Thursday 30 July 2015

Who stole the sunshine?

Bovingdon (BMT): My word, it’s been a cold, grey, windy, wet week. It’s a good job I’ve had more than sun-loving invertebrates to adore. This Summer has been a bumper year for baby birds at the Brickworks. I’ve not managed any photographs worth sharing but the experiences have been special. Nuthatches, Whitethroats, Linnets, Mistle Thrushes, Blackcaps, Robins and all the Tit families have courted, created and encouraged their noisy and nervous youngsters out into the woodland and surrounding scrub. I’ve loved running into them.

The little flock that is holding my interest at the moment is a party of 4+ freshly fledged, belle-of-the-ball Bullfinches (I really rather love Bullfinches...). Each time I arrive at the Brickworks, there they are, in the woodland, right by the entrance. If I approach quietly, and stay hidden, I’m able to watch the youngsters flit through the branches, sighing softly and occasionally finding buds or grubs that are actually worth eating. They don’t seem to stray far from this area except when I have to unlatch the gate and take the footpath past it, unfortunately. Then, they zoom off, scattering like Red Arrows breaking formation, a trail of white rumps, all making for the more dense woodland on the opposite side of the path. Still, they stay close by, giving themselves away with frequent calling. And, it isn’t too long before they’re all back in that same small area from which they fled, finding comfort and safety in its familiarity, and harvesting food and experience for life outside the nest.

Secrecy and sensitivity are part of this species’ charisma. There’s also the male’s peachy red, black and handsome grey colouring with that bull neck, neat little bill and glossy black head to attract the discerning eye. Smart, stout and enigmatic, it’s always special to see these birds. I’m making the most of the youngsters whilst they stay faithful to this one small pocket of woodland. Although they won’t move far, I guess they will spread out a little as they mature and find mates of their own.

The sighing of a Bullfinch…

Returning to the subject of sunshine, if there’s anything that can brighten up a cold, blustery day it’s the dazzling yellow of Ragwort and the burning orange of a Small Copper butterfly. The two combined this morning at Roughdown Common. It was only my second Small Copper of the year too, so, really great to see.

And, a couple of sunnier photos (below) from last weekend at the Brickworks. A 6-Spot Burnet (with photobombing hoverfly) on Rosebay Willowherb and a migrant moth, a Silver Y, in amongst Bird's-foot Trefoil. That reminds me, I read a very interesting article on moth migration recently. Stop sniggering. It really was interesting. It turns out that moths don't just fling themselves into the air willy-nilly, hoping they end up somewhere hospitable. Oh no, these canny little flutterers know exactly when to stay put and when to ride the wind-streams. There is serious precision involved….and…the research was carried out by Rothamsted Research, based just up the road in Harpenden. Oh…so now you're interested….ok, well the article is HERE, if you fancy a look.

Sunday 26 July 2015

Pectoral Sandpiper at last light

Last light over Startops

Just a quick post with a short digiscoped video clip of yesterday’s Pectoral Sandpiper at Startops End Reservoir, Tring. It apparently turned up in the afternoon but I was listening to the wrong grapevine and didn’t hear about it. Discovered the news by accident at 19:30 and was relieved to find it was still settled and feeding when I arrived just after 20:00. Less than half an hour in, the bird was startled into flight by an intrusion on the far side, unfortunately, and that was the last I saw of it.

Saturday 25 July 2015

Make like a snake...

Hemel (BMT): Small, soft, vulnerable creatures that take on the appearance of something far more menacing are right up there in my estimation. Destined to be winged and free, moths and butterflies first have to survive the perilous larval stage. This is essentially a few weeks spent as a soft, slow-moving sausage surrounded by sausage loving predators! Any strategy which improves its chances of survival is most definitely a good one. And, pretending to be a snake, poisonous venom assumed, is about as good as it gets.

