What’s up with our Reed Buntings?

Reed Bunting (male), Bridge Meadows, February 2017. Image © Copyright 2017.

This week we report’s first recorded sighting of a Reed Bunting. It was a solitary bird observed in the meadows down by the trickle that remains of the Nailbourne. Those who are not familiar with this bird may find it difficult to distinguish at a distance from a house sparrow, it being of similar size and having similar colours; yet on closer inspection we see the Reed Bunting’s characteristic features, particularly the white collar and white moustache on the male.

As the name would suggest, Reed Buntings are most associated with wetlands, reedy marshes and riversides, but they are now often seen in fields and gardens too, possibly as a result of declining wetland habitats. In summer they may nest amongst oilseed rape, also eating the seeds, and in winter they can be found in fields of stubble looking for the small seeds of wild plants that grow between the crops. When the fields are ploughed in early spring ready for crop planting, the food source is gone and the birds may turn to garden feeders for emergency supplies. This is one example of where uncultivated field margins can be of great benefit to wildlife.

Following a 50% decline in numbers after the 1970s, Reed Buntings appeared on the RSPB’s Red List of endangered British species, but their numbers are now rising again nationally and they have been moved onto the Amber List of birds at less risk. However more localised counts by the British Trust for Ornithology reveal something odd going on: Reed Buntings are disappearing from the southern coastal counties of England, yet increasing in numbers in the north, East Anglia and more dramatically in Ireland. Why are they leaving the south to move up country? No one seems to know.

In parts of East Anglia observers report seeing hundreds of Reed Buntings gathering in winter evenings: here in Bridge we are delighted to see even one.

Breaking the ice

Frozen puddles trap vital drinking water, Whitehill Wood, Bridge Parish. Image © Copyright 2016.

Deep in bleak mid-winter the crystalline patterns formed by ice in frozen puddles can be intriguing, and it’s not just children who like to pause and stoop to examine these strange frozen worlds at our feet. But the attention span of children is short, and often, when curiosity gets the better of them they will try to break the ice, either for the sheer naughty pleasure of doing so, or perhaps to discover what further mysteries lie in the murky water beneath the glassy surface. To considerate, responsible adults who have been brought up to respect our countryside, this deliberate vandalism can seem like sacrilege, the callous fracturing of Nature’s works of art, the spoiling of a virgin frozen world; but, if ever you find yourself in that frame of mind, think again, the breaking of the ice can be a godsend to wildlife yearning for a drink.

Just like us, birds, mammals, reptiles and insects of all kinds need water to drink and moisture to help them keep themselves clean, even in the winter. Out in the countryside, puddles are a precious source of water. Pot-hole puddles on country lanes provide a drink or a bath. Baths are important for drowning parasites in a bird’s feathers: blackbirds and starlings love a delousing bath. In the woods and fields the water-filled ruts left by tractors and 4X4s offer refreshment, nutrients and sometimes food like snails, nymphs and worms.

In the frozen world of winter, all such sources of water are vital for our wildlife. It really is a matter of life and death: thousands of our native birds will not survive through winter, either because of cold or starvation. In the famously cold winter of 1962-3 it was estimated that half of all British birds died (1), but in any of our colder winters up to 80% of some species, particularly smaller birds like wrens and long-tailed tits may die. Even in a normal year only 25% of Kingfishers are thought to make it through the winter (2).

The modern world has taken so much from Nature, so why not give our wildlife some help? Feeding birds in our gardens is important, providing our wild creatures with drinking water out in the countryside is absolutely vital, and this is often easily achieved as we saunter out on country walks admiring the beauty of the frost. Next time you see a puddle which has frozen across the top, go on, break the icy surface to expose the water underneath: you might just save a life.

If you have a bird bath which freezes over, please refresh the water each day. In a small pond, leave a ping pong ball or two on the surface to stop it freezing over.

(1) The Independent, Thursday 28 January 2010. Experts fear count will reveal a deadly winter for birds.
(2) RSPB Figure

New life in a rural hedge

From now on hedge cutting on Mill Lane will take place at least a month or so later each year. Image © Copyright 2016.

