Party season has arrived in the woodlands once more: the time when many of the more sociable and colourful of our smaller bird species temporarily put aside territorial squabbles, joining together to form a foraging cooperative and sweep through the trees en masse on unified hunts for prey. Variously referred to as ‘mixed-species feeding flocks’, ‘mixed hunting parties’ or less formally a ‘bird wave’, all describe the structure and purpose of these entities, but none can convey the vibrant energy that accompanies the birds on their whirlwind woodland tours.
Bursting out from the woods, scattering into all parts of the Wych Elm like popping corn, excited Blue Tits immediately begin picking their way around the leafy twigs. There are a quite lot of them, too tricky to count accurately as they are so mobile. Blue Tits are numerous here and you rarely have to go far to see or hear one or more, so this could well be several local neighbouring families that have joined forces.
Foraging party member-Blue Tit
Seconds behind them dainty Long-tailed Tits appear, much gentler in their approach but then suddenly they’re everywhere, there must have been at least 12, maybe more.
Foraging party member- Long-tailed Tit
I realise I’m being treated to a close-up, eye-level view of a travelling foraging party! I wish I could better convey the excitement and energy transmitted by these little birds that I felt even through my double-glazed kitchen window, it’s quite magical. I’d have been happy with just the Blue and Long-tailed Tits, but then there are Great Tits too; only three that I can see, one of which is a smartly feathered juvenile, similarly coloured to the adults that arrived with it but not as brightly yellow. Again, probably a family.
Foraging party member- Great Tit
Birds continue to arrive, more Blue Tits, long-tailed Tits and then two Coal Tits, one of which perched on the end of a leafy twig and launched itself at the window, fluttering madly as it inspected its corners and joints for hiding insects or spiders.
Foraging party member-Coal Tit
Then just as I thought the last of the party members had arrived there are two Goldcrests. They are tricky to focus on as one seems to be chasing the other at speed through the tree branches. They may be our tiniest birds, but they’re quite feisty.
Most of the birds stay within the cover of the trees, but a few more adventurous ones venture over to check out parts of the building too. I already mentioned the Coal Tit coming to my window, but others were exploring the metal fire escape, which permanently in shade tends to have a coating of algae and lichens.
Blue and Long-tailed Tits tend to be the bravest, and where one bird ventures others follow to see what they’ve found, including a curious Goldcrest. Slightly below the level of my windows, I got to see the birds from some interesting angles,
These travelling foraging flocks typically have a core species around which others gather, typically Tits. Here I’m sure that Blue Tits are the central characters as well as being their most numerous members. They seem to lead or guide the flock and so are the first to arrive in a chosen foraging spot when they’re on the move. Other species accompanying or following them are known as attendants and they tend to join the foraging flock only when it enters their territory. Attendants may be other insectivores such as Nuthatches, Treecreepers and sometimes Woodpeckers.
Blue Tit in Wych Elm – leaves still covered with greenfly
The formation of mixed-species flocks is thought to benefit individuals by reducing the risk of predation; the more pairs of eyes that can spot predators such as Sparrowhawks and raise an alarm the better. On the same principal, it’s likely that their numbers and variety of feeding methods also increases foraging efficiency, the more pairs of eyes seeking insects the greater the chances of finding them. Differing sizes and methods of feeding allows the different species to forage in close proximity without conflict.
Enjoying the sunshine of this glorious morning, a bright-eyed Dunnock sat on a platform of leaves of the Laurel hedge preening and soaking up the warmth.
The sight of the sunbathing Dunnock sparked the idea of a theme for this morning’s walk, or rather the Laurel did. Bryn Euryn is almost an island, virtually surrounded by houses and running the length of the side I often begin my walks, is the busy A55 North Wales Expressway. Its summit was once the site of an ancient Hill Fort, where a Trig Point now stands. There are ruins of an old manor house and exposed rock cliffs around a field next to the car park mark the site of an old quarry. Opposite the car park there’s a large area of land given over to allotments. This long-reaching proximity of people and the plantings in their gardens, has inevitably led to the presence of trees, shrubs and flowers that wouldn’t be there naturally. Today I thought I’d make a point of looking out for some of the more obvious ones amongst the natives.
Cherry Laurel- Prunus laurocerasus
There’s quite a lot of Laurel growing in this particular spot on Bryn Euryn, doubtless planted when a grand house occupied the site now replaced with our small development of flats. This is Cherry Laurel, introduced from south-east Europe in 1547 and quickly popularised for creating ornamental hedges. Apart from the Rhododendron, it is the most common introduced evergreen in Britain. It’s beginning to flower here now: the flowerheads stand erect like candles and are made up of small creamy-white flowers that smell a bit like marzipan.
Twining into the Laurel, reaching across the path is Honeysuckle, which is a true native; its leaves already almost fully grown.
Greater Periwinkle-Vinca major
On the edge of the track and scrambling up the woodland slope deep blue Greater Periwinkle is flowering. Evergreen under-shrubs native to Europe, north-west Africa and southern Asia, this would most likely have been planted here originally, but the Periwinkles are long enough established and widespread in the wild to be included in wildflower books, often listed as garden escapes.
A Song Thrush was singing its energetic and joyous song rising up from somewhere on the steep slope below. eating Ivy berries, A Great Tit called out its signature ‘teacher-teacher’, loud and clear. Blue Tits were all around me, calling to one another as they flitted about investigating shrubs and trees in their endless quest to find food. I caught a glimpse of one above my head; it was pure luck that I caught one holding a twig in its claw while it pecked at a leaf bud. The marks above its head are insects, not specks on my lens!
Blackbirds were rustling around in thick Ivy, grabbing berries.
Another shrubby archway reaches over the path formed by more Laurel and Berberis, which is just beginning to flower. Berberis, or Barberry, is another shrub familiar in gardens. I also spotted a few small Mahonia plants along the way, all bearing flowers.
On a Polypody fern frond sat a bright shiny new hoverfly, gleaming bronze in the bright light. Two Greenbottle flies chose an Ivy leaf to sunbathe upon.
Towering over the greenery, bare trees, their branches silvery against the intensely blue sky, remind that there is still a while to go before the true Spring arrives.
Grey Squirrels have been active throughout this mild winter; there have been very few days when I haven’t seen at least one from my windows. I’m not a fan of this introduced species because of their dominance over our native Reds and the tremendous amount of damage they do to our woodland trees. I have to remind myself they have no natural enemies, it’s not their fault they’re here and they’re just trying to stay alive; how are they supposed to know better?
Like most people, I’m sure, I barely go a day without seeing a Wood Pigeon which are common and numerous just about everywhere in Great Britain. They’re another species that have taken full advantage of what we put out on offer and their populations seem to have benefitted from changes in farming practices. They are generally considered as pests by farmers, gardeners and gamekeepers as they’ll eat grains and greens, especially newly sprouting ones, all day long. I rather like them, most of the time they seem very laid-back and have that beautiful soft grey and pinky-purple plumage and the white neck patch; it is nice to see them actually in the woods.
Wood Pigeon – Columba palumbus
Gooseberry – Ribes uva-crispa
In one spot up near the top of this Woodland Path there’s a well-established Gooseberry bush, with a few smaller ones dotted around nearby on both sides of the track. More familiar in gardens and allotments, Gooseberry is frequently found in the wild, growing in woods, in scrub and in hedges and are probably mostly bird-sown.
Stopping to photograph the Gooseberry I heard a Wren singing. It was close to me but I couldn’t spot it. There are a few Celandines flowering, but they’re quite sparse, perhaps because it’s been so dry.
A native wild flower, Dog’s Mercury is flowering. It’s still short, not yet more than six inches (7.5cm) tall.
Dog’s Mercury-Mercurialis perennis
Here and there are clumps of pretty ferny moss. This one is in the middle of the Wood Sorrel patch, whose shamrock-shaped leaves are just beginning to unfurl.
Spurge Laurel – Daphne laureola
Spurge Laurel is one of the more unusual plants that grows here on the Bryn. It is a native plant that favours wooded chalky hillsides, so I have no reason to think it’s not here naturally, but I haven’t seen it on any other sides of the hill. A very small shrub that must contend with much taller trees and shrubs towering over it, it’s equipped with thick leathery evergreen leaves, resembling those of Laurel, that can withstand dripping rainwater. It produces its small green fragrant flowers early in the year to make the most of the light before a new canopy of leaves shuts it out.
