Friday, March 28, 2008

Gen's Bird box

Hi Gen, here is your box you very kindly donated. As you can see I have sited it sympathetically amongst other silver birches so it blends in nicely. I will let you know if it is occupied this season, so you can come down to photograph.
Despite the Arctic weather, the past week has been very, very busy at Scrag with 2 woodland birds courses as well as getting several jobs done that needed to be completed before the start of the Spring/Summer seasons. This included getting more willow whips into the ground so that they take root in this growing season. I would estimate that I've now planted 45-50 to form the lose 'scrubby' hedge mentioned earlier as well as planted generally around the edges of New Meadow. I've added to the hedge some hawthorns and blackthorns transplanted from an area I want to keep clear.

I've never experienced Scrag Copse in the spring and I am amazed at the carpets of ground flora I have. Bluebells (some already in flower!) and dog's mercury appear very evident meaning that I'm very concious of where I can walk now. There are also primroses and violets dotted throughout the wood. Some areas, however, predominantly the thicker areas, are devoid of ground flora and this is a good indicator to me of where to 'thin' next autumn. This thinning will benefit the remaining tree species as well as allowing more light down to the ground layer, encouraging more flower species.

Two birds have dominated the weeks activity. First the barn owl is definitely using the barn owl box, there are fresh white droppings below the box and in some of the branches immediately outside the entrance. I also found a nice, fresh pellet underneath, which I am drying so I can dissect it, lovely!! The views I am having of this owl are incredible, mainly because he is coming out surprisingly early each day, sometimes as early as 4pm, but also because he flies in surprising habitats such as straight through the wood itself and not sticking to a barn owls usual grassland habitat.

On Tuesday, while showing Filma Dyer, from Sussex Wildlife Trust around the wood, we had specatcular views of a lesser spotted woodpecker feeding and foraging at low level on some of the dead fallen trees around the stream. I heard a lesser spot last year calling, but this is the first sighting and as you may know how keen I am about woodpeckers, this is very exciting for me. It means that I have all three of the main British woodpecker species at Scrag and it was also a special sight because Filma has never seen one before.

Yesterday, during the woodland birds course, a chiff chaff briefly came down to the blackthorn around the hide. It wasn't singing, so I assume it was a female. This is the first summer migrant to arrive at Scrag. I don't think warbler numbers are that high for my patch due to the lack of scrubby areas, so hopefully my willow and hawthorn planting will help boost breeding numbers. Yesterday, I also found the a long-tailed tit nest in some honeysuckle attached to a fence. I've suspected over the last week or so that they were nesting here due to the activity and I even watched individual long-tails picking up bird feathers that have fallen around the feeding area. This along with the goldfinches repeatedly feeding on the teasel heads means plenty of opportunity over the next couple of weeks, especially now the canvas hide has been repaired.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Today, I repaired the bridge by securing it to an ash post driven into the stream bank. The post was from an small ash tree I cut down specifically for the job. This served the purpose of thinning the woodland as well as providing valuable timber. Some of the thinner poles that I trimmed off I intend to make into a hurdle around the door to the bird-hide to create a bit of expansion room if the hide gets busy.
I also planted around 15 more willow whips in order to scrub up the edge of New Meadow and also create the barrier to people previously mentioned. I did this by also laying some of the thicker willow verticals too thick to cut for planting. By laying it I have extended the vegetation area by 3 or 4 metres which should really help in creating the barrier.
At the end of the day, I sat in the bird hide finishing the coffee from my flask and was rewarded by a stunning view of the barn owl gliding just 6 metres from me through New Meadow. The owl originally came from the area of the barn owl box and then flew through the hornbeams and into the meadow. I have never seen a barn owl fly through woodland before and to get the close view I had was a special end to the day.

Deer killing seat to badger watching seat!

