Sunday 29 May 2016

GSWs: In the shade of the Oak

Hemel (BMT): I have tried and failed to muster up an opening with a pinch of pizazz. Instead, I shall jump straight in with the reality that the last 9 days have been largely a sedate affair (or perhaps more accurately, a stationary affair, as I’ve barely moved). Selecting highs and lows from the week seems like an easy way to carry my thoughts, so let’s go with that. The obvious low which has dominated, is the fact that my energy levels remain near rock bottom (it's attributed to ME/CFS, a condition - for those not in the know - where particular biological processes essentially fail to work properly. Recent findings suggest that the underlying pathology is significant impairments in cellular function but the cause and treatment are speculative and the duration of debilitation can be anything from months to a lifetime). Anyway, for the moment, even contemplating the (hilly) ~600 metre walk to the Small Blue butterflies has felt beyond me, although I may just give it a go tomorrow.

The definite high of the week was being able to return to the nesting Great Spotted Woodpeckers. A bit of sneaky parking reduced the walking distance to around 150 metres. The nest site was such that I was able to set up my gear (including handy camping seat) out of sight of the Woodpeckers and watch/film them without causing any intrusion or disturbance. I couldn’t manage more than about an hour but even in that time the parents were bringing food to the intensely demanding young almost every 10-15 minutes.

Pa (left), Ma (right)

The nestlings never shut up (evidenced in the video!)….which is how I found their home in the first place. Squeak, squeak, squawk, squawk, rising above the sound of nearby traffic. I wish I was as adept at finding interesting caterpillars as ma and pa woodpecker, and I did note that the female was ringed although couldn't read the code, unfortunately. The light was extremely awkward (harshly backlit) but, quite honestly, I would have been happy with any record of this wholly absorbing scene. I was transported into their world of vitality and bonding and the striving for life. I loved how the young were cradled safely within the limb of a mature, ostensibly healthy Oak: the tree providing complete shade, protection and rooted solidity; the woodland around them their larder.

[The video is best viewed in 4K: press play then click on the cog, bottom right, and select 2160p4K quality. In the last scene, it's the female that exits from the nest hole, taking out the rubbish]

Wednesday 25 May 2016

The little things

Here with a mini update, about mini flying things, due to minimal energy for being out and about this week, unfortunately. The day before my ill-considered, strength-sapping yomp over Albury Nowers, I’d checked the A41 Small Blue colony. Conditions weren’t ideal but I’d counted at least 12 Small Blues, including a mating pair. Also risking life and wing by the dual carriageway was a fresh Burnet Companion moth.

On Sunday, still unaware of quite how drained I was, I visited Bovingdon Brickworks briefly. The teeny weeny Adela fibulella day-flying moth had just emerged and was enjoying a rare glimpse of sunshine, fluttering on/around its foodplant, Germander Speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys). In the same scrubby meadow, nestled down amongst the grasses and nettles, near one of the many stands of Bugle (Ajuga reptans), I found a brilliant Small Copper. I only ever see a handful of this species throughout the season so I make the most of each one.

Adela (cauchas) fibulella. The smallest of the British Adelinae moths
at approx 5mm long. Scarce in Herts
Small Copper. The little fibulella moth
is probably as long as its antenna!

Finally, today, after what has basically been 4 days of complete rest, I went out for a very gentle stroll. It was cold and drizzling but worth it for chancing upon a pair of dishevelled Great Spotted Woodpeckers, weary in their quest to satisfy a nest-hole full of squawking babies. If I have the energy and opportunity, I’ll head back to them soon and see if I can get some video/photos, obviously without causing any intrusion/disturbance.

Friday 20 May 2016

All the Leps are brown...

