Saturday 31 December 2011

Bund burning by the book

You may recall, dear reader, the photo from the Imperfect and Tense HESC page. No? Well, here's a little reminder. It shows a view across the bund, the low bank separating the two halves of the main lake of the nature reserve. The image was taken a year or so ago. On closer inspection, a Fox can be seen wandering along the bund, but the focus of this blog post isn't the fluffy mammal/evil egg thief/member of the canine family (delete as your emotional reaction is applicable), it's about the trees.

View looking north across bund
In fact, there shouldn't be any trees at all, lest they discourage any form of wading bird activity by their very presence or give cover to predators. For the bund should be a shingle bank for waders, an open landscape sitting low in the water, with muddy margins where the birds can feed in safety. A place where they can roost and lay their eggs and raise their broods successfully. So in a small way, this is about the Fox too.

View looking south across bund. Photo courtesy of The Admiral
As you can tell from the photos, the maintenance of this particular habitat was so far behind schedule, it was in danger of meeting itself coming the other way. Willow and Alder had colonised the area, and although the bund is surrounded by water, predators could easily swim to it, safe in the knowledge that their approach to ground nesting birds would be camouflaged to perfection.

The irony of the situation is that after this river valley site was worked for gravel extraction, it became a wildfowl sanctuary in 1970. A twenty year research project was then undertaken by the site owner, Amey Roadstone Construction (ARC) and the Game Conservancy. In 1992, the results of this project were published in 'Wildlife After Gravel' by Nick Giles et al, which became the "go to" book for information on returning gravel quarry sites to a natural environment once more.

'Wildlife After Gravel' explained the annual cycle of reserve management, which included the need to remove Willow and Alder, grazing by sheep or cattle and the manipulation of water levels. The success of this endeavour is summed up in a sentence on page 111,

"The area now holds many more species than did the semi-open improved grassland which existed in the flood plain of the river Great Ouse when extraction began in the 1940s."

I believe that is what we now call "increasing biodiversity".

Here's another quote from the good book, page 51,

"Other features include... a broad bund, kept free of rank vegetation by winter flooding, where shallow pools remain into the breeding season. A good population of nesting waders has built up in these habitats, particularly on the bund, which is deliberately isolated from each shoreline by deep water channels to exclude foxes."

Ah, they must've been heady days.

In the late 1990s, Milton Keynes Council took on a 25 year lease of the site from Hanson Aggregates, to run the reserve as an educational site, Hanson Environmental Study Centre. Permits are available for members of the public who wish to explore the natural history of the reserve.

Recently, I think it would be fair to say that investment in the site has been sadly lacking. Management plans have come and gone, the number of staff has been reduced and habitat maintenance has been either misdirected or absent.

The establishment of a Friends group in 2011, has seen some added impetus to put things right and return the reserve to something of its former self. Volunteer labour doesn't affect Council budget, whilst passionate and knowledgeable permit holders can bring much experience to bear on the habitat problems that abound.

After much lobbying and too many credulity-sapping delays, some action was agreed this Autumn. A team from the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV) rebuilt a bridge to the bund to allow access for the necessary habitat management. With this in place, contractors were able to move in and fell all the tree and shrub growth, instantly creating a much more open vista.

However, the problem of what to do with the felled material remained. Leaving it in situ was not an option, as given half a chance, Willow will regrow from the smallest of branches. Worse still, if any of this material floated away as water levels rose during the Winter months, further vegetative colonisation of the lake would occur. Manhandling all the brash and logs back to the mainland was not an option, so it would have to be dealt with on site. The BTCV carried out a controlled burn with some small success, but due to limited numbers and time, a large proportion of the felled vegetation still required attention.

This week, the Friends group and the local RSPB Phoenix group, (a youth club for nature loving, environmentally aware teenagers), stepped into the breech to add much needed impetus to the task. After two days of aching muscles, singed eyebrows and smoke-laden clothes, the work is almost complete, the bulk of the Willow and Alder being suitably combusted. A discussion will ensue as regards what action, if any, to take with the heaps of ash that have been generated, but the Winter weather may soon raise water levels before a decision can be reached and a plan put into action.

View looking east along bund - that's better! Photo courtesy of The Admiral
At least for now, the bund is once again an open space that waders can use. It is to be hoped that an annual cycle of maintenance can be put in place and, perhaps, return it to the halcyon days when it was an excellent breeding site for Ringed Plover, Little Ringed Plover, Lapwing, Snipe and Redshank.

This has been a somewhat heavier blogpost than normal, so as a little light relief, here's the Top Five songs for removing felled Willow and Alder from a bund by burning:

Smoke On The Water by Deep Purple
Come On Baby, Light My Fire by The Doors
Fire and Water by Free
Burn Baby Burn by Ash
Fire by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown

One or two of those may get an airing this evening, in the run up to celebrating the New Year!

Thank you for your company during 2011, dear reader, and I wish you all the best for 2012.

Hot and cold Caldecotte

Yesterday (30th December), was a cold, wet, miserable, relentless rain shower of a day. However, it did have some redeeming features to gladden the heart.

