Sunday 24 June 2012

June in Little Linford Wood

As we reach the middle of 2012, in an unseasonally unseasonal year, the only certainty presenting itself for this visit was the apparent lack of bird life. Not that there weren't any birds, just that they were all rather busy with raising families and had plenty of undergrowth in which to lose themselves. This latter fact was immediately obvious from the usual opening shot.

The view along many of the rides was of lush vegetation encroaching upon the path, Hogweed being the most obvious plant, with its tall pinky white flower heads.

These blooms were alive with insects. Bees, hover flies, butterflies, beetles, and several species of micro moth. This is Nemophera degeerella, a species of longhorn moth.

In fact, insects were the order of the day. We noted several species of ladybird: Seven-spot, inevitably, but also Orange Ladybird, Halyzia 16-guttata, and Fourteen-spot Ladybird, Propylea 14-punctata.

The fresh Bracken shoots were amazing... fractal geometry anyone?

Whilst I investigated a woodland pond for odes, Our Lass remained on the main ride. So although I recorded a solitary Large Red Damselfly on a rush stem, she found a Broad-bodied Chaser dragonfly hunting along the vegetation at the edge of the path. Gah!

In one of the wider and sunnier rides, we spotted a yellow flower. My initial thought was some species of buttercup, but recourse to Blamey, Fitter and Fitter's Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland, suggested that Trailing Tormentil, Potentilla anglica, was a more likely candidate.

Field notes 5

Just when I thought that I might miss the inaugural blooms, there's finally some colour in the wildflower border at Tense Towers.

Corn Chamomile, Anthemis arvensis, was the first to flower. It's daisy-like heads bobbing in the unseasonal breeze and attracting passing insects.

Meanwhile, the Cornflowers, Centaurea cyanus, weren't far behind and added their gorgeous hue to the burgeoning display.

There are a few specimens of Common Poppy on their way, but I'm still struggling to identify any of the six other species that were in the seed mix. More homework necessary.

Monday 18 June 2012

A puzzle and a quiz

Late yesterday afternoon, we were sat out in the garden, enjoying a pint of something medicinal, when I spied an insect on a rose bush. Not having seen its like before and with my curiosity suitably piqued, I scoured Chinery's 'Insects of Britain and Western Europe' for an ID.

I couldn't find anything that matched, but given the creature's upside down orientation (yes, it was that way up, I hadn't drunk that much, thank you) and the fact that it appeared to be egg-laying, I assumed it was some sort of sawfly.

Unfortunately, though there's about 28 sawflies in the book, none were quite correct for our new guest. So I gave up and went back to my pint. This evening, however, I persevered and resorted to that fount of nearly all knowledge, Google Images.

It turns out that it was a female Large Rose Sawfly, Arge pagana, and she was slowly working her way down the stem, cutting a slit with her ovipositor as she went, into which she inserted her eggs.

Well, that was my detective work for the evening, now it's your turn...

After the sawfly episode, we'd returned indoors, but a little later, I looked out of the window and noticed something on the lawn, struggling to eat a newt.

Was it:

1. a Heron?

2. a Grass snake?

3. a Hedgehog?

4. a Magpie?

5. none of the above?






Predictably, the answer is going to be a bit more complicated than that, because the creature that was struggling to eat the newt wasn't the animal that finally ate it.






Here's the struggler...

Blackbird (Turdus merula) and Smooth Newt (Triturus vulgaris)
I don't know how the Blackbird caught the newt, whether it managed to grab it from the pond, or whether the newt left the water and was ambushed in the grass. Either way, the bird couldn't quite figure out why this fat worm had legs and spent ages trying to devour it. Eventually, all the commotion attracted the attention of another predator, a Magpie, and it consumed the unfortunate amphibian.

Sunday 17 June 2012

HESC provides swift solution to World's problems

Following another wet week and the local rivers bursting their banks in sympathy, this weekend has been largely dry so far, though blustery. Dark clouds and the occasional shower scampered across the sky, spurred on by a strong south westerly wind.

