Local Wildlife Stories 2016

For this event, WIA teamed up with Groundworks who manage the conservation activities at Allens Field and Bisham Barn Owl Nesting Box Project, who made up the majority of kits for us. We also had a local carpenter, found for us by Anne Haydon and who I only know as "Dave", who also very kindly made us up some boxes for sale. Doug from Groundworks supplied the gazebo, tables, water for hot drinks and a very delicious Yule Log, so we are most grateful to him for this. The second Saturday of the month is the day when conservation work is done at Allens Field, so this gave Doug a chance to let people know about what is being done and to invite all comers to join in on future activity mornings.

4th December

Dr George McGavin talk - "Bugs in the system"

Wow! I have heard Dr McGavin talk before and knew we were in for a treat. We were not disappointed. He had promised us an afternoon of sex, violence and a cast of thousands - all of which he gave us.

I had no idea that all vertebrate species added together (of which humans are one) only account for 3% of species that inhabit this planet. Other vertebrates are fish, reptiles, mammals of every sort, birds and amphibians. (So humans, while we think we are so important and take so much more than our fair share of resources, actually are a minority population - and a tiny one at that!)

Arthropods (all creatures with an exo-skeleton) account for a whopping 66% (ish. I might have the exact percentage wrong, so bear with me).

So, George McGavin explained that Chris Packham's assertion that panda's are cute, but actually not that essential on the planet, is accurate, if unpopular.

In areas of China where farmers have been a bit too enthusiastic with pesticides, the insect population has plummeted. Sadly, removing the 'pests' might have been the intention, but all useful insects have also been eradicated and now farmers and their families are having to go out and hand pollinate their plants in order for fruit to grow. As about a third of the food on your plate is there thanks to pollinating insects, allowing this devastation to their numbers to continue across the globe would have far reaching and terrifying results for us all.

Not only pollinators, insects also clear debris. Flies will quickly break down any dead or rotting material. They are recyclers and pest controllers (often controlling other insect pests) .

George gave us a graphic account of wasps laying their eggs inside caterpillars. The wasp larvae hatch and eat the caterpillar from the inside, avoiding all the major organs so that the caterpillar can survive and grow. Ultimately, the wasp larvae spend the final half hour of the caterpillar's life eating everything within, before emerging and pupating outside the carcass. However, the horror does not necessarily stop at that point, as the pupae can themselves be infected by another, even smaller wasp which repeats the process.

Insects also are a major food source for birds, amphibians, spiders, bats, hedgehogs and a myriad other creatures. This was adding to comments made during talks by Dominic Martin on the plummeting numbers of sparrows and the message from Brian Clews last month about the drastic decline of many bird species in the UK over the past few years because of reduced food source from insects.

Sadly, insects don't have the 'cute and cuddly' factor. Many people just associate them with pest and disease issues. And in fairness, they can also deserve this reputation. But, once again, blanket use of pesticides does not benefit the planet in the long term. Over zealous use of things to kill the pests, also serves to kill the predators of those pests. A radical change in attitude and thinking is required if we are to achieve that balance which, in the long term is so crucial to our very survival.

So what can we do, here in Ascot? How about choosing to plant flowers and bushes friendly to insects such as bees and hoverflies? Keep use of pesticides to a minimum - if you have to use them at all. If you have the pests, the predators will surely come!

8th November

Brian Clews talk on overwintering birds

Once again, we were pleased to be able to welcome Brian back to talk to us about birds and how they cope with the winter. As ever, he gave an informative and entertaining evening, explaining that four things have to be considered when thinking about birds and their long term survival. These all began with "F" and were fecundity, food, feathers and (with poetic license) 'freat!

He explained that fecundity relates to the amount that a species can proliferate. By demonstrating the amount of birds that there would be should no offspring die, we were quickly educated into accepting that the vast majority of birds who emerge from an egg will not make it to breed themselves and the first winter is crucial in managing numbers who are not strong enough to survive. A natural wastage then is built in and important for balance to be retained.

Food sources are crucial for the birds to have the energy to keep themselves warm and their hearts beating at incredibly high rates. Here, we can help by ensuring that we put up a variety of different food sources.

