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Wildlife Diary: February 2016

Week beginning 8th February:   It's a raptor fest!

February and March are some of the best times to see birds of prey over the wood and they have certainly started early this year. Both male and female birds will be in the air at once, competing for mates and territories, and youngsters that haven't bred before will be trying to supplant the older experienced adults. Later in the spring and summer, once they settle down to nesting, they are a lot less obvious, not wanting to give away the position of their nests, eggs or offspring.


The most noticeable birds of prey are the Red Kites - and there are certainly lots of these! You cannot fail to see them and to hear their whistling calls around Top Lodge and throughout the wood. Because of the previous presence of the RSPB, Fineshade became known as the home of the project to introduce Red Kites to the East Midlands. In fact the actual release site was in woodland much closer to Corby. Seventy young birds were released there between 1995 and 1998. By the year 2000 no less than 16 breeding pairs had become established in Northants and the first pair bred in Fineshade in 2001. As it was "Foot and Mouth Year" the wood was completely closed to visitors and a pair of Kites took advantage of the extra tranquillity to build a first nest in Dales Wood.  The next year the Forestry Commission erected a camera over the nest providing pictures that were displayed in the Big Barn (now occupied by the cycle shop). 


The translocation of Red Kites has proved a great success and there are very many pairs breeding in Northants now. During the winter young birds gather at dusk at communal roost sites, while some adult birds tend to remain on their established territories. In January this year, the nearest communal roost to Fineshade had 93 KItes one evening - a remarkable sight. 

Kestrels have become less common in recent years, both nationally and here at Fineshade - the best place to look for them is over the fields coming up to Top Lodge. One often perches on the power lines.


On the other hand you could see a Sparrowhawk anywhere, either darting through the trees in search of prey or, at the moment, displaying very high above the wood.


Another of Fineshade's regular raptors is still in Africa: the Hobby migrates every year and probably won't arrive until May, and even then it is very elusive and difficult to see.


Kites are not the only raptors that you may see at Fineshade, of course. There are several Buzzards that are also busy trying to establish territories in the wood. Rather heavier than the kItes, they lack the distinctive forked tail. They can also be identified by their call, which is often described as a mournful mewing. If you hear that sound, look up high for birds circling on very broad outstretched wings. They vary in plumage colour - some can be quite pale, but none have the golden-red of the kites.

Thanks to to James Smith, Chasing Myths Photography
for permission to use this photo of Red Kite 76, one of
those holding territory at Top Lodge itself.

You can read stories about the things Fineshade's kites got up to last year here and here.


Travellers Joy

Week beginning 15th February:   Joy for travellers

Look carefully and even though it's February you'll find flowers adorning the trees in Fineshade. Some are newly emerging - there are catkins in profusion, both the yellowy-green delicacies on the Hazel bushes, and masses of pink ones giving the tops of the Silver Birches a rosy glow. There's also the fresh white flowers of Blackthorn - remarkably early this year.



Old Man's Beard is not at all evident at the moment in the southern part of the wood - the rides and tracks of Westhay are devoid of such delights at the moment. (Why? Please see here)


But throughout the northern part of Fineshade the shrub is really easy to see. These pictures were taken in Dales Wood near the track running down from the Tree House.


But there are also flowers that have been there for months - the attractive remains of a native shrub that actually flowered late last summer. This is Clematis vitalba, a vigorous climber that scrambles over other plants in its search to gain height and light.  It is the UK's only native Clematis and Fineshade is close to the northern limit of its range. It doesn't occur naturally in the north of England. 


The shrub has two common names Old Man's Beard and Traveller's Joy. The first name presumably is a reference to its appearance in winter, when the seeds are attached to long silvery hairs - all that remains of last summer's flowers. As well as helping with dispersal of the seeds, it is these tufted balls that make the shrub so conspicuous at this time of year. And when the sun shines these balls are a real traveller's joy, of course.

