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Wildlife stories


There are a variety of habitats within the Vyne estate ranging from deciduous woodlands, water meadow, open pasture and a large ornamental lake. All these areas are homes to various resident and non-resident species of birds. Waders, birds of prey, owls, grebes, swans, game birds and herons are just a few of the many interesting and sometimes striking birds that are to been seen throughout the year.

Mammals such as muntjac, Roe deer and foxes are also to be glimpsed around the estate and particularly around the water meadow. Reptiles are also visitors to our grounds though they are much more difficult to catch sight of. Grass snakes and common lizard are two of our most frequently sighted species. 

Here we will bring you their stories through the changing seasons courtesy of our local bird enthusiast James Meikle.

Please note: All images on this page are copyright of James Meikle.

Editors note: Sincere thanks go to James for both his words of wisdom and wonderfully revealing photography.

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The Water Meadow – Autumn

Heron

Heron

The hide overlooking the water meadow is some distance from the lake and you will need binoculars to identify the birds on it. The exceptions here are Herons. These can usually be seen either standing in the lake or sitting around the edges at various points. They do not seem to feed here, spending their time resting. Look also in the trees to the left of the lake because they sometimes perch in them.

At first glance the lake  may look like an ordinary, if oversized duck pond but the birds you see going quite quietly about their business may have travelled well over 1000 miles to be here in order to avoid the snow and ice which will grip their summer breeding areas and to secure food supplies. If we have a hard winter here, many of these birds will fly further south, possibly to France and Spain.

Lapwings in flight over the water meadow

Lapwings in flight over the water meadow

From September onwards, the number of birds which will spend the winter here begins to increase. Lapwings can usually be seen either standing in the lake to the right of the hide or standing on the edge of the far bank Lapwings have become scarcer in recent years, probably due to modern farming practices reducing the areas suitable for breeding and so it is good to see such a large number here (in excess of 200 in 2013). However, these may not be our breeding Lapwings – they may well have migrated abroad (west or south) and the birds on the lake could be from the continent. From time to time, something will scare them – a bird of prey for instance – and the flock will take to the air, usually circling a few times before landing again and you can see the alternate ‘flashes’ of black and white as they flap their wings. As November arrives the Lapwings migrate out to France and Eastern Europe.

In winter, the water meadow holds a considerable number of dabbling ducks – mainly Teal, Wigeon, Shoveler and Gadwall. The lake is probably too shallow for diving ducks.

Teal on the margins of the water meadow

Teal on the margins of the water meadow

Group of Wigeon

Group of Wigeon

Shoveler in the margins

Shoveler in the margins

Gadwall

Gadwall

Teal and Shoveler do breed in southern England but they tend to migrate to warmer climes in winter and are replaced by others of the same species from Iceland, Scandinavia and Russia. Teal are the smallest ducks on the lake and tend to spend their time dabbling on the edges. Shoveler ‘cruise’ along the lake with their long wide beaks just submerged, filtering out small water creatures as they go.

Wigeon do breed in northern England and in Scotland but in the south of England they are almost entirely migratory. A considerable number spend the winter on the water meadow. The drakes are brightly coloured. Wigeon dabble for their food and can be seen all over the lake as well as resting on the far edge. The call of the male is a whistling ‘Weeoo’.

Gadwall are present in smaller numbers. From a distance they look very non-descript and you need to see them closely to appreciate their subtle markings, They can sometimes be seem on the ornamental lake but Wigeon, Teal and Shoveler stick to the water meadow.

As you look out towards the lake you can see some patches of shorter grass just short of it. Lapwing and the various species of duck can sometimes be seen here, especially after heavy rain.

Pheasant

Pheasant

The grassy area between the hide and the lake does not usually contain many visible birds but occasionally you can see Pheasant and Snipe here.  Usually well hidden and camouflaged by their subtle dark and pale brown striped plumage, Snipe are small wading birds. They occasionally emerge into the open spaces. Their overall length is 25-27 cm. but a substantial proportion of this is made up by a very long, thin bill which they use to probe for food in mud or soft ground. If you have binoculars and scan carefully along the far side of the lake, you may see resting Snipe but it is difficult to tell how many are present at a given time because they are so well camouflaged.

Snipe feeding on the water meadow shore line

Snipe feeding on the water meadow shore line

Although Snipe do breed in Britain, the wintering population is hugely increased by birds form Iceland, Russia and Scandinavia.

