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Matt’s nature blog

Updates about our nature reserve

Our resident ecologist and ornithologist Matt Phelps keeps a close eye on the plethora of wildlife and plant species that choose to inhabit the meadow, lakes and hedgerows that make up Clandon Wood. His regular blog updates provide a seasonal journey through the year highlighting the ever changing environment and diverse habitat that Clandon Wood provides. We hope you gain some pleasure and a little knowledge too from reading them.

6th June 2017
Clandon Wood welcomes bee orchids, a swollen thigh beetle, a hobby and our first guests in the bug hotel.

After one of the driest Aprils on record May and early June have delivered some rain at last, although so far not anything like enough to reverse the drought conditions we've been experiencing. Only time will tell what kind of summer we are heading into, but what is interesting about the largely dry year we're having is the difference in diversity of flowers in the meadow. We are seeing a lot more of certain species than we did last year, for example Lesser Stitchwort, Bugloss and Ox-eye Daisies, whereas some of the more moisture-loving plants are not doing quite so well.

Swollen-thighed Beetle on Ox-eye Daisy

In theory the better and more diverse our meadow the more adaptable it will be to whatever the weather throws at it. We have now recorded well over two hundred plant species here at Clandon Wood and are adding new species to the list all the time. Another plant that thrives in dry conditions is the Bee Orchid and we were delighted to discover a patch of them growing on site the other day; the first time they have been recorded here. These beautiful plants grow on unimproved dry grassland and have evolved to look remarkably like a bee as well as emitting a scent similar to a female bee. The particular bee species that it is looking to attract doesn't actually occur in Britain, however, so they are self-pollinating in this part of the world. Hopefully by careful management we will encourage plants like this and other orchids to spread across our meadows.

Bee Orchid

All of the summer migrant bird species are now back in Britain and we have been seeing plenty of Swifts, Swallows and House Martins at Clandon Wood, the latter sometimes hoovering up insects low over the meadow and ponds. On occasion we have also seen a Hobby; that elegant yet fearsome migratory falcon which also spends its summers here enjoying our insects but is not averse to snatching a Swift or hirundine for a more substantial meal – one of the only birds of prey agile enough to out-fly them! The hedgerows meanwhile are ringing with the sound of Whitethroats, Blackcaps and the occasional Garden Warbler. I still hold out hope we may see a Turtle Dove drop in, even if just one passing through. This species is in a critical state now as a breeding species in Britain, having declined by 91% since just the mid-1990s, and by 78% Europe-wide since 1980. One encouraging sign has been the increase in Fumitory in our meadows this year which is one of this species' favourite seed-producing plants.

Fumitory

If you've visted Clandon Wood recently or read my previous blog post you will know that we have built an insect hotel in our new wildlife garden. We have seen bees and other insects flying in and out of it already which is promising but the biggest surprise of all was when I noticed a pair of Robins had moved in and built a nest inside! I'm pleased to report the chicks fledged successfully.

Robin nest

The warmer weather has seen the first dragonflies and damselflies taking to the wing here, with Emperor, Black-tailed Skimmer, Common Blue Damselfly and Beautiful Demoiselle all seen recently. We are in the process of naming different areas of the site and as the path area south of the West Pond is so popular with these insects we have decided upon the name Dragonfly Corner. If you have any suggestions for names for other areas of the site do please let us know.

Beautiful Demoiselle

Butterflies seem to be in abundance at the moment. Recent butterfly transects we haved carried out have yielded many species including Green Hairstreak, Small Copper, Brimstone, the first Meadow Browns of the summer and impressive numbers of Common Blues, while members of Butterfly Conservation who visited on a field trip at the end of May also recorded a handful of Small Blues; one of the more scarce species we are lucky to have here. It's pleasing to see species like Green Hairstreak occurring more frequently as the site develops. The larvae of this species like to feed on Bird's-foot Trefoil – one of the most ubiquitous plant species at Clandon Wood – as well as Gorse, which is one of the plants we have added to our new groves out in the meadows. Near the pond we have also planted a few Alder Buckthorns which we hope will also attract more Brimstones as this is the primary food plant for their larvae. We have also introduced a few Wild Strawberry plants around the site which we hope will attract Grizzled Skippers; a butterfly we have yet to record here. By careful planning and planting we hope to make Clandon Wood a haven for all sorts of butterflies and other invertebrates.