The near hills and more distant mountains were veiled by a misty haze. Patches of snow clung to the highest peaks, another reminder that winter is still not past. As I stood looking at the view I heard a Woodpecker drumming back in the direction I’d just walked.
Alexanders puts out it new leaves early, often in early February and it’s quite well grown now. It has established on the path-side just before it reaches the reserve and although woodland is not it’s usual habitat, it seems to be spreading. Another introduced plant, Alexanders was brought in as a food plant by the Romans; it has a mild, celery-like taste. This a plant that isn’t usually found far from the sea; there’s a lot of it locally on the Little Orme and in recent years it has spread prolifically along the verge of Llandudno Road, which I suppose is not that far away as birds fly.
Alexanders – Smyrnium olusatrum
The Woodland Trail
Where the Woodland Path meets the Woodland Trail of the Nature Reserve, a Flowering Currant bush is in bloom.
Flowering Currant – Ribes sanguineum
A popular and familiar garden shrub, with pungently aromatic leaves,this one was again probably also bird-sown. As with the Gooseberry, Flowering Currant can be found throughout the British Isles naturalised in woods, scrub and on waysides.
The Trail is dry and baked hard. The unseasonal warm sunny weather is a treat, but we’re going to need some rain soon. Gorse is flowering more strongly now. I can never resist a chance to smell the warm coconut aroma of its golden flowers. Delicious.
As I reached the enormous bramble patch a Long-tailed Tit flew across the trail in front of me. It disappeared into the dense shrubbery, but then I saw another in the bramble patch. I could see it through the tangle of stems but not clearly enough to photograph. I waited for a few minutes hoping for a better view, but no luck. About to walk on I heard a whistling call and watched a bird fly strongly over the track and land high in a Sycamore tree. It was clearly on the move, so I took a ‘panic pic’ in case I missed it, but just managed to catch it before it zoomed off; a Nuthatch. I was thrilled, I’ve had very sparse sightings of them here, and never this high up in the woods.
Nuthatch – Sitta europaea
Yew trees are our third native conifer tree, after Scots Pine and Juniper. They are widespread throughout these woods, where they grow well on the chalky hillside. A number of them line a section of the Trail, with other single trees on the other side.
One in particular was heavily laden with flowers. Yews are one of those species that have separate male and female trees. This one is a male; the female flowers are less conspicuous, being tiny and green.
Yew – Taxus baccata
Then there’s a line of Ash saplings, they are growing so closely together they almost make a living fence. More ‘invaders’ grow along the edge of this stretch of the Trail; Tutsan and the dreaded Cotoneaster, which has thus far escaped being routed out.
Beyond the Ash are the Hazels. From the way in which they grow it would seem that at some time in their history they were pollarded as now most of the trees are multi-stemmed and form a small thicket. They are all quite tall though, so if ever they were cut it must have been some time ago.
Because the trees are tall and growing on a steep slope, you perhaps don’t get the full effect of their crop of pale golden yellow catkins, you have to look up.
There were more Blue Tits here exploring the Hazels and the surrounding vegetation. At the beginning of this month, on an equally blue-skied sunny day I’d stopped here to look for the female flowers of the tree, which are tiny and red and quite hard to spot, especially if you need reading glasses, as I do, but can’t be bothered to keep putting them on to look for things when out walking.
This was not the best place to look as even the lower branches are above my head, so the photograph above is one I made earlier. Once again though, my hanging around brought a reward. Often a good spot for catching sight of parties of Tits, I was lucky enough to see a pair of Coal Tits arrive and spend a few minutes foraging through the trees. I loved the way they grasped individual Catkins, inspecting them closely to check for hiding insects.
A bit further along the Trail and on the other side from the Hazels, a tree smothered with frothy white blossom shown up perfectly by the deep blue sky; a proper floral treat.
This is a Cherry Plum, although not the truly native wild one as it has bronzy-coloured leaves and not the plain green of the wild one. It could be Prunus atropurpurea, which is a popular garden tree, but I’m not sure.
I don’t think its exact pedigree matters too much, it was lovely to look at and more importantly was also attracting the attentions of quite a few insects. All very high up though. There were definitely a couple of smallish bees and small long hoverflies.
The blossom won’t last for long; already petals are falling and strewing the ground below like confetti.
Another good reason to take one last photograph with the sun shining through it.
Back at ground level, the leaves of Lords and Ladies, or Cuckoo Pint if you prefer, are well grown now, they began to appear back in late January.
Lords & Ladies, Cuckoo Pint – Arum maculatum
and to finish, a first sighting this year of a single Dog Violet.
Birds today: Wood Pigeon; Carrion Crow; Raven; Magpie; Herring Gull; Nuthatch; Blackbird; Robin; Dunnock; Great Tit; Blue Tit; Long-tailed Tit Heard: Song Thrush; Wren; Gt Spotted Woodpecker (drumming)
Today was the middle day of the three consecutively warm sunny days that tantalised us with the notion that Spring had truly arrived, and judging by the activity here today it had a lot of our wildlife fooled too. The sky was clear and that almost-unbelievable shade of deep blue, the birds were singing and best of all, it was warm!
A few metres along the Woodland Path of my patch is an untidy-looking stretch, divided by the narrow path, where missing trees have opened up the canopy, letting in the light and warmth of the sun. Somewhat mysteriously, it holds great allure for diverse species of insects, some of which at certain times can be found here in surprising numbers. At the right time on the right day, ten minutes spent in this ‘hotspot’ can be as productive as two hours spent ranging over the rest of the site.
11:44 Today I was here at the right time to see a surprising amount of insects. Most prolific were hoverflies in all shapes and sizes from big and bulky to teeny-tiny and dainty.
Eristalis sp hoverfly
There were few flowers here for nectaring upon, so that wasn’t the attraction for the majority of the hoverflies; I caught just one on the tiny flowers of Dog’s mercury. There were dozens of this small black and yellow striped species here, all very fresh and shiny and mostly basking on the sun-warmed leaves of brambles and nettles.
One side of the ‘hotspot’ is open to sunlight, clear of trees but sheltered by those standing behind it and by large shrubs of laurel and holly on either side. A large tangle of bramble fills the gap in the vegetation and is the only barrier between you and the Expressway below at the bottom of an almost-vertical slope. (Only joking, there’d be plenty of trees to stop you if you fell!) On the other side is a large patch of nettles, the aforementioned Dog’s mercury, more bramble and a pretty patch of periwinkle, all growing through a ground-covering of ivy.
A lone Tree bumblebee flew in, visited a couple of the periwinkle flowers then stopped to bask on a last-year’s half-eaten bramble leaf. I think it was a male (no pollen baskets) and was looking a bit the worse for wear. He seemed to have a burden of mites and I wondered if exposing them to warm sun might dislodge them. I’ve seen birds do that.
A smaller bee caught my eye as it came to rest on an ivy leaf. I didn’t realise what it was until I saw my photograph, then was excited to see it was a Hairy-footed Flower Bee, this one a male and my first record of this species here.
A species common and widespread in much of England and Wales, especially in towns, cities and villages. Often nests in the soft mortar and exposed cob of old walls, but occasionally will nest in the ground, preferring bare compacted clay soils. Flies from late February to mid-June, and is particularly partial to Lungwort (Pulmonaria) flowers.
Males and females look very different from one another: the female resembles a small, black bumblebee with orange-red hairs on the hind leg and a rapid-darting flight; she’ll often approach a flower with her long tongue extended. Males are mostly brown with a dark tail (fresh specimens are gingery). Cream markings on face distinguish it from all bumblebees.They are often among the first bees of the year to emerge and often hover in front of flowers and when pursuing females.
Another little bee came to rest on a nettle leaf, this one I recognised as an Ashy mining bee and another male.
Ashy mining bee – Andrena cineraria (male)
Ashy mining bee (m)-Andrena cineraria
A distinctive and obvious spring-flying solitary bee. Females are black, and have two broad ashy-grey hairbands across the thorax. Males emerge well before the females. They look similar, but their thorax is entirely covered with less dense grey hairs, and there’s a pronounced tuft of white hairs on the lower face. Species has a single flight period each year from early April until early June. Nests are constructed in the ground; entrances are surrounded by a volcano-like mound of excavated spoil; often in dense aggregations in lawns, flower beds, mown banks and in field margins.
And where there are mining bees there are those who would prey upon them….. Bee-flies: quirkily-cute in appearance but not good to know if you’re a hard-working mining bee; they’ll spy out your nest-hole and craftily kick their eggs inside with those long legs, then later their hatched larvae will feast on yours.
