It’s that time of year again when we ask as many people as possible to top up their bird feeders and tell us what comes to visit. The Big Garden Birdwatch has been getting bigger and bigger ever since it started in 2001 when 52,000 people took part. Last year a staggering 609,000 people counted the birds in their garden for us generating millions of records. This we want to keep the trend going and get even more people taking part so if you haven’t done it before make it your new years resolution (although possibly a bit late for that now!) to get involved this year. It’s all happening on the 26th and 27th January.
It only takes up an hour of your time and we need you to note the species seen in your garden and highest number seen at any one time. This helps to stop double counting. Your results can be submitted on our website by visiting www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch and any information you need about how to do the survey can also be found there. Alternatively we have survey forms in the Weymouth Discovery Centre so feel free to pop in to collect one and have a chat to us.
This is my fourth winter at the Weymouth Wetlands and I’ve come to realise that snow in Weymouth isn’t as common as it is back in my homeland of South Wales. However, when it does snow in Weymouth the place comes alive with birds. You would have almost certainly noticed that we had snow last night so birding expectations were high this morning. Got to the Discovery Centre just before 9am when it was still sleeting hard so birds were understandably scarce. I said to Danny that as soon as the weather eases we’ll be inundated with birds. My prediction was right and from about 10am birds were pouring through. I managed to keep a rough count of most species, totals went like this..
Skylark – 1658
Golden Plover – 1420
Starling – 180
Redwing – 175
Fieldfare – 47
Those were the main ones but small numbers of Meadow Pipits and finches also passed through as did a single Woodlark which was a pleasant surprise.
Most birds were flying over Radipole mostly heading west. This is all triggered by snow covering their usual haunts which forces them to move on to find unfrozen fields where they can feed. In past cold winters certainly species such as Redwings have really struggled and have had to resort to using gardens to feed. Thankfully this winter we’ve not had extremely cold weather which has allowed birds to feed reasonably well hence the relatively small numbers of Redwing and Fieldfare today, but the snow does affect certainly species which is reflected in the morning’s totals.
I love days like today, its amazing to see so many birds flying over a town. If the weather stays cold we can expect to see more bird movements over the next few days. We’ll keep you posted!
I had a slightly bizarre encounter with one of our wintering Bitterns yesterday afternoon. One of the great things about working at Radipole is having to walk through the reserve every time I need to get to the office. This enables me to sneak in a bit of extra birdwatching and in the past its lead to encounters with Great White Egrets, Glossy Ibis and Yellow-browed Warblers. A very strange sound caused me to look round on yesterday's commute and lead to the discovery of a Bittern flying along side me. Nice in itself but the fact it was calling made the meeting much more interesting.
Bitterns are famous for their booming call which is made early spring by males to attract a female. Sadly this sound has yet to become a familiar one in Weymouth but I’m sure things will change in the future. The sound I heard yesterday was a weird grunt rather than a boom which it made every few seconds whilst flying over the reeds. I’ve heard this once before at a lake in South Wales but I’ve got no idea why it was making this noise. I can only speculate that it was either annoyed by something and was just muttering to itself or it was telling me to blog as we’ve not posted for a week or two. If the latter I’d better also update you the recent sightings in Weymouth. The Bearded tits at the North hide are still putting on daily performances; up to 15 have been seen in the last few days. Marsh Harriers are still putting in appearances; I believe up to three birds have been seen at both Radipole and Lodmoor. Perhaps the most significant sighting was of two Otters which for the observer was a real delight as it was her first ever sighting of these elusive critters. She saw them last week but there are still signs such as spraint (poo!) and footprints appearing regularly.
Swans have long been associated with Weymouth and Radipole Lake. It all started with a generous gift from Abbotsbury Swannery to the town and people of Weymouth. You can probably guess what that gift was.... yes, a donkey.
Only joking, it was obviously a swan, in fact a pair. This all happened in about 1839 long before the building of Westham bridge which meant that Radipole Lake didn’t exist at the time, it would have still been an estuary. The pair of swans were released near the old Weymouth fire station but only after the appointment of a Swan Herd, now known as the Swan Warden. Another condition laid down by the swannery was that they were fed daily. Amazingly the role of Swan Warden is still undertaken to this day and the Weymouth and Portland council now carry the responsibility of feeding the swans daily though clearly not the pair released originally!
