Hornets, and toodle-oo for now

About three weeks ago, I was in the garden and I saw a largeish brown and yellow insect fly past which I thought looked like the right general size, shape and colours for a hornet… but I thought that couldn’t possibly be right, and it must be some kind of hornet mimic — a large hoverfly species, or (more excitingly) a hornet moth or one of the bee hawkmoths. But I almost immediately lost track of it.

And then, ten days ago I was in the local park, standing on the little walkway over the lake looking for dragonflies, and again I saw an insect-that-looked-surprisingly-hornety, and again it didn’t wait around for to get a good look at it. So you can imagine how pleased I was a hundred yards later when I came upon this sign:

I should probably explain at this point, for all you norteamericanos, that I don’t mean something like your bald-faced hornet, which looks like an attractive little beasty but still a fairly typical wasp. No, I mean the one-and-only original, authentic, European hornet. Vespa Crabro. They say: seven stings to kill a horse, three to kill a man and two to kill a child.

This catchy little bit of folk-wisdom turns out to be rubbish, as a lot of folk wisdom does; apparently it’s only a bit more painful than any other wasp sting. But it captures something of the mystique around the hornet. It is, in the end, just a wasp, but it’s a very large wasp; it’s about twice the length of other British social wasp species, a great big bulky brown and yellow thing.

The reason I was so surprised to see them in south London was that I was under the impression that they were uncommon to rare in this country, and certainly unlikely to turn up in suburbia. But increasingly as you get older you find yourself wrong about things not because you learnt them wrong in the first place, or because you misremember them, but because the facts changed when you weren’t paying attention. And apparently hornets, which in the 60s were largely confined to the New Forest, have been spreading gradually for some time and particularly rapidly in the past ten years.

Who knows, maybe it’s global warming; but even if they are a portent of doom, they’re still a great insect and a very pleasing addition to my garden list.

And, fyi, I’m going to France tomorrow. Just for a week. So I probably won’t be posting, although I suppose if the place we’re staying has wifi I might blog from my phone.

  • Post category:Nature
  • Post comments:2 Comments

Out of sync

It’s always odd when you find yourself out of sync with public opinion. Specifically at the moment it’s the phone-hacking thing… there is a growing strand of opinion that the reaction is overblown and hysterical, that the media is only obsessed with it because it is a story about the media, that we should really be focussing on Very Serious stories like famine in East Africa and the possibility of a European sovereign debt crisis or a US default. And that the worldly, sophisticated reaction is to tut a bit over the bad behaviour of the tabloids but say t’was ever thus.

And there is some truth to it, of course. There is a touch of the feeding frenzy in the way that the story has completely consumed all news and politics for the past week or so. After all, the latest phase of the phone-hacking investigation had been rolling on for months; Andy Coulson resigned back in January. And there were already plenty of reports of large scale criminality at the New of the World, including payments to the police as well as blagging and phone-hacking, none of which seemed to get a lot of political traction.

And then the story of them hacking Milly Dowler’s phone came out and suddenly the world went mad. Yesterday, for example, BBC radio broadcast live, continuous, almost uninterrupted audio from parliamentary select committees for about seven hours straight. And it made a rather wonderful change, to get current events live and unmediated without all the usual commentary, analysis and gossip: but it’s still extraordinary, the way it pushed everything else out of the news altogether.

So I think you can argue that there is something disproportionate about that sudden ramping up in intensity, even if much of it was fuelled by events: arrests, resignations, the closing the of the News of the World. Either the media and politicians are overreacting now, or they have been underreacting for months.

But the reason I talk about feeling out of sync with public opinion is that I never understood why everyone wasn’t already horrified. Even when it was ‘just’ celebrities and politicians; I know people don’t necessarily empathise very strongly with film stars and footballers, but the idea that it’s not a big deal if journalists to casually listen in to their private messages, not as part of some kind of hard-hitting investigative journalism, but on the off-chance that they might hear something which will titillate the public enough to sell a few newspapers… I just don’t know what to say. The idea of it makes my skin crawl. And apart from the fact that it’s creepy and sordid, even if you had no personal sympathy for the victims, what about the fact that they were accused of hacking the voicemails of cabinet ministers. I mean, politicians are even less likely to get public sympathy than footballers, but doesn’t it imply something pretty terrifying about press overreach that they would do something like that?

However. Sometimes you just realise that other people are not outraged by the same things you are. And if they don’t share that emotional response, well, you’re probably not going to argue them into it.

» Tiger Shark! is © Miusam CK and used under a CC Attribution licence.

