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.
Early May at Clandon Wood. The meadows are growing apace, many resident and migrant birds are singing and the air is scented with Hawthorn blossom.
Spring has been rather a protracted season this year, especially given the exceptionally warm spell we had in February. What it has meant is that everything has felt quite relaxed and every plant has had its turn in flowering, unlike some years where it seems as though everything happens in a flash! The early whites and yellows of Blackthorn, Grey Willow and a fabulous display from the drought-tolerant Dandelions – which clearly did well after last year’s dry summer – gave way to similarly spectacular showings from White and Red Dead-nettles, Field and Germander Speedwells and Ground-ivy. All these early-flowering species are so important as sources of nectar for spring pollinators such as Bee-flies and various Bumblebee species, which we’ve seen many of already this year; many insects also emerged early this year due to the February heatwave.
By this time of year most bird species are already well into their breeding cycle and some may already have young chicks. Species we’ve seen gathering food for hungry mouths recently include Starling and Blackbird. Our Kestrel pair seem to be settled in to the nest box and all the signs are that they will breed successfully again this year. On the West Pond we have a pair of Coots while a pair of Moorhens have again moved in to Lady Pond in the East Meadow. We are fairly confident we also have a pair of Skylarks nesting in the middle of the East Meadow again but as usual they are proving decidedly elusive!
The hedgerows and bramble patches are playing host to at least three pairs of Common Whitethroats and, as was the case last spring, a singing male Lesser Whitethroat has recently arrived in the roadside hedge which has now grown to a height and density to be to its liking. It’s always incredible to think of these 10-15 gram birds making the journey to Africa and back to Surrey every year and reminds us how important it is that they have suitable and secure places to nest when they do return.
Speaking of hedges, we have now finished laying the main section of hedgerow between the two meadows and it’s already greening up and flowering nicely. In a year or two it will have regrown and be entirely stockproof and an ideal corridor and nesting space for a variety of birds and small mammals.
The butterfly season is now underway although has been a bit stop/start thanks to the unsettled end to April and beginning of May. Nonetheless, we’ve so far managed to carry out two surveys during which we’ve recorded some of the classic hibernating and early emerging spring species such as Brimstone, Peacock, Green-veined White, Orange-tip, Holly Blue and Green Hairstreak; we’ve seen particularly good numbers of the latter lately which is encouraging as we had a good spring for them last year too, so it seems they are doing well here at Clandon Wood.
Although it may seem hard to believe as I write this on a wild, wet and windy day in the middle of March, the start of April marks the beginning of the butterfly survey season, which seems an appropriate time to reflect on last year.
Out of the 120 sites in Surrey where weekly transects were walked between April and September I’m pleased to report that, in 2018, Clandon Wood came joint sixth in terms of the number of species recorded. A total of thirty species were recorded including the first confirmed site records of Dingy Skipper and Dark Green Fritillary.
In addition, we were one of only eleven transect sites in the county where White-letter Hairstreaks were recorded. The rarest of the four Hairstreak species found in the UK, we are very lucky to have White-letters here at Clandon Wood and are doing our best to help them by planting Elm trees around the site; the tree of choice for these butterflies to lay their eggs on, with the caterpillars then emerging in early spring to feed on the flower buds. The Elms we have planted are all Dutch Elm disease-resistant varieties such as ‘Lutece’, unlike the English Elms around our boundaries which sadly now only grow to around 5-10 metres before they succumb to the disease.
The 2019 butterfly season got off to an unusually early start due to the unprecedented warm spell in the second half of February but, as the weather has turned rather more inclement, the hibernating species have returned to their winter hiding places for now. It won’t be long though before they re-emerge along with the first generations of early hatching species such as Orange-tip and Speckled Wood. As the different habitat structures at Clandon Wood develop over the years and with careful management, including introducing larval foodplants for specialist species, we are hopeful we will see the number of butterflies here increase.
As has been the trend in recent years the second half of this winter is proving to be the coldest part of the year with the first proper frosts and snow of the season coming in the latter part of January into early February. Such cold weather may seem cruel when it comes to wildlife and it’s certainly true that many animals will struggle to survive in prolonged spells of freezing temperatures. On the plus side it does have the advantage of suppressing overwintering parasites and pathogens which can be detrimental to insects and plants in the growing season. As such, it’s often the case that summers after a very cold winter can be good for butterflies – as was the case in 2018.
