Parish Nature Notes for March 2013 - John Wright

As I write, it appears that spring has been put on hold and meteorologists tell us that this March has been the coldest for 50 years. Of course, here in Dorset we have escaped the genuinely severe conditions, but nevetheless there is ample evidence around us that plants are slow to develop, there are few insects on the wing, resident birds are slow to nest and few spring migrant birds have arrived.

Nevertheless on the 2nd March, at Morden Park Lake, there were early signs of breeding activity. I was encouraged to find that a second Great Grested Grebe had arrived and although the two birds took little interest in each other, no doubt that will change over time. In contrast the coots, which had overwintered amicably as a group, were very aggresssive towards each other as they became territorial and engaged in vicious boundary disputes. Water flew in all directions as they kicked out with their feet and flapped their wings.

Coots behaving aggressively

Coots behaving aggressively

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

Whereas coal tits are abundant in our coniferous woodlands and frequently visit feeding stations in our gardens, marsh tits have always been much less frequent and in the last few years have become quite scarce. Several woodland species, including the marsh tit, willow tit and lesser spotted woodpecker are all in decline and are currently the subject of research to try to understand the problem. Hence, I was pleased to see a marsh tit in the woodland by Morden Park Lake. The marsh tit, apart from being marginally larger than the coal tit, lacks the white patch at the back of the head and the wing-bars of the coal tit, prefers deciduous woods and has an explosive 'pitchew' call.

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

A mild sunny day on 5th March enticed me to explore Great Ovens Heath in the late morning. Four dartford warblers were in song and two others were seen, together with a male yellowhammer and a woodlark calling as it flew overhead. I also saw a male brimstone butterfly and a couple of peacock butterflies, but this does not compare with some observations made by Harold Gillen the same morning. He set off from the Sika Trail car park on the Bere Road across Morden Bog and home to Woodlands and in a very short time saw one each of all five of our overwintering butterflies! That is, peacock, small tortoisehell, comma, brimstone and red admiral - this last species normally overwintering around the Mediterranean, but small numbers apparently hibernating in southern England.

Peacock Butterfly

Peacock Butterfly

Photograph: John Wright

My next walk round Wareham Forest and Morden Bog on the 9th March was also in mild conditions with no wind. There were yellowhammers, dartford warblers, goldcrests, song thrushes, mistle thrushes and skylarks all in full song and it felt quite springlike. In particular, the ability of the skylark to remain suspended in the air whilst singing its heart out for a considerable period of time is truly remarkable and has made it a popular bird. Strange to think that in England in the nineteenth century, hundreds of thousands of skylarks were caught for the table.

Skylark

Skylark

Photographer: Ken Dolbear

West of Sherford Bridge I heard teal piping along the Sherford River. a woodlark singing in Morden Bog and at Morden Park Lake not one but two kingfishers showing a flash of blue as their torpedo-shaped bodies skimmed low over the water.   
By the 14th, my next Wareham Forest/Morden Bog walk took place in much colder conditions, but with some sun. Tree creepers were singing on both sides of Sherford Bridge and west of the bridge a stock dove was singing and teal were still calling from thick vegetation by the river. At Morden Park Lake a pair of greylag geese were seen on the water but then, from trees near the lake outfall came the distinctive song of a chiffchaff - the first for 2013. Although mid-March is a typical arrival date within the parish I did wonder whether this bird might have overwintered at a small sewage treatment works around 1km to the north-west, where flies emerging from the filter beds would be a reliable winter food source. Alternatively the bird may have crossed the channel to England in early March when the weather was milder.

Chiffchaff

Chiffchaff

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

A further walk to Morden Park Lake on the 20th provided confirmation that the pair of Great Crested Grebes were still present and I saw some brief head-shaking as they faced one another in mirror-image as part of their breeding display. Nearby a pair of buzzards were taking advantage of a developing thermal and gave their wonderful 'mewing' call. At one point they came close to one another, twisted and turned and almost locked talons together before separating once again.