Wasps were out on the prowl too; I didn’t get a clear enough image to tell if this was a German or Common Wasp – the latter have a distinctive anchor mark on their face; this image is a bit fuzzy.
12:07 I could have lingered longer, but birds were singing, I’d been serenaded by a Song thrush and a Robin as I stood watching insects, Blue tits twittered on all sides and I was keen to see what else was happening.
Bluebells are beginning to flower and offer nectar to those that can reach it, there’s also Greater Stitchwort and lots of Dog Violets. A male Orange-tip butterfly raced past me over the bluebells and through the trees, clearly on the trail of a female and not stopping for an instant.
Greater Stitchwort – Stellaria holostea
There are masses of glorious glossy golden yellow lesser celandines shining in the sunlight too.
I stopped to admire the celandines lining a section of the path and not at all concerned by my presence, a Blue tit perched above me and began to sing.
Beneath him dozens of shiny new flies arrived to bask on soft sun-warmed new bramble leaves.
There’s one special spot I know where Wood Anemones light up the woodland floor like fallen stars, turning their faces to the sun
and another where those of the shamrock-leaved Wood sorrel shyly hide theirs.
Over the boundary fence, the formidable thorny boundary hedge of gorse and blackthorn is softened now with their fragrant gold and white blossoms.
I heard a bird singing, a short loud burst of notes that I thought at first was a Wren, but it wasn’t quite right. I’d forgotten that another tiny bird, the Goldcrest also has a disproportionately loud song, remembering when he broke cover and flitted about in shrubbery in front of me. He wasn’t going to oblige me with a photograph, much too busy! So I stood gazing upwards for a while – you can’t get too much beautiful blue sky…
… or pretty blossom, can you?
12:58 There’s another hotspot around the junction of my Woodland Path with the reserve’s Woodland Trail, this one for birds. Here there is a territory of both Blackcap and Chiffchaff so there is the possibility of hearing if not seeing both species here. Today I was lucky; I heard the Blackcap’s song as I approached and walking slowly and as quietly as I was able I spotted him. He continued to sing but moved restlessly through the branches as I got nearer then flew off across the other side of the track.
While he sang from behind foliage over there I watched a pretty female Tawny mining bee feast on Blackthorn blossom.
Then the Blackcap came back to where he’d started, so I think perhaps his red-headed mate may be on their nest somewhere close by.
This gorgeous gorse is below his singing tree. It would make a safe place to nest and the flowers would attract insects for dinner.
I had heard a Chiffchaff singing nearby too but was pleasantly surprised when he appeared, continuing his song while flitting about amongst the twiggy branches searching for insects.
13:21 Further along the trail I spotted a flutter of orange – a lovely fresh Comma butterfly basking on dry leaves at the edge of the path. As I watched it moved, (look away now if you’re squeamish) onto a thankfully dryish dog poo deposit. I had to take the picture as it nicely presented its underside showing off the distinctive white mark for which it is named.
The disturbed ground of the pathsides supports some of the ‘weedier’ wildflowers like dandelions which provide important nectar when there’s not much else in flower.
You’d be very unlucky not to hear and see a Robin singing along here, there seems to be one at regularly spaced intervals. They sit and watch out over the track then dart out to pounce on any potential prey they may spot. This one had been singing but stopped to watch me.
I waited to see if he’d start singing again and was distracted by a bird whistling loudly. I scanned around searching for whatever was making the sound, one I didn’t recognise at all but that sounded to be being made by quite a large bird. After a few minutes the whistler appeared and to my amusement turned out to be …. a Great Tit! Of course it was, one of the basics of birdsong recognition is ‘when you don’t recognise it or haven’t heard it before, chances are it’ll be a Great Tit’; they have an incredible repertoire of sounds to call upon. I was thankful to him for keeping me in that spot though, as this gorgeous Greater Spotted Woodpecker flew onto a tree trunk literally right in front of me.
The Woodpecker stayed there, keeping a watchful eye on me. This bird is a female and is holding something small in her beak, so I imagine she has a nest nearby and was unwilling to reveal it. I moved away quickly, thanking her for the photo opportunity as I did.
Great Spotted Woodpeckers are about the same size as Starlings. Their plumage denotes their age and sex. Juvenile birds have red foreheads that are replaced by black as they moult in the autumn. Adult males then have a red nape while females have no red on their head at all.
The Lesser Celandines have been late flowering this Spring but are glorious now and more prolific than I’ve seen them before. It’s not just the flowers that are prolific, so too were hoverflies and Bee-flies seemed to be everywhere.
Approaching the entrance to the meadow another Robin, which looks as though it is singing, but was actually ‘ticking me off’, let me know it didn’t appreciate my disturbing it.
THE UPPER MEADOW (ADDER’S FIELD)
The grass of the meadow was cut back hard last autumn and so far there’s not much happening there yet, but the grass is beginning to grow and the cowslips are starting to come out. They’ll be later on the more exposed ‘downland’ side of the hill.
Another Bee-fly settled on an exposed rock in the pathway, fluttering its wings rapidly and making flicking movements with its legs as they do when depositing their eggs, but there was no sign of a mining bee nest anywhere near, so not sure what it was doing.
Summer Rainfall Prediction:
If oak is out before the ash, there’ll be a splash ; if ash is out before the oak there’ll be a soak…
Keep the brollies handy, looks like ash is furthest on so far….!
Wriggling across the still-damp ground on the way to the Summit Trail was an earthworm. Double jeopardy came to mind – exposure to warm sunshine and hungry birds; foolish worm.
Last year I noticed spots along the trail here where Mining Bees were making nests. having seen a few about today I kept an eye out for more signs of their activity and spotted these little ‘volcanoes’, evidence of their presence. I waited a while but no bees showed, so I don’t know which species had made them, but I think maybe Tawny Mining Bees.
It was cooler and breezier up here. I walked carefully, hoping there may be Small Tortoiseshell butterflies basking on the bare earth of the path, but not today, although I did see two busily chasing one another at speed as they disappeared over the edge of the cliff.
The mountains and the distant Conwy valley were veiled by a misty haze.
The blackthorn is smothered with blossom and looking beautiful. It will be interesting to see how much of it gets pollinated and develops as fruit this autumn. Sloe gin comes to mind.
Blackthorn – Prunus spinosa
The path back down to the Woodland Trail felt almost bridal with falling petals showering down onto the ground like confetti. A pretty way to end this account of a lovely walk.
A bit fed up with dull drab winter days, a sunny start to the day inspired me to go out and seek signs of the coming Spring and hopefully some colour. A Robin sang from a tree branch at the beginning of the Woodland Path, then minutes later the delightful and uplifting sight of a bank of Snowdrops in full flower made the perfect start.
Our Snowdrop display may not be on the scale of that of those boasted by our local National Trust gardens, but it is no less beautiful and uplifting; and I didn’t have to drive anywhere to see it.
Lesser Periwinkle- Vinca minor
Nearby, peeping out shyly from beneath a bramble, the bright blue face of a Periwinkle.
A Barberry shrub arches gracefully over the pathway, its golden-orange flowers not yet quite open. I thought it was a bit early for it to be flowering?Barberry- Berberis vulgaris is a native plant, but it is scarce in the wild although widely naturalised. This one, or an ancestor of it may have been planted when this woodland was part of the grounds of the house that used to stand where our apartment building is now. Either way it’s pretty and a splash more colour to add to my collection.
Another shrub I found flowering, Mahonia, has also likely arrived here from a garden. Its bright yellow flowers also look good and smell lovely.
Of course green is still the predominant colour, but there are splashes of bright fresh shades breaking up the dark evergreens. Mosses are at their best at this time of year, brightening the shady woodland floor, smothering rocks and the bases of tree trunks with patches of vivid green. I have yet to learn to identify the different species, so for now I think of this one as ‘looking like a forest of miniature pine trees’!
Although I walk this path often I can still see things I’ve not spotted before, like this pretty clump of Navelwort. Its pretty round leaves, dimpled in the centre and with frilled edges look a bit like green flowers.
There are a number of Spurge laurel plants in this part of the woods and they too are flowering now. The flowers are a subtle lime green-yellow colour but they are pretty and in common with those of other members of the daphne family they are deliciously scented, with an aroma that really is like warm honey.
