Sunday 25 September 2011

Four folk become tree fellers

The Friends of Hanson Environmental Study Centre held their first scrub-bashing morning today.

Four intrepid souls, armed with a variety of cutting tools, began work on a length of embankment that was overgrown with Willow, Hawthorn, Dog Rose and Brambles. This area is designated as a 'butterfly bank' and it should be a grassy place in full sun and with a plentiful spread of native wild flowers.

However, the encroachment of the above-mentioned bushes and trees have compromised this habitat and it wasn't a difficult decision for the group to choose this task to begin our conservation work.

After several hours of pruning, sawing and lopping, we had cleared just over 20 metres, barely a sixth of the total length of the bank. Still, the journey begins with the first step.

It wasn't all work and no play. A Wheatear was present at the entrance to the centre, a Hobby wheeled overhead as we wielded our blades and this caterpillar was discovered crawling along someone's shoulder.

Photo courtesy of The Admiral
Recourse to ID guides and the internet suggest that it is the larva of the Sallow Kitten moth, and in case you're wondering, the head is at the top of the photo.

Wandering around the nature reserve later, we were pleasantly surprised to discover that members of the BTCV Green Gym had been hard at work this week too. Several areas had been cleared of fallen timber or encroaching Willows and a start made at removing reeds from a pond that had become choked with vegetation.

Better still, contractors had felled all the trees and shrubs on the bund out in the lake, so it may yet be possible to rescue this habitat for waders and wildfowl.

Sunday 18 September 2011

Asterisk the gall

After yesterday's thunderstorms and hail stones*, the sun returned today, so the Tense Towers Team headed off to Little Linford Wood, for some fresh air and exercice.

(*My posts nearly always start with the weather. Am I just pandering to the stereotype of the meteorologically-crazed Brit or am I a bit obsessive, do you think?)

At this time of year, the galls on wild roses are particularly spectacular. Colloquially, these are known as Robin's Pincushions*. Once back home and leafing through Bugs Britannica, by Peter Marren and Richard Mabey, I discovered that the natural and folk history of these galls is just as interesting as their colour and form.

The galls are caused by the Bedeguar Gall Wasp, Diplolepus rosae, and can contain up to 50 grubs, each in a separate chamber. Bizarrely, the grubs are infected by a bacterium that turns them all into females, so the gall wasps are effectively reproducing asexually (apparently, if the grubs are treated with antibiotics, the wasps return to a 50-50 gender spread).

(*The 'Robin' of the folk name is the woodland sprite Robin Goodfellow, or Puck, who is associated with natural objects which are coloured red.)

Later in the day, we made our way to Hanson Environmental Study Centre, following reports of two Black Terns over the lake. Whilst walking to the Near Hide, we discovered half a dozen Willow Warblers, or possibly Chiffchaffs, taking it in turns to bathe in a puddle.

Although they're ground nesters, it's not often that they're seen on terra firma in the open.

We reached the hide and were just in time to see the terns in the far distance, shortly before they flew off. But Nature's like that, which makes the unexpected surprises all the nicer. As if to prove the point, several metres in front of the hide, we spotted a pair of dragonflies in flagrante delicto amongst the reeds.

Migrant Hawkers, Aeshna mixta, are now a well-established species in the UK, though presumably some migration does still occur from continental Europe. The more, the merrier, as far as I am concerned, and this couple were certainly in agreement in that regard.

Saturday 17 September 2011

Numbers and garden birds

The news that a species of bird of non-UK distribution had turned up on a garden feeder in south Buckinghamshire, made me wonder about the dynamics of numbers in our feathered visitors. How do our gardens, and possible round-the-year feeding, affect both the populations of garden birds and their near neighbours in the countryside at large?

This seems like quite an important topic, certainly worthy of rigorous sampling, efficient data collection and critical analysis.

Does this sound like an Imperfect and Tense blogpost? Nah! So after a moment's thought (in lieu of any serious research), here's the lowdown on the mathematics of bird numbers in the Tense Towers garden.

0 (zero)

Although it means nothing, zero is an incredibly important number to a mathematician and it's also pretty high up any garden-gazing birder's agenda. For example, how many Nuthatches are seen within the environs of Tense Towers in any 365 day period? Or, I wish we had this many Wood Pigeons (the vegetation-trampling, profusely-defecating, feathered handbag-fighting, wastes of space that they are. I'm just saying, that's all).

