Ecology, Wales

Cemlyn Bay — Amazing Habitat

A few days ago we visited Anglesey and on our way home we stopped at Cemlyn Bay (it was on our way and there was a little red bird on the map so we thought we’d have a look). The bay has a strange eliptical shingle beach like the Chesil Beach but a perfect curve. At first we thought it was man-made — something to do with the atomic power station on the Eastern promontory but it is natural. There is a brackish lagoon behind this pebble bank.

Walking along the bank we were struck by the unfamiliar plant life — Sea Kale, Sea Campion, Sea Beet and Thrift.

Sea Campion — Seline uniflora (Its leaves are the smaller grey-green ones)
Sea Kale — Crambe maritima with its strange ball like fruits.
Wild Thyme –Thymus polytrichus

At either end there were clumps of sweet smelling purple flowers which I assumed was the sea lavender that the information board boasted, but no, it is Wild Thyme. There was lots of Ragwort and Bird’s-foot Trefoil with many yellow and black striped caterpillars of the Cinnabar Moth.

Cinnabar Caterpillar Tyria jacobaeae

The Cinnebar Moths are protected from predation by absorbing the toxin from the ragwort that makes them foul tasting. When we were children one rarely saw Ragwort as it was zealously sought out and destroyed by farmers as it was known to cause liver failure and death in horses. The toxic alkaloid, Pyrrolizidine, is metabolized by the liver which it gradually destroys — however, nowadays the risk is not thought to be high as the dose needed is great — still, best kept out of pasture and hay.

There were lots of moths as well: Six Spot Burnet Moths, Zygaena filipendulae (not Cinnabar Moths which are similar in colour but a different pattern).

Six Spot Burnet Moth Zygaena filipendulae

Burnet Moth Caterpillars feed on Common Bird’s-foot Trefoil — interestingly this also contains a toxin, a cyanogenic glycoside which when chewed produces cyanide. This also protects them from predation as they are said to release cyanide when attacked.

As we walked around the bay the noise of chattering birds became louder, not gulls, but thousands of terns — clouds of them, swooping and swerving over the lagoon. As we got nearer we could see hundreds perched on rocks and a weir and standing at the edges of the water.

Terns on the lagoon.

Common Terns with red bills, black at the tip, and Arctic Terns with plain red bills. Distinguishing these birds is easier when there are so many, together at close quarters, when one can compare them easily.

Common Tern with young.
Arctic Terns

Sandwich Terns breed here in large numbers (third largest breeding colony in the UK), they are a little bigger with black bills with yellow tips.

Sandwich Terns – juveniles

All the time there were birds flying over us to fish at sea and coming back carrying fish and feeding young.

Sandwich tern -note the shaggy crest.

Walking out onto the headland we heard a strange sound, a mellow moaning, from out on the distant rocks where the surf was breaking,”I wonder…” said Bill raising his telescope, “Yes, Grey Seals!” They were lying like great curved pods, balanced on semi-submerged rocks with heads and tails in the air, waiting for the incoming tide.”

Vivian Hewitt’s House and Walled Lagoon.

On our way back we met the Reserve Warden, I asked her about the strange walled area — was it military? She told us about the eccentric millionaire between the wars who bought the farmhouse that stands within the peculiar 20 foot ramparts. She said he had the walls built during the depression to provide work for local people.

For his birthday I bought Bill a book — Early Birds and Boys in Blue by Phillip Jones — A century of Radnorshire aviation. On the night we returned from Cemlyn he was reading about the pioneer aviator, Vivian Vaughan Davies Hewitt, the first man to fly from Holyhead to Dublin in 1912. When Hewitt retired from flying he had moved to Cemlyn Bay, immersing himself in the bird-life and creating the walled sanctuary upon which we had just stumbled and where the wild thyme grows.

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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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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, Ecology

Hammerhead!

When you see your first spoonbill cross the sky above your head I promise you will do a double take. They look so peculiar with their long necks outstretched and the odd bulbous end to the beak. We saw one over Titchwell Marsh in Norfolk, last month and for a moment I thought we were looking at a pterodactyl! With the long neck extended in flight and the bill so long and strange and its massive wingspan it had proportions that seemed quite alien.

