Matt’s nature diary blog
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.
Winter has really bared its teeth in the past few weeks with a smorgasbord of wind, rain, frost, sleet and snow since Christmas. In the breaks in between, when the sun does appear even for a brief while, it’s always comforting to notice the days gradually lengthening and the sun getting that bit higher in the sky. There are other signs of the approach of spring too, if you look and listen closely. Later in the year it is perhaps the first Swallow or the song of the Cuckoo (sadly an increasingly rare sound these days) that lifts the spirits, but as winter slowly draws to an end we must look for more subtle hints at the stirrings of life beneath the frozen surface. The early spring flowers such as Dog-violets, Lesser Celandine and Colt’s-foot bring cheer to frigid days, and at the first sign of warming sunshine the first bumblebees and butterflies begin to emerge.
Early Dog-violet (Viola reichenbachiana)
The first butterfly seen at Clandon Wood this year was a Red Admiral on 30th January. This individual will have overwintered in a shed or similar hidey hole somewhere as an adult – one of five butterfly species to do so in this country – although may yet still perish before the spring if the weather turns very cold. Luckily the next generation will already be lurking in the nettles here as eggs and larvae, ready to emerge later in the year.
The Hazel catkins are now lengthening and shining lemon yellow in the sunshine, the birdsong is gradually increasing, with the Song Thrush and Great Tit in particularly fine voice now. Our local Skylarks have recently resumed singing and at least one pair have started to linger over the meadows. Hopefully they will attempt to breed here again this summer.
The Hawfinch invasion continues with numbers seemingly building up here towards the end of January. On the morning of the 26th eleven flew from the trees just northwest of the West Pond, perhaps part of a larger feeding flock of over fifty seen at nearby Newlands Corner later the same day. Whatever the reason for their arrival it’s clear there are thousands of these enigmatic finches around locally this winter, so do get out and try and see some for yourself – you may never have a better chance!
The sheep will be coming back for a short stay towards the end of the winter and we plan to pen them in in an area where the grass needs trimming back, otherwise we await the new growth and flowers of spring. It’s been pleasing to see some of the plants we planted last year establishing themselves in our ‘groves’ out in the meadows. The young Gorse bushes look particularly settled and are already giving their first show of flower; a heart-warming sight in the depths of winter. As the old saying goes ‘When Gorse is out of blossom, kissing is out of fashion’.
Gorse in flower
As I write this, Gareth and I have just finished our last Brown Hairstreak egg hunt of the season, and we can now confirm that we’ve found a total of 36 eggs onsite here this year which is a new record! As always, the adult butterflies are tricky to spot but it’s heartening to know that our nurturing of the Blackthorns around the edges of the meadows and along the main hedgerow is providing optimum egg-laying conditions for the females. I’m soon going to start moth trapping at Clandon Wood and look forward to keeping you updated on what I discover. In fact, following on from my butterfly talk towards the end of last year, for my next wildlife talk at the end of April I’m planning to talk a bit about the moths we have here at Clandon Wood and hopefully run my moth trap the night before, so I can show you some of them for real!
We’ve been busy catching up on the last of the winter jobs here recently, including turning over the flowerbeds in the Wildlife Garden ready for sowing again next year, as well as sprucing up the Bug Hotel. In the East Meadow down towards the pond we have turned over a strip of the sward which we’re planning to sow with a seed mix that will hopefully benefit various farmland birds – maybe even a Turtle Dove if we’re very lucky.
Our arable ‘weed’ strip in the East Meadow
An interesting bit of news regarding our Kestrels from last year. You may remember that a pair quickly moved into the nest box we had installed in February and went on the rear four chicks in the summer. The licensed ringer who installed the box then also ringed the young birds so we could keep a track on their movements. Well, one of the youngsters was indeed found recently, at Rainham Marshes in Essex! Sadly, it was injured and later died but it’s still amazing to think that a bird that only lived for seven months made it so far, and the data recovered on its movements will go towards ongoing research into migration of this species. I’m pleased to say that a pair of Kestrels have recently been seen visiting the nest box so hopefully we’ll see them breed here again this year.
Kestrel in the nest box recently
Since my last blog post autumn has drawn to a close and we are approaching midwinter and the end of the year. The last of the leaves have been frosted and blown from the trees and the hedgerows at Clandon Wood are bustling with hungry Redwings and Fieldfares, as well as Blackbirds and Song Thrushes from far-flung lands, busy hoovering up the berries. Even many of the familiar Robins, Chaffinches and Starlings you may see here or in your garden at this time of year will be long-distance travellers that have flown here across the North Sea to escape the harsher winter weather of the north and east.
