Tuesday, 28 February 2012


Garden Bumblebee - Bombus hortorum
The anomalously warm sunny weather over the weekend gave me an unexpected opportunity to test my knowledge of Bumblebees. Having attended a course last summer, and having been swotting up over the winter, I was delighted to see the first queens of the year. The difference between book knowledge and being able to identify in the field is huge of course, so I was glad to have a reasonable camera to hand to be able to check my identifications. Fortunately the bees were intent on raiding the abundant crocuses to build up their strength ahead of establishing a nest and giving birth, so were not too fussed by me crouching over them with a magnifying glass and camera in hand, desperately counting the number of yellow stripes and gauging the length of their tongues.

White-tailed Bumblebee
- Bombus lucorum
Here are a couple of photos that I am reasonably confident of having identified correctly. The garden bumblebee Bombus hortorum is notable amongst common bumblebees for its long face and tongue so getting up close and personal allowed me to see this in action as it probed the crocus. And though you can't see its large white tail in this photo, this white-tailed bumblebee Bombus lucorum is covered in the pollen that is at the core at the heart of this transaction. What is great is that at this point in the year, the bumblebees that are out are almost certainly queens and are highly unlikely to be cuckoo species that appear later in the year, so that does cut down the options for the bumblebee novice. According to my field guide, not all of the 5 species (B. pratorum, B. terrestric, B. lucorum, B.lapidarius & B.hortorum) that I saw are usually on the wing so early in the year, so this is clearly not a normal chance to test my book knowledge, but was certainly a welcome one.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Music and birds

On BBC Radio 3 this morning there was a programme about music inspired by birds:


As a musician with a passion for birds it was interesting and inspiring to hear how composers and others had taken inspiration from birdsong and behaviour. Worth a listen anyway.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Light in the darkness

Today was extraordinary. A taste of spring to lift the spirits. I could see all around that the gloom of late winter had lifted from people, and that others, like me, felt a simple joy in this blessing of sun. But all around the natural world responded in its own way. Snowdrops belied their own name, their natural response to the warmth being to raise their petals up to reveal the green-on-white arrowhead marks that we seldom see. Insects were on the wing, although the year's first bees must have struggled to find pollen and nectar in any quantity. And of course insects brings insect-eaters - bats flicked over my head in the dusk as I cycled home, taking drowsy moths drawn to my lights in the gloom of the lanes. But we all have our own markers of seasons passing, and for us seeing light through the porch of Hellington Church as we pass in the evening means that lighter evenings and warmer weather are coming. For which we are truly grateful.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

First Spawn - 19th February

Its 9.30 am on a frosty morning and as I fed the chickens and defrosted the rabbit water I noticed that the frogs have produced their first spawn of the year. I can clearly hear the frogs at night this weekend as I lie in bed, croaking away in the dark. If they are still here all week I might try to record them as Adam and I were discussing the sounds that mark the different points of the year and this is certainly one of them.

I had a conversation with someone last year who said that there are 'marsh frogs' in a specific ditch on the levels so I might go to try to find them at night with a torch as I'm not sure I've ever seen a marsh frog.

Friday, 17 February 2012

A freezer full of rodents

Thanks to the diligent efforts of my father-in-law I have 21 new specimens. He has been collecting the dead mice, voles and shrews that 'Tinkerbell' the Claxton house cat has been bringing him and since Christmas and he has been keeping them in a Fererro Roche chocolate box in the freezer. The White household is visibly pleased that I have now removed the collection, which is in temporary storage in my own west-country freezer and will be 'pickled' tomorrow. Between Tinkerbell and the local barn owl, whose rodent filled pellet's I collect from the empty barn, it's a small miracle that there are any small fury animals left in that particular corner of the Norfolk countryside. I might put them in individual little bottles ?

Winter but signs of spring

After a conversation with Ads yesterday I was listening for birds this morning as I loaded the car to drive home. Although there are still traces of snow on the ground there was a skylark overhead for about half an hour, singing at different heights with its powerful recognisable song. Can you normally hear skylarks at this time of year? I'm not sure but I certainly normally associate them with summer days and the sand dunes of the Norfolk coast. We walked up to the top of the hill in Claxton yesterday to watch the beautiful sunset before tea, and we watched hares and silhouetted partridges running over the top rim of the sloping fields, it really is such beautiful countryside. The snowdrops and acconites are out in force in Mum's wood in Strumpshaw and she has organised snowdrop walks to see them this weekend. She has been steadily splitting up and spreading the bunches around the wood for more than 30 years and they now carpet most of woodland floor, dominating the landscape in the few short weeks before the wild garlic takes over. Returning to Somerset in the dark this evening I am also excited to see that there are 11 frogs in the pond, a very clear sign that they think that the worst of winter is behind us.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Ted Ellis, Wheatfen and Coypu

