Welcome to the Ramsden Village ‘Local Fauna Blog’
Here you will find useful information and observations regarding local fauna such as birds, raptors, small mammals and reptiles, submitted by local residents over the last few years.
If you have a useful addition to make to this blog, please submit your thoughts or observations by clicking below.
Spring Surprises (May 2015)
We don’t really notice global warming and climate change, they happen too gradually, over too long a period, but small differences in the weather can certainly have an influence on the world around us. April, for instance, was delightfully warm and brought a lot of air up from France.
So, Dick Williamson reports:
“I don’t know if you are keeping and wildlife records but, if so, you may be interested to know that on Monday, 25th May, I spotted a Humming-bird hawk-moth Macroglossum stellatarum in our garden on one of the shrub roses now in bloom, Rosa Nevada. I saw one about six years ago in the same area of the garden. My book says that they are mainly migrants from the south of France but the end of May would be pretty early for them. A few are said to hibernate here and that would seem a bit more likely. The caterpillars can be found on bedstraw of which we have a fair amount in our Home Field. It is an exciting sight, beating its wings so fast that you cannot see them and hovering above the flowers and sticking its very long tongue between the petals.”
You can see from the picture that this little fellow is feeding on lavender. In our garden at least, lavender like this is nowhere near in flower yet, and so here is a good example of how changes in the weather patterns, rather than the climate, can have interesting local effects.
Walking the dogs in the field at the top of Wilcote Lane, I noticed that the tops of many of the stinging nettles were smothered in writhing black caterpillars, so numerous as to be slightly disturbing. Around them was a web-like structure reminiscent of the tunnels in Shelob’s Lair (only smaller).
These it turns out, are probably caterpillars of the Peacock butterfly. Here is a Youtube link so you can see what I mean.
The Peacock is great for getting kids to be aware of and understand a principle of evolution. The eyespots on their wings, and the way they flap them, give predators the idea that the butterfly is actually a lot bigger and nastier than it is, and so they don’t eat it. However long ago, the butterflies which first showed this feature were ignored or avoided by birds looking for food, and so survived to reproduce more successfully than the ones without eyespots, and so the peacock evolved. This defence mechanism is known as the mimicry hypothesis and there are examples of it throughout the natural world.
We have got quite used to seeing the Roe deer, often in groups of between eight and sixteen, grazing just beyond the fence line. Fallow deer, however, remain a much less common sight, unless one is wandering through Cornbury, where there are quite large groups.
I met a woman hacking her horse round the rape fields not long ago. She told me that there was a lot of tree-felling going on in Cornbury Park, and that this was disturbing the deer population, which had begun moving further afield to graze. It was only a matter of time, then, before a Fallow would be visible from the kitchen window, and just that happened today, May 29th. The Fallow seems somehow a “finer” beast than the roe, as if its spots confer higher status, and of course it is bigger, though not as fast. Only the bucks have antlers, but they can be quite magnificent.
The Barn Owl (March 2015)
There is little more beautiful or wondrous to be seen in the English countryside than a Barn Owl in flight. When first we came to Ramsden, we saw one almost every day, patrolling up and down the fence-line, looking for breakfast, but quite unhurried, almost languid in flight; master of its environment and its destiny.
For some years, the bird disappeared. The farmer had ploughed right to the edge of our land, and the adjacent wood, meaning that there was better hunting elsewhere, but this year, in the field at the top of Wilcote Lane, I have watched one almost every day, both early in the morning, and around dusk.
One thinks of owls as nocturnal, but daylight hunting is quite normal behaviour in winter. Nevertheless, I have felt concerned. The bird has seemed to be flying too fast, as if worrying, and it is smaller than I remember the breed to be. Worse still, I have watched it hunting in persistent rain. Barn owls are especially famous for their silent flight. This is made possible by the structure of the feathers on both the leading and trailing edges of the wings. However, these feathers are not waterproof, so the bird gets wet and cold if out in the rain and can readily come to harm. Whilst Barn Owls have exceptional hearing, one has to imagine that the sound of rainfall makes it much harder to distinguish the sounds made by possible prey, so the chances of success while hunting in the rain are much reduced.
