Short-toed Eagle (added June 2014)
The local area has been playing host to a very rare bird for the last couple of weeks - a Short-toed Eagle. This is a pretty big bird - wing-span around 5ft or so - which is more usually seen in SW and E Europe... This being only the 3rd recording of the species in the UK (assuming eventual acceptance of the record) They over-winter in Africa and then migrate northwards into their breeding areas, and thought is that this is a young bird (2nd calender-year) which has overshot its usual area due to inexperience and ended up in the UK... what makes it a rare sighting is that many eagles prefer not to cross bodies of water if they can help it, so the English Channel would have presented something of a deterrent..
It's quite an interesting species, not least because of its diet, which consists largely of snakes and lizards, which I guess explains why it has been making the heaths of southern England its home for these last several weeks - a good deal fewer Adders and Grass Snakes in Ashdown Forest than there once was! I went to see it on Mon 16th June, and it was seen to catch and eat 3 snakes that morning alone.
Identification of the species is often comparatively straightforward (for raptors - a notoriously difficult group!) due to its size, mainly pale underparts and its ability to hover (bit like a giant Kestrel) which all set it apart from most other potential confusion species.
It was first found in the heathland near Wareham in Dorset on 31st May, and stayed faithful to that site for just over a week, and then started on its travels as follows:
31/5 - 07/6 - Dorset
08/6 - 09/6 - New Forest in Hants
10/6 - Ashdown Forest in Sussex
11/6 - A number of uncorroborated sightings in Essex and Cambs
12/6 - 14/6 - Back to New Forest
15/6 - present - Ashdown Forest.
At time of writing (25th June) the bird seems to be getting restless again, and a couple of times in recent days has 'gone missing' from Ashdown, and (possibly) turned up again in New Forest on one day... This seeming willingness to treat much of SE England as its hunting territory is quite impressive, and has led to some people theorising that there may even be more than one bird, although analysis of feather patterns (and just sheer likelihood) would seem to suggest that a single bird, that considers commuting between Hants and Sussex to be a trivial undertaking, to be a much more likely explanation.
Sadly I wasn't able to get any photographs on the day I went (too distant and murky) but have a look here at some images of the bird - it's a stunner!
Have just finished surveying and cleaning out the nest-boxes, and have to say that it wasn't a particularly good showing this year (ie the 2013 breeding season) The highlights are in the table below, but key features were:
- Many more boxes have gone missing. I imagine that quite a few have simply fallen apart in the wild weather that we seem to get these days, but also some of the missing ones were among the more robust, so something of a mystery as to what has happened to them. Particularly disappointing was that the one favoured by the Nuthatches (and afterwards, Yellow-necked Mice!) has vanished without trace.... I'll have to make a replacement!
- Had several boxes which were occupied, but rather tricky to tell by what species. In some cases, this was because I had left the cleaning-out a bit late, and the nest had deteriorated to a sodden mess, but the box which has been occupied by the Greater Spotted Woodpecker was interesting - it was stuffed to the brim with large clumps of chestnut leaves.... Can't really think of any bird that might have done that, so I wonder whether it has been used as a winter dray by squirrels? Of course, it may have been used by woodpeckers earlier in the year, but no evidence of that any more.
- Looks like the Treecreepers started to build a nest again in the orchard, but the nest was abandoned halfway. This may have been because one or more of the adults met a sticky end, or they just gave up on the idea of nesting altogether - remember how awful the weather was in spring 2013.
- On that same subject, I reckon that could well be another reason that so few boxes were used in 2013 - the weather was so bad that many birds didn't bother even trying, as they realised that there would be no food for any young, so it was a very poor year for birds like Blue and Great Tits. Mind you, it's an ill-wind, as they say, as it unexpectedly turned out to be a fantastic year for many butterfly species, and personally speaking, I reckon these 2 events are not unconnected. No baby Blue Tits to hoover up all of the caterpillars!!
Chorus 2013 (added April 2013)
I thought I would have another go at running a dawn chorus walk around the reserve, so if you can't tell your Chiffchaffs from your Chaffinches, and would like to learn a little bit about identifying birds by their calls and songs, please come along and join me.
This will be Monday 6th May, starting off at 05:00 to meet at the Vicarage Road entrance.
It may prove necessary to limit numbers, so please e-mail me if you intend coming along so that I can keep some control of the group size.
Pond Dipping 2013 (added March 2013)
Sunday March 10th saw our first scheduled pond-dip of 2013, and have to say that the frigid weather was not exactly conducive to what is more often a spring and summer activity, as we all shivered in temperatures of 3-4c and a bitter easterly breeze.
In the event, I think we were all pleasantly surprised by the number of 'customers' who turned up, and also by the fairly decent catch that we had - it really was rather cold.
The full results of the catch are on the 'surveys' page but the highlights were:-
Overall numbers of creatures caught were generally higher than our first pond-dipping session last year (1st April 2012) with the only significant decrease being of water fleas, where we had a massive catch of 200 last year, which rather skewed the overall total figures. Thinking back to 2012 though, I can recall that much of March had been warm dry and sunny, so spring would have felt very well advanced by 1st April - rather unlike the cold conditions that we have had through most of 2013. I would expect that we would see a big difference in some species by the next session in April 2013.
It was noticable that the catch from the upper pond still continues to outstrip that of the larger, main pond. There is still not very much by way of established vegetation on the main pond, and I also wonder whether it is simply easier for the creatures to just evade capture in the deeper water farther from the banks. Anyway, it will be interesting to see how this season progresses, now that we have detailed records from 2012 to act as a baseline.