I was really chuffed to find one of these plucky snake imitators this week at Roughdown Common. I have been hoping to spot one for the last couple of years, obsessively checking patches of Rosebay Willowherb for Hawk-moth species. In fact, I found this chap climbing a stem of Agrimony whilst nibbling on overlapping Hedge Bedstraw! Some literature suggests that both species of Elephant Hawk-moth larvae feed on the Willowherb. However, the less common of the two, the Small Elephant Hawk-moth (Deilephila porcellus), the one I’d found, actually prefers Bedstraws (Gallium sp) established on nutrient poor grassland, like the chalk-based habitat at Roughdown. Superb! I was just happy to have finally found one.

I had to improvise a bit with the photographs. As I was setting up, the larva dropped to the ground and was instantly lost in the undergrowth. I carefully encouraged it onto a leaf, took a few photos and then put it straight back. The head has the incredible eye-like markings on the top. When alarmed, the larva retracts its long nose/mouth parts or trunk (from which its name is derived) and rears up like a snake, ready to strike. Very convincing it is too!

The images below feature the Small Elephant Hawk-moth adult, trapped and photographed at Roughdown Common, on 11th June. It could well be the parent of the larva.

The front end!

Side view [Left: larva/caterpillar, approx 4-4.5cm; Right: imago/moth]

Above [Left: larva/caterpillar; Right: imago/moth]

Wednesday 22 July 2015

Let there be light!

Glow in the dark beetles. I’ve never seen anything like it. Absolutely magical. On Sunday night, I girded my loins(!), took my life in my hands, and braved the canal path alone after dark. In truth, it’s probably no more dangerous than during daylight hours but there we go. I arrived about 10pm and walked west from Old Fishery Lane. To be frank, I wasn’t expecting much. I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to spot them. But, wait, what was that, across the water, on the bank? There! Unmistakable. A green fluorescent prick in the darkness. I beamed back at it, smiling from ear to ear. There is something very special about any living thing that has the ability to defy darkness. It is the stuff of fairy tales, childhood imaginings and….ET’s finger! And, here it was, in real life, a beetle glowing bright and bold by a canal in Hemel Hempstead. Who’d have thought it?!

The view across the canal to my first Glow Worm. Left: authentic view. Right: shadows lightened to reveal context 

If that was the only Glow Worm (Lampyris noctiluca) I’d seen that night, I would have gone home enthralled, delighted and full of wonder. But, it wasn’t. I walked on a little further and suddenly there were two, then three and eventually many, many more lights in the darkness. A couple were right next to the path, at the base of stinging nettles, but I could get a clear view down to one of them. Initially, it was just a dazzling point of fluorescence but under torch light, I finally got to see the creature behind the magic. She had positioned herself on a dead leaf with her luminous under-tail fully revealed.

From left to right, gradually revealing the author of the light

I suspect the comedy value of trying to photograph glowing beetles, buried in stingers, in pitch black, whilst also holding a torch, half wondering if you’re about to be pounced on by a random felon, is pretty high. Threat to life and limb aside, in terms of photography, I was using manual focus, no tripod, no ring-flash, manual settings and grappling with a torch - it’s a miracle I came away with anything useable.

But, the best was yet to come….

The later it got, the greater the number of lonely ladies to light their lamps. The males don't glow but they do have wings and they would be out now, scanning with their big, photosensitive eyes, finally choosing one of these light emitters for a mate. The adults only live a short time (14 days or so). The ladies glow, the gents fly, together they reproduce and then they die. All done during the months of June and July.

As I walked back along the path, I spotted a glow worm next to the lock gate. I expected to find it on a blade of grass. Instead, it was clinging to the brick buttress of the lock, tail fully ablaze. The very best views I could possibly have hoped for. Absolutely wonderful and the perfect end to a night that exceeded all expectations!

P.S. Everything you could possibly want to know about Glow Worms, HERE.

Monday 20 July 2015

Where’s Wally?

