Category Archives: Members’ News

Members’ News – Please send your news items to webeditor@mknhs.org.uk

A glowing Covid story

A friend of mine Michele Pudsey who lives in Newton Blossomville has regularly seen glow worms up along a local country road;  this year she recorded 12 on one evening including two mating glow worms. This road is very quiet and the verge is wonderful for all sorts of wild flowers but as Michele says the fact that the council haven’t been out cutting the verges this year has probably been to the advantage of the glow worms (and all the other wildlife that live there). She has submitted this sighting and the attached photos to The UK Glow Worm Survey www.glowworms.org.uk which is a site dedicated to all things to do with glow worms.

Mating glow worms, Newton Blossomville (Photo: Michele Pudsey)
Now is the time to look out for these fascinating insects so if you are out in the evenings in the countryside keep an eye out for that telltale green glow. If you want to find out more about them check out the site mentioned above and don’t forget to submit your sightings.  (Records can also be submitted via iRecord.)
 
Julie Lane

A peregrine in Aylesbury – Sue Hetherington

On Sunday 21/6/20 afternoon and I very cautiously ventured out from pandemic purdah!
I wanted to see what was happening with the County Hall peregrines and I saw this juvenile two sets of windows down from the breeding platform.  It was very vocal, occasionally flying in pursuit of the adult.  I only have patchy information about this year’s Aylesbury story – essential building work enabled the County bird recorder a sneak peek in early May when one tiny chick and 3 eggs were briefly glimpsed (a longer look of course being prohibited by law because peregrines are category 1 protected) There was a recent report of a faller being found by the nearby railway yard, taken to Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hospital at Haddenham, then placed back on the roof of County Hall.  I don’t know if that’s the one in the photograph nor do I know what happened about the rest of the clutch of eggs.   A piece of information did pop up on Twitter a while back to say that an Aylesbury ringed bird from 4 years ago (identified from the lettering on the orange darvic ring on its leg) was paired but non-breeding on a building in Kettering.

In case there are any more ‘urban peregrine’ fans out there, I have a little more Buckinghamshire news.  There are now FOUR such sites in Bucks – Aylesbury and the MK Dons stadium and also the parish churches at each of High Wycombe and Marlow.  The latter two are also young pairs and not believed to be breeding yet.  Now the pandemic infection rates are falling a little, I may cautiously attempt to venture out to see if I can observe anything at these sites.

Sue Hetherington

Cuckoo ringing at Linford Lakes – June 2020

2020 has been a fabulous year for European Cuckoo in Milton Keynes and Bucks. At the time of writing, the number of calling cuckoos in our county is well over one hundred, and no doubt other records will come to light. Quite why the cuckoo has had such a successful year, set against many years of decline, is as yet unknown.

Local bird ringer and friend of MKNHS, Kenny Cramer, was aware that there were a number of male birds calling at Linford Lakes Nature Reserve this year and was determined to try and get some of them ringed. Even he could not have anticipated how successful he would be! What follows is Kenny’s own entertaining account of trapping and ringing cuckoos in early June:

“After successfully catching and ringing two new cuckoos in mid-May (our first since 2017), we decided to try our luck with a few sessions specifically aimed at cuckoos.

On Monday evening, a single 60′ net was set in the same position on the bund which had proved successful in the past. For this I chose to use a 45mm gauge net to reduce the chances of these larger birds bouncing out as they frequently do with standard 16mm nets used for catching small passerines. With Colin the decoy (a stuffed cuckoo!) in position, I retreated to the edge of the bund where I set up camp. I was joined by Martin Kincaid on this occasion (at an appropriate social distance of course..) and it wasn’t long before we were being treated to incredible sights and sounds of as many as four cuckoos singing and occasionally squabbling in the tree tops above us.

The first net round produced nothing but the frustratingly familiar sight of a cuckoo perched on top of one of the net poles and another flying overhead. We waited patiently for another few minutes, enjoying the strange grunting and chuckling sounds the male cuckoos make between songs. I spotted one bird flying low towards the net and went to investigate. This time we were successful and our third cuckoo of 2020 was in the bag! Despite at least 3 other birds being present, the only other captures were two blackbirds and eventually we decided we had had enough mozzie bites for one evening and furled the net.

I returned early Tuesday morning and quickly had the net open. There seemed to be less activity in general but it wasn’t too long before another new cuckoo was being ringed. This was followed by a re-trap of the first cuckoo we had ringed back in May.