Following a campaign to stop Canterbury District Council cutting the hedge on Mill Lane, Bridge, within the bird breeding season, we have just been informed today that the council have changed their policy. The hedge, which grows down the Brickfields side of Mill Lane, has now been recategorised from an ‘amenity hedge’ to a ‘rural hedge’, meaning that from now on it will only be cut once a year after 31 August in compliance with the same modern environmental practice required of grant funded farmers.

This may mean that during the summer the hedge grows a little wider and taller than we have seen in the last few years but the birds, including sparrows, dunnocks, robins, thrushes, blackbirds, collared doves, tits, chaffinches (and possibly greenfinches and siskins) which regularly nest and raise young there will no longer be disturbed mid-season.

Before cutting the Mill Lane hedge is a beautiful rural haven for wildlife. This picture was taken in early May when the oak tree at the junction with Western Avenue is just coming into leaf. Image © Copyright 2016.

This is another success for in our campaigns to protect our local wildlife, but it has been achieved with the intervention of Councilor Simon Cook who stepped in to help us by negotiating with Canterbury City Council. We offer both Councilor Cook and Canterbury City Council our sincere thanks for making this policy change happen. We know our local wild birds will appreciate it.

The return of the Redwing

One of a flock of about 20 Redwings, Bridge Meadows, 4 December 2016. Image © copyright 2016.

This month we have a small flock of about 20 Redwings apparently living in or near Bridge Meadows. last reported on a Redwing sighting in March 2016 when one bird was spotted in a wheat field near Flint Cottages. The Redwing is, in theory, a relatively common bird in northern continental Europe, Scandinavia, and across the Baltic states to Russia, where it lives out in open countryside. With about 690,000 (1) visiting this country between October and March to enjoy our milder climate, one might assume the bird is a regular sight in Britain too, but most of those birds that come here apparently locate themselves in northern England or Scotland, so we do not believe it is a common bird in this area and we have only made one previous observation here, although other people may have seen them.

With a similar appearance to a thrush, the Redwing is indeed the smallest bird of the thrush family; it can be distinguished by a thick pale stripe above the eye and an orange-red tinge to the flank. This red patch becomes more evident on the underwing in flight.

There are two sub-species of Redwings which can be differentiated: the smaller Scandinavian bird (the more common) which we have in our meadows this month, and the Icelandic bird which is slightly larger. Both visit the UK for Winter and, interestingly, the lone Redwing observed near Flint Cottages back in March was noticeably larger than the current birds, so perhaps it was one of the Icelandic species.

Only about 4-16 pairs of Redwings are thought to breed in the UK each year (2), and they are now an RSPB Red List endangered species in this country.

(1), (2) RSPB figures.

The unfamiliar Mipit

Meadow Pipit, Sheep Dip lane, Bishopsbourne, October 2016. Image © copyright 2016.

Meadow Pipit, Sheep Dip lane, Bishopsbourne, October 2016. Image © copyright 2016.

Silhouetted against the bright sky and a low winter sun, birds sitting on power lines and telephone wires can be virtually impossible to identify with the naked eye, so many visiting species simply go unnoticed. But modern technology can sometimes help, as in the case of the picture above. This bird was photographed this Autumn while perched on a power line near the Nailbourne when the bird was far too far away to be distinguished with the naked eye, and even through a zoom lens; but it was later identified on the computer screen as a Meadow Pipit.

Residents of Bridge may be surprised to know that the Meadow Pipit, which some experts abbreviate to ‘Mipit’, is a resident British bird and numerically one of our most common, but they are an upland species and their distribution is to the north and west of the country, so they are by no means a regular sight in this area. In Winter British numbers are supplemented by migrants from the north: many from Greenland and Iceland find their way to Ireland and the west of England but birds in our area are more likely to be visitors from Scandinavia. They tend to be lowland ground feeders with a preference for marshy or waterside locations where they eat beetles, spiders and a range of flies, particularly the cranefly (daddy long-legs).

Bird-watchers often have difficulty distinguishing the Meadow Pipit from the skylark, but the skylark’s head crest is generally the giveaway. Yet another bird, which looks very similar at a distance, was recorded on the same power line at exactly the same time as the Mipit. This bird sported similar colouring to the Mipit, but the beak was short and stubby while the Mipit’s beak is markedly narrow and pointed. These features were impossible to distinguish on location under a bright winter sun, but having examined the picture of the second bird, we believe it is a corn bunting. Corn buntings and skylarks are both regularly observed in our local meadows and they were featured in our article ‘Somewhere over the railway…’ which can be found here:

Corn Bunting?, Sheep Dip lane, Bishopsbourne, October 2016. Image © copyright 2016.

