Birds, Butterflies, Ecology, Moths, nature

The Trouble with Nature —

The trouble with Nature is that it runs away with you!

You give her, Nature that is, a small area of hillside to play with and, before you know it, she has barricaded herself in with thorny thickets and hidden earthworks, molehills under layers of slippery bracken and ankle breaking, knee jarring pitfalls made by rabbits and badgers. (Did I tell you I’ve just had a new knee.) The whole area is now dense undergrowth, criss-crossed by looping, flailing brambles and willow whips.

Ah, you say, that’s nice — good for diversity!

But is it — it’s not as simple as that!

So concerned were we that we called in an expert — Super-eco-man, a conservation hero —

Bionomic Man — Rob Mileto from Naturetrek

He’ll know what to do.

And he did — we slithered and scrambled up and down our precipitous banks as he introduced us to species of which we had been oblivious. Pleased to meet you! He showed us how to distinguish between our six common ferns, and to start to make sense of some of our mosses, not easy as they mainly have Latin names, now recorded in my roughly dried notebook — it will be fun giving them proper English names — shaggy christmas tree moss and less shaggy christmas tree moss.

Most importantly he showed us what we might lose. In our emerging woodland, already we are losing the avenues of open ground for butterflies and moths, insects and bats. The paths that remain are steep sided — like canyons through the trees without the gently sloping edges needed by butterflies and pollinating insects — there is a lot to do.

The overgrowth of bracken is alternately shading and insulating the great anthills on the sunny bank so that our ancient neighbours, the huge colonies of yellow meadow ants cannot so efficiently control their temperature as they have done for thousands of years.

Our carefully placed owl box overlooks dwindling areas of decent hunting ground for barn owls as the vole habitat is being eroded by blackthorn — probably the reason they haven’t used it of late.

These little beauties settled elsewhere.

Our mature oaks, it turns out, are only 100 years old, adolescent almost, not nearly gnarled and hollow enough to provide adequate nesting for all the bats, like the ones currently breeding in the bathroom ceiling and the pied and spotted flycatchers that come looking for nest sites every spring. Our new barn will need a large well insulated roof space to deal with the housing shortage! A new owl box is planned for the old barn and a safety rail for the swallows and martins as the roof purlins are too steep — the nests tend to fall off.

Seems I’ll have to start production again. Did you know that spotted flycatchers like to nest near buildings.

Open fronted bird boxes for flycatchers and bat boxes — earlier prototypes.

Now I’ve got to go and plan the new pond, we know exactly where to put it and its adjacent compost heap and en-suite woodpile. Our lizards need somewhere to bask with an air raid shelter, we’ve got just the rocks we need.

Seriously we found the exercise very helpful, now we realize that managing an area for wildlife is not a passive exercise. Those who think that any form of re-wilding threatens the rural lifestyle had better think again — even though we might only be cutting some of our hedges every other year (to get more berries) we will be generating lots of other activity.

Watch this space!

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Birds, Ecology

Not Stealing!

We’ve been asking ourselves increasingly what we can do for wildlife.

Yesterday a neighbour caught me interfering with the bank of withering meadow cranesbill (Geranium pratense) outside the Presbyterian Chapel. Public spirited, he came to investigate — my sins had found me out. No, no, he reassured me… Helping ones self to seed is acceptable foraging — recycling and green.

Meadow Cranesbill by Rob Bendall

Armed with this intelligence later in the day I foraged a few red berries of Cotoneaster horizontalis from Ynes hir — all in a good cause. As I passed I remembered the deafening buzz of honey bees that emanated from the Cotoneaster that climbed over our shed in London and where my elder daughter, then about 5, opened her first Bumble Bee Hospital. It was she who made me read the books of Dave Goulson, evangelical champion of bees and the planet generally.

We have been thinking about pollinators, insects, food chains, berries and burrs and, of course, birds.

As far as providing for the birds is concerned, we seem to be doing quite well in the berry department, especially this year.

A very good year for Rowan, and plenty of blackberry and elderberry, though the birds have already made great inroads into the latter.

