Michael's latest update:

It’s wonderful what you can do with numbers:  the willow warbler population on my monitored plot has gone up by 50% this season.  Given the alarming demise of this charming little bird with its sweet, lilting song, that sounds like excellent news.  However, a quick reality check shows that last year there were just four singing males, so, while an increase to six is, technically, a 50% uplift, such a small change in so tiny a population is swamped out by the random chatter that causes populations to fluctuate from year to year – everything from weather and available habitat, down to deer browsing their favoured scrub, or a devastating fire.  So while I’m delighted that the species has once more cheated extinction on the reserve, I don’t find the presence of six pairs a cause for celebration, given that back in the 1980s the reserve population was over a hundred.

 

The first half of May is a wonderful time in the countryside, when every hedge, copse and wood is suddenly acquiring its bright, lime-green foliage, banishing once and for all the gloom of winter.  Beech is a favourite of mine, with its delicate, flimsy leaves, like a newly-emerged insect’s wings that have yet to harden off, elegantly fringed with soft white hairs that will soon vanish.  But for this brief period, before the riot of greens is subdued by the summer sun into dull uniformity, the oak seedlings that litter the woodland floor in places are magnificent.  It will only last a couple of weeks or so, but for that time these thousands of hopeful oaks-in-waiting are draped in bronze-green foliage that I find so beautiful.  Later in the season, the seedlings will merge into the bramble background, but for the moment you are made aware of the sheer abandon of nature in scattering germinating acorns with such profligacy.  Almost every seedling will succumb, shaded out by the parent tree, killed by oak mildew that coats the leaves in white powder, trampled or eaten.  In most woods in southern England you will struggle to find oak seedlings at all, but in Blean Woods some feature of the environment regularly enables oak regeneration on a lavish scale.

 

Great excitement on 14th May when I discovered the nest of a pair of.……. starlings!  Back in the 1980s this was one of the commonest breeding species in the wood, nesting in old woodpecker holes, or occasionally taking over a newly-excavated one and forcing the rightful occupants into house-hunting elsewhere.  However, for the past 25 years or so it has been absent from the reserve as a breeding species, apart from a single record in 2017 which, interestingly, was within thirty yards or so of this year’s nest.  A once ubiquitous bird, the starling has declined by about 55% in the UK since 1994 and by an even more alarming 65% in south east England in the same period, and it is now on the conservation Red List of birds of greatest concern.  As with most other declining species, we do not have a clear picture of why it is disappearing so rapidly, but it seems more than likely that intensifying agricultural management must shoulder a considerable amount of the blame.  With fewer unmaintained buildings around these days, it is also possible that there aren’t so many potential nest sites, but that can’t be true of Blean Woods, where there are still plenty of woodpecker holes – old and new.

 

I don’t get to see that many reptiles on the reserve, so a slow worm on a bare path on 1st May was quite exciting.  Its smooth brown scales have a slight grey-blue sheen in certain lights, which I find most attractive.

 

 

Michael Walter

Slow worm crossing a bare path

A sea of tiny oak seedlings – all destined to die!

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