Waxwings : Scandinavian Visitors to Dalston

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If the waxwings have had a good breeding season and this is combined with a shortage of rowan berries in Scandinavia in winter,  then an irruption may ocur. In an irruption year waxwings will fly across the North Sea and make landfall in the north of Scotland where Aberdeen and Shetland are waxwing hotspots . The birds will then gradually move south and after a couple of weeks may reach Dalston, Cumbria.

In 2004 there was a massive influx of waxwings into Dalston . There were flocks of almost two thousand birds in Dalston village. They like to perch in the tops of tall trees just like this flock  in the large lime trees in the village.

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They make regular foraging trips to  any rowan trees in the area. In 2004 there were a lot of rowan berries around the two village schools and large flocks began to gather there.

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The next large invasion of waxwings was in 2008 when we had flocks of several hundreds in Dalston. There is a  6 minute slide show here which you should find interesting

The waxwings soon clear all of the rowan berries especially if large flocks are involved

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The following photo is a beautiful adult male with his magnificent crest and brightly coloured wing bars. This photo was taken at Barras Close, Dalston on 5th November 2012. There were not many berries left on the rowan tree at this time.

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When all of the rowan and hawthorn berries have been eaten the birds turn there attention to other fruits. We have a James Grieve apple tree which the birds seem to enjoy. In 2010 we had a flock of 77 waxwings in this tree, but this year 2012 the maximum number was eight. Three waxwings stayed on the tree  for a few weeks.There were  upto 15 blackbirds  also eating the apples.

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Following photo is of one of the  blackbirds  in the apple tree

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Each waxwing can make short work of an apple: From start to finish of a single apple in about 30 minutes. All that is usually left is a shell of the outer apple skin

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The waxwings are very photogenic birds , but because of the black eyestripe it is often difficult to capture the eye detail. The following bird is probably an adult female. It has thin V marks on its primary feathers and shorter and fewer red waxy tips than a male would have.

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This looks like a juvenile male bird. It has a single line of white wing bars with no Vs. It also seems to have a solid black chin patch without a diffuse lower edge. Also not as large a crest.

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Waxwings can be very vocal birds and have a high pitched distinctive whistle. These have heard other birds calling and are awaiting the new arrivals

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This one of the birds struggling with the large rowan berries near St Michael’s School a couple of years ago..

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This is a link to my waxwing video from 2004. Parts of this video were shown on Border TV

Also a link to the 2004 large flock at Caldew school filmed under attrocious weather conditions

Also a link to Henry and the waxwings Shetland, Scotland

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Dalston Environmental Vandalism

a DSCN1822 July23 2010  940x198This is a continuation of my blog Save our Meadows. The Kingsway Dalston was once an attractive wildflower meadow until the Parish Council started messing around with it. Earlier this year they were cutting the meadow back to bare soil.

cumb news 1 xgaI wrote a letter to the Cumberland Newspaper. Text of letter here;

Wildlife habitat destruction at Dalston

Is it true that some people just do not like to see wild flowers? The Kingsway leading up to the White Bridge and riverside at Dalston is an ancient wild flower meadow managed by Dalston Parish council and can look quite attractive if cared for correctly. However this year it has been brutally mutilated just at the peak time for these wild plants to flower. I have before and after photos, one taken in July 2010 and the other taken in July 2012. To me the difference is horrendous.

Dalston Parish Council have a legal obligation to have regard for the biodiversity in their care , which they should maintain and enhance. The Kingsway is a very wide road verge and as such constitutes one of the few remaining  areas  of unimproved wildflower meadows in England. Already more than 97% of these wildflower meadows have been lost, along with the communities of insects, birds and mammals which they supported. Therefore  it is a rare habitat.

It is possible that a minority of tidy minded councillors with powerful voices are strongly influencing  the Parish Council, for I am sure that most of the council have a good attitude towards  conservation issues.

All residents that I have spoken to disapprove of the destruction of habitat.

The organisation Plantlife are running a campaign right now, to influence the decision making of  local councils and make them aware of the value of road verges as good wildlife habitats and to educate them how to manage them accordingly. They recommend  cutting less and later and removing the cuttings. Of course this management method would mean less taxpayer’s money being spent on unecessary grass.

At a later date much more of the Kingsway wild flower meadow  will be destroyed to make way for a large car park. How the City Planners could pass this I do not know, in view of the fact that there already is one brand new car park in the village centre and residents do not seem to want this development.


This letter  had no effect whatsoever and a few weeks later the meadow was again cut back to bare soil. This all happened in the summer.Now fast forward to October 2012 >>>>>>>>>>>>>>> It is almost unbelievable that this (below) is what this area of old meadow looks like now: buried under feet of waste soil and totally destroyedb c IMG_0223

Work started on the new Kingsway car park in early October. Right from the start heaps of soil were being tipped on the meadow area.