1 (one)

If the song is to be believed, this would be a single partridge in a pear tree, but we have neither of those. We could possibly muster a Sparrowhawk in a Hawthorn tree? However, for the best bird-brained maths, count up all the visits to the peanut feeder by a Great Spotted Woodpecker, times this by the number of birds seen sharing said feeder during these visits and then divide by the number you first thought of. The answer will be one. Our GSWs do not like sharing, not with each other and certainly not with any of those upstart finches, no thank you very much.

2 (two)

Hold on, let me stop you before you ask... no, we haven't got any Turtle Doves either. Though we do have several Collared Doves, the only species on the planet to look good in beige. I guess that once you have two, then there's a certain inevitability that more will surely follow. It's not simple multiplication, I reckon it's a pyramid selling scheme.

3 (three)

Let's have some proper maths now. How about a bit of Trigonometry? I know what you're thinking, "What's his angle on this one?" Well, as it turns out, it's 120 degrees. All you need is one peanut feeder and 3 equally-spaced Blue Tits. No squabbling, each has enough room and valuable feeding time isn't wasted. And if you fill the feeder with a certain type of seed, your Blue Tits will be really spaced, man.

4 (four)

Multi-port feeders, they could be 6 or 8, but we'll stick with 4 for the time being. When they're full, peace and harmony settle over the garden and it is a relaxing place to be. The tranquillity is temporary, however, for when the seed falls below the level of the top ports, all hell breaks loose, as suddenly there's twice as many finches as full ports. It's a bit like a dual carriageway packed with nose-to-tail rep-mobiles trying to filter down into one lane to negotiate a caravan with a flat tyre. It is possible, but there's gonna be an amount of carnage and broken door mirrors along the way. The Goldfinches are in the BMWs, by the way.

12 (twelve)

Physicists would have us believe that there are 11 dimensions in the quantum world of String Theory. And if that's too difficult a concept to grasp, don't try counting a flock of House Sparrows during an RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch. Twelve is my limit, before my eyes start going in different directions and the balancing mechanism of my inner ear gives up on all the sudden changes of direction. That's also the real reason the BGBW is only supposed to be for an hour. The human mind isn't built to cope with a squabbling flock of finches for more than 60 minutes.

30 (thirty)

Imagine the scene... you're sat staring out of the window at the feeders, your brow furrowed in concentration, eyes darting to every fluttering movement. All your senses are switched to overdrive, as you watch intently for your quarry. But it's been half an hour now, thirty whole minutes, but no sign at all, perhaps it's not around today. Someone enters the room behind you and joins you at the window. After several seconds, they whisper excitedly, "There! Did you see it? Coal Tit!" Your answer is not printable.

Saturday 10 September 2011


Bleary-eyed and dressing gown-clad, I shuffled outside this morning to bring in the fresh milk. The weather was very mild, despite Autumn's changes, so we decided that after breakfast we would busy ourselves with chores in the garden, before any rain showers could hamper our efforts.

Following an hour's cutting, clipping and trimming, we drove to Clifton Reynes, a village above the River Great Ouse, a few miles downstream of MK. As we walked the paths towards the scarp along the eastern edge of the valley, the hedgerows were abundant with fruity treats as the flora tempted the fauna to help with seed dispersal. Sloes, hips, haws, blackberries, hazel nuts and elderberries, were all on display, together with the highly-polished snooker ball redness of White Bryony berries.

Despite the warmth of the morning, it was overcast with grey cloud and a blustery wind jostled the trees and bushes so that they seemed to be shaking their fruit in a frantic "Here it is! Come and get it!" manner. In sheltered spots, a few brave butterflies, bees and wasps were sipping nectar from Ivy flowers, but of dragonflies, there were precious few sightings.

Whilst trying to identify the call of an unseen warbler, we saw this Blue Tit, who was keen to show that it could look after itself in the big, wide world without regular trips to a garden bird feeder.

After finding a solitary Common Darter and a lone Migrant Hawker, we made our way to the next village for a spot of lunch (The Old Mill, Newton Blossomville. Very nice). Upon leaving the pub, the sun had decided to put in an appearance, so we sauntered down towards the river and, in a woodland glade, were pleasantly surprised to find dozens of dragons.

A couple of Common Darters were occupying the woody warmth of a fence rail and a bench respectively. The air was full of whirling wings and swift changes of direction, as Migrant Hawkers chased their prey, making the most of the heat and the plentiful food supply. A lone Brown Hawker was seen disappearing between the trees.

