Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Autumn 2019 at Cleaver Heath

Cleaver Heath in November (above) and August (below)

I recently got back from a trip to South America where spring was in progress. Further north in the tropics, the ‘seasons’ were described as simply rainy or dry. Returning to Cleaver I was reassured that normal service had resumed and autumn colours were starting to show. Above is a comparison of our reserve in August and November.

You will know that our native broadleaf trees turn off photosynthesis in autumn losing their green colour and preserve energy by absorbing nutrients back down from the leaves. Below (left) is an oak sapling in Cleaver in the transition phase where the leaf is yellowing while the leaf veins are still green as the chlorophyll drains back. Now that the predominant fluid flow is down rather than up, we can carry out our glyphosate stump treatment more effectively. The glyphosate is colourless but we add a blue dye to make sure we can see what has been done and also reduce the trip hazard (below right).

Oak leaves (left) and stump treatment (right)

The last Oldfield swallows left on 22 September just a few days earlier usual. I saw 2 Chiffchaff in Cleaver on 14 September. One of them was actually singing and continued to do so for a few more days. In autumn, Wirral sees quite few birds on passage back to warmer climes while the first of the winter visitors start to arrive. We had a couple of Redwings in our rowan tree as early as 9 October this year.

Spotted flycatcher

Local resident Frank Burns, whose garden backs on to Cleaver, was lucky enough to spot, and photograph, this Spotted Flycatcher in late September (above). It stayed a couple of days and then, presumably, continued its journey south suitably refuelled with Cleaver insects. Frank was able to observe, from his kitchen window, the typical flycatcher behaviour where the bird darts off following an unseen prey then loops round back onto its chosen perch.

As well as plentiful insects, we have been seeing lots of spiders tending their webs in the heather. These are most visible in the morning when the low sun and moisture make them stand out. As well as the traditional spiral webs (below left) we saw lots of ‘sheet’ or ‘hammock’ webs (below right).

Spider webs

Sometime this winter, we hope to get access to a list of the invertebrates found on Cleaver during a series of visits this summer by colleagues from the World Museum (Liverpool). The sightings are being logged in the rECOrd biological database at It should be interesting.

We are being visited soon by a reptile expert who is going to advise us on reptile conservation and survey techniques. As far as we know our only resident reptile is the Common Lizard. Larger lowland heath sites also have Adders. We don’t know of any recent sightings on Wirral.

On the subject of surveys, we duly completed our 26-week transect survey from Cleaver to Church Farm. The summary which went to Butterfly Conservation along with our data said:
‘This 2km transect, which is mainly along farmland footpaths, yielded similar numbers overall to last year with a few anomalies: Painted Ladies (70 this year, none last year); fewer whites particularly the early ones, and especially the Large Whites; many fewer Common Blues; Commas and Small Skippers were down: Red Admirals and Speckled Woods were up. The overall species count (17) was typical. We didn’t see anything we hadn’t seen before.’

Workday at Cleaver Heath

We have now had 3 formal Autumn/Winter workdays in the 2019-20 session. Birch control on the upper heathland panels is now complete and we took the opportunity to extend the stoning on the main path using the spanking new wheelbarrow provided by the trust (above). There is always something to do no matter the weather. In this case we were waiting to be sure the rain would clear to allow stump cutting to go ahead. There is little point in cutting if you don’t treat the stumps more or less straight away, or if the rain is about to return and wash it out.

As well as continuing birch control in the lower panel, our next sessions will include coppicing of the tallest birch saplings in our designated scrub area and European gorse in the main stand between heathland panels. Oh, and we still haven’t cleaned our nesting boxes. We certainly need to get on with the Tawny Owl box as these early nesters will soon be scouting for accommodation.

Birch Milkcap (Lactarius tabidus)

Fungi are present all year round in woodland and an essential part of the ecosystem but it is in autumn that we tend to be more aware of them via their fruiting bodies. One of our local volunteers is particularly interested in fungi and we have been drawing on his expertise to log what is present in Cleaver. At the latest count, some 15 species have been identified. In last year’s Autumn Newsletter, I was able to highlight quite an array of colourful fungi all showing well. There were Fly Agaric (the spotty red poisonous ones) everywhere. This year, I don’t recall seeing a single Fly Agaric here or in Heswall Dales. Presumably the state of the ground plays a role. We had quite dry conditions in the summer and now quite a bit of water-logging in the reserve. Nevertheless there are many interesting fungi to look for including this Birch Milkcap (Lactarius tabidus) photographed by Gianfranco Uli (above). Note the latex dripping from the damaged gills. The milky substance gives rise to its name.

Cleaver Heath entrance

Alan Irving
Volunteer Reserve Warden for CWT
Cleaver Heath
November 2019

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