Although I regularly enjoy a walk in the wood- under the pretence of exercising my dog- I do not frequent it every day, other activities can get in the way! There can be gaps of a few days during which, at this time of year, loads can happen. For example, I was part of a group nature ramble in early March when, after the gales and rain of sequential storms, we were lucky to have bright sunshine, blue skies and not a breath of wind, ideal conditions for looking at the resident birds. I say resident as the summer visitors had not yet arrived so we enjoyed the singing tits, squeaking goldcrests and noisy nuthatches whilst overhead buzzards soared. We spotted a single flowering wood anemone poking through the leafy carpet covering the woodland floor. We did not hear or see a single chiff-chaff and yet, three days later, there were loads about, calling with their familiar ditty from high up in the trees. Down below there was a swathe of white flowers with purple tints announcing that the wood anemones were now out and ready to impress. It is a busy time of year with new arrivals and rapid growth. The level of birdsong goes up a notch every day- there is a mistle thrush who sings from the very top of a larch tree in the middle of the wood. His voice carries well from that vantage point whilst the song thrushes demonstrate their superior quality of sound from slightly lower branches. Before long they will be joined by the willow warblers and blackcaps providing a wonderful musical accompaniment to the spectacle of the bluebells. It really is a good time to be out. My dog is sure that there have been plenty of new whiffs and smells so she too is keen for another walk in our local woods.
The woods are rarely silent! At times there is the background roar of the wind as it buffets the tree-tops, sheltering us down below from the worst of the elements. As the inclement weather passes the birdsong re-ignites as the male great tits and blue tits compete to be the most noticeable by potential mates. Their songs remind us that spring is around the corner. If this year follows the pattern of all the other preceding years, they will soon be joined by the multiple calls of the summer migrants. As these arrive they fill the air with fancy warbles and trills which our native birds tend not bother with. I look forward to the symphony of bird music but there is some uncertainty and competitiveness- who will hear the first chiff-chaff? Will it be in early/mid or late March? Might it sing a different tune? – (unlikely after all these years!) Will there be a significant delay before the willow warblers are heard too? The anticipation adds to the pleasure! As they arrive we will say “goodbye” to the few winter visitors we have had to stay. Some years we have enjoyed hundreds if not thousands of siskin and redpolls but this winter they have hardly been seen. But right now it is not too late to check the woods to see if any are passing through. I need to grab my hat and coat in order to take the dog out to see for myself. She is always ready for a walk so she is prepared to go- look! …..she has her coat on already!
With bravado the intrepid travellers planned their usual monthly outing, ready to face ice, snow and January blizzards in order to be outside to admire nature’s wonders. However, as the morning of the meeting arrived, we realised that it would be more of a case of coping with mud and the puddles underfoot!
Above boot level the conditions were ideal- bright winter sunshine cascading through the trees with a blue sky above and no wind-perfect weather for enjoying the birds, trees and mosses. We set ourselves a possibly foolish target of seeing a tree-creeper, birds easily missed because they make little sound as they ascend the trunks looking for invertebrates and creepy- crawlies to eat. On entering the wood gate we were serenaded beautifully by a robin, singing in the sun from only a few feet away. Underneath his vantage point some hazel catkins were fully out, hanging like lamb’s tails, releasing their pollen to the air. We heard Jays calling from a distance – the unmusical sounds helped us to spot them through the branches. A little later we had splendid views of one as it fed at one of the Friends of Bourne Woods bird tables. There were plenty of blue tits, great tits and coal tits about, making delightful contact calls as they kept up with their friends as they looked for food. We spied woodpeckers (greater spotted) high in the tree tops though surprisingly they were not drumming that day, despite the good weather. Leaving the larger paths behind to follow some of the smaller tracks we soon found ourselves in a different world where badgers went about their business and the mosses grew undisturbed. Bluebells poked their first leaves through the carpet of fallen leaves. We thoroughly enjoyed the walk together, occasionally sharing tales of mutual interest. We decided over coffee later that it had been a good trip. And “did we see a tree-creeper?” you may ask……. Well we did!…. Indeed we saw two! They were relatively close so we had good views and were able to compare their colours and habits with a nuthatch which appeared on a neighbouring tree.
My dog would like to report that she had a good trip as well – indeed it was better than usual as the number in our group meant that she had plenty of fuss!
