Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 11: Uropyia meticulodina

I know I’ve already done a couple of mimicry posts, but I just never get tired of them (check out this beetle pretending to be a fly!). And this one, which I discovered while googling for pictures of something else, is just wonderful.

It is, obviously, a moth. And there are lots of moths that look like dead leaves. But the way it creates a convincingly three-dimensional illusion of a dead leaf curled round in on itself, just by the patterning of the wing, is stunning. It may not be the best camouflage in the natural world — it’s not quite up there with the frogfish, or the octopus — but I can’t think of a comparably amazing bit of trompe l’oeil.

One more for luck:

So fab.

» The first photo is © Wei-Chun (維君) Chang (張). The second is © Shipher (士緯) Wu (吳). Both are used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 10: cicadas

You might have to turn the volume up on your computer to get a sense of just how loud these things can be in real life.

This is cicadas with a bit of spider monkey in the background:

This time with howler monkeys:

And with a local guide:

I always thought they made the noise by rubbing their wings together, but according to Wikipedia, they have a stiff membrane in the abdomen which clicks when pulled out of shape by the cicada’s muscles, and again when allowed to return to the original shape. The sound is then amplified by a partially hollow body.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 8: Death’s-head Hawkmoth

This is the Death’s-head Hawkmoth, Acherontia atropos. So called because marking on the thorax looks a bit like a skull.

It features on the poster for Silence of the Lambs although, disappointingly, they edited the image to make the skull much more obvious.

The resemblance is (presumably) pure coincidence, but along with the large size, dark colours, and habit of squeaking audibly when disturbed, it it has given the moth a particular sinister aura, reflected in its Latin name. In Greek mythology there are three Fates: Clotho, who spins the thread of life, Lachesis, who measures the thread, and Atropos who ends the life of each mortal by cutting their thread at the ordained moment.

Which is a hell of a symbolic burden to place on the shoulders of an impressive but harmless moth. [do moths have shoulders?]

They are also known for raiding the hives of honeybees. Which seems suicidal. No-one seems quite sure why they don’t get stung to death; suggestions include the fact that they are covered in hair and scales; that they may have some resistance to bee venom; and, most intriguingly, that they smell like bees.

» The first photo is © Pierangelo Zavatarelli and used under a CC by-nc licence. The second, from Wikipedia, was taken by Siga who has released it into the public domain.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 7: Urocerus gigas & Rhyssa persuasoria

This magnificent, scary-looking but completely harmless insect is a female Greater Horntail or Giant Woodwasp, Urocerus gigas:

The woodwasps are a groups of sawflies (members of the hymenoptera along with bees, wasps and ants) which lay their eggs in wood. You can actually see the ovipositor inserted into the wood, as well as the more dramatic orangey spike at the back of the insect, which I guess protects the ovipositor when it’s not in use? I’ve tried googling but I’m not sure. It’s certainly not a sting.

One amazing thing I did learn from Google though: the woodwasps actually inject a fungus along with their eggs, and the fungus infects the wood and serves to pre-digest it, making it easier for the larvae to eat.

This even more spectacular hymenopterid is Rhyssa persuasoria, the Giant Ichneumon:

She is also using her ovipositor to drill through solid wood and lay her eggs; but her young don’t eat wood. No, they eat the larvae of various other insects, including, commonly, our friend Urocerus gigas. In fact, she stings the woodwasp grub to paralyse it, and her own larvae eat it alive from the inside.

The whole thing is amazing: the ability of these insects to drill through wood, the fact that the woodwasps inject fungus to help their young, the way the ichneumon wasps manage to find where the larvae are inside the wood (a combination of scent and vibration, apparently), and the way they paralyse them for their own young. All done by instinct.

» Urocerus gigas is © Nigel Jones and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence. The photo of Rhyssa persuasoria is © Paweł Strykowski and used under a CC by-sa licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects day 6: a leafhopper

The last couple of insects have been interesting rather than beautiful, so here’s a real stunner. I don’t actually have a species name for this one — I just found it on Flickr by searching for bugs — but it was photographed by the USGS Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Laboratory, and their description of the photo reads:

‘Leafhopper, Sharpshooter Collected in November 2012 Dominican Republic at high elevations in central highlands, photgraphed in hand sanitizer in a quartz cuvette. Yes, those are the real colors.’

Here’s another shot of the same beastie (you can click through for larger versions of either photo):

Wow.

» Leafhopper cuvette, U, side, Dominican Republic_2012-11-28-15, and Leafhopper cuvette, U, back are © the USGS Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Laboratory and used under a CC attribution licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects day 5: Poecilobothrus nobilitatus

It’s tempting to just concentrate on the showiest insect families — butterflies, moths, beetles, dragonflies — at the expense of the incredible variety of flies, bugs, fleas, ants, termites, cockroaches and so on.

But let’s have at least one fly. There are lots of things with ‘fly’ in the name — butterfly, caddisfly, scorpionfly and so on — but the true flies, the diptera, are the ones with just one pair of wings: house flies, bluebottles, mosquitoes, gnats, midges, craneflies, horse flies, hoverflies and so on.

This particular fly is Poecilobothrus nobilitatus.

