Butterflies

“Beurre Volant?”

queried a French boyfriend in 1966 when I was trying to teach him some English — that is probably when I first realized what a peculiar language we do speak! These are the butterflies we have seen in Wales recently, they are called, in Welsh gloyn byw, living glove — not much more sensible!

Common Blue

It has been a warmer, sunnier spring and early summer this year and we seem to have seen more blues than usual. Here is another Common Blue

Lots of Small Pearl Bordered Fritillaries:

Small Green Hairstreaks like this one:

A Wall Brown — actually sitting on a wall.

Large Skipper:

We have seen all these regulars (thank you Bill for the pictures). Clockwise from top left: Small Tortoiseshell, Small Heath, Red Admiral, Speckled Wood and Peacock

The Meadow Browns have only just appeared and are so frisky that they will not pose. We haven’t seen any Gate Keepers or Painted Ladies yet.

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Birds, Wales

Nightjar

Nightjars (Caprimulgus europaeus) used to be called Goatsuckers because they hung around goats and other domestic animals and as they seemed to do them no harm it was assumed that they fed on the milk of these animals. They do not. They eat insects especially moths that fly at dawn and dusk and sometimes throughout the night.

Maybe they picked the occasional fly from a sleeping mammal but modern pasture hosts far fewer insects than it did now that we Click our stock — spray them with long acting insecticide. If you want to see Nightjars today (or rather tonight) you need to go to the moors or a grazed heath but what they like best is recently felled and re planted conifer forest but you must start by listening. Spotting birds at night is a thankless task but male Nightjars announce themselves with a loud churring — a strange jarring, mechanical sound, each one modulating its chur slightly differently.

The first time I heard one, I was out lambing on a hillside just after dark, I had no idea what it was — I wondered if it was a chain saw up in the woods.

A Pauraque — a nightjar from America –accidentally disturbed and posing in the day.

Last week Bill and I went up into the forestry at dusk and listened. True to form, just as we had given up and were wending our way home we heard the first chur. It was from the edge of a newly planted pine plantation around the clear-felled area we call the “Dead Zone”, where the mature pines have been cut leaving stumps and a matrix of dead sticks and broken branches tangled around ditches of stagnant water in a post-apocalyptic landscape. This whole area above our village has sections of pine wood at different stages of growth. As we stood, one bird would fall silent then another further along the margin would take up the call — all along the edge of a new plantation.

Night was falling fast and we headed for home across the Dead Zone, aware that large bats were all around, swooping overhead making a strange eerie sound as they passed close by.

On the longest day we visited again — at 10:15pm we started to be treated to churring from all around the amphitheatre — the felled clearing surrounded by young trees — the midges were biting as the land darkened and the purple hill in the distance seemed to grow against the fading light and the new moon appeared. “Not much chance of seeing one now,” then suddenly a giant swift came out of the dark, right in front of us, looping and swerving after its aerial prey — just a few feet above our heads — not a bat, after all — but a Nightjar!

This secretive, almost mystical bird, is having a come back — its numbers increasing — in the hilltops of Wales, where the forests rich in insect life are felled in rotation opening up the habitat so that these amazing birds can manoeuvre in open skies above the forest floor where they nest and rear two broods before heading back to the Congo, almost invisible as their camouflage is so good. This is an American cousin, very similar, that we almost trod on in Texas — look carefully — can you see him?

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Corona Virus Lockdown, Hill Farming

Adapt or Die!

Reappraisal, re-purposing and a lot of digging:  that is what we have been doing during the corona lock-down as we wait to see what Nature throws at us next.

When Bill and I renewed our friendship we had just come through difficult times having both recently lost much loved spouses after long illnesses.  In the past we’d worked together for many years so knew we got on and are still getting on in both senses (three score years and ten!)  We also lived in and are rooted in different parts of the Britain, he in England, me in Wales.

As the Corona Pandemic started to unfold it became evident that movements would be restricted but I think we had already made a leap of faith and  here we are — locked-down together in Wales.

I had sold or re-homed all my stock (apart from my dear old pet “lamb”, Aby seen below in her new role as artistic muse!) We should have been making the most of our new found mobility…  Lisa runs her sheep on the land now.

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Recent portrait of Aby — lady of leisure.

But there is still a lot to do and so much better with a willing helper!

I’ve always believed when you run out of space what you need to do is sort things out, de-clutter and find the space that you had just mislaid!  We have tidied the tools.

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We have processed the remains of the demolished, unsafe, storm damaged and rotten barn and removed the remains of the rat infested container — taken down in the nick of time.  All the higgledy-piggledy timber we have cut and stacked.

We have surveyed the fences and arranged for all the wobbly ones to be reinforced by new posts now that contractors are free to come. We have removed the debris.