I packed up the net and headed back to the car with various schemes and plans drifting in my head. I decided that it was time to dust off “the beast” (this is a rig consisting of 8m poles with nets being raised/lowered on a system of pulleys) and enlisted Sarah’s help to get it set up on Tuesday evening. I chose a position on the boundary path near which had been successful in the past and this time used two nets facing each other with Colin in the middle, one net on standard poles, and one net raised up on the beast. Once everything was set, we switched on the magical mix of cuckoo noises and hid by the car.

We hadn’t heard much cuckoo song while setting up, so I was utterly gobsmacked to return to the nets to find not one but *three* cuckoos in the nets (2 in the standard net, and 1 in the beast). I got them safely extracted and into bags while still in somewhat of a state of shock and disbelief. One of the birds turned out to be a re-trap of the same bird we had caught in May, and another posed an interesting aging challenge.


(Photo: Kenny Cramer)

This bird had retained one of its juvenile chestnut barred primary coverts on each wing (see attached pics.)  This would normally suggest it was a second year bird (or a 5 in ringing terminology), however within the wing there were multiple generations of adult type feathers and the iris was a striking bright yellow rather than a dull yellow, so in the end we aged it as a 6 (meaning a bird hatched 2 or more years ago.) Thinking that there was no way we could top that, we closed the nets and I returned on Wednesday morning for a final flourish.


(Photo: Kenny Cramer)

The final flourish turned out to be more of a damp squib with intermittent showers forcing me to stop catching for a time. One cuckoo did hit the net but didn’t stick (this first time I have seen one get out of the 45mm netting.)

So while it might seem like a lot of effort to go to for a relatively small number of birds, the privilege of getting to see these beautiful and secretive birds up close more than made up for it. I also learned a lot, proved that 2017 was not a fluke, and made the possibility of looking into starting a tracking project a more realistic proposition.”

Since writing this Kenny has caught and ringed a further three cuckoos bringing the total for this year to nine!

Martin Kincaid and Kenny Cramer
June 2020

 

The George Higgs Willen Collection – Postscript from Frances Higgs

Sue Hetherington’s article in the Magpie April 2020, mentioning her interest in seeing George’s moth collection, has prompted me to add more information.

Years ago it was known that George was making a collection of Lepidoptera solely from the Parish of Willen. He was asked if he would consider leaving it to Aylesbury Museum in his Will as a One Parish Collection would be a unique acquisition. This was duly granted and carried out after his death in 2012.

Our County Recorder for Moths, Martin Albertini, undertook the transfer of specimens from the original cabinet to the stackable Hill’s Units required for the Museum. As the transfer was made an Acquisition Number had to be added to the data on each pin. Entomological pins become very fine for tiny specimens, so it was specialised and delicate work. Martin carried it out with great dexterity and just one micro moth crumbled. In all, 1889 specimens were handled.

It was not a job that I could have done. My sole input was cutting up sheets of numbers and handing over the correct ones for the specimens as they were transferred. Two brass plates were suitably inscribed to be fixed to each cabinet.

Nothing stands still in the natural world and already several new species are in our county. George made his collection between 1967 and 2012. It remains a snapshot of Lepidoptera in Willen at that time.

Frances Higgs
June 2020

Dormice in Little Linford Wood – an update

Joyce Taylor Moore writes: With great perseverance (or, in his own words, being an awkward old ***) John Prince has rediscovered dormice in Little Linford Wood after an absence of over four years. The 300+ nest boxes and more recent footprint tunnels have yielded nothing but John, with great energy and technical expertise from https://www.ramblingsalamander.co.uk/, has found a dormouse high in the oak canopy on the first outing of his infrared camera trap. This has great implications for other projects where dormice appear to have dwindled away. John may have rewritten what we know about dormice – again!

Julie Lane adds an appeal on John’s behalf:  I have spoken to John Prince at length and he is going to write a longer article for us on his findings and plans for the future of the Dormouse project. He has been working on this project for over 20 years with the support of others along the way, but he is struggling to get out and about these days and yet he is still full of enthusiasm to find out more about these beautiful and fascinating creatures. He has asked if there is anyone within the society who would be happy to join the team and volunteer with some of the work involved so that the project can carry forward into the future. If you are interested please get in touch with me, Julie Lane or Martin Ferns at webeditor@mknhs.org.uk and we will put you in touch with John.

A moth with stickability: the Buff-tip – Andy Harding

During the fairly recent spell of unseasonably warm weather with clear blue sunny skies every day, a Buff-tip moth was with us for a few days exhibiting what I think is very odd behaviour.

