Wildlife Diary

Things to look for in May


Tales from the Taw & more weather!


Last month I mentioned spring migrants but forgot to include the osprey. This large & magnificent bird of prey, (wingspan over 5ft, 1.7m), breeds in the UK, chiefly in Scotland where they bred in Loch Garten in 1959, the first to do so since their extermination in the UK by 1916. This breeding area has spread slowly south, as far as Rutland Water, the first breeding ospreys recorded south of the northern uplands since 1848. By 2003, 160 occupied eyries were recorded in Britain. Our breeding population migrates south to Africa (Senegal, Mali, Guinea), each autumn, returning to our shores in early spring. Many birds take the route up the West Africa coast, through western Spain & thence to England via our southwest coastal area. They feed exclusively on fish, planing down low, plunging into the water & grabbing the unfortunate fish in its large talons which are specially ribbed to give a good grip on the slippery stuff. Common prey are salmon, trout & mullet – hence an old West Country name of ‘Mullet Hawk’.


Well, last Thursday was a beautiful day which I spent working on Home Farm Marsh Reserve, on the south bank of the Taw, next to Isley Marsh near Fremmington. (there is public access to this lovely spot off the Tarka Trail, owned by the Gaia Trust, but no dogs allowed to protect ground nesting birds). The place was alive with birdsong, especially that glorious summer sound of skylarks. Toward midday, as it got warmer, buzzards started to assemble & climb soaring to the sun, 5 in all, higher & higher, calling with that wild cry of theirs. Then we spotted a female marsh harrier. She was flying slowly back & forth over the reedbeds & fields, about 50 feet up, gentle flap-flap-glide, hunting. She was the scruffiest harrier we had ever seen, many of her primary feathers missing, (these are the big ones toward the wing-tip – the main flight feathers), & more from her tail, but the moult didn’t seem to affect her flight much. She peeled off to climb very much higher towards another lone, large, raptor. This turned out to be an osprey! Really exciting to see 2 quite unusual birds-of-prey in one day! The osprey swooped down to see off the harrier – adding to a very bad hair-day, this must have been just about the end for her!


King James 1 kept otters, cormorants & ospreys & trained them to catch fish for him, but the osprey experiment was a failure. Weird stories about osprey are legion, one myth held that fish were so mesmerised by the predator that they simply turned belly-up in a shiver of feminine surrender! Persecuted during the 19th & 20th centuries, osprey were seen to compete for Scottish salmon. Victorian obsession for stuffed creatures in cabinets plus egg-collecting sealed its fate. Tremendous efforts by RSPB saved the Loch Garten pair back in 1959, & despite egg-collectors & vandals, the osprey became a national icon for conservation & has been a great success story.


We do see marsh harriers frequently on Home Farm, especially during the winter months. To see the osprey is a rare treat, but they do stop off in the Taw/Torridge Estuary to rest & refuel in spring. We watched one last year fishing in the Taw on the Chivenor side. They are often seen perching for long periods on the poles on the north bank of the Taw, so at Home Farm on the south bank, we’ve built an osprey platform on top of a telegraph pole hoping they’ll use it one day, with a movie camera that sends pictures of the platform & estuary live to the Fremmington Quay café.


And as for the relentless rain – the total rainfall recorded for 2018 from January to end March at Ash Moor has only ever been exceeded by that recorded in the period January to 31st March 1994. However, I recorded my first Willow Warbler singing on 4th April, swallows on 5th, my blackbirds had young in the nest by the 7th April. Also stitchwort was in the hedgerows by then, so spring will have its way, we might see the sun yet!

Things to look for in April


I always remember a song by Flanders & Swann, wryly depicting the English weather, by month, where ‘April brings the sweet spring showers, on & on for hours & hours’. Lets hope not – we’ve had enough of that for the while! By now, birdsong melody & Spring flowers ought to be evident & as the nights start to get shorter & the ground warms up - things should start to brighten up!


Change-over time again. Bird migrations will be in full swing now. Male Wheatear arrive late March/early April from North Africa – very handsome with blue/ grey cap & back, a ‘mask’ of thick black & white eye-stripe, black legs & tail. They are of the ‘Chat’ family & have a striking white rump – hence the unflattering origin of their name – ‘white-arse’ for ‘Wheatear’. I think that’s a bit of a tall-tail (sorry!) actually, I reckon it relates to the ‘ear of wheat’ shape of the eye-stripe. Make what you will of all that! The females arrive a little later, to male-established breeding territories. I usually see these birds up on Exmoor. Most of the Redwing & Fieldfare will have departed north & eastwards to the Continent. You should be hearing the Chiffchaff in woodland. This early Warbler sings its name. Monotonous - some say. I say cheerful! Others will follow shortly, like Blackcap & Willow Warbler. Blackcap has a fast, rich voice, whereas Willow Warbler has a lovely cascade of liquid notes. Swallow & House Martin arrive mid/late April, Swift a bit later, in May.


