Saturday, 31 March 2012

A bright end to the week

A flock of Bramblings, 60 plus in number, is loafing noisily in the tops of the roadside beeches as I set out with the dogs. I suspect that they have been feeding on what remains of last autumn’s beechmast, tucking in to what has been overlooked by the Woodpigeons and Chaffinches that have been feeding here for many weeks. I sense that these Bramblings will soon be off, heading back to breeding grounds that lie hundreds of miles away to the east, and I picture them laying down fat reserves ahead of this great seasonal journey. Their passing, just as the first Chiffchaffs and Sand Martins are arriving, hints at the dynamic nature of our avian communities. What suits one species for summer may suit another during the winter. Things are on the move in this season of change.

The Roe Deer are still here though, all deep brown winter coats and white rumps. Unless they end up in the sights of the ranger’s gun, they will remain throughout the year. Ever inquisitive as they move off upon my approach they will stop and turn to look back, taking me in as they do most mornings. Do they recognise me or am I just another human wandering in their patch of forest? They certainly seem unfazed, keeping a modest but polite distance between us.

The volume of bird song has increased over recent days and there is evidence that birds are now settled on territories. Three different Yellowhammer males have been singing for a couple of weeks now and I have a good idea of where their individual territories begin and end. One is paired but the others still appear to be single and I shall have to see what develops. A pair of Mistle Thrushes rattle harshly at a Carrion Crow that is taking too much interest in the tree where I suspect the thrushes have an active nest. While the nest is out of the reach of any ground-based predators, the crows will be an ever-present threat and the tenacity of the parent thrushes will surely be put to the test if they are to rear young successfully.

It is a good time of the year to be out in the forest, the sense of anticipation as the season begins to wind up into action. Summer migrants will soon arrive in growing numbers and then there will be a blur of activity as plants flower, eggs hatch and insects emerge. It is a time of the year that fills me with optimism; even if I set out feeling a bit low, by the end of the walk I am happy, smiling and full of the joys of spring.

Friday, 30 March 2012

A careful nester

Even though she does not know that I have worked out where her nest is, this Robin is taking no chances. If she happens to see me pass near the window she immediately drops the piece of leaf, grass or plant stem that she is carrying. Such is the way with Robins when nest building; ever alert, they pause a little way from the nest and scan for potential danger before moving towards it. If they feel unsure then they will drop what they are carrying or even attempt to lead you away from the nest.

I had found the nest yesterday, a base of leaves placed untidily towards the top of a climbing honeysuckle. It was easy enough to spot, the ‘wrong sort of leaves’ in a climber to which they did not belong. Without approaching any closer I left the nest alone, knowing that all I needed to do was sit inside the house and watch. Soon after, the Robin appeared. Furtive and without any nesting material, it flew in briefly as if to check the nest remained untouched. A few minutes later and it was back, leaf in bill, to continue the process of nest construction. This process would extend over several days, the final act the lining with finer material. With luck, the eggs would follow one per day and then the female would begin incubation.

Robins tend to nest fairly low down, typically below two metres, but the wide variety of nest sites used can make finding their nests difficult. The nest may be hidden in a pile of dead vegetation, be tucked away in a bank or nestled within some object hanging inside an old shed or outbuilding. They will also take to open-fronted nest boxes provided they are placed within suitable cover or nest in the leaf litter of a woodland floor. Although the nests are well hidden they may still be the target of nest predators. The other summer, we lost one nest to the local Badgers, the irony being that the Robins had used Badger hair in the nest lining.

These are surprisingly aggressive and territorial birds and a nesting pair will not tolerate the presence of other Robins within the breeding territory. Sometimes this aggression spills over onto other species, with the superficially similar-looking Dunnock often the unfortunate victim of this seemingly random violence. It strikes me as rather odd that a bird as confiding as a Robin – I have one that often joins me when I am turning over the vegetable beds – should be both so secretive and so aggressive. Such traits do deliver a bird with real character and it is easy to see why we have taken it to our hearts.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

A drifting kite

It is a moment of instant recognition as I spot the shape of a Red Kite circling steadily above the steeply sloping field. A nearby Buzzard, also circling over the field, provides the contrast as I take in the shape of the wings and the fork of the tail. This is my first ‘Sussex’ kite and I am delighted to see it drifting over this landscape of small woodlots, tiny fields and plentiful hedgerows. It is the landscape of my youth and I think that the kites will do well here.

The Buzzard is also a recent addition to my ‘Sussex’ list, the species only returning in numbers within the last decade as part of a wider re-colonisation of former haunts. That both birds should be established here underlines a shifting change in attitudes. This has seen the levels of persecution fall away, allowing (in the case of the Red Kite) reintroduction into former haunts and (in both species) favourable increases in breeding numbers.

