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End of year round-up 2017

End of year round-up 2017

Firstly, 2017 has been seen a few changes to the wildlife team in Glastonbury Abbey with the addition of several new volunteers to our fold bringing new knowledge and experience to the team and new ways of looking at things and interpreting what we have observed over the course of the year.

January was a quiet month starting off with quite mild weather conditions and a quiet time in the grounds. Snowdrops were already in flower and the first daffodil and crocus shoots were appearing. The main bird activity was either in the wildlife area or the orchard with foraging tits and the odd nuthatch and tree creeper making a welcome appearance along with the winter resident redwings and fieldfares feeding on what was left on the ground of the previous autumn's apple crop in the orchard.

A cold snap in February brought an increase in the number of species into the Abbey. Long-tailed tits became very noticeable moving through the shrubs and smaller trees in their family groups picking off small invertebrates and calling constantly as they forage whilst not staying in one place for too long.


Occasionally they would be joined by our more common blue and great tits and the odd nuthatch to make mixed flocks which are always a delight to watch. By the end of the month the first daffodil heads had started to appear but were not yet open and the snowdrops were at their height with carpets of white at various places within the grounds and the winter aconite was also very visible along near the north wall near the marquees where it blooms every year.

Great-spotted woodpeckers had started drumming in various locations.
March was the start of spring either on the first (meteorologically) or on the Spring Equinox on the 21st whichever you follow. Daffodils were now providing blankets of yellow just about everywhere and it was a delight to play hide and seek with a blackbird among them who obviously was a bit camera shy! The majority of our birds starting singing with the dulcet tones of blackbird, robin, dunnock, wren, song thrush, great tit, blue tit, mistle thrush, chaffinch, goldfinch and nuthatch to be heard from just about every available tree and perching point. March also saw the first emergences of 2017's insects (Hoorah). Multiples of ladybirds of several different species were seen mating along the hedgerows and the first butterflies were spotted namely brimstone and comma. The hoverflies Eristalis pertinax and Episurphus balteatus, the beefly (Bombilius major), honey bees, tawny mining bees and the buff-tailed bumblebee were also seen on the milder, sunny and calm days. The insect season had certainly begun and spring had most definitely sprung.

April got off to a good start with grey wagtail sighted on the fish pond and the arrival of two pairs of wild mallard to the Abbey to complement our resident domestic ducks. Moorhens established their first nest in the phragmites reeds on the duck pond, unfortunately this was not successful. The female was seen on the nest whether she was incubating eggs or not we cannot be certain. After a heavy downpour and the water levels rising her nest was flooded so this first attempt failed as it often does with waterfowl species that nest basically on the water at this time of year. All our passerine (song birds) were busy either busy nest building or already incubating eggs. Insect wise new additions included ashy mining bee, red-tailed bumblebee, dark-winged beefly (a rare occurrence in the Abbey and Somerset in general), peacock, small tortoiseshell and the first red admiral butterflies and whilst not an insect the first nursery-web spiders became noticeable in the longer growing grass that had been set aside for wildlife in the orchard and other places. The Abbey's trees were now in full spring bloom and the cow parsley was looking resplendent and attracting a lot of the above mentioned insects.

During May the weather was rather what you would expect. The grounds were alive with the dawn chorus, of course the Abbey is not open this early but you could still here it if you were passing by very early in the morning. All the birds were now nesting with a lot of frenzied feeding activity with the tit species busy looking for caterpillars and the thrushes digging away on the lawns looking for worms to feed the many hungry mouths of their offspring. New additions to the butterfly fauna were the orange-tip and the emergence of the first “whites” of the season, in this case mainly green-veined with small numbers of small and large as well. The damselflies started to appear this month with common, azure, variable and blue-tailed all spotted, the first dragonflies also started to appear with the hairy being one of the first to put in an appearance. The mallards had 8 duckling on the pond at the beginning of the month, but by the end there were only 3 left. The rest probably being predated by a grey heron which sometimes visits before the Abbey opens. The swallows retuned to feed over the grounds around mid-month, which is always a welcome sight. Flowers were also everywhere.

