Thursday, 31 December 2015

Wild Winkworth, 2015's swan song

And so we reach the end of 2015, as what is touted to be the warmest December on record draws to a close. The strongest El Niño event for many years has in part led to a rush of warm air from the south-west, bringing with it a series of Atlantic storms to our shores. This has meant lots of wind and rain but also exceptionally mild weather for the time of year, with temperatures in double figures for most of the month. On the 19th a high of 16 celsius was recorded here in Surrey. The mild winter isn't just affecting Britain though as unusually high temperatures have been recorded across much of northern Europe and North America, and even the North Pole where the temperature reach a balmy +1 celsius this week; over 20 degrees warmer than average for this time of year.
The consequence of all this spring-like weather in midwinter has been some exceptionally early flowering plants, and even some fresh leaves emerging on some of the trees already, but more on that later.

As usual though I'll start with a round-up of the bird life at Winkworth in the past couple of weeks.
There have been noticeably more gulls moving overhead recently, mostly Herring Gulls and mostly heading south-west first thing in the morning.
Herring Gulls

 In amongst the gulls a couple of Egyptian Geese also flew south-west over Rowe's Flashe Lake on Christmas Eve. 
Egyptian Geese were also recorded flying over on the 21st and the 27th. Other noteworthy flyovers recently have included Raven, with one west on the 27th and another south-west on the 31st, and single Red Kites east on the 23rd and 24th.
Whilst opening the boathouse on the 26th I heard a 'te-zek' call high overhead and just briefly caught a glimpse of a roughly Chaffinch-sized bird disappearing over the trees, heading south, before it called again: 'tchuu'. I can't say for certain but the only bird I can think of with a call that matches that is Lapland Bunting. The sacrificial game crop fields across the Thorncombe Valley do, I know, attract good numbers of Reed Buntings and Yellowhammers at this time of year, so who's to say this bird hadn't stopped off there before heading further south?
Down at Rowe's Flashe there have been noticeably more Tufted Ducks recently, with over thirty recorded on some days towards the end of the month. Volunteer Ann Jacobs captured this nice shot of some on the 28th. 
Meanwhile a Kingfisher continues to maintain a regular presence, as do the roosting Reed Buntings in the reedbed on the eastern side. There were at least three in there first thing on the 23rd

Pheasants are a familiar sight all around the arboretum, particularly so at this time of year when there's rather less vegetation for them to hide in. Volunteer Ann photographed this male in Badger's Bowl recently.
Moving on to woodland birds, and there have been plenty of Redwings, Siskins and Bullfinches around, as usual. On Christmas Eve I noted five Bullfinches along the Spring Walk, including one singing. There's also regularly been a singing Dunnock here in recent days.  
Single Bramblings were noted on the 17th when one flew east and the 26th when one briefly alighted in a tree near the car park before flying south-east.
There was a Firecrest calling in the vicinity of the boathouse on Christmas Eve while on Christmas Day I was told there was one calling along the footpath just on the south-western edge of the arboretum.
The local Buzzards and Sparrowhawks have started to display over the arboretum in recent days; another surefire sign that spring is getting nearer.

Male Sparrowhawk
Meanwhile, I noted the first drumming Great Spotted Woodpecker of the season by Rowe's Flashe early on the 31st.
Also on the 31st there was a Red Admiral on the wing, flying high around the treetops in The Bowl. The last butterfly of the year!

The more open landscape at this time of year provides more opportunities to catch a glimpse of our resident Roe Deer. I had a close encounter with this group on Sorbus Hill the other morning.
If you've visited Winkworth recently you won't have been able to miss the swathes of golden daffodils around the upper arboretum, but they are not the only floral signs of spring to be found, as the mild weather has induced many plants to flower weeks or, in some cases, months earlier than normal. Here's just a small selection of some I've noticed this past week or so:

Primrose (Primula vulgaris) - Usual flowering time: March-May

Dog's Mercury (Mercurialis perennis) - Usual flowering time: February-April

Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca) - Usual flowering time: April-July

Common Vetch (Vicia sativa) - Usual flowering time: May-September

However the biggest surprise for me was during the Boxing Day walk when I noticed these newly-emerging leaves on a Pedunculate Oak (Quercus robur) in Badger's Bowl. 

