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NEWSLETTER No. 87 – SPRING 2008

EDITORIAL

I awoke very early this morning to the sound of a single bird singing – a Robin. Soft, hesitant, but pure, it was the robin’s summer song. Have you noticed the difference? The winter song is bolder, louder, more proclamatory. This summer song is far more complex and intimate –more conversational with a variety of tunes and tones.

A recent Daily Telegraph article said that females select male birds for the loudness of their song, which reflects their fitness. But my robin is not so loud. I wonder perhaps if it is not the complexity of the song that attracts. Like many other British birds, the robin is adept at picking up tunes from other birds, including other species. So the older the bird the more complex its song, and perhaps also the stronger and more experienced the potential parent?

Like last year, this has been a very early spring. There were buttercups out in the garden at the end of December – they had never stopped flowering. Then in January came Daffodils, and there were Snowdrops, Daisies and Violets all flowering together on the same bank. The Rosemary bush burst into flower in February, and I saw Stitchwort on the Quantock hills in early March, on hedge banks dripping with Primroses. But now (mid-April) some plants are later than last year. This time last year I was reporting Scabious in bloom, and the Somerset levels ablaze with Buttercups.

While the flowers are early, the butterflies seem to be later than last year. Around the village I have seen only a few rather moth-eaten Peacocks to date.

A bird first was a Great Spotted Woodpecker clinging to the vertical front wall of the house sunbathing in January. I have never seen this behaviour before.

The toads seem to have migrated in small groups this year, as I did not see the big migration nights we usually have, when I spend hours out with a bucket collecting them and carrying them to the gravel pit pond nearby. Watch out for them – they are sluggish in the cool of early morning and well camouflaged – it is all too easy to step on them by accident.

2008 is the International Year of the Frog, and a recent article in the Oxford Times gave some fascinating facts about frogs. Did you know that frogs learn the smell of their own pond while still in an unhatched egg? Later they will remember it when they migrate back to the same pond to breed. Another amusing fact, especially if you watch it happening, is that frogs and toads swallow their food by pushing their enormous eyeballs back into their heads to push the food into the stomach. So they can’t swallow with their eyes open!

One of my special winter sightings was a Red Kite circling over the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford. I have also seen them hawking over the Marston Ferry Road. No doubt they will breed even further west this year. They are certainly expanding very successfully. But I was surprised to learn – again from the Oxford Times – that it was not until the 1980s, after a long period of persecution and of loss of food as rabbits succumbed to myxomatosis, that Buzzards moved in to breed in places in the county where they had not been seen in living memory. They seem so common now.

No doubt the Buzzards – and the Owls and Kestrels – are very grateful to the many thoughtless motorists who fling the remains of fast food out of their car windows. The local pest officer told me he thought this was one of the reasons for the increases in rat and mouse populations in recent years – the extra food keeps them going during hard spells in winter when they would otherwise have perished. A friend also told me that the increasing feeding of birds in gardens, which often leads to food on the ground, or being knocked to the ground by birds on feeders, may also be a contributory factor

It will be interesting to see this year what the effects of the disastrous floods of last summer and this winter have had on numbers of birds and mammals.

The club had a varied programme this winter. John Brucker began the season with a talk on Bird Changes, Winners or Losers. We had a fungus foray at Sydlings Copse in October, and in November an interesting trip to the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum at Tring – an amazing collection of mounted specimens of hundreds of thousands of animals. We enjoyed a Christmas dinner at the Navy Oak at Leafield. Local trips included a damp walk around the Windrush and Lakes at Witney, an excellent day at Little Wittenham Nature Reserve and Wittenham Clumps followed by a visit to the Pendon Museum, an early spring walk to Wychwood, and a geological trip to Ardley Quarry. Part of this trip passed through a wasteland of rubbish and old machinery, which was ablaze with hundreds of clumps of Coltsfoot. There was also a trip to Slimbridge for overwintering wildfowl, and a walk around Standlake Common. Our thoughts turned to summer with the sunny desert pictures of Dr Peter Brandham’s talk ‘Cactus Country USA’. The away trips were as always enjoyable – particularly so were the few days spent in the New Forest with Peter Creed last autumn. Our thanks to all those who gave up their time to organise the walks and holidays and lead us.
JB

