Saturday, 31 January 2015

Snowy Whiteleaf Hill

The snow this morning caused great excitement in our house, until it turned to rain! No snowmen being built this morning, but the cross on Whiteleaf Hill looks lovely.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

What a view!

I can't think of any better view to have from our back door!

Whistlejacket is still whistling all day, but now he has a friend. Fingers crossed for the pitter patter of fluffy grey red kite chicks ....

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Why I love the Chilterns!

There are many reasons that I love the Chilterns, but mostly it's the orchids, fungi, butterflies, red kites, roman snails and beech trees. These were all covered in a great talk that I attended last night about the changing wildlife of the Chilterns. It was organised by the Chiltern Society and the speaker was John Tyler, who also leads glowworm walks on Brush Hill in the summer.

These are a few of the interesting things that were covered in the talk and are exactly why the Chilterns are such a wonderful place to explore:
  • Chalk grassland is one of the richest habitats in the entire country. It’s said that if you count the species of plants in a square meter of chalk grassland, you’ll find more species than any other habitat in Britain.

  • The Chilterns are one of the best areas in the country for orchids. Some love the chalk grassland and others grow in the beech woodland. Some are quite widespread, like the Common Spotted Orchid and the Pyramidal Orchid and others are extremely rare. The Military orchid is found in only 3 sites in the country and 2 of those are in the Chilterns.
Common spotted orchid
    Pyramidal Orchids
  • Red kites have been reintroduced to the Chilterns and are now thriving. Some people love them whereas others are worried about their impact on other wildlife. There were concerns that they would compete with buzzards for carrion, but in fact the number of buzzards in the Chilterns has increased as the number of red kites has increased.

    I'm firmly in the 'love them' camp, but you probably already know that if you've read this blog before!
  • The day flying moth called the 6 spot burnet (or the 6 spot Bernard, as Bug Mad Girl calls it) can fly around in broad daylight and not worry about predators as it is thought to be the most dangerous animal in Britain! One moth contains enough cyanide to kill 3 men.
  • Glowworms are declining all over the country, including the Chilterns. The females glow to attract the males (that can fly). When the eggs hatch, the larvae hunt slugs and snails. Bug Mad Girl and I tried to find some last year, but got a bit scared up on Brush Hill on our own in the dark! I think we'll try and go on one of the organized glowworm walks this summer, with somebody who knows what they're doing!
                              • Juniper has been around since the ice age and is very slow growing, taking 50 years to reach head height. It's still producing berries (as you can see in the photo), but these seem unable to create new seedlings. Nobody is really sure why. It means the Juniper is an aging population and in most sites the youngest bush you will find is at least 60 years old.
                                Juniper berries
                              • Juniper shield bugs were completely dependent on Juniper until about 20 years ago, when they learnt to love cypress. Perhaps they knew the Juniper was in trouble!
                              Baby Juniper shield bugs

                              • Roman snails are Britain's largest snail and were introduced (as the name suggests) by the Romans. In the spring, when it's nice and warm and wet, they come out and do a courtship display. They pair up and have a very slimy kiss and a cuddle, then they do a little dance and rear up for a few seconds and mate. They're both male and female, so will both go off and lay eggs.
                              • Robin’s pincushion is a type of gall. A small wasp lays an egg into the bud of a wild rose, then the egg or larvae irritates the plant and stimulates it to grow into the strange growth. The larvae lives inside, eating the walls of their chamber. In winter the gall dies and the larvae stays inside, then the adults, which all seem to be female, emerge the following year.

                              Robin's pincushion
                              • Beech trees used to be coppiced, where they were cut in the winter and new shoots allowed to grow. Coppiced trees allow much more light into the woodland floor, allowing primroses and heathers to thrive. Then at the end of the 18th / beginning of the 19th century, beech trees were needed for the furniture industry, so many of the coppiced trees were removed and new trees planted that were encouraged to grow tall and straight. These block out a lot more of the light, changing the wildlife in the woodland, in particular the plants that can grow.  
                              Coppiced beech trees at Coombe Hill
                              Straight, tall beech trees at Brush Hill
                              • The roots of the uncoppiced beech trees secrete a substance that kills off its competitors, including plants growing around it. This has had an impact on one of our most endangered and rapidly declining butterflies, the Duke of Burgundy. The females lay their eggs on primrose, which used to do very well under coppised trees but has been largely shaded out under the tall, straight beech trees.
                              • Some plants do very well under the dense shade of the beech trees. The roots of the white helleborine are connected to the roots of a fungus, which in turn are connected to the roots of the beech tree. This allows the plant to extract food out of the tree, through the fungus, so it can grow with virtually no sunlight. The flower of the fly orchid looks like a type of solitary wasp and produces a scent like the female wasp. The males then try to mate with the flower and inadvertently get the pollen stuck to their heads, which they then transfer to another plant when they make the same mistake again. This method of pollination only works because the female wasp emerges 2 weeks after the male, giving the orchid a small window of opportunity before the real female wasps are around and the males give up on the orchids.
                              • Beech woodland is some of the best habitat for fungi. Some aren't too fussy and will grow in many places, such as the Magpie Ink Cap. Others are very specific and will only grow in beech woodland or on specific parts of a beech tree. The Saffrondrop Bonnet will only grow on the fallen twigs of the beech tree and the Porcelain fungus grows on the trunk and branches of beech trees. 

