By Rennie Telford
Following on from last Friday’s Naycher Korner, my candidate for Britain’s most ferocious predator is the shrew — more specifically, the common shrew (we have 5 species). These diminutive (3 inches long) but belligerent creatures live in nature’s fast lane and spend most of their short lives (they live for about a year) hunting, eating and fighting. They even have to sleep in short snatches, as if they go without food for more than about 3 hours, they will starve to death. Their diet consists of earthworms, woodlice, caterpillars and just about any insect they can catch during a ceaseless search for food. They are solitary, extremely territorial animals and if two rivals meet, they hurl themselves at each other with unmitigated fury, emitting what they probably consider to be ferocious and bloodcurdling roars, but which sound to us like high pitched squeaks. In fact this sound is usually the only indication of their presence you will get, unless you spend a lot of time skulking around the bushes on your hands and knees –(I don’t do that any more, since the incident in the park — my case comes up next week).
Oh yes– and their saliva is poisonous – if one bites you it leaves a burning sensation and believe me, they will bite when handled. What I love about shrews is that they don’t seem to realize that they are small and to see one determinedly hauling an earthworm much longer than itself out of the ground or defiantly chewing your thumb are sights to behold. They are one of our commonest mammals so there are bound to be plenty around the Quarry — You have been warned!
Another interesting little bird to keep an eye out for around the site is the Treecreeper. This has been spotted by several people although I’m a bit miffed because I haven’t seen it myself yet. This time of year is a good time to catch a glimpse of this unobtrusive bird as it does what its name implies and creeps up the bark of the trees searching for insects which it digs out with its slender bill. It spirals around the trunk always going upwards and then flies off to the base of another tree to repeat the process. I have made a V shaped nest box which I think Biology have put up somewhere to try and encourage it to nest — being almost exclusively insectivorous severe winters take their toll so it needs all the help it can get.
Some of the older bird books will tell you that it can easily be confused with a mouse as it climbs around the tree, but after years of observation I have noticed some subtle differences. Mice tend to have four legs, fur and a long tail, but the Treecreeper on the other hand. You pick up these little aids to identification as you go along.
You all probably have your own sight or sound that is a sign that spring is on the way — the first daffodils, newborn lambs etc. — but for me the real harbinger of spring is the raucus noise of a flock of rooks beginning their annual repairs and renovations of their rookery nests. I was watching the rooks down by the railway station in town the other night while waiting for the train — they were returning to their roost for the night –and were arguing and jostling each other for the prime positions. They are intensely gregarious birds– I hesitate to use the word sociable as they seem to be constantly bickering with each other. Here at the quarry we get predominantly crows rather than rooks –the old rule of thumb is; if you see a rook on its own it’s a crow and if you see lots of crows together they are rooks — a bit of a generalisation but more or less true. Adult rooks have a bald patch at the base of their bills and also have a more ‘ baggy trousered ” appearance to the feathers at the top of their legs. If you get a chance it is well worth spending a few minutes watching a flock of rooks –there is something almost human like in their interaction with each other — squabbling, playing –exercising their dominance but at heart enjoying the company of each other. It reminds me of somewhere, I just can’t place it?
It’s around time for the annual invasion of the warblers. These unremarkable looking little birds are in fact extremely remarkable — they are the first of the summer migrants to arrive and thousands of them are at present battling the elements on their, perhaps two thousand mile journey to Britain. The first to arrive is usually the onomatopoeically named Chiff Chaff– In fact some may already have arrived although I haven’t heard one yet myself. This little greeny -brown bird is the Seasick Steve of the bird world — it only knows two notes and it repeats them over and over — but it’s another welcome sign of spring. Listen out for it, especially over by the north drive or in any mature deciduous woodland. In a couple of weeks time the other warblers will start to appear, the most common one being the Willow Warbler (Telor yr Helyg in Welsh). This is practically identical in appearance to the Chiff Chaff but has a beautiful melodious song. Another more uncommon one often found in Wales is the Wood Warbler, again extremely difficult to identify by sight (at least to me) but with a subtly different song.
In fact all the warblers look much the same and can be incredibly difficult to differentiate between. After spending a couple of hours with a rather nerdy friend, who was pointing out at great length the subtle difference between (I think) a Grasshopper Warbler and a Cetti’s Warbler (something about the colour of their legs I seem to recall) I have now given up and just enjoy them as little brown jobs that sing beautifully. I’ll never make a twitcher.