Blue tit, comma, common buzzard, common carder bee, eristalis pertinax, Great Tit, hoverflies, jackdaw, long-tailed tit, melanism, mistle thrush, peacock butterfly, platycheirus albimanus, Spring, tapered drone fly, treecreeper, wildflowers
Firstly I want to say I sincerely hope that you are keeping safe and well, are making the best of your self-isolation and/or social distancing and, most of all, that you are able to get outside to enjoy this Springtime, if only to your garden. I am desperately missing seeing my family, especially my little grandchildren, but I can honestly say I have never been more grateful for the location of my home! I live on the third floor of a small block of flats that has a communal garden, mostly lawned, but I chose this flat as it is right on the edge of woodland that fringes a Nature Reserve. For the last five years I’ve loved living here and have posted accounts of my local walks many times, but in recent weeks I’ve appreciated even more how lucky I am to be here. I can get outside for my ‘exercise allowance’ and
Since ‘lockdown’, the range of my outings has been much less than it would be in ‘normal’ times, restricted for now to the woodland I can easily access and wander around. Here I meet only the occasional local dog and their walker using the Public Footpath en route for the wider spaces of the reserve, and as we’re pretty well behaved up here, everyone so far has carefully observed the distancing rule. Tricky at times on these narrow tracks!
The walk, or more like meander, that I’m describing today is a ‘mash-up’ of two outings I took in the last week of March, during the spell of lovely Spring-like weather we had when it was sunny and warmish, and the skies were clear dark blue. Although I didn’t go far at all, there was a lot to see and now I know where to see it, I’ll be following a similar pattern in my meanders to check on the season’s progress.
The first part of my path into the woods is dominated along one side by overgrown Cherry Laurels. They are reminders that this was once a shady woodland walk within the grounds of the grand house that stood here, long demolished and replaced much less grandly by flats, in one of which I live. The shrubs, or now small trees, can seem dark and gloomy, but they’re in flower now, lit up with candles of heavily-scented creamy-white blossoms offering up nectar to earlier-emerging insects. On bright sunny days like today, light shining through the leaves creates shadowy reflections of the flower spikes and gives away the presence of hoverflies enjoying basking on their sun-warmed platforms.
A few metres along the path I reach a patch I know to be a ‘hot-spot’ for insects. I’ve always been slightly mystified as to why it’s such a magnet for them, but I think it’s for a combination of reasons. Firstly, we’re almost 100m above sea level here, on the side of a wooded hill that that faces more or less South. A break in the line of Laurels exposes the view down the steeply-side slope, revealing there are very few large trees for quite a distance down, which has created a version of a woodland clearing. Shrubby trees have taken advantage of the space and light and filled the gaps, creating an understorey jungle of Holly, Hawthorn, brambles and of course ivy.
On the other side of the path is another patch clear of trees, about a metre wide, with a retaining bank or perhaps an overgrown wall, at its back. I wonder if this spot was deliberately created as a view point in the old garden and if a seat would have been placed here. It would have been a lovely spot to sit for a while. Facing more or less South, now it gets the benefit of full sun until about midday, after which trees begin to shade it out, but likely there were less then. With less impediments the view would have been across to the other side of the valley of the wooded hills with sloping green meadows. It would have been more peaceful too before the advent of the busy North Wales Expressway running along the length of the valley bottom!
All that I imagine was once here is long gone and the space has slipped into a somewhat scruffy, scrubby strip of rough vegetation that has become a great spot for the peaceful contemplation of an array of insects from early spring to late summer. Today there were a number of large hoverflies, Eristalis pertinax or Tapered Drone Flies, mostly males but there were one or two females too. They were flying briefly, zooming mainly from one sunny resting place to another.
One or two Buff-tailed bumblebee queens flew in low over the vegetation, zooming then off up into the woods; perhaps they were still seeking a good spot to nest, or maybe carrying pollen to stock up one already made. Another emerged briefly, then crawled back under leaf litter and disappeared from view. A Common Carder Bee queen emerged briefly from beneath dry leaves but quickly crawled back and I had a similarly brief view of a Tree Bumblebee. It will be interesting later on to see if there are signs that all, or any of them have made nests here
There were other insects too, a number of different species of flies, which I’m working on being able to identify, so maybe more of them in a future post, and the first of one of my favourite insects, a Bee-fly Bombylius major. They look cute and furry, but are actually a sneaky predators of hard-working mining bees.
A Wild Cherry tree marks the far end of this patch and is now almost in full blossom and looking beautiful against the deep blue cloudless sky. The flowers offer another source of nectar to insects, particularly to bees.
