Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Lawn order

Whilst I was photographing the Bee Orchid featured in the previous post, Our Lass (still hors de combat and on crutches) spotted an insect in the lavender bed.

Recourse to my insect bible, Chinery's Insects of Britain and Western Europe, leads me to believe it is a Sloe Bug, Dolycoris baccarum, one of the shield bug family, Pentatomidae, from the sub order Heteroptera of the order Hemiptera.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Mystery plant update

Way back in November, I posted about a mystifying appearance at Tense Towers, when a strange roseate of leaves was found growing in our lawn. Time has passed, Spring mowings have been extremely careful and now the mystery is conclusively solved.

A flower spike began in May and we watched patiently as white buds formed. There was a moment's consternation, when we woke up one morning to discover something had nipped out the lowest flower bud. But after defensive works were erected to deter Wood Pigeons (the usual suspects!), using chicken wire and most of a 2 litre drinks bottle, we relaxed and waited for the show.

We weren't to be disappointed, as earlier this month, the white buds opened to reveal a gorgeous Bee Orchid, Ophrys apifera. Bizarrely, so we learned, the bee that the flower has evolved to mimic, isn't native to the UK. So the British Bee Orchid is self-pollinating.

Fort Orchid

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Crumbs, it's a... oh no, it isn't.

Recently, the Admiral discovered this magnificent insect on a poplar tree near his place of work.

If you think it's a Hornet, then you're only half right. This is a moth mimicking the fearsome predator. It is a Hornet Clearwing.

My nautical friend also spotted a few holes from which these moths had emerged.
We had not previously encountered this species, but now know which trees to look out for and at what time of year.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

The best part of the day

Waking early, and noticing that it was sunny, I decided to make the most of it before the rain arrived. Following a clear night, it was still a little chilly, but warming gradually as the sun climbed above the horizon. Fog hung in the river valley as I drove to the local nature reserve, but it was already burning off as I got out of the car.

My route to the lakes, took me through a paddock where a Muntjac Deer was grazing on the luxuriant growth. Close by, a cuckoo called, sticking rigidly to the line from the old poem, "In June, I change my tune" as it double-tapped the first syllable.

Rounding a corner in the track, I startled a Bullfinch which had been feeding on the ground, its departing white rump revealing its identity. An Oystercatcher flew overhead, piping clear notes into the morning sky and a Sedge Warbler staccato'd its jazzy song out across the reeds.

Looking over the lakes, wisps of mist swirled around the sleeping forms of a couple of Mute Swans, a Common Tern swooped and dived for fish, whilst a Little Egret waded in the shallows on a similar task.

After another bend in the track, I noticed a fox cub up ahead, sitting in a sunny spot. It was being harassed by a pair of Magpies and could not enjoy the early morning warmth in peace. Before I could approach any closer, it tired of its tormentors and disappeared through a hedge out of sight.

I crept forwards and took up a position near to the cub's last known location, just in case it changed its mind and was tempted back into the sun. After about ten minutes, the likelihood was becoming more and more remote, but from the other side of the hedge (it was about 20' across and just as high), I could hear the Magpies rasping out their raucous rattling alarm call. Presuming that this indicated that the Fox was still in the vicinity, I pointed my optics at the source of the sound and through the leaves was able to see the occasional flash of white and black plumage and the odd patch of gingery red fur. When the anxious clucking of a Pheasant began, I guessed that the cub wasn't  about to return my way any time soon, so I took my leave and headed home to make Our Lass her breakfast.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

During a break in proceedings...

It's been a hectic week so far at Tense Towers. Our Lass was given a few days' notice to go into hospital for an operation, and though she's back home now, she cannot currently use one leg for weight bearing.

It's at times like these that you realise just how much we rely on our mobility. Last night, I tried going upstairs using only one leg, just to see how difficult it is, and I'm in no hurry to repeat the experience.

Second Born and I are taking it in turns to be Chief Nursing Auxiliary/Domestic Deity and today was my first shift. By mid afternoon I was in need of a bit of a pick-me-up myself, so as patient and household chores were not clamouring for my attention, I snuck out into the garden to see what was about.

