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Murphy's Notice Board 2015

Here are the articles from Murphy's Noticeboard for 2015, written by Colin Bowlt.

Birds at the Lido : December 2015

All the birds you see at the Lido are essentially wild – that is they are not pinioned and are free flying.  Even the Mute Swans come and go as they please, although they may not travel far – they know a good home when they find one.

At this time of year some of the most plentiful birds are the Black-headed Gulls (they have now mostly lost their black breeding plumage black heads with only a spot remaining behind their eyes). Presumably most are British birds but some of these gulls at the Lido have travelled long distances. Some of the gulls carry rings on their legs which have been recorded for a number of years, and with some interesting findings.  Since the beginning of October there have been birds from Poland, Holland, and also a Danish bird which was seen on 3 dates last year.  Even more remarkable is a Black-headed Gull from Norway. First seen here in December 2012, it has been back every year since.

Black-headed Gull at the Lido. Bird on the left with leg rings.

Several different species of duck come to the Lido at this time of year.  Mallard (‘The Wild Duck’ of Chekhov) and Tufted Ducks (black and white drakes) are usually present but species fluctuate surprisingly quickly, showing a lot of coming and going.  These include Gadwall, Wigeon, Teal, and at the beginning of November there were 33 Pochard and 20 Shoveler.  
The large black, rather evil looking birds on the raft often hanging out their wings (to dry) are Cormorants.  At one time Cormorants only bred on the coast and were quite unusual inland.  Now they have been nesting in the Colne Valley (and other places) for several years (much to the consternation of fishermen).

A spectacular bird, the snowy white Little Egret, which only a few years ago was a rare visitor to Britain and never seen at the Lido is now often seen at the far end of the Lido.  They leave every evening to roost on the trees on the islands on the old gravel pits in the Colne Valley.  Numbers have been continuing to increase, with up to 33 being recently recorded but now the record stands at 37 Egrets at the Lido.

Little Egret at the north-end of the Lido J.Edwards

Little Egrets on the willow scrub at the north end of the Lido.      J.Edwards

Coots are here in large numbers during the winter. They are the large black birds with white beaks and foreheads, as opposed to the smaller, and less numerous, Moorhens with white tails and red beaks and foreheads. Coots do a lot of diving (as well as squabbling).
 Other birds seen recently are Snipe (right in front of the pub) and a Kingfisher.  So keep your eyes open.
CB 26/11/15

Poor’s Field and its Wildlife : September 2015

The gradual disuse of commoner’s rights gradually contributed to the transition of many commons in the London area into scrub, such as at Harrow Weald, or mown playing fields, as at Uxbridge Common. The 40 acres (16 hectares) of Poor’s Field, the remnant of the once extensive Ruislip Common, has fortunately retained much of its former wildness.  This is only maintained by constant management to stop scrub developing.  It is slightly ironic that whereas in the past commons were maintained as heathland, almost incidentally, by commoners grazing their animals and cutting Bracken, ‘furze’ for fuel, it is now necessary to spend money to maintain them.  (I suppose we must expect to pay for our pleasures)

Poor’s Field is what is termed Lowland Heath, and as is proper it has Heather (Ling).  This is, of course, a very common plant on upland moors, but in the north London region it is now rather scarce. Indeed on Hampstead Heath it was reduced to a single plant until it was reintroduced a few years ago.  It is a great sight when flowering, but cows are apt to graze it, except where it grows within the shelter of a prickly plant, such as Petty Whin, with its clumps of small yellow pea-type flowers.  This is also scarce in the London area and is one of the plants contributing to the SSSI status of Poor’s Field. 

The other yellow flowers of the pea-family to be seen here are on gorse, sometimes called ‘furze’ in the past.  There are two species here – Common Gorse (the tall one, flowering most of the year) and Dwarf Gorse (a low species only flowering in the autumn and very scarce in the north London area).  When you see these flowers you know you are on typical, acid heathland.  Other plants are also present, of course, and give quite a show when flowering.  The close-to-the- ground Heath Bedstraw looks like a sprinkling of snow, particularly at the north end amongst the hills of the Yellow Ant. The yellow, five-petalled Tormentil, is another plant you won’t find in your garden.  Harebells suffer from grazing by the cows, as do the Spotted Orchids unless they are given temporary protection during the flowering period.  In the 2003-5 flora survey a total of 198 species were recorded, not including mosses, liverworts and lichens.

Butterflies can be very variable in numbers from year to year. Witness the almost complete dis appearance of the Tortoiseshell, once one of the commonest butterflies everywhere.  The Small Copper seems to have returned to Poor’s Field and a Purple Emperor has been seen laying eggs on Sallow. 20 butterfly species have been recorded in recent years, but curiously the Marbled White which arrived on the fields on either side of Duck’s Hill Road a few years ago has not jumped over the line of scrub onto Poor’s Field (yet).

Birds always attract much attention.  Poor’s Field can seem empty out of the breeding season, but large, nervous flocks of Redpolls are sometimes found (and heard) feeding on the Birches.  There are only odd records of migrating Redstarts, but I suspect this mainly reflects the lack of early morning birdwatching.  However, Poor’s Field is probably the best place locally to see (and hear) breeding warblers – White throat, Blackcap, Garden Warbler, Willow Warbler, and Chiffchaff, though Willow Warblers are decreasing markedly.  Cuckoos, however, have rarely been heard in the last few years. This is in line with a national decline, for which there is no agreed cause. 

