Thursday, 28 April 2011

Are you a guest at the Royal Wedding?

Here's something it might be fun to pass around the blogging world..... In honour of the big wedding on Friday, use your royal wedding guest name.

Start with either Lord or Lady.

Your first name is one of your grandparents' names.

Your surname is the name of your first pet, double-barreled with the name of the street you grew up on.

Best Regards, Lord Claus Avril-Dipe Lane (gosh!!)

I wonder if I'll get any comments allowing me to know who the wedding guests are going to be from the blogging community? :-)

Monday, 25 April 2011

2 Easter bluebell woods and a walk to the church

What a fabulous Easter weekend. I only had Saturday and Sunday off as the wheels of industry continue to turn in the working world I inhabit. But two days is more than long enough to demolish an Easter egg or two.

Time allowed over the weekend, apart from eating Easter eggs, gardening and sleeping, to visit 2 bluebell woods in Wiltshire. The first was a private woodland I actually stumbled across near Ramsbury in the East of the county on Good Friday. Driving along a single track road, I literally stopped in my tracks as a flash of blue emanated from the trees. It is so much more thrilling to find something unexpected as I drove around the lanes.

This woodland was a mix of coppiced hazel, ash and other native species and riddled with badger setts so I will not give the exact location away. The woods themselves were about 2 miles long but only a few hundred meters wide as they skirted the ridge of the hill. Just stunning seeing the bluebells in the evening sunshine.

Then on Saturday evening Julie and I went to West Woods just outside Marlborough. Actually we had a little bit of a drive out as it had been such a hot afternoon, pootling about the glorious Wiltshire countryside in the cooler evening was a treat. Given I had seen the wonderful bluebell wood above the day before, I had mixed feelings when Julie suggested we go to West Woods as I'm often disappointed going to well known wildlife spots, in my experience they never quite live up to expectations.

On Saturday evening I was proved absolutely wrong with that thought. These beech woods not 4 miles from Marlborough has a dozen or more cars parked in the carpark. I thought, humm, there'll be a few bluebells and an awful lot people. But no, so vast were the woods that even though there were a lot of people there, it felt like we were alone.

And they were stunning. I've visited a lot of bluebell woods over my time but I have to say this is by far the best one I have visited in 30 years of wildlife watching. It was hard to know what to photograph, where or how, given that there was just a sea of blue, as all the bluebells were in perfect condition all at the same time.

One nice find by Julie was this dor beetle geotrupes stercorarius scuttling along the path. These are fun little beetles who do good work hovering up all that manure left by other animals. I never used to be interested in insect or creepy crawlies until recent years and now the more I found out about their fascinating life cycles and adaptions to their environment, the more I'm fascinated by them. Just wish I knew more about them.

So lets head back into the sunlit West Woods, one more time....

....but not before this most peculiar bit of wildlife spotting, a holly in full berry mode. Now what I want to know is why is it in berry in late April? The berries were fresh too, not dried and remnants from the winter, they looked very fresh indeed.

Just so atmospheric

On the way back home I took Julie to see the woods I'd visited on Good Friday. I'm glad we went that way as we stumbled across 3 red kites. In fact in one small area of Ramsbury, as we stood next to the car, we saw 3 the kites, 1 buzzard, 2 muntjac, a brown hare, 3 grey partridge and a magpie. Can't be bad.

And neither was the sunset...!!

Earlier on Saturday I'd popped over to Ham Hill near the Hampshire border to see if any Duke of Burgundy butterflies were about.

The reserve has changed dramatically since I last visited a few weeks ago. Partly I guess because of the hot dry weather recently but it was alive with insects. Masses upon masses of St Mark's flies, and many brimstone and orange tip butterflies. Sadly no Duke of Burgundy butterflies this visit. But a lovely Dark-bordered Bee-fly, Bombylius major, diverted my attention for a while.

This tiny linear reserve is well known for its wild flowers, with this germander speedwell Veronica chamaedrys showing well against the cow slips.

As was this newly emerging common twayblade, Listera ovata below.