Black headed gull

Black headed gull

Gulls can also be seen on the water meadow lake. Most of the time, there will be some Black Headed Gulls (which moult their dark heads for part of the winter) but Lesser Black-backed, Herring and Common Gulls occasionally join them. 

Apart from the whistling of Wigeon, sounds you will hear will be the screeching of Black headed Gulls and the ‘weeeet’ call of Lapwings.

Water Rail and Jack Snipe  are also known to be present around the lake  but tend to be in areas invisible from the hide.

Watch out for Buzzards flying over the woods on the opposite side of the lake (they have a somewhat plaintiff ’mewing’ call) and Red Kite can sometime be seen over the water meadow too.

Buzzard

Buzzard

Red kite surveying the meadow

Red kite surveying the meadow

Other wildlife, such as Fox and Roe Deer can sometimes be seen from the hide.

There is nearly always something going on the lake if you look carefully enough but in the unlikely event that it appears empty, just take time to enjoy the tranquillity and the very English view.

I always like to illustrate my contribution to this site with photos actually taken at The Vyne but because it is difficult to get close to the lake without disturbing the birds, some of these photos were taken elsewhere.

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The ornamental lake in winter – a matter of inches and feet

The Vyne ornamental lake is fed by a stream and because the water level is controlled by a weir, its depth does not vary greatly throughout the year. Unlike the water meadow lake, it is deep enough for birds which dive for their food. Walking round the lake is a popular visitor activity all year round and because it is quite narrow for its entire length, it follows that the birds which inhabit the lake have to be fairly tolerant of human activity and this limits the number of species which are likely to be seen. Nevertheless, the birds may take avoiding action (flying or diving for instance) if they become aware of human attention.

At first sight, the only differences between the birds on the lake may seem to be their size and colour but with occasional exceptions such as Cormorant, 5 different families – Swans, Geese, Ducks, Rails and Grebes are present. Each family shows a slightly different physical solution to the problems of living on or around water. Size is though quite a good way of beginning to identify the different families.

The largest birds to be seen on the ornamental lake are Mute Swans (60 inches long with a wingspan of up to 93 inches). Elegant in the water, swans move awkwardly on land on their large webbed feet.

Unlike the other two types of swans seen in Britain (Whooper and Bewick’s), Mute Swans do not migrate abroad for the summer but they may move to avoid freezing weather. The term ’mute’ is a misnomer because they do make hissing and snorting noises particularly when angry. They are aggressive in defence of eggs and cygnets and to this end, will sometimes attack humans and dogs. Always back off if a swan looks as though it might attack (it may not be bluffing) and keep dogs well under control.

Although Mute Swans bred on the lake in 2012, they were absent for most of 2013 until a small flock of Mute Swans with one adult female, took up residence in October 2013. At the end of October an adult male turned up and began to chase off the immature birds but since then, their presence has been erratic and it remains to be seen if a pair will take up residence in 2014.

Mute Swans seem to be very photogenic but taking good photographs of them can be difficult especially in sunlight, because their plumage is bright and highly reflective. This can ‘fool’ automatic settings on cameras with the result that the image will have no plumage detail. You can allow for this by using shorter exposures and/or narrower apertures but you may need to experiment to get good results.

Top - Canada goose and Greylag goose. Bottom - Pochard and Gadwall. © James Meikle

Top – Canada goose and Greylag goose. Bottom – Pochard and Gadwall. © James Meikle

Next in size are geese. Like swans, geese have webbed feet but are a bit more mobile on land. There is usually a group (a dozen or so) of Canada Geese (up to 43 inches long) on or around the lake. As their name suggests, they are not native to Britain but were introduced from North America. However they do have a valid claim to be at The Vyne because they were brought to Britain in the 17th century as decorative wildfowl so it is possible that several centuries of Vyne owners will have appreciated these elegant birds

If you look carefully at the Vyne group you will see that not all of them share the same head pattern. For whatever reason, geese and ducks are more likely than most bird families to hybridise (to interbreed with other species) so somewhere along the line, there have been some unusual flirtations.  The most likely suspect is Greylag Goose, the reason being that in spring, all the genuinely wild species of goose migrate north to breed, while quite large flocks of ‘feral’ (meaning once domesticated but gone back to living and breeding in the wild) Greylag geese remain in Britain.  Flocks of Greylag geese sometimes visit both the ornamental and water meadow lakes.