Annual General Meeting 7 March 2008

The 45th Annual General Meeting of the West Oxon Field Club took place at the Methodist Church Hall on 7 March 2008. Once business was completed, the Chairman summarized the Club’s indoor and outdoor activities in 2007. Despite the dry spring and wet summer a full programme was completed. Excursions to Northumberland and the New Forest were enjoyed, as were also the new-style ‘dawn’ chorus in two halves (morning and afternoon); visits to Snelsmore and Appleton Commons and Dry Sandford amongst others; and a successful Summer Party was held at Radcot Bridge. Indoor meetings included such topics as butterflies, south Spain and crime and wildlife and an excellent Members’ Night quiz.

The meeting continued with an excellent tour of the mountains and meadows of Kazakhstan with Peter Sheasby, an expert on Alpine flora. The variety of flowers, tulips, irises and many unfamiliar ones with Russian names was truly breathtaking.
JK

REPORTS OF FIELD MEETINGS

Dawn Chorus – Barrington Park Estate 20 May 2007 at 03.45 hours

This was our fifth visit to Barrington for our annual dawn chorus meeting. Another ideal morning – dry, still and with clearing skies. Yes, for the third time in five at Barrington we had the traditional start to our dawn chorus with the song of a rising Skylark filling our ears at 04.06 hours. Followed immediately by the raucous call of a Rook, a new species for our Barrington dawn chorus list.

We took the usual now familiar route through the various habitats and by the time we had reached the banks of the Windrush there was a definite chill in the air and we noted ice on our boots at just after 05.00 hours. Chaffinches were the commonest of the hedgerow birds and Willow Warbler numbers were at a record level. On returning to Park Farm just before 07.30 hours we were able to add a further seven species to our list (see below) including Spotted Flycatcher which now has to be a ‘blue riband’ bird on these occasions. Even so this still only gave us a disappointing overall total of 40, our second lowest. Where were the Swifts? Birds seen on our four previous visits but not this time were Cuckoo, Lapwing, Mistle Thrush, Pied Wagtail and Reed Bunting..

Bird list with the time of each first species recorded:


04.06 Skylark
04.07 Rook
04.08 Pheasant
04.09 Woodpigeon
04.10 Robin
04.12 Blackbird
04.16 Song Thrush
04.35 Great Tit
04.36 Blackcap
04.37 Wren
04.40 Chaffinch
04.53 Chiffchaff
04.55 Swallow
04.57 Barn Owl
05.02 Canada Goose
05.04 Jackdaw
05.08 Great-spotted Woodpecker
05.11 Willow Warbler
05.15 Moorhen
05.17 Carrion Crow
05.20 Mallard
05.30 Tufted Duck
05.35 Garden Warbler
05.43 Cormorant
05.50 Whitethroat
06.30 Long-tailed Tit
06.30 Treecreeper
06.30 Blue Tit
06.43 Yellowhammer
07.12 Red-legged Partridge
07.13 Stock Dove
07.20 Buzzard
07.25 Bullfinch
07.29 House Martin
07.30 Starling
07.35 Greenfinch
07.39 Spotted Flycatcher
07.40 Goldfinch
07.45 Collared Dove
07.46 House Sparrow

The plan was to hold a ‘birdathon’ – to record birds singing both at dawn and in the late afternoon. The walk around arable fields was dominated by Chaffinches. We then continued along a path through mature woodland, which one of the estate gamekeepers back in the 1960s described ‘as like heaven on earth’. It was certainly a pleasure and a privilege to be in such a place. Both Red Kite and Jay often seen in this area remained elusive; however, we did add Swift, Kestrel, Lapwing, Nuthatch and Little Owl to the day’s tally. The latter was flushed from a nest-box containing four small young – an unusual event, ‘rarely in nest box’ (A W Boyd) quote from A Field Guide to Birds’ Nests, Bruce Campbell and James Ferguson-Lees 1972.
GW