Forsaking our normal haunts, The Admiral and I drove across town to Caldecotte Lake, where reports of some excellent over-Wintering wildfowl species appear regularly at the eponymously titled blog by Keith. In fact, who should we bump into as soon as we stepped out of the car? The great man himself! Keith was helpfulness personified and gave us an up-to-the-minute report of what was about and where it could be found. His enthusiasm for wildlife and his knowledge of the Lake seem to radiate out in every direction and illuminate all who meet him.

Walking anti-clockwise around the southern part of the lake, we first encountered 3 Goosander, Mergus merganser, (a male and 2 females) by the boating platforms. Sadly, we were unable to photograph these birds with any success because every time they approached the shore, they would be scared away again by folk walking their dogs.

At the southern tip of the lake, we spotted a few Siskin, Carduelis spinus, and a Tree-creeper, Certhia familiaris, before the rain set in for a prolonged period. By the time we reached the opposite side of the lake from our starting point, we were the wrong side of damp and in need of a tonic to lift our spirits. This arrived in the form of a smart male Smew, Mergus albellus, which, although too far out in the centre of the lake for great photos, generated sufficient warmth and excitement to evaporate the rain from a drenched birder or two.

With our optics suffering from the weather, we now had the choice of returning to the car the way we had come, or continuing around the lake. We opted for the latter, as it meant we could pop into a local hostelry for a warm drink en route. This turned out to be a more excellent choice than we imagined.

On leaving the pub (it was a coffee and a hot chocolate, ok), it was still persistently precipitating. However, we immediately spotted a large bird, fairly close to the shore on the northern half of the lake. Having just dried off and packed away our bins and cameras, there then followed a short hiatus whilst these were hurriedly extricated again! Our lenses were brought to bear on another temporary resident of the area, an immature Great Northern Diver, Gavia immer. As we watched, it drifted closer still, so despite the poor light and the rain, we were able to have a fantastic view of this Winter visitor, preening, stretching and diving.

After about 10 minutes, it decided that the show was over, and swam further out into the lake. As we walked back below the pub, a Kingfisher, Alcedo atthis, flashed passed in a blur of azure lightning, to further raise our happiness quotient.

Then, squelching back to the car, we spotted a small flock of Reed Bunting, Emberiza schoeniclus, and a pair of Bullfinches, Pyrrhula pyrrhula, to complete an excellent morning's birding.

Thanks, Keith, your blog site is fantastic, be it the virtual or the actual one!

Thursday 29 December 2011

Wallet and grimace

My one, totally free, no commitments, do-anything-you-want-to-do day of the festive period was shared with The Admiral and JD, on a jaunt to the north Norfolk coast.

Our breakfast stop produced an anxious moment for JD, as his wallet was missing (not THAT old story!). A quick phone call back to Our Lass at Tense Towers, confirmed that it was comparatively safe, as long as she didn't embark on some opportunistic retail therapy.

After watching a gorgeous sun rise during the journey, we arrived at RSPB Snettisham just as it started to rain. I kept my camera in its bag to keep it dry, which was rather unfortunate, as the first water body we encountered contained a pristine, breeding-plumaged male Red-breasted Merganser, Mergus serrator.

By the time we climbed up onto the sea wall, to look out across The Wash and into the teeth of a gusting wind, we were cold and damp. High tide had peaked about an hour before our arrival, so our eyes beheld an ever-increasing landscape of mud. This was filled with an abundance of waders (USA - shorebirds) and ducks, though none were particularly close. The buffeting wind made binocular use a very haphazard pastime, so I sheepishly relied on the running commentary from JD and The Admiral as to the identity of the assembled birdage.

For a bit of respite from the weather, we decamped to a hide behind the sea wall, which looked across a series of freshwater ponds. Here we watched several male Goldeneye, Bucephala clangula, displaying to impress the girls and ward off the competition.

This head flinging action is accompanied by an excellent comedy duck noise!
Back out on the sea wall, during a sunny spell, an unseen raptor spooked the flocks of waders into taking to the air. Though I was using Very Wrong Len and could not capture the fluid nature of the aerial flocks, the image below conveys something of the numbers involved.

Golden Plover, Lapwing and Grey Plover, to name but a few
On the mud flats, a few braver birds were even within range of my ID skills. Here's a Grey Plover, Pluvialis squatarola, (USA - Black-bellied Plover).

Returning to the car, we then proceeded to take the scenic route to RSPB Titchwell Marsh. By the time we parked there, we were very hungry, but JD had matters under control. The Admiral and I were handed container after container of fillings for our wraps: grated cheese, home made salsa, rocket salad, chopped green peppers, chopped onions, home made houmous. And very tasty it was, too.

As we walked across the marshes (fresh, brackish, salt water), the light was pretty good, though the strong wind was chillier than ever. A Little Egret, Egretta garzetta was fishing close by the pathway, which allowed us an opportunity for a photo or two.

Down on the beach, at the water's edge, a veritable throng of waders and gulls were making the most of the last hour of daylight. Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit, Redshank, Oystercatcher, Turnstone, Dunlin and Sanderling were all feeding together, in a thin band of feathered foraging that stretched as far as the eye could see.

Bar-tailed Godwit, Limosa lapponica
On the return journey, the sky was clear, affording good views of Venus and Jupiter, as well as an unexpected pass by the International Space Station.

Christmas, snow and bunting

For our Christmas Day fresh air, we ventured to Tring reservoirs as none of the team were keen on a muddy walk. Alongside the Grand Union canal and around several water bodies of the reservoir complex, there are firm paths offering risk-free ambling (provided that you don't fall in, obviously).