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Soil was scraped  from the car park area and was heaped up.  Part of the excavation unearthed an old dump with building rubble. An estimated 1200 tons of soil and rubble was removed from the car park area. Ridiculously no plans had been made to get rid of this waste. No site investigation had been carried out which would have  shown the presence of tipped building rubble

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The Kingsway contains many commemorative trees planted  on various coronations,  etc. Many of these trees are now buried part way up their trunks by up to a couple of feet of soil. In certain circumstances when a tree is planted too deep in the soil, roots can encircle the trunk  and cause strangulation. This may take a good number of years but may cause  the tree to  die.

d IMG_0246 field edgeNo vegetation survey or environmental impact assessment  had been  carried out on the area where the soil was dumped. At least one rare plant for Cumbria used to grow here and that is Artemisia absinthium or Southern Wormwood. A botanist told me after seeing this site that Dalston seems to be full of environmental vandals!!

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The planning conditions said that these trees should not be damaged nor their roots  and yet you do not have to look far in the tipped soil to see quite large broken off pieces of root (see below)

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All of this waste soil should have been sent to a licensed tip, but this was going to cost more than tipping it irresponsibly and causing the most environmental  damage possible.  If the project had been managed properly  disposal of waste would have been incorporated into the overall costings. The Parish Council chairman told me that this project had been carried out in the most environmentally sensitive way possible.  WHAT !!??   I do not only blame the Parish Council but also the City Council planners who allowed this to happen.

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So what we have now is a large car parking area which  was originally going  to cost £120,000 to construct. The Parish Council  apparently only had £30,000 available so  they had intended to take out a mortgage for £90,000 which may take up to 25 years to be paid off from everyones council tax.  No one seems to know the exact costs.

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This car park will hold 42 cars . A lot of these will belong to people using it for park and ride . The last thing we want is more cars in the village. A car park filled with cars is an ugly feature. Already it is difficult to remember how nice an area this was . Here is a photo

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Dalston Churchyard Wildlife Display Boards for Church

Above spotted flycatcher hunting from viewing point on tombstone.

For Dalston Festival Week I have prepared two photographic display boards to go into St Michael’s church, Dalston. One board is to publicise the slow worms in the churchyard:

The following is the text from the board

SLOW WORMS IN DALSTON CHURCHYARD  Slow worms are legless burrowing lizards. They are quite elusive and spend a lot of time in dense vegetation or underground. A population has been known to occur in the churchyard for many years, but sightings have been few and far between. There are no other recorded populations within a 20 mile radius. A recent survey suggests that there may be as many as 50 adults here with juveniles also present. This isolated population is very important and needs to be conserved.

The slow worm is a protected species. It’s main habitat requirement is long grassland and in Dalston churchyard it is only found between the church and the village Square. Frequent mowing and strimming destroys the slow worm habitat and causes death or injury. For this reason certain areas are being allowed to grow longer in order to maintain the population.  (July 2012)

The other board relates to wildflowers and animals other than slow worms:

This is the text from the second board

Churchyards as a wildlife habitat

In 1990 a national scheme called The Living Churchyard was supported by HRH Prince of Wales, and he has recently agreed to be the first president of a charity called Caring for God’s Acre. It recognizes the vital ecological role played by ancient churchyards in preserving wild flowers, insects, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles (like our slow worms). Churchyards like Dalston’s are unique and precious remnants of uncultivated meadowland.

A survey of wild plants in July 2012 found  138 species growing  in the churchyard. Some of these such as pignut are indicators of ancient meadowland.  The churchyard is home to many bird species as well as frogs, toads, slow worms, bats, shrews, field voles and wood mice.  Butterflies which breed on the grasses  such as Ringlet and Meadow Brown may be be seen in July and August. The spotted flycatcher  is a bird species becoming increasingly rare, yet one is seen near the church every year.

On one occasion a roe deer had its fawn in the churchyard and otters are seen on numerous occasions along  the river running  beside  the churchyard. Barn owls are also regularly seen hunting amongst the gravestones at dusk.

More than 97% of  old wild flower meadows have now been destroyed which means that it is very important to care for this precious habitat.

Some of the photos from the display:

These beetles are very common and are often seen in tandem giving them the common name of bonking beetles!

Meadow brown butterflies are on the wing in July and August. They breed on species of wild grass. Mowers are their main enemy.

All of the umbellifers or plants with flat flower heads are good for insects.