Tumblr round-up, July 18th

I may try to find a way, later, of incorporating the stuff I’ve posted to Tumblr more closely into this site, but until then I think I’ll start with a weekly round-up. The idea is to post a summary of the previous week, but since I’ve got a backlog, I’ll start by ranging a bit more widely. So here’s a selection of stuff from the past month or two.

That’s a Persian priest, by the C16th Danish/German artist Melchior Lorck. In the 1550s he was part of a diplomatic mission to the court of Suleiman the Magnificent in Constantinople, and he was working on a book of woodcuts from his travels when he died in 1583. I stumbled across them when browsing through the British Museum collection. There are a lot more where that came from: just search for ‘Print made by Melchior Lorck‘. Apart from the historical interest, he has a real graphic designer’s eye.

Parrots have names. Or at least they have ‘signature calls that are used to recognise individuals’, and birds imitate the signatures of others to get their attention. And researchers have found that these names are given to the chicks by their mothers before they are old enough to call for themselves.

Of all the thousands of words I’ve read about the News of the World hacking scandal, I thought this Reuters article about the culture of the newsroom at the NotW under Rebekah Brooks was one of the most striking.

Some ceramics: a delftware wine bottle from C17th London; a Chinese wine-cup; another Chinese wine-cup, this one decorated with auspicious fruits; one of my favourites, a stoneware jug from C12th Korea. And I think this is gorgeous, a tin-glazed earthenware jug from Fez, ca. 1870:

A snail tongue; an amazing mineral; the head of a honey bee; some octopus tattoos; an extraordinary fish; a poisonous newt; a spotty squid [I think]; the newly-discovered world’s smallest orchid.

An icon of St George; a portable figure of Jagannatha (‘Lord of the World’); a guardian figure from Cameroon; a stamp; a watercolour of a stormy landscape by Penry Williams; a Chinese Francis Bacon; a C15th Swiss wild man and wild woman in stained glass.

The madness of commercial fishing

via Ed Yong, an interesting piece in New York magazine: ‘Bycatch 22 — As a twisted consequence of overfishing regulations, commercial fishermen have no choice but to catch sea bass, flounder, monkfish, and tuna—and throw them dead back into the sea.’

Basically the problem is that, since you can’t precisely target a particular species, fishermen end up throwing back a lot of marketable fish which they don’t have the quotas for — so the fish are just as dead, but no one gets to sell them or eat them.

I have sympathy with the fishermen, and throwing back lots of edible fish which are already dead does seem like madness: but the commercial fishing industry hasn’t exactly proved itself a trustworthy steward of marine ecosystems over the years. They continually campaign against the kind of quotas that would actually protect fish stocks, and they campaign against no-fishing zones, and the situation gets worse and worse.

The really interesting experiment would be to ban commercial fishing around the UK altogether for perhaps ten to fifteen years, and see what the seas looked like after having a chance to recover from 150 years of industrial onslaught.

But then I’m increasingly freaked out by the extent of environmental degradation I see around us, and too much of the time we seem to be doing ‘conservation’ — conserving what’s left — which in practice often just means slowing the rate it disappears at, whereas what we really ought to be doing is restoration. Trying to create more space for wildlife, more opportunities for wild things to scrape a living.

» By-Catch at South Beach 2005 is © mmwm and used under a by-nc-nd licence.

A palate cleanser

OK, enough with the all the Murdoch-ery. Time for something a bit more wholesome.

Summer isn’t a great time for birding; you can tell when summer is well and truly here because bird bloggers start posting pictures of moths. Moths are like birdwatcher methadone.

So it seemed like a good time of year to check out a dragonfly sanctuary. 23 species have been recorded there — half the British list — although to be honest, there are a fairly limited number I would have any chance of identifying. In the event I only saw a handful of species; some small blue damselflies, plus Banded Demoiselle, Emperor Dragonfly and Brown Hawker. But Banded Demoiselle and Brown Hawker are particularly gorgeous, so it’s always nice to see them. The Brown Hawker has a bronze-brown tint to its wings which looks amazing when it catches the light: like a warm halo around the insect.

And there were lots of butterflies around, too: Peacock, Red Admiral, Comma, Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper, Large Heath, Small Skipper. Nothing very remarkable, but nice to see. The best butterfly was Small Tortoiseshell, a species which used to be common as muck but which is depressingly scarce in the south of England these days.

And lots of flowers. I can’t identify most of them down to the species level, and didn’t try, but for example: loosestrife, willowherb, vetch, yarrow, mallow, bedstraw, deadnettle, teasels and thistles. What fabulous names they have.

