Making friends with dragons

Everything is beginning to calm down and sort itself out in my life, which is wonderful and also means that I may just have some time to write my blog again! Fingers crossed! There is a lot I could write about in this post, but I am going to focus on a nature walk I took recently – the first in ages and it was wonderful!

(c) Andrew Kerwick-Chrisp

A friend and I decided to use a weekend day to visit Irthlingborough Lakes and Meadows in Northamptonshire. This was a new nature reserve for me so I didn’t know what to expect, but it is on his doorstep so he knows it quite well. However, he isn’t wildlife-mad/obsessed like myself so it turned out to be a learning experience for him too. Not to mention that he hasn’t seen me in wildlife-mad/obsessed mode before, so that also turned out to be a learning experience for him! (Yes, I do actually associate with people outside the world of natural history!)

I managed to find quite a few plump and juicy blackberries to snack on, although we are beginning to near the end of their season sadly. We even found a dragonfly – which I believe to be a Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) though I am completely out of practice, so do let me know if I’m wrong! We watched it for a minute or two, and I tried to get a decent photo of it. I think I did quite well, though not an amazing photo. It then flew off and we didn’t see where it landed, until we went to walk on again at which point my friend noticed that it had landed on my hair! It actually stayed there for about 5 minutes or so, and only flew off when I went to carry on walking. On an unrelated note – how fantastic does my plait look in the photos?!

Further along the way, we were intrigued by the sight of a lady crouching down in the grass by the side of the path. What could she be up to? Something nefarious or was she, like I usually do, looking at something interesting? It turned out that she was photographing Shaggy Ink Caps (Coprinus comatus), a lovely fungus that it is one of the easier species to identify. Apparently it is edible and quite tasty, but before the black ink begins to appear. I wouldn’t take my word for it though, as I don’t know much about foraging for mushrooms!

What with there being lakes at this nature reserve, there were a fair few birds about – Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea), Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus), Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus), Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), etc etc. I had my duck identification skills tested, after quite a few months of not even attempting any duck ID. Racking my brains, I managed to remember that they were Wigeon (Anas penelope) and Teal (Anas crecca). It shouldn’t have been quite so difficult to remember, but I am very out of practice with ducks! Must work harder!

We almost passed by this female Blackbird (Turdus merula) without noticing her, she was sitting ever so still and quietly in the Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) tree. A little later, we spotted another Blackbird, this time a male who was not so still but instead was enjoying some haw berries.

Our last find was a good one – a grasshopper! I had wondered if it would be too late in the year or too chilly to find any Orthoptera, but I was not to be disappointed it seems. With the side keels of the pronotum being so straight and almost parallel, my guess would be Lesser Marsh Grasshopper (Chorthippus albomarginatus)?

All in all, a rather nice nature walk. I bet it is even better in late spring and summer when I am sure it is buzzing with even more Orthoptera, and filled with exciting wildflowers and other insects!

In other news, I have left National Trust’s Wimpole Estate (though not before finding a rare fungus!), moved house, and have exciting plans for the near future. Watch this space! For now, a few tweets of what else has been happening recently:

#30DaysWild – Days 15 – 22

Ok, so I fell behind somewhat on my #30DaysWild blogging – oops! Not to worry though, I have been connecting with nature every day despite being busy with work, AFON bits and pieces, and general life stuff. I won’t go into every single wild act that happened every day, so here is a summary, shown through my tweets.

Bee Orchids (Ophrys apifera)! ❤ ❤ ❤

Somehow, and after quite a bit of searching, I found the Bee Orchid from last week again. And in fact, I found a further 6 plants! Then later that day, I was informed of two more locations of Bee Orchids on the estate, which is fantastic news indeed.

 

I was able to put the moth trap out at Wimpole for the first time in ages (since I need to be there two days in a row to run the trap). There wasn’t much, but I did catch this beautiful Pale Tussock moth (Calliteara pudibunda).

 

#30DaysWild – Days 8 – 11

It’s proving difficult to blog every day for 30 Days Wild this year, but there is no need to worry. I am most definitely still connecting with nature every day!

Day 8

I actually had a day off from working on Wednesday (Day 8), though I spent much of it either working on my laptop or working in the garden. However, Matt and I did go for a lovely walk at lunchtime. Alongside admiring dragonflies and butterflies, we also heard a Corn Bunting (Emberiza calandra) and I managed to get good views (but no photos) of a Whitethroat (Sylvia communis).