Birds beaks give clues as to which food sources best suit them. Finches will eat seeds, while slimmer beaks are indicative of insect eaters. Some birds prefer to eat on the ground, while others are acrobatic at the bird feeding station. Brian explained that as farming practices have changed and habitats have been lost, birds have had to adapt or die. Also, the drastic decline in insect populations has had a devastating effect on many bird species which rely on creepy crawlies to survive.

Numbers of wood pigeons in gardens have shot up as they have adapted to the changes and left farmland, while other birds have been less flexible and are in sharp decline. Also, some birds migration patterns appear to have changed and some are now staying in the UK overwinter that were previously only summer visitors, which suggests they are able to access food all year now.

Bird feathers are a remarkable piece of engineering, with each feather linking into its adjoining neighbour in a way which inspired the creation of velcro. The feathers provide a waterproof layer and trap air, so helping retain the bird's body warmth. They also are coloured to give information to other birds about species, sex and maturity. They are made of dead material and any bird is covered with thousands of feathers, which they moult annually. Aerodynamic and lightweight, they are useful in flight and again a necessary part of the bird's kit to survive the winter.

His final heading was 'freat. This was chosen as the only way he could complete his four headings with the "F" letter, and related to the threats that birds face from predation. Our family moggies account for a huge amount of mortality of birds and rodents. But they can also be predated by other mammals, such as stoats and weasels; squirrels will steal eggs given half a chance and they are not immune from other birds either. Owls will take small birds if they are hungry enough, as will sparrowhawks. Brian was quick to explain that sparrowhawk strike in the garden is a compliment as it demonstrates that the bird population in that garden is doing well.

He also showed us a picture of the talons of a red kite and it was surprising to see just how small they are. Although there are stories of red kites taking birds, this would appear to be a rare event as they are not really built for taking live prey, preferring and being better adapted to taking carrion.

So, what we can do to help our birds is provide regular food and clean water in the cold weather and think about what we grow in the garden to increase the insect population or provide seeds and berries as natural food for them all year.

Offer them safe nesting sites in the breeding season and try to protect them for those predators that we can (our pussy cats, for example). However, many will die over winter and provide food for other creatures, including the red kite. This is part of the circle of life and without a large degree of bird mortality, we could find ourselves overwhelmed!

16th October

Blythewood Lane conservation working party

We were so lucky! After the rain tipping it down this morning, the skies cleared and we had a wonderful afternoon in the sun. I think we might have been a bit early in the season as there were not as many leaves off the trees as I had thought there would be, but I guess that means the hedgehogs don’t have to wait for a cosy bed when the time arrives for them to snuggle down. We made four new homes ready for them, basically repairing the work we have done in previous years.

We were delighted to be joined by a good number of people including lots of children, who really seemed to enjoy the opportunity to legitimately play with sticks, throw leaves around and clamber under bushes in a hunt for rubbish. We found three bin bags full of old bottles, flower pots, cans, plastic packaging etc, so Blythewood Lane is now cleaner and ready for the winter!

We had a request to do more ‘forest school’ type activities in order to cater for the younger members and will gladly embrace that idea as it will be their world and it is so important to engage them with it now, while they are still young. We know from research that getting children outdoors is so good for them on every level, physically, emotionally, socially and academically AND it has to be good for the world if the next generation can learn to love it and take care of it as the last few generations have failed to do so badly!

We had a number of intrepid bird and bat box makers hammering away from 11.30 - 2.30 and managed to get a good number built and taken away to provide homes for local bats and birds. A cold, but fun and successful day!All proceeds raised from donations from cake and drink sales will be going back to the Bisham Barn Owl group as they were so helpful.

If anyone out there has ideas or would like to get involved in helping, please, do come forward. We would love to hear from you as new energy is always so refreshing!

20th September

House sparrow talk

A group of people were attracted to the sparrow talk and were rewarded by a fascinating talk by Dominic Martin who told us about theories as to why house sparrows are in such decline. Nothing fully explains the severe reduction in numbers and there is a prize of £5000 from the Guardian(I think) for anyone who can! Contributing factors are farming methods leaving less grain on fields over the winter; houses having fewer nesting sites, people keeping less chickens and the increasing numbers of cats.