Common Blue
21st April 2017
Three Wheatears arrive at Clandon Wood, the first record of this species in Surrey this year, confirming Spring is here.

Spring is now in full swing in the Surrey Hills and seasonal changes are much in evidence at Clandon Wood. The meadow and trees are beginning to green up and grow, the early flowers and hedgerow blossoms are blooming and the bird song is increasing.

Another sure sign of spring is the arrival of the first migrant bird species. The hedges and edges at Clandon Wood are now ringing with the sound of Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps and Whitethroats, interspersed with the occasional Willow Warbler passing through. We have had three Wheatears drop in to rest after their long migration from Africa. The first of these, on 10th March, was in fact the first record of this species anywhere in Surrey this year. Often regarded as the harbinger of spring, arriving as they do usually well ahead of Swallows and Cuckoos, it's always a heart-warming sight to see one of these smart birds scurrying about in a Surrey field after a long winter. Sadly they no longer breed in this county, however, and these birds will have been on their way further north to breed once they'd had a rest and a feed.

Wheatear in the East Meadow (Photo by Dave Carlsson)

The first Swallows and House Martins have also been seen recently, migrating overhead or skimming low over the meadows and ponds hoovering up insects, and the Swifts should be back with us any day now – those screaming symbols of high summer. We now have a pair of Skylarks in the East Meadow which is great to see. Do please remember to keep dogs on leads in the meadows at all times to ensure these increasingly scarce ground nesting birds are not disturbed.

The rate at which everything happens in spring always amazes me and this year everything seems particularly early, presumably due to the largely fine weather – although we are in desperate need of rain now! To illustrate the rate of growth here are two photos I took of the main hedge here just twenty days apart; the first on 23rd March and the second on 11th April.

There are now many insects on the wing, from bumblebees to mining bees to butterflies. Indeed, with the prolonged warm and dry weather through April the butterfly season is now well underway and species we have seen at Clandon Wood already this year include Green Hairstreak, Orange-tip (pictured below), Peacock, Brimstone, Holly Blue and Small Tortoiseshell. The latter two species in particular seem to be having a particularly good year so far with above average numbers being recorded generally. This year for the first time Clandon Wood will be part of the ongoing UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme. Gareth and I will be carrying out regular surveys and adding our data to that from many hundreds of other sites around the country to help butterfly experts gain a clearer picture of the state of the British butterfly population.

If you've visited Clandon Wood recently hopefully you have seen our new Wildlife Garden in the area between the car park and the pavilion. We have hopefully catered for all manner of wildlife with flowerbeds planted with pollinator-friendly plants, fruit trees, bird feeders and an insect hotel. Come and have a look next time you are here!

24th February 2017
Spring is on the doorstep - the flora and fauna of Clandon Wood are awakening

A new year at Clandon Wood and we are already looking ahead to the spring. The first Primroses are beginning to emerge and the catkins on the Hazels are lengthening. Birdsong too seems to be increasing by the day, with the evocative 'tea-cher tea-cher' of the Great Tit and the far carrying melodies of the Mistle Thrush and Skylarks now resonating around the meadows. It's worth bearing in mind that at this time of year the Skylarks will be scouting out new areas to nest so, as they are ground-nesting birds, it's particularly important to keep dogs under control in the meadows.

The ponds were both frozen for much of January, only thawing out towards the end of the month which saw the return of a pair of Coots to the West Pond, plus occasional visits from Mallards, Canada Geese and Egyptian Geese and, more recently, a Little Grebe. The female Stonechat that has been here all winter is still with us and she has been keeping a close eye on us as we work in recent weeks, tagging along with a gang of Robins to eagerly hoover up any tasty morsels we uncover in the soil.

