Sunday, 11 September 2016

Comb Raiders

Walking through the riverine wood today, I stumbled upon a crime scene. The charges? Breaking, entering and infanticide. In the first picture below, a pit dug about ten inches across, 18 inches long and 12 inches deep. In the top left of the picture, the broken combs that would have contained the larvae of a wasp-nest. In the bottom right of the picture, wasps tightly crowded around the remaining comb and presumably the queen (second picture).

At first I was uncertain what had done this. Was it the work of man? The pit was so perfectly shaped and clean-sided that it looked like it had been made with a shovel. I reasoned that there would be no motive for anybody to do this and suffer the wrath of hundreds of wasps.

I scoured my mind for animals that eat wasps. Twenty minutes earlier I'd watched a buzzard follow an osprey above the wood, so perhaps with this raptor encounter on my mind, I leapt to the very unlikely... honey buzzard! No, it couldn't be... there have been no records of honey buzzard in the area to my knowledge and certainly none so settled that they'd find and excavate a wasp nest.

Then I remembered watching ratels on TV, following honey-guides in Africa to bees nests before plundering them for their grubs and honey (as reward, the small bird picks at the scraps the honey badger leaves behind, unable to break into the nest itself). Then it occurred to me, it was a plain old badger! I know badgers can be found in the wood as I have frequently found there pug-marks left in the wet mud along the river.

Strangely, I got lost in the wood for an hour soon after (I was trying to find a short-cut between one part of my patch and another, but the route was blocked by acres of himalayan balsam!) and in my random wanderings, stumbled upon two badger setts.

Patch Update

A few passing birds are still showing up, though the overall avifauna is starting to feel a bit wintry. This handsome whinchat was working her way along the Long Hedgerow (see patch map). These pictures, though heavily cropped, are an upgrade on the 'little brown blob' efforts of my first encounter with whinchats.

A little further along the hedge in the corner of the field, a scruffy male redstart was seen in a charm of goldfinches atop a hawthorn before flying down to skulk characteristically beneath the hedgerow. I didn't manage a photo as the binoculars were glued to my eyes in a mild disbelief... before this year I'd not recorded whinchat or redstart on my patch and yet here were the 3rd record of each this year alone! Fantastic.

While good numbers of warblers hang on, they've begun to seem inconspicuous in comparison with typical winter residents. A walk through High Field flushed 5 meadow pipits, while goldfinches, reed buntings and yellowhammers are by far the most conspicuous birds, moving about in groups of a dozen or so. The only birds that let me close enough for a photo were a group of typically confiding long-tailed tits.

On the river, the common sandpiper have gone but green sandpiper and greenshank have moved in to replace them. Forty or fifty teal have taken residency on the Large Ox-bow, taking to the air in noisy groups at the slightest disturbance. Water has returned to the Small Ox-bow and a snipe was flushed; the first since early Spring.