I do not know where time goes to nowadays! By the time you read this the shortest day will have passed and the daylength is getting longer- hooray! In the woods too the sunlight is becoming brighter and stronger especially when we have a break in the clouds. Most of the leaves have fallen so the canopy is less dense, allowing the sunbeams to shine on the lower levels. When the rays hit the tree trunks at an oblique angle one can wonder at the patterns of nature demonstrated by the ridges of the tree bark. The furrows of the ash and oak are deeper than those of the beech trees, helping us to distinguish between the species. Despite the loss of chlorophyll from the leaves, the colours of the wood remain vibrant with brilliant greens complimenting the remains of the autumnal browns, browns and coppers. The most verdant colour may be the mosses cloaking the bases of the tree trunks, often thicker on the northern side. Look closely and we can see the small spore forming growths which can look like golf clubs. The mosses appear to have a golden halo when backlit by the low winter sun, the soft thick blanket suitable for a bed for the fairies of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Elsewhere the ferns too are still looking very much alive. In the late spring I occasionally have difficulty differentiating bracken from fern but it is easier at this time of year. Although some of the bracken is still green it looks faded compared with the strong growth of the ferns which looks like suitable fodder for dinosaurs- as it probably was!
The birdsong is also becoming more apparent- nuthatches calling loudly as they go about their business whilst the ravens call from overhead as they prepare to nest- one of the earliest species to do so. The early bird may catch the worm whilst those looking for nesting sites may be best placed to choose the premium spots. My dog too is good at selecting places to rest in, her favourite being a spot in front of a fire spread out on a luxury carpet!
Nature Notes wishes all readers a happy and prosperous New Year, perhaps celebrated by a rewarding walk or trip to enjoy the wonderful natural sights to be enjoyed in our local woods!
We have had a lot of wet weather in recent weeks but between the showers we can enjoy the dry rain of the larch needles as they fall and cover the ground with a golden carpet. In the sunshine the colour is as rich as newly minted pirate’s pieces of eight, transforming the paths into magical avenues leading us to different lands of kings and dragons. Occasionally squirrels and Jays land on the branches and there is then a cascade adding to the layers underfoot. There can be a sense of quiet activity as the woodland creatures go about their business. At other times there are commotions when larger birds arrive such as the buzzards which have bred locally. They are such large birds with a wingspan approaching two metres one wonders how they fly between the trees so effortlessly. When seen close to they really are magnificent! When the sun is shining and the sky is blue it is a marvellous place to walk. However, when the light is fading and dusk falls, the atmosphere is subdued as silence descends on the wood. The birds which chattered to each other earlier as they passed through the trees settle down early. They like to be in their nooks and crannies which they share with their friends to keep warm. My dog likes to be in her bed too – but even better is stretched out on the rug in front of the fire -it is a tough life being a dog in our house!
We are so lucky to have such variation in the British weather! It may not seem so fortunate when we have a run of wet and dreary days but before long they clear and we have some sunshine again. Last month I wrote that we had enjoyed a dry spell, but this month I can say that we have endured if not enjoyed the rain! The woods reflect such changes- the undergrowth seems vibrant again and the small streams descending the gentle downhill slopes of the dykes gurgle and chuckle as they head towards bigger waterways.
The hedgerows are decorated with the bright red berries of the hawthorn bushes whilst the rose hips tend to have a deeper hue. They intermingle with the dark glistening sloe berries, ripe and ready for collection by foragers. There are still some flowers to remind us of those summer days- on my most recent stroll I found some honeysuckle blooms still in full show, exuding their fantastic scents. The autumn fungi are shooting up, encouraged by the damp. I spotted some which I thought were yellow “fairy clubs” (Clavaria corniculata) growing at ground level. They were such a vibrant colour they looked as if they had come straight out of Van Gogh’s paint box! I do not know why they are called fairy clubs- I like to think that fairies take them to their night clubs as decorations rather than them being weapons of violence! It was quite a large patch and one wonders at the marvels of nature, how they seem to just appear from nothing, the mycelium being hidden under the ground. The cobweb strands are so delicate one never knows they are there. This is in contrast to my dog whose presence I feel as she is never far away. She seems to like my company and usually walks a few steps in front of or behind me. That is until she picks up a scent of a Muntjac in which case she takes a small detour- I rarely follow her through the undergrowth on my hands and knees!
One of my neighbours has a large Virginia Creeper covering the side of his fence which looks absolutely splendid this time of year. It presents a wall of colour progressing from the deepest purple to the brightest of crimson. It is a joy to behold but the woods have their own equivalent display in the form of the American Oak. It too has a spectrum of reds, yellows and coppers which contrast so well with the surrounding trees. Elsewhere in the woods the most dominating colour is green although the bracken is beginning to turn and some of the larch is adopting a brownish hue- in preparation for their golden cascades. We have enjoyed some glorious weather in September but the drier conditions may precipitate an early leaf fall. Currently the autumnal sunbeams have to look for a space in the canopy to penetrate and then reward us with contrasting light and shadows. The rays occasionally highlight those delicate threads of the spiders as they are caught by the gentle breeze. Almost impossible to see as you walk along unless you look towards the light- the gossamer strings are then revealed.
