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February New Forest Woodland Bird Survey (and an amazing couple of hours!)

Russ writes:

Over the last couple of days, I’ve taken advantage of a brief weather window to complete our New Forest Woodland Bird Survey for this month. This is a repeat of a survey we conducted ten years ago, with the aim of seeing how the woodland bird assemblage in the New Forest is changing through time. It’s called an effort-based survey to indicate that the same amount of ‘effort’ is applied each time (i.e. the same route is walked for the same amount of time). This ensures that results obtained in different seasons and years are comparable.

The monthly component of the NF Woodland Bird Survey is focussed on two 2x2 km squares that are centred on Bolderwood and Rhinefield, with each 2x2 km square taking about four hours to complete using the defined route. Yesterday morning I did the Bolderwood section, and this afternoon the Rhinefield section. Highlights over the eight hours included Goshawk, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (a drumming male), two Firecrests, three Ravens, seven Crossbills, eight Buzzards and 42 Hawfinches (including a flock of 35), as well as three species of deer.

These totals, however, are only part of the story. For me the real highlight was a magical couple of hours this afternoon, during which I was fortunate to encounter an amazing variety of scarce and interesting species. The first was arguably the weirdest – a pale lump, similar in size and shape to a small golf ball, attached to an Alder tree adjacent to a forest stream. I had a suspicion that it may have been a slime mould (partly because I couldn’t fit it into any other group!), and this was confirmed when I got home and checked my guide books. It appears to be a False Puffball, also known as Reticuleria lycoperdon, and it comprises an aggregation of single cells called a plasmodium that are capable of collectively moving, albeit very slowly, over the tree surface, absorbing tiny food items as they go.

Still slightly perplexed by what I’d seen, I noticed a couple of birds flitting around in a nearby clearing, including one that appeared to be fly-catching (which is unusual at this time of year). On closer inspection, it turned out to be a bat, hunting insects in the bright early afternoon sunshine! The ginger tones, direct flight and large size suggested it was a Noctule, but I was keen to get some images to secure the identification. My camera’s autofocus was really struggling to pick up this fast-moving object with so much background clutter, so I had to revert to ‘old school’ manual focus to obtain anything remotely sharp. I still think it’s most likely to be a Noctule, especially as they are known to be occasional ‘daytime’ flyers, but the possibility of Serotine has also been mentioned based on the tail shape.

While I was photographing the bat, I was alerted to a series of small bird alarm calls nearby, and looked up to see a large raptor arrowing through the trees no more than 200 m away. I raised my binos to a great view of an adult female Goshawk, who disappeared back into the forest just as quickly as she'd arrived - no chance of photographing her! Moving on, a pair of Ravens were seen flying swiftly overhead, disappearing into the same piece of distant sky that a Sparrowhawk was seen plunging out of. A couple of Buzzards played in the wind, a flock of four Crossbills ‘chup-chupped’ as they moved between pines, and the mild weather had enticed a few Southern Wood Ants out of their nest.

Moments later, four rather tatty Red Deer hinds reluctantly got to their feet as I quietly ambled along a forest ride, watching me nervously until I‘d passed by. At this stage I had to remind myself that all of these iconic animals were within a few hundred metres of one of the busiest car parks and tourist routes in the New Forest!

Inevitably, the remaining two hours of the survey were much less eventful, especially as the sun retreated and showery rain arrived, although I did hear a Kingfisher and got to see a couple of pairs of Hawfinch in an area of old Beech and Oak trees. I was properly dragged back into the real world when a pair of Roe Deer bounded passed no more than 50 m away, pursued by an overweight black Labrador dog!

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