Friday, 25 December 2015

Merry Christmas!

Wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas and a happy and healthy 2016! 


Saturday, 19 December 2015

The very hungry caterpillar, and other lepidoptera...

More wet and windy weeks have passed with little opportunity for getting our into the local patch with my camera, so I thought I'd use this post to reflect on some of the butterflies and moths I've seen (and also not seen) this summer as my outings in the local patch recently have been few and far between, and also to have a look at how some of our most familiar butterflies fared in this year's Big Butterfly count.

Burnet moth acrobatics!!!
Starting with a moth I haven't seen at all this year... 6-spot Burnet moths which appeared to have a good season last summer, with dozens in one small area of meadow in a local country park worryingly I didn't see at all this summer in the same spot. Was it the weather, my timing or perhaps could many of the eggs/larvae have been destroyed in the harsh mow inflicted on the area towards the end of the summer??? I guess I'll never know for sure, but it's obvious to me that just in my lifetime the amount of insect-life has decreased dramatically. I've had the same conversation with friends who (when they stop to think about it) concur that things have changed dramatically from childhood memories, in my case largely the 80s....  

Summertime drives out with my Dad would result in a bug-spattered car windscreen - that's certainly something I don't have to contend with and can only indicate significantly fewer insects. Also an almost complete lack of moths. I can certainly remember a time when streetlights would be buzzing with circling moths, hopelessly attracted to the artificial light. Or slightly scary visits (this was when I was very young!) to any shed/garage or other outbuilding when the simple flick of a switch would be a clarion call for every large flappy moth in the vicinity to come and join me. These days I suspect I could leave every window wide open at night with the inside lights on and be lucky to see even one or two of the larger 'macro' moths. They're not good signs, and I live in hope that we can turn things around before its too late, assuming that it isn't already. (I have tried to avoid using blog posts as a place to rant but the indifference of successive governments to the plight of wildlife and the environment (particularly the current bunch) has been a constant source of exasperation.)

6 spot Burnet on Selfheal

On a more positive note, a lovely first for me this year was a Gold Spot moth, not one I'd previously heard of or seen, but a spectacular insect which lives up to its name with metallic golden spots on its wings (I'm not sure the photo really does the metallic gold justice, but it really was like spots of gold leaf on the wings).

Gold spot moth

Ringlets are a species of butterfly that are nationally fairly common, but locally I have always found fairly scarce. An exception to this is at CWT Swettenham meadows - a reserve which is well known as a wonderful spot for butterflies and where Ringlets appear to have had a very good year. (According to the 2015 Big butterfly count results, their numbers are up 75% on last year.) I first noticed this pair in flight - as they were already paired (presumably I had unwittingly disturbed them), I initially thought it was one giant insect, but tracked them down having settled on a large leaf, doing their bit to ensure the thriving colony at Swettenham meadows continues for another year...

Making more Ringlets...

Red Admiral butterflies were less prevalent overall in the Big Butterfly count this year  in comparison to 2014, declining by 28% however locally again they appeared fairly frequently, including in our garden counts. Only a small proportion of these butterflies are considered resident - adults may try to hibernate over winter, and there is evidence that particularly in southern areas they are doing so successfully, however most of the butterflies we see are migrants which, quite incredibly, have flown here from central Europe. Consequently their numbers can vary considerably from year to year .

The unmistakable Red Admiral on Green Alkanet flowers
Large Skippers, (considering their tiny size, 'large' never really feels an appropriate description) did well in the Butterfly count, increasing by 24% from last year despite quite a lot of poor weather. They were out in force in their favourite areas of long grasses locally as soon as the sun shone, as were the ever so slightly smaller 'Small' Skippers. Unfortunately these are the only kinds of Skippers I am likely to see in my local patch however they are two of my favourite insects. Apart from their tiny size and inherent cuteness, they are also quite laid-back, making them great to photograph. (The one happily sat on my thumb in my profile image demonstrating how nonchalent they can be...)   

