Woodcote Correspondent 2013
The WCG Committee has agreed the schedule for organised events over the coming year, and as with previous years the events fall into two categories:-
Bird Walks have been carried out four times a year, for several years, and by repeating the walks, the Group is building up quite a lot of data regarding the different species that inhabit different areas in and around the village and other species that are occasional visitors at specific times of the year. The walks take place in January, May, July and October. The specific dates of these walks will be published in due course, but if anyone, members or non members, would like to hone their bird watching skills or just like to enjoy a country walk starting at the RC Church in South Stoke Road, they would be very welcome to join in all or any of these walks. There is one further regular bird walk which takes place at dusk in late May or early June to watch the Woodcock roding display to the south east of the village over Common and Bengrove Woods.
The annual Butterfly Walk is scheduled to take place on 6th July at Lardon Chase, a National Trust Reserve site in West Berks overlooking the Goring Gap. Those wishing to take part should meet at the Village Hall Car Park at 14:00 and travel to site is by car.
There are two Bat Evenings scheduled for the coming year, 11 May 2013 and 17 August 2013, when participants walk to various locations around village with a bat detector to record the species observed.
On October 19th there will be another Fungus Foray with the Oxfordshire Fungus Survey.
Following on from the successful talk last year on the history of the Woodcote Common, set in the wider context of the Chiltern Commons, the Group is planning one or two further public talks in 2013.
With the amount of rainfall during 2012 it is not surprising that the ponds around the village are now full to overflowing. During the early part of the 2012, following two very dry winters, the situation was very different.
After the work carried out previously by the WCG, the water levels in both Greenmore Ponds, although low, were of an acceptable level bearing in mind the circumstances at that time. The same could not be said for the Tidmore Pool (adjacent to Tidmore Lane).
It was obvious that because of the drought the amount of water reaching the pool from run off from the surrounding fields had ceased completely. However it also appeared from dowsing and the fact that the bottom of the pool was still damp that at least one other source of water was still intact.
The problem however is that the WCG has, as yet, been unable to identify who owns the pool and until ownership has been established then is not possible to apply for grants from charitable trusts and other grant giving bodies to pay for this work to be carried out.
Therefore in order to help preserve the long term viability of the Tidmore Pool if anyone can assist in tracing the owner or owners could they please make contact with the WCG.
The WCG Winter Bird Walk took place on the morning of 19 January, a grey cold day with some four inches of lying snow which had fallen the day before. As we entered Dean Wood there were a small number of children sledging in the field at the rear of the Catholic Church. When we returned about two hours later the numbers of people sledging had grown considerably. It was a very typical winter scene and one that perhaps we should be grateful for, because whenever there is snow in Woodcote, its elevation, ensures we almost always get more than the surrounding countryside. A NASA picture of frozen Britain shown on WGC Website at the bottom of the home page (http://www.woodcotecg.org.uk/) clearly illustrates this, with the South of England high ground, including the Chilterns and the Berkshire Downs, plus the Goring Gap highlighted by the snow.
The walk itself proved very popular despite the cold, with thirteen individuals (plus one baby) turning up on the day. Twenty two different species were identified; this was five fewer than on the previous Winter Walk. The numbers of winter thrushes (Redwing and Fieldfare) were notably lower than in recent winters (and had been so for some weeks), as were the numbers of gulls. One would hope that this decline does not continue but if one looks at the data recorded on the same walks since 2009 there is a definite trend downwards in the number of sighting (30%) and the number of species identified (20%).
There are however more positive trends too, there is now a sizeable colony of House Sparrows on South Stoke Road, and other species including Blue Tits, Kites and Buzzards are all doing well. If you would like to see more details about the WCG Birds Walks or Woodcote Garden Birdwatch please go the WCG Website Report pages. (http://www.woodcotecg.org.uk/articlesreports). If you are interested in participating in the next (Spring) Bird Walk it takes place on the 4th May.
Are you scared of bats? Well, there really is no reason to be! Contrary to a widespread misconception, only 3 species of bats feed on blood. These species only live in Latin America and even there, they only drink a tablespoon each night, so you can sleep easy in your beds in Woodcote!
So what do you actually know about bats? Did you know that they are the only flying mammals? Well it’s true – they have a thin, elastic wing membrane between their fingers and legs that act as wings and give them the acrobatic flight capacity. They hunt by means of a highly sophisticated system of echolocation, emitting high-frequency calls beyond the range of the human ear. Echolocation helps bats avoid collisions and help locate their prey, some bats can even distinguish between different insect species by their wing-beat frequency. They have a low reproduction rate (one baby per year) and a long life expectancy (up to 30 years). Like all mammals, they suckle their young until they are fit and ready to forage for themselves. They are warm blooded animals and have adapted to survive winter in hibernation.
