Saturday, 25 June 2016

Six-Legged Centrefolds

I have a soft spot for 'bugs'. I used to collect them as a child, filling jars and tubs with whatever I could find so that I could study them at close quarters. In my twenties I was given a digital camera for Christmas... looking for subjects to photograph I began to capture bugs once again, replacing jars and tubs for ones and zeros.

Though I find all invertebrates fascinating, some are more eye-catching than others. Perhaps they have enigmatic lives or elaborate structures, ornate designs or impressive weaponry. This week I've been out and captured some of my favourites on the patch.

Sexton or burying beetles have a habit of burying small carcases, they have a fantastic sense of smell and are attracted to carrion:

Scorpion flies are so named because of the bulbous terminal sections of their abdomen that the males hold over their back. However, despite their appearance they're completely harmless to humans and are loathe to take live prey; they can often be found removing insects from spiders' webs.

Ruby-tailed wasps are among our most strikingly marked insects, giving them the name of jewel wasps. They're also referred to as cuckoo wasps due tho their habit of entering the nests of solitary bees and laying their eggs in them. The larvae emerge and predate their hosts eggs and grubs.

Before this week, banded demoiselles were the only species of odonata I'd found on the patch this year, so I was pleased to find this male common damselfly...

...and this drab form female common damselfly. The strange light is due to the photograph being taken at the start of a thunderstorm. I suddenly found myself in the middle of a meadow with a 6' carbon-fibre tripod and thunderclouds overhead. Not the safest place to be!

Butterflies-wise, today saw me add three more species to the patch year list: meadow brown, ringlet...

...and this large skipper. 

Amazingly for such a common butterfly, this is a patch first for me. I soon caught up with another. The hay meadows of Richard Fife's farm are maintained organically and as such the wildflower diversity is much greater, giving me confidence that I may catch up with some meadow species I'd given up on, like common blue and small skipper.

I was beginning to make notes of the flowers found here before I was caught out in the storm. Clover does especially well, and the farm is the only place where you can find ox-eye daisy in any numbers (this one is hosting another scorpion fly):

Meadow vetchling is found here and nowhere else (that I've discovered)...

...and the hedgerow roses are a joy to behold. The flowers of these northern dog rose are nearly six inches across!


I've become slightly obsessed with flowers and butterflies (or the lack of) and so popped across to a site I know a few hundred yards outside my patch in Great Langton. Aside from the railway line embankment, which is now monitored endlessly for trespassers, this is the only site I know locally for common blue.

The ground is covered in moss, not grass, which allows plants found nowhere else to flourish. Self-heal is everywhere...

...and eyebright grows in huge swathes...

Purple cranesbill breaks through the margins (here with miniature fly)...

...and there are even local super-rarities, like this Biting Stonecrop. I'm toying with redrawing the boundaries of my patch next year to include less of Thrintoft and more of Great Langton!

PS. The Blogger network does a terrible job of rendering detail and colours in the thumbnails of pictures, so please click to view the image gallery for full res photographs.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Spotted Flycatcher

I'm catching up on a few weeks of manic busyness in which I've barely had time to get out and explore the early summer, let alone sit at my computer sorting through photographs. That being said, I have made it out for the odd hour here and there and was rewarded last weekend with my first spotted flycatcher of the year.

Bird-wise, things have been pretty quiet so I've turned my attention to searching for less flighty subjects. After my initial dismay, rigorous searching has turned up little pockets of flower diversity here and there. Poppies are obvious in nearly every field...

Cut-Leaved Cranesbill can be found along the field edges where the farm machinery has compacted the earth and suppressed the grass...

Common vetch is a big draw for bees, like this Carder Bee...

It seems nearly every bee and wasp has a harmless fly or moth that mimics it; this huge hoverfly (volucella bombylans) is trying to pass as a red-tailed bumblebee...

Other insects like this Tawny Longhorn beetle use bright colours to warn birds that they might not make a very tasty mouthful...

I checked my nest-boxes again in the riverine woods and the two blue tit nests had already emptied; it must have taken just a few weeks! Other fledglings were obvious in the wood too, I noted great spotted woodpeckers, great tits and wrens all being fed by their parents out of the nest.