Previous El Niño winters have ended with a blast of cold weather in February and March. If this winter follows suit then much of our flora and fauna is in for a rather nasty shock!

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Wild Winkworth, December so far

Continuing where November left off, December has so far been largely damp and grey, but the unseasonably mild weather has seen the onward march of spring continue unabated around the arboretum. Those of you who've visited recently will have seen the now numerous swathes of daffodils in flower around the upper arboretum and several Camellias now blooming along the Spring Walk. The more eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed the first Snowdrops beginning to poke through the soil, particularly at the top of the Azalea Steps. 
The birds too are getting into the swing of spring, as some of our resident species are now already in fine voice, particularly Song Thrush
and Great Tit
Other species becoming vocal lately include Mistle Thrush, Stock Dove, Blackbird, Dunnock, Robin and Wren, although the latter two do often sing right through the winter months.
Last year I heard the first drumming Great Spotted Woodpecker of the season in the arboretum on 27th December - I wonder if it'll be even earlier this year?
After a flurry of Brambling sightings last month I've only seen or heard them on five occasions so far in December - on the 1st, 2nd, 10th, 13th and 16th.
A Kingfisher has again become a regular visitor to Rowe's Flashe Lake, with one seen or heard most days recently. This iconic species sadly doesn't breed here but clearly at least one individual is overwintering in the area. 
Other highlights on the lake recently include two Egyptian Geese on the 13th -  the first record of this species actually 'on the deck' here in a while - and notably high counts of three Grey Heron and three Little Grebe on the 16th. 
 Little Grebe
Water Rails have been heard regularly in Phillimore Wetlands and the Gunnera Swamp recently. 

Just one record of Firecrest so far this month: one calling by the boathouse on the 2nd. 
Although confined mainly to the Phillimore area during the breeding season, Marsh Tits roam around a bit more at this time of year and this week I have noted ones in the upper arboretum near to the tearoom and the public toilets.

Bullfinches are, as ever, a common sight and sound around the arboretum, although I haven't yet beaten my record of at least ten I counted around the place on 24th January this year. 
John Rowland captured this nice photo of a male recently:
John also photographed a Cormorant down at Rowe's Flashe on the 15th. 
Raptors have been represented so far in December by Kestrel, Buzzard, Sparrowhawk, Red Kite (one over the Bowl on the 10th) and Peregrine (one over Rowe's Flashe on the 16th before flying southwest).
It's got to that time of year where it's more or less dark when I arrive for work in the morning and when I leave in the evening, so I've been hearing the odd hooting male Tawny Owl about the place, although I've yet to find the roosting individual that senior gardener Daniel discovered in the upper arboretum recently - do let me know if you see it!


Sunday, 29 November 2015

Wild Winkworth, November 2015

As always, lots to talk about these past few weeks. It's been a largely mild, grey and drizzly kind of November with just a very short-lived cold snap during the third week, producing a couple of frosty nights and even the odd snow flurry. The autumn colour ended pretty abruptly this year, thanks to the cold combined with some high winds, but it was by all accounts one of the best colour displays in recent years. Visiting Winkworth towards the end of the month though you could be forgiven for thinking you'd missed winter and we'd jumped straight to spring as there are already Daffodils, Witch Hazels and Cherry trees all flowering around the arboretum!