Several species of damselfly were competing for sunny spots by the pond: Large Red, Azure, Common Blue and Blue-tailed. One particular Large Red, Pyrrhosoma nymphula, presented a good photo opportunity whilst perched on the flowers of Lady's Mantle, Alchemilla mollis.

Meanwhile, on the floating leaves of a water lily, was a species of fly that I have not yet been able to identify. There appeared to be male and female specimens, as one individual was different from the others. It had a white patch at the tips of its wings, which it would flash at the other flies, either as a warning or as a courtship display. Any ideas, faithful reader?

I've no more time to peruse the ID guides, as kitchen duties await. With a swish of a pinafore, no longer Cameron Binns, but Saladin Flanagan.

Post Script: JD texted me several hours later to say "Poecilobothrus nobilitatus". Thanks, JD!

Monday, 6 June 2011

Sugar mountain

It was Our Lass's birthday recently. One of those that can be viewed as significant, if you're of that persuasion. Y'know what I mean, one of the "oh" ones... as in ending with an "-oh".

It was worthy of having the occasion celebrated, hence the long weekend away, but I knew that a surprise party with dozens of guests wouldn't be her thing. So how to add that special something? There were cards and presents, of course, but I needed to mark the milestone in a more apt way.

I discovered that Trey, the partner of a work colleague, makes amazing novelty cakes for all occasions, so I approached her with a few ideas. Our Lass likes wild flowers, photography and the wild coasts of the north and west of Britain and after a discussion of what was and wasn't possible, Trey reckoned she had a plan. I lent her a book of photographs called "Orkney from the Air" by Craig Taylor and waited patiently to see what would happen.

Well, I casually say "patiently", but by the time the day arrived, I was on tenterhooks to know what she had created. When Jon, her hubby, arrived at work to deliver the confection, he was rather nervous too, having driven along a motorway and some country lanes with strict instructions from Trey to "take it easy" with the cake.

Now, there's a famous sea stack off the west coast of the island of Hoy (called The Old Man of Hoy, but we'll gloss over that bit for several reasons!). Trey had cleverly used this as her inspiration and placed Our Lass on the clifftop by the stack, laid amongst the maritime heath flora of Orkney and gazing out at the view.

Photo courtesy of Our Lass
Genius! And it tasted as good as it looks!

Many Thanks to The Baking Trey for this wonderful cake.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Today's post is brought to you by the letter...?

Our last morning in the Broads area of Norfolk, in search of the elusive Swallowtail butterfly and Norfolk Hawker dragonfly, saw a subtle change in tactics. Following minimal success at one nature reserve after another (and encouraged by our chance odonatological encounter at  a picnic site), we opted to visit Fairhaven Water Gardens in South Walsham.This ticked most of the boxes for Our Lass: woodlands, water, plant sales and tearoom, whilst also having reported sightings of both our target species.

For some time, the weather forecast had been predicting rain for this day, so we were encouraged by the amount of sun on offer. So much, in fact, that we were glad to be in the shade of the woodland. This also had the effect of providing shelter from the wind, so that in sunny glades were gathered all manner of dragonflies and damselflies. Eu-flippin'-reka!

By one of the wide streams, we watched a male Broad-bodied Chaser patrolling his territory, returning time and again to his favourite perch on a stick at the water's edge. When a female Broad-bodied Chaser appeared, there was a brief chase, an equally brief consummation of their passions and then she immediately began ovipositing, with her paramour flying above her, as she repeatedly dipped her abdomen in the water to lay her eggs.

Hawking above us and roosting on the huge leaves of Gunnera manicata, were some larger dragonflies. Big and brown, with a characteristic yellow triangle on their abdomens, these were indeed Aeshna isosceles, Norfolk Hawker. Phew! Not keen to trample all over the ornamental flower beds, I had to be content with a shot from range...

There were no Swallowtails to be seen, though, so our last roll of the dice was to visit Wheatfen Broad, a reserve set up by the late Ted Ellis, naturalist, writer and broadcaster. Wheatfen is a tidal marsh of the Yare valley, and of all the wildlife sites visited over the weekend, this felt the most natural. It is actually just across the River Yare from RSPB Strumshaw, which we had visited two days previously, but the feel of the place was completely different and we relaxed even more as soon as we stepped foot on its springy paths.