Couldn’t catch that one but here are some Roseate Spoonbills (Platalea ajaja) we saw in USA last year — even here they look primitive

The Spoonbill we see in England is white (Platalea leucorodia) and was wiped out in the 1700s because of drainage of the wetlands and hunting. However in recent years they are recolonizing areas in the South West and South East, from Europe, and have even bred in Yorkshire. The work of the RSPB and the Wetland Trusts in habitat creation is helping and these spectacular birds can be seen once more.

European Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia) Snettisham on the Wash 2020
European Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia) Frampton Marsh, Lincolnshire 2020

Thanks to Bill for his pictures of Spoonbills (all rights reserved).

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Birds, Ecology

A Crane to Lift the Spirits

Yesterday, having come to terms with cancelling our visits to grandchildren because of the risk of Corona Virus and facing 12 weeks in lock-down, the collapse of the economy, evaporation of our pensions, disintegration of the world’s infrastructure and the disappearance of all toilet paper (not to mention the possibility of impending premature death), we packed a picnic and set out to find the Whooper Swans out on the Ouse and Nene Washes.

These are areas of fenland fields that are flooded in winter by the waters of the rivers Ouse and Nene in Cambridgeshire, England. This year after the deluge of recent weeks the area was more like an inland sea but we found the Whoopers (Cygnus cygnus) and some Bewicks (Cygnus columbianus bewickii) grazing in nearby fields — nipping any hope of agricultural recovery, literally, in the bud. They are preparing to leave for their breeding grounds in Iceland and Siberia respectively.

Whooper Swans (with the occasional Bewick) grazing.

But, wait a minute, what are these in the distance? Not the swans — behind them!

Common Cranes and Mute Swans on the Nene Washes yesterday, albeit at a distance.

Cranes became extinct in Britain 400 years ago, didn’t they?

Not so! The now inappropriately named Common Crane (Grus grus) evidently reappeared in 1978 — probably when 3 individuals were blown in from Europe. The population teetered for a number of years with slow breeding, but with some migration and a little help from captive breeding, reintroduction and habitat creation it continues to grow. There are now 50 pairs or more.

As we watched one of these pairs who were a long way away (mitigation for the poor photo) two more individuals flew in, landing precariously and then displaying to each other just as we had seen Sandhill Cranes do when we were in Texas last autumn. They danced, bouncing from leg to leg with their necks extended backwards, calling and fluffing out their magnificent plumed tails in a bonding exercise — presumably indicating to the other couple that they are no threat.

Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) — also a very rare visitor to Britain, by Bill Branford (all rights reserved)

The thought of life after extinction is very comforting just at the moment.

Sandhill Cranes by Bill Branford (all rights reserved).

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Ecology

When is a Pig not a Pig?

When it’s a Peccary (or a Javelina)!

Collared Peccary or Javelina (Pecari tajacu)

This musk scented, short sighted creature potters around the thorn scrub of Southern Texas, alone or in small groups looking for its favourite prickly pears and snoozing under the live oak trees which are festooned with Spanish moss. It looks a bit like a wild boar but do not be deceived, reflect: “it did not hurtle out of the undergrowth to attack you!” In fact if it gets a whiff of you (provided you are not being horrid) it will ignore you, as this one did.

The collared peccary is not a proper pig — it’s not very closely related to pigs at all and will not breed with them. (Like wolves and dogs who are related and can interbreed and foxes who aren’t and don’t!)

It is the wild boar that is the father of all pigs. The Eurasian wild boar was domesticated millenia ago and then transported to the New World in the 1500s. The pig is an intelligent, enterprising beast so it did well in America and it often escaped. Now there is a significant feral pig population established in the States proud to carry the DNA of its pilgrim fathers. Our guides did not share my delight at the sight of this huge black feral pig snortling and rootling in the precious and delicate ecosystem of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf coast of Texas three weeks ago.

How had it reached this isolated peninsula dotted with lakes, one of the few places left where the whooping cranes can feed and breed? It had swum across the shallow waters of the bay to enjoy the peace and gorge on the rich vegitation, crustacea, toads, tortoises, birds eggs and reptile eggs, and to present the guardians of this habitat with a real problem.

These wild pigs breed prodigiously; one sow can start breeding at 6 months old and produce 5 litters of about 10 piglets every year! That’s 50 new pigs a year. Not surprisingly there are now about 6,000,000 wild pigs in the US — razorback hogs. They estimate that there are 2.6 million in Texas and that the cost to the agricultural economy is $50million per year.