Greystones Farm, Bourton-on-the-Water 18 July 2007

With all the wet weather over our ‘summer’ we were extremely lucky to have a perfect evening with blue sky and calm airs to take a stroll in the meadows of Greystones Farm. It was interesting to walk on to the farm across fields that had once been part of a Neolithic farm cleared of dense woodland to keep cattle and grow crops around 6,000 years ago. Through into the late Iron Age 3,000 years later, the area was well populated and farmed with a community close by. Around 100 BC an impressive new hill fort was built here covering 57 acres. Shortly after AD 43, the land then went through Roman occupation. Since then the land has seen various owners come and go, including wealthy Evesham Abbey, until 1540.

Wellies were a necessity after recent wet weather, and we crossed a muddy farm lane to walk into ‘Late Roses Moors’. (The Anglo Saxon name ‘The Moors’ implies an area of little value, too wet for good meadows.) This field then led into ‘Brooks’s Moors’. So far the land had been treated with fertiliser and there were signs of agricultural improvement – occasional ‘weeds’ like Docks, dense grass, Nettles, and few wildflowers apart from Buttercups.

Through the gate into the second part of Brooks’s Moors we entered the SSSI meadows and the change was dramatic. Flowers such as Great Burnet, Ragged Robin, Yellow Rattle (gone over), Southern Marsh-orchid, Meadow Sweet, Common Knapweed, Hemp Agrimony, Tufted Vetch, Self-heal and Devil’s Bit Scabious amongst numerous sorts of grasses such as Timothy grass, Yorkshire Fog and Quaking Grass spread before us in beautiful old hay meadows like we remember were relatively common years ago. This led us across the River Eye, flowing fast and clear, into Rytham, one of the richest meadows for wildflowers, and then into Hypesleys Meads where the biggest willow I have ever seen grows. The branches, left unpollarded, drooped to the ground and rooted instead of breaking away from the trunk, thus forming a huge veteran tree, the home of Chicken of the Woods fungi, nests of woodpeckers and Blue Tits, and bats and insects. At this stage we were between two fast-flowing rivers, the Eye and the Dickler which later flow into the Windrush.

A Barn Owl floated ghost like across the meadow close by and later reappeared flying in the opposite direction with a rodent clutched in its talons on the way to feed youngsters. Recrossing the river and the Oxfordshire Way into Wick Moor, we followed along the bank of the River Eye and could see lots of very small fish swimming around in the fast current. Here stand two Black Poplar trees with deeply fissured bark. This species has declined with the draining of farmland, leaving just 355 trees in the county of Gloucestershire, including five in this hedge. The ground was now quite boggy in places as we moved into the lower end of Hypesleys Moors, Late Matthew’s Moors and Boswell’s Moors and headed up away from the river. Leaving behind damselflies, Meadow Brown butterflies and Green-veined Whites, we walked up into the second half of the restoration area, away from the rich habitat of the old hay meadows. This was just as dramatic as our entry to them earlier at Brooks’s Moor. We returned by way of the Greystones farmhouse, which has now been modernised and is privately owned and the old farm buildings still much in use and awaiting restoration.

This is a fascinating area and worthy of another visit to explore its diverse areas rich in archaeology, natural history and farming practices over the years.
DR

Standlake Common Nature Reserve and Mosaic Trail 9 September 2007

It was nice to see some new faces on our walk, which started at the ‘Rose Revived’. We crossed the road and followed the River Windrush by way of the mosaic trail. The individual mosaics were created by members of the local community from recycled materials to act as way markers along the footpath. It was a relief to leave the noisy main road and head towards the Nature Reserve, seeing wild flowers, fish, dragonflies, damselflies, the odd butterfly and an interloping American crayfish with only one claw. We missed our wildflower specialists on the walk but I believe that we ‘possibly’ saw Moth Mullein in both the white and yellow forms, but then I may be entirely wrong!!

