Monday, 12 March 2012

11th March - Birds and the Bees

It seems as if Spring has finally arrived, the weather today was gorgeous with clear skies and warm sunshine but we all know that days like these at this time of year don't last and there will still be winter days to come.  So the trick is to make the most of sunshine when you can, so we set off to walk around the patch, trying to take in as much of the woodland and fields as possible.

At the village hall the trees were in full blossom, and the Honey Bees were definitely making the most of the sunshine, the blossom was covered in bees that were not necessarily apparent at first.

The celandines were also enjoying the sun, and they were carpeting the verge along Brislands.  These were also proving to be attractive to bees, but the larger bumblebees.  This one is a queen Buff-tailed Bumblebee, which were probably the majority of the bumblebees we saw today, although there were one or two red-tailed Bumblebees around too.

Robins were singing everywhere, and I decided to count the number of singing birds in the separate areas.  From home along Brislands and into Old Down Wood from Gradwell I counted 14 singing birds, in Old Down Wood I managed to hear 12 but did not cover the whole of the wood, as we wanted to go and see if the Tawny Owl was still using the conifer tree to roost.  The light was obviously much better today and I was hoping it would be there to allow me to get some better lit photos.

We were in luck, it was sitting in the same tree, but as usual tucked up close to the tree, and partially covered by the branches.  This time it was facing the other way, and had to turn it's head to look down on me as I tried to get some good shots.  As you can see it wasn't too bothered with us, it just kept one eye on us as we walked around the tree.  I would imagine it must have a mate nearby sitting on either eggs or owlets as Tawny Owls nest early in the year We will just have to wait and see what happens here.

Leaving the owl, we walked down the track towards the main footpath, a small boggy area along the track was covered in frogspawn, although there was no sign of the frogs.  Let's hope this small wet area remains wet to allow the tadpoles to hatch and develop into frogs otherwise all the effort the frogs went through will be a complete waste of time.

Redpolls could still be heard from the tree tops, and a Green Woodpecker drummed on a tree quite close.  There drumming is very different from that of the Great Spotted Woodpecker.  It sounds much deeper and is slower and resonated all around the wood.  As if to emphasise the difference a Great Spotted Woodpecker drummed as we walked out of the wood.

Swelling Hill Pond is a man-made pond, either from flooding of a pit, or maybe it was originally a dew pond created to provide water for livestock, however it is now a very well established pond with fish stock.  Every year the weed and lilies are cleared out to ensure it maintains some depth, but at the moment the water level is very low due to the lack of rain we have had over the winter.

This low water allowed us to be able to witness the amazing number of mating frogs and toads that were present.  Everywhere you looked there were copulating or singing frogs and toads.  We have seen the tadpoles in the past, but never experienced this spectacle.  The frog spawn was mostly collected around the reeds and lilies.  You could see large clumps with frogs heads poking out as they sat on top of the spawn

More fascinating were the Common Toads, as they seemed to be everywhere. Common Toads have a strong migratory instinct and make their way back to their ancestral pond.  Typically they will follow the same route back to the pond and it is at this time they are at risk from from road traffic.  The Common Toad prefers deeper water than the Common Frog, and you could seem them all over the bottom of the pond as the males clung on to the larger females.  The smaller males arrive first and can remain in the pond for some weeks, whereas the  females may make just a short visit to find a mate and lay their eggs. The mating itself looked to be a very aggressive affair, and there seemed to be many more males than females.  As a result, as you can see from this photo ,several of the males will fight each other to get a female, and this can end up with them creating a "breeding ball".  Sometimes they end up fighting over any objects including fish!  

Females lay 3,000-8,000 eggs in two strings which they lay simultaneously over the course of up to several hours, depositing these on aquatic vegetation often in places where there is good sunlight. 

A point of identification, the Common Toad has a copper coloured eye lid, whereas the rarer Natterjack Toad has a light coloured eye lid, as you can see from the photos these toads have copper eyes.  Once the mating is over and the eggs deposited the toads will make their way off again to dryer land.  The journey here was probably not to disastrous by the small number of bodies on the road.  The mortality will probably be a lot higher when they finally leave, we shall have to wait and see.

As I walked around the pond looking at all the toads and frogs I wondered if any herons had dropped in, but apparently the toads have toxins in their skin that make them very unpleasant to eat, only a grass snake is immune to it so to defend attacks from snakes they swell up and make themselves too big to swallow.

More Robins were singing, at the pond I counted 4 and along Lye Way and Kitwood Lane there was a further 8.  At the bend in Kitwood Lane we found a Treecreeper.  they are difficult to pin down, but I managed to get this photo which is a bit better than the one I managed in January.

