Tuesday 28 May 2013

If you go down to the woods today...

OK, there's a few technical inaccuracies with the post title and the associated assumptions therein: I wasn't exactly in a wood; it wasn't today; there were no bears; no picnic occurred; and, I did believe my eyes, 'cos there's photographic proof.

But apart from that, it's spot on. Because. A certain because.

So whilst it wasn't a big surprise, it was mildly pleasing in a wildlife watching kind of way.

Which would obviously ruin the scansion, but hey, when did you ever tune in to Imperfect and Tense for faithful renditions of a 1932 children's song?

Really? You should get out more.

Anyway, the following took place on consecutive weekends in May, at the Hanson Environmental Study Centre, just down the road from Tense Towers.

Not so very long ago, when Our Lass and I were still struggling to find a single member of either the Zygoptera or Anisoptera with which to commence the 2013 flight season, we were bimbling through the reserve, noticing all manner of invertebrate life with the exception of dragons and damsels.

Loitering by a particularly interesting patch of Comfrey, we were roused from our bug reverie by  the sound of a large splash and a great deal of honking (as of a goose, rather than someone throwing up).

Aware that about 100 yards further along the path was a view across to the nest of a Canada Goose, and wondering what the heck was going on, we made haste to said spot. Rounding a bend in the track, we immediately spied the goose, stood over its nest and calling in a rather agitated fashion. The water which surrounded the small outcrop of land where the nest was built, was still showing signs of ripples from whatever had created the big splash.

I was musing upon which suspects would go up on the Scene of Crime Officer's wall, when Our Lass nudged me and excitedly whispered "Fox!"

Appearing out of the undergrowth, not far from the anxious Anatidae, was a healthy-looking Fox, who proceeded to head towards us along the track, apparently oblivious to our presence.

Photo courtesy of Our Lass

Photo courtesy of Our Lass

Eventually, some vulpine sense kicked in and we were rumbled, the would-be thief and goose-botherer melting into the undergrowth quicker than you could say "Look at the brush on that!"

Once things had quietened down, we left the goose in peace and wandered off to the Near Hide, where we were soon treated to some more entertainment courtesy of Reynard Productions. The Fox had found its way onto the bund and was busy searching the vegetation at the water's edge for any signs of nesting birds. It soon came to the attention of a pair of Lapwings, who took great delight in dive-bombing it, with accompanying alarm calls, until they had harried it into departing stage left.

Cut to the following weekend and, again, we were to be found at HESC, soaking up the Spring sunshine and basking in the glow of satisfaction at having now seen a dragon or two. Whilst JD (of Rotton Yarns fame) and I were talking to another wildlife watcher, Our Lass wandered off. When we set off again, she was nowhere to be seen. As we rounded a bend in the path, we spotted her, 50 yards up the track, gazing intently into the undergrowth. Turning to face us, Our Lass put a finger to her lips to warn us to be quiet. Intrigued as to what she might have found, I inquired by means of much arm waving as to whether it was a dragon (flaps outstretched arms) of perhaps a mammal (makes scrabbling paws motion). Our Lass shrugged an internationally understood shoulder movement, as if to ask what the heck I was on about. Patiently, and to the consternation of JD, I repeated my flapping and scrabbling message, which this time provoked a definite scrabbling response.

Turning to JD, I sternly intoned, "It's a Badger, don't ask how I know."

We crept up to join Our Lass, who was still watching a patch of thick vegetation consisting mainly of Comfrey and Nettles. The occasional movement of a leaf or plant was accompanied by a crunching sound, not unlike someone enjoying  a packet of crisps. I mean really enjoying a packet of crisps, none of this genteelly nibbling one at a time.

Now this was 4pm on a sunny afternoon, so JD was fairly convinced that it was a Rabbit chewing on a juicy stem. But Our Lass and I had experienced this particular noise before, perhaps twelve years previously, and not too far from this spot. We were in no doubt that it was a young Badger, presumably gorging upon snails. Unfortunately, the thick vegetation made it impossible to achieve anything like a decent confirmatory view, other the occasional glimpse of several square inches of rough grey fur, the proverbial Badger's arse. After patiently watching for fifteen minutes or so, we were rewarded with a flash of black and white stripes through the leaves. Case proven!

