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Monday, 17 January 2022

Avalon Marches Complex - A winter's walk.

It has been 6 month or so since my last blog post. Back then in June it was a scorching hot sunny day and I was to be found looking for large blue butterflies at a mid-Somerset location. It's not that since then I've been stuck indoors, but life has taken a strange turn and sped up considerably. The winter is here and it was high time to re-connect with my blog, posting what is the simplest of an image driven walk.

We've reached mid January 2022 and I've taken a few days off to have a late Festive break having worked over Christmas. To be honest this mornings walk was simply that, a walk, a chance to get out into the countryside, some exercise and to spend what turned out to be over five hours tramping across the magnificent Avalon Marches complex, with my wife.   Birdlife was abundant but not exceptional, so much better then to just let the images do the talking. Here we go then... the walk began at Canada Drive on the Shapwick Complex.



Here in Somerset we've had week upon week of dull grey days but this morning a really heavy frost was revealed by clear blue skies and a burst of strong sunshine. The sunshine was actually quite warm, not least as there was not a breath of wind. Underfoot however the distinct crunch of frozen ground broke the silence even after the surface frost had melted. Winter is such a wonderful time to walk, the views open out, there's a chill in the air, and what bird song there is travels far, which today was predominantly blue and great tits, the latter with their 'teacher teacher' calls, and a number of ravens, cronking their dominance of the airways above me.


Evidence of spring, while still someway off, was emerging, with iris and arum starting to push through the leaf litter.


In this strong light some sublime images were to be had but if only we stop and take time to look more intently, such as this back-lit fern on a rhyne edge. Just gorgeous.


I love bare winter trees, and this oak was no exception. I tried to take some photographs of long tailed tits flitting through the branches, which became a wasted endeavour, but the realisation this tree is in itself beautiful from underneath wasn't.


Further up the Canada Drive, the strong low sunlight created these wonderful regimented shadow-lines, created from the fence line and trees on the left.  The closer we look the better the connection with nature can be.


Eventually I made it to the Canada Hide itself. This hide is brand new, replacing the one that sank into the peat and became unsafe. It is one of my favourite parts of Shapwick, simply because it is somewhere the hoards of visitors rarely come to. And today I was pretty much on my own, Julie having gone off for a longer walk, and only one other person about for 20 minutes. Perfect.


And once inside, with some really swish sash windows to open, the view was what can only be described as 'blue'. A deep calming blue.


There was birdlife there, just a long way off, mute swans, coot, tufted duck, shovler, gadwall and cormorants the most common.


Walking back from the hide a distinct mist drifted across the path highlighted by the sunshine, almost smoky in appearance it added wonderfully to the sense of isolation as I walked.


The joy of light on a mossy log - just as simple as that. 


Further on this track heads to the Hawk And Owl Trust reserve, which is where Julie had walked to. I didn't follow, simply spending some time here listening to a great spotted woodpecker calling kik-kik as it flew through the branches. A couple passed me and we had a little chat, they'd heard 'drumming' over at the Westhay Reserve earlier in the morning. I had my hopes raised, however in all the time I was out I never heard any drumming.... spring isn't far away though if woodpecker drumming is being heard.


This reflection in the wet woodland really was that blue - magical, and opposite this decaying trunk had been well peppered with woodpecker holes.


The colours of this ivy just appealed to me.


Retracing my steps I then plunged into the Shapwick Nature Reserve, which this images sums up what I love of this site. It's a fairly new path, one of many now connecting the numerous reserves. It feels wonderfully isolated, but the large pipe along the floor reminds any traveller that this entire Complex is man made and man managed. Without the pumping and water management to maintain wildlife, it would drain and be simply wet meadow and woodland, or simply dry out and revert to agricultural land. 


Most of the birds I wanted to photograph were so far away even for my camera's 200 x lens, most images were just blurred dots. This coot at the Decoy Pool however got close enough to provide a half decent image. Coots are cool.


The view from the Decoy Hide over to Glastonbury Tor never changes winter or summer, different birds of course each season, and dragonflies a-plenty in the summer, but basically it is a time capsule landscape and I never tire of it. Otters are regular here, but never when I visit. One day maybe.


Great crested grebes were around, but still too early for their lovely courtship dance. No booming bitterns either today.


Towards dusk in the final half an hour before sunset we stopped at the Westhay Reserve. Many people visit Ham Wall about 3 miles away for the starling murmurations. This year however the starlings have kept everyone on their toes and have split into three groups regularly... roosting at Ham Wall, Shapwick and Westhay. But not today, not at Westhay, and that didn't matter. The light as the sun set and lit the reeds was compensation enough for me.


4.25pm and the sun was almost down..... and.... if I turned 180 degrees.....


... the Wolf Moon, the first full moon of the year was just rising to the east.


