Friday 27 May 2011


Sorry about the mis-post, folks!

I was trying to sort out a problem with my labels and accidentally re-posted from a couple of weeks ago. Funny stuff happening at log on too :o/

I knew I shouldn't have got rid of the quill pen and ink bottle. Hopefully, I will be able to report on Tense Team activities without any further hitches.

Ladies and Gentlemen, to your optics. Here's wishing you all a great weekend's nature watching.

Sunny afternoon

Not a Kinks retrospective, sorry. More a trip to Totternhoe Knolls to look at flowers.

But first, a little gratuitous odonatery...

A male Red-eyed Damselfly
This little fellow was sat in a sunny spot, out of the breeze, at Stony Stratford Nature Reserve. In flight, he stood out from all the Azure Damselflies around him due to that large black shield on his thorax. He looked a more solid flying creature than his blue cousins.

Moving on to the Wildlife Trust site at Totternhoe, the Admiral was keen to show us this chalk grassland site, formed from the spoil of quarrying in medieval times. On a sunny bank, were many Common Twayblades, which is a sort of plain-clothes orchid for undercover work. Either that or it's just had enough of all that flashy stuff that the other orchids do, and wants a quiet life where no-one will take any notice of it. Unlucky. It is thought that the name probably derives from Old Norse, as the modern Swedish name is Tva Blad, meaning two leaves. However, the flower is unmistakably an orchid.

Whilst ambling around the undulations of the reserve, we spotted several Dingy Skipper butterflies feeding on flowers of the vetch family (and I am resisting the temptation to put an 'h' in Dingy and go off on a maritime theme for several paragraphs).

Ahoy, Cap'n... stop it right now, Tense
The alkalinity of the soil, the lack of nutrients, plus close grazing by rabbits, means that a distinct flora exists on the site, where normal species cannot colonise. Certainly, this Green Dock Beetle was a long way from home on a Cowslip.

Not in the Dock for once
Some local resident obviously walks their dog through the reserve on a daily basis, judging by the amount of crap it has deposited everywhere. So quite how long it is before the nutrient level is increased, to the detriment of all the chalk loving plants, is anybody's guess. What a chump.

Tuesday 24 May 2011

Triumph on the Thames

Apologies, dear reader, this post is a bit late, due to computer trouble and an attack of "Life, the universe and everything". Sadly, not the excellent book by Douglas Adams, but more an accumulation of woes at a single point in space/time. Perhaps if they'd mentioned that in Physics lessons, I'd have spent far less of my life worrying about the meaningless froth that the eternal bar staff pour onto the pint of existence and just got on with downing the draught. Not too sure where that last sentence came from, but the weight did shift a bit, so let's move swiftly on.

Despite appearances to the contrary, the weekend just gone was a pretty good one. Saturday saw the Tense Team on the banks of the River Thames on a dragon hunt, whilst Sunday evening was spent at the NEC in Birmingham, being entertained by Canada's finest export, the band Rush. I'll spare you the song title and lyric punfest that will ensue if I post about the gig, and limit myself to a bit of odonatology.

After several years of not making the effort to go and spot Common Clubtail, followed by last year's failed attempt, the Admiral was determined to ensure that, in 2011, Our Lass and I broke our Gomphus duck.

In the UK, the Clubtail dragonflies are locally abundant in only a few rivers, where slow meanders allow for a build up of silt, a medium which the larvae prefers. In our region, that means the Thames between Lechlade and Windsor. We drove down to Goring in Oxfordshire and ate a picnic lunch by the cricket pitch as the local team prepared for a match. It was a revelation to Our Lass, watching sight screens being assembled, the boundary being marked out and fielding practice taking place.

The thing about Clubtails is that most are seen at emergence, before dispersal away from the river. And whilst they obviously return to mate when mature, they are not so easy to spot. The books reckon that peak emergence time is late May/early June and the best time of day is early afternoon. Hence our leisurely cricketing diversion, no point in bolting down those cheese and pickle sarnies, eh?