Red Kites are scavengers as well as predators, taking a wide range of food. Small birds and mammals dominate the diet in most areas but insects, fish and reptiles may also be taken. Despite its size, the Red Kite is not noted for its strength and anything larger than a half-grown Rabbit is unlikely to be tackled when alive. This makes carrion particularly important and it is not just larger carcasses that attract these birds. Many smaller corpses are also taken, the bird spotting these when gliding low over a piece of suitable habitat. It has been noted, for example, that a Red Kite may drop onto an earthworm from a height of ten or more metres, underlining the kite’s excellent eyesight.

Kites are also known for their habit of robbing other birds, using their agility to overtake smaller species, particularly Crows and Magpies, and to rob them of a morsel or two. This behaviour is known as kleptoparasitism and is seen in certain other species of birds (most notably skuas). It is amazing to watch a kite launch itself at a passing Crow and harass it into dropping the food it was carrying. This behaviour can be seen at its best where many kites gather together to feed.

Of course, West Sussex is not the only county to which these elegant birds have returned and I am well-used to seeing them around the Brecks these days, suggesting that they will soon be breeding here, if they have not already done so. While you are probably becoming increasingly familiar with seeing Buzzards over Norfolk, do make sure that you give each one a thorough once over, just to make sure it is not a passing kite.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

A stroll down a lane

I have always had something of a romantic notion of what constitutes a green lane. Growing up on the edge of the Surrey Weald, with its sunken track-ways running through thick woodland, I have carried the notion that I am walking along lanes with an ancient heritage. As the poet Edward Thomas once noted, it is easy in these lanes to feel as if you are treading softly ‘over men’s dreams’.

Of course, not all green lanes are this ancient; if we are brutal about it then most are not that different from the quiet country lanes so familiar across much of the county. The distinction comes from the definition of a green lane: an unmetalled road or track, wide enough for a cart and horses (or car) and bounded on both sides by a hedgerow. We shouldn’t get too hung up on definitions though, as these are often restrictive; a narrow definition ignores those lanes that have a ditch for a boundary instead of a hedge, or which never carried traffic of any kind. Many green lanes do have a genuine sense of history and can be found on old maps or in documents written generations ago. This history is likely to have changed the nature of the lane over time, perhaps so that it now resembles a footpath, the hedgerows on either side unmanaged and encroaching.

Natural England, the Norfolk Biodiversity Information Service (NBIS) and the Norfolk & Norwich Naturalists’ Society are running a project on green lanes this year, working together to record the location, type and quality of the county’s green lanes. Recording forms and instructions are available from the NBIS website ( and I’d urge you to go out, spend some time exploring the lanes around you and let them know what you find. You might already know of a lane green lane near you but, if not, simply pick up a map and look for unclassified roads that might turn out to be a green lane.

One aspect of this work is the recording of the wildlife present in these lanes. Being linear features, often connected to patches of wildlife-rich habitat (like wet grassland or woodland), they can support a richness of species, from nesting birds to the insects that nectar on trackside brambles and umbellifers. Much of this richness will be undocumented, largely because we tend to use green lanes as a means to reach somewhere else; they are the journey rather than the destination. That’s why people are needed to spend some time in these lanes, becoming familiar with them and their wildlife, rather than just pass through. I suspect that you will discover some interesting things.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

A flurry of brown

With a whir of rust-coloured wings, a small bundle of brown can be seen flying between a scruffy, moss-covered stump and a thick column of ivy that clings to the trunk of a nearby Sycamore. The bird makes the trip several times, each time returning from the stump with a beak full of moss. This is a male Wren and he is busy building a nest to which he hopes to attract a mate.

The nest itself is soon discovered by watching the bird, a growing pile of moss pressed against the trunk and held in place by the mass of ivy tendrils and leaves within which it is placed. It looks as if much of the main structure has been completed, the bird now working on the top of what will become a neatly domed structure. The material around the entrance hole will be particularly tightly woven, allowing the bird to create a slight overhang, which affords the nest contents that little bit extra in the way of protection.

This is unlikely to be the only nest that this male will build over the coming weeks, since males construct a number of ‘cock’ nests, only one of which will secure the female’s approval. The favoured nest will be finished off with a lining of feathers. Some cock nests can appear a little rushed and are poorly constructed, giving the impression that the male is simply going through the motions – or it might be that the female has already selected another nest and he abandons the attempt mid-build. Most, however, are well built and look just like a finished and occupied nest, meaning that you cannot tell if a nest is active until you place a finger (or endoscope) inside and discover the soft lining. Even those nests that appear unused later into the season may suddenly come good, perhaps used for a second clutch or, in some instances, where the male takes on another mate.

