Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Beware of Dragons and Damsels

Can you see me?

"Your Azure damselfly could well be a female Variable Damselfly..they tend to look darker overall and show more blue than other female “blue “ damselflies.  "
And so rang through my mind the morbid seeds of doubt after reading a reply to a number of images I'd submitted to my friend and one of the UK's best naturalists Brett Westwood. I have a lot to learn!

Despite the country being in lockdown for months due to the coronavirus pandemic, I have been working 5 sometimes 6 days a week throughout. Not that this was a problem, I have actually enjoyed the intoxication of working on my own in a building normally swarming with media rugrats. I am an only child. A phrase which explains everything.

Yet, during my free time, I observed a littering the posts from social media friends. A daily maelstrom of images, "we're having a fantastic time away from work", erupted confetti-like in my Facebook timeline. Everyone it seemed had time to stop and stare at the natural world on their doorstep (or Talking Pictures TV which has become a national institution). The Nation de-cluttered their gardens, built bird boxes, ponds, wildflower meadows, posted videos of sparrows on feeders as though this domestic bird was a rare migrant - What? We have all this nature in our garden? Never seen it before. This is great, and yes, it really is great. For years conservation has tried to get people to engage with wildlife, yet in 2020, it's taken a microscopic virus emanating from the natural world in China to kick-start the momentum. I hope it lasts and real good comes out of Covid-19

The penny finally dropped in late May when a great friend said to me on email - have you been enjoying the Self-Isolating Bird Club videos Chris Packham broadcasts live each morning. 

Me : "No, what is this?"

Friend : "Really great broadcast about wildlife goes out around 9 am, I have my breakfast watching it

Me "Ahh, Err I'm at work then"

The penny had dropped. While the nature watchers still in their pyjamas having breakfast were watching Chris and his step daughter (an excellent natural presenter) Megan pour forth tit-bits on well, all tits great, blue and coal, I was entombed in the office packing up yet another microphone to send to a contributor, presumably also in their pyjamas watching Chris Packham. Things had to change, and I'm not talking the purchase of pyjamas. 

I was missing out of what was becoming one of the best springs in living memory. Endless blue skies, no traffic noise, warm too. Wildlife flourished through lack of human disturbance.  I, like millions of others, had observed in the garden. However I needed to get out there into the social distancing landscape of nature. A memo from on high stating we all need to take 2 weeks leave before September made me request 10 days off - not in a lump, but Wednesdays in June and July. I had no plan other than to step lightly outdoors every Wednesday for 8 weeks. I polished my boots and woggle. Anticipation was rife.

Which brings me to Dragonflies and Damselflies. My first couple of Wednesdays didn't involve too much wildlife watching, though a glorious day on Eggardon Hill watching butterflies while having a picnic serenaded by yellowhammer song was sublime. But then a couple of weeks ago my good friend Rob and I headed to the mighty Shapwick Complex on the Somerset Levels. Social distancing ourselves on the swamps, the quest that day was a dragonfly hunt. And very successful it was too.

4 spot chaser 17th June 2020

Black Tailed Skimmer 17th June 2020

Female Common Blue Damselfly 17th June 2020

(Probably) Female Variable Damselfly 17th June 2020

(Possibly) female common blue damselfly 17th June 2020

Now that one above caused much debate and made me realise how little I know about these relatively common insects near my home in Somerset. After spending an hour or so on the British Dragonfly society website I incorrectly identified this as a white legged damselfly. The reply from Brett, and from Rob was.. "....probably a female Common Blue...if it was White-legged it would show broader flanges on the legs and look paler than this. "   Right must remember that.

Male blue tailed damselfly 17th June 2020

Male common blue damselfly 17th June 2020

A different form male common blue damselfly. 17th June 2020
So I was hooked. Three mosquito bitten hours on the Somerset Levels and an evening with various identification guides, I'd become a dragonfly hunter. 

One thing I learnt many years ago when starting out in nature watching was, don't try and fight ignorance. It's all too easy to think every naturalist on earth knows everything about everything. There are a few who know a huge amount - Brett being one, Chris Packham another, but I could count many times over the days I've spent recording a radio programme with an expert on say spiders, only to find out they can't identify butterflies. It made me relax, It made me comfortable in saying to people - what's that? After all it is the only way to learn. 

Thus as a newly formed dragonfly hunter, I needed a second outing, this time on my own. This quest a week later found me returned to Shapwick and during what was to become the hottest day of the year so far, the day was as we say down here "Proper job".

