Biodiversity Group: EVOLUTION IN YOUR BACK GARDEN

People in the UK spend twice as much on bird food than those on mainland Europe and this may have resulted in the British great tits developing longer beaks.  Oxford University, who have been studying great tits in Wytham Woods near Oxford for 70 years, have been collaborating with researchers at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology and the universities of Wageningen, Sheffield, Exeter and East Anglia.  They found that since the 1970s the UK great tits have developed longer beaks than their relatives in the Netherlands suggesting that natural selection is at work.  Further research into great tits with longer beaks found they visited bird feeders more often than birds with shorter beaks, they were in better condition and more successful at reproducing.  Dr Lewis Spurgin, of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of East Anglia says “Although we can’t say definitively that bird feeders are responsible, it seems reasonable to suggest that the longer beaks amongst British great tits may have evolved as a response to this supplementary feeding.” What gives the birds with the longer beaks the advantage?  Maybe they can access food in the feeders more easily or maybe as Dr Spurgin speculated “it could be that they don’t drop seeds when they’re carrying them away.”

Biodiversity Group: Plant of the Month

Plants of the Month:  Common Holly (Ilex aquifolium)
The common holly, one of Britain’s few native evergreens, can grow up to 15m in height and live for 300 years. It flowers in May or June with each bush producing either male or female flowers.  The female bush alone produces the bright red berries but only if there is a male plant nearby to pollinate it.  A wide variety of wildlife rely on the holly bush.  Birds use its dense cover for nesting in and the berries are an essential food source in winter.  Small mammals also eat the berries and along with toads, slow worms and hedgehogs use the deep leaf litter for hibernation.   Bees and other pollinators visit the flowers for the nectar and pollen whilst caterpillars of the holly blue butterfly and some moths eat the buds, leaves and flowers.  Deer also eat the leaves but choose the smooth ones found at the top of the bushes.  The use of holly as a decoration at Christmas dates back centuries to pagan times when the Romans used it in wreaths and garlands during their Saturnalia festival held in December. If you are using it as a decoration be aware the berries and leaves are poisonous to both pets and humans.

Did You Know?

  • Scandinavian myths state the holly bush originally belonged to Thor the god of thunder. Ancient Romans believed holly protected against lightning strikes. According to The Holly Society this may have some truth in it as they suggest the spines of the leaves act as miniature lightning conductors protecting the tree and other objects nearby!
  • The Celts believed that the Holly King ruled during winter days while the Oak King ruled over the summer.
  • The mistle thrush jealously guards the holly berries in winter preventing other birds from eating them.
  • In heraldry, holly is used to symbolize truth.
  • Holly wood is heavy, hard, fine grained and easily dyed. It is used to make walking sticks and is sometimes dyed black and used instead of ebony for piano keys.  It also makes good firewood, burning with a strong heat.

 

Biodiversity Group: The Stoat

Creature of the Month:  The Stoat

Stoats have slim chestnut coloured bodies with lighter underparts and short black tipped tails. They are solitary and very territorial only coming together during the breeding season.  Although they mate during the summer the fertilised egg is not implanted until spring of the following year and the young are born 3 – 4 weeks later. The female raises the young alone often using old rabbit burrows which she lines with fur, grass and leaves.  The young do not open their eyes for the first 4 – 5 weeks.  By 12 weeks they are fully independent and able to kill their own prey but may well stay in their family group for some time hunting and playing together.  When hunting stoats may travel as far as 5 miles and reach speeds of 20mph.  They are fierce predators killing animals much larger than themselves.  Often when approaching a group of prey animals they will leap, spin and twist gradually getting closer to the transfixed prey. The next minute they pounce!  As their main food is rabbits the size of the stoat population depends on the abundance of rabbits although they do take other small mammals, birds, eggs, worms, large insects and carrion.  The main danger to the stoat is starvation in winter, predation by larger carnivores and being killed on the roads. Their average life span is 1½ years but they can live for up to 7 years.

Did You Know?

  • Baby stoats are called kittens and a group of stoats is called a caravan.
  • Stoats kill their prey with a bite to the back of the neck. If there is a surplus of food they will often break the neck of their prey instead so they can store it and presumably it will last longer.
  • Stoats communicate through scent and it is believed they can tell the sex, age and health of prey animals by their scent.
  • Ermine, the white winter coat of the stoat, used to be seen as a symbol of high status and was not only worn by royalty around Europe and Britain but also by Members of the House of Lords and academics of Oxford and Cambridge who saw it as a sign they were equal to nobility.