...and the masses of willow down blowing in the hot breeze. Was this really only April 23rd? Felt a lot more like July up there on the chalk downland.

Finally for this posting, yesterday evening when it became cooler, Julie and I had a gentle stroll up to the village church in East Grafton. It was a super evening and lovely to be out for just half an hour as the shadows lenghtened.

Inside the church was an Easter garden made on the Saturday by the village children. I thought this was absolutely charming.

And so Easter Sunday drew a-close and we wandered back round the village green to take in the air, the many thatched cottages and then home for a well earned shandy while watching Julie's favourite film, Seabiscuit.

I know where I'll be on May 7th!!!!!

Friday, 22 April 2011

Home Pleasures

I spend a lot of my working time visiting fantastic locations across the UK to see rare and fascinating wildlife, but this last couple of days as I've been working flat out and not getting home until 8pm. To relax therefore, in the evening, and morning for that matter, I've just been relaxing at home. And in doing so, appreciating the wildlife my garden has to offer. It may not be exotic, but we often overlook the common place and after all these are "my" birds.

I'm fortunate in that my house backs onto farmland which then becomes the North Somerset Levels before falling into the sea at Sand Bay on the Bristol Channel. From the spare bedroom window, where this view was taken, I can see the Black Mountains in Wales on a good day, but often foxes padding about the field.

But ever since moving here 2 years ago, I've loved the fact the house is actually a home to a myriad of birds. Although it is a modern house, in the eves as I write this posting there are at least 3 starling nests. How do I know this, well apart from seeing half eggshells on the path, or watching the adults zooming in and out, I can hear the chicks chirruping. In fact if I gently tap my bedroom ceiling off they start clammering for food. Don't try this at home, as the chicks use up energy chirruping so if the adults aren't feeding they'll not replace that effort.

Soon the house martins will be back. I have 2 old nests at the moment on the front of the house. Last year 3 broods fledged which was fabulous, if not a little messy on my window sills.

Back to the present then. Last night I sat outside for an hour as the night faded. Joining me was the resident collared dove who is becoming more sociable. There is a nest in the conifer just outside the garden, hopefully then there will be a family of dove-ttes in the garden soon.

Around the small pond a female blackbird hunted for titbits and all around the large number of sparrows here squabbled and chirruped. What is lovely of course is that just sitting and observing the familiar wildlife in the garden for an hour, makes me realise that I don't spend enough time these days just sitting, observing. Good field biologists will tell you, the only way to really understand and observe wildlife is to spend hours and hours just quietly watching behaviour. And by sitting quietly, wildlife always comes to you, there really is no need to go and find the wildlife in any situation, just sit still for a while and they'll all come closer.

An example of this is that yesterday morning I stood at the kitchen window for 20 minutes (while washing up) watching a blue tit pulling moss from the lawn, presumably to line the nest. Frustratingly although it returned 9 times to collect moss, each time I tried to take a photograph, it flew off. The resident sparrows were of course more obliging.

In the same area recently I watched a wren systematically picking off insects from the two climbing roses I have, fascinating to watch as it went up and down every branch. And this is what is fascinating about watching wildlife at home in the garden. We all think, oh yes there's a lot of birds in the garden, but how many of us actually watch what they're doing, how often, why and when? I know you bloggers will, but the general public probably miss a lot of free entertainment by not taking time to observe for prolonged periods.

Such as this morning. I made a cup of tea and sat for 30 minutes watching what was in or flying over my garden. House sparrows were in evidence of course (I always scan every bird looking for tree sparrows, which while very rare in this area are nonetheless here in single numbers - I'm still waiting, ever hopefull). Blackbird and starling, collared dove too. But then I noticed beyond the garden line with the aid of binoculars, herring gull, magpie, rook, carrion crow, buzzard, 3 goldfinch, a green finch and finally a swallow, first I've seen here this year

So this weekend, maybe instead of joining the massed crowds heading to the sea or spending a lot of money at an event, why not stay at home, unpack a deck chair, sit in the garden and just quietly watch, observe and see what is actually happening "at home". I know I will with my binoculars and camera close by.