Our walk terminated at the rather luxurious and well-equipped Langley Lane bird hide, which overlooks the lake where there were a good variety of birds, including, Little Grebe, Great Crested Grebe, Cormorant, Little Egret, Grey Heron, Mute Swan, Greylag Goose, Canada Goose, Gadwall, Mallard, Red-crested Pochard, Tufted Duck, Kestrel, Moorhen, Coot, Lapwing and Black-headed Gull.

The weather throughout the walk was beautiful and we retraced our steps back to the ‘Rose being Revived’. This was a follow-up to our walk on 28 February, when earlier flooding made the walk rather difficult! What a good job it was not rescheduled for 20 July!
DR

Fungus foray, Sydlings Copse 20 October 2007

About 15 of us met on the side of the B4027 road 3½ miles north-east of Oxford on a bright but chilly afternoon. Some were carrying baskets to collect tomorrow’s breakfast, some carrying cameras to snap a perfect or special specimen. Our leader was Peter Creed, one of our vice-presidents, who is expert at identifying fungi. Peter explained that the mushrooms were late appearing this year, probably because of the wet summer, and warned us that we may not see all we might usually expect.

We walked through Sydlings Copse, a varied, multi-habitat reserve belonging to BBOWT (the Local Wildlife Trust). It is part of a larger SSSI. The habitats are crammed in a steep-sided valley with a stream running through the bottom. We walked along an earth-built dam that was probably built in mediaeval times to create a fish pond. The pond became silted up and the dam has been breached, resulting in a valley fen, a rare type of habitat in Oxfordshire.

When we came out of the dam area we met first one, then three horses, all very pleased to see us, and I wished we had picked up some of the crab apples we had passed en route!

The next part of the day took us through a wood with a beech tree. Peter saw a particular type of mushroom there which he said only grows under beech and he had never seen them under that tree before – very exciting – out with the cameras!

As we made our way out of the wood and back into the sunshine we all agreed it had been a most enjoyable afternoon. We collected the names of 26 species of fungi, which are listed below.


Tough Shank
Butter Cap
Puff Ball
Bonnet Mycena (purple rosy pink)
Yellow Staining Knight-cap (Tricholoma)
Fibre Cap (Inocybe)
Weeping Bolete
Coprinus
Dear Fungus
Sticky Bolete
Sulphur Tuft
Glove Leather
The Miller (Clitopilus prunulus)

Vipers Blue Grass Web Cap (Cortinarius)
Rust Cap
Honey Fungus (Armillaria))
Jews Ear (Auricularia auricula-judae)
King Alfred Cakes
Turkey Tail (Psathyrella)
Deceiver (Laccaria)
Micena
Candle-snuff Fungus (Xylaria hypoxylon)
Pearly Parachute
Shaggy Parasol (Lepiota rhacodes)
Poison Pie (Hebeloma crustuliniforme)
Rosy Bonnet

GM

Rothschild Museum 4 November 2007
After lunch at the Crows Nest on the outskirts of Tring, we made our way to the Rothschild Museum, which is a remarkable collection of stuffed and mounted or otherwise preserved animals of all shapes and sizes, collected by Walter Rothschild during his lifetime. Here you can see at close-up almost every kind of antelope, Muskox, wild cattle, strange primates, a Dodo, and even an Elephant Bird. Hundreds of fish, some dolphins, countless snails, dazzling butterflies and moths, almost an infinity of mounted insects, and all the birds of the British Isles. For the birds alone this museum contains 1,150,000 specimens of skins, skeletons, nests, sets of eggs and spirit-preserved material, and the collection is still being added to. There are 400,000 sets of eggs – enough to keep our president photographing beyond the grave! The collection includes some 700,000 specimens from Charles Darwin’s expeditions to the Galapagos, and specimens from Captain Cook’s explorations. You can even see an exact replica of Rothschild’s study.

