Squirrels in the Sycamores

Stripped bark

Against a clear blue sky, the winter sun picks out slashes of creamy white on the top branches of a tall sycamore, which I suspect are the result of grey squirrels stripping the bark. There’s no sign of damage on the adjacent oak but its bark, loaded with tannins, is probably not as nutritious as that of the sycamore.

The sycamore is probably the nearest that the squirrels can get to the tastier-sounding sugar maple, which, like the grey squirrel, is a native of North America.

In the topmost branches of another sycamore, a squirrel leans out to pick off buds from slender twigs which it eats, one after the other: a healthy snack.

Hornets’ Nest

Hornets at the nest hole, 13 August, 2017.
New shoots springing from the old ash stump: a natural equivalent of a coppice stool.

In the summer and early autumn, hornets nested in an old ash trunk in the parkland near the Pleasure Grounds. By mid-autumn the trunk had rotted through at the base and come adrift from its roots but it was prevented from falling towards the path by the surrounding stout stems, which had sprung up around it: a natural equivalent of coppice shoots.

Frass in old cavities in ash.

Now it has fallen back in the other direction and it lies on the ground. I can’t see the cavity that contained the hornets’ nest – it’s probably hidden on the underside – but all the timber is riddled with tunnels, some of them stuffed with frass, which has set hard like fine-textured chipboard.

Parkland Birds

Fieldfares and starlings

The fine cold morning has brought in fieldfares, twenty-five of them. We’ve been expecting them to turn up here on the grassy slopes of the Obelisk Park.

Also back this morning, on a small, partly iced over pool in the corner of a grassy field just beyond the park boundary, are fifty wigeon, which often graze on the short turf here.

Joining the regular great tits, blue tits, coal tits and robins in the lakeside woods is a goldcrest, which, thanks to its size – along with the firecrest, it’s our joint smallest British bird – can inspect the slenderest of twigs.

A jay flies up into a sapling and we notice that it seems to be keeping an eye on a kestrel, a falcon of open spaces which seems a bit incongruous in this woodland setting.

It settles for a while, looking out over the lake. We rarely get such a good view of a kestrel and I make a mental note of its yellow beak, tipped in black; the tear-drop shaped dark patch beneath its eye; and the russet tan plumage of its back, speckled with dark brown.

As it flies to another perch, it shows pale grey tail feathers, banded with dark brown, almost black, at the tips.

Mallards and Mute Swans

Midwinter is hardly over but already, on the ice-fringed Lower Lake, the mallards have mating in mind. A drake head-bobs as he swims around the duck prior to mating.

As we round a corner by a lakeside bench, we disturb a heron. It must be getting tired of seeing us as we disturbed it here, same time, same place, yesterday morning.

One of the two cygnets of the mute swan family on the Middle Lake has now lost the last of its grey feathers. It’s now almost an adult, except for its bill which gives it away as a juvenile: this looks as if that has been given a coat of grey undercoat prior to the final coat of orange, which looks so striking on the adults.

The other cygnet still has a some grey on its back, as do the four cygnets of the swan family on the Lower Lake. They seem to be spending more time away from the adults, this morning at the far end of the side arm of the lake.

At the lakeside, a cigar-shaped seed-head of reedmace disperses a couple of wisps of its downy seeds. It has been calculated that one stalk can produce 200,000 seeds.

Fieldfares in the Crab Apple

redwingredwingsWhen the snow returned yesterday morning almost an inch fell, although it wasn’t as cold as it was after last year’s snowfalls. When I’ve cleared the driveway it’s been powdery but yesterday afternoon it was just starting to turn slushy, so it was heavier and slushily sticky to clear from the paving slabs. Powdery snow leaves the driveway cleaner; slush leaves it damp and filthy.

golden hornetAs the snow fell, Blackbirds, Fieldfares and Redwings came to the Golden Hornet crab apple, the one that we pruned on Monday. The snow-covered little apples, golden until mid-autumn (left) but now frosted and brown, proved a big attraction. We counted eight Redwings and five Fieldfare around midday, although I guess that at times there were more.

redwingfieldfareMy pen and ink drawings from my 1979 Sketchbook of the Natural History of the Country Round Wakefield don’t do justice to these attractive winter thrushes. The Fieldfare’s light grey, chestnut and whitish plumage is striking against a snowy landscape, as is the chestnut red beneath the wings of the Redwing. I often have difficulty picking out the red of the Redwing when I see it in silhouette in bushes or in flight but it was very obvious today, at close quarters seen through the 10 x 50 binoculars that I keep by the studio window.

The shapes of the birds were different today; Blackbird, Redwing and Fieldfare all had a more rounded silhouette as they had their feathers fluffed out against the cold.