Spurge laurel-Daphne laureola
Fully opened flowers
It’s wonderful to hear the woods full of bird sounds again. Throughout most of this walk I was surrounded by the sounds of birds, mostly the cheerful chirps and chatter of tits keeping contact with one another. Blue tits were everywhere, up high in trees and lower down in the shrubs, investigating every nook, cranny and leaf for potential food. They are bright colourful little birds, but still blend surprisingly well into the woodland background.
Great tits are also about, but their favoured place is around the Scots Pines where there are often several. They are more easily heard than seen and have a huge repertoire of calls and phrases at their disposal. Years ago I learnt from a bird-watching master that if you hear a bird sound you don’t recognise the chances are it will be a Great Tit!
I stood and watched them there for a few minutes until my neck ached from craning upwards.Thankfully I was distracted by a Treecreeper up in a big sycamore tree nearby.
It was exceptionally well-camouflaged against the shaded, heavily textured bark and hard to see when not mobile and flashing its white undersides. It was fascinating to watch as it contorted itself, using its tail to steady itself to probe its beak into its deep fissures. From this spot I also heard the screeching of Jays and caught a glimpse of one before it sped off through the trees.
I passed by the remains of the Scots Pine that was sadly felled in a storm two years ago. Much of it has been sawn and removed; what’s left is being gradually absorbed back into the fabric of the woodland. I liked its rich colour and texture.
Looking across the boundary fence here the colours of the landscape in general are still predominantly brown and green, but taking time to look properly you appreciate the are a myriad of shades of those colours. And I’m sure the grass is getting greener by the day!
I usually concentrate on the more scenic aspects of this view, but zooming in and down onto an edge of the far landscape reveals an interesting slice of a community. An interesting juxtaposition caught my eye – Modern Industry and a Final Resting Place separated by a field full of sheep turned out to eat turnips!
On the field-woodland boundary is more colour. Gorse is blooming bringing forth its warm golden glow. I think this line of gorse was probably planted here as a boundary hedge. This was a common and effective practice in Wales to prevent animals wandering and remnants of such hedges can still be found in the countryside, particularly in Anglesey.
I heard a Robin singing and noticed bird movement amongst the Gorse. Zooming in I found the rusty-red of two Robins there, one being the source of the song. I wonder if they were mates prospecting for a nest site or rivals claiming territory?
Two birds in a bush
Honeysuckle twining up the wire boundary fence has well-grown fresh leaves already; quite surprising in this exposed spot.
Honeysuckle leaves are well-grown
Amongst leaf litter, ivy and feathery moss, Wood Sorrel has shown some of its bright green shamrock-like leaves throughout the winter. It will be flowering soon.
Leaves of Wood Sorrel
The top end of this path is becoming increasingly lined with Alexanders’ plants. Most are well-grown now, particularly those sheltered against tree trunks. They will flower soon; last year their flowers were much appreciated by some of the earlier hoverflies.
Woodland – Summit Trail
Emerging from the beneath the canopy of the woods onto the open Woodland Trail the first colour I noticed was the blue of the sky!
Heading towards the track that leads up to the Summit Trail I heard a Woodpecker tapping. I’ve had several good sightings of Great Spotted Woodpeckers in the past few weeks, the latest one just this morning as it came down almost as far as our bird feeders. I scanned the trees for a sight of it but no luck. A Raven flew overhead, ‘cronking’ as it travelled to alert all to its presence.
Surprisingly there were a few bright red berries left on the big Holly bush; there are so many Blackbirds about I thought every last one would be gone by now. Perhaps they can’t reach those left at the end of branches. Many holly leaves have been ‘mined’ by insects so display bright pale splashes where there is now no chlorophyll.
As I said earlier, Blackbirds were numerous and have turned their attentions to the Ivy berries, many of which are finally ripe. Everywhere there were berries there were birds from low down to the tops of trees. They rustle noisily around seeking the bunches of berries using a variety of techniques to reach the fruits. Their familiar scolding and alarm calls ring out from almost every tree as they chase away competitors.
Hazel catkins have been present since the autumn, gradually lengthening and maturing. Now their soft golden tassels are long and fluffy, resembling the ‘lamb’s tails’, which gave rise to the old country name for catkins.
Common Hazel (Corylus avellana)
Catkins are the male flowers of the plant, producing pollen to fertilise the tiny red female flowers that sit tightly on the twigs.
I heard the Woodpecker again, this time drumming loudly on a tree trunk. It was too far away to try to locate it, but was good to hear. The males don’t have a song with which to claim ownership of their chosen patch of woodland, so they use the tool they have, their powerful bill to drum on dead trees. They can be clever in their choice of drumming spot, often choosing a site where the sound is amplified by surrounding features. A Thrush was singing nearby too, so I stopped to listen. Then two birds making sounds I didn’t recognise at all crashed into the top of a tree in front of me on the other side of the track. With the sun behind them they were drained of colour, but there was no mistaking their outlines – two Woodpeckers! I have no idea if they were a pair or two rivals chasing, but they left without a sound, one behind the other.
After the activity of the woods the almost-summit was surprisingly calm. This must be the first time for months that there has been not even a breath of wind and it was actually enjoyable to be up there! The sea of Colwyn Bay seemingly flat calm and mirroring the sky, now sunless, was a most unusual shade of blue-grey.
Swinging around to my right the snow-capped higher peaks of the Carneddau mountains rising above the river Conwy show remind that there is some Winter still to go.
Continuing up to the Summit you pass thickets of blackthorn; they take on a completely different appearance in the winter as their leafless black twigs and branches are richly encrusted with gold and silver-grey lichens.
Crossing to the North-facing side of the hill the view is down the coast along Penrhyn Bay to the Little Orme; the sea is still calm but more blue. The field (on the opposite side of the road to the golf course) has a lot if standing water and I could see there were gulls and Oystercatchers feeding there. This is the ‘Curlew field’ that I’ve mentioned many times. I couldn’t make out if there were any Curlew there, but I did hear one and the tide appears to be in, so there most likely were.
Below is a panoramic view starting from past the Little Orme on the right of the image and travelling along to the hills at the end of the Carneddau. Anglesey lies on the horizon behind the stretch of water which is the Menai Strait. It would have looked better if the sun had still been out, but it’s still pretty spectacular.
click for bigger image
Going down, the Gorse on the hillside is in full golden flower. It was only planted in recent years but has quickly thickened and grown taller.
I walked home across the field where a Long-tailed tit flew in front of me: it was so close I could almost have touched it. They are so pretty. It was one of a party but the others took a more cautious route around the field via the trees rather than the direct crossing.
I completed the circuit of the Bryn walking back along the Woodland Trail. It was much quieter now but I did get one last look of two Great Spotted Woodpeckers together, so fingers crossed they are a pair. I’ll be keeping an eye out.
My kitchen window looks directly onto a short section of the edge of the woodland on one side of Bryn Euryn, my local ‘patch’, that has been the subject of many of my blog posts. Perhaps it’s a bit scruffy-looking, but the good variety of species of trees and shrubby undergrowth offer a habitat that seems to suit a good mix of bird species and gives me the privilege of some close-up everyday bird watching. I have my own personal woodland ‘hide’ with the benefits of central heating and tea-making facilities within arm’s length. I’ve seen a wonderful array of birds on a fairly regular basis this winter thanks in part to their endless quest for food, with the added bonuses of clearer, longer sightings and have had the chance to gain fascinating insights into their habits and behaviour first-hand.
Mixed species feeding flocks
Mixed-species flocks, or ‘feeding parties’ of small birds roam the woods and we seem to be one of the regular re-fuelling spots for at least some of them. Flock sizes and the numbers and the different species of birds travelling within them varies, but their core elements are invariably Blue tits. Usually at the forefront they are first to the feeders, with no hanging back.
Blue Tit – Parus caeruleus
Blue tits are by far the most numerous visitors to the bird feeders. Most mornings they are the first birds I see and also the last in the late afternoon when it’s almost dark. Their numbers vary at different times of the day according to which of the roaming tribes they are allied to.
