December has been an excellent month, in this area, for seeing kingfishers, and these colourful long beaked birds can be seen around the canal and on local ponds. They seem to come alive at this time of year, and their striking plumage stands out when there is less undergrowth. They have a habit of sitting on perches, usually branches that stick out over the body of water, and then, if approached, fly off fast and low away from the observer to another prominent perch, often giving a loud piping call as they fly. They have been seen on the canal at Tattenhall, Christleton, Hoole, & Chester as well as on the ponds & stream at Caldy Valley. Winter also sees the return of snipe to wet meadows, but these long beaked birds are now quite rare, as are the longer curved beaked curlew, the bird with an evocative call that calls its name as it flies. A number of beautifully camouflaged fast flying snipe have been flushed out recently from the wet meadows at Hockenhull and also along the river Gowy. They too fly fast and low away from observers when alarmed, but often will settle in dense vegetation until the intruder disappears. There have also been several recent reports of the elusive water rail being seen, and these slate grey and brown water birds with slightly curved red bills, about the size of a moorhen have appeared at several well known sites, often given away by their squealing calls, rather like pigs. They skulk in dense vegetation, but can sometimes be seen in the open passing from one clump of reed beds to another in search of food. They eat worms, snails, aquatic insects, tadpoles and fish. The best place to see them locally is on the wetlands at Burton Mere.
Many people walking in the area will be familiar with the sight of a tall grey heron standing in the open on fields or towpath alongside the canal, or on the bank of local ponds, often not concerned about the passer by until they get extremely close. Sometimes they will stand absolutely still staring into the water beneath them, as they search for food such as small fish or frogs. They fly with a rather jerky ungainly flight with their large yellow beak protruding out in front and long legs trailing behind. Nowadays you are also likely to see a similar species, which appears to be a pure “white heron” with a long black bill, yellow legs and a short white plume on its head. This is the little egret, which is much smaller in size than the heron, and hardly makes a sound, unlike the harsh “krark” of its bigger cousin. These small “white herons” often fly inland, but can usually be seen on estuaries such as the River Dee. There are good numbers there at present. Occasionally a taller white plumaged bird, similar in size to the grey heron will be seen, but a look at its wide spoon like bill will give the game away, as it will almost certainly be the spoonbill, which is a rare visitor to the Dee, but is more usually seen on the east coast if England where it breeds, having arrived there from the traditional nest sites in the Netherlands. Its distinctive large spoon-like black bill often with a yellow tip enables it to feed with a sweeping or scything action in shallow water.
All three of the above species nest in tall trees, and are easily visible from the ground. They are also distinctive in flight, but shouldn’t be mistaken for the large black heron sized birds with similar long beak and shorter black legs which can often be seen flying along the canal, or sitting on banks and fishing platforms on local ponds such as at Christleton. The cormorant usually nests on sea cliffs, and is said to eat up to 4kg of fish a day, but regularly comes inland for food these days, especially in winter. The adults have a glossy green-black plumage with a white face, and slightly hooked bill, whilst youngsters can be easily identified by their pale white bellies. They swim with uptilted heads, and can be seen diving for fish, often staying under the surface for considerable periods.