Yesterday, following an industrious morning, we decamped to Stony Stratford for lunch and a little pre-holiday shopping, to garner a few requisites for my trip to north west Scotland. Thicker fleece, waterproof trousers, that sort of thing. I must be the antipathy of the quintessential sun seeker.

By late afternoon, we were itching for some fresh air and nature, though with all the wet weather, 'itching' is probably an ill-advised term to use. Biting midges are making the most of the conditions at HESC, so I was hoping that the wind would keep them at bay, or at least offer us some respite from incessant attack.

Other insects were finding the meteorology challenging, too. It was only due to Our Lass's keen eyes that any damselflies were seen, mostly Azure but with a few Common Blues, all tucked away in the vegetation, riding out the 'storm'.

As ever, during bad weather, a Song Thrush was singing his heart out from a song post hidden by some trees. There were brief choruses of other bird song, mainly warblers, as the necessary business of defending a territory carried on, regardless of the rain.

Following a walk along a sheltered path between two hedges, which was where most of the midges were congregated, we took refuge in the Far Hide. Looking out over the main lake, there were very few waterfowl to be seen, a couple of Mute Swans, a smattering of Canada Geese, a pair of Great Crested Grebes, the odd Coot and the inevitable gaggle of Cormorants. Very little in the way of ducks or waders.

The music from a nearby festival carried into the river valley and gave a surreal feeling to proceedings, as we watched the patterns formed on the water surface by successive gusts of wind and listened to the various bands.

Whilst our quota of duckage may have been poultry paltry, this was more than compensated for by the presence of hundreds of other birds. Now, this is going to sound a bit heretical, but I think  lakes are a poor place for bird watching unless you're carrying sufficient optical power to spot a Lunar Long-tailed Duck on the Mare Tranquillitatis (Sea of Tranquility). Inevitably, wherever you are on the perimeter of a water body, most of the bird life will be out in mid-lake at best, or, more likely, tucked into the reeds diametrically opposite your current position. Yep, water is wasted on ducks.

So it was a pleasant surprise to feel in the thick of things, as hundreds of hirundines and several Swifts, hunted over the surface of the lake and the bordering vegetation. The bulk of this aerial armada was made up of House Martins and Swallows, with just a few Sand Martins to be seen amongst them. The twittering of Swallows is such a happy sound to my ears, only bettered by the gentle buzz of a contented Martin. And, boy, were they contented. The flock must've been feeding on a huge, invisible (to our eyes) cloud of insects, as the action was non-stop. Swooping, soaring, swivelling and scything, the massed ranks of blue and black cut a swathe through the air, and hopefully the midge population. I only had the camera on my phone to record this and inevitably failed miserably in the attempt.

Swallows and House Martins in action
The whole panorama of the lake was 180 degrees of fly annihilation, and as the hide was offering shelter to the reeds immediately to our front, this was where many insects were. Swifts would appear from our left, like the blur of a knife blade, cutting across the top of the vegetation and then out, low, over the water. Some would wheel on a pin point, right in front of us, as if redefining the laws of motion and physics. In fact, you could almost believe that their feeding behaviour was a solution to global warming. It felt as if their wings could slice through the bonds of a carbon dioxide molecule, releasing pure oxygen into the atmosphere and coating their feathers with carbon atoms. Perhaps they do, that's why they're black?

Sunday 10 June 2012

Not the Diamond Jubilee, Part 3

Or, "If it's Monday, this must be Cambridgeshire."

With heavy hearts, we finally dragged ourselves away from the Tithe Barn in Sisland, but with definite thoughts of returning in early Spring next year, for a bit of quality Hare time.

Meanwhile, the plan for the journey back to MK was to stop off at Wicken Fen, north of Cambridge, for a bit more natural history before finally returning to Tense Towers.

The skies were clearing, the temperature was rising and by the time we arrived at the National Trust reserve, it was shaping up to be a positive Odonata day. Indeed, as soon as we approached the pond dipping pools, there were damsels and dragons aplenty. Walking along the lode, was an odofest too, with Variable and Red-eyed Damselflies mating and egg-laying, whilst Scarce and Four-spotted Chasers were patrolling the water's edge.