Day 9

The wildlife spotting started early on Day 9 when we emptied the garden moth trap. There was a good variety of species, above you can see Cinnabar (Tyria jacobaeae), Poplar Hawk-moth (Laothoe populi), White Ermine (Spilosoma lubricipeda) and Green Silver-lines (Pseudoips prasinana). The morning was then further improved when I found out that the abstract I had submitted for giving a talk at Ento ’16 had been accepted!

I was working at Wimpole that day, so I took a lunchtime walk in front of the house. The lawn is absolutely gorgeous, as they let the grass grow long and there are lots of wildflowers amongst it. Including a Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera), as shown below. I think I may attempt to photograph the orchid in flower next week – though I don’t know if I will manage to find it again!

Day 10

On Friday I was working at Wicken Fen, leading KS2 school groups in pond dipping. We caught a silly number of newt tadpoles, and some absolute whoppers of diving beetles and their larvae. I recently learnt that the underside is useful in identifying the different diving beetle species, hence the photos below of their undersides! For example, I am pretty confident that the adult beetle below on the right is a Black-bellied Diving Beetle (Dytiscus semisulcatus). We also saw the food chain in action when a diving beetle larvae was caught with a water boatman in its jaws! I knew they were predators, but didn’t realise that they ate adult beetles of other species!

Day 11

I had yet another day off this week! Very strange indeed. My To Do list was depressingly long so I spent the morning and much of the afternoon attempting to tackle it, but I did manage to get out and visit a local nature reserve in the late afternoon. I decided to local Wildlife Trust reserve, Houghton Meadows. On the walk down the lane, I found a couple of feathers to stick into my hat which was fun.

Houghton Meadows is a lovely place, the fields were just brimming with flowers. Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor) was everywhere, and so because it has parasitic properties on grasses (thus limiting their growth), there were other wildflowers everywhere too: Bird’s-Foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), Ox-Eye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) and Red Clover (Trifolium pratense). The insect population was strong too, lots of Diamond-backed moths (Plutella xylostella), a Common Blue butterfly (Polyommatus icarus) and plenty of damselflies and dragonflies. I had particular fun photographing a male Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens) through the grass stems.

On my walk back to the car, I was thrilled to find a family of Long-tailed Tits (Aegithalos caudatus), as they were one of my favourite birds. Mind you, they are a nuisance to try and take photographs of as they move around so much! However, a couple of these particular birds didn’t move around as much, I think they must’ve been fledglings.

#30DaysWild – Days 4 & 5

There isn’t much to show for Day 4 as I spend much of the day out in the garden without my phone or camera. However, I did pop out for a bit and I saw a family of Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) on the river. Look at how cute and fluffy the cygnets are!!!

I was working on Sunday (day 5), but still managed to squeeze quite a lot of wildness in! We have Swallows (Hirundo rustica) nesting in the stable block at Wimpole and I finally saw one of them with nesting material. Until then, I had only seen them flying about and chattering away.

It was relatively quiet at work that day as the county show was occurring nearby (on Wimpole land, but not run by Wimpole). I popped over to give someone a new radio, and walked through the gardens to get there. I was thrilled to find Yellow Rattle () in the gardens, as it is one of my favourite wildflowers, (a) because it is very pretty, (b) because you can rattle the seeds around and (c) because it is a hemi-parasite on grasses and thus it is brilliant for turning an area of grass into a wildflower meadows!

The wildness continued after work as I was able to fit in a short wander whilst I waited for Matt to pick me up from Wimpole. I’ve not identified the white flower or the white moth just yet, though I am taking an educated guess and saying that it is a White Plume moth  (Pterophorus pentadactyla). The other moth is a Blood-vein moth (Timandra comae), a species that I was very excited to find as I have admired in the book for ages and hadn’t actually seen one before!

For both days, I then spent the evening as a volunteer on the @30DaysWild Twitter account (whilst someone else volunteered on the Facebook group). I knew in advance that it was going to be quite busy – but I hadn’t realised quite how busy it would be! I barely had time to take a sip of water or to eat snacks during the four hour sessions. Whilst it was quite hectic, it was very enjoyable and so inspiring to see what everyone has been up to for #30DaysWild

#30DaysWild – Day 2

 

Oops, day 2 passed without me posting my 30 Days Wild! However, I did go out and connect with nature on Day 2. In fact, I even managed to do it before work! I was at Wimpole early yesterday, so I went for a short walk around one of the nature areas looking for insects, flowers and generally getting rather soggy knees. And even a nettle sting when I wasn’t careful enough!

Even in the drizzle, there was plenty to be found, especially because there were so many nettles! I have decided that big patches of nettles are one of my favourite habitats as I find so many interesting insects on them!