Unlike birds, butterflies and flowers, most mammals are much less seen.  In fact one animal is only indicated by its ‘hills’.  It is noticeable that Moles are seldom recorded from gardens. Roads seem to be a barrier.  Other mammals unseen but sometimes heard are voles, mice and shrews in the undergrowth.  Badgers occur in the Ruislip Woods but have not been recorded wandering on to Poor’s Field, unlike Foxes, which are now seen even in back-gardens.  At the north end amongst the ant hills there is what appears to be the remains of a warren.  The fairly numerous Rabbits now on Poor’s Field seem to live deep in the bushes, (apparently restricting the spread of myxomatosis) and only emerge to feed on the grass, when they are frequently seen.
CB September 2015


Cuckoos : May 2015

Cuckoos are a fast declining species in our area, and also generally in Britain.  Nobody really knows why.  Probably most of us can remember hearing the Cuckoo in spring even if we didn’t see them (they can be remarkably elusive for such a large bird).  Only birds passing through our area have been heard in the last few years (I did hear one calling from Mad Bess Wood the other evening - 27 May– but it was the first I had heard for two years).  A satellite tracking programme has been set up by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) to help investigate the problem.  Prior to this the only record of a Cuckoo in its winter quarters was from a ringed bird in the Congo.  Now it seems that all the British birds eventually reach and winter in the Congo.  However, they can take different routes, with some crossing the Sahara farther east.  Curiously birds may use a different return route.  The results show that birds return to the same locality to breed (one bird has been tracked for four years, so clearly the tracking device is no hindrance).  Most unexpectedly, it has been found that 50% of Cuckoos leave the UK before the end of June, so many spend a very short part of their lives in this country.
Tracking cuckoos to Africa

Woodpeckers and Nuthatches in the Ruislip Woods : May 2015

These birds are sometimes difficult to see, but are more often heard.

The Great Spotted Woodpecker
is usually located by its “tchik” call, but can be very noisy when chasing, and also when drumming in the spring.  Just now they are breeding and the youngsters can get very impatient waiting for their parents to return with food.  They gather around the nest entrance hole and keep up a continuous cheeping racket (this is a good way to locate the nests – usually high up).  However, if the returning parent spots you it will give a quick call and the young stop calling.

image from RSPB

The Green Woodpecker’s nest is more difficult to find, but the adult birds’ liquid “yac-yac-yac” cry is particularly distinctive.  It doesn’t make a fast drumming like the Great Spot, but of course you can hear it hacking away at the bark searching for insects.  It feeds on the ground more often than the Great Spot (you may have them visit your garden in search of ants).

The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker really is ‘lesser’, being about the size of a sparrow.  Being so small it can feed in the topmost tree branches and so is harder to find.  This difficulty is increased by the bird being very quiet, except during the breeding season, when you might be lucky and hear its ringing “keekeekeekee”.  This is certainly the most scarce of our woodpeckers, but it was not always so.  In the “Birds of Middlesex” by JE Harting published in 1866 he says of the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker “In this county of more frequent occurrence than the Greater Spotted, or even the Green Woodpecker”.  A few years ago several nests were located in the middle of Park Wood and in the Nature Reserve. Recently there have been fewer records suggesting a real decline.

As with the woodpeckers the Nuthatch’s call helps to locate it, but it is not a shy bird and is easily spotted running up and down (head first) the trunks and branches of the oaks.  Although living in the trees like the woodpeckers it is not related to them. It actually resembles a rather dull Kingfisher, but is not related to them either.  Unlike the woodpeckers it does not excavate a nesting hole. It uses a convenient ready-made hole and cunningly plasters the entrance with mud leaving a hole just sufficient for getting in and out.   It is very much a woodland bird and is not often seen in gardens away from the woods.

British Trust for Ornithology Woodpecker Identification

CB 29.5.15


Management of Paths in the Woods : February 2015

With the increasing number of people using the Ruislip Woods the paths in winter are developing into a problem.  They become very muddy, and consequently wider and wider as people try to skirt around the wet areas.  This results in large bare areas which do not recover in the summer, and with the loss of interesting flowers such as Bluebells, Wood Anemones, and Yellow Archangel.  The Ruislip Woods Management Advisory Group is looking into this problem.

Path in Park Wood

Boardwalks have been constructed in some places, but it is an expensive business.  Laying solid paths is not considered an option.  They would interfere with the flow of surface water and create new problems.  But more particularly this is natural woodland.  Not a municipal park, but a bit of countryside.

CB. 25.2.2015

Coppicing in the Woods : February 2015

Winter is the time for coppicing when leaves have been shed and the sap is not flowing.  In the Ruislip Woods this has principally been carried out over the centuries on the Hornbeam trees but on Hazel and Ash where they occur.  The Oak were traditionally grown largely for timber and only felled when sufficiently large (say 70 to 120 years old, depending on how fast they had grown and what they were needed for).  The Oaks currently appear to be in crisis with too many dying.  This could be connected with a lowering of the water table.  In addition there is widespread lack of regeneration.  This was first noted in many ancient woodlands for about a 100 years ago, in spite of the fact that plenty of acorns are produced as can be seen by the number of oaklings that spring up just outside the woods, such as on Poor’s Field.  Those that germinate within the woods mostly disappear.


Recent coppicing has been carried out near the Sherwood Avenue entrance to Park Wood and near the carpark in Bayhurst Wood.  This is done with the Volunteer team (‘Vollies’) with the chain-saw work restricted to the Council team.  Some of the cut wood has been made into charcoal or logs for sale to the public.

CB. 24.2 15

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