Review of 2012 (added January 2013)
Any review of wildlife for 2012 really has to start with the weather, as it has been a funny old year! Easy to forget, but 2012 actually started off with very dry weather throughout the winter and into spring (remember the drought?) so it did appear that some bird species would enjoy a successful breeding season in the gentle conditions, and Robins and Blackbirds were reported to have successfully raised broods a bit earlier then usual.
But then, come April, it started to rain - and seemingly didn't stop for the rest of the spring and summer - and everything changed.
The first indication that things were amiss, was the non-arrival of the spring migrants birds, which spend the winter in Africa etc and come to the UK from April onwards to breed, but most of these species either didn't arrive at all, or very late, or in tiny numbers - it was the worst year for such birds in living memory! In the case of the reserve, one of our most common spring visitor - the Whitethroat - was completely absent, and other species such as Garden Warbler were much reduced in numbers compared to 2011. The nightingale that had spent 2011 in the reserve didn't return.
Even birds that are native to the UK and usually prolific breeders were having a hard time, as they are often dependent upon insect species to breed and provide food for their young. Blue Tits, for example, feed their young almost exclusively on caterpillars, and there is some evidence that nests were failing, as the adults were not able to find enough food, as the moths and butterflies were also having a hard time in the cold, wet weather.
A couple of the rarer birds that have been seen around the reserve in winter - the Linnet and Yellowhammer - were also largely absent during 2012. In the case of the Linnet, this is possibly due to the fact that most of the gorse clumps (a favoured environment) had been burnt out by vandals. In an effort to recreate this habitat, we have planted several new clumps of gorse, and the original ones have started to regenerate, so fingers crossed for the future.
It's not been all bad news for birds though, and the annual survey of our nest-boxes showed that we have most of them in use now, and had several new species using them - Treecreeper, Nuthatch and Greater Spotted Woodpecker - which are exactly the sort of birds that we had hoped to attract by providing the boxes. There have also been 2 new species recorded on the reserve - Tawny Owl, and (in 2013) Waxwing!!
It was also a very poor year for butterflies - with the weekly transect count yielding the lowest number of insects recorded in the last 10 years. It was not all bad news though, as some of the grassland species did well, particularly Meadow Browns, but the highlight of the year was the sighting of a rare Brown Hairstreak butterfly in the quiet garden in August. This is a very special species and it will be interesting to see if we can find them again in 2013. A worry is that they favour mature ash trees!
There is no great history of dragonfly recording in the reserve, but our interest was aroused by a visit by a local expert in 2011, and we have just started to record the species seen. Perhaps surprisingly, for a relatively small area with not much water, we have 13 different species on our 'list' to date, including some quite impressive species such as Emperor and Brown and Migrant Hawkers.
We had also had quite a few sightings of grass snakes, so in 2012 we tried to improve the habitat for this increasingly threatened species by providing compost heaps for winter shelter and breeding sites, and also putting down several strips of roofing-felt, which would provide shelter, but also help the snakes warm up quickly in the sunshine. By monitoring these strips, we have been able to find snakes of 3 different age groups, so definitive proof that they are breeding on the reserve. Another excellent sighting was of a common lizard - there is every chance that these had been present all along, but much easier to see if they are sitting up on some felt!
In 2011, we took the brave step of undertaking a major overhaul of the large pond - it was virtually dry at the time and was so choked with infill and vegetation as to be in danger of disappearing altogether. Very pleased to say that the work does appear to have been successful though, as we managed a full programme of our monthly pond-dipping sessions (we had sometimes had to cancel these in previous years due to lack of water) so it appears that our new, deeper pond holds the water a bit better - although having been such a wet year may well have helped in this regard!
Results from the dipping sessions are now being recorded, and so we are able to prove that numbers of creatures - including our flagship pond species, the Great Crested Newt - are re-colonising the new pond with alacrity, and the earthen banks that we have created around the ponds will hopefully be a valuable new environment for flowering plants.
During the course of the pond works, we also took the opportunity to create a couple of small 'scrapes' with the hope that we could encourage frogs to breed.... For some reason (possibly the large numbers of newts) frogs had always avoided our pond-complex previously, and we were delighted to hit the jackpot on the first year, with several clumps of spawn and at least some frogs surviving the tadpole stage and leaving the water as froglets in the summer.
In general habitat-work, we have undertaken re-laying of the hedge down the side of Jenner's field - this is beneficial to create a dense, thick hedge for nesting birds - the old hedge was getting very leggy, and also planted quite a few trees, shrubs and bushes. The gorse clumps have already been mentioned, and we have also planted quite a few fruiting plants, and an early highlight of 2013 has been a flock of Waxwings feeding on the fruits of our mature plants down by the pond. This is an important food-source for birds during the winter months, particularly in years like 2012, when cold wet weather during the pollination season has led to poor, or even non-existent production of many other fruits, seeds and berries - No acorns in 2012 for example!!
We have also planted thousands of spring-flowering bulbs in the orchard - this is with a view to providing some early nectar sources for bees and other insects, which are all doing badly in the countryside generally. It will be interesting to see how successful this is, as we may extend the scheme in subsequent years if it goes well.
We have significant plans for 2013 for further habitat improvements, so any help to manage this wonderful local resource would be much appreciated. Please come along to one of our work parties or contact one of the committee members, and you too can get involved in this very rewarding project.