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  • 19 December 2014

    'Twelve Coombes wildlife highlights of Christmas'... The Final Countdown!

    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)

    Posted by Heather W

  • 16 December 2014

    Twelve Coombes wildlife highlights of Christmas... continued!

    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)

  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)

    ...five goldcrest...  

    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:

    Goldcrest in winter by Ray Kennedy (RSPB-images)


    Keep an eye out for the next installment. What will be number one?

    Posted by Heather W

  • 8 December 2014

    Twelve Coombes wildlife highlights of Christmas!

    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!


    The Twelve Coombes wildlife highlights of Christmas!


    ...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 ( 


    Keep an eye out for our next instalment of 12 Coombes wildlife stars of winter!

    Posted by Heather W

  • 9 November 2014

    Fabulous Fungal Foray

    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:

    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:

    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!


    Posted by Heather W

  • 5 November 2014

    Red planets and stars on the woodland floor!

    Strange and wondrous things grow in our woods. Some more obvious than others. It is so easy to simply walk past without ever really understanding what something is or how it came to be. Some things are just so well camouflaged we just simply don’t see. And some we get so used to seeing we forget to stop and understand it.

    And then suddenly, one curious afternoon you’ll stop and spot something - before it nearly disappears under your welly. An exciting new finding which blows your mind. Something so out of the ordinary and alien you can help but want to find out more. Well this happened to me! I would like to welcome you to a whole other world of crazy, alien, beautiful and tiny living things which have completely ‘WOWed’ me. Let me introduce the gall.

     Cherry gall

    This image is of something I managed to spot the other day, hidden under the leaves of the woodland floor. Miniature red and yellow planets, splattered with tiny glowing stars attached to something so ordinary as an oak leaf.  The sight didn’t seem quite right to me. It took me a moment to accept that they were in fact natural and not someone’s sweets dropped from their pockets.

    After a bit of research it’s clear that these galls were created with far more craft than something from a sweet shop! This is the story of the cherry gall. Our lead character is the tiny black gall wasp. These clever workers begin the story by laying their eggs on the underside of the oak leaf in Spring. The oak then grows a beautiful covering to surround the immature wasp larvae, like the red and yellow covering above. The larva inside the gall feeds on nutrients from the oak to grow through the summer. When the leaves fall in autumn the galls too flutter to the woodland floor where they have to avoid likely wellington boots such as mine for a few months until emerging as fully grown adult wasp! Amazing!


     Knopper Gall – (These commonly form on Oak tree acorns)


    We know so little about galls and there are so many types. Not all have wasps for creators. Some mites and even plants themselves can make them. Here’s a useful link from David Attenborough’s ‘Life in the Undergrowth’ series to give a bit more information. See if you can spot the cherry gall in the middle of the video! -


    There are so many of these galls about in the woods at Coombes. Now is the perfect time of year to come and see them falling from the trees or on the woodland floor. 

     And remember to come and tell us in the Visitor Centre what you’ve found!



    Posted by Heather W

  • 25 September 2014

    Recent Sightings-The Hunt for Red October

    No, this isn’t a post about the 1990 film starring Sean Connery. It’s instead about the wonderful things you may see and hear at Coombes Valley over the coming weeks. See if you can spot the common theme amongst the items!

    Redwings –

    Redwings are one of Coombes Valley’s winter migrants, visiting the reserve to dine on the bright red berries of the rowan and hawthorn trees; they'll be arriving in the next few weeks.  Although quite a shy and skittish bird, you can get your best chance to see them by waiting quietly till they come to feed in the treetops.

    Image by Roger Wilmshurst  (RSPB Images).

    Red Deer-

    These secretive residents of Coombes are in the middle of their annual rutting season. This is when mature stags compete for the attentions of the hinds by showing everyone they’re the biggest and strongest. Mainly this consists of walking in parallel to each other and roaring (basically a ‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’). If this doesn’t work, it’s time to lock antlers and flight, taking advantage of the valleys steep sides to try and push each other to lower ground. Although the red deer of Coombes often stay away from the main trails, their loud roars echo round the reserve, and are extremely impressive to hear! The best time to hear the rutting is dusk and dawn, although the roars have been heard throughout the day

    Red Deer in rutting season - Image by Guy Rogers (RSPB Images).

    Red autumn leaves-

    As winter draws nearer, the reserves deciduous trees shed their leaves, leaving(no pun intended) piles of red, gold, yellow, green and brown to build up on the ground, These piles of leaves are great fun for kids (and big kids) to jump around in, just make sure there’s nothing hiding in the leaf pile first!

