Welcome to the LDV NNR ringing blog, this blog is designed to share the experiences, findings and tales from a group of dedicated ringers. We specialise in conservation orientated research projects, largely focusing on wildfowl, waders, owls and birds of conservation concern, in and around the Vale of York NNR's.

NB - Whilst the purpose of this blog was initially designed to cover our nationally important wildfowl ringing activities, regular readers may have noticed the increase in posts detailing wildlife found across the valley (ranging from plants, fungi, butterflies, dragonflies & other invertebrates). Ringing posts will resume over the winter months, and will run alongside wildlife and work posts.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

02/06/15 - Magic May

Throughout the last month we've been busy recording wildlife on the reserve whilst we've been carrying out the day to day jobs around the site - follow this link to the last post to see what's been happening on site recently.

Below are a few snippets on some of the wildlife that we've seen, late April/early May can be delightful months with the emergence of many of our invertebrates, however this year we haven't seen the best of the weather, especially in comparison to last spring, although we have had our first sightings of Orange Tip and Holly Blue butterflies, Large Red Damselflies, Banded Demoiselles, 4-spotted Chaser Dragonflies, and birds such as Common Cranes, Short-eared Owls, Little Owls, Turtle Doves and Cuckoos have been pleasing finds. The first young chicks of the year have also made their first appearance, with three Little Grebes hatching on a pond in East Cottingwith along with two Oystercatcher chicks, whilst several Lapwing and Redshank broods have also been noted on the Ings. Plenty of our flowering species have also been recorded this month, with species such as Adder's-tongue Fern, Green-winged Orchid, Bugle and Ragged Robin all noted.  

At the end of April (21st) we came across the first damselfly of the year, when four Large Reds were seen on ‘Adder Heath’ and around the Bomb Bay Loop. This species is usually first found in May, with the first records from the previous two years being on the 19th May in 2014 and the 22nd May in 2013. So this is almost a month earlier than we were expecting compared with the last two years. Large Reds are the first of the damselflies to emerge in the UK, with the first records appearing from the end of April across the country. Perhaps the warm weather at the end of the month brought forward their emergence, it certainly brought out a flurry of butterflies on the Common, with 11 Orange Tips, 4 Peacocks, 3 Brimstones, 1 Small Tortoiseshell and 1 Comma all seen, along with the first Speckled Wood of the year at Bank Island.

Large Red Damselfly - Skipwith Common 

Orange Tip are a butterfly which can usually be difficult to photograph as they don’t pause on flower heads for long periods of time, or bask in the sunshine compared with some species such as Peacocks and Small Tortoiseshells. A typical view of an Orange Tip is a flash of orange (on the males), as they flit past you, disappearing from sight as quickly as they appeared. However at the end of April/early May we were treated to views of a number of individuals on the Common as they paused on some of the few Bittercress flowers that had already opened. They didn’t stop for long, but with ten different individuals stopping for nectar at this one flower head, and a bit of patience we came away with this photograph which really shows off the mottled green underwing.

Orange Tips are a true sign of spring, with them being one of the first species to emerge having not overwintered as an adult. If you haven’t seen one yet keep a good look out for them and enjoy them while you can as they are one of the butterflies with a shorter season, usually being seen in April – May and into June. The lane down to the car park at Wheldrake Ings is a good place to see them, and along with the riverside track at Bank Island where one of their larval food plants, Garlic Mustard can be found. 

Orange Tip - Skipwith Common 

One of the other butterflies that we recorded in May in the Lower Derwent Valley was the Holly Blue, which is not a particularly common butterfly on the Ings - only a single individual was noted last year in 2014. They are more often than not found in local villages where their two key food plants – Holly and Ivy, are more readily found. This butterfly is unique amongst British butterflies in having two different food plants at different seasons – using Holly in the spring and Ivy in the autumn, although the caterpillars are also known to feed on Bramble, Dogwood, Spindle and Gorse.