Large Skipper on Soft rush

Gatekeepers along with Meadow Browns were the most widely recorded 'brown' butterflies this year in the Big Butterfly Count in 1st and 3rd places respectively, the former were also the most numerous butterfly seen in our garden. Gatekeepers are superficially similar to Meadow Browns and typically found in the same grassy habitats but they are smaller and more brightly coloured with white spots on their underwings.


Meadow Brown

Small Coppers had decreased in prevalence by 28% compared with last year in the count - they are so tiny they are easy to miss, though I did see a very small number this year, again at Swettenham meadows. 

Small Copper (taken 2014)
My most recent butterfly sighting, was the fleeting glimpse of the distinctive yellow wings of a male Brimstone butterfly. This was right at the end of November, though as one of our native butterflies that successfully hibernates as an adult through the summer, they can be occasionally seen even in winter months when the weather is very mild. 

Brimstone (taken in the summer)

Elephant hawkmoth caterpillar
One of my lepidoptera highlights of the year however was found by my husband just in our garden. It started with the mystery of what was eating a new climbing fuchia... Large chunks were disappearing but no culprit had been found.... until one weekend when my husband called through the house with a sense of urgency in his voice... "JAN.... there's something you need to see here..." Grabbing the camera to see what the fuss was about I was amazed to see that he had found what I instantly recognised as an [impressively large] Elephant hawkmoth caterpillar, the size of my index finger. Having been caught in action, the caterpillar performed striking actions like a tiny snake (making me jump even though I knew they could do this if feeling threatened!). 

In the top photo, you can just make out two of the caterpillar's 'spiracles'. These are openings through which air diffuses into a series of tubes called trachea which make up an insects' breathing system supplying organs directly with air.     

Sensing that this caterpillar might need to be found a new home, I found out about their natural foodplants - whereas they would usually feed on Rosebay willlowherb and bedstraw, they are also known for having a bit of a thing for garden fuschias. Recalling how my Mum had reared caterpillars found in the garden so as a child I could see their lifecycle, I thought this would be an ideal opportunity to do the same for my own kids. Rosebay willowherb stems were duly gathered and caterpillar and alternative food supply were relocated to a mesh pop-up insect 'cage' (which had been one of those random purchases by my youngest at his school fair). It was only a couple of days before s/he loosely spun together a couple of leaves and settled to pupate in the bottom of the enclosure. Hawkmoth caterpillars wait out the winter in this stage so has been moved to our cold garage. Come the spring she will be brought back into the warmth and we will be watching (like nervous parents!) keeping fingers crossed for a successful emergence and the appearance of arguably one of the UK's most spectacular insects in their vibrant colours of pink and green. To be continued...

Below are the 2015 results for the 20 target butterfly and moth species taken from the Big Butterfly count website.

Abundance % change from 2014
1 Gatekeeper 106995 17
2 Large White 83042 46
3 Meadow Brown 76713 16
4 Small White 72483 -3
5 Peacock 42754 -61
6 Small Tortoiseshell 31322 -57
7 Ringlet 27604 75
8 Red Admiral 21027 -28
9 Comma 18765 42
10 Common Blue 17932 -12
11 Green-veined White 14437 -42
12 Speckled Wood 12342 -25
13 Large Skipper 11198 24
14 Holly Blue 10334 151
15 Six-spot Burnet 9448 2
16 Marbled White 8071 52
17 Painted Lady 7416 28
18 Brimstone 6075 18
19 Small Copper 4395 -28
20 Silver Y 1912 92

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Donna Nook LWT

This post isn't a 'local patch' report, nor is it about birds or bugs, but instead a write-up on a day trip earlier this week to a very special location where I have wanted to visit since learning of its existence a couple of years ago - Donna Nook on the Lincolnshire coast. This Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust reserve is renowned for its large Grey (also known as Atlantic) Seal colony. The seals come ashore onto this large stretch of salt marsh to have their pups as well as to breed between late October and December with numbers peaking at around 3000 (including new pups) towards the end of November/early December. I had been keeping an eye on the 'weekly seal update' on the Trust's website so we could try to time our visit for when there were good numbers of seals, and preferably before the weather turned too cold and wintry!