                                The false death cap grows in beech woodland, but is best avoided in case you mix it up with a real death cap. If you eat a death cap, it will make you feel incredibly ill for about three days, then just as you start to feel better, you drop down dead because it's eaten away at your liver!
                              Magpie ink cap - Some people consider this
                              fungi edible, but it's supposed to taste like a
                              cross between creosote and mothballs!
                              Saffrondrop Bonnet
                              Porcelain Fungus - It has a sticky layer on the top of the cap
                              to protect it from the sun.
                              • The flint found all over the Chilterns was created 100 million years ago when the Chilterns were under a warm tropical sea. Small sponges died, their skeletons dissolved and the silica formed around the dead sponge making a case around it. If you find an unopened flint (looks like a hens egg with a hole in the end), crack it open and a perfectly preserved sponge could be inside. You'll be the first person to ever see that sponge and the last time it saw daylight there were dinosaurs walking around!
                              • Wooly mammoths used to be found in the Chilterns. They were about 8' tall and had a 3' long shaggy coat that they moulted every spring. It means there must have been wooly mammoth hair everywhere!
                               Thanks for such as interesting talk. Keep up the good work, Chiltern Society!

                              Computer says no!

                              The wise owls on the RSPB forum have decided our big black bird is in fact ... a carrion crow and not a raven. Wrong nasal feathers and the bill isn't long or thick enough, apparently. She (no idea if it's male or female) is still a whopper though and seems to like sitting at the end of our garden, so could be fun to watch. We're calling her Rowena Ravencrow, the crow that wasn't quite a raven!

                              I've scrapped my plans to rename our house the "White Tower" and I won't now be remodeling the garden using a Tower Green theme! Probably all for the best!

                              Whilst I'm on crows, I saw this one (not Rowena Ravencrow, as it's not big enough) early yesterday morning in a tree across the road. It was fanning out it's tail and bobbing up and down, whilst letting out a lovely loud crowy "caww", before pausing and doing it all again. Looked lovely dancing up and down against the dawn sky. I pity the poor person that has their bedroom window next to that tree though as it was having a lovely time and was making quite a racket.

                              Tuesday, 27 January 2015

                              The return of the raven, or is it just a massive crow?

                              The big black bird was back again yesterday, sat in the same tree in the field at the end of the garden. This time it let me get much closer to get some more photos. In fact it didn't seem to care at all that I was there.


                              I still think it's too big to be a crow, but I can't quite believe it's a raven as they're so unusual around here. I've asked the RSPB what they think, so I'll let you know if I hear back from them.

                              Sunday, 25 January 2015

                              Big Pulpit Hill Birdwatch

                              We decided to take a walk up to the hill fort on Pulpit Hill and count the birds up there (in the spirit of the Big Garden Birdwatch). We counted anything that was flying, regardless of whether it landed or not and what a brilliant morning! Not only had I seen my first raven in the garden earlier that morning, but we saw two more flying overhead while we were out walking. But more of that later ...

                              As soon as we got out of the car we started seeing birds, including a fieldfare, jay, great tits, long-tailed tits, a chaffinch and a robin. We started the steep climb up the hill to the top and all the birds just seemed to disappear, so we admired the lovely trees instead! The birds seemed to prefer the edges of the woods and the open grassland.

                              Up at the top there was ice in the puddles. We headed into the hill fort, but still no sign of any birds, until we spotted some crows shouting at each other. We sat on the giant squid and watched, but not much was happening, so we went for a look around within the raised hill fort.

                              The giant squid we discovered on a previous very foggy trip to the hill fort

                              Icy puddle
                              The Batchelor's Buttons we'd found in the autumn were still there, but looked a bit 'old'. We also spotted some Oyster Mushrooms growing on a tree trunk.

                              Batchelor's Buttons

                              Oyster Mushrooms
                              There was lots of moss growing on the tree stumps and wood sorrel was staring to grow through the leaf litter.