Just a final notice as I know some of you like to listen. On Sunday 1st May my next radio programme will be airing, Living World on the birds of Islay, on the 8th is a programme about the daffodils of Dymock produced by a colleague, then 2 more from me, on the 15th will be oil beetles and the 22nd May, raft spider. This latter one I'm off to record on Wednesday in Shropshire, here's hoping the weather remains warm and settled. I can't wait.


Monday, 11 April 2011

Reeve's Pheasant's are naughty

After Saturday's wonderful walk across Ham Hill in east Wiltshire, yesterday in the fabulous spring sunshine we spent 3 hours walking across Fyfield Down near Marlborough. We met friends of Julie's at the Polly Tearoom's in Marlborough to discuss where to go for a walk, while having a coffee. Such a civilised start to a day.

Mentioning that Fyfield Down was just a stone's throw away brought favourable comment from the massed ranks and so the scene was set for our walk, and a picnic. I did however also mention to those who'd listen that it was a good spot to see migrating ring ouzel as they passed through on migration. Of course that wasn't my motive for going there, honest, it wasn't. Thus, armed with a picnic from Waitrose (sandwiches and chocolate), we headed off in the hot spring sunshine.

Fyfield Down is a National Nature Reserve, primarily due to thousands of sarcen stones littering the grassland, a result of the last glacial period. In the past the whole area looked like the photo above, but in the middle of the 20th Century scrub clearance opened up the site as a high plateau grass chalk downland. And very nice it is too.

At the top of the Down is a small wood, which yesterday offered some shade and respite from the sun, though the sun did allow the ride we walked along to be awash with brimstone and peacock butterflies.

In the middle of the wood we encountered some Reeve's pheasants. This is the first time I've seen these native game birds from China, they have stunning plumage and the male of the species holds the world record for the longest tail of any bird. However what we didn't realise are they are very aggressive towards humans.

As we walked through the wood they repeatedly ran towards us pecking our legs and boots, any effort to out pace them was matched by the birds doubling their efforts and attacking us even harder. It could have been quite intimidating if you were a small child or nervous but yesterday they were just a flippin nuisance.

Eventually though we escaped a little flustered but otherwise unhurt from the wood, but I have to say being attacked by such an impressive bird is a pleasure.

Sadly we never saw any ring ouzels, but a pair of ravens, green woodpecker and many other birds made this a day to remember.

Friday, 8 April 2011

A busy wildlife week

Spring is always like this. We go through winter longing for something different to happen each week, then spring arrives and it's 0 to 100mph in a few days. New species coming in as migrants, everything is emerging faster than it can be counted and this week as many of you bloggers also know, soft southerly winds have made the days feel like summer, at last.

I have been all over the place for work and pleasure, so a busy time, but never too busy not to be thinking about a blog posting or two. So herewith a short synopsis of the wildlife this week (Even Milton Keynes on Monday produced a few birds on the journey, red kite was good - but that's the last I'll mention that town here).

This morning, after a well earned farmhouse breakfast at Cobb's Farm Shop near Hungerford, I headed off to Wiltshire Wildlife Trust's Ham Hill.

This is a small linear reserve on the Berkshire / Hampshire / Wiltshire border. I'd read about it a while back and one evening a week or so back located it. Its main attraction is that it is a Saxon sunken walkway through chalk downland. Absolutely fascinating to think people have walked this way since Saxon times.

The site is well known for orchids later in the season, including the rare musk orchid and the Duke of Burgundy butterfly. It isn't too bad in early April. I watched a male and female blackcap singing their wonderfully melodious song, other passerines were about and on the downland next to the scrub skylarks serenaded newly arrived swallows.

Not bad views either back towards Wilton and Marlborough

Quite a few plants were on the move in the warmer weather including this unusual Moschatel (Adoxa moschatellina). Nothing else looks like this, as when in flower, there are 4 tiny flowers in a square and a fifth on top.

Quite a few cowslips and violets in flower too, although the latter were starting to turn. Sadly I didn't seen any Duke of Burgundy caterpillars feeding on this host plant. I'll make sure though to return soon and attempt to see the butterfly itself.

