Spring Sunshine

It’s been a glorious Spring week here. The temperatures are creeping over 20°C but there is still a pleasant breeze meaning it’s ideal for getting out and watching wildlife. I haven’t seen any clouds for days- here’s a blue tit to show off the blue sky.

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And another bird surrounded by blue sky is my local great spotted woodpecker.

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I’ve seen and heard woodpeckers a lot in this small patch of trees over the last few weeks. It’s the time of year of their drumming display. Both sexes drum at trees as a way of making first contact with potential mates. An unpaired male can drum as many as 600 times a day! Interestingly these woodpeckers have a gender equal society with both sexes drumming, excavating a nest, incubating eggs and looking after young after fledging.

This week has seen a dramatic increase in the numbers of butterflies around. I’ve so far seen brimstones, peacocks, large whites, orange tips, red admirals and speckled woods.

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It’s amazing what a difference a week can make- last weekend there were no speckled woods to be found whereas this weekend they seem to be everywhere. These butterflies have interesting mating behaviour. Male speckled woods either find a sunny spot and defend it from other males, waiting for a female to come along or patrol the forest actively looking for females. The females are monandrous, meaning they only mate once in their lifetime, and have to make the decision to mate with either a defender or a patroller.

Today I ventured up into the New Forest where I was treated with some magnificent views.

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I mainly hoped to see some reptiles and eventually I got lucky and found this slow worm.

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I thought at the time that this was a particularly long individual. In hindsight I should have placed an item near it for scale. These legless lizards are supposed to grow up to 50cm long but I am convinced this one was longer.

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It’s frustratingly impossible to know quite how long it was but it’s clear this was a particularly long individual. It was calm and basking in the sun to warm up and was happy for me to have a close look at it.

There were lots of birds hopping around on the gorse and under the heather and eventually I managed to get a good look at one and discover they were meadow pipits.

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Meadow pipits are the main host bird for cuckoos in the New Forest. Interestingly I heard a cuckoo calling today which seems remarkably early. I’ve been keeping an eye on the BTO tagged Cuckoos (see here) and Selborne, who was tagged in Hampshire, is only in the North of Spain whilst all the others are still South of the Sahara! That all suggests that the cuckoo I heard today is a really early arrival and likely hasn’t been in the forest for more than a few days.

I was saddened to learn this week of the extreme plight of New Forest curlews. Over the last 12 years the numbers of Forest curlews have fallen by two-thirds, from about 100 breeding pairs in 2004 to just 40 in 2016. At this rate they could become extinct in Southern England in as little as twenty years (Full story).

The main reason being attributed to this decline is nest disturbance. Curlews are ground-nesting birds and it’s likely that nests are being disturbed by runners, walkers and dogs who are not keeping to the main tracks. People seem to think they have a right to go anywhere on the Forest and this is the impact of it.

Anyway, let’s hope the good weather continues into this week and I’ll see you again soon for more.

Avon Heath Country Park

Lying two miles west of Ringwood is Avon Heath Country Park. Managed by Dorset County Council with some support from the RSPB, Avon Heath consists mostly of heathland apart from the occasional clump of birch and pine trees. I haven’t been there for some time so I decided to visit on Wednesday.

Within a few minutes I was lucky enough something of interest:

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OK, I have a confession to make. Although I did see a wild sand lizard shortly after this is a captive one. Avon Heath runs a sand lizard breeding program to help out the protected species.

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Assuming the website is correct there are currently 2 male and 4 female sand lizards. As you can see above the males are a little bigger and are mostly green whereas the females are completely brown. It was early afternoon on a warm but not hot day so these lizards were basking in the sun. Apparently they are fed crickets by the rangers when the insects are less active.

As I say though, only a few hundred metres from the vivarium I saw a female sand lizard sat on a log as if to prove they are genuinely a native species.