Eventually, Junior Brock had eaten his fill and disappeared further into the undergrowth, his course identified by the twitching of stems into the distance until all was still once more.

Monday 27 May 2013

Progress of sorts

Odonata numbers have crept up this weekend. 

At HESC, we now have six species on the wing:

Azure damselfly
Large Red damselfly
Common Blue damselfly
Red-eyed damselfly
Broad-bodied Chaser
Hairy dragonfly

Female Hairy dragonfly

Wednesday 22 May 2013

BBC News

Image courtesy of bbc.co.uk
It is evening, just before 9pm. The sun has just set and the light is fading fast.

To the south, a gibbous moon shines weakly. The temperature is dropping quickly under clear skies and a freshening wind.

You receive a phone call from a friend.

"Just wanted to let you know there's a dragonfly at the nature reserve...  thought you might be interested... I'm about 18 inches away from it...I've taken a few photos, but had to use flash."

What would you do?  Would you go?

Hell, yes.

I carefully abandoned parked the car beside the Centre and dashed strolled over to the raised tanks that were used in the past for what I presume were trials of different aquatic habitats. The info received said that the dragon was here somewhere.

I checked all the vegetation, but couldn't see an insect anywhere. I checked again, walking around the other side of the tanks. Nothing. Then I looked at the surrounding wall to see if it was roosted there. Nope. 

I left a voice message to say thank you for the tip, but it looked like the dragon had flown or been predated. Hanging up, I put the phone back in my pocket and happened to look down. There, in the tank with little vegetation protruding above the surface and hence the one I'd not given much more than a cursory glance, was sat a Broad-bodied Chaser. A few feet to the left, its exuvia was clinging to the wooden frame around the tank. 

21.12 Exuvia (shed larval skin) clinging to woodwork above raised tank

21.15 Female Broad-bodied Chaser dragonfly
This might be today's only good news story.

Monday 20 May 2013

The Light Brigade had it easy

A pleasantly warm Sunday delivered another species of ode on the wing, in the form of several Common Blue Damselflies. Now that the flight season has kicked off for the jewelled matchsticks of the insect world, it was anticipated that there would be a slight lessening in the grumpiness of Yours Truly.


This is the view that greeted me when I returned home to Tense Towers this evening and went to look at the pond for signs of damselfly emergence.

That lush greenery is one of the favoured emergence sites for the larvae, always presuming that they've been able to avoid the shoals of newts patrolling the inky depths.

So, as a new recruit to the air breathing fraternity, you probably wouldn't want to find a frog sitting on the surface, in the midst of the party, waiting to pick off any unsuspecting individual as he or she struggles out of their diving gear and into a flying suit.

It's just not cricket.

Saturday 18 May 2013

Bug-gity, bug-gity, bug-gity, let's go racing, girls!

With apologies to Darrell Waltrip and oval racers everywhere.

Following the many and varied types of weather experienced in the UK this week (fortunately, this neck of the woods avoided the snow), today's offering from the meteorological gods was relatively benign. Solid white cloud, little wind, temperatures around 14C (57F).

Not warm enough for you-know-what.

Ever hopeful, Our Lass and I ventured to Hanson Environmental Study Centre this afternoon, to see if we could find any signs of previous dragon or damsel emergence during the past week (shed larval skins clinging to emergent vegetation). Chances were minimal, owing to the rain and hail showers which have occurred on recent days, as these would likely have washed the exuviae back into the water.

Along the boardwalk and by the pond-dipping pool, we drew a complete blank. The only insects on the wing were countless midges (dragon food!). As we walked through the Near Paddock, Our Lass spotted a Green-veined White butterfly sat on a Cowslip. Even the close presence of my phone didn't induce it to take to the air.

