Woodland Wading

You are almost certain to disturb several woodcock as you step round our wood in the winter. These birds are waders but probe their long beaks into the soft soil of the woodland floor rather into the muddy waters of a foreshore like most waders. They breed in Finland and Russia and then fly all the way here in the autumn to take advantage of our milder winter where the ground will not be frozen hard for long periods of time.

The first woodcock arrived back here on 30th October this year. They are mostly nocturnal and it’s always a nice surprise to glimpse one in the daylight
The eye is positioned close to the top of the head to give the bird 360° vision

We do have the odd bit of snow and frost ourselves of course, but nothing like Finland and Russia do. Here is a woodcock in our wood during a cold snap in February 2021:

I love that snowy beak

In the UK around 160,000 woodcock are shot each year for recreational purposes, the shooting season running from 1st October to 31st January. But since the influx of migrant woodcock doesn’t happen until November, any bird shot at the beginning of the season will inevitably be one of our fast-declining resident woodcocks. Wild Justice, an organisation that campaigns for wildlife through the courts, has a petition running, asking to simply delay the start of the woodcock shooting season to 1st December in order to protect our resident birds. The petition currently has 57,000 signatures: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/619615

Prior to our ownership, there was a winter shoot in the wood but thankfully those days are gone and now these birds find sanctuary here after their long and arduous journey.

These next photos are not great quality because of fogging on the camera lens, but they earn their place because they provide a tantalising glimpse of an elusive animal that is only rarely seen in the wood:

The photos might be poor but you can still make out the distinctive black and white facial mask and white ear tips of a polecat or a polecat-ferret hybrid – identification between the two is often tricky and requires DNA analysis. Ferrets are domesticated polecats but there is a feral population of them living in the wild. These wild ferrets can then breed with polecats resulting in hybrids between the two – it’s a complicated situation.

The more white fur there is on the face and body, the more likely it is to be a polecat-ferret hybrid. But this animal seen in the wood this week doesn’t have that much white and neither did the one we saw in 2020:

Photo from August 2020

By 1915 polecats were nearly, but not quite, exterminated throughout Great Britain because of habitat fragmentation, persecution from game keepers and being killed for their fur. They are now protected by law and in recent years have been spreading out from the areas where they had managed to retain a foothold. In summer rabbits are their major food source, the polecats being slim enough to chase them down their burrows. In winter they switch to rats but do also eat birds and frogs. The size of their territory varies, depending on food availability in the area, but can be up to 500 hectares for a male and 375 hectares for a female – and so perhaps it is not that surprising that we don’t often see them in our 4.5 hectare wood.

I always thought that owls do not like getting wet because their soft feathers are not very waterproof. Nobody has mentioned this to the tawnies of the wood though and they continue to come and bathe every night in this pond even though the weather is now far from hot:

A wet owl

A tawny has been photographed this week looking up at the owl box in an interested way. Perhaps this is wishful thinking, though, because I am really hoping that they decide to nest in that box again next year:

Winter is the time to work in the wood and we have decided to kick off this year with the thinning of an area that lies adjacent to our prime dormouse habitat. But the trees here have been so densely planted that there is no undergrowth to provide food and shelter for dormice. We want to improve the habitat for them and allow some light in to hit the woodland floor:

The before photo. All nice trees but too many of them

After two sessions of working on this – both in the rain, by the way – three large trees and several smaller ones have been cut down and the brash dragged off to make dead hedges along the wood boundary. There is already a gratifying difference although I’m not sure this photo really does that justice. There is a lot more light coming in:

Still a work in progress with several more trees earmarked for removal before we can declare this job done. It will take a few years for undergrowth to establish itself here, but eventually we hope the dormice will be tempted to use this area too

On one of the last golden days of October, I got the moth trap out of the shed, washed it down and ran it for the first time this year. So very late to the party, I had hoped to get a small scattering of iconic autumnal moths to get to grips with, refreshing some of what I know and making it easier to start moth trapping again in earnest next spring.

But there were hundreds of moths awaiting me in the trap the next morning, a lot of them seemingly with few distinguishing features. I was very rusty, having not trapped all year, and had somewhat forgotten how frustrating identifying moths can be. There were many more moths than I had the time to properly identify and I’m afraid that I did end up cherry-picking the easier ones.

Even so, I thoroughly enjoyed myself and will definitely be back mothing as it starts to warm up again next year.

Here are two of the many common late-flying species that I found in the trap:

The green-brindled crescent flies from September to November and has patches of metallic green scales, looking very much like a smattering of lichen
This feathered thorn is a large, late-flying moth and is easy to identify with those diagnostic white spots and conspicuous cross-lines
This angle shades moth was roosting up on a pine tree one morning. It did look rather obvious there – I wonder if it survived the day?

November has now rolled in, bringing with it an abrupt change in weather. It has been very wet indeed although it feels wrong to complain about this after months of longing for rain earlier this year.

Our local white cliffs in a brief interlude between downpours

The ponds are now refilled:

I have been bringing tender plants into the greenhouse for the winter. The greenhouse would need to be very much bigger to get everything in that I would ideally want – the rest will have to have a thick mulch of compost and then take their chances out there until the spring.

I was interested to see this sparrowhawk resting its long leg on the gate…

..because we have seen a sparrowhawk in this same posture before. Perhaps it’s something that sparrowhawks like to do – practising their death grip perhaps:

Photo from July 2021

I finish this week with the story of the honeybees. This year we have had a colony of wild honeybees nesting in a little owl box. Throughout the summer there was a lot of activity:

Then, in September, a swarm left the box and hung in a nearby tree for several hours whilst scouts went out to find a new home for it to move to:

The cone-shaped swarm

The other half of the colony remained in the little owl box and carried on as before. But now that we are in November the activity at the box has dramatically decreased.

I wanted to know what will be going on in the box over the winter. and did some research. Unlike wasps, a honeybee colony is perennial and will try to survive the winter. Special ‘winterised’ worker bees with a higher fat content in their bodies will stay in the box forming a cluster around the queen to keep her warm. The cluster moves slowly around the box consuming their stores of honey for food and shivering their muscles to keep warm. If it is a particularly cold winter, or if their honey stores are insufficient, or if they have become parasitised by mites, then the colony might die off before spring. Indeed, many colonies do not make it through winter and I worry that the position of the little owl box is very exposed to the bitter north-easterly winds that blow in off the North Sea here for days at a time.

A single honeybee crawls into the box

It will be interesting to see if the shivering little cluster does make it through to next spring and what the next chapter of this honeybee story holds.

2 thoughts on “Woodland Wading

  1. So glad your woodland is a little sanctuary for so many species. I had no idea that there is a shooting season for Woodcock, what a stupid thing. I have signed the petition. Love the photo of your dog and the White Cliffs. X

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