Holly Blue - Melbourne 

Lately as we’ve been out and about in the valley undertaking management and surveys, we’ve encountered several of these little ‘bugs’ – Red and Black Froghoppers. Whilst not one of the commonest species of froghopper out there, it is one of the more unmistakable with its bright colours, and at 1cm long, it is one of the largest. It can be found commonly across much of Britain from April to August – just in the last few weeks there seems to have been a large emergence around the valley. The adults feed by sucking the sap of many plant species - we’ve been generally coming across them on Hogweed, although they can also be found in a wide range of habitats from grasslands, woodlands and meadows. The adult’s ability of suddenly ‘jumping’ off in response to danger or a threat gives them their rather appropriate name.

Red & Black Froghopper - Melbourne

Skipwith has been a great place to watch butterflies and dragonflies lately, however it has also been providing us with continued sighting of Adders on the heath.

Adders are known to be present on the Common, however this hasn’t always been the case. The interest in reptiles on Skipwith has only been developed over the last 15 years or so – prior to this time species such as Adders and Grass Snakes were relatively scarce on the Common. Work over the last 30 years by Escrick Park Estate and Natural England has seen areas of woodland and birch scrub cleared, to help regenerate more of the open wet and dry heath for which the site is nationally important. Further fine tuning of the management since the site became a National Nature Reserve in 2009 has seen the provision of more reptile refuge and hibernacula to further boost numbers, and a greater awareness of this interest to allow more people to enjoy the Common’s reptiles – let us know if you’re lucky enough to see any on your visits by filling in the sheets in the boxes provided.
Adder - Skipwith Common

Brown Hare sightings have been less frequent during the last few weeks, however until then sightings were an almost daily occurrence, both on the Ings and surrounding farmland. Following the annual ‘boxing’ mating rituals in February/March, hares then start to pair up, with breeding taking place between February – September. The females can have at least three litters during this time, with two to four leverets born on each occasion. Sightings of leverets have been noted in previous years from June, with Wheldrake Ings and North Duffield Carrs being favourable spots to see them in the past. Once the leverets have been born they are often left alone in the grass throughout the daytime (to hopefully avoid attracting predators), the female then returns in the evening and gathers her young around her to feed. The young are left in what is known as a form, this is also a place where the adult will rest, usually before laying down the hare will scrape away the vegetation making a shallow depression. Forms are often made in the shelter of a grass tussock or next to a stone which will give protection from the wind. The female will choose a suitable form to give birth in, and will line the bare ground with fur from her coat.

This stunning individual was captured on camera recently at North Duffield Carrs by local birder/photographer Mark Hughes. 

Brown Hare - North Duffield 

The end of April saw the arrival of Turtle Doves and Cuckoos, with the latter reported numerous times from a variety of sites throughout the month (see recent sightings). The gentle purring call of the Turtle Dove from high amongst the canopy of the trees from late April/early May signals the return of this species - our only migratory dove from its wintering grounds in Africa. Like the Cuckoo, the Turtle Dove has undergone a dramatic decline throughout the British countryside, which has been mirrored across the Lower Derwent Valley. A mere four records were reported in the area during 2014, however this year three birds have already been noted - a pair have been present near Foggathorpe and another single has been heard near Skipwith Common. This is a far cry from the flocks recorded in the 1970’s and 1980’s which included a flock of 45 at Escrick in 1978,  while an influx between the 22nd April and the 8th May brought more than 50 birds to the valley in 1983. 52 pairs were still present around the valley as recently as 2000 but numbers have continued to plummet. This individual was captured on camera by local birder John Heaton who was fortunate to come across a pair in his garden!

Turtle Dove - Foggathorpe  

There can be few things that represent the arrival of the British summer better than the characteristic sound of the calling Cuckoo. With an easy to identify call, intriguing life cycle and national press interest in the arrival of the first calling bird in the country each year, the Cuckoo has it all, but unfortunately that familiar call has disappeared from many parts of the English countryside, and the bird has undergone a dramatic decline over the last 20 years. The BTO have been carrying out a research project into the species to try and understand the possible causes from this decline and have been satellite tracking several birds to follow their migration routes and discover the wintering ecology of the species – details of this work can be found here (http://www.bto.org/science/migration/tracking-studies/cuckoo-tracking).

Despite the decline, the Cuckoo is still a familiar sound around the Lower Derwent Valley and Skipwith Common, with one particularly favoured hotspot being in the Melbourne area around the Pocklington Canal at Church Bridge, where up to three males and a female have been present over the last few weeks. Other birds have been heard at Bank Island, Thornton Ellers, Wheldrake Ings, Bubwith Ings and Skipwith Common with other scattered singles elsewhere around the area. This stunning image was captured by Mark Hughes at Church Bridge last week – they are seldom seen this well, and this image highlights how ‘bird of prey’ like they appear.