Introducing Wally, the little larva of the Small Blue butterfly (Cupido minimus), with its nose buried in the head of a Kidney Vetch flower. A few weeks back, a female carefully laid her egg, rubbed her abdomen over the flower head (to stop any other females having a go) and 1-3 weeks later the egg hatched. Out crawled a tiny 1mm larva to gobble (as much as any 1mm caterpillar can gobble) the developing seeds inside the vetch. It grew and emerged only to plunge its head back into the nutritious flower head. The larvae are now between 5 and 10mm long with their heads buried and their butts permanently exposed. That’s the delicate and highly dignified point we’ve reached in the Small Blue’s life cycle, along the verge of the A41 in Hemel Hempstead.

These seemingly marooned and vulnerable grubs are attended to by ants. Andrew Wood kindly explained that the larvae and pupae produce a honeydew like substance which the ants feed off. In return, they offer some protection against predators.

During a couple of brief visits on Saturday and Sunday, I found 10 exposed butts. Here are 5 of them for a Where’s Wally challenge, starting with the easiest…

Saturday 18 July 2015

Brassy longhorns raid the Scabious!

Over the last 10 days or so, my regular rambles over Trust land have been fairly uneventful. Certainly, I’ve not felt compelled to blog about anything. Although, the Large Skipper, sitting on a Bramble leaf, delicately dripping urine onto dry bird’s poo in order to then slurp it up with its proboscis was quite entertaining! I even videoed that....I know, I need help. Then, there was the Red-tailed Bumblebees mating on the path at the Brickworks which was an unusual sight. The queen was enormous compared to the lowly little male. It seemed like a very precarious business. Anyway, what has finally motivated a blog post, I hear you ask? Well, let me share yesterday's excitement...

Bovingdon (BMT): In spite of the wind, I thought I’d do a little Hairstreak hunting. Purple Hairstreaks to be precise. To my mind, this basically involves hanging around Oak trees, staring up into the canopy for as long as my neck will tolerate it.

I got to the Brickworks mid-morning and headed to the Oaks east of Baker’s Wood. I love this area. It’s wild and warm and sheltered, and full of all sorts of interesting creepy crawlies and plants. The Oaks were devoid of speedy ‘streaks but I carried on along the path, to where the Field Scabious (Knautia arvensis) grows. Suddenly, there, fluttering above the plants, not a Purple Hairstreak, but a small group of Longhorn moths. My pulse quickened. I immediately thought Horehound Longhorn (the fact that there isn’t any Horehound growing in this area was neither here nor there). I waited for one of them to settle, which seemed to take an absolute age. Finally, one came to rest, and was obviously not a Horehound (sense returned). In fact, I wasn’t quite sure what they were so decided I’d better take some decent record shots and look them up once home. By the time I’d finished, I’d convinced myself they were nothing to get excited about although their identity was still a mystery.

Longhorn on Field Scabious

I carried on around the rest of the site, spending a good 20 minutes under a large Oak, watching two tiny, speedy, dark butterflies occasionally flit between branches, high up. Purple Hairstreaks? Who knows, I never got a good look at them, unfortunately. Finally, on my return route, a ragged Painted Lady was sunning herself by some brambles.

Back home, with a bit of research, I got to the Brassy Longhorn (Nemophora Metallica) ID and looked up its status in Hertfordshire. I couldn’t quite believe my eyes when the website said just 5 records between 1933 and 2004! Needless to say, I returned in the afternoon and did a proper count, 14 moths in total. UK Moths states that “the male has antennae three times the length of the forewings, the female around half this length...Like other members of the genus, the larvae feed at first on seeds and later on leaves or leaf-litter, mainly of Field Scabious (Knautia arvensis). Occurring in the south of England and East Anglia, the moths fly in June and July during the day.” I have since learned that there were a couple of Herts sightings last year.