Returning to the car with my wife (who I believe only came along for the entertainment of watching me be eaten alive by bitey-things) we were a bedraggled and flagging pair despite having a fantastic time. No wonder - the temperature recorded at the car as we set off home at nearly 7pm was a chilly, 36oC. We'd been out in that for three hours all told. Dehydrated Dragonfly Madness!

But it was worth it!

Blue tailed damselflies mating - 24th June 2020

Male brown hawker - 24th June 2020

Male emperor dragonfly - 24th June 2020

4 spot chaser - 24th June 2020
But I still have a lot to learn. When I began writing this blog way back in 2008 smartphones and apps to identify wildlife were simply a technological pipe-dream. Yet on my trip out with Rob he produced a new app he'd recently uploaded, Seek. Very good it was too, here seen identifying peacock caterpillars on nettle. I tried to upload it onto my steam driven smart phone but the error message said 'please replace your phone with something that is newer'. It's only 6 years old, but having witnessed Seek in action, it's tempting to upgrade both the phone and my enjoyment outdoors.

SEEK and you WILL find!

There's still mileage though in good old fashioned identification books. This caterpillar intrigued me and after a bit of a flick through of my Boys Own Book of Creepy Crawlies, I thought it was a knot grass caterpillar. Popped it onto Facebook, and initially although some replies came back as a vapourer moth which I'd already dismissed in my semi-ignorant way, this hairy behemoth turned out to be exactly what I'd identified. A knot-grass moth caterpillar. Wow - I'm learning.

Knot-grass caterpillar - 24th June 2020

I have another 4 Wednesdays as leave during July and can't wait to get out again.  There is nothing like being absorbed for hours with wildlife. On that hot Wednesday as I slowly cooked myself a fetching shade of rouge,  I became enveloped in a soundscape of crickets, insect buzzing, birdsong accompanied by the regular zzzz zzzz of a big emperor dragonfly quartering the streams just inches from me. I'll be sad when Lock-Down ends, and may have to seek other avenues of adventure.

Saturday, 9 May 2020

Gotcha - Celastrina argiolus

It is a hot Saturday in early May. Too hot for May 9th that's for sure. In the greenhouse the temperature is nudging 40oC, as I found to my cost while potting on some plants  - what's that phrase of Noel Coward's? Mad Dogs and Englishmen. It has been exceptionally dry too since the middle of March, save for a couple of wet days, blue skies have predominated.

I should maybe plagiarise that phrase and suggest Mad Cuckoos and Englishman today. For eight years the call of the cuckoo fell silent from the fields beyond the garden. Where once a regular harbinger of spring enlivened my waking slumbers, since 2012 that silence curtailing letters to The Times announcing its arrival. Spring; est arrivé!

Which has possibly been good news for the reed buntings and sedge warblers quietly at leisure in the rhynes (or water ditches) around this part of Somerset. Then around 11am the unmistakable call of the male 'cu-ckoo' to the left. Which was worrying. Ancient people thought upon first hearing the cuckoo to the left hand side was a portent of bad luck. However if it is heard from the right, good luck is sure to approach that day. Excellent. Then there is was again, with relief for my nervousness, louder, closer, over to my right. This male harbinger of spring was possibly on migration, as after maybe 10 renditions of the well known refrain, the quiet fields (incidentally title of a book by the author BB) returned. I shall however keep my ears open tomorrow and over the coming days, as no doubt the reed buntings will too. 

Two hours later, my good luck really did approach with reckless abandon. Post my heatstroke in the greenhouse and cuckoo calling excitement, I found myself at leisure with a coffee. Nature observation is about sitting still, observing and being inquisitive.  A male Orange Tip transfixed me for a while, seamlessly obsessed by feeding on one particular clump of forget-me-not. Then a flash of blue caught my eye.

Three or four years ago I bought two standard holly trees in a moment of reckless impulse buying. One languishes unceremoniously in a large pot by the house. The other fares slightly better in one of the borders. Neither is taller than 5 feet. Yet, since their arrival, holly blue butterflies Celastrina argiolus (pronounced  - sell-us-TRY-nuh ar-jee-OH-luss -) have arrived and more importantly remain resident in the garden. This was also helped by the fact the garden wall was covered in ivy. Until that is the council decided it was unsightly and cut it down. It slowly returns. You can find more about these fascinating blue butterflies elsewhere, but for the purposes of this narrative I'm interested in egg laying. 