You can see that it’s a bit prettier than some fly species, but it’s not exactly a showstopper.

So why I have I picked it for my advent calendar? Because it dances.

This video was taken at my garden pond, in June, three years ago (I think it’s the right species!). Look particularly in the top right corner.

You can see a couple of males flashing their wings towards a female. OK, it’s not the most dramatic courtship display in nature, it doesn’t compare to birds of paradise or capercaillies; but still, it’s a neat thing to find in a suburban garden, all these little flies earnestly lekking on the lily pads.

» Langbeinfliege Poecilobothrus nobilitatus 110615 005.jpg is © Jürgen Mangelsdorf and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 4: pygmy mole cricket

This is a pygmy mole cricket:

It’s just 6mm long, which is one reason why it looks a bit weird, even for a grasshoppery-crickety thingy.

I heard of these South African critters for the first time today via some brand new science, as reported in Ed Yong’s Not Exactly Rocket Science blog, and in Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True.

So what’s so cool about pygmy mole crickets? well, they can jump straight out of the water.

Which, if you’ve ever seen a bee stuck in a swimming pool, is sort of cool.

Check out the two blogs I linked to for more details.

» Photos and video by Michael Burrows.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 3: Lunar Hornet Moth

I can’t believe I’m already falling behind. I’m afraid I just forgot yesterday, so I’ve set myself a daily reminder.

Anyway, a quick one, this is a species I’ve wanted to see for years (still waiting!), the Lunar Hornet Moth, Sesia bembeciformis:

And yes, it is a moth. Looking closely, it’s too furry for a wasp, and the antennae are also a bit of a giveaway, but it’s a staggering bit of mimicry even so.

Just amazing.

» Both photos are by Ian Kimber of ukmoths.org.uk, used under a CC-BY-SA license. I got them from Wikipedia.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 2: Rose Chafer

In My Family and Other Animals, Gerald Durrell’s book about life as a nature-obsessed child in Corfu, there’s a description of the ‘rose-beetle man’: a dumb peddler of, among other things, metallic green beetles on lengths of thread, sold for small children to play with, buzzing around in circles like little aeroplanes.

This is the Rose Chafer, Cetonia aurata. My own particular memory is of seeing one fly over a pub garden in Bristol when I was a student.

I can’t remember the name of the pub, or precisely where it was, or exactly who was with me; but it was summer, and the sun was shining, and I was with friends, and there was this amazing big metallic green beetle buzzing over the garden. So it’s a happy memory. Vague but happy.

» Big Metallic Green Beetle…Rose Chafer (Cetonia aurata) is © Mgeorge733 and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence. Cetonia aurata is © etrusko25 and used under a CC by-sa licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 1: The Herald

I decided to do this at the last minute and have done no planning at all — literally fifteen mintes ago I was still trying to decide whether to do insects or buildings or maybe birds again — but I thought it would be nice to start with a picture I took myself, so here’s The Herald, Scoliopteryx libatrix, as seen in my own garden.

I think it’s rather pretty, by little brown moth standards, with those orange and white details. And while it’s not the most extraordinary example of insect camouflage ever, at the back it genuinely looks like a dead leaf.

Birds in London by W. H. Hudson (1898)

I downloaded this from Project Gutenberg after reading Hudson’s novel Green Mansions. The novel — a rather peculiar romance about a wild girl found living in the Venezuelan jungle — has has not aged particularly well; personally I found Birds in London much more interesting, although non-London non-birders will inevitably find it less so.

Some of it is interesting as colourful period detail; some of it simply as evidence of long term trends in bird numbers. Here’s a bit of period colour before I get onto the geekier stuff:

My friends, Mr. and Mrs. Mark Melford, of Fulham, are probably responsible for the existence in London of a good number of wandering solitary jackdaws. They cherish a wonderful admiration and affection towards all the members of the crow family, and have had numberless daws, jays, and pies as pets, or rather as guests, since their birds are always free to fly about the house and go and come at pleasure. But their special favourite is the daw, which they regard as far more intelligent, interesting, and companionable than any other animal, not excepting the dog. On one occasion Mr. Melford saw an advertisement of a hundred daws to be sold for trap-shooting, and to save them from so miserable a fate he at once purchased the lot and took them home. They were in a miserable half-starved condition, and to give them a better chance of survival, before freeing them he placed them in an outhouse in his garden with a wire-netting across the doorway, and there he fed and tended them until they were well and strong, and then gave them their liberty. But they did not at once take advantage of it; grown used to the place and the kindly faces of their protectors, they remained and were like tame birds about the house; but later, a few at a time, at long intervals, they went away and back to their wild independent life.