I also worried when I saw the same bird flying from Little Garden Wood to The Hays. Was food really so scarce? But research has revealed that the Barn Owl will patrol some 20-25km of verge, margin or open grassland to fill its tummy with voles, wood mice or brown rats.
The adult bird has no obvious predator at night, but can easily get into an argument with a kestrel in the daytime, since they will be looking for the same food in the same territory. Obviously the young are at risk in the nest.
Barn Owls lay 5-7 eggs, at two or three day intervals and the incubation period is a month. This means there could be a mix of newly hatched birds and eggs for a period of two to three weeks. The birds do not fly for seven or eight weeks, and tragically, about 75% of them die in the first year.
The Strange Case of the Flying Rabbit (April 2014)
The other day a neighbour rang. Could I come and deal with a rabbit which had wandered into their trap? As we spoke, a third voice announced that the rabbit was a baby owl! We went over and found it was, in fact, a little owl, quite unharmed, but rather cross. It stood firmly on its dignity, right in the middle of the cage and was more than happy to stare back.
When we opened the end of the trap, off it flew to tell of its adventure. Little Owls are sedentary (as opposed to migratory) so it is probably watching us right now.
Little Owls are resident in the UK. We should be able to see them in daylight all year round, but they only show up at The Grange between Spring and Autumn. They sound a bit like a seagull or buzzard, but squeakier, with a chicken like chuntering in the background.
Our little owls do two noticeable things. First, when the young are recently fledged, they sit on the post and rail fencing and get flying lessons to and from an apple tree. Their flight is slightly undulating, like a woodpecker, and they beat their wings rather fast, as though they are a bit heavy for them.
Second, Little Owls are great perchers. They sit on the roofs around the drive, watching us, and take ready offence if they feel disturbed, when they bob their heads up and down, to work out how near we are, before flying off. They are not so much fierce as hilariously grumpy.
Pigeon Fanciers (February 2013)
Going down the escalator by the statue of the bear at Paddington Station I was astonished to see a man going the other way with a serious looking bird on his arm. I had a few spare minutes, so went to check this out, and was introduced to Myra the Harris Hawk. Isn’t she lovely? Although they are reported in the wild, Harris Hawks are not native to Britain, so this was a real treat.
Myra is six. She would be glad to help sort the pigeons out, but isn’t allowed to, because she’s a messy eater and this upsets the public a bit, so she is only flown inside the station late at night.
She was a stand-in today. Usually she is outside frightening the gulls, who are seemingly rather more scared of Harris Hawks than pigeons are, though no-one knows why. Her job out of doors is to put the gulls off nesting on high-rise buildings, which they imagine to be cliffs. If they don’t nest, they don’t breed, the cycle is broken and this helps contain their number.
A week or so ago we did our bit for the Big Garden Birdwatch as we had six-year old twins to stay. There was a fair sized gang of long-tailed tits, wonderfully coloured in soft pink and mushroom and a good number of blue tits too. However, their genuine charm dulled with repetition, which was interrupted only by a greater spotted woodpecker and a solitary robin, and after fifty-five of the allotted sixty minutes minds were beginning to wander.
Suddenly what looked like a pigeon flew straight into the bay tree next to the bird feeder, where the small birds stop to chatter between snacks. There was quite a commotion.
The big bird extracted itself and flew round the base of the tree in a tight circle, revealing striped chest and tail and frightening the life out of the little chaps who had gathered for nibbles and then it was gone, as swiftly and suddenly as it had arrived. Of course, in creating such a spread for the smaller birds, we had also made the perfect ambush site for their predators.
It was a sparrowhawk, doing what sparrowhawks do best, no more than ten feet from where we sat. If it had not been for this RSPB project, we would never have seen it! The young twins were now completely hooked, particularly when they discovered that the illustration in Britain’s Wildlife Plants and Flowers shows exactly this potential scenario: a sparrowhawk taking a blue tit in flight.