The photo, incidentally, is of cinnabar moth caterpillars and soldier beetles on ragwort flowers. One of the beetles is Rhagonycha fulva; the other looks like it has darker wingcases, in which case it’s probably Cantharis rustica. But I’m relying on a pocket guide to the insects of Britain and Western Europe, so anything I say should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Wildlife round-up

I’ve actually done quite a lot of birding this spring, making the most of the freakishly hot weather, but I haven’t really blogged about it. So here are some pictures and whatnot.

First, some audio; this is all recorded with the built-in microphone on my phone, so apologies for the quality. These are marsh frogs, Rana ridibunda, at Rainham Marshes in Essex.

A nightingale, at Brede High Woods in Sussex, with what I think must be a blackcap in the background.

Birdsong in the evening at my local train station. A mixture of chiffchaff, song thrush, blackbird, and automated train announcement.

Another nightingale, this time from the Lee Valley, with ducks and geese in the background.

Man Orchid. So called because the flowers look like little men, although it’s hard to see that on this photo (even more amusingly man-like is the Italian Orchid, which isn’t actually Orchis berlusconii, but probably should be).

Some kind of broomrape. Maybe Ivy Broomrape? There’s something deeply fascinating about these parasitic plants.

A couple of Little Grebes.

An out of focus peacock on blackthorn.

Some sea-kale, growing down on the shingle by the sea-side at Rye.

And bringing us right up to date, a beetle I found in the garden today which I don’t remember seeing before. This is the Wasp Beetle, Clytus arietis. I initially thought it was some kind of parasitic wasp hunting for food or somewhere to lay its eggs, so I guess the mimicry is working.


Wasp beetle a video by Harry R on Flickr.

Dazzled and Deceived by Peter Forbes

This is a book about mimicry and camouflage; principally in nature but also in human use — i.e. the military. I heard about it because it won the Warwick Prize for Writing 2011, and the subject sounded interesting, so I thought I’d give it a go.

It’s certainly pretty good, but I wasn’t blown away by it. It didn’t help that I was familiar with many of the examples already.

My other slight gripe is that it spends a lot of time using examples of mimicry and camouflage as a way to shed light on deeper ideas about evolution. Which is, obviously, a valuable exercise, and not in itself a Bad Thing. But I’ve read loads of stuff about evolution already, thank you, and so reading yet another explanation of evo-devo is not enormously exciting. I would much rather have been reading about extra examples of strange and curious animal mimicry.

So, you know, a good book; but I am not its perfect audience. Still, if nothing else it introduced me to the jaw-dropping amazon leaf fish pictured above.

Birding again

The glorious summery weather is back, and I had a good day of birding today, just out of London. On the spring migrant front: masses of chiffchaffs and blackcaps, the odd willow warbler, a single swallow. Also treecreeper, nuthatch, buzzard and so on, but the bird of the day was bullfinch. To capture my immediate, pseudo-spontaneous reaction, here’s the tweet I posted at the time:

Wow. Bullfinch. What a genuinely incredible bird. I must try to see it more often.

And seriously, a male bullfinch in peak spring plumage is as beautiful as any bird I have seen anywhere, including barbets and toucans and hummingbirds… it is a proper cracker.

That’s not my picture, obviously, apart from anything else, it certainly wasn’t snowy today… but what a gorgeous beasty.

So, it was a lovely day out. The sky was blue, there was masses of blackthorn covered in bright white flowers, I saw about seven or eight species of butterfly*. Tasty.

And I was amused to find this on the pavement near my house:

Apparently the local drug dealers are sufficiently well organised these days that they sell their product in cute little cannabis-themed bags. I had no idea. The bag still smells of weed; oh the nostalgia. It almost makes me want to roll up, tune in and drop out.

* Definitely Peacock, Red Admiral, Comma, Orange-Tip; and I think Speckled Wood, Holly Blue, Small White, Small Tortoiseshell.

» The photo Eurasian Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) male is © Steve Garvie and used under a CC by-sa licence.

Folk wisdom empirically confirmed

I made plans to go birding yesterday in the expectation it would be sunny again; in the event it was grey, overcast and drizzly.

But I did see one swallow.

Sumer is icumen in

Well, not actual summer, obviously. But it has been a week of glorious spring sunshine here, and I’ve been out and about enjoying it and doing some birding.

On Monday I  failed yet again to see Lesser-spotted Woodpecker in Richmond Park *shakes fist in general direction of south-west London*, but that was more than made up for by two birds. One was a woodcock — a sign that winter hasn’t quite left us yet, because they certainly don’t breed in Richmond. It was the classic brief view of it appearing from the leaf litter, flying a short distance and disappearing again, but it was a lifer for me so yay.