We have copious sloes on the blackthorn, haws on the whitethorn, hips on the dog rose that rambles in the hedges and sticky honeysuckle fruits on the woodbine and the birds are already harvesting the large crop of tiny apples — they are welcome. Not so to the few damsons — I need those for my gin.

The ivy is coming into bloom to produce lots of berries for the winter.

According to Mr Goulson we could do with a firethorn (Pyracantha — not strictly native) which I have always thought more appropriate for a suburban garden though Bill tells me one once saved his life when it enveloped him in its bouncy, interiorly-sprung prickles when he fell from a ladder!

Less alien might be a wayfarer tree and I know where there is one with lots of berries — at Rutland water — must go and find my balaclava!

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adventure, Birds, Ecology, Scotland

Isle of May

The Isle of May is in the North Sea, 5 miles from the mainland of Scotland, off the East coast in the mouth of the Firth of Forth, we visit it in May and the ocean is like a mill pond.

Looking back towards the mainland and Anstruther.
Our boat lands in the natural inlet amidst a colony of artic tern.
Arctic Tern with attitude
The grey seals in the inlet can’t be bothered to move. This is where they come to breed but most have gone now.

As we head off up the footpath to the side of the island favoured by the seabirds, because of the high cliffs, a cloud of kittiwake announce themselves — lots of birds say their name but none as clearly or as often as the kittiwake! There are two species of Kittiwake in the world — the black-legged and the red-legged. They are thus easily spotted and identified and are enchanting little gulls.

The British Kittiwakes are Black Legged

There were more than 3000 breeding pairs on the Island at a recent count but they do not restrict themselves to off-shore Islands — we saw them on cliffs in Dunbar.

There are about 200,000 seabirds on May which is less than a mile long and 1/3 mile wide, and we have come to see some of the ones that we do not see on the mainland, up close, and to appreciate the scale of the seabird colony.

Puffins

The puffins, there are about 40,000 pairs, nest on the grassy tops and that is where the rabbits come in. They dig the holes that the puffins populate.

Puffins looking out to sea, waiting for their mates to return from sea with their bills loaded with sand eels.

They are very alert — their young pufflings are very vulnerable until they can fly and swim. Airborne predators can reach the island like this Greater Black Backed Gull.

Opportunist Predator

The next layer down in this colony are the auks — the Razorbills (about 3000 breeding pairs) near the tops of the rocky cliffs and the Guillemots (23,000 breeding pairs), lower down nearer the sea.

Razorbills with the heavy duty bill.
Guillemots nearer the water — the one on the left is a Bridled Guillemot
Guillemots

On the sea, bobbing along in twos and threes are Eider drakes like these fine fellows, we stepped over a number of their mates incubating eggs in rocky crevices along the foot path.

Eider duck
Near the harbour inlet some Shag are nesting.

As we leave, the boat circumnavigates this magic isle so that we can see the dramatic sea cliffs from below and we can really appreciate the safety they afford to the hundreds of thousands of nesting birds. Nobody climbs them to collect eggs any more. But, no longer manned, the lighthouse and the foghorns still protects shipping in the Forth as they has since 1635!

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adventure, Birds, Scotland

Mull

Mull is one of the nearer Inner Hebrides islands off the west coast of Scotland and must have had a long, lonely winter with travel restricted and it’s normal waves of challenging weather piling in from the North Atlantic. As we had travelled northward, although already mid-May, there was snow on the tops of the hills from the Lake District onwards.

To reach its weather scoured hillsides we took the ferry — sadly confined to our vehicles — we could only look up at the sky but the skies in Mull say everything!

View back towards the mainland.
Greeted by the harbour hoodie!
We pass the photogenic hulks and the Sun comes out for a moment!
Generally it is chilly — but the restless climate is never the same for more than 20 minutes!
This red dear stag is waiting for his antlers to grow and is the reason the fences are all six feet high!
There is an icy blast — here’s Linda, dressed appropriately and keeping moving…
Looking brighter?

So we attempted a long held ambition of mine to visit Iona, a smaller island off the southern most tip of Mull, famed for its spiritual intensity (and corn crakes –double whammy!)