I mentioned this at the top of this post. It is simply, sometimes, the act of being outside that provides the great joy we all attempt to gain from in a connected experience outdoors. Today I wasn't interested in finding rare birds, or seeing as many different species as possible, but simply I enjoyed walking around, observing an enjoying this quite wonderful, and man made landscape. Humans can create beauty, if they only think about what's needed to reverse some of the ills of civilisation. Rewilding these industrial landscape from exhausted peat workings, and in doing so creating one of the biggest wetland in the UK, needs celebrating, mostly as I sit on a log and do absolutely nothing.

Monday, 28 June 2021

In Search of the Large Blue Butterfly.

The afternoon was hot. One of those mid summer days when the light is intense and without a gentle breeze, the air would be suffering and humid. I was heading towards the Somerset Wildlife Trust's Green Down Reserve. But first a steep climb up a stone track, taking breath to admire the dog rose in flower and then over and across a railway bridge and into the lower slopes of Green Down, a new reserve to me, near the village of Charlton Mackrell.

 

 

Way back a decade or so ago one evening I went to the famous, in butterfly terms, Daneway Banks Reserve up in Gloucestershire to watch large blue butterfly (Phengaris arion) larvae being released onto the site. I was there for work, recording an interview with the team there (sadly never broadcast). It was August, too late for the adults to be on the wing and while it was fantastic to see the larvae being released, I made a mental note then to either come back to Daneway, or at another reintroduction site see our rarest butterfly free flying for myself. Ten years later I found myself standing on a very steep limestone grassland slope, on a June afternoon. Expectation was high.


The large blue butterfly was always a localised southern species of butterfly, which I'd read (much like the Duke of Burgundy butterfly) surprises on first encounter in how small it is. Large in this case being the largest blue butterfly in Britain, though in reality it's virtually the same size as a common blue.  Struggling to keep going in the UK, by 1979 the large blue was declared extinct. Why this happened became a research discovery, principally by Dr Jeremy Thomas who unravelled its complicated life cycle involving Myrmica red ants, wild thyme (Thymus polytrichus) to feed on, sometimes wild marjoram (Origanum vulgare) to lay eggs on and warm, predominantly south facing well-drained unimproved, limestone preferred grasslands. No wonder it was a rare butterfly. 


The first thing that I noted when entering this reserve was the absolute profusion of plants; and tell-tale signs of red ant mounds. Due to its topography, these 40+ degree steep slopes have never been improved for agriculture. Aside from a railway line as the southern boundary of the reserve, and the recently installed horse gallops splitting the higher and lower parts of the reserve in two, the site has remained a lightly grazed calcareous grassland for centuries. Everything was here, it made sense then to have this site as a re-introduction habitat for the large blue.


There is always a slight sense of jeopardy when visiting a new area to observe wildlife. Without a seasoned local guide we (my wife Julie and I) simply entered the gate and walked blindly along a visible but indistinct path through nettles and long grass. Soon though the nettles fell behind us and we were enclosed by the sweet smell of a summer wildflower grassland. Soft rose scents drifted by as we slowly walked along the thankfully flat path following the contours of the reserves 15 acres, making this a short half mile walk to the other end. Not a large site by any means but wonderful in the sun hearing chiffchaff, whitethroat, skylark and willow warbler provide a rhythm as the myriad of crickets and grasshopper at our feet provided the chorus.


Despite this abundance of wildlife and of course the presence of the large blue (Green Down was noted in 2016 as holding the largest British population of large blue butterflies with over 153,000 eggs laid that year) we more or less had the reserve to ourselves. Maybe half a dozen other keen lepidopterists and us. We'd only gone a few paces into the 'good stuff' when I spied a labyrinth spider (Agelena labyrinthica) web, complete with its creator. This is one of those moments where I know what I'm seeing although I've never seen it before. Reading around natural history allows flotsam of fact to seep into the little grey cells and remain there awaiting its time to emerge. I could vaguely remember reading about these large labyrinth webs used by this spider to trap and feed on grasshoppers and crickets. As you could imagine to catch and especially hold onto such athletic and bulky insects isn't for the feint hearted arachnid and Agelena excels by building a strong sturdy trap that can’t be destroyed too easily. That's what I remembered from my memory, reading up about this spider later on I discovered "Agelenidae cobwebs are so strong and thickly woven that in the 16th century, monks in the Austrian Alps began layering them together to create tiny canvases for religious miniatures"  


That was a nice find but only a few paces further on, Julie who was walking ahead of me called out, and there flying away from us, a large blue butterfly. The reserve has both common and large blue butterflies, but the colour and markings of the one we'd seen were unmistakable. Yet another moment of theoretical recognition. What was less enjoyable was that in the gentle breeze the butterfly disappeared quickly out of sight over a shrub in seconds. Was that to be it?  

The large blue butterfly was reintroduced to Green Down in 1992 and for many years the reserve was closed to the public to allow the butterflies to gain a hold. Just a few miles to the north is Collard Hill, a much better known and since 2002 a well visited reintroduction site owned by the National Trust. But now Green Down is open to visitors, though like many fragile habitats I'd worry if it became too well known.


So far just the one sighting, therefore as we'd been on the reserve about half an hour when we thought we'd stop for a while and just watch and wait. No sooner had we done this than another large blue flew towards us, and yet again up over a shrub and out of sight. That's two, or was it the first one returning upon itself? 