The river runs clear if the rain doesn't fall for a few days and armed with my polarising glasses, I try and spot the species of fish. Chub and brown trout can be seen sitting in the current waiting for passing tidbits. Grayling are seemingly invisible, but give themselves away as they pluck insects from the surface with their tweezer lips. Shoals of small fry mingle with the minnows, bullhead, stone loach and stickleback in the shallows and I was pleased to find these tadpoles in among them.

To find tadpoles in the river is, while not uncommon, not expected. These must be the young of common toad as frogs will only spawn in still water. Unlike 'frogpoles', 'toadpoles' are distasteful to fish so they have many more options for places to string their eggs.

Nest-Boxes Part III

We've been lucky to have a pair of swifts use the roof-space for the last couple of years. Last year I counted that they successfully reared three young. The roof is prime real-estate and is also shared with countless house sparrows and a pair of starlings. To encourage more swifts to the house, I built a swift nest box in April using a design I stole from the internet.

The box can support two families of swifts and hopeful they would occupy this rather than my roof, I fixed the box as high as I could manage on the front of the house.

The fantastic news is that we have swifts nesting again in the house. The disappointing news is that they've snubbed my hard work and instead have opted again to use the roof!

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Baby Birds and Flying Insects

In March I placed 12 nest boxes in the riverine woods at Little Langton. Regular checks to date had uncovered no activity at all. This weekend however, blue tits were witnessed arriving at boxes one and five with food for their young.

Blue tit leaving box one with a parcel of nestling droppings:

Squirrel damage to box five, which currently houses another clutch of blue tits:

There is still plenty of summer left, so I'm optimistic that more of the boxes will be occupied. I had suspected that box seven was being used by marsh tits that reacted to my presence when I approached it, but showed no intent to visit the box while I was watching. I may never know now that this noisy young fledgling indicated that they have finished their first brood already:

Before I left for Scotland I had also uncovered a great spotted woodpecker nest high in a tree and a treecreeper nest, tucked into a fold of a birch splintered by the force of the slipping river bank. On inspection, the woodpecker nest is now silent and the treecreepers have stopped visiting the mangled tree trunk... it's impossible to know whether this is due to successful fledging or whether the nests failed, but I'll keep watching for attempts at a second brood for each these birds.

In the South of the patch, the fine weather has brought out good numbers of flying insects (but not as much as it should have - I've written separately about the disappointing lack of wild-flowers in the parish). This is clearly going to be a painted lady year with my first sighting followed quickly by my second and third. Alas, they were far too mobile in the heat of the day to photograph, showing no inclination to settle for more than a split-second.

There were other more accommodating insects on the wing however. Peacock have been present all year and must surely be about to disappear as caterpillars and pupae for  the summer before returning again in August.

Wall can be found everywhere in Thrintoft, which is very encouraging for a species that is declining nationally. This one appears to have drawn the attention of a hungry bird.

The only other species on the wing are the four white species and small tortoiseshell.

Holly and common blue are disappointingly scarce locally and I've seen neither for years. Small and large skipper should be emerging about now, but I've scoured the patch and can find no suitable habitat for them. Before the month is out, second generation red admiral will join the common grassland browns like ringlet and meadow brown and I still have comma and small copper to tick off. Then in July, my systematic effort to find white-letter and purple hairstreak will begin.

The first record of odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) this year was banded demoiselle, which were out on the river in force. They have a terrible habit of letting you close enough to frame a photograph before taking off just as you press the shutter. The only ones that like having their photos taken are those settled on ugly backgrounds!

Monday, 6 June 2016

Where there's muck there's grass (and nowt else)

A lot has changed in the couple of weeks I've been off-patch. My normal river loop walk has been disrupted by the presence of a large herd of bullocks at warbler corner. I'm a bit wary of cattle having been rushed a few times, so walked cautiously through the herd. However, it's completely put paid to me leaving a hide out - at best they would disrupt any perches and bait I set, but most likely would trample what is an expensive piece of equipment.