Common Buzzard

Common Buzzard

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

As temperatures plummetted towards the end of the month, we had a pair of bullfinches coming to our feeders in the garden. Even so, the robins were more interested in breeding and on one occasion we saw three robins lined up on the fence, with the middle bird puffing out its chest and pointing its head skywards to maximize the effect. During a walk round Sandford on the 26th I started noticing that a diminutive flowering plant, often seen in untended lawns and on the football pitch by the Community Hall was coming into flower. Field Wood-rush has simple brown-coloured flowers and bright yellow anthers containing pollen. Their early flowering has given rise to the alternative name of 'Good Friday Grass' and even this year they made it with a few days to spare!

Field Wood-rush

Field Wood-rush

Photograph: John Wright

The 27th March remained cold and in walking west from Sherford Bridge once again, all the initial signs were of winter rather than spring. A party of winter thrushes, both fieldfare and redwing were feeding in the grass, a flock of 50 meadow pipits took off and while a raven 'pronked' overhead a pair of crossbills flew into some conifers. Having failed to see any crossbills in January or February, I've seen small numbers (up to six in a flock) and heared single males in song within the forest on several occasions this month. At Morden Park Lake two pairs of teal were busy picking food items (flies?) off the surface of the water while tufted duck were also worth watching. Of the total of 28 birds, 20 were males and frequently a group of males would pursue an individual female. At one point a female took off to try to avoid attention, but no less than 10 males then took off in pursuit. Cold conditions had little effect on their ardour!

Male Tufted Duck

Male Tufted Duck

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

The next day remained cold but sunny and in walking north from the NE corner of Great Ovens Heath I noticed two buzzards in an agricultural field on my right. I soon realised that they were feeding on a dead rabbit whose grey fur was in tufts on the grass all around them. We have high popul;ation densities of buzzards locally and in winter they frequently resort to eating earthworms in ploughed fields, so a whole rabbit, whether caught or found dead, would be a valuable food source.

On the 29th, in driving north along the A351 opposite Sandford heath I noticed that the blackthorn was in flower at last, around two weeks later than last year. Blackthorn or sloe, which has spines and comes into flower before the leaves appear also attracts many early insects. On the same day, in walking west from Organford in the direction of Sherford Bridge I also found wild plum in flower. This starts to flower before blackthorn, lacks spines, is normally a small tree and flowers at the same time as the leaves appear.

Blackthorn

Blackthorn

Photograph: John Wright

Once I had entered the woodland area after the agricultural fields I checked the wet woodland closer to the Sherford Stream. In the very boggy areas opposite-leaved golden saxifrage was just starting to produce its yellow flowers against a carpet of bright green leaves and in the trees above me I heard my second chiffchaff.

My final walk round Wareham Forest/Morden Bog for the month on the 30th was in cloudy cool conditions with a bitter wind. Despite this, I heard three tree creepers singing, all of them in coniferous plantations. Two were in close proximity to each other, on opposite sides of a forest track, and were intent on defending adjacent territories. In fact, I had heard what were probably the same two birds a couple of days earlier around 100m to the south when walking along the same track.

To the west of Sherford Bridge and by the river itself I noticed that the grey willow was now in full flower. What I was actually seeing was the 'pussy willow' consisting of the fur-like male flowers with their bright yellow stamens. The female flowers occur on different trees and are much less eye-catching. However, the male trees are very attractive to a wide range of insects including various bees, and when the temperature is high enough, butterflies. Chiffchaffs also find them a valuable source of insects on their northward migration.

Male Grey Willow (pussy willow)

Male Grey Willow (Pussy willow)

Photograph: John Wright

And finally, just before I was leaving Morden Bog I noticed a buzzard sitting on the edge of one of the artificial Osprey nests. A minute or two later I heard a buzzard calling and looked back to see a bird dive-bombing the buzzard which was now in flight over the reed beds. A glance through my binoculars revealed that it was a peregrine and as I took my binoculars away, I realised that a second smaller bird was also dive-bombing the buzzard. I was watching a pair of peregrines repeatedly pestering the buzzard, the larger of the two peregrines being the female bird. I watched this performance for five or six pairs of dives with the peregrines coming close to, but not seriously engaging with the buzzard, which then flew low over the birch and willow trees within the centre of the bog and disappeared. At this point, both peregrines broke off and headed south.

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine falcon

Photograph: Ken Dolbear