Mating Red-eyed. He's keen, but is she?
More Red-eyed Damselflies, now ovipositing
Variable Damselflies mating
At the East Hide, Our Lass spotted a Kingfisher as it whizzed along a dyke, a Marsh Harrier lazily scoured the reed bed and a pair of Hobbies hawked for dragonflies (Grrrr!). On a pile of disused boardwalk panels, a Common Lizard sunned itself, whilst in the long grass, more damsels were making out.

We ate our picnic lunch on a bench beside another ditch teeming with odes, then wandered around the north side of the fen, where several Hairy Dragonflies were having their own feast,  one individual polishing off a damselfly and another, a bee. There were orchids aplenty, but without a suitable ID guide to differentiate between the various species and their numerous hybrids, we didn't try full identification. However, one species was sufficiently different to allow us to have a reasonable guess, a Common Twayblade.

This appeared to be a particularly good year for orchids at Wicken Fen, as we don't recall seeing so many specimens during previous visits. Perhaps we just hit upon the best time to see them.

Oddly, our walk back to the car just happened to pass the tea shop, with the inevitable calorific consequences. Good times.

Wednesday 6 June 2012

Not the Diamond Jubilee, Part 2

Or, "If it's Sunday, this must be Suffolk..."

Well, it wouldn't be a British Bank Holiday weekend if the weather didn't go all precipitous for 24 hours, eh? And this one was no exception.

Over breakfast, we made plans to head down to Minsmere, the RSPB reserve on the Suffolk coast. Our reasoning being that there was a cafe, some hides, cafe again, some more hides and finally the cafe once more. It didn't work out quite like that but if you add "pub" and "yet more hides" to that list, then you've pretty much nailed our day. It was rather wet and windy for the duration, but we weren't going to let that spoil our fun.

Before we left the breakfast table, however, there was still time for my Un-Jubilee Spirit to crash and burn. Jane kindly offered to provide a flask of coffee for the day, an invitation that we gratefully accepted. On leaving the B+B, into a persistent drizzle, we were presented with a large Thermos, emblazoned with the Union Flag. Our Lass did chuckle.

Forty five minutes later, we arrived at a remarkably quiet Minsmere. Either the weather or the weekend's celebrations were having a marked effect on visitor numbers. Following the obligatory pit stop, we set off into the weather and along the North Wall, headed straight for the beach. We paused briefly by a gaggle of birdwatchers armed with scopes, who were intent on glimpsing a pair of Stone Curlews that must've been half a mile away. Our puny x8 bins just weren't up to the job, so we carried on regardless, stopping only for a brief view of a Marsh Harrier and a Reed Warbler.

At the beach, the tide was in, which graphically illustrated the precarious nature of the whole reserve. Only two low dune banks separate the North Sea from the freshwater scrapes, meres and dykes of Minsmere. Scary.

Traversing south between these two banks, gave us a bit of shelter from the wind and rain. We then nipped into a hide and spent a pleasant (and dry) half hour watching Avocets, Common and Little Terns, Shelduck, Swifts, Sand Martins and most of the Black-headed Gulls in Christendom out on the East Scrape.

Continuing around the reserve, we turned back north west at the sluice and were rewarded with a view of a Cuckoo as it flew over the reed beds. To the west of the path, we spotted two male Garganey on one of the pools, then we rounded a corner into the shelter of some bushes and had a wonderful surprise. This small sheltered spot was teeming with Swallows, Swifts and House Martins, all busy feeding on the insects blown into the lee of the tall vegetation. We stood, tucked into the bushes, as hirundine after hirundine flew passed our noses, either oblivious or uncaring of our presence.

There was only one way to celebrate that highlight. Lunch in the cafe. Cottage pie and salad, followed by apple pie and custard. Most welcome on a cold, damp day.

