Wednesday, 24 July 2013

'Aint nothin' like a heatwave...

Well July is flying by and the heat wave we have been experiencing has managed to combine with the second annual weed cut bringing with it the disturbing spectacle of countryside staff in waders….and not much else.
Dave J demonstrating the wader dance....
However such a sight is a small price to pay for being able to spend boiling hot days in the cool of the river and it makes up for the June weed-cut which was fairly chilly.

A task we have been doing that isn’t quite as cooling on a hot day is charcoal.  In a patch of our woodlands here called Queen Meadow Copse, we have a charcoal kiln.  Our countryside volunteers do regular burns for us throughout the year, using the hazel we cut from the coppice to fill the kiln, make charcoal and this is then sold at Visitor Reception in the abbey.  It is a bargain at £6 a bag and is the perfect example of sustainable woodland management. 

Coppicing is a process that takes advantage of the fact that some tree species will, when cut down, regrow from their stumps.  The new growth can then be left until the required size (different species are left to grow for varying amount of times as the product required will be different.  For example, Sweet chestnut may be used for gate hurdles and fence posts so will be cut down at around 15-20 years of age whilst hazel can be used for smaller things like faggots, charcoal, hurdles and hedge laying poles and so can be cut on a smaller scale of around 7 years).  By cutting areas of coppice on a rotational basis it allows for a constant supply of produce to be taken from the woodland whilst always having areas of young and mature growth which makes for a good diversity of fauna to be able to live there.
As coppicing maintains the tree at a juvenile age it means that if it is regularly coppiced, it can never die of old age.  Some stools (which is the name given to the coppiced stumps and growth of a tree) are so large in diameter that it is thought they have been coppiced continuously for many hundreds of years.

Emptying the kiln and sifting the charcoal

Our ranger Ryan has been learning from the volunteers how to achieve the perfect charcoal burn and one hot sunny morning I helped him empty the kiln after a burn.  Within minutes we were both covered in charcoal dust, black from head to foot and sporting heavy eyeliner from the way it collected in our eyelashes, making us look like we were on our way to a heavy metal concert.  Having bagged up the charcoal ready for selling, we were so hot and filthy that a quick dip in a quiet spot of the river seemed like our only option – one quick paddle and clean later and we looked presentable again…or so I thought.  By the time I got back to the office my face was black again from all the remaining dust on my clothing, something which, as I was walking around the pay zone and talking to people, I wish I’d been made aware of!

The colour of my bath glove after I washed the charcoal dust off!

Whilst the presence of a real live hot summer is doing wonders for our wildlife, especially butterflies, it can have adverse effects on the odd creature.  This little fellow was found by a volunteer on the floor of our stable yard having fallen out his roost in the roof.

Having clambered out his box up my t-shirt and onto my shoulder where he got comfortable.

  It was a juvenile Pipistrelle bat and they can get dehydrated in hot weather which weakens them and makes them fall out the roost. I scooped him up in my rugby top and popped him in a box with some water which is what my bat contact told me to do.  They also suggested I go back later in the evening and hang it on the wall below the roost to see if it would rejoin the colony or not.  Bat mothers are very good and likely to fly down to their young if they hear it squeaking. 
So I returned to Mottisfont that evening just before dusk and hung the bat on the wall below where I knew the colony would emerge from.  Just after dusk the bats started flying out one by one, whizzing along the rooftops and into the gathering dark.  I kept my eyes on my bat and my fingers crossed and, sure enough after 10 minutes or so it flew off and rejoined its clan!  A brilliant result as it is quite hard to rehabilitate bats once they get dehydrated but this one was obviously still in good form and strong enough to join its mates again.

The bats flying out the roof roost at dusk.
 Its nice to know that despite my collection of skulls and dead things,  I can successfully help and release living creatures like Goldy the Goldfinch and the bat!

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Following in the flight of Emperors and Goatsuckers....

