Rather than walk through Old Down as we had been doing we decided to head along the lanes, we thought the wood might be a little wet after all the recent rain. On Monday we walked along Lymington Bottom to the school, and then up to Kitwood and the pond. I have noticed small Ink Cap fungi appearing on the lawn at home, but they were nothing like the parasol Mushroom we found along the side of the road. It hasn't yet unfolded into the typical parasol shape, but will do so soon.
It would seem that the very dry and warm conditions through June and early July, followed by the rain towards the end of the month has sparked the emergence of many fungi quite early this year. We came across several different types in all phases of development, with most already half eaten. Another early sign was the stalks of Lords and Ladies covered in orange berries. Along the side of the road the brambles are also covered in many ripening Blackberries.
We walked on past the pond and down the hill towards Gilbert Street, and then turning back to come up Brislands. Despite the coll weather and time of day there were still butterflies about, Large and Small Whites, Red Admirals and one or two Speckled Woods were seen. A Yellowhammer sang from the wires, and we could hear the begging calls of Buzzards in the woods.
The fields were full of ripe cereals. It would seem that these are now ready for harvesting, and across the fields towards the Watercress Line a combine harvester was throwing up spumes of dust as it made its way through the field.
Looking up hill Old Down Wood looked splendid in the evening sunshine and the blue sky. The usual summer tiredness that becomes the leaves on the trees being held back this year by the sudden amount of rain to fall.
As we made our way along Brislands toward the crossroads with Gradwell a Buzzard was hovering over the fields, clearly searching for possible prey to satisfy the continuous calls of the young birds from the surrounding trees.
On the following day, the start of August we walked again in the late evening, this time taking a route down from Blackberry Lane to Alton Lane. The footpath here crosses the open field, but is now fenced in. This year the grass has not been cut, and there is plenty of thistles and flowers. We could see butterflies, and tantalisingly a few Common Blues, but I could not get close enough to photograph them. As we walked down towards Willis Lane there were Meadow Browns, a Comma and more Red Admirals. We walked along Kitwood and then back through Old Down, where again Buzzards were calling, but there was nothing else to catch the eye of the camera.
Back home in the garden, we have had a good show of Oxford Ragwort, and as a result these have attracted some visitors. On the yellow flower heads were several yellow and black striped caterpillars. These are the larvae of the Cinnabar Moth. Interestingly this is known as a day flying moth, but I have never seen one in the garden, but they definitely must have been here! The yellow and black stripes of the caterpillars are a warning to any predator that these caterpillars are not good to eat as a result of eating the poisonous ragwort. The caterpillars will pupate in the autumn, and the cocoons will spend the winter on the ground emerging as adults the following June.
There have been lots of words in this post and few photographs, and this now is to become even more as things have finally changed in the garden, breeding has now definitely finished, and the number of adult birds visiting has significantly reduced. All of the birds that have raised young this year were starting to look a little tatty and with faded feather colour. This comes about as a result of frantically having to feed young chicks and squeezing in and out of hedges. At the end of this busy time the adult birds take stock and start the process of renewing their feathers, or as it is better known, moulting. The individual birds tend to hide away at this stage while they moult, in order to avoid predators at a time when they are less manoeuvrable on the wing, and contain their energy which allows a focus on the feather replacement.
Despite the resilience of the feathers, and the fact that birds do keep them under constant care through preening and bathing, they do discolour, wear out or become damaged. A full grown feather is a lifeless structure, and unlike our nails and hair that grow continuously the worn feathers have to be replaced. The old, worn feathers are loosened from their follicles and are eventually pushed out by the new feathers.
In the small song birds these feathers do not just drop out at the same time, the large flight feathers of the wings and tail are moulted in a strategic sequence, depending on the species, but in the main flight feathers are replaced from the innermost to the outermost feathers. Water birds such as ducks shed all the feathers at once, and can remain flightless, it is at this time the males assume the drab or “eclipse” plumage similar to the female to aid camouflage at a vulnerable time.
Due to our regular feeding of both the Robins and Blackbird in the garden we have been able to observe how they behave at this time, and this does vary between the different species and even the same species. The Robins have only just seemed to have disappeared, and in their place we have seen the speckled juvenile birds coming to take the worms. Of the Blackbirds, our favourite and tamest bird has been showing a different behaviour now for the last three weeks, and there is clear evidence of feather moult, most recently all the tail feathers have gone. We only see him first thing in the morning and later at night, he still comes to the whistle though, but is extremely nervous, creeping under the hydrangea pots and refusing to come out into the open. He will eat the worms and once had enough he flies off calling after again creeping around the hydrangeas. There are also two other Blackbirds that are in various stages of moult but are not so cautious and will often be seen in the open
I did some research and found a paper on the internet written in 1969 by D.W. Snow in Bird Study called “The Moult of Thrushes and Chats”. Here a study by the BTO found that the average time for a full Blackbird moult was around 80 days, conversely a Robin was shorter at 50 days. Ninety six percent of the records showed that the given dates of the onset of moult were in June and July. The timing of the moult though was most immediately affected by the date of its last nesting attempt. We believe this year our bird raised successfully three broods. The nesting attempts is dependent on weather and the availability of food, so the good summer up to now and our supplemental feeding has been a factor on this success.
In the timing of the moult no difference has been found between the sexes, but younger birds do start their moult earlier, probably again due to breeding success. It may very well be then that the more confident Blackbirds are younger ones that have already been through a moult. Food also can affect the timing of moult too, with seed eaters taking longer than insect, and bug eaters, here the chitin found in the food providing a valuable resource for feather development.
Clearly eighty days is for the full moult, and the nervousness and hiding will not last for the whole period, we would expect to see our bird looking resplendent in his new feathers towards the end of August. It is also at this time we can expect to hear the song of the Robin as they emerge from their moult with bright orange breasts, and the urge to establish or take back territories from this year’s juveniles.
With August now upon us we will start to see the movement of migrants as they start the long journey to their winter grounds. Already there are good numbers of Swallows collecting over the fields along Gradwell, and the contact calls of Chiffchaffs can be heard in the hedges. Who knows what this year will turn up.