When we reached Kitwood Plantation we turned down the track towards the footpath at the bottom.  Despite the time of year the ground was remarkably dry, so it was quite easy going as this area can be very muddy.  Long-tailed Tits were busy in the hedgerows and the outer branches of the trees.  I managed to see one with a beak full of moss and spiders webs, so they must be very much in the middle of nest building.

The woodland here is a mixture of conifer, birch and beech.  From the tops of the trees I heard Crossbills, but was only able to find one female as it flew across the field towards Dogford Wood.  Even more frustrating was a Firecrest in song in the conifers, despite waiting and looking we were not able to see it, and after teasing us with song it suddenly stopped which made it impossible to locate.  never mind, I am sure there will be more opportunities to catch a glimpse.  last year we had found a Great Spotted Woodpecker's nest along the track here in a dead birch.  It wasn't difficult to pick out the tree again, as it was covered in Birch Polypore fungi

Nuthatch and various tits were calling from the surrounding trees, and while watching these were were treated to another song that I had not heard in a long while.  A Lesser Spotted Woodpecker was somewhere at the back of the trees, but again like the Firecrest proved impossible to find.  The song was unmistakable though, and was a wonderful find.  The area continues to surprise me, two more new birds today to take the total to 60 and no summer migrants yet.

The Robin count continued to increase with another 7 singing birds added in the Newton Common to Lord's wood area.

As well as the new birds, those that I consider to be unusual for the area are now going out of their way to prove me wrong.  I had only seen my first Treecreeper last year, and so far this year I have seen them each month.   Today though after having seen one in Kitwood we saw another two, both as we walked up past Newton Common Plantation.  As well as the Treecreeper, Red-legged partridges were also making themselves more visible, this time with 3 birds in the field alongside the same track.

Many of the small woods and plantations consist of Beech trees,and this plantation was no exception.  Bluebells are also associated with the Beech woods, and they are very well advanced now, so we should expect an early display again this year.  In the afternoon sun the trees on the edge of the plantation cast a lovely dappled light, while the branches create a very nice avenue effect along the footpath.

Where the trees have fallen down and broken off the dead stumps are covered in fungi.  In this case the bracket like fungi is known as Chicken in the Wood fungi probably because they look very much like bits of cooked chicken stuck to the bark.

We walked footpaths across a couple of fields, one was extremely difficult because it had been ploughed right up to the hedgerows despite their being an official footpath through it, making walking very awkward.  From there we walked down Kitwood Track and into Lord's Wood.  Along Kitwood this time the predominant tree was Hazel, and where the tree had been cut back the new branches were very straight and tall.  Once again the afternoon sun created a lovely tunnel of trees down the track.

Buzzards circled over the wood, and along Weathermore lane as we headed back.  As with everywhere else Robins were singing, and from Lord's Wood and along Weathermore Lane there were 11 singing birds.  With the warm early spring sun, we had expected to see some early butterflies, however there hadn't been any sign of them until one flew over Helen's head and headed across the field in the direction of Alton. I managed to see it with binoculars and it was a Small Tortoiseshell. 

Along the track the finches still called from the tops of the trees, I couldn't see any Siskins, these were mostly Greenfinches and Chaffinches, the odd Goldfinch.  Lower down Coal Tits and Blue Tits were busy collecting moss and exploring the tree branches, and we did manage to find a pair of Marsh Tits.  My efforts in photographing these previously has been poor, this time however I managed to get some shots, not the best but a start.  Despite the fact that there is a pale wing panel here I was happy from the overall shape that this was just a Marsh Tit and not Willow.

Almost back home now we walked through the field between Alton Lane and Blackberry, nothing has changed yet, but from the work in trimming the hedge and trees I believe that very soon there will be a set footpath track here, which will be a shame especially in the early summer when the paddock is full of flowers and insects. 

I could not leave today's update without reference to the Rooks.  Birds were definitely sitting on the nest in the Garthowen Rookery, and Rooks could be seen feeding in the field, the sun catching the plumage and showing the iridescent blue.  We didn't go down as far as the Two Acres Rookery, but I am certain they are now incubating too.

The Robin count for Alton Lane through to Blackberry lane was a pitiful 3, but this made the grand total for a 7 mile walk 59 birds.

Finally, one of the commonest birds in the area has to be the Wood Pigeon, so they do become overlooked, so the put the record right here is a shot of one amongst  the blossom!  probably the first and last time unless they prove to be comical in garden again.

As a postscript in the evening as the sky was clear I took the chance to look out for the planets Jupiter and Venus.  The two are really close together right now and impossible to miss in the night sky, with Venus probably the brightest light in the sky, and Jupiter close alongside.  Looking at Jupiter through a telescope you could make out the four Galilean Moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.  They could be seen as tiny pricks of light either side of the planet.

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