Corn Bunting? Sheep Dip lane, Bishopsbourne, October 2016. Image © copyright 2016.

Vermin over the hill

Wild Rabbit, Star Hill, Bridge. Image © copyright 2016.

Wild Rabbit, Star Hill, Bridge. Image © copyright 2016.

This week wild rabbits were culled using ferrets to unearth them on Star Hill in Bridge. “Quite right too,” some locals said, “they’re just vermin!”.

We often hear the term ‘vermin’ cast casually and disparagingly at certain animals, which are regarded with disdain, while others are treated with favour. So, what exactly is the definition of vermin, and what does it mean in consequential terms?

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines vermin as “Mammals and birds injurious to game, crops etc., e.g. foxes, weasels, rats, mice, moles, owls; noxious insects e.g. fleas, bugs, lice; parasitic worms or insects; (fig) vile persons”. It’s a very vague definition, which seems open to the inclusion of any creature which eats the crops in our fields, kills game birds before they can be shot in sport, or irritates us in some other way.

Across Britain that small OED list of so-called vermin has, at one time or another, been stretched to include: magpies, seagulls, crows, rooks, stoats, kingfishers, house sparrows, rabbits, deer, red squirrels, grey squirrels, pigeons, snakes, woodpigeons, kites, buzzards, frogs, eagles, geese, wild cats, domestic cats caught poaching, collared doves, ducks, jackdaws, rooks, jays, curlews, pole cats, lapwings, oystercatchers, choughs, dippers, water voles, hedgehogs, wolves, hawks, otters, bullfinches, hares, green woodpeckers, badgers and many other animals which today we would call wildlife.

A few of these creatures, like the wolf, the flea and the adder were obvious candidates for extermination in the survival instincts of our ancient ancestors, but many of the names on the list come from the Preservation of Grain Act of 1532, which ordered the public to take part in a mass killing of rural wildlife for the sake of preserving farm produce. Some animals, like woodpigeons, rats and rabbits clearly were legitimate threats to farm crops, but many others like lapwings, water voles and hedgehogs were killed simply because of ignorance about their lifestyles. In some cases the law was used as a cover for killing animals for superstitious reasons rather than for any real threat they posed to agriculture, and millions of other creatures were killed under the law because they were good to eat rather than because they caused any nuisance.

Masquerading as the eradication of vermin, this killing frenzy went on across Britain for many decades until, in the mid 18th century, it was stopped because of general alarm at the massive devastation done to our wildlife and countryside. By then, it was too late for some animals, and to this day their numbers have never recovered. However, a century later, with the burgeoning popularity of ‘country sports’ like hunting, shooting, fishing, badger baiting and hare coursing, the mass killing of so-called vermin had escalated again, and by the mid 19th century it was once more being conducted on an enormous scale until a series of animal protection acts were brought in to reduce the slaughter.

Young fox, Bekesbourne. Contrary to popular assumption foxes are not legally defined as vermin: if they cause a nuisance they can be shot or lethally injected by a vet, but cruel treatment to a fox constitutes a serious criminal offence. Image © copyright 2016.

Young fox, Bekesbourne. Contrary to popular assumption foxes are not legally defined as vermin: if they cause a nuisance they can be shot or lethally injected by a vet, but cruel treatment to a fox constitutes a serious criminal offence. Image © copyright 2016.

In British law there is no legal definition of vermin: it is not written in stone. Today, many of the animals which were once persecuted are now treasured and encouraged for the biodiversity they bring to our countryside. Even now this considered approach has its detractors. A lot of rural folk still have a list of vermin held firmly in mind and they seem to take a certain relish in having these creatures killed, but, before casually condoning the slaughter, everyone should know the answer to this question: how did these animals get onto their list of vermin? Was it because they pose a genuine threat to farming and social welfare; or because they spoil the fun of ‘country sports’; or because killing them is the fun of country sports; or because of tradition, confusion, ignorance and superstition?