A bit further on, where the path gets steeper for a way, I stopped to listen to a Wren singing and tried to find him. I caught a glimpse as he was perched on a thick branch a couple of metres above the ground, which I was happy with. I love these tiny little birds with loud voices that completely belie their size, and they’re not always easily seen. As I stood a pair of Jackdaws flew into a tree nearby. This is the first year I’ve seen Jackdaws this far up the hill and never in these woods before. Their nesting stronghold is the cliffs of the Little Orme, and then there are others further down the hill towards the village centre that gather around the roofs of houses throughout the winter, but until now our quieter, leafier part of the village hadn’t seemed to appeal. Then a couple of weeks ago I spotted a pair visiting the bird feeders in the garden next door and last week was surprised to see a pair perched together in a tree in the woods not far from where I was seeing them now. This has to be the same pair, and they clearly feel at home, as now they were gathering sticks to make a nest.
Most nests constructed from sticks look a bit haphazard and maybe a bit untidy, but birds such as corvids and of course Wood Pigeons are actually quite selective in their choice of twig. The Jackdaws were carefully scanning for one that looked right, which they then snipped off and gave further inspection. If they were still happy they carried it away, those that didn’t pass muster were dropped to the ground.
As so often happens when you stop to watch one thing, something else comes in to distract your attention. I spotted more movement high in a tree further back from where the Jackdaws were and it came back to me that I’d spotted a Nuthatch on that tree last year and had hoped it might be planning to nest in the hole there. I was sure some bird had worked on the hole though as it was perfectly round and its edges looked fresh. Maybe a Great Spotted Woodpecker had made it? But there were no further developments and as far as I know it remained empty.
Checking out the hole today was a tiny Blue Tit. Surely it wasn’t contemplating it as a nest site? The hole is way too big! None-the-less it was in and out and pecking around it as though checking its possibilities, but I think it more likely it was just foraging for insects.
I had another surprise flash of déjà-vu when I got a better look at the Blue Tit; it’s one with a distinctive face pattern, different to the norm, with a white streak in its blue head cap and blue speckles in its face; one I’m sure I recognise as having seen in this very location last year.
Moving on I reached my next insect ‘hot spot’. Completely different in character to the last one, this is a little higher up and at the junction of two well-trodden paths. Still South-facing the downward slope is again open and missing large trees, some of which have succumbed to storms in recent years.
Two days ago I was standing here watching a small black hoverfly on the Greater Stitchwort flowers and from the corner of my eye I saw what I took to be a dog coming down the path towards me. I was preparing to move 2 metres further on as I thought to let its owner pass, when from behind the big Sweet Chestnut tree on the corner of the junction, trotted a Fox! Equally taken by surprise, for a split second our eyes met and we both froze, then it spun to its right and ran away beneath a Yew tree. Amazing! What a lovely animal. From now on I will always think of that path junction as ‘Fox Corner’.
A gorgeous Peacock butterfly landed on the ground in front of me. Another first species sighting of this year.
In this spot last year there were mining bees, and where there are mining bees, prowling predatory nomad bees and as before-mentioned, Bee-flies. I supposed that the presence of several Bee-flies here today indicated that they had recently emerged from one of last-year’s mining bee nests. They are fascinating insects to watch.
More about Bee-flies and their relationship with mining bees here: Tawny Mining Bees & the Bee-fly
I had a good look around for signs of mining bees and eventually spotted just one feasting on a celandine. It’s difficult to tell from this photograph, but based on what little I’ve learnt about these tiny bees and help I’ve had with identifying others found in this locality, it’s likely that this is an Orange-tailed Mining Bee.
Carrying on down the path I’m reminded of how much evergreen foliage there is here. In this photograph and just a little further back there is Holly, Ivy, Yew, Evergreen/Holm Oak and Spurge Laurel. I still can’t wait for fresh foliage though.
By its nature, a wander has no shape to it, so I can’t describe a trail to you as I often do, and to appreciate one fully takes a particular mindset. They are not for the impatient walker with an aim in mind, or for those whose idea of birdwatching is to see one and tick it off a list!
This is typical of how things go with me: I’m wandering along the path in the photograph above and remember that the other day I noticed for the first time that one of the trees growing at the side of this path is a Larch, not a common tree here. So, as one of my aims this year is to try to identify as many of the different species of tree in this patch of woodland as I can, the tree is in my mind as one to investigate further. Larches are deciduous of course, but is this one, full of cones at the very top, but altogether very dry and brown-looking, alive or dead? Just before I reached it I noticed what I thought was a large branch that had fallen from said Larch, so I detoured slightly onto another path to get a better look.