It's the first time I've seen cattle at this spot; it'll do no harm as the sward gets very long when not grazed and the lush grass smothers everything else. This is the state of everywhere in the parish that doesn't benefit from the light weakening effect of tree cover: waist high grass, cow parsley and other umbellifers with meadow buttercup as far as the eye can see. Occasionally common vetch climbs to the top and opens its even pinnate leaves to the sun, leaving a trail of messy purple flowers, but otherwise the area is a biodiversity disaster.

The reasons for this are manifold, but I'll speculate a few:

  1. Muck spreading and artificial fertilisers. The parish is chiefly managed for arable crops such as rape, barley and wheat. Aside from the organic farm at Langton these are farmed intensively, resulting in tonnes of manure and gallons of herbicides being spread over the fields. Inevitably this nitrogen rich mixture runs into the verges and encourages grass growth. Unfortunately, where grass grabs a hold it completely outcompetes all but the most hardy of plants, such as those mentioned above.
  2. Out of season mowing. The verges are maintained charitably by a syndicate of local farmers that regularly mow the verges. Unfortunately, years of mowing between May and August will have destroyed any chances of any wild-flowers setting seed.
  3. A lack of grazing. Though on occasion the number of rabbits can appear quite high, the area could support thousands more than are seen. Hare are as widespread but much fewer in number so barely make a dent. The collapsing milk industry has seen most of the cattle herds sold and the land turned to arable in recent years, exacerbating the problem.
So what can be done? Well... it's a difficult one. I don't like to preach about agricultural practices; it's not my field of expertise and I concede that economic pressures drive the intensity of farming.
Instead the parish benefits from miles of wide verges and perhaps this is where there should be some focus. A campaign to stop the mow during the summer months is sensible, but I know that aesthetics and road safety are behind the mowing so it would require a lot of effort to garner support from the wider community.

Equally, a conscious effort to remove nitrogen from the system would help. Removing mown grass from where it lays and disposing of it elsewhere would (over a number of years) reduce the grip that grass holds. Subsequent planting with grass suppressing species such as yellow rattle and seeding with hay from donor meadows would encourage wild-flowers back.

Rabbits are held in a dim-light in the parish so any suggestion to allow the population of rabbits to expand without resistance will be treated with disdain. Indeed the flood defences that line the river have previously been breached due to the burrowing of rabbits so there is an economic risk to farmers too (that said, if it were my land I would happily tear the defences down and let the river flood naturally every year, reinstating the leas and ings that once dotted the parish - that's another story).

In summary, the reverse of this decline in wild-flowers would take significant concerted effort across a great number of people with differing interests. The same must be true across much of the country and resistance to it is just so difficult. I think much of the problem is that most people don't know that it's broken; they see the rich green grasses and see a verdant healthy landscape. I wonder whether images like that below of a roadside verge in Sicily will remind people of what our roadsides should be like.

To raise awareness I could set up a local conservation group but really don't know where to start; I'm going to begin dropping it into conversation at the pub, on my wanderings and at the school and see if others feel the same.

I walked the length of the patch this week looking for suitable butterfly habitat (i.e. mixed sward and food plants such as trefoils, medick, restharrow, clover and brome) but found nothing. Common blue should be just that and the absence of large and small skippers is depressing. I just had to write about the sterility as the subject has weighed heavily on me. But... its not all bad news and the patch has sprung into life in many other ways. More of that next time...

Saturday, 4 June 2016

West Scotland

Last week the family and I headed for the West coast of Scotland. We picked up a camper van in Perth and drove to Arisaig (nr. Fort William), before heading across Skye to Plockton, Applecross and on to Gairloch. Frankly it was an absurdly beautiful holiday, with equally absurd weather; the temperature never dropped below 18 degrees C and the sky was often completely cloud free.

Having a camper van gave us the freedom to stay wherever we chose, and wake up with views you would pay a fortune to a hotelier to experience. On the first morning, we woke up looking out at this:

Though this was a family holiday, I had hopes of encountering as much of Scotland's iconic wildlife as possible. However, the short attention span of my 4yo daughter and my son's obsession with fishing meant that any encounters would be down to luck. But again, the beauty of a camper van is that you can increase your chances by being in the right place at the right time (more of that later).


