Saturday, 17 December 2005

Winter insects hard to find

The winter months offer reduced opportunities for those of us interested in insects and other small creatures. Many species will sit out the cold conditions by burrowing under bark, burying themselves within the leaf litter or by squeezing into a nice dry crack in the brickwork. However, there are still insects and arachnids to be found at this time of the year.

Clearing away dead plant material from one of my borders the other day revealed several caterpillars, overwintering in this form before changing and emerging next year as adult moths. One of the ones I recognised was the caterpillar of the angle shades, a delightful moth that has featured at my moth trap during the summer months. Just below the surface of the soil, as I forked it through, was the large brown pupal case of a hawkmoth. Over two inches in length, it was almost identical to one that I had found last autumn. I managed to overwinter that one in the shed and on 5th June this year an adult privet hawkmoth emerged to be photographed and released. Other moths are still on the wing, including small brown ones that appear at lighted windows late in the evening. These are male winter moths, a species that is unwelcome in those gardens with fruit trees. Broad bands of sticky material can sometimes be seen wrapped around the trunks of fruit trees. These have been fixed there by gardeners, in an effort to trap the almost flightless female winter moth as she attempts to crawl up the trunk to lay her eggs. There are even moths on the wing in the house. Aptly named the white-shouldered house moth, these tiny moths appear on the curtains or at my reading light on most evenings.

There are other small creatures in the house, including two-spotted ladybirds that have hunkered down for the winter, pressed up against the corner of a window frame. A daddy-long-legs spider has taken up residence on the ceiling of the dining room. This spider has long legs and a cylindrical body and, if disturbed, will vibrate its web rapidly – a useful defence against potential predators. Another species of spider remains very much in evidence in the garden. This large spider has taken up residence on my larch-lap fencing. Known by its Latin name of Nuctenea umbratica, the females of this species are rather impressive. Reminiscent of a garden spider, but darker and with a flattened body, Nuctenea spends the day concealed in a crack. Once darkness falls, the spider emerges to wait for prey. Each panel of the fence seems to support seven or eight of these spiders, seemingly forming a healthy population and just one of the species to add interest during winter.

Friday, 16 December 2005

Practical birdwatching

Birdwatching is often regarded as a recreational pastime, an excuse for getting outside and enjoying the Norfolk countryside. However, it can also serve a practical purpose by providing valuable information on the distribution and numbers of Norfolk’s birds. The submission of records gathered during recreational birdwatching, to the County Bird Recorder or to national schemes like BirdTrack (, is something that many birdwatchers do routinely. However, fewer birdwatchers take part in the systematic surveys that underpin much of our knowledge about the changing fortunes of our avifauna. This is a shame, not least because participating in such surveys can lead you to visiting parts of the county that you would not otherwise have gone to. Last weekend, for instance, I visited a survey square that I had been jointly allocated for the Norfolk Bird Atlas – a project that aims to map the distribution of birds across the county. This took me to part of Breckland that I had only previously viewed in passing.  Sat between the A11 and Bridgham, the landscape was a mixture of arable farmland, pasture and small blocks of woodland.

Although there had not been any overnight frost, it was damp and decidedly chilly but at least we would be on the move in order to cover all the ground. The aim was simple, to record the birds that we saw within the square and it was not long before our tally began to rise. Within a few minutes we encountered a flock of about 30 linnets, delightful little finches that were once popular as cage birds. Seen in flight, the flock was heading for one of the little blocks of game cover, rich in the small seeds favoured by these birds. There were other finches too: chaffinches and greenfinches in good numbers, fewer goldfinches and a single bullfinch. The bullfinch can be difficult to connect with, perhaps because it is rather secretive in its habits and has such a soft call note. We were also treated to a couple of winter visitors, with a handful of fieldfares and redwings, though nowhere near the number we might expect to see later in the winter. The highlight of the morning was the sight of a barn owl. A pale individual, probably a male, was perched in the lower branches of an oak. Effortlessly, the bird dropped from the branch to pounce on something in grass, where it remained for half a minute before rising up into nearby tree. A brief view but nonetheless sufficient reward for our efforts. After an early start, and nearly five hours in the field, we had some very useful data for the Atlas and had seen some really nice birds, making the survey work a pleasurable way of spending Sunday morning

Thursday, 15 December 2005

Long nights hard on small birds

The long nights that we experience at this time of year can make things difficult for many of our birds. A combination of low temperature, reduced amounts of daylight in which to find food, and a general decline in the amount of food available, can all have a dramatic impact on smaller species. Small birds may need to expend more energy to keep warm and, with only small reserves of body fat, they have to spend much of a typical winter’s day searching for food. This food is vital to replace losses from the night before and to prepare for the night ahead. Great tits may easily lose five percent of their body weight overnight, with the amount of weight lost being greatest during periods of cold weather.