Talking of butterflies, we have recently been carrying out our annual search for Brown Hairstreak eggs in the various patches of Blackthorn around the site. The last butterfly to emerge in the summer (usually flies mid-late July-September), the adults can be quite elusive so looking for the eggs in winter when the Blackthorn twigs are bare is the best way to gauge the health of the population in a given area. This winter I’m pleased to say we found 28 eggs dotted around the place; slightly down on last year’s 36 but still a good number and, in contrast to most butterfly species, it seems Brown Hairstreak had a generally rather poor year in 2018 so this slight reduction is not too much to worry about.
Even more excitingly we have also confirmed our first White-letter Hairstreak eggs on a couple of the Wych Elms along the western boundary of the site – thanks to the help of Bill Downey from Butterfly Conservation. As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, the White-letter Hairstreak is one of the scarcest butterflies in the UK now owing to its dependence on Elm on which to lay its eggs, mature specimens of which are now much harder to find thanks to the arrival of Dutch Elm Disease in the 20th Century – many millions of trees in Britain had succumbed to the disease by 1980.
We have recently seen some signs of birds responding to the cold weather, as happened early last year. A few Lapwings have been seen flying south overhead while in the hedgerows numbers of species such as Fieldfare and Goldcrest have noticeably increased. The ponds have been frozen for several days as I write this in early February so our resident wetland species such as Coot and Mallard have had to move on in search of unfrozen water. For when the birds do return after the thaw we have created a woven willow hide by Lady Pond and a wooden viewing platform by the West Pond to help visitors get a good view without disturbing them. It’s important to not approach too close to the edge of any water body as birds and other wildlife get very alarmed when they see a human shape approaching over the skyline and can easily abandon nests or young in the process.
Our resident pair of Kestrels are already noisily defending their nest box so we’re hopeful that they will again go on to rear their young in it this summer. We recently heard news that one of last year’s chicks was seen not far away in Ripley; not quite as far from home as the one that turned up in Essex last year but good to know it’s doing well.
It can seem at this time of year as if the meadows are looking very bare and lifeless but look a little closer and you’ll be amazed what you can see. We’re really excited to have found at least a dozen Bee Orchid leaf rosettes in the short grass quite near the Pavilion; an encouraging increase from just a couple in previous years. Hopefully they will continue spreading around the site.
Mammals can be particularly tricky to find at this time of year as many of them partially or fully hibernate. We have a regular trio of Roe Deer that are frequenting the area at the northern end of the site, they can quite often be seen in the field just to the north of West Pond. Snowy weather offers another means of finding out which animals have been active onsite as they leave tell-tale tracks around the place. We have recently found Badger, Fox, various birds and possibly Hedgehog footprints in the snow here.
Despite the icy weather of late, there’s no denying the amount of daylight is now noticeably increasing and with it the amount of birdsong. We’ve also started hearing Great Spotted Woodpeckers drumming on sunny days lately; a sure sign that spring can’t be too far away!
Autumn has well and truly run its course, the leaves have all turned and mostly fallen and the days are getting very short. Winter has arrived at Clandon Wood. As usual at this time of year, a small flock of sheep have arrived to help keep the grass short. They’ve had a few weeks’ grazing in the West Meadow and will soon be moved into a fenced-off section in the East Meadow. There may only be seven of them but we’re already seeing the effects of their presence; the sward is looking lightly munched and birds are beginning to follow the flock around to forage for worms and insects disturbed by their hooves.
The sheep have arrived
In October we saw the first Redwings and Fieldfares arrive from Scandinavia, with many hundreds flying over on some days. Starlings, too, have been building in number, as migrant birds fly in to spend the winter here, bulking up the flocks of more local birds. Our hedgerows are a vital source of food for hungry birds at this time of year, particularly the migrant thrushes, which drop in to happily gobble up the berries. Unlike a lot of farmland hedges ours are not flailed but laid cyclically, meaning they are allowed to grow freely, flower and fruit for several years before laying. Each time the hedge is laid it gets denser and more vigorous, providing more food and shelter for all sorts of wildlife but also negating the need for any fencing to keep livestock in the fields.
