our 20 selected species
Images courtesy of Simon Booker stokerpix.com
Great Crested Grebe: By Aran/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0
our 20 selected species
Otters have recently recolonized our stretch of the river, thanks to the ban on hunting them, and reduced pollution. They are not easy to see, but there’s a chance of spotting one near dawn or dusk at any time of the year. You’re more likely to see their footprints in muddy ground, about 6-7cm across and with all five toes pointing forwards. Otters feed on fish, but they’ll also take waterfowl. Otters can be confused with Mink, but they’re much bigger and more heavily built. Where they are found, Otters tend to drive Mink away, which is great news for birds, and other riverside mammals such as the Water Vole.
The Roe Deer is one of only two Deer species that are native to the UK (the other being Red Deer). They can be seen almost anywhere around the village, especially around the wooded areas by the river, and in the fields on the prairie. They come together in loose groups of up to 10 in the winter, but they’re more solitary for the rest of the year. The only other local deer that could be mistaken for a Roe is the Muntjac – Roe deer are much bigger, and have a distinctive white rump that shows as they run away. The best time to see them is early in the morning, but in the winter you might see them at any time of the day.
The Brown Hare is actually not native to the UK – it was introduced (along with the Rabbit), most likely by the Romans. It’s easy to tell apart from a Rabbit, being much bigger, with longer ears and legs. Hares are animals of open countryside, so well suited to the wide, open fields around the village. They can be seen at any time of year, but most commonly in the Spring, when you might see their “boxing” displays. They are more common in some years than others, depending on availability of food, but nationally their numbers are declining. Hare coursers are a major problem in our area, so if you see a Hare, it’s best not to be precise about where you saw it.
Hedgehogs used to be fairly common in gardens, but they have become much scarcer over the last 30 years or so. They need large areas, with plenty of undergrowth, and modern “tidy” gardens with fenced in boundaries prevent them from moving around to find food and shelter, That said, their numbers in the village seem to have increased in the last couple of years, and there is a good chance that their numbers are under-recorded. Even if you don’t see Hedgehogs, there’s a chance that you will see their black shiny poo (about the size of a slug) in the middle of your lawn, If you want to attract Hedgehogs into your garden, DON’T put milk out – they are lactose intolerant and it’s not good for them. Instead, try a bit of meat-based cat or dog food.
The Swift is a summer migrant, but the time of their arrival varies widely from year to year. Their numbers have been in decline for the last 30 years, probably due to lack of insect food and reduction in suitable nest sites, so it’s important to monitor their numbers from year to year. They can be told apart from Swallows and House Martins by their larger size, much faster flight, and plain dark brown colour. In South Stoke, you’re most likely to see them flying high overhead in groups on a summer evening, and you will hear their distinctive “screaming” call. Swifts use the same nest sites year after year – under house eaves and in outbuildings – if you are lucky enough to have a nest it would be great to know.
This medium sized thrush is a winter migrant, with numbers varying from year to year. In cold winters they can arrive in huge numbers from mainland Europe, and in mild winters their numbers are much lower. They move around in small flocks, and they are easy to see in the fields and hedgerows around the village, though they are less commonly seen in gardens. By the middle of Spring, they’re all gone, having returned to Scandinavia and Russia to breed.
Thirty years ago the sight of a Kingfisher along the river was something of a rarity, but improved water quality and larger numbers of small fish mean that they are now a regular sight. In the winter, extra birds migrate to the UK from Europe, and they may be seen away from the river, even visiting small garden ponds. They can be seen at any time of the year, most commonly you’ll see a flash of blue as they fly rapidly across the river, but occasionally you might see one perching on a low branch over the water, or even diving for fish. They nest in burrows made in the river bank, and they are territorial, with breeding pairs being spread several hundred metres apart.
great crested grebe
Grebes are a very ancient group of birds, that have no close relatives – in fact their closest relatives are Flamingos! The Great Crested Grebe was hunted almost to extinction in the 19th century, because its feathers were prized for their decorative qualities. Their numbers have since recovered and they can now be seen on the River throughout the year. They are most noticeable in the Spring, when courting pairs perform an elaborate courting “dance”. They make floating nests in dense vegetation, and they often carry their chicks on their backs. They’re not great fliers, and they will usually dive under the water, rather than fly away, if disturbed.
Grebe image by Arian / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0.
The once common House Sparrow has seen a major decline in numbers since the 1970’s. The greatest decline has been in towns and cities, but they’re also struggling in the countryside. They often nest in holes and crevices in buildings, and one reason for their decline might be that modern houses offer fewer nesting opportunities. They do however use nest boxes, so we can help them in this way. It would be useful to know how many houses in the village have nesting birds, and to measure how this number changes, over a period of several years.
The Barn Owl is one of the most widely distributed birds in the world, and it’s found over most of the UK, but it’s not a “common” bird, because breeding pairs maintain large territories that don’t overlap. They don’t just hunt at night, so there’s always a chance of seeing one early in the morning, or at dusk. They can be seen pretty much anywhere in and around the village, but you’re most likely to spot them hunting over areas with long grass or by the edges of wooded areas. Their numbers vary from year to year, and wet weather during the breeding season is a major problem for them – their feathers are not waterproof, and they can’t hunt effectively in the rain.