As it was a blustery day and the light, under a sullen sky, was far from optimal, I didn't take my camera. This virtually guaranteed a photo opportunity and, sure enough, not five minutes into the walk, one presented itself.

Traversing the dam head of Startops reservoir, we paused by a pair of birders who were armed to the eyeballs with optics. Just below them, where the reduced water level had left a broad margin of stony shore, was a small bird, foraging amongst the rocks and pebbles.

As Christmas gifts go, this was a beauty. My very first Snow Bunting, Plectrophenax nivalis.

Unbelievably, The Admiral was travelling light too, though he did have the presence of mind to bring a small camera. The image below is courtesy of his good self.

Saturday 24 December 2011

Early morning Eve

And so the festive break begins.

The Admiral and I had to postpone a visit to Hanson Environmental Study Centre yesterday afternoon, due to a plumbing emergency, so we thought we'd make up for it this morning.

We arrived on site before sunrise, spooking a Buzzard from a fence post on the entrance road. Down in the river valley, a few frost pockets educated me as to why I felt so cold. Walking up the main track, we spotted a fresh paw print in some mud, a wide print with 5 toes. Badger!

We headed for the Far Hide and watched the sunrise in the company of dozens of Mute Swans, loads of Wigeon, Tufted Duck, Gadwall, Shoveler, Mallard and about 60 Lapwing. Yes, it was a crowded hide this morning!

As we made our way back through the reserve, we stopped on a boardwalk to look at the work carried out by the local RSPB Phoenix group. They had been busy removing trees from the edges of various ponds, opening up the vistas and reducing the likelihood of vegetative succession. A sudden movement close by our sides turned out to be a Robin, brazenly sat on a fence rail alongside us. It was a shame that we had not brought any bird food, as it can only have been hunger that made it so brave.

From the Near Hide, we watched as a flock of 20 Golden Plover made repeated passes over the bund, their mournful 'pew' calls reaching our ears across the water. The sun reflected beautifully from their burnished backs, a sight to warm our hearts on a cold morning. The Admiral mused that the recent work to remove scrub from the bund appeared to be paying dividends, as the more open aspect was now proving of interest to passing waders.

On leaving the hide, a Muntjac Deer was browsing along the edge of one of the cleared ponds. The Robin appeared again and I wondered if someone has been feeding it, as it did seem amazingly tame. We made a mental note to bring mealworms on our next visit.

Merry Christmas, dear reader, and best wishes from all the Tense Towers Team.

Thursday 22 December 2011

Guess what landed on the doorstep today

Whilst I wouldn't wish to tempt fate, this year our pre-Christmas build up has been fairly straight forward for a change.

Neither my bank nor credit card company have seen fit to withdraw their facilities on the merest whim of perceived fraudulent activity.

Have I spoken too soon?

I received an email at work today informing me that a parcel had arrived at our home address. Second Born was most perplexed. It was large and flat and coarse. 

It could've been the result of a spectacular mix up at the computer ancillaries factory.

Let's face it, it's a busy time of year and the workforce was probably stressed to the max, attempting to fulfil orders before the festive season.

A small error of judgement could easily have been made when selecting the linear units for the product.

It's possible that an accidental slip of the cursor may have occurred when selecting "material type" from the drop down menu.

But no, this isn't a large, hairy mousemat.

It's the new doormat for...

Sunday 18 December 2011

What else would you do on a lazy Sunday morning?

The thing I like about this time of year, is that you can lay in bed until nearly 8.30 and still say that you were out of bed just after dawn.

There was a heavy frost overnight, which meant that our wildlife camera had a layer of ice on it this morning. I'd set it to monitor the base of the bird feeder, in case there were any mice or voles about during the hours of darkness, but no luck, I'm afraid.

We decided to have a walk before breakfast, a rare treat these days, so we set off around Linford Manor Park, accompanied by the sounds of peeling church bells and a Mistle Thrush. There were a few flurries of snow, but little in the way of a breeze, so it did not feel bitingly cold.

Through the village, the hedges along the path were laden with Ivy berries, some of which were just starting to ripen. In cultivated areas, the yellow flowers of Mahonia bushes and the delicately-scented pale blooms of Winter-flowering Honeysuckle were bringing some cheer to the dormant plots.

As we made our way back to the Grand Union canal for the last leg of the journey, we discovered where all the bird life had got to. Walking along the towpath, we spotted a Fieldfare, a Redwing, a Bullfinch and a flock of Long-tailed Tits, all feeding on the trees lining the opposite bank of the canal. At Linford Wharf, there was a pair of Pied Wagtails, pottering about on the ice of the frozen turning basin.

Crunching through the frosty gravel, we returned home to find a pair of Jackdaws on the roof of Tense Towers. They were busy dislodging lumps of moss from the tiles, as they searched for food. It's difficult to begrudge them this task, but it does take me ages to pick it all up from where it falls, on the garden path and the roof of Our Lass's car. Still, we can truthfully add them to our list of garden birds using the environs of Tense Towers this Winter.

Friday 16 December 2011

Windows upgrade

The first appreciable fall of snow for the Winter arrived this morning. It must've begun a little after 4am and left a light dusting whilst the thermometer was still below freezing. With the dawn, came a slight rise in temperature, so that the flakes became huge and soggy, resulting in an atmosphere of miserable dampness which is so much worse than any minus number in the dry.