    Fly Agaric-

    These impressive fungi can be found in the mixed woodland around Coombes, living amongst the birch and pine. Seen as a sign of good luck by Victorians, this toadstool is highly poisonous, and ingestion can cause death, so it’s vital to look but DON’T TOUCH. For help with indentifying this and other fungi at Coombes Valley, come along to our fungal foray on Sunday October 26th.
    The walk will be led by FungalPunk Dave (, and full details can be found at

    Red Squirrel (Vote for Bob)-

    Although not on the reserve, we here at Coombes are supporters of Bob, a red squirrel with a message! Bob is campaigning to get more people speaking up for nature, and putting nature back on the political agenda.  So to demonstrate how much nature means to you, we urge you to add your name to Bobs petition at

    If you can’t work out the theme between the items, then I recommend you red read this post again!

    Posted by Lucy H

  • 8 September 2014

    Recent Sightings: Birds, berries, puffballs, and a baffling stoat!


    With summer speeding by quickly and autumn right around the corner, the sights and sounds of Coombes Valley are changing. So, here is a run down of some of the exciting things you can spot on the reserve over the coming weeks!

    Goldfinch on a thistle, taken by Richard Brooks

    Flocks of Goldfinches

    These small, brightly coloured birds are really enjoying themselves here at Coombes Valley. Walk through the top meadow next to the information centre, or through Clough Meadow and you will almost certainly see flocks of these colourful finches, with their red faces, black and white heads, and golden patches on their wings. Last week there were up to one hundred in the top meadow! They have been attracted here to feast on various seed sources, including thistles and the teasle next to the viewing platform.

    Fun Fact: the collective noun for a group of goldfinches is a charm - how fitting for such a charming bird! 

    Common puffball, taken by Guy Rogers

    Common Puffball

    This alien-looking fungus starts to appear in the woodlands and fields of Coombes Valley in late summer and early autumn. It feeds on decaying leaves and humus (not humous) and will grow and grow until bursting open and releasing its spores. Although edible when young, it is not advisable to eat the common puffball. This is because it can be confused with similar looking, not-so-nice fungi, such as immature deathcaps, one of the most poisonous mushrooms around.

    Fun Fact: The scientific name of the puffball genus, Lycoperdon, translates as ‘wolf fart’!

    Blackbird, taken by Ray Kennedy


    Brambles have been here all year, their prickly, tangled canes acting as a safe haven for small birds to nest, hidden from predators. Once September comes around they give another gift; great big juicy blackberries. These tasty fruits are fine dining for many different animals here at Coombes Valley; blackbirds, mice, robins, chaffinches, foxes, and of course, peckish walkers!

    Fun Fact: The seeds of a blackberry were found in the remains of a Neolithic human in Essex, indicating blackberries have been a tasty foodstuff for people for millennia!

    A Stoat named Sedgewick

    An unusual sighting this one, a stoat named Sedgewick, has been spotted around the reserve quite a bit during the last week.  Although stoats are usually quite shy creatures, Sedgewick seems very bold indeed, and definitely not camera-shy! He has been spotted keeping an eye on the new play trail and woodcock trail, making sure they’re finished and in top condition for their unveiling at our open day on September 20th!

    Be sure to check out the Coombes Valley twitter feed (@RspbCoombes) to keep up to date with his latest shenanigans, and you never know, he might make a guest appearance on the 20th at our open day!

    Posted by Sally G

  • 23 August 2014

    Recent Sightings: Up in the air

    If the RSPB had existed a few hundred million years ago, the only flying creatures we’d have been able to protect would have been insects!

    They were the first creatures to take to the air around 350 million years ago, and dominated the skies until birds came along. Back then some dragonflies had wingspans of up to 2 feet long! Nowadays they are a lot smaller, but by no means less beautiful.

    Brown Hawker:

    Hawkers are some of the largest and fastest flying dragonflies in the UK (hence the name). The brown hawker is a large species that can be found flying from the end of June through till September. It is a widespread dragonfly in the UK, and has been spotted a number of times here at Coombes, with woodland rides being a favourite hunting spot.

    They can be easily identified, even in flight, by their entirely brown body with little yellow and blue markings. The wings are golden-orange in colour and the male has a distinct ‘waist’ that the female lacks.

    Golden Ringed Dragonfly:

    This is the longest species of dragonfly in Britain, with females (the larger of the sexes) growing up to 84mm! This is because of her long ‘ovipositor’- used to lay her eggs under the water.

    Golden rings can be found flying around between May and September, one was spotted at the first bridge only a couple of weeks ago. They are easily recognisable with their yellow and black rings along their abdomen, which no other dragonfly has.

