Tag Archives: woodland

That’s one way to gauge insect numbers

As I write, the male blackbird is sitting under a big lavender bush, where it has been since I looked out at first light. It is singing quietly to itself, a melodic sub-song, rich, fluting and varied, lovely to hear. This has been happening for a few weeks now, the blackbird spending several hours a day under that lavender. If I open the door it stares at me, but does not move, and seems content with its spot. Maybe the proximity of the hedgehog box with the dish of crushed suet balls is an attraction, it seems likely.The female blackbird also likes the hedgehog box and spent a lot of time in there over the summer

In the woods, where we’re now spending more time, I like to observe the developing ecosystem and see what wildlife has taken up residence amongst the trees. Since reading just over a year ago about the alarming decline in insect biomass, it was something which has been on my mind and I had wondered about the insect numbers in that woodland. On Monday, I had an unplanned glimpse of the insects living there. The back story is that a friend expressed great interest in some photographs I showed her of a project by two photographers, Karoline Hjorth and Riitta Ikonen, who photographed seniors adorned with scavenged organic materials such as twigs, grass and seaweed. Some of the headdresses were quite dramatic and my friend said she wanted to try the idea out for herself, leading to me offering to gather any suitable materials I came across in the woods.

That day, tall dried flowering stems of dock stood out and I imagined a striking bonnet made of them, with the stems pointing outward like a rolled-up hedgehog. A bundle was cut and put into the car, along with some distorted ash whips and strings of ivy. I should have taken them out of the car when we got home, but it was raining at the time so I didn’t and then I forgot and they were left in there for several hours. That evening, Karl went out to bring our boots in and the interior car lights revealed curtains of cobwebs hanging within, tiny spiders at the centre of each, threads attached to every surface. He did his best to remove as many of the spiders and their webs as he could.

The next morning, setting off to work, we saw that despite the previous night’s efforts, the inside of the car was again festooned with cobwebs. Tiny spiders were everywhere, crawling on the windscreen, the ceiling, the seats, the dashboard, you name it. We managed to get another 30 or so out using a *soft brush and hoped for the best before setting off but, as the journey progressed, it became clear we had actually missed the majority of the wildlife that had taken up residence. On the drive, small things crawled and dangled in our peripheral vision, as the warming car brought them out of their refuges. Oh, how we laughed. Once at the woods, we did manage to repatriate most of those still in the car and I wondered if they’d find more dock stems to climb up.

How to react to finding the car full of small flying and crawling creatures? You can be annoyed or take the opportunity to see what’s there. The spiders were mostly too small to identify, but there were a good number of types, from orb spiders to wolf and jumping spiders, plus others I have no doubt missed. The spiders were young ones and must have been waiting for the right breeze so they could balloon off to new habitats. Then there were the insects. There were many small flies and gnats, a number of small brown moths, ladybirds, three hawthorn shield bugs (Acanthosoma haemorrhoidale), two common green shield bugs (Palomena prasina), a few bright Harlequin bugs (Lygaeus equestris) and a cardinal beetle (Pyrochroa serraticornis). This last one was tangled in my hair and could have been there for a while, so I’m not sure if it came with the dock stems or from elsewhere.

A cardinal beetle, but not the one that was in my hair. I picked it out of my hair and dropped it on the table, then noticed the legs

The result of my forgetfulness has been eye-opening, for I now have a better idea of what lives in the autumnal stems of flowering docks, but it is not a lesson I’m keen to repeat. There are still spiders in the car.

* A bee brush, used for gently brushing bees out of harm’s way so they aren’t injured by the beekeeper’s actions. These brushes mimic animal hair and I’ve found them excellent for picking up spiders/bees/wasps that have come indoors – whatever it is clings to the hairs and can be removed without harm. The one I use is reserved for this use as we now have softer brushes for the bees.

A bee brush

The robin that came for lunch

Working in the woods during the cold weather, I can’t help but notice that certain birds come closer to me and may even follow me about. Wrens, usually extremely shy around humans, become quite bold in their search for food and can be seen flitting in and out of the brash structures being made in the woods.