Around 10pm on May 24th, my wife Mairi and I went outside to look for a couple of hedgehogs which had recently appeared in our garden and to check the walls and fence next to my moth trap.

Mairi noticed a large moth fly in and alight on the unopened bud of an ornamental Poppy about 3m from the light of the moth trap.  I was surprised it had not flown to the trap so photographed it with flash.

I was even more surprised to see it still on the bud at around 5.30 am the next morning.  The sun was continuously on the bud and moth for at least the next seven hours.  Thereafter it was in shade until the last couple of hours of sunshine on that day.

The night time temperature was ideal for moths to take flight, and the attractions of the moth trap were still available, but the next morning (May 26th) it was still there!  So I took a photo showing its exposed position and another of the bud starting to open.

 

I took the following photo later that day as the bud continued to open.

With only a very small adjustment of position it remained on the Poppy head until it was fully in flower:

and still remained when the petals started to fall.  When all petals had disappeared, it finally left the seed head…

…on the night of May  28th/29th to the fence adjacent to the moth trap!

It then never moved until the night of May 30th/ 31st when it finally disappeared.

The Buff-tip is an exclusively nocturnal species and generally such species abhor direct sunlight, but this moth was in direct sunlight for much of several days.  That, and its unwillingness to fly on a series of warm nights seems extremely peculiar.

My knowledge of moth behaviour is very weak, so I have no likely explanation, but Buff-tip is notable for its confidence in the effectiveness of its well- camouflaged appearance, so that it does tend sit in very exposed situations around moth traps, rather than hiding away…..but for four days on the Poppy head and two days on the fence!!!

Moths are so great!  Get a moth trap, or put out a sheet with a light behind it on a warm sultry evening, while enjoying a glass of vino.

Andy Harding

Linford Lakes NR Moth Report, May 2020 – Gordon Redford

All photos: Gordon Redford. Above: May Highflyer

May 2020 is my tenth year of recording moths at Linford Lakes Nature Reserve (LLNR). A variety of moth traps have been used over that time but over the past 3 years access to mains electricity has allowed the use of stronger light sources. Prior to that, lower strength bulbs were used and they were powered by 12V car batteries. From August, 2019 a purpose built moth trap fed from the mains electricity has been in use and has provided most of the May records this year. The moths are attracted to the light source overnight which is over a box which readily permits access and less so egress. The moths settle in the box which is lined with cardboard egg boxes and there they stay until the trap is opened early in the morning when the moths are identified and released unharmed.

   
Trap built and provided by the Parks Trust for use at LLNR

In May 2020 the trap attracted 1255 moths of 101 species. This is the highest species number ever recorded there in May over the ten years of recording. 99 was the previous highest number of species recorded in May,  in 2017 when 1597 were attracted to the light. To confuse matters further, last year 2,917 moths were attracted to the light in May, more than doubling this year’s total, yet the total number of species recorded then was just 82.

A comparison of the species recorded over the years is interesting too. Of the 101 species recorded this year, 21 were new to the month of May and of these two, Shark and Least Black Arches were new to the site too. Most of the other new ones recorded for May were making early appearances as they have been recorded in June up till now. These records are confirmation of a trend towards earlier emergence by some species due to climate change.


2 new moths to LLNR recorded in May 2020. (L) Shark (R) Least Black Arches

It is well known that the numbers of individual moth species fluctuate over time with peaks and troughs. The May 2020 records have produced the highest May numbers at LLNR for Common Swift (162 – previous recorded high 112 in 2019), Poplar Hawk-moth (87 – previous recorded high 68 in 2017), White Ermine (179 – previous recorded high 92 in 2017), Treble Lines (87 – previous recorded high 52 in 2019) and Common Wainscot (82 – previous recorded high 8 in 2019).

Below: Moths recording their best May numbers this year

 
(L) Common Swift;  (R) Poplar Hawk-moth

 
(L) White Ermine;  (R) Common Wainscot

At the other end of the scale, the 2020 May records have produced low numbers for some species such as Small Square-spot (3 – from a high of 216 in 2017) and Green Carpet (59 – from a high of 300 in 2017).

Moths recording significant low numbers this year
 
(L) Green Carpet; (R)  Small Square-spot

In summary then, May 2020 at LLNR has been good for species recorded despite the numbers of moths attracted to the light being lower than in some previous years. It appears that some species are appearing noticeably earlier than in the past. Some species are clearly enjoying a very good May while some others not so.