The other was the duck I used to illustrate my last post. I took the picture because it was an obviously odd-looking Tufted Duck, presumably a hybrid but I wasn’t sure quite what; turns out to be Tufted Duck × Ring-necked Duck. Which is cool, because Ring-necked Duck is an American species and a bit of a rarity in Europe, while Tufted is a European species and occasional visitor to North America… but like an anatine Romeo and Juliet, one pair obviously overcame the obstacles. If, that is, the parents were wild birds. I saw a black swan yesterday, and I’m quite certain that it didn’t fly here all the way from Australia. Not to mention the Mandarin Ducks, Egyptian Geese and Ring-necked Parakeets that breed in Richmond Park.

Still, it was an interesting bird. And the first time in a while, incidentally, that I regretted not having a paper field guide with me as well as the iPhone one, but fortunately the photos I took were good enough to let me work it out later.

And yesterday I had a good day up in the Lee Valley. I kind of hoped I might see a migrating Osprey, which didn’t work out. But I saw about eight species of duck, including Goldeneye, had a good view of a Water Rail, and the Chiffchaffs and Cetti’s Warblers were singing. And I saw my first Sand Martin of the year (that’s Bank Swallow if you’re American), and the best bird was a Pink-footed Goose in among the greylags.

And lastly, on Wednesday I went for a walk with a friend on the South Downs, and the skylarks and meadow pipits were singing, which was nice, but the most surprising thing was to suddenly hear a distinctive groonk groonk — raven!

I still think of ravens as birds of the really wild places; Welsh mountain tops, Scottish moors. Which they were, when I started birding twenty years ago. But actually they’re one of the most adaptable species in the world, living everywhere from deserts to the high Arctic. The fact that, when I was a child, you didn’t see them circling high over rolling farmland in southern England: that was a historical accident. It was the result of them being wiped out by gamekeepers and farmers. And now they are protected, they are coming back; like the buzzards, the peregrines, the sparrowhawks. And they are a joy to see.

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2011

It’s that time of year again. Time for some citizen science! I got off to a great start with two siskins, and ended up with a respectable 17 species:

Blue Tit × 6
Great Tit × 4
Long-tailed Tit × 3

Chaffinch × 5
Greenfinch × 7
Goldfinch × 3
Siskin × 2

Dunnock

Robin

Blackbird

Nuthatch × 2

Woodpigeon × 2
Feral Pigeon × 4
Collared Dove

Great-spotted Woodpecker × 2
Green Woodpecker

Magpie × 2

Collared dove is a new one for the BGBW; it’s a species that only turns up in the garden very occasionally. As always a few regular species failed to show: coal tit, goldcrest, jay and most surprisingly, ring-necked parakeet. But it was still a good year.

Quick bird round-up: duck special!

There was a shoveler at the local park the other day, which I think is probably the first I’ve seen there and a patch tick. ‘Patch tick’, for the non-birders among you, meaning a new addition for my patch list, i.e. the list of birds I’ve seen in my local patch — in my case a not very well-defined area consisting of anywhere within about half an hour’s walk of the front door. Not exactly prime birding territory, but it has a few suburban parks and a bit of woodland in it.

Birders tend to keep a lot of lists: some of them lend themselves to being taken quite seriously, like a British list or a life list. Those lists are effectively a way of keeping score over a whole lifetime of birding, and those are the ones which attract the serious obsessives. But the great joy of the more casual lists — the garden list, the patch list, the London list, or whatever — is the way they can turn a rather ordinary bird into an exciting event. Like that shoveler: it’s an attractive but common and easily seen duck, and I’ve seen dozens of them this year already… but in the park it’s a patch tick. A tiny unexpected triumph in an otherwise mundane stroll around the park.

I don’t actually keep a patch list written down anywhere. I’m not much of a record keeper when it comes to birding. My patch list, like my garden list and my London list, is a slightly fuzzy mental one. The only written lists I have are British and European; I don’t even have a proper life list, though I could more or less reconstruct one from various notebooks. Perhaps that would be a good project.

Anyway, today I went to the London Wetland Centre and I added two birds to my British list and one to my life list. The one I’ve seen before is Scaup, a kind of duck which I saw in Japan many years ago; the new one is a streaky brown finch called Common/Mealy Redpoll.

Which is actually a new species; not just new to me, new as in it isn’t in the field guide. Redpolls were split into two species, Lesser Redpoll and Common Redpoll, having previously been distinct subspecies. The Common Redpoll is what British birders used to call ‘Mealy Redpoll’, the paler, greyer, slightly larger redpolls from the continent which sometimes turn up here in winter among the more common Lesser Redpolls. As you can imagine, the differences are subtle, and I can’t say I felt immediately confident about the ID; but for once I had a good eye-level view of them instead of their undersides silhouetted against the sky, and in a flock of birds which were warm brown in tone there was one which was distinctly different looking, paler and greyer, and I thought, well, if I’m not going to claim this one I might as well give up now.