The first thing that struck me was how different the profile of avifauna was when compared with home. Naturally the coast threw up birds I would never expect to see at home, but I saw no buntings, tree sparrows and much fewer tits than a walk round Thrintoft would uncover. Instead, the fields and shores were bursting with meadow pipit, linnet, siskin and skylark.

Audibly, there were very few whitethroat and blackcap and not a single chiffchaff or garden warbler. Willow warbler trickled their song from what seemed like every tree; I was astounded at the density of these little birds and the habitat they took up, not confined to deciduous stands of trees, but present in gorse bushes on the shore and in the otherwise sterile coniferous plantations.

Perhaps the most pleasing observation was the number of cuckoo. A bird now absent from home, but here doing well, it's no exaggeration to say we heard them wherever we stopped. Indeed, on the first morning Joe and I saw three birds on the short walk to the rocks to fish. Though it's sad to consider their disappearance in much of the country, it gave me some optimism that they are at least doing well here and that if we understand what's driving the decline, the population is big enough to recover and begin to spread South again.

On Skye we visited the small port of Elgol. A guidebook recommended it was a good place to fish for youngsters. It wasn't, but the weather was great and the sea was warm so the kids stripped off and played in the sea. I took the opportunity to climb the heather covered hillside in search of birds and ticked off all the usual moorland species, but was unable to find hen harrier. Back at the camper van a male wheatear landed just in front of me before disappearing into the bank, I made a mental note of where it was and when it flew off, tried to locate the nest. I found a hole about two inches in diameter and peered in... to my surprise, when my eye adjusted to the dark, there inside was the hen bird sat on eggs looking back at me!

We crossed the South of Skye again and headed to Kylerhea to spend the night. The promise of otters and sea eagles was a big draw, but we set the kids' expectations that we'd need to be very lucky. After we'd finished a barbecue supper, we all wondered down to the loch-side. Within seconds a harbour seal popped his head up just 30ft from where we were stood! We were suddenly aware that there were seals everywhere, both grey and common. Then we were aware of the midges and took refuge in the camper van. The van was close enough to the water to watch for otters and after a short while, we made out the distinctive shape of two otters fishing close to the shore. I'm hoping that now I've seen a wild otter and my duck is broken, I'll see more than just footprints on the banks of the Swale!

After another encounter with otters in the morning, we headed off Skye to Plockton for lunch. The jewel of the highlands really is that, and we spent a lovely afternoon crabbing off the pontoon.

On next to Applecross, over a frankly terrifying pass and down again to the shore. The couple that hired the van to us assured us that red deer come down from the hills at dusk to take food from campers, but we didn't see any. However, when the landscape is as beautiful as this, who cares?

Our final destination was Gairloch wherein we stayed on a campsite for the first time. I was reluctant to do so on the grounds we would see less wildlife, but was so wrong! Within a few minutes of parking up I counted ringed plover, common sandpiper and skylark within 40ft of the van! Accustomed to people, the birds here were pretty accommodating. I managed to grab some shots of sedge warbler...

Ringed plover...



and Great Skua.

From Gairloch we took a glass bottom boat out into the natural harbour and learnt all about the shellfish, seaweeds and crustaceans that live there. I was more interested in the birds and found red breasted merganser, goosander, common tern...

Eider duck...

and a fishing heron.

I glowed with pride as my 6yo son answered all the questions that the guide threw at us that many of the adults aboard couldn't! He's certainly got an interest in learning about wildlife but is unable to transfer that to the reality of finding it in the wild; it's very frustrating!

In conclusion, it was a fantastic holiday. We didn't see eagles or harriers and our schedule didn't allow a visit to the machair and corncrakes of Uist, or the fritillaries and skippers of the woodlands around Oban, but fantastic nonetheless.

I cannot wait to return, but equally was excited to return to Thrintoft and reacquaint myself with the wildlife here this weekend.