Once common in gardens in the village, Slow Worms seem to be increasing in numbers after a lengthy period of decline. They are actually legless lizards, that can be told apart from snakes by their shiny body with tiny scales, and by their regular blinking (snakes don’t blink). They are often found around compost heaps, where the warmth and damp conditions suit them. They are a gardener’s friend, eating slugs and snails. Away from our gardens, they can be found in wooded areas and grassland areas. Apart from habitat loss (“cleaner” gardens with fewer wild areas) the main threat to slow worms in our gardens comes from domestic cats.
2020 was a bumper year for Grass Snake sightings in and around the village, a good sign that they are doing well locally. They are our biggest snake, with mature females sometimes reaching a length of over one metre, and they are easily recognizable by the yellow and black “collar” just behind the head. They are completely harmless and will always try to escape if a person comes near. The most likely place to see a Grass Snake is close to the river, but they also like ponds and wet grassy areas. They are another species that benefit from compost heaps, where they often lay their eggs in summer.
There are three species of Newt in the UK, but the one that most people are likely to see is the Smooth Newt. They are common in ponds, even small garden ponds, and they will often appear in newly dug ponds as if by magic! They eat insects, small worms, and frog tadpoles. In late Summer and Autumn, the adults will leave ponds to look for new territories, and they can then be found anywhere that is damp.
small tortoiseshell butterfly
This used to be one of our commonest garden butterflies, but it’s a relative rarity now in Southern England. Parasites have been identified as one cause for their decline, along with climate change – they are still relatively common in Northern England and Scotland. Small Tortoiseshells hibernate as adults, and the best time to see them is in spring, when they can be seen feeding on flowers and looking for mates. Their caterpillars feed on Stinging Nettles, and the cutting back of Nettles in summer is a problem. There is a “second brood” of adults early in the summer, and they also used to be a common sight in the Autumn, but there is evidence that the adults in warmer parts of the country are hibernating as early as the end of June, to avoid hot dry weather. Tracking numbers from year to year would really help in understanding their long-term future.
This brightly coloured moth can be seen flying in daylight in early summer. It’s common around the village, especially in grassy meadows, where Ragwort (the foodplant of the caterpillars) grows. Nationally, it has however become much less common over the last 30 years, possibly as a result of Ragwort control. Later in the summer, it’s easy to spot the bright yellow and black striped caterpillars feeding – they absorb chemicals from the Ragwort and are poisonous to birds, and the bright colours are a warning to predators.
These huge beetles used to be a common sight, but they have become much rarer since the 1970’s. They can still be seen in the village, flying on warm evenings in early to mid-summer, the most likely place to see them is along The Street, or in wooded areas near the river. The larvae feed on rotting wood, and can take up to 6 years to grow before turning into adults. One possible reason for their decline is lack of suitable dead wood for the larvae, as a result of changing woodland management and tidier gardens. An easy way to help conserve Stag Beetles is to build a log pile in a damp/shady spot in the garden, to provide food for the larvae. Despite their appearance, Adult Stag Beetles do not bite, in fact they don’t feed at all as adults.
Glow Worms used to be a common sight in southern England, and they can still be seen in the village on grassy roadside banks and other meadow areas. They are actually Beetles, and the flightless females glow to attract males. Adult Glow Worms have no mouthparts, so they don’t feed. The larvae feed on slugs and snails. The adults are about in June and July, and the cutting of roadside verges at this time of year is thought to contribute to their decline. It would be useful to know exactly where in the village they are to be found, so that their habitat can be managed effectively.
There are currently 24 species of bumblebee in the UK, 7 of which are widespread. Unlike the Honey bee, bumblebees don’t make honey, as they don’t need to store food for winter. Instead, only the new queens overwinter, emerging in the spring to start a new nest. Bumblebees have been in steep decline for many years, and 2 species have become extinct. This is because of the loss of 97% of wildflower meadows since the 1930’s and the widespread use of insecticides. We can help by growing wild and near-wild flowers in our gardens, by re-establishing wild flower meadows and by encouraging better mowing regimes along road verges. We want to know which species are present here so that we can target improvements to help increase their numbers.
5. flowering plants
The Loddon Lily is a beautiful plant with pretty white flowers, hanging from long green stems. It is related to the snowdrop, and flowers in April and May. It is the County flower of Berkshire, and its natural range is mainly on the River Loddon and along the Thames between Oxford and Maidenhead. The seedpods of the plant float, and are dispersed by streams and rivers. We are very fortunate that it is quite common here, in riverside marshes and in wet woods. Withymead Nature Reserve has one of the largest patches of Loddon Lily anywhere. The bulbs contain complex chemicals and are being studied for their pharmaceutical properties, with one likely use being in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.
The orchid family is the largest of all the plant families and in Britain we have about 50 species. Orchids are amazing. Many of them have flowers that mimic their pollinators, fooling them into carrying pollen. Some of them smell gorgeous, others stink! On the chalk downland at Hartslock nature reserve, above Goring, there are bee orchids, monkey orchids, lady orchids, pyramidal, common and spotted orchids, as well as twayblades and helleborines. We don’t know what we have got in South Stoke, but we’d like to find out!