We thanked Dominic for his talk and supporting Wildlife in Ascot during his Masters at Silwood and wish him the best for his PhD which will involve trips to Madagascar!

12th / 13th August

Small Mammal Survey

Perhaps it's due to being the holiday season but we didn't have enough support for this survey so Anne, Pat and Mary had to work hard putting out the baited traps complete with grass for a comfortable stay. Thanks to them we were able to survey 4 locations along the green corridor and 1 in Tom Green's Field.

It was good dry warm weather for trapping and small mammals were found in 3 of the 4 green corridor locations with evidence of a clever visitor to an unsprung trap at the fourth location. 1 bank vole (Clethrionomys glareolus) and 7 wood mice (Apodemus sylvaticus) were trapped. Evidence of mole, rabbit and squirrel was also found.

Dominic then went on to give us a wonderful insight into the research projects carried out on populations of sparrow in captivity and in the wild on Lundy. Lundy is far enough from the mainland to have a fairly static population who are all ringed and known over many years of study. Dominic told us about a theory that the male house sparrow's "badge" (dark mark on its chest) was thought to be a sign of its social status and this has been investigated several times supporting the theory but this year he analysed extensive data for a captive population and found no correlation. He also studied the wild sparrows on Lundy and found no evidence there. Social status was measured by monitoring how a sparrow fared in squabbles over food. Other studies are looking at whether female sparrows favour males with larger badges and how monogamous sparrows really are!Providing nest boxes and food over winter are the best ways to help house sparrows (and all the other small birds).

24th July

Removing Himalayan balsam from Blythewood

On an amble through the heritage wildlife site in Blythewood recently, we came across a stand of very impressive looking Himalayan Balsam. So pretty, and so deceptive as it is a non-native invasive species. It is attractive to bees – a good thing I hear some cry. Well, yes, except that the bees then don't pollinate our native woodland plants. Also, at thousands of seeds per plant, spread in a very explosive fashion, they then cover an area, smothering out any other plants which would dare to try and get established. So, they had to go. After seeking the permissions required, an emergency removal was planned for July 24th, a Sunday afternoon. We had to get on with it swiftly because it needs to go before the flowers have a chance to set seed. Three intrepid WIA members braved the brambles; hurdled the holly and lumbered over logs in a bid to rid the stream and surrounding area of this intruder. Two and a half hours later, we emerged from the undergrowth, scratched, tired and very satisfied with what we had achieved. A huge thank you to Malcolm, one of our number, who carried on despite managing to get stung by a bee which was probably peeved at having her dinner pulled out! We will need to do another sweep in a week or two in order to try and remove any stragglers that we may have missed, so keep an eye on our website and if you are free, please do come along and help. I suggest long sleeves and trousers!22nd JulyBat talk and walk in Cheapside

We all appreciated Trevor Smith's knowledge and enthusiasm and thank him for giving us an excellent evening especially as he had spent the day helping at Silwood's Bugs!Day taking legions of children and their parents on bug hunts!Trevor gave us a short talk about our local bats and how to identify them from their characteristics. When on a bat walk it's common to use a bat detector and check the echo location frequency but the height and pattern of flight is also distinctive. Where bats roost is an indication of species. Trevor showed us how hanging upside down is efficient for bats as they do not need to use any muscles to hold on and their hearts and blood vessels are adapted to stop blood rushing to their heads like it would for us. Bats use different roosts at different times of year and one of the problems they have is less access to soffit boards and roof spaces for hibernation with modern housing. Trevor brought a brown long-eared bat for us to see as this is one of the most common bats around here along with the common pipistrelle and noctule.

We then set off, with Trevor leading us in the dusk, on a walk to find bats. As the light faded we started getting sounds through the bat detectors and people with sharp eyes spotted bats flitting around just below the tree canopy.