So, there it is, another rare/scarce moth turns up on Box Moor Trust land. Brassy and beautiful, and it’s got me thinking more about the place of Field Scabious in the landscape. The flower heads were teeming with life: hoverflies, bees, beetles and moths, to name but a few. Definitely a plant that needs greater consideration.

So, to a few photos of the bobby-dazzlers...

Brassy Longhorn (Nemophora metallica), female. Her scales dull to the light

Brassy Longhorn (Nemophora metallica), female. Her scales glistening in the light

Of course, the male is the one with the long horns…THREE times the length of the forewing

Brassy Longhorn (Nemophora metallica), male. In dull light

Brassy Longhorn (Nemophora metallica), male, looking very brassy and longhorny!

The last few photographs show the head-on view; a size comparison with a hoverfly; a close up of the light-catching scales, and the predominant colouring.

Tuesday 14 July 2015

Caught in the web

Droplets of rain and the tiny petal from a Bird’s-foot Trefoil flower caught in a spider’s web today.

Apologies if you saw/missed an earlier post today. It came, it went. C’est la vie. Note to self: don’t try to edit blogger using a mobile phone...

Wednesday 8 July 2015

A Wood Mouse went a wandering...

Monday morning, I braved the world beyond Hemel/Bovingdon and headed north to the Wallington Road, near Baldock. It was a Montagu’s Harrier I was after, which had been reported regularly over the weekend, “sitting in a bush”. Easy-peasy, I thought. Big bird, in a bush, can’t be too difficult. Of course, when I arrived mid-morning, it was nowhere to be seen and there were at least 10 others waiting for its reappearance. An hour in the company of singing Corn Buntings and Skylarks, and finally someone spotted the returning Harrier. It was way off to the east and difficult to make out through the heat haze but it eventually looped round to the south, coming to within about 400 metres, before flying out of sight, west. The overall impression was one of a slender, agile, easy flyer. It didn’t have the bulk of the more common Marsh Harrier. LGRE suggested it was a first-summer male although others have reported it as a female. This was the first I’ve seen so gender was fairly irrelevant. It was a Montagu’s Harrier - that’s all that mattered - the rarest breeding bird of prey in the UK, with just 7 successful nests in 2014!

Bovingdon (BMT): Yesterday morning, it was back to safaris at the Brickworks. I thought I might photograph the Common Centaury (Centaurium erythraea) or perhaps the Yellow-wort (Blackstonia perfoliata) but by about midday I was decidedly uninspired. I could see a belt of swollen black clouds heading my way and had all but given up. Suddenly, I stopped. Tiny, liquid, dark eyes were twinkling by the path. My first thought was, “oh no, not another dead mammal!”....until it dawned on me that this frozen, furry fellow was in fact living and breathing and caught in the startle response. Slowly, slowly it thawed. Trust grew and, realising I was no threat, it carried on nibbling its way through dried flower heads.

Finding dead, tiny mammals is one thing. Finding them alive and picking flowers is another. Total joy! I didn’t have my tripod with me but shot some video footage hand-held. The dark clouds, with their drenching rain, arrived mid-way through and I took shelter under an obliging oak. The little Wood Mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus) seemed quite unperturbed and scuttled along the path after me, before also taking cover. A second little mouse had come out and scurried about and I did wonder if these two were youngsters exploring. Whatever their age, they transformed the moment of gathering gloom (quite literally) into one filled with wonder and delight.

P.S The out-of-focus sections are entirely deliberate*

    Common Centaury
    Longhorn Beetle (Rutpela maculate), 20mm long


Sunday 5 July 2015

The Chimney Sweeper

I went looking for big, bold Dark Green Fritillaries (Argynnis aglaja) on Ivinghoe Hills yesterday but was actually more excited to find the wonderfully named Chimney Sweeper moths (Odezia atrata). As with most insects you’ve only seen in photographs, I’d imagined them to be bigger, but their wingspan is just 23-27mm, similar to that of a Small Blue butterfly. These are sun loving moths, flying during June and July over chalk grassland, limestone hills and damp grassy meadows. The larvae feed on the flowers of Pignut (Conopodium majus).

