Saturday, 30 April 2011

Disappointment, joy and a bit of a conundrum

As days go, Friday 29th April 2011 had it all. The highs and lows of whether we spotted passing loveliness amongst the throng, the waiting and hoping to catch a glimpse of distant celebrity and the thrill of being there to hear the background music, rightly fitting for a grand occasion. All in all, a mixture of emotions stirred by the sights and sounds of being in wonderful surroundings.

And I'm not talking about the formalities of state occurring in central London.

Nope, the Tense Towers team left the trappings of monarchy, pomp and pageantry behind, preferring to head off to the Norfolk/Suffolk border for a bit of quality natural history.

First port of call was the Norfolk Wildlife Trust's Weeting Heath reserve, to try and see a Stone Curlew. Whilst there were Mistle Thrushes, Pied Wagtails, Lapwings and Wheatears galore, the object of our desires was nowhere to be seen, so after a goodly wait, we opted to return later in the day for another attempt.

Just down the road from Weeting, and a hop over the county border into Suffolk, is the RSPB's Lakenheath Fen reserve. Here, we were hoping to spot another summer visitor, the Golden OrioleAfter a picnic lunch (and our only sop to the Royal Wedding, a toast to the bride and groom), we ventured out into the fen to see what was about. No orioles, that's what!

However, there was plenty to see. Almost immediately upon leaving the Visitor Centre, Our Lass and the Admiral spotted a Four-spotted Chaser coursing over a pond. I missed it, though I did manage a Hairy Dragonfly.

Despite a stiff north-easterly breeze, the damsels and dragons were struggling bravely on. In a sheltered spot out of the wind, there were several species of Odonata and I took this pic of an Azure Damselfly. At least, that's what I thought it was.

It's a... ?
Continuing on our way, we were startled to see and then, shortly afterwards, hear a Bittern. Hobbies, Marsh Harriers, a Buzzard and even an escaped Harris Hawk quartered the skies. As befits a fen, several Cuckoos were calling, and one had the good grace to make an appearance at the top of a tree in front of us.

The attentions of this bird are most unwelcome to many of the warblers attempting to nest in the reeds below. So it was no surprise that they were alarm calling at its very presence. However, plenty of male warblers were also singing to defend their territories and proclaim themselves worthy husbands. Some were even visible, like this Whitethroat.

In the early evening, we returned to Weeting and were rewarded with a very distant view of two Stone Curlews. So distant, in fact, that Very Wrong Len gave up in the attempt to capture the moment for posterity.

Once back home and reviewing the day's photographs, I was not so sure of my damselfly identification. It is immature, as the thorax and head have not yet taken on any colour. It is female, as the marking on the second segment of the abdomen does not match any males of the Coenagrion genera. It is also the blue form of female, rather than the more customary green or black. But is it an Azure? The thorax detail, thin antehumeral stripes on top and two incomplete stripes down the side, could be either Azure or Variable Damselfly. The second segment of the abdomen isn't exactly either of these species, but then again the Variable is... er... variable? Recourse to the recently updated BDS website sadly failed to come up with a satisfactory answer. My ID book says that to reliably distinguish between the two species, check the shape of the pronotum. That's her neck, at the top of the prothorax. My photo is not good enough to use this method, so by this time I was giving up hope. Then I noticed a small note in the guide. Variable has a bar between the post ocular spots (the as yet uncoloured bits behind the eyes), Azure does not. A-ah! She's an immature, blue form, female Variable Damselfly, Coenagrion pulchellum, unless someone can convince me otherwise!

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Easter Monday

For the final day of the Easter break, we thought another short jaunt was called for. The Admiral, Our Lass and I drove the 30 miles or so to mid Buckinghamshire to visit a few places in close proximity to each other.

First up was a 17th Century duck decoy in the village of Boarstall, one of only a handful still in existence and in working order. Don't panic, it's only used for bird ringing now, not ringing ducks' necks.

To be honest, it is a bit run down and overdue some TLC. I guess that volunteer labour and sufficient funds for the task are in short supply. As it turned out, there were only two Mallard ducks in view, but other wildlife made up for our initial disappointment.

On a small feeder pond to the west of the site, we spotted a single male Large Red Damselfly. Conveniently, he kindly perched on a leaf for a photograph.

Then, as we were about to leave, a Red Kite soared over our heads.

Still in the village of Boarstall, our next stop was a 14th Century Gatehouse. Here we were treated to a guided tour by a very knowledgable chap, before being let loose on the tea and cake stall. Bearing in mind that we hadn't made any plans for lunch, this was manna from Heaven, indeed.

After a potter around the grounds, in an attempt to forestall the sugar rush, we headed for Bernwood Meadows, another Wildlife Trust site consisting of ancient pasture displaying the tell-tale signs of ridge and furrow ploughing. Here we found plenty of Green-winged Orchids, including this pink colour form...

and the weird-looking Adder's Tongue Fern.

