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Don’t be fooled by the quietness of our woodland valley in the heart of winter. There is lots of life and as spring nears, the woodland appears to ‘wake’as the birds become vocal again.
Even now, in snowy February, it is impossible not to immerse yourself in the sights and sounds of the woods. An early morning walk will see you transported into a concert.
Just the other morning I went for a stroll to Clough Meadow cottage to sit on my favourite bench. From that spot I closed my eyes and let the senses take hold. The rush of Coombes Valley brook in the background was an obvious initial sound. However, listening harder I could hear birdsong. At first all the birds seemed to sing as one mass ‘tweeet’ but by concentrating on one song at a time I began to recognise the unique voices of each bird.
The ‘see-sawing’ of at least three great tits caught my attention first. Their competitive voices taking clear centre stage at this theatre.
Crazy great tit with a yellow coat – Heather Watkin
Next a wave of long-tailed tits came swooping to land on a near-by bush. Their high pitched, fast notes mixed with explosive rippling calls - ‘interrupting’ each other as they grouped together on the bush. The boldest must have jumped to a near-by tree as one-by-one the long-tailed tits happy chirps faded further into the woods.
An echoey ‘piiyay’ came from way up high. I couldn’t resist opening one eye and peeking at the majestic buzzard gliding impressively across the early morning sky.
There was a quick rustle in the long rushes and grasses next to my bench. A grey squirrel revealed itself and hopped hurriedly across the path to disappear up a nearby tree.
There was quiet for a few seconds before a sad lonely call broke the silence. The bullfinches self-pitying, ‘pew pew’ call, rang mellow across the meadow. The little fellow, clutched hold of some on the meadow and I managed to grab a quick picture! An answering call of another bullfinch came from the entrance to the wood and off he flew to meet his mate.
Beautiful bullfinch – Heather Watkin
The rising chatter of a few blue tits started the chorus up once more. These were quickly followed by the song thrushes song phrases repeated again and again in the distance - easy to hear across the valley because they are so powerful.
A coal tit joined in with his bicycle-pump call, complementing the blackbird like a supporting instrument.
A little wren made an impressive attempt to control the floor with its hard ticking and harsh churring. However, it was quickly overrun with yet more great tit shuffling and see-saw calls.
The sun was now nearly up and all those birds created a cacophony of sound that rang out over the valley, drowning the buzz of the brook. The finale was so spectacular that I quickly forgot to try and recognise which birds were which.
As the noise began to die down, I opened my eyes. The sun shone down over the meadow, melting the winter chill of the night before. Grassy shadows dotted the meadow as the valley ‘sighed’ from the warmth. The valley knew the birds were awake now, the show had ended.
But what a beautiful morning adventure.
If you’d like to learn a little bit more about bird calls – I would personally recommend RSPB’s phone app. I honestly didn’t know what any calls at the start of the year and the app has really helped! However if you can remember the call long enough to get home on your computer try the RSPB’s website – www.rspb.org.uk
Why not pop down to Coombes Valley early one morning. You don’t have to be an expert to appreciate the beauty of bird song!
Posted by Jarrod Sneyd, Site Manager
Our guest blogger Paul tells us about his woodland wonderings through the reserve. If your wondering what's about at Coombes, read on...
What’s about at Coombes: A Wintery Wander
Just a quick walk through Coombes Valley to stretch my legs and get some fresh air in my lungs. It’s sometimes hard to motivate yourself to get out of a warm bed on a cold winters day and work off that Christmas turkey! Well not when you’re spending the day in one of England's loveliest semi-ancient oak woodlands.
It’s such an amazing time of year to visit the woods. The bare, leaf stricken branches of the woodland canopy looks amazing against the low winter sun. The stream of light shining down on dappled brooks and shimmering pools. Illuminating the chestnut and bronze oak leaf carpet.
My old perception of a dull and grey winter days have been transformed.
The baron branches give you great views of woodland birds, which will be hidden by green leaves and flowering shrubs in just a few months. I could forever watch the acrobatic blue tits and long tailed tits flitting from branch to branch. Dangling upside down, the wrong way up and constantly searching for food. But there’s so much more to spoil me here at Coombes Valley…
The hidden depths of the woodland might seem peaceful and at times you may feel all alone, but don’t be fooled! Across the woodland floor there are numerous signs of activity. Looking down I spot some scratched up mud and roots. What could have done that? Did a squirrel lose its nuts here? Or has a badger been rooting for worms? Maybe this was the end of the line for a wood mouse caught in the sights of a hunting fox.
