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.