Wildlife diary January 2017
Buds not flowers this New Year
Every year the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland organise a New Year Plant hunt - trying to find as many plants as possible that are already in flower. And for the second year running some of the Friends of Fineshade have joined in. A year ago, after a December that was extremely mild, we managed to find no less than 10 plants in flower but this year's hunt was quite different.
On New Year's Day the weather was no good at all for plant hunting, but on the 2nd the winter sun came out and we set off with determination. Close to the Visitor Centre at Top Lodge we found our first flowers - a Dandelion and several White Dead Nettles. They were struggling, but definitely in flower.
Encouraged, we set off into the wood itself to check on some plants we recorded last year. First Wood Spurge: last year there were several plants that already sported the tiny yellow florets, but yesterday, try as we might on every plant we checked, even those growing on sheltered southern facing slopes, the buds were firmly closed.
So on to last year's most impressive bloomer - a particular Blackthorn bush which was covered in white blossom last January. But, on the same bush, once again there were buds, full of promise for the better days ahead, but not a petal to be seen at the moment.
By now it was becoming pretty clear that we were not going to get to double figures this New Year. There were no signs of catkins breaking open and even the Snowdrops were only just showing above the ground - no flowers there yet. It'll need another couple of weeks of warmer, longer days before they delight those walkers heading along the Jurassic Way footpath towards Fineshade Abbey.
However, coming back across the field a single rather sad-loooking Ragwort plant grabbed our attention to bring our total of bloomers to a rather paltry 3. Still, last year was a rather special year- maybe 2017 is going to be a little less extraordinary.
White Dead Nettle and Dandelion in 2017
Flowers in 2016
Only buds in 2017
Snowdrops emerging and Ragwort in flower in 2017
A hatchet to crack a nut
Photo taken from the wildlife hide on 2nd January by Kurt Hellwing
The graph from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) shows how the population of Nuthatches in the UK has increased rapidly since the mid 1970s. This increase in numbers has been accompanied by a range expansion into northern England and southern Scotland.
They are increasingly common in Fineshade too – a Breeding Bird Survey has been carried out BTO volunteers every spring since 2006 and numbers of Nuthatches have shown a marked increase.
One of our most delightful resident birds is the Nuthatch (Sitta europaea) and it is doing rather well, both here in Fineshade and nationally. Sit quietly in the wildlife hide and with patience you may soon be able to get close up views of this bird with its steely grey-blue upperparts, rusty buff underside and black highwayman’s mask.
But notice its strong, dagger-like bill too. It is not used to drill into wood like a woodpecker but it is ideal for removing pieces of bark to discover insects in rotting wood beneath. It is also used for hacking into nuts: the bird’s name came from the Middle English “nuthak”.
Unlike many birds, Nuthatches do not travel long distances, remaining and defending their patch all year. They are quite aggressive towards other small birds and use their relatively powerful call to mark out the extent of their territory. Learning to recognise this distinctive call is a good way of locating Nuthatches on a walk through the wood. Look carefully and you may then see the bird moving down a tree trunk – no other British bird can do this.
How do they come to be doing well? Apparently they are tending to raise more youngsters, but why that should be is not at all clear. A typical Nuthatch will live for two years but the oldest known bird in the UK lived for well over 8 years.
The birds start to nest in April and this is when the picture on the left was taken last year by Kurt Hellwing. You can just see the nest hole above the upper bird.
Sometimes Nuthatches will find a larger hole than this and then plaster around it with mud – the bill can be used as a trowel as well as a hatchet!
Small Teasel: a mid-winter delight
Take a walk down the hill towards the Tree House from Top Lodge and, just after the gate, look across to the right to see the remains of very many Small Teasel plants. On a sunny day winter's day after frost they can look quite stunning, both from a distance and close up. The picture on the left shows florets of the Small Teasel (Dipsacus pilosus) as they appeared this week. The picture below shows a similar one in bloom back in September.
The Small Teasel is not widely distributed across the country
and is one of Fineshade’s notable plant species. It is a biennial, taking two years to complete its lifecycle. So the large number of plants that flowered in the woodland north of the caravan site last year began their life in early 2015. Just before that germination, that part of the woodland had been thinned and no doubt the disturbance to the ground caused by the large harvesting vehicles resulted in the large number of plants that are there today - it is said that the seeds of small teasel require disturbance for germination. The seed-heads we can see now, may give rise to more flowers, but not until 2019 at the very earliest, or they may remain dormant in the woodland soil, perhaps for decades.
Distribution map from the BSBI website
The species is closely related to its larger relation Common Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) but can be distinguished by its size and the shape of the flowers and seed-heads. The name Small Teasel must refer to the flower heads which are much smaller, rather than the height to which the plants grow.
The time to see Small Teasel in flower is from from July to September but it seems easier to see in winter when other vegetation has gone. And on mornings like this in mid-winter Small Teasel can be a real delight.
Profuse growth near the caravan site
Male and female Bullfinches at the Wildlife Hide. Photos: Kurt Hellwing
In recent years Bullfinches have become much more common in Fineshade, both during the breeding season and in winter when small groups move through the scrubby areas looking for buds and seeds. The males are really rather gaudy but, even so, they are shy and not at all easy to see: the most frequent sight is of the bird's snow-white rump as it moves off into the denser vegetation. However, once again, it is the birds' calls that frequently give away their presence. They give a very weak and rather sad "phew", quite unlike any other bird calling in the wood at the moment. (You can hear lots of examples on the xeno-canto website).
The Bullfinch has has a chequered history in the UK. Hundreds of years ago it was one of the most popular caged birds apparently because it could be taught to mimic the whistles and music produced by its owners. However, it was the Bullfinch's liking for the buds of fruit trees that caused it to be thought of as a pest and, until well into the late 20th century, it was legal to shoot the Bullfinch in fruit-producing areas of England. The population plummetted and it is only recently that numbers have begun to recover.
No one seems to know for sure why it should have been called Bullfinch - certainly it doesn't have any connection with cattle. The most likely reason is that it has a bull-necked appearance. And it's Latin name, Pyrrhula pyrrhula, is also odd - the word means "worm-eating bird', and Bullfinches certainly don't eat worms!