Coming towards us was a fellow butterfly watcher and after a brief conversation he confirmed what I'd already observed, namely that today the butterflies were highly mobile, never resting. I've seen marbled white butterflies many times across Wessex and they always pose for a photograph, but today these would just not keep still. Taking images was proving a challenge, a frustration and annoying. I packed my camera away and we slowly followed this chap along the path as he retraced his steps. When we finally caught up with him he was on his hands and knees trying to photograph, yes, a large blue butterfly. However each time he got to within a few feet of it, it flew a few feet away. We had the best view as the butterfly flew bit by bit towards us and I got some nice views in my binoculars when it was only a few feet away. Watching him struggle to capture that perfect image I just thought there's no point in trying,  my camera remained deep within my backpack.

While he was scrabbling about and failing to capture the perfect pose, a couple more large blue butterflies flew by which was amazing to see. They were also very mobile, never remaining on the ground for more than a second or two. Eventually this chap who I discovered was local and knew the site well also noted the flight period was about three weeks late due to the cold spring this year. He eventually gave up on trying to photograph this flighty individual and wandered off up the hill and like the butterflies, out of sight. Though before he left, he did show me a lovely image captured on his mobile phone and taken only half an hour before of the large blue with wings open. Perfect. I was happy, I'd seen them flying, I'd seen a nice image and that's why I'd come. Mission accomplished. 


We were now on our own in the reserve. I took my camera out of my rucksack and for the next half an hour or so Julie sat and watched me messing about photographing anything that would stay still long enough, quite tricky with a long lens. I tried to capture some of the other butterflies around. Common blue, marbled white, meadow brown, but failed on the grasshoppers and couldn't be bothered to walk down a steep slope to where I heard a number of grizzled skipper were. Even the many pyramidal orchids were difficult - as unlike other visitors here today I wasn't prepared to trample all over the site just to get an image. Code is - leave the habitat undisturbed for the wildlife.


The large blue was first discovered (although it was possibly always here) in Britain in the 1790's and has always been considered a rarity. That rarity and the Victorian craze for collecting butterflies probably did the fatal damage blow to the survival of the indigenous large blue. During the 19th century lepidopterists became obsessed with having this species in their collections and over time located new colonies near Dover, on the Marlborough Downs and in Winchester in Wiltshire, Somerset, the Cotswold hills, south Devon, Buckinghamshire, and Northamptonshire. Becoming a trophy species, caught large blue's were often sold for substantial money. This pressure from collectors had a devastating effect and most colonies were cleaned out by collectors and by the 1950 only around 30 sites remained. Needing grasslands with short turf, the spread of myxomatosis in rabbit populations became the straw that broke the butterflies back. Grasslands became under-grazed due to a lack of rabbits, shrubs quickly grew and the microclimate became too cool to support the red ant. Post war agricultural improvements didn't help and by the 1970's only three colonies remained. By the end of that decade, it was game over.



After about an hour and a half of wandering about in the intense sun I decided to call it a day. By now it was around 4.30 pm, Julie had already gone back to the car for some shade and the number of butterflies flying was reducing, despite the still warm sunshine. I'd seen half a dozen large blue butterflies on the wing although I'd failed to capture an image, but that didn't matter.

Except I had. Going through the images once I was back home, I saw this battered tatty blue butterfly. At the time when I'd taken the image the butterfly was 20 feet away and I thought it was a common blue, but looking at the underwing it is undoubtedly a large blue. Accidentally I had captured an image of what I'd come to see. Happy Days indeed.


Links:

More on large blue life cycle https://butterfly-conservation.org/sites/default/files/large_blue-psf.pdf

Cobweb canvasses. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-lost-art-of-painting-on-cobweb-canvases

Sunday, 20 June 2021

Was that a river warbler I saw before me?

Sometimes I do wonder if there is a malevolent force conspiring towards me - not in a bad way, but I do wonder. 


Recently a very rare British visitor, a river warbler (Locustella fluviatilis), had taken up semi-permanent residence on the RSPB's Ham Wall in Somerset. Only the second mainland sighting in a decade, and while not exactly my local patch, it is less than half an hour down the M5. I'm not really a twitcher but my mate Brett said to me that it had been found on Friday 3rd of June and he along with the nature writer Stephen Moss had seen it that afternoon on June 8th with good views possible from the footpath leading to the Avalon Hide..

Wednesday June 9th, I downed tools from my working from home stint and headed down there in the evening. What an evening, not a breath of wind and the sun shone warmly. I knew where to head to but the gaggle of birdwatchers saved me having to look for the exact spot. I had a hand held recorder with me, so joining the merry throng, I waited. The birdwatchers waited too, though many seemed more intent in discussing the forthcoming Euro 2020 football. 


