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).

Doing too much cool stuff, as usual!

The week began with a bang, or rather it began with squawking and chirping. I was invited out to the Portland Port breakwaters by Steve Hales who takes me birdringing. The Portland Port Authority and the local birdringers (including Steve) were going out there to ring the chicks of Great Black-backed Gulls (GBBG) – the adults of which are the really big and quite scary-looking gulls.

The chicks however are adorable – incredibly fluffy when young, and actually still quite cute as they get older. We could only ring chicks of certain ages, i.e. once they were big enough for the ring not to slip off, and before they got too big to put the (coloured) ring on. Two types of ring were involved – a metal ring and a coloured ring, both used for identification purposes as part of the British Trust for Ornithology‘s (BTO) ringing scheme.

My first ringed bird!

My first ringed bird!

The latter ring could only be put on the older of the chicks we were ringing, and we almost couldn’t put it on a couple of them (the method for putting coloured rings on is different than for metal rings, due to the material of the ring). In total, we ringed 28 GBBG chicks. We also ringed a couple of Herring Gull chicks with metal rings, as they were nesting nearby.

Putting a ring on

Putting a ring on

So what was the purpose of ringing? By assigning a numbered ring, and thus a specific identification, to each bird, we can keep track of where they are sighted. Through this we can learn more about the different aspects of the bird species – migration patterns, survival rates (both adults and fledgings) and other population information.

I’m very grateful to the birdringers and to the Portland Port Authority for allowing me to go on this trip, it was hugely enjoyable and one of the highlights of my time in Dorset so far.

We saw a range of ages, including chicks that were hatching on the day!

We saw a range of ages, including chicks that were hatching on the day!

Back at the Chesil Centre, I helped with a couple of school groups that we had in. First assisting with a low tide walk with 30-ish young primary school children, then leading a group myself of 15 children. I always love working with children as they are very enthusiastic about everything (hmm … does that sound rather like someone?), and I believe it is important to get children interested in wildlife whilst they’re young. Even if they don’t become scientists, they will hopefully retain an appreciation of wildlife and that we should conserve it.

My appreciation for wildlife was heightened during a trip on the Fleet Observer, this is a glass-bottomed boat which runs trips on the the Fleet. During this trip, we got great views of the underwater world, the Little Terns and even some hares (my highlight of the trip).

I also helped out with a school group up at Lorton Meadows, with one of my favourite activities – pond dipping! I consider this to be one of the best activities to do with children, as ponds are found everywhere (so what they learn will hopefully be remembered easier) and the underwater world is rather mysterious and amazing. We found a variety of creatures including efts (juvenile newts), water boatman and we also saw some dragonflies darting about. After pond dipping, they had a bug hunt in the grasses and caught some interesting insects.

Grasshopper or cricket? I've already forgotten how to differentiate!

Grasshopper or cricket? I’ve already forgotten how to differentiate!

The week finished off with a dash up to Shropshire for an ecology course. I am taking a few modules every year in ecology with the Lifelong Learning department of Aberystwyth University. Although I have a science degree, it is in a subject that I no longer want to pursue and I want to learn more ecology. So by taking these modules I can gain a wide variety of theory and practical knowledge, and even work towards a Certificate in Field / Conservation Ecology. This module was Ecology 1 – i.e. an introduction to the concepts involved in ecology including nutrient cycles, predator-prey relationships and food webs. Although I remember most of it from school, it was very useful to have it consolidated and drawn together.

The course location was at Karuna, a gorgeous family project in the Shropshire AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty). With a passion for trees, permaculture and Insight Design, this is a fabulous example of how living off the land can be done. Whilst not fully self-sufficient, they’re pretty close and it was fascinating to learn from them during the tour. One of the course members described it as “an oasis of hope”, and I thoroughly agree and hope to return there!

Just a quick note about the course tutor – a brilliant ecologist called Dr Jan Martin who seems to be all-knowledgeable! I really enjoy reading her blog which discusses sustainability, and has a brilliant name; The Snail of Happiness.

I do apologise for the long blog post – I guess I must limit the amount of cool stuff that I do! I shall end with a nice photo of the seal that we saw at the Portland Port breakwater.

Seal at Portland Port breakwater

Seal at Portland Port breakwater