Making our way back to Milton Keynes, we spent the remainder of the afternoon at our local nature reserve, looking for Odonata. We weren't to be disappointed, as there were 6 species on the wing: Large Red, Azure, Common Blue, Blue-tailed and Red-eyed Damselflies and Hairy Dragonfly. Looking at last year's records, it took me until 9th May to see a similar number of species. The warm April weather has certainly given the season a boost.

Male Hairy Dragonfly (Brachytron pratense)...
which is a medium sized dragonfly...
with a distinctly hairy body.

Visible migration... not

We were late leaving work this evening... don't ask. To make matters worse, Ruth needed to leave on time so that she could get to a gig.

So there we were, careening along the country roads, when daughter says,

"Ooo, what was that?"

Dad: "What was what? I didn't see anything."

Ruth: "There was a small bird at the side of the road. It flew up into a bush as we passed."

Dad: "Nope, sorry, missed that. What did it look like?"

Ruth: "Red at the front with a black head."

Dad: "Sure it wasn't a Chaffinch?"

Ruth: "Not a Chaffinch. Brighter than that."

Dad: "Probably a Robin with a hat on, then."

Ruth: "Yeah, it did look a bit like that."

Dad, with dawning realisation: "You've just seen a male Redstart!"

Ruth: "Cool!"

Dad: "I. Have. Never. Seen. A. Male. Redstart."

Ruth: "Oh!"

Dad: "*%$£*^#!!"

On arriving home, we went straight to the ID book. It wasn't a Chaffinch or a Robin with a hat on, or a Stonechat, it was a Redstart. A male one.

Sigh :o(

Sunday, 24 April 2011


Our Lass and I stayed in the Everdon area for a few days as we were attending a wedding reception for a work colleague. Not only did this give us ample opportunity to overdose our senses on Bluebells in the surrounding woods, but also the time to spot a few of the many species of insect on the wing at this time of year.

In patches of sunlight within these woods, we came across several small clouds of flies, floating up and down in the warm glow of the Spring sun. Occasionally they would alight on a leaf and we could see that they had incredibly long antennae as well as a golden sheen to their wings.

We were astonished that they were able to fly at all with such outlandish head gear. Fortuitously, several fellow bloggers had posted pictures of these creatures, so I am grateful for their ID skills in working out that are actually a day flying moth Adela reaumurella.

In a nearby wildlife meadow, we happened upon some Cornflowers, though I suspect that they were garden escapes, so possibly Centaurea montana rather than C. cyanus. Either way, I'm pretty certain that the accompanying insect is a Fourteen-spot Ladybird, Propylea 14-punctata.

Whilst walking through a field of cattle, Our Lass, eagle-eyed as ever, spotted a Hornet, Vespa crabro, flying low over the grass. We presumed it was searching for prey, hovering occasionally before moving on again.

It may well have been St George's Day in England, but here was certainly no sign of any dragons.

Good Friday

The first day of the Easter break saw the Tense Towers team make the short journey to Pilch Field, a Wildlife Trust site in North Buckinghamshire. The reserve consists of unimproved meadowland, much of which retains the ridge and furrow features of mediaeval ploughing.

Whilst Whitethroats scratched out their tunes from the hedgerows and Orange Tip butterflies reprogrammed their sat-navs to "Haphazard", we weaved our way carefully across the field, so as not to tread on anything remotely floral.

Along the tops of the ridges, swathes of Cowslips provided a carpet of soft yellow hues in which  Green-winged Orchids appeared as a random pink pattern.

The temperatures rose steadily through the morning so that by early afternoon we felt the need for some shade. Travelling up to Northamptonshire, we revisited Everdon Stubbs wood, which has featured in several posts for its profusion of Bluebells. Despite the huge number of cars parked along the verges of the roads running through and alongside the wood, once immersed in the dappled shade of the trees and the heady scent of the flowers, peace and tranquillity were not hard to find.

Taking a different approach to previous years, here's the gratuitous Bluebell shot...

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Stop the clock

Well, that was a weekend that began promising reasonable temperatures and ended having delivered two sunny days. How much better could it be? Without ever really planning it, we spent most of our time out of doors, in the midst of Spring's flora and fauna.

But firstly, a quick thank you to all who contributed to the "Should he, shouldn't he?" debate concerning a change to the blog title. A quick straw poll produced a resounding "Hands off!", so Imperfect and tense it remains. I have tinkered with the sub heading, though, to better reflect the goings on within these pages.