I have repurposed the now deserted chicken run — digging vegetable beds and converting the coop into a potting shed.  The feed troughs that are no longer needed have been filled with compost and planted with lettuce, onions, coriander and radishes. Brought up on Beatrice Potter I’ve always identified with Peter Rabbit!  Not any more — I’m  Mr McGregor.  As the new baby rabbits gathered in awe around my magnificent courgette plant, I rushed to the now tidy shed and put my hand directly on the  roll of chicken wire, grabbing the staples with the other, and made haste to increase security.

The grass from the chicken run was raised like an old carpet and re-laid on the scar that was left by the container and seeds sown where it would not stretch.

The compacted stony ground within the chicken run, the only rabbit proof area, has been dug and re-dug and fertilised and planted. The seedling beans got frosted the night after they were planted out (I’m on a learning curve) and the onions got mowed (so is Bill) but it all looks more promising than any of my previous attempts at gardening. The Jerusalem artichokes left over from a recipe that gave us hurricane levels of wind are growing fantastically — a mixed blessing.

Bill has cut the bracken and the thistles on the pasture with the new topper pulled by the newly serviced quad-bike without mishap and I cut the ones on the steepest banks by hand.

During all this time nature has entertained us. The birdsong is less deafening now as this years fledglings hop about in the low branches and the parents flit about busily feeding them. Kites soar above as two buzzards and a magpies skirmish in the field over one less rabbit for me to worry about. Neither of us have ever witnessed the Spring unfolding in such detail and the weather has never been so good.

Jerusalem Artichoke
Salad planted in feed troughs

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Birds, Wales

Beautiful, Callous Killer gets her comeuppance?

Here she is under a strangely blue sky, for Wales– Mother Magpie, unlikely heroine of my last blog — fighting to save her two (there may have been more) fledglings. They are both alive and she and Father Magpie are still feeding them. The Sun is still shining:

This is one of the chicks — having a flying lesson with Mum, fully fledged but smaller than the adults and with a shorter tail. At night they roost close to their original nest, next to the telegraph pole.

But look at this —

Last evening at dusk, not 10 meters from our door, waiting for the light to finally fade — Tawny Owl bides her time.

While we blustered about trying to find the tripod, she flew away and this morning the head count was the same — but she’ll be back!

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Birds, Humour

The Curious Incident of the Bird in the Night-time

1 am awoken from deep sleep by Magpie calling from very nearby.

“That’s odd!”

Stupor ensues.

“Owls!” I hear from the edge of perception.

Then there is a clomping down the stair, crash, expletive, flash of light and the sound of a something heavy being moved.

Then I hear it: “Qweeik! Qweeik!” Very loud and very near. There is a chorus of twit-toowooing from all around the rim of the bowl of hills in which we are presently contained. Every urgent, insistent queeik answered by a reassuring, low pitched owly sound from a different direction and each queeik parried by the rattling panic of a magpie.

Now my eyes are open and there is wild illumination from outside the house. Trees flash on and off like Christmas lights; I wonder about hallucinations in confinement — hypnogogic perhaps. Better go with the flow — I rise and grab a dressing gown, descend the stairs in darkness (mustn’t alert whatever it is — that’s odd someones moved the toolbox — I’ve got good night vision). The front door is wide open — I follow the flashes.

The qweeiking and corvid football rattling are unabated and can now be localized to the tall leylandii on the bank just above the house below which a man in a dressing gown and carpet slippers is scanning the tops of the aforementioned trees with the beam of a powerful flashlight.

The sky is clear, crossed by a shooting star. The moon is bright but still quite new so the stars are not so dulled by the moonlight. “Watch out!” calls the man who is hearteningly familiar, “Watch where you step!”

Looking down, there is a middle sized black and white bird sitting at my feet, looking up at me but not moving.

“He’s petrified!”

Now there is a moral dilemma. Farmers hate magpies, I’m not keen on them — they raid nests, eat loads of fledglings, do unspeakable things to defenseless, sick and trapped creatures and desecrate the bodies of the dead (true, they don’t drive to County Durham).

In the interest of balance — magpie pauses after grooming sheep.

Now the tables are turned: Magpie has met its match. Its nest is under attack by Tawny Owl — female tawny owl egged on (sorry) by male members of her family from a distance (typical) and we feel a wave of sympathy for the magpie mum whose only just fledged baby has parachuted onto the patio and into our protection.

First thing next morning there are no feathers on the ground and later an adult magpie is seen feeding a fledgling in the big pine tree at the other end of the house near to where the baby bird had landed the night before while the other parent feeds its sibling in the leylandii.

Tawny Owl (Strix aluco) by Martin Mecnarowski (CC BY_SA 3.0)

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Ecology, nature

Lockdown Liberty —

or are we just seeing what was there all along, albeit in the shadows.

My daughter lives in a modern development in the centre of Peterborough, a city of over 200,000 people. They don’t have jackals in the subways (like Tel Aviv) but since lockdown she has been working from home and has noticed snakes in the garden, grass snakes and there are adders too. Her neighbour recently opened the door to a Roe Deer.

Roe Deer in Peterborough thanks to Amberley McKeen

Feral goats have come down off the Great Orm, a hill in North Wales, to roam the streets of Llandudno left deserted by the tourists.