Trevor pointed out useful features for bats such as fallen deadwood which provides habitats for insects for bats to feed on; hollow trees, loose bark and ivy where bats can roost; and the edges of woodland where bats can fly along and feed unhindered. Trevor was disappointed in the lack of horse and cow dung in the fields which would support bats through a higher level of insects.

We detected common pipistrelle and brown long-eared bats and had a very pleasant walk on a lovely summer night. Thanks again to Trevor.

To find out more about our bats visit the Bat Conservation Trust's website.

3rd July

Dragonfly and butterfly spotting walk in Swinley Forest

A group us enjoyed a leisurely stroll led by Tina Bailey into Swinley Forest and the Brick Pits area to look for dragonflies and anything else that crossed our path! Butterflies are late this year so we will be back as we only saw some ringlets and meadow brown, one small skipper, one common blue and a few moths. Through iSpot we have identified this moth as a clouded border - Lomaspilis marginata.

The dragonflies, however, have made a good start and we saw a range of skimmers, darters, an emperor as well as blue and red damselflies. We were thrilled to see a kingfisher fly across in front of us as we were looking for dragonflies - this was the first clear sighting in the UK for a few of us. On the way back round we spotted a lizard enjoying a warm puddle near a tiny frog and then admired the increasing population of common orchids. Thank you to Susan Wood for taking these photographs. It was a very pleasant warm, sunny walk; learning about local wildlife from each other as we enjoyed the natural world around us. Thank you Tina for leading us.30th June

Listening for nightjars in Poors Allotment Heathland near Camberley

Thanks to members of the Heathland Conservation Society who led a keen group from Wildlife in Ascot onto this heathland that extends back to us at Englemere Pond and Swinley, across to Caesars Camp and on to Sandhurst. We set off well before dusk so we could see the heathland and conservation work that has been carried out by volunteers. We heard our first churring of a nightjar as dusk fell and we could see the lights of London, including Canary Wharf away in the north. We heard several nightjars in different directions and at different points on our walk and the highlight was to see a nightjar fly overhead, not once but twice! We noticed that we stopped hearing nightjars as it became dark and they were obviously busy feeding. A big thank you to David Norminton who organised this event for us.

David is HCS Conservation Manager and organises the conservation volunteers. He says "We do most of our work in the winter months as between March and September the birds are nesting and most of the birds are ground nesting. We meet every Wednesday morning at the barrier at the end of the Bracknell Road in the Old Dean, Camberley. Meeting at 9.45 am. We then aim to be there for a couple of hours. Weekends we have a couple of morning sessions usually on a Saturday and another work party from 2 pm. We desperately need more volunteers. It is fun. It is good for the environment and excellent for your health. Please consider joining us."

For more information email David on conservation-manager@heathland-conservation-society.org

14th June

A gripping 20 min film of a blue tits' nest box in North Ascot - by Bruce Singleton

Warning - contains scenes of an upsetting nature - Sorry.

31st May

A talk about Cuckoos and Nightjars

We are very pleased that Brian Clews came and talked to us about these summer visitors of ours. It was sad to see how few people in the room had heard a cuckoo this year. Brian compared and contrasted these two birds. They are of similar size, we name them after their call and they have very similar migration routes which are being investigate by attaching tracking devices on birds. These have shown that birds fly different routes either down the west coast of Africa or the east side and sometimes go up into the Netherlands before crossing the north sea to us. It was thought that there was one route out and another one route back. It was also thought that adult cuckoos showed their offspring the way but we now know that they have already left the UK by the time this year's chicks are ready to go.

Cuckoos (Cuculus canorus) are on the red list as their numbers have reduced by over 20% over several 7 year surveying periods. We are at another seven year point in 2016 and indications are their numbers have dropped further. Having said that, the numbers of cuckoos in the UK (16000 pairs) are much higher than the number of nightjars (4600 males) who are only on the amber list as their numbers are increasing.Brian showed us that cuckoos sometimes mimic the host bird's eggs but more often do not. He explained that there is a wide range of host birds chosen by cuckoos. The reed warbler is a favoured host despite the size difference! This is a theory as to why cuckoos have 2 toes pointing forward and 2 back whereas other birds typically have 3 forwards. This arrangement helps cuckoos shimmy down and up the reeds quickly to nip in an lay an egg when the host bird has popped out. Another interesting fact was that there are many species of cuckoos around the world which are not brood parasites as our visitor is.