Watching my bird feeders has revealed a pattern to the order in which the different species arrive in the morning. As one of some 2,000 licensed bird ringers nationwide, I am frequently up before dawn to set the nets in which I catch small birds for ringing. At this time of day, I can already hear the calls of blackbirds and robins up and about before it is truly light. With the nets set, I operate a regular pattern of checking and emptying the nets every 20 minutes or so, fitting rings and taking various measurements before releasing the birds. The first birds to be caught are usually blackbirds and other thrushes, followed by various tits and the occasional dunnock. It is not until an hour or so after dawn that the greenfinches, goldfinches and chaffinches begin to appear in any numbers. Birds continue to arrive to feed through until mid-morning then it all goes rather quiet, with numbers not increasing again until the hour or so before dusk, presumably when individuals come in to top up before going to roost.

Intuitively, you might expect those species that most urgently need to top up their fat reserves to arrive first but other factors also come into play. For example, roosting behaviour may be important. Some species roost communally, sharing body warmth and reducing the amount of energy they have to expend to keep warm. While wrens can use nestboxes or roosting pouches, long-tailed tits prefer to roost together on a branch in the centre of a thicket. Dominance also plays a role, with less dominant species forced to feed at times when feeders are not being dominated by more aggressive birds like greenfinch or starling. Such factors influence the basic pattern and will change over time as birds respond to changing weather conditions. Recent nights have been relatively mild but, as we move further into the winter, lower temperatures may bring birds to our feeders that much earlier relative to dawn.

Wednesday, 14 December 2005

Front row seat for a Norfolk spectacle

The raised earthen bank at Stubb Mill, Hickling, may seem an unlikely place from which to watch for birds of prey and other wildlife. Scrub, reeds and rough grassland stretch away into the distance and on a cold winter’s afternoon it can all seem rather bleak, not to mention cold. However, at this time of the year the watchpoint provides an excellent opportunity for viewing harriers, merlin and common crane as the birds come in to roost just before dusk. With very little shelter from the elements, the watchpoint is best visited on a bright afternoon. The birds will still arrive in the rain but tend to hunker down quite quickly and, with poor light, there is not much of a spectacle. However, in the good light of a bright December afternoon, you may be spoilt by views of hunting harriers or of merlin and Sparrowhawk mobbing their larger cousins. There is even the chance of seeing a short-eared owl or peregrine.

Most observers tend to arrive an hour or so before dusk but I prefer to arrive well before this. One of the reasons for arriving so early is to be able to watch Chinese water deer in good light. This introduced species has established a sizeable population within the county, centred on the Broads, but seemingly spreading north and west to other sites. Most of the Chinese water deer that I encounter elsewhere within the county are either ones that have been killed in collision with motorcars or are brief glimpses of live individuals disappearing into thick vegetation. Stubb Mill has proved to be one of the best places to get good views of these small deer, perhaps because you are sitting on a bank looking down on the surrounding habitat. Slightly larger in size than a muntjac, the Chinese water deer reminds me of a roe deer in its posture and movements, though smaller in size. First introduced at Woburn Park in the early 1900s, several established populations occur in Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk where they favour mixed reedbed and woodland habitats. They are cautious animals and if alarmed will run off, flinging up their hind legs as they go.

Perhaps I have been fortunate in my visits to Stubb Mill. Each time I have been treated to close views of the deer, followed by the spectacle of hen and marsh harriers quartering the ground or loafing about in scrub. These have been accompanied by views of kestrel, sparrowhawk and merlin on virtually every occasion, with the whole afternoon often rounded off by the arrival of the local cranes. Having so many special birds and animals in one place makes this a site that everyone interested in Norfolk’s wildlife should visit at least once.