Although the sheep have now gone their light poaching of the ground in the West Meadow is still attracting lots of birds, including Starlings, Fieldfares and Redwings feeding up for their return migrations in the next few weeks – these in turn attracting the attentions of a male Merlin which flew low through the East Meadow on 10th January. Merlins are the smallest falcon in the UK and are seen only occasionally in Surrey when British breeding birds disperse for the winter and are joined by birds from further north. The regular squadron of Jackdaws are still around too; take a moment next time you visit to notice how they're clearly paired up within the larger flock. Jackdaws are monogamous and generally remain in their pairs for life. The other day I saw a male feeding his mate near the pavilion; a common act of courtship in many bird species but a strikingly tender moment for Jackdaws, I thought, as they are often rather unfairly depicted as swaggering, rather bully boy-ish birds.

Gareth and I have recently found six Brown Hairstreak eggs in the Blackthorn bushes here. This is great news as it means this butterfly is again choosing our site to carry out its life cycle. It's one of the scarcest butterflies in Britain and we're really lucky to have them here. We hope that by nurturing our Blackthorn hedges and maintaining a constant supply of young growth we will continue to encourage them for years to come.

Rather less welcome was the discovery in the Ash trees on the edge of the West Meadow of signs of Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, more commonly known as Ash Dieback. First discovered in the UK in Buckinghamshire in 2012 this fungus is now spreading across Britain and sadly poses a major threat to our Ash trees. Gareth and I have also seen signs of the fungus on trees at nearby Sheepleas, so it seems it has well and truly arrived in the Surrey Hills.

Another thing we've done recently is dug a few little pools near the West Pond and lined them with some of the puddling clay we had left over from the creation of the East Pond. These will, we hope, provide some variety in the wetland habitat here and hopefully encourage more dragonflies and other invertebrates.

Hopefully some of you reading this attended the first of our wildlife talks at January's Tea, Cake & Company event where Gareth and I gave a general introduction to the habitat management at Clandon Wood and its conservation importance in the wider landscape. The next talk will be on Sunday 30th April when we'll be taking a closer look at some of the birds that we have here and what we are doing to encourage some more unusual species.

25th January 2017
Moving past the Winter solstice

Now we are past the Winter Solstice it’s reassuring to remember the days will soon begin to grow perceptibly longer and here at Clandon Wood we’ve been busy making improvements for the year ahead. If you’ve visited recently you may have noticed the various fences popping up in the meadows.

We’ve been planting a few native shrubs and small trees in these to create some groves which we hope will help to enhance the landscape but also add some wildlife islands for birds and mammals looking to find shelter.

The grove nearest the West pond in particular I am hoping will attract small birds such as Dunnock and Reed Warbler which may in turn attract a Cuckoo to lay an egg in their nests. We have also erected a fence and dug a ‘ha-ha’ around the Sky Garden memorial space in the West Meadow to make it rather more sheep-proof and a place of sanctuary for families looking for somewhere safe to put their loved one’s memorial plaques when the meadow is mowed, or leave in there all year if they choose.

The sheep have been with us for a couple of months now and we’re really seeing the effects of their grazing on the meadow. Their nibbling will help to suppress the more vigorous grasses and plants which will give the small flowers a chance to grow through in the spring.

The sheep have also started to attract some birds down to forage amongst them as they lightly poach the surface. In addition to the usual squadron of Jackdaws we’ve also recently seen Pied Wagtails, Fieldfares, Starlings and the odd Black-headed Gull following the flock around. The Fieldfares have also been busy in the hedgerows along with their fellow migrant Redwings, as well as Blackbirds and Song Thrushes, hoovering up the Hawthorn berries and rosehips. Down at the pond in the West Meadow we’re still getting occasional visits from a Mute Swan plus a couple of Egyptian Geese, when the water is not frozen over of course.

Cold spells at this time of year often prompt birds to move around. On 30th November two Snipe were flying around near the west pond, clearly in search of some unfrozen ground in which to feed, while on 5th January another Snipe and two Lapwing flew over the site, again moving due to the cold weather.

We’ve been playing host to a Stonechat which has been present on and off since the middle of October. This species is a common sight on heathlands where it largely breeds but in winter birds disperse to grassland and wetland areas. It mainly favours the orchard or the area near the pond in the West Meadow so keep an eye out for it if you’re visiting.

To finish this round-up from the grounds team here are some photos I’ve taken whilst out and about on some of the beautiful sunny days we’ve been treated to in recent weeks.