A young chap told us he had seen a Swallowtail, not ten minutes before, on a part of the reserve called Smee Loke, so this seemed as likely a place as any to start our search. Whilst there were Flag Iris, Ragged Robin and Milk Parsley aplenty, and many dragons and damsels, there was no sign of the butterfly. Now, it is arguable that dragons are large, mythical creatures, but for this particular weekend, that description better fitted the Swallowtail, as I did begin to wonder if it existed at all.

Whilst sat on a bench in the shade, each of us contemplating our lack of lepidopteran success in our own ways, a movement to our right caught my eye. It wasn't a butterfly, it was a bird, and quite a familiar bird at that. However, it wasn't one that I expected to see in the middle of a marsh, surrounded by reeds and water. For there, in the lower branches of a bush, was a Jay, a bird more usually seen in deciduous woodland featuring plenty of oak trees.

To my regret, I've never been able to take a great photo of a Jay, they're pretty wary of humans and I've not  been quick enough on the draw whenever the opportunity has arisen. They are probably the most glamorous of the UK's corvids, so I took a few shots but, predictably, the twigs of the bush were obscuring various bits of the bird. When the Jay dropped to the ground and out of sight, I went back to wallowing in Swallowtail misery. Eventually, we decided to walk a bit further around the reserve, and as we were headed in the direction of the Jay bush, we quietly crept forward. The Jay was foraging through the undergrowth and hopped further away at our presence. I kept taking photographs, despite the intervening vegetation, more in hope than anything else, and then a very strange thing happened.

The bird flew through the reeds towards us and landed on a post by the path. In clear view, it sat there for a while, its head turning this way and that as it searched for food. We held our breath, not daring to move, the only sounds to be heard were the breeze swishing through the fen and the repeated click of a camera shutter.

Butterflies? You can keep 'em!

Saturday, 4 June 2011

A Day of Mixed Fortunes

The second day of our trip to Norfolk dawned overcast, so our hopes of finding sun-loving insects were at a low ebb. This may have influenced our decision to head for the coast and the dune complex at Winterton, just north of Great Yarmouth.

As it happened, by the time we bundled out of the car into a sandy wilderness, the sun was making a concerted effort to break through. However, the wind was very gusty and I opted to leave my camera in the safety of its rucksack.

This was a shame as there is a large Little Tern colony on the shingle beach at Winterton, protected from various threats by much signage and an electric fence. Hopefully, this deters foxes, dogs and small-minded humans from stumbling through the middle of the colony and wreaking havoc upon eggs and chicks.

The stiff breeze was proving a problem for winged insects, a point amply made when a large dragonfly narrowly missed the Admiral as it was blown out to sea. However, in the odd sheltered spot between the dunes, Our Lass and the Admiral managed to see Large Red, Azure and Common Blue damsels.

As it was now very warm, we decided to head back inland and try our luck at Upton Fen. This Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve is home to Norfolk Hawker dragonfly and Swallowtail butterfly, so we were feeling quite buoyant as we trundled along the back roads in glorious sunshine. Unfortunately, the fickle hand of Fate then intervened, and we ended up at the eastern edge of the fen without easy access to the reserve. To match our darkening mood, the clouds came over again and the temperature dropped, much like our chances of a sighting our target insects. We managed to find a picnic spot out of the wind, by a marina, and sat sombrely eating our lunch whilst we thought of another plan.

The rollercoaster ride of a day then did a loop-the-loop, as over the Admiral's shoulder, I spotted a dragonfly hawking in the shelter of the trees. Three pairs of eyes latched onto this fast-moving object and savoured every second of the view, as for two of us, this was our first Norfolk Hawker.

With our morale and directions back on the map, we drove the few miles along the south side of the fen to the western edge, where the actual car park was located. By now, much of the heat of the day had disappeared, so it was proving difficult to find any Odonata. By sheer persistence, we were able to locate Hairy Dragonfly, Black-tailed Skimmer, Broad-bodied Chaser and Four-spotted Chaser, as well as Large Red, Azure, Blue-tailed, and Variable Damselflies.

