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Saturday, November 30, 2013

Cat on the prowl

Whilst out walking along Combe Wood Lane this week I hear a commotion from a small flock of house sparrows. These birds are usually about along the hedgerows in this area and no doubt roost in the eaves of a number of older cottages along the lane. The noise alerted me to them as they were obviously making alarm calls so I thought there might be a sparrow hawk about. 

Male house sparrow
However, walking closer to the hedge soon identified the reason for the sparrows' concern. It was a black cat sitting in the middle of the field.

I noticed however that it wasn'tactually showing any interest in the sparrows in the hedge and then, only when it saw me and stood up did a pied wagtail fly up into the air in front of it. The sparrows had been a useful lookout for the pied wagtail and the cat gave up its hunt and stalked off.

Autumn colour lingers into winter

Colour in SSW is really beautiful this year as the following two pictures show.

The leaves on the trees everywhere seem to be hanging on longer this year and the oak trees in particular, after having shed their wonderful acorn crop, are still almost in full leaf, some are even still green! This is quite unusual, especially now we have had a few frosty mornings. The delay is probably due to the hot summer and fairly mild autumn which means that the chlorophyll, which makes the leaves green, is still being produced. No doubt they will all fall quickly once they start and there will be more clearing up to do on the paths and patio in the garden.

If you can though, try to use the leaves for compost rather than burning them or adding to the garden recycling bins. To see how to turn them into free compost see here

Not only are the trees retaining their leaves , there are also some unseasonal blooms about, like these rhododendrons below, seen at Chilworthy last weekend, which would normally be out in May /June. Another odd feature of the weather or possibly climate change?

The birds are still not flocking to the garden feeders but there have been increasing numbers of starlings in the village this year which are chattering away to themselves high up in the lime trees which overhang our garden. After spending time "talking" amongst themselves they suddenly all take to the air, their wings making a sound like papers being riffled together, before coming back to rest on the topmost branches again.
There are also increasing numbers of field fare and redwing locally, the former announcing their presence with their football rattle like chuckle, the latter being almost silent.

As winter gets a hold, try to keep feeding the birds and remember, a source of clean water for them to both drink and bathe in are really helpful to our feathered friends

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

First frost of winter

Whilst October went out with a big blow and November came in with quite a bit of rain temperatures remained quite mild until last night when we finally had (I believe) the first frost of the season.

Yesterday though we had a morning at the Greylake RSPB reserve over on the Levels. The weather was kind with wonderful mackerel skies

 and we were surprised to see dragonflies and some rather tatty looking red admirals still on the wing as they made the most of the sunshine. Unfortunately the former will shortly die, usually only lasting 2-4 weeks as adults and the latter is unlikely to survive the winter either, even though some do manage to hibernate in sheltered spots, most of the ones  we will be seeing again in the spring actually migrate here from Europe.

Other birds we were lucky enough to see included a peregrine and some close up snipe. The peregrine, after spending some time preening whilst sitting on top of a fence post, suddenly took off in hot pursuit of three unwary pigeons which flew high over it. It flew at them, separating them and then targeted one, easily catching it up as it flew on in a panic. I did not see the outcome as they dived behind some trees but as a peregrine emerged soon after and flew back to a nearby pylon, often used by them as a look out point, I suspect the pigeon made its escape successfully.

The snipe, in contrast, remained in the reeds, brilliantly camouflaged, so even though it was close to the hide for most of our stay, occasionally preening, it was easy to miss unless pointed out.

This is always a good reserve to watch winter wildfowl from the comfort of a hide and the peregrine is often joined by merlin and other birds of prey in the winter months as it a useful "feeding" station for them when the weather really turns cold.
There is also a newly built hide( see below), which is slightly raised and  which, whilst not totally weather proof, gives even better views of the pools and reeds in front of it.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Autumn bounty

Everywhere you go people are trying to give away their apple harvest and the " hedgerow foragers" have been having a field day picking the bumper crop of wild blackberries this year. Usually I  would worry that the wildlife might suffer as their food source was being depleted but this year I think there is plenty for everyone.
Twice I have filled my bird feeders recently and both times I have had to remove them and clean them out as the birds have largely ignored what I have provided in favour, presumably, for the wild food and continued insect life that they been able to gather naturally instead.

