Wildlife in Cheshire
PUBLISHED: 10:36 17 May 2010 | UPDATED: 17:11 20 February 2013
Sue Tatman's alphabetical guide to Cheshire's natural world reaches W
Weasels have a bad reputation. We speak of someone 'weaselling out' of their obligations, and 'weasel words' are evasive, misleading or downright lies. Weasels, along with their cousins the stoats, were the despicable villains in Kenneth Grahame's book 'The Wind in the Willows'.
The bad reputation may come from game-keepers regarding them as vermin and a threat to valuable game birds. In fact, although weasels will take eggs or young birds, their principle diet is mice and voles.
Less than 12 inches from nose to tail-tip, the weasel is our smallest British carnivore. The long thin flexible body means they can follow their rodent prey down into their burrows. What the weasel lacks in size it makes up in ferocity, and they are capable of killing rabbits several times heavier than themselves.
Although fairly common, weasels are rarely seen; most sightings are a chestnut-coloured blur dashing across a road or path. They have bright reddish-brown fur, with white under-parts and a short tail. Weasels are often confused with their close relative the stoat, but the latter is slightly larger and has a prominent black tip to the tail.
Woodpeckers are birds designed for a purpose. The sharp chisel-like bill, powered by extra-strong neck muscles, is ideal for hammering into wood. The short stiff tail acts as a prop, bracing the bird against the tree trunk. The feet have two toes facing forwards and two back giving a better grip on the tree bark, and the brain is cushioned by spongy bone to prevent damage from the repeated impacts.
There are three species of woodpecker in Britain. The most common is the great spotted woodpecker, about the size of a thrush, with smart black, white and red plumage. Primarily woodland birds, they are also the most likely to visit garden bird tables. The lesser spotted woodpecker is our smallest and least common woodpecker, and also the most elusive. They are reputed to have an uncanny ability to be on the opposite side of any tree trunk from an observer!
The green woodpecker is our largest species, and as its name suggests, is bright green with a red crown. Their call is an easily recognisable 'yaffle', which is also an older name for the bird. Green woodpeckers spend more time on the ground than other woodpeckers, where they specialise in feeding on ants.
Water lilies are often considered to be exotic plants, growing only in parks and gardens. This is partly true, Cleopatra's lotus flower was a water lily, and many ornamental species do originate in the tropics. However there are two native British water lilies which grow in our lakes and canals.
The white water-lily has the largest flower of any native British plant, up to 20cm across, made up of a mass of white petals, sometimes tinged with pink. The yellow water-lily has much smaller flowers which smell slightly of wine dregs, giving rise to the older names of 'brandy balls' and 'brandy bottle'.
Both species are ornamental enough to have suffered in the past from collection for garden ponds, but are still relatively common wherever there is deep, still water.
The wren is one of our smallest British birds (only the goldcrest is smaller), so it is apt that its portrait once featured on our smallest coin, the farthing.
The song of the wren is out of all proportion to its physical size. A series of trills and ringing tones, the song is loud enough to be heard up to half a mile away. They usually sing from cover: wrens rarely come out into the open, preferring to flit through hedges and bushes and rummage through the undergrowth for insects and spiders. When they are seen, wrens are easily recognised; the rounded body and jaunty up-thrust tail are unlike any other British bird.
Wrens are found in a variety of habitats, including woodland, hedgerows, gardens, reed-beds and rocky cliffs. Perhaps because of their small size and reluctance to come out into the open wrens are often overlooked, so it is not always realised how common they are. In fact they are believed to be our most numerous breeding bird, with an estimated 10 million pairs.
However their numbers can fall dramatically in very cold winters. In freezing conditions they need to find a third of their own body weight in food each day just to stay alive. Although wrens are usually solitary and fiercely independent, on cold winter nights they will huddle together in communal roosts to keep warm. There are records of dozens being found in a single nest box.
For more information about Cheshire Wildlife Trust visit www.cheshirewildlifetrust.co.uk or call 01948 820728.