November is a great time to get out and see some of the bird species that migrate to our shores for the winter, and Winkworth is as good a place as any in Surrey to see some of them. The many berry-bearing trees and shrubs around the arboretum have been teeming with thrushes recently, particularly the yellow-berried Sorbus 'Joseph Rock' near the main car park, which was covered in Redwings, Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and Fieldfares every day last week. 
Song Thrush

I've been seeing and hearing plenty of Bramblings about the place recently, peaking at sixteen on the 18th when I photographed these two in Furze Field.
Crossbills were recorded several times during the month, the highest number being five which flew over the Bowl on the 10th. On the 19th a Little Egret flew low south-west over Rowe's Flashe Meadow, seemingly coming down towards the southern end of the lake but as I was in the middle of doing post-storm tree inspections at the time I wasn't able to check. I only noted Firecrest twice this month, on the 7th and the 24th, on both occasions in the vicinity of the boathouse. Unfortunately I wasn't able to get a photo but John Rowland did capture this nice image of the more common Goldcrest the other day. 
On the 17th a Woodcock flew south-east over Rowe's Flashe Meadow at dusk while on the 24th one flew up in my car headlights as I drove home along the road by Phillimore Wetland.
The frosty start on the 23rd had an air of northern promise about it and I was half expecting something a bit unusual to appear when half a dozen 'Grey Geese' flew in from the north-west over the top arboretum. I only got the briefest of views and only heard a couple of calls but it was enough to tell me they were not Greylags. Beyond that I wouldn't want to say for sure!
Other species of note this month have included Water Rail (two calling together in Phillimore on the 27th), Marsh Tit (popping up all over the place recently), Reed Bunting (either in the reedbed by Rowe's Flashe or in Phillimore), occasional Kingfishers at Rowe's Flashe Lake and a Winkworth first for me in the form of a Yellowhammer which flew north on the 8th. There have also been some characteristically massive movements of Woodpigeons, such as on the 9th when at least two thousand flew south first thing. 

As ever there have been a few Roe Deer around the arboretum recently, and in quieter moments they will allow you to approach very close, like these two I photographed in the Bowl on the 18th. 
Keeping on the mammal theme, on the 27th I somewhat belatedly saw my first Winkworth Stoat, albeit very briefly, as it scuttled across the path in front of me near Rowe's Flashe Meadow. 

Another thing to look for at this time of year is of course fungi, and there's a wide array of weird and wonderful specimens to be seen around the arboretum at the moment. I don't confess to be the greatest mycologist but volunteer Ann Jacobs thankfully is and has been taking some wonderful photographs here recently, like this Common Eyelash (Scutellinia scutellata) she found on a dung heap near the overflow car park. 
Although butterflies are now fast becoming a distant memory - aside from the Small Tortoiseshell I saw on the 18th - there is still some lepidopteran interest to be had in the form of some of the autumn moth species, some of which are more colourful than others. Several moths even found their way into the temporary public toilets earlier in the month which I took photos of as I extricated them each morning.
Sprawler (Asteroscopus sphinx)
November Moth agg. (Epirrita sp.)
Mottled Umber (Erannis defoliaria)

That's all for this time. To finish, how about this for a gorgeous sunrise? Who says the autumn colour is all gone!


Friday, 6 November 2015

Birds at Winkworth, 3rd-4th November 2015

A very short week at Winkworth for me as I was up at our sister property, Claremont Landscape Garden, on Monday providing gardener cover and carrying out a bird survey.

I returned to Winkworth on Tuesday to find a female Pochard on Rowe's Flashe Lake - my first one here of this second winter period. 
There were also 23 Canada Geese on the lake, the highest number I have seen here to date. 

Later in the morning I was called over to the tearoom to deal with a bird that was sat on the floor and not moving. Expecting a Blackbird or Robin or something similarly familiar, I was surprised to walk through the door and see it was a Nuthatch! It was clearly stunned from either flying into a window or had had a lucky escape from a cat perhaps, and let me pick it up with no struggle.
It looked in good physical condition so I gently introduced it to the trunk of a nearby oak tree which it clung on to of its own accord and, in time, began to climb up out of reach as it regained its senses.

Never a dull moment in this job!

On Monday afternoon I heard the loud and unmistakeable call of Crossbill and just caught sight of two flying low over the trees near the kiosk. Judging by the calls though there were quite a few more that I didn't see.

On Wednesday morning there was a Firecrest calling by the boathouse, while at least two Brambling were flying around/over the lower arboretum, calling. 
Just before dusk on Wednesday there was a Kingfisher down at Rowe's Flashe Lake and a single Reed Bunting flew west.