The call of the river warbler is likened to a repetitive bush cricket, and the bird can call for many minutes at a time. Fair enough, so I waited. And waited.  Chatter from the footballing birdwatchers was it was here half an hour ago. Honestly. I gave it twenty minutes then thought I'm bored, I'll walk to the Avalon hide where I could hear a bittern booming. Booming bittern bagged, my return back through the reeds was stopped by a fellow birdwatcher, who I discovered had similarly failed to see or hear the river warbler. However as we parted, there in the reeds somewhere out within the vastness of Ham Wall a distinctive zrr zrrzrrzrr zrrzrrzrr zrrzrrzrrzrr.. began. I got the recorder fired up and while I did manage to record slice of audio in the can, to be honest it was never going to the heard on Springwatch.  The call ended, so I wandered back to the footballing birdwatchers... and waited with them, and they waited with me. Not a sound, nor a sight. Tail between by legs, I took a final record image of where it was (honestly) .... and went home.


Fast foreword to Sunday June 13th. The time 0300 and the Wessex Reiver is arising from his place of slumber. By 0420 hrs I was parked up at Ham Wall (along with a handful of other cars and more arriving by the minute). Drat I'd hoped to get down here before anyone else with a full recording kit - but to no avail, the rare bird alerts were doing a great job. 

Into the wonderful half light I headed, knowing sun break was about 30 minutes away. How much of a dawn chorus could I record as I walked to where the river warbler was? Since failing to see this bird (and properly record it) my mind had exercised itself on a quick return visit. Here I was listening to a myriad of birds calling on this June morning, accompanied by mosquitoes who hearing themselves of the river warbler's presence had arrived to feed on passing humans. What is the ecological point of mosquitoes?

We, the modern world, lives in a visual medium, and even at this early hour, recording sound on a parabolic reflector added to the avian calls, a number of overhead planes, a farmer out yonder exercising a tractor, and yes, as I got closer, birdwatchers discussing the football results from last night.  The Somerset Levels is a well known no-go area for good quality sound recording. Visually fabulous, audio third division, penalty shootout.

Half a dozen good bird calls recorded, I found myself at the river warbler hinterland... 50m from me about two dozen birdwatchers had scopes and cameras pointed at a clump of reeds. Not a sound, other than the sedge warbler. 0448 and just as the sun poked it's head over the Mendips, a distinctive zrr zrrzrrzrr zrrzrrzrr zrrzrrzrrzrr.. began. Having the parabolic means I can be at a distance. Slowly moving the dish left and right I hit the sweet spot.... and away from the human talking... loud and proud there he was. I became transfixed. The sun was rising just in front of me, illuminating the reeds and the mist in a tangerine glow, and I was in a world of my own listening to this rare bird who should be in central or eastern Europe. It sang continuously for almost eight minutes then stopped. I waited and waited... but no more calls. Should I stay? should I go?  I gave it another fifteen minutes and then after many scans of the reeds with binoculars, neither sight or sound of this warbler was returned. I heard a cuckoo behind me, so packed up my bags and headed off over there. Cuckoo obliged, but I'd still not seen the river warbler. 2 - nil to the bird.

As a result of the recordings I made that Sunday I edited a short 4 minute montage of what I'd heard - the river warbler is the penultimate call, like a bush cricket with a megaphone. If you'd like to listen it's on SoundCloud 

https://soundcloud.com/wessex_reiver/ham-wall-0430am-june-13th-2021

My final trip to see the river warbler was on Wednesday June 16th after work. Walking towards the now well trampled and dust ridden point where the river warbler had been seen for nearly a fortnight I caught a brief snatch of it's call in the distance. There was no other person here which didn't bode well for seeing it. And I was right... the briefest snatch of a call, and then absolutely nothing, no sound, no sight. I hung about for half an hour, along with Julie and a flask of tea and then as rainclouds wandered in from the Bristol Channel, we headed home. 3 - nil to the bird.

But I left happy. For me as someone who makes his living in sound, hearing a river warbler and recording eight minutes of a river warbler is all I need... farewell my invisible friend, hope you make it back to Africa, and maybe next year you'll return and show yourself to me?

Monday, 3 May 2021

Why do We Watch Wildlife?

 Why do we watch wildlife? 

It is a question I've occasionally asked myself, often when the rain is dribbling down my neck, or I'm being buffeted by gales. What does observing something represent to the observer?

Take the above image, a carrion crow regurgitated pellet. Last autumn it was a wet and blustery day. As I idly looked out of the window a carrion crow landed on the wall. Unseen I watched this crow hop back and forth along the wall, bill wide open as if singing without a sound. Then its head began to lunge to and fro as if invisible strings were pulling it, before a dramatic convulsion and out popped this pellet onto the wall. After the crow had gone I collected it and while the pellet contained nothing more than cereal husk, those few moments of observing what for the bird was a commonplace experience, was for me fascinating. 

The great mountaineer, naturalist and conservationist John Muir is often mis-quoted as saying "When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world". Which seems like the embryonic seed of our current mindfulness generation. However what he actually said in his 1911 book My First Summer in the Sierra, was " When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." Which is a slightly wider remit of thought.