Cuckoo - Melbourne 

The last month has also produced numerous raptor sightings including species such as: Short-eared Owl, Little Owl, Barn Owl, Tawny Owl, Marsh Harrier, Hobby, Peregrine, Red Kite and Buzzard. 

Little Owls are unfortunately much ‘rarer’ now in the valley than they were twenty years ago. BBS (breeding bird survey) data shows a 24% decline across the UK since 1995, with approximately 5500 pairs now thought to be present across the country. This decline has been mirrored in the valley but we are pleased to see a bit of an upturn in fortunes during this year – six pairs have been noted so far, which is pleasing to see after new boxes have been erected in the valley over the last three years. Hopefully they will have a successful year and help numbers recover from their low point.
Little Owls are charismatic little birds, more often seen out during the day time than other owl species, and choosing obvious vantage points such as buildings, tree branches or rocks from which to keep watch over their territory. At only 20cm tall and weighing just 180grams they truly are ‘little’ owls – however they make up in character what they lack in size – bobbing their head up and down in alarm or when angered. They have short rounded wings, often flying away rather low over the ground with rapid wing beats and a slightly undulating flight.

The Little Owl was introduced into the English Countryside in the 19th Century, and has found lowland farmland with hedges, small copses, orchards and areas of parkland to its liking, providing both nesting sites and suitable prey. This one was photographed near Ellerton Landing at the end of the month.

Little Owl - Ellerton 

It’s not often that we get close to a Buzzard, however the bird pictured here allowed amazing views as it perched for quite some time on a fence post on the Duffield to Skipwith road. Buzzards are now common in the valley and are seen on a daily basis, with often double figure counts made. However it’s not that long ago when they were a real scarcity in the area, and you only need to go back to the early 1990’s when they were considered rare, with only four sightings during the year in 1994 and only ten as recently as 2001. In the 14 years since then numbers have rocketed and now it’s estimated that as many as 15-20 pairs may breed around the surrounding area. This mirrors a huge range expansion across England (spreading eastwards), perhaps we’ll be saying a similar thing about Red Kites in 14 years’ time……

Common Buzzard - Skipwith  

As mentioned earlier in the post, this past month has seen the emergence of the first wader chicks for the year, with Oystercatchers, Lapwing, Redshank and Curlew all seen with chicks. Oystercatchers are a familiar sight on our rocky coastlines, but they also feature here in the Lower Derwent Valley. Small numbers breed inland, usually on the edges of gravel pits or other man-made sites, along with lowland wet grassland sites such as the valley. Whilst other breeding waders such as Common Snipe, Curlew, Lapwing and Redshank have long been associated with lowland wet grassland, Oystercatchers are a more recent addition to this list, having colonised the site in the 1970’s. 

Up to 16 pairs now nest across the area, although most breed on adjacent higher ground surrounding the valley but hold feeding territories on the Ings, often flying in at dusk. Whilst the chicks of other wader species are essentially independent and feed themselves as soon as they hatch, adult Oystercatchers feed their chicks, often leaving them hidden in vegetation whilst they are away finding food. Consequently we don’t come across chicks that often, so we were fortunate last week to find these two sitting in the long grass awaiting their parents return.

Oystercatcher chicks - East Cottingwith 

We've also been keeping an eye out for new plant species during the month, recently whilst carrying out surveys at Newton Mask (at the northern end of the valley), we took the opportunity to look for the rather aptly named Adder’s-tongue Fern. Unlike all other British ferns this species is unmistakable, with a single bright green upright frond, and a single tall spike bearing the spores - from which the fern gets its name (being similar in appearance to a snakes tongue). This species appears from mid-May to August, showing a preference for old grasslands, often on hillsides and often favouring sandy soils. This probably accounts for its location at Newton Mask, occurring on the lighter soils of the slope outside of the floodplain. Adder’s-tongue Fern is often regarded as a good indicator of ancient meadows – of which we know the Lower Derwent Valleys meadows certainly are.

Adder's-tongue Fern - Newton Mask

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