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

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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.

Back From My Break

You’ll have noticed I have had a bit of break from blogging, initially due to exhaustion  / depression (thanks for the kind words), then finding out that I need to move house and thus beginning the stress of finding somewhere new, packing and such. So I have been a bit distracted lately! I haven’t yet moved, but am using writing as a distraction technique from the moving stress.

Now, what do we need to catch up on? A couple of things, for sure.

  • BBC Wildlife Magazine – I was Highly Commended in their Wildlife Blogger Awards 2015 which is super exciting and so wonderful to get such amazing feedback on my blog. Full details of Winners and other Highly Commended bloggers on the BBC Wildlife website.
  • We got a cat! And one of the feline variety, rather than a moth caterpillar as is the normal way for us (well, me). She is called Mowgli, she is three (ish) years old and we got her from a local animal shelter. She is very funny, though not always keen on being affectionate.
  • I got a moth cat.! It was found in Kent just after Christmas, and I will admit to being a little anxious about it. The last green caterpillar I picked up and tried to rear died on me, but the online Lepidoptera community identified for me as an Angle Shades caterpillar (Phlogophora meticulosa). It has now made its cocoon and is pupating. Updates will follow.  Other wildlife was also photographed in Kent, though I don’t know what they all are – i.e. the fungus.

 

I still haven’t had a chance to properly get out into the parkland of Wimpole and discover what wildlife lives there, but I hope to do so soon. Nonetheless, I have of course been keeping track of the wildlife I have seen. My Wimpole bird list is steadily increasing, with the most recent species added to the list being Greenfinch (Chloris chloris), Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus), Nuthatch (Sitta europaea) and Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris). The usual bird suspects have of course been seen on a regular basis, plus some other wildlife – Small Tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais urticae), Mottled Umber moths (Erannis defoliaria) and Two-spot Ladybird (Adalia bipunctata). The Winter Aconites (Eranthis hyemalis I think) in front of the restaurant are looking good, and the Snowdrops (Galanthus) in the garden too apparently (though  I haven’t seen them yet).

I also found a very interestingly-coloured feather (see below). The iridescent blue / green colour isn’t due to the photo, it’s the actual colour. What do you think it could be?

In addition to keeping track of my own wildlife sightings, I have obtained a diary for 2016 that can be used by other members of the Visitor Welcome Team to note down what they see. I hope to collate the data and send it off to the local records centre and the county recorders. I am also encouraging other staff, volunteers and visitors to add in their sightings too, through word of mouth and writing a small piece for the Wimpole Herald (the in-house newsletter). I have had great fun creating it as I have cut out pictures of British wildlife from some old BBC Wildlife Magazines, and have stuck them in and annotated them. Good learning experience for me, and hopefully others will enjoy flicking through it during the quiet moments at work.

A last note on Wimpole. I had my first lunch break in the restaurant this week, and it was delicious! Sitting with the Head Gardener and his wife, they informed me that the soup was made from squash they had grown. How wonderful! Plus the homemade foccacia and cheese scone were scrumptious! I should treat myself to lunch there more often!

One freezing day, we decided it would be a good idea to visit RSPB Fen Drayton Lakes. It was lovely, but I am not particularly good at standing still in the cold waiting for a Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) to appear. I went for a wander instead to keep warm and to practice my bird identification skills.

Last but not least, I want to share the good news that I have already completed one of my 2016 Wildlife Resolutions! I took part in the BSBI New Year Plant Hunt, although I will admit that Ryan Clark had to help with the identification of many of them. I did recognise a good few though, such as the beautiful Blackthorn flower (Prunus spinosa), plus some other wildlife about. A male Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) taking a break from hunting and a group of Long-tailed Tits (Aegithalos caudatus). Sadly I only have blurry photos of the last, the combination of amateur photographer, fast-moving birds and poor lighting does not work well.

Here comes the weekend, I get to see the insects

Winter is beginning to settle into the bones now, don’t you think? I’ve had needed to layer up and dig out the thick socks! In the garden, I have been doing some tidying and sorting – pruning of fruit bushes and the hedge. Rather than putting into the green waste bin or straight into the compost, I have made a nice heap of all the cuttings, in the vain hope that I’ll get a hedgehog in there.

Whilst gardening, I was joined by that trusty gardener’s companion, the ever-lovely Robin (Erithacus rubecula). Additionally, I came across a Common Wasp (Vespula vulgaris) in the shed, and some Candlesnuff fungus (Xylaria hypoxylon) by the pond. The latter is a new addition to the garden list, and is quite a distinctive and beautiful fungus species, so do look out for it!

