Shaftesbury & Gillingham

Natural History Trips and Surveys

A visit to Selborne – 30th May 2018

The Natural History Group with support from Gillingham Action for Nature Group (GANG) enjoyed an excellent day out at Selborne in Hampshire, home to Gilbert White’s House and the Oates Collections.
In 1789 Gilbert White published ‘The Natural History of Selborne’ a book of detailed observations of the wildlife around him. He is widely recognised as the ‘father of ecology’ and his book has never been out of print. The Natural History Group watched an excellent film about Gilbert White’s life and work and this visit was a much anticipated trip. By joining with GANG we were able to hire a minibus as Bob Messer kindly volunteered to drive us.
The house displays both the original manuscript and the hundreds of published editions of White’s book and also allows you to imagine Gilbert writing his diaries and letters and working in his garden and parkland. The historic house and its dramatic setting beneath the Hangers in the South Downs is beautiful and we also wandered round the village and countryside on this warm dry day.
The museum also commemorates two members of the Oates family – Frank Oates, Victorian explorer and Lawrence Oates, member of the tragic Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole.
Driving home our happy group described some of the highlights of their day:
• The museum’s hospitality was very good; Flair’s introduction was very useful,
• The gardens were wonderful with old species and wildflowers growing together,
• The grounds were really peaceful and full of birdsong,
• It was fascinating seeing the large vegetable garden and hot beds for melons and cucumbers,
• The volunteers were clearly very dedicated, busy gardening and producing plants for sale.
• The volunteers also filled the whole house with little vases of delicate flowers from the garden; especially Dames Violet (Hesperis matronilis) which was flowering in clouds around the garden.
• The display relating to ‘Captain Oates’ was fascinating and memorable with a film running taken by the Antarctic photographer, Herbert Ponting, of Scott’s expedition. I bought a copy to watch at home.
There was much to see round the village as well:
• The church windows dedicated to Gilbert White were delightful. We saw the tiny headstone as well. The Great Yew Tree which had fallen in a storm was full of history and stories.
• Some climbed Gilbert White’s zig-zag path up onto the Hanger, recognising woodruff, sanicle and a green woodpecker on the way; others followed the lovely meadow pathway to the river.
• The Pottery, tea-room and pub were also recommended for visits.
We are all very grateful to Bob Messer for driving the comfortable minibus – he made it all possible. Thank you, Bob.

Searching for Willow Tits

We are a small natural history group based around Gillingham and Shaftesbury in North Dorset who enjoy learning about wildlife in our area. We were set the challenge by Dorset Wildlife Trust to see if our local patch of the North Blackmore Vale and Wiltshire borders might have any of the rare and declining Willow Tit. Ours is an area that is under-recorded and very much out of the usual wildlife hot spots of the two counties.
We learnt of the Willow Tit surveying method through Jonathan Groom who has been organising surveys in Shropshire. He encouraged us to have a go with the ‘playback method’ and gave us some helpful advice. We searched for records in Dorset and SW Wiltshire and found only one fairly recent record perhaps reflecting the lack of interest in our little area. Sharing our knowledge of our local landscape we pinpointed several possible sites to survey. The time to use this survey method is late February to early April when Willow Tits may respond to hearing their species’ call whilst they are setting up nesting territories. Interestingly the Marsh Tit also responds to this call but its own call is distinctly different. The only reliable way of differentiating the two species is by call.
We knew that Willow Tits are disappearing in the South of England and through our County contacts and The Willow Tit network, which shares news from groups through RSPB and BTO, we learnt we were very unlikely to find any Willow Tits at all. Nevertheless exploring to find suitable habitat would be a worthwhile objective and the remote prospect of finding a rare bird was exciting.
Our timetable of visits was then badly disrupted by snow and rain keeping us and the birds frustratingly apart. As an older-aged group we had to take care on extremely wet ground in woodland often on steep slopes and tricky to access. We were after ‘Swampy Thicket’, the description of Willow Tits’ preferred habitat - very wet ground and a thick understory. Everywhere we searched was extremely wet given this spring’s weather.
We managed between us to survey 10 of our target sites, all of which are woodland and with streams and ponds. At 5 sites in the larger woodlands we had Marsh Tits respond and we really enjoyed seeing these birds up close. Within a minute of starting the playback a pair of these little tits flew to perch right next to us and gave their distinctive ‘pit-chew’ call. They are charming and we could see their glossy black heads very clearly.
We have built a table of our results and discussed what we have learnt:
1. Whilst all these woods were thoroughly wet this spring and there was plenty of standing dead wood suitable for these birds to excavate a nest hole, the understory was only really dense thicket on two sites:
Mackintosh- Davidson Wood Nature Reserve in West Knoyle which is managed by Woodland Trust. It is a mix of ancient woodland and more recent plantation, mainly oak, fenced off and allowed to become really dense in places with blackthorn, hazel, holly and brambles. Marsh Tits were present.
Breach Common on the edge of Shaftesbury is common land and only managed to keep a right of way open. Hazel and sallow have become hugely overgrown and hawthorn, gorse, elder and bramble are dense. This site is barely ¼ mile from the only recent (2015) Willow Tit record and it was here that we were approached by a pair of birds that seemed to be echoing the recording. However when we switched off the birds only called very briefly before disappearing. We were nearly certain these were Willow Tits but were not confident. Returning another day with more ears to listen, no birds responded at all.
2. We may try revisiting some sites next year when hopefully the weather will make surveying a little easier. However we recognise that the main efforts to encourage the return of Willow Tits are further north in the country, such as in Lancashire and the ‘Back from the Brink’ projects in Yorkshire.
We have enjoyed taking part in an important project and have learnt a lot about this very threatened bird. Creating suitable habitat, providing nesting logs and managing predators seem to be useful strategies being tried in some projects. Our little area is not ideal territory with broken up patches of woodland. Dorset’s focus is inevitably on the limestone downland and lowland heaths which support a rich and important wildlife. Our North Dorset patch, known for its watervoles and otters, may not be the place to focus efforts for Willow Tits for now.

Marion Hammond
Shaftesbury and Gillingham U3A Natural History Group
April 2018