Another bird that is often seen in large numbers at this time of year is the humble Woodpigeon. It’s not uncommon on clear and crisp mornings in late October and November to see many hundreds or even thousands of them on the move overhead. It’s thought that these are mostly British birds simply flocking together to find good feeding areas but, as is the case with most of our resident species, they are probably joined by some birds from overseas.
It’s tempting to feel at this time of year that, as the meadows have been cut and the autumn colours on the trees have gone, that the landscape is now drab and devoid of colour. This couldn’t be further from the truth as the dramatic skyscapes of winter bring out the greens and browns in the meadows against the inky blue of the clouds. Look closer around the meadows and you will find there is still much in flower, from Knapweeds to Stork’s-bills. In one of our recently created ‘groves’ (the fenced-off areas you may have seen in the meadows) a young Gorse bush is in bloom as I write this. Their coconut-scented golden flowers add a wonderful dash of colour to even the dullest of days. Although the main flowering season is in spring, Gorse can and does flower at any time of year, hence the old country saying ‘when gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of fashion’.
A glance at either of the ponds at Clandon Wood may lead you to think that things are rather quiet at present, but there is still lots going on. We saw Common Darters egg-laying well into November and the larvae of many other dragonfly species will already be active under the water, feeding up ready to emerge next spring and summer. In terms of water birds the West Pond is still playing host to a single Little Grebe and we’ve had occasional visits from a Mute Swan or two, though the summer drought means the water level may still be a little low for them.
We’ve continued to capture footage of a Water Rail skulking around the edges of West Pond, though I’ve still yet to see it in the flesh. All attempts by a licensed bird ringer to try and catch this bird and ring it have failed, unfortunately, but it’s great to know it’s stuck around for a while now – clearly the habitat is to its liking. Another revelation from the trail camera here has been small numbers of Teal visiting during the night. The smallest of the dabbling ducks, this is another species that breeds in the UK in small numbers but the population is massively boosted in the winter by immigrants from Scandinavia, Siberia, Iceland and the near continent.
We are still seeing our little local gang of Roe Deer from time to time, often along the northern boundary of the site, and have also found footprints in some of the muddier areas of the site.
It’s getting rather late in the year now for the majority of insects but in November we still saw the odd Buff-tailed Bumblebee or butterfly including a Painted Lady on the 2nd. Even as we enter the depths of winter a mild, calm day and a bit of sunshine can be all it takes to coax a Red Admiral or one of the other overwintering species out of their winter hiding place. I have even seen one on New Year’s Eve before!
Year on year, the benefits of our more sensitive style of land management here at Clandon Wood should become apparent. There can be few better indicators of this than our fungi population which I have certainly seen increase in just the three years I’ve been working here. Fungi perform a variety of vital roles in any ecosystem, from helping transfer nutrients from the soil to plants, to breaking down all sorts of organic matter. They are all around us in the soil and plants though only become visible when they produce fruiting bodies, some of which we know as mushrooms or toadstools, although fungi fruiting bodies can take on many forms. New species we have seen this autumn include White Dapperling and Meadow Puffball while regular favourites such as Shaggy Inkcap and Yellow Fieldcap have also been much in evidence.
White Dapperling on the bank in front of the office
Early autumn is a time of plenty in the natural world as plants and trees are heavy with nuts, seeds and fruits. One species that benefits from the glut of nuts at this time of year is the Jay, the most colourful member of the crow family, which relies on acorns for the bulk of its diet. They are often more conspicuous in autumn as they roam about in search of oaks. It was particularly encouraging recently to see some harvesting acorns from some of our young oak trees in the East Meadow, which are mature enough to be producing fruit now.
The shortening days and lengthening nights around the Autumnal Equinox are the trigger for many birds to leave our shores and, as was the case last autumn, we saw some impressive numbers of Swallows and House Martins on the move recently, with as many as six or seven hundred of the latter flying over on 11th September, some coming down to feed over our ponds and meadows for a while before continuing on their journey. Most of these will be well on their way across Europe now, heading to Africa for the winter, but it’s nice to know that the landscape of Clandon Wood played a small part in their epic expedition.