Whooping Crane (Grus americana) — “where are all the crabs this year?”

It is estimated that to control the pig situation 65% need to be culled each year — that is a lot of pork and they do not taste very nice — even if they are “flushed” with a commercial diet before slaughter. People hunt them from helicopters, trap them and recently try to control them with rat poison. Ecologists might prefer a more organic approach and bears, wolves and large wild cats will take an adult pig, significantly these species are rare in the areas where the wild pigs thrive.

Bobcats can’t tackle a Razorback hog but may take the odd piglet.
The american alligator does what it can but is absent from many areas where the wild pigs flourish and reminds us that top predators can eat us too!
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Ecology, Wales

The biggest cobweb in the world?

Several years ago a couple of sections of hedge near here appeared to have been wrapped in the biggest cobweb I had ever seen. The sections were about 3-4 meters long — the length of a farm gate. At first I thought it was something to do with planning permission — as when farmers or developers wrap a section of hedge in green plastic netting to stop birds from nesting while they wait for permission to root it out for a new entry. Closer examination revealed something more interesting!

The net appeared to be a huge, quite robust, cocoon in the safety of which thousands of caterpillars were devouring the hedge.

Apocalyptic!” thought I, “That’s the end of that hedge and maybe life as we know it.”

But no, that section which was mainly bird cherry looked dead but the web eventually disappeared and the hedge recovered.

This year the phenomenon has recurred, this time in a hedge that is mainly holly with bird cherry growing through it and the caterpillars of the Bird Cherry Ermine Moth (Yponomenta evonymella), for these are the culprits, have ensheathed most of the bird cherry but left the holly unscathed.

The caterpillars are thriving protected from predatory birds and they appear to have eaten much of the foliage within their web nests already but below you can see them spinning new web to enclose more food.

Now we must wait for them to pupate and later for the adult moths to emerge — a ghostly white night-flyer with rows of black dots, an echo of the caterpillars…

Attribution: ¬©entomart

They are successful as a species — they’ve developed a clever biodegradable protective wrapper for themselves and they don’t even appear to come back to the same trees twice, they protect their food source — little eco-warriors.

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Ecology, Wales

On the Verge…

What’s this? A fritillary? No — look at those eye spots, it’s a wall butterfly (Lasiommata megera).

They live in short grassland especially where the sward is broken by rocks, furrows and walls (they like Wales), they are seen on grassy railway embankments and green verges, usually alone. Perhaps you’ll see a male flitting along looking for a female or resting with its wings folded together, showing the mottled grey underside, camouflaged on a rocky outcrop. This one was enjoying the May sunshine with its wings outstretched on the edge of a country lane that has a wide verge (the long acre) waiting to flutter up to waylay a passing female.

Their numbers are dwindling and they represent a high conservation priority as, although widespread in coastal England and Wales, they are rapidly declining. Rare now in central England it was presumed due to loss of habitat because of building and changes in farming, less grazing and the use of insecticides to protect arable crops. But there may be another reason: there is evidence that warmer temperatures are causing generations to hatch out too late in the year to survive.

About three years ago everyone here was complaining bitterly about the council not cutting the verges regularly anymore. This year the verges are blue with a resplendent crop of wild hyacinths, self sown or grown from dormant bluebell bulbs which lay waiting for a reprieve from incessant mowing. It’s an austerity bonus! Good for bees!

As our lonely wall butterfly flits off to find a mate it reminds us of the enormous value of our 937 square miles of verges in the UK — twice the size of Exmoor and the New Forest put together — let’s mow them all just once a year and stop spraying and, while we’re at it, please can we turn off all the street lamps!

A483 verge near Garthmyl

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Ecology, Wales

Sometimes I think I’m invisible!

Cheeky bank vole steeling new friend, Thrush’s fat ball (he’s eaten all the bananas!) — bold as brass, six feet away from me.

Gosh! He moves fast, flitting all about the bank –soon the plants will have grown so much that he will be sheltered from the eyes in the sky –buzzards, barn owls and tawny owls. But watch out! There’s a stoat that visits the bank and next door’s cat. Everything is getting much braver since our dog died.

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