Half a day was by no means enough to browse all the collections at leisure but it is ideal place to spend a winter’s afternoon.
JB

Witney Lake walk 8 December 2007

It had been raining heavily for days and any idea of walking across flooded fields was totally abandoned. On a very wet morning we nevertheless decided to ‘show willing’ and have a walk round Witney Lake on the made-up path. In the increasing rain we saw very little of note except a few Siskins in Alder trees, but we enjoyed ourselves with companionable conversation.
TF

Slimbridge 13 January 2008

The visit to Slimbridge was on a cool fine day following rain. Slimbridge is a 300 ha SSSI flagship reserve of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT), with a collection of exotic, rare and endangered ducks, geese and swans. Mostly, we made use of hides giving close-up views of the truly wild birds, which included gulls and waders with wildfowl, resting and feeding on the wet meadows and shallow lagoons. A local expert patiently detailed the finer points of identification. Some of us lingered (expensively!) in the shop selling optical goods, thereby missing some of the frenzy caused by the attendants with their barrow loads of bird food.
RE

Standlake Common Walk 28 January 2007

We started at the ‘Rose Revived’, and despite the wet conditions we did proceed with the intended walk by way of the mosaic trail, and after a slight detour due to excessive mud at one point, we reached the bird hides looking out on to the lake. The weather was broken cloud with some sunshine and a brisk breeze, which lent itself to some white horses on the water. Despite the choppy conditions we were able to see an impressive number of water birds including many Wigeon, Pintail, Gadwall, Tufted Duck and Goldeneye.

Among other birds, we saw Goldcrests, Red-legged Partridge, many Fieldfares and many Redwings scouring the bushes for any remaining berries. We heard that five Hobbies were seen at one time last July. We also saw three Roe Deer, which trotted off across a nearby field.

Some hard work has been put into this Windrush Path between Witney and Newbridge and a new footbridge has been installed over the Windrush near Newbridge.

The natural history-themed mosaics add an interesting touch, but it was a shame to see that the recent flooding had washed out a lot of new hedging plants recently laboriously installed and not yet established.
DR

Little Wittenham Nature Reserve and Pendon Museum 9 February 2008

Saturday 9 February saw a great turnout of Field Club members meeting up in the car park of Little Wittenham Nature Reserve, no doubt helped by the near perfect spring-like day after an early frost.

We headed off up the slopes of Castle Hill, one of the twin clumps which have the oldest known stands of planted hilltop Beeches in England. They have had Beech trees crowning their tops for the best part of 300 years. Castle Hill was an Iron Age hill fort of considerable significance, as the remaining defensive ditches bear witness. From the bench at the top the view was quite impressive looking back and taking in the sheer dominance of Didcot Power Station. The cold morning was yielding one of the best displays of criss-crossing jet vapour trails I have ever seen. A Red Kite was lazily drifting around overhead on the thermals and afforded us a fine view of its forked tail and underside markings.

Passing round to the easterly side of Castle Hill we stopped to look at the Poem Tree and plaque. In 1844 a Joseph Tubb carved his composition into the bark of one of the perimeter beeches. This has now died, but a few of the letters still remain showing his poetic ‘act of vandalism’ from 1844. The bronze plate mounted on a large rock translates the remaining shapes and letters into the original poem. Dropping downhill in a north-easterly direction after admiring a fine view of Dorchester Abbey below we crossed over the Iron Age ditches again into a rather muddy field and then down through a clearing in Little Wittenham Wood. We passed a pond, which is the upper one of a string of small ponds further into the wood which holds one of the most important colonies of Great Crested Newts in the entire country. It is estimated that around 3,000 of these protected amphibians breed in these waters and hunt in the surrounding woodland. Smooth newts also occur throughout the area. It was near this point that we watched the antics of a Goldcrest rapidly moving in and out of the upper tree branches.

Boxes fastened to the woodland trees around here provide additional roosting sites for the five species of bats recorded on the reserve – Brown Long-eared, two species of Pipistrelle, Daubenton’s and Noctule.

