Michael Walter's latest report:
Approaching the reserve car park the other afternoon I was greeted by the dry rattling call of a mistle thrush. Noticeably larger and greyer than blackbirds and song thrushes, they have the same penchant for fruit as their cousins at this time of year, and this bird was gorging on the berries of a hybrid whitebeam/rowan tree beside the car park. The concept of a bird’s territory has to be quite flexible, and in autumn it can amount to a single food-filled tree which a bird will defend from all comers, expending a great deal of energy in chasing off rivals of any species, leading to their regular absence from the tree for extended periods, during which time less pugnacious birds can creep in unobtrusively to snatch a few forbidden fruits. This particular mistle thrush was gobbling berries at the centre of the tree, relaxing its guard sufficiently to allow a blackbird to feed watchfully right on the periphery of the tree’s canopy. Their name comes from a love of mistletoe berries, which has been known for hundreds of years, and in yellowing copies of Victorian bird books it is recorded as the missel thrush, the Old English spelling for this parasitic plant.
Even more recently, I hadn’t quite set foot on the access track when my ears were assailed by a chorus of chirping house sparrows preparing to go to roost in a dense holly bush. I tend not to consider this thin sliver of land a meaningful piece of Blean Woods, although, strictly speaking, it is part of the reserve, and so the sparrow flock constituted a reserve record. But why am I even mentioning these mundane birds here? Well, back in the 1980s they were a regular feature in the wood, especially in May and June, when flocks would descend on the oak trees to feast on a crop of defoliating caterpillars. Two things have happened in the intervening years: firstly, the sparrow population in England has declined by about 70% since 1976; and secondly, we no longer seem to get plagues of caterpillars literally stripping oaks and other trees of most of their leaves. So, the humble house sparrow joins a litany of birds that are seldom, if ever, found in the wood nowadays, from the slightly exotic wood warbler and redstart, through to willow tit, turtle dove and cuckoo, right down to such familiar species as starling, yellowhammer and dunnock. There is the occasional compensation, like a pair of ravens flying over at dusk a couple of days ago, evidently heading for a nearby roost site, perhaps close to the Seasalter Marshes. Extinct in the county since about 1844, the raven has made a comeback in the past twenty years, and its stentorian “cronk” is now occasionally heard over the wood.
Many species may have declined, despite all the management work being carried out for their benefit, but there have been definite gains as well. Last week I was able to enjoy watching a kestrel effortlessly hovering over the heath, abandoning each small search area after a few seconds, and sliding sideways a few yards to focus sharply on the potential of the next patch. The two heaths represent large clearings within the wood, and prior to their creation there was limited habitat for the kestrel to investigate, the land being the domain of the sparrowhawk, with its different hunting techniques – stalking unsuspecting small birds from the air, twisting and turning in pursuit through the trees or, perched on a bough, its plumage blending into the bark of the tree, waiting patiently for a bird that might not come, exhibiting a seeming indifference to the timing of its next feast which we humans, with our regular mealtimes, find hard to comprehend. No seasonal binge for the sparrowhawk, then, but Christmas wishes to you all.
Kestrel by Dave Smith
Mistle thrush by Dave Smith
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