I was also thrilled to find some Jelly-ear Fungus (Auricularia auricula-judae), Common Spotted Orchids (Dactylorhiza fuchsii), a huge carpet of bright yellow buttercups and to hear and see a little Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) darting around the trees and singing away very loudly!

A most excellent start to the day!

Scilly Species Sightings

Last weekend was amazing. One of the best weekends in my life for sure. It was a long weekend, where ten women headed down to the Isles of Scilly to relax, drink wine and watch wildlife. This being a wildlife blog, I shall focus on the latter in this post, but I can reassure you that copious amounts of the first two also occurred. Each day on Scilly deserves its own blog post – in fact, each half of a day! But I shall keep it as short and concise as I can.

It was a false start to begin with, when I got very excited during boarding as I saw an Eider Duck (Somateria mollissima) in the Penzance harbour. The excitement was (a) it is a gorgeous duck, and (b) I thought it was lifer. When I got home, I realised that I have actually seen an Eider Duck before during the Scottish wildlife holiday last year. But still, it was very nice to see it. The sightings continued during the journey on the Scillonian across to the Scilly Isles – Gannet (Morus bassanus), Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis), Great Northern Diver (Gavia immer), and most wonderfully – dolphins (Delphinus delphis)! We saw one playing in the waves created by the boat, only briefly mind, but gosh it was superb. Then not long after, I saw a pod of at least 8 in the distance, leaping into the air. There isn’t much in life that beats the thrill of watching wild dolphins.

Once we were on Scilly, I had the pleasant surprise of watching our usual garden birds on the seashore – House Sparrows (Passer domesticus), Robins (Erithacus rubecula) and Blackbirds (Turdus merula), searching amongst the seaweed for food. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was as I had never seen these birds on a sandy beach before! I even saw a Blackbird getting its feet wet – it didn’t seem to enjoy paddling as it quickly jumped out onto a rock!

The timing of our visit worked very well in coinciding with the very low spring tides, and we were able to walk from Tresco to Bryher (after seeing the Iberian Chiffchaff, Phylloscopus ibericus, and feeding crisps to the Golden Pheasants, Chrysolophus pictus). I had great fun rockpooling between the islands, finding the cast-off shells of crabs, peeking in at Hermit Crabs (Pagurus bernhardus) and generally poking around in the seaweed. At one point I almost died (well, not quite, but it makes it more dramatic), as I found a Short-spined Scorpion Fish (Myoxocephalus scorpius) stranded on the sand and moved it back into the water. Fortunately I picked it up by its tail, as it was only afterwards that I found out that they have venomous barbs which can cause swelling and pain! Yikes!

On Bryher, we had one thing in mind. The Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)! And what a beauty it was. Though I have to admit, I didn’t realise where it was at first. When I first looked through my binoculars at it, its face was turned away and honestly, it looked exactly like a big white rock. I felt like such a bad birder when I had to have someone tell me that actually, the big white rock was the Snowy Owl – oops! Once it turned its face back towards us, it definitely looked like an owl again thankfully. I have some awful distance photos of it which don’t really do it justice sadly.

After the Snowy Owl trip, we headed out on the Sapphire boat to find some seabirds (and to drink Prosecco). There were Razorbills (Alca torda), Guillemots (Uria aalge), Shags (Phalacrocorax aristotelis) and more Great Northern Divers and Gannets. My avian highlight had to be the Puffins (Fratercula arctica)! I’ve only ever seen dead ones, having worked on Chesil Beach just after the big winter storms in January / February 2014 and found plenty of dead birds on the beach. So I was overjoyed to actually see a live one, happily bobbing on the water. We also saw Grey Seals (Halichoerus grypus), which were great fun to watch as they would pop their heads up out of the water and then disappear again, only to resurface in a different spot.

One of the most hilarious moments of the trip came on Sunday afternoon. We’d had a nice relaxed walk in the drizzle, clambering through muddy woodlands and up hills to find the best apple strudel. By the way, I can confirm that it is the best apple strudel I’ve ever eaten. However, strudel / tea / beer was abandoned mid-bite / drink when Lucy shouted incoherently and ran out the cafe. Beth and I followed, somewhat confused but knowing it must be a good bird. And swooping over the fields, was a Harrier bird. Even distantly and without my binoculars (why didn’t I have my bins?!), I could see a nice white patch on it (ruling out Marsh Harrier, Circus aeruginosus), and very long and pointed elegant wings (apparently ruling out Hen Harrier? C.cyaneus). Lucy called it in as being a Montagu’s Harrier (C.pygargus) – my first!

