Uckfield features large in Martyn Stenning’s book about The Blue Tit

Naturalist Martyn Stenning has researched blue tit populations across the world for a book being published next month but his home town of Uckfield also features prominently in its pages.

martyn-stenning-blue-tit-book

Martyn Stenning at Lake Wood with his book The Blue Tit which is to be published next month.

This is because 30 years of study, six of them intensive, were conducted by Martyn at Lake Wood, on the outskirts of town.

They shed a powerful light on the family planning strategies of blue tits, and how those strategies regulate the population of the bird.

‘Little bit of paradise’

Martyn, describes Lake Wood, as his ‘little bit of paradise’ in his book called The Blue Tit which is to be published by Bloomsbury on February 22.

He told Uckfield News: “The biodiversity of Lake Wood is astonishingly high. There are over 70 species of birds and many other animals from foxes to badgers. There are also about 200 species of moths, many types of dragonflies, and also snakes.

“It really is a wildlife paradise, and of course a floral paradise too, with bluebells, wood anemones, oak trees, violets and other wonderful plants that flower there.

Doctorate

Martyn conducted his research – which qualified him for his doctorate – for the University of Sussex. Before he could begin work he had to learn how to handle blue tits and was licensed to do so by the Government, via the British Trust for Ornithology and Natural England.

He says the information presented has been written to be accessible both to the scientific community – about 100 papers are written on blue tits each year – and members of the public who might be interested to learn more about the birds nesting in their gardens.

Family planning strategy

And do blue tits have a family planning strategy?

Martyn says yes. Blue tit females decide when to start incubating their eggs during the process of building up a clutch which happens over a period of about ten days, with one egg being laid each day.

“During the ten days they can decide whether to start incubating before the clutch is built or wait until complete before incubating. Their decision is usually based on the appearance of green caterpillars (food) in the tree canopy,” said Martyn.

Oak tree bud burst

“The date of incubation is calculated when caterpillars appear, which in turn is dependent on the date of oak tree bud burst, all of which I was recording,” said Martyn.

The date of oak tree bud burst can vary as much as 30 days between trees in one wood.

Martyn added: “Blue tits can’t predict when bud burst is going to happen but, when it does, caterpillars emerge and blue tits have to incubate to hatch as many chicks as possible during the period of caterpillar abundance. The caterpillars are only available for about three to four weeks.”

These seasonal changes and the adjustments that the blue tits make will determine how many of their offspring survive.

1,000 caterpillars a day

Each blue tit requires between 70 and 100 caterpillars a day and one family of blue tits could eat up to 1,000 per day.

Of course caterpillars eat oak tree leaves so it is of benefit to the trees to have some removed. If they weren’t eaten by something the oak trees could be completely defoliated.

Martyn built 50 nest boxes bespoke for blue tits on oak trees in Lake Wood and during the intensive period of his research he spent days at a time there recording his observations from dawn to dusk.

Map

There is even a map of Lake Wood in the book which includes a pictorial description of ten days in 1990 over which one family of great spotted woodpeckers killed about 150 blue tits in the wood.

“They were feeding blue tit nestlings to their own chicks and often killing adult blue tits as they tried to defend their nests,” he said.

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A map from Martyn Stenning’s book The Blue Tit which shows Lake Wood where he conducted research over a period of 30 years, six of them intensively.

That year, out of the blue, the woodpeckers had discovered Martyn’s nest boxes were a useful source of food. They hadn’t done so in previous years and by the next year Martyn had removed and redesigned the boxes to make them woodpecker-proof.

Five generations

There have been five generations of Stennings  in Uckfield and Martyn has been proud to contribute to the preservation of flora and fauna in the town by helping with the establishment of West Park and Hempstead Meadow nature reserves; helping to manage Lake Wood, as volunteer warden for the Woodland Trust, and helping with the maintenance of Lime Tree Avenue as chairman of Lime Aid.

Martyn added: “Uckfield is blossoming now. Our biggest achievement was to prevent the development of Downlands Farm. There is still a huge amount of potential for nature conservation and landscape and wildlife protection there, not least the historic hunting lodge of King John which still exists as a moated island near Budletts Common.”

• Copies of The Blue Tit can be pre-ordered on the Bloomsbury Publishing website. Read more here.

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