Blue tit – Parus caeruleus
At first glance one Blue tit appears much like another, but with regular watching and focussing in closely to take a lot of photographs, I know that although there is a ‘blue print’ for the perfect bird, (Blue tit print?), there are a lot of individuals about that deviate from the norm. A surprising number are affected by melanism or leucism (more dark or white feathers than the norm) in varying degrees which has helped me recognise individuals. A couple have leg rings, one of which looks ‘normal’, while the other has a band of darker feathers above its beak. A selection of some of those I see regularly enough to recognise on sight now are shown below:
Blue tit with white in crown & freckled face
Blue tit with white ‘nostrils’ above beak
Blue tit with dark feathers on right side
Blue tit with dark ‘frown’ above bill
‘Normal’ Blue tit with leg-ring
Blue tit with severe feather problem
It seems that several of the distinct ones arrive together, so I imagine that may mean they are related. When I finally get around to collating my photographs I’m hoping it will show which families or flocks they belong to or travel with.
Great Tit-Parus major
There are a good number of Great tits too; occasionally appearing alone they are more often in twos or in small family groups. Sometimes there are as many as 6-8 at any one time in a party with other tits. There’s quite a bit of variation in their appearances too, mostly regarding the extent of the dark stripe down their breasts and continuing underparts. One or two are so heavily marked with black it makes them instantly recognisable, another has something odd about one of its eyes.
Great Tit – Parus major
Coal Tit-Parus ater
There are a small number of Coal tits; I’d say I might be seeing four at the most. Their visits are less predictable; sometimes one will appear on its own, most often one arrives together with a party of other tits and occasionally they have been here all together.
The smallest of our British breeding tits, Coal tits behave quite differently to other tits. Initially they’re not quite as bold in approaching feeders and then once food is taken they take it a distance away to eat it.
Coal tit-Parus ater
A couple of times I’ve been amused by one individual who rather than come forth and take his own food innocently approached blue tits with food, sat close by them, then dashed in and snatched their meal from their claws! The photographs below are of the tiny thief.
Coal tit with Blue tit
Coal tit approaching blue tit with intent to rob
Coal tit snatching food from Blue tit
Long-tailed Tit-Aegithalos caudatus
Then there are the delightful fairy-like Long-tailed tits, they arrive in a small family group most often following behind the rest of the mixed party they have allied to. Oddly though there is one that travels alone but in the company of a party of Blue & Great tits and a Coal Tit. It’s very unusual to see a Long-tailed tit alone, so I can’t begin to guess why this one is, unless it is the only surviving member of a family?
The Long-tailed tits mostly stay slightly higher up than their travelling companions, foraging amongst the tree branches while the others visit the feeders, but occasionally they give me a treat and come closer.
I see Goldcrests around and about fairly often, more particularly from my front window where they favour the big conifer trees. On a few occasions though I’ve spotted them travelling along with mixed flocks too. They don’t often make their way down as far as their companions that are here for the food on offer, preferring to forage for themselves in the evergreen shrubs such as holly and laurel. I’ve had some lovely views of them, but taking good photographs of these flitting flickering little birds is tricky, so I’ve resorted to one I took in the right place but back in November 2017.
Treecreepers are the final regular members of our travelling mixed flocks but from my kitchen window vantage point I have seen one only once. It wasn’t a particularly good close sighting, but I did manage to get a photo of it arriving at the same time as one of the flocks, although it stopped at one of the trees further up the slope.
The deciduous trees of the woodland have for the most part shed their leaves now and they cover the ground in a thick damp carpet, exuding the evocative earthy aroma that characterises this time of the year. Their falling has opened up the overhead canopy, highlighting the evergreen flora that has merged into the background since the Spring.
The amount of permanent greenery always takes me by surprise. Much is in the varying forms of native trees and shrubs; dark dense Yew that fills spaces from the ground upwards, Scot’s Pines with tall trunks and bristly green crowns, glossy spiky Holly, some sprinkled with shiny green berries and of course Ivy, masses of it. There are other non-native residents too, sprawling Laurel being the most evident.
Laurel at the junction of woodland paths
Fallen leaves of sycamore and oak
Ivy is a much-maligned native evergreen that was thought to strangle trees as well as spoil their appearance. In the days when this woodland would have been strictly managed it would probably have been regularly stripped away. Now left to its own devices it is without doubt the most dominant of the native evergreens here; scrambling to the tops of even the tallest of trees in its search for light and covering large areas of the understorey too. The benefits of ivy to wildlife are enormous; both its pollen and berries can be an essential source of food for many insects and birds and it provides shelter for invertebrates, birds, small mammals and bats. At this time of year it also gives cover to foraging parties of small birds such as tits and treecreepers whilst they search amongst its stems and leaves for hibernating insects and spiders.
Ivy clambers up almost every tree
There’s green at ground level too; Polypody and Hart’s Toungue ferns are both evergreen. There are bright green patches of mosses and grey-green lichen is dusted in varying amounts onto most tree trunks and branches.
I love the little ‘scenes’ I find at this time of the year, full of interesting textures, shapes and forms and coloured in earthy shades of green and brown. Here the base of an oak tree has bright green moss and grey-green lichen growing on its fissured bark and tendrils of ivy are beginning their climb up. A polypody fern has found a sheltered spot, there’s a tiny new holly plant and the beginnings of a bramble.
Nearby the fresh green leaves of Alexanders are already showing through the leaf litter.
Without the dressing of leaves the architecture of individual trees is revealed. I must have passed this tree dozens of times as I’ve walked this path but today it caught my attention as the sunlight turned its remaining dried out leaves to coppery gold.
I was unsure of the species of tree; looking upwards I saw it was tall, and also that its trunk and twisted branches appear bleached and much of its covering of bark is missing. Not helpful, but looking properly at the size and shape of the leaves I’m leaning towards Sweet Chestnut, another popularly planted non-native. There’s been no evidence of the prickly chestnuts though, so I’ll have to check to see if it produces flowers next Spring.
Ivy is creeping up the trunk of the tree and it has a backdrop of dense dark green Yew and shiny Holly.
Holly, ivy and yew
I hear the contact calls of Tits and stand still hoping it means a feeding party are heading my way. It did indeed and now I don’t know where to look first as Long-tailed, Blue and Great Tits swoop and dart around the branches of the nearby trees. Some venture lower down giving me eye-level views. There were less birds in the party than those I saw a few weeks ago, so maybe they’ve split into smaller numbers as the availability of food has diminished. They seem to be travelling faster too, not lingering for long in one spot.
I wasn’t too far from where the Scots pines are gathered. Popular trees with the Tits I wondered if that was where they were headed. The trees are tall and positioned on the edge of the woodland; many have been distorted by exposure to winds and the search for light. With no low branches, their foliage is all on their crowns, so sighting anything as small as a tit is tricky, especially in sunshine. The light is beautiful up there though; I love these upward views of the tree canopy, especially on blue sky days. I’m thinking I would like to see a Coal tit though, haven’t seen one for ages.
A gathering of Scot’s Pines
I always stop here and look over the wire fence that marks the boundary of the private woodland and a small field. Trees on its edge although leafless are greened with ivy and gorse, which may well have once been planted as a hedge to contain livestock, has some golden blossom.
The views across the landscape to the Carneddau Mountains on the edge of Snowdonia are ever-changing with the light and the seasons and are always breathtaking.
I reach the top of the Woodland Path, and as always take note of the oak tree here at the junction with the Woodland Trail that marks the boundary of the Bryn Euryn Nature Reserve. It still has some leaves clinging on but they are fewer and browner now than a couple of weeks ago.
Oak tree on November 19th
Oak tree on December 3rd
I turn right, then a few metres on turn left onto the narrow unmarked track that leads upwards through the woodland.
I spot a large holly bush endowed with a generous crop of berries.
Walking towards it I disturb several Blackbirds from their feasting on the berries on its far side. Confident the hungry birds would come back once they thought the coast was clear, I stopped to wait a short way away, lurking behind a nearby tree.
If you’re looking out for birds, staying still in a likely spot is often more rewarding than any amount of walking and the next few moments bore this out. This part of the wood is favoured by Jays and I heard some screeching to to one another close by. At first I couldn’t locate them, but then saw one progress its way down from a tree to some low vegetation then onto the ground where it began searching for its stash of buried acorns. The green plant in the picture is newly-sprung Dog Mercury.
Brilliant to have such great views of two of these gorgeous and notoriously wary birds. I noticed one of them had what appeared to be an injury to its left side where feathers had been lost; maybe it was from the beak of another bird competing for buried treasure. It seemed OK though and was behaving perfectly normally. Then another treat. The little feeding party I’d seen earlier passed overhead and around me, Long-tailed and Blue tits in tree branches above, then flickering movements in the Holly bush alerted me to the presence of a tiny Goldcrest.