Apart from the blackberries there have been a very good harvest of rose hips and haws, holly (above) and hawthorn berries. All if these are valuable source of food to birds and other wildlife as well as brightening up our hedges, especially now the rain is setting in!
Other pretty berries in the hedgerows at the moment are those of Black bryony (below). Be careful not to pick these when foraging as they are highly poisonous!

Another valuable food source in flower at the moment is Ivy (below). This attracts the insects, which in turn attracts the birds, so if you can leave some in your garden you will be doing the wildlife a favour.

 If you want to identify other berries in the countryside at the moment, have a look here for some clues.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Spiders' webs everywhere!

This September the weather has been largely dull,  indeed, according to our solar meter it was as dull as March, and last week we had the first of the autumn fogs descend over the village. Then on Monday we awoke to garden scenes which looked as if the spiders were taking over! 

Huge webs had appeared strung between anything available that provided an  upright anchor and the intricate webs glistened with moisture from the increased humidity in the air. You could hardly walk down a footpath without walking into a web strung across it.

These structures are really amazing and are really only so easily visible because of the moisture in the air. In fact the poor spider is probably not happy that its web is so visible as it makes it more vulnerable to becoming prey of other creatures. 

Most of these webs will have been spun by garden spiders and the spider will wait in the centre until an insect alights on the web before dashing across and seizing it for a tasty meal.
Garden spider web

Garden spider web

Garden spider waiting patiently for prey

Money spider webs

The Garden spider was not the only one making incredible webs however. There were also a number of horizontal webs like these which were probably made by a variety of money spider. They appear to be of a random design but are they have cleverly made a "sheet" web into which prey may fall.

Whilst I am mentioning spiders, have you also noticed the increasing number of big spiders which are appearing indoors at the moment? These are actually the Giant house spider and the ones that dash across your floor and then stop for no apparent reason are apparently males looking for a mate. Like a cheetah they can run very fast for a short distance but then have to stop due to exhaustion! If you are interested, you may like to send your sightings to the House spider survey which the Society of Biology are currently running. Funny old world!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Beau the Barn owl visits Combe

Last night the Local ladies group opened its meeting at the village hall too all (men as well!) and welcomed Chris Sperring MBE and Beau the Barn owl for a presentation about the current owl situation in the country and the Somerset Barn owl project in particular.

It proved to be a fascinating and informative evening, starting with information, about how Barn owls have struggled with the weather over the last couple of years. First the wet spring and summer last year caused the vole population ( favourite owl food) to plummet as the fields, especially on the Somerset Levels were flooded. Then the snow, followed by cold winds made hunting for food very difficult. This resulted in very few successful breeding attempts and so by this summer the numbers of Barn owl locally had fallen by an estimated 75%.

Chris however explained that his recent surveys were indicating that vole numbers were increasing again and he was hopeful that the owls may have had success with their attempts at late broods this year. If that was the case he was also hopeful that numbers would increase again quite quickly.

The Somerset Owl project is a joint effort between the Hawk and Owl Trust and the Somerset Wildlife Trust and is well on the way to achieving its aim to put a Barn owl box in all 335 parishes in the county by November 2014. At the same time, Chris is visiting local farmers and landowners and encouraging them to leave field margins or corners of land uncut to help the vole populations and thereby provide food for the owls. Indeed, everyone can help by leaving areas in their own gardens where the grass can grow longer and thereby increase biodiversity as invertebrates etc can survive.

Al in all an enjoyable evening and whilst the star of the evening was obviously Beau, Chris's talk was very much appreciated!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Wildlife and sights you won't find in Combe!

As mentioned in my last post we have recently returned from Brazil and I thought I would share some of our most exciting sightings which we were privileged to see.