Have you seen any bats around Woodcote recently? Well, it’s not so unusual. Yes, bats do spend most of the winter hibernating, in a state of inactivity with lower body temperature, slower breathing, and lower metabolic rate. However, if you do see a bat in winter it will be because their fat reserves are dwindling and they have left their roost on a warmer night to find food and water. (A solitary pipistrelle was seen by a member of the WCG on Beech Lane during the week before Christmas). Bats may begin to emerge in March, feeding as it gets warmer, but in bad weather, they will revert to a more torpid state. By June young bats are born, and a mere six weeks later the young bats are agile enough to catch insects for themselves.
2011-2012 was the United Nations “Year of the bat”, and the results are now in regarding the health of the UK bat population. Contrary to the picture for much of the UK’s wildlife, the picture for bats was actually rather good. All the species monitored appear to be either stable or increasing. Greater & lesser horseshoe, Natterer’s, whiskered and common pipistrelle all showed a statistically significant increase. However, bat populations as a whole have a long way to go to get back to the levels of the first half of the twentieth century.
In Woodcote, common & soprano pipistrelle, brown Long eared and Daubenton’s have been recorded in our regular night-time bat walks, using high tech bat detectors and, more effectively, the keen eyes of younger members! The next event is Saturday 11 May (by which time bats are fully active and feeding) – please come along to find out more about these fantastic, furry, flying machines! (see http://www.woodcotecg.org.uk/events for exact time/location)
The swift is a charming bird known as the “devil bird” in medieval times, because they appear and disappear suddenly and mysteriously. Much of what is known about swifts is the result of careful local research at the Oxford Museum of Natural History. Swifts are very obvious, with piercing screams of joy as they swirl rapidly overhead. The European swift (Apus apus) can be seen from the west of Ireland to the eastern tip of China. They arrive in Woodcote from sub-Saharan Africa in the first half of May and are usually gone again by September. Look out for small groups flying fast and low around Langtree School, feeding as they speed through the village. Swifts only usually land to nest; they eat, sleep and even copulate on the wing. As with all other birds and reptiles, swifts have a transparent nictitating membrane under their eyelids that can be used like a pair of handy sunglasses to protect the eyes and reduce glare. At night they fly high and point themselves into the wind, flapping slowly to maintain height during sleep; often they are many kilometers downwind by the time they awake. Nest building starts soon after arrival, usually to the same nest site. They use their spit and any available debris to make the nest. A usual brood is rarely more than three – the maximum they can comfortably feed without losing weight in a good year. Most young birds are four years old before they breed successfully, but they may live to be a ripe old 20, provided they are not eaten by a predator, usually a hobby or our own species. Swifts are considered bush-meat in parts of Africa. The parent birds collect 300-500 insects per feed, often over water, hedges and trees, packing them into a throat pouch for their young. Vast numbers of insects and spiders are caught on the wing over the breeding season. In cold weather insects are hard to find and eggs, or young birds, are often left for extended periods; they may become cold and torpid, a problem that would kill most other birds. Not so the swift, a chick left for up to 3 days can quickly recover when fed. Young birds take up to 6 weeks to fledge, twice as long as a typical songbird. In a good year, or in small broods, young birds may be too heavy to fly, so they refuse food and starve themselves to reduce weight so that flight is possible. Once they leave the nest they do not usually return, feeding and migrating without further parental help – a truly amazing feat!
The Woodcote Conservation Group is increasing the number of nest sites available to our swifts in an effort to increase the tiny numbers currently present. Tall, old buildings are usually the only ones with suitable nest crevices for a colony, but they will readily take to carefully placed artificial nests.
Two young at the nest
‘One swallow doesn’t make a summer.’ In fact, three members of the swallow family visit Britain in the summer: the swallow itself, distinguished by its long tail-streamers; the house martin, blue-black above and white below, with a distinctive white rump; and the brown-and-white sand martin.
Swallows, familiar though they are, have never been particularly numerous in this predominantly arable part of the country, preferring the grasslands and pastures of the north and west. Here they find plentiful food in the shape of the insects that the cattle and sheep put up, and convenient nest-sites in sheds and barns. Sand martins too are much more numerous in the north and west of Britain; they prefer to live by the water, and can be found locally by the Thames or nearby gravel pits, where they nest in holes burrowed into the waterside banks.
In Woodcote, by far the most numerous member of the family is – or rather used to be – the house martin. Older residents of the village will remember these dapper little birds as the real harbingers of summer, as they returned each year to inspect and repair their nests. House martins are very appropriately named, as they invariably build these mud nests in the angle between the eaves and the walls of buildings. Where they are common, they can form large colonies, with dozens of mud cups jostling for space under the overhanging roof of a single building. And common they once were in Woodcote: through to the 1980s at least, rows of nests adorned numerous houses in the village, and the birds themselves formed large flocks as they hunted for insects nearby. If you had them on your house, the twittering of the young was a familiar sound outside the bedroom window on warm summer nights.