It’s odd how much it feels like a moral issue. Believe me, I’m well aware that no-one else cares about my rather paltry life list. But to add something to it without being sure; well, that would be cheating. So when I see one of these more difficult species, I really do fret about it, and usually I reluctantly don’t claim them. I tried to persuade myself I’d seen Common Redpoll last winter but just couldn’t quite swing it.

» Anas clypeata | Shoveler is © Muchaxo and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

  • Post category:Nature
  • Post comments:1 Comment

Life Ascending by Nick Lane

Full title: Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution. The ten ‘inventions’ are: The origin of life, DNA, photosynthesis, the complex cell, sex, movement, sight, hot blood, consciousness and death. Lane explains how each of these work and how they evolved, at least as far as current knowledge can take us — which in some cases, like the origin of life, is apparently rather further than I had realised. The consciousness chapter, if you’re wondering, was rather less persuasive.

What sets this book apart from most popular accounts of evolution is that Nick Lane is a biochemist rather than, say, a palaeontologist or an ethologist. So this is a book which focuses on evolution at the micro level: it’s all biochemical pathways and enzymes and the genes which code for them. This is the real nitty gritty of how evolution works, how it actually achieves things; but it’s also the stuff which I generally find is a complete headfuck. No matter how many times I have read accounts of the inner workings of a cell over the years, it just doesn’t stick.

So it is not a small compliment to say I found this book was not just full of new and interesting information, but also managed to be clear, engaging and enjoyable. I still ending up having a long pause halfway through, and I’ve already forgotten a lot of it, but I enjoyed it as I read it.

» The picture is Cytoplasm to vacuole targeting from the Journal of Cell Biology, used under a CC by-nc-sa licence. Picked because it’s a striking image rather than because it’s relevant in any way beyond basic thematic appropriateness.

‘The cytoplasm to vacuole targeting (Cvt) pathway uses Atg11 to direct Atg9-containing membrane from mitochondria (top right) to forming autophagosomes (center) before eventual fusion with the vacuole (bottom right). Original painting by David S. Goodsell, based on the scientific design of Daniel J. Klionsky. (JCB 175(6) TOC1)’

Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at NHM

I made my annual trip to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum. I thought it was particularly good this year. Here’s a pleasing and particularly original long-exposure photo of a gannet colony by Andrew Parkinson:

You can see all the winners on the NHM website, but obviously it’s better to go and see the pictures blown up nice and big on lightboxes if you have the chance.

Bird of the Year 2010

As I mentioned in BOTY 2010:BPiaSR, I haven’t been anywhere even slightly exotic this year, so my list is sadly free of toucans, sandgrouse, bee-eaters, barbets and so on.

But I did have a good year for British birds.

At the most parochial level, I added three species to the garden list: in the cold snaps at the beginning and end of the year I got fieldfare and brambling, which were both perhaps long overdue; and more surprisingly, in March, a stonechat on its way north stopped off to do a bit of flycatching from one of the rose bushes.

The cold weather also brought me a couple of Dulwich ticks: a gadwall in Dulwich park in February, and a snipe which made a flying visit to Belair Park on Boxing day, presumably in search of open water.

An autumn wheatear in Greenwich Park was probably my first for south London. And in Richmond Park I saw my first London red kite and, rather embarrassingly, my first British little owl. A cracking day’s birding around the Lee Valley gave me, among other things, good views of Cetti’s warbler, nightingale, peregrine and several hobby.

On a walk on Sheppey I had good views of bearded tit, which is always a treat, but also what is probably objectively my best bird of the year, and certainly the closest thing to a proper rarity I’ve ever found for myself in the UK: black-winged stilt. It is about as frequent a visitor as a bird can be and still be officially regarded as a rarity, with 241 sightings between 1950 and 2006… but it is a rarity, and I found it. So that was very pleasing. On the other hand I had rubbish views of it, and I’ve seen it much better before, f’rinstance in Spain, where I took this picture…

… so it’s not my bird of the year. Also not my bird of the year was bean goose (tundra bean goose if the species is split), which was a lifer for me but too far away and too, well, grey to be my bird of the year.

A stronger contender, even though I have seen it in the UK before, was water rail, just because I had UNBELIEVABLE views of it. They are normally incredibly secretive, but at the London Wetland Centre in January, when the whole place was frozen over, I saw lots of them out in the open, trotting around on the ice. And particularly, I watched a pair grooming each other through my telescope from about 30 feet, which was just an amazing sighting.

