Parish Nature Notes for November - John Wright


As temperatures and light levels decrease in late autumn, many deciduous trees put on a spectacular display of changing leaf colour before the wind and frost strips them bare. The bronzed beech leaves, varied browns of birch against the backdrop of green conifers and ornamental garden maples come to mind. As the chlorophyll used to manufacture sugars during the summer dwindles, the orange-yellow carotenoids also present in the leaves but previously masked by chlorophyll are revealed. In addition, some tree leaves produce red anthocyanins in autumn just prior to leaf fall - wonderful to see but why do they do it? This is a topic on which scientists have differing ideas.

Spectacular autumn colours

Spectacular autumn colours

Photograph: John Wright

My first walk round Wareham Forest and Morden Bog on the 3rd was initially in cool and breezy conditions, but it improved with time. When the sun started to shine I was able to find several dragonflies including both common and black darters plus a migrant hawker still active around one of the emergency water supply ponds in Morden Bog. Common darters can survive quite late into the autumn and I saw further specimens past the middle of the month even after overnight frosts. At Studland, some years ago, I can remember seeing them sunning themselves on a wooden bridge in mid-December!

Common Darter

Common Darter

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

A visit to Great Ovens Heath on the 6th in mild and sunny conditions revealed that the white cattle which have been grazing the heathland vegetation, and in particular the purple moor grass, were still present but clearly being prepared for removal onto new pastures which would offer better grazing over winter. In cropping fast-growing grasses and disturbing the ground, they enable the seeds of other heathland plants to germinate and prosper. They are very placid animals and certainly add to the enjoyment of a heathland stroll, but two days later they were gone.

White Cattle

White Cattle

Photograph: John Wright     

On the 7th, a longer walk in Morden Bog produced a mixed flock of blue tits, long-tailed tits and about ten lesser redpoll all feeding in a birch tree. Lesser redpoll, unlike siskins, rarely breed in Dorset but they do occur in variable numbers during the autumn and winter. If conditions get severe in winter and food becomes scarce, they somemtimes visit bird-feeders in gardens.

Lesser Redpoll

Lesser Redpoll

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

My regular Wareham Forest/Morden Bog walk on the 10th was dominated by the sight of ravens, with a total of 10 birds seen over agricultural fields north of Great Ovens Heath in as many minutes. First, just one pair appeared overhead to be followed by a second pair uttering their deep rounded 'pronk' calls, the leading bird showing off to the other by repeatedly rolling onto its back in flight then righting itself. Then followed four other ravens, flying back and forth over a field and briefly joined by another pair coming from Wareham Forest, and disturbing a perching buzzard in the proccess.

Further on I saw my first winter thrushes in the parish - just two fieldfare. These splendid winter visitors, mainly arriving from Scandanavia, have apparently suffered heavy losses over the North Sea due to bad weather. Listen out for their characteristic 'chack-chack' calls.

Fieldfare

Fieldfare

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

A week later conditions were sunny and mild for the same walk and as I went below Scots Pine trees some distance west of Sherford Bridge, I was alerted to the distinctive staccato 'kipp' of a flock of nine crossbills which were feeding by extracting seeds from the cones using their distinctive crossed mandibles. Like the ravens, they breed very early in the new year, although as yet I haven't heard them singing. At Morden Park Lake there were two pairs of wigeon and further south, over reed beds in Morden Bog, a flock of at least 30 lesser redpoll were seen.

Male Crossbill

Male Crossbill

Photograph: Aidan Brown

The second half of the month brought some very wet and windy weather.I had seen and heard individual yellowhammers on the heath earlier in the month but when food becomes scarce, small parties of yellowhammers often congregate near farms where spilt grain and other food may be more readily available. On the 23rd we had a single yellowhammer in our garden, taking seeds from the ground under one of the feeders.

Male Yellowhammer

Male Yellowhammer

Photograph: John Wright

On the 25th, as I reached Sherford Bridge on my Wareham Forest/Morden Bog walk, there was extensive flooding of fields adjacent to the Sherford River and while groups of mallard took to the water, mixed flocks of fieldfare and starlings fed on earthworms and other invertebrates in the saturated turf around the water margins.

On the top of a dead tree to the east of Decoy Cottage in Morden Bog, a Great Grey Shrike commanded a perfect position from which to spot insects on the ground or small birds as potential prey. This spectacular winter visitor has been around since 7th November and with perhaps just 50 birds arriving in the UK from Scandanavia each winter, our parish occupies an enviable status amongst the bird-watching fraternity.

Great Grey Shrike

Great Grey Shrike

Photographer: Aidan Brown