John Muir was writing about the summer he spent in 1869 in a new country. The Scotsman was newly arrived in America. He became a shepherd for a while in the California's Sierra Nevada Mountains and kept a diary, detailing everything he saw in that New World, which for him was a new world to observe. Notes from a diary matured as one of his most popular books.

I mention this as his words and those of many others have philosophised that in order to be a wildlife observer we need to retain that childlike fascination with the natural world. Although John Muir arrived in America as a man in his third decade, what he saw was new, he had to write it down. But he kept writing it down, and the best of the natural history writers keep writing it down. Even though a blackbird may have been seen in the same spot every day for weeks, today the nature observer sees it anew, and looks.

The germ of this conception manifested itself recently. In the last two weeks I have visited the Holford area of the Quantocks three times. Once by myself to reconnaissance possible sites and then with specific ideas in mind. My actual target was a tiny magpie coloured bird newly in from Africa, the pied flycatcher. Once a bogey bird of mine, last year I caught a brief glimpse, a first for me. This year I was throwing caution to the wind and going for the full Swarovski binoculars stereo vision with audio. Ficedula hypoleuca did not disappoint.

On all three occasions I've seen and heard the male bird holding territory. On my last visit on May 2nd, I spent a few minutes watching a male chase a female around an old gnarled tree. Like darting macro moths these small birds weaved and bobbed through the branches of the ancient oak woods,  accompanied by a chip chip chip call from the female bird once she'd alighted momentarily on a branch. 

However although my target species was the pied flycatcher, everything else in these Somerset combes fascinated me. Some species I can recognise, most are an amnesia of lost knowledge. Lower down the Combe song thrush were plentiful. Mostly hidden from view their repeating song punched through the crisp air, loud, clear and amazingly far reaching. Willow warblers were everywhere, but on the last visit so too their relative the wood warbler. I watched a wood warbler singing. The text books say it sounds like a spinning coin on a marble slab. Maybe for some, for me it is simply a descending expulsion of ever decreasing notes, different to the willow warblers descending scale, but could be confused with a wren. 

It was while watching the warblers a wren flew onto a holly branch just feet from me. I have seen thousands of wrens in my lifetime but this one fascinated me. Watch closely and as they sing, their whole body vibrates like a diminutive oscillating muffin. How they produce that penetrating sound is breath-taking (Biology bit : their vocal organ has a resonating chamber that utilises nearly all the air held in their lungs and can produce two notes simultaneously) but the physics of sound waves does not do justice to the joy of observing a familiar bird going bananas on its territory. So there I was, wood warbler, willow warbler, and wren all giving it some wellie in their territories in a small part of this wood.  For me watching that wren was the highlight. The warblers are wonderful, but often skulking in trees and let's be honest, they all look pretty much identical. But Troglodytes troglodytes forgoes it's cave name origin and stood loud and proud in the sunshine for all to see.

As did the cuckoo. Not one but a number of individual birds. I'd not heard a cuckoo this season, so the calls from several males in one landscape made the heart-bursting climb out of the magnificently named Slaughterhouse Combe worthwhile.  As we got lost a bit walking the myriad of paths of Lower Hare Knap hill, in the distance cuckoos began flying between the stunted holly trees dotted along the boundary between the oak woods and the moorland. Every year it startles me how big cuckoos are,  see a sparrowhawk, see a cuckoo. But actually cuckoo are ever so slightly longer, yet their distinctive posture, like an avian fairy on the Christmas tree, gives them away. Well the male at least.  Watched a pair dart back and forth between two hollies. The female cuckoo has that staccato bubbling call that I find hard to describe, it's like a barrel full of pixies singing the chorus of Bohemian Rhapsody while juggling. A remarkable sound I've not heard for nearly 10 years. They carried on with their ritual, if they saw me observing them they didn't care.

And that is possibly where the joy of nature-watching comes in. We are the intruder, to the world and daily existence of the species we see. It's not mindfulness for the species. It's not forest bathing for the birds, it is simple ecology. The habitat is there, nature will fill the niche, procreate and survive. And that I think is where the real emotions come from if I ask that question again "Why do we watch wildlife? "

As a child we absorb information and experience like a sponge. Everything is new and to be explored. As adults this childlike state already mentioned is often masked or dulled by the tedium of adult everyday life. The best nature writers revert to a childhood state. They observe, they note and they are fascinated by what is happening before them as if it is the first time they have ever seen that happen. They don't analyse what it means to them, the human observer, the best writers simply report species ecology at work.

I have enjoyed so much my three visits to the Quantocks. Even though I had a camera with me, I took very few photographs. Not the wren, not the wood warbler, not the cuckoo. For me it was the simple act of observing and remembering in my mind what happened that brought be joy. That's me. Others will disagree, good images or artwork are important to them, but for me I was happy to sit back and observe then walk away.

A friend asked this morning for some information on where I'd been with some pointers. So I produced the overlay below. Doing that took me back, I was there and I observed.... If you go down to the woods today, I hope you enjoy the experience as much as me, though I've forgotten to mention the lesser spotted woodpecker. Ahh well............."When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." Thanks Google Earth for the image - the all seeing eye of the modern world.