Here’s another marvellous photo, this one from Ramsden, taken at Ann’s Cottage last Spring and reproduced here with thanks to Mary Foxwood. This sparrowhawk is probably a female, as these are rather larger than the male and therefore the more likely to take a larger bird, such as this pigeon. These raptors are so focussed on what they are doing that they are little troubled by the proximity of humans.
The Spring Equinox (March 2012)
So Spring has arrived. The vernal equinox has apparently fallen earlier than at any time in the last century and has followed hot on the heels of the few frosty nights which accompanied the first blackthorn blossom.
Amid continuing promises of drought, the skies are clear and blue and full of birdsong. Nearer the ground, the hum of the bumble bee is overpowered by the first lawnmowers. The soil around Ramsden is pretty muddled up, with seams of cloggy clay everywhere, and a layer of stone just a few feet below the surface. The ground slopes toward the village on three sides, and springwater, pushed up through that layer, seeps steadily towards the High Street. Right now, the flowerbeds seem moist enough. The footpaths have squidgy bits where old puddles refuse to die.
For all its inevitability, the changing of the seasons has a ragged edge. Some things come early, others late. Today, a grass snake was sunbathing, stretched out in the rough grass , in the middle of a field, the yellow ring at its neck quite bright. Then it slithered away, head held quite still and perfectly forward, tongue tasting the air as it went.
People who live in the country are inevitably more likely to be aware of Nature's rhythm and to be influenced by it. As Winter draws to a close and Spring arrives, we welcome the change and also welcome the fact that, by and large, that change happens when we expect it to.
Flowers die back in the autumn, and leaves drop. Come Spring, new buds appear and bulbs push their shoots up through the soil. We are glad to see them, but know they were there all the time. More welcome, then, are those who left us entirely, but who choose return, and come back safely.
The cuckoo comes in April and sings its song in May; and then in June it changes tune. In July it flies away.
The first cuckoo was claimed to be heard around Ramsden on about the 10th April, but this seems unlikely. Certainly, two calls were audible on the morning of May 2nd, and have been every day since.
Cuckoos are easily heard: their song carries a great distance, but they are rarely seen, and often confused with collared doves and sparrowhawks, which are of similar size. However, their flight is quite different, slow and looping. They seem to perch high up – this probably helps their song carry, and when they are settled, they drop their wingtips and point their tails. This is probably how they may most easily be distinguished
The cuckoo is a migratory bird. Recently, two of a number of birds which had been tagged by the BTO to track their migration have returned from Africa. One completed a 10,000 mile trip, overwintering in the Congo Basin, and has got to the Norfolk Broads from Algeria in less than a week; the other covered the 600 miles from Milan to the M25 in two days.
This year, the birds were late arriving here. In 2011, the call could be widely heard by the middle of April. No doubt, the weather has played its part in this delay, but now they are here, they need to get down to breeding without delay. Breeding cuckoo numbers have more than halved in the last 25 years, and the species is on the Red List, so listening out for them is no longer just a matter of confirming the passing of the seasons, their song confirms their very survival.
Cuckoos are brood predators, and so must lay their eggs in host nests with precision timing. The female cuckoos start to check out likely hosts as soon as they get here and robins and hedge sparrows' nest are those most frequently selected. Success depends on laying their eggs at the same time as the brood host, so that the cuckoo hatches first and heaves out the hosts' young as they emerge from their shells. The female cuckoo lays an egg that mimics pretty well the other eggs in the nest, so the foster mother can't easily detect the intrusion. It seems that the female knows which host bird to track down so that its eggs stand least chance of detection and different cuckoos lay egs which mimic those of different hosts.
Martins, swallows and swifts
All these species are migratory, beautiful in flight and colouring, and seem happy to live quite close to humans while doing no obvious harm. So, we like and admire them, and see them as part of "our" environment. We are glad to see them back, and sorry to see them go.