    Peacock, taken by Genevieve Leaper


    Out on butterfly transect surveys over the past few months, there have been distinct fluctuations in sightings of Peacock butterflies. There were large numbers around April/May time, but then there was an obvious dip. At the end of July the numbers started to pick up again; this is due to the second generation of caterpillars pupating and emerging as adults.

    Peacocks are some of our most colourful species of butterfly, with their eye spots making them easily recognisable. They are particularly widespread, and can be found in a wide range of habitats.

    Small copper, taken by Richard Revels

    Small Copper:

    Small coppers are fast flying and can be hard to spot, especially because of their size. However, if you manage to catch a glimpse of them resting on the ground in the sun, you will instantly know what you are looking at, as their bright ‘copper’ or orange wings make them easily recognisable.

    Like peacocks, populations will have multiple generations in year, sometimes having up to four in a good year! Caterpillars mainly feed on common or sheep’s sorrel as well as broad-leaved dock, and adults feed on a range of nectaring plants, including buttercups, daisy and dandelion.

    Large yellow underwing, taken by Chris Shields.

    Large Yellow Underwing:

    This has been a common occurrence in our moth trap, frequently we find a hundred or so in the morning! This moth’s name is pretty self explanatory; it’s one of our larger species of moth, and it’s hindwing (or underwing) is bright yellow.

    They are found all over the UK and are relatively common, hence the large numbers in our trap! They are night flyers and rest during the day, but are often disturbed from the undergrowth by people or animals, and will flash their yellow hindwings to startle any potential attackers.

    August thorn, taken by Richard Revel

    August Thorn:

    This appropriately named moth has also been caught a number of times in our moth trap over the past month, and flies during August and September. A number of similar ‘Thorn’ species that have been caught in our trap recently (early thorn, purple thorn, canary shouldered thorn), can be hard to distinguish between.

    The august thorn can be told apart from its cousins by the shape of the cross-lines on its forewing. The inner line has a distinct curve, whilst the outer line kinks where it joins the wings leading edge. Caterpillars of this species feed on oak and beech, of which there is an abundance of at Coombes!

    If you'd like to see some of our moths, ask at the Information Centre in the early part of the morning - if the moth traps been on overnight - we'd be more than happy to show you.  Wander our meadows and trackways - to discover our other insect delights.   

    Posted by Sally G

  • 14 August 2014

    Nothing to whine about: A delicious way to moth trap at home

    It’s not all hard work here at RSPB Coombes Valley. We occasionally let our hair down - just last week we let a few of our residents kick back with a bottle of wine in the top meadow.

    They weren’t our residential volunteers taking in the stunning views with a glass of vino though, they were some of our moths feeding on wine ropes!

    Wine ropes are a very simple way of attracting moths so you can get a look at them up close, and they are exactly what they sound like; pieces of rope dipped in a solution of wine and sugar.

    Hang them outside and moths will be attracted to the sweet scent. To them it‘s very similar to their natural food sources of nectar and rotting fruit. Mmmmm too good to resist!

    Once they’re enraptured by the wine ropes, torch light allows you to see them busily feeding away.

    If you would like to try this for yourselves, here is the recipe we used.

    1 bottle of wine (the moths don’t mind the cheap stuff)

    1Kg of brown sugar

    1 tin (450g) of black treacle

    Several pieces of string

    It might be best to find an old pan for this, just in case it stains. Children will certainly need the help of an adult; just don’t let them drink all the wine!

    Empty the wine into the pan and dissolve in the sugar and treacle over a low heat. Be very careful though, the solution does get incredibly hot.

    When your concoction has cooled, pour it into empty bottles. With all that sugar in, it won’t all fit back into the  wine bottle, so you will need to find an extra one somewhere...I think an adult could help with this bit too!

    Wait until dusk and dip the pieces of string (we used shoe laces) into the mixture and peg them out in the garden. You can peg them from the washing line, just don’t get the mixture on there though, it WILL stain you’re clothes when you next do some washing! Alternatively, you can peg them from low tree branches.

    Then simply check your wine ropes through the night to see any moths that have come for a free feast. Take the ropes down in the morning and give them a wash, ready to be used again.

    Results may vary depending on a variety of factors: other available food sources, type of wine used, weather conditions, etc. So don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t work too well, just try it again on another night - one batch makes more than enough for several attempts.

    If you have a go at wine ropes, please share your stories and pictures on our Facebook page. We would love to see how you got on.

    You can also see our wine ropes in action again on our next Bat and Moth guided walk, happening on Friday 22nd August. Click the link for more details

    Posted by Sally G

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Grid reference: SK0053 (+2km)

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Where is it?

  • Lat/lng: 53.07781,-1.98803
  • Grid reference: SK009534
  • Nearest town: Leek, Staffordshire
  • County: Staffordshire
  • Country: England

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