Wednesday, 31 October 2012

October in Little Linford Wood

Sneaking in "at the death" is somehow appropriate on Hallowe'en, as once again I nearly missed out on a monthly deadline. October's weekends have been full of other important tasks: habitat management work parties, birthday trip, visits by relatives, nature reserve open day and dragonfly society members' day. I've not known such a busy period in ages.

So, after more than half a century on the planet, it was most fortunate that I discovered that I possessed a spontaneity gene. Yesterday morning was sunny and bright, prompting a snap decision for me to take the afternoon off from work and head to Little Linford Wood.

Though chilly, out of the wind it was pleasant enough and as I drove up the track towards the wood, a Jay flew across my bows. In the car park, the ground was much muddier than of late, so boots were the order of the day.

A big change this month was the lack of insects. No butterflies, dragonflies, bees or wasps, and only one or two dipterans to be seen. As I walked the woodland rides, it was apparent that there was little in the way of bird song, too. Though at least this had the effect of making the few calls I heard stand out.

One tree I had been hoping to photograph was a Spindle, Euonymous europaeus, but the largest specimen I spotted was now virtually leafless. A few fruits still hung from its branches, but the most photogenic were quite high up. And I had only brought a standard lens, the better to record vistas, so in the end I gingerly gripped a twig and pulled it lower so that a fruit was in  camera range.

Pink and orange... we once had a bathroom with this colour scheme!
It was whilst I was snapping away one-handed that Lady Luck put in an appearance. A sharp call above my head alerted me to the presence of a bird. Hopping through the branches was a Marsh Tit, feeding upon the seeds from the Spindle fruit. Here was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be close to one of these shy birds and I was holding a camera in one hand and a twig in the other! Letting go of the twig wasn't really an option, as the resulting py-oing! would likely frighten the tit away. Similarly, using the camera viewfinder, manual focus or adjusting apertures was impossible, so I ended up firing blind on auto. Gah!

Those fruit don't stand a chance

There's no escape now

Success, a seed retrieved
The most impressive Autumn colours were from Bramble leaves, especially when the sunlight picked out a group of leaves in an otherwise shady ride.

At the northern edge of the wood, a Little Owl was taking the rays, perched on top of a ruined wall, but he was well out of range of a standard lens.

Through to the western side and the number of bare branches left no doubt that the year is turning inexorably toward Winter.

The rookery was deserted, the Rooks having left their Summer quarters and headed for communal roosts elsewhere.

Back in the centre of the wood, this Field Maple was rather resplendent in its golden hues, whilst the Oak on one side was still fairly green and leafy, yet the Ash on the other side was bare.

Speaking of Ash, this week brought horrendous news that the species is under threat in the UK from a fungal disease. However, I can report that this particular twig looked in fine fettle...

Under the canopy of other Ashes and Oaks were several other fungal colonies, "fairy rings" of a species of Funnel Cap...

And, fortunately, there was sufficient sunlight to illuminate the gills from below.

As ever, I left well alone, because without an absolutely positive ID, it's impossible to know if they're safe to eat.

And as there's still two more months of 2012 to report, poisoning isn't an option.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Low Jackdaw, High Jinks

Saturday afternoon last, we were sat in the conservatory, Our Lass, First Born and me, chatting as you do when there's the opportunity to catch up on family stuff.

A movement in the garden caught my eye and I turned around to see a Jackdaw walk along the path by the window, hop up onto the lawn, wander over to inspect the pond and then pootle across to the bird feeder.

It seemed unconcerned that there were three humans staring at it in astonishment.

Jackdaws fly over Tense Towers every day. There's a small flock nearby, but they rarely visit as the garden is rather small and enclosed. In fact, unless the weather is really cold and food is scarce, they remain very reluctant neighbours.

This one obviously had a problem with its left wing, it was carrying it at an odd angle. But it wasn't preventing the Jackdaw from mopping up any bits of sunflower seed or peanuts that had fallen onto the grass below the seed feeders.

As the light was fading and dusk wasn't far away, I mused that being on the ground in a garden surrounded by houses with cats was not a great idea. Not to mention the local Crows, who would no doubt put aside any feeling for a fellow corvid if they thought that there was an easy meal in the offing.

Grabbing a handful of peanuts and sunflower seed from the store, I gingerly opened the back door and the Jackdaw retreated to the vegetation at the far side of the garden. When I threw a peanut in its general direction, it immediately put food above safety and retrieved the nut. Once back in the shelter of the border, it proceeded to hold the peanut in a claw and break it into pieces before devouring it. We played Fetch for several more peanuts before I had another idea. Flinging the remainder of the bird food across the lawn for the Jackdaw to work through, I rummaged about in the pile of rubbish carefully-stored useful things propped up beside the garage. Here was an old piece of shaped trellis that we had removed from a wall or fence at some point. Placing the wide top end on the lawn and resting the narrow bottom end on the lower branch of a Hawthorn tree, I thought the Jackdaw might find it useful to gain some height. With all this activity, the bird had retreated into the border again, but soon resumed eating peanuts when I disappeared back indoors.

