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Birds

Birds

Rook nests in Beckingham

(content courtesy of Chris de Feu, images courtesy of Chris de Feu and Brian Suart)

In the early 1980s, a couple of years after moving to Beckingham, I began an annual count of Rook nests in the village. The count was done as late as possible in the spring when all nests had been completed but before nests became hidden in leaf cover. The picture of a part-built nest in a leafless tree compared to the picture of several nests later in the year show that there is a narrow time window during which nests may be counted reasonably reliably.

For various reasons, some years were missed or counts incomplete giving 33 counts out of the 39 years from 1984 onwards.

In the 1980s there were still at least three farms with cattle in the village and several grazing meadows within the built-up part of the village. Beyond that lay a good deal of arable land and some grazing meadows on the Trent flood plain to the East and more mixed farmland to the West.  To the south of the village was the ‘new’ roundabout which had been constructed in the early 1970s and the Flood Road built on a high embankment to take it over the railway. This was to relieve the increasing traffic problems at the level crossings on the old A631.

Over the intervening years three large meadows have become housing estates, some of the arable land to the east has been taken out of arable cultivation and is now the RSPB Beckingham Marshes reserve with grazing meadow. Trees – mostly sycamore – now cover the roundabout and sides of the Flood Road. Within the village a number of trees which formerly held Rook nests have been felled and others ‘tidied’.

There are now four identifiable areas in which Rooks nest or have nested: Village – North, Village – Centre, Roundabout, Flood Road. It seems that in pre-War days there were Rooks nesting to the  East of Low Street. I always looked in that area but never saw any recent evidence of Rook nests there.

Village – North

This was, at first, the core of Rook activity with all but five of the 28 nests in trees  at the eastern end of the churchyard. Over the next 15 years the bulk of the nests shifted from the churchyard and trees in the adjacent ‘Rectory Gardens’ to the cemetery on the West side of the churchyard. After 2003 there were no nests at all in the churchyard or Rectory Gardens. It would be tempting to say this resulted from wholesale tree felling in Rectory Gardens and one tree felled in the churchyard. However, these fellings happened in years after the Rooks had abandoned them. Meanwhile the total number of nests in the graveyard, and in gardens adjacent to it, increased.

Overall, the total number of nests in the Village – North cluster has remained remarkably constant. This is in complete contrast to the view (that is factually correct but misleading) that Rooks no longer nest in the churchyard like they used to. Overall, then, in spite of the loss of a grazing meadow to housing and another smaller one now used for horses rather than cattle, the numbers of Rooks in the north of the village has remained remarkably constant.

Village – Centre

It was very sad to see the numbers of nests centred on the village green gradually fall until in the last two years there have been none at all. I think there are two obvious contributory factors. There had been vigorous pruning in the crown of some trees in gardens. Whether this was to increase light in the garden below or to destroy the messy and noisy Rook nests may be a matter of speculation. The result is clear. On the other side of the road adjacent to the green there is now a dense housing estate. Some residents clearly did not like the Rooks so close (although it was pretty obvious that they were there when the residents bought the houses). There has also been considerable beautification of the village green with the former untidy, uncared for, rampant tangle of wild vegetation being replaced by nice and tidy mown grass. It is odd, in my opinion, how people who profess to be so keen on nature will destroy it in the cause of making the place look tidy and well cared for. I think this view may be shared by the Rooks which now nest elsewhere.

Fortunately I recorded the nests here as human memory is not always reliable. It was only when I assembled the data that I realised that the nests in the village centre had originally been very few becoming more much numerous only after the turn of the millennium. Overall, compared to the 1980s, the elimination of this area of nests represents a loss of only a handful from the village.

Village – Roundabout

This consists of a mown grass verge with an unmanaged centre which now has a stand of, mostly, self-seeded sycamore which have reached a height of about 12 metres. With complete lack of forethought I did not measure the heights, particularly in the early years, when I had no idea that the would eventually support more nests than the total the village had supported up to that time. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Two nests were present in 2005 rising very rapidly to 80 or more within seven years. Now they typically hold at least 80 nests. The nests are surrounded by a fairly busy road but this keeps them free of human interference. There are surprisingly few newly fledged Rooks seen dead on the road below. So few that one year when I looked for some in order to collect feathers of juveniles in response to a researcher’s request I could find only one.