At a separate location in Wiltshire I came across a Raven nest this week. I'll not say exactly where it is, but I was sitting in the car planning to leave another area of chalk downland when the familiar cronk of a raven alerted me to its presence, then the calls changed and I realised it was the male call as it came in to the female on the nest. This nest was on a clump of Scots pine and with a bit of searching through the binoculars I found the nest (the dark mass in the middle of this photo)

The male spent a lot of time flying between this clump of Scots pine and another about 300 meters away.........

..........from where on the latter tree he set up a continuous cronking (can you see him on the tree below?), probably because I was there, so after a few minutes I made my retreat to leave them to it and then watched them for a while longer from within the car.

Earlier this week I was in Devon looking for oil beetles. And what a glorious day it was too. There is something fantastic about standing on a Devonian cliff and watching swallows fly in over the sea and over one's head. They must have got a shock seeing me as their first piece of England at the end of their migration. But I was happy. It was so special to witness their arrival, as well as painted ladies as they came in over the English Channel on a soft warm breeze.

Back to the oil beetles. We'd set ourselves a task of seeing all 4 oil beetle species in the UK in a day, the black, violet, short necked and rugged. The short necked is very rare and indeed only found in one location on mainland Britain. And the rugged is unlike the other 3 in that it is an adult in the winter between October and late March, but we thought we'd give it a go. However I was optimistic as with me was one of the UK's best field biologist, John Walters who is studying the ecology of these beetles for Buglife.

We began in unimproved meadows near Dartmoor, where almost immediately we saw a male violet oil beetle (poor photo from my blackberry) - males have kinked antennae, though not 100% diagnostic. The host plant of these is celandine where the complicated life cycle involving celandine's, solitary mining bees and hitching a lift take place.

In a simplistic way, oil beetles have a very complex life cycle. The emergent female after mating lays thousands of eggs in an underground chamber. These hatch as minute larval clones of the adult. They then climb onto celandine flowers and wait for a passing insect. Any flying insect can be the vector, but only certain solitary mining bees can play host to the next stage of its life cycle. Anyway a flying insect lands on the flower, the larvae climb on board and are carried away.

If the flying insect is a solitary mining bee, they are taken into the bee's burrow where the larvae detach themselves, eat all the eggs of the bee, pupate and then emerge in a few weeks or the next spring, depending on the species. So a true parasitoid. This is a very simplistic synopsis as the life cycle is under researched, so John is learning as he studies them.

Eventually we found a black oil beetle too, which was fabulous as this meant 2 down 2 to go.

John has also been trying to discover the mating of these beetles and to do so has been collecting females and then introducing a male to them in a Tupperware box. All a little bit too voyeuristic really. But it is all legal as he's working on a research site and the beetles come from and are returned to the same area, hopefully to lay eggs successfully. The male in this photo (on right) grabs hold of the female by her antennae (which is why his are kinked so he can get a good hold), they have a tussle and then mate. The photo below was just after mating.

So after that excitement we headed down to the coast where at a secret location we found the short necked oil beetle, which for some reason I didn't photograph. That was three species found, just the rugged to go, which is known to be in this dry stone wall.

We looked and we searched but there wasn't any rugged oil beetles to be seen. Just too late in the year we think. We did however see a lot of common lizards which were taking advantage of the warm spring sunshine. Just goes to show if you stand still long enough, and look long enough, wildlife comes to you.

But the best was left to last. We'd been in the field for 7 hours and just about had enough energy to head back to the car. However John thought he'd seen some violet oil beetles making holes in a pathway last week and wanted to check if any were being used for egg laying. We hunted for about 20 minutes and then lo and behold, a female violet oil beetle was in the actual process of laying eggs. Just her head and one antennae were visible out of the soil, with her body completely buried. Absolutely fantastic to see this happening there and then. A great way to end an fabulous day in Devon.

Sadly not great photos as I still can't get my new Lumix to be pin sharp on the macro setting. I think it needs to be on a tripod. But there she is, egg laying with abandon.