Gordon Redford

A new pond – Simon Bunker

We did the garden last year and we installed a pond, so I have been staking it out, looking carefully and pond dipping.  At first I thought it was devoid of life, but after being told to be patient things started to appear.

First up were pond skaters, so had a play taking their photo while they were skating on the pond.

Above: (l) Pond Skater; (r) Young Pond Skater

While pond dipping found back swimmers, water boatman, Mayfly nymphs, damselfly larva possibly common blue. Later confirmed when a green form emerged from the pond. Darter larva, plus 2 different diving beetles.

 

Above: (l) Back Swimmer; (r) Mayfly Nymph

Above: (l) Lesser Water Boatman; (r) Diving Beetle

Also we saw our first frog last week, but no frog spawn, hopefully next year.

While watching the pond I found the exuvia of the dragonfly and damselfly which I have collected and put onto microscope slides.

 

Above: (l) Common Blue damselfly larva; (r) Darter larva, poss. Common

   

Above: (l and r) Common Blue damselfly – green form

In between pond watching and working I also have been taking pictures of Myriapods and Isopods. Plus anything else that stayed still long enough!

 

Above: (l) Millipede; (r) Millipede – Polydesmus species

 

Above: (l and r) Woodlice-Philoscia-muscorum

Simon Bunker
(who took all the photos)

The Secret Bee Bush – Ann and Mark Strutton

News of a busy Cotoneaster in Willen

One of the joys of late spring in our garden is the blooming of the Cotoneaster horizontalis.  This plant produces small pink flowers which, unless you inspect closely just seem to be buds that never open.

Even on a day like today, when the air temperature is around 10 C, the plant is alive with bees.  On a hot day, their humming is almost louder than the traffic on the M1.  All cotoneasters are good for nectar but this species is the best.  This plant is not more than 2 feet in height but about 5 feet across and, in a quick count today, there were at least two dozen bees on it.  The majority were the workers of the tree bumble bee, Bombus hypnorum and the spring bumble bee, Bombus pratorem.  Also present, a single honey bee – well it is a cold day.

The small flowers of the plant are well suited to the short tongued bumble bees.  It is well known that bees do not bother to visit a flower that has been recently visited by another individual bee. I read in Dave Goulson’s book, A Sting in the Tail, that it has been shown, by clever research which involved washing the feet of bees, that each bee leaves a smelly footprint on the flower which can be detected by another bee.  The smell declines over time so the insect can determine when the flower was last visited.  Different plants refill their nectaries at different rates, borage being a notable plant that refills very quickly, in about two minutes, compared with comfrey which takes upwards of forty minutes.  So out I go with my stopwatch and observe a single flower.  I took three readings all under ten minutes, the average time between visits being 6 minutes.  Considering that this single plant must be covered in thousands of flowers, it explains why it is such a good nectar source.

Our plant is one of a large family of cotoneasters which originate in India, Tibet or China. Horizontalis is the one that is most recognisable and has acquired a common name, the Fishbone or Herringbone cotoneaster.  Originally found in China, it was brought to the west in the 19th century by that saviour of deer, Pere David.  Considered by some to be too invasive, our plant arrived by chance about 20 years ago and established itself on the edge of our north-facing patio where, apart from when we trip over it, it has become most welcome.

As the year progresses, other species make the most of this shrub.  This week, when the song thrush chicks fledged, their parent took them right under the branches into its heart to hunt for snails.  Throughout the rest of the year, the wren is most active in it and the dunnock uses it as a hidey hole to escape from the aggressive robin.  We often see glimpses of bank voles rushing into cover under it and frogs and toads live under it as well.  Occasionally, a grass snake makes an appearance.  On one memorable occasion, many years ago, a mink appeared from under it.

Once the berries form in the autumn, it becomes of great interest to other species.  In the past, this would have been blackbirds, thrushes, sometimes redwings in the depths of winter but these days, the resident wood pigeon gobbles them up quite early in the autumn, a bird so fat it seems to waddle.

Ann and Mark Strutton
May 2020

Meadow saxifrage by Jenny Mercer, Stony Stratford NR 23 April 2017

Meadow saxifrage in Stony Stratford NR – Jenny Mercer

Jenny Mercer has sent in the video clip linked below about a patch of Meadow Saxifrage (saxifrage granulata) situated in Stony Stratford Nature Reserve. We usually visit it on our summer walks. This year it seems to be much less prevalent – but it’s there! Jenny’s commentary explains all.