My reaction after a couple of chapters was that Hudson would be delighted by the number of birds that have returned to central London, and horrified by the number that have been lost from the surrounding countryside. And of course it’s a bit more complicated than that, but it’s broadly true. So, writing about small birds in the central parks (Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, Green Park, and St. James’s Park), Hudson says:

Even the old residents, the sedentary species once common in the central parks, find it hard to maintain their existence; they have died or are dying out. The missel-thrush, nuthatch, tree-creeper, oxeye [great tit], spotted woodpecker, and others vanished several years ago. The chaffinch was reduced to a single pair within the last few years; this pair lingered on for a year or a little over, then vanished. Last spring, 1897, a few chaffinches returned, and their welcome song was heard in Kensington Gardens until June. Not a greenfinch is to be seen, the commonest and most prolific garden bird in England, so abundant that scores, nay hundreds, may be bought any Sunday morning in the autumn at the bird-dealers’ shops in the slums of London, at about two pence per bird, or even less. The wrens a few years ago were reduced to a single pair, and had their nesting-place near the Albert Memorial; of the pair I believe one bird now remains. Two, perhaps three, pairs of hedge-sparrows inhabited Kensington Gardens during the summers of 1896 and 1897, but I do not think they succeeded in rearing any young. Nor did the one pair in St. James’s Park hatch any eggs. In 1897 a pair of spotted flycatchers bred in Kensington Gardens, and were the only representatives of the summer visitors of the passerine order in all the central parks.

The robin has been declining for several years; a decade ago its sudden little outburst of bright melody was a common autumn and winter sound in some parts of the park, and in nearly all parts of Kensington Gardens. This delightful sound became less and less each season, and unless something is done will before many years cease altogether. The blue and cole tits are also now a miserable remnant, and are restricted to the gardens, where they may be seen, four or five together, on the high elms or clinging to the pendent twigs of the birches. The blackbird and song-thrush have also fallen very low; I do not believe that there are more than two dozen of these common birds in all this area of seven hundred and fifty acres.

Nearly all of those species can now be found in those parks. Not necessarily in huge numbers, but they’re all there, even the ones which had completely disappeared at the end of the C19th.

The only exception is the spotted flycatcher, which is a species that has declined by over 70% since 1970. When I was a child, we had a pair breeding in the garden in south London; I haven’t seen one around here for many years. And that points towards the other big pattern: the loss of birds in the countryside. Obviously the book is about London, but it does cover the suburbs where London blends into the countryside; which in 1898 meant places like Hampstead, Dulwich, Clapham, and Kew.

And Hudson’s lists for those places are a depressing reminder of how much we have lost. Tree pipit, redstart, wood warbler, barn owl, red-backed shrike, wryneck, turtle dove, partridge, nightingale, grasshopper warbler, cuckoo, yellowhammer, hawfinch, marsh tit: it’s extraordinary to think that all these birds were breeding within five miles of the centre of London. Some can still be found in a few places within the M25 if you know where to look, but some, like red-backed shrike and wryneck, are effectively extinct in the UK. Others, like the turtle dove, are probably going to join them sooner rather than later.

So, against this background of general decline, why are there more birds in central London than a century ago? Hudson blames the lack of birds in Victorian London on three main things: persecution, insensitive management, and cats. One thing he doesn’t mention, incidentally, is pollution. The fact that the Thames was too dirty to support many fish must have been one reason there weren’t any herons in central London, and it seems likely that the very smoky air would cause similar problems for birds, either directly or through an impact on insect numbers. And sometimes it must be that birds adapt to a new way of life: when Hudson was writing, the woodpigeon had recently changed from being a rural species with a few pairs in the older parks to a common London species. Perhaps there was some subtle change in the habitat, but it seems more likely that there was a change in the birds’ behaviour.

Of Hudson’s three suggested causes: well, there are still lots of cats in London, although there may be fewer strays, thanks to neutering campaigns and organisations like the RSPCA and Battersea Dogs & Cats Home. And habitat management has certainly improved; local councils and the Royal Parks now see it as part of their job to encourage wildlife. Even in the past ten or fifteen years there has been a change, I think, and it’s clear walking around London parks that the traditional urge towards tidiness has been replaced by a willingness to leave areas of grass uncut, to leave dead trees in place, to allow patches of brambles and ivy. And among the public as well, there is more interest in wildlife gardening and more people putting up nestboxes and feeding the birds.

But the biggest cultural shift has been to do with human persecution. Already the passages I’ve quoted make reference to jackdaws being sold for trap shooting and wild greenfinches being sold as cage birds; the book also refers to the popularity of bird’s-nesting (i.e. egg collecting). All those things are now illegal and, perhaps more importantly, socially unacceptable. And the credit for that has to go to people like W.H. Hudson, who was a founder member of the RSPB.

A lot of birds were also simply shot. Shooting some species of bird is still legal under some circumstances, either for food or ‘pest control’, but clearly both gun control laws and environmental protections are vastly stricter than they used to be.

The other story was of a skylark that made its appearance three summers ago in a vacant piece of ground adjoining Victoria Park. The bird had perhaps escaped from a cage, and was a fine singer, and all day long it could be heard as it flew high above the houses and the park pouring out a continuous torrent of song. It attracted a good deal of attention, and all the Hackney Marsh sportsmen who possessed guns were fired with the desire to shoot it. Every Sunday morning some of them would get into the field to watch their chance to fire at the bird as it rose or returned to the ground; and this shooting went on, and the ‘feathered frenzy,’ still untouched by a pellet, soared and sung, until cold weather came, when it disappeared.