Where to go this Summer Holiday

Farthinghoe Nature Reserve
Purston Lane 4.5 miles west of  Brackley NN13 5PL
A former landfill site now transformed into an oasis for wildflowers and insects.  This small, amazingly diverse site is now a mosaic of developing woodland, open grassland and ponds. The meadows are improving each year as a result of better management with the return of some of the old meadow flowers such as lady’s bedstraw, meadow vetchling and snake’s-head fritillary.  The ponds and wet areas attract dragonflies and damselflies from the nearby lake and stream and in late July it is possible to find beautiful demoiselle damselflies in good numbers. There is also a colony of marbled white butterflies on the site.  Pipistrelle and noctule bats find an ideal hunting ground here. Among the birds are treecreeper, bullfinch, breeding sparrowhawk, several species of warbler and long-tailed tit.
Information taken from their website: http://www.wildlifebcn.org/reserves/farthinghoe

Otmoor RSPB Reserve
Otmoor Lane, Oxford OX3 9TD
The information below is taken from their website.
Otmoor is a mixture of wet meadows and reedbeds. In summer it is a haven for breeding wading birds while later in the year you can see the spectacular starling murmuration.  The reserve has no postcode, but OX3 9TD will take you into Otmoor Lane then follow this road to the reserve car park at the end.
Top things to do in Summer—taken from their website
1See hobbies hawking over the grassland.
2.  See dragonflies and damselflies patrolling ditches and
pools.
3.  Watch butterflies dancing along the footpath rides.
Important Visitor numbers can be high, particularly at weekends. If you are able, please try to visit the reserve during the week to avoid disappointment.
If the car park is full please do not park along Otmoor Lane, as this can block access for emergency vehicles.
Thank you
Website: http://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves-and-events/find-a-reserve/reserves-a-z/reserves-by-name/o/otmoor/index.aspx

Lamb’s Pool 
4 Hook Norton Lane, Sibford Ferris, Banbury OX15 5DJ
The information below is taken from their website.
Lamb’s Pool reserve is a man-made lake with hedges and
pollarded willows. The pool, popular with anglers through the years, is fed by a stream which forms the head of the
River Stour. Reed sweet-grass and common reedmace
flourish at its shallow eastern marshes with occasional bursts of handsome yellow iris, marsh-marigold, ragged-robin, water mint, meadowsweet and fool’s watercress.  White-legged damselflies have also been recorded here. Birds and Bats
A small, scrub-covered island in the middle of the lake is popular with breeding species such as tufted duck and coot. Snipe, barn owl and lapwing have been glimpsed nearby. Heron and kingfisher use the pool for hunting and fishing. The reserve is surrounded by fields and buzzards and song thrush can be seen and heard close by. The pool, one of three open water areas in the valley linked by hedges, is ideal hunting ground for bats.  Pipistrelle, Daubenton’s and noctule bats have all been spotted here.
Website: http://www.bbowt.org.uk/reserves/lambs-pool

Hook Norton Cutting
7.5 miles south-west of Banbury, OX15 5JR (northern section).
The information below is taken from their website.
This former Great Western Railway track was used to transport iron ore from the north Oxfordshire town of Hook Norton to the blast furnaces of the Midlands and south Wales. It is composed of two sections of line separated by an old railway tunnel (which does not belong to BBOWT and is not accessible).
Wildlife Highlights
The southern section has open, sunny banks of limestone grassland studded with a galaxy of wild flowers including
woolly thistle, oxeye daisy, fairy flax and wild carrot. The northern section has areas of woodland and areas of scrub. These ring out with birdsong in spring and summer. Among the many species recorded nesting here are great spotted and green woodpeckers, garden warbler, blackcap, whitethroat and goldcrest. The cutting is also notable for its populations of bees. Butterflies, including marbled white, common blue and red admiral are numerous.
Exposed cliffs:   The cutting is of special geological importance because of its exposed Jurassic oolite limestones which contain many fossils, and are stained red by the presence of iron oxide. Recently, scrub has been cleared to allow better views of these. The retaining walls along the track are a lichen and moss-spotter’s dream.
Website: http://www.bbowt.org.uk/reserves/hook-norton-cutting

More Information on Oolite Limestone
Aynho is built on the edge of an oolitic limestone plateau  approximately 145 metres above sea level.  Oolite limestone was formed about 165 million years ago in the middle of the Jurassic Period.  It is made up of ooliths which are mostly composed of little balls of calcium carbonate that look a little like fish eggs.  If you look closely at the limestone you may also see small fossil seashell fragments.  This limestone  was formed in shallow tropical seas which means Aynho was once under a warm sea like the Caribbean.