Walking along the river bank, the trick was to check the man-made structures on route, as the larvae tend to clamber up posts, bridge parapets, retaining walls and the like. Whether this is intentional on their part, or it's just easier for an odo-spotting human to see them on these structures is debatable. Either way, we soon found several exuviae (the empty larval shells) clinging to a wall under a footbridge. Sadly, this group of exuviae also contained one failed emergence where, for whatever reason, the adult dragonfly was unable to free itself.

Pottering on downstream, we encountered a recently-emerged Clubtail, perched a few feet above the water on a culvert wall. We were only able to view it properly one at a time, as the overhang meant that it was rather precarious to lean out too far unaided. Further searches along the river's edge proved unsuccessful, so we made a brief detour to look at some orchids at Hartslock, a Wildlife Trust site.

By teatime, we were wearily making our way back upstream to Goring, when the Admiral bumped into a couple of fellow enthusiasts by a railway bridge. They hadn't had much luck either, and after a brief chat, we were about to set off again when a shout brought us to a halt. Our Lass had wandered off to the edge of the bridge foundations and found an emerging Clubtail in the shade of some reeds. Whilst photographing this, the lady of the couple discovered another one, which had just crawled up out of the water. Then another appeared out of the slow-moving Thames. It was larval rush hour! I'm guessing that no-one told the dragonflies about daylight saving and British Summer Time.

Here is a newly-emerged Clubtail, perched on its exuvia. Its wings are still much compressed and it will use body fluids to pump these up. Once this is complete, the fluid is re-used to extend the abdomen.

Once the wings and abdomen are enlarged, the wings are allowed to harden before the maiden flight. Due to a strong breeze, this Clubtail's first aerial foray ended rather clumsily on Our Lass's arm. On closer inspection, the photo revealed a drop of unwanted fluid oozing from the dragonfly's bum. Charming!

Friday 20 May 2011

Yo, Blue! I see you!

Last evening, I found this male Common Blue Damselfly roosting alongside a track through the nature reserve near Great Linford.

As usual in these situations, the insect would shimmy around the stalk, to keep as much (or as little!) vegetation between me and him. There followed a short choreographed sequence of to-ing and fro-ing by the pair of us, until I could see enough of the damselfly to make an ID. After taking this photo, I left him in peace, both of us struggling to fathom the comedic potential of a blade of grass.

Monday 16 May 2011

Sleeping with Swifts

Our Lass and I are recovering from a whirlwind trip to the North East to visit our respective parents. The time was when I wouldn't bat an eyelid at a 4 hour drive up the motorway on a Saturday, with the return journey on Sunday inevitably longer due to the volume of traffic. These days, we need a weekend to recover from the weekend!

"Nae stamina!" as her dad would say.

We had booked into a B+B for the Saturday evening, a farmhouse by the River Tees near Piercebridge. We ate at a pub in the village and then had a gentle stroll back to our accommodation, fortified as we were by a bottle of wine and some pleasant weather. Standing on the road bridge over the river, we were watching a flock of Sand Martins swooping down to the water to catch insects, when Our Lass pointed to a flash of blue and red, as a Kingfisher flew upstream, beneath our feet. Taking a potter through the woods by the river bank, we walked between carpets of Ramsons (Wild Garlic), their white flower heads like star clusters amongst the galactic greenery of their foliage.

Along the track to the B+B, with a hedge on one side and open pasture on the other, we spotted several Hares and the occasional Lapwing. Our ears picked up the calls of Yellowhammer, Whitethroat and Skylark, as well as numerous hirundines overhead. Skirting the house, we came to some outbuildings, where we startled a Little Owl, perched on a gutter. Across the fields, we could see a Heron, stalking his supper in the damp grass, whilst the the cry of a Curlew came to us through the cool evening air.

