Monday, 31 May 2010

Lowland Heath.

I am fortunate to have many different habitats to visit within a reasonable driving distance of home and late spring into summer is an excellent time to wander around a lowland heath such as Thursley Common comprising a mixture of dry and wet heath, bog, woodland and scrub. 
Heathlands are very rare habitats and occur in areas which combine poor soils with a cool, moist climate. In Europe, lowland heathland occurs mainly in a zone bordering the Atlantic and North Sea, where there is a cool moist oceanic climate with mild winters and cool summers. The UK has approximately 20% of Europe's remaining lowland heath. Most of this is concentrated in the southern and eastern counties of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Hampshire, Sussex, Suffolk, Norfolk and my home county of Surrey.
Heaths are wide open landscapes dominated by plants such as Heathers, Gorse and heathland grasses and punctuated by scattered trees such as Silver Birch and Pines. They are historic landscapes and are essentially a man-made habitat. Gradual clearance of native woodland for planting crops began in Neolithic times and continued into the 17th century. Once the soil nutrients were exhausted people moved on to cultivate a new areas. Continued grazing and other activities have helped to maintain the open nature of these heaths. The soils are usually sandy (and therefore free-draining), acidic and very low in plant nutrients so a unique association of plants and animals have adapted to withstand such inhospitable conditions and evolved to form the distinctive heathland community including approximately 5,000 species of invertebrates.
Numerous wide sandy tracks criss-cross the common and I often pass the time of day with horse riders who gently walk by but on this occasion the exercise was far to quick for my legs! There are various stands of  pines with evidence of recent thining lying on the ground. There are also small pockets of deciduous woodland to search out diffent species and I watched a female Redstart bringing food to her youngsters but no postable pics this time.
 
 A female Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) [the male has red patch on back of its head] was busily feeding its young at the nest hole. 
Dry heath is normally dominated by varying proportions of Heather (Calluna vulgaris), Bell Heather (Erica cinerea) and Gorse (Common, plus Western or Dwarf). Wet heath is characterized by the presence of Cross-leaved Heath (Erica tetralix), Purple Moor Grass (Molinia caerulea), species of Sphagnum moss and the Marsh Orchid.
An unexpected find was this female Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) quietly perched on a pile of logs and I was able to get quite close without upsetting her.

Three Red Data Book species of birds are particularly associated with Surrey heathlands; Nightjars (Caprimulgus europaeus), Woodlarks (Lullula arborea) and Dartford Warblers (Sylvia undata). Dartford Warblers are the only ones exclusively associated with this habitat in southern England but their numbers appear to have severely crashed in recent years...the devasting fire in 2006 that wiped out vast tracts of their preferred habitat certainly hasn't helped and I have not seen any during recent visits to Thursley Common. Nightjars are summer visitors to England, whose characteristic churring noise can be heard on warm, summer evenings so I'll be returning very soon to enjoy this experience.  FAB.

11 comments:

  1. Thank you for another wonderful nature lesson. I truly enjoy visiting your blog and learning so much here.

    Best,
    Lois

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  2. Wow, those are wonderful photos! Looks like an excellent place to visit!

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  3. How very interesting! And what a variety of habitats. Thanks for sharing.

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  4. Superb post Frank, with wonderful photo's illustrating Heathland at its best,and very descriptive prose. Also great shot of the female Wheatear.

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  5. I found your description of the Heathlands to be very interesting. I'll have to do some more reading about this fascinating habitat. In some ways, your dry heath is similar to the barrens I deal with here in southern Ohio. Thanks for the information.

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  6. Great habitats, and some of my favourite birds live there, pity its such a scarce resource.

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  7. Hello Frank, this was my first-time visit having found your blog from another site (MontanaGirl). Enjoyed the bird photos and will revisit as I'm an avid photographer as well. Please feel free to visit our little blog spot (thefrogandpenguinn). My name is Dorothy (aka Beatrice) and my
    partner is Pat (aka Grenville).

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  8. Beautiful post and pictures. I would love to come and visit some of these places with you. Thanks for sharing.

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  9. Frank, I so enjoyed reading this post about the heathlands, chuck-a-lucka full of so much information, and accompanied by brilliant photographs. Thanks for sharing. ~karen

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  10. Nice to learn about the Heath - I always enjoy learning about your area. Loved that photo of the Northern Wheatear too - they have such sweet faces.

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  11. Hi "Early Birders". I'm delighted that you enjoyed this piece on the rare heathland habitat.

    Lois. I never thought of myself as a 'teacher', but always happy to pass on anything that you and anyone else may find interesting.

    Sarah. Good at any time of the year but it can be a bit bleak in winter.

    Mona. Acres and acres to wander around and you never know what may turn up.

    Monty. Thanks my friend. I'm just glad that at least one species wanted to be photographed!

    Steve Wilson. I'll look out some links on our lowland heath and e-mail them to you.

    Warren. Definitely worth protecting. I just wish it was on the doorstep.

    Beatrice. Thank you for your visit. I'll be dropping by 'thefrogandpenguin' very soon.

    Bill S. Thanks. I would be delighted to show you around if you ever get the chance to visit the UK.

    KaHolly. Something a little different and glad you found it interesting Karen.

    Shelley. The Wheatear was a pleasant, surprise find and for a migrant species she was quite confiding but maybe not quite the same as finding a Loon on the doorstep.

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I hope you enjoyed your visit and I always appreciate your comments and feedback.

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