The most obvious beneficiaries have been birds of prey and crows, whose populations are still recovering from the impact of persecution and pesticide use. There were no birds of prey in Hudson’s London; even when I started birding 25 years ago, kestrels were about the only species. Since then, peregrines, buzzards and ravens have all returned to the southeast of England, and there are peregrines nesting in the centre of town. The sparrowhawk has replaced the kestrel as London’s commonest bird of prey. And thanks to a reintroduction program in the Chilterns, there is the occasional wandering red kite, raising the possibility that a bird which used to feed on the rubbish heaps of Elizabethan London might return after an absence of 235 years.*

I knew that birds of prey and ravens were recovering from very low numbers; before reading this book I didn’t fully appreciate that the same story was true of the smaller crows. Hudson spends a whole chapter on the now-common carrion crow, ‘the grandest wild bird left to us in the metropolis’, which he thinks is in danger of being lost from London, thanks partially to persecution by park-keepers who want to protect ornamental wildfowl. But even more surprising to me was this passage about magpies, which are now a very common and visible London bird:

The magpie is all but lost; at the present time there are no more than four birds inhabiting inner London, doubtless escaped from captivity, and afraid to leave the parks in which they found refuge—those islands of verdure in the midst of a sea, or desert, of houses. One bird, the survivor of a pair, has his home in St. James’s Park, and is the most interesting figure in that haunt of birds; a spirited creature, a great hater and persecutor of the carrion crows when they come. The other three consort together in Regent’s Park; once or twice they have built a nest, but failed to hatch their eggs. Probably all three are females. When, some time ago, the ‘Son of the Marshes’ wrote that the magpie had been extirpated in his own county of Surrey, and that to see it he should have to visit the London parks, he made too much of these escaped birds, which may be numbered on the fingers of one hand. Yet we know that the pie was formerly—even in this century—quite common in London. Yarrell, in his ‘British Birds,’ relates that he once saw twenty-three together in Kensington Gardens. In these gardens they bred, probably for the last time, in 1856. Nor, so far as I know, do any magpies survive in the woods and thickets on the outskirts of the metropolis, except at two spots in the south-west district.

I did actually know that magpies have spread into London relatively recently, because I have a copy of Atlas of Breeding Birds of the London Area from 1977, and it shows few breeding pairs in inner London. But the fact it had been completely extirpated from Surrey is really startling.

And while on the subject of crows, here’s a nice passage on jackdaws:

I have often thought that it was due to the presence of the daw that I was ever able to get an adequate or satisfactory idea of the beauty and grandeur of some of our finest buildings. Watching the bird in his aërial evolutions, now suspended motionless, or rising and falling, then with half-closed wings precipitating himself downwards, as if demented, through vast distances, only to mount again with an exulting cry, to soar beyond the highest tower or pinnacle, and seem at that vast height no bigger than a swift in size—watching him thus, an image of the structure over and around which he disported himself so gloriously has been formed—its vastness, stability, and perfect proportions—and has remained thereafter a vivid picture in my mind. How much would be lost to the sculptured west front of Wells Cathedral, the soaring spire of Salisbury, the noble roof and towers of York Minster and of Canterbury, if the jackdaws were not there! I know that, compared with the images I retain of many daw-haunted cathedrals and castles in the provinces, those of the cathedrals and other great buildings in London have in my mind a somewhat dim and blurred appearance. It is a pity that, before consenting to rebuild St. Paul’s Cathedral, Sir Christopher Wren did not make the perpetual maintenance of a colony of jackdaws a condition. And if he had bargained with posterity for a pair or two of peregrine falcons and kestrels, his glory at the present time would have been greater.

I couldn’t agree more. Sadly there are still no jackdaws on St Paul’s, but Hudson would be delighted to know that there are peregrines nesting on the Houses of Parliament. Which seems like a suitably upbeat point to end on; I could keep talking about this stuff for ages, but this post is quite long enough already. If you really still want more, you might as well read the book.

* to quote Hudson: “Brave and faithful starlings! we hardly deserve to have you back, since London has not been too kind to her feathered children. Quite lately she has driven out her rooks, who were faithful too; and long ago she got rid of her ravens; and to her soaring kites she meted out still worse treatment, pulling down their last nest in 1777 from the trees in Gray’s Inn Gardens, and cutting open the young birds to find out, in the interests of ornithological science, what they had eaten!”

» The three pictures were all taken by me in London.

Ring-necked parakeet is a species which had been breeding in the London area for decades but the numbers have absolutely exploded in the last ten years. There are various urban legends about them being descended from birds used in the filming of African Queen, or from birds owned by Jimi Hendrix, but really there’s no need for a special explanation for escaped cage birds; feral parakeet populations are also found in Brooklyn, San Francisco, Miami, Madrid, Amsterdam and so on.

Woodpigeon was a newly urban species when Hudson was writing at the end of the C19th and is still common.

Coot was not found in London in 1898 but is now present in very large numbers; every scrap of water seems to have a large untidy coot’s nest on it.

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Barnes

I popped along to the London Wetland Centre at Barnes and had a very pleasant day; it was chilly but, crucially, not raining for once. The most unexpected birds were a flock of at least fifteen yellow wagtails. It’s a very attractive bird, and a species which has declined dramatically over the past few decades, so I don’t see them very often. So that was nice.

