Today’s bird survey round Lark Rise Farm was more or less business as usual for most of the birds, the only difference to last week’s visit was an influx of whitethroats. I heard my first one of the year on the Monday bird race, but today there were about four of them around the farm, scratching out their jaunty songs.

Corn Bunting I thought the corn buntings might have gone, having not heard one on Sunday or most of the morning today, but right at the end of the survey I heard one while I was trying to work out what was going on with the lapwings. It seems we are back to one female, the original one still on her nest with the male on guard, but no sign of his bit on the side!

It would be great if the corn buntings can hang on to breed, we haven’t had them nesting for some years now. It’s quite a late breeding species, usually starting late in May, so we have some while to wait yet before we know. They need dense herbage in the middle of open fields to build their nest, so it is a while before the crops are thick enough to conceal the nest.

Meadow Pipit By contrast, the linnets were all paired up and building their neat little nests in the hedges around the farm. When I did a nest recording study of an area with most of the same species, linnets were always first to start and corn buntings were always last. In between came meadow pipits, reed buntings, skylarks and yellowhammers. The sequence was always pretty much the same, but the start date and gap between each one varied according the season. The linnets are entirely seed-eating, unusually even the chicks get a seed diet, and they time their start point with the early seeding plants like dandelion. The other species require a certain amount of insect food for their chicks, and corn buntings like very large insects which take a while to develop during the spring.

Lackey moth caterpillarsOne thing which caught my eye today was the number of webs of moth caterpillars on the laid hedges. These were a mix of the Lackey and Small Eggar moth caterpillars. They were all very tiny, so they have timed their emergence to coincide with the spring leaves on the hedges, the tender new leaves are all that tiny caterpillars can eat. As the trees mature, the leaves get tougher and produce chemical defences such as tannins which only the full grown larvae can manage. The caterpillars build a protective tent and have their own personal deterrents in the form of irritant hairs, which most birds can’t deal with.

The cuckoo is a specialist in hairy caterpillars - wiping them against twigs to get the hairs off before consuming them. We are waiting for the first cuckoo any day now; the caterpillars are available, birds are nesting ready to be host to the cuckoo chicks, and the calm weather is ideal for migration – come on cuckoos!

In the afternoon I did a butterfly count at Westfield; the afternoon was incredibly warm again, and 42 butterflies of five species were logged. It seems the Comma has almost finished it’s spring flight period, none were seen today and I haven’t seen one for a while now. They will have laid eggs and new butterflies will be seen again in June. Orange Tip butterflies were star of the show, these lovely little creatures were not seen last week, today there were nine, mostly in the damp hedge bottoms where the females lay eggs on Garlic Mustard (or Jack-by-the-hedge as it is also known).

One thing in common with both surveys was seeing a fox at both sites, out in broad daylight. This is most likely because they are females with cubs needing extra food, so hunting during the day. The one at Barton was using the big badger sett, which they have used for several years now. Badgers are great diggers, and make enough burrows for other species to share – as well as foxes, there were lots of rabbits in the same sett!

Dr Vince Lea
Head of Wildlife Monitoring 

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