The latest update from Michael Walter:

On 22nd May a friend heard, and possibly saw, a golden oriole close to the access track leading into the wood from Blean village.  The gorgeous male with yellow and black plumage, red bill and eye ring, has the loveliest, fluty song imaginable (one of its old country names is gypsy whistler), and the species has a somewhat chequered history in England.  In the second half of the 19th century it was regularly attempting to breed in a number of counties and, had it not been for the birds being shot and their eggs collected, it seems possible that a modest population might have built up.  But this tentative colonisation soon died out, and the 20th century was a fairly sterile period for orioles until, that is, the 1960s, when a small group started breeding in East Anglian poplar plantations managed by Bryant and May for match-making.  Then to everyone’s surprise a few pairs began nesting in the totally different habitat of oak woodland in the Blean complex, but once again the hoped-for colonisation fizzled out, although there were records in Blean Woods in eight years between 1985 and 1997, and a pair probably bred on at least one occasion.  On the face of it, recent warmer summers should have benefited golden orioles venturing across the Channel, and it ought by now to be a regular breeder here.  But it seems that things are never that simple:  red-backed shrikes changed from being a widespread breeder to scarce vagrant in the space of fifty years during the 20th century, and the frequent heatwaves of the past 25 years, which would benefit the populations of large insects that form the birds’ main diet, have failed to tempt more than the odd pair back to our shores.  It therefore remains to be seen whether either of these species will ever manage to overcome the unknown constraints to a successful comeback.


My friend was evidently enjoying a bit of a purple patch, as the next day he reported seeing two wood duck on a small pool in the wood.  We’re just getting used to the idea that a Chinese duck, the mandarin, is now an annual breeder in the wood, and then along comes a pair of the related North American Carolina wood duck.  But, although there were sporadic successful breeding attempts in southern England in the 1960s and 70s, it appears that all those populations have now died out.  I have no idea as to the provenance of these two birds, but the likelihood of their establishing a local breeding population seems extremely remote.


My annual woodcock monitoring shows that there is no sign of recovery from a run of five poor years (see graph).  This rather mysterious woodland wader has declined markedly in the county in the past thirty years and, whereas it was then moderately widespread, particularly in the west of Kent, it is now almost confined to the Blean complex, Bedgebury and Sevenoaks.  The current one-year project to make Blean Woods damper could, if successful, revitalise the woodcock population, as this is a bird that feeds by probing soft ground with its long beak.


Michael Walter