The other particular treat was seeing a couple of lapwing chicks. As you can see from this link, like most baby waders they are seriously cute. They were a bit distant to fully appreciate the fluffiness, but it was still nice to see them.

Almost the best thing, though, after a horrible wet april which has been holding back the migrants, was that the whole place was absolutely swarming with swifts, swallows, house martins and sand martins. I could watch swifts and swallows all day.

Here’s a recording of one of the Cetti’s warblers that was singing away in their normal invisible way:

And here’s a picture of one of the nice tame red-breasted geese in the wildfowl collection.

It may not be real birdwatching, but what a cracking bird.

Furry great tits

The cats are shedding at the moment — at times recently Dolly has seemed like a walking cloud of hair with a cat faintly discernible somewhere in the middle.

So I got a Furminator to help collect some of the excess, and that means great big clumps of cat hair to dispose of, so I put it out for the birds to use as nesting material. And it has been gratifyingly popular.

Incidentally, it is amazing how much you can rescue a picture taken in RAW format. I didn’t have the right camera settings when I took these pictures and they were all overexposed; especially that last one. This is what it looked like when I downloaded it from the camera:

And basically all I did was turn down the ‘Exposure’ setting in iPhoto, and a little bit of fiddling with the sharpness and the white balance. The adjusted version is hardly perfect, but when I saw it I assumed it would be completely unusable, so I’m pretty happy with the result.

Spring update: toadspawn edition

This is what toadspawn looks like, if you’re wondering:

i.e. formed into long strings which are wrapped around plants or, as in this case, the pump for the fountain.

Happy spring, everybody.

There has been plenty of evidence of spring for a few weeks now — crocuses, bumblebees, birdsong, hay fever — but yesterday was the vernal equinox, which is the cue for lots of people to say that it’s ‘officially’ the first day of spring. I don’t really see why astronomy should get to trump biology; the self-importance of the mathematical sciences, probably.

Though actually, if you must fit messy old nature into tidy human boxes, it’s not a bad approximation for when spring gets properly underway. The first spring migrants have just started arriving in the past few days: yay wheatears.

Meanwhile the pond has been full of toads gettin’ jiggy with it. Except that suggests something lively and maybe even fun, whereas toad sex appears to be a grim, attritional feat of endurance. The males clamp onto the females for days at a time; often you find two or three attached to the same female. And sometimes the females drown under the weight, so you find several males clasped implacably to a corpse. Romantic!

In other garden wildlife news, we have this exciting bundle of feathers:

Exciting because it used to be a woodcock, which is a really unexpected addition to the garden list… except that it can’t actually go on the list because it’s just some feathers. Still, a nice meal for one of the local foxes. Or possibly a cat? Not one of our cats, partly because they’re shut in at night but mainly because they definitely would have brought it into the house. Which is what Oscar did with this (you can see the shadow of his ears at the top):

It’s a big beetle grub; I’m pretty sure it’s a stag beetle, although they normally live underground so I don’t know where he found it.

I went along to the north Kent marshes a couple of days ago. More signs of spring: a comma (the butterfly, not the punctuation) and a lizard, plus I saw a few wheatears, which would be one of my favourite birds even if it wasn’t the first spring migrant every year.

Plenty of the winter visitors were still there, though; brent geese, godwits, plovers, and most pleasingly a short-eared owl. I also saw peregrine, marsh harrier, buzzard, and had great views of a group of four bearded tits, which was bird of the day. But I don’t have photos of any of those, so I’ll leave you with this highland cow which was more willing to pose for pictures.

Mooooo.

Foggy finches

I made yet another trip to Bookham Common today, about my third this winter, to try and see the hawfinches there. People have been seeing them in ones and twos for some time, but over the past week there have been sightings of five or six, so it seemed like time to try again.

And: success! But slightly frustrating success. Because it turned out to be a foggy day, so I had what would normally be a pretty good view, not particularly close but perched out in the open, and instead of looking like this…

…it sort of looked more like this:

It was clearly the right species, but rather unsatisfying. A tickable view, but not much to show for a couple of hours walking around in the fog. Still, it was the first hawfinch I’ve seen in decades, so I shouldn’t complain.

It’s odd, birdwatching in fog. It’s hard to judge size and colour, and everything looks just different enough that it takes fractionally longer to identify even the commonest birds. And if you’ve gone somewhere particularly to look for a specific species, and the fog is just getting in the way, it’s mainly frustrating.

On the other hand, wandering through the mist, all your attention focussed on sound, every squeak and rustle around you… it has a pleasure of its own, if you’re in the right mood.

» The photo is © Rudo Jureček and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

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Wild geese

I went along to the Swale yesterday — on the Kent side of the Thames estuary — on what turned out to be a startlingly warm day, for February. Bare arm weather! And very nice it was too, to have several hours of uninterrupted warm sunshine.

Spring was breaking out all over: loads of skylarks all over the place singing their hearts out, my first singing chiffchaff of the spring, my first butterfly of the year (a peacock), a great big bumblebee, and less appealingly, clouds of black midges.

But the overwintering seabirds were still there; big flocks of lapwing, curlew, golden plover, avocet, and most spectacularly, brent geese:

This is the kind of place that George Osborne was referring to in his Autumn Statement when he said “we will make sure that gold plating of EU rules on things like habitats aren’t placing ridiculous costs on British businesses”.

