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.