A rather more unusual visitor this year has been the normally highly elusive Hawfinch. This heavy-set, colourful finch – which uses its enormous bill to crush open fruits and seeds with almost the same pressure as a human jaw – breeds in Britain in small numbers and occasionally irrupts in numbers from further afield. In countries like Poland, for example, they are far more numerous. This autumn, for reasons as yet unknown, huge numbers of this species have descended on our shores and some extraordinary counts have been recorded across the country, with a particular bias towards the south where this woodland specialist is clearly finding much to eat, particularly in the Surrey – the most wooded county in England.
Hawfinch. (Photo: Mick Temple)
To put this invasion into perspective, in an ordinary year, even as a very keen birdwatcher, I’m lucky if I see one or two of these secretive birds. Since 18th October this year I have recorded them at Clandon Wood on twenty-nine days, with potentially over a hundred individuals involved if one assumes each sighting has been of a different bird. Many of these have been just flying over, including a single flock of a dozen on 7th November, but as the autumn has progressed I’m noticing more of them flying up from the trees and hedges around the edge of the meadows here – presumably ones that have now settled into a local feeding and roosting routine rather than just migrating over on their way elsewhere. If you’d like to try and see one yourself if you’re visiting, the trees in north-west corner of the West Meadow behind the pond seems to be one of their favourite spots to perch. Listen out for their sneezy whistling call, or sometimes a loud ‘tick’ rather like a Robin.
Photo: Mick Temple
Despite the indisputable transition to winter (and the wind is particularly bitter as I write this!) we still enjoyed some pleasantly mild days through to almost the end of November which brought out the odd Red Admiral – a heart-warming sight so late in the year. This familiar butterfly which most of you will have seen in your gardens is now regarded as a partial migrant meaning some individuals still migrate south to escape the winter weather but many others now choose to hibernate in sheds, outbuildings and dense hedges. For this reason they are often the first and last butterfly seen in any given year as the slightest hint of warm sunshine can coax them out of their winter hiding place in search of a source of nectar. In the late autumn and very early spring you might see one on late or early flowering plants or even fallen fruit.
As the leaves have now all but fallen one of the things we always look forward to at this time of year is looking for Brown Hairstreak eggs. As I mentioned in my previous blog post this scarce butterfly likes to lay its eggs on fresh Blackthorn shoots, tucked in close to a junction of a shoot or thorn. As they are less than a millimetre across they can be very tricky to find but on the bare dark brown stems the white eggs stand out quite well in the winter. In addition to the two I discovered on our new Blackthorn memorial space in the East Meadow a while back we’ve since found several more around the site and are now into double figures with some popular spots yet to be checked – and this will likely still only be a small percentage of the true number as many will remain hidden from us – and hopefully hungry Blue Tits!
Brown Hairstreak egg (Photo: Butterfly Conservation)
On the grounds management side of things Gareth and I are now getting close to the end of cutting this year’s allotted areas of grass around the edges of the meadows and among the trees. As usual we will be leaving around 10-15% of the grass uncut to provide areas for wildlife to spend the winter. You may also notice some piles of grass cuttings which we leave dotted about around the margins, again to provide refuge for wildlife such as Frogs, Toads, Grass Snakes and small mammals. This winter we’ll also be refreshing our Wildlife Garden near the toilets by digging over and reseeding the flowerbeds, and hopefully starting to lay some of the main hedge between the two meadows. Hedge laying is a traditional technique in which the hedge plants are cut at the base in such a way that they can be folded over almost to the horizontal and are then bound together with stakes and long flexible stems (usually Hazel) known as ‘binders’. The result is a hedge which puts as much of its energy into thickening out as it does growing vertically, creating a stock-proof barrier far better than any fence.
Example of hedge laying
Talking of livestock, if you’ve visited us recently you will have very likely noticed that our sheep have gone away for their Christmas holiday. They’ve been doing a great job of keeping the sward short in the West Meadow for the past three months or so and they will be coming back in January until the end of the winter to continue their valuable work! As the West Meadow has more luxuriant grass growth their nibbling means the wild flowers will have a head start come next spring. And in case you are feeling that spring seems an awfully long way away, take heart from the fact that at Clandon Wood we have already started hearing Song Thrushes, Mistle Thrushes and Great Tits beginning to sing again and a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming occasionally. On mild days in January and February the odd bumblebee and butterfly can even be seen taking to the wing – so don’t despair, even in the depths of winter spring is already brewing!
Early morning view across the East Meadow
In my last blog post I speculated about the early onset of autumn, and there can now be no doubt as we go into October that the season is well and truly upon us. The meadows here at Clandon Wood are now all cut and baled, the sheep have arrived and are enjoying the regrowth in the West Meadow, and the hawthorn berries have been glowing bright red in the hedgerows for several weeks, awaiting the arrival of the winter migrant bird species to feast upon them.