Mid-summer. June as always can be a month of contrasts from blistering hot days to torrential downpours and this year was no different. Fledgling chicks started popping up all around the grounds with young wren, tits, robins and blackbirds seen skulking around in the undergrowth in the wildlife area waiting to be fed by attentive parents. We had a pair of green woodpeckers nest in the orchard and their chicks were developed enough to be seen sticking their heads out of the nest-hole and when it was a warm day they would gape and pant. Swifts also returned this month and could be seen flying high above feeding on small flies and giving their characteristic "screaming" noise and they fly and feed information, also peregrine falcons were seen soaring above and actively hunting. More dragonflies were to be found near the ponds and further afield, emperor, southern hawker, broad-bodied and four-spot chasers were all in abundance. The red valerian was starting to flower as was the hogweed in the wildlife area. Moorhen chicks were also noted on the duck pond.
During July all the birds seen to go quiet, with the dawn chorus now largely over and the first broods of chicks all fledged from the species that have more that one brood per year. Speckled wood, meadow brown, ringlet and gatekeeper were the new additions to the butterflies this month. New bumblebees to be found were red-tailed and tree bumblebee.

In avian terms August can be seen as the start of autumn, with everything about to change, we had a rail full of juvenile swallows on the bridge on the duck pond still being fed by their parents but also being taught the skills to hunt for themselves and fatten up before they leave for their epic trek to sub-Saharan Africa. Swifts continued screaming overhead and the first cones and seed pods started to appear on our trees. Orb-weaver spiders started to make themselves known spinning their weds on just about anything they could.
September continued on a similar note with the swallows and swifts being joined by house martins all feeding frenetically, the swifts left us early in the month, they are always the first to migrate. Apples in the orchard were now falling and the smell of them fermenting on the ground was a olfactory pleasure. Fungi was starting to sprout all over the grounds especially if there had been a day or two of damp weather. There was still plenty of plants in flower and the leaves on the trees only started turning colour towards the end of the month. Also still lots of butterfly, bee, and dragonfly activity.

October is definitely the month of change... Our swallows and martins departed, as did our few willow warblers that had spent the summer with us intermittently. A lot of the butterflies started to disappear, however during the early part of the month the weather was unseasonably mild and this led to a mass emergence of red admiral butterfly which were absolutely everywhere! This was part of a national trend and indeed looking at the results of the 2017 national butterfly survey their numbers were up 74% on 2016, bearing this in mind that the small tortoiseshell - a very similar and closely related species of butterfly has dropped over 70% over the past few years. A fickle thing is nature! Leaves were now in full autumnal colours by the end of the month. Shaggy ink-cap and field blewit mushrooms were popping up all over the lawned areas of the grounds. Hogweed was by now starting to go over as was the red valerian. Still a few dragonflies were hanging on, mostly common and ruddy darter and a few Eristalis sp. Hoverflies continued to be seen on warm days.
November saw the arrival of the “winter” thrushes: redwing and fieldfare, who have been busy gorging themselves on berries and windfall apples ever since along with our resident blackbirds and a few song and mistle thrush. Five species of thrush can be seen sometimes in the same eyeful – not bad at all really for such a location as the Abbey. December has continued in much the same manner with a cold snap early in the month bringing a few very welcome frosty mornings, this has however killed off the straggling hoverflies and dragonflies that were left.

During 2017 we (the wildlife volunteer team) have held a variety of events for the visitors to the Abbey. We have been doing monthly wildlife tours and bug hunts during the school holidays aimed at children and children at heart who would like to get a bit hands-on and catch some invertebrates in a pot and then have them identified and then obviously released. We took part in the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch in January and despite the torrential freezing rain a few dedicated people did turn up. Also this year was a pop-up wildlife exhibition during the Abbey's free open evening which was well attended with a display of photographs taken by the wildlife team, copies of blogs and a hand held digital microscope connected to some tablets to show all the tiny stuff that we share living space with. I was even called to the museum to catch a male tube-web spider (Segestria florentia) which I had never seen before – and he was big! But also became an attraction at our exhibition.

We have some events lined up for 2018 which will be advertised around the grounds nearer the time.

So that's it. Have a good 2018 and keep looking and learning, there is a world of stuff lurking out there.

Mark Huntington.

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Added: 15th January 2018