Monday, 14 April 2014

In April, come i will....

Heard my first Cuckoo today!  In the river side fields we have at Mottisfont, down near the Oakley Oak i heard that distant call that sends us straight back to childhood with the cuckoo poem echoing in my brain:

"In April come i will,
In May i sing all day,
In June i change my tune,
In July i prepare to fly,
In August, away i must"

I love the simplicity of this rhyme and the hint of melancholy - the cuckoo's time here is so short and you realise how fast the summer months fly before the cuckoo heads off again and is not heard on our shores beyond August.
My final words on my last blog post proved to be prophetic – I had just written about how it could only be a matter of time before male adders were seen ‘duelling’ – and sure enough, later that day, Matt got the following photo of two males in combat.  Adders won’t bite each other in a fight but they will twist round each other and rear up, each trying to get higher than the other and push its opponent down with its body.  I was also lucky enough to see some duelling action at the weekend, having spotted 2 males slithering around some vegetation obviously scenting each other and a female and thus looking for a fight. One of the males slithered out across the open patch I was standing in, only about 2 inches from my boots, but totally preoccupied with scenting the female which must have passed that way earlier.  Luckily I was downwind of him and so by keeping stock still I remained undetected and he carried on past me.  We then found him and his rival in some vegetation just further on duelling and chasing each other – well the big male was chasing the smaller one round and round in a comic style race and in the centre of it all we spotted 2 females – a reddish beauty and the black one Matt found weeks earlier – worthy prizes indeed!  After several good attempts, the smaller male got chased off for good and went to sulk in the sun nearby, whilst the bigger male continued patrolling the clump of bracken and gorse where the females were hiding.  It was like watching a soap opera – but much more entertaining I’d say!
Male adders duelling - the yellowy coloured one on the left won this fight.
A beauty of a grass snake i found under a tin - there was a smaller male with her but he scarpered.  Our biggest native snake.
Meanwhile, adders aside, we have been up to all sorts as usual.  The countryside everywhere is finally starting to blossom and bloom – this time of year it is always like every tree and shrub has been holding its breath over the winter – and suddenly they release it and boom!  There is lush green grass everywhere and the hedgerows are popping with bright green buds and Blackthorn blossom.  Even the bluebells are well on their way to a Spring spectacular – our site at Curbridge, on the river Hamble, is always a winner for bluebells as are the Mottisfont estate woodlands.  As you drive into Mottisfont the fields by the entrance, which were underwater for so long, are finally dry and green again and the scummy tideline that adorned the bottom of all the trees has faded away.  No one seems to have told the swans though which are still happily spending most of their time in those fields, unwilling perhaps to give up their extended kingdom.  In the space of a week the butterfly transect on Stockbridge Down has gone from 6 butterflies to a whopping 48 today – including my first Green Veined white of the year and an abundance of Orange tips.

The background soundtrack to this beautiful time of year is bird song.  I managed to get this photo of a Black Cap singing in the Duck Grounds – lovely little bird with the male wearing a shiny black hat and the female wearing a chestnut brown one - and this male was really going for it, trilling away. 
Also got a photo of a Long Tailed tit nest tucked away in a gorse bush.  These nests are really spectacular as they are made with cobwebs and lichens, a true masterpiece of architecture.

Long Tailed tit nest

Black Cap

We had a visit last week from a man who first discovered the Barbastelle bat populations at Mottisfont ten years ago.  He has returned to examine the known bat roosts and find potential for new ones here at Mottisfont.  Our woodlands host a number of bat species but the Barbastelle are probably the most unique.  They require woodland in which to roost and riverine habitat nearby that they go to feed.  They use woodland rides and hedgerows as corridors to fly from their woodland haunt, down to the river and wetlands where they feast on insects- mainly moths.  They are one of the rarer British mammals and there are few known breeding maternity sites in the country– of which we are privileged to be one.  They tuck themselves away in the cracks of trees or under loose bark so it is important that there are suitable trees for this purpose; if we were to fell every dead or dying or storm damaged tree, that would be the end of the Barbastelle – and many more species as of course trees are micro worlds for hundreds of different species of invertebrate, flora and larger animals.

Another creature that likes to roost in trees are Barn Owls.  We have several known pairs across the estate which are monitored by our volunteer bird surveyor Alan Snook – if a new bird of any species happened to turn up, fly over or drift by Mottisfont, Alan will be the first to know about it – the man seems omnipotent when it comes to avian life! He works closely with the Hampshire Ornithological Society and managed to get hold of some Barn Owl boxes to put up across the estate.  Barn owls will roost in buildings (hence the name) but also in old trees – our Oakley Oak has a Barn owl pair in one of the limbs.  However they can be kicked out by Jackdaws that tend to take over the whole tree for their nesting colony.  By putting up Barn Owl nest boxes you are providing more suitable roosting sites that the barn owls can discover and use for nesting.  Alan had got us 2 nesting boxes and 2 roosting boxes, to be used in pairs.  Basically the female Barn owl will nest and lay eggs in the nest box and as she will sit on the eggs continually until they hatch, she relies on the male to bring her food.   However she does not like the male to be in the nest box with her, so by providing a roost box nearby – like a bachelor pad – the male has somewhere to hang out and call to his mate, until she requires him to bring her food or help with the young.  Doubtless there are some human set ups that are very similar.

Nesting box on the left and the male's bachelor pad on the right.

The seasonal warmth has seen another change come in – our sheep flock are beginning to take some pride in their appearance and shed their winter wool in favour of their light summer jackets.  Wiltshire Horn sheep are self-shedding so it means you don’t need to shear them but also means you don’t get a full fleece off of them – they are more a meat breed.  But they have started doing a fine job of cutting their hair and you can see from this photo of a young one the difference in their winter and summer wool.  The lamb’s neck has got the summer wool coming through, fine and soft – the rest of its body is still covered in thick, dreadlocked, matted wool which it will lose as the warm days go on.

Now stop reading my blog and get out there and enjoy the sun!

See the fine summer wool on the neck

Guilty looking sheep acting nonchalant, having just nicked my sandwich!

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