The Goldcrest is Britain’s smallest bird
These tiny jewels of birds, (Britain’s smallest), when on the hunt for insects are constantly moving, flitting deftly through dense foliage, hanging upside down effortlessly and even fluttering frantically to hover like a hummingbird, which must use up a lot of energy. They are delightful and fascinating to watch, but tricky to keep in focus and even trickier to photograph.
A Goldcrest can hover like a hummingbird
Holly is dimorphic, which means it has separate male and female plants, and only female trees bear berries. Traditional country wisdom has it that bountiful crops of berries are a sign of a hard winter to come. More scientific modern reckoning is that it is sign of a good summer past; we certainly had plenty of rain to swell berries this year. I was surprised that the berries were being taken so early in the season though, I hope it doesn’t mean there’s already a shortage of other food available.
Most of the birds I saw appeared to be juveniles and they do seem to have been taking the fully-ripe berries.
I was also surprised to find flowers on several bushes. They usually come forth around May when they stand a better chance of getting pollinated.
The low sun shines brightly through the trees spotlighting a small spindly tree with golden leaves. Once again I don’t know what species it is but from the size, shape and beautiful colouration of its leaves think it’s fairly safe to say it’s a maple.
“The Holly and the Ivy, Now they are both full grown” …….
Ivy completely covers a tall tree, Holly in front and a still-green Male fern on the ground
Another interesting little ‘scene’ catches my attention…
I’m never sure about the placement of this commemorative bench. It is weathered, covered with lichen and appears to have been there for decades, but the plaque gives a much more recent date. A reminder how nature is quick to move in given the chance.
It’s a shame the bench doesn’t face the other way as there’s a lovely display of ferns behind it; Hart’s Tongue, Polypody and Male Ferns are there and there’s pretty ferny moss too.
Past the bench the path continues through what I think of as ‘the Dark Wood’. Here the hillside rises steeply upwards on one side and almost as steeply downwards on the other. On the north/north-west side of the Bryn not much sunlight reaches here and there’s a density of Yew trees that also make it seem darker.
A spreading Yew
There are a lot of Silver Birches here too, which you would think would lighten the place up, but at their lower level trunks have darkened and on a few the bark has become strangely thickened and fissured.
From the lower downward slope a mighty tree trunk rises, by far the biggest tree here and that I’ve always assumed was a mighty pine, a Redwood or Sequoia or such-like.
But today I noticed some large fallen leaves that could only have come from it. It would seem then that it’s another Sweet Chestnut, but here a properly magnificent specimen. What a shame to have only restricted views.
On the opposite side of the path a sheer cliff of exposed limestone towers and adds to the atmosphere. I wonder if it was once part of the defences of the ancient hill-fort that was located on the summit.
Water often leaks from fissures in the porous rock and moss thrives on its shaded damp surface.
Having a closer look at the moss I found another fern amongst it, a tiny delicate one I’ve not noticed here before; a Maidenhair Spleenwort.
(I’m working on identifying mosses!)
Maidenhair spleenwort-Asplenium trichomanes
Past here there are more darkly-ivied trees. Today a movement caught my eye – another sighting of a foraging Goldcrest!
I watched it for what seemed like ages trying to keep it in sight as it flitted from branch-to-trunk-to-branch, in and out of the ivy, now doing its hummingbird impression – and then demonstrating a behaviour I’d read about but never seen; it climbed up the thick ivy stems like a tiny treecreeper. What brilliant little birds they are. I wish I’d had better light for better photographs.
A short way further on you are back out onto the wider brighter more open Woodland Trail. Going down the wooden steps takes you to the car park, or as I opted, to loop around onto the lower part of the trail to get back to where I started.
As I stood deciding which way to go, one more treat, a Treecreeper making its way up another ivy-clad tree close to the path.
Yet another windy day with intermittent sunshine, so I’m seeking shelter in the woods. It is almost eerily silent and the damp soft earth of the path absorbs the sound of my footsteps. Something detects my presence at the last minute; loud rustling sounds from the undergrowth startle me and a panicked grey squirrel shoots out in front of me, sprints rapidly along the path and launches itself up the trunk of the nearest large tree. It pauses when it feels safely hidden behind foliage, but I spied it through the leaves, its mouth filled with an acorn, still green and unripe.
There are ripe blackberries, but on the early fruiting brambles some are already mouldering, and a feasting greenbottle fly reminds me why I don’t eat too many unwashed wild berries.
Chains of scarlet berries drape shrubbery. This one twined through holly reminded me of a Christmas garland; I wonder if sights such as this sparked the idea for festive decorations?
The berries are those of Black Bryony-Tamus communis, and will continue to ripen until they are black. A perennial plant described as twining, but often it’s more of a scrambler.
There are rose hips here
and a bramble whose leaves look as though they are almost ready to drop.
The gorse bushes have fresh golden blossom and clever spiders have spun webs in the hope of capturing flying insects drawn to their nectar and pollen. Gorse flowers throughout most months of the year prompting the old saying, “When gorse is out of flower, Kissing is out of season!”
Summit Trail – backtracking
The last time I walked here I took a slightly different route to the summit of the hill, taking an unmarked track up through the woodland to join the Summit Trail. I hadn’t planned to that, but at the junction of the paths I usually take I’d stopped to try to locate Jays that I’d heard screeching in nearby trees and a man with a dog stopped to ask me what I was looking at. We had an interesting chat comparing notes about what we both see here and where, but I didn’t catch the Jays. I waited to see which way he would go to continue his walk and seeing it was the same way I was headed, decided to go the opposite way. Not that I’m unsociable of course, rather that I see far more on my own and in my own time; and he had a dog! Anyway, the upshot was that I ended up on a narrow upward track through the trees on another windy day that was sunny but still damp from the previous night’s rain.
Spiders’ webs lit by the sunshine filtering down through the leaf canopy caught my eye and I stopped to admire the artistry of their construction and to try to find their makers. Looking more closely I saw most of the webs were broken and apparently abandoned, although this one had captured a beautiful rainbow.
As so often happens, my slow progress and in this instance, last-minute change of route brought forth a magical few moments. Until now the only sounds had been mainly of the wind rushing through the trees, but I began to hear bird calls that got gradually nearer and suddenly I was surrounded on all sides by excited little birds – a travelling feeding party! I had been standing still and they seemed not to notice me; I’ve described a similar experience in a previous post and this was equally as joyous and uplifting. It was a large party too, impossible to count the numbers of birds within it as they scattered amongst the trees, but Blue tits were probably most numerous with at least a dozen Long-tailed tits; Great-tits were there too. I didn’t see Tree-creepers as before, but was thrilled to see a Nuthatch that chose to explore a tree right in front of me.
Taking photographs in the darkness of woods is rarely successful, but a Nuthatch did pause briefly from its foraging near a patch of sunlight, giving me a reasonable chance to record this bird for the first time here. Watching a tiny Blue-tit searching through ivy high up in another tree I realised it was looking for spiders, which are an important part of their diet. Perhaps the birds’ regular forays are the reason I couldn’t find any.
Blue tit seeking spiders
Back to the present
Sycamore leaf with spots of fungus
There was no feeding party today, but there were other signs of a summer ending. Sycamore leaves, amongst the first to break their buds in the Spring are amongst the first to change colour and fall. Most of those I see nowadays are marked with dark spots; this is Rhytisma acerinum, the Sycamore Tarspot. It doesn’t look attractive, but although it is suspected that the darkened areas reduce the photosynthetic capacity of affected trees, the fungus doesn’t seem to affect the tree’s health and vigour. One consolation of the fungus’ presence is that is shows the air here is fairly clean as it is apparently particularly sensitive to sulphur dioxide air pollution. Trees growing near to industrial centres with high levels of sulphur emissions do not show any sign of the leaf-blackening fungi.
If you look at the undersides of the fronds of most ferns, their seeds, spores or more correctly sori are now ripe. The Male Fern is the most common fern found growing here; its sori are round and normally run in two parallel rows.
There’s a large patch of Hart’s Tongue Fern growing in damp shade on a steep bank. Its leaves and sori take a different form to those of other fern species. Their ripe sori accentuate the marks on the underside of the leaves and it seemed to the person that named the plant that they resembled the legs of a centipede, so he gave it the scientific name ‘scolopendrium‘, the Latin for centipede.
Hart’s Tongue Fern-Phyllitis scolopendrium
The track passes a sheer cliff of limestone. Its surface is frequently damp, sometimes wet and its base is covered with a lush, bright green shag-pile carpet of moss.
