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Wildlife night and day!

Posted: Thursday 16th May 2013 by BrianEversham

Nightingale at Brampton Wood by George CottamNightingale at Brampton Wood by George Cottam

Spring is my favourite time of year, and the last couple of weeks have confirmed why. After the long, cold, wet and often miserable winter, without our beloved songbirds and with little activity among the insects, the sometimes-warmer, sometimes-drier weather brings everything to life.

I love the mellow fluting of blackbirds,  the powerful, belligerent projecting voice of the wren, or the most familiar of all the robin (especially beloved in England because it sings all winter too). But for me, the outstanding spring songbird is the nightingale - and this is the time to hear them!  They sing for only four or five weeks after they arrive in April, from their winter quarters in southern Africa. So, you have about two weeks left to hear them this year.  And they seem to be doing well.

Last week I had the pleasure of hearing at least four or five nightingales in full song at Grafham Water, , helped by the Wildlife Trust’s warden, Aidan Matthews and his ability literally to whistle up a nightingale on demand.   The carefully planned management work which Aidan has been carrying out at Grafham over several years has also improved things, as the structure of the woodland-scrub-grassland edges is now perfect for nightingales and for a range of warblers.  Nightingales are also singing strongly in the willows at Paxton Pits (which is among the most popular sites in Britain for visitors to enjoy them), at Woodwalton Fen, in Brampton Wood, and hopefully in several of our other woods: Short Wood and Glapthorn Cow Pastures in Northamptonshire have been good for them in recent years. 

Although nightingales can be heard at almost any time of day, evening or after dark has the benefit that they have far less competition, as most songbirds quieten down at dusk.  A nocturnal walk on a warm spring evening can be a magical experience.  Apart from the obvious attractions of slugs, snails, woodlice, millipedes and night-time insects, there’s plenty to listen out for.  And when our eyes have less to do, our other senses are heightened.  I count myself fortunate to have discovered the joys of night walks very early in life. 

I heard my first nightingale on my 12th birthday.  I grew up in southern Yorkshire, next to the huge lowland peatbog of Thorne Moors, which happens also to be the most northerly regular breeding site for nightingales in Europe!  Almost every year since then I’ve been back, and spent the night of my birthday walking around and across the Moors. 

This year’s trip I was unusually lucky: in addition to a couple of nightingales (the first for three years  -  they are scarce in the north these days), there were several tawny owls calling  -  the eerie wavering hooo.. hoo… hooo  of the male, the sharp, almost aggressive ‘kewick’ of the females.  Around the edge of the Moors, I heard and glimpsed against the darkening sky, three male woodcock ‘roding’  -  their unique territorial display flight, repeating a regular circuit at tree-top height alternating a few bass double-grunts and a baritone ‘twick’.  If you’ve never seen or heard a woodcock, I’d recommend a dusk walk at Woodwalton Fen in the next few weeks.   Snipe carry on their ‘drumming’ well into the night  -  the males fly high, then dive downward, when specially adapted feathers at the side of the tail vibrate, causing a gentle quavering sound, rather like a bleating goat. 

Mammals are also more evident at dusk and in the dark.  My Yorkshire ramble disturbed a total of eight Roe Deer (which, in truth,disturbed me at least as much as I them), I came close to a pair of loudly grumbling badgers, and around midnight, a fox barked in the distance.  But the highlight of the evening was a very distinctive rarity   – a calling spotted crake.  This is a tiny, secretive brownish bird related to moorhens but far, far more difficult to see.   If you’re in a wetland after dark and hear a loud and echoing call, repeated perhaps once every one to two seconds, which resembles something between the crack of a whip and the sound of water dripping into a barrel - you might have found a spotted crake.

If walking in the wilds after dark sounds a bit too risky, how about looking for beetles on a sunny day?  I joined Paul Tinsley-Marshall and a team of volunteers for a survey in the Great Fen the other weekend, and was delighted with the results.  There were certainly plenty of beetles, including a couple of rather special ones.  Most colourful was the bright green and hairy Chlaenius nigricornis, which runs over bare peaty mud next to rich vegetation.  Smaller and slenderer, the climbing, aphid-eating Demetrias monostigma provides an excuse to introduce a little-known but valuable word: it’s diplostenoecious!  That means, it has two very specific but very different habitats:  it lives in fenland reedbeds (even thriving in reeds growing out of deep water), and in the dry, salty tussocks of marram-grass on coastal sand dune - and nowhere in between!  Apparently there’s something about dense, tough, rough vertical grass stems which it likes. 

 The insect-hunting was punctuated by some astonishing bird-watching over lunch. Watching over Darlows Farm, to the west of Woodwalton Fen, we saw a newly-arrived hobby hawking briskly overhead, a red kite drifting lazily, and a very smart wheatear passing through on its way to its upland breeding habitats.  One of my favourites, the yellow wagtails, were busy among the cattle grazed grasslands  -  a scarce breeding bird in our area these days, so a delight to see.  Hiding in the longer grass, but calling very distinctly with their three-syllable _._ whistle, rendered ‘Wet-my-lips’ in the books  -  a quail!  This is quite a rare summer migrant, and not one I hear in our area every year. And all that in an area that was growing wheat less than a decade ago!

With so much birdlife active on Darlows Farm, we didn’t want to risk disturbing it, so headed for the recently restored land at Rymes ‘Reedbed’ north of Holme Fen.  The title is currently wishful thinking, but seeing the landscaping and excavation, and finding shallow pools of water already, I’m confident this will be one of the most exciting parts of the Great Fen within a few years. 

Have you seen this ‘ant’ ?

For such recently converted ex-arableland (growing onions three years ago!), the beetle populations are impressive!  We found about 30 species of ground-beetle in a couple of hours. But the highlight for me was a large velvet-ant, the first I’ve ever seen in Britain, and only the fourth ever recorded in central England. (Lest you’re worried that it was photographed ‘in captivity’, I went back and released it at Rymes Reedbed a couple of days later.)  Larger than any of our local ants, they are actually solitary wasps, wingless in the female, and they live as parasites in bumblebee nests.  There’s a historical record from the Woodwalton Fen area in the late 19th or early 20th century, then nothing.  The strongholds for large velvet-ants in Britain are the New Forest, the Surrey Heaths, the Essex Coast, and the North York Moors, with a huge gap in central England.  So it was a most remarkable record when, in 2011, a keen photographer of insects called Joseph Lynn found a female in the Great Fen area. The following year, he saw a winged male in the same place.  About that time, the leading Peterborough entomologist, Pete Kirby, found one near Yaxley.  And now, a fourth within a couple of miles!  So, it looks as though we have an established population!  Although usually found on heathland or moorland, as these records show, they could potentially turn up anywhere with enough bees and flowers.  When it stops raining, get out there and see what you can find.


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