 

 

 

 

Biodiversity Group Insect of the Month: The Dragonfly

There are about 6000 named dragonflies in the world and Britain has approximately 40 of these. Dragonflies have a head, thorax, abdomen and exoskeleton.  The head is large with short antennae and dominating it are 2 compound eyes made up of thousands of 6-sided units.  Together these smaller eyes enable it to see, colour, ultra violet light, polarisation and to detect the slightest movement from 15m away.  The thorax has two pairs of wings and three pairs of legs which are mostly used for catching and holding prey, perching and climbing on plants.  The males have a row of spines on each of its front legs which are modified to form an ‘eyebrush’ for cleaning the surface of its eyes.  The female lays her eggs in or near water on floating or emerging plants.  After about 2 – 5 weeks the larvae emerge.  They spend all of this next stage under water moulting up to 15 times before developing into an adult.  Depending on the species this can take between 1 and 5 years. At both the larvae and adult stages they are voracious hunters with the larvae feeding on other small water dwellers including tadpoles and even small fish and the adults taking most flying insects including dragonflies smaller than themselves.  Adults rarely live more than 2 months with most only surviving 2 – 3 weeks dying from accidents, predation and starvation as in poor weather neither they nor their prey can fly.

Did You Know?

  • Dragonflies’ predecessors stalked the earth almost 300 million years ago, pre-dating birds by some 150 million years. Fossils show some had wingspans of up to 2 feet.
  • 80% of a dragonflies’ mental processes are devoted to vision and it is thought they have better colour discrimination that humans.
  • The large hawker dragonflies can fly at between 25 – 30mph with a cruising speed of 10mph.
  • Males are very territorial battling constantly to obtain and defend a length of water’s edge.
  • Studies have shown that dragonflies do not chase their prey but during a hunt calculate several things: the distance of their prey, the direction and speed of the prey and then the angle of its own approach so that it is ready and waiting for the unsuspecting insect.
  • Although they are sometimes called ‘horse stingers’ they do not sting.

Biodiversity Group: The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch has a bright red face, yellow wing patch and pointed beak which is longer in the male than the female.  They feed on alder, birch, thistle and dandelion seeds while the male’s longer beak also enables him to extract the seeds of the teasel.  In April the female builds a cup-shaped nest using moss, grass and lichen which she lines with wool and plant down.  It is usually towards the end of a branch in a tree (making it more difficult to get to by predators) or in a bush.  She lays 3 – 7 eggs and has 2 or sometimes 3 clutches in a season.  She incubates the eggs alone then both parents feed the nestlings regurgitating seeds and small insects such as aphids. Outside the breeding season, goldfinches roam in flocks in search of food with groups of 100 birds being quite common. Some of our breeding birds overwinter in France and Spain although it has been discovered that more females do this than males.  The life span is approximately 2 years.

Did You Know?

  • The collective name for goldfinches, a charm, is derived from the old English c’irm, describing the birds’ twittering song.
  • Other names for a goldfinch include thistle finch, goldie, gold linnet, redcap and King Harry
  • Goldfinches were so popular as cage birds in Victorian Britain (in 1860 it is thought 132,000 were taken at Worthing in Sussex alone) that it caused the population to crash.
  • Goldfinches frequently appear in medieval paintings of the Madonna and Child, reflecting the finch as a symbol of fertility and resurrection.
  • Goldfinches are now found in almost five times as many gardens as they were 16 years ago. This may be because natural resources are in a steady decline and more gardens are offering their favourite high energy foods: niger seeds and sunflower hearts.

Biodiversity Group: The Blandford Fly

WARNING – IT’S THAT TIME OF YEAR AGAIN!

Blandford flies are a species of black fly.  They are approximately 2 – 3mm long making them only slightly larger than midges.  The females lay their 200 – 300 eggs in the cracks of steep river banks in June and July.  These eggs then lie dormant through the winter.  In March having become moistened with the higher water levels over the winter, the larvae emerge. Clinging to the riverside plants by hooks on the end of their abdomens and a kind of silk they help to clear the water by filtering out small food particles brought to them by the current.  Five weeks later they pupate and in May the adults emerge.  They are now on the wing through May, June and July flying close to the ground and ranging approximately 1km from water.  Males only feed on nectar but females need a blood meal before they can lay their eggs. Their scissor-like mouth parts cut the skin so they can inject an anaesthetic and suck the blood.  In June or July, once her eggs have matured, the female returns to the river to lay them and the cycle begins all over again.  Although the females bite domestic, farm and wild animals they do seem to prefer dogs and humans.  Bites tend to be on the lower limbs and women seem to be bitten more than men but this may be because skirts leave the lower limbs uncovered.

Did You Know?