At the beginning of February I had the superb fortune to come across the sight of three brown hares together in a field, clearly showing activity related to mating. Two of them which I assumed were males, were following each other around their territory sniffing at the ground, pausing, then following identical routes around the field boundary. I witnessed this behaviour for ten minutes or so, photographing them even as they came to within 10m of me. They were so engrossed in each other’s behaviour they did not see me behind a low fence. A few minutes had elapsed after they had gone off in completely different directions, when I saw two hares together bouncing off into the distance. I presumed that on this occasion the dominant male had found/won a mate. Brown hares graze mainly on vegetation and nibble bark and small bushes. They are usually found on arable and pasture land, but often can be seen in rough ground or on the wet meadow. Hares are much bigger than rabbits and can be identified by their long ears, twice as long as their head, with black tips. Their fur is a warm brown, with paler undersides and orange brown flanks. Their tails are very short and are white underneath, but show black when running. They really bounce along on open ground, often in a zig zag pattern, and often can be seen leaping in the air using energy from their powerful hind legs. Their speed often helps them escape predators, which are probably foxes and buzzards in this area. Hares shelter in a “form” a simple depression in the ground, and can have three or four leverets after a 42day gestation period, which although small are fully furred when born. A doe can give birth three times a year. March is a good time to see them, when their normal shy & nocturnal behaviour changes almost to a frenzy, and their habit of “boxing” occurs, giving rise to the old expression “as mad as a March Hare”. Boxing when two hares face each other, striking out with their paws, occurs between sexes and is not just a match between two males seeking dominance. Although most active in spring they can be seen around all year. Leverets are well looked after by the adults and I’ve seen an adult hare run off in different directions to prevent a predator getting close to the “form”. I usually see them in fields & meadows alongside the R. Gowy, on arable land in Littleton or between Tattenhall and Burwardsley.
Members of the colourful finch family make a wonderful contribution to the birds you might see in your garden during Spring. They are also very active in the countryside, so be on the lookout for them everywhere. My favourite is the colourful goldfinch, with its sparkling red white & black head, and bright patches of gold on its wing. They can often appear in large groups, and regularly take food from seed feeders in gardens. The more secretive bullfinch is a real treat to see, the male with his black crown and deep crimson chest, the female with a black crown but chocolate coloured body. Both have black wings and appear quite chunky compared with other finches. They are not welcomed by fruit farmers as they have a favoured habit of feeding on emerging new blossom on fruit trees in their orchards.
Chaffinches often form large flocks and have a distinctive pink breasts, and an easily identifiable call sounding like “pink pink” They can often be seen hopping along in open ground in parks & forests together with groups of greenfinches and siskins. Sadly greenfinch numbers are well down as they seem to have developed a disease which has affected a considerable number of them. They are fairly easy to identify being largely green with yellow edges along their wings. They also have a very distinctive nasal and repetitive “skeer, skeer” as their main call, but also use a “chup-chup” sound in flight. They are appreciably bigger than their siskin cousins. Siskins are generally a much brighter green as well as having a dark crown on their heads. They also love seeds, and are agile feeders at both bird tables and hanging feeders. All the finches have a short stumpy beak to enable them to crack open seeds and nuts. Sadly another two species of finch, the yellowhammer and linnet, once very common in this area, have now almost disappeared. The yellowhammer with its call “little-bit-of -bread and no cheese” was a real favourite in Cheshire in the 1960-70’s, and at one stage was regarded as the “County Bird”. I used to record family parties of fifty - sixty birds at Hockenhull Platts during winter months, and they were regular breeding pairs on the reserve. Linnets too were quite common in the area, especially where there were patches of gorse, but these delightful songsters seem to have been lost. Their song was so sweet, that the Victorians used to cage them, and have them on display in front parlours. Thankfully that habit has long gone, but so have these delightful birds, which is a real shame.
Birds are probably most active in our gardens in April and May. Nest sites are being established and constructed, and territorial disputes settled. We currently have both house and hedge sparrows making nests in our hedge and roof, blue tits and wrens disputing a nest box, three robins fighting each other over territory, and long tailed tits making the occasional visit to the feeders. Blue tits are really clever in planning their breeding, as they seem to time the moment for their young to be born, with the emergence of tiny green caterpillars on nearby oak trees. It was once estimated that adult blue tits flew hundreds of miles, flying from nest box to food sources whilst bringing up a clutch of up of youngsters. Numbers of clutch size can vary, but I’ve seen as many as thirteen baby blue tits leave a nest box within a short period, only to see the last two stragglers emerge slowly and unsteadily and be predated by a sparrowhawk and a cat. One year we had blue tits and wrens fighting over the ownership of a nest box. It really was a ferocious fight, claw to claw with both pairs involved. Eventually the blue tits won, and the wrens later nested in the hedge.