Up close, they are smart little creatures, sporting white fringing on the tips of the all-black forewing. But, it’s the name that captures the imagination and infuses the sighting with a child-like thrill. In the midst of the great outdoors, “there’s a Chimney Sweeper!” and, even if not consciously, you “see” a wide-eyed waif, wings smothered in soot, carrying an appropriately-sized chimney brush. I do love the fact that somewhere along the line, the rationality of the scientist couldn’t stifle the imagination nor the desire to make meaning and express affection... even for a little black moth. It’s all in the name.

Wednesday 1 July 2015

Bempton: The Lure of Puffins!

With the promise of pretty Puffins, I somehow managed to lure my non-birding younger sibling with partner into a day trip to Bempton Cliffs last Saturday. Strike one for the Puffin! It’s approx 3.5 hours drive from Warwick but actually a fairly easy journey (especially if you’re not driving...thanks guys). We arrived at about 1 o’clock to a queue of cars waiting to go into the reserve. Thankfully, it was only a matter of minutes and we were soon standing in the sunshine, being greeted by smily centre attendants, one of which was having a Very Important Conversation with a Proper Birder and obvious RSPB Member. Said Birder was hot, sweaty and clearly frazzled from travelling “over 3 hours to get here” and was keen to ascertain if the day would also include the ghastly and inferior General Public?!? Um, yes. ….Priceless.

Since my home is in the land-locked county of Hertfordshire, I don’t encounter a lot of sea-birds. I think we had a dead Gannet at Startops reservoir a couple of years ago but that probably doesn’t count. I’d never seen Puffins, Kittiwakes or Razorbills and my only Gannet sighting was a bird flying along the coast at Titchwell a gazillion miles out to sea. It was more dot than bird. I’d seen a couple of winter plumage Guillemots in Portland Harbour but again, distant views and I was itching to see them in their breeding finery.

Although we were all rather hungry, we decided we’d better spot a Puffin before lunch. I had no idea how vast the cliff face would be nor that every nook and cranny would hold one of the thousands of glorious sea-birds. It really is a spectacle! Anyway, Puffins spotted, lunch eaten and back to the cliff face for a couple of hours taking in as much as possible of the sights and sounds and smells of thousands of nesting, nurturing, feeding and squabbling Gannets, Razorbills, Guillemots, Puffins and Kittiwakes, with the odd Fulmar thrown in for good measure. Absolutely fantastic. I so rarely see such variety in such high numbers - the abundance was heartening and the life and vitality thrilling. Everywhere you looked, there was a story unfolding. You could spend days and days just watching it all.

I wonder what this pair were chatting about? The Razorbill seems similarly curious, whilst the Herring Gull (I think it is) couldn’t care less...

Puffin to Public: Do what I do, ignore the Kittiwake. I’m the star attraction…

Star attraction, striking a pose...

Other stories from the cliff face

Kittiwakes: Worried parents watch as junior explores….

Kittiwake: Keeping the little'n fed…

Razorbills: Careful parent, keeping its youngster safely tucked into the cliff face… (bottom left, if you can't find it)

Gannets: Incredible creatures - the largest seabirds in the North Atlantic, with a wingspan of up to 2 metres, carefully guarding their single, precious offspring, which will take 5 years to mature.

Guillemots (+ Razorbills) aplenty…

And, finally, returning to the star attraction, a few Puffin facts:

  • They flap their flipper-like wings 400 times a minute to stay airborne. 
  • They can dive up to 200ft
  • They live on average up to 20 years
  • They usually pair for life
  • Their bills revert to a dull grey colour during the winter. The bright orange fantasia is reserved to signify breeding brilliance!

A superb day out and well worth the 340 miles round trip. I’d return in a heartbeat.