Whatever our views on wildlife there is one creature which, over the centuries, has caused far more destruction and nuisance in our countryside than all the others put together: and we all know who it is…

*This article takes some general references from ‘Man and the Natural World: changing attitudes in England 1500-1800’, a seminal work by the author Keith Thomas; but we do not suggest any views or opinions expressed herein are necessarily shared by that author.

Of brilliance and tragedy

Kingfisher at the Old Sheep Dip, Bishopsbourne, 1 Nov 2016. Image © copyright 2016.

Kingfisher at the Old Sheep Dip, Bishopsbourne, 1 Nov 2016. Image © copyright 2016.

Why is the Kingfisher so called? You may wonder how this diminutive bird earned his regal title. He does not have the majestic posture of the heron, or the fearsome aura of the osprey, but stand quietly on the bridge on Sheep Dip Lane for a few moments, watch a Kingfisher exercising his skills in the Old Sheep Dip, and you too may agree that this extraordinary little bird really is the sovereign of his craft.

This year, once again, we have at least one pair of Kingfishers living on our bourne and delighting all those who get a glimpse of them. They are mesmerising birds to watch: their colours in flight are brilliant and their skill is incredible, even though everything they do appears to be done at great speed. They arrive in a flash of electric blue darting low across the water, then perch on a prominent rock or branch overlooking a stretch of slow moving water watching for fish and small swimming creatures. When prey is sighted, they will plunge in a curving dive to enter the water, sometimes several feet away from their vantage point, and rarely seem to fail to make a catch. This is in part because of their the ability to switch instantly between two forms of vision: in the air their vision is monocular, but under water it is binocular, meaning they can instantly correct for the refraction of light in water to retain sight of their prey.

When a fish is caught the Kingfisher will return it to the perch, ensure it is dead, clasp it more aerodynamically in the beak, then, with great urgency it will fly off to feed the young in the nest. This will be a burrow two to three feet long, somewhere along the riverbank. There may be up to six chicks waiting eagerly for food, and with each of them needing perhaps a dozen small fish a day, the parent birds have a busy time keeping them fed.

As a species the Kingfisher is a master predator whose future seems secure; as individuals, from day one their lives are full of hazards. If they survive in the nest, free of predators and fluctuating river levels long enough to start fishing for themselves, they may drown at the first attempt, or they may be driven from their home before they learn sufficient survival skills. Many youngsters die within the first couple of weeks of leaving the nest. Then, with the onset of winter and freezing temperatures, ponds ice over and fish hide deeper, food is harder to find and many Kingfishers simply die of starvation or exposure. Only a quarter of all our Kingfishers, including the young, are thought to live from one breeding season into the next (1). That proportion appears to be enough to keep the species in continuity, for now, but we must treasure these crown jewels of the riverbank and do what we can to ensure our lives do not restrict theirs.

In Britain the appalling children’s ‘sport’ of throwing stones at Kingfishers thrived, with official encouragement, for centuries, but today these iconic little birds are specifically listed for special protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and extra penalties apply to anyone who harms them or disturbs a nest.

(1) RSPB figure.

Winter’s little refugee

Shore Lark (male), White Cliffs near Dover, 6 Nov 2016. Image © copyright 2016.

Shore Lark (male), White Cliffs near Dover, 6 Nov 2016. Image © copyright 2016.

This week we report the sighting of a rare bird near Dover. The Kent coastline is not normally within our area of inclusion, but the section of The White Cliffs where the bird was observed is within the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which we campaign to protect, and the sighting is of such significance that we believe it should be noted, both for public record and for general interest.

The bird in question is the Shore Lark, a distinctive little bird, of a similar size to a sparrow, which visits Britain in very small numbers from Northern Europe and Scandinavia to pass Winter here. In its northern home the bird lives in large flocks, but, since the entire Winter population of Shore Larks in Britain is thought to be about 75 up to perhaps 300 birds, a large flock of Shore Larks would be an incredibly rare sight indeed.

It is extremely rare for the Shore Lark to attempt to breed in this country so it is considered to be a visiting bird only. On arrival they confine themselves to the east coast of England, with a particular focus on East Anglia, that being an obvious landing point from a southbound North Sea crossing. As their name suggests they stay close to the shore, or nearby open farmland, where they potter about, in constant motion, feeding from the ground. The Shore Lark we observed was resting on its own.