Starlings are also very active at present, not only feeding on a fat tower, but on crushed sunflower seeds. They also busy themselves around the garden, probing for grubs and worms, and often sit preening and singing from the top of our hedge. I love watching their shimmering colours as they preen. If they were less common we would probably think of them as being a very attractive bird. Robins can become very friendly when not disputing territory with each other, and will often come down to feed close by, if you are working in the garden. They also have a lovely song, but will be drowned out by the shrill call of a wren, which for its size, is probably the noisiest bird you will hear. However if you are lucky enough to have a pair of blackbirds or song thrushes nearby, you will be able to hear both species singing their beautiful melodious songs throughout the day.
Wildflowers growing in the countryside this spring seem to have had a head start after the very wet but warm winter. They, like the wonderful blossom on trees in the gardens have been early and profuse. The first to appear on the meadow were the lady smock, sometimes called cuckoo pint or May flower, which this year appeared well before May, in fact early April. These delicate pink or light lilac flowers are the food plant of the first butterfly to appear, the orange tip, which also feeds on nearby ragged robin. These rather strange plants, beautiful pink flowers with fifteen points on their flowering heads, can often be found together with the smaller pink but more rounded flowers of red/pink campion.
The bright yellow marsh marigold is another profuse and early flowering plant, and is soon joined by delicate yellow cowslips with their tiny bell like flowers on dropped heads. Later in nearby ponds and ditches, the larger vivid and striking flowers of yellow flag iris can be seen. Meanwhile along the margins of woodland or lanes are the pretty white flowers of stitchwort, lesser stitchwort and wood anemone, which will soon be joined by the spiky white flowers of the aromatic wild garlic and in many places by colourful beds of bluebells. All these flowers are special and make our wildlife areas come alive each spring.
As mentioned earlier, some are food plants for butterflies and other insects, and this is particularly true of the May or hawthorn blossom. In spring the beautiful white blossom attracts holly blue, red admiral and tortoishell butterflies, to be replaced in autumn when the flowers have been transformed into bright red berries, providing food for hundreds of hungry redwing and fieldfare, migratory thrushes, that come to these shores from Scandinavia, for our “warmer winters”.
June and July is the most active time in the breeding season for spotting these fast moving birds. In the Chester area sand martins are usually the first to arrive from their wintering sites in Africa, closely followed by swallows house martins and swifts. Sadly sand martins are now very scarce, although efforts are being made to encourage them with an artificial nest site at the RSPB Burton Meres Reserve. They have sandy brown upper wing colour with white underparts and short tail. Next to arrive from their wintering grounds in South Africa are swallows, which are probably still the most numerous of this group of migrants. They have long angled wings and deeply forked tails, which helps to identify them. Their upper parts are a dark metallic like blue, with a red face and throat. They also fly very fast, and like house martins swoop low over water to catch insects. Good places to see this behaviour include the Shropshire Union Canal and Christleton Pit. Both swallows and house martins build nests on houses, usually under the eaves, and these are painstakingly built using tiny globules of mud found nearby. The swallows nest is flatter and simpler than the house martins, and usually can be found on ledges, on which they build their open shallow capped nest. The house martins nest however is gourd shape, with a narrow half open entrance and is usually well secured to the underside of eaves. House martins also have shorter sturdier bodies than a swallow, with jet black upper parts and white underside. They also have shorter shallow forked tails and nest in colonial groups, but don’t share the same sites as swallows and swifts.
The faster, sleeker, scimitar winged swifts have a very different nesting technique, and as well as being the latest to arrive, usually in early May, build inside the eaves of buildings. They are bigger than swallows and martins, and have an almost all black colouring with a white chin. They can be heard “screeching” in the skies above their nests sites, often doing so in family groups. They are the most aerial of these species, and land only to incubate eggs and feed young. They also have specialist needs in terms of the roofs they build in, and as the type of roofs they prefer are modernised with energy saving in mind, fewer and fewer nest sites are available to them. Swifts leave their nest sites at the beginning of August, whilst most swallows and martins wait until they gather into bigger groups, and don’t leave this area until mid-end of September. Later broods are often still here in late October and have an even more hazardous journey to their wintering sites in Africa.