Groups of tiny birds are still moving through the branches, keeping contact with their friends and relatives as they feed. I particularly like the long-tailed tits which look so elegant as they swoop between the twigs. They may be joined by chiff-chaffs who are feeding up, ready for their long journey south (for most) as well as the other members of the tit family including the blue tits, great tits, coal tits and marsh tits. All together they present such a busy happy sound which I really ought to bring to the attention of my dog. Alas she is not listening very attentively to them, preferring the distant howl of some other canine friend!
It was a blustery day but the woods offered me protection from the swirling winds as I entered through the gate. The sense of peace and calm was immediate, although the noise of the gusts hitting the canopy quickly reminded me of the conditions outside. The sheltered corners enabled a few speckled wood butterflies to be on the wing, although it seemed that they did not want to travel too far lest they were transported to distant lands!
The woods now have a late summer feeling with leaf green being the predominant colour. The lighter vibrant greens associated with new growth are less obvious although they were clearly represented by the delicate coverings of the developing hazelnuts. Usually the squirrels get to these first by skipping through the branches above our heads but this time the wind had harvested the seeds early with many carpeting the woodland floor. I am pretty sure that the squirrels will not go hungry- there are plenty of other edible delights developing, including cascades of blackberries and large tresses of guelder rose berries high above the paths. These currently have a pinkish hue but will turn a deep red soon which makes them look very attractive, competing with holly berries to adorn our Christmas cards.
Beneath them, lining the grassy rides are a multitude of wildflowers of all colours. The complicated purple flower heads of the knapweed and thistles provide 5 star a la carte dining to the hoverflies and skippers. Their colours are complemented by the bright yellows of the st johns wort, vetchlings and buttercups. The yellow loosestrife flowers are particularly bright and cheerful- being at eye height makes them easier for me to admire their delicate petals. Of course they are too tall for my dog but she is content to look for and then paddle in those deep puddles left after the rain!
We had planned to drive to another local patch but it was such a beautiful morning we decided to do our bit for the environment and have a potter around the woods almost on our doorstep, thereby reducing our contribution to air pollutants. We were not disappointed with our decision, the sun was warm and there was no significant wind so butterflies were on the wing. Perhaps the most numerous were the ringlets- which I think is a pretty name for one of our less colourful varieties. It conjures up images of Jane Austin going to a ball in a demure yet stunning gown with her hair tied up in curls. At first sight our ringlets seem plain but, like most things, look more closely and admire the delicate white trim which edges the wing. On the underside we noted the prominent “eye spots”. The pattern of these is distinctive with a “missing” ring where number 4 should be so we have a line of three with a gap followed by another two. They are all like this- I really do not know why but it adds to life’s mysteries. We spotted several other species including commas, skippers and admirals. The orange of the commas was particularly vibrant glowing in the summer sun, yet another glory to enjoy.
We heard several families of tits moving through the canopy as the young keep in contact with the adults. There was also a family of nuthatches chatting to each other as they searched for their lunch, the fledglings seeming to have a similar though less strong call as the parents. We stopped to look at the wayside wildflowers but were distracted by the forceful presence of a large dragonfly. It appeared to be really big and powerful as it patrolled its patch and yet it virtually disappeared on landing, almost melting into the background with superb camouflage. I am not an expert but I wonder if it was a Brown Hawker as it was indeed brown! Like all dragonflies it has six legs but does not walk!
Satisfied again with sampling some of the remarkable wildlife in our local woods we set off to return home- somewhat to the disappointment of my dog who seemed to say that there were even more exciting things to find further along the path where she had spotted some of her friends!
The weather forecasters predicted rain so we set off promptly, wondering what treasures the woods would reveal. The first was a fresh Speckled Wood butterfly, basking on a bramble leaf in the hazy sunshine. We thought that it was likely to be a second brood as the earlier specimens are now looking past their best. Another Speckled Wood passed by so our insect rose to meet it, dancing together in the glade. It may have been a female leading to a courting ritual but it was more likely to be a male as there appeared to be a battle of supremacy their flight paths twisting around each other like a Celtic pattern. More erratic than the red arrows but with masterful aerodynamic skills there were no apparent collisions! We are lucky to be able to enjoy the beauty of these butterflies. Other areas report a decline of their numbers but they still appear to be plentiful locally.