Burdock is good for insects for a short period when it is flowering. Later it becomes a bit of a pest when it’s seed heads become attached to clothing or dog’s fur.

Himalayan Balsam was probably introduced to the Dalston area in wool imported for processing into yarn for weaving. it is a valuable plant as a nectar source for bees. It is very invasive and spreads rapidly along river banks, especially after floods.

Fox and cubs gets its name because the flowers are fox coloured and there is usually one large flower with a number of youngsters present

Knapweed is an excellent nectar plant for butterflies and normally flowers in August coinciding with the first brood of Peacock butterflies hatching out.

Ringlets also breed on wild grasses and appear July and August.

Bank voles have  longer tails  than field voles.They are found in the areas of longer vegetation in the churchyard.



This plant produces the low spikes of red berries seen in autumn. The flower or spadix is not exactly sweet scented as it produces the smell of faeces. Flies are attracted and  become trapped by a ring of hairs and pick up the pollen. There are numerous common names for this member of the arum family.

All of the bluebells in the churchyard are hybrids between our native bluebells and spanish bluebells. Native bluebells have narrow deep blue flowers which hang straight down.

The cuckoo flower derives it’s name from the fact that it flowers the same time as cuckoos arrive in the north of England. however cuckoos are quite uncommon nowadays and are rarely if ever heard in the Dalston area.

Eristalis species can be differentiated from honey bees because they do not have a pair of long antennae on their heads and also that they have an S shaped bend in one of the veins in their wings.

This willow warbler nest held young on 24th July, but they had flown by the next day. The nest was about 4ft above  ground level. there are many nests in these shaped yew bushes in the churchyard including goldcrests, chaffinches, blackbirds and thrushes.

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Save our Magnificent Meadows

The following statement from Plantlife sums up why wildflower meadows are important and why urgent action is needed to conserve them ;
“These are arguably the UK’s most threatened habitats. Once lost, our species-rich meadows and grasslands cannot easily be restored.

Despite their high wildlife value and intrinsic cultural appeal, our magnificent meadows have suffered catastrophic declines. Between the 1930s and 1980s, 97% were lost across England and Wales.

Pressures from agriculture and development, together with neglect, continue to impact on the remaining areas. Research for the period 2005-08 shows that there remains an ongoing overall decline in condition of all priority grassland habitats.

These declines have meant that the UK is unable to meet its commitment to halt the loss of priority grassland habitat and species biodiversity by 2010.
The value to society of wildflower-rich meadows and grasslands
Wildflower-rich grasslands are important ecosystems, supporting a rich diversity of plants and animals, including rare and declining species. They contribute to the well-being of our society and as a healthy ecosystem providing essential ‘services’ ”

The following two photos show how the Kingsway in Dalston looked in July 2010. Parts of it  had been cut earlier in the year, but there were still many species flowering.

On July 15th 2012 the area had already been cut several times and there was now little chance of anything flowering. The photo below demonstrates well the poor management techniques used when mowing. The grass cuttings are left as a mulch to rot down and fertilise the meadow plants producing an excess of lush growth and encouraging more vigorous and taller unwanted species. Part of the meadow has large plants of butterbur the growth of which  has been encouraged by not collecting the cut grass.

On the 30th July 2012 the area looked like a war zone. The vegetation had been almost totally removed. It appears that the contractors may have been told to cut the grass down to bare soil. I can only presume in order to destroy the vegetation. I have never  seen habitat destruction as bad as this, ever! The Parish Council have a legal requirement to maintain and encourage biodiversity. This act must have destroyed so much diversity and habitat. Is bare soil good for biodiversity ? I think not. The following photos of the Kingsway, Dalston were taken on 30th July 2012.

Almost total carnage!

With this attitude to wildlife conservation is it any wonder that many species of butterflies are threatened with extinction.

Is this supposed to look tidy ? !  If like me you are horrified by what has happened here please make your views known to Dalston Parish Council.

There is a lot of useful information about wildflower meadows and verges at www.plantlife.org.uk and they are also requesting people to sign their petition about the way wild flower verges are being cut

I have been told  that what may happen next is that a car park will be excavated through this meadow area and that the soil removed will be tipped on another part of the meadow . Has the Parish Council done any environmental impact assessment?. I would love to see the list of plant species recorded from this area.

Blackcaps, willow warbler,  blackbirds, thrushes  and whitethroats used to nest here and barn owls used to regularly hunt along this virtually traffic free zone where they are safe from collision from cars.

I understand the planned car park is to cost around £120,000 and the council only have around £30,000 meaning that a loan of £90,000 has to be obtained which will be paid back from poll tax payments most  likely for decades. All this for a car park that people do not seem to want and which doesn’t seem to be needed anymore after the recent construction of a new parking area behind the new store.