Waiting for the ferry — actually they are pretending not to be interested in Robson Green in his new fishing togs (over Bill’s left shoulder) about to be tossed in the elements to make a film about lobsters.

The area on Iona covered by iris beds where the crakes used to hide and make the tourists jump with their strange calls seemed, to our birders, much reduced from their previous visits — there seemed to be very many sheep and the sward everywhere we looked had been grazed to within an millimetre of its life during the long winter. Doubly disappointed we did not stay long.

Bill, having given up on the corn crake, looks for something more transcendental!
Back on Mull — every cloud… the kiosk on the quay — note the 1/2 lobster and chips — we had scallops and chips (to share) — very good!
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Birds, Ecology

Cuckoo!

Just after dawn this morning we witnessed something very odd and heartening.

Everyone knows how the wicked cuckoo preys on the poor little birds (reed warblers, dunnocks, meadow pipits), laying an egg in their nests which hatches into a monster that evicts the other natural nestlings and grows huge on the tireless efforts of the adoptive parents.

This morning we heard the first cuckoos, up in the forestry. There were two males vying for territory, skirmishing in the treetops. Here is one.

The two birds had quite distinct calls so we could monitor their conversation! Both had the striped breast that is said to mimic a sparrow hawk — a cunning ploy to frighten the prey hen bird from her nest and give the female cuckoo time to lay.

The little birds out and about today were mainly willow warblers and robins but whichever they were some of them were not afraid of the cuckoos.

In fact groups of little birds were attacking the relatively huge cuckoos and driving them off their perches so… Not just feckless victims!

Heroic little birds.

Robin
Willow Warbler
Grey Wagtail with attitude!
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Birds

Bird-feeders

During this cold weather there is a lot to be said for getting the birds to come to you rather than plodding about the countryside wondering where they have all gone. They are not stupid — they are on the feeders! This year we are blessed with several greater spotted woodpeckers — this is a male with a red flash on the back of his head — the females have only red under the tail. They have been drumming for over a week now so we know spring is coming!

This nuthatch is Bill’s favorite — calling from a tree if the feeder is empty!

In Wales the feeder is surrounded by a miasma of flitting great tits and blue tits with the occasional coal tit, siskin and, if we are lucky, a mob of visiting long tailed tits. Our gold finches have gone somewhere warmer. There are chaffinches too and a robin who has learned to perch.

In the East Midlands, Bill’s feeder is also used by the ubiquitous tits but dominated by green finches and gold finches. Each bird feeder gives a snap-shot of the local bird population. There are chaffinches and a pair of bullfinches.

Beneath the Welsh feeder the swelling flock of pheasants are excavating, ekeing out a living from the rejected sunflower seeds — the nuthatch is very picky! They are very hungry since the gamekeeper stopped feeding them but have had the good sense to move up the valley, away from the guns. In Kettering their niche is occupied by a fat wood pigeon and they all bicker with the resident squirrels!

Following my recent freezer debacle I put some rapidly defrosting pheasant legs in view of the bedroom window (don’t worry, they were shot in the valley — no bio-hazzard). Within a couple of hours there were 8 buzzards circling above. Here is one of the two that were on the ground.

It is not just the feeders that the small birds visit — they like the spiders webs on the window frames, a long tailed tit was knocking on the window recently

Long tailed tits are very difficult to photograph — this wonderful picture is by Wildlife Terry (CC0 1.0) I think they are enchanting.

This blackbird forages on the bank opposite my study window giving me the evil eye and sometimes flying at the window — it’s not me he hates but his own reflection!

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Birds, Climate, Planes

The Sound of Freedom!

What a difference a day makes — the clear blue sky has bought my fair weather friend out onto the banks of the Trannon to wonder at the thundering of the water and bemoan the absence of aerial activity.