Monday 18th March 2008, I added a seat and back from recycled wood (from a skip!) to the deer shooting chair and installed the new chair overlooking the badger sett. I've tied it for now against an ash tree in case once I try it out I want to move it to a better viewpoint. It's exciting because the view from higher up is very different and I feel it may be a successful method of observing badgers.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Sunday 16th March. Terrible weather today but jobs have to be done so with the adage that 'there's no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes' I spent the afternoon at Scrag completing a nice list of tasks. With the invaluable help of Claire Harries, we planted 40 willow whips to the rear of the bird hide and along the edge of the public foot path. This will have the effect of not only 'scrubbing up' the edges of New Meadow but will also eventually create a barrier to unwanted trespassing. This is a very cheap way of planting new trees; just using secateurs to cut off the thin vertical 'whips' of the willow that sprout out of the main trunks. We then just pushed them about 12 inches into the ground. I have never done this before but apparently, these 'whips' readily root and eventually become trees. The Willow is especially beneficial because it will root in very wet soil which occurs in this area of the meadow. It's the sort of pleasing job to forget about and then notice in 6 months time that we have a whole new load of rooting trees providing both a barrier and a great habitat for birds and insects.

The two goldfinches that started feeding on the niger seed feeder, have now been joined by a redpol! This is fantastic news as it enhances my project of getting these delightful birds onto natural perches. Yesterday, I took delivery of a nice bundle of teasel heads from Keith Dunning who came on the woodland birds course last week. I have now sunk all of these teasel heads into the ground around the feeder and laced each head with a sprinkle of niger seed. This will transfer their feeding from the unnatural looking feeder onto the attractive perches and thereby provide a great photographic opportunity for me and all my lovely students! This is classic bait-and-perch technique.

We also fixed a new blue tit nest box supplied by Gen Spraggett on to one of the birches at the edge of New Meadow. Thanks Gen, I hope it is occupied this season!

A small note of irritation is that the same three dogs that are repeatedly terrorising the deer across the whole wood complex, were back again this afternoon running amok through the wood. The problem is, there is never an owner with them, so I will have to visit all the farms locally to try to remedy fix this problem.

Barn Owl Again!

On Friday 14th March I visited the wood on a bit of a flying visit just to feed the birds and badgers. Unfortunately, being in a bit of a hurry meant I didn't pay much attention as I walked up the east side of the wood and was a bit surprised when a barn owl took off in front of me apparently coming from the immediate area of the barn owl box. I then had a 15 minute view of it repeatedly hunting backwards and forwards across the field sometimes just 20 metres away from me! It was unsuccessful in its hunting despite making several dives to the ground before gliding south and perching on a fence post. This evoked a series of calls from the little owl that roosts there. I examined the ground beneath the owl box and noticed a line of very white droppings. This is the 2nd sight in a week of the owl in exactly same area and so combined with the droppings I am convinced that this owl is now using the box as a daytime roost. I am both elated and amazed that the box has been occupied so quickly and can only hope that it pairs up and tries a breeding attempt in the spring and summer.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Monday 10th March 2008. Well, it was the most severe storm of the winter today and I was very eager to pay the wood a 2 hour visit at the end of the day. I was a little concerned with the hides, storage shed and owl boxes as yet untested by high winds. In fact, I needn't have worried, all hides are still standing, untouched and undamaged, even the little remote hide. All the owl boxes are still up.
There was some tree damage, however, with some large hornbeam limbs snapped off, which must have made a hell of a noise. This has, however, merely created some natural clearings which will merely allow more light down to the woodland floor and encourage more ground flora. It has also given me some good fire wood! Just off my patch a very large ash has completely snapped off at the trunk very dramatically which has crashed down and shattered a hornbeam beneath it.
Water levels throughout the wood are very high with the drainage stream down the east side running very fast and filling one of the ponds very nicely. The main stream, however, is running about a metre deeper than normal which sadly means that the lovely little bridge that I lovingly put in about 3 weeks ago has just floated away! As I carried out the work, I did wonder if the water would get that high and considered staking it into the banks. Well, I suppose I now have my answer so have to re-do the work. Thankfully, I found the railway sleeper a little way downstream so just dragged it to higher ground.
Well, although I was worried, I should remember that this woodland has stood here more or less for over 500 years and it has weathered storms a lot worse than this and will hopefully weather a lot more. Any damage just creates different niches for other species to take advantage of and in general just increases the diversity of the overall woodland structure.
Sunday 9th March 2008. Another Woodland Birds' day at Scrag with 4 students plus myself in the hide. The weather was a bit changeable and we had a few claps of thunder and heavy showers but otherwise fairly bright conditions. The nuthatch came down sporadically and Sandy White and Gen Spragget managed to get good portrait shots. I was a little disappointed with the woodpeckers as they were a little jumpy and with the disturbance of 4 photographers in the hide were not staying on their perches for long. The Marsh tits, however, were behaving very well and I think Gen got the best shot she has managed up to now.
One very good bit of news was that the niger seed feeder opposite the hide that has been stocked for around 4 months is now regularly being visited by 2 goldfinches. I'm very happy with this as they have been alluding me for a long time. I really enjoy luring birds in over time and then managing to place them on perfect perches for photography. In this case I will introduce a teasel head laced with sprinkled niger seed. The goldfinches will simply start feeding on the teasel heads as it is one of their natural food sources and then I can withdraw the feeder. This way I can guarantee the finches will automatically use the teasel instead of the feeder. Introduce a hide in the right spot and then it is just a question of time!
I'm very grateful to Keith Dunning and Alan Ross-Fry for helping me carry the dismantled deer shooting chair up to the badger sett area; this has genuinely saved me a couple of hours of heavy lifting, so all I need to do now is replace the rotten seat and strengthen the whole structure before putting it into the exact spot for the best badger viewing.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Barn Owl!