You will have gathered by now, dear reader, that I hadn't bothered to take along my camera, so what happened next was entirely predictable. Heading back out into the weather, we made our way to the Bittern Hide, where Our Lass promptly located a Bittern, feeding in an area of low reeds. This was easily the best view that we have had of this iconic fen species and we watched it for about 15 minutes until it moved back into the cover of the tall reed stems and immediately faded from sight.

As it was now mid-afternoon, the Island Mere Hide was heaving with folk, so we spun on our heels and re-traced our steps. Another circuit of the scrapes beckoned, though the rain was falling harder than ever. We fortified ourselves from the Flask of Jubilation and then set off again along the North Wall. This time, we visited some of the hides we'd missed out during the previous lap, where we were helped with the ID of a pair of Knot by a kindly Geordie birder and had a pair of Pintail pointed out to us by another group. Thanks, guys!

As evening approached, we drove a few miles inland to Eastbridge and spent a pleasant hour or so in the Eels Foot Inn, before nipping back to Minsmere for a less frantic visit to the Island Mere Hide. A few Marsh Harriers and a passing Hobby kept us amused, then just as we were leaving, a Bittern flew over our heads, as it crossed the reed bed.

The day was rounded off perfectly with a Barn Owl sighting over the Loddon bypass, followed swiftly by another as we drove into the B+B car park.

Tuesday 5 June 2012

Not the Diamond Jubilee, Part 1

Or, "If it's Saturday, this must be Norfolk..."

In the futile attempt to limit the sensory overload brought about by one's monarch reaching a landmark 60 years on the throne, I whisked Our Lass off to East Anglia for a few days' break. Despite the inevitable traffic queues on the drive to Norfolk, we arrived at Wheatfen Broad just after lunch and in bright sunshine. You may recall, dear reader, that we had visited this particular reserve 52 weeks previously, in the hope of seeing a Swallowtail butterfly, but without success.

Guess what was at the top of our list this year?

Well, the place was teeming with damsels and dragons, for a start. And as it was hot, they were zipping about like there was no tomorrow (bearing in mind the weather the following day, this may  have been true). There were butterflies too, Brimstone, Peacock, Orange Tip and a species of White that was a bit too quick to ID, but sadly once again, no Swallowtail.

Still, the odes made up for the disappointment. Hairy Dragonfly, Four-spotted Chaser, Black-tailed Skimmer, Scarce Chaser, Norfolk Hawker, Banded Demoiselle, plus Azure, Large Red, Blue-tailed and Red-eyed Damselflies. Smashing!

Female Hairy Dragonfly ovipositing into a floating dead stem
Yellow Flag Iris (would've looked better with a Swallowtail butterfly on it)
Large Red Damselflies in tandem ("This leaf." "No, no, THIS one!")
Orange Tip butterfly on a Ragged Robin flower
Following all that excitement, we made our way to a gorgeous B+B at Sisland, near Loddon, where we were made most comfortable. Our thanks to Jane and Lesley at the Tithe Barn, for their unstinting hospitality, especially the Barn Owl and the Hares virtually on the doorstep. It doesn't get much better than that (Swallowtails aside).

Field notes 4

It's about time I updated you on the progress of our wildflower project in the small border at the front of Tense Towers.

Last Thursday, I finally removed the protective netting that was known as Castle Cornflower, as the plant growth had finally reached the wire cover.

Normally sheltered from the prevailing weather, even this border has had rain through May, so my watering can duties have been limited to the very arid section below the kitchen window.

In the photograph below, growth appears particularly luxuriant, but I have to confess that the angle flatters the border, as there are fewer plants towards the other end of the path. Whether this is due to my haphazard sowing regime or environmental factors with the soil, I'm afraid I don't know.

What is obvious, however, is the fact that there's mainly two species making up this biomass.

But until they flower, I wouldn't like to guess what they are (you can safely ignore the Corydalis just in front of the pipe, I can identify that!).

I'm still hopeful that the other 7 species that are supposed to be in there will make themselves known, but it's a waiting game, I'm afraid.

[drums fingers impatiently on desk...]

Nope, still not flowered.

PS My infrequent mowing of the lawn has led to a grand crop of daisies, as evidenced in the top right of the photo.