The weather so far in meteorological autumn has been a mixed bag, though the regular bouts of squally Atlantic fronts have only added to the sense that we missed out September altogether and skipped fast forward to October. It’s far from doom and gloom though, and as ever there has been much to see and admire in the changing natural landscape in recent weeks.
A particularly impressive feature of the last week or so of September at Clandon Wood was the spectacle of hundreds upon hundreds of House Martins and Swallows flying over, sometimes quite high but at other times dashing through the meadow at speed just inches above the ground – in fact at one point I noticed one almost fly underneath our buggy! In my opinion there can be fewer more enthralling sights in the natural world than this – literally migration in action. It’s incredible to consider that, as I write this, these same birds will now likely be somewhere over the European mainland and will soon be crossing the mountains and deserts of Africa and spending the Northern Hemisphere winter flying around above elephants, big cats and giraffes, reaping the benefits of living in an everlasting summer. Unfortunately they are rather too fast for my camera skills but visiting birdwatcher Dave Carlsson got some wonderful photos of one of the local Red Kites recently.
Red Kite – Dave Carlsson
Other migrant birds we have seen in or over the site of late include good numbers of Whinchats, a couple of Wheatears and several Yellow Wagtails. None of these species breed in Surrey any longer so it’s certain that these individuals have travelled some distance before choosing Clandon Wood to drop in for a pit stop. The Wheatears will have likely come furthest of all, as members of the leucorhoa sub-race of this species carry out the remarkable journey from Canada and Greenland to Southern Africa and back every year. Another long distant migrant we saw flying over recently was an Osprey, the fish-eating bird of prey that breeds in Scotland, Wales and in more northerly parts of England, and is thankfully now increasing in numbers again having approached the brink of extinction in the early 20th century. This individual will now likely be well on its way to its wintering grounds in West Africa.
The main task we on the grounds team have been concentrating on recently is cutting the grass in the areas the tractors cannot reach, in particular around the trees. The longer grass is too much for the sheep to eat and by removing a total of 85% of the cuttings from the meadows each year we ensure that coarse grasses and scrub do not encroach into the grassland, thereby keeping the wild flower diversity as high as possible – as they are not having to compete for nutrients with the more vigorous plant species – which is beneficial for a whole host of invertebrates, particularly bees and butterflies.
Talking of butterflies, the butterfly transect season has now come to a close. It’s been great to be involved with this project for the first time at Clandon Wood this year and add our data to that from over 2000 sites nationwide. In total we recorded 2467 individuals of 26 species on our 17 transect walks, which just goes to prove how valuable our 12 hectares is in the greater scheme of things! Improvements we plan to make to the site in the winter months which should benefit butterflies include sowing more wild flower seed, in particular Kidney Vetch which attracts the Small Blue – one of the more unusual species we have here, and, as ever, leaving around 15% of the marginal grass areas uncut to provide overwintering habitat for larvae, pupae and eggs of various species.
Just to prove how quickly beneficial planting can reap rewards, while recently checking the Blackthorns in the new East Meadow memorial space we planted earlier this year I found a couple of Brown Hairstreak eggs on one of the plants. This is one of the more unusual butterfly species we have here at Clandon Wood and, as Blackthorn is its larval food plant, it’s really great to see something we have done produce such a quick result.
Brown Hairstreak egg
It’s also heartening to see, even as winter approaches, plenty of flowers still in bloom in the meadows, including Field Scabious, Meadow Buttercup, Bird’s-foot Trefoil and both Red and White Campions. Also late flowering species such as Ivy have come into bloom, providing a valuable extra source of nectar for all sorts of insects, including Ivy Bees which, as their name suggests, specialise in feeding on this plant.
Ivy Bee (Colletes hederae)
One last bit of nature news for this edition of the blog is the discovery of a new species at Clandon Wood; in fact one never recorded in Surrey before! Local entomologist Andrew Halstead visited us here last summer and discovered two males of the rare sawfly Aprosthema melanurum. The striking feature of this tiny insect is its tuning fork-shaped antennae. It feeds on Meadow Vetchling which we have a great deal of in the meadows here so hopefully it will continue to find a home in future and be joined many more unusual species over time. Please do let us know if you see anything out of the ordinary when visiting, you may just find a new species for Clandon Wood!
