There are some rare and spectacular sights that a naturalist may be very lucky to witness only once in a long lifetime. Here are Paul Smith's favourite five in over eighty years living in Winsham Parish.
There is always a family of Long Tailed Tits at the lower end of Winsham village. They work the hedges, scrub in the Tree Nursery and they delight us with their antics on the nut baskets. It is surprising how these tiny birds manage to survive our winters and we even have short cold spells after the millennium. I had heard that some species of small birds (wrens, gold crests) sometimes cluster together in nest boxes or dense foliage to keep warm while resting.
On the occasion of a short cold blast on that morning in 1990 in Wynyards Lane I suddenly noticed a strange object in the fork of a blackthorn bush. It looked like a ball of pastel coloured wool with black spikes. As I drew nearer tiny faces with beady black eyes emerged and a party of some ten Long Tailed Tits suddenly resumed their searching for tiny insects or a stray bit of vegetable matter.
During the late 1980s there started a great increase in the number of Winsham frogs. There was a spectacular event in the February mating season in that year. I was alerted shortly after dawn to make my way to the top lake in the Nursery’s Gully Field. This lake is in a depression with steep banks on three sides with the overflow taking the water to the bottom lake some ten feet below. As I approached there was a roar like an express train coming. The lake surface looked black with tens of thousands of frogs all croaking together to the rising sun. I was told that if I clapped my hands once there would be a deadly silence. As I clapped the heads quickly went down in unison, just below the surface, so that the water suddenly reflected the morning light. After a further five seconds the roar would restart. The formation of this small lake had acted like a megaphone to magnify a sound that I shall never forget.
This was a period when mowing lawns and grass was difficult or even impossible due to the numbers of small froglets that sought every damp spot to searched for food. A year later the explosion of frogs led to a sudden disease that decimated the population and from which they have not -as yet - recovered. However the amitary migration to the lakes inevitably led to the patter of tiny tails (feet) and soon the frog - the toad spawn - blackened the water with tadpoles. Such must have been the crowding that nature instituted what we humans call the 'one way system'. The dense mass of tadpoles formed into a tight packed cylinder, which, resembling a giant sea snake, moved up the large lake to the far end and then looped back down the other side. Careful observation revealed that a few ‘stragglers’ along the shallows were swimming out and joining the mob as they passed. How long this phenomenon lasted I do not know, for two days later they had resumed a normal pattern.
Our farm, on chalk and upper greensand, at Windwhistle was well badgered with several big setts. From my earliest years - in the dead of night - I would hear the most dreadful fights as, presumably, the large boar badgers contested for the position of King Badger. The screams were like ten tomcats at full blast and there was the frequent sound of bodies crashing into the surrounding shrubs and trees. Despite my father relating how he once found two dead badgers locked in mortal combat I had never found any subsequent evidence of fighting. No blood, no fur, no bodies!
In 1987 I was to find out why. I had returned to my retirement bungalow at the end of Winsham village by car late one evening. My wife had put on the garden light and I had just garaged the car and was about to slam the door when, with a torch in my hand, I was startled as the most dreadful din started on the lawn. It was unmistakably a great badger fight. In the dim light I could see the two badgers and I deftly managed to move to the centre of their arena. They seemed so pre-occupied with their battle - as they raced backwards and forwards past me - that they never looked up even when I shone my torch on them. After a few minutes I had solved the mystery.
Both badgers would run side by side across the lawn. The trailing badger would try to fasten his teeth in the shoulder of his adversary. They would then roll over and over snarling and screaming until they crashed into the hedge or a shrub. They would momentarily break off and repeated the process in the opposite direction. Taking turns with who should run first. After some time I had seen enough and as they passed me I said - "High Chaps! Break it up!""
They immediately fell silent and continued to the hedge and through it without a stop. Next morning I examined the site. The only trace was a few bent leaves and a one single telltale hair where they had gone though the hedge.
There had always been a couple of pairs of Pied Wagtails nesting around the farm buildings. One pair regularly reared a baby cuckoo. But when I went out to visit a small field of marrow stem kale that afternoon it looked like a swarm of bees was all over the field.
When I got near I could see that every inch of wire fencing and the nearby telephone line was packed with birds and a ‘swarm’ of birds was flying in and out of the top leaves of a fine crop of the marrow stem kale. Closer inspection revealed that they were after a great infestation of Green Aphids. I stood in wonder as to where the thousands of Pied Wagtails had come from ...and how they got to know that this tiny patch was infested with aphids? The next day the birds had all gone.