In hindsight, not the greatest day to have most of the doors and windows ripped out of Tense Towers and replaced with improved double glazing. But, yes, one of the workmen was in a t-shirt.

The cold began to permeate through the house, as portal after portal was confined to the recycling pile, and I did my level best to keep the 4 man team fuelled with mugs of hot tea.

Second Born hurriedly left for the weekend, to visit old friends from her university days, and it only occurred to me as I write this, that the locks will be changed for her return. Mwah hah hah!

For peace and quiet, not to mention heat, Our Lass decamped to a nearby coffee shop, until she felt that sitting there for so long with one cup of latte was a bit embarrassing. She then went to another coffee shop to repeat the procedure. I did contemplate phoning all the beverage retail outlets in the area and warning them about a serial single slurper on the loose.

Around lunchtime, the weak Winter sun filtered through the clouds and I took refuge in the shed cum conservatory at the rear of the house. Here, tucked in between the clothes airer and the yet-to-be-decorated Christmas tree, I sat, typing furiously to keep warm. Meanwhile, outside, the birds went about their normal daily routine, happily ignoring the sounds of power tools, sawing and hammering, as they crowded around the seed feeders and fat block. As long as they're kept fuelled too, they don't seem to mind all the hullabaloo.

Ah well, time to put the kettle on again...

Monday 12 December 2011

Like I needed another reason to hate Mondays

On our commute to work, Second Born and I see the occasional wildlife victim of roadkill. The commonest squished remains are Pheasants from land managed for shooting or the overspill of birds from these areas. Whilst traffic at a maximum of 60mph is likely slower and more visible than shotgun pellets, the Pheasants don't seem to learn from their many close shaves. Perhaps it's all a game to them?

Suicidal Rabbits, too, seem magnetically-drawn to pick a fight with tyres, but Muntjac deer and Badger are much rarer, presumably reflecting their lesser numbers in the countryside, rather than any greater understanding of the Highway Code.

Today, however, we noted not one, but two, dead Foxes, laid forlornly in the carriageway, several miles apart. I assumed that this was either as a result of dispersal of cubs from an adult's territory, or just an unfortunate coincidence whilst out foraging for food.

Information from The Fox Website suggests that in rural areas, where lethal control is applied, 80% of the population is under one year old. And, yes, where there are managed pheasant shoots, you would expect an amount of lethal control. I can't condone it, but I acknowledge that it happens for economic reasons. Oh, and some folk just like to kill stuff for fun, which is harder to reconcile on any level.

Sunday 11 December 2011

Post post post

I think it's about time that I posted an update on those tits down at Hanson Environmental Study Centre. You will recall that the jury was out as to whether there was a Willow Tit present on site, together with several Marsh Tits.

Here's a reminder of the problem...

Marsh? Willow? Does anyone still care?
Since my original post, there have not been any positive sightings of a Willow Tit, despite much interest from the local birder population and the handy photos and descriptions posted in the Woodland Hide.

The consensus now seems to dither between it being either a hybrid bird (Mallow? Wirsh?) or it was always just a slightly differently-marked Marsh Tit.

What did become apparent however, was the lengths that some birders would go to, to photograph their quarry. Like pinching the bird table from the Centre and setting it up in front of the Woodland Hide. Or putting out vast amounts of bird food in an effort to attract any passing flying creature (and I do mean any flying creature, some of the heaps of seed would've been visible from Space). The upshot of all this malarkey was that as much upset was being caused by the so-called birding fraternity as had been created by the recent vandals.

In an effort to defuse an already tense situation between staff and users, the Friends group decided to add a second feeding post in front of the Woodland Hide, as the current one will eventually keel over. And so, this morning, half a dozen hardy souls braved the weather to tackle a bit of habitat management and some elementary woodwork.

Firstly, the Alder trees which obscured the view of the glade were felled above head height and then ring-barked to create some standing dead wood. The resulting wood was used to make two new feeding posts and two new log piles. Then, the scrub at the water's edge was thinned and topped. Lastly, a bird table was fashioned from some planking left over from a previous task.

Neil had a busy time, nailing Tony and Graeme's hands to a post
L to R, old post, new log pile, new bird table
Once all the chopping, sawing and hammering had ceased, Pauline primed the new bird table with a light dusting of seed and we retired inside the hide to watch and wait, to see which species would christen the post.

We should've had a sweepstake on which bird would be the first visitor, as the conversation revolved around this very topic:

Great Tit                       2/1
Blue Tit                         3/1
Robin                            5/1
Marsh Tit                    10/1     
Willow Tit                  100/1
Great White Egret 1000/1

In the end, after about 5 minutes and a few exploratory swoops, a Blue Tit was brave enough (or hungry enough!) to snatch the inaugural seed from the result of our morning's labours. After that, it didn't take long for the rest of the cast to join in (with the obvious exceptions of the Willow Tit and Great White Egret), so we decided that if they were happy with it, then we could sneak quietly away, confident in a job well done.

The above habitat shots were courtesy of The Admiral and Martin (I think).

Sunday 4 December 2011

Attack of the mechanised symbionts?

