May in the Forest

This is the best month for dawn chorus walks, when you can hear a symphony of song from many different kinds of birds in woods, parks and gardens. On the May Day holiday (6th May this year) the sun will rise at 5.26 am – wait until the end of the month and it will be nearly half an hour earlier.

It is generally the male who sings, driven by the imperatives of the breeding season: to announce their territory, deter rival males, attract and keep a mate. The songs can be very complex and evidence suggests that birds will sing a basic song peculiar to their own species but listen to, and learn from, others of their kind and practice to produce a more sophisticated version with various embellishments. This can result in a ‘local dialect’ of song. I’m doing well if I can identify a handful of bird songs. One of my favourites, which I’d noticed and listened to long before I knew the singer, is that of the Wren. This tiny bird packs a punch with its loud song of repeated notes and rapid trills: an amazing sound to come from a miniscule body.

House Martins are newly arrived and will set to making their nests of mud under the eaves of houses and barns. Should the weather have turned dry, you can help them greatly by putting out trays of mud in a location safe from predators.

For many birds the breeding season is already well-advanced. You may come across a baby bird looking helpless and wonder how you can help, and indeed whether you should try.  The advice of those who know, e.g.  Songbird Survival, is that nestlings (with no or few feathers) can be returned to the nest but fledgelings (which have feathers and are ready to leave the nest) are best left alone as a parent bird is probably feeding them. Also:

  • Keep any intervention to a minimum
  • Keep surrounding areas free of potential predators, particularly cats – keep your cat indoors where possible during this vulnerable season for baby birds
  • If you do need to handle a bird, wear gloves and maintain minimum contact to minimise stress for the bird
  • Don’t try to feed and look after baby birds yourself – this needs specialist experience of a wildlife rehabilitator. Our nearest is Cuan Wildlife Rescue at Much Wenlock.

Linda Iles

April in the Forest

We all love a bit of sunshine and our reptiles (lizards, slow worms and snakes) love it even more. They don’t have a mammal’s ability to regulate their body temperatures so they need to move to a place of greater or lesser warmth to keep their metabolism at an optimum temperature. A big stone or patch of dry bracken can provide a nice, warm spot in the sun but exposes them to the watchful eyes of predators such as buzzards. You may have been lucky to find them under tarpaulins or in piles of composting plant material, but deliberately providing basking places gives you a much greater chance of seeing them and gives these declining species of wildlife some much-needed help.

We used to see slow worms very occasionally when we first came to the farm but it was generally when our chickens, which were then very free-ranging, caught one and fought each other for the privilege of eating the poor creature. Now we have several pieces of corrugated iron (also known as ‘wriggly tin’ but made of steel in any case!) placed around the farm and lift them from time to time during the summer to see what we can see! These ‘refugia’ can also be made out of roofing felt or Onduline and need to be placed beside long vegetation which will allow the creatures to move safely to and fro. There are certainly many more reptilian visitors than we would have known about otherwise, and they are often joined under the tin sheets by black ants and voles, both of which like to make nests in the warm, dry conditions. Our best count so far was on a warm August day last year when we had a total of 11 grass snakes and 15 slow worms under 5 of the tins. I chose this subject for the April article because this is usually the earliest month when we can expect to see any reptiles, although we have already seen a small slow worm in March this year. In September we often find several grass snake skins either under the tins, by rocks or in the wood pile: anywhere where the snake can take cover while using a rough edge to help slough off the old skin which it has grown out of. The photos show a grass snake and the creepy-looking head end of a shed skin. This one was 96cm long and was probably from a female.

Incidentally, grass snakes do not have a venomous bite and so are completely harmless. They have learnt to keep away from people and will take cover as soon as they feel the vibrations of approaching steps, so if you see one you can feel very honoured!

Linda Iles