….and the sky was grey. I’ve been for a walk…

…at Aldbury Nowers (which doesn't fit into the Carpenters' song all, even with a crowbar). It's right on the edge of Herts, a SSSI and a chalk grassland. I joined a new friend for a wander and in spite of a serious lack of sunshine, we notched up all things winged & brown, and the occasional splash of colour:

Dingy Skipper 7
Grizzled Skipper 3
Brown Argus 5
Small Heath 3
Orange-tip 11
Brimstone 9
Green-veined White 1
Treble-bar (Aplocera plagiata)
Mother Shipton (Callistege mi)
Small Yellow Underwing (Panemeria tenebrata)
Burnet Companion (Euclidia glyphica)
Wavy-barred Sable (Pyrausta nigrata)
Common Purple & Gold (Pyrausta purpuralis)

Dingy, hoping for some sunshine

Grizzled Skipper
Brown Argus

Spot the moth!....a Treble-bar (Aplocera plagiata), I think, judging by this helpful ID tip 

Wavy-barred Sable (Pyrausta nigrata) 
on a Common Rock-rose, I think
Small Yellow Underwing (Panemeria tenebrata) 
on Common Mouse-ear, its larval foodplant

Wednesday 18 May 2016

A whole lot of finger crossing

Mother Shipton moth (Callistege mi) by the A41 on 12th May 2016

Yikes! Where did the last 12 days go?! Although butterfly numbers are low and late, I still seem to have spent inordinate amounts of time devoted to them. Last Monday, the 9th, as part of the preparations for Duke of Burgundy (re)introduction, I scoured Roughdown Common and Bovingdon Brickworks for representative foodplants (Cowslip and Primrose) that females might choose for egg laying. It was then a case of labelling, photographing and mapping them all with a view to returning every 2 weeks to capture (photograph) their progress. The idea is that we’ll then have evidence to show that the sites can support the larvae right through to pupation….so long as these foodplants remain lush and edible (rather than desiccate in sun or drought). Fingers firmly crossed, prayers dispensed and mind set to "optimistic"!

Pyrausta aurata 
(Small Purple and Gold or Mint Moth
Roughdown 16/5/2016
Dingy Skipper, Brickworks, 12/5/2016. A male, indicated by the dark scent/sex-brands running through the forewings. These contain the androconial scales used during courtship

What else? Well, having religiously visited the A41 Bourne End/Boxmoor junction every weather-appropriate day since the beginning of May, the first Small Blues took flight on the 12th. Just 3 of them and they were feeding feverishly on Grass Vetchling, Common Mouse-ear, Red and White Clover, Cowslips and Buttercups. Despite having no influence whatsoever on the survival of these little creatures, it hasn’t stopped me willing them through the winter, hoping all those tucked away larvae stay safe, and I felt as though I were greeting dear friends returned from a perilous adventure. I was so pleased to see them. Incidentally, 60-70% of the Kidney Vetch we planted at Roughdown and the Brickworks has taken, so, once again, fingers crossed for the future.

The best bird of the last week was the arrival of a Lesser Whitethroat jangling/rattling away at the western edge of the Brickworks. I wonder if it’s the same bird that turned up last year?

Not a Lesser Whitethroat but one of the many singing male Blackcaps around the Brickworks. This one hiding in a mess of Buddleja on Monday

On the botany front, I found a new patch of Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca) at the Brickworks. This, along with plenty of Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria), Creeping Cinquefoil (Potentilla reptans) and copious Bramble (Rubus fruticosus) is surely going to be tempting to any half-sane wandering Grizzled Skipper (a rare and restricted species in Herts and absent from BMT land). You guessed it, fingers firmly crossed.

Finally, I walked the Brickworks late afternoon yesterday. The Common Blue butterflies have yet to emerge and there’s still no sign of Brown Argus. The latter theoretically emerges the first week of May but my first sighting last year was the 10th. This year, I’m anticipating that they’ll be slightly late but we’re definitely getting to the end of the window of expectation. All I can do is stay optimistic and hope for the best (no more fingers left to cross!).