Friday 7th March, 2008. Incredible! I am over the moon. A late evening visit to lay out the food for the badgers was rewarded by disturbing a barn owl perched a mere 40 metres from one of the barn owl boxes put up for them only a few days ago. Admittedly, it was a pity to disturb this beautiful owl but I was certainly not expecting to see one and was more on the lookout for deer, badgers and woodcock. Once it took flight though, I had a spectacular view of it hovering and quartering across the long grass fields until eventually it disappeared from sight. This is the view I have imagined across this meadow, feeling that it was ideal barn owl habitat and this was why I put the boxes up. I think it's safe to assume that if it was perched so close to the nest box at that time of day, it will be very aware of the presence of the nest box; birds are always very concious of changes within their territory. The owl may even be using the box as a day-time roost already. I feel it is now only a question of time before it is used as a nest site. I am thrilled with this development and look forward to posting more news on this in the future.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Spending so much time organising the owl boxes recently has meant getting a bit behind with other chores in the wood so I spent the day doing lots of little things like putting up a shelf and some hooks in the bird hide.
I spent an hour or so photographing the badger sett and features associated with the sett such as badger paths, dung pits etc. I did this as early as possible so my scent wouldn't disturb them when they emerge later. I also had the inspirational idea of moving the deer shooting high-seat, that had been left abandoned on the edge of New Meadow, to near the badger sett. This could allow some really close up observation of the badgers without human scent disturbing them. So, I've already dismantled it so it just needs a bit of repair work before I move it up to the sett. I think it's nice that an object that was used to shoot deer will now be used to observe badgers!
At the end of the day, I did a solo badger watch and was lucky to get 3 lovely scratching badgers in the half light. I sense they are beginning to come out a little earlier, so I should get better views of them soon as they start coming out in the light evenings. I have started to put food out for the badgers in a grassy open area about 60m from the main sett. This will hopefully start being used regularly and mean observing and photographing without the risk of disturbing the sett.
Tuesday 4th March 2008.
Finally got the last 2 tawny owl boxes up on old oaks today. I spaced them as far apart as possible to increase the chances of them being used but I still think it will take a couple of years before the wood is weathered enough to be of interest to them. I must admit, they do look good though.
A nice violet in flower poking through the bluebell leaves. Lots of primroses out in flower now.
Also a buzzard settled in a tree more or less in front of the hide and I later saw it circling high overhead. I'm sure buzzards nest either in the general woodland complex of which Scrag is a part or in a another local copse. It would be great to find the nest later in the season.
It was also nice to see 2 woodcock patrolling the edges of the wood at
dusk. These are probably males marking their territory early in the season.