I can only assume the Treasury has a rule of thumb that, if conservation is actually working, it must mean we’re trying too hard.

It’s not just the wildlife itself which I think has value: it’s the fact that there is a place so near to London which actually feels a bit wild, a place where a person can feel small in Nature.

That wildness is a bit of an illusion; it’s a landscape gridded with seawalls, groynes and drainage ditches, all there to keep the sea and land decorously separate.

It must have been an amazing place in its truly natural state: a shifting, complex landscape of mudflats, saltmarsh, reedbeds, lakes, wet woodland, changing with the seasons and the tides. A wetland to compare with any in the world.

That landscape is lost forever. But at least we can try to hang on to what we have left. Not just as a refuge for the geese, so they can take a break from the Siberia tundra, but as a place where people like me can take a break from London.

Bird of the Year 2011

As I mentioned in BOTY:BPIASR, I’ve been a bit slow about this because it wasn’t a particularly interesting year for birds.But there were a few things worth a shout-out, including some I’d forgotten — I’m not very efficient with the records.

Last year waxwing was my Bird of the Year, and I could do worse than go for the same again, because in January the great waxwing invasion was still going strong and some of them turned up near my house, to give me more amazing views of what is after all an amazing bird. I’ve got the crappy pictures to prove it:

But it seems silly to give it to the same bird two years running.

I had a trip to Provence, but it was really out of season for most of the classic Mediterranean species, so I didn’t see much there, apart from lots of black redstarts and a couple of pied flycatchers.

A few trips to the Lee Valley have been very nice without throwing up anything earth-shattering. While it was wintry at the start of the year I saw some lovely smew and great, if brief, views of a bittern. Later in the year I got the usual Cetti’s warbler, nightingale, and hobby, and saw the very obliging kingfishers at the Rye Meads reserve.

Bookham Common provided me with marsh tit and bullfinch, as well as small tortoiseshell, white admiral and silver-washed fritillary, while continuing to frustrate my attempts to find purple emperor or lesser-spotted woodpecker (although, spoiler alert for BOTY 2012).

A couple of trips to the north Kent marshes gave me red-breasted mergansers, yellowhammers and bearded tit, as well as the usual shedloads of waders and ducks (curlews and oystercatchers and godwits and plovers and avocets and shelduck and teal and what have you… it’s a gorgeous place. Boris is a complete fucking philistine for wanting to turn it into an airport).

And on a jaunt down to the coast, to Rye Harbour, it was great to see the breeding Mediterranean gulls, little terns and Sandwich terns, as well as lesser whitethroat, although I managed to pick one of those days when it’s glorious sunshine but you have to walk at an angle to stay upright against the wind.

On the listing front… I don’t think I added anything to the garden list this year. A ring ouzel at Rainham Marshes was certainly a London tick, as was a Ruff at Barnes. Scaup was one for the British list. And I just had a couple of lifers this year. One was mealy redpoll, at Barnes. The other was woodcock, in Richmond Park, as well as a Tufted Duck × Ring-necked Duck hybrid which is sort of half a tick.

But my Bird of the Year is something I’ve seen plenty of times before: in Wales, in the Alps, in Arizona. Even so, when I was walking on the South Downs and heard that amazing grroonk sound that meant there was a raven nearby… that was my most exciting bird moment of 2011.

Ravens are wonderful birds; they’re huge (four foot wingspan!), jet black, and with a beak that looks like it could punch a hole in a car door… or make short work of your fleshy parts, given the chance. They’re intelligent and playful; you see them indulging in aerobatic tumbling, apparently just for the fun of it. And that amazing atmospheric sound:

Given their general awesomeness, it’s not surprising that they’re so culturally resonant: the ravens of the Tower of London; the ravens feeding Elijah in the wilderness; the two ravens Huginn and Muninn (Thought and Memory) who flew out every day to bring back news to Odin; and in some Native American mythologies, Raven the trickster god who created the world.

But the reason I was so excited to see one was simply that it came as a complete surprise. Not very long ago, and certainly when I started birdwatching, you had to go to the wilder parts of this country to have a chance of seeing ravens: mountaintops, windswept moorlands and craggy sea cliffs.

And so in my mind they are birds of wild places; but actually it was just that they had been hunted, trapped and poisoned by farmers and gamekeepers. And since I only keep up with bird news casually and sporadically, I was only vaguely aware that, like a lot of our predatory birds, better legal protection is allowing them to make a comeback. So that grroonk was a total shock and a happy surprise. Just as I never thought I would see peregrines over central London, I never thought I would see ravens over the South Downs.

So there you go. Raven is my winner of Bird of the Year 2011. Congratulations to the raven, and thanks to Leo called me that day and suggested it was a nice day for a walk.

» The raven photo is © Sergey Yeliseev and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence. The alder wood bowl in the form of a raven is from the British Museum; it was made sometime in the C19th by the Haida people of British Columbia.