I gaze upwards towards the chorus of corvids passing by, rooks and jackdaws cawing whilst moving from feeding grounds to roost. Magpies chatter to one another in the leafless canopy whilst jays flash their brilliant blue feathers through the treescape.
It’s a great time for spotting raptors too. If it wasn't for the winter skyline, I would have missed the passing sparrow hawk gliding right above me and disappearing behind the horizon. It’s always a pleasure to see such a magnificent bird.
I think this punk rocker silver birch will provide very good bug hunting for blue tits, robins and wrens come springtime.
The newly shaped winter woodland is great fun for people like me; people who like to explore. See if you can spot the weird and wonderful fungi hidden in the woods. Colonising log piles of silver birch or proudly spanning out from near the tops of trees like flags on flag poles.
It’s also a great time to search for new signs of life. Just kicking aside a few piles of leaves and you can start to see the green shoots of spring starting to push their way through the winter compost of wood, moss and leaves. Spring will soon be here!
It won’t be long until the snowdrops and bluebells are making an appearance. The marsh marigolds line boggy drains and the air is thick with the scent of wild garlic. It’s a great time of year to be outside; witnessing nature doing it’s very best to keep on going, no matter what. And with the birds singing, the plants emerging and the shady woodland alight with winter sunshine, it has inspired me to work even harder this year. To get outside at every opportunity, and to enjoy and share the countryside with everyone.
Will you join me?
Posted by Heather W
By Madeleine Pashley
Its winter! The woodland landscape here at Coombes has surrendered to a mosaic of brown hues and silhouetted branches. Although, at this time of year, nature composes itself in a somewhat concealed and obscure demeanour, don’t let that fool you! There are weird and wild things to be discovered at Coombes Valley.
Coombes Valley woodland view from the Treetop view point
By Madeleine Pashley
Talking of weird and wild... I have recently been stirred by a discovery that lies beneath the swells of the valley mist, beneath the unclad tree canopy and beneath the leaf litter...
I had discovered, sitting silently within the woodland carpet, a plethora of peculiar protrusions.
Upon closer inspection, involving the use of squinting and an open mouth, the oddities were wounds. Wounds that bled green sludge, pooling and dripping out of each yellow fleshy protrusion.
It was evident, that I indeed was witness to an aftermath. The aftermath of the Earthball!
Discovery of the peculiar protrusions
By Jarrod Sneyd
The aftermath- a clump of wounded Earthball fungi
Why the gory aftermath?
The Earthball is a fungi that lives the majority of its life beneath the leaf litter under the soil surface. Its main body is made up of a hair-like web system called “mycelium”. The Earthball mycelium runs between the trees in parts of our Coombes valley woodland, creating an underground network.
Every autumn, the underground network decides to break the earth’s surface and produce its own fruit, much like a fruit tree produces apples, pears or berries.
The Earthball’s fruit is made up of a globular fleshy casing which accommodates a powder of spores. Once mature, raindrops and animals disturb the fleshy globe causing the casing to split and disperse small clouds of spores, all in the name of reproduction!
The Earthball’s globular fruiting body (Before aftermath) November 2014
The aftermath- the wounded casing of the Earth ball- Jan 2015
Word to the wise; don’t be deceived by the seemingly lifeless winter landscape! Beneath the misty swells and the undressed trees of the Coombes valley woodland, there are weird and wild spectacles to be detected.
Come and discover what is lurking, the trick is to keep your wits about you and your eyes peeled...
Semi-ancient woodlands are truly magical places. A simple stroll through will see you transformed into a secret ancient world, crammed with wildlife wonders for you to explore.
Come with me as we venture through Coombes Valley together on a poetic adventure...
A Crunchy leafy carpet – Lizzie Ingram
The crunch of leaves and decaying wood beneath your old muddy boots,
Wise old oak trees stretching high exposing thick windy roots,
Morning sunlight seeping through branches once covered with leaves,
The damp and spongy feel of moss hugging the base of trees,
Spongy moss – Lizzie Ingram
Curling grey lichen collecting on trees like the dust of the ancient wood,
Orangey alien fungi growing where you wouldn’t think it could,
Mini beasts creep and crawl in the tiniest of crevasses and cracks,
Whilst foxes, badgers, stoats and weasels leave secret muddy tracks,
Curling lichen – Mark Day
Red deer proudly wonder in amongst the silent trees,
While tawny owls hoot hauntingly and brave the cool evening breeze,
Grey squirrels hop playfully way up on the high tree beams,
While fieldfares and redwings club together, munching in their teams,
Proud red deer – Mike Lane (RSPB – images)
There are so many delights for the senses hidden in this wondrous place,
An ideal location for discovery, excitement or even just some tranquil space,
A semi-ancient woodland is the perfect place for a wonder in the afternoon,
So come on, Coombes Valley is only a stones-throw away; we’re hoping to see you soon!