As the light faded, we retired to our room and watched more Hares in the field visible from our window. A few dark shapes loomed towards the glass and disappeared upwards, which, in my happy state, I took to be Swallows, nesting under the eaves.

The following morning, with crisper light and a sharper eye, we were astonished to realise that these birds were, in fact, Swifts. As we stood by the window, we could hear their calls from the nests above our heads, a muted version of the full throttle screaming they normally produce as they hurtle through the air.

My only disappointment was missing the Red-legged Partridge that walked past the window whilst I was in the shower. Mind you, I don't think the world is quite ready for a stark naked and dripping wet Tense, dressed only in a pair of binoculars and a smile.

After a hearty breakfast, our landlady suggested we have a short walk along the Tees, to the remains of the Roman bridge and back. As it was raining, I did not take my camera, an omission guaranteed to produce something photogenic. Sure enough, our wanderings by the river revealed several Goosanders with ducklings, a pair of Common Sandpipers and a Grey Wagtail. Thank heavens for Our Lass's wee point 'n' click.

We counted eleven tiny ducklings with this Goosander, four of which hitched a ride on her back as she swam across the river. I've included this particular shot as it shows the north bank of the River Tees i.e. County Durham!

That's my girl!

On the way home from work last Friday, Second Born asked me which route I would take to drive from little old MK to the sprawling megatropolis that is the village of Fillongley in Warwickshire. She was planning a trip to visit a friend, and being a wee bit geographically-challenged, was keen to seek her dad's wisdom (no, I don't believe it, either).

I replied that I'd probably go up the M1, then along the M6 to the appropriate junction and wing it from there.

Second Born confirmed that the internet pretty much agreed with me, but there were just too many little roads to worry about between the M6 and Fillongley. Therefore, she was contemplating driving up the A5 instead and picking up a B road that would speed her to her destination.

"It's a good plan, " I said, "because ease of navigation is as much part of the selection process as the time taken for the journey." And yes, I really did say that. Jings, I'm such a dad, at times.

After a few minutes silence and conscious of Second Born's ability to become lost in the most familiar of environments, I asked if she would like a satnav for her birthday.

"Good grief, no," she replied, "I don't want to go down that road."

Sunday 8 May 2011

The view from the Crow's nest

Seven weeks ago, towards the end of March, I mentioned a couple of Crows in one of my posts. Inquisitive readers may be wondering how they are getting on, as back then I wasn't too sure about their ability to raise a family.

To be honest, I'm still not sure. The intervening weeks have not provided a vast amount of evidence to enlighten my understanding of corvid behaviour. However, that might have more to do with my intelligence, or lack thereof, than that of the birds! Our observations have been sporadic, due to little inconveniences like work and, in my case, the burning desire to watch dragonflies. What can be said, is that the Crows are still there, off and on, but in a manner that has created much confusion.

Any particular observation will fall into one of several categories:

No Crows present at all;
One Crow present, near nest;
One Crow present, in nest;
Two Crows present, near nest;
Two Crows present, one in nest;
Three Crows present, near nest;
Three Crows present, one in nest.

To add a bit of detail, sometimes from a 'no Crow' situation, a single bird would turn up, sit near the nest for a while and then fly off. Or perhaps 3 birds would appear and then disappear again. Very confusing. I suppose I shouldn't discount the possibility that this is Crow behaviour, it's just odd, to my mind.

In recent days, there does seem to have been a more concerted effort to have one of the pair sat in the nest, so perhaps things are beginning to unfold in a more conventional manner. And perhaps that's been it, Crows are just unconventional to human eyes. They are deeply embedded in our mythology for all the wrong reasons. Harbingers of death, the Devil in avian form, thieves, murderers or just plain old evil. They aren't cute and cuddly, they come in a variety of colours limited to black (mostly) and have a rather grating call. What's not to like?!