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2012

It’s time for some citizen science again. I got 19 species, which turns out to equal my previous best. Not that I saw anything very surprising; it was mainly that I didn’t miss any of the very common species. As usual, the counts are for the maximum present at any one time.

feral pigeon × 5
woodpigeon × 5

blue tit × 5
great tit × 2
long-tailed tit
coal tit

chaffinch × 4
greenfinch × 2
goldfinch

robin × 2
wren
dunnock × 2
starling × 2

blackbird × 4
mistle thrush

great spotted woodpecker × 2
ring-necked parakeet × 3

carrion crow
magpie × 3

There’s certainly scope to beat that number — jay might be the most obvious missing species, and heron, goldcrest, green woodpecker, siskin, sparrowhawk, song thrush, collared dove, stock dove and nuthatch are all entirely plausible — but I’d have to get fairly lucky.

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Bird of the Year 2011: best performances in a supporting role

I’ve been rather laggardly about doing BOTY this year because I had such an underwhelming year for birds. But I thought I should keep up the tradition, and  as the end of January approaches I’d better get on with it.

Best Plant

I went on a jaunt to a quarry in Essex which has some rare orchids. It was a bit early for the hellebores, but there were masses of Common Spotted Orchid and Twayblade, and the best species I managed to find was Man Orchid:

Best Insect

I saw some brilliant butterflies in Provence, notably Great Banded Grayling, Two-Tailed Pasha, Southern White Admiral, and Nettle-tree Butterfly. The Pasha particularly was a cracking beastie. Also Praying Mantis and Pistachio Aphid, and those lovely grey-brown grasshoppers with coloured underwings which flash when they fly.

It was great as well to see hornet in the garden, and to see the hornet nest in the park, even if it was later destroyed by the philistines at Southwark Council.

And there was a wasp beetle in the garden, and an Elephant Hawkmoth caterpillar in Croydon:

But my insect of the year is a slightly offbeat choice, not the most spectacular I’ve seen this year. But it’s a British butterfly I’ve never seen before and it was great to go out on a sunny day and walk through a wildflower meadow and be surrounded by hundreds of butterflies. So my insect of the year is Chalkhill Blue. Try to ignore the dog turd and just enjoy the butterflies ;)

Best Invertebrate (other)

For the third year in a row, and for the fourth time in six years, I don’t have an entry for this category. All those possibilities — lobsters, crabs, squid, jellyfish, spiders, scorpions, snails — and I can’t think of a single noteworthy example. I have obviously seen some slugs and spiders and at least one millipede this year, but none of them were very interesting. Pathetic, I know.

Best Reptile

Well, I’ve seen Common Lizard in the UK, and there was a lizard with  bright green tail in Provence that I don’t know the species of… I guess Common Lizard might have to win by default.

Best Fish

No, I got nothing. I suppose if I’m going to have Best Fish and Best Invertebrate (other) as categories, I really need to make sure I do some scuba diving during the year.

Best Amphibian

Well, it’s not a particularly special species, but I might as well take the opportunity to repost this recording of marsh frogs, Rana ridibunda, at Rainham Marshes:

Best Mammal

Take a look at this beauty:

That blob in the middle? It’s a seal. Obviously. Seriously, though, it was a bit out of range for my phone camera, but through binoculars it was a pretty good sighting. Common Seal, I think; just near Conyer in Kent.

Best Ecosystem

Mudflat:

The next sacrifice on the altar of mammon: British wildlife

The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement was pretty depressing all round, but there was one particular part of it that seems worth a comment. Which is that they will ‘review the implementation of the EU Habitats and Wild Birds Directives’. The Chancellor said:

We will make sure that gold plating of EU rules on things like habitats aren’t placing ridiculous costs on British businesses.

You might think that the Conservative party would instinctively see the value of trying to preserve something of our shared natural inheritance, so that there is still something there to hand on to our children and grandchildren. It seems like a good, traditional conservative instinct. But no, for George Osborne the environment is just another kind of red tape that is getting in the way of the only thing that matters: private enterprise.

I’m never quite sure what’s going on with people who place so little value on the environment. The first possibility is that they just don’t care. They’ve never had any interest in wildlife, they couldn’t recognise the most common birds in their own garden, they’d rather see a well-manicured golf course than a scruffy bit of pasture with wild flowers growing on it. They’ve never had an emotional relationship with the natural world, and so the idea of habitats being destroyed and species going extinct simply has no resonance for them. And if you feel that way, then if the choice is between creating jobs or preserving a piece of habitat… well, there’s no conflict to be resolved.

And I’m sure there are those people: people who regard the whole idea of ‘the environment’ as ridiculous sentimental tosh. But I’m not sure they’re the majority. Most people at least like to see butterflies and hear birdsong, they enjoy the bluebells in spring and the leaves changing colour in the autumn. But there is an idea, I think, that environmental concerns are exaggerated. Because if you walk through the British countryside in May, everything is an incredible lush green, the hedges are thick with white hawthorn blossom, the verges are full of cow parsley and oxeye daisies, and there is a bird singing in every bush. Everything seems right with the world.

But actually the British countryside is profoundly ecologically impoverished. Just this week we had the release of new official government figures showing that farmland bird numbers are at their lowest ever, down 50% since 1970. That’s a 50% decline over a period when the environment has been a relatively strong political issue; and 1970 was hardly some kind of pre-industrial idyll anyway. And even that 50% figure doesn’t tell the whole story, because that’s the overall number: when you dig into the details, it turns out that some species have held up relatively well — which means that others have declined catastrophically.