We parked ourselves on the bench to absorb the atmosphere and marvel at the aerial acrobatics, inadvertently depriving one of the Common Darters of his resting place. He didn't seem to mind too much however, and would occasionally land on our heads. When reviewing my photos later, I noticed that he seemed to be missing the end of one leg.

A Hobby flew overhead, proving that we weren't the only ones taking advantage of the assembled mass of dragonflies. Its feeding technique is referred to as 'hawking', though it belongs to the Falcon family, but as it was eating Hawker dragonflies, perhaps that's the reason.

As we crossed the footbridge over the river, a Kingfisher rocketed upstream, like a feathered Blue Streak missile. A pair of Mute Swans were sedately preening in the shallows and, sheltering out of the breeze, a Comma butterfly was sunning itself on a bankside leaf.

As dark clouds gathered to the south, we retraced our steps, pausing only to be alighted upon by the headstrong Common Darter. Then, as the rain drops began to fall, all parties took shelter in their own fashion: the dragons in the bushes and undergrowth; the humans in their truck. Despite the damp finale, the warmth of the memory still fires my neurones and warms my smile.

Thursday 8 September 2011

One rule for her...

Teneral Common Darter (female) "obelisking" into the sun
Here's a pic from last month's visit to Wicken Fen, just to remind me what it was like when the sun was shining.

This is a teneral (immature) lady Common Darter dragonfly, roosting on a fence rail because it's nice and warm. However, she's also stopping herself from becoming too hot by pointing her abdomen at the sun, thereby reducing her surface area exposed to the heat, in a process termed "obelisking". Whilst I have mentioned this term previously on Imperfect and Tense, I just wanted an excuse to post a reasonably crisp odo shot.

I suspect that if I tried this method of thermo-regulation, all I would get are rosy cheeks and a caution from the local constabulary.

Sunday 4 September 2011

Great White

Sorry, hard rock lovers, this isn't a blog post about the American band. Furthermore, as we're located about 70 miles from the sea, here in little ol' MK, it's unlikely to be a Jaws-dropping tale of sharp-toothed wit. So what does that leave us with... ?

Just as I was completing yesterday's blog session, a text came through from the Admiral, saying that he was watching a Great White at our local nature reserve, Hanson Environmental Study Centre (HESC). Presuming it wasn't a shark, for the above-mentioned reasons, the only other option was an egret. This was a species that I'd not encountered before, it being only an occasional visitor to the UK, so it looked like turning into a mini-twitch, virtually on our back door step.

The Admiral's text also contained information that the bird was visible from the Far Hide, as it was located at the easterly end of the bund, handily standing next to a Grey Heron for size comparison. Our Lass and I made our way to the hide, with the briefest of pauses to admire a Migrant Hawker and Southern Hawker en route (dragons are a higher priority than birds in my book, ok).

The egret was indeed at the end of the bund, far too far away for anything other than record shots with the camera. After preening for a bit, it wandered to the water's edge, paddled around for a while and then flew to the north east corner of the lake to hunt. This wasn't much closer really, but it was then spooked by another Grey Heron and flew back to the bund. Unfortunately, this time, it was behind some willow bushes, so we took the decision to decamp to the Near Hide for a better view.

As luck would have it, just before we entered the Near Hide, it moved back to the other side of the bund again. Doh! This information was relayed to us by the only occupant of the hide, Rob Norris, aka Birding North Bucks and Beyond, who worked out that we were the Tense Towers Team and introduced himself. It's always a pleasant surprise to bump into a fellow blogger!

After waiting a while to see if the Great White would move again (it didn't), Rob pondered upon whether to go to the Far Hide for a better view (he did). Predictably, a short time later, the egret flew up into some willow trees to roost, allowing distant views once more.

Bizarrely, I realised that I had just clocked up my 201st blog post and this bird was 201st on my puny life list.

As a post script, today sees the inaugural event organised by the Friends of HESC, a group set up to protect and maintain the nature reserve as a place for wildlife. The site is threatened by encroaching development, the prospect of being turned into a manicured park and, also, lack of funding for basic habitat maintenance.

Saturday 3 September 2011

Yew may regret this...

On the way back from our trip to the Marches, we stopped off at Westbury-on-Severn, to visit a National Trust garden, Westbury Court.

This restored water garden in the Dutch style is the only remaining example in England from the early 1700s, as many estate gardens were later reworked by the aficionados of the landscape movement.