We visited the usual sheltered and well-vegetated spots most likely to attract teneral and immature Odonata, but to no avail. That isn't to say that the place was devoid of life, for as we progressed through the reserve, many species of insects were to be found on the plants beside the path.

Green dock beetle, Gastrophysa viridula. Er... x 3

A hover fly, possibly Helophilus pendulus

I think this is an Amber Snail, Succinea putris

Alder Fly, Sialis lutaria
Not a clue what this fly is (the plant is Garlic Mustard aka Jack-by-the-Hedge, Alliaria petiolata). I only included this photo for the cutesy little caterpillar!
Whilst we're talking about wild plants, this time of year has some magical moments. For me personally, there's something rather lush about the gorgeousness of fresh Comfrey flowers. Forgive me for not knowing whether this is the native Common Comfrey, Symphytum officinalis, or the naturalised hybrid Russian Comfrey, S. x uplandicum. Just enjoy the lushness!

Whilst I was trying to photograph yet another bug, a stunning red and black froghopper, Our Lass called out "Damsel!"

Sure enough, she had found an immature male Azure Damselfly, still only partially coloured blue and very nervous. It flew off before I could take a picture.

My better half then proceeded to find another three Azures at various sites within the reserve, before I managed to get in on the act with an individual that flew low over some vegetation before alighting on a grass stem. Our Lass looked at it through her bins, agreed with my ID and then pointed out another one that I had missed, roosting just behind it. I was able to identify this individual as a Large Red Damselfly.

So, six hard-won damsels in total, as late as the eighteenth of May. This is the only year where the first ode I've seen has been anything other than a Large Red. 2013 is just plain weird.

Thursday 16 May 2013

Pedant's revol...ution

I had a bit of a humbling experience at work today.

Having submitted several documents for approval and sign off, I then received a phone call from the Pedant-in-Chief. I knew something was wrong immediately, as he was struggling valiantly to control his mirth. In contrast, dark clouds gathered above my head.

"Oh my giddy aunt!" I thought. "What on Earth have I done?" [this is a pre-watershed, diluted version of the torrent of verbal ditch water that poured through my mind]

"I don't want to appear pedantic..." began my chuckling colleague.

Images of a misplaced comma or a glaring homophonic error rushed across my tortured subconscious.

"No, no, 'pedantic' is the point, " I replied, then continued nervously, "Go on, what is it?"

The gleeful (there was no other word for it) voice instructed me to look at a particular page on the submitted pdfs, specifically the .pdf rather than the .doc file. My tormentor was pretty sure that the .doc file would be ok and had correctly guessed that after converting to pdf, I wouldn't have thought to proofread again.

Puzzled, I did as instructed and found to my horror that the drawings within the documents had been rotated around the vertical axis so that the text was mirrored.


Sure enough, the originals in Word were fine. Doh!

Fortunately, my inquisitor turned saviour and offered to solve the problem for me, which is probably more than I deserved.

The episode was made all the more poignant as, earlier in the week, I had a ground out a reasonable score in an online grammar quiz on the BBC News website.

Choose any one from the following statements:

1. Oh, how the mighty are fallen.

2. Pride cometh before a fall.

3. Tense, you're a pillock.

Sunday 12 May 2013

Sulky Saturday

I had a pleasant wander around the local nature reserve on Saturday morning. Highlights included Whitethroat, Kingfisher, Cuckoo, Garganey and several dozen Swifts.

The paths and boardwalks were littered with countless broken twigs (some up to an inch in diameter!) as a result of the strong winds the previous day. With the overnight rain, storm-lashed blossom coated many surfaces giving the place a surreal air, as if I had missed a grand  wedding.

Speaking of missing things...

Once more unto the breach that is the unforgiving blank page.

Wednesday 8 May 2013

Never too old to learn

Recently, comedian/actor Bill Bailey presented two documentaries on BBC2 to highlight the important, but forgotten, role played by Alfred Russel Wallace in the publishing of the theory of evolution. Not only did he arrive at the same conclusions as Charles Darwin (though admittedly 20 years later), he also added the vital piece of the jigsaw that allowed his slow-to-publish idol to complete the puzzle.