I had seen others' photos taken at the reserve but yet still wasn't prepared for the sight that greeted us as we walked the short distance from the car park to the coastal path - seals as far as the eye could see, from just a few feet away and right out into the far distance. A few years ago waist-level fencing was installed to protect the seals from over-enthusiastic humans (and to a lesser extent vice-versa). It is critically important to the pups hat they are not touched by humans, trying to stroke them and thereby leaving them with a trace of human scent could cause them to be abandoned by their mothers with inevitable consequences for the pup. All of the photos below were taken using a zoom lens and from the correct side of the fence.

Seals, seals and more seals

Whilst we didn't witness any pups being born (the process of giving birth for these seals only taking a few minutes), there were a number of pups that were less than an hour old, perhaps born while we were there, their white fur still yellow and damp from amniotic fluid, with the lurid pink afterbirth close by. (Unlike some mammals the seals ignore the placenta and this and the detritus of birth is left behind for gulls or other scavengers.) The females will come on to the beach a few days before delivering their pups. They look after their young for the next 2 to 3 weeks during which time they do not feed themselves. After this point the females return to the sea and the pup has to fend for itself. The youngsters remain on the beach for another week or two before hunger drives them to venture to the sea in search of food. Mortality increases with this newfound independence and as many as 40% may not make it to their first birthday.

The image below shows a new mum relaxing with her newly born infant, still slightly bloodied from the experience. 
New mum with her infant

A close-up of the pup above

Mum encouraging her youngster to feed
One behaviour we noticed a few times was the females gently 'pawing' at their young - I was informed that this is done to encourage them to feed.  

Noticing the deep deep scarring on the neck of another of the females, I knew straight away that this must be 'Ropeneck'. As you can see in the photos below, she has very distinctive scarring from an old injury where fishing gear in which she had become entangled had cut very deeply into her skin. Fortunately this was noticed in time and removed by wardens. She has since made a full recovery - every year bar one since 2000 Ropeneck has visited the same stretch of sand to give birth and it was a privilege to see her and her 2 day old pup, as well as being a graphic reminder of the harm that discarded fishing gear and other rubbish that ends up in our seas and oceans can do to wildlife.

A tender moment between Ropeneck and her 2 day old pup

The tiny pups were in so many ways reminiscent of a human infant; the tiny cries and squeaks, the sneezes that were as much of a surprise to them as to the admiring and cooing [human] onlookers, the innocent happiness of just rolling around. Much as a baby might suck their fingers or toes, pups would chew on a flipper, and we looked on with amusement as one tiny infants' efforts to crawl were visibly punctuated by hiccups.

A tasty flipper to chew!
Females sorting out some personal space issues
Altercations were few and far between, at least while we were there, and they were over and done with quickly. The females were very protective of their young and any male, or other female for that matter, considered to be getting too close for comfort would be hissed at and threatened until sufficient personal space was regained and peace restored. 

Not welcome - a female (right) makes her feelings known to a male
One unfortunate male, who was neither the 'beachmaster' (i.e. the dominant male on a breeding beach) nor small youngster, seemed to have found himself stuck between a rock and a hard place...... Shuffle along the channel of water to the left, and a very large male would body slam the wet sand in what could only be interpreted as a show of strength and aggression, turn to the right and the females would hiss and posture their warnings should he even think about coming too close to their pups. In the end he decided on a third route which headed back towards the sea. 

Blissfully snoozing on his/her back
Young and old, what many of the seals seemed to be very content to do was to just relax... Considering their proximity to the people coming to see them, albeit separated by low wooden fencing, I found this quite remarkable. It did make me wonder about what effect the proximity of so many visitors had on the seals, but apparently the infant mortality here is considerably lower than at many other colonies at about 10%. It also tends to be the more confident and experienced mothers (such as Ropeneck mentioned above) who come closer in to the fencing. This also affords them (or rather their pups), greater protection from especially high tides, or tidal surges. Wardens help to ensure that seals come to no harm from over-enthusiastic visitors. Although I have seen seals previously (generally from a boat and a great distance away), this was a really special experience to see and hear these wild animals so closely and to witness them going about their daily business at this important time in their lives.  

Adult male relaxing

One of several information boards at the reserve

Friday, 6 November 2015

In awe of autumn....

