lifestyle, Wales

Give us this day…

When everything you know seems under threat you start to realize what really matters. Here’s a tribute to our local baker.

They make bread in the old fashioned way from simple ingredients — just flour, water, yeast and salt. Here’s some dough proving, slowly — waiting to be put into crocks…

and baked into delicious, crispy wheat or rye sourdough bread. There are wholemeal wheat, rye and spelt loaves and “Llanidloes specials” with the magic cheesy crust. There are olive ciabatte, Chelsea buns and almond croissants.

Baked each day and delivered to local shops. No plastic wrappers, tiny carbon footprint, no waste — they sell out every day but nothing for the birds as the humans fight for every last crumb!

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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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nature, Spiders

The writing spider?

To calm my nerves my daughter, who is staying in Australia, writes that she has been clearing the cobwebs from the outside of the house!

Today she sent me a picture of the St Andrew’s Cross Spider (one of her neighbours) :

Australian St Andrew’s Cross Spider (Argiope keyserlingi) ventral view.

If its back were showing you would see dramatic (wasp like) bands of yellow and black. She shows the characteristic saltire, that X of zig zag, actually spiral, threads called web decorations or stabilimenta. This last word says it all — these have to be stabilizers or shock absorbers to strengthen the web. These are formidable engineers.

Webs like this are made by members of the Argiope family all over the world. Here’s one we saw in the southern USA:

Just a little spider, sitting in the middle of a huge cross made of spiral threads, wrapping something up before Christmas. It was the cross that fascinated. In the US they call them Zipper Spiders (A. aurantia) or Writing Spiders — some of the more untidy spinners produce stabilimenta that look as if you should be able to read them!

You can find their cousins all over the world with assorted variations in markings and web stabilimenta. There’s at least one that can be seen in Britain (Argiope bruennichi) and isn’t it just typical that we have to travel half way round the world to find that out!

Wasp Spider (Argiope bruennichi) by Ben Andrew

We’ll be looking for this one at Minsmere next summer!

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Cornwall, Thoughtful

Back on the Fringe

Celtic knot, granite with lichen!

A magic place, soon after dawn (which isn’t very early) on the Fowey estuary in January. Lapwings cluster on the sandbanks and the eerie calls of the curlew heralds the progress of the seasons.

Snow drops are under the bare oak in St Winnow’s churchyard, primroses blooming and campion in the hedgerow under the golden gorse. All in the cool moist air that reminds us of our amazing good fortune as family and friends in Australia (who used to tease us about our rain) suffer unimaginable heat and anxiety. They are living with the threat of loosing everything they hold dear in a biblical inferno.

I wish I could send them all a little while in the cool of St Winnow’s churchyard.

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Butterflies, Texas

Monarchs, Queens and a Pretender!

We didn’t see many monarchs in Texas last month — not because it is a Republican state but because the cold snap had presumably sent these amazing migratory butterflies scuttling south to warmer climes. Only one or two non-migratory ones had stayed around to remind us what we had missed.

These creatures over-winter in the mountains of Mexico and set off in the spring to fly northwards, pausing to breed, then the offspring in their turn set off again northward, pausing to breed and thus they go, a step per generation, all the way to southern Canada. Come the autumn they all turn southward heading back to their wintering grounds where no individual has ever been before — how clever is that?

Monarch Butterfly by Bill Branford (all rights reserved)

They lay their eggs on milkweed, the food plant of the caterpillar, which contains alkaloids which confer the gift of nastiness to the way they taste and which make them poisonous to predators. That helps!

Queens are also milkweed butterflies — we saw more of them — they are also migratory, presumably also following the milkweed season north but less is known about their migratory habits. They are similar to monarchs but are darker and more russety and have no black veining when viewed from above.

Queen butterflies

The viceroy butterfly, below, looks much more like the monarch, apart from those straight black lines which transect the black veins towards the back of their wings. This is the impersonator! They do not lay their eggs on milkweed, they do not assimilate the poisonous alkaloids of the milkweed and presumably taste quite good to birds, reptiles and hungry amphibians. They are just mimics, surviving and prospering because they look like something that tastes nasty! Their ancestors didn’t have to practice on a poisonous plant that probably killed some of them. Now that is really clever!