Where will your adventure through Coombes take you? – Rachel Coyle
Foxglove – David Austin (RSPB-images) Dead tree on skyline – Jarrod Sneyd
Heather and I went for a catchup and a walk around the reserve yesterday – the light was fading so it was too late to make out any flowers! I just captured this shape of a dead tree against the skyline – it’s on the Woodcock trail and is a favourite with drumming woodpeckers (though I’ve not heard them at Coombes yet, they have started elsewhere, so it’s time to start listening).
Still, we were discussing the fact that Foxglove was in flower in December and Pink Purslane and Herb Robert are still flowering on the reserve now!
Herb Robert - Ernie Janes (RSPB-images)
What’s that all about then?!
I looked back at my flower books and they are supposed to flower from spring/ early summer up until August, July and September respectively.
And then I remember that my partner Gill, had mentioned an article on the BBC website – ‘Unusual number of UK flowers bloom’.
So, I googled it and I quote ‘Botanists have been stunned by the results of their annual hunt for plants in flower on New Year’s Day...They say that according to textbooks there should be between 20 and 30 species in flowers. This year there were 368 in bloom’.
So, our winters are becoming milder and ‘the Met Office has confirmed that 2014 was the warmest year on UK record’ (including the hottest Halloween!). It’s also ‘the warmest year in the Met Office’s Central England Temperature series, which dates to 1659’!
The Met Office are also saying that human influence on the climate means that it is 10 times more likely that temperature records will be broken!
If you want to find out more, click on the link - http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-30754443
So, some good news – watch out for winter flowers – what have you spotted? Let us know...
But what else will human-influenced climate change make happen...!?!
Sunbeam through the trees – Darren Barker
The Twelve Coombes wildlife highlights of Christmas!
Get ready for our final Christmas countdown blog...
...four holly trees...
Holly is a true icon of Christmas. We use it to decorate our homes during winter, but I wonder how many of us actually know why?
Well there are loads of superstitious reasons. Firstly holly is evergreen so keeps its green spiky leaves all year round. In times past holly was thought to have magical properties to keep its leaves. It was believed that it would ward off evil during the winter months. This is why people hung it around their homes... are we still afraid of wintery evil spirits?!
Holly was also very important fodder for livestock. Shepherds used to cut holly for their sheep to eat during the hard winter months. So holly was seen as good luck for shepherds too! Even today when grass is scarce, deer and livestock feed on holly.
Holly has created its own defence mechanism to tackle those pesky sheep. If you look at a holly tree you’ll notice the leaves towards the top of the tree are less spiky. That’s because holly leaves are mostly spiky towards the base of the tree where animals are more likely to try and eat it. And also where we are most likely to pick it from! So watch your fingers.
Holly berries – Lucy Hodson
...three winter stoats...
Winter is no issue for the stoats here at Coombes Valley!
They carry on hunting throughout the winter. Although their usual prey is rabbits, they’re not too fussy, checking out every burrow and crevice for potential dinner! Once they’ve killed a rabbit or another small rodent, it will take its burrow. Sometimes it will use the fur of its prey as insulation. Because of this, one stoat might have several homes within their range.
Some stoats at higher altitudes turn completely white over the winter (apart from the black tip of their tail). The stoats here at Coombes will stay their usual colours; brown on top and creamy white underneath. Remember a weasel is smaller and doesn’t have the long tail with a black tip unlike the stoat. It’s stoat-aly different!
Peeking stoat – David Kjaer (RSPB-images)
...two cosy creepy crawlies...
The floor of the woodlands here at Coombes is awash with leaves, bark, twigs and other plant litter. These get broken down by decomposers such as woodlice and millipedes. These helpful creepy crawlies eat the litter, breaking it down into different nutrients, which are then realised into the soil, before being taken up again by the trees.
But this leaf litter not only provides a food source for our wondrous mini-beasts. It also provide them with a home! With a roof of vegetation insulating them, there are no real seasons in the litter layer; every day is dark, cool and damp - just how they like it!
If the weather gets so bad that it’s getting too cold to hang out in the litter, no problem. A lot of mini-beasts just dig down a bit further into the soil until the temperature is just right for them.