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Ivy an amazing wildlife habitat

Ivy is an amazing plant for wildlife. It provides shelter for insects, bats and birds and is a superb nectar source for bees, hoverflies, butterflies and other insects. Many birds nest in ivy including blackbirds, robins, spotted flycatchers and dunnocks. Bats at night and birds during the day will hunt the insects feeding on the ivy’s nectar source in late summer. Spiders also find the ivy a good hunting ground.

Holly blue butterflies use ivy for part of their breeding cycle , but they also need holly close by for another stage. Some moth species also feed on ivy leaves.

In the winter months the ivy berries are an important food source for wood pigeons, blackbirds and other visitors from the thrush family. Ivy berries can provide the difference between life and death for many species of birds in severe winters.

Ivy on wall in Dalston churchyard

In mid October the ivy is almost the only plant producing nectar as a food source for insects. Many butterflies would not survive the winter without this late offering and they can also use the ivy as a shelter in which they can overwinter.

Well worn red admiral with torn wing

Red admiral on ivy

Red admiral on ivy

Ivy flowers have a strange structure with five small green petals . They produce nectar profusely. This is then collected by insects through an extendible tongue

Underside view of red admiral on ivy

Hoverflies and bees on ivy

Drone Fly, a type of hoverfly

The drone fly is a mimic of the honeybee and looks very similar

honey bee

Ladybird feeding on aphids on the ivy

helophilus pendulus, a hoverfly

helophilus pendulus (a hoverfly) showing extendible mouth parts

Eristalis species ( a type of hoverfly) on ivy

The Comma butterfly is a global warming success story. It moved northwards several years ago and in some years can be relatively common. The name Comma comes from the white curved mark on the underside of the wing which looks like a comma

Below is the upper wings of the Comma butterfly

Around two weeks after the above photos were taken all of the ivy was removed from the churchyard wall. Probably in total several hundred square metres disappeared.  A very sad thing to happen and a pretty irresponsible and destructive  action on behalf of the parish council. This happened in October 2011.  A statement on the dalston parish website news says how tidy the churchyard looks now that all of the ivy has been removed.

Wall with ivy removed

The ivy needs to be managed  using a schedule of work whereby sections of the ivy are removed annually over a number of years instead of everything destroyed in one fell swoop. There has been a study carried out in Oxford which has shown that ivy can actually protect walls   http://www.ox.ac.uk/media/news_stories/2010/100514.html   How much biodiversity has been destroyed  by such a destructive action one can only guess

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Slow Worms in Dalston Churchyard

In the 1950s  I clearly remember taking a slow worm into St Michael’s School, Dalston. After it had been examined by everyone, it was re-released into the churchyard . These silky- textured creatures are burrowing legless lizards which are capable of dropping their tail if threatened. In June 2012 Tullie House Records Centre held only six recorded sightings of slow worms from Dalston Parish, exclusively in the churchyard, and the next nearest recorded population was around 20 miles away.  Nationally slow worms are a threatened species and so our small, extremely isolated population is very important on a local scale.

Four adults were recorded at the  churchyard  in June 1989, and around  2008 there were two adults each around 18” long. That is around the maximum size that they may reach and could indicate individuals 30 or more years old. In addition one was also seen rearing up in a shaft of sunlight inside the church in 2009.

In 1990 a national scheme called The Living Churchyard was supported by HRH Prince of Wales, and in 2012 he agreed to be the first president of a charity called Caring for God’s Acre. It recognizes the vital ecological role played by ancient churchyards in preserving wild flowers, insects, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles (like our slow worms). Churchyards like Dalston’s are unique and precious remnants of uncultivated meadowland. Following the 1990 scheme, a conservation management plan for Dalston churchyard was agreed and it has been carried out for the past 20 or more years. Among other things it took into consideration the requirements of slow worms. A metre- wide strip was left uncut alongside Church Lane in an unobtrusive place and the area between the Church and the Square was cut only once or twice a year. This year (2012)  the cutting regime was disastrously changed from once or twice a year to once per week.  The metre-wide strip was also strimmed hard back. A large amount of good slow worm habitat was destroyed and probably many slow worms were killed at the same time.

It was with some sadness that my second ever slow worm discovered in Dalston churchyard, in June 2012, was dead. With no long grass cover they are very prone to predation by cats, crows, magpies, etc. A few days later I found another dead adult slow worm. This had been mutilated, presumably by a strimmer, in the location where the metre-wide uncut strip had previously been located. Two more dead slow worms  had also been seen near Dalston Square.