Dawn Chorus walks, Olney – Julie Lane

I decided that in this time of lockdown it was about time I made the effort to get up early and go out into the local countryside to listen to the dawn chorus.

Photo: Julie Lane

On my first walk, the alarm went at 5 a.m. and I stumbled out of bed and out into a misty cold and not very inspiring morning. I wandered down to the river and listened to the sedge warblers and reed buntings but I was very chilly and keen to get home for a warm drink. I came home via one of my favourite haunts and singing in the blackthorn scrub was a nightingale. All feelings of exhaustion and depression lifted and I stood and listened for about half an hour as he sang his heart out occasionally coming into view to check me out. I recorded several bursts of song on the voice memo app on my iphone and include one of them here.

Nightingale. Photo: Euan Purvis

My second walk took place on a lovely morning with blue skies but a layer of mist hanging in the valley floor. I listened to the nightingale for a while but he was sulking and only producing a recurrent whistle followed by a churr, so I decided to leave him in peace.

Photo: Julie Lane

I wandered down through the fields into the mist by the River Ouse. As it started to lift the scenery was absolutely magical and the bird song from the reedbeds was amazing. I felt very privileged to be sharing the sunrise with only the wildlife (including a rather surprised fox) for company. I took some photos and recordings.  How many birds can you hear in this recording?

Sadly when I downloaded this recording to my computer it seems to have more background ‘noise’ than the original recording on my iPhone but I can hear a song thrush, chiffchaff, sedge warbler, wren, blackbird and pheasant. And I expect I have missed something (maybe a reed bunting?)

Photo: Julie Lane

Julie Lane
7 May 2020

 

Wildlife in Lockdown: Tattenhoe and Surrounding Areas – Harry Appleyard

The prospect of lockdown as the most exciting season of the year for wildlife got underway was daunting to say the least, but fortunately through singular and fairly consistently paced walks, I’ve been able to see what’s about around my southern corner of Milton Keynes, while keeping to the best routes for social distancing and considering my timing carefully. It has also been an ideal time to use the garden for sky watching more than ever before, bringing some bird species I haven’t previously seen or heard from home.

Though there are a few fairly local places I like to travel to at this time of year, there is usually more than enough wildlife to keep me busy on my local patch. There are a range of habitats around Tattenhoe and the surrounding areas which make it well worth scanning for passing migratory birds from late March to early May. The woodlands and parkland meadows usually produce several species of butterfly and quieter periods can offer glimpses of some of the elusive resident mammals. Social distancing can be carried out here without much difficulty, so long as the narrow woodland footpaths and thin red ways between housing and hedgerows are usually avoided.

On my walks early April saw the return of Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps, which quickly gained in numbers as males began to occupy and defend territories. There was a brief movement of Willow Warblers with 6 singing males on 7th April, only two of which seemed to have remained since. The morning of the 8th produced my eagerly anticipated first Redstart of the year, unfortunately perched from a far from ideal place for photography in a private car park. Fortunately, an even better consolation prize followed immediately after with a northbound Cuckoo passing over Tattenhoe Park. This was my first Cuckoo for the Tattenhoe area since 2017 and the first reported in Bucks this year, just about photographed as a mere speck in the distance but nonetheless unmistakable in shape and flight.

One frequent passage visitor I think I have probably missed a few more of is the Wheatear, with just a single male seen so far stopping by on 17th April. Fortunately, lucky timing has given me sightings of some other unusual flyovers for this corner of MK included a Goosander heading north on the first day of the month and a Green Sandpiper, which also flew north on the 16th. Another local scarcity, the Ring Ouzel, dropped into Tattenhoe Park on the 9th, spotted in the exact same treeline as my previous one in October 2018. After many days of hoping for them last year it was great to see one here again, though the photo opportunities were cut short by a male Blackbird keen to prevent it from foraging around one of the fields!

Keeping an eye on the skies from home for longer periods than usual has also produced a few pleasant surprises including migrating Meadow Pipits, Linnets and a pair of Kestrels. All three of these are fairly common species locally but never seen over my suburban garden before, well away from the scrubby grassland habitats I tend to associate them with. Tagging in with the citizen science of “nocmig” or nocturnal migration, I’ve also been using my Tascam DR-05 sound recorder in the hopes of picking up bird movements at night. With a bucket, bubble wrap and the recorder on a tripod, my nocturnal recording setup is nowhere near as advanced or expensive as those I follow online but it has yielded some satisfying finds. So far the highlights have been two occurrences of Moorhen, a local resident species but rarely anywhere near my garden, Coot, which is an infrequent visitor to Tattenhoe’s waterways on at 2.53am on 26th March and an Oystercatcher, a rare flyover for this corner of MK, making a single call at 00.50 on 5th April.