From a corvid point of view, finding enough food to sustain oneself and one's family is just how you get through the day . But in human terms, this could be viewed as raiding the eggs and nestlings of game birds, attacking vulnerable livestock, or, in previous centuries, gorging upon the corpses on a battlefield. You would need a pretty good publicist to spin some positives out of that lot, in the face of the anger from gamekeepers, farmers and anyone fortunate enough to have survived the battle.

To redress the balance slightly, Crows aren't drastically altering the environment with their actions or negatively impacting on biodiversity. They are part of the environment and the biodiversity. Us humans don't seem able to grasp the fact that we, too, are part of that web and should therefore act accordingly.

But back to the Ash tree and chez Crow. The leaves of the Ash are now bursting forth, so soon the nest will be hidden from view. I've failed spectacularly in my attempts to photograph the nest, as its distance from Tense Towers requires me to resort to digiscoping. And the results ain't pretty. Too many branches in the way, too much swaying (mainly from Ash tree, a bit by  photographer) and nowhere near enough focus.

As the sexes are alike, this adds to the confusion about what is going on, but once the Ash tree is fully in leaf, this too will become a moot point, as we will have to rely upon our ears for clues.

Whilst I'm sure that all other birds nesting in the locality aren't hugely in favour of their presence, the Crows have had troubles of their own. Magpies have had to be chased away from an inspection of the nest, small flocks of Wood Pigeons have been discouraged from eating the Ash buds and, this morning, a pair of Grey Squirrels were given short shrift in no uncertain terms. Ah, the joys of prospective parenthood.

And, yes, I know, this post has been a view of the Crow's nest, but for all their 'faults', I hope I have added something of the world from their perspective.

Saturday 7 May 2011

Love is in the air... and the water

The place was awash with hormones last evening. By this, I mean in the natural world rather than any particular room in Tense Towers.

Wandering out into the garden after work, I was pleasantly surprised to find the pond was teeming with amphibians. The introduction of more oxygenating plants seems to have solved the blanket weed problem and visibility has improved considerably. As I sat watching the water, first one then another newt came into view. When my eyes became accustomed to the depth of water, I realised that there were at least eight individuals, more males than females. Also, it soon became evident that there was much courtship display to be observed.

Smooth Newts... the males trying to be EXTRA smooth!
Several males would congregate near a female, swimming underneath her and nudging her underside with their noses. This behaviour wasn't necessarily to the lady's liking, so much chasing around the pond ensued. Occasionally, a male would find himself alone with a female and dart around in front of her. Once he had her attention, he would bend his tail into a U-shape, to the left or right, and shimmy the end of it, in a way that, I presume, is a sure-fire hit with a lady newt.

A lone Toad sat rather forlornly in the shallows, doing its best to stay out of the way of the romantic goings on. All this means that we're unlikely to see any damselfly larvae emerging this year, as they will probably end up as amphibian snacks. Such is life, or death, in this case.

After our evening meal, Our Lass and I ventured down to the nature reserve at Stantonbury Lake. The birdsong at dusk was all-enveloping, as warblers and thrushes filled the air with their calls. As we rounded a bend in the path, we came face to face with a female Muntjac deer and her tiny fawn (or kid). We stood stock still, lest we spook them, and she wasn't immediately sure what we were. While mum hesitated, the youngster busied itself with a spot of suckling, its fresh, dappled coat contrasting well with the adult's more even tones. Neither were particularly well-camouflaged against a verdant backdrop of Comfrey plants lining the track, whose purple flowers were still a-buzz with bees despite the lateness of the hour. Eventually, they trotted off up the path and out of sight, but we crept slowly and silently after them, in the hope that we would be rewarded with another view.

Fortune favoured us, and this time, even more amazingly, a male Muntjac was in attendance. Very, very close attendance! We were puzzled, as it isn't Autumn and surely that's when this sort of thing goes on, rutting and bellowing and general sauciness. Then we remembered that Muntjac aren't native deer, so perhaps normal rules don't apply. Sure enough, later, when  checking the Mammal Society website, we learnt that the doe is receptive immediately after giving birth and can be virtually permanently pregnant. Tough gig! This might also explain why they do so well as a species, if they can produce three kids in two years.