  • The Blandford Fly got its name from a major outbreak of people being bitten around the town of Blandford Forum in Dorset in the 1960s and 1970s.
  • The saliva from the fly often causes severe irritation, pain, swelling, blistering, a high temperature and joint pain with some people needing to seek medical advice.
  • Streams and rivers can support vast numbers of blackfly larvae (perhaps 10,000 per square metre of river bed).

Stuart Hine, entomologist at the Natural History Museum, said the growing popularity of water features over the past 10 years has encouraged the insects to migrate from the countryside to towns and cities

Biodiversity Group: The Native British Daffodil

The native daffodil grows to about 15 – 30cm high, has long grey-green leaves and looks similar to its cultivated relatives.  The bulb has narcotic properties and in the 17th century herbalist, Thomas Culpepper, recommended it as a purgative and emetic, but the Botanical Society warns that it is, in fact, poisonous!
October 17th 2016, quote from The Daily Telegraph: “The native British strain of daffodil, which inspired Wordsworth’s poem as well as references in Shakespeare, is becoming a rarity even in the wild because of cross pollination with ever more flamboyant strains of the flower bought from garden centres and nurseries, experts say.”
In order to fulfill the Parish Council’s wishes, that the Aynho Biodiversity Group could be proactive in planting daffodils around the village, Julian Maddocks-Born acquired British daffodils and we set off on a damp autumn day to commence planting.   As you walk round the village look out for the small clumps which are now blooming. Hopefully they should spread naturally and will provide pleasure for future generations and improve biodiversity within the village.

Biodiversity Group: The Common Shrew

Common shrews are closely related to the mole and hedgehog.  They are 5 – 8cm in length, weigh 5 – 14 grams and have dark brown backs, chestnut sides and are grey or silver underneath.  Their eyes and ears are very small and their snouts long and mobile. Their teeth wear down the same as human teeth but theirs have iron deposited in the enamel making them appear red tipped but also making them more resistant.  They spend most of their time in burrows previously used by other animals and, although mostly nocturnal, they can also be active during the day as they need to eat every 2 – 3 hours to survive.  They are highly territorial, defending their territory very aggressively and only coming together to mate.  The females have 3 or 4 litters between May and September with the 5 – 7 young having up to 3 different fathers!  The mother’s milk is very rich so the young grow rapidly and are independent at 1 month old.  If disturbed the female will move the young, all of them travelling in a caravan fashion each one holding onto the tail of the one in front.  They eat anything available including earthworms, snails, woodlice and some carrion and are important destroyers of the insects and slugs that harm crops.  Shrews are themselves a food source for other animals including the barn owl, tawny owl, weasel, fox, stoat, magpie, jackdaw, adder, smooth snake and kestrel.  Cats also kill a large number but usually abandon them as glands on the skin make them foul tasting. They are short lived with most dying before they are a year old.

Did You Know?

  • Shrews must eat 80 – 90% of their body weight every day and will starve to death if they don’t eat for just half a day.
  • They do not hibernate but become less active in winter. Their size shrinks (which includes their liver, brain and skull) so they need less food.
  • Shrews have the highest metabolic rate of any other animal.
  • Shrews are noted for providing a home for a large number of parasites, normally transmitted to them from their prey

Biodiversity Group Bird of the Month

The Dunnock
The dunnock is similar in size to the house sparrow with a light and dark brown streaked upper body, plain brown tail and a blue-grey head and breast.  The black bill is finer than that of a sparrow and when on the ground it moves in a jerky way often flicking its wings and tail.   It does not breed in pairs but in groups. The most common is two females to two males but it can also breed in groups of up to three males and three females.  The female builds a cup shaped nest in dense shrubs and hedges and lays 4 – 6 bright blue eggs which she incubates.  Both parents then feed the young often assisted by the other male birds.  It is mostly a ground feeder searching for insects, beetles, ants and spiders in the leaf litter although in autumn and winter it will also eat berries and seeds.  The dunnock is the preferred host of the cuckoo.  Chaucer made notes on this referring to the dunnock as hegesugge which means ‘flutterer in the hedges’.  They can have 2 – 3 clutches a year and live for about 8 years.
Did You Know?

  • It has a variety of names including Irish nightingale, hedge sparrow and hedge accentor (which means one who sings with another).
  • The name “dunnock” comes from the Ancient British dunnākos, meaning “little brown one”.
  • Although they look like a sparrow they are in fact more closely related to the thrush.
  • During the 1970s and 1980s their numbers dropped by 50% (possibly caused by changes in woodland management) and although their numbers are beginning to recover, they are not stable yet so have been given the conservation status of Amber.