And on the same day, I saw a bird that looked like being a dead cert for bird of the year right up until December: bittern. I have wanted to se bittern for such a long time, and been to places where they are so many times and failed to see them, that just seeing it was a treat, even though my first view of one was very distant. But just like the water rails, the bitterns were forced out of cover by the ice, and over the course of the day I saw them six or seven times with increasingly excellent views, including two within the same telescope view. Amazing. And I saw them again in December and just yesterday had a brilliant view of one to start off 2011 in style.

But even that is not my bird of the year. No, the official winner of Bird Of The Year 2010 is… waxwing! What a gorgeous bird. And like the bittern, one with a particular mystique for British birders. It’s not actually rare, but it’s just elusive enough, and just occasionally you get a waxwing winter when suddenly there are thousands of them and they turn up in all sorts of unexpected places. This is one of those winters, and they are all over the place… even in Dulwich, although I missed those ones. I made a special trip to Folkestone to see them feeding in the car park of a branch of B&Q. You can see some of my pictures there, but the BOTY year deserves a better portrait than that.

Christmas came early for me today…. © Ian A Kirk used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Waxwing Feeding Frenzy © markkilner used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Waxwing © vesanen.info used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Phwoar.

Bird of the Year 2010: best performances in a supporting role

2010 wasn’t a vintage wildlife year for me. I didn’t go anywhere exotic, or even spend much time outside the M25. My longest wildlife-watching trip was to the car park of B&Q in Folkestone.

Despite that, I did manage to rack up some pretty good bird sightings, but it was pretty slim pickings for the minor categories.

Best Plant

Clearly it’s ludicrous that I can’t think of any stand-out plants for the year. After all, they’re not difficult to see. But nothing springs to mind.

Best Fungus

I don’t think I’ve had this as a category before, but this was a good year for fungi, and I saw loads of them. However I made the important discovery that actually identifying them is almost completely fucking impossible. This one at least is easy; Shaggy Inkcap:

Best Insect

It was nice to see a few seven-spot ladybirds in the garden, because it meant that the Harlequin ladybirds haven’t completely eliminated them. There was the parasitic wasp Gasteruption jaculator, which was a neat little beastie. And apart from the  the usual mix of butterflies and dragonflies, there were a couple of stand-out species. One was a very battered convolvulus hawkmoth brought in by the cat: which means that I have now seen this species exactly twice, and in both cases it was because the cat brought them in.

But the species of the year, both because it’s a dramatic-looking thing and because it was so unexpected that it turned up in the garden: Silver-washed Fritillary (in the name of full disclosure: that picture was taken by me, but not this year and not in the garden). One of Britain’s largest butterflies. And not exceptionally rare, but still a complete surprise, especially as it’s mainly a woodland species.

Best Invertebrate (other), Best Fish, Best Reptile

Best Fish and Best Reptile are often quite difficult categories, of course. But it’s a bit embarrassing that I can’t think of anything for Best Invertebrate (other), which is such a big group of organisms. Obviously I have seen various spiders and slugs and things in 2010, but none I can think of that seem worth a namecheck.

Best Amphibian

This was the year of toads in the garden (i.e. Common Toad, Bufo bufo). There have been the occasional toad before, but this year they were all over the place — commoner than frogs. Which was nice.

Best Mammal

Discounting your basic urban vermin (foxes, rats, mice, squirrels) and the remnant of hedgehog I found in the local woods, I think I saw five species of wild mammals this year.

In January when it was VERY COLD, there was a particularly active and fearless stoat at Rainham Marshes which was scurrying around near and on the pedestrian walkways. Stoats are always a pleasure to watch, bouncy manic furry wiggly critters that they are. And I saw some deer: muntjac, fallow deer, red deer and Sika — but only the muntjac counts as ‘wild’, I think, as the others were in deer parks.

And I went on a bat walk in the local park, where we saw three species of bat: Daubenton’s bat, Common Pipistrelle, and my mammal of the year for 2010 which is… Soprano Pipistrelle.

The best thing about the Soprano Pipistrelle is the brilliant name. Common and Soprano Pipistrelles were only split into separate species in 1999; there are apparently various differences of food and habitat, but they were initially split because the Soprano Pipistrelle has a higher-pitched call: 55kHz to the Common’s 45kHz.