After bringing the recorder back inside, I use Audacity to amplify the sounds of the recordings, then looking for blips in the spectrogram, the smallest of which are usually bird vocalizations. I’ve already known most of the calls I’ve picked up on them so far, though looking at other people’s recordings on Twitter and researching the vocals of various birds on xeno-canto.org has also been very helpful in identifying them since I started this last year. It hasn’t produced as many bird species as I had initially hoped for so far, but picking up just the occasional call of one that I don’t usually see from my garden or even my sometimes lengthy walks in recent years has made it well worthwhile.

In recent years, aided largely by spring migration, April has had a knack for bringing new species to my Tattenhoe birds list and 2020 has been no exception, bringing me the 126th since 2008 with my first ever Wood Warbler, singing his heart out while foraging the canopy of a thicket in the Tattenhoe Valley Park on 26th April. Being a rare visitor to Bucks with less than 5 reported across the county annually in recent years, this was easily my most exciting bird find of the year so far. As expected, this was a passing visit and there was no sign of him the next day. A bird I had been holding out hope for over several years, slap bang in the middle of a place I had already been to countless times. It just goes to show a local area with decent habitat, even in an urban setting can still be full of surprises after years of being watched.

Wood Warbler, 26th April

A couple of days later, one of the trademarks of summer, the Swift arrived over my garden, with three hawking in the murky morning skies. Today as I type this on 4th May, at least 5 have been lingering around the nearby sky, performing aerobatics, and frequently chasing each-other from the late morning and into the afternoon.

Swift over the garden, 27th April

Onto non avian wildlife, early April produced a huge butterfly boom across the local area. It didn’t take long for Orange-tips to appear in mass just about everywhere I looked, while Speckled Woods started to appear around the woodland edges and Holly Blues made passing visits to the garden, occasionally basking. The eagerly anticipated dragonfly and damselfly season finally got going for me on 4th May with two Large Reds emerging from one of the balancing ponds. A disappointingly late start to the season compared with other recent years, but with so many fine sunny days recently, I suspect many of them may have already gone missed on their maiden flights. 2020 also seems to be the year of the Cuckoo flower in Tattenhoe, with many more appearing around the woodland and parkland meadows than I can say I’ve seen before.

Tawny Mining Bee in the garden 27th April

Peacock Butterfly 4th April

Lockdown life has taken some adjusting to, but it has been comforting to at least see a portion of what has been going on out there within compliance to the guidelines. It’s been a good spring so far, especially for birds and with these difficult times still looming over us, I’m feeling luckier than ever to have the parks, lakes and woodland of MK on my doorstep. Stay safe everyone.

Harry Appleyard
Tattenhoe, 5th May 2020

All photos courtesy of Harry Appleyard

Life in a bubble – Sue Hetherington

Just like everyone else, I still find it hard to believe I am actually living through what feels to me like a bizarre disaster movie.  I feel the same mix of negative emotions – fear, anger, anxiety, loneliness – that I am sure we all do so I won’t rehearse them all again.  I’ll just say we are all in it together in every way except actually being able to be together.

So, how has my lockdown been going?  First, I’ve been reading my copy of Wonderland: A Year of Britain’s Wildlife, Day by Day by Brett Westwood and Stephen Moss on a daily basis.  The 22nd April entry reminded me of the joys of the dawn chorus walk.  We duly went for ours on 22nd April and came home to a full cooked breakfast, just as in the book.  The dawn chorus is a magical thing, even if you can’t get outside to experience it, I urge you to open a window about half an hour before sunrise at this time of the year and enjoy it while you can.