There are some distinguishing features which help the observer tell these species from one another:
Swifts are the largest of the three and their wings are most suggestive of a scythe. Their forked tail is short. They have no white colouring at all, except a small patch on their chins which is not visible from a distance. One seldom sees them close up as, apart from when they are breeding, they eat drink mate and sleep on the wing and certainly never land on the ground or perch on wires. They arrive later and leave earlier than swallows or house martins.
The swallow has a blackish blue hue, red chin and cheeks and white chest, and long tail streamers. It swoops and jinks in flight to catch insects and tends to fly and feed much lower to the ground that the house martin, except in cool poor weather, when the house martin also feeds close to the ground.
It is not uncommon for unpaired males to hang around nests, destroy the hatchlings, displace the male and mate with the female. When the young are born, their first attempts at flight have been inside our barns, to protect them as much as possible from increasingly interested crows. Then they begin to gather on telegraph wires and loop around in turn. Up on the wires further away from the house, as September turns to October, the birds congregate in ever greater numbers and suddenly they are gone.
The martin is a smaller chunkier looking bird than the swallow. It has less sheen, and its tail is more of a concave wedge. The rear edge of the wing is straighter than the other species'. The white rump of the martin extends round onto its back, and white feathers also extend round the martin's neck. Like the swallow, it builds its nest of mud, but usually on the outside of buildings, not the inside. A group of swallow-like birds around a drying puddle is most likely to be a gathering of martins. The martin chatters a lot.
Just as these birds show remarkable mastery of the air, so they seem very alert to changes in it: in poorer weather, martins fly closer to the ground, while both martins and swallows seem to move ahead of weather, even very locally. When raptors are about, all the species seem to fly up above the kite or buzzard, evolution having rewarded those which worked out that these bigger birds are better at diving than climbing, and so staying above them is a good survival technique.
Swallows and Ambushes (April 2015)
Our first swallow came early this year, arriving on April 6 ten days earlier than expected The next day there were two. When they first arrive they sit in trees, on roof-ridges and TV aerials singing and clicking for hours at a time, or fly very quickly in straight lines hither and yon, calling as they go, flight so different from the swooping loops and handbrake turns which so characterise these wonderful creatures when they are on the wing. Presumably they are trying to find former mates or siblings, to see who gets the family home. They nest both in the barn and in the stables, rebuilding and repairing last year’s work and we are used to having twenty or thirty around us.
One of the horses has laminitis and so is being kept off the paddock, on a small square of shavings, just outside his stable. He has been clipped for summer, except for a saddle-shaped patch of thick hair on his back, to cushion the saddle and prevent soreness when being ridden. The crows have discovered this, and have been perching there, pulling out the hair to use for nest-building. Unfortunately, in doing so, their presence has sufficiently intimidated the swallows as to deter them from flying past to occupy the nests in the eaves within.
(No crows were harmed in the taking of this photo)
We have now put a light rug on the horse, so there is nothing for the crows to get at and they are in less immediate attendance. With luck, the swallows summon the nerve to reclaim their rightful perches.
Until about fifty years ago, The Grange was a working farm. Its land stretched up to the horizon to the north and over towards Mount Skippett. There were pigs in what is now the driveway, and cattle in the fields. Those fields were divided by long-destroyed hedgerows and there were and still are water troughs here and there which confirm this historic use.
The nearest of these is beneath a large sycamore, just over the boundary fence. These broad-leaved trees are planted for shade and so were perfect for giving comfort to the cows as they gathered at the trough for a natter and a slurp.
One of the things about sycamores is that the underside of their leaves are beloved of aphids, and in a gentle breeze, these blow off. This is what accounts for the Battle-of-Britain-like displays of all the swallows hereabouts in high summer, swooping, weaving and diving around the big tree as they fill their tummies, the sky filled with their beautiful patterns.
So, let us hope they notice the crows are no longer coming for materials, and they start to nestbuild themselves again. They bring such optimism that it will be hard to be without them.
Throughout Europe, chamomile is valued for its mild medicinal properties, particularly for upset stomachs, hangovers, and as a gentle sleep-aid. When our elder son had to be hospitalised in Austria at the age of 18months, first-line treatment for his galloping gastroenteritis had been kamillentee.