And of course, having bugs scurrying around is great news for other wildlife too! Animals like shrews and small birds can find them a great food resource through the winter months.
Leaf litter home - Sue Kennedy (RSPB-images)
...and a barn owl seen in a tree!
This ones something we’re all very excited about! Despite no known breeding pairs at Coombes Valley this year, over the last few weeks there’s been a few sightings of barn owls on the reserve!
We think this must be at least one juvenile that was born nearby and has decided Coombes Valley will be its new home. This is great news! Who knows. Next year we might even be as lucky as we were two years ago, when barn owls nested and raised young in our owl box. Here is some of nest-cam footage and blog about the chicks:
(Please visit the site to view this video)
Beautiful barn owl on a post – John Bridges (RSPB-images)
Ready for the second installment of Twelve Coombes wildlife highlights? Here we go...!
...eight shrews ashrinking...
Shrews can’t hibernate. Their small body size, and the fact they need to eat every 2-3 hours, mean they wouldn’t be able to take on big enough fat reserves. So instead they carry on hunting, searching for insects, slugs, snails and earthworms in amongst the leaf litter.
However, shrews are at a greater risk of heat loss over the winter months, so have come up with a funky trick. They shrink. The common shrew can reduce its size by 20-30% from summer to winter. This includes shrinking not only its body, but also its brain, bones and most other internal organs. And then come spring, the shrew will return to its usual size once more! By shrinking, the shrew reduces its need to take in as much energy from food, as well as reducing heat loss due to its smaller surface area.
Common shrew by Chris Shields (RSPB-images)
...seven tawnys toowit-twooing....
Come along to Coombes Valley late afternoon or early evening, and you’ll most likely hear the calls of tawny owls protecting their territories throughout the woods. The iconic “toowit-twoo”ing of owls is actually the call of two individuals. The female tawny hoots “kee-wick”, and the male replies “hoo-hoo-oooo”. The reason tawny’s are so vocal at this time of year is because they are guarding their breeding territories ready for the breeding season.
Tawny in flight by Chris Gomersall (RSPB-images)
...six roe deer sharing...
During the winter, the usually solitary roe deer we have here at Coombes gain a bit of a social life. They form small groups, ‘bevies’, during winter and early spring. This occurs when individuals are sharing a food resource. As winter comes and food resources become scarcer, the resources still available will be wanted by many a deer.
Another cool fact about roe deer is they change their coat in winter to blend in with the wintery surroundings. Their summer coat of reddish brown is replaced by a winter coat. This is more a browny-grey colour, flecked with yellow. These winter colours blend into the trees so well that you may often only notice them due to the sight of their bottoms, which becomes a striking white colour!
Roe Deer bevy by Andrew Parkinson (RSPB-Images)
The goldcrest is the UK’s smallest bird, weighing roughly the same as a 10p coin. However, for such tiny creatures, they’re incredibly hardy. During the winter the numbers of goldcrests in the UK increases, with our own populations being supplemented by migrants flying across from Scandinavia. That’s right, this 5g bird, with a wingspan of 15cm, flying across the North Sea at winter. Like, I said, it’s a hardy bird!
Goldcrests survive the cold winters by spending their nights roosting together, and their days replenishing their fat reserves.
By huddling together through the cold nights, goldcrests share heat. Two birds roosting together can reduce their heat loss by a quarter, and three birds can reduce it by a third!
However, this cosy behaviour is not enough alone to help them through the cold nights, it can also help them burn off up to 20% of their body fat keeping warm. This is why they spend their days hunting for food in order to build up their fat reserves once more.
You can help out goldcrests and other winter birds by leaving out fat for them to eat! For more information on feeding your garden birds this winter, check out the RSPB website: http://www.rspb.org.uk/makeahomeforwildlife/advice/helpingbirds/feeding/whatfood/
Goldcrest in winter by Ray Kennedy (RSPB-images)
Keep an eye out for the next installment. What will be number one?
To celebrate the wintery wonderfulness of Coombes we have wrote a series of Christmassy nature facts to get you in the festive spirit.
Nature is amazing and we were hard pressed to condense it down to just 12 facts. But we think we've cracked it and now we’re bringing you the first countdown installment to our 12 favourite Coombes wildlife stars of winter.
Get singing everybody!
...Twelve robins singing...
Robins are one of the most iconic Christmas creatures around, so it’s only fitting we start our countdown with them. The reason there seems to be so many robins around during the winter is twofold.