Just behind the vivarium is a great wildlife area. What I really like about the wildlife area at Avon Heath is how natural it feels. Whilst they are a few bird feeders the area has a pond and lots of wild planting so it doesn’t feel quite so staged as some hides do. As soon as I walked into the hide I could see loads of bird life, most bathing in the pond to keep cool like this goldfinch.

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I also spotted a female Emperor Dragonfly flitting around the pond and it eventually landed on a reed and started to lay some eggs.

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It was interesting to see how the dragonfly rotated in a circle as if doing an impression of a clock, presumably to spread out the eggs. Dragonfly nymphs are the most ferocious predators in a pond so the currents residents will have to be wary in the future.

Like many such places, the area around the play park and the cafe was busy but as soon as you head off on the footpaths it becomes much quieter. Due to the warmth I didn’t see much wildlife but the park is home to the dartford warblers, nightjars and woodlarks. There were even signs warning of a woodlark nesting not far away from the visitor centre.

One more common species that I did see though was wood ants. Wood ants are an important part of a woodland ecosystem as they disperse seeds, stimulate the roots and shoots of trees to distribute nutrients and are a useful food source.

I saw several trails of ants and often the ants were carrying huge bits of material relative to their size. Eventually I found a nest which is a feat of insect architecture.

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Initially it just looks like a pile of pine needles but when you look closer you can see it is swarming with ants. I’m not sure why there was a Pringles can in it but the ants didn’t seem to mind.

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Here you can see some of the many holes which are entrances to the nest.There is just so much going on that you could see and watch a wood ant for ages.

For more information about Avon Heath you can visit their website here.

Recent Sightings

It’s June and there is an abundance of wildlife everywhere you look, so today I am sharing all the best things I’ve seen around the area lately.

Whilst thing have gone a little quieter lately, the most obvious species on our housing estate a few weeks ago was the starling. If you walked down the street you could hear the sound of starling chicks squawking for food from virtually every house, including our own. They seem to like to nest under the roof tiles in the cavity. Now many young starlings have fledged and can be seen trying to eat food off the feeder, although many still don’t seem to have got the hang of it.

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There are lots of Canada Geese around the nearby fishing lake and for many years they seem to have set up a sort of goose nursery in a local field. At this time of year you can guarantee to see lots of gosling on the field.

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Canada geese are quite interesting in that the way the raise their chicks is different to other birds. Their hatchlings are precocial, which means they are well-developed and can feed themselves almost straight away. They just need their parents to keep them safe and show them where the food is. They lay around six eggs in a clutch but actually many geese don’t do much parenting- they led their young goslings to a nursery area and let other geese look after them. On the local field there are around 25 goslings but only four adult geese.

Other birds are beginning to fledge now, although frankly I haven’t seen many young birds yet. The weather this week is looking to be a little better so I expect that many will fledge now. I spotted some blue tits nesting in this crevice in an oak tree and from what I could glimpse they looked like well established chicks that will fledge soon.

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One final bird for today is this beautiful Little Egret with some black-headed gulls. I’ve passed this spot on the river Avon a few times recently and the egret has always been there. I have only seen the one so it’s unclear if there’s breeding going on. The egret is not keen on the gulls and chases them off if they come too close.

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I’ve been out and about in the New Forest a lot this week and seen plenty of interest. There are deer everywhere in the New Forest at the moment- it’s almost harder to avoid seeing them than it is to see them! I finally managed to get an OK photo of a roe deer doe too:

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You can see a lapwing in the centre of photo below, taken at Ibsley Common. You might think of lapwings usually living on farmland but clearly this emerging heathland is just as good. I was also lucky enough to see peregrine falcons passing food in the air whilst I was up on the common too. I suspect they may well have a nest in a small wood up there.

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Another New Forest spot was this beautiful slow worm which was basking on a path. Despite their name and appearance slow worms are neither a worm nor a snake but actually legless lizards.

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I shall finish today’s post with some of the lovely views I’ve seen recently:

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