Now back to Saturday morning, which saw the Admiral, Our Lass and I arguing over which water body to visit in the search for early odes. Another warm and dry April has seen early emergence dates for Large Red Damselfly in county after county. Whilst lagging behind, as usual, we felt that Buckinghamshire's time had finally come and we wanted to hit several sites in the north of the county to see if we couldn't rustle up a damsel or two.

We chose the Blue Lagoon, a former brick pit, now a local nature reserve. Our decision wasn't so much based on its glamorous setting between a landfill site and the West Coast Main Line, more the proximity to an eatery. No change there then!

Whilst not so fair on the eye as other sites in the area, we were soon hearing Reed Warbler and Whitethroat. Then we spotted a Bank Vole, which, due to the fact that it was swimming, I thought was a Water Vole. Hey, it's an easy mistake to make. Within yards of this, the Admiral's eagle eye picked out a recently-emerged Large Red Damselfly and a search of the immediate area produced four more and a few exuviae. My records only go back to 2006, but this was six days earlier than my previous best.

The exuvia, or empty larval case, can be seen further down the stem on the left. A careful look at the head of the damselfly itself, shows the three simple eyes on the vertex. These are the left and right lateral ocelli and the median ocellus, each with just a single lens, which I think are used for orientation in flight. I guess it's like having a dial in an aircraft cockpit, to show the attitude of the horizon.

Predictably, we celebrated our success with a trip to the afore-mentioned eatery.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Second bloggiversary

After two years of waffling on about everything and nothing, methinks that a spot of re-appraisal and reflection is due.

A few months ago, a fellow blogger asked why I referred to where I live as "Tense Towers". It gave me quite a shock to realise that I had never even considered explaining my blog title, let alone the evolution of some of the terms within. In remedying the situation through Comments, the germ of another post was born, and now seems an appropriate moment to unleash it upon an unsuspecting world.

So why Tense Towers? The short answer is that when I set up this blog, I thought it would be all pedantic ranting about either spelling and punctuation or whether people indicated direction and lane changes when driving. To be fair, I was recovering from an operation and was as high as a kite on medication! Anyway, the name "Imperfect and tense" sort of suggested a category of verb whilst also tipping its hat to my fallible and crotchety nature. The sub title, "Instant grammatification" followed suit, punning gratification, grammar and Graeme all at once. I did say I was on drugs!

As it turns out:

1. This isn't a short answer.
2. There's a lot less ranting in the blog than I thought there would be.
3. I discovered that I rather liked writing about Nature.
4. Sadly, I do go back and correct the many mistakes I find in my previous posts.

Supposedly, every Englishman's home is his castle, so it was a short step to calling our house Tense Towers. You'll have to ask Our Lass how tense it is, but there definitely aren't any towers (I've checked). The phrase probably nods in the direction of a 1970s John Cleese sitcom "Fawlty Towers", which folk of my age quote a great deal. Whole scenes, in fact. However, I have to admit an absolute heresy and confess to not particularly enjoying FT, there was too much cringe comedy for my liking. However, for me, the most memorable bit was the opening credits, where each week, the letters on the hotel sign were re-arranged to spell something different. Classic!

Anyway, during the Comment communication, it was rightly pointed out to me that perhaps my forte wasn't grammar after all. In truth, this bit wasn't shock news, the vast majority of my posts revolve around nature, and coupled with the lack of ranting, there's a reasonable argument for renaming the blog with a more topical description.

Whilst against rebranding per se, I'm seriously considering this possibility and am pondering likely names. Perhaps I could take a fresh, green leaf out of the Fawlty Towers book and call it... "Insect. Tree. Damp fen".

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Sky Dancers

With the last of her course work handed in, it was time for Our Lass to have a weekend off and a proper day out, as she would call it. We decided upon Woodwalton Fen as our destination, though I was unsure of what to expect, as every other one of our visits to this National Nature Reserve has been in dragon/damsel season.

I thought the highlight of the day would be Spring flowers, or early migrant warblers, or, perhaps, butterflies. Whilst all of these put in an appearance, it was the raptors that stole the show.

Arriving on site late morning, we first walked a circuit in the southern half of the reserve, along rides and ditches bathed in warm sunshine. A Grasshopper Warbler called from some scrub, a Chinese Water Deer wandered out of a reed bed and a Stoat briefly appeared and disappeared again. There were only three species of butterfly on the wing, Peacock, Brimstone and Green-veined White, and very few flowers beyond Lady's Smock, Gound Ivy and Dandelion. I tried in vain to capture images of the butterflies, but most of my photos were of butterflowns.

Very soon, it became apparent that the day belonged to the birds of prey. Sparrowhawk, Kestrel, Buzzard, Red Kite and Marsh Harrier, all seemed to be in the air at once, sometimes with several species in the same thermal. This resulted in some good size comparison shots, though even fewer were in focus!