There's not been much happening on the wildlife-watching front this weekend, as household chores took precedence and the upcoming festivities loom ever closer. But that doesn't mean I'm not thinking about Nature.

Perhaps it's an age thing, but as one grows older, is less active and possessed of duller senses, the sections of the biota that reflect these characteristics increase in attraction. I am thinking of the stuff that can't run or fly or swim away, which then becomes more apparent. At least when they come into focus. Trees, for instance, which are often so permanent in our landscape that we fail to notice them until they're gone, attacked by disease or the sharp edge of some implement. And then there's the life that grows on trees, and elsewhere, like mosses and lichens.

I well recall some of the lichens that we have found thriving in harsh environments, perhaps hanging from the branches of a stunted, wind-lashed oak tree on a Welsh hillside...

or clinging to a dry stone wall at the top of a storm beach in the Northern Isles...

These slow-growing lifeforms have been able to attain a size relative to their age, in no small part due to their undisturbed habitat and the unpolluted atmosphere in which they live.

I am not an expert on lichens, only being vaguely aware that they are symbiotic organisms, consisting of fungal bodies inhabited by photosynthesising algae. To be honest, I haven't even tried to identify the few species that I've photographed, especially since there's reputed to be in excess of 2000 species in the British Isles alone. For more official and knowledgeable information, please visit the British Lichen Society website.

Lichens can be excellent indicators of the state of the environment, certain species only thriving in sites free from air pollution. Many have evolved to inhabit small ecological niches, and coupled with poor colonising ability, this can be a good indication of the age of a habitat or its length of appropriate management.

All this comes as a shock to me, as the bit of lichen with which I'm most familiar is not found in the Elan Valley in Wales, nor at Bridesness on North Ronaldsay, but more weirdly on the back of my truck. It is one of the few ecologically-redeeming features of my diesel-burning 4x4 that the spare wheel cover is home to its own micro-habitat. This despite sitting in the prime spot for exposure to exhaust fumes, road spray, windscreen washing fluid and the occasional high pressure hosing at the local carwash.

Tucked away on the very top of the cover, somehow clinging to the stitching of the fabric, is a small colony of... something.

That life can exist in such an artificial, unhelpful and polluted place, does inspire hope for the future of the planet.

Sunday 27 November 2011

A twitch with a twist

The definition of 'twitching', according to Wikipedia, is

a British term used to mean "the pursuit of a previously-located rare bird."

Long suffering readers will recall that I generally frown on this sort of behaviour and try to stay faithful to my local area or patch.The phrase has also expanded in usage to cover other wildlife species, rather than solely birds. Accidental twitches, where I've inadvertently turned up at a site hosting a rare bird, do not count!

Today, however, I found myself in a cleft stick...

13.30: A text from The Admiral arrived on my mobile phone. "It's on the bench!"

13.35: I phone back...

Me: "Is it still there?

Admiral: "Yes, I'm watching it now."

Me: "On my way!"

Now whatever could've caused good old Tense to be in such a flap? Well, as is often the case, truth is stranger than fiction.

As I grabbed my camera, jumped into our truck and scampered the half a mile to the local nature reserve, I contemplated the incongruity of the situation.

13.45: Here I was, driving a short distance to try and spot a particular animal. It was a species that is abundant in this area, and in much of the UK come to that. I have seen it on innumerable occasions, including at Tense Towers, and they have even bred in our garden.

So not your classic twitch for a mega-rare species, then. So why the urgency and excitement?

13.50: I arrived in the car park at Hanson Environmental Study Centre and was greeted by a big grin from Ted, one of the regular birders. He knew what this meant to me! For what had been found was not so much a rare species, as an anachronistic one. There, basking on a bench in the weak Autumnal sunshine, was a Common Darter dragonfly. On the 27th of November. Now, ok, it's been a mild Autumn, but this is still newsworthy. On a personal level, in previous years, I had not recorded any Odonata any later than the 6th. Hence my excitement. On a Buckinghamshire County level, as the County Recorder informed me later, the record for latest flying dragon had stood at the 25th of November. Hence The Admiral's frisson on the phone.

On a national level, we're nowhere near the record, but hey, we're patchers not twitchers, remember.

The Common Darter in question was a reasonably pristine male specimen, without any of the signs of damaged wings that might be expected in an individual at the back end of the flight season. Given enough warmth from the sun and a steady food supply, he could technically make it to Christmas, but usually a hard frost is all it will take to finish him off. He had already survived one icy morning this week, so who knows, it's possible that he may hang in there until December at least.

He certainly made my day.

Monday 21 November 2011

The Strange Case of the Tit in the Daytime

Regular sufferers of Imperfect and Tense are probably due a bit of serious nature news. Think of it as time off for good behaviour. Yours, not mine.

At Hanson Environmental Study Centre (HESC), there's recently been a bit of a kerfuffle over bird ID, in particular regarding the separation of the similarly-sized Marsh and Willow Tit. These two species are very alike and, in the absence of a qualified bird ringer and all their mist netting paraphernalia, are best identified by call.

Reading Birds Britannica by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, I was amazed to discover that the Willow Tit was not recognised as a separate British species until 1900. This followed some clever detective work by two German ornithologists in 1897, who discovered a couple of mis-identified Marsh Tit skins in a tray at the British Museum. What a day that must have been.