There’s a small grove of Silver Birch trees on this shady, damper side of the Bryn that are also beginning to lose their leaves, which stud the dark mud of the track with specks of bright gold.
Nearing the end of the path the trees thin and give way to scrubbier vegetation, mostly blackthorn and hawthorn. The blackthorn has beautiful purple sloes and its leaves too are beginning to turn colour.
A number of the blackthorn shrubs here also have clumps of pretty grey-green lichens. Some looks like a tangle of moss, which I can’t accurately name.
Other blackthorns have a lichen in a different form, this one, photographed on a nearby shrubby hawthorn tree with dark red fruits (haws), has the appearance of Reindeer moss, but I can’t yet be species-specific.
Emerging from cover onto the exposed summit I braced myself for another confrontation with the wind. The sun had disappeared behind clouds that were shutting out its brightness, leaving the landscape in shadow, dulling its colours. Part of the view across the valley from here takes in buildings and fields that belong to the Welsh Mountain Zoo, located above Colwyn Bay. There are sometimes interesting animals grazing in the fields; today it was some kind of cattle.
With or without sunshine I love this hillside view of small fields bounded with hedges and trees with the mountains in the distance. It reminds me a little of a David Hockney painting.
The mountains are topped with billowing clouds that permitted some sunshine through to lighten slopes here and there and to brighten the water of the river Conwy.
On days like this you can only hope for at least a little sunshine to brighten the rest of a walk…
Although blessed with visitors from a good range of species, Blue tits are without doubt the mainstay of my window birdwatching and have given me hours of viewing pleasure. There are few moments in the day when there are not at least one or two to see and at certain times there can be a good few more; counting them accurately is tricky, they’re too quick and mobile. I admit I hadn’t noticed any difference in the numbers of birds I’ve been seeing this year compared to previous years, so I was surprised to learn that according to BTO records, on a national scale there are significantly less of them this winter.
Throughout the UK Blue tits have always ranked amongst the most numerous of our garden feeder visitors, but last November (2016) BTO Garden BirdWatchers reported the lowest numbers of Blue Tits in gardens since 2003. They say:
” The explanation for our missing birds can be found by looking back to the early summer. The wet weather across the breeding season, particularly in June, would have made it difficult for the adults to feed themselves and their chicks. Normally we would expect to see large numbers of newly fledged young come into gardens to seek food, but this year BTO Garden BirdWatch results show the lowest numbers of Blue Tits in August for eight years. This indicates that fewer young birds survived than usual this year and these findings are supported by the preliminary results from the BTO Nest Record Scheme (NRS) and Constant Effort Sites Scheme (CES) which found that Blue Tits had their worst breeding season on record, thought to be due to a lack of young birds this year.”
All the more reason to appreciate these endearing little birds and continue to help them out where we can.
English name Blue tit Scientific name Cyanistes caeruleus (formerly Parus caeruleus), Linnaeus, 1758; Other names Eurasian Blue tit, European Blue tit Welsh Titw Tomos Las Conservation Status: UK: GREEN
Blue tits are tiny birds, measuring 12 cm (5″- 6″) long and weighing in at just 11 grams.
Blue tits are small. acrobatic birds with a gregarious nature, they have short legs and a sturdy bill which suits their omnivorous diet of mostly insects and spiders in the summer and a wide range of fruit and berries in autumn and winter.
The wings and tail feathers are bright blue and the back is olive-green. The underparts are yellow with a greyish-black stripe running down the belly which is usually narrow, but can vary. The cap, or crown, is a stunning bright blue. The face is a clean bright white accented by a narrow black stripe that runs through the eyes, there is a black chinstrap and a small black ‘bib’ under the bill. Males and females are the same, but males show brighter blue than females. Like all birds, Blue Tits can see ultra-violet light: the bright blue feathers on the front of their heads glows brightly under UV light and it is the quality of this feature that is thought to be the deciding factor in the females’ choice of partner.
It may seem to us that only a dozen or so Blue Tits use our garden feeding stations in the winter, but the truth is there could easily be many times this number passing through during the course of a single day. Blue Tits are largely sedentary in their habits, but studies of the local movements of British and Irish Blue Tits have shown that birds range over an area and move around in small flocks, or feeding parties, that often include other tit species, Goldcrest, Nuthatch, Treecreeper and even the occasional wintering Chiffchaff.
A Stranger Passing through
As one Blue tit looks pretty much like another, it’s almost impossible to tell who is who, so spotting through-visitors is tricky. But earlier this week I happened to spot an individual that looked ‘different’ to the ones I usually see.
Looking at him through the camera lens I could see he had an unusual dark patch of feathers above his beak and between his eyes and also a band of darker feathers around the top of the breast, giving it a slightly dirty appearance. This is the first Blue tit I have seen with darkened plumage, but the condition, known as melanism is apparently not that uncommon, although more common in the related Great tit. He didn’t stay for long as he was chased away by other Blue Tits. He must have stood out to them as looking ‘different’. (The BTO keep records of birds reported with abnormal plumage shown here.)
For the past couple of weeks I have been entertained by their acrobatic prowess as the small overhanging tree-of-unknown-species in front of my window has buds that are beginning to swell. This is their tree of choice in which to wait their turn for the birdfeeders down at ground level, to which they return to eat their snatched prize. Now they often have quick forage around the twiggy branches seeking out any lurking insects or larvae that may be hiding in them.
Blue tits are brilliant acrobats and can hang upside down from branches to search underneath them for insects. This agility and their light weight also enables them to search to the very tips of twigs.
The males are singing too – I photographed my first singer of this year on January 23rd.
Blue tits and us
The Blue tit and other tit species were long known as the Titmice, a name taken from Middle English (Icelandic) ttr = small, and mouse – in Old English mase=small bird. ‘Tit’ referred to any small object or creature and is of pre-7th century Norse origin. The first known use of ‘titmouse’ has been dated back to the 14th century and ‘Tom titmouse’ to around the 17th century. ‘Titmouse’ was used for this genus by most old authors, but Yarrell in his first edition shortened the name to ‘Tit’ and his example has been followed by many later authors.
The sheer number and variety of common and local variations of names bestowed upon them is a good indication that Blue tits have long featured in the lives of man. There is Blue Cap, Blue Bonnet (Shropshire & Scotland); Blue Ox-eye, Blue Spick (N Devon); Nun; Pedn-play, tree babbler (Cornwall); Pinchem (Bedfordshire); Tinnock, Yaup; Bee Bird (Hampshire); Willow Biter, Billy Biter (Midlands); Pickcheese (Norfolk); Tom Tit, Hickmall, Heckymal; Titmal (West Country.
Blue tits excel at problem-solving. Faced with intelligence test apparatus contrived by researchers, modern-day Blue tits have learnt to pull out a series of pegs or open matchbox ‘drawers’ to get at food. They have adapted readily to man and have been seizing opportunities to benefit from our lifestyles and habits for hundreds of years; sometimes this has worked out well for them but sometimes their opportunism has put them in harm’s way.
In the seminal account of English nature, The Natural History of Selbourne, which was first published in 1788, Gilbert White records his observations on the tactics local birds used to survive (or in some cases not) during harsh winters:-
“The blue titmouse, or nun, is a great frequenter of houses, and a general devourer. Beside insects, it is very fond of flesh; for it frequently picks bones on dung hills. It is a vast admirer of suet, and haunts butcher’s shops. When a boy, I have known twenty in a morning caught with snap mousetraps, baited with tallow or suet. It will also pick holes in apples left on the ground, and be well entertained with the seeds on the head of a sunflower. The blue, marsh and great titmice will, in very severe weather, carry away barley and oat straws from the sides of ricks.”
Friend or foe?
It’s hard to imagine that Blue tits have not always been regarded with fondness and affection by everyone and were actually once thought of as ‘foes’ by many gardeners with fruit orchards. The following is an extract from one of my favourite old nature books, which according to the inscription in the front was given as a birthday gift in 1923. The chapter is entitled ” Attracting Wild Birds to Gardens” and written by Oliver G.Pike FZS, FRPS who was clearly already spotting the signs that our wildlife was in need of our support.
