ASHTEAD RYE MEADOWS
Peter E. Firth in Ashtead carries out a monthly count for the Rye Meadows project. We will publish his monthly record here.
This month (January 2017) Peter's diary records the following:-
Busy bird morning on Ashtead Rye Meadows where yet more work has been done to clear parts of the Rye Brook, flowing swiftly after the heavy rainfall of the past few days. There were good numbers of most of the species which occur there regularly, including woodpigeons, robins, great and blue tits and magpies, as well as over-wintering redwings, though no sign of fieldfares. But no song thrushes, wrens, goldfinches or greenfinches, nor any waterbirds and, surprisingly, only three ring-necked parakeets. Heard only a couple of the latter on Ashtead Common two days earlier. It’s not unusual for them to move out of an area altogether, which perhaps is what’s happening here. Shan’t be too unhappy if that’s the case. Some of the robins, incidentally, will be visitors from Northern Europe, here to avoid the bitter cold of their winters. They must be thinking they’ve arrived in a much warmer part of the world than ever they could have expected. .
Bird Survey December 2011 to May 2012
Low lying land covering some 48 acres to the south of Ashtead Common and astride the Rye Brook, Ashtead Rye Meadows are of undoubted importance to the birdlife of the local area - and have the potential to be even more so in the future.
They occupy a rectangular strip, running south west to north east, between Ashtead Woods Road and the ribbon of housing to the north of Links Road. Beyond Ashtead Woods Road to the north are half a dozen detached properties in their own grounds and beyond them lies the Common. The Common also extends along the eastern edge of the Meadows; to the west, an area of grassland separates them from the M25.
The Meadows themselves are a patchwork of paddocks and fields divided by fences and hedges; remarkably some of the latter date from the middle of the 17th century. The glory of the Meadows, however, is the Rye Brook, designated a 'main river', and a tributary of the River Mole, which runs for the entire 800 metre length of the Meadows near the southern boundary. It is this feature, together with the hedges predominantly of hawthorn and blackthorn which line the waters' banks, which is the main attraction to birdlife, accounting for some three quarters of the birds monitored in the survey.
The survey consisted of a series of 30 visits, made usually early in the morning (generally the best time to see birds), each visit lasting about an hour. They covered the period from the beginning of December, through the rest of the winter, until mid May. Thus they included the main periods when native British bird species are present, and also covered the arrivals of summer migrants, starting in March (on average, the first of them, the chiffchaff's, return to Ashtead on 15th of that month) until the return of the swifts in early May.
In total, no fewer than 46 different bird species were listed as being present during the survey, a surprisingly high figure given the close proximity to the M25 and the fact that the area is within 20 miles of London. The magnet for birds is the Rye Brook, an ever present source of water for drinking and bathing (to keep plumage in good condition), its hedges providing ample sites for nesting. The fact that the Meadows have few visitors, so that the birdlife is for the most part undisturbed, is a major factor in retaining such a variety of species.
A comparison with the adjoining Common is interesting. At 500 acres, the Common is 10 times larger than the Meadows. Moreover, it has a much greater diversity of habit particularly attractive to different bird species; areas of dense scrub; woodland with more than 2,000 ancient oak pollards; the Rye Brook and several ponds as well as a recently constructed wetlands area; and - along almost its entire northern boundary - farmland.
A total of 96 different species have been recorded on the Common by the author of this survey. This, however, is over a period of more than 20 years - and of the 96 species, 10 have now disappeared, in some cases because their populations have declined generally, including nightingales, linnets, reed buntings, turtle doves and, most recently, cuckoos.
There are, however, several species which seem more at home on Ashtead Rye Meadows than on Ashtead Common, most notably the snipe. Rarely seen on the Common nowadays, one and sometimes two snipe were seen on the Meadows on almost every visit from the beginning of December until mid March when, alas, the remains of one of the pair were found on the riverbank, the victim almost certainly of a sparrowhawk attack. During the period, too, there were bigger flocks of wintering fieldfares (51) and redwings (30) as well as starlings (41) than on the Common. In addition, populations of finches were comparatively high on the Meadows, including chaffinches, goldfinches, redpolls, siskins and greenfinches (the last mentioned currently in decline because of psittacosis.
A disappointment was the absence of kingfishers, which usually occur once or twice a year locally during periods of extreme weather. Not even the wettest April since records began induced them to visit. Less disappointing was seeing (hearing) ring-necked parakeets only occasionally, the good news being that they have not colonised on the Meadows - yet ...
Another significant comparison concerns the incidence of returning migrants. This spring, the most numerous of the warblers on the Common - chiffchaff, willow warblers and whitethroat - exceed a dozen in each case. On the Meadows they are there in ones or twos only. One significant exception is that of the lesser whitethroat. In terms of their overall populations, they are outnumbered by the common whitethroat by about 10 to 1, and in good years only one or two breed on the Common. This year, two lesser whitethroat arrived on the Common on 30th April stayed for a day or two, but have not been heard since. Then, on 12th May, three lesser whitethroat were observed on the Meadows, one of which appears to have stayed.
Lack of suitable habitat is the likeliest explanation for the comparative lack of migrants on the Meadows. The areas on the Common where they are most prolific are those where the scrub is densest, 'scrub' meaning hawthorn, blackthorn, willow, sallow and bramble, as well as oak and birch. Between 75 and 80 per cent of the birdlife on the Meadows is to be found in the network of hedges flanking the Rye Brook, dense in part but only a few feet wide. Judicious plantings in some of the corners of the fields and elsewhere with some of the aforementioned species might serve to attract rather more birdlife.
BIRD SPECIES SEEN ON ASHTEAD RYE MEADOWS
Daily: Blackbird, Blue Tit, Carrion Crow, Chaffinch, Collared Dove, Dunnock, Goldfinch, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Great Tit, Greenfinch, Green Woodpecker, Jay, Magpie, Robin, Starling, Wood Pigeon.
Regularly¹: Black-Headed Gull, Bullfinch, Chiffchaff, Fieldfare, Jackdaw, Mandarin Duck, Long-Tailed Tit, Pheasant, Redpoll, Redwing, Snipe, Song Thrush, Wren.
Occasionally² : Blackcap, House Sparrow, Lesser Whitethroat, Nuthatch, Mallard, Mistle Thrush, Ring-Necked Parakeet, Siskin, Skylark, Stock Dove, Whitethroat.
Rarely³ : Buzzard Heron, Moorhen, Yellowhammer.
© Peter E Firth
Typical counts, taken on 12th January (beginning at 07.35 and covering 2.4 miles; weather cloudy: temperature 8°C) and 17th May (beginning at 05.55 and covering 2.3 miles; weather cloudy: temperature 6°C).