Wildlife Notes for Great Ovens Heath by John Wright - December

With hindsight, all the dire predictions of severe weather in December proved to be unfounded and the month started mild and cloudy. As I walked past the southern end of the sand quarry a flock of perhaps ten or a dozen long-tailed tits appeared, maintaining close contact with each other through their urgent 'tsee-tsee-tsee' calls as they moved between exposed open areas. Their tiny beaks, ideally suited for snatching minute insects and spiders, mean that they must spend most of the day actively feeding in order to survive the long winter nights.

Long-tailed tit
Long-tailed tit

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

Further on, I heard both great spotted and green woodpeckers calling and had brief views of goldcrest, dartford warbler and a lone stonechat. A flock of about 35 chaffinches caught my eye in the north-east corner of the heath as they flew from pines onto the path in front of me and pecked at food which was far from obvious to my eye. I watched intently as they flew off again, hoping to spot a white rump amongst them - evidence of another finch from northern Europe, the brambling, but they all proved to be chaffinches.

Male Chaffinch
Male Chaffinch

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

On two subsequent visits over the next week or so I put up small flocks of first eight and later twelve reed buntings. They were picking seeds from the upper stems of purple moor grass on the verges of the west-east track towards the north end of Great Ovens. If cattle had grazed the heath this summer, as in 2010, then these seeds would have been in short supply. The sunny conditions also encouraged a pair of stonechats to fly between gorse bushes and a nearby dartford warbler to burst into song with its somewhat scratchy repertoire.

Dartford Warbler
Dartford Warbler

Photograph: Aidan Brown

As Christmas approached, a pair of bullfinches were seen and heard in the trees by the gas reduction station and later on a jay flew low over the open heathland. Sadly, a 6-point Sika stag had come to grief at the muddy southern end of the vegetated pond. With the rut now over, perhaps it had tried to drink from the pond, misjudged the depth of the mud and lacked the strength to extricate itself.

On a happier note, as I approached the maritime pines in the north-east corner of Great Ovens, I noticed three crossbills calling from the tree tops. One also started to sing, which is normal at this time of year as they breed quite early in the New Year.   


Crossbill

Photograph: Aidan Brown

The mild calm weather continued after Christmas and on the 27th I had good views of a green woodpecker in an exposed birch tree. Although less obvious at this time of the year because they are less vocal, they still manage to exploit their favourite food by digging into the substantial nests of wood ants. To my surprise, a male yellowhammer deep in a bush caught my eye as another flock of long-tailed tits fed close-by and a pair of stonechats still found sufficient food to remain on the heathland.

As I walked north from the Fileul Road entrance, I noticed a bird of prey on the side branch of a dead maritime pine within the open heathland. On closer inspection it proved to be a juvenile peregrine falcon, the vertical streaking on the breast distinguishing it from the horizontal barring of an adult peregrine. Eventually it took flight and as it passed above pines on its way to Poole harbour it disturbed some crossbills, recognised by their strident 'kip-kip' calls.

Adult peregrine
Adult Peregrine

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

And finally, to end the year, a greater black-backed gull flew over the heath, a mistle thrush surveyed the scene from a treetop and a single redpoll flew overhead.

Postscript: This is the last of my monthly series of notes on Great Ovens Heath. Over the past year I have attempted to visit the heath once a week. Despite its limited size, the variety of plants and animals, many of them uncommon or rare, which can be seen on this site is remarkable. My own records for 2011 include, 178 species of flowering plants, 12 species of dragonflies, 22 butterflies, all six native reptiles and 62 birds but there is always more to be discovered!