Sadly, now, it is under threat once more. Winter flooding leaves the ground water-logged, providing perfect conditions for a fungus, Phytophthora, that attacks the roots of the Yew hedges. In order to maintain the planting in the style of the time, the National Trust will have to come up with a radical solution to this problem. I was so tempted to write "radicle solution", there!

Despite the sunshine, there were very few odes about in this water garden, possibly due to the amount of fish in the ponds and canals. However, by a stream that borders the property, we came across several Common Darters, Sympetrum striolatum. The males were competing for territory and alighting on perches in the sun.

Odd odes and beetle-mania

Recently, the Tense Towers Team paid a long overdue visit to Wicken Fen. What with one thing and another, we'd just not had chance to potter around this oldest of National Trust reserves in 2011.

A hot, sunny morning meant plenty of dragonflies and damselflies on the wing. The reserve staff are to be congratulated on managing the habitat and maintaining access to the water's edge, such that the wildlife can be observed unobtrusively.

This pair of Ruddy Darters, Sympetrum sanguineum, caught our attention. They had obviously mated and were ovipositing in tandem, just not over water! Were their offspring doomed?

A bit of research later and the mystery was solved thanks to Brooks and Lewington's Field Guide to the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Great Britain and Ireland. Ruddy Darters may lay their eggs away from water, in areas that will later become inundated during winter flooding. The eggs are drought-resistant and do not hatch until covered by water. Phew!

Ladybirds aren't well known for their sense of humour, but I couldn't help wondering whether this Seven-spot, Coccinella 7-punctata, was being suitably ironic or surreal.

In folklore, they are probably best known through the children's rhyme: "Ladybird, ladybird, Fly away home, Your house is on fire, And your children are gone..." which, according to many sources, may refer to the burning of hop vines after the harvest in Mediaeval times, with the resultant death of many ladybird pupae. It is to their credit that they can still raise a smile after all that carnage.

Friday 2 September 2011


Over the Bank Holiday weekend, Our Lass and I spent some time in the border lands of England and Wales. Whilst the weather was a bit temperamental, we were just happy to explore an area we'd not previously visited.

One particular morning, we drove up the valley of the Afon Honddu onto the plateau between the hills of Hay Bluff and er... Lord Hereford's Knob, to enjoy the views and blow the cobwebs away. Armed with her trusty walking poles, Our Lass made steady progress, as we pottered about the shallow slopes on the north side of the Bluff. Something wasn't quite right though, and eventually we realised what it was.

No heather.

Not being of a particularly geological bent, I hadn't appreciated that above the tree line on these hills, the red soil supports mainly bracken and grass, which gives a lusher feel to the place. Later, checking the British Geological Survey map for the area, I discovered that the underlying rock is Lower Old Red Sandstone from the Devonian, though whether that explains the absence of Erica I don't know.

A multitude of sheep and several wild ponies were grazing the sward, resulting in the paths and tracks being liberally coated with copious amounts of poo. Taking advantage of this resource, were many dung beetles, all industriously shovelling shit as if their genes depended on it. Which, of course, they do.

I don't know much more about beetles than I do about geology, but I'm guessing that this is a Dor Beetle, Geotrupes stercorarius. It would appear that dung beetles are either rollers, tunnellers or dwellers, as this link to the Beeb Nature website proclaims. As lifestyle options, they aren't a great set of choices, but I suppose we should be rightly thankful that these creatures take on the job of recycling faeces or we'd be knee deep in it.

At the coal face, Dor Beetle style
Presumably this is the end result?
As if they didn't have a tough enough gig, what with all the merde munching, I spotted one beetle struggling for forward momentum. Puzzled as to why this should be, I looked a bit closer and realised that another species of beetle had seized one of its rear legs and was attempting to pull it underground.

A deadly game of tug-of-war ensued...

Until, finally, our hero made good its escape, leaving the predator to search for another victim.

Whatever it was (and my best guess from my ID book would be a member of the genus Pterostichus), it was missing a wing casing on its right hand side. So not having a good day at all then?

If I've whetted your appetite for dung beetle info, try this excellent article by the Grumpy Ecologist.

After all that exshitement, we drove down into the Wye valley to visit the town of Hay-on-Wye, with its wall to wall bookshops and the occasional tea room. What's not to like!

I was heartened to discover that despite the preponderance of literary retail possibilities, there was still a public library in the town. On reflection though, I probably should've purchased a book on beetle identification.