In Britain the Shore Lark is specifically listed for special protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and extra penalties apply to anyone who harms them or disturbs a nest, if sighted.

The presence of this little Winter refugee in our AONB gives us cause to remember that the countryside is not ours alone in which to do as we please: so many diverse species rely on it for survival. Another reason too to remember why special areas of our countryside should be protected in perpetuity.

A visit from the Shovelers

Male Shoveler duck, Bourne Park, 31 Oct 2016. Image © Copyright 2016.

Male Shoveler duck, Bourne Park, 31 Oct 2016. Image © Copyright 2016.

This week we have seen the arrival of some Shoveler ducks (at least two males, possibly two pairs) on the lake at Bourne Park. The Shoveler is about the same size as the mallard, and while the male is quite different in appearance from the male mallard, with large areas of white, patches of brown and a very dark green head, the female is a less spectacular mottled brown, which makes it harder to distinguish at distance from a female mallard. However, the most distinctive feature of both male and female Shovelers, if you can get close enough to observe it, is the large wide bill which it sweeps from side to side on the surface of the water or wet marsh mud looking for food. The edge of the bill has comb-like structures on it which allow the bird to effectively filter water and mud for the small edible creatures which it lives on.

Female Shoveler duck, Bourne Park, 17 Nov 2016. Image © Copyright 2016.

Female Shoveler duck, Bourne Park, 17 Nov 2016. Image © Copyright 2016.

During the Summer the Shoveler is a fairly common water bird in the South East of England and up the North Sea coast to the Humber Estuary, but it is rare in other parts of the country. In Winter many other Shovelers fly south from Scandinavia to substantially boost the numbers here.

We have not recorded Shovelers on the lake at Bourne Park before. Those that we did see were very shy of humanity and kept their distance.

The acorns of the oak

An oak acorn showing the aril in the cupule, then split to reveal the nutty kernel. Image © copyright 2016.

An oak acorn showing the aril in the cupule, then split to reveal the nutty kernel. Image © copyright 2016.

The acorn is very recognisable as one of Britain’s woodland nuts: it grows in all three of our most common oak trees, the English Oak, the Sessile Oak and the evergreen Holm Oak, where it sits on the branch like a little boiled egg in a tiny egg cup. However, what we see on the tree is just the outer shell called the ‘aril’ attached to its woody ‘cupule’: once it has fallen from the tree in Autumn, the aril will split open revealing the nut kernel inside.

Acorns are nutritious and in some of humanity’s older cultures, notably in Southern Europe and parts of the Americas, they formed part of the main Autumn diet, but this practice does not seem to have been prominent in Britain, quite possibly because the acorns of our native English Oak contain very high levels of tannin which need to be thoroughly soaked out before they are palatable to humans. This same chemical makes some of our acorns poisonous to cattle and horses, and may cause serious illness in humans, so we strongly urge readers not to try eating them.

However, in oak woods (like the New Forest) where deer are resident, acorns provide a valuable food source for the deer, which appear immune to any harmful effects, and in many parts of our countryside oak acorns are also an important cold season food for birds including jays and woodpeckers and mammals such as squirrels, mice and other rodents. Pigs love acorns too and in olden times it was traditional for swineherds to allow them to roam loose in oak woodland in Autumn so that they could fatten up for winter.

A jay plucking acorns from the oak tree on the junction of Mill lane and Western Avenue, Bridge. Image © copyright 2016.

A jay plucking acorns from the oak tree on the junction of Mill lane and Western Avenue, Bridge. Image © copyright 2016.

Jays, like squirrels, will bury acorns in various locations around their homes and come back for them when they are hungry, if they can remember where they are. Recent studies have shown that the role of jays in the valuable work of propagating our native oak trees has been hugely underestimated and we now know that each Jay may bury thousands of acorns. Not all the acorns are retrieved and this may not always be as a result of the birds forgetting where they were buried, it may be that some jays do not survive long enough through a severe winter to eat all the nuts they cached, or it may be that more were stored than needed: either way, we have jays and squirrels to thank for many of the oak trees we see in our countryside today.

Jays may be observed this week picking acorns in the Holm Oaks near Green Court, Bridge and in the small Oak tree on Mill Lane (pictured above).