The fine weather we’ve experienced this summer has brought a most welcome change in the breeding success of many bird species. The most remarkable recovery has been that of the barn owl. 2013 was a disastrous time for them with only a tiny proportion of birds producing young. This year has been the complete reverse. The relatively warm winter, with sunny spring and early summer has seen vegetation grow at enormous rates. This in turn has encouraged the breeding population of small mammals of mice, voles and shrews, leading to an increased food supply for all species of owl. Tawny and Little Owls have been seen and heard more regularly than usual, but the most dramatic success has been the increase in numbers of barn owls. Nest boxes locally have contained four, five and six young owlets, and the sight of seeing them all learning to fly has been thrilling. At dusk on several occasions I’ve watched as they’ve ventured onto the ledge of their nest box, shuffled around for ten minutes or so, with much twisting and turning of heads, before trying to launch themselves into space. One, perhaps the larger of the three, flapped with great energy and managed to get up to the ridge of the box. The second managed to glide down to a nearby branch, and the third flapped frantically, launched itself into space and flopped straight to the ground. This smaller pure white faced owlet, then tried wing flapping for many minutes to gain enough lift to get back to the safety of the box. Meanwhile one of the adults had been searching the meadows for food and brought an instant meal to the owlets sitting, listening, with much head turning on the bare branch. This pattern of behaviour happened for several nights before they all became proficient fliers, and could then be seen hunting for themselves. Flying & gliding with a ghost like appearance, silently across the wide expanse of the big meadow before coming to a sudden halt, hovering for a short while then diving onto an unsuspecting prey below. A magical and wonderful sight to see, even for the experienced observer. Let’s hope the recovery in owl numbers continues.
Late August and early September is a good time to see butterflies in your garden. We had some extremely good sightings in early spring, but the main influx of summer butterflies seem to be very slow in coming, and might find food scarce after the early flowering of most garden flowers. Our buddleia’s have finished flowering before the main crop of butterflies have arrived. Peacock, small tortoishell, red admiral, comma are all common garden species and if you live near the canal or meadow you might see the smaller gatekeeper, small copper, speckled wood and even common blue. This year we’ve had more bright yellow brimstone butterflies than usual, and this species now seems to be well established all over the county. Several friends have recently reported seeing both clouded yellow and painted lady butterflies. These colourful migrant butterflies from the Mediterranean and North Africa respectively appear in small numbers most years, with occasional eruptions in others. 2009 was the most spectacular recent year for painted ladies with tens of millions appearing over the UK. A few weeks ago I saw hundreds of large white butterflies fluttering over the Gowy meadows, and they had emerged on the same warm summer morning as hundreds of meadow brown and gatekeepers. The delightful gatekeepers can be identified from their small size, orangy/brown colour and two prominent white pupiled eye spots, whilst small coppers have a number of small black spots on their copper coloured wings. One of the latest summer butterflies to appear is the ragged outlined, orange coloured, comma, which feeds on fermenting fruit in gardens or along the hedgerows.