House Martin (photo: Malcolm Fincham)
Yellow Wagtails seem to have had a good year in their breeding areas as we’ve seen more than usual dropping in or flying over recently. Particularly impressive was a flock of at least sixteen which dropped down for a short time at the West Pond on 20th September. The drought this summer means both our ponds are lower than usual for this time of year and this is particularly beneficial to wetland birds or any other wildlife that likes to feed on exposed mud.
In addition to the Yellow Wagtails we’ve seen Meadows Pipits, Yellowhammers, Stock Doves, Green Sandpipers, Snipe and various small mammals visiting this area lately, either to bathe in the shallow water or feed in the mud. Of particular interest in early October was our first site record of Water Rail, with one captured on our trail camera running across the mud in this area. This elusive bird spends much of its time skulking away in reedbeds and marshy areas, its presence often only betrayed by its pig-like squealing call. They’re fairly scarce as a breeding species in Surrey so this bird is probably a migrant that has dropped in on its way elsewhere, or if we’re lucky it may stay and spend the winter here. With all this life going on at the ponds please remember not to approach too close to the water’s edge and keep dogs under close control at all times.
Another unusual migrant bird seen recently was an Osprey which flew south early on 18th September. This fish-eating raptor which comes to us from West Africa every year is really increasing in number now after a sharp decline in the 19th Century. It now has breeding strongholds in Scotland, Wales and parts of Northern England.
Another season of butterfly transect walks has now come to an end and early indications suggest it’s been a bumper year for many species. Scarcer species such as White-letter Hairstreak, Purple Hairstreak, Brown Argus and Small Copper seem to have done particularly well and this has been reflected in our records here. Only time will tell if the dry conditions have a detrimental knock-on effect on other species, as happened in 1977 after the famously hot summer of ‘76. Species such as Small Tortoiseshell are already in decline and could do without another setback such as this. Nice to see on 18th September was our first Clouded Yellow of the year, one of the species which migrates to our shores from Africa and southern Europe. Species such as Speckled Wood, Red Admiral, Peacock and Brimstone can be seen on the wing on sunny days almost until the end of the year and some of them will hibernate and emerge again in the spring – so look out for them if you’re visiting Clandon Wood in the coming weeks.
The main meadows were mowed in early September and we are now busy cutting half of the grass in the treed areas of the site. It’s tempting to think that there is a dearth of flowers at Clandon Wood at this time of year, but as any of you who attended Gareth’s recent plant safari will know there is still much to see. Plants such as Field Scabious, Musk Mallow, Yarrow, Toadflax and Greater and Common Knapweed are putting on a great late display of flowers, helped along by the prolonged dominance of fine weather we’ve been enjoying at the tail end of one of the hottest summers in living memory combined with the cool nights and dewy mornings of early autumn.
Of particular value at this time of year is Common Ivy, the rather unusual-looking flowers of which provide a late source of nectar for butterflies, wasps and hornets and the Ivy Bee; a colonial species which was only recorded in the UK in the early part of this century but which now appears to be thriving in the south of England. Its flight season is perfectly timed to coincide with the flowering period of Ivy (September-November) as it relies almost exclusively on this plant as a source of pollen. As they are one of the mining bees they make their homes in holes in south-facing areas of exposed sandy soil and we have discovered we have a busy colony near the Wildlife Garden.
Despite some rather cooler, wetter conditions in the second week of August, the hot weather has continued largely unabated since my last blog post and the meadows here at Clandon Wood are now ready for harvest. As the wild flowers have all but gone to seed and the fruits are ripening in the hedges, so too the birds, butterflies and many other animals are completing their breeding cycles and beginning their preparations for autumn and winter.
The Swifts have largely all flown south now and the hedgerows at Clandon Wood are busy with Whitethroats and Blackcaps fattening themselves up on elderberries and blackberries ahead of their own long journeys. Juvenile birds abound with young Goldfinches and Pheasants in the meadows, rather unsteady Buzzards whining overhead and the usual Little Grebe, Coot and Moorhen families on the ponds. Some of our resident Kestrel family are still around, often seen perched in the young trees or flying low over the meadows, not to be confused with the black and white scythe-winged, short-tailed Hobby which we’ve seen quite a bit of recently. One of my favourite birds, these dashing migratory falcons feed on dragonflies and birds such as Swallows and Swifts which they are agile enough to catch and sometimes eat in the air. A late breeder, they will now be feeding themselves and their young up ahead of their return to Africa in the coming weeks.