I watched this female from a distance. Long forgotten knowledge stored deep in the darkest recesses of my mind creaked into action. Internally it said she's egg laying. "Oh great" I said out loud. And so a discourse of sorts took place within me, an unavoidable madness exhibited by many wildlife watchers. Her flight pattern made me stop and observe. Around the pot bound holly she lazily flew, round and around, back and forth slowly reconnoitering the prickly plant just coming into flower. I had my camera with me.

This lovely blue butterfly is increasing its range in the UK, moving north to the Scottish border. In-fact I observed a holly blue in my parents garden in South Tyneside in 2008, whose record was accepted as one of the first records that far north. Climate change is most probably having an effect in this expansion, coupled with a butterfly quite happily able to coexist amongst we humans, plus an ability to complete two distinct life-cycles a year. It's a positive time. 

Holly blue could just as easily be called Ivy blue, Dogwood blue or Spindle blue.

There are two subspecies of Celastrina argiolus. The one we have in the UK is subspecies britanna, the other argiolus is found in Europe, but not here.  The britanna subspecies of the holly blue  has a spring emergence which lays its eggs, as far as I'm aware, only on holly (Ilex spp.)  the food-plant to the emerging larva. That generation emerges in summer to lay its eggs predominantly on ivy (Hedera spp.)  but also dogwoods, (Cornus spp), spindle (Euonymus spp.) plus a few other plants that can play host. Re-engaging once more my long forgotten knowledge stored deep in the back of my mind, I concluded it was May (late spring) and so this was a spring female about to lay eggs on a holly plant. I moved in for a closer look.

Have you ever tried to watch butterflies lay eggs? It is like juggling bananas while cycling in a hurricane. Poised statuesque-like in sunbaked temperatures, camera in hand I waited; in she flew, settled, flew off before I could move a muscle, wheeled back over me, settled again, flew off, then returned, wheeled off flying out of view and then frustratingly deposited and egg out of sight and then left stage right to repeat this merry dance in front of and around an Englishman (mad or otherwise). 

I loved it, seconds became minutes, minutes became quarter hour, a half hour, and more. Wheeling and settling she came and still I'd failed to see an egg being laid. And that is the challenge, to observe requires patience. 

My female, I shall call her my female, laid 4 eggs, then rested for a couple of minutes on a leaf, before laying 4 more eggs, ahead of another resting phase. A repeated cycle of egg laying and resting. It is thought females lay around 50 eggs over a few days, so my female had already lain a good proportion of her allotted clutch. Time to manfully have a go at capturing this on celluloid.  

The gloriously pale duck egg blue-green eggs are lain singly on the stalk of the unopened flower. These eggs are tiny, maybe 3-5 mm and almost impossible to see. Even after watching her lower her abdomen and deposit an egg, it took me a few moments to actually find it on the flower stalk I was looking at intently. I've since added a marker to the stem and have highlighted the egg she laid in the above photograph in the image below. 

What larks. An hour had passed before I finally managed to 'almost' capture the egg laying process with the camera. In the image below she is laying an egg. She arrived so quickly I didn't have time to react with the camera even though I was as close as this image to her. The second image was taken moments later as I tried to adjust the angle, tried to get closer, before once more she flew off. The third image is identical to the second, only I've circled her flying off and the egg, circled in red. I love this image, the briefest moment in time which I shall remember for a long time to come. 

So far I've located a handful of the eggs, but I know they're on that holly. The egg should 'hatch' a larva in a fortnight, and the whole process will begin anew.  I can't wait

As Winnie the Pooh memorably said, "doing nothing often leads to the very best kind of something.". That was certainly the case today. My sitting doing nothing foretold an hour of captivating wildlife watching; or maybe the cuckoo knew something I didn't? 

Wildlife watching, It's a kind of magic!


Holly Blue on Butterfly Conservation.org - https://butterfly-conservation.org/butterflies/holly-blue

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Now lend me your ears

Now lend me your ears. For the first time in years I've read a book. Bear with me, I do read books occasionally. This was a book which made me want to page turn at an unseemly rate (cover to cover consumed in a couple of days). But for reasons I'm unable to fathom out, it left me with a sense of bewilderment that of not really knowing what it was all about. 

Reading the dust cover of Under the Tump, I gleaned from the publishers prose the knowledge that this book is about finding community in the market town of Hay on Wye and how, as an outsider, Oliver Balch used his journalism skills to decipher that often impenetrable sense of place, many of us crave when arriving unannounced to pastures new. However despite the rapid page turning, probably 100 per sitting before nightly retiring, I felt empty. Why I wonder?  