“I have watched the Blue Tit and its mate busy on one of my apple trees in the month of April; they were carefully searching the branches for buds which contained insects, and these were quickly destroyed – that is, both bud and insect. They seemed to be doing a lot of harm, but I allowed them to continue, and later on in the year that same tree had a fine crop of excellent apples. So many gardeners see a bird destroying buds and immediately jump to the conclusion that it is a pest and ought to be destroyed. I knew one gardener who in the course of one season trapped and destroyed over fifty Blue Tits. He quite overlooked the fact that by doing this he was allowing for the increase of 100s of 1,000s of insects which would do far more harm to the crops. One pair of Blue Tits which succeed in bringing up their family of, say ten young, will during the period of feeding them account for not less than 10,000 insects, the majority of which are very injurious to many garden crops and flowers, and every one of these will be captured within 100 yards of the nest.”
The successful breeding of chicks is dependent on sufficient supply of green caterpillars as well as satisfactory weather. Breeding seasons may be affected badly if the weather is cold and wet between May and July, particularly if this coincides with the emergence of the caterpillars on which the nestlings are fed.
But Blue tits are perhaps most well known, amongst our older generations at least, for raiding milk bottles. It was first noticed in Southampton in the late 1920s that the local Blue tits had somehow learnt to remove the caps of milk bottles that had been delivered by the milkman each morning. The birds pierced and tore the lid, sometimes removing it completely, then helped themselves to the rich cream that had floated to the top.
Even though blue tits rarely travel farther than a few kilometres from where they’re born, they learned this behaviour from each other by watching their neighbours. Thus, by 1935, the Blue tits living in London were regularly stealing cream, too. The behaviour soon radiated outwards and became familiar nationwide to anyone that had milk delivered to their doorsteps. I’m sure if the delivery service was still available, the cheeky little birds would be helping themselves to this day, they certainly were still taking mine back in the late 1990s/early 2000s. It had to be milk with cream that rose to the top of the bottle though; they can’t digest milk, so the skimmed stuff is no good!
Clear blue skies and frosted grass sparkling in brilliant sunshine were too much to resist, this had to be the perfect day for my first long walk of the New Year. Less than five minutes along my path into the woods I knew this was set to be a slow walk when I stopped to photograph berries on a holly tree. I was surprised to find so many remaining uneaten and noted ripe ones fallen and peppering the ground beneath. If not for that I may well have missed the flock of beautiful redwings that burst from the trees on the steep lower slope of the Bryn, exploding from their cover and rapidly scattering like shot from a gun, targeting branches of trees close by. There were a number of them, but impossible to count as once landed they are really difficult to spot. I was thrilled to see them and to be able to watch them and delighted that I got any photographs at all, so of two, this was the best.
Redwing – Turdus iliacus
I knew there were redwings around as I’d been fortunate enough to see some from my kitchen window on the morning of New Year’s Eve and one a couple of days before that, but I had no idea whether they were just passing through or were here to stay. I’m not certain, but I think they were searching through ivy for ripe berries. Now I am hopeful they will stay for a while, at least while they are finding food.
Ivy berries are in varying stages of ripeness
The majority of deciduous trees are bare now, but there is much that is green. Here we have our native holly, copious amounts of ivy, yew, a few Scots pines that are a native but that were most probably introduced, and rather a lot of laurel, once much beloved by Victorian gardeners.
At ground level there are ferns, the polypody in the photograph above, and also hart’s tongue and male ferns.
Hart’s tongue & a small male fern
And there’s lots of moss.
Then my reward for wandering slowly and numb fingers on my gloveless right hand, left free to focus and press the shutter button on the camera; suddenly I was surrounded by the joyous energy and excited sounds of a number of small birds. A feeding party, a collective of a variety of species of small woodland birds united in the eternal search for food.
It’s impossible to say who arrived first, I didn’t sense that there were leaders and followers, more that the flock was operating as a single entity arriving at a pre-determined spot with potential for all members. Of course there were blue tits, also great tits and a couple of coal tits.
An encounter with a feeding party of birds is a magical, uplifting and energising experience. The birds themselves exude excitement and energy, seeming to delight in the thrill of being part of a gang.
The enchanting long-tailed tits were there too.
Once arrived they quickly settled to foraging amongst the trees and shrubbery, splitting back into their families or species groups. I would have been happy with the company of just the exuberant tits, but have to admit my attention was stolen from them when I noticed the treecreepers. Often included as members of a feeding party, there were two on a tree in front of me and then another two, closer to the side. What a treat to have that many of these gorgeous little birds so close and not only in range of the camera but with the added bonus of bright sunlight too.
I lost track of time watching the birds, but they gradually moved away and passing people walking a dog and chatting broke the spell and I too turned to continue my walk. But there was one more little treat to come – two tiny goldcrests, that may or may not have been with the feeding party, were working their way through a small holly bush nearby. I watched them for a good while, but they eluded capture by my camera, they are much too quick especially when trying to contend with foreground vegetation. The shot below was the best one I got!
Before heading on to the trail around the Bryn I had a look at the view over the boundary fence. The higher peaks of the Carneddau mountains have snow with clouds above them that look to be holding more. The warming sunshine had them shrouded in a light veil of mist, with more rising from the Conwy river in the valley below.
“The perfect spot for sunbathing, in a peaceful woodland edge location, offers privacy and safety in which to relax or indulge in some leisurely grooming preening. No charge for use of facilities”.
This summer this ideal location, set conveniently for me just a few metres from my kitchen and bedroom windows, has been a popular spot with some of the local birds, particularly some of the younger ones.They come to make the most of this sheltered sun-trap to sunbathe, also known as ‘sunning’ in application to birds. Sunning birds may become so absorbed in the activity that they are easily approached, which can make them vulnerable to predators. They are safer here; there is no easy access to this spot from any angle, although a savvy Sparrowhawk may possibly be able to make a strike if it got its timing right so as not to cast a shadow.
Dunnock and Blackbird sunning together
Most commonly we see Blackbirds and sometimes Robins sunning in gardens , but other species indulge too in slightly different ways.
Sunbathing Blackbirds are a fairly common sight in parks and gardens
To begin sunning, birds orient themselves to expose the maximum amount of their plumage to the sun. The classic sunning posture is thus: head and body feathers are fluffed up and out and depending on available space and/or sense of security felt, one or both wings are held out from the body with feathers spread; the tail is sometimes fanned out too. The bird may keep the same position throughout a sunning session, or it may change positions to expose different parts of its body to the sun.
Sunning is often a precursor to preening, vital to a bird’s feather maintenance, and in this instance it is thought this has two effects; one is that the sun’s heat helps to spread preening oil across the feathers. The other is that it drives out parasites from within the plumage that can then be more easily dislodged as the bird preens.
Sunning and Preening demonstrated by a Dunnock
I’m fairly sure this session was more concerned with pest control than anything else.
Firstly, adopt the sunning pose: fluff out feathers and spread tail and wing feathers. Well, alright just the tail feathers will do for now.
Secondly, begin preening with any particularly itchy spots caused by unwelcome hitchhikers.
Pay attention to armpits
Some areas such as the head and around the eyes and bill can only be serviced by extending and lifting the leg and having a good old scratch.
It helps to have a flexible neck.
That will have to do for now, it’s getting a bit shady here.Time to go.
The young Robin in the following sequence of images seems to be similarly afflicted with ‘lumps’ apparent on its neck.
The head and neck are areas birds are unable to reach with their bills and have to scratch with a foot.
The other side needs attention too.
It looks as though the bird’s frantic scratching has created a bald spot. And is that another lump under its eye?
During sunning sessions birds often have their bills open. This is because the warmth of the sun raises their body temperature and as they can’t release heat by perspiration, they have to regulate it some other way, so will gape and sometimes pant in order to lose heat.
To sum up, no-one knows for certain the reasons birds sunbathe, although several theories have been proposed.
To maintain the bird’s feathers in good condition. Exactly how sunning assists with this is not known, despite being widely studied. All birds have a gland on the rump, called an oil gland. The ‘preen-oil’ that this gland produces helps to keep the feathers flexible and hygienic. As preening usually occurs directly after sunning, it has been suggested that the sun affects the preen-oil in the feathers in some beneficial manner, or that it helps to synthesize the Vitamin D and helping to regulate it’s temperature.
The heat from the sun may stimulate activity in parasites within the feathers, making them more accessible when the bird starts to preen.
Birds also make use of the sun’s heat to increase their body temperature or prevent heat loss. This form of ‘sunning’ is also used when the bird dries itself after bathing.
They do it simply because they enjoy it.
A tiny Wren enjoying a quick sunbathe on a laurel leaf