There are of course legislative issues as it is illegal to kill or injure a slow worm. The Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 makes it a duty of all local authorities, including Parish Councils, to ‘have regard to conserving biodiversity when carrying out their functions.‘ Also in law it states ‘Conserving biodiversity includes restoring and enhancing species and habitats.’

At this stage the police wildlife crime officer became involved and sent  quite a hard hitting  advisory letter to the Parish Council who manage the churchyard.

Situation in July 2012

Slow worms are very elusive creatures and not often seen in the open. However they like to lie under sheets of black plastic, corroded metal or roofing felt and this allows them to be located, so  by placing artificial refugia for them to shelter under, their numbers and distribution can be assessed. In July 2012 it was discovered that a small population did still exist in Dalston churchyard, but confined to a very tiny area of around 20 metres x 25 metres  in the south east corner near the church. Many of the individuals were juveniles of around  8 ins. in length. These are probably yearlings and have a rich golden colour with a black vertebral stripe and black sides.

Juveniles of this size may need to survive for three more years before they are mature enough to breed.

Another young slow worm around 8 inches

These young ones can move extremely fast through grassland

Adults can grow up to 20ins. long , but most of the adults in Dalston churchyard were around 12 ins  with a few 15 ins in length. In July 2012 there are probably a minimum of ten adults including  several breeding females. With the constant threat of being  killed by a mower, the lifespan of the Dalston slow worm population is probably not very long. The mower needs to be set at a depth of  4 to 6 inches and ideally the grass should be cut after the slow worms have gone into hibernation in mid October.

A relatively large slow worm of around 15 ins. in Dalston churchyard  July 2012


Habitat   Slow worms are cold blooded creatures and all their body heat comes from external sources including the sun and decaying vegetation. They require sunny areas where they can bask or a compost heap into which they can burrow  or simply lie on the surface and absorb the heat. Of course a compost heap in a sunny place provides the ideal habitat component. On cool days they need to warm their bodies before they can begin active foraging. Fallen leaves and debris from trees also provides a foraging site with a degree of  protection from predators

Slow worms gathered on a compost heap ( photo by Sam Griffin)

Slow worms  need long vegetation for shelter from predators and favour rank grassland as their preferred habitat. Such vegetation also holds populations of white netted slugs and small worms which are the slow worms favourite food items

Long grassland area Dalston Churchyard, a suitable slow worm habitat

Another habitat requirement is a hibernaculum or place where they can hibernate.  This may comprise the interior space in an old wall  or under large slabs or fallen tombstones . The area around the church holds many of these slabs, often with old mammal holes providing access underneath. Bobby Nichol remembers seeing large slow worms frequently basking in the sun on these slabs in the 1950s.

slow worms close to church south wall

It may be advisable to leave some longer areas of grassland around these slabs as shelter for emerging slow worms

Mammal holes under some large sandstone slabs near church  A possible refuge and hibernating area for slow worms.


Slow worms mate in April and May and at this time adult males actively seek out females. The female incubates eggs within her body , but live young are produced.  From three to twenty young, each two inches long are born in August. Prior to this the females spend much time basking in the sun because they need the extra heat to allow the incubation and development  of the young.

Juvenile  yearling and adult slow worm


Toads  and thrushes may feed on the newly born young. Dense surrounding vegetation will help to provide shelter and minimise predation. The churchyard holds a good population of toads.

Cats are probably a major predator of the churchyard  slow worm population and I have had one report of a cat seen carrying a dead and headless slow worm in it’s mouth. The slow worms do have a defense mechanism when they are attacked or captured and may drop their tail which continues to twitch and distracts the predator. The tail can grow back but always to a much smaller size.

Slow worm with missing tail and showing wounds from a predator encounter

 Miscellany of slow worms

  • Snakes have coarse overlapping scales whereas slow worms have smooth scales which do not overlap

Slow worms have a tongue with a notch at the tip ( snakes have a forked tongue)

Three adult slow worms in Dalston churchard, a good sign for the future

And even better, six adult slow worms some of which appear to be pregnant females.(Dalston churchyard)

There was a seventh juvenile with the above  group but it sped away before the photo was taken.

 An adult female  of 12 inches which has retained it’s juvenile colouration

Below a short video of slow worms which were warming up until rudely disturbed. There is eventually some movement on the video

 UPDATE 17th JULY 2012

 A count today consisted of 15 adult slow worms and two juveniles . There was a single group of nine individuals. Eight of these are shown in the following photo. If  the habitat can be maintained in the future with the implementation of a strong management plan and sensible and sympathetic grass cutting techniques then this population could go on for many more decades.

Eight or maybe nine adult slow worms ?

Dave Hickson July 2012

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