"All in all, as a garden plant C. vitalba does not have a lot going for it - small flowers, little fragrance, vigorous scrambling growth - it can be outdone in nearly every respect by one or other of the modern garden varieties. However, as a wild plant in its native territory, Clematis vitalba, does indeed bring joy to travellers and, for me, in this situation in the winter time it betters all of its cultivated relatives. It evokes winters long gone, ale houses and log fires - what could be better?"


From an article published in the journal

of the British Clematis Society, Winter 2002

Which tit

Week beginning 22nd February:   Marsh or Willow Tit?

Last Sunday morning Kurt Hellwing visited Fineshade. He’s a keen wildlife photographer and later sent us this superb picture of what he thought was a Marsh Tit. However, there are two species of tit in Fineshade that look very, very similar indeed – Marsh and Willow Tits. So is this really a Marsh Tit?


Both these species are red-listed Birds of Conservation Concern. Marsh Tits occur throughout the southern part of the UK but have suffered a large population decline of 43% in the last 25 years.  However, they are still relatively common in Fineshade and can be heard and seen regularly here. For example, they have been recorded on eight out of 10 of the last Breeding Bird Surveys conducted every year in the wood.


Willow Tits, however, are recorded here much less frequently. Their range has contracted enormously in recent years and they now occur mainly in the north and west of England with Northants on the southern edge of their range. Overall, Willow Tits have suffered a staggering 91% population decline in the last 25 years. They are one of the many woodland bird species in decline as a result of the UK’s shrinking woodland areas. 


Just last week, we heard two male Willow Tits singing furiously in competition on either side of the track that leads into the woods past the houses. Although the two species are almost identical visually, they have markedly different calls and songs. You can hear the calls throughout the year but both species only sing in early spring.  If you’d like to learn more about the challenging ID problems posed by these tit species, and hear the sounds they make, this BTO video is highly recommended. And if you watch the video carefully you’ll be able to see that Kurt was right: his photo clearly shows the one foolproof visual identification feature – the pale area near the head, at the base of the upper part of the bill! It's a Marsh Tit.


It is very encouraging to know that both these threatened species of bird continue to occur in Fineshade Wood. You are most likely to encounter Marsh Tits, but listen hard, and you could hear the rarer Willow Tit too.

Week beginning 29th February:   Two confusing names

Look under the trees in Far Markham's Wood beyond the tree house and you may well see this evergreen shrub standing out from the brown winter vegetation around it. It grows up to a metre tall and at first sight it's rather like a rhododendron, but the flowers are not the pinks and purples of that exotic introduction. No, this a native British plant with tiny lime-green or yellow flowers early in the year.  Its common name is, rather confusingly, Spurge Laurel, but this is certainly neither a spurge nor a laurel. Rather it is a member of Daphne family (Daphne Laureola).


This is an important indicator of Ancient Woodland and particularly likes lime or clayey soils, mostly in the southern part of the UK. It was one of the "worthy plants" found by John Handley in his 2014 survey of the proposed Forest Holidays development area. (Details here.)


Although it is a beautiful plant, all parts of it are poisonous. The flowers will turn into shiny black berries later in the year and these are safely eaten by birds, but not by humans. Apparently long ago they were used for treating intestinal parasites, but this was discontinued because there was actually a high risk of poisoning the patient! The sap of the plant can cause a persistent rash on the skin and is particularly harmful to the eyes.


The picture on the left was taken on New Year's Day and shows the tiny flowers that had emerged even earlier than usual. On the right you can see the berries already forming this week.


As a native plant that has evolved here, it is attractive to our native insects and the plant above was playing host to two over-wintering species. There were many ladybirds hibernating between the florets and along the stem. They were the helpfully-named and very common Seven-spot Ladybird.  


But there was also the critter shown on the right, also hibernating. The insect field-guide revealed that this is in fact the Green Shieldbug - a name recalling the saving stamps of yester-year for those of a certain age.  


But why isn't it green?  It's another of those rather confusing names, because as winter approaches this green familiar insect actually changes colour. It maintains this bronze-brown colour while it hibernates but will become green again later in the spring.

Spurge Laurel
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