There is a fourth summer visitor – the swift – that is outwardly similar in some ways to the swallows, but in fact belongs to a quite different family of birds. With their narrow sickle wings, hurtling flight, and screaming call, swifts were also formerly colonial nesters in Woodcote, but their numbers too have dropped steeply here over the past couple of decades. Swifts nest in holes in buildings, and, as far as we know, the only remaining breeding pair in the village is to be found high up on the Community Centre. Swifts from further afield can often be seen (and heard) hunting for insects high over the village, though, and there are quite substantial populations of these birds in nearby towns such as Wallingford and Reading, where suitable nesting sites are still plentiful.
June should be a peak month for swallows, martins, and swifts. Do please let the Conservation Group know if you spot any nests – or signs of breeding – around the village. Swallows flying in and out of barns or outbuildings, for instance; house martin ‘cups’ under the eaves of houses; or swifts showing particular interest in the upper levels of buildings – these are all signs to look for.
Buzzards friend or foe?
Some of you may remember the recent Benyon proposal to ‘cull’ buzzards in pheasant rearing areas, ostensibly to protect the very large numbers of pheasants released each year for shooting. Up to 35 million pheasants are released each year, making up as much as 30% of land-bird biomass. However, when adult pheasant deaths were analysed 38% were shot, 36% predated (mainly by foxes), between 5-13% were killed on the roads and less than 1% were taken by raptors. It has been estimated that 3 million pheasants collide with vehicles each year. In fact, many predators simply eat the abundant road kill rather than attempting to catch live prey and this may account for their relatively healthy numbers in recent years. Some landowners do not like raptorial birds on their estates, because they will eat pheasant, partridge or grouse. Others take a more pragmatic view and tolerate losses by releasing more birds. Unfortunately, one person can have a disproportionate effect on local predators – 100 buzzards were killed in just 6 months on one Shropshire estate, leading to a custodial sentence for the person responsible. In this case non-breeding pairs simply migrated in to take their place from the surrounding areas. Buzzards are also known to kill and eat members of the crow family, which sometimes destroy the eggs of wild nesting pheasants. However, the main item on the buzzards’ menu is usually rabbit and it has been estimated that the effect of buzzard predation on rabbit numbers reduces crop damage by at least £180 million a year, although they will happily eat young pheasant chicks instead.
Our local gamekeeper, Chris Goodman, is a lover of biodiversity who tolerates predatory birds including kites, buzzards, crows, ravens, tawny owls and sparrow hawks, which nest close to the rearing pens and have been seen eating newly introduced birds as an easy meal. However the greatest losses are due to foxes and Chris is definitely not their greatest fan! The best way to deter buzzard predation of adult pheasants is to encourage shrub growth in woodland and reduce the number of good buzzard perches; making it harder for them to hunt effectively.
It is often said that pheasant rearing is beneficial for many other species, because of the habitat maintained for pheasants and the growth of cover and winter feed crops; this is probably so, but published work in this area is scant. Pheasants may also compete with other species for food and there may be a transfer of parasites or disease between species.
I am optimistic that all legitimate country interests can co-exist, along with all species (predator and prey) and am confident that an overwhelming majority of farmers and gamekeepers are like Chris Goodman, custodians of the countryside with a personal interest in maintaining biodiversity.
A personal view – Phil Lea.
‘WWW’ – the ‘Woodcote Woodcock Walk’ – is the rather whimsical name the Conservation Group gives to one of its more unusual annual activities. For six years now a small group of us have been venturing into the local woods at dusk on an early summer evening in search of one of our least-known local breeding birds. Happily, these little excursions have invariably met with success, and our local Woodcock has duly put in an appearance for us, providing participants with an experience that very few would otherwise enjoy, even though it happens regularly right there on our doorstep.
The Woodcock belongs to that group of birds that are loosely categorised as ‘waders’. That is to say, birds with long beaks that probe soft ground and damp vegetation for the worms and other invertebrates which provide their main source of food. Typically waders are coastal birds, frequenting marshes and mudflats. Woodcote, perched as it is on top of the Chilterns, might therefore seem an improbable location to set off on a wader-hunt. But then the Woodcock is a rather untypical wader. For a start, it is – as its name suggests – a woodland species, only very rarely found in open country, and in addition it is mainly found in inland areas of the country rather than on the coasts. It also, unlike most waders, has short legs, so is actually not much good at ‘wading’.