I’ve not yet mentioned insects, and that’s because it wasn’t a good weekend for them. The drizzle and chill meant the only the most industrious were out and about, the bumblebees buzzing about the flowers. I had hauled my moth trap all the way down there, and despite the low numbers of moths caught, I was quite happy. It was better than the (non-existant) hauls I was catching at home, and there were even (at least) two new species for me: Marbled Coronet (Hadena confusa) and Chamomile Shark (Cucullia chamomillae). I say ‘at least’ because there were a couple of micros that I haven’t identified yet, which may turn out to be lifers for me.

It would be wrong to leave out the dipping*. I didn’t manage to see a Red-rumped Swallow (Cecropis daurica), and when we got back to Cornwall, we tried to see the Dalmatian Pelican (Pelecanus crispus) but we didn’t see it sadly. The twitchers in the group were rather gripped** by others seeing it earlier in the day. However I have to admit that by that point, I was absolutely shattered and worried about getting home too late, so I was less gripped.

Despite writing over 1000 words, I really have only laid out the bare bones of the trip. I haven’t mentioned the superb glamping experience at Peninnis Farm (really not anything like camping at all!), the stunning landscapes, the scrumptious food, the cute cats and dogs that I met (there were a few in particular that I absolutely fell in love with), and the wildflowers that I have been attempting to identify. But I’m sure you get the gist – it was amazing and wonderful, and I want to go back!

*dipping is when you go to twitch/see a bird (or other wildlife) and don’t see it

*gripped off is when someone has seen a bird and you haven’t, and you get rather jealous/annoyed/frustrated

Fire In My Heart

I had a rather cool evening earlier this week. Now that the evenings are both lighter and warmer, and it feels like summer is not far around the corner (with the exception of this weekend which has decided to be cold, brr!), I can start going on interesting evening adventure trips again. You may remember that I did these quite a lot when I was working in Dorset, because there was so much to explore and so much wildlife to see! And now I get to do it all over again, but this time in Cambridgeshire where there are new places to explore!

Albeit that Tuesday evening’s adventure wasn’t in Cambs. I decided to take inspiration from Bilbo Baggins by going on an adventure outside the Shire! At least, to the next one, Hertfordshire, which I can see from Wimpole Hall.

Anyway, sparked by inspiration with one of the Hall volunteers during the day, I went down to Therfield Heath near Royston (literally just over the border into Hertfordshire!) to try and find a rare flower that is currently in bloom. More on that later. After initially heading the wrong way, where I saw Bulbous Buttercup (Ranunculus bulbosus), a Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis) and about six Skylarks (Alauda arvensis), I found myself walking through a sun-dappled woodland.

Male Blackbirds (Turdus merula) were singing beautifully, and a Robin (Erithacus rubecula) was trilling away. And there was a high pitched noise I couldn’t identify. Up in the branches above, a tiny shape flitted back and forth. Never long enough to get a really good look, but enough to see that it was either a Goldcrest (Regulus regulus) or Firecrest (R.ignicapilla). I just needed to get a view of the face to see if there was a black eyestripe over the eye (Firecrest) or not (Goldcrest). Annoyingly, it did what small birds tend to do, and it flitted away. I dug out my phone from my pocket and looked up the Firecrest song, since my hunch was that it was a Firecrest, as I wanted to check my hunch against what I had heard.

So there was I, thinking the Firecrest had disappeared off into the trees, never to be seen again. Note to self – Firecrests have good hearing. A few moments after playing the song, and confirming my hunch, it was back. And oh my, it was in territorial mode. If it had been a human, I would say that it was in my face saying “you what, mate?”. I feel really bad for having played the song now, and affected its behaviour, particularly as this was during breeding season. I have learnt my lesson! I did manage to get a few photos before it flew off again to search for another (real) Firecrest. I also got a number of blurred or empty photos!

Continuing through the woodland, with a melodious background noise of Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) and Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita), I emerged out on the top of a hill in full sunlight. A small note that I was thrilled, as Cambridgeshire is ever so flat and I have been missing the hills of Dorset and Radnorshire! The hillside was dotted with butter-coloured Cowslips (Primula veris) and flowers of a deeper purple, the aforementioned endangered species. The rare and beautiful Pasqueflowers (Pulsatilla vulgaris), although they aren’t so rare on this particular hillside! There were loads of them! It was almost a carpet of flowers.

Aren’t they just stunning?!

I especially love the hairs on the stalk and sepals, and I did some reading up on them – the Wildlife Trusts species explorer page on the Pasqueflower has some interesting, and succinct, information on them.