A wren forages under a leaf

Blackbirds notice that people picking up brash disturbs the leaf litter, saving them the effort of doing it themselves, and they will follow in the wake of the dragged branches to pick up the insects that have been revealed. As is so often the case, it is the robin that steals the show.

Even in the snow, the robin makes itself known

I don’t know if it is the same robin, but I’ve been followed about the woods by a robin since I started work there in late 2014. It hops about the structures being built and will peep out at me from the interior. Sometimes it sits nearby and sings a quiet, sweet song, so quiet that surely only I can hear it which makes it feel like the song is for the bird and me alone.

The robin that kept us company in December 2014. Is it the same one? Who can tell. 

They are pleasing company, these little birds, and never more so than in the cold winter months when they come close to take advantage of the treasures revealed by brash being moved. They also watch us eat and have learned to recognise the little waxed canvas pouch I keep nuts and dried fruit in, paying keen interest as I bring it from my pocket. What I do next sounds a bit disgusting, but the birds appreciate it – I take some fruit and nut, chew it up small, drop the bolus to ground and move away a few metres. In moments the robin comes to partake of the partially puréed treat. This has been going on for many weeks now and it feels somewhat like playing the role of a bird parent.

The pot of worms set out for the robin

At home, me and Karl talked about the woodland robin and decided to try offering it some of the live mealworms the ‘home’ robin has been enjoying for the last few years. I found a little plastic tub for the worms to go in and we took them to the woods with us the next day. We started work and waited for the robin to appear, then primed it by getting out the pouch of nuts and dried fruit and offering a chewed glob. To this was added a few mealworms and the open tub was set nearby. As we’d hoped, the robin ate some of the chewed mix and then went for the mealworms, after which it looked into the tub and started helping itself.

Cooking lunch in the kitchen area we set up in the woods

What happened next was charming. At lunchtime, we moved to an area we use for cooking, where there are various upturned logs, some with slabs of stone on them. It’s a very pleasant spot for eating under the trees and we’ve often made a merry group there with others we work alongside.

The kitchen area in morning mist

The robin has been known to follow us there, where it will sit in a nearby larch and fly down for dropped morsels. On this occasion, we gave the robin its own place on one of the slabs and put out some worms and the open tub. As we ate our hot rolls, the robin stood nearby and ate its worms. Occasionally we looked at each other. Afterwards it perched nearby and sang quietly for about three quarters of an hour.

And that was the story of the day we had lunch with a robin.

Bon appétit, robin!

 

Oxfordshire Art Weeks 2017 at the Whispering Knights woodland

The woodland is open again this year for Oxfordshire Art Weeks, which runs from Saturday May 6th until Monday May 29th 2017. We’ve already had lots of enthusiastic visitors who have enjoyed browsing around the new structures. They’ve given us some great feedback too, which is very encouraging and welcome!

You can check out the latest updates here – there are new videos and a look at how the woodland ecosystem is developing.

We look forward to seeing you!

Directions and details

 

Autumn: mellow fruitfulness – and clouds of biting midges

In the Cotswold woodland that we visit, the scene has changed and is suddenly autumnal. Now that the cover of the undergrowth is starting to collapse and die back, far more can be seen of what goes on beneath. With the dampness of autumn, fungi have popped up over night, making meals for various types of wildlife. Mammals eat fungi and clumps can be found which have been partially consumed, only the stems remaining. Why did they not eat all of it, one wonders.

chewed-mushrooms

Slugs are also partial to fungi and I found this one making a quiet meal on its own. You can find out more about slugs here.

slug-mushroom

It’s a very good year for puffballs, but they don’t appear to be attractive to wildlife and none I’ve come across have the marks of being sampled.

puff-ball

Elsewhere, badgers show their presence in the form of the pathways they’ve made in the grass. Their routes never seem to vary, even if a log is laid across them, and the paths are well trodden. Another sign of badgers is the shallow latrines they dig at particular points along their territory boundaries. Badgers are cleanly creatures, but these are a rather unpleasant thing to come across, generally being full of sloppy droppings which are coloured according to what has been eaten.