Locked down in Mid Wales we are spending much of our time out of doors and seeing more of the wildlife than I have ever done before.

Local Common Lizard making a hasty retreat

In the wood there are flashes of Pied Flycatchers and all around the sound of Wood Warblers, starting their little engines. A Redstart poses briefly in the sunshine:

We have discovered lizards for the first time, basking in the unseasonal sunshine — skittish and shy, unlike this celebrity cousin down the road at Ynes Hir — posing for the visitors to the reserve when I last visited.

I always knew we had newts in the pond but we recently noticed something very strange — some have great big (relatively) floppy, webbed hind feet and pin-like tail extensions —

Bigfoot newt — Actually a Palmate Newt (Lissotriton helveticus)
Rest assured they are breeding in our pond — here photographed with 2 larvae –babies still with external gills, unlike tadpoles they develop their front legs first.

In case you are in any doubt about the identity of these little beauties — look! No spots under the chin:

Ventral surface of Palmate Newt

Now we know that they are Palmate Newts we put them back quickly as they are protected!

Back home for tea having guiltily spent the afternoon pond dipping without even the pretence of a single grandchild but not before checking out the Pied Flycatchers nesting in the oak tree by the track.

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Birds

Visitors!

Spring is a frenetic time but this year is different — rather than dashing about doing what Humans do, we are locked down at home so we can look around and see what most years we might miss. All within walking distance of home! Suddenly we have visitors!

This was the first — who gave himself away by his call: Chiffchaff.
Blackcaps are suddenly everywhere with their “irresolute chattering developing into clear, slightly melancholy flute like notes”.
Pied Flycatcher, just arrived –male, perched above our path.
Pied Flycatcher –female, first spotted peeping out of a hole in the old oak tree.
Willow Warbler

Walking in the forestry above the village the din of Willow Warblers was deafening — seemed there was one at the top of every other tree (and not a Willow in sight!) Was this a fall — had they all just dropped en masse out of the sky on their migration?

Competing Willow Warbler

Home again and the first Wood Warbler announces his presence with a call like a tiny quad bike starting (said to sound like a coin spinning on a marble slab!) Usually hidden in the foliage, for the last week or so when the oaks are still not quite in leaf we have a chance to spot these lovely birds.

Wood Warbler —

In the glorious Spring sunshine we took our daily exercise climbing nearby Van Hill

Northern Wheatear, male, on Van Hill
Beautiful female Northern Wheatear also admiring the view.

We’ve seen Tree Pipits doing their parachuting display flight and hear our local Garden Warblers who flit around the shrubs and hedgerows singing their own “irresolute chatter” trying not to be photographed!

Today we walked miles in search of a Common Redstart, up on the hill in a row of mature Oak and Rowan we could hear but not see them — all we have is this chap on the wire.

Tree Pipit showing off during its song flight, parachuting back to a tree with legs down singing for all it was worth.

We have become enchanted by the Pied Flycatchers, Bill checks them out every day, this one we call Orca.

All pictures, except fuzzy Tree Pipit, thanks to Bill Branford (all rights reserved).

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Nature Photography, seasons, Wales

Spring Fever

We know it must be spring because the cock pheasants are rutting, fighting beak and nail while the hens pretend not to notice. These two are spoiling for a fight —

and it all kicks off!

Getting quite violent but balletic!

After several skirmishes the newcomer takes off with indecent haste leaving the resident cock to strut about guarding his territory while the eight females under the bird feeders, seemingly oblivious, continue to excavate the ground for peanuts thrown down by the picky nuthatch.

One hundred yards further up the valley another drama enfolds as the unusually sunny weather is drying out a shallow pond threatening the lives of several thousand tadpoles.

Enter International Tadpole Rescue with a bucket and dust pan!

All re-homed to a bigger pond further up the valley.

Over the road in our neighbors pond things are equally torrid as the toads, who pair later than the frogs, are only now laying their spawn. Here they are, photographed by Sue Whitehead (all rights reserved).

See how different the toad spawn is from the more familiar clumps the frog spawn.

We know that the mud at the bottom of these ponds is full of ferocious dragonfly nymphs and hungry newts and the surface today was sparkling with the ripples of a hundred pond skaters excited by the prospect of a juicy tadpole. How many adults will emerge from all this spawn?

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Birds

Oblivious to Corona

A few days ago, walking past the bank in the town centre we heard an avian kerfuffle, squawking and a flurry of pigeons taking to the air and a fast moving shadow crossed our path — “Raptor!” said Bill.

We checked out the nearest suitable nesting site — the parish church and there it was — sitting on a turret, preening itself. A Peregrine Falcon but neither of us had a camera.

Since then we take our daily exercise past the parish church every day bristling with binoculas and cameras — today we were rewarded!

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) high on the spire of the parish church.

And here is her mate, perched lower down the tower having just delivered her lunch.

Here’s tomorrows lunch, looking edgy!

Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus)

But right now he is cleaning his talons.

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