It would be tempting to suggest that the rise of this nesting group is matched by the fall in the nests in the village green area which is nearest to the roundabout. There is no obvious link between the sudden collapse of the village green numbers and the equally sudden rise of the roundabout nests.

Flood Road

The first nesting was recorded in 2002. The nests are in trees, mostly sycamore, which have self seeded and are growing on the embankment. Because of the height of the embankment the nests themselves are well under 10 metres above the level of the road although trees growing at the base of the embankment are much taller than that. After a few years the number of nests increased and a second group of nests appeared a few metres eastwards of the original group. The trees form a continuous strip along the bank and appear to be of similar height and structure. It is not clear why the nests are arranged in these two close-but-distinct batches. Occasionally a nest would appear on the other side of the road but it was not until 2020 that they seem to have become a permanent group with five in 2022.

It would be tempting to suggest that the establishment of Rooks here was linked to the improved habitat on what is now the RSPB Beckingham Marshes reserve. However, the establishment and initial increase of this group of nests predated the RSPB reserve by more than 5 years.

Overall

The total number of Rook nests in the village has increased over the years from around 30 in the 1980s, rising slowly to around 50 by the turn of the millennium. After that there was a rapid increase, more than tripling within 15 years, perhaps with a small decrease to settle at around 150.

Coupled with the overall increase is what was, at first, a gradual shift of the ‘average nest position’ eastwards and southwards. This shift is made up, not by loss of nests in the north but, by an increase in nests further south. It has been enhanced by the loss of the nests in the centre of the village. It is just possible that some individuals have abandoned the village centre as conditions deteriorated and moved to the roundabout. Probably more likely is that young birds tend to join clusters where there is more activity. Whatever the mechanism, the loss of these central nests has, in effect split the village rookeries into two, about 500 metres apart.

The graph showing the shift in the centroid (i.e. average nest position) over the years is correct but perhaps misleading. With the village Rooks now occupying two well-separated areas with nothing in the middle, the centroid has little relevance. Certainly, if you want to look at Rook nests, going to this ‘average position ‘ in the village will lead to disappointment.

The period of greatest increase, mid 1990s to mid-2000s, was at a time when the population in the East Midlands as a whole was increasing steadily but Nottinghamshire was showing a small overall decline. However that regional increase was far more gentle than the much steeper rise in Rooks in Beckingham. Beckingham’s steep increase corresponded with the establishment of sub-rookeries by the Flood Road and the southern roundabout.

What of the future? The last few years have seen a very small decline in the numbers of nests. This could be just part of typical year-to-year fluctuations or the beginning of a decline returning  the overall population down to its levels of 30 years ago.  Time will tell but we will only know if someone is there to count the nests in future.

Owls in The Old Willow Works

Barn Owls have used the Old Willow Works for nesting for many years. In recent years they have nested in a large, open box placed on the rafters, (image – left) gaining access through holes in the roof. When the Parish Council took control of the building in 2005, the owls had a nest with a single chick (image – right). Although it fledged successfully, like many young Barn Owls, it died before the end of its first year. The cause of death was probably starvation.

Barn Owls are specially protected by law and it is an offence to disturb them at the nest without a licence. Restoration of the building with an active nest would have resulted in the nest being deserted. Fortunately the restoration was able to be done over the first part of 2006 before the owls started nesting. The owls, however, still needed an undisturbed place to roost during the day.

In order to give them this, we placed a large box in a tree near the Willow Works. We agreed that we would make provision for the owls to nest in the restored building and the Environment Agency provided funds for the construction of two ‘owl lofts’, one at either end of the building. These lofts are sealed from the main building with access provided for the owls by enlarging the former ventilation slits in the gable ends of the buildings.

Restoration was completed at the end of March and, amazingly, the owls took up residence immediately. Inspection of the temporary box revealed several owl pellets, showing the birds had made use of their temporary quarters. Inspections of the nest, under licence, followed through the season. Three eggs hatched, the chicks were ringed and eventually fledged in the summer.