Like most birds, it is during the period when building that Wrens are sensitive to disturbance. At this stage they have invested little in the breeding attempt and the cost of starting again somewhere else is low. For this reason, I will simply note the location of this nest from a distance, returning in a few weeks time to make a proper check. In the meantime I will return over the coming days to see if I can spot this particular male building other nests within his territory. He should be obvious enough, although this piece of damp woodland supports many male Wrens and it is not always that easy to work out where one breeding territory stops and the next begins.

Monday, 26 March 2012

A sense of spring

It is the spring warmth on my skin that really lifts my spirits, the sense that winter has passed and that life is returning. These first few days of spring, though changeable, mean more to me than the warmer, predictable, days of summer and I suspect that it is the sense of renewal that makes this season so special.

The dawn air rings with the calls of rooks. Settled at their rookery, there is much society to be had as pairs reinforce bonds or bicker with their neighbours over the ownership of sticks destined for the nest. The clear skies and lack of foliage show the rookeries off at their best, the birds striking in their black feathering and bone white faces. While other birds are singing to attract a mate or are still on their way back from African wintering grounds, the Rook breeding season is well advanced. Most Rooks will be incubating a clutch of four or five eggs by now and it will not be long before there are hungry young in the nest. The blue-green eggs, with their pattern of speckles and blotches, were once the unfortunate targets of egg-collecting children and it would have been a fearless youngster who sought out these nests, perched precariously within the fine outermost branches.

In addition to the avian activity, the first of the season’s insects are on the wing. Most obvious of these are the butterflies and queen bumblebees, newly emerged from their winter slumberings and in need of nectar to replenish resources metabolised during the dark days of winter. The queen bumblebees seek suitable nesting chambers in which to initiate a colony that will grow in size through into autumn and the next major change in the seasons. I love watching these bees as they buzz about noisily, peering into each potential nest site before lumbering on somewhere else until the perfect site is found.

This spring seems to have started with good numbers of hoverflies foraging at early season nectar and there have even been reports of Hummingbird Hawk-moths active within the county. These are either recent emigrants or, more likely, individuals that arrived late last autumn and which have, somehow, managed to survive the winter.

With the leaves yet to form on the trees, there is a flush of green across the woodland floor. These are plants that manage to take advantage of the short gap between the end of winter and the restoration of a new summer canopy, after which the woodland floor will be plunged back into shade. Visit an old woodland, like Bradfield Woods (just over the border in Suffolk) and you will be treated to a fine display.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012


Woodland changes a landscape, shortening horizons and softening vistas. Its verdant summer growth casts a shade of deep green, the air beneath the canopy still and heavy with the sound of a thousand buzzing insect wings. Come autumn and the liquid greens are drained, as trees draw back nutrients and seal off their leaves. The colour palette shifts to dry browns and golden yellows before these autumnal hues slip from the trees to make a crisp carpet ripe for crunching footsteps. 

Now, in winter, the wood opens itself to the elements, the network of branches and twigs stark against brooding sky. The trees linger in a state of limbo until the first warming days of spring, when tight buds burst forth to release the new season’s growth.

Woodland is part of me. Having grown up within its tender folds I welcome its comforting embrace and I feel exposed when I find myself in a landscape without some patch of woodland cover. For others, perhaps those who have grown up not knowing the childhood pleasures of a woodland playground, a wood may seem threatening, its deep shadows the haunt of unnamed creatures conjured from folk tales handed down. There is nothing to fear from our woodlands though. There are no creatures of menace but, instead, a rich biodiversity of animal and plant life, from the spring flush of colour that appears before the canopy closes through to the birds whose songs resonate at dawn. Being in a wood focuses your attention and returns rich rewards. 

Saturday, 3 March 2012

From the otter bridge

I often find myself down in here on what has become known locally as the ‘otter bridge’. The bridge was given this name back in the summer, when it became the vantage point from which to watch for the local Otters. One or more Otters are still seen along this stretch of the river, quite possibly the cubs from the Otter family that was present and which attracted so much attention, but I’ve not seen one from the bridge for many weeks.

The bridge makes a good vantage point more generally, both for watching the river and also the wet woodland and wet meadows that border its meandering course. From the bridge you may be treated to the sight of Water Rail or Moorhen foraging in the bankside vegetation, listen to the rich song of a Blackcap that holds a traditional territory on the corner or spook a Muntjac that suddenly becomes aware of your silent presence as it wanders onto the other end of the bridge.

One of the birds that I see and hear from the bridge fairly often is the Goldcrest, the large conifers towering over the bridge used for feeding and, at times, nesting. These delightful little birds flutter between the tips of the drooping branches, searching for tiny insects among the pine needles. I watched one just last week doing exactly this, a sparkling gem of a bird in a patch of springtime sunlight that lit up the tree.