Stepping down in size again, there are usually 3 species of duck to be seen on the lake – Mallard, Tufted Duck and Gadwall. In identifying types of duck, it is important to remember that it is the drake (male) which tends to be brightly coloured while the duck (female) tends to be plain so that telling the females of different species apart can be difficult.

The most numerous and the largest species is Mallard (up to 26 inches long) and of course, this is the duck we mostly associate with park lakes and smaller duck ponds. It is the drake which has the iridescent green/blue head, the duck being mottled brown. Mallard are ‘dabbling’ ducks meaning that they do not dive for food although they do ‘up-end’, leaving just their rear-ends above the water line.

Mallard breed in quite large numbers on the lake but some of the birds you see in winter may have travelled in excess of 1000 miles to avoid freezing conditions in their breeding areas to the north and east of Europe.

Another dabbling duck which is occasionally present on the lake is the Gadwall (up to 22 inches long). Unobtrusive but with subtly marked grey/brown plumage, even the drake can be easily overlooked. The duck is mottled brown and quite similar to the duck Mallard.  Gadwall tend to be more shy than Mallard and Tufted Duck and if they think you are paying too close attention, will leap out of the water and fly to the other end of the lake.

Visitors to the lake. Top: Tufted duck and Great crested grebe. Bottom: Dab chic and Mallard. © - James Meikle

Visitors to the lake. Top: Tufted duck and Great Crested Grebe. Bottom: Little Grebe and Mallard. © – James Meikle

Tufted Duck are smaller than both Mallard and Gadwall at up to 18 ½ inches long. In full breeding plumage the drakes are dapper with iridescent dark blue heads with a long tuft to the rear and a piercing yellow eye. The body has contrasting black and white plumage. However, they take some time to acquire this plumage after their autumn moult and for the first part of winter; the white sides can appear quite grubby. The ducks have rich brown plumage and also have the bright yellow eye. Tufted ducks dive for their food and can remain submerged for some time.

Ducks also have webbed feet and tend to be somewhat clumsy out of water.

Stepping down in size once again, there are two quite closely related birds – Coots and Moorhens – which are present in quite large numbers. These birds belong to a family known as ‘Rails’. Unlike swans, geese and ducks, they do not have webbed feet. Instead they have disproportionately large feet with lobes which flatten as they swim, increasing resistance as they push against the water – I have tried to illustrate this in the photographs.

While swans, geese, ducks and grebes are ungainly on land, both Coots and Moorhens are quite nimble and can often be seen feeding on the lawn in front of the house at some distance from the lake. They will run quickly back to the lake when people approach. Moorhens can also climb quite well and can sometimes be seen in shrubs around the lake.

Coots (15 inches) are a little longer and bulkier than Moorhens (up to 14 inches) and have a white ‘faceplate’ and beak. Moorhens have a bright red faceplate and yellow-tipped red beak. Some people have difficulty in remembering the difference but the expression “bald as a coot” may serve as a reminder, given the white appearance of the front of the head.

Moorhens born earlier in the year lack the red faceplate and are plainer than the adults.

Coots are chronically bad-tempered birds and seem to find any and every excuse to squabble. They square up to each other quite frequently and sometimes fight with both feet raised until one gives up, after which the original reason for the scrap seem to be forgotten. Coots dive frequently but do not stay underwater for long.

Both Coots and Moorhens breed on the lake but Coot numbers are swollen in winter because they tent to move to larger lakes.

Some of our more regular visitors to the Vyne's lake. Top - Moorhen and Mute swan. Bottom - Pochard and Fieldfare. Middle - Coot. © James Meikle

Some of our more regular visitors to the Vyne’s lake. Top – Moorhen and Mute Swan. Bottom – Pochard and Fieldfare. Middle – Coot. © James Meikle

The smallest bird you will see on the lake is the Little Grebe (up to 11 ½ inches). They bob around like corks if the water is even slightly rough but like all the British grebes, they are accomplished divers and find their food underwater.  In winter, Little Grebes are quite drab; mainly brown with white feathers around their stubby tails. In summer they acquire a bright red neck.