Best Ecosystem

Because most of my birding has been in London this year, all my best sightings have been in artificial habitats: a wetland on the site of an old water-treatment plant, a marsh which was formerly an army firing range, a canal and reservoirs originally built to supply water and transport for industrial north London, Victorian suburban parks and ancient royal deer parks, all of them now managed as public amenities and for the benefit of wildlife by various conservation charities, by local councils, and by central government agencies.

Now I know that ‘nature reserve’ is not actually a distinct ecosystem. But fuck knows, if you live in a densely populated, post-industrial, intensively farmed place like southern England, and you have any interest in nature, you owe an intense debt of gratitude to the people who create and manage little pockets of land for the benefit of wildlife instead of turning them into golf courses and housing estates.

Specifically, thank you to: the RSPB, the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority, Southwark Council, the Royal Parks, London Wildlife Trust and anyone else who puts in the hard work to make sure these animals have somewhere to live.

  • Post category:Nature
  • Post comments:1 Comment

Waxwings!

This year there has been an irruption of waxwings into the UK, presumably because of a shortage of berries in Scandinavia and Russia. It’s a bird I have wanted to see forever: it’s exceptionally glamorous looking and it’s a regular-but-uncommon visitor. So since it became apparent that there were a whole lot of them around, I have been religiously checking birdguides.com for news of sightings, looking for somewhere conveniently reachable by public transport from London. Initially they were all up north — flocks of hundreds in Scotland — but they have been spreading down across the country, and over the past week or so there have been quite a few seen in London. But a lot of those are records of the ‘twelve seen flying west’ variety; great for the person who saw them, but hardly worth rushing across town to try and get a look at.

But three days ago there were about 90 in the trees opposite the B&Q at Folkestone; and then the day after there were 160, and it seemed like a good bet that there would still be some yesterday, so off I went.

Result! That’s just a few of ’em. And I know it’s not the greatest picture, but I took it by pointing my phone camera through a pair of binoculars, so all things considered, I reckon it’s pretty good.

Here are some waxwings bathing in water that had collected on the roof of the Action Carpets warehouse:

And here are some waxwings scoffing berries:

I had some pretty amazing views, although my photos don’t do them justice. If you want to see what they really look like, check out this photo which someone else took in Folkestone.

Incidentally, it would be nice to think that birdwatching would all take place in beautiful wild environments, like the Ecuadorean cloud forest or Pembrokeshire clifftops, but surprisingly often it seems to end up involving the car park of a large DIY retailer, or the roof of a carpet warehouse, or some other equally glamorous setting. I guess if you live somewhere as built up as the south of England, the birds just have to fit in where they can.

And I guess if I had been somewhere wilder, I wouldn’t have had access to a van selling what might be the most British sandwich I’ve ever seen: the Breakfast in Bread. Oh yes, it is what it sounds like: bacon, sausage, tomatoes, mushrooms, black pudding and fried egg, stuffed into a baguette. Amazing. I wimped out and had a BLT myself, but just the fact that the Breakfast in Bread exists is good enough for me.

My new favourite animal

Well, until tomorrow anyway.

I went on a bat walk in the local park — i.e. a guided walk led by people with those ultrasonic bat detectors — and we found three species of bat. There was Britain’s commonest and smallest bat species, the Pipistrelle; the Daubenton’s bat, which hunts low over the water; a and a species which is very like the Pipistrelle but whose calls are at a slightly higher frequency.

And that species is called the (drumroll please)… Soprano Pipistrelle.

Which I think is a deeply cute name.

Hot wasp

I saw one of these parasitic wasps in the garden…

… which turns out to be Gasteruption jaculator. Nice, innit?

Because it was long and thin with a light tip to the ovipositor, it looked sort of like a small, delicate blue-tailed damselfly when it was flying around the flowerbeds.

» the photo is © nutmeg66 and used under a CC nc-nd-sa licence.

Birds, birds, birds

Just a little catch-up of last week’s birding action. I went for a walk on the Isle of Sheppey, in the Thames estuary. It’s a transitional time of year: still plenty of wintering ducks and geese — some lovely brent geese still apparently unable to face flying back to the high arctic to breed, as well as white-fronted goose, wigeon, gadwall, teal and so on — but the skylarks were singing, and I saw wheatear and my first swallows of the year. And the lapwings were making those extraordinary calls which are just about my favourite noise in the world.

Also marsh harrier, little egret, linnet, meadow pipit, curlew, oystercatcher, redshank… and two really good sightings. The more visually stunning of the two was a great view of a pair of bearded tits, which are gorgeous birds and not the easiest to see well. But the other one was probably the closest thing to a proper rarity I’ve ever found for myself in the UK: black winged stilt.