Matt at Clandon 9th January 2017

3rd November 2016
A sea of golden hues as Autumn comes to a close

Autumn is now well and truly upon us and Clandon Wood is a sea of golden hues as the meadow edges and trees assume their seasonal attire. The main meadow has put on a good deal of lush green growth since it was cut at the end of August, much to the delight of the flock of sheep which arrived recently and will stay with us for the next few months, helping to keep the grass short until the Spring.

Gareth and I are continuing to cut the grass strips between the trees and around the margins to reduce some of the volume and prevent the meadow becoming overrun by coarse grasses, dock and thistles. We will leave around 15% of the site uncut to ensure there is still plenty of shelter for small mammals and invertebrates. As we have been cutting the grass we have found many creatures such as this Field Vole.

We’ve also been finding many caterpillars in the long grass as we’ve been cutting, such as the Knot Grass and Ruby Tiger (both pictured below) which will feed on the vegetation through the winter months before moving on to their pupal stage and then emerging as adult moths next spring.

Now the grass is shorter keep an eye out for the many fungi popping up around the meadows, including such colourful species as Yellow Fieldcap and Blue Roundhead, pictured below.

It’s fair to say it’s been a pretty mild autumn so far but nonetheless we were rather surprised to stumble across a female Brown Hairstreak butterfly in the East Meadow on 20th October.

This is one of the scarcest butterflies in the UK and we are lucky to have them here at Clandon Wood. Females patrol Blackthorn hedges in late summer and autumn looking for places to lay eggs.

Gareth found eggs here last winter but this is the first sighting of an adult butterfly here to date. It’s also unusually late for this species which generally flies from late July to late September.

As summer gives way to autumn so too the summer migrant birds have left us for warmer climes for the winter.

We had a Whinchat (pictured below) drop in in mid-September, which is a species which no longer breeds in Surrey so this individual was just passing through on migration.

Similarly a flock of Golden Plover flew south over the meadows towards the end of the month.

The last Swallows were seen in the third week of October by which time many of the winter migrant birds from the north and east had begun to appear such as Redwings, Fieldfares and Meadow Pipits.

It was also nice to see some Mute Swans visiting the west lake and meadow again recently after a few months’ absence.

Hopefully this blog post goes to show that, although the weather may be growing colder and the evenings are drawing in, there is still so much to see out and about in the natural world, especially here at Clandon Wood.

Matt at Clandon 13 November 2016.

14th September 2016
A freshly cut meadow attracts some unusual feathered species

If you’ve visited Clandon Wood recently you will have almost certainly noticed that the main meadow has now been cut by local farmers and the bales have been taken away by Dan who provides Eddie the horse for towing the cart at funerals.

A freshly cut meadow always looks rather stark but just to prove that every habitat has its own niche species, we have had a couple of Wheatears drop in since the cut. The first one on 1st September was a very smart male (pictured below) which clearly appreciated the vantage point provided by the bales. Wheatears are barely bigger than a Robin yet are one of the furthest-travelling of all our migrant bird species. They don’t breed in Surrey anymore so it’s possible this individual could have flown to us from as far away as Iceland or even Alaska on its way to Africa – a remarkable feat for such a small bird. It’s nice to think that it liked the look of our meadow enough to drop in for a pit stop!

Another bird we saw lots of after the meadow was cut was Red Kite, sometimes up to five or six at a time circling lazily overhead searching for any spoils from the tractors. It wasn’t so very long ago that you had to go to Wales to see Red Kites so it’s great to see them doing so well now.

In August one of the team alerted me to a young bird they’d found out in the meadow. I was surprised to see it was a very young Little Grebe! Presumably a bird of prey or other predator had plucked it off the water and dropped it as I can’t imagine such a young bird could have got so far from the pond on its own, especially one more suited to water than land. We soon returned it to to the water and watched as it swam safely back to its mum and siblings.