Like Coots and Moorhens, Little Grebes have large, lobed feet but their legs are set very far back on their bodies to enable powerful swimming and in consequence they are extremely clumsy on land and are rarely seen out of water,

Little Grebes tend to be quite timid and if they realise they are being observed, are very likely to dive, only surfacing after 10-20 seconds and a considerable distance away. Sometimes this will be in the reeds at the edge of the lake and to all intents and purposes, they disappear.  Alternatively they will swim quickly away from you, showing their white ‘powder puff’ rear end.  They have a far-carrying ‘whinnying’ call not unlike the sound made by a pony.

Little Grebe preening it's feathers. © James Meikle.

Little Grebe preening it’s feathers. Large webbed feet propel the bird when fishing underwater. © James Meikle.

Photographing a Little Grebe can be frustrating because just as you achieve focus, it will dive and you are left with a picture of ripples, perhaps with a tail sticking out.

Kingfishers can occasionally be seen flying along the lake. People seeing Kingfishers for the first time are often surprised by how small they are – at around 6 inches they are a little bigger than a sparrow.  They are often missed because only in bright light does their back become the electric blue normally shown in pictures. They have no blue pigment in their feathers and the colouration is entirely due to iridescence so on a dull winter’s day, they can appear quite drab. However their fast, direct flight with rapid beating of wings set well back on the body still makes them quite distinctive.

The ornamental lake contains fish of various sizes as well as vegetable matter on which the birds can feed. It is therefore quite attractive to water birds and there is always the possibility that something less usual will turn up, particularly if other nearby areas of open water freeze. Great Crested Grebes have bred on the lake in the past and have visited occasionally since.

Not rare elsewhere but unusual for The Vyne, was this very tired female Pochard  (around 16 inches) which joined the Tufted Ducks briefly in late November. It may have travelled a considerable distance and in the picture, it is yawning not quacking! It did not stay and may have been en route to southern Europe. The Pochard is a diving duck, closely related to the Tufted Duck.

Female Pochard. © James Meikle.

Female Pochard. © James Meikle.

A New Year visitor was a very smart drake Pochard (around 19 inches) which also joined the Tufted Ducks and obligingly modelled a webbed foot. Again, it did not stay.

Photographers may like to note that if  you see a duck washing and preening, within a few minutes, it will usually lift itself out of the water and flap its wings for long enough for you to take a couple of shots (but you need to be ready!).

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Winter at The Vyne.

The good summer of 2013 meant that there was plenty of food for birds during the unusually mild and wet winter. Absence of frost and snow has enabled ground-feeding birds to feed easily. However, the heavy crop of berries at The Vyne has all-but gone as have the large flocks of Redwings and Fieldfares which were feeding on them.  Instead, small groups of them or individual birds, are mopping up what is left of the berries.

Fieldfare mopping up the last of the winter berries.

Fieldfare mopping up the last of the winter berries. © James Meikle.

So when you arrive at The Vyne, watch out for small numbers of Redwings, Fieldfares, Song Thrushes and Blackbirds in the trees around the car park as they seek opportunities to eat the remaining berries. Song Thrushes have begun to sing on fine days.

Robins seem to be plentiful but it is not clear whether this is due to 2013 breeding success or an influx of migrants. It is quite likely that a Robin will greet you at the gate.

Top: Long-tailed Tit and Goldcrest. Bottom: Nuthatch and Treecreeper. © James Meikle.

Top: Long-tailed Tit and Goldcrest. Bottom: Nuthatch and Treecreeper. © James Meikle.

“Birds of a feather flock together” or so the proverb goes, but the winter behaviour of many small woodland birds breaks this rule because from late August onwards, they start to form flocks containing a variety of families and species. These flocks can be large – sometimes hundreds strong – and they roam the woods together searching for food.

Initially they also contain summer migrants such as Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs but as winter approaches, these leave for warmer climes. The remaining resident birds are then joined by small winter migrants such as Goldcrests.

A flock can contain birds of different families and different species. Tits, finches, woodpeckers, Nuthatches and Treecreepers join together. Dedicated birders get excited by roaming flocks because rare migrant warblers and flycatchers sometimes join them and linger for a while before making their way further south.