Late September and October is a really good time for family walks in the woodlands we have in this area. Apart from the colour of the trees, and the sightings of animals, birds and insects, we have a variety of fungi to enjoy. Some grow in very obvious places e.g. bracket fungi on tree trunks, others on open ground or slightly hidden in undergrowth, such as the inkcaps, puffballs, parasols, honey fungus or the highly coloured, attractive but very poisonous fly agaric. Delamere Forest, Frodsham, Helsby, Peckforton or Bickerton Hills are all good sites to see a huge variety of the fruiting bodies of these species, which can best be identified using field guides. The world of fungi is astonishing in its variety, some can be eaten safely, but many varieties are poisonous, so my advice would be if you are not sure, DON’T. Unlike plants fungi do not contain chlorophyll, so cannot live by photosynthesis. Instead they live by breaking down organic matter in the environment, and reintroduce life giving nutrients into the ecosystem. Most fungi that we might find on a walk will be growing in soil on rotting wood or on a tree trunk. The many bracket species are probably the easiest to spot and examine. My favourite is the bright yellow “chicken in the wood” variety. The most spectacular and memorable fungi for children, the fly agaric /amanita variety that usually illustrate fairy stories, should be seen and not touched! They are the poisonous variety. Although the red fly agaric is the most common, the golden yellow variety can also be seen in this area. All these start off as small domes but flatten out as they grow, sometimes growing to as much as 15cm in diameter. Another of my favourites is the sooty or shaggy inkcap, which grows from a small acorn shape to a 10cm flaky white cylindrical body, which then opens out revealing a sooty/inky black substance underneath. Edible field mushrooms are far less common these days, but do suddenly appear for no apparent reason on fields, verges and even graveyards.
November is a great time to see some of our more familiar bird species in your garden and on country walks. The partial migration of our native species in summer is well and truly over, and as food becomes scarcer in the countryside they come into gardens for additional comforts. It is possible for many fortunate families perhaps to see as many as a dozen species daily, with others coming on a more infrequent basis. I’ve recorded house sparrow, dunnock, robin, wren, blackbird, starling, magpie, chaffinch, great, blue and long tail tits this morning and friends tell me they have also seen goldcrest, greenfinch, siskin, greater spotted and green woodpeckers, jay, jackdaw, little owl and even a mute swan in the last day or so. I find it amazing that some of these species have become so friendly that they seem almost tame, and some people can identify birds that come back day after day for the titbits that we provide. Some of our species have amusing food fads, and find that whereas peanuts go stale and uneaten in our garden, they are happily scoffed somewhere else nearby. Crushed sunflower seeds seem to be the favourite here, together with dried mealworms. Sadly our song thrush seems to have deserted us these last few months, and as a consequence the number of slugs and snails, have increased dramatically. Please remember that birds also need water to drink, and benefit from a daily bath, so it’s really helpful to provide a small dish/container or larger area of water for them. You might also then get the benefit of some really good close up views.
December is a good month to welcome wildlife into our gardens, when food is perhaps getting scarcer in the fields and hedgerows. Keep your eyes open for many of our native species as well as the wintering fieldfare & redwing from Scandinavia, and returning starlings after their migration back from Europe. Black headed gulls from the Baltic have recently been recorded at the Groves, and these noisy, aggressive small gulls certainly make their presence felt by the River Dee, along the canal and on our local ponds. It does seem to have been a good breeding year for many of our smaller species, wrens, robins, blackbirds, goldfinches, goldcrests, treecreepers, hedge & house sparrows and for all members of the titmouse family, great, blue, coal and long tailed. Noisy nuthatches and woodpeckers have been seen everywhere, but both song and mistle thrushes have been noticeably missing, as have bullfinches, greenfinches and siskins. Larger birds such as the mute swans have had a dreadful year with no cygnets born at all in the Chester area as far as I am aware, but all three species of owls have had a wonderful breeding season with two clutches born in several cases. I guess the warmer spring & summer weather, and a huge increase in the numbers of smaller mammals has been a great help. In fact the recent warm autumn weather has encouraged a lot of small mammals to be still out and about and several sightings of hedgehogs is really welcome news. Shrews, voles and moles are clearly plentiful from the signs they leave behind, and otters & water voles are still active along the River Gowy which is another good news story. There have also been recent sightings of both stoats and weasels scurrying along across lanes and racing for cover into the undergrowth, but also lots of evidence of road kill, with badgers, foxes and rabbits lying dead at the side of the roads unable to avoid speeding traffic.