The Willow Tit, Parus montanus, has grey-brown plumage above and off white plumage below. It has a black cap, a black bib and white panels on the sides of the head. Just like a Marsh Tit, Parus palustris. To be fair, it's reckoned that if you had a specimen of each side by side, the Willow would have a more pronounced bull neck, making it like a 'stretched limo' version of the Marsh.

For the last century, it has been thought that the most obvious difference, and I use the word 'obvious' advisedly, is the presence on the Willow of a pale panel on the secondaries of the folded wing. But as Willows can lose this in summer through abrasion and a newly-moulted Marsh could have a suggestion of a pale panel, it's not a definitive distinction. In the Willow, the dark crown is supposed to be dull, whereas in the Marsh, it is glossy. However with changing light conditions, that's never going to be an easy call. My thanks to the Collins Bird Guide (Britain and Europe) for those few facts.

Should anyone care about this, apart from the hordes of pedantic, obsessive birders who fret over stuff like this all the time? Well, both birds are on the British Red Data List and the reasons for their decline are not fully understood. Without that understanding, it is difficult to know which habitat management techniques to deploy to prevent further loss of numbers and the real threat of extinction of these species within these shores.

And so to their calls. Until relatively recently, this was the best diagnostic tool available to split the two species. The Marsh Tit has a distinctive 'pitchoo' call (scroll down here, click and listen), whilst the Willow Tit has a 'zi-zi taah taah taah' call (scroll down here, click and listen).

Easy, eh? But what happens if neither of them are calling? In the last few years, it has been realised that the Marsh Tit has a small white patch at the base of its bill. This is absent in the Willow Tit. The only trouble is, neither species is very good at sitting still and carefully angling its head so that you can have a jolly good look.

Have I mentioned that of the two, Willow Tit is more likely to be found near water? Or that Marsh Tit inhabits broad-leaved woods. Honestly, it's enough to make Miss Marple throw in the towel and take up pole dancing.

On Saturday, whilst the light was great, The Admiral and I ventured down to HESC and found ourselves in the Woodland Hide in the company of The Singer (**new character alert**). We all sat, watching three black-capped tits visiting the feeders and tried to figure out whether we had three Marsh, or two Marsh and a Willow. I hadn't taken along my camera, which was a shame because, as I said, the light was great. None of the birds were calling, but one did seem to have a larger head.

On Sunday afternoon, The Admiral and I returned, camera'd to the eyeballs, to be greeted by swirling fog and two black-capped tits, either two Marsh or one of each. I did manage to capture one image of a Marsh, but as the light was poor, it was nothing to write home about. A bird, sounding not unlike a Willow Tit, was calling, but whether it was one of the two birds we were looking at was another matter.

Definitely, absolutely, positively a Marsh Tit, I think!
Today I discovered that help was at hand in the shape of LGR Evans, self professed birding expert of the UK and presumed permit holder of HESC. A recent blogpost of his at Buckinghamshire Birding contains further insights into this particular avian conundrum.

I am left with the odd feeling that on Saturday we saw but did not hear a Willow Tit, whilst on Sunday we heard but did not see a Willow Tit. Everything else was Marsh.

To be continued...

Sunday 20 November 2011

It is unusual

... if I may misquote Tom Jones.

I'm not just talking about the mild Autumn that Nature is taking to her heart and weaving into some second Spring love.

Here, in the garden at Tense Towers, amongst all the fallen leaves, withered stems and dying vegetation, there are a few subtle signs of this resurgent life. However fleeting this moment, whatever the Winter has in store, it is another reminder of the topsy turvy year we've had.

After the freezing weather at the beginning of 2011, there was an incredibly warm and dry Spring. This was followed by the dampest of damp squib Summers, as cool as a Welsh singing legend and, dare I say it, as wet as one of his knicker-throwing fans. So perhaps the mild Autumn should not have come as such a surprise. It's been a bonkers year for weather.

Our Hawthorn tree shed the last of its leaves several weeks ago, which is as it should be. Whilst sat enjoying our lunch yesterday, Our Lass commented that there appeared to be some new growth at the end of a twig.

Flower buds on the May in mid November? Each little stamen/anther package, a sex bomb.

Though the flower borders are not looking their best at the moment, there is a splash of colour from a plant that I've always known as Orange Hawkweed. Certainly, when I was a mere Tenselet all those years ago, this flower was frequently to be found on railway embankments in the North East of England. 

Some 21st Century research revealed that it is in fact Fox-and-cubs, Pilosella aurantiaca, that should've finished flowering in September. It may be an introduced species from continental Europe, but there's something 'bout you baby I like.

Meanwhile, in the centre of our scraggy lawn, there's this...

Whether it's a fungus or a mould, I don't know? However, I do suspect that it has developed from the remains of an apple thrown out for the birds. All together now... "the grey, green grass of home."

Sunday 13 November 2011


I know, I know. If there's one thing you can't stand it's a TLA*.

Working hard on her latest course, Our Lass has had very little time to relax of late, so one day of this weekend was set aside for some much-needed R 'n' R.

On Saturday morning, we made the trip over to Welney to visit the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve, have some fresh air and soak up the wildlife. In the evening, we met up with Second Born and JD to attend a gig at the Corn Exchange in Cambridge.