There is little point in trying to find a roving flock – if you are lucky it will find you. Typically, you will start to hear a few calls you may recognise (Blue Tit, Great Tit Long Tailed Tit etc.). Then, if you remain still, the volume and variety of calls will increase as the flock comes closer and suddenly, birds can be all around and you can hear the whirring of their wings as they pass close to your head.  After a minute or two the flock passes and all is quiet again. Sometimes birds will seem oblivious to your presence, affording close views.

One of the loudest calls you may hear is that of the Nuthatch – a shrill “twit” which is repeated with manic acceleration if it is alarmed. A soft but high pitched “tswee” (so high pitched that sadly it may be beyond the range of hearing for some of us) betrays the presence of Treecreepers. Look for them as they fly from the top of one tree to the bottom of another nearby, working their way up (invariably up and not down), around the trunk and along the branches.  They are small (5 inches) and well camouflaged so spotting them once they land can be difficult.

A relatively uncommon bird present in the roaming flocks at The Vyne is the Marsh Tit. It doesn’t have any of the bright colours of its cousins and is a duller version of the Coal Tit. Its call is a loud and distinctive “pitchooo”.

The area around the hide and the path between the ornamental lake and the hide are good places to listen for a flock but they can occur anywhere in woodland or where trees and bushes are close together.

If the weather remains mild it is possible that the flocks will break up as bird thoughts turn to breeding.

On the ornamental lake Pochards have made brief visits and a pair of handsome drake Pochards was present for a few days. They tend to mingle with the Tufted Ducks (to which they are closely related). Look for their red heads among the dark- headed tufted ducks. Like Tufted Ducks, Pochards dive for their food. Swans too have made occasional visits.

Top: Pochard and Redwings. Bottom: Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Robin, Kestrel and Willow Tit. © James Meikle.

Top: Pochard and Redwings. Bottom: Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Robin, Kestrel and Willow Tit. © James Meikle.

The water meadow lake has been very full as a result of the unusually high rainfall and for a time, Teal and Wigeon could be seen quite close to the hide. Some of the Tufted Duck have re-located to the water meadow and are managing to dive in the deeper water. Coot and Moorhen have also made the move,

Although less often seen now, the female Kestrel still frequents the area around the hide and has been posing quite nicely for photographs.

I always like to illustrate these pieces with images taken at The Vyne but this has not always possible because small birds in particular move very quickly through woodland and the light is often poor. Where I consider image quality to be unacceptable, I have used images taken elsewhere.

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Mute Swans

Will they; won’t they?

One of the biggest and probably the most graceful of British birds, Mute Swans bred on the ornamental lake in 2012, but did not do so in 2013, making only brief visits during the year. In early 2014 they have continued to visit the lake, only to leave again. It remains to be seen whether a pair will stay to breed but a new family of swans and cygnets would be a welcome sight.

Mute Swan

Mute Swan

Mute Swans do not migrate but two other species of swans migrate to Britain for the winter. Whooper Swans make a non-stop 700 mile journey from Iceland to Scotland before moving further south. They can complete this in as little as 13 hours. Bewick’s Swans migrate from Arctic Russia and can fly at altitudes in excess of 20000 feet. The Mute Swan therefore does not share the extraordinary athleticism of these close relatives.

Mute Swans have inspired both music and poetry, partly because of their grace but also because the attachment to their mate is life-long which for swans, can be more than 20 years.

Whooper swans

Whooper swans

The bond between male and female swans is therefore very strong. However, in our winter migrant swans, the urge to migrate is very strong too. They become restless as they wait for favourable weather to start the long journey to their summer breeding grounds.

In the late autumn of 2010, a female Whooper Swan and her mate arrived at the Welney Wildlife and Wetland Trust in Norfolk. Dubbed ‘Romeo’ and ‘Julietta’ by reserve staff, they joined the thousands of other Whooper Swans that spend the winter there.

Sadly during her stay, Julietta suffered a serious injury and was unable to fly so, come the spring of 2011 she stayed behind as all the other Whooper Swans left for their breeding grounds in Iceland, 1100 miles away.

All that is, bar one.

Romeo stayed behind with Julietta and that summer, they raised one cygnet.

Julietta remains flightless but she and Romeo have stayed together and have continued to raise cygnets. For the bond between a pair to be that strong is exceptional.

Welney WWT reserve is therefore one of the very few places in the UK where you can see Whooper Swans in summer.

Bewick’s and Whooper Swans occur in South Hampshire and while it is unlikely that they will be seen at The Vyne, nothing is impossible!

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