Andrew and I came to a decision very early on that in a world where all of a sudden “Everyday is Like Sunday” (as Morrissey sang in the 80s) we had to make a new normal and try to shape our time.  We resolved that we would walk every day whether we felt like it or not.  We are fortunate that we live in a small village (Gawcott) surrounded by miles and miles of fields and hedgerows.  These were previously totally unexplored by us but we have now subjected them to intense scrutiny.  And some amazing and unexpected finds have been made.  Firstly, the field that I can actually see from my study is absolutely alive with yellowhammers yelling their “little bit of bread and no cheeeeeeeese” song, and skylarks pouring out their incessant song while I search for the little black dot they have become.  My neighbour called out to me one day from his window: “Did you see it?  Did you see the snowy owl?” He’s not much of an ornithologist as he obviously meant “barn owl” but he’s seen it and I haven’t!  It’s on my “most wanted” list though and I keep looking.  There was one fantastic evening when we saw a hare zooming over the field.  We were amazed we had hares so near to us.  I’ve picked 4 trees and have been taking a daily photograph of them all since 31st March to look back later and be reminded of the “lost spring”.  I can’t help wondering if I’ll still be photographing them as the leaves turn to gold and fall.

We’ve done lots of ordinary walks but a couple of crazy ones too. On 8th March we walked at 3:30am to see the much hyped “pink moon”.  It was a fantastic full moon but it wasn’t pink!  I discovered later that it’s called “pink” for some vague extraneous reasons, nothing to do with colour.  Our village Facebook page also advertised times of the ISS (International Space Station) passing and we made a point of looking out for that too. Yes, I know it’s been going for over 30 years but I’d never somehow found the time before.

The President of Bucks Bird Club, Dave Ferguson, very kindly sent a copy of the local Butterfly Conservation group’s magazine to a large email group as a neighbourly gesture in the lockdown.  He said please pass it on to anyone who may be interested so I am pleased to do just that. I enjoyed reading it and there are a lot of interesting ideas for enjoyable things to do.  I was particularly interested in the article titled “Enjoying moths at home without a light trap” and plan to give it a go.

I know when it’s Saturday because I’ve been joining in with an initiative started by Si Nicholls, that well known MK birder! He calls it the #biggardensit. The idea is for birders to record as many species as they can in the hour between 8am and 9am STRICTLY from their own living spaces. A species can be counted if it is seen visiting, flying over, heard, seen distantly (even if 2 miles away sitting on a puddle). Good optics and great birding skills are useful aids!  It started on 28/3/20 with mainly Bucks birders.  By 18th April it had grown to 56 birders over 11 counties who between them clocked 90 species.  I’m sure Si would be delighted to welcome more participants and the project is set to continue for every Saturday in May.  If interested, email si.nich@yahoo.com  And if you’re curious, on 25th April my score was a modest 18 while the top score was 40 (shared by a Bucks birder and a Cornish birder).

Finally, I will share one of my concerns about the pandemic.  I am sure we are all aware the virus originated in Wuhan, China, in the so called ‘wet markets’ where all sorts of live animals, wild and domesticated, are killed in dirty conditions and sold for consumption.  These markets were supposed to be banned and many of the wild animals are in theory protected by law.  The virus probably originated in bats and passed along a chain of other animals until it mutated and jumped to humans.  The science journal “Nature” reported the most likely vectors were some illegally smuggled pangolins.

Covid-19 is not the first disease that has originated in wildlife and spread to humans – a couple of other examples are the SARS epidemic and MERS.  Voices are beginning to be raised calling for the UN to add a new Article – Article 31 – to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, recognising the right to a healthy environment. It certainly gets my vote.  Enough is enough.

Sue Hetherington
26 April 2020

Spring on Bury Common – Ann Jones

Bury Common or Bury Field is an ancient common in Newport Pagnell, and is my main local ‘patch’. It is a large area of common land (first mentioned in 1276), and it is just five minutes walk from my house. It has been a regular part of my life for around thirty years now. Bury Common is mainly open pasture and was grazed for many years, but there have been no cattle there for a few years now. What is usually called the lower meadow borders the river Ouse and has recently been managed for restoration to meadow, which has included planting yellow rattle. Although not a massively diverse habitat, the common includes a river bank, floodplain, pasture, hedgerows and small copses, and is next to grazed paddocks (sheep and horses) where there is a permissive riverside path, and is also next to a small patch of woodland.

It’s a good place to walk at any time of year and I walk there with Teo our dog for an hour or so most mornings and evenings. As it is a 5 minute walk, I can still spend quite a bit of time here even in lockdown and it feels like a real blessing. For me the first signs of spring are the larks which are heard more regularly once February arrives, although this year, there seemed to be less activity, perhaps because February was so wet. I’m pleased to say that larks are doing really well on the common now, even though it is well used by dog walkers. At the moment, with traffic reduced during lockdown, the common is often full of lark song with little other sound to disturb it. I’m not sure how they are successful on what can be quite a busy area, but they manage it and there is at least one field fenced off (though a dog could get through the wire fence easily enough).