Unfortunately, I was distracted by something else at this point, but five minutes later when I returned to the window, there was the Jackdaw sat in the Hawthorn tree. Our Lass, who had been watching from an upstairs window, confirmed that the bird had just hopped up the trellis as if it had been doing it all its life and it was the most natural thing in the world to do.

Over the next few minutes, it hopped from branch to branch, gaining height all the time, until it was high enough to glide off across a neighbour's land and out of sight. What became of it is not known, but we couldn't fail to be impressed with its quick thinking and intelligence in adversity.

It was only later that I realised the Jackdaw must've crept under the gate at the side of the house and walked down the narrow alley to reach the back garden, not a safe route for a wounded bird. So did it remember from numerous flights that there were feeders in our garden? And relate the position of those feeders as seen from the air to its new situation on the ground. And work out how to reach them on foot?

I tell you, when humanity is dead and gone, don't be thinking that it's the rats and cockroaches that'll rule the roost. There's one or two species of corvid that'll have the last laugh.

It's been rather foggy, wet and cloudy since then, so here's a photo of that evening to cheer me up.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Please can we have one of these?

Before returning to Buckinghamshire, we spent the Sunday of our Welsh weekend at Newport Wetlands, a new-ish RSPB reserve situated between a power station and the Severn estuary.


Hmmm, a wetlands reserve, created from an old industrial site, on the edge of a large conurbation? Don't I know somewhere else like that?

Not with the kind of support that this place has. Just look at those logos. Local and national government funding, support from the national environmental body and run by a national conservation organisation. I could weep.

Rant over, it's not Newport's fault.

The investment and infrastructure have produced a large reedbed (10% of this type of habitat in Wales) and a fantastic visitor centre, with cafe, shop and function rooms. The place was teeming with visitors, and not just wildlife enthusiasts. Being close to the city of Newport, it seemed that plenty of folk just wanted somewhere pleasant to walk, and as there was also provision for cycling and dog walking around the perimeter path, it felt very inclusive.

There was certainly loads of wildlife, so no worries on that score.

Then and now
View from the hide at the eastern edge of the reserve
A very old lady. Female Common Hawker, Aeshna juncea
Up close and personal with a Mute Swan, Cygnus olor
They even had a... Rail way! (sorry)
This was a first for Our Lass, brief views of a Bearded Reedling
Taxonomic nightmare, though. Panurus biarmicus?
Little Grebe, Tachybaptus ruficollis, seen from the path!
Female Stonechat, Saxicola torquata
Cetti's Warblers were singing, the estuary mudflats contained waders and ducks aplenty, Common Darters and Migrant Hawkers were soaking up the Autumnal sun and we even spotted a Little Owl perched in a tree along one of the hedgerows of the Newport Levels.

Wonderful weather, wonderful wildlife.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Breaking into Area 51

Area 51... a name heavy with potent symbolism for several distinct sections of society.

cause célèbre for the conspiracy theorists...

and a military facility, clouded in a veil of secrecy, for the Establishment.

Below is an extract from an email sent from person or persons unknown to colleagues at a mysterious factory in Northamptonshire, England, on Friday 12th October 2012:

"Dear All,

It should come as no surprise, especially in a week when there has been much Northern Lights activity in Scotland and also a large military exercise across the whole of the UK, that there is also an increased likelihood of UFO* activity.

This has a great deal of resonance for me personally, as tomorrow I journey to the shadowy world of Area 51. However, the conspiracy theorists amongst you can rest easy (…or perhaps not!) Fortunately, the alien abduction component of this situation is limited to my partner kidnapping me for a weekend in Wales, which, for some, is probably alien enough.

The lesson to be learnt from all of this is that you should always read to the end of the email.
For, shortly, there will be biscuits and stuff in the 3 kitchens to celebrate my birthday tomorrow.

* In this instance, UFO stands for Unwelcome Fifty One."

Yep, I was another year older and, though possibly not any wiser, still honing my character flaws to good effect.

Our Lass and I were booked into a B+B in the rolling Monmouthshire countryside, not far from the town of Usk. Clearvewe is run on local and organic lines by Rachel and Andy, who are obviously not afraid of a good pun. Their hilltop location is an ideal site for solar heat and photo-voltaic technology, as the mornings proved with the surrounding landscape draped in mist, whilst we enjoyed a gloriously sunny breakfast.

This being Wales, is it possible that this is the Stairway to Evan?
Inspiration for many a folk song. An early morning and a fair maiden.
After breakfast on Saturday morning, we set off on foot to explore the nearby Gwent Wildlife Trust reserve at Springdale Farm. We wandered through fields and meadows on the lower slopes, before making our way into a broad-leaved woodland and gently ascending a hill.

Photo: Our Lass
Whilst I was trying to take photographs of a Hornet's nest, from a very respectful distance...

The lunatics are taking over the asylum
Our Lass had discovered some fungi growing on a fallen log and was experimenting with settings to capture a crisp shot. Unfortunately, we weren't able to identify the particular species.

