Cold snaps bring new and unusual birds to Clandon Wood, but as the snow thaws spring begins to stir.

Well, what a strange few weeks it’s been! First the ‘Beast from The East’ blasted us into meteorological spring with blizzards and biting winds at the start of March before a second, albeit rather short-lived, wave of arctic weather arrived mid-month. In between there were some reasonably pleasant days with the temperature rising towards the mid-teens Celsius.

Such cold snaps at this time of year can be very hard for wildlife, particularly those species that have already started breeding or returning to their breeding areas. Birds, at least, have the advantage of being able to swiftly escape the onset of hard weather and such extremes of cold as we have seen recently can lead to some extraordinary movements of birds flying away from ice and snow in search of more clement conditions.

Clandon Wood in the snow

At Clandon Wood the most notable such movements were seen on 28th February just as ‘The Beast’ began to take hold. On that day we saw some extraordinary counts of some rather unusual bird species. The species worst affected by very cold weather are wetland birds such as waders which find it impossible to feed when water bodies and wetlands are frozen. As such, there was a remarkable movement of Lapwing and Golden Plover across Surrey trying to evade the worst of the weather. Here at Clandon Wood we recorded over two hundred Lapwing and forty Golden Plover on that day, mostly streaming through in a southerly direction, but a few dropping in to the meadows to rest or look for food. I stumbled across a group of six Lapwings in the overflow car park at one point and a little later three briefly came down on Gentle Down in the West Meadow.

Lapwings

Such movements carried on for much of the week but not with quite the same intensity as that memorable day. Another memorable moment, also on the 28th, came during one of our regular bird surveys when I was lucky enough to see two Mediterranean Gulls flying overhead, gleaming white in the sunlight reflecting off the snow. This species now breeds in increasing numbers along the south coast of Britain but is still a relatively unusual sight inland.

Mediterranean Gulls

The second bout of snow delivered another new species for the site bird list when a Woodlark flew low over the car park while I was salting the front entrance early on 19th March – it was so low I suspect it may even have flown up from somewhere onsite. Like the aforementioned waders, this largely ground-dwelling bird is one that would very quickly starve were it to remain in an area where the ground is covered in snow, so is forced to gamble and expend energy in flying to look for clear areas in which to feed. The importance of putting food out in your own garden for birds is never more obvious than in such conditions when all manner of unusual species from Fieldfares to Reed Buntings and more can turn up in even relatively suburban gardens.

Woodlark – in more pleasant conditions! (Photo: John Rowland ©)

Despite winter throwing its worst at us just as spring is trying to awaken, it’s incredible how quickly nature can bounce back after a cold snap as within just a couple of days of the snow thawing the birds were singing again and Woodpeckers were drumming. In fact, even during the snow just the other day I watched a female Blackbird gathering nesting material in my garden at home.

This Song Thrush was quick to get out and find a worm when the snow began to thaw

Hawfinches are still with us with up to six or seven recorded at times recently, though usually flying over – the odd one or two occasionally perches up in the trees behind the west pond. How much longer they stick around and whether any will stay to boost our very small breeding population remains to be seen but it’s certainly been a remarkable winter for these chunky finches.

I’m pleased to report the local Skylarks are in fine voice again now and we have on several occasions recently seen one come down to land in the East Meadow. Remember this red-listed ground-nesting species is very vulnerable to disturbance, particularly from dogs, so do please keep your dog on a short lead at all times when in the meadows.

The warmer sunshine (when it has made an appearance) at this time of year has started to stir some invertebrates and before the second ‘mini Beast’ we saw several Buff-tailed Bumblebee queens out looking for nest sites, as well as the odd 7-spot Ladybird and a Red Admiral butterfly.

Talking of butterflies, we have recently been sent the statistics from last summer’s transect surveys carried out at various sites across Surrey. We recorded twenty-five butterfly species here during the year which puts us in the top thirty transect sites in the county. Most exciting of all though, Clandon Wood is one of just six of the 105 Surrey transect sites at which White-letter Hairstreak was recorded. As such, the Butterfly Conservation Surrey & SW London branch have decided to have a field trip here in late June in the hope of seeing one of these rare and elusive butterflies.

On the grounds maintenance side of things I’m pleased to report Gareth and I have finished laying this winter’s section of the main hedgerow between the two meadows. We won’t be doing any more this year now as we’re into bird nesting season but come next winter we will be laying another fifty metres or so.

In other news, if you’re visiting Clandon Wood soon and want to get more up-to-date news on what wildlife has been seen recently then look out for our new wildlife sightings board near the office door.