November is the month when Woodpigeons form into huge flocks and roam in search of suitable feeding areas. I filmed this short clip on Tuesday morning in Rowe's Flashe Meadow and it shows part of a movement of over a thousand Woodpigeons that flew south first thing. Sadly my phone didn't really pick it up but I can tell you that the sound of that many wings is quite something!

Note the Siskins calling in the background - there were at least forty flying around in a tight flock while I was filming this. 
Other flyover bits of note included a Red Kite north, mobbed by Rooks, and over a hundred Fieldfares south in small groups on Tuesday.


Sunday, 1 November 2015

Wild Winkworth, October snippets

'The summer-flower has run to seed,
And yellow is the woodland bough;
And every leaf of bush and weed
Is tipt with autumn’s pencil now.'

The opening lines of John Clare's 'Autumn', and now very apt as the season is well and truly upon us. The trees are turning some wonderful shades around the arboretum and some of the early ornamentals have already lost many of their leaves, smattering the ground with dots of red and gold.
The misty hazy mornings this month have already brought with them the odd touch of grass frost and ripe berries are fast disappearing from the hedgerows and trees, gobbled up by hungry creatures. Jays become more conspicuous at this time of year, flitting from Oak to Oak, collecting acorns to store away for the cold winter months to come - did you know that a single Jay can gather five thousand acorns in one autumn?
It's not just the landscape that is changing though, as the autumn migration season is now in full flow and birds are sweeping across Britain in their hundreds of thousands and there has been much evidence of this at Winkworth recently.
The early Redwings I mentioned in my last blog post have now been joined by many more - on the 20th I noted over a hundred over the arboretum in the first hour of the day alone, mostly heading south and west, some very high so presumably had just arrived from Scandinavia overnight. Check out the Sorbus and other berry-bearing trees in the Bowl to get a closer look at these handsome thrushes. The first Fieldfares, meanwhile, were a flock of thirty or so which flew west on the 17th.
Skylarks too have been moving in numbers. Up until this month it had been weeks since I'd seen or heard one here, but I've recorded over a dozen over in the past couple of weeks alone.
There have also been noticeably more Reed Buntings around lately and it would appear they are using the small reedbed next to Rowe's Flashe Lake as a roost site as I noted three flying from there early on the 20th followed by six doing the same on the 22nd.
On the morning of the 27th it was a very nice surprise to find two Pintail (a female and a young drake) and two first-year drake Wigeon on Rowe's Flashe Lake - both new species for me here. One of the Wigeon flew off early in the day while the Pintail and remaining Wigeon stuck around for the rest of the day. All had gone, however, by the time I returned to Winkworth on the 30th after two days' training at Polesden Lacey. Both of these species breed in Northern Europe, Iceland, Scandinavia and Russia so these individuals were presumably tired first-time migrants stopping off for a rest en route to their wintering grounds, perhaps somewhere on the south coast.

In keeping with the Siskin invasion going on all over Britain and indeed Europe at the moment, there have been loads here in the past few weeks; many seemingly just passing through but others lingering. The Alder trees on the eastern side of Rowe's Flashe Lake are a reliable spot for them, while on 8th October John Rowland got some nice shots of some of a flock of at least forty which were frequenting the Western Hemlock trees along the edge of the overflow car park.

Butterflies are getting very scarce now, but the warmer days towards the end of the month have seen the odd Red Admiral on the wing in the arboretum, while on the 13th visitor Graham Dash reported seeing a Small Copper

There are some lovely moths to be seen around this time of year and I've been finding a few around the place recently, like this Angle Shades I found on my car door handle when I was leaving work the other evening...
...and this Feathered Thorn which had decided to take refuge in the public toilets!
I've been finding a lot of Common Frogs around the arboretum recently, particularly in The Bowl, so keep an eye out if you're kicking through the fallen leaves! 
While the autumn leaf colour is (rightly!) taking centre stage in the arboretum at present, there are still a few splashes of flower colour around - this Nettle-leaved Bellflower is putting on an unusually late show near the top of the Fiona Adam Steps.
As ever Roe Deer are a common sight around the arboretum in small numbers, particularly the Badger's Bowl lately where these two were hanging out early on the 6th.
And to finish this blog post, how about this for a cool-looking bug? It's a Hawthorn Shieldbug (Acanthosoma haemorrhoidale) which I luckily spotted before I sat on it as it had taken a shine to the seat of our off-road buggy!