Sunday, 14 February 2021

Inside A Ring Of Peewits.

"It is not spring yet. Spring is being dreamed, and the dream is more wonderful and more blessed than ever was spring.
A Flock of Peewits by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

Spring may be knocking on the door, but in recent days, as a result of a dominant high pressure system over Scandinavia, blistering easterly winds have buffeted Britain from the Continent. Add to this sub zero temperatures (Braemar in Scotland nudged minus 23oC) and, despite snowdrops peaking through the ground, a late blast of winter weather has enveloped the country. Most of the country has had a covering of snow, but here in Somerset despite the odd flurry we've remained snow free, the skies predominantly blue and the countryside bathed in sunshine. 

Working at home this week I've spent a lot of time looking out of the window while having the obligatory screen breaks. I've had a lot of birds come to the feeders, the colder weather always increases usage. A great spotted woodpecker was a highlight, but I love seeing the boisterous sparrows and starlings fighting over the fat balls. The resident great tits are looking fantastic in their fresh olive-blue plumage, seeing them next to blue tits on the same feeder, the size difference is obvious. I also have a resident male blackbird with no tail, which I've imaginatively called stumpy.  It is his garden and the interloper males are given short shrift if they dare to enter, post skirmish he'll tik-tik away on the shed roof in an avian triumph.

It's not just the garden where activity this week has increased. From the house I can look over two miles of small grassland fields to the National Trust's Sand Point and then the Bristol Channel beyond. Skeins of geese often use the Bristol Channel as a land-map, mute swans too, and in late afternoon gulls fly past going to roost on Flat Holm island. But it was while casually scanning this area with my binoculars  I noticed three sizeable flocks of lapwing wheeling over the Point. Each flock was maybe one to 2 hundred in number. After a few minutes the flocks merged and dropped out of sight. We're lucky here as lapwings in winter are quite numerous. A drive north up the M5 from Weston super Mare guarantees sightings of lapwings in the adjacent fields, and only a few miles away the Somerset Levels are a favoured location. But those birds seen over towards Woodspring Priory were in greater numbers than I'd seen for a long time. 

From home it is about a 2 mile walk to where I'd seen the flock, which seemed much longer in the biting wind whipping across the flat sea-blown fields around here. Only field hedges curtail these blasts which, as anyone who has stood motionless birdwatching in winter knows, I was inordinately thankful for.  At first I could not locate the lapwings. I counted about 30 mute swans, many many rooks, carrion crows and jackdaws in the fields and a solitary song thrush. Then rounding a corner I heard the first pee-wit call disappearing in the breeze, along with the birds. I'd spooked them unknowingly.


I wasn't unduly worried as lapwing are what I call a fidgety bird.  Individuals and groups will nervously fly up and down to the same spot while foraging or resting, sometimes the whole flock takes off for no reason only to return a few minutes later as if nothing had happened. But this flock was different.


Field guides will tell you that lapwing and golden plover flocks are common in winter. I've seen these many times. This flock though was something I haven't witnessed before, a mixed starling and lapwing flock. That may sound unremarkable, but what I seemed to have stumbled on was a co-operation flock. Despite the wind making it hard to focus the binoculars, I hunkered down to watch them drop back into the field.  What I observed was possibly a wonderful example of intraspecific anti-predator behaviour. Time and time again I observed the lapwings encircling the starling flock while they foraged on the grass. Not just in one field but a number around me. In the field nearest me there were maybe 200 starlings and 50 or so lapwing.  The flock would move as one organic force, lapwings leading at the front, with sentries posted to each side and the rear. And within this ring of peewits the entire flock of starlings moved as one with and at the same speed as the peewits as they foraged. The lapwings were foraging too, but at least half of them at any one time were alert, fidgety and calling what was wonderfully described by Charles Bayne "tcher-willooch-weet'. 
 
Then, and I observed this regularly, something unseen would spook the lapwings. The leading half a dozen to a dozen  would fly up in their lazy flap flap way, noisily calling. As they rose, behind them the entire starling flock alighted as one with them, the remaining lapwings following the starling chase. Being faster fliers, quickly after taking off the massed starling flock would fly past the lapwings in a fast moving murmuration, hedge hopping inches from the hedge top into a safer field, leaving the lapwings to bring up the rear as they flapped and glided back down to join them.  Once in the field previous positions would regroup. Starlings inner, lapwings outside, foraging would begin once more, with the leading edge of the feeding mass being the advance party of lapwing walking and foraging in a planned direction, followed by the starlings en-masse, with the lapwing sentries keeping watch. Time and again I'd observe lapwings take to the air, followed by the starlings and then the remaining lapwings. Not once did I see the starlings rise up first followed by the lapwings, always the lapwings first. It was beginning to get dark by the time I'd observed maybe a dozen take off and landings, and I was cold, with a walk back to warmth ahead of me. 