badger-latrine

The presence of an active badger sett can also be seen when the badgers air their bedding, pulling it out of the sett and spreading it around. The bedding I was lucky enough to come across was primarily made up of dried grass and animal hair, which would make quite a soft and comfortable bed. I’ve yet to see a badger gathering bedding for myself but have seen video showing them dragging balls of grass backwards towards the sett, much as a dog would do with bedding. I found it almost as frustrating to watch and recalled how our dog Toby would scuff up the rug in his bed, changing it from being neatly spread out to a lumpy heap.

badger-bedding

At home, the robin still visits us several times a day, alighting on logs in the open fronted wood shed and then making short hops from one perch to another before flying into the garage for its treat of mealworms. The two blackbirds which had also been visiting disappeared suddenly and we suspected they had not been predated, but had gone off to the hedgerows to feast on the abundance of berries available there. They returned today and have gone straight back to their usual routine of speed-eating as many mealworms as possible. The robin, in comparison, is positively genteel, taking only a few worms at one sitting and allowing a few moments between each one.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ it may have been to the poet John Keats, but I suspect he didn’t do much gardening. Autumn is certainly beautiful, but to me it also means the emergence of biting midges and once more resorting to insect repellent. This autumn has been especially midgy and working under shrubs has found me tormented by these wretched creatures and itching for days. How they get through my hair is a mystery. I searched out the repellent I’d mislaid after summer, Stupidly Simple Midge Repel. It contains pine tar and has a faint smoky odour, but it works and I’ve never been happier to smell like an old bonfire.

midge-repel

Charting the course of autumn wildlife

Now that this long autumn has begun its move towards winter, the activity of wildlife has changed from one of raising young to securing a territory and surviving the coming months of cold. Robins need little reason to fight amongst themselves and their battles become more frequent as the year ages and they strive to acquire and hold the territory that will feed them until spring. Finches and tits group together to form chattering flocks, hedgehogs, dormice and bats prepare for hibernation and amphibians burrow into soil, compost heaps or under log piles.

1021-1

In this old house, autumn is heralded by the arrival of wood lice, which suddenly increase in numbers and crawl about the edges of rooms or find their way into the bath. As temperatures drop, they are joined by, and appear to be eaten by, spiders and their numbers drop again. We find the dessicated bodies in clusters under cobwebs, tucked away behind the fridge or under the washing machine. Many people don’t like insects in their homes, but it doesn’t really bother me that much, unless they bite or a light has been left on in an open-windowed room and it fills with dancing craneflies (Tipulidae).

In the great outdoors, it is interesting to stand amongst autumn trees and see the changes. In the woods, the deer have moved back into the dense central growth, where they make beds by scraping away the grass and leaves to reveal the bare earth they seem to prefer resting on. They are donning their winter coats, turning from a rich brown to a dull fawn, which blends perfectly with the muted colours of approaching winter.

deer-scrapeA deer has scraped away the grass and moss to make a bed of soil

All around us, insects are seeking shelter, tucking themselves against seed pods or the curls of fallen leaves.

nov-2015Ladybird seeking shelter

Slugs are fattening up on the last of the fungi, that not eaten by mammals, and will themselves become meals for hedgehogs, thrushes or toads.

slug-mushroom

In the Cotswold woodland I frequent, a small team is working to collect the brash from tree thinnings and build it into loosely woven mounds. Work started late last year and finished in spring and now that it is due to begin again, I’ve visited the woodland to observe wildlife activity around these mounds and it is gratifying to see.

shelterA small mammal has made a shelter in this thick mass of pine needles

Spiders are weaving their webs in the woven brash and many small birds move in and out of the twined stems. As I walk along the pathways or through the trees, birds flit from one brash mound to another. Sheltering so many insects, the mounds have become larders for them, as well as both habitat and hunting ground for small mammals and amphibians.

