Bugs For My Birthday

It was my birthday at the beginning of this week – not a big birthday, but a high enough number to make me realise that 30 is creeping closer. Although to be honest, I’m quite excited. They (the mysterious ‘They’!) say that your thirties are better than your twenties!

No matter my age, I was determined to have a nice nature-filled day. Originally I had planned to spend the day at RSPB Minsmere, but then Storm Katie arrived with howling winds and plenty of rain. Instead I had a relaxed morning at home, eating homemade cake (made my Matt) and drinking many cups of tea!

Once the weather had calmed itself down in the afternoon, a few friends and I visited a local nature reserve, Overhall Grove. It was a really sweet reserve, apparently both an Ancient Woodland and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and I look forward to returning there again over the coming seasons. Some of the friends accompanying me are also into nature, so we got stuck in with trying to find some good species. I’ve added a few more species to my pan-species list – including Cauliflower Fungus (Sparassis crispa), a new beetle species (Abax parallelepipedus) and Median Wasp (Dolichovespula media). Although I haven’t identified everything just yet, I am getting there gradually.

In addition to the new species, there were a number of 7-spot Ladybirds (Coccinella 7-punctata) about. I am always thrilled to see them as they are a sign that winter is over! Spring has started and summer is not too far away! There was even a butterfly – but it flew away from us and we couldn’t identify it. It was quite a funny sight, particularly for my friends that aren’t into nature – 4 adults running across the field after a butterfly! Bring on much more butterfly (and moth!) chasing this year.

There’s not so much else to add. I had hoped to hear a Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita), which would’ve been my first of the year. But no luck, and I still haven’t heard one since. As I have said above, I look forward to returning there across the current seasons so I am sure I shall hear one there at some point!

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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).

Round and about the place

Winter has set into place in mid-Wales, with some heavy frosts providing some slightly scary commutes (mainly getting out of a very icy driveway!) and even the first snows being reported (and then remaining in place on the very tops of those looming hills).

On one of these oh-so-frosty-and-blimey-it’s-cold(!) days, I headed over to Pant-y-dwr for their Christmas Fayre with a stall for work. It was lovely to meet local people and chat about local wildlife and nature reserves, with a small quiz to test their ID skills. Naturally, I included some moths – two of my favourites, the Canary-shouldered Thorn (which can be seen in this blog post) and the Hummingbird Hawk-Moth (which can be seen in this blog post). A number of people were surprised that they could be moths, after all, moths are viewed as stereotypically being brown, dull and boring! So I have converted a few more people to my Moth Appreciation cause!

To drive there, I went through Gilfach Reserve (what a fab commute hey!). As previously mentioned, it was very frosty! I absolutely had to stop the car and take a few photos because it was just stunning! There is something about frost and nature that is just fantastic. Wait, erase that … nature is always fantastic, no matter the weather!

Later on, I joined the volunteer work party at one of the reserves – Llanbwychllan Lake (which I have previously visited, you can read about my visit here). They were cutting down trees in order to help the wetland grass area – it was very boggy (since I’ve just said wetland, that’s kind of obvious) so I got to wear my fantastic wellies that I got when I was with Dorset Wildlife Trust, they’re so comfy and warm! Due to so much being cut down, a lot of the wood was being burnt in bonfires, which my inner pyromaniac was loving! Fire is just so entrancing, and there is something magical about the wood being burnt.

Oooh, pretty fire

Oooh, pretty fire

As I write, I’m back in London, and have visited my local park. I’m not going to lie, it’s nothing special (as far as I’ve found out anyway) but it is lovely there, and I’ll pretty much always approve of big green spaces that are used by local people. There are a group of ring-necked parakeets living there, and boy do they make a racket sometimes! I didn’t manage to get a decent photo, but the photo below gives you the gist of what one looks like. I also saw a decent sized flock of goldfinches, plenty of starlings, magpies and crows, and very excitingly – a great spotted woodpecker! Although I didn’t get a photo of it (grr!). My dog helped me out with finding wildlife, obligingly picking up a stick that had some interesting slimy stuff on it. Naturally, I photographed it and tweeted it – current suggestion is a Crystal Brain Fungus (thanks Sean Foote and Ryan Clark!).

On a slightly related note, my Caymanian relatives have also found some interesting wildlife recently – one photo of which was put on Facebook and I was tagged because it was of two moths, and everyone knows how much I love moths! Their photos reminded me of some of the wildlife I had seen when visiting them, and I thought I would add in a butterfly photo of mine from Grand Cayman.

And to end, an urban sunset photo.Sunset across the roofs of London

 

PS – My writing is been spreading out from this blog, including this recent post on the A Focus On Nature blog, where I wrote about Chesil Beach and Gilfach. There is a post every day during the Advent period by members of AFON, on the theme of their favourite reserve / patch. I couldn’t decide, so went for both places!

PS #2 – I’m thinking of doing another species / taxon group profile blog post soon, do let me know what you would like me to write about! Perhaps a certain moth? Or maybe a group such as newts or dragonflies?

Off to my summer haunt

You may remember that I was spending rather a lot of time at Gilfach Nature Reserve earlier in the year (well, August). I headed back to this lovely reserve during the week, and it really is just so fantastic there.

I was visiting Gilfach for a specific reason, every autumn madness descends upon the River Marteg as salmon leap up the waterfalls (yes you read that correctly) to reach their spawning grounds further up this tributary. These salmon have been maturing in the Atlantic, facing numerous dangers both natural and from humans. They return to the rivers of their birth to breed again, facing yet more threats as they journey all the up the River Wye. One interesting fact I discovered recently is that upon re-entry into freshwater, they stop feeding in order to develop their gonads. Seems a bit OTT to me, but each to their own. Unfortunately, I didn’t spot any salmon on this visit, but I shall be there again soon enough and they grace me with a view. You can follow the updates on Twitter with my new hashtag – #SalmonAtGilfach (and don’t forget #GilfachReserve, for general wildlife updates there).

Despite the lack of salmon, I had an enjoyable visit. I had roughly 6 layers on – I knew that patience is required to see salmon, so many layers are needed to prevent coldness – and although drizzling, the weather wasn’t too rough. Gilfach is currently a great mix of rusty reds and luscious greens as autumn sets in across the reserve.

I also found a massive pile of otter spraint near the river, so large I believe as it is protected by an overhang which means that it won’t get washed away in the rain. I often get asked how I know when it’s otter spraint, particularly since the size, shape and colour can vary depending on what the otter has been eating. But there is one particular factor that is really distinctive and memorable – the smell! It’s a fantastic smell, and trust me I’ve smelt a lot of different faeces (I used to work / volunteer in a zoo, cattery and animal rescue centre remember). There a whiff of sweetness, usually described as similar to jasmine (I can now no longer drink jasmine tea as a result), with a touch of fish and muskiness. I normally just describe it as a musky jasmine smell. The smell fades over time, so if it’s an older spraint (turned a bit grey), you really have to get your nose in there and take a big old sniff.

This might be why some non-nature people think I’m weird … but I don’t mind, like I said, it’s a relatively decent smell and it’s from an amazing animal. Plus, I’m normally finding / collecting spraint for conservation purposes, so it’s for a good cause.

I also thoroughly enjoyed being by the river, recent rain meant that it was flowing very well (possibly too much for the salmon to leap up against?). It was thundering down against the rocks, so loud that I could barely gather my thoughts! It was truely spectacular and worth going out in the drizzle.