Tuesday, 13 December 2005

Immigrants on the increase

A visit to Norfolk’s coastal saltmarshes will often reward the observer with views of one of the county’s newest breeding species – the little egret. Smaller than the more familiar grey heron, the little egret makes a striking sight, with its white plumage, dark legs and yellow feet. When hunting in shallow water, the egret will edge slowly forward, making frequent stops and taking care not to scare off its prey. From time to time a feeding bird will extend a leg and vibrate it rapidly. This ‘stirring’ motion is used to disturb fish or invertebrates hiding in the mud.

Little egrets were rare vagrants to Britain for many decades, following widespread persecution as a consequence of the Victorian trade in their feathers. During the breeding season, adult little egrets have two, sometimes three, long plumes on their crown and they also sport elongated feathers elsewhere on the body, most notably on the chest and back. It is these feathers that were prized by the Victorians. Between 1952 and 1988, there were just 26 records of this species from Norfolk, with most thought to be spring migrants that had overshot their European breeding grounds. Then, suddenly in 1989, there was an unprecedented influx, though only three of the 120 or so that arrived made it to Norfolk. Over the following years, breeding was noted at sites along the south coast of England and the population started to expand rapidly in both size and distribution. With increasing numbers of little egrets being seen in Norfolk and with the establishment of regular roost sites at Holkham and Titchwell, it was clear that breeding would soon take place within the county. In summer 2002, breeding did occur at two sites, with eight pairs producing 19 young. Last year, 2004, some 55 pairs were thought to have produced 152 young – a staggering increase in such a short space of time.

Given the recent success of the little egret, it is fitting to see it feature on the cover of the recently published Norfolk Bird & Mammal Report for 2004, which, incidentally, contains an article on the species by Ron Harold and Andrew Bloomfield. It also features on the cover of the Wetland Bird Survey Report for 2003/04, published annually by the British Trust for Ornithology, the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, RSPB and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. The Wetland Bird Survey is the national monitoring scheme for non-breeding waterbirds (such as waders, ducks, geese, grebes and herons) and, with annual count information going back to 1966, it has been an invaluable tool for charting the increases and decreases of our various waterbird species, including the sudden rise of Norfolk’s little egrets.

Monday, 12 December 2005

The Woodcock moon

It was bitterly cold the other morning as I drove the dogs out to the forest. Still dark, the headlights of the car picked out the distinctive squat shape of a woodcock settled in the middle of a quiet forest road. I brought the car to a gentle stop some twenty feet or so from the bird. Dazzled by the headlights, the woodcock remained motionless, affording me the opportunity to admire what is surely the most handsome of our wading birds. It’s head, back and wings are camouflaged by a mottle of browns and greys, while broken horizontal bars cross its paler chest. As I dipped the lights, the bird was up in the air and gone. This had not been my only view of this species over recent weeks. On other mornings I had seen the distinctive silhouette of a woodcock set against the dawn sky.

This highly secretive species is somewhat unusual for a wading bird. Active at night and most readily seen around dawn and dusk, it is adapted for a life predominantly spent within broad-leaved woodland. Here, in the south-western part of Norfolk, the woodcock can be found breeding and wintering in young conifer plantations, moving out into the surrounding pastureland to feed on earthworms and other soil-living invertebrates taken from the surface and top layers of the soil. The bird uses its long and highly sensitive bill to probe for prey.

Although the woodcock which breed here in summer are thought to be largely sedentary in their habits, birds from further north are migratory, with many thousands arriving to spend the winter here. Those birds that arrive in Norfolk from the second half of October will have come from Finland, Latvia and Russia. Such arrivals may continue into late December but go largely unnoticed because they arrive at night. Tradition has it that they all arrive together, some time around all hallows, following a change in the wind direction and close to a full moon. While it appears that a northerly or north-easterly wind is associated with the arrival of these winter visitors, there does not seem to be any evidence that the phase of the moon exerts an influence. However, such is the strength of this tradition that wildfowlers may refer to autumn full moons as ‘woodcock moons’. It is not just with the moon that the woodcock has been associated. The ease with which woodcock could be caught, typically by erecting nets at dawn or dusk across rides cut into a block of woodland, led to the notion that the species was rather stupid. This, in turn, led to the use of the term ‘woodcock’ as a synonym for slow-wittedness in a person – a harsh association for such a handsome bird.