1021-3The birds spend a great deal of time investigating the woven brash

When it sometimes seems that all species except humans are sensibly tucking themselves away from the cold, I hear the soft sub-song of robins and blackbirds under shrubs, then suddenly the voices of dozens of birds. I look up to see a large flock of long-tailed tits (Aegithalos caudatus) has landed on a lime tree, and are calling ‘tsee-tsee-tsee’. I can make life easier for these wakeful birds, so the seed feeders will be filled over and again and the songsters will continue to enliven the relative quiet of winter.

 

There is a growing community of species living in the woods

I spent part of a day in the woods by the Rollright Stones simply walking and looking – indulging in the pleasure of quietly observing, identifying, analysing and categorising what I saw. It is all too easy to pass by without actually seeing what is around us and many signs are missed, but look closer, pay attention, and you can see that this young woodland has a growing community of species that call it home.

 

in the woods

The following are just a few of the mammal and bird species we’ve seen so far. There have been many birds, some heard rather than seen, glimpses of deer, mice and voles, a weasel, signs that  badgers are about . In some cases, you don’t see the creature itself but  the tell tale signs of activity and then you can try to figure out what has happened.

Continue reading There is a growing community of species living in the woods

A couple of new structures at Rollrights

Karl made two more structures for Stephen’s granddaughter – ones that might be enjoyed  by a small, inquisitive child. The idea was also that there would be something that didn’t tower over her and that was small enough for her to appreciate.

pine-egg-1

The first was a sort of egg made from pine stems wound together to form a rough sphere, which nestles within the curve of the Young Snake. There is a hole in it so that people who wish to do so can look inside. Seen from a distance it is very pleasing.

the-egg

The other structure is a three-in-one type – there is an open dome of ash stems, just high enough for a not very tall person to stand up in.

open-ash-1

Within that is a very simple dome of willow stems bound together at the top with ivy.

open-ash-2

Inside the simple ash dome is a curious little structure that looks rather like a fragment of DNA.

dna

dna-2

It was constructed over a tree stump and, just because, Karl added in an oak twig with an oak apple still attached to it.

dna-3

The Young Snake and other creations

The felling and canopy lifting work at the woods by the Rollright Stones continues and it generates vast amounts of logs and brash, so it’s been decided that building larger mounds and structures is the way to go. As ever, Karl has been creative in his use of materials and the structures he makes are becoming larger and bolder in design. It’s fascinating to see this previously unknown aspect of his personality emerging.

whispering-knights-freezing-fogThe Whispering Knights in freezing fog

Continue reading The Young Snake and other creations

Rollright stones – snow in the woods

Snow was forecast for the 15th of January and Karl looked forward to seeing the woods under a layer of sparkling white; I stayed at home that day. Where we live, there was no snow at all and Karl saw none on the journey to the woods, but as soon as he turned into the driveway, there it was. Not a lot, but the light dusting and bright sunshine were enough to create a beautiful scene. All pictures are clickable to enlarge them.

ouroborosThe Ouroboros with a dusting of snow

I read in the Witney Gazette that the Rollright Stones were ‘one of the few landmarks in Oxfordshire to see a dusting of snow’ that day.

The mounds stood out very well indeed and here are some more pictures for your viewing pleasure.

Continue reading Rollright stones – snow in the woods

Rollright Stones Novel Structures – or ‘What on earth can we do with all this brash?’

In the making of brash mounds a time can come when you look at the sheer amount of material to be moved and decide that there is simply too much of it and that a new approach could be in order. This has happened in a couple of areas of the woods – in some parts, the brash is so thick that the woods are completely impenetrable.

1217-pre-dragon

What to do? You could build a dozen or so mounds but there were some big tree trunks in there and they also needed something doing with them. Some of the larch logs have been stacked to make habitats and sitting places, but larch doesn’t burn well – it spits and the burning of it leaves a tarry residue in chimneys – and nobody seems to want it. Because of this, Karl decided to make something other than a mound shape and instead built around one of the felled conifers to enclose it.

Continue reading Rollright Stones Novel Structures – or ‘What on earth can we do with all this brash?’