Reaching the end of the ride we headed up over the owl-friendly tussocky grass to the top of the second peak of Round Hill, stopping at the top to admire a different view perspective. Taking in Day’s Lock on the Thames (where the Poo Sticks Championships are held every year), Little and Long Wittenham and Oxford in the distance. Skirting the other topknot of Beeches we headed back downhill to the car park.

After a pub lunch at the Plough in Long Wittenham we spent part of the afternoon at the beautiful indoor Model Village and Railways, still evolving from the painstaking work of its founder, the late Roye England. It depicts, in minutest detail, scenes showing the beauty of the English countryside as it used to be in the years around the 1930s.
DR

Ardley Quarry 9 March 2008

Fourteen of us enjoyed a rather different field outing looking at the remains of animals that lived in Oxfordshire many millions of years ago. Our guide was Philip Powell, retired assistant curator of geology at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Even though it was a Sunday afternoon and none of the enormous machines was working we still had to don reflective jackets and hard hats!

We set off from the car park along the lorry tracks to look at the rocks in the north working part of the quarry, passing by the area which is worked out, part of which is a nature reserve near the motorway. On the left the quarry has been back-filled with rubbish and pipes run across the surface taking methane produced from the decomposition of the organic rubbish to a generator, producing electricity which is fed into the national grid. We crossed the railway and noted the plastic fences that have been erected to stop newts getting onto the tracks.

When we had reached the working face of the quarry, Philip gave us a brief introduction to the geology of Oxfordshire so that we could appreciate the significance of what we could see and what we were likely to find in the rocks. Very helpfully he handed out some notes covering what he told us which I am reproducing here.

‘The rocks below the soil in Oxfordshire originated as beds of mud and sand on the floors of seas that covered this area between 200 million and 65 million years ago. These deposits became rock and 65 million years ago were uplifted to form dry land. Since then, erosion has carved the rocks onto today’s landscape. During this period also, the pile of rocks has been tilted by earth movement so that the strata are now inclined about 1 degree to the south-east. The strata form six or so major groups of clay or limestone which make a landscape of alternating clay vales and limestone ridges: Vale of Moreton; Ironstone country of Banbury and Edgehill plus the north Oxfordshire limestone belt: valley of the upper Thames; Oxford–Faringdon ridge; Vale of White Horse; Chilterns and Downs.’

‘Ardley lies on the belt of predominantly limestone strata stretching across the county from Burford to Bicester. At Ardley the limestones represent a very shallow, warm sea about 168 million years ago. The limestone is mainly very fine-grained, being made up of minute particles of calcium carbonate deposited by algae in nearshore lagoonal environments. Remains of other inhabitants of the time are bivalves, sea snails, sea urchins, fishes, sharks and crocodiles. From time to time exceptionally low water uncovered the mud banks and dinosaurs wandered along the shore leaving their footprints to be found again in our own time.’

The limestone at Ardley does not contain many ooliths, being formed from lime muds. The first fossil found was of Trigonia, a bivalve mollusc that first appeared during the Jurassic period, which began about 208 million years ago. Trigonia has a triangular shell with distinctive concentric ridges on its surface as well as nodular outgrowths. Breaking small rocks with a hammer revealed more fossils, with shells recrystallised with calcite, patterns of black spots formed of manganese dioxide, snail shells, impressions of wood, and an oyster in toto. Philip was pleased to find fossilized excreta from a burrowing animal in the form of a tube. Some of the rocks had holes lined with calcite crystals, which may have been a nautilus or more likely a coral.

Leaving the working face of the quarry we retraced our steps to look at the floor of the south end of the quarry. Despite constant lorry traffic over it, it was possible to see a dinosaur track here. This showed as a regular arrangement of puddles in a line. The animal that made it must have been enormous as the depressions were about 2 feet across. This was just one of about 40 which have been found here made by dinosaurs which lived in the Middle Jurassic period and now covered with rubbish.
We are very grateful to Philip for his time and sharing his knowledge and for enabling us to visit this important geological site. For those of you who would like to find out more about Ardley, Philip has written a book The Geology of Oxfordshire, which was published by Dovecote Press at £12.95.

 

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