As many of the meadow flowers have now either faded or been cut, other plants are just beginning to flower and these become crucial for pollinating insects such as bees and butterflies. Red Admirals are one of a number of butterflies which migrate to Britain each year and some of these are now heading south again, making late-flowering plants such as Ivy and Devil’s-bit Scabious very important sources of nectar for them

It’s not just flowers that are important to wildlife though. The hedgerows at Clandon Wood are now heaving with fruit which will provide many birds and mammals with food. In the large hedge between the two meadows I have recently noted Garden Warbler, Willow Warbler, Whitethroat amongst others, gorging themselves on berries before flying south for the winter. Where the long grass remains around the edges of the meadow we will cut some areas and leave others long over the winter to provide vital shelter for a host of insects and small mammals

Matt at Clandon 14 September 2016

17th August 2016
Golden meadowland and hedgerows bursting with berries

Mid-August and there’s more than a hint of autumn in the air here at Clandon Wood. The meadow is golden and ripe for harvest and the hedgerows are filling up with blackberries and elderberries, attracting lots of warblers as they fatten themselves up for their long journey south. Listen for the ‘chak’ of the Blackcap or ‘huweet’ of Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers.

Overhead, most of the Swifts have already left and are now well on their way back to Africa. Incredibly, some of the young Swifts born this summer will remain permanently airborne for two or three years until they are ready to breed. Swallows and House Martins, too, are beginning to get restless and I’ve noticed some moving south over Clandon, although many will be with us for a few weeks longer yet.

As some birds leave us other new lives are only just beginning: down on the pond last week we spotted the first tiny Little Grebe chicks of the year being fed by their parents.

The farmers have been busy harvesting the barley fields across the road from us, attracting many Red Kites, Buzzards and hundreds of Mallard ducks. We have at least three Kestrels frequenting the meadows at Clandon, attracted by the many small mammals in the long grass. In late July senior groundsman Gareth and I gave some TLC to rather tired-looking Wood Mouse we found and then later released after giving it a bit of water and flapjack.

In the meadow itself the late flowering plants such as Devil’s-bit Scabious are attracting the pollinators, while some species such as Bird’s-foot Trefoil are giving a second flush of colour

Not quite as colourful but we recently discovered Rigid Hornwort in the pond in the East Meadow, the first submergent plant to find its way into the water since the pond was created last winter, a good sign that the water is clear.

The changeable weather this summer means it hasn’t been a great season for butterflies, so with the drier, finer weather so far in August it’s been nice to see a few more out and about in the meadows at Clandon Wood. Most eye-catching of all is the male Common Blue, especially when it perches on the golden flowers of Bird’s-foot Trefoil.

Rivalling the Common Blue in brightness is the Clouded Yellow, a migrant butterfly, varying numbers of which fly to Britain each summer from southern Europe and Africa. I recently spotted one near the pond in the East Meadow.

Look out too for the day-flying Six-spot Burnet moth, which are numerous here at the moment. I found this pair mating in the East Meadow the other day.

Matt at Clandon 17 August 2016

10th July 2016
High Summer welcomes a host of butterfly species

High summer at Clandon Wood and while the weather has been less than favourable of late the meadow is still teeming with wildlife as I write this in mid-July.

There are many butterflies to be seen on sunny days, including Marbled Whites, Green-veined Whites, Large and Small Skippers and Common Blues, while the ever-present Meadow Browns and Ringlets don’t seem to mind if the sun shines or not – in fact I saw one out flying during a rain shower the other day.

Unfortunately rain is something we’ve seen rather a lot of this summer – well, it wouldn’t be Wimbledon season without a few showers would it? It does mean the new pond in the East Meadow is staying nicely full of water and it’s great to see this area naturalising so quickly, currently haloed in white thanks to the mass of flowering Scentless Mayweed all around it.

The meadows at Clandon Wood are a haven for all sorts of birds. It may surprise you to learn that many of our native bird species nest on or very near the ground – relatively few nest up in trees like in cartoons! Skylarks appear to have taken up residence in the East Meadow, as do a family of Red-legged Partridges. Senior groundsman Gareth and I spotted four tiny chicks following their mum around this week.

We also have young Coots on the lake in the West Meadow, and a pair of Reed Buntings seem to have moved in, often seen or heard near the West Lake but also roaming about across the whole site; the other day the male was singing in the hedgerow that splits the two fields.

As the season progresses, so the early summer wild flowers make way for the late summer species, some of them more familiar than others. Look closely among the many knapweeds, bedstraws and meadow vetchlings and you might spot the more unusual Common Cudweed or Round-leaved Fluellen.

Matt at Clandon 17 July 2016