The list of badly-hit birds makes incredibly depressing reading. It includes many of the species that once would have been seen as the most typical species of the British countryside, the birds that we have poems, Christmas carols and nursery rhymes about: cuckoo, skylark, turtle dove, partridge, nightingale. Others are less famous but no less typical: yellowhammer, corn bunting, tree sparrow, yellow wagtail, wood warbler, spotted flycatcher, lesser-spotted woodpecker, willow tit, redpoll. Some of them are generally much less common and harder to find; others have been eliminated from large parts of the country altogether. Many of the species I’ve mentioned are down by 70%; the worst-hit, like the turtle dove and the grey partridge, are down by over 90%.

And it’s not just birds. Take butterflies, for example; many of the less common butterflies in the south of England are downland species: that is, they live on chalk hillsides, preferably grazed by sheep. Well, there’s chalk all the way across the country, and there are still plenty of sheep, but if you want to find those butterflies, you have to go to special sites managed for wildlife by conservation charities. Think about what that means: those species coexisted with agriculture for thousands of years. No-one made any special effort to protect them. Now they only hang on in little scraps of land which have to be specially managed for their benefit.

There was a time when the normal farmland which makes up the vast bulk of the British countryside was a fairly rich habitat, supporting a wide variety of wild flowers, insects and birds. But with modern farming practices that’s really not true anymore. There are various different reasons — pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers are part of it but not the whole story — but the result is that a lot of modern British farmland is biologically pretty sterile.

That BBC News article has a telling quote from Harry Cotterell, the vice president of the Country Land and Business Association:

Finally we might see a time when human beings are treated with about the same importance as bats, newts and dormice.

The thing is, I can entirely see that it can be incredibly frustrating for someone who is trying to run a farm or some other small business, when some government bureaucrat tells them that they can’t drain a pond because it has rare newts living in it. But the idea that human self-interest is being continually thwarted because we as a society are bending over backwards to put wildlife first… it’s just ludicrous.

Provençal wildlife roundup

It was really a bit late in the year for the best of the wildlife; many of the classic Mediterranean birds — bee-eaters and what have you — were probably already in Africa, and there weren’t many flowers around. Although the oleander everywhere still looked spectacular.

Not that it was a complete bust on the bird front. It was nice to see lots of black redstarts everywhere; I saw a couple of female pied flycatchers, which are also charming little birds; there were crag martins flying around at the Pont du Gard (above); and I saw dipper at a coffee break on the way back. So no absolute show-stoppers, but some nice things.

Also, to stay on-theme with my recent post, I was pleased to see plenty of hornets around. It’s very much wasp time of year, of course: my mother tells me that the wasps ‘come with the plums’. It’s not strictly true, you see wasps all summer, but there are a lot more in late summer/autumn. That’s because (I learnt recently while reading about hornets), a lone queen starts a new nest every year.* Which makes large wasp nests all the more impressive.

The queen then has to build the nest and gather food for the young on her own until there are enough workers around to do the scut work, and she can concentrate on producing eggs. And they build up the nest until in late autumn they produce a load of reproductive individuals — queens and drones — and those fertilised queens who survive the winter set out and start the cycle again in spring. So a single wasp queen may have generated thousands of individuals by the time the plums are ripe. Or hundreds, for the hornets.

Also pleasing was a praying mantis; we don’t get those up here in northern Europe. I think the species was Mantis religiosa, which I guess was the very first of the mantids to be given a Latin name, presumably by Carl Linnæus personally.

Another curiosity with a great Latin name was a tree with what looked like huge red chiles growing on it. It turns out the tree is a relative of the pistachio called terebinth (another great name, incidentally), and the ‘chile’ is a gall formed by an aphid, Baizongia pistaciae. To which I just have to say: baizongia!

And finally on to the Lepidoptera. Above is a pretty little day-flying moth, related to the burnets, called Zygaena fausta. The flower is Virgin’s-bower, Clematis flammula.

And there were loads of good butterflies, which I mainly don’t have photos of. Clouded Yellow, Cleopatra (the Brimstone’s flashier cousin), Southern White Admiral, some kind of amazing iridescent blue which was probably either Adonis Blue or Turquoise Blue, and the curious-looking Nettle-tree Butterfly or European Beak.

And there was this tiny little fellow, the Geranium Bronze, living up to his slightly inaccurate name by sitting on a pelargonium:

The Geranium Bronze is actually an import from South Africa which apparently arrived on imports of pot plants. Notice the teensy little swallowtails! Cute.

But the most spectacular butterflies were two big species. One, the Great Banded Grayling, is hard to do justice to in photographs because it sits with its wings closed, but this blog post shows one displaying itself properly.

And most remarkable was a huge great fast-flying thing which when you see it properly, looks pretty amazing above and maybe even more spectacular below. Yup, it’s one of Europe’s most exotic-looking butterflies, the Two-tailed Pasha or Foxy Emperor. Woo-hoo.

* or to be more strictly accurate: most European species of social wasp start a new nest each year; your local wasps may vary.

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