Kestrel, sporting its shiny new leg ring
Hobby hawking over the meadows
As I mentioned, dragonflies are a staple of the Hobby’s diet and at this time of year there are lots around, particularly near the ponds here at Clandon Wood. One of the most numerous species around now is the Common Darter; look out for the red-bodied males and golden females hawking around low over the meadows.
Common Darter female
Butterfly numbers are starting to tail off a little, with the high summer species such as Meadow Brown and Gatekeeper coming to the end of their flight seasons now. The second generation of Common Blue – one of our most numerous butterflies here – seems particularly good this year with just under two hundred logged in a single transect walk on 7th August. In good years species such as Dingy Skipper will have a second brood which has indeed happened here this year – this is great news as we only recorded the species for the first time here in the spring. Other species we’ve been seeing more of than usual lately include Brown Argus and Small Heath. One of the last butterfly species to emerge in the year and as such one of the true heralds of autumn approaching, we have seen a few Brown Hairstreaks at Clandon Wood recently. As regular readers of this blog will know we have a fairly good population of this species here although the adult butterflies are considerably harder to find than their eggs which we look for in our Blackthorn hedges in the winter months.
I’ve been running my moth trap fairly regularly through the summer months with some good results, including many new species we’ve not recorded here before. One of the most colourful was the Rosy-striped Knothorn (Oncocera semirubella), a tiny micro moth – just an inch long and coloured like a rhubarb and custard sweet. This species lives on Bird’s-foot Trefoil in chalk grassland and is confined to southern counties in the UK.
The micro moths are a fascinating and often overlooked group. They make up the lion’s share of moths in Britain with over 1,600 species compared to only around 800 of the larger or ‘macro moth’ species. Due to their often tiny size many micros have adapted to fill some very inconspicuous niches. It’s tempting to think that, as the flowers and grasses in meadows such as here at Clandon Wood fade in late summer, so the wildlife value of the habitat diminishes but in fact it is then that many species such as Little Conch, Cocksfoot Moth and Teasel Marble begin the next stage of their life cycles as their larvae feed inside the seed heads of plants such as Ragwort, Sow-thistle, Cocksfoot and Teasel – not to mention the hosts of butterfly larvae which will be emerging in the coming weeks to feed on herbaceous growth of many plants and grasses. So, while it’s tempting to see the transition from summer to autumn as an ending, in many ways it is just a new beginning. There’s a palpable feeling of change in the natural world at this time of year and I for one absolutely love it.
It’s been an exciting few weeks here at Clandon Wood as we’ve transitioned into high summer, with new species seemingly being added to our site list almost daily.
The meadows have progressed quickly after the slow start to spring and there are now many plants in flower. Thanks to the prolonged dry spell, however, the grasses in particular have already gone over and turned the pale straw colour of late summer. Indeed, it’s hard to believe it’s only mid-July as I write this. It feels more like August already and we may be looking at a somewhat earlier hay cut this year, if the weather continues as it is. It’s certainly been a strange year.
In terms of new additions to our plant list the best find recently was a small troop of Pyramidal Orchids in the East Meadow. We’ve also noticed Bee Orchids appearing in several places around the site too after we recorded them last year for the first time here growing near the front entrance. The little caged-off patch near the Pavilion is one which we’re allowing to set seed as it’s in an area that we usually mow fairly regularly. Both these Orchids favour dry chalk grassland and rely on fungi in the soil to survive, so provide an excellent indicator that we are making the soil here more hospitable by not ploughing or spraying, etc.
Other new species we’ve found this year include Quaking-grass, Water Speedwell, Wild Parsnip and Meadow Fescue. It’s really encouraging to see existing species increasing too; Kidney Vetch in particular has given a great showing this year which will hopefully benefit the scarce Small Blue butterfly, the caterpillars of which feed exclusively on this chalk-loving plant. We recently had a visit from Bill Downey and Gail Jeffcoate from Butterfly Conservation who were particularly interested in looking for eggs of this species. They unfortunately weren’t able to find any on this occasion but were confident that the amount of Kidney Vetch onsite would in time support a small population.