The discoveries continued at the weekend when I attended a course run by the local Wildlife Trust (BCN) – Indoor Invertebrate Techniques, which looked at the different methods for identifying species under microscopes (usually look at their “bits”), for pinning and preserving them. It was highly interesting, though I wish there had been a bit more practical stuff – such as doing some pinning. We did get to dissect a beetle though – taking off its abdomen in order to find its genitalia. Gross, but fascinating.

At Wimpole, they have moved the gorgeous White Park cattle into a field so they are no longer about to keep me company when I am at the Garden Gate ticket office. However, the ornithological gang were about as usual, and of course, I had to take a few photos of them! I counted 11 species on one of the days, which is rather decent for one small spot, plus there were a few species that I know are around there but I didn’t see on that particular day!

At the end of the fortnight, I was headed up to Shropshire as I was treating myself to a weekend away. On a course about dissecting moths to look at their genitals! Busman’s holiday anyone? It was a fascinating weekend, run by Dave Grundy for the Field Studies Council as part of their Tomorrow’s Biodiversity project (and thus very kindly, and heavily subsidised by the project). The first day was given over to demonstrating and attempting the different stages. We were given moths from Dave’s collection of “moths to ID”. I was dissecting a pug moth that had originally been collected in 2002! It turned out to be a male Grey Pug (Eupithecia subfuscata), and although my final slide is a little messy and the bits were all separated and not quite in the right positions, I was rather happy with myself!

The second day was given over to some discussions on the taxonomy of Lepidoptera, including the latest numbering system, followed by more practice in dissecting. On this day, I was doing two moths at the same time – a Copper Underwing sp. and a Common Rustic sp. Upon genital dissection and identification, I was able to say that they were a male Svensson’s Copper Underwing (Amphipyra berbera) and a female Lesser Common Rustic (Mesapamea didyma).

It’s A New Life For Me

Two weeks can fly by, but here we are again. I believe I am settling in well here in Cambridge – working at Wimpole, attempting to do some gardening, and more baking!

At the beginning of this fortnight, there were still plenty of misty mornings and evenings. These were particularly dramatic at Wimpole, especially when the sun was setting behind the trees. I managed to catch some nice photos, although the churchyard one is rather spooky!

A few interesting invertebrates seen – a ladybird, something I don’t know and what looks like the pupal case of something? I believe the ladybird is a Harlequin (Harmonia axyridis).

On a different note, huzzah! I have ticked off another of my 2015 Wildlife Resolutions and it was wonderful! I have finally managed to visit the Grant Museum of Zoology, full of fascinating specimens to peer at and read about. But first, I peered at wildlife near the bus stop in Cambridge, including a rather soggy bumblebee! Poor thing. You can see it isn’t impressed at my peering – in the second photo, it is raising its leg as a warning sign to me. Wonderful behaviour of bumblebees, showing such politeness.

And so, onto the Grant Museum – glass jars of things (sometimes said things were made of glass which was very clever), mounted skeletons (including a quagga, which is an extinct subspecies of the plains zebra, Equus quagga quagga), and a walk-in closet type thing filled with microscope slides. What more could one want?

Well, except a glass jar of moles of course …

Onto the next day, where I needed to steel my nerves as I was giving a talk at the Orthopterists’ Meeting. Yikes! Unlike many of the other speakers, I am not an academic. In fact, I am not even an expert on Orthoptera (the grasshoppers and crickets)! But having discovered how fascinating these insects are earlier this year, I put myself forward to give a talk on how I got into them and how to get more young naturalists into insects. After all, a challenge is good for one’s self? It was good fun, lovely to meet the other attendees and match some faces to Twitter handles!

Back at Wimpole later in the week, and I had the chance to meet some of the animals down on Home Farm, including some gorgeous Shire horses and adorable piglets. I do so love pigs, they are fantastic animals!

A quiet day at the Garden Gate ticket office was soothed by the presence of the White Park cattle who I cannot resist taking photos of! They are gorgeous! Apparently this breed can be traced back to 5BC?! Also keeping me company were a variety of birds, again I couldn’t resist taking photos!

The quietness wasn’t to last for long as it was soon time for the Christmas Craft Fair at Wimpole! We were incredibly busy in the Ticket Office, but in the late afternoon we had a bit of a lull and I was able to have a quick wander around. Nothing really cried out to me to be bought, but I did see this wonderfully decorated gin! I mentioned to the stallholders that it would go down well at entomological meetings, so let’s see if they take that on board. I didn’t buy any of the gin (though tempted) as Matt and I have some sloe gin stewing currently.

A New Dawn

Well, I am all settled in here in Cambridge, and I have started a new job too! However, I shall come onto that momentarily, as I had some interesting wildlife sightings beforehand.