It is really good to see a Goldcrest at this time of the year. Their small size – they weigh less than 7g – makes winter a very difficult time for them and populations may crash following a particularly severe spell of weather. Amazingly, some Goldcrest populations are migratory and it is astonishing to think that such a small and seemingly fragile scrap of life can undertake a significant flight that may see it depart breeding sites in northern Russia or Finland to reach Britain. Of course, we have our own breeding population and I suspect that Thetford Forest supports a sizeable number of these diminutive birds. The nest is a delicate construction suspended from the tip of a conifer branch, usually high up and very difficult to spot.

The song of the Goldcrest is very high-pitched and it is one of the first songs to be lost as you get older and the top end of your hearing begins to go. I can still hear the song well and it would be something that I would be sad to lose, not because it might indicate failing hearing but because it is one of my favourite sounds, a trilling, flourishing rhythmical note.

Thursday, 1 March 2012


Although the name ‘smew’ suits this small winter-visiting duck, it could equally conjure up the image of a character from some cartoon or children’s story. Come to think of it, the black and white appearance of a male Smew does have the feeling of a piece of cartoon artwork to it!

During the latter half of February there was a large number of Smew in East Anglia, birds that had been pushed south and west by the harsh winter weather elsewhere. We usually get the odd individual wintering here for part of each winter but the numbers this year have been particularly good, thanks largely to the severity of conditions east into the Russian breeding grounds.

Little bigger than a Teal, the Smew is the smallest of our sawbill ducks, a group which includes the more familiar Red-breasted Merganser and Goosander, the former a winter visitor and the latter an occasional breeder within the county. Male Smew should be unmistakable, with their striking black and white plumage and black eye patch; females are grey with a chestnut cap and white cheeks. Many of those arriving here winter on the old gravel pits of southern Cambridgeshire but they can become more widespread than this when numbers are boosted by further arrivals of birds displaced by the weather from wintering sites in the Netherlands. Movements continue throughout late winter, the birds remaining mobile and easily displaced by freezing waterbodies and through disturbance. We had a male on the lakes south of Thetford for several days last month, the bird moving onto the nearby river as the lakes froze over.

Smew, like other sawbills, have bills that are lined with small, saw-like teeth. These are used to grasp small fish caught underwater by the bird on one of its dives. Watch a Smew hunting and you’ll notice that it typically dips its head underwater before diving and it is thought that this ploy helps reduce energy expenditure, the bird only diving if prey is sighted.

It is strange to think that this small duck, so much associated with large waterbodies in winter, will return to Russia to breed in broadleaf woodland, close to rivers, lakes and other wetland habitats. The association with woodland comes about because the Smew is a cavity nester, selecting tree holes some 20 foot or more above the ground. Many of the cavities used will have been excavated by a Black Woodpecker but Smew will also take to nest boxes erected for their use. Seeing a male Smew here in winter is a real treat but I often wonder if I will one day get the chance to see one on its breeding grounds. Now that would be something really special.

Wet woodland wait

I am standing on soft ground, a few metres back from a shallow drain that feeds into the main river just beyond this piece of wet woodland. Somewhere in the tangle of dead stems that surround the root plate of a fallen Alder ahead of me is a Water Rail. The bird had been feeding in the open but ran for cover at my approach, underlining its secretive nature. Although I am hidden somewhat by an old Alder it also limits my view and the bird could already have moved away without me noticing.

I play this waiting game often, watching patiently in the hope that some bird or animal will re-emerge. At other times I select a likely spot with a good view and just wait to see what comes along. Not everyone has the patience to sit or stand still, often for the best part of an hour, but it is something that I have always done. I find that I am not so much waiting but gradually tuning myself into what is going on around me. I am getting a sense of the place and, in some way, becoming part of it. Take today, for example; my ears gradually start to pick up gentle rustlings around me, the sounds of small mammals and birds working through the vegetation in search of food. I pick out the soft calls of a tit flock as it moves through the wood towards me, the shrill notes of a Treecreeper and the distant ‘chack’ of Jackdaws over the town.

There is a sudden ‘pichou’, the call of a Marsh Tit, and soon I have a pair of these delightful little birds working their way down through the canopy to my left. Lower and lower they descend until they reach the gurgling shallows of the drain, where they drink in turn perched on an old reed stem. Wet woodland is a good place to find these birds which, because of their hole-nesting habits, require secondary cavities in standing dead wood.

A larger creature is moving through the reeds and dead grass, most likely a Muntjac since these woods are full of them. The river is no obstacle for them and on occasion one may be seen swimming from one bank to the other. My attention returns to the spot where the Water Rail disappeared but there is no sign of the bird. I am a little pushed for time this morning and am forced to return to the path. My departure prompts a flurry of brown wings as the Water Rail appears, rushing away before taking flight and disappearing deeper into the wood. Today, it seems, my waiting was not long enough.