Tuesday, December 23, 2008

It was a balmy 15 degrees C yesterday when I went to feed the birds. It was a nice change to just work in T-shirt and jumper and still feel quite warm. I actually felt spring-like and there was a noticable change in the sounds of the wood; a blackbird had decided to sing! It was a lovely sound and blended in with the robins that will sing at this time of year anyway. Balmy spells like this can trigger behaviour in wildlife most of which will adapt and survive if it again turns cold but it can also cause problems. There was a hedgehog in my parents garden yesterday that had obviously been disturbed from its hibernation by the warmth and today I saw a bumblebee nectaring on ivy flowers!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Well, today is mid-winter and the shortest day of the year. So, looking on the bright side, the days now start getting longer again and impossible as it seems, it is the start of Spring in 6 weeks! The change in day length will trigger things and even in January there will be evident changes in the woodland to both plant and animal life. For me it has been a fascinating year and I have never observed the seasonal change in one location so much as this year at Scrag. It will be interesting to observe any variation in the coming years as well as to see whether any of my changes have worked to improve the habitat to the benefit of the very special species list there. Happy mid-winter!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The arctic front has really hit the area; Thursday night it was down to minus 5 degrees at Gatwick and the airport was closed due to the ice! This extreme weather can only have it's toll on the wildlife at Scrag Copse, sometimes this toll can be devastating with probably a high mortality of small woodland birds. It also leads to local or national migration; the whole wood complex is alive with redwings, Scandinavian thrushes, uttering their 'hup, hup' calls. These thrushes have possibly drifted down from further up north in the UK as conditions have worsened. They are always evident throughout the winter but it is during cold spells such as this that the numbers get larger and I would say there are several hundred of them now.
I checked out the badger sett yesterday morning, hoping to see plumes of steam issuing from the active areas. Unfortunately, the air had warmed by the time I got there so steam wasn't visible but there were several new and very fresh latrines just outside the sett entrances. I got the impression that the cold weather has meant that they poke their noses out of their warm, cosy home and think, 'no way, not tonight, let's have a duvet night!' Still, they have to do what they need to do, so they travel as short a distance as possible dig a hole, plop and then run back to the warm again. Who can blame them.
While having my lunch in the main hide yesterday, I watched a nuthatch just perched on the top of a log, not moving but evidently alert. This is a little unusual but I've noticed in the past that they do this when a predator is around. I kept watching and within a couple of minutes a male sparrowhawk came through flashing it's orange underparts. It was closely pursued by a female! They then had an aerial spat with some 'hekking' before settling in a dead birch just within my sight. After a few minutes the male took off and swerved around the clearing in front of the hide, again pursued by the female before they dodged through the hedge and continued their chase until they were lost from sight. Again, this behaviour confuses me as I would expect that individuals were perfectly capable of staying out of each others way. So, are they a pair from last year still loosely bonded or are they siblings, parent and offspring? I need to research this more. Still, it was a great spectacle and I was also pleased that the nuthatch's behaviour alerted me to their approach even though they were initially completely out of my sight.

Monday, December 8, 2008

I managed to drop into Scrag for a couple of hours this afternoon before the weak winter sun set behind the bare trees. In that time I managed to knock up another blue tit box. I raided another skip yesterday and managed to get a about 5 metres of good quality floor boards that had been thrown out. All I do is pull out all the nails and screws and the wood is fine after a bit of a brush off with a wire brush. It's only going to be used for landfill, so I think to be recycled into nestboxes is very worthwhile. One problem I'm having though is drying out the boxes once they're made so I can coat them with preserver; the storage/tool shed has got so many holes and leaks that everything is damp in there. I think I'm going to have to stack them in the bird hide for a couple of weeks as it's much drier in there.
If you intend putting up a nestbox, don't wait until the spring, do it now. Woodland birds check out potential nest sites much earlier than most people are aware, so get it up now so it can settle in and weather a little and the birds will hopefully make the most of it as soon as the breeding season starts.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

After making 2 new nestboxes using my new 'workstation' (it's great!), the weather changed from cold and dull to cold and bright! It was that low slanting winter sun that can be very lovely, so I thought that's enough carpentry it's time to see my birds!
I explored an area to put a new hide to make the most of late in the day mid-winter sun. It will just be a small 1- person hide but will allow new, different shooting opportunities, not just for students but for me as well; I think it pushes your skills to try new areas and set-ups.
Once that was done and having fed the birds, I sat, had a coffee and watched them. One interesting sight was a female sparrowhawk gliding past with prey in talons closely followed a couple of metres behind by another female sparrowhawk. I would say that the second was clearly following the first because of the prey but the 1st didn't seem overly concerned or evasive . This raises a couple of questions; was this a case of klepto-parasitism (nicking another birds food) or was the second a relative of the 1st and was hoping to beg a share? Either I would say is unusual as normally sparrowhawks are solitary except in the breeding season and this is a behaviour that I have never seen before. Watching sparrowhawks is very difficult as their very nature is 'stealth' and as such an overview of sparrowhawk behaviour is normally grasped by tiny snapshots of witnessed events that just grow the more you see them. I would also add that the more you are out in woodland and the more alert you are to any warnings of a sparrowhawk approach the more you see them, however briefly.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

I spent the bitterly cold but bright morning shooting winter images of birds for a magazine article. I arrived just after dawn and set up some potentially good shots but stupidly missed a jay that was perched on a log; to keep out the cold wind I had only opened 2 hatches which meant that I didn't see the bird until I frightened it off!
After the weather changed to a short shower of rain followed by a dull bank of cloud meaning no more shooting, I went to the storage shed and constructed a work station to build a batch of nest boxes. I find that using a tressle it is too low, causing back-ache after a while, so I wanted to build something sturdy and at a comfortable height. I just used off-cuts of wood and timber from other jobs. The task only took me about an hour but will mean I can get to work on all those floor boards I acquired last week and get a couple of boxes made per week. It was a very satisfying task.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Over the past week, because I have been running the Beginning Nature Photography workshops for Sussex Wildlife Trust, so I have only managed to drop in to Scrag a few times and for relatively short times to just feed the birds. All workshops are now finished for the year and re commence in February 2009. I love teaching all the varied workshops throughout the year but I am also looking forward to the break; its time to carry out all the small projects I've saved up. Many of these are photographic projects or writing magazine articles but there are also a lot of jobs to carry out in Scrag such as building a few more nest boxes and clearing some paths.
Tomorrow, however, my goal is to shoot some more birds around the hide and hopefully in wintry conditions. I plan to get there at dawn so that the perches are frosted over and will add another element to the images. I can tell how the birds are struggling with this cold weather because the level of peanuts in the feeders was very low after just 3 days, they normally last 5! As I arrived today, lots of birds congregated in the trees and on some of the perches; they associate human disturbance at the hide with food and so they were just waiting for me to produce the goods. Even a couple of woodpeckers waited in the top of an ash calling and came straight down onto one of the baiting logs as soon as I'd walked away. Oh well, they'll be getting a lot of food from me this week, I just hope they perform well for me!