This Autumn, water levels on the WWT reserve have not yet risen sufficiently to flood the meadows, but there were still plenty of birds present. From the Friends Hide, we were able to see a few Egyptian Geese and a pair of Marsh Harriers, the latter sending flocks of waders and ducks skywards in alarm. Whilst in the Lyle Hide, the Admiral spotted a Weasel that was exploring the edge of one of the ditches. This furry bundle of hyperactivity did not stay still for a single second, so my attempted photographs were of a rather blurry nature.

Though the day was fairly overcast, the temperature was mild for November, so we were fortunate to encounter half a dozen Common Darter dragonflies during the day, at what must surely be the tail end of their season.

In the late afternoon, as it grew dark, a flock of Pied Wagtails gathered on the roof of the Visitors' Centre, before descending into a reed bed to roost for the night. We took this as our cue to leave and head towards the bright lights of the city for the evening's entertainment.

It is 35 years since the release of the album 'Frampton Comes Alive' and to mark the occasion, Peter Frampton is touring 'FCA35' and performing the whole album as the first half of his set. I must admit that, back in 1976, I was mainly listening to synthesisers and keyboards, so my interest in this guitar virtuoso only registered a few years ago when Planet Rock played the live version of the track "Do you feel like we do?" All 14 minutes and 15 seconds of it. Therefore, when the chance arose to experience it first hand (or rather, ear), it didn't take too long for JD to persuade me. Despite not knowing much of the second half of the set, we thoroughly enjoyed the night, such was the calibre of the musicianship. The warmth and affection that was apparent between band and audience certainly made it an evening to remember.

* TLA = three letter acronym

Monday 7 November 2011

Night games

You may be thinking "Early 80s rock track that made it into the UK Top Ten?" or even "Dubious reporting of salacious goings on at Tense Towers?" It's a tough call.

If I said that there's a camera involved, does that help?

Or that names have been changed to protect identities?

OK, last clue, the words "winkle", "bush" and "pussy" will appear in the following text.

You have been warned.

Last month, Our Lass bought me a trail camera, one of those Bushnell models that often appear on tv wildlife programmes. Now, although Tense Towers isn't big enough to possess a trail, I thought it would be interesting to see what was about in the environs after dark. To be honest, in a land where all large predators have systematically been obliterated, the answers are going to be pretty few. Still, hope springs eternal.

My first foray with the device was on a particular wild and windy night (no smirking at the back!) when the movement of the garden vegetation managed to trigger the camera to fill a 1GB card in the 3 hours before the watershed (US = safe harbor). Doh!

The next attempt was a calmer night, in a more sheltered spot and with the sensitivity reduced, resulting in only about 10 frames... mostly empty. Double Doh!

Picking suitable weather and returning to the first location produced some blurry shots of next door's cat, but little else.

Next door's pussy (not full frontal)
The more observant amongst you will have realised that it took me a while to figure out how to set the date/time stamp.

Finally, persistence eventually paid off and I managed to capture a few shots of...

Mrs Tiggywinkle (not her real name)
It's a good job that you lot don't have filthy minds.

Thursday 3 November 2011

Wildlife and punctuation

Relax, folks, this isn't going to be a punfest involving a certain species of orange butterfly or an investigation into the lower intestine of any particular creature. It's more of a eulogy to a departed soul who I didn't even know before their death, but who is now often in my thoughts.

But first, a little background.

Regular visitors to this blog will appreciate that I'm a bit of a pedant when it comes to the written word. Things have to be just so or it's the end of civilisation as we know it. Unfortunately, this doesn't make me immune to the odd grammatical slip or error of my own. In fact, only today, after commenting on a post, I noticed that a typo had crept into my supposedly carefully-crafted words.

Aaaaarggghhhh! Happily, there were enough people on hand to physically restrain me until the pedantic fit had subsided and, would you believe it, the world hadn't ended. And anyway, re-posting the correct version would have detracted from the sentiment I had been attempting to convey. Stay calm, Tense, stay calm.

Having grown up in a rural setting in the North East of England and, many years later, found myself working in a village surrounded by fields and farms, I am reasonably familiar with thunder flies, those tiny insects that seem to be everywhere at harvest time. Apart from some minor inconvenience when having my concentration temporarily broken, I have never been too bothered about their existence one way or the other. I guess that, on some level, I understood that they were part of the food web, but my thoughts did not run much deeper than that. And I certainly didn't consider their potential as proof reading time bombs.

It's only now, whilst researching for this post, that I discover that they are thrips from the Order Thysanoptera, who have two pairs of feather-like wings. Certain species are pests of economically important crops, especially cereals, which is probably why I have always referred to them as harvest flies, since they swarm in their thousands when the grain ripens.

Inevitably, for such a tiny insect, it can crawl into the smallest of gaps, and so, like many people, I have one stuck in my pc monitor. An ex thrips, (yep, the singular is 'thrips' too, something else I didn't know!) it has been there for over a year. Ages ago, when I first noticed it, it was very much alive, wandering about documents and emails like some randomly mobile comma or dash, depending on whichever direction it was intent upon heading. However, it was not long before the wandering stopped and its sad little body has remained marooned, left justified, two thirds of the way down a page, ever since. I hoped that its end wasn't hastened by having to read my interminable techno-babble, or that it wasn't given a nasty shock on meeting a forest of exclamation marks, but I do feel a twinge of guilt every day, on firing up my computer.

