Wildlife diary March 2017
Catkins in spring
When does spring begin? There are various answers to that question. Some say it starts at the beginning of March, others at the equinox. If you follow @FoFineshade on Twitter you'll know that we've been pointing out signs of spring in Fineshade since early in the year: we reached number 15 today, a sleepy Adder enjoying a burst of sunshine.
But back in January we were reporting Hazel catkins and these have been gradually getting more numerous and obvious as the weeks have gone by. Now you cannot fail to notice the fresh yellow-green fronds, dancing from otherwise dead-looking bushes all along the walking tracks. These are the male part of the Hazel and the tree seems to put an inordinate amount of energy into producing this part of its reproductive system. Each male catkin is made up of a mass of tiny florets, each releasing pollen from the anthers that will be blown by the wind.
What's a lot less obvious are the targets of the pollen. Look very closely indeed on the twigs near the catkins and, with persistence, you'll find a tiny pink-red flower. If pollenated, this will gradually transform into a green hazelnut which, if it survives the predations of squirrels, will ripen in the autumn.
Less easy to find are the catkins on Alder trees. Those pictured below are in a plantation of Alder that was planted about 30 years ago. These male catkins are much darker than those of the Hazel, yellow-brown and often with a pinkish hue. Here the female flowers are themselves catkins but much smaller than the males. They look almost like buds and some can be seen above the male catkin in the picture on the left. They change into fruits looking like tiny pine cones and remain on the tree right through the winter providing food for flocks of marauding Siskins, Golfinches and Redpolls. If you see catkins on a tree which also appears to have small cones, you can be sure you are looking at an Alder.
Hazel catkins above and the object of their attention below
Male Alder catkins with female flowers, left, and below with the remains of last year's cones
Many more new signs of spring
We have been noticing and tweeting about signs of spring in Fineshade since early January but today, for the first time it felt as if spring had certainly arrived. There were sights and sounds all around, and it felt as if the woodland really was coming to life.
Copies of some of our tweets from the last few weeks. Other memorable ones included:
Willow bud burst
Pairs of Mandarins
The first summer migrant birds, Chiffchaffs, were reported singing yesterday - thanks Angus Molyneux! The 12th March is quite early, usually it is a week later, but the earliest ever record was 10th March back in 2007. Today at least 3 were singing and one was seen feeding on willow catkins near Top Lodge, just inside the gate across the bridleway that leads to KIngs Cliffe.
The first Adder was seen basking last week but there were three more in different locations today. Nearby, for the first time this year, a Common Lizard was seen scuttling away. Both these reptiles were in the middle of the area that Forest Holidays and the Forestry Commission wanted to develop (perhaps they still do?) as a holiday village.
Butterflies were very obvious today with at least a dozen creamy yellow Brimstones and three Commas warming up along Justice Riding (aka Smelters Walk). Also reported today were Peacocks and Small Tortoiseshells.
Beside the vehicle tracks Coltsfoot suddenly seems to have
emerged in abundance. Another sign of spring, but much less good to see, was a squashed Toad, a reminder of how vulnerable wildlife is to vehicles that drive in the wood.
Years ago Forestry Commission Wildlife Rangers would erect signs like this along the single-track lane that leads up to Top Lodge. Very few Common Toads migrate across the lane now, but this week a warning sign might have been useful along the Jurassic Way footpath that leads from Top Lodge to Fineshade Abbey.
Dozens and dozens of these amphibians were slowly making their way down towards the lake after their winter hibernation in the wood. In some places it was hard to avoid stepping on them. Rather than leaping or, more likely, shuffling off as we approached, most of them just stayed still - the Toad's defence against predators is not flight but to rely on the toxin produced from its warts when it feels harassed. But that makes them very vulnerable to vehicles and feet when their migration path crosses roads or tracks.
Most of the ones we saw were the smaller males. But there were also a few of the larger females, including one female with two males clinging tightly on top of her - a most macabre sight!
A pale green male above and a distinctly fearsome looking female below
Above, two males clasping tightly to a female's back as she makes her laborious way to the lake.
Right, a male with two bright, almost luminous, green spots on his back
"Anything about?" is one of the questions much used by that group of the bird-watching community sometimes called twitchers. They do not expect an answer such as "Yes, I've just seen a pair of Long-tailed Tits building a nest!" No, twitchers are not much interested in the common birds, but rather the rarities or those that are at least a bit out of the ordinary.
So, here's a few pictures of the slightly unusual and more interesting birds that have been recorded in Fineshade since the beginning of March. And for those bird-watchers who take great delight in nesting Long-tailed Tits and the like, there's a list of the common birds that have been recorded too.
One of four male Mandarin ducks competing for the attention of a female at the wildlife hide on 20th March.
Photo: Barrie Galpin
The first spring migrant, a male Chiffchaff, one of many singing optimistically since the first was heard on 12th March.
Photo: Kurt Hellwing
A Raven. There have been pairs seen
and heard regularly over the wood throughout this month.
Photo: Kurt Hellwing
Common Crossbills continue to be seen, now and then, both at the wildlife hide and elsewhere.
Photo: Roger Eads
Other birds recorded so far in March
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
UPDATE 30th March
The second spring migrant, a Blackcap, was heard singing and then seen on 30th March. This equals the earliest ever record for this summer visitor.
A living fossil in the Miers
On the southern boundary of Fineshade there are two sections of woodland shown on the Ordnance Survey maps as Far Miers and Hither Miers - interesting names. "Far" and "Hither" clearly refer to the distance from King's Cliffe - a little further north the names Far and Near Hazelwood are found too. King's Cliffe was one of the most important villages in the former Rockingham Forest and no doubt these parts of the woodland were worked by the residents of Cliffe for coppice and timber supplies.
But what about the name "Miers"? It is possible that it was someone's surname, as in "Great Watkinson" and "Far Markham's Wood", both in other parts of Fineshade. But another alternative is that it came from the same mediaeval English root as "mire" meaning swampy, ground or bog. Perhaps this part of the wood was always thought of as particularly boggy?
In Far Miers and Hither Miers there are two shallow valleys where ditches have obviously been created many years ago. Deep in the wood you can still see the remains of former drainage work - even an old bridge across the ditch at one point. That probably dates from the 1960s, as it is constructed of old railway sleepers, doubtless moved from the nearby railway line after it was dismantled.
Further down, the old ditch-line emerges from the wood and crosses a grazed meadow and the Public Footpath running from Kingscliffe to Fineshade Abbey. Just inside the wood there is the remains of an old pond, which is now very much a mire, choked with decades of leaf litter.
But there, growing in profusion are probably the plants with the oldest pedigree in Fineshade - Great Horsetail, Equisetum telmateia. It is a herbaceous perennial plant, with two separate types of stem. At the moment the pale yellowish fertile stems are thrusting upwards (left). Each spike has regularly-spaced sections with brown-black whorls, the toothed sheaths. The protrusion at the top contains the spores which will be released later and this stem will immediately die.
The sterile stems (right) will be produced in late spring and will produce whorls of green branches.
According to Wikipedia, "Equisetum is a living fossil as it is the only living genus of the entire class Equisetopsida, which for over one hundred million years was much more diverse and dominated the understory of late Paleozoic forests."
By Rror - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4077821