We spent some time in the Chapada  dos GuimarĂ£es National Park in central Brazil before travelling 250 km down the Transpantaneira " road into the heart of the Pantenal where we spent a week exploring the rivers and marshlands in search of Jaguar. For the last few days the trip we flew south to the Brazilian / Argentina border and visited the spectacular Iguassu Falls.
In all we saw 21 species of mammal ( including 6 separate sightings of Jaguar) and over 280 species of birds and between Steve and I we took nearly 10k photos! As you can imagine it will take some time to edit these, but here are a few of my favourites, from the colourful to the curious and the spectacular to the stunning! It was difficult to do justice to the sheer variety and the Falls in particular have to be heard as well as seen to appreciate the tremendous power of the water pouring over the cliff tops. We returned filled with many so many wonderful memories. Enjoy!


Signs of Summer coming to an end?

Arriving back at the beginning of September after two weeks travelling in Brazil / Argentina (further post to follow) it was lovely to see the green fields, despite the continued dry weather whilst we were away. It was also great to lots of young swallows and house martins skimming over the fields catching insects as they build up their strength before their long journeys south for the winter.
It seems the late broods have done well as I hoped they would when mentioning them in my previous post.The young swallows are easier to identify as they have far shorter tail streamers than the adults and it seems the breeding season was a success as there are far more young of both species in the air than I can recall this time last year.
I always feel sad as, during September, they line up in increasing numbers on the overhead wires which heralds their departure, usually at the end of the month, when they just seem to disappear all at once as if something has fired a starting gun!
Let's hope they all return safely to us again next year. 

Speckled wood
  Another welcome sight this month, even if it might signify that summer is coming to an end, has been the different species of butterfly which are about, including Speckled wood, above and Small copper, below, both seen in SSW. (Apologies for the poor photos but I only had my mobile phone with me and creeping up on these two without a zoom lens proved a challenge!)

Small copper

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Dragonflies and Butterflies

Towards the end of July we had a trip over to Ham Wall Reserve on the Levels and were pleased to see plenty of dragonflies, including this beautiful Ruddy darter
Ruddy darter
and this huge Southern Hawker below, lovely to see in their own right but also a useful food source for birds such as Hobby, which spend the summer here before returning to Africa for the winter.
Southern hawker
There have also been a number of Painted ladies about, a species which migrates to Britain from its breeding grounds further south and no doubt, attracted this year by our warmer than usual summer!
Painted lady

It seems strange to be thinking of winter but already the Swifts have departed and the sounds of them screaming through the sky above the village won't be heard till May next year. I am ashamed to say that I failed to note their actual departure date but it seemed earlier than usual around the first week of August. What has been great to witness in the last few days though are the huge numbers of House martins flying over the village in pursuit of insects. I think they must have had a good breeding season as there seemed to be very few of them in the early part of summer, so the high numbers now must have been boosted by young birds that have fledged and taken to the wing with gusto. Their twittering calls when they soar overhead are a delight and hopefully they will remain for a few weeks yet. Swallows do not seem so abundant but perhaps they will succeed with late broods and more will line up on the wires before they too depart for their African winter.
As usual for August there seem to be few other birds about in the garden as the young moult into adult feathers and keep out of the way of any predators by tucking themselves into the hedgerows and undergrowth. I have seen a Jay in the garden though and heard the "yaffling" sound of a Green woodpecker calling nearby.
One other sight worth recording has been a pair of Sparrowhawks, with what I believe must be young calling out to attract their parents and being mobbed by the local Jackdaw gang across the valley from our house. Perhaps they nested in the Poplar trees on the hillside?

Saturday, July 27, 2013

July update

Another month has almost passed  since my last post because technology has been beating me with lots of problems uploading pictures to my blog. I have finally discovered that the browser I have been using for sometime (Google Chrome) is the culprit and  so I have reverted to Internet Explorer again, which seems to have solved the problem for now!

Early in the month I was delighted to see a spotted flycatcher on the wires opposite our house near the old rectory in Stantway. It appeared on a couple of evenings and then I didn't see it again but a few days later, whilst walking along Scrapton Lane, I saw another perched on the wires there. I think the latter was a young bird as on close inspection of the photos below you can see fluffy feathers on the breast which could be the remains of the downy fledging feathers. It is good to know they have bred in the area as numbers of this species has declined rapidly in recent years
Spotted flycatcher

Spotted flycatcher

The SSW has been looking lovely this month with a wonderful show of poppies intermingled with corn marigold, corncockle and ox eye daisies amongst others.