Friday 6 May 2016

Tring Park Hoopoe & a finessing of feathers

He's emerged! Duke of Burgundy, Ivinghoe Beacon, 05/05/2016

This week I think I’ve been trying to cram the whole of April and early May into two sunny days. Yesterday was a good’un, with year firsts for local Swifts, Dingy Skipper and Duke of Burgundy, plus an out of the blue Hoopoe bouncing around in Tring Park. Judging by Twitter, it was truly magical, “now you see me, now you don’t!”. I got lucky, arriving just 10 minutes before it flew up the steep slope on the south side (the wooded bank, in the far distance, in the photo below), and appeared to keep going, heading SSE. That was the last I saw of it.

View over Tring Park plus digiscoped Hoopoe on 05/05/2016

Of course, firsts and the rare are the exception. Mostly, the highlights are extraordinary encounters with the ordinary: a bird that is settled, perhaps singing or preening, showing no fear or aversion and, without fanfare, you find that you are permitted to weave your senses into the experience of The Other. You forget yourself, and you and the bird unite. A delicate yet very real relationship comes to life: the observer and the observed. I had one such moment yesterday.

In the morning, I walked the length of the River Bulbourne where the Grey Wagtails are nesting. The female was safely on her eggs and I left her to it. However, a male flew in and perched up nearby. I’m guessing he’s the mate although there is this third adult around which I’ve not yet been able to sex. I’ve no idea what role this extra bird has. Is it perhaps a young adult from last year’s brood, helping with this year’s rearing? I know some species have that type of familial relationship but I’ve no idea if it happens in Wagtails?

Anyway, the smart male balanced and preened and swished his tail for nearly 2 minutes. I stood in the sunshine, watching/filming through the scope, savouring every second. The terms of these encounters are always dictated by the other. As soon as he was through finessing his feathers, the tether between us dropped and he was wild again. My breathing returned to normal, my consciousness expanded and each of us assumed our separated selves, mine the richer for our brief alliance...

[The digiscoped video is best viewed in 4K: press play then click on the cog, bottom right, and select 2160p4K quality]

P.S. Ever the optimist, I’ve added a new widget in the left sidebar called Follow by Email. If you’d like to be automatically notified when a new post has been published, just enter your email address. Simples!

Wednesday 4 May 2016

Spring butterflies at last!

Just a few photographs and notes from this week so far…

Monday, it was “yes” to the best bird in Watford, a male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, drumming and calling in Cassiobury Park. I’d not seen this species since 2012 and had forgotten just how tiny it is. Unfortunately, it was “no” to the mega rare Roseate Tern that dropped in, half dead, at Wilstone reservoir early that evening. I think I felt a bit like the Tern but I was lucky enough to be tucked up in the warm, about to dig in to a hearty meal. The Tern was not so fortunate, stuck out in the cold and rain, hundreds of miles from where it wanted to be. It was taken in to care the following morning and later, sadly, died (for a first-hand account, see Roy's sharply observed write up, here).

Tuesday marked the start of BMT staff and volunteers getting stuck in to a really exciting new conservation project: we're working towards the introduction of the rare Duke of Burgundy butterfly to Trust land in Hemel Hempstead and Bovingdon. As far as anyone is aware, there isn’t a single Duke of Burgundy butterfly anywhere in Hertfordshire. Nationally, it is one of the most rapidly declining species, with its distribution concentrated in central-southern England and a few isolated colonies in the southern Lake District and the North York Moors. Over the coming months and possibly, even, years, the Trust is going to be gathering data and developing land management strategies to support an application to Natural England & Butterfly Conservation for a (re)introduction programme. When I have a bit of time and brain power, I’ll put together a new page with all the details and outline one of my first tasks.

Today, it finally felt like Spring and I had to make the most of it. Grey Wagtails are nesting by the River Bulbourne: a pair on eggs and a third adult also in the area. The Small Blues haven’t yet emerged at the A41 colony but, over in the chalk dell at Roughdown Common, I had my first Green Hairstreaks (3) [two weeks later than last year] and Small Copper (1) of the year. A male Orange-tip, Holly Blue, Small & Large Whites and a Brimstone also fluttered by. Blissful sunshine...and more of it tomorrow...

Upperwings of Green Hairstreak

Green Hairstreak, nectaring (an unusual sight in general) on Forget-me-not