Along with a personal quest to learn to better identify wildflowers I decided autumn would be a good time to make a similar effort with shrubs and trees. What better time than when they are bearing their fruits and seeds, and the leaves are turning various hues of yellows, reds and golden browns. A mild start to November has even brought out a few of the hardier insects before they hibernate for the coolest months as well as some of the straggling survivors which will undoubtedly be seen off once the cold weather arrives in earnest. The images below have all been taken in my 'local patch' over the past two weeks.
The female flowers of Common Ash trees develop into distinctive single-winged seeds known as 'keys' or 'spinners', named after how they spin as they are blown from the tree.
Ash 'keys'
Rose hips are the fruits of the Dog rose, our most common wild rose. They are considerably larger than the berries of Rowan or Elder trees, and so tend to be eaten by larger birds such as Blackbirds and Fieldfares. They have been used by people in recipes to make (amongst other things) syrups, jellies and wine.

Rose hips

The berries from Elder trees - 'elderberries' were traditionally used to make wines and jams. They can also be used to make a delicious sounding liqueur! Mixed with other autumn fruits they can apparently be used in pies and crumbles. They are also enjoyed by many birds, particularly Blackbirds and small warblers such as Blackcaps and Whitethroats. Historically they were also used to make a purple dye - if you spot a purple poo you can hazard a guess that a bird has probably been enjoying this wonderful berry!!!   

Fieldfare on Rowan, just showing the distinctive snow-white feathers under the wings

Another winter lifeline for birds are Rowan berries which hang in clusters of typically bright red berries. They are particularly enjoyed by all thrush species. Whenever I have spotted Redwings and Fieldfares - our winter visiting thrushes, it has more often than not been in the context of them feeding on Rowan berries. Nicely illustrating my point, Fieldfares have been visiting a Rowan tree near our house this last few days. (Unfortunately the light was really poor when I took these photos!) These striking thrushes breed in Scandinavia and Russia, and migrate south and westwards for our relatively mild winter.

Waxwings will also strip Rowan trees of their berries, and will move from tree to tree as the berries are consumed, much to the annoyance of Mistle thrushes who will often adopt a tree as their own and do their utmost to defend it from allcomers.

Fieldfare on Rowan

Sloe berries
Sloes are the berries of Blackthorn. They are very bitter and are traditionally used to make 'sloe gin'. Apparently the weather conditions this year have made for a bumper crop of sloes - and that certainly seems to be the case locally. I'm really not a fan of gin, but do sloes improve the taste of it? I'd love to know if anyone can tell me! Of course birds prefer the alcohol-free option, and these berries are consumed by Mistle and Song Thrushes.

Insect life, unsurprisingly for November, is getting rather thin on the ground, though the sunny start to the month has brought a few out in the open. In the garden last weekend were 7-spot and Harlequin ladybirds, a handful of hoverflies and also one each of Carder and Tree Bumblebees. 

On a visit to the Quinta arboretum over the weekend, insects were mostly represented by flies and a handful of small parasitic wasp species. Of the more easily recognisable fly species were 'Noon flies', large black flies with yellow/orange wing bases. Also enjoying the sun on the leaves of a Sycamore tree was a 'Forest bug', a type of shield bug that feeds on small insects in a variety of deciduous trees.

Forest bug

Of course many of our common wildflowers are also still bearing seeds. Below are the seeds of Common Hogweed.

Common Hogweed seeds
Silver Birch
Silver birch is one of our most distinctive trees with its beautiful silvery-white bark. From each female catkin develops hundreds of tiny seeds which carry far on the wind (and get everywhere - our house is full of them!!!). These seeds are enjoyed by finches such as greenfinches, redpolls and siskins with their beaks perfectly adapted for extracting seeds.

And finally... I have no idea what this vibrantly coloured tree is but having found it in the local Quinta arboretum (and I didn't see a name label for it), it could originate from anywhere in the world. I couldn't resist trying to capture some of this striking display of colour!