Nightjars (Caprimulgus europaeus) are ground nesting birds which live on heathland, a reducing habitat. In built up areas it is often a favoured place for leisure activities including dog walking which can disrupt ground nesting birds. They are well camouflaged and work hard to keep their nesting site hidden and raise their vulnerable young before they can fly to safety. Nightjars arrive a bit later in the year than cuckoos and the adults obviously stay longer, looking after their chicks, leaving in August / September. Nightjars are nocturnal and feed on flying insects, they have larger eyes than most birds to see in low light. They also have a large mouth which they keep open as they fly, seemingly fishing for moths and mosquitoes! There are several surveys each year in June to record nightjar numbers on our local heathland and volunteers are welcome.

We all enjoyed Brian's talk which was very engaging and gave us a great deal of information (a snippet of which is here!) about these two birds. We look forward to our walk to hear and hopefully see nightjars in June.

8th May

Dawn Chorus Walk

Many thanks to Dominic Martin for leading us around Silwood Park on glorious May morning. We had a real dawn chorus before the sun rose over the horizon. It was difficult to separate out the individual birdsong but Dominic helped us to identify the different birds. As we walked around the park we enjoyed spotting the roe deer as well as the birds which we were able to view in detail through Dominic's scope and especially enjoyed watching the black cap singing.

Blackbird, Song thrush, Goldcrest, Robin, Wren, Blue tit, Great tit, Greylag goose, Canada goose, Jackdaw, Wood pigeon, Carrion Crow, Greater spotted woodpecker, Green woodpecker, Jay, Pheasant, Black cap, Mallard, Moorhen, Ring necked parakeet.

3rd May

Wildflower seed planting

More wildflower seeds were sown in a few patches of mostly sunny bare earth at the Cheapside playground.

3rd April

Wildflower seed planting

Birds heard / seen:

After a lovely walk we enjoyed our coffee and bacon butties, thank you Anne!

18th March

All about Bees

We have more seeds available so let us know if you know of a sunny bare spot for us to plant more. email us at ascot.wildlife@gmail.com.

The grass was removed from a section of south facing bank at Victory Field to remove competition and and give the wild flower seed the best chance of growing. The soil was raked level then seed sown and watered in though we are hoping for rain tonight!

A small group of hard working people prepared the ground at Victory Field, Sunninghill and sowed wildflower seeds.

We applied for kits from Grow Wild which is a lottery funded imitative run by Kew to improve habitats and increase the flowers available for pollinating insects in urban and suburban areas.

A group of people were entertained and informed by Edwina Brugge, a local bee keeper who gave a talk about bees. Edwina brought along a lot of information including bee keeping equipment and showed us the various parts of a hive and explained the processes involved to keep a hive producing honey and some of the hazards of bee keeping!

There are around 250 types of bee in the UK. There are 24 species of bumblebees, around 225 species of solitary bee and just a single honeybee species. Edwina talked about the differences in habits between social (called eusocial) and solitary bees. For most bumblebees it is only the new queens that survive the winter, they often hibernate underground. Solitary bees have their own nest although they may nest near each other and will nest close to where they emerge. They have an annual lifecycle with some of this year's eggs developing into new adults and staying within the cocoon over winter. Edwina also demonstrated why it is difficult to identify the specific bee species you might see especially as they don't stay still for photos!

Edwina recommended this document on pollen and nectar rich plants for your garden by season from the British Bee Keepers Association website which includes flowers, trees and shrubs.

Afterwards we discussed various topics of related interest including:

    • Whether bees used "insect hotels" - no one had evidence they did

    • Whether honey bees could survive "in the wild" - most bees in hives are not native

    • How the taste of honey may vary from hive and hive and year to year

    • Work at Silwood aiming to understand more about the decline in bee populations

13th and 14th February

Coppicing in Granny Kettle Wood

The Saturday was a wet day but a few brave volunteers worked in the wood coppicing very overgrown hazels.