1) There actually is! During winter our resident robins are joined by their cousins from the continent, especially Scandinavia. What’s hello in Scandinavian?
2) During the winter, our other birds may have flown off to warmer areas or reduced their amount of singing to conserve energy. The Robin however sings right through winter. It does so to hold onto its territory until the breeding season next spring.
Robin on branch – Genevieve leaper (RSPB-images)
...Eleven foxes hunting...
During the winter months, foxes fur becomes even longer and denser, allowing them to keep on hunting throughout the winter months. Their sharp hearing lets them hear the squeaks, rustles or pitter-patter of their prey, even when it might be hidden below snow or leaf litter.
Foxes mate from late December to February, so at dusk you may hear the barks of the males, followed by the eerie scream of the replying vixen.
See if you can identify any fox footprints in the mud?
Curious fox – Grahame Madge (RSPB-images)
...Ten moths aflapping...
A mild winter is a very good thing indeed for some of Coombes Valleys more hardy moth species. The imaginatively-named Winter moth, December moth and November moth, along with the Mottled Umber will fly throughout the end of the year.
They can be active in temperatures as low as 4-5 °C, so it’s still worth getting that moth trap out! There is little food about for moths at this time of year. Many moths won’t eat as adults, just mate and lay their eggs ready to hatch the following year!
...Nine pink purslane blooming...
Pink purslane has many other names such as: the Candy Flower, Siberian Miner’s Lettuce or Spring Beauty. It is usually an annual plant, with small pink flowers.
Although its name ‘spring beauty’ suggests that it’s an early bloomer, they can actually flower as late as September in a usual year. As a testament to how mild it’s been so far this year, we actually still have some in flower up here at Coombes Valley! So come along and keep your eyes peeled for this pretty little flower over the next week or so, before the weather turns!
Pink Purslane – The Orkney book of wildflowers (http://bit.ly/1yqGizn)
Keep an eye out for our next instalment of 12 Coombes wildlife stars of winter!
On Sunday 26 October we ran our annual Fungal Foray walk. Lead by the brilliant Fungal Punk Dave our large group of courageous explorers set out from the yurt in the search of fantastic, funky, flamboyant and frankly fantastic fungi.
The fungi crew! – Lucy Hodson
With so many sets of eyes scouring the fields, trees and dead logs, we amassed an impressive hoard; 81 species were recorded by Fungal Punk Dave. For the full species list see: http://bit.ly/1tMiq7t
We found a wide range of species of bracket fungi such as birch polypore and turkeytail (see below). Did you know Birch Polypore was used to sharpen and shine knives/ swords, being referred to as razor – strop fungus!
Birch polypore – Lucy Hodson
Turkeytail – Lucy Hodson
We also spotted a few different species of waxcaps such as meadow waxcap and snowy waxcap. These are great indicators for good quality soils as they are very sensitive to fertilizers. Here at Coombes we have surveys purposely for pink waxcaps. These are BAP priority species as over enriching soils by inappropriate land management has made them very scarce throughout the UK.
The incredible FungalPunk Dave was on hand to help identify some of the more tricky species, such as false chanterelles. These differ to chanterelles because of their gills instead of true stems. False chanterelles also have a striking orangey colour compared to the more mellow chanterelles (see the picture below).
False chantarelle – Lucy Hodson
Fungi plays a crucial role in the woodlands. They break down dead leaves and trees to release their important nutrients back into the soil. Some go one step further, creating symbiotic relationships with the trees, living on the tree roots, and helping the tree to uptake water and minerals, in exchange for carbon and other organic substrates.
Black bulgar fungus – Lucy Hodson
Penny Bun – Lucy Hodson
One un-fungal looking creature we discovered was the false ladybird. Otherwise known as the handsome fungus beetle! This handsome fellow was seen by lots of silver leaf fungus as they very often like to live near fungal growths under bark.
False ladybird – Lucy Hodson
As if the fungi and odd handsome looking beetle wasn’t enough; we were also constantly surrounded with beautiful autumn views of the reserve. The red and burnt orangey splashes shine throughout the reserve this time of year and are now definitely at their most showy. Perfect for picture taking!
Autumn leaves – Lucy Hodson
Thanks to Fungal Punk Dave we managed to learn loads about the fungi at Coombes. For more information on Fungal Punk Daves work and to see future events visit his website on: www.fungalpunknature.co.uk
Why not come along to the reserve and have a go at your own fungal hunt (make sure not to touch or eat any!) Remember to come and tell us what you’ve found too!
Grid reference: SK0053 (+2km)
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