A bit heavy on latent symbolism? Photo: Our Lass
At the top of the hill, back out into open fields, we could view the distant peaks of the Brecons and watch as a glider from a nearby club shared the skies with Buzzards and Ravens.

In a hedge, we discovered a species of fruticose lichen that could well be "new-to-science", Orange Twine-fuzz, Pharma untidinus, though the British Lichen Society is yet to rule on its classification.

Photo: Our Lass
In the afternoon, we ventured into Usk for a look around the Castle. This is privately-owned, i.e. not in the hands of some national heritage body, and therefore had a quaintness that can only be fostered through years of tenure and eccentricity. It was fabulous, but mind the geese.

Inside the Great Keep
As can be seen above, the Great Keep is not quite in mint condition, seven hundred years of history are bound to have given rise to a few makeovers, as evidenced by the numerous blocked doorways and windows. Actually, I wouldn't have been surprised to find Mint growing on the walls, in which case my previous sentence would have been even greater tosh.

Though the structure had not been lived in for many years, we noticed that a fireplace on one of the upper floors had a grate in which there were definite signs of ash.

Sorry, that should've read Ash.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Air towing technology through the ages...

Within the past 100 years...

A glider, Schleicher ASK13 G-DCMK, from South Wales Gliding Club, near Usk,
Saturday 13th October 2012

and within the past 300 million years

Common Darters ovipositing in a shallow pool at Newport Wetlands Nature Reserve,
Sunday 14th October 2012

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Moth trapping - the other method

Following an industrious morning felling timber and gentler tasks at our local nature reserve, Our Lass and I ventured along the Swan's Way, which runs alongside the western and northern perimeter of the site.

The pleasant afternoon sun was able to take the edge off the morning's Autumnal temperatures, at least enough to allow us to observe several dragonflies in flight, Common Darters and Migrant Hawkers.

As we neared the weir by the old mill on the River Great Ouse, we noticed an odd-looking butterfly fluttering about. I say 'odd' because, whilst at first glance I took it to be a Red Admiral, there was something not quite right about that ID. This was for the very good reason that, although there was much black, white and red colours to be seen, it was a moth, which became rather apparent when it landed on my leg. Unfortunately, very little of the splendid colouration shown in flight could be seen once it was at rest.

Red Underwing, Catocala nupta
However, with very nearly a 3 inch wingspan, this is a moth you're going to notice whatever colour it is.

Whether it was seeking to camouflage itself against my grey trousers is debatable. But I do know, with certainty, that I wasn't wearing red silk underwear. Not on a Sunday.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Badger, badger, badger

Badgers. Cattle. TB.

It's a thorny problem, with farmers ending up financially crippled on the one hand, whilst at the other end of the spectrum, badgers end up dead. 

I've pretty much stayed out of the badger culling debate, other than signing the petition against what is, after all, another ploy to legally slaughter more of the nation's wildlife, because I appreciate that farmers have to make a living. And if you want a breakfast consisting of cereals, milk, bacon, eggs, sausages and toast, then you're going to need a farmer at some point.

However, as a profession, I think they have been hoodwinked by some dodgy interpretations of scientific statistics and have jumped to a few ill-judged conclusions of dubious benefit to anyone. Least of all a badger.

I have let these thoughts fester away in the back of my mind for months, whilst the debate has rumbled on between Government, its scientists, the farmers' lobby and conservation bodies.

The official position: DEFRA

The case for the prosecution: NFU

The case for the defence: The Badger Trust,  Badgerland

Two weeks ago, however, I reached a tipping point and, today, the glacial slowness of my thoughts finally reached a keyboard as the second licence to cull badgers was issued by Natural England.

What happened two weeks ago? You may well ask. But first, some background.

In the 1930s, here in the UK, there was a huge problem with bovine TB. An epidemic spiralling out of control, that was only halted by cattle-based controls. Towards the end of the 20th Century, the infection began to increase again. Coincidentally, the first badger known to have bovine TB was discovered in 1971, and this brought the animal into the steely glare of the farming community at a critical time. The increase couldn't possibly have anything to do with a relaxation of cattle testing and movements, nor an intensification of the practice of over-wintering huge herds in barns and sheds? Where the bacterium could easily spread? Hell, no.

Up until the time that milk was routinely pasteurised, humans could contract TB from cattle. These days, in the UK, this is now a very rare occurrence because of pasteurisation. There are strict controls in place to deal with milk and meat from infected cattle.

Which brings me back to my tipping point.

Broadcaster and food writer Clarissa Dickson Wright reckons that we should eat badgers, so that the culled animals aren't wasted. O...kay, it's quite a thrifty argument, waste not, want not, and all that. They probably taste quite nutty, since every wildlife presenter worth their salt is out there, night after night, with a bag of peanuts to tempt the badgers to put in an appearance for the cameras. We should probably put an allergy warning label on them. 

But hang on a minute, we're killing the badgers because they're judged to spread TB.

If we can eat a badger with TB, why the f**k can't we eat a cow with TB and not shoot the bloody badgers?