Our WildCookham ‘What’s About’ walks have always been a challenge – to see how far we can get before we run out of time. It’s not been unusual to have found so much in the first 100 yards, we’ve occupied our whole 2 hours in just that space. Summer 2022 put paid to that expectation!
Ten hopeful hunters arrived in the car park of the Golden Ball ready to be enthralled with summer-time insects, plants and birds, despite my fore-warnings that elsewhere, I was finding a somewhat depleted countryside this year.
And, as 20 eyes peeled themselves across the vegetation and treescape of the woodland trails, so it proved to be. The pressures of the now-official drought had denuded the woodland of all its flora, with no nectaring plants found anywhere. This in turn resulted in us finding no insects to study save for one White-tailed Bumble Bee, a single Speckled Wood and a solitary spider hanging from a branch above us, hugging a small leaf in which a dainty insect meal was secured. One can only conjecture that, to avoid hungry competitors rushing in from any angle to steal it, dangling on a silken thread meant there was only one assault route to defend! Despite scouring the rampant bed of largely berry-less brambles, no other webs or scuttling insects could be traced.
Like the rain we have all been praying for, leaves tumbled out of the sky in a steady stream, most of them already desiccated, destined to provide no sustenance to the arid soils beneath. The lone White-tailed Bumble we did espy seemed intent on seeking out a winter hide-away, suggesting it was a recently-born queen, the only ones of the colony that survive to next year, already containing the fertilised eggs she will lay in the spring.
The single Speckled Wood butterfly we chanced upon was not happily resting on the foliage, soaking up the sunbeams as usual, but restlessly scuttling around, no doubt hunting for any of the few aphids that might still be producing the honeydew that so many species feed upon in the woodland setting. It has been known for some weeks that aphid activity has been severely suppressed this season, which probably explains why we saw just this lone representative of the lepidopteran family.
We were however able to study the remnants of many trees that have tumbled over the years and witness the various stages of the rotting process, including some early fungi, such as dazzlingly-yellow Chicken of the Woods and a few King Alfred’s Cakes, their fibrous contents being the trekker’s firelighters even today.
Birdlife was evidenced by a lone Chiffchaff uttering its wheezing contact call, rather than its ebullient song, and the occasional calls of a Great Spotted Woodpecker, and a Nuthatch, whilst a tiny Goldcrest frustrated us by whispering its high-pitched call above us somewhere, but out of sight. But we did chance upon a mixed flock of Great, Blue, and Long-tailed Tits, working as a cabal to find any food left in the canopy. This would normally be regarded as a winter-time behaviour, but summer 2022 has presented its own challenges to hungry birds, clearly.
We did find an interesting feather which I excitedly declared could be off a local scarcity; a Woodcock. But research back home proved it to be from a lowly Pheasant! Another casualty revealed by a scattering of feathers was a young Great Spotted Woodpecker, possible succumbed to a squirrel or Tawny Owl.
As time ran out on us we were interrupted by a Woodland Trust strimming team (!) coming up behind us, which would have no doubt dispersed anything else left to be found between us and the car park so we called it a day and scurried off ahead of them.
Thankfully, nature is resilient, and there will no doubt be more to find on our next walk through Bisham Woods.