As I was photographing (for future refence) the cones still attached to what is actually a whole, if skinny dead fallen tree, I spotted a bird fly onto the branch a few trees back from where I was standing. I knew straightaway that it was a Mistle Thrush and grabbed a quick snap in case I didn’t get another chance. I moved forward slowly to get a better look and although it had clearly seen me it stayed put. They are handsome birds, their upright posture giving them a strong confident presence, but they are also wary and always on the alert.
Their colouring and arrangement of their markings is highly effective when it comes to camouflage, sitting perfectly still in dappled shade they blend in perfectly.
After a few minutes I realised that the thrush had no plans to move far, which led me to think that it may well be nesting somewhere nearby. Mistle Thrushes are early nesters, so this could have been the male of a pair keeping watch over his nest and territory. The bird moved further back again, towards what I think of as the Pine Grove, where a dozen or so tall, wind-contorted Scots Pines are gathered at the edge of this patch of woodland where it meets an open field. Perfect Mistle Thrush nesting territory.
I thought I’d hang around for a while to see if the birds might give me a clue as to where the nest was. I headed for this sawn Scots Pine tree stump as a likely place to sit, but realised just in time that it was oozing beads of resin, so it must have been felled recently. I didn’t sit on it. Counting the rings from my photograph later on I reached somewhere around 60. I wondered why it had been felled as its wood looks quite strong and healthy.
This small patch of the woods is a favourite place of smaller birds too, especially tits and particularly Great Tits. While I was standing still I was treated to a song by the strongly-marked male above. I’m sure I photographed him last year, he’s quite distinctive, or is that heavy black genetic? I had lovely views of two Long-tailed Tits foraging up around the trees and along the field fence.
I was hoping to get at least a glimpse of a Nuthatch here, a few days ago there were a pair flitting about here exploring the top branches of the pines; I took a photograph, but facing into bright sunshine it’s not great, but a record at least. I could hear a male calling persistently and loudly, but try as I might, I couldn’t locate him today. Finding singing or calling birds in trees is definitely not my strong point.
Meanwhile, the Mistle Thrush had flown up to a tree branch and sat in full and open view with his chest feathers puffed out, making him look a completely different shape and much bigger; from a distance he looked a bit like a female Sparrowhawk. He was still fully alert though and quickly dashed out when a kafuffle broke out around a neighbouring tree. A Magpie had flown in and perhaps deliberately, must have got close to the nest. I assume the female had been sitting on it and launched herself at the Magpie, which was screeching loudly. Both Mistle Thrushes went on the attack, also calling loudly and saw the Magpie off. Peace resumed and the male went back to his perch, re-fluffed his feathers and sat quietly once more.
I’d been standing still in one spot for a good few minutes, then as I turned to continue along the path I was on to head back home, this lovely little Treecreeper flew onto a pine tree almost right in front of me. It spent a while exploring the bark of the tree, probing into crevices with that long slim wickedly-curved and pointed beak, moving around and slightly up before flying across to another one that had ivy growing up it.
Between watching the Mistle Thrush and the Treecreeper I’d stood and looked over the fence to see if there was any sign of Buzzards there. Two days ago I’d spotted one circling low over the trees here, that had flown in from across the valley. It was joined then by another and they both flew out over the field, circled around, high and low, then both landed in the big tree in the corner of the field. They didn’t stay for long, but I’m really hoping that they were prospecting for a nesting site and that they might choose one close by.
Today it seemed there were no Buzzards to be seen, but then, just as I was walking away one flew in low over the trees. I turned back and walked quickly back to the field edge where I saw it had landed on a tree branch. It was hunched over and peering down intently….
…..then it launched itself from its perch, flew low over the grass and dropped suddenly. It had landed behind a hillock near the top edge of the field so I couldn’t see it on the ground, but it soon took off again and as it flew in my direction I could see it had something gripped in the talons of one foot. I couldn’t get in close enough to make out what it was, and my photograph doesn’t help with whether it was live prey or carrion. It was interesting that it carried it away too and didn’t eat it where it found it, which made me wonder if it was intended for a mate? Buzzards don’t usually lay till late April, so maybe a bit early for that. Another of life’s little mysteries.So much seen in a small patch of woodland and because I spent longer in each spot I feel the quality of my sightings was good too. Staying away from the main Reserve, where I would have expected to have met more people meant I hadn’t got close to my usual target of 5,000 steps, indeed, I hardly made it to 1,000! But if I’d continued as I would normally have done I’m sure I would have missed a lot of what I saw today. I’m looking forward to more restricted wanderings in the days to come.