                              wood sorrel
                              From the hill fort, you can see down through the trees to Grangelands below. It's an amazing chalk grassland site that's a brilliant spot for butterflies and wildflowers, especially orchids, later in the year. We decided to take the slightly scary, very steep path down the hill to take a look.
                              Looking down on Grangelands from the hill fort
                              As we slithered down the slope, a couple of pheasants crashed out of the trees and flew away, a blue tit flitted about above us and a pigeon sat and watched us.

                              Safely down the slope, we were very glad we'd gone down there. The red kites were flying around, a kestrel was hovering above us and then two ravens flew past. They were a similar size to the red kites and were making a very distinctive call, very different to the call I'd heard this morning, it was more like a gurgling sort of noise. They headed off towards the woods that we'd just come from.

                              At the bottom of the slope, with Grangelands in front of us

                              A kestrel hovered overhead
                              The red kites were flying all around us
                              Red Kite
                              a raven
                              We walked across the grassland to make our way back to the car. There was quite a lot of Great Mullein around - I'll look out for Dark Mullein in the summer and see if I can find any Striped Lychnis moth caterpillars. We also spotted lots of seagulls in a nearby field - must be stormy on the coast as we only see them this far in land when the weather's bad.
                              Mullein - probably Great Mullein
                              There were a few marked off areas, that looked like scrapes, where the soil is scraped right back to the bare chalk. Some types of wildflowers need chalk to grow on, so I suspect they're there to help them to thrive. Will take a look in the summer and see what's growing on them.
                              Looks like a scrape, marked with black posts on each corner
                              Walking back through the woods we found a large clump of heart's-tongue fern growing. It was on a slope, but in a damp, soggy part of the wood. I suspect it was the perfect place for it, as this was the only large patch of it that we saw (everywhere else it was growing as individual plants).

                              Heart's-tongue ferns
                              So our bird counts for Pulpit Hill and Grangelands were 1 jay, 1 fieldfare, 1 chaffinch, 3 long-tailed tits, 1 robin, 2 great tits, 13 crows, 1 pigeon, 5 red kites, 2 pheasants, 1 blue tit, 1 blackbird, 15 seagulls, 1 kestrel and 2 ravens.

                              What a fabulous, raveny sort of a day!!

                              A raven in the garden?

                              I was making breakfast this morning when I noticed an enormous black bird in a tree just outside the garden. It was far bigger than a crow or a rook - they sit around in the trees all the time. It was it's size that first caught my attention, similar to a red kite sat in a tree, so I grabbed the camera and crept outside to get a better look.

                              It was sat there calling to a second one that I could hear calling back, but couldn't see. It seemed quite confident and wasn't worried about me being there at a distance. It only flew away when I moved a bit too close. It's call sounded a bit like a crows, but louder and harsher.

                              There are supposed to be a few ravens around here, but they're pretty uncommon and I've never seen a wild one before. Does anybody know if that is a raven? If not, I guess it must have been a massive crow, but I hope it was a raven!

                              Saturday, 24 January 2015

                              RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch

                              This weekend was the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch, where you spend an hour counting the birds in the garden, then report your findings to the RSPB. It was cold and sunny this morning so Bug Mad Girl and I stocked up the feeders and counted the birds. We counted 50 birds, of 14 species, plus 1 squirrel! Most of our regular visitors made an appearance, but we had one big surprise!

                              Our totals were:
                              • 1 green woodpecker: It's only the second time we've seen one in the garden, so it was very exciting to see one in a tree. It only stayed there for about 30 seconds and a Buddleia bush was in the way, so the photo is horribly out of focus I'm afraid. There's no mistaking what it was though!

                              • 7 starlings
                              • 1 rook
                              • 8 jackdaws

                              • 2 magpies

                              • 4 chaffinches

                              • 2 blue tits
                              • 2 robins

                              • 1 blackcap: no sign of the male today

                              • 2 blackbirds: We've decided to call them Brenda and Eric. Brenda is still having a lot of trouble with the starlings and Eric has taken to guarding the second bird table that's further down the garden. He sits on the fence then chases any birds away that land on it.
                              Eric checking for unwelcome visitors through a hole in the roof
                              Brenda really doesn't like starlings!
                              •  12 house sparrows
                              • 2 dunnocks
                              • 5 woodpigeons
                              • 1 red kite: Whistlejacket was sat in his tree. A seagull flew past and he got very upset about it!

                              • 1 squirrel

                              No sign of any long-tailed tits, the male blackcap or goldfinches today, but still lots of birds to report.