Working in the wood - the wood workers

The Park has its own trees but is adjacent to sixteen acres of woodland. The woodland is not commercially managed and is partly cleared for other uses but there is enough of it to support a range of woodworkers - species rooted in woodland life.

The six species that have my attention for this blog piece live over the fence but regularly or often appear on The Park or in our garden and those of neighbours. I believe that the chosen examples are interesting enough to merit my brief sketches. The woody creatures interest me either because their way of life fascinates or their nuisance value annoys. Either way I watch and learn, tolerate or admire. Briefly, the woodland on The Park is very limited, mostly random, possibly some self-sown individuals of mixed species and ages and the over the fence woodland is mixed. There are limes, sycamore, oaks, beech, a few elms, larch, Scots pine, birch, hazel and scrubby areas with hawthorn and brambles. The trees range in age from the remainder of limes planted as an avenue in the 1800s, larch and Scots pine around 85 years old, sickly hedgerow elms (also around 85 years old) and their offspring and regeneration along the line of an old track shown on the OS maps of the 1950s but now just sitting in a patch at the edge of the current wooded area. Despite the indifferent quality of the trees - they have wildlife value some aesthetic value but no commercial value.

 

Great Spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopus major)

We have bird feeders in our garden and they attract a pleasing range of species, often ten species in an hour or two. Although strangely enough not necessarily in the annual hour devoted to The RSPB Garden Bird Survey. They feed and some breed in our garden and hedges and come regularly to the feed station. Although they are not among the frequent regular visitors Great Spotted woodpeckers drum on decaying trees over the fence and do come to our feeders, usually to the peanuts. The feeders are only a few feet from our kitchen and lounge windows but care is needed, if going close to the windows to observe or attempt photographs, to avoid scaring the more wary species. One such is the beautiful black, red and white woodpecker. They have an impressive beak as is to be expected of a woodpecker. I wonder how bird-ringers avoid being wounded?

An occasion that I remember with pleasure was having an adult male bird and a young one , recently fledged I imagine, together on the peanut feeder. The parent, despite its rather fearsome beak, was taking nuts from the feeder and delicately giving them to the youngster. How should one describe this behaviour without being anthropomorphic? Here are a few words that I think are valid even in the woodpeckers world. Caring, nurturing, teaching, responding to the behaviour of the young bird asking to be fed. It was no doubt a necessary if opportunistic event.

 

Wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus) 

You won't like this little sketch and in some ways I'm not proud of my part in it but it may surprise you. In the spring and summer our garden is visited by and can become home to a range of small mammals. Mice, voles, shrews and moles. My first reaction to them is curiosity. They come because their home base is the wooded area next door. Just to mention that in winter I set traps in our garage to protect my stored beekeeping equipment from house mice. I feel justified in that. However not quite so guilt free is my practice of setting the traps in the garden near the raised vegetable beds. It is very disheartening to have seedlings or developing vegies ruined by mice. I set the traps under upturned plastic flower pots to avoid curious small birds from accessing the traps. I catch house mice and a number of the larger and altogether more attractive (less smelly and greasy) wood mice. I don't like doing it and we have just spent a lot of money revising the raised beds and paving the surrounding area to discourage small mammals from tunnelling up to and into the beds - at least we hope so. But, brace yourself for this - it may come as a surprise, it was to me. On one occasion last year when doing the morning inspection of the traps, one contained nothing but the head of a wood mouse. It had been trapped, killed and then eaten by one of its kin. I hadn't realised that this happened but wood mice can be carnivorous. It didn't die in vain because myself and other family members (and now you) have learned something about fluffy little wood mice. Sorry.

 

Green woodpecker (Picus viridis)