The following day I went back to the fields this time with a camera. If anything the wind was stronger than the day before, and that maybe accounted for the lower numbers of birds of each species in the fields, but they were there once more repeating that co-operation behaviour of lapwing sentries and starling feeders. In the course of an hour or so watching, not once, save for a lone buzzard, did I spot a sparrow hawk or other predator. The roller coaster flights of lapwings up, starlings up, starlings down, lapwings down seemingly caused by reason's unseen.  On this second visit the only difference to the lapwing behaviour was that lapwings from a field behind me flew back and forth to the fields containing foraging starlings and lapwings. Whether this was additional reinforcements or simply wandering about I didn't know. That field behind me also contained a large corvid flock, I counted over 30 carrion crow.

What I had witnessed intrigued me. Is this a common occurrence, this lapwing starling co-operation, or simply two species cooperating in winter during a cold spell. A search on the internet failed to come up with an answer, even going through research papers into interspecific flocking behaviour in winter. I decided to head into my library and spent a few hours reading through my natural history books.

What struck me in reading through these books was how often peewits or green plover as lapwings were known of old were mentioned, but how scant those references were of detailed information. It made me realise that many of these naturalists writing 50 or more years ago tuned into the beloved sound and flight of the lapwing, but it seemed that as peewits were more numerous than today these observers seemed not to register any behaviours. Hudson, Jefferies, BB, Moore, and Drabble all note the liquidity of the lapwings call, or the flap flap flight, but though only a limited selection of my own books, that was about it. 

Even that most poetic of naturalists Edward Thomas failed to provide what I'd wished for. Thomas, finding his life as a journalist unfulfilled, set out on an 8 day bicycle journey in the pursuit of self discovery and rejuvenation. Riding from Clapham in London to The Quantocks in Somerset around the Easter period between the 21st and 28th of March 1913. His book In Pursuit of Spring does reference peewits, but in passing while on Salisbury Plain 

"Next to the dead the most numerous things on the Plain are sheep, rooks, peewits and larks. The lark is most constant here  ....the pewit is equally characteristic. His Winter and twilight cry expresses for most men both the sadness and the wildness of these solitude"

Interestingly for me Richard Jefferies writing nearly 150 years ago in Wild Life In A Southern County questions why birds 'pack' as he calls it 

".. the packing of birds is very interesting, and no thoroughly satisfactory explanation of it, that I am aware of, has ever been discovered

He then goes on to discuss other species and of the peewit says " Peewits or lapwings not only pack in the winter, but may almost be said to pass the nesting time together" he goes on to discuss the lapwings avoidance behaviour by the nest in spring, but adds a beautiful description of the lapwing flight: 

"Then you have a good opportunity of observing the peculiar motion of their wings, which seem to strike simply downwards, and not also backwards, as in other birds; it is a quick jerking movement, the wing giving the impression of pausing for a tenth of a second at the finish of the stroke before it is lifted again"  

A lovely observance of the flight but not what I was after. I'd drawn a blank. The closest I got to answering my question and a naturalist describing their observance of lapwing behaviour was found in Sir John Craster's book Naturalist in Northumberland.

"[February 28th]... many more peewits are, this morning, going through their courtship antics, and I stand for some time watching and enjoying this very embodiment of the spirit of spring".... 

He later describes at length watching over 200 lapwing 'whiffle' in from the sky to join a few on the ground.

Maybe it is just my books, my limited knowledge, but I have found this whole process fascinating and it is why after over 50 years of observing wildlife there is still so much more for me to learn. Not least that the old term for lapwing can be spelt either pewit or peewit... I've gone for the latter except in quotes, after all it is the sound of a magical bird flap stop flapping the wing. 

I've not been to those fields for a couple of days but hopefully on my next visit the lapwing and starlings remain, and I'll continue to observe their antics. It certainly makes sense to combine forces, and observant eyes, to avoid predators during these winter months. Natural territorial hostility replaced by the need to simply survive. No doubt in a few weeks the lapwings will disperse, some flying a long way off. The starlings too, many back to Europe. The memory of this chance behavioural encounter  will stay with me a long while yet.

As an aside in the evening I asked Julie my wife if she would do a quick sketch of a lapwing to help illustrate my memory of this. An hour later I have the best Valentine's present a man could have.... It is not spring yet, but Spring is most definitely being dreamed.



References 

Bayne, Charles S. (1944). Exploring England. Collins, London

Thomas, Edward (2002). In Pursuit of Spring (first published 1914), Laurel. 

Jefferies, Richard (2011). Wild Life In A Southern County (first published 1879). Toller

Craster, John, Sir (1969). Naturalist In Northumberland

Quote "It is not spring yet" 

Thomas, Edward (2009). The South Country (first published 1909), Toller

Lapwing illustration by Denis Watkins-Pitchford from;

Warren, C. Henry (1940). England Is A Village, illustrated by Denis Watkins-Pitchford. Eyre and Spottiswood


Sunday, 22 November 2020

Carrion Crow, Regurgitated.


This morning there was a lone carrion crow in the garden. Nothing unusual about that, though to be truthful although carrion crows are common around here, as elsewhere, rarely does one come into the garden and perch on the fence. 