Postscript; I think the colourful tree above is Red Maple (Acer rubrum)  which is native to North America and is common and widespread in the central and eastern regions - one of the trees which contributes to the spectacular display of autumn colour places such as New England are so renowned for.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

RSPB Bempton Cliffs

Another belated catch-up post, this time from a visit in mid-August to the spectacular Bempton Cliffs RSPB reserve in the East Riding of Yorkshire. During the summer months the vast chalk cliffs are home to some quarter of a million seabirds. Best known for their large Northern Gannet colonies, the cliffs are one of only 2 mainland sites where these birds breed in the UK, (most breeding sites are on islands such as St Kilda and Bass Rock where the adults and their chicks are safe from most predators). Other seabirds such as some species of auk (which includes Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbills) also nest on these cliffs, but their breeding season finishes earlier in the year, so by the time of my visit it was no surprise to not see any of them this time.

Despite a perfect forecast and my best planning efforts, clouds quickly moved in from the sea and refused to move on, leaving a situation of grey which typified my experience of August entirely! Regardless, the cliffs provide a spectacular setting and the Gannets with their 2 metre wingspan cannot fail to impress. They effortlessly navigate the wind and the waves, and thrive in their North Sea home. The birds nest in large colonies but manage to keep a sufficient distance from their neighbours so as to largely avoid skirmishes. (That said, I watched as two neighbouring adults from different nests snapped beaks at one another, though avoided any serious altercation.)

Adult Northern Gannet - showing off that 2 metre wingspan

By this stage in the season, many of the young birds had fledged and could be seen on the wing and floating in groups in the sea. Once they leave the 'nest' (which is little more than a space on the cliff ledge) there is no going back and juveniles then tend to group together in the sea below. Many others youngsters that remained were very close to fledging. Juveniles exercised their wings in readiness for that first, most critical flight. Gannets lay just one egg and I watched as parents stood by patiently as their single youngster practiced, long young wings flapping exceedingly closely to patient adult faces. Other youngsters wore the slightly comical attire of part dark juvenile feathers, part fluffy white down.

Practicing in readiness for that first critical flight from the cliff face

Part of a pair's courtship ritual
They always strike me as very affectionate birds, with the adults spending much time preening each other and their offspring, as well as renewing and reaffirming their close bonds with their partner (with whom they pair for life) with their elaborate courtship displays. Am I guilty of anthropomorphism? Perhaps... though I have no doubt that we have far more in common with our fellow species than is perhaps comfortable, or even convenient to admit, given how our species is capable of treating others. 

Gannets have several behaviours which I find fascinating to watch, one of which is 'sky pointing'. A bird which is about to depart from its nest, points deliberately skyward for several seconds before stepping slightly away from the nest, stretching out its vast wings, and then leaving the cliff face. It looks a little dramatic, (reminding me slightly of a person about to perform a swan dive) but with their 2 metre wingspan and nesting in densely packed colonies, you can see why this advance visual warning of their departure is beneficial to them as well as the surrounding birds!

'Sky pointing' and just about to depart

Mutual preening
A behaviour I hadn't seen previously here, was a male (I presume), trying to gift his partner a small stone. It had to be said though that despite his best efforts she looked decidedly unimpressed with his offering!

Gannet with what he thought would make a lovely gift - the recipient however was less impressed!

Other birds still present at the cliff face were the distinctive looking Fulmars with their stiff-winged flight and tube noses, and pretty Kittiwake gulls, though both of these in far smaller numbers than the resident Gannets. 

Closer to the visitor centre it was lovely to see a flock of Tree Sparrows in the vicinity of some bird feeders. Tree Sparrows are yet another bird which has suffered a severe decline in numbers and as such is currently a red-listed species.  Closer to home it's very rarely that I have seen them, though it is their chirruping call that often signals their presence prior to seeing them, the sound being similar to a House Sparrow yet sufficiently different to easily tell them apart.

Tree Sparrow

It has to be said that on this occasion I was paying more attention to the birds than the wildflowers or insects (though the latter seemed pretty thin on the ground, not surprising on this cool grey day!) however one tall and pretty wildflower I noticed standing out in the grassland I later identified as Chicory, (not one I've noticed on my more local wanderings). I'm sure the sun does sometimes shine at Bempton, but I think I will just have to keep returning to see sunlit Gannets for myself! :)

Wild Chicory