Green woodpeckers live over the fence and visit our garden and neighbours gardens frequently. They can be heard yaffleing and seen in their distinctive bounding flight. They leave their very noticeable mark in our lawns. They employ their large and powerful beak to make sizeable conical holes in the lawn, apparently randomly. The books say that they like to find and take their fill at ants nests. This may be true and perhaps happens where ant hills are prominent. Sometimes they have dug in our garden close to where we know their are ant nests beneath mound forming plants such as Thrift. The Green woodpecker, like most successful wild creatures does not just seek food randomly, evolution will have taken good care to eliminate any such tendency. Random equals inefficient and time and energy resources cannot be wasted that way. So here is my point. A few weeks ago we had snow on the ground and very low temperatures, day and night. This weather continued for a number of days. The snow was not deep - just an inch or two - but enough to render the lawns featureless, at least to my eyes. Then there it was a Green woodpecker digging in the lawn close to the foot of a greengage tree, not a place were we had ever noticed ant activity. Snow was pushed aside digging commenced and quite a sizeable hole opened up over a period of an hour or more. Odd behaviour but the long dragging winter was making food scarce for this bird. Not sure what it was finding but it flew off a couple of times returning a few minutes later. Why was it going away? It could not have been feeding mate or young - not in mid-March surely. Was it going off to consume what it had dug up? The little story took an interesting turn. Head down digging in its now very visible excavation suddenly it was joined by a bold and determined magpie. Not willing to give up its mining activity the woodpecker stood its ground - at least for a while - then both birds left the scene. Next day when I ventured outside I took a close look at the excavation, there on the muddy soil within the roughly conical hole was a dead larva, white and about 3 cms long. A chafer grub larva. I know that we have them in our lawns. (as do our neighbours) we have had damaged areas that we have had to re-turf as the larvae had eaten the grass roots and caused patches of dead lawn. We accepted this as the option to spray with insecticide is not on - I don't like using pesticides as a matter of principle and anyway I am a beekeeper so spraying insecticides is out of the question. So here is the question, snow covered featureless lawn, below zero temperatures for a few days, hungry Green woodpecker - How did he know where to dig?

 

Woodpigeon (Columba palumbus)

Another woodlander and the most frequent in our garden is the pesky Woodpigeon. I have begun to wonder why we even call it The Woodpigeon. How about the pergola pigeon, the ornamental garden tree pigeon, the three foot high shrub pigeon or the hedge pigeon. They have nested or tried to nest in all of those locations in our garden. They are opportunistic almost year round maters, layers and general nuisances. They foul everything and steal and destroy our fruit and vegetables. They vacuum up food dropped by birds using our feeders. I know what you are going to say. If you don't want pesky pigeon don't put food out for the birds. That is what the pest control companies advise and I understand what they are saying but the joy brought by the birds using the feeders outweighs the negative aspects of having Woodpigeons in the garden - mostly. There is little to be said in favour of the Woodpigeon, They are without question a pest but legislation makes it very difficult to interest pest controllers in dealing with them. They must be presenting a health hazard or causing economic damage if you are to legally shoot them. Hunting them with a bird of prey sounds like a lot of fun. There was an occasion last summer when a female Sparrowhawk took a Woodpigeon in our garden and promptly flew head first into our lounge window. Never fear, the Sparrowhawk maintained its grip and obviously dazed managed to fly off with its plump prey, hurrah. Only positive thing to say is - roasted pigeon breast is absolutely delicious - just beware of the shot!

 

The Speckled Wood butterfly (Pararge aegeria)

There is little to compare with seeing a newly emerged pristine butterfly. In the case of the Speckled Wood I am confident that there have been occasions when newly emerged individuals have flitted over the fence and settled on the rear southwest facing wall of our garage and basked in the full summer sun. Mine have been the first human eyes to enjoy them. They favour woodland edges with dappled light for their egg laying and larvae developing on grasses at the wood's edge. They have dark brown almost black wings with yellowish spots. Beautiful. In a book called The World of Butterflies published in 1985 the authors, Sbordoni and Forestiero describe a phenomenon called Geographical Variation. They use The Speckled Wood as an example. The background colour and spots on the wings are lighter in the Scandinavian variant and darker in the North African variant. They illustrate the situation with 14 variants becoming darker towards the south. This is the process by which genetic variation can lead to new species emerging if the populations become isolated.

 

The Woodsmen (Homo sapiens)

The Park is maintained by Homo sapiens contractors with specific skills related to trees as well as a range of skills and experience in open space management. The site was much in need of a proper tree survey as it is probable that none had ever been carried out before. Tree work was identified to remove dead wood and improve safety. Necessary work but species dependent upon decayed wood will have been deprived of opportunities. 

The woodland immediately over the fence is owned by someone with an eye on the potential commercial value of the land if development were ever permitted, the timber having gone beyond any commercial value. Many trees have fallen and others have been felled to avoid damage if they came down in a storm. The owner delegates felling and clearing to a Homo sapiens woodsman with family history in tree work and lots of personal experience - and a home heated by a wood burner. I have observed this activity over the past 10 years.  It has progressively let the light in and so plant, bird, mammal and insect life has doubtless changed and will continue to change. I watch with interest.

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