No thermals yet for the buzzards and kites, not even the cronk of a raven… The kingfisher and the dipper have moved downstream. But what is this new roar above that of the rushing river. Right above our heads:

A F15E Strike Eagle

“All the way from Lakenheath,” said Bill “and probably in less time than it’s taken us to walk down the valley… ” He had a strange far away look on his face, “Jet noise — the sound of freedom!” he said, quoting the bumper stickers of the 80’s.

I only hope that my friends who remember protesting at Greenham Common with the same expression of nostalgia will have forgotten this by the time we meet again.

There were three F15Es (I need 3 — one to jump, 2 to adjust the camera and 3: bingo!) They made several passes over our valley and then were gone, doubtless marvelling all the way home at the strange water-world beneath them — all the way from Wales to East Anglia, in less time than it took us to walk home for our lunch. It will have been a spectacular journey today.

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Art, Birds

Exotica

Flamingo (seen in Paradise Park — Hayle, Cornwall) by Emily Carr (age 4)

Picasso said that every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we have grown up.

Here are some of the other exotic birds we have been lucky enough to see in the last twelve months — if only I could paint them like Emily.

White Ibises — Texas
Juvenile (not quite white) Ibis
Brown and White Pelicans — Texas
White Pelicans swimming in formation, scudding across the lake, to fish with spectacular synchronized trawling!
Whooping Crane
Spoonbill, Snettisham, Norfolk
Roseate Spoonbills, Texas

We saw White Storks in flight in Cornwall this summer, but in his excitement, Bill’s photographs got accidentally deleted — here are some he took earlier in Hungary.

Happy Thanksgiving to our friends in the States.

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animal psychology, Birds

Winter Visitors

No one is allowed visitors. We aren’t allowed visitors except for Liz, Bill’s sister (she’s in our bubble) but today in aid of Granny’s mental health we went for a walk in Peterborough. Why would anyone want to go for a walk in Peterborough? Not even around the cathedral. Just a Sunday constitutional — an elderly couple walking 20 feet behind a young couple with a little boy — shouted greetings — shared townscapes — a visit to the duck-pond. These little things make all the difference! But, do you know, we are noticing other winter visitors!

Greylag Geese dropped in from Iceland.

Did you know that these gregarious, noisy birds (sounding like a pack of hounds) make long term monogamous bonds and the divorce rate is only 5-8%(I don’t know how we know) and 14-20% are in same sex relationships. Their sexual orientation is flexible — widower ganders may re-pair with females (who are smaller). Large homosexual couples often have dominant positions in the flock and may act as guardians. You don’t have to watch geese for very long to realize how cautious they are and how mindful of potential threats. As they move around the available grazing in the local park individuals are watching the humans and the dogs and leading the others in defensive phalanxes.

In the last couple of weeks we have noticed some other winter visitors, photographed by Bill Branford (BY-NC-ND 2.0), mainly on Pitsford reservoir.

Here is a beautiful smew from the end of last winter — seen at Rutland Water

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Birds, Ecology, Wales

Chough-Hunting again!

Since the slight relaxation of the Corona Virus Lockdown in Wales we have renewed our search for the elusive chough. There are more in Wales than anywhere else in the UK but still probably only just over 200 pairs, mainly in coastal areas where they feed on invertebrates associated with grazing animals. They like a short sward and lots of creepy-crawlies in the droppings of the animals that crop the grass.

The Light house at South Stack, Anglesey (Ynes Mon) where we started our search

This time we went looking on Anglesey in North Wales. Almost the moment we got out of the car we were treated to a flypast — 16 birds all calling out their name!

Already gathering as they do in winter to feed when they are more often seen inland (though never by us)
At last a good view of a magnificent chough.

We followed the flock to the coastal path where we could watch them on the rocks of the high cliff face.

This has been an exceptional summer in Wales and we have been out and about in the fields and pasture much more than previously and I am always commenting on the lack of the usual infuriating insects — this may be due to the hot, dry spring but we notice it more markedly in the grazed areas where one might expect to be pursued by a cloud of flies — not this year. I do wonder if the amount and efficacy of the pour-on, long-acting insecticides that are almost universally used on farm animals now are impacting on the bio-mass of insects. If so where will this leave the other creatures in the food chain — like the chough.

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