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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