During the programmes, much was made of the Wallace Line, the boundary between the fauna of Asia and that of Australia. This was something of which I knew nothing and left me wondering what else I could learn from the history of natural science.

To that end, I drew up a hasty, and makeshift, short list of iconic books covering three centuries of natural history.


With which to edumificate the enthusiasm-rich but knowledge-poor Tense.


It's not an exhaustive list, I'm open to alternative suggestions, but here's my five must-reads:

The Natural History of Selborne (1788-9) by Gilbert White

The Origin of Species (1859) by Charles Darwin

Silent Spring (1962) by Rachel Carson

Gaia (1979) by James Lovelock

Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo (2009) by Michael McCarthy

I'll let you know how I fare, just don't expect the blog to experience a sudden and monumental rise in scientific rigour and factual accuracy. Never forget, since 2009, Imperfect and Tense has been the home of this.


Three years ago, I walked into a peedie record store in Lerwick, Shetland, called High Level Music (it was up a flight of steps).

The wee lassie behind the counter looked aghast at my question, "What would you recommend for someone who likes Lau and the Peatbog Faeries?"

To her credit, though it must be difficult to cater to such an unfair question, she came up trumps with Murmichan by Shooglenifty. Having listened to a sample in store, we bought it on the spot and still haven't given it to its intended recipient.

They are a Celtic fusion band, but have been variously described as Techno ceilidh, Acid croft and Hypnofolkadelia. 

Tonight, Shooglenifty played The Stables in sleepy Milton Keynes.

Man, those guys are awesome.

If, dear reader, you are detecting that old Tense is a little less on edge than normal, it may have a little to do with several pints of Murphy's, but definitely much to do with a cracking evening's entertainment courtesy of six fine musicians. 

Monday 6 May 2013

Parisienne walkways

That rarest of creatures, a sunny Bank Holiday weekend, has been spotted in the UK. Unlike any Odonata in the vicinity of Yours Truly.

Looking back at my last seven years' records, the earliest date for damselfly emergence at the local nature reserve was the 24th April, with the latest being the 12th May. Well, we're 66% of the way through that range and my next likely opportunity to continue the search won't be until the 11th, I reckon.

And what really kicks the arse out of it, pardon my Klatchian, is that Our Lass spotted a Hobby this afternoon. Yeah, that's right, the bird of prey that eats dragonflies. I do not recall previously setting eyes on one of these sleek falcons before the odes (damsels and dragons) are on the wing. Oh, I do hope the poor thing doesn't die of starvation, he said, somewhat petulantly.

Still, we've had several pleasant nature walks this weekend, so I can't complain too much.

This morning, for instance, we drove out to Little Linford Wood, where the Wildlife Trust reserve manager had mentioned that there was a patch of Herb Paris in flower. Once we were able to distinguish it from the Dog's Mercury that was rushing to engulf it, we found several dozen plants. To my mind, it has the feeling of 'other' about it, and that was before I discovered it was poisonous (via Wikipedia, not through falling ill).

Amongst the many other woodland wildflowers that are hurrying to complete their life cycles before the tree canopy closes in, we also found Greater Stitchwort along the edges of the rides,

as well as Barren Strawberry,

which sounds like a very ennobled plant indeed.

Sunday 5 May 2013

Steely sentinel of a screaming Summer

Still no damsels or dragons to be seen in the environs of Tense Towers or the local nature reserve. The torture continues.

However, we did have a most pleasant wildlife experience yesterday evening. As the four of us (Our Lass, First and Second Born, me) walked back to the car after an excellent meal in an Italian restaurant, a shape in the sky caught my attention. Initially misjudging the range, I assumed it was a Swallow, but as the bird turned this way and that, it offered a very different silhouette. The dying rays of the sun lit up its black plumage so that it appeared to have the glow of hot embers as it... there's no other word for it... scythed through the air.


Silent scything, admittedly, but the piercing calls will come as more of these gorgeous birds return to their traditional nest sites to breed.

[Happy contended sigh]