The flower heads are collected and dried, and a couple of spoonfuls steeped for ten or fifteen minutes. Ideally, the cup should be covered, so that the volatile oils which evaporate fall back to the surface of the liquid.
Chamomile is also used to soothe and soften in soaps, shampoos and conditioners, but simply standing by a clump out in the field is every bit as calming.
Calming Chamomile (June 2012)
There is a triangle of land near the lone tree on the footpath over towards Finstock (designated Footpath 3 on the Walks and Footpaths page) which becomes dominated by wild chamomile in early summer. The land seems to be set aside in some way, and although competition from the weeds covered in the Weeds Act of 1959 (various docks, thistles and ragwort) is increasing, the chamomile still has a substantial presence.
The leaves take the form of wispy tendrils, a bit like dill or fennel. The petals of the daisy-like flowers seem clipped at their tips. The plant, especially when in flower, is recognised with some certainty by its strong aromatic smell.
Ragwort is spreading steadily across the Parish from the west-south-west, its seeds being carried on the prevailing wind. Bushes and trees provide a physical barrier to this spread, while seeds which get little direct light do not flourish. However, ragwort is well-nigh impossible to kill, which is why it is so important to contain it. Horse graze selectively to avoid the living plant, but it can cause real harm in hay or animal foodstuff.
You can pull it or dig it up (wear gloves for complete safety) but you then need to get rid of this plant material. If left lying, it will continue to mature. It is very hard to get the complete root system, and the plants will regrow, so you need to revisit the site of your efforts regularly through the growing season.
The tip at Stanton Harcourt does not accept ragwort, and nor can this be put in the kerbside green waste. There is some irony here, since more ragwort is found on state-owned property than everywhere else put together, yet this is where least seems to be done to control it and they don't want it back.
The best options for disposal seem to be burning, where bonfires are permissible, and composting. There is logic in disposing of ragwort on site, as this minimises the risk of dispersal.
For further information, go to any of the following links:
and put in a search for ragwort.
On a lighter note and thanks to Wikipedia: In New Zealand in the 1930s, farmers reportedly had trouble with exploding trousers as a result of attempts to control ragwort.
Farmers had been spraying sodium chlorate onto the ragwort, and some of the spray had ended up on their clothes. Sodium chlorate is a strong oxidizing agent, and reacted with the organic fibres (i.e. the wool and the cotton) of the clothes. Reports had farmers' trousers variously smouldering and bursting into flame, particularly when exposed to heat or naked flames. One report had trousers that were hanging on a washing line starting to smoke. There were also several reports of trousers exploding while farmers were wearing them, causing severe burns.
Ragwort flowers are a particular favourite of the cinnabar caterpillar, which has orange and black stripes, matching the Wolverhampton Wanderers strip. The adult moth's colouring bears no relationship to this, as it is red and black, the colours of A C Milan. Because of all the alkaloids they have ingested from the ragwort, both are extremely unpalatable to most potential predators, except the cuckoo, which rather enjoys the caterpillars.
Glamour in the Grass (July 2012)
Orchids are rare in Britain and even in the wild in a temperate European climate have complex, beautiful flowers, so we treasure them. While I was out in the field with one of the dogs yesterday, I found a bee orchid in a spot I was planning to mow that afternoon, before the Euromonsoon returned. If I had not been playing with the dog, I wouldn't have spotted it. It felt like quite something to have "my own" orchid.
The Bee Orchid
The Common Spotted Orchid
I first found bee orchids around Ramsden ten or fifteen years ago, in a clearing in a relatively new plantation. There were masses, but the next year there were hardly any, and I cannot find any at that site at the moment. Although the flower suggests the presence of a pollinating bee, this orchid is largely self-pollinating, and numbers do vary hugely in any specific location from year to year.
Over the years there have been a lot of orchids (up to fifty) in the large field behind Little Garden Wood. These are mostly the common-spotted orchid, which has black blotches on its leaves or the pyramid orchid, which does not. This is the less common of the two round here. The conical arrangement of flowers has a wide colour-range in both species.