To celebrate this fascinating piece of the town's history we are holding a special weekend full of activities all focused on our superb mute swans. There’ll be arty things for the kids including decorating our giant swan, there’ll be a swan detective trail for folks to follow, a swan census, swan themed food (though not actual swan!) and plenty more.
So I would imagine you’d want to know the date? Of course you do! It’s all happening on the Saturday 19th and Sunday 20th of this month from 10am with most of the activities around the Discovery Centre, though the trail will take you to parts of the reserve normally out of bounds. Pretty exciting eh?
We’ll see you there!
Here at Weymouth Wetlands we have probably given the impression once or twice that we hold moths in high esteem for their delicate beauty, benign demeanour, cute little faces and intriguing names. The recent wet weather hasn’t been terribly conducive to moth-trapping and the quite sensibly named November Moths and Winter Moths making infrequent appearances at the window are the only species to set our moth sensibilities trembling of late. However, another species recently made an impression upon our discovering evidence of its summer activities.
Visitors to Radipole may have seen a video clip at the Discovery Centre showing Tree Bees coming and going in the summer at the entrance hole of a bird nest box that was attached to our workshop. The Tree Bee, which also answers to the name Bombus hypnorum, is a bumblebee species originating from continental Europe that was first recorded in the UK in 2001, in Wiltshire. Over the last few years its distribution has quickly spread through much of England and to a lesser extent into Wales.
Bombus hypnorum, Richard Revels (rspb-images.com)
Its growing abundance somewhat bucks the trend experienced by some other bumblebee species which are declining in the face of habitat degradation. Tree Bees have a preference for nesting above ground, in tree cavities or bird boxes, which might have something to do with their success. Being bumblebees, they come in peace, but unlike their close relatives they can quickly gang up and get a bit tetchy if you get too close to their colony. After I unintentionally proved this point, Luke and I had to keep a respectful distance when we pointed the camera at that nest box.
Curious as to what a disused bumblebee nest might look like, a couple of weeks before Christmas I removed the box from the wall to take a look at the contents. Opening the lid wasn’t easy; something was holding it shut and it had to be prised open with a great deal of effort. As these photos show, inside was a dense mass of silk-like threads, rather like cotton wool, a couple of inches deep and firmly stuck to the lid and sides. In the depths of the box was an untidy mess that looked like it might once have been a bird’s nest. The inside surface of the lid seemed to have lots of shallow gouge marks on it as if something had been nibbling at the wood.
Not knowing exactly what to make of this I contacted those nice people at Buglife to see if they could put us on the right track, which they kindly did. It turns out that the silky mass at the top of the box is the work of a species of moth, or more directly its caterpillars, and the mess at the bottom is the remains of the bees’ nest – they always go to the bottom of a cavity. The moth behind this scenario is a noctural species called the Bee Moth or Aphomia sociella, a member of a small group of moths called Wax Moths. To see what this one looks like, go here: http://ukmoths.org.uk/show.php?id=1331
It has the cunning ability to sneak unnoticed into the bumblebees’ nest hole and lay its eggs somewhere within. When the caterpillars hatch they weave protective silk screens and tunnels which enable them to make forays into the nest where they feed on the old wax cells, pollen, debris, droppings, dead bumblebee remains and sometimes even the bumblebee larvae. When the time comes for them to pupate they retreat from the nest and settle down behind a toughened silk mass, which is what was found inside our nestbox. Whether the gatecrashing caterpillars’ activity brought about a total collapse of this colony or just put a big dent in its productivity is uncertain – we were blissfully unaware of the abuse of hospitality that was going on within the box.
A rummage through the material from the bees nest for anything recognisable revealed some remains of dead bumblebee and other bits and pieces; any wax cells seemed to have been demolished.
Eric the Half-a-Bee perhaps. Are those brown grubs on the right of the picture bee larvae...?
Meanwhile the moth pupae remain blissfully unconcerned by the mess that they’ve left in their wake; they will remain in their cocoons until it’s time to emerge next summer when they’ll take their chances in the bat infested skies over Radipole - they won't have everything their own way.
Many thanks to Steven Falk at Buglife for his kind assistance towards getting to the bottom of this intriguing discovery. www.buglife.org.uk
p.s. I'm still wondering whether the caterpillars have anything to do with those gouge marks in the lid - they closely match the area of the silk…