Usually whilst skimming across some honed narrative, if a book fails to hook me like a dangling trout, I simply abandon it. Regularly I have half a dozen books half-finished after drifting off to a subsequent offering . Yet this book kept me turning the pages, I couldn’t stop, all the time while it failed to instil in me anything ground-breaking or new to say. That intrigues me. 

Neither geographical nor historical in purpose, both are covered in detail. Real life characters met along the way were detailed without overblown substance; whilst events passed by without too much fanfare. It was pacey. Balch adeptly used his journalistic technique to arrive at the point quickly, revisits his own perceptions of what and whom, leaving closure somewhat in the mind of the reader’s own interpretation. Clever writing. 

In the dim past I became a journeyman writer of natural history scripts for Radio 4, it is a similar technique to journalism - yet entirely different. For radio, the script has to allow the presenter to be both the peddler of the narrative, in an entertaining way, while sounding like the easy going orator and authority on that topic, as we absorb their every nuance. When we read off the page we self-adapt the words in print to our internal ear. A million individual ways to interpret how those words are being delivered. 

Writing scripts for the radio is a single entity. The person speaking is talking to you, the listener, one to one, personal and intimate. Nobody else.

If spoken word doggedly followed the journalistic chronological principles of Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? possibly this would lead to merry mayhem with this eye-ear coordination and if lain uncorrected ultimately lead to the switching off of the radiogram or writing a letter of complaint from ‘Disgruntled of Much Wenlock’. 

Whether spoken or read, the beginning though is a hook, it's always a hook. Once impaled through the subconscious of the reader or listener, then other important details, other subservient information can be exposed. Not before, not never. 

I've just looked back at some of the scripts I bashed out for Tweet of the Day - World Birds. An example of how facts are delivered in different ways depending on the intended audience struck me. 

The bird in question is a horned screamer (Anhima cornuta), the narrator, Sir Michael Palin.

We're off, 90 seconds of radio is about to be unleashed before the Today Programme on Radio 4. Starting sedately, 6 seconds of natural soundbites filter towards the listener... the line is cast, will it?, could it?, hook the listener. Then oration feels a bite and reels in from the seventh second... 

"It sounds as if someone is using a giant plunger in the Venezuelan marshes. But these are the mating calls of the Horned Screamer.  They’re sounds that only another Horned Screamer could love, but then screamers are very odd birds."

40 words, 22 seconds of spoken word as a most pedestrian rate of 1.8 words per second - somewhat slower than the 'standard' rate of 3 words per second normally aimed for writing for the spoken word. 

In radio waffle isn’t allowed, we don't have time, the listener has a well-educated attention span, boredom is a cancer. Yet by the time this opening salvo ends, the listener is possibly unaware 25 seconds has elapsed, nearly a third of the programme. My words spoken by Michael Palin. I can never replicate his or any other presenters’ delivery on the page; each script though is adapted to the person, their voice and timbre. Michael Palin is a slower narrator than some, but he knows how to peddle the narrative, he knows  how to deliver without undue rush. It is radio gold. 

In a ham-fisted attempt to illustrate the difference, I've just looked up horned screamer within the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Neotropical Birds website. I give you the first 44 words of that entry below; have a go at speaking what you read?

"The characteristic spiny appendage on the top of the Horned Screamer's head could rightfully earn it the title of "unicorn of the avian world." This bizarre relative of ducks and swans is found along rivers and freshwater marshes in northern and central South America."

Initially this works as I read it, my brain reformulating it into a spoken word in my head, but the second sentence is a struggle. It probably is me (I struggled as a radio reporter) yet the salient facts are there in both;  

A strange bird from South America. 

That is really all there is to glean from both the journalist born book and the spoken word. In Under the Tump, I’ve mostly got down through the first layer of the Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? of that corner of Wales. Further knowledge can if required be found elsewhere.  In the Cornell Lab entry for the horned screamer a short synopsis follows which further reading can increase our knowledge if required.  The radio script focus is on just a fact or two, delivered entertainment coupled with a little knowledge spinning around the mating behaviour of this odd bird, as the clock ticks towards the 6am pips on Radio 4. Before then an additional sound layering, that of giant plunger,  stage left.

Less is more. Radio gold.


Tweet of the Day : https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04t0skg

Cornell Lab : https://neotropical.birds.cornell.edu/Species-Account/nb/species/horscr1/overview