Lark

Of the other various small farmland birds, I love seeing and hearing the meadow pipit which I still associate with wilder upland places.  Small flocks are present on the common and active in the early spring.  Another of my favourites is the reed bunting which is also present in reasonable numbers through the year.  But my biggest favourite is the lapwing, perhaps because of its persistence and its haunting cry.  It also reminds me of the area I grew up in in North Wales, by the cost where lapwings and curlews were numerous.  At the moment there is just one pair on the common, which is nesting in a field abutting the lower meadow.  (There were two one year, but there are never that many). Ground nesting birds have a difficult time anywhere – but here there is just this one pair, and they are close to the rookery, so a tricky place to be successful.  The spring aerial display was wonderful, and this morning another walker on the common told me they had seen two chicks. That’s great news and I will be looking out for them.

Lapwing

As far as I can tell, some of the traditional farmland birds are here in relatively small numbers: small flocks of linnets, greenfinch, chaffinch (I don’t see many of these) and larger flocks of goldfinch. I am told by a local birder that there is a pair of bullfinches in the hedgerow between the main and lower common but have not been fortunate enough to see them yet.  At this time of year, more and more migrants are appearing. Swallows turned up about 10 days ago – unfortunately not that many and sand martins have returned around the same time.  Today I spotted some house martins.

Female linnet

The boundary between one of the upper fields that used to be an arable field, and the lower meadow is quite a rich area, especially where there are brambles along the boundary wire fence and where there is a very small copse at the end near an ash tree.  Many birds use the fence and the posts as perches.  A highlight for me a week ago was seeing a whitethroat here.

The river bank provides a different habitat.  There is a pair of mandarin ducks currently though I have only seen the female and am still hoping for an appearance by the male. The paddocks where the horses graze is next to the river, and walking the river path is delightful.  Yesterday was a very good day as I heard my first cuckoo: it seemed to be in the Lathbury area (about half a mile away) but we usually have at least one calling on the common, and have had two in the past.  I then heard the call of another favourite bird of mine, the ‘cronk’ of the raven. Isn’t it wonderful that these birds are now seen much more frequently in the east of the country?  I imagine the ravens that I hear on the common (but don’t usually see) are birds looking for new territories.  I would be delighted if a pair decided to nest here.

Whitethroat

The final highlight of yesterday morning’s walk was the little owl.  We have a pair here that frequent the area near the paddocks, usually roosting in the same willow tree, but I hadn’t seen one for a while.  The habitat must be nearly perfect for them.  There is a fence running between the first paddock and the second, with a number of old willow trees along the fence.  A further fence runs along the upper edge of the paddocks (at a right angle to the first fence) with a hedge behind and more willows, and a third wooden fence borders the path by the river.  There are further fences between the paddocks.  The owls often perch on one of the fences, and when disturbed or when they have had enough, there is always a willow to retreat to, and they are very well camouflaged in the willow.  I imagine that the paddocks with the horse manure are rich in earthworms, whilst behind the paddocks there is an area of rough grass which usually has a good population of voles.

Ann Jones
[submitted 26 April 2020]

An appeal for Red- and Black- Currant bushes

Some of you may have been at a MKNHS meeting last autumn when Ayla Webb, Gordon Redford and I spoke and illustrated three different aspects of our local ‘mothing’ activities during the year.

Ayla covered the use of pheromone lures to attract a group of day-flying species which are otherwise near-impossible to find. Of these, in 2019, we were able to locate and photograph Six-belted Clearwing, Hornet Moth (or Hornet Clearwing) and Red- tipped Clearwing. There are over a dozen other Clearwing species. One which ought to occur in our area and for which there is a pheromone lure is the Currant Clearwing.

This species was always difficult to find, but many more were discovered with the advent of the lure. However the growing of Black and Red Currants in any numbers has declined drastically either in large gardens or allotments. It is thought that the moth has declined in parallel.

So, do you know of any large patches of Red or Black Currant bushes which we may be able to access at the appropriate season…late June is the peak time. If you do, please contact me and we will see if we can locate and hopefully photograph the species. You get a mounted print if we are successful! For additional encouragement and to show you how beautiful these creatures are, here is a photo of the Red-tipped Clearwing taken at Stony Stratford Nature Reserve.

So please help if you can…many thanks

Andy Harding on 01908 565896 or 07969 916380 or at andyh444@sky.com