The Secret Life of a Wood

In the centre of the wood, there is a stand of mature silver birch:

With its understorey of thorny bramble, we don’t often venture into this section, but it’s worth stopping from time to time to admire the beautiful trees from its margins. For the last few weeks there has been very little rain and we noticed that the leaves of the bramble have become covered with a lot of white splatters:

We only ever visit by day, but came to suspect that perhaps the wood has a secret nightlife about which we knew nothing.

In a bid to find out more of what is going on, we arrived at the wood half an hour before dusk one evening and set up a viewing station at the edge of the silver birch, complete with blankets, binoculars and a bottle of wine – no reason why this detective work shouldn’t be enjoyable, and it was a Saturday night after all.

Our ramshackle temporary encampment

Then we waited and drank our Australian shiraz as the light slowly faded and the wood peacefully wound down for the night. A few woodpigeon came in and then clapped their wings noisily as they flew off when they spotted us. The wondrous song of a thrush off to the side kept us enthralled and in the distance we heard pheasant calling, presumably soon to fly up into the low branches to roost.

The silver birch grove starting to slide into the gathering dusk
All is quiet and not a bird to be seen

But then it all started kicking off as a number of crows arrived and circled the trees, very large and black against the fading blue sky. They were soon joined by many other groups coming in from all directions and then we were in the midst of a raucous but tremendously atmospheric winter crow roost. For half an hour there was so much noise and activity – the loud cawing of the arriving birds changing into a shorter, sharper but equally loud chuck-chuck call once they landed. There must have been several hundred gathered by the time darkness finally fell completely and the birds settled. A male tawny owl started hooting behind us for good measure.

I love to think of the wood providing a safe space for these birds. They converge each night from far and wide to share information, find a mate and be safer from predators in their larger group. But this is mainly a winter phenomenon – as the nesting season starts, the territory-holding crows will spend the night at their nests instead and the number in the communal roost will fall.

The trail cameras down at ground level have never given me a suggestion that there was a large number of crows gathering nightly in the treetops above them. A pair did put in a cameo appearance though this week:

And what a magnificent bird this buzzard is:

Unusual to see redpoll on the cameras:

Over in the meadows, the frog spawning season is upon us and the males are gathered together in the wild pond with their white throats and big smiles awaiting the females:

The thumbs of the male are short and stumpy and often burgundy-coloured

They favour the reedy shallows of the pond and here can be found a broiling mass of male frog, all clambering over each other in an attempt to get themselves into pole position to greet any arriving female.

But a lot of the frogs had melted away into the depths as we approached in the dark with our torches. This next photo taken by a trail camera on time lapse gives a better idea of quite how many male frogs are here:

Many of the males hibernate at the bottom of the pond over winter so that they are in precisely the right place at the right time

A low continuous croaking emanates from the pond at spawning time:

A frog with his cheeks puffed out as he croaks

When a female does turn up, she is quickly claimed by a suitor who hangs on for dear life with those especially adapted thumbs. The male is now in prime position to release his sperm over the spawn once the female lays it.

The larger female is round with spawn and doesn’t have a white throat. Her thumbs also look the same as the rest of her fingers

This year, once again, the spawn has been laid in very shallow water at the wild pond – we are going to have to move it if it looks like the area might dry out before the tadpoles are strong enough to swim into deeper water:

The hide pond doesn’t have weedy shallows and the frogs don’t like it, but it is packed full of smooth newts who have also now emerged from hibernation:

Four female newts with abdomens rotund with eggs. A spotty male lurks in the depths

The first ringing session of the year got underway in the meadows this week. John and John were hoping to catch some of the yellowhammer that been seen on the cameras, but they weren’t lucky this time. They were, however, pleased to see a firecrest and several linnet in their nets:

Female firecrest with no flash of bright orange fire in her crest feathers
Female linnet
Another female linnet
Four of the yellowhammer that successfully evaded the ringing net this week

Two weeks into the building works in the garden and the foundations have been dug for the new garage. There was only six inches of soil above the chalk and so they did not have to dig deep in order to get stability for the new building:

A medium-sized whitebeam tree was sadly in the way and has had to go, although we are using every part of it as new wildlife features in the meadows:

Very pleased with this dead hedge made from the branches of the whitebeam

Large piles of different grades of soil have built up in the builders compound as a result of the excavations:

In order to improve invertebrate biodiversity, the advice is to create lots of mosaic tiles of different habitats. One of the ways to do this is by building a curved butterfly bank of low nutrient soil. The curve means that the bank faces towards many aspects of the sun and the variable slope creates numerous subtly-different habitats which might appeal to an increased number of species. The low nutrient soil means that grasses are not favoured and flower and seed-rich plants can thrive on the bank.

It seemed a great idea to ask the builders if they would build a butterfly bank for us. It would mean less soil that they had to get removed from site and we would get a fantastic new wildlife feature as well – a win-win.

The start of the butterfly bank project. The first load of the chalk core

All the excavated chalk rock that has been dug up went to form the core of the bank:

Then several dumper truck-loads of the very chalky subsoil was skilfully spread over the core and smoothed out into a fifteen metre long curved bank facing south and southeast:

The result is extremely pleasing and we are looking forward to seeing how it develops over the next few years:

I have scattered some Emorsgate preservation seed mixture EM6F (wildflowers for chalk and limestone soils) along the ridge of the bank. The idea is that the resulting flowers will set seed later this year and the seeds will spread down and naturally colonise the sides of the bank

We have been been enjoying watching the documentary series ‘Warship:Tour of Duty’ on the BBC, which charts the seven-month maiden voyage of HMS Queen Elizabeth, an aircraft carrier, and her entourage of accompanying smaller ships. RFA Tidespring, a replenishment tanker, was on the voyage with her and appears on the programme refuelling the HMS Queen Elizabeth at sea. We remember this ship from when she was at anchor alongside the meadows for several days back in April 2020 when covid first struck. We had such a shock to see her here and have never had a naval vessel anchored alongside before or since:

RFA Tidespring A136 from the meadows in 2020

But this week we were delighted to see HMS Queen Elizabeth herself going past in the distant shipping lane:

I always think that the annual frog spawning spectacle kicks off our wildlife year. Now, an impressive stinking hellebore (new for the meadows) is showing wonderfully, and the blackthorn flowers are just about to open, so it surely can’t be long before we see our first butterfly. March arrives next week and let’s hope that this marks the beginning of spring and that there is not more winter to come.

Stinking hellebore

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