Marsh Harrier and Red Kite
After lunch (The Cross Keys in Upwood, lovely treacle sponge!), we tried our luck with a northerly circuit of the fen and hit upon Marsh Harrier Central. From our vantage point in a hide, we were able to enjoy some of the "sky dancing" courtship display, including practice food passes (I think). Whilst not an expert in these matters, I would counsel that in order to impress the object of one's desires, dinner is essential. We were unable to see any prey changing talons during these exchanges.

Crossing to the western edge of the site, a huge earth bank, we sat in the late afternoon sun and listened to Lapwings displaying, out over the flood meadows. A large flock of Jackdaws and Rooks headed east, and behind them, we spotted a Peregrine Falcon.

Towards dusk, raptor affairs calmed down and the tracks and rides filled with various species of non-native deer, Muntjac and Chinese Water Deer.

Chinese Water Deer (and part-time Fleetwood Mac fan)
Following another visit to the Cross Keys (practising what I preach!), we wearily headed home, tired but happy.

Out into the big, wide world

After a long day in the field yesterday (to be blogged later), we were rather bleary-eyed this morning.

However, we were brought sharply to our senses by the appearance in the garden of some newly-fledged Blackbirds.

Sadly, "sharply" is not an adjective that can be applied to the resulting photos.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Sights, sounds and smells of Spring

Following a hectic day, when Our Lass suggested an evening wander at Stantonbury Lake, I was only too pleased to have the chance for some fresh air. Grabbing our bins, we made it to the reserve just before sunset, the cool evening air heavy with the scent of Blackthorn blossom and damp grass.

A dog Fox ran across the track in front of us, his thick brush trailing behind him like some 1920s aviator's scarf. By the boardwalk, we startled a Muntjac deer, who melted out of sight into the willow scrub. We then settled down in the hide to scan the southern half of the lake and the bund.

On this site, wader numbers aren't that great at the moment, possibly due to lack of control of both water level and rampant vegetation. However, we did spot a few Lapwing, Oystercatcher and Little Ringed Plover, their calls ebbing and flowing across the water as they flew along the bund. As dusk fell, three pairs of Coot took it upon themselves to try and drown each other in a noisy, splash-laden territorial dispute. As we left, it was still going on in near darkness, the sounds of pure liquid testosterone echoing around the lake.

Our walk back to the car was audibly accompanied by a Song Thrush and a Cetti's Warbler. All in all, a most pleasant end to the day.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Teenage Mutant Ninja Daughters

Cynicism on hold, dear readers. What could be more sweet and innocent than two daughters showing their Mum how much they love her on Mothering Sunday? Well, they may not be teenagers any more, but they're still capable of mutating into mental ninjas at the drop of a bandana, bless 'em. So it was, that with some trepidation, I returned to my ground state of token male at Tense Towers for a few days.

Saturday began peacefully enough, as Second Born went to a blues guitar workshop with JD, whilst First Born took Mum for a bit of retail therapy in town. Second Born returned mid afternoon, propped up her guitar in the lounge and promptly fell asleep. Riff Van Winkle, the ever-so-laid-back blues player! JD and I headed down to the local nature reserve, where we were overjoyed to hear recently-arrived Willow Warblers and Blackcaps in full song, as well as watching a flock of about fifty Sand Martins fly over. There was one fraught moment when JD nearly stood on a Comma butterfly, only my shouted warning bringing him to a full stop.

With the return of mother and First Born, we headed to a local restaurant for a meal. Second Born volunteered to drive as she's recently bought her first car, a bright red Peugeot, and is pretty "cab happy" at the moment. She announced to an unsuspecting world that her little motor is likely to be christened Donna, short for Donatello, as there's a turtle on her car key ring. First Born helpfully pointed out that the turtle wearing the red bandana in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles wasn't Donatello. I held my breath, waiting for the inevitable thermo-nuclear reaction so beloved of close siblings, but miraculously, it wasn't forthcoming and everyone stopped cowering in their shells and gave a sigh of bas-relief. Back home again, a quick search of the internet confirmed that it was Raphael in red, whilst Donatello wore purple. In its way, this is rather appropriate, but that may just be perspectival illusionism on my part.

On Sunday morning, the girls fussed over their mum and we all enjoyed a cooked breakfast, before First Born headed home and Second Born headed back to bed, because this being awake malarkey is just so exhausting. As the weather was pleasantly mild, Our Lass and I nipped down to the reserve and caught a glimpse of a single Orange Tip butterfly as well as many Commas and Peacocks. The Cowslips are now in full bloom and in a few damp and shady spots we found Lady's Smock (Cuckooflower).

Cowslip, Primula veris
Grey Heron, Ardea cinerea
The afternoon was spent tinkering with Donna (not a sentence I envisaged writing when I woke up this morning), whilst Second Born read the workshop manual and responded to the occasional request for different screwdrivers.