Before returning home in the gathering darkness, we were first treated to a view of a Barn Owl, like a pale ghost floating above the lake, and then the song of a Grasshopper Warbler, which reached us in waves, pulsing out across the landscape.

Thursday 5 May 2011

Half an hour in May

I mustn't have been on a walk during my lunch break for years, but today the prospect was too tempting to ignore. The chilly easterly breeze of the last week or so had transformed into a gentler, warmer beast, a layer of cloud was taking the harshness out of the sun's glare and the opportunity to be out in the fresh air was calling to me on all frequencies.

Leaving the factory, a pleasant stroll through the village brought me to a footpath that headed across the valley. As roads and houses were left behind, the natural order began to restore itself, as the hedgerows were filled with the sounds of Whitethroats (Common and Lesser), Yellowhammers and Chaffinches. From a distant copse, I could hear a Blackbird singing his sweet song, whilst a Chiffchaff kept up a relentless back beat.

The footpath crossed over a stream on a small wooden bridge and then headed out into a field of glowing oilseed in full bloom. As I neared the centre of this crop, the birdsong grew fainter and fainter until all I could hear was the monotonous buzzing of flies and the breeze moving softly through the flower heads. A yellow and green desert, almost devoid of diversity.

Dropping down to the river, crossed by means of a wide, sturdy bridge, the countryside came back to life and I was tempted to linger for a while and search the banks for roosting dragons and damsels. Not today, unfortunately, so I had to be content with the song of a Garden Warbler and a glimpse of a Brimstone butterfly as I crested the disused railway embankment and headed on up the other side of the valley.

The gradient was gentle, but I stopped momentarily when a shadow passed over me, turning to see a Buzzard in a long, shallow glide towards a distant Oak tree. Continuing on, up and up, through cereal fields yet to challenge for the skies, my route reached its highest point before turning back towards the village along a farm track. In the hedgerows here, were more Yellowhammers and possibly a Tree Sparrow, if my ears did not deceive me.

Joining the surfaced road leading back across the valley, I returned over railway and river, to begin the steep climb back to the factory, topographically rather than metaphorically, obviously! Grateful that this part of my walk was in the shade of Oak, Field Maple and Hawthorn, and encouraged by a Willow Warbler and more Whitethroats, my destination was reached with a few minutes to spare. This allowed me to marvel at a mixed flock of birds overhead, presumably feasting on countless flies, rising in the heat of the day. Swallows, House Martins, Starlings and even a Pied Wagtail joined in the feeding frenzy, their calls following me back indoors as I returned to another world, a happier and invigorated soul.

Monday 2 May 2011

Mission Impossible

This Spring, after years of abject failure, I made a concerted effort to attempt to photograph an Orange Tip butterfly, Anthocharis caramines. Opportunities were available on virtually every trip we have made, whether locally or further afield, but tradition is difficult to beat.

These butterflies aren't rare, being common throughout England and Wales, and widespread in Ireland and most of Scotland. They are very distinctive, certainly it would be difficult to mistake the male for any other butterfly, but still I struggle to photograph them.

In our part of the UK, the main food plant is Cuckooflower, Cardamine pratensis, also known as Lady's Smock, which is to be found in woods, damp meadows and hedgerows.

So, plenty of insects and plenty of its preferred flowers. What's so difficult about photographing it, then? Well, they're flighty little herberts, that's what. Lacking the patience to sit by a flower and just wait, I had to be a bit more reactive than proactive and take my chances when one happened by. Surprise, surprise, countless specimens visited the garden of Tense Towers (population of food plants; zero), but didn't hang about long enough for me to dash off for the camera. So far, so predictable, but even out and about in woods and meadows, I struggled to capture a decent image. Believe me, I ain't picky with my piccies, virtually anything in focus showing the whole butterfly would've had me in raptures. I suspect that, along with the camera shake (it's a skill), I have failed to do my homework and set up the camera for the amount of white in the photograph. In the unlikely event that the Orange Tip was still on the flower by the time that I brought Len to bear, I just couldn't manage a crisp shot. I've lost count of the number of images consigned to the waste bin with an exasperated press of the Delete key.