We’ve been seeing Roe Deer here more regularly of late; most excitingly was seeing a female with two young fawns in the wetland area in the West Meadow on 24th May and we managed to capture footage of the three of them on our wildlife camera in this area. The parents will likely leave the fawns in the long grass during the day so do remember to keep dogs on a short lead at all times when out in the meadows.
Female Roe Deer
You may have seen on social media that we discovered a pair of Treecreepers nesting in one of the trees on the edge of the site. I’m pleased to report that after a sterling feeding effort from the adult birds three youngsters fledged early on 24th May. Many other birds have successfully bred here already this summer including Whitethroat, Green Woodpecker, Pheasant, Little Grebe and Coot. The West Pond currently has several youngsters of the latter two species in situ, while House Martins, Swallows and Swifts can often be seen feeding on insects overhead or occasionally sipping water from the pond itself.
Treecreeper taking food to the nest
House Martin – photo by Malcolm Fincham
Following on from their leg ring fitting in the middle of June, the four young Kestrels have all now fledged the nest box and can be seen out and about, often in the trees near the box or sometimes perched on the Pavilion or the office. Look (or listen!) out for them when you next visit.
During a couple of our regular butterfly surveys recently we were very pleased to record our 29th and 30th butterfly species – Dingy Skipper and Dark Green Fritillary. Both of these grassland species were ones we’d hoped to see move in in due course as there are populations at nearby Newlands Corner and Sheepleas, so these records are really encouraging. Other grassland specialist butterflies we’ve seen recently include the first Marbled Whites, Ringlets, Small and Essex Skippers of the year. On the Elms dotted around the edges of the site, particularly near the two ponds, we have again been recording White-letter Hairstreaks as their 2018 flight season got underway in mid-June. This is the scarcest butterfly we are lucky enough to have resident at Clandon Wood and is therefore attracting quite a bit of attention – in fact the Surrey branch of Butterfly Conservation recently had a field trip here specifically to see them.
White-letter Hairstreak – photo by Malcolm Fincham
All in all, I must say this spring and early summer has seen the site looking the best I’ve seen it in this my third summer working at Clandon Wood, and it’s really great to hear so much positive feedback from customers and visitors. Please do continue to enjoy the wealth of wildlife we have here and don’t forget to share your sightings with us!
The licensed bird ringer who installed the Kestrel nest box at Clandon Wood last year recently came in to fit leg rings on this year’s four chicks.
Ringing is in no way harmful to birds and provides us with a very valuable insight into their movements. One of last year’s youngsters was later found in Essex, you may remember! The advantage of the large coloured rings fitted to the Kestrels is they can be read from some distance away, so hopefully someone may see one of ours chicks in years to come. If you see a ringed bird you can report it at http://www.ring.ac/
The chicks have now grown up quite a bit since these photos were taken and have started leaving the box and flying around although they will likely linger in the area for a little while yet before they start to disperse.
It feels rather like I’ve started every blog post recently talking about the weather but it really has turned into one of the most turbulent springs we’ve seen in recent years. Aside from the brief settled spell in mid-April and the May Bank Holiday heatwave we’ve had just about every type of weather imaginable, which is unfortunately not great news for wildlife. After a shaky start though it does at last feel as though the season has stuttered into gear, although the lasting effects of such unpredictable conditions may take time to show.
The East Meadow, beginning to flower after a difficult spring
Butterflies will have doubtless struggled this spring, with so little in the way of clement weather for them to fly, feed and find a mate. Indeed, we are seven weeks into the transect survey season and have only managed to carry out three walks so far, and many of the classic early species have been emerging later than usual. On days when the sun has shone here at Clandon Wood we have at least seen a few bits out and about including the first Orange-tips, Holly Blues and Whites (Large, Small and Green-veined) of the year, along with the more numerous Brimstones, Peacocks and Commas. One species which is bucking the trend and does seem to be having a good year so far is Green Hairstreak. We are lucky to have all four of the Hairstreak species found in Surrey here at Clandon Wood, and although Green is the most common of the four it is still rather localised in its distribution. On our transect walk last week, Green Hairstreak was in fact the most numerous species, with eight recorded. Hopefully our efforts to increase the availability of their larval food plants such as Gorse will mean they continue to do well here.