Many flowers have been late flowering this year, such as the pyramidal orchid. This is usually to be seen in June but this year it was mid July before any were spotted in the few places around the parish where I usually look for them and numbers were down on previous years.
Pyramidal orchid

The hot weather we have been having has resulted in more butterflies and moths taking to the air though and I have had fun trying to identify some species. Some, like this Comma butterfly, were relatively easy as there are only 59 species generally found in the UK
Comma butterfly

However, with over 870 larger moths, the task is more difficult. I think the moth below, which alighted on our garden table, might be a Snout moth

but I can't identify this one which settled in our conservatory, so any ideas would be gratefully received!

Thanks for your suggestions, I now know this is a Silver Y moth

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Where did June go?

I can't believe it is already two weeks into July, we have been back from Finland for well over a month and "blazing June" is over! It was an odd month with near constant winds and for me, a week of travelling to and fro to Musgrove Hospital to see mum, who was admitted suddenly on a Friday morning mid month. ( she is back home now and enjoying the warmth of the sunshine).
Even so, we had some good days out and the wildlife seemed to flourish in the dry weather, (especially the weeds in the garden!)
Butterflies, like Peacocks, began to emerge early in June and take advantage of the later than usual flowers, such as Bluebells, but numbers have been low even with the warmer weather.
We had a day trip to Durleston Country Park near Swanage in late June, an area with a very different geology to Combe which results in different flowers and as a result attracts different butterflies, such as this beautiful Common blue.
Common blue
Also these Adonis blue, and Wall butterflies, none of which I have ever seen in Combe.
Adonis Blue 

Wall butterfly
Unusual plants on the cliff top included wild carrot,Centaury and further up the slope a superb bee orchid!

Bee Orchid
Birds seemed to have had a good breeding season locally, with many having more than one brood so have been in constant search for food to feed their young. The ones lucky enough to find the mealworms we put out in mum's garden grabbed all they could, as you can see from this blackbird!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Report from the Arctic Circle!

We have recently returned from spending two weeks wildlife watching in Finland and Norway, including  a few days in Lapland, which is in the Arctic Circle, where, though Santa Claus was not spotted, lots of reindeer were! There was still plenty of ice and snow around and they were very adept at splaying their large feet whilst crossing the frozen lakes.

Reindeer on the ice
It is interesting to note that the reindeer roaming free are actually nearly all domesticated and owned by someone, just like the ponies on Dartmoor. They are an important source of income for local people and twice a year they are rounded up and many are sent to market as a major meat  source. 
It is a harsh landscape and many of the lakes were still frozen when we arrived in mid May.
The resulting scenery was beautiful but temperatures were often around freezing and required a number of layers to combat the chill factor.
Frozen lakes just beginning to thaw
The vegetation was mainly coniferous forests, with birch and aspen to the south and there were only 3  wild flowers species seen in the two weeks we were there,  something that was a great contrast with the colourful verges we welcomed on our return to the UK. 

We were however lucky to see some fantastic wildlife sights, including five different species of  Owls, 

Tengmalm's Owl

Pygmy Owl

and an extraordinary sight of a gull catching and flying off with a Razorbill dangling from its beak! (The poor bird actually escaped and lived to tell the tale).
Gull with Razorbill in its grip!
We had very close views of a "crazy" Capercaillie which tried to attack us as we stood by our minibus whilst admiring it. Our guide had to brandish a conifer branch to stop it drawing blood!
Crazy Capercaillie
Probably the most beautiful bird we were lucky to see though was the Bluethroat which entertained us with its song whilst perched out in the open, which it only really does in the breeding season. What a privilege!                                                                                        

So, all in all, a great holiday with lots of memories and too many photos to share in this blog, but hopefully this provides a taste of the things you might expect on a trip to the Arctic Circle in the spring.                                                                                                                                  

Amazingly when we left Finland it was 21C and when we returned to London it was only 7C so, whilst it was cold at times, it was warmer than any of us expected and the lakes had nearly all melted by the end of the holiday.