When proof reading documents, I have to remember where it is, lest I become confused by a sudden reference to 'attached' with an accent over the 'e', or on finding an unexpected apost'rophe in a word. More often than not, though, it's located in the wide open spaces between paragraphs, free but not free, hidden but on display.

I was going to take a photograph and upload it to Blogger, but to be honest, would you even know the difference if I just did this... ?


Rest in P's, little insect.

Sunday 30 October 2011

A personal wildlife calendar

If you're ever stuck for an idea to kick start a post, it's amazing how inspirational one's fellow bloggers can be. You've got Katie at Nature ID to thank for the seed corn of today's offering. I can only hope that my small corner of the blogosphere is half as good at germinating the tiny shoots of a thought and nurturing it towards maturity.

A couple of months ago, our good friend JD went on holiday to California, principally to go whale-watching with a bunch of like-minded cetacean folk, but also to soak up the general wildlife flavour of the area. I am smiling as I write this, remembering his excited description of finding a rattlesnake in the road as their car rounded a bend. Not long after his return to England, one of his American acquaintances mentioned a trip to the UK, and as one of the planned destinations for the trip was Orkney, I was asked for my thoughts on travel, accommodation, wildlife hotspots etc. It was very difficult to narrow down all our favourite places in the archipelago to a Top Ten, it felt a bit disloyal to some of the spiffing archaeology and scenery that I had to leave out, but rules are rules.

Through the Comments section of a recent Nature ID post, a similar question was raised, along the lines of " When is the best time to visit the UK?" Now that shouldn't take long to answer, I mused, thinking that a swift trawl through the Imperfect and Tense back catalogue would provide the necessary information. Well, it's been several days now, and I don't even know where to start. Talk about painting oneself into a corner. I guess the bottom line is that there is not just one answer, it will be different for everyone, so I will have to use a broad brush and produced a generalised, if personal, picture.

The quick answer is "Summer!", so chronologically that's June to August. This guarantees the most daylight during the summer solstice in late June or, theoretically at least, some hot weather in August. But that is likely to be when everybody else is on holiday too.

Autumn is great for all that mellow fruitfulness (September) with hedgerows resplendent in their sweet harvest, whilst the slowly-changing leafy palette of October can be a spectacle all in itself. The light can be gorgeous first thing in the morning or last thing in the evening. November often brings the first hard frosts and huge numbers of winter migrating birds from Iceland, Scandinavia and beyond.

Thinking of Winter, I can only recall that snow is more or less guaranteed in early February (though now I've said that... ). However, the last two winters have been colder than the norm, so it is possible that the frozen fractals could settle at any time. The landscape is softened, sounds are dampened and the crump, crump, crump of footfalls in the snow always gladdens my heart. Especially if there's any chance of a glass of mulled wine.

But regular readers will know that good ol' Tense can only recommend one time to visit the UK. Need a clue? It begins with 'S...' and ends in '... pring'. Just think of all the new life that emerges from the icy remnants of February and gathers pace through March and April. It hits the ground running in May, and by careful application of chasing it north, can last until the end of June. The arrival of summer migrating birds to swell the orchestra of the dawn chorus, the precious meadows where wild flowers can still be found and the fluttering roll call of colourful winged insects [contented sigh].

Certainly in this area of England, the last week of April or the first week in May will be optimum bluebell time (at least, that's what my posts reveal). Again, the beginning of May is when the dawn chorus is at its peak, especially those prima donnas the Nightingales! Through the month, the green hue of the landscape is at its best and I have to send for sedatives if I wander into a beech wood and experience dappled shade. Towards the end of May, the first broods of Great Spotted Woodpeckers are noisily emerging from their nest holes and in the glades and fields, the orchid season is well under way. June sees an increase in the numbers of dragonflies on the wing and the heartache of watching that agile falcon, the Hobby, as it swoops and turns above a lake in the evening light, feeding upon their bounty. I do have a very strong Spring-centric bias, I'm afraid.

Honourable mentions must go to February and March for boxing Hares and dancing Great Crested Grebes. And to November, for huge flocks of Starlings performing amazing aerial displays before roosting for the night.

I am sure that these wonders are not limited to the UK, but as my time abroad has not had a wildlife focus, I cannot say. Best come and check for yourself!

Monday 24 October 2011


The Admiral and I have been on a boys' weekend in Devon, ostensibly to attend the British Dragonfly Society's Members' Day 2011, this year held at the Dame Hannah Rogers Trust's Seale-Hayne campus, near Newton Abbot.

During our journey south on Friday, we were fortunate to spot an Osprey flying over Dyrham Park, a National Trust property near Bath. The return trip was even more eventful with a visit to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve at Slimbridge. I've undoubtedly whinged before about this being nothing short of a duck zoo, but it came up trumps on Sunday, with some proper wildlife in the form of a Spoonbill, a Peregrine Falcon and flocks of Black-tailed Godwits and Barnacle Geese. Shame I didn't have Very Wrong Len with me, really. Oh, and three Migrant Hawkers, for good measure.

The staff are also creating an imaginative wildlife garden, of which I was able to capture a few images, before I was enthralled by the siren song of the tea shop.

Excellent use of a redundant shipping container
Ingenious bug houses/wildlife stacks