Viceroy Butterfly by popo.uw23 from Flikr (Public domain 1.0)
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Birds, Travel

Herons and Egrets!

Last month in Texas we saw lots of herons and egrets, so what’s the difference? They are all members of the heron family, Ardeida . We tend to call the white ones egrets but they are not a separate family. In fact the great white egret, (Ardea alba), above, is closely related to the great blue heron (Ardea herodius)below.

To make things more complicated the great blue heron has variants that are white, thus only differing in superficial appearance from its egret cousin by its shaded heavier bill and paler legs.

Although the appearance of these two is similar their distribution is very different with the Great Egret being widely distributed through most of the world while the great blue heron is usually restricted to the Americas. Both look quite different with their necks hunched up. Here is the great blue heron with his neck extended a little:

Here is a smaller heron, the tricolored heron (Egretta tricolor):

This chap is a more specialist feeder, fishing for minnows in the shallow, we saw him dashing about quite frenetically fishing, not the cool stalking that we usually associate with herons. They have a trick of stretching out their wings to make a pool of shadow into which the fish swim. They are more restricted in their distribution living mainly around the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. He is in winter plumage (only two colours) in the breeding season he sports a beautifully russet/maroon neck.

Here is the yellow crowned night heron (Nyctanassa violacea) keeping a low profile during the day — herons fill many niches — these hunt crustaceans and insects at night, often nesting high in trees.

Here are two black crowned night herons(Nycticorax nicticorax) , at Sable Palm Sanctuary, South Padre Island, Texas:

Black crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycricorax)

These beautiful birds are common in the wetlands of the USA and also found in the warmer parts of Europe and were reported to have bred for the first time in the UK in 2017, in Somerset. Whether this was due to the hardiness of one pair who strayed too far north or to global warming is the question!

They are not however the only new herons to be colonizing our shores. As well as the great egret and the little egret, the cattle egret is becoming quite common, we have seen several this year in the UK and nearly always, happily as you might expect, in fields of cows!

Western cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis) in Texas — small white heron with a yellow bill

Here is a snowy egret for comparison — note the black bill, these are limited to the Americas and are very territorial in the breeding season when they display noisily, pointing their bills skyward and bobbing up and down to the great interest of other egrets gathered to watch. They also tumble in the sky in their attempts to attract a mate.

It is similar in appearance to our little egret (Egretta garzetta) which is only an occasional visitor to the States

Snowy egret (Egretta thula)

This little heron is a green heron (Butorides virescens), they sit in thick undergrowth by preferably shallow water looking intently for little fish onto which to lunge.

The last of the herons that we saw in Texas was the rare reddish egret (Egretta rufescens) seen here at a distance, its numbers are decreasing, breeding in the Caribbean and a visitor to the Gulf of Mexico.

Thanks to Bill Branford for allowing me to use his photographs of the great egret, snowy egret, western cattle egret, green heron and the reddish egret, (all rights reserved).

I will show you the ibises, cranes and spectacular spoonbills soon!

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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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adventure, Birds, Climate

To the Alamo and Beyond

Here we are, a group of intrepid British bird-watchers hunting the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium brasillium) in Texas last month, in perishing conditions as a freak cold front swept the US. All wearing everything we had and me with socks on my hands we searched a ranch 1/6th the area of Wales for a little tropical owl at the far north of its range. Our guides were tenacious and cunning with their recordings of Pygmy calls and inside information about recent sightings, they had no intention of letting us go until we had seen this timorous beastie.

Ferruginous Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium brazillium)

Here he is, about the size of a starling (but all puffed up), as intrigued by our strange appearance and beguiling calls as we were by him.

It had been even colder the day before when icicles were spotted dangling from the air-conditioning vent at breakfast. Here are the more robust members of the party looking for icebergs on Corpus Christi Lake.

As the more feeble fled for shelter in adjacent woodland we were treated to a view of this Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) who had had the same idea.

As we climbed back into the minibus and fell upon the last of the emergency Worther’s Originals (the beauty of travelling with Grandads) a little bird flitted frantically in the bare branches above, looking for something to eat — a Black Throated Green Warbler (Setophaga virens) — a late migrant caught short by the Arctic blast.

Black throated green warbler — juv (Setophaga virens)
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