Monday, 5 October 2015

Wild Winkworth, early Autumn

First off, apologies for the extended break between blog posts. I was away in South Africa for the first three weeks of September and have come back to find autumn is well and truly with us at Winkworth! The trees are beginning to turn some wonderful shades around the arboretum now, particularly the Katsuras (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) dotted about the place giving their glorious burnt sugar scent, and the Maples (Acers) in The Bowl and Badger's Bowl (pictured below).
It’s clearly been all go on the bird front while I’ve been away and this has continued as September has given way to October. The Swallows are largely gone – the five I saw flying south-west on 3rd October may prove to be amongst the last of the year here – while House Martins too are gathering to depart. Over two hundred and fifty hirundines passed over on 24th September, mostly House Martins, and mostly heading east/south-east. First thing on the 25th a Hobby flew strongly south-west over Rowe’s Flashe Lake; another of our summer visitors which won’t be with us very much longer. Other raptors seen recently have been occasional Sparrowhawk and Kestrel, and more regular sightings of Buzzard, including this one perched conspicuously atop a Larch in the Bowl. 
 On the warbler side of things, there are still a fair few Chiffchaffs around, some of them singing from time to time to defend feeding territories as they fuel up for their long southward migrations. Towards the end of September there were still a couple of Blackcaps hanging around in the Elder bushes in Furze Field, although these too will soon be on their way. As the summer migrants prepare to leave though, so the winter visitors are already streaming in. There have been lots of Meadow Pipits moving through in the past couple of weeks, and the first Redwings of autumn were three flying south-east on the morning of the 28th followed by another seven on the 30th. Siskin numbers are increasing, with a flock of at least thirty in the Alders around Rowe’s Flashe Lake on 3rd October and lots more moving around overhead. On the 28th I noted the first Redpoll flying around with the Siskin flock by the lake. Firecrests and Marsh Tits have been a bit more conspicuous just recently, the Firecrest in the photo below showing well with a roving Tit flock by Rowe’s Flashe last week although sadly the light wasn't in my favour.
 On the morning of the 29th there were three Water Rails calling simultaneously in Phillimore Wetland – the highest count of this species here to date – while later in the day a 1st winter Common Gull flew south; the first one of autumn here. Other bird bits of note have been regular Grey Wagtails down at Rowe’s Flashe Lake plus occasional visits from a Kingfisher. On the 30th three Egyptian Geese flying south-east represented my first record of this species here for a while. Talking of geese, a Bar-headed Goose on Rowe’s Flashe on the 29th was a bit unexpected. Although in the wild this species holds the record for the highest bird migration, having been recorded flying at altitudes of over 7km, this individual had very likely escaped from a private collection. 
Butterfly numbers have dropped away sharply while I’ve been away and despite the warm sunshine in the past week or so I have only noted the odd Speckled Wood, Red Admiral or Large or Small White around the arboretum, although today I did stumble across a Peacock while tidying out one of our wood stores - clearly it had chosen it as a good place to spend the winter. Dragonflies too are becoming scarcer but I’m still seeing the odd Migrant Hawker and Common Darter around.
Roe Deer remain a common sight around the arboretum, particularly in the mornings. I spotted these three having a rest in the field below Sorbus Hill the other day. 
To finish this blog post, a few more autumnal images from the past couple of weeks. I love this time of year!
Garden Spider (Araneus diadematus)
Elderberries (Sambucus nigra)
Orange Peel Fungus (Aleuria aurantia)
Common Toad (Bufo bufo)
Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)