Julie my wife alerted me to its presence surveying the garden.  It was one of those autumnal days when everything is sodden. Not quite freezing overnight but a heavy dew covered every available surface as the mist began dispersing with the strengthening sun. Earlier I'd seen the flash of a male sparrowhawk over the garden, though I was preoccupied in other things to concentrate on garden activity. The carrion crow however grabbed my attention, crows being an interest to me. I readily forget how large these corvids are when seen close too. Much like herring gulls when in the garden, who seem to fill it with their wingspan, this crow dominated the fence. That heavy black bill directing the observant deep set eyes to survey the scene, a crow seemingly at rest. 

Though highly intelligent carrion crows (Corvus corone) are the most wary of the corvids in my experience, never letting me get close to them. This year a pair successfully raised two (possibly three, but I'm unsure) young in the trees about 100m away. Squabbling magpies mobbing the crows each time they flew into the tree alerted me to the nest back in the spring. That squabbling was to continue all summer and well into September. The adult crows used the large fir tree in our garden as respite from this bickering it seemed, but they never came into the garden. Either one or both would sit on the top most branches preening and generally observing the world, before suffering the magpies wrath as they returned to the nest. Interestingly a pair of magpies had a nest in the fir tree this year, tit for tat maybe?

Whether the bird I observed preening its wing was one of the same adults I'm unsure, though logic decrees it would be and in its territory.  After a few minutes watching this crow it hopped off the fence and down onto the gravel. There on the path it flicked over a few stones before flying up onto the shed roof. Slipping and sliding down the shed roof, the crow then hopped onto the back wall and stood for a while. A perfect poised motionless corvid. I was tempted to get my camera but knew it would have disappeared before I returned. I therefore watched. 

It was while simply observing I saw the crow open it's bill and almost as if silently craa-ing, shook it's head while keeping its bill wide open. Again the bill opened, this time turning its head in the opposite direction. It then hopped slightly to the left and opened its bill once more, this time a pellet fell out of the crow onto the wall. I've known for years that crows regurgitate pellets but I've never seen this actually happen (nor have I been absolutely sure I've found one in the countryside). It is well known that birds of prey, especially owls regurgitate indigestible food remains, but a number of other bird species regurgitate too including herons, and dabbling ducks. And also crows; thanks to the work a century ago by Sven August Heintz a Swedish biologist. Post pellet regurgitating I read a paper reviewing his work [Green et al 2019].

In this recent article by Green et al they review the work of Heintz in the context of contemporary science and ornithology. A century ago Heintz suggested at least eleven corvid species were key seed dispersal species both through cache, hoarding, faecal droppings and pellet regurgitations. One of the species confirmed as doing this was the hooded crow (Corvus cornix), which in 1917 was then considered the same species as the carrion crow, with the former just more plentiful in numbers in Sweden.   

Heintz stated that "It is well-known that some members of the crow family (Corvidae) are important for seed dispersal either via frugivory (e.g., when feeding on berries) or by scatter hoarding (e.g., of nuts).....corvids are partly granivorous and have long had a reputation for causing damage to cereal crops"

[Heintz] "... carried out germination experiments of the contents of regurgitated pellets and excrements from Magpie and Hooded Crow. Most germination trials were carried out in early spring, of seeds that had been collected the preceding autumn or winter. Although many seeds germinated within a few weeks, trials were run throughout summer and autumn..... in total Heintze identified 157 plant taxa from 42 families which were dispersed by corvids by endozoochory (dispersal via ingestion)

Heintz concluded It appears that within these zoogeographic areas [the Holarctic and the Neoboreal] corvids are the most important seed dispersers among all landbirds.” 

All of the above I gleaned from reading Green et al after watching the crow on my garden wall. Which after regurgitating its pellet flew off, allowing me to collect it (image above).

At the time of writing I have not dissected the pellet though on external examination it is packed with what will be indigestible seed husks and what look like acorn remains. Which was interesting in itself, as the literature suggests most regurgitations occur when crows feed on beetles and other invertebrates with tough carapace or wings. A quick search on the internet drew a blank for grain derived pellets. Could it be that seed based pellets are less obvious as they fall apart and are dispersed by wind more readily?  More investigation needed I feel, although given corvids are very granivorous during harvests and in autumn, it is not surprising really what this pellet contains.

That simple act of watching a carrion crow in the morning opened me up to the work of Heintz which until today I'd not known about. I'm not alone it seems. A quick scan through indexes in various books I have on crows fail to mention Heintz, seemingly Green et al are correct in their own conclusion that the work of that Swedish scientist a century ago has largely been forgotten, but it stands the test of time and is as pertinent today as in 1917. 

Reference :

Green, Andy J, Elmberg, Johan and Lovas-Kiss, Ádám (2019). Beyond Scatter-Hoarding and Frugivory: European Corvids as Overlooked Vectors for a Broad Range of Plants. Front. Ecol. Evol. | https://doi.org/10.3389/fevo.2019.00133