Before the live wildlife sightings, I took a train ride down to big old London town for a meeting at the Natural History Museum. A wonderful meeting, and in addition, I got a quick tour of Angela Marmont Centre – a resource for naturalists! When we went to look at the specimens, naturally I requested to see the Lepidoptera. How superb it was! I spent much of it just going “oh wow … oh look at that one … oh that’s gorgeous”!

Following this, my parents came to see where I am now living and we went for a lovely autumn wander in the nearby woods and fields. Toby had a wonderful time – lots of new smells to investigate! And then we enjoyed a scrumptious Victoria Sponge that I had made as a belated birthday cake for my mum. I suppose I ought to be modest, but it really was scrumptious.

I’m trying to learn how to garden as best I can. I am not naturally green-fingered but I am giving it a go nonetheless. The pond had been completely covered with grass, so I have been clearing that. I haven’t done all of it yet, I wasn’t sure if I should, but I have done a good proportion of it. And managed to spot a little frog (Rana temporaria) whilst doing so! A couple of days later I was pruning the hedge (which is attempting to take over the garden) and found the summer form of the Hawthorn Shieldbug (Acanthosoma haemorrhoidale, the first generation in spring looks different). Matt and I are collating the garden list, I wonder what else will turn up? Domestic cat has – on numerous occasions!

A Saturday morning dawned bright and mostly clear of clouds, and we took ourselves to RSPB’s Fen Drayton Lakes where autumn had definitely taken hold. However, I did spot a couple of bramble flowers! At the end of October! Very odd, or perhaps not? I’m not sure. From what I remember, we saw almost 50 different bird species in just a couple of hours – including my first Bittern (Botaurus stellaris)! Strangely Matt spotted it from the car park within a minute of getting out the car! Other highlights included Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus), Devil’s Coach Horse Beetle (Staphylinus olens) and Ruby Tiger Moth caterpillar (Phragmatobia fuliginosa). For the latter, I risked life and limb to protect it from cyclists zooming past, before managing to safely relocate it off the path!

And so, suspense over – news of my new job! *drum roll* I am now working in the Visitor Welcome and Membership Team at National Trust’s Wimpole Estate. It’s a beautiful location and the team are absolutely lovely! Do flick through the photos below!

So long and thanks for all the proverbial fish, Part Two

Having been visited by my parents, packed up my belongings in Dorset, finished my job, had a mad couple of days getting my car fixed, and finally moved house, I have finally got to the end of a very hectic couple of weeks. Despite being so busy, I have still managed to get out and about to see some wildlife!

w/c 12th October

Weekend with the parents over, and my last few days with Dorset Wildlife Trust commenced. However, I didn’t get much time to wander around, especially after work as I needed to dash up to London to attend the launch of the Response For Nature : England report. I was there with two hats on – first, as Matt’s plus one since he was giving one of the speeches in the marketplace, and second, as a member of A Focus On Nature. I have written a full blog post about the event for the AFON blog, but personally I had a fab time meeting people and discussing conservation – particularly with those who are interested in supporting AFON in different ways.

Another mad dash in order to get back to Dorset for my last day! Very saddening, but I have had an excellent time these last few months! After a day at the Sherborne Literary Festival, I had a super yummy leaving dinner in Weymouth where I had to say goodbye to everyone. But I am sure I will see them all again – if only when I’m on holiday in Dorset (bound to happen, how else will I see Lulworth Skipper next year?).

Then suddenly it was the weekend and time to leave Dorset! When did that happen?! Of course, I couldn’t leave without heading over to Portland Bird Observatory for some last minute chilling out and wildlife watching. I got slightly distracted from birding by a male Speckled Bush-Cricket (Leptophyes punctatissima) that was resting on the door. The others weren’t so interested, but I was fascinated. Particularly when he started grooming himself, it was brilliant to watch and learn more about the behaviour of this species.

I was moving to Cambridge via Sussex (of course!), and travelled across to Sussex via a village called Amberley as Matt had read about a juvenile Pallid Harrier (Circus macrourus) being seen there. We didn’t manage to spot it, but we did still have a wander around, and up to the top of the South Downs! In doing so, I managed to get two (birding) lifers – Red-Legged Partridge (Alectoris rufa) and Grey Partridge (Perdix perdix)! And whilst we didn’t see the Pallid Harrier, we saw at least three birds of prey – Red Kite (Milvus milvus), Buzzard (Buteo buteo) and Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus). The latter is a particular favourite having spent early summer watching the kestrels at Lorton. But then, I also love Red Kites – having spent many hours watching them in Wales!

It being mid-October now, I’m going to swap into winter mode and write every two weeks. However, there may be the odd extra blog post in between – guest posts, opinion pieces, and who knows what else!