Although we at last had some rain towards the end of July it has done little to change the fact that this has been one of the driest summers in recent years. The prolonged dry spell means the meadows here at Clandon Wood are rather shorter and thinner than last year and many of the seeds have already set on the plants, so we are likely to be cutting and baling the hay two to three weeks earlier than in 2016. As I mentioned in my previous blog post the drier weather has produced an interesting mix of plants in the meadows this year with certain species doing much better than we have seen before and other moisture-loving species not performing quite so well. We’re also discovering more new additions to our plant list all the time. Recent discoveries here have included Agrimony, Corn Spurrey, Narrow-leaved Pepperwort, Shaggy Soldier, Ploughman’s-spikenard and Small Toadflax.
Another upshot of this dry weather is it’s proving to be an excellent summer for butterflies with recording rates of most species up a great deal on last year. In fact, data from Butterfly Conservation show that records from butterfly transect walks in Surrey in late June and early July represent a 192% increase compared to last year’s figures from the same period. Our transect walks here at Clandon Wood – which you may remember I mentioned we have started this summer – have proved very revealing in terms of finding out more about our butterfly populations. The most notable find so far has been the discovery of a small population of White-letter Hairstreaks – one of the scarcest butterflies in the UK. Their rarity is partly due to their dependence on Elm trees which since the 1970s have been almost entirely infected by Dutch Elm Disease so tend not to grow very large or be particularly long-lived these days. This discovery means we now have all four species of Hairstreak which occur in Surrey here at Clandon Wood: Brown, Green, Purple and White-letter.
Other butterflies of note recently have included the first site record of Silver-washed Fritillary on
17th July, nectaring on Lavender near the office, reasonable numbers of Brown Argus and Small Copper and the emergence of the second generation of Small Blues; one of our flagship species here. We are currently in discussion with Butterfly Conservation to try and source some seeds of this species’ preferred larval foodplant, Kidney Vetch, which we do have in the meadows at Clandon Wood but not a great deal of. We’re also looking at bringing in more native plants which will benefit butterflies; it was pleasing to find several Brimstone butterfly caterpillars recently on the Alder Buckthorns we planted around the West Pond earlier this year. Plant it and they will
Another notable butterfly sighting here recently was the first Clouded Yellow of the year in the West Meadow in mid-July followed by another on 1st August. This species migrates to Britain from Southern Europe and Africa every year in variable numbers and is a distinctive feature of late summer: if you see an amber-coloured butterfly zooming through your garden or a meadow at this time of year it will almost certainly be one of these. By the end of August last year there were at least 3-4 flying around the meadows here, so it may be that there are more to come this year if the weather improves again. We’ve also seen a couple of Painted Ladies recently, another long distant migrant from the south.
Another species that performs a similarly impressive migration is the Humming-bird Hawk-moth which hovers as it feeds on plants such as Red Valerian and Buddleia, hence the Humming-bird part of its name. On 17th July we observed one laying eggs on a Lady’s Bedstraw in the East Meadow. When the larvae emerge they will feed on this plant before pupating and emerging as an adult moth. If the weather is mild enough some may even hibernate through the winter. It just goes to prove the importance of cutting our meadows relatively late in the season and leaving some areas uncut through the winter, to give incredible insects like this the opportunity to complete their life cycles.
Humming-bird Hawk-moth (photo by Sheila Barter)
Those of you who attended my bird talk here back in April may remember I mentioned we had installed a Kestrel nest box towards the end of the winter, and I’m very pleased to confirm that four youngsters fledged the nest recently, and we’ve been enjoying watching them flying about in the meadows and learning to hover and catch food. The chicks were ringed by a licensed bird ringer before they fledged so we will be able to keep track of them if they are seen and reported somewhere else.
On the West Pond the young Coots continue to grow while Lady Pond in the East Meadow is now home to young Moorhens and Mallards. We still have at least one Skylark hanging around which hopefully may mean they are still attempting to breed here. There’s also at least one pair of Reed Buntings which we’re regularly seeing flying out of the long grass in the West Meadow. I’m often met with surprise when I tell people that many more species of bird nest on or close to the ground rather than up in trees. For this reason it’s very important to keep to paths where possible and keep dogs under close control to avoid disturbing them unnecessarily. Other birds of note recently have included a large flock of several dozen Goldfinches attracted to the seeds on the meadow plants, a Stonechat in the West Orchard area on 18th July and a rather unseasonal Yellow Wagtail which flew over on the 13th. Yellow Wagtail is another bird species which no longer breeds in Surrey, so is usually only encountered in this area when it stops off on migration in spring and autumn. Towards the end of July we noticed Swifts flying south overhead, always one of the first bird species to leave us as autumn approaches but seemingly rather earlier than usual this year. Everything is pointing towards us having a slightly earlier autumn this year, but although the summer flowers may fade and the days grow shorter there is still a great deal of beauty and interest to be found at Clandon Wood, whatever the season.
Goldfinches in the West Orchard
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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
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
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