There are three reasons why most people have never seen a Woodcock: firstly, it is an extremely secretive bird, hunkering down in the grass or bracken at the slightest hint of disturbance; secondly, its mottled and barred plumage makes it almost impossible to see among the dead leaves and the woodland undergrowth; and, thirdly, it is mainly nocturnal. How then, can our ‘Woodcote Woodcock Walks’ possibly have managed to come up with such regular sightings? The answer lies in the phenomenon known as ‘roding’. This is the term that is used of the male Woodcock’s display flight: at dusk and dawn in the breeding season he abandons his secretive ways and flies a circuit above the treetops, calling with a series of squeaks and grunts as he goes, proclaiming his ownership of the territory beneath (and indeed of any female Woodcock who happen to be there – he is known to be quite a polygamous character).
The atmospheric experience of this ‘roding’ display flight has been the reward each year for our annual evening trudge into the woods. Sometimes the male has passed over only once, silhouetted against the twilit sky, but on other occasions we have seen him three, four, or even five times as he performs his territorial circuits. How long we will continue to enjoy this is uncertain: Woodcock numbers are known to be in decline, and the British Trust for Ornithology is this year conducting a nationwide survey of their distribution (based precisely on the evidence of sightings of roding males). You can find further details at http://www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/woodcock-survey.
Extract from the Swan Life Line Newsletter Summer 2013
On a cold morning this February I had a call from Wendy, one of the RSPCA rescuers that covers North West London had asked that I helped her in a tricky rescue at Gunnersbury Park, South Ealing, not far from the M4. There was a swan, one of a pair, with a lot of blood on the wing, and it was not coming in to be caught.
When I got there, the swans were fairly close to a wooden ramp bordering the lake. The pen had indeed quite a lot of blood around her right wing. Bread was of no interest to them. I thought if I could tempt them with corn, they may put their heads under water, so that I could use my hook. No way was it going to be possible to take her by hand. Now came the problem: every time I put corn into the water a flock of about 100 pigeons instantly swooped in, creating an almighty din that spooked both swans, which immediately backed off. The one good thing was that in all the mayhem I could get my hook into position. Whether I would get the chance to use it would be another matter. Then Jill, the RSPCA lady, came up with the solution. She rounded up the crowd of spectators, and gave them all the bread that she had, to attract the pigeons to another free meal, but a little further away from the swans. This worked, and I was able to get the swans de-spooked enough to go for the corn, and put their heads under the water as they went for it. I would only have one shot, and luckily it was enough. Apparently it looked just like you see on the telly!
On examining the pen, Jill and I found a bad tear on the wing, exposing the muscle. She needed to come in. The cob was very distressed, tearing up and down the lake, calling. Her calls in return made it quite heart-rending.
After treatment and antibiotics, the pen was able to return to the lake at Gunnersbury Park, hopefully in time to get nesting. The cob was still there, alone. I drove with the swan to the spot where I had rescued her. There was a group from a primary school, who not un-naturally were intrigued by a man carrying a swan in a bag. I explained to the teachers, and hoped the children would see a lovely reunion. It couldn’t have been nicer. I gently put her in the water. The cob saw another swan, and put on his menacing anti-intruder, raised wing display. As he got closer he realised who the other swan was. The wings relaxed, they both made the heart-shaped display with their heads and necks, and then just settled down as though nothing had happened. The best releases are always the ones that reunite a pair, and this one was no exception.
Anyone interested in this Charity can find out more from their website:- www.swanlifeline.org.uk
Ash Die Back
With all the recent coverage in the national media many people will have heard of Ash Die Back (Chalara fraxinea) which was first discovered in the UK in February 2012 on imported ash trees and then subsequently, about a year ago, in the natural environment in a wood in East Anglia. Since then the disease, caused by a fungus, has rapidly spread out around the country with over 550 different locations where its presence has been recorded by the Forestry Commission.
This disease has had a devastating effect on ash trees on the continent causing mature ash trees to loose their leaves and their crowns to wither and die back and ultimately most infected trees will die. With immature trees the process is much quicker and more pronounced.
However what it not as widely known is that one locally based charity, Earth Trust, is helping with the fight back against this disease. Earth Trust has an area of its land at its Little Wittenham site set aside for forestry research and it is on this land that a specially bred ash sapling is being grown by scientists at Oxford University for research into tree sexually. Because ash trees are particularly varied in their genetic make up this particular sapling, having been bred from a single parent, is proving particularly helpful in simplifying the process of sequencing the ash genome being carried out at Queen Mary University in London.
In has been noted that some trees on the continent have shown inherent resistance to the disease and this holds out some hope for the future. If researchers can find why some ash trees are naturally resistant to the disease, then new stock can be bred with the same genetic makeup and then over a number of years used to re-establish the ash tree in the UK and elsewhere in Europe.
It you wish to find out more about this disease and the fight being waged against it you can refer to:-
or listen to a BBC radio programme Ashes to Ashes on iplayer at:-
http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b03bg4vh/Ashes_to_Ashes/ (available to Jan 2014)
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