Inspection of both boxes, subsequent to the fledging, showed that the owls abandoned the box used for nesting at the eastern end of the building and started using the box at the western end for roosting. Meanwhile, the Stock Doves, which had been nesting in the western end had, wisely, moved to the eastern end. This is a sensible move for the doves – owls are quite happy to include them in their diet.

Ringing of the owl chicks can allow us to discover their fate – if they are ever found again. This adds to our understanding of the longevity, mortality and movements of the species. Sadly, the first of this year’s three chicks has already been reported. In mid-September its flattened carcass was found on the road near the Willow Works – a road traffic victim. Incidentally, ringed birds of any species which are found can be reported via the link on the British Trust for Ornithology web site (www.bto.org)

The owls’ hunting ground is in the area which the RSPB is restoring to grazing meadow. Although the RSPB’s efforts are aimed primarily at restoring habitat for breeding and wintering wading birds, the area should prove to be ideal habitat for the birds. The owls are being used to help monitor the local environment. All owls regurgitate pellets. These are composed of the indigestible parts of their prey – mainly fur and bones.

Examination of these pellets gives an idea of the relative abundance of different prey species – the two pictures show skulls and some other bones of shrews and voles taken from three pellets. We have collected as many pellets as we could find in the Willow Works before restoration began. This will give a picture of what small mammals were being preyed upon before restoration of the habitat began. We will continue to collect and dissect pellets so that, as time goes on, we can see how the owls’ diet changes. This will, in turn, show how the small mammal population is changing.

So far we have found remains of four mammal species – Bank Vole, Short-tailed Vole, Common Shrew and Pygmy Shrew. Remains of these species are present in the ratio 10%:45%:40%:5%. On average, there are 5 small mammal skulls in each pellet. Some pellets are being dissected at the University of Lincoln, giving biology students experience of identification of small mammals from the prey remains. Identification of these species is often straightforward – attached is a chart showing how to identify the most commonly found species- click here to view diagrams.

In addition to Barn Owls, there are Little Owls in the area. At least one individual has been using the restored Willow Works as a restaurant with a view, having gained access through a window. It left behind a large collection of its prey remains – the wings of peacock and tortoiseshell butterflies together with its own distinctive shape of pellet.

The Honey Buzzard

The Honey Buzzard is a widespread but rare British breeding bird with, perhaps, about 50 pairs nesting in the country each year with, usually, one or two pairs breeding in Nottinghamshire in the ‘Forest Country’. Although they will eat what we would expect of large birds of prey – including mammals, birds and reptiles – their main prey consists of wasp and bee adults, pupae and larvae. In the autumn there may be frequent sightings of this species in the eastern counties of Britain when birds from north-eastern Europe pass through on their migration to Africa. Unlike ordinary Buzzards, to which they are no more closely related than they are to any other British bird of prey, Honey Buzzards are forced to migrate for their main prey items are either dead or inactive during the winter.

The main hunting technique of the species is to locate a bee or wasp in flight and follow it back to its nest. There, the bird can excavate the nest to eat the nutritious larvae and pupae. On 18th September 2008, several Beckingham residents were privileged to enjoy prolonged, close views of a Honey Buzzard which located a wasp nest in a compost heap in a garden.

It spent most of the day – from mid-morning until mid-afternoon working at the heap, apparently unconcerned about the swarm of angry adult wasps flying all around it. Adaptations against stings from bees and wasps include small, scale-like feathers around the head and cheeks and, possibly, some natural immunity to bee and wasp venom

From its plumage features and lack of fear of human beings, this was clearly a juvenile bird and it was even kind enough to pose on the garden wall a few times to give a clear view and photography opportunities. Sadly this lack of fear of humans, which now allows the bird to exploit even wasps nests so close to human habitation, can lead to premature death as it migrates through Mediterranean countries within the range of hunters’ firearms.

By late afternoon it had left the wasp nest even though it had not been completely destroyed. Perhaps that was to leave enough food for another day. Whether this bird was one of our own locally produced birds or one refuelling during its migration from Europe we may never know.

For more information on the Honey Buzzard please click here.