This photo shows a toppled hazel; pulled over in the wet ground as it grew long shoots that made it top heavy.

On the Sunday the weather was lovely and the group's numbers were increased. Some hazels were coppiced and the new shoots protected from deer with the offcuts. The work was not completed on other hazels and the larger shoots will be easier to take out by chain saw. Off cuts were sorted into piles for future use. There is plenty more work to be done!

The weather was inclement, so it was wonderful to have about 20 people turn out for a talk from John Dellow who has worked with Barn owls for the past 15 years, latterly with the West Berkshire Countryside Society, and has a wealth of knowledge and experience.

The West Berkshire Countryside Society monitor several barn owl nest boxes and have found that the numbers of chicks which fledge is directly related to the number of short tailed field voles. The voles themselves have a cyclical level of population with numbers rising and falling back dramatically over about a five year span. On a year when the vole numbers were low, no owlets fledged, but on a year when the vole numbers were high, over 100 owlets were raised to leave the nests.

Habitat is the crucial element for barn owls. They need about 20 acres of rough grassland over which they can hunt for small rodents. Woodland and manicured lawns don’t suit them at all as they do not provide the right environment for the field voles. Areas of the Great Park are perfect, and barn owls have certainly been sighted there by members of WIA. There has been some suggestion of barn owl presence in North Ascot where The Rough and parts of Mill Ride golf course might provide hunting areas, but this has yet to be confirmed. The call of the barn owl is actually a hissing sound – they do not hoot!

These beautiful birds, along with other owls, have slightly concave faces surrounded by a ring of feathers. They are designed to receive sound waves in order to help them hear their prey. Another feature is the asymmetry of the ears, again for audio food detection! Their eyesight is not that much better than human. Their wings are specially adapted to allow the owl to fly silently, but they are not very waterproof. The bird can become considerably heavier in wet weather making hunting much harder.

26th January

Barn Owls and other local Owls

If you would like to read more about the impact of woodland coppicing have a look at this paper: Coppiced woodlands:their management for wildlife, 1993 by R J Fuller and M S Warren which is on the DEFRA website.

Coppicing is good for our local wildlife, it increases woodland biodiversity, as greater amounts of light can reach the ground, allowing a range of species to grow there. Many of these species are food sources for butterflies and other insects, which in turn provide food for birds, bats and mammals.

We disturbed a wood mouse which made a dash for cover and saw plenty of evidence of insect life in the standing dead wood. We found a few interesting fungi and heard some bird song but not as much as we would have liked.

Above and left: photos of coppicing in progress

Anne, who is not an expert but had done some research, then explained a bit about other owls that are definitely found across our area. Tawny owls are woodland birds by choice, but have been more successful in adapting to urbanisation and change than has the barn owl. Their call is the familiar hoot, which tends to be the male bird and the female responds with a Kee Wick call. They often will mate for life. Their diet depends on where they live with urban tawny owls eating more birds while their woodland cousins eat far more rodents. Tawny owls, which are the size of wood pigeons, will roost close to the trunk of a tree within their territory and are very hard to spot. However, other birds scolding may be a clue that they are there. When nesting, they can become aggressive towards anyone approaching the area.

Little owls are also resident in the area but they are struggling to maintain their foothold with numbers declining in the uk. They are a non-native species, imported in the late 19th century and are our most diurnal owl, meaning that they can be seen out and about during the day on occasions. These small owls prefer farmland with hedgerows and fields where they can find their food of insects and earthworms, sometimes chasing prey across the ground.

John brought us some pellets to dissect and see what prey the owls had eaten for anyone keen to do this. Pellets are regurgitated by owls as a way of removing the indigestible bits of their dinner from their guts! They look like dark short sausages and are full of tiny bones, fur and such like.

All in all, it was an informative and fun evening. Thanks to the lady who demonstrated the RSPB app and played us the different owl calls so we could recognise them.

Please, remember to record what you see or hear in our area here. This data is really important to us as it tells us what we need to take care of and if you can confirm barn owl sightings in the area, we could consider putting up a nesting box!

Click here to see the map of where owls have been heard from in our area this winter