Migrating birds, too, have been held up by the unsettled spring but it’s reassuring to see a few coming through at last. One of the sights birdwatchers eagerly look out for in March and April is the first Wheatear, the smart bandit mask-wearing birds that return to Europe from sub-Saharan Africa every year and undertake one of the most remarkable migration journeys. We’ve recorded two at Clandon Wood so far this spring, with one near the pavilion on 9th April and a second male favouring the log bench in the middle of the East Meadow on the 18th. Wheatears are not the only visitors from the south to have arrived recently as we’ve seen several Swallows, Swifts and House Martins along with most of the common warbler species. More notable was a singing male Lesser Whitethroat in the roadside hedge which arrived on 19th April and has been heard on a few occasions since. We’ve only recorded this species once on site before, a non-singing bird in the main hedgerow last August. Even if it doesn’t hang around all summer it’s still an encouraging sign as this species favours dense hedgerows so clearly ours are now to their liking.
The ponds have been proving popular recently too, particularly West Pond which is now playing host to pairs of Coot and Little Grebe, both on nests, as well as occasional Moorhen, Mallard and Canada Geese. Rather more unusual was the male Tufted Duck which visited on a couple of days recently. This diving duck would usually favour larger, deeper water bodies, although we have recorded it once before with a small number discovered to be visiting during the night thanks to our motion sensor wildlife camera.
The resident Kestrel pair have again taken up residence in our nest box, so fingers crossed they’ll be successful in their breeding attempt again this year – the licensed bird ringer who installed the box will be checking on their progress soon so I’ll keep you updated in the next blog post. A recent addition to our bird species list was the first sighting of a Barn Owl hunting along the roadside edge of the West Meadow, seen by George over the Bank Holiday weekend, followed by another sighting of one flying over the Pavilion on the 14th, reported by Simon. This is really encouraging news, partly because it means we’re providing good habitat for rodents for them to hunt, but also because they are a species that is very vulnerable to poor weather, so for one to be out now means it has endured the very worst that the British climate can throw at it and will hopefully go on to breed nearby. We have considered installing a nest box for them on site but the proximity to the road is a worry – Owls tend to fly quite low and slow which makes them vulnerable to being hit by cars, so a nest box would ideally need to be further away from the road than the size of our site allows.
As the days grow longer the meadows are now really bursting into life. As I type this the East Meadow is taking on a yellow haze thanks to the abundant Lesser Trefoil, particularly around the Pavilion. These will soon be followed by the richer gold of Bird’s-foot Trefoil – one of our most numerous plants here. As I’ve said in a previous blog post we really are discovering new species all the time, and recent additions to our plant list include Bulbous Buttercup, Field Wood-rush, Spiked Sedge and Cyperus Sedge. After last year’s reasonably settled and very dry spring gave us a tremendous floral display from drought-loving species such as Lady’s Bedstraw it will be interesting to see what the results will be of the completely different start to the growing season this year.
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.
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.
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.
As we all shed the thermal layers and return to more seasonal weather after the ferocious ‘Beast From The East’ that paid us an unsolicited visit last week, Gareth and I have been busy finishing off our winter work programme here at Clandon Wood. It’s a common misconception that winter is a quiet time in grounds maintenance, when in fact there is still much to do.
The most visible task we have just completed is laying a fifty-metre section of the main hedgerow between the two meadows. Hedge laying is a traditional technique in which the hedgerow plants are cut at the base in such a way that they can be folded over almost to the horizontal and are then held firmly in place 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 stronger than any fence. It’s also excellent for wildlife as, unlike, a modern tractor-flailed hedge it provides a far more extensive corridor for birds and small mammals to move around in and carry out their life cycles. Indeed, birds such as Nightingales will spend most of their time in a dense hedge such as this, only occasionally coming out towards the top to sing.
The completed section of hedge
Other jobs we have been carrying out in the past few weeks include turning over the flowerbeds in the Wildlife Garden ready for sowing again with wild flowers in the spring, as well as sprucing up the Bug Hotel. In the East Meadow between Lady Pond and the recently created ‘Patchwork Hill’ area we have also turned over a strip of the sward which we will soon be sowing with a seed mix that will hopefully benefit declining farmland bird species such as Linnet and Yellowhammer – maybe even a Turtle Dove if we’re very lucky.
‘Arable weed’ strip in the East Meadow
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