Four-spotted Chaser (Libellula quadrimaculata)
Shortly after taking the above photograph, we happened upon a stretch of dyke where most of the surface was covered with a strange plant. This was Water Soldier, the plant upon which  Norfolk Hawker larvae live for two or three years, before emerging into the light on its sword-shaped leaves. The plant itself is a bit of a star. It remains fully submerged for most of the year, only coming to the surface to flower in early summer, which is pretty handy for the Hawker, I guess.

Water Soldier (Stratiotes alloides)
Norfolk Hawker exuvia on Water Soldier leaf
Sadly, although we found many exuviae, we could not see any adult dragonflies, and save for a distance glimpse of one in another glade as we made our way back to the car, that was it for the day. Since breakfast, our fortunes had ebbed and flowed like the tide, so it seemed apposite to take our evening meal in a pub called The Ship.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

More Strumpshaw

Whilst at RSPB Strumpshaw, we were hoping to see Swallowtail butterflies and Norfolk Hawker dragonflies, but a rain shower during the afternoon and the gusty breeze meant that we were out of luck.

However, there was plenty of other stuff on view...

Several Shelducks were present, putting on the occasional flypast...

And an immature Black-tailed Skimmer managed to find a sheltered spot, to bask in the late afternoon sun.

We only managed to see about three butterflies all afternoon, Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell and one of the Whites. The dragonflies, too, were hard work. As well as the BTS above, we only managed a Scarce Chaser and a Banded Demoiselle, amongst plenty of damsels hiding in the long grass.

Better luck tomorrow, perhaps?

Romantic meal for two, anyone?

Now, I did say that our trip to Norfolk was to celebrate a bit of a milestone for one of our number. So what would be finer than a romantic meal for two, bathed in late afternoon sun, sitting by the water's edge, billing and cooing like lovestruck doves?

Doves? Well, how about Black-headed Gulls?

There we were, sat in a hide at RSPB Strumpshaw, when all of a sudden, a pair of gulls started acting strangely. At first we assumed that it was an adult feeding a well grown chick, but we soon realised that, no, it was probably a male and female indulging in a bit of culinary courtship.

Only read on if you've a strong stomach...

Her: "How much do you love me?"

Him: "More than mere words can convey."

Her: "Well, give us a tasty morsel, then."

Him: "Yaaaaarrrrgggghhh!"

Her: "Thanks, my dear!"

The Time Traveller's Whiff

"All those keeping up with their blogging schedule, one pace forward... Tense, where do you think YOU'RE going?"

Yes, it's true, I'm somewhat behind with my posts and will probably require the services of a time machine to recover lost ground.

So, let's see... last Saturday's probably a good bet, [fiddles with controls as lights flash, alarms sound and an electrical burning smell heralds a temporal malfunction that will definitely require some Time to sort].

The Tense Towers Team headed off to Norfolk for the long weekend at the end of May, ostensibly to celebrate Our Lass's upcoming birthday, but with hopes of seeing a few new species of flora and fauna.

Leaving MK at early o'clock, we were ensconced in a tea shop by Ranworth Broad well before elevenses and peering out of the window at a small boat edging towards the jetty. Out steps a chap, who proceeded to erect a sandwich board advertising boat trips around the nearby Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve. The sky was overcast, a chilly breeze whistled across the water and clouds threatened to rain on everyone's parade.

As no-one else was about, the three of us took up the offer of a circuit around the Broad, in the company of a knowledgeable guide and his electric craft. Due to the weather, butterflies and dragonflies would be in short supply, so we busied ourselves spotting a few of the bird species to be found in this aquatic environment. Great Crested Grebes with their stripey humbug youngsters, Common Terns, Marsh Harrier and Cetti's Warbler. Nothing too out of the ordinary, but good to see from a different perspective, out on the water.

Suddenly, our guide pointed ahead, where a large raptor was flying towards us. Bins and cameras whirled around to view an Osprey, carrying a half-eaten fish. This was an unexpected surprise and certainly kick-started our weekend!