Further lack of homework became evident, when on a trip out sans camera, we noticed a female Orange Tip alighting on Garlic Mustard, Alliara petiolata, also known as Jack-by-the-hedge. It turns out that this is also a food plant and should've been on my radar from the outset. Grrrr.

Through the Spring, weekend after weekend went by, with out of focus or over exposed or good old not in shot pictures. My frustration and despondency were racing each other to the top of the graph.

Yesterday, whilst exploring the Bog Garden at Upton House in Warwickshire (a damp place, if ever there was one), I managed the shot in the previous post of a pair of Orange Tips, somewhat coitus interruptus. That's the butterflies, not Our Lass and I. A few minutes later, I spotted another male feeding on some Bluebells and finally attained a crisp image... the only drawback being that one of the flowers hid the butterfly's head. Darn it.

To be honest, I was now at the stage where, after trying, trying and trying again, I had only one option left to me. Give up.

This morning, whilst pottering around Hanson Environmental Study Centre, ostensibly surveying for Odonata, but always up for any natural history, Our Lass and I were stood staring at a clump of brambles. This is a very under-rated activity. I think the world would be a better place if more people just stood and stared at bramble bushes, instead of running around injuring, maiming and killing each other. As a manifesto commitment, it probably won't bring me many votes, but I digress.

Where were we, oh yes, staring at the brambles. This particular clump was in full sun and sheltered from the wind, so should've been heaving with roosting dragonflies. It wasn't, hence the prolonged staring. At the base of the bush, were some small purple plants, Ground Ivy, Glechoma hederacea, also known as Quick-there's-a-frigging-Orange-Tip-on-it.

As she looked down, Our Lass moved slightly and the flighty creature took off. That's the Orange Tip, not Our Lass. Fortunately, it alighted again, almost immediately, on an adjacent flower and I was able to press the shutter release once, before it flew off again, this time for good.

The afore-mentioned tradition meant that I didn't even bother to check the image, because why would I put myself through the whole failure trip whilst out searching for dragons? Once home and flicking through my shots, I was pleasantly surprised to find a perfectly visible butterfly, more in focus than many of my odo pics. Whoopee!

Ladies and Gentlemen, my quest is over.

Happy couple: Unofficial photo released!

Orange Tip butterflies, Mr and Mrs

Spots before our eyes

Another sunny but breezy day, another RSPB reserve. Today, it's the turn of Otmoor in Oxfordshire. Set in the flood plain of the River Ray, this expanse of water meadow and reed bed feels more like East Anglia than central England. Our afternoon visit concentrated on finding sheltered spots where dragons and damsels were basking in the sunshine, out of the the cool wind.

It wasn't all Odonata, mind you. Out in the meadows, Lapwings wheeled and dived, chasing away any perceived threat to their eggs or chicks. Whether it was a fellow wader or a Red Kite, all received the same treatment and were forcefully encouraged to move on.

In the hedgerows and areas of scrub, warblers of several species announced their presence. Walking along an embankment, we were drawn to one particular bush that contained a Sedge Warbler. We sat on a nearby bench and listened to him run through his repertoire. He would occasionally stop singing as people walked past, but start up again almost immediately.

Of the dragons, Four-spotted Chasers were the most numerous and several were perched up  on reeds by the path, affording splendid views.

I have never been able to figure out why "Four-spotted" with any certainty. Dragonfly maths is a bit of a mystery to me. Four wings with two spots each equals... er... Libellula quadrimaculata, that's what.