Ragwort is now rampant in that field and at about this time will be sprayed or cut, or both. This is a huge frustration to orchid-spotters, as these precious flowers will also be killed or decapitated just as they come into bloom. Anecdotally, the orchid population seems to be declining, but the ragwort population is hugely on the increase, as the cut or sprayed weeds continue to grow flower seed and spread, even in death, and cutting and leaving the plants may accelerate this. The law of unintended consequences at its worst.
Clare Balding, National Treasure if ever there was one, has been doing a series on dogs and their walkers on Radio 4. Here are some observations from it:
Often, when we move to new places, the first people we meet, we meet through our dogs. We become friends and the dogs do too, providing an excuse regularly to look out for one another's companionship without seeming needy or intrusive.
Dog walking companions quickly come to learn the minutiae of one another's lives to a degree far more familiar than would be achieved in one another's homes. Yet very often, the people we meet out walking are not people we see in any other context. We seem able to pick up and put down these shared intimacies with great ease, sharing as we do a uniquely private space as we walk along together, side by side with no eye-contact necessary.
When the gates, wire and notices went up around the fields in the Spring, many of what had become the usual crowd, disappeared and have not been seen since. The rape has been harvested and the wheat will soon follow, renewing a sense of space around the fields where this had gone missing . Perhaps some of the old crowd will show up again and we'll pick up exactly where we left off. Lives will be the richer for it.
Walking the Dog (August 2012)
Some months ago a small group of us, regular dog walkers, were invited to pose with our animals for a photograph for the Village History and were delighted to oblige. Dog walking and footpaths crop up regularly enough in the Village Newsletter archive to confirm that this companionship has been an integral part of the community for many years. When the book came out, we were captioned as "Putting the world to rights while the dogs wait".
Now, few would disagree that the world needs putting to rights and I will readily admit that I am not shy of offering my tuppence-worth to the debate. However, I thought that this rather narrow description possibly did dogs and their walkers a disservice. So I was glad to receive a photo from Julia Reid (lower right), which she found in a village in North Norfolk recently.
The text is hard to read in the photo and so is reproduced below:
On the first day of Creation God created the Dog
On the second day of Creation God created man to serve the Dog
On the third day of Creation God created all the animals to serve as potential food for the Dog
On the fourth day of Creation God created honest toil, so that man could labour for the good of the Dog
On the fifth day of Creation God created the tennis ball, so that the Dog might or might not retrieve it
On the sixth day of Creation God created veterinary services to keep the Dog healthy and the man broke
On the seventh day of Creation God tried to rest - but He had to walk the Dog
A Danish wood-dweller writes: "We have a lot of ash in Kårup and they are really suffering. It starts from the top. One spring the leaves just die on the apical twigs. The tree tries to recover and may grow irregular clumps of leaves on its lower branches. The top branches dry up and eventually break off. Then new branches may appear below the dead ones. It takes years before small trees finally give up. I have less experience with mature trees but I have the impression they have to give up sooner than the young ones."
Now evergreens are indigenous to Scandinavia, and far more widespread than in England, so the impact of the death of the 80 million ash trees on the stock of trees in the UK would be more dramatic. Ash has, of course, been used widely to replace elm.
Since this year's growth is now beginning to wither, we may not actually know how things stand before 2013. According to the Forestry Commission, the disease has not yet been found in the natural or wider environment in Great Britain, that is, outside nurseries and recent
Oak before ... ? (October 2012)
Ash is the Anglo-Saxon for spear. Down the centuries, it has been used in furniture making, gates, oars and even guitars.
"Oak before ash we're in for a splash, ash before oak we're in for a soak." Given that our weather is a national obsession, anything which enters weather folklore must be very British indeed.
Now, it seems, our native ash is threatened by a fungus, Chalara Fraxinea, which has been arriving in young trees imported from Holland, whence many British nurseries acquire their stock. This has apparently destroyed 90% of the ash population in Denmark.