That’s not actually my photo but it may well be my bird: it turned up the following day at Rainham Marshes, about 30 miles west of where I saw it. And I have to admit I didn’t see it as well as that: it was quite a long way away and I didn’t have my scope with me. Still, it’s a distinctive bird which I’ve seen before in the Mediterranean, and I recognised it immediately.

It’s not an extraordinarily rare visitor to the UK — typically about 5 records per year —  and it’s not actually a British tick for me; I saw the offspring of a pair that bred in Norfolk back in 1987. But still, by my standards as a casual birder, a pretty good sighting.

» Black-Winged Stilt is from Flickr and is © Hawkeye2011.

Exotic birds (ooh err matron)

Richmond Park laid on a feast of introduced bird species yesterday. By far the most visible were the bazillions of ring-necked parakeets screeching from every tree, but there seemed to be Mandarin ducks on every patch of water and I also saw about half-a-dozen pairs of Egyptian geese as well as the usual Canada geese. And my two best birds of the day were red kite, which is a native species but the subject of a reintroduction program using Swedish birds, and little owl, which oddly enough was introduced from Holland in the nineteenth century.

The subject of exotic species seems to provoke an unexpectedly strong reaction in some people. It reminds me a bit of the pro-songbird lobby, whose campaigns are built around a message of ‘let’s kill all the sparrowhawks/squirrels/magpies’ and who complain that the RSPB only seems to be interested in protecting the ‘nasty birds’ and not the ‘nice birds’.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a good reason why conservationists worry about the impact of introduced species: there’s a litany of disastrous examples from the past, like rabbits and cane toads in Australia, snakes in Guam, and rats, pigs and goats on oceanic islands all over the world. And the best known British example, grey squirrels replacing the native red squirrel. But there’s something slightly creepy about the hostility which people aim at these animals which, after all, didn’t choose to come here.

There’s an obvious glib comparison to the hostility towards human immigrants, but I don’t know if it’s really very valid… perhaps there’s an emotional similarity, even if there’s not necessarily an overlap of the people involved.

» ‘Not just a pretty face‘ © Keven Law and used under a CC by-sa licence.

Proper summer visitor news!

I noticed someone had uploaded some photos of Lesser Spotted Woodpecker to Flickr which were taken in ‘Bushy Park, London’. It turns out to be the Royal deer park next to Hampton Court Palace, so I thought I’d check it out. I didn’t have much luck with the woodpeckers — some Great Spotted, loads of yaffling Green, but no Lesser Spotted.

But there were skylarks singing, a chiffchaff doing some half-hearted chiffing and chaffing, and my first proper summer bird of the year, Northern Wheatear, Oenanthe oenanthe:

Not my photo, btw; this picture is from Iceland (© Ómar Runólfsson and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence). I did try the iPhone and binoculars trick but I wasn’t really close enough. I don’t wish to boast, but my birds were even more attractive than that one; two absolutely pristine males looking gorgeous.

The reason I say ‘proper’ summer bird is that the stonechat from a few days ago is a bit of a borderline case: some European populations are migratory, but others, including most British stonechats, are not. The specific individual I saw was presumably migrating, because there’s no other way one would turn up in a garden in south London. Perhaps it was a Swedish bird heading back after spending the winter in Spain. But you can see stonechats here in winter.

The wheatear, though, is a proper summer visitor, passing through London on its way back from Africa. In fact they have one of the most remarkable migrations of all. It’s impressive that a small bird should migrate from Sub-Saharan Africa to England, but that’s just the start: some of them carry on not just to Iceland but across the Atlantic to Greenland and Eastern Canada. Meanwhile, they also breed in Northern Asia, all the way around to Alaska, and those birds also migrate to Africa for the winter, crossing the whole of Asia to do it.

And every schoolboy birdwatchers’ favourite fact about wheatears: the name comes from the Anglo Saxon hwit aers: that is, ‘white arse’. And they do indeed flash a big white rump when they fly.

Hot migrant bird news!

In the garden this afternoon, a female stonechat, captured here via the magic of holding my iPhone up to a pair of binoculars:

It doesn’t look like much, especially compared to the summer males, which are positively glamorous, but it’s a pretty good sighting for south London and a patch tick for me.

Interestingly a couple of other London birders who are on Twitter also had stonechats today — there was one at Wormwood Scrubs this morning and another at the London Wetland Centre in Barnes. So they are obviously passing through at the moment. It’s an unexpected benefit of Twitter, for me, the way it acts as a kind of antenna for bird movements and the changing seasons; I haven’t seen my own first butterfly of the season, but I have seen one on someone else’s twitter feed…

EDIT: and a very handsome male in Regent’s Park, as well.