Get up on to Exmoor, Barle Valley at Simonsbath is good, to hear the Cuckoo. I usually go up on St. Georges Day – 23rd of April. Mum always claimed they arrive then. She wasn’t far out actually. Sadly we seldom hear them in our area. They need hairy caterpillars & on Exmoor they parasitize ground nesting birds – Meadow Pipit or Tree Pipit. In other areas they use Reed Warbler, Sedge Warbler or even Dunnock as hosts for their eggs. They are amazing to watch in flight, sometimes flying low & fast looking like a predatory stealth-fighter! Very like a Sparrowhawk in fact. Other times they flutter between the Hawthorn scrub on the open Moorland, making that remarkable call. It always takes my breath away when I first hear it.


Of raptors, the Hobby is a Summer visitor. This is a beautiful little Falcon, slightly smaller than Kestrel, its plumage reminds me of a Peregrine. Dark slate-grey hood, back & tail, with that bold moustachial stripe. However its breast is streaked vertically, whereas Peregrine has horizontal barring. Hobby has rusty-red ‘trousers’ & under the tail, which is noticeable. These birds are not common, but keep your eyes peeled, they do nest in this area, I’ve seen them here, & up on Exmoor.


On our estuaries, the host of wintering waders will thin out very quickly now. These will be returning northerly to their nesting grounds on high moorland & northern Europe, where mosquito & midges swarm in their billions, providing the protein for their young. Speaking of insects, when you are out looking for cuckoos, spot the St. Mark’s fly! These are the black ones that drift around at head-height, slackly dangling their rather dis-proportionately long legs, swarming around on St Mark’s Day, 25th April. Also appearing now are Tawny Mining Bees. These are very common, the females make those tiny holes in sparse lawns (like mine!), & bare ground, leaving a small mound of spoil on the surface. These bees are of a bright orange, the male has a white facial tuft, he’s a lazy character, he doesn’t dig the nest burrow or help feed young. Primrose & Celandine will be providing nectar for these & all the other Bees now, buzzing around, with butterflies brave enough to be out & about. And of course the Daffodils are now at their glorious best. What a simply lovely sight they are.

Things to look for in March


March 2018 – Spring Begins!


March brings some important events: Mothering Sunday is the 11th; the Vernal Equinox, or first day of Spring, on the 20th; British Summer Time begins on the 25th; Good Friday on the 30th; Easter Day on the first of April. So the start of Spring & longer days confirms that wonderful Easter Message of a fresh new beginning at the end of Winter. Mind you, I don’t know what the weather will be doing in 4 weeks time so don’t shout at me if it’s snowing!


Slowly & surely the ground will start to warm up & dry out a little we hope. Our brave Snowdrops will now be over but are replaced by all those Crocus & Daffodils, & the hedgerows are ablaze with the tiny yellow Celandine & Primrose. Hedges are showing Hazel catkins, with the Pussy Willow of the Sallow & the beginnings of snow-white Blackthorn flowers coming on too. These are really thorny characters, flowering before they come into leaf, whereas the Hawthorn will go that delicate green leaf, prior to a riot of white flowers. All this will give an early start to Bees & Butterflies already on the wing on sunny days. Look out for the Brimstone, the bright yellow male butterflies will be patrolling up & down the lanes & into the garden on the lookout for the paler females. All these insects will be supping nectar & transferring the pollen to other plants – fertilise; set seed for next year; round we go again!


I guess our bird tables will still be very active at the end of February. There’s not much insect food about yet, or seed for the taking, & the water often frozen, so please do keep putting out the bird food early in the morning – their prime needy time after the cold nights. Siskins have really cashed in on garden feeders, & hopefully you have these little gems coming in. They are a member of the Finch family, a bit like the Greenfinch, but a lot smaller, Goldfinch size. Both sexes have a short notched tail & dark wings with bright yellow wing bars. They climb very nimbly, hanging upside down on bird feeders & on the thinnest of twigs on their favourite Alder & Birch trees in noisy feeding groups. The sexes differ in plumage. The male has a black crown & tiny black bib, a yellowish breast, & his rump is conspicuously yellow. The female is of quieter colours, appearing a little dull until she flies, flashing those lovely bright wing bars. An enchanting little bird – but beware! They are a feisty customer on the nut baskets!


Many other creatures will be venturing out onto the stage now. Frogs & Toad will have spawned; many mammals will already have had young; you could even spot Adders basking in sunshine on the Moors. Butterflies that have hibernated as adults such as Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell & Red Admiral will also emerge on warmer days looking for a nectar-fix after a long Winter! The stealthy Sparrowhawk will be displaying now. Both sexes will soar & wheel overhead on outstretched wings in their territorial & mating display flight. The female is 25% bigger than him, actually a feature of most birds of prey, so if you look carefully you can often confirm that you have a pair looking to nest on your patch. Exciting!


Looking back at the notes for March 2017, the Thrushes were singing in early January, so they are doing the same this year. It does seem very early. However, nature will always grasp any opportunity & will confound my thoughts as well as all the experts. The beginning of March will see a frenzy of nesting activity I’m sure, with plenty of birdsong to please our days. As well as all these electronic gizmo’s, you can teach yourself many bird calls. Be patient, walk slowly toward the bird, identify it & note the song. One by one you will surely learn all the calls in the garden. It is a very rewarding & peaceful activity. Focus on the bird; marvel at his voice; everything else will fade away…….


Tim Smith