The Norfolk naturalist and writer Ted Ellis was an almost mythical figure when I was growing up in East Anglia and he was talked about regularly at Museum club at the Castle Museum when I was a boy. I was showing my own children the wonderful natural history Norfolk diorama's at the Castle museum this week, wonderfully painted exhibits showing different types of landscape that he was so instrumental in commissioning. It was wonderful to meet his grand-daughter, Rose, today and to see the beautiful marsh cottage house where he and his family lived and to talk to Rose as we walked around Wheatfen with friends. Amongst other stories she recalled eating coypu as a child, which her grandma pretended was rabbit, and how the children would use coypu teeth as counters in board games. I certainly remember seeing coypu myself, on eel fishing trips and walks by the river before they were all eradicated, and although I accept that they were artificially introduced and destructive, I'm still slightly sad that they are now gone.

Coypu were introduced to East Anglia, for fur, in 1929; many escaped and damaged the drainage works, and a concerted programme by MAFF eradicated them by 1989. (WIKIPEDIA)

I had a nice talk with David the warden at Wheatfen as I left today (17/02/12) and he showed me his skull collection. He had heron and owl specimens but also a rare bittern skull and many small examples of species of deer. The teeth on the chinese water deer skull were quite astonishingly long and although I have seen these protrude from the deer's mouths I hadn't realised quite how impressive they were. I will certainly be back to Wheatfen later this year, it's a wonderful and inspiring piece of fenland.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Trying to photograph buzzards.

On the long half-term drive from Somerset to Norfolk we kept our eyes open for birds of prey and other interesting things. Having to miss wonderful Salisbury Plain, as I needed to drop into Bath and London galleries on route, we drove up the M4 and between Ashcott and the M4/M25 junction we saw 17 buzzards. Most of them were perched on road-side fence posts but several were flying low over fileds, between tree top perches or being harassed by rooks. I stopped in a lay-by next to Dyrham Park, to try to photograph the ice on the tree branches which looked astonishing in the low winter sun, and snapped this quick shot of a buzzard disturbed and gliding away over the icy fields.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

The sting in the tail

This hitherto mild winter has saved its hardest bite for late in the day. Walking in the snowy landscape today, the promise of spring seemed suddenly distant once more. Overhead vast flocks of rooks and wood pigeons wheeled and roamed, seeking what sustenance they could below the snow.

Lapwings have been locally plentiful this winter and we came across a single one hopping across a field, not apparently injured but simply crawling about in a tractor rut, allowing me close enough to see the iridescent green of its wings, the bands of colour that are reduced to black and white when viewed at distance, and even to take a photo on my phone. Groups of redwings and fieldfares hopped along hedgerows and trees, seeking berries remaining precariously on outer limbs since easier fare was harvested. The muted landscape forms a unique acoustic backdrop and I became aware that the held breath of a cold snap brings its own soundtrack of clear birds' calls mixed with the distant voices of children enjoying the landscape anew; even my footsteps trudged out their own rhythmic crunch .

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Short Eared Owl

On Tuesday I took our level two art students to Bristol Museum for a day's natural history drawing and I photographed this Short Eared owl specimen alongside other UK bird species.

Then this afternoon, in a brief gap between taking my children to two different birthday parties, I parked up on Sharpham Moor to have another look for the visiting Short Eared owls here in Somerset currently. In the steady snow it was hard to see anything out of the van windows so I walked along the road a little with the distant noises of the in-car DVD player behind me and the crump of my feet in the snow altered light of a very wintery afternoon. After 10 minutes scanning the hedges and fields I hadn't seen any owls and so I returned. Then as I started the engine I saw one, a couple of hundred yards ahead over the levels, banking and twisting slowly looking for voles. By the time I had pointed it out to my children and got my camera up it had dropped into the grass on top of some unfortunate rodent. Within moments I saw another and then a third, all quite some distance off. With my camera on a monopod and the 300mm lens at full reach I snapped a handful of fleeting images, just enough to at least confirm I had seen the owls. On the Somerset ornithological website someone reported seeing 6 at one time only yesterday, another unusual trait of this daylight flying winter visitor. My main impression was of a reasonably sizeable grey/brown bird with a more active hunting style than a barn owl and perhaps more hawk like than other owl's I've seen and beautiful in the snowy afternoon.