Winter Notes from the Commons
The three months that make up the meteorological winter - December, January and February have been quite varied with very low and unseasonal high temperatures. We have had a lot of rain and strong winds and a week of snow. Such variations in weather put pressures on all our wildlife. Over the last quarter Mark Clements and I have recorded our sightings on an almost daily basis, especially since the start of the present lockdown and the highlights follow.
At the start of December (01 Dec) we were still recording Chiffchaff with up to two seen (09 Dec). A mild period saw some movement of Common Frogs (12 Dec). By mid-moth (15 Dec), the numbers of Lesser Redpolls and Siskins were increasing and often seen feeding on the seeds of Birch and Alder trees. Over 40 Linnets were also observed using the Gorse as a roosting site. On an old gorse stem the dark form of the Oyster Mushroom was noted (22 Dec) as well as the bright yellowish-orange fungus known as Witches’ Butter. A Peregrine flew over eastwards (28 Dec) and a Water Rail was heard plus a dog Fox was seen. The Fox was not particularly afraid of people and was seen often for the next few days during daylight. An unusual Wren was photographed by Mark (30 Dec). It had white primary wing feathers, which are caused by a lack of melanin pigment. Such a condition is known as part leucistic and is fairly common in many birds but this is the first example of a Wren we have seen. In mid-December the conservation contractors were on site to mow the central marsh. This is carried out every two years to stop the build-up of rank vegetation and to reduce the high nutrient content. Poor soil and short vegetation favours the highly specialised bog plants such as Sundews and mosses. The marsh is designated as part of the Special Area of Conservation (SAC) known as the Norfolk Lowland Valley Fens – an internationally protected habitat. Mowing and collection of the cuttings is carried out simultaneously by a sophisticated Fen Harvester – a specialist tracked vehicle that is designed to have a low impact on such sensitive sites.
In January the contractors were on site again, working on the heathlands and the grasslands. The purpose of this work is to prevent Bracken, Gorse and scrub from taking over. The work allows heathers and grasses to colonise, which in turn, attracts more insects. Areas of bare ground are also very important for insects, particularly bees, wasps and beetles to dig nest burrows. In the cleared grasslands more flowers can bloom, again providing for an array of insects, which in turn benefit reptiles, birds and mammals. A combined New Year bird count (01 Jan) totalled 45 species including Brambling, Marsh Tit and Nuthatch. A Mediterranean Gull flew east (07 Jan) and a Water Rail was calling from deep cover beneath a flooded area of scrub. In the southern wooded area 12 Lesser Redpolls and a Treecreeper were present (09 Jan). Lesser Redpolls had increased to over 50, Siskins numbered 21 and Redwings had also increased to around 23 by mid-month (13 Jan). A Grey Wagtail was also seen more frequently along the central beck, where it was observed flicking over fallen leaves hunting for an invertebrate meal. The first Red Kite of the year headed west (17 Jan) also some 520 Pink-footed Geese crossed the Commons and a Wood Mouse was observed beneath a Willow. The following day (18 Jan) a Woodcock was seen as was a Brambling and the reed gall known as a cigar gall was found. This gall is elongate (cigar-shaped) and is formed by the reed when a fly – Lipara lucens inserts an egg into the reed stem. The gall is produced when the larva of the fly hatches and bites into the growing reed shoot. This action disrupts the plant hormone balance within the reed and causes the gall to form. The larva feeds throughout the summer then overwinters within the gall as a pupa to emerge as a new fly the following summer. A Mealy Redpoll was found in a flock of 12 Lesser Redpolls (22 Jan). Interestingly the Mealy or Common Redpoll is not classed as separate species but rather as a different geographic race. The Mealy is the north European race and comes to the UK as a winter visitor. It is larger and greyer than the Lesser Redpoll. A Barn Owl was noted over the central marsh (27 Jan) also the leucistic Wren was seen again. A Peregrine passed over eastwards (30 Jan) and two Common Toads were found under some grass heaps.
February was a month of two halves – first wintery with snow falling from 14th and then ending the month with temperature highs in the teens (C). An interesting visitor was found by Mark just off the Commons at Beeston Priory (01 Feb) – a male Goosander. This is a sawbill duck meaning it has a long serrated bill, which enables it to catch fish. These ducks are only winter visitors to Norfolk, the breeding populations being Scotland, northern England, Wales and south-west England. As the winds turned to the north-east, ahead of storm Darcy (09 Feb), an influx of Woodcock occurred. These birds will move when the temperatures are sufficiently low to freeze their feeding grounds and as the storm advanced across Europe many birds came across the North Sea. The highest count on the Commons was 14 (13 Feb) while many places along the east coast had counts of over 100. Also on this day three Teal were seen and Redwings had increased, with over 35 (15 Feb) feeding under the trees, where they were scratching through the snow to the underlying leaf litter. A flock of 31 Lapwing headed south-east (16 Feb), another movement probably caused by the cold weather. Once the snow had melted the Barn Owl returned to hunting over the central marsh (17 Feb). Two Red Kites were observed overflying (20 Feb) and with temperatures rising the first Adders of the year were seen. The following day (21 Feb) Mark spotted a Grass Snake on the heath and also saw six Crossbills heading west. The spring-like conditions continued and a Small Tortoiseshell was seen (24 Feb) followed by a male Stonechat (25 Feb) and four Red Kites, a Marsh Harrier and a Peacock butterfly (26 Feb). The following day (27 Feb) a Chiffchaff was singing, five Adders and a Grass Snake were found basking as well as a Common Lizard. Common Frogs were croaking in the main pond and on the Gorse, Honey Bees, Buff-tailed Bumblebees and Gorse Shieldbugs were present. It certainly felt like spring had arrived but will it last or is March going to turn wintery again?
Hon. Warden – Beeston Common SSSI/SAC