The last couple of weeks have provided me with such a wealth of wildlife wonders that I had to share some on the blog.  The butterfly population has truly exploded on Stockbridge Down with Dark Green Fritillaries and Marbled Whites smothering the grassy slopes and bramble bushes.  I was also treated to a rare spectacle whilst doing my butterfly survey; on a beautiful purple thistle that was in an area we cleared of scrub over the winter, I came across a Fritillary that was freshly emerged and drying out its wet crumpled wings in the sun.  Fritillaries are very strong fast fliers so it is usually very hard to get a proper look at them for any length of time.  However this one was yet to take its first proper flight as its wings were still damp so I was able to watch it under my very nose for a good few minutes and it was during this observation that I managed to make a positive ID – Pearl Bordered Fritillary!  This is a butterfly that has declined in number over the last century with the cessation of coppicing and woodland glade creation.  It is slowly making a recovery and requires cleared woodland rides, or grass/scrubland areas such as Stockbridge Down.  This is the first I’ve seen up there and although they have occasionally been reported there before, it was always thought they flew across from other sites.  The fact that I saw one freshly emerged implies it was born and pupated on Stockbridge Down itself – a big success!
I also got a good ten minutes of watching a pair of Blue butterflies mating on a Salad Burnet Flower, their magnificent shades of blue shimmering in the full sunlight.  We think they are Chalkhill or Common blues, but with the female (on the left) being an abberation in that her underwing colouring is different to the usual species colouring - she should have orange spots as well but as you can see, she has no sign of orange and is a beautiful silvery blue, so any butterfly experts out there who can help me with a positive ID please post a comment.  The male briefly opened his wings at one point and i caught a glimpse of blue with a black margin.

Romance on a Salad Burnet!

Myself and Laura, the Outdoor Ranger in the New Forest spent the other day placing reptile tins across some of our Commons in order to set up surveying.  It was a scorching day spent roaming across the heat - hazed heathland with silver studded blue butterflies dancing round our heads and dragon and damsel flies darting up from the boggy patches.  Whilst placing one tin we saw what resembled a insect like zeppelin blimp hover past; we instantly gave chase and managed to see it properly - a large Blue Emperor Dragonfly clutching, in its legs, a meadow brown butterfly!  These dragonflies are voracious predators and regularly fly high to catch insect prey although I’d never witnessed it before. 
Laura kitted out for a days surveying - complete with camera, GPS, binoculars, clipboard, phone, sunhat, keys...


That same evening we took countryside volunteers on a nightjar walk at Foxbury, which is one of our heathland restoration sites.  Nightjars are fascinating birds, that over winter in Africa and then return to the UK in summer where they nest and breed on our heathlands.  In the olden days, they were considered some kind of forbidding omen and were called ‘goat suckers’ as villagers used to believe they would come into the village at night and suckle milk from their goats.  I think this is a bit of a harsh reputation for them but there is no denying that they are an interesting looking creature – big black eyes to see in the dark and a huge gaping mouth that is tipped with a little beak.  A long body with long wings and a hunched head; they have small whiskers either side of their beak which they groom using their toes and they are perfectly camouflaged for sitting in amongst the vegetation unseen.  
 Male nightjars have white spots under their wings which they use as a territorial display, by flying through the air flapping their wings above their head thus showing off their white spots and making a clapping sound. 
Nightjars will also sit on a branch perch and make a wonderful churring call which is quite unlike any other in the bird world – it is a long churrrrrr that goes on and on often going between high and low pitches but all in one long unbroken note.  It is the very definition of summer, when you can walk across a twilight heathland and hear that churring sound. The nightjars at Foxbury were absolutely on form that night, wheeling and swooping, clapping their wings at each other in a fierce display of rivalry and churring from their Pine perches.  Laura and I waved white sheets of paper which is known to entice them closer as the males can believe it is the white markings of another male and swoop in for a closer look.  It certainly paid off as we had about 5 birds flying around us and landing on the track, giving everyone a brilliant experience.
This was a nightjar I had the pleasure of holding a few years ago when I worked at Leith Hill.  He was caught as part of a bird ringing project - only to find he was already ringed and that it was the same bird caught as a fledgling the year before, who had flown to Africa and returned to breed at the exact same site!  We fondly nicknamed him Jarhead.  Note the tiny beak, yet the mouth actually opens all along the white marking under the eye.

Finally, walking back to the staff car park one sunny evening, we were lucky enough to see a pair of Red Kites wheeling lazily around the thermals.  It’s the first Kites I’ve seen over Mottisfont and they were so low down the view of their forked tails and slender wings was perfect – a great sight to see at the end of another sunny day.