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.

Woodpeckers Drumming

Quarry in the Menagerie area, Nostell Priory.

Nostell Priory, 10.10 a.m., 4°C, 39°F: The rival great spotted woodpeckers are drumming again, one in the middle of the Pleasure Grounds, the other, from the sound of it, from the far side of the Lower Lake. The first time that I heard it, I was likening the drumming of the nearer bird to the percussive sound of castanets but today I realise that a castanet is too clackety; the tree that this woodpecker has chosen resonates with the more satisfyingly hollow sound of a Chinese block; ‘tockety-tock!’, not ‘clackety-clack!’.

Also calling, a green woodpecker; we hear it’s ‘yaffle’ call a couple of times from the woods on the west bank of the lake but this morning we don’t actually see either species of woodpecker.

We’ve done well for seeing goldcrests this winter. In previous years, the few views that I’ve had of them have been of silhouettes amongst the branches of tall pines but this year they seem to have been more confiding, oblivious of our presence. This morning a single goldcrest is the first bird that we see as we walk out of the courtyard into the gardens, as it checks out the branches of a yew.

In the Pleasure Grounds a treecreeper is working its way methodically up the trunk of a tall oak. It ascends in a straight line; unlike the nuthatch, it doesn’t have the option of going downwards and this one isn’t even tempted to veer off sideways.

There’s a bright spot of colour on a dull morning as a kingfisher flies diagonally across the Middle Lake.

Foraging Party

long-tailed tit11.30 a.m., Lower Lake, Nostell Priory Park: As we walk into the wood behind the house at Nostell Priory, a mixed party of woodland birds is making its way through the trees ahead of us.

Each bird has its own approach to feeding, exploiting a different niche to the other birds in the party:

  • the blue tit hangs upside down to peck at an opened-up capsule hanging from the end of a slender twig on the beech tree. I suspect that it’s more interested in any invertebrates that might be sheltering in the crevices than it is in the beech nut itself
  • the coal tit closely inspects the branches of a holly
  • long-tailed tits flit about amongst the branches
  • a robin flies onto one of the lower branches of a holly then flies down to perch on a log. It’s the only bird in the group that gives the impression that it might be as much concerned with keeping an eye on its territory as it is on feeding
  • the great tit keeps flying down to ground level to probe amongst the leaf litter
  • a wren hops under the massive logs of a felled sweet chestnut, a niche that none of the other birds can explore
  • a magpie follows the foraging group along. If there’s anything going on in its territory, a magpie will always want a piece of the action

Later we add another two birds to our woodland list for this morning: a dunnock flies out from beneath a conifer and, as another feeding party makes its way through trees and shrubs at the entrance to the Menagerie, a goldcrest flies in front of us to investigate the branches of a holly.

We puzzle over a bird call in the trees by the chalets in Top Wood. To me it sounds like something the size of a woodpecker, but it isn’t the mad laughing ‘yaffle’ call of the green woodpecker. We check it out with a search on the RSPB website; it’s a nuthatch. It’s got a loud call for such a small bird, one that can be difficult to spot as it makes its way along the trunk and branches of trees in the wood.

A Good Year for Cygnets

On the Lower Lake, amongst the wigeon, mallards, moorhens and tufted ducks, there are six female goosanders. We don’t see any males.

It’s been a good year for mute swans: the pair on the Lower Lake have three cygnets, the pair on the Middle Lake have four. Last year the Nostell swans weren’t so successful, with only two cygnets successfully reared.