Sunday, 30 September 2012

3 British Reptiles in 10 minutes.

Great trip down to the Avalon Marshes centre with the children to enjoy the tractor trailer rides, withy fish making and pond dipping. Caught a great diving beetle, as we did last time, and was again astonished at it's size and vigour, if you were a baby newt or tadpole you would be very intimidated by this insect, clearly the biggest feistiest beetle I have ever seen in the UK.

We rode through the Shapwick Heath reserve in the trailer tractor, along the track by the south drain, looking out for otters and birds with the children clutching binoculars and clip boards. Not a lot about but beautiful wind swept reed beds and rafts of coot, swans and ducks. Towards the end of the ride we all got off to look for reptiles, at the same spot that I hunted in vain earlier in the year, and we carefully stepped down off the trailer to avoid scaring anything away with vibrations. The guide was excellent and sure enough beneath the first piece of corrugated iron we saw two slow worms and a grass snake. The grass snake made a quick exit, (*see picture beneath), but the slow worm was predictably slower and the guide pointed out the moving eyelids which differentiate a legless lizard from a snake as it warmed up in his hand and became more lively. Under a second sheet we saw 2 further small grass snakes and 2 more slow worms, all trying to warm up under the metal on an early autumn morning. We went to look at the compost heap, where baby grass snakes had hatched earlier in the year from eggs inside the warm heap, and the guide pointed out that slow worms give birth to live young. Then amazingly we saw an adder at the back of the compost heap but as we tried to see it clearly it slipped away into the hedge and we were only able to glimpse its zig zag back retreating from the attention. (*see photo of the bottom of the hedge near the adder!) It would be great to sneak back in a few days to try to get a clearer look at the adder as I'd love the children to be able to identify the differences clearly for themselves.They will certainly remember today and I have certainly never seen three of our resident reptiles together in one location within moments of each other, such a terrific end of summer experience.

Italy wildlife part 1

We've just got back from a fantastic trip to 'Le Marche' in Italy. It is an area on the Adriatic coast which encompasses the dramatic Sibillini Mountains. We arrived at the port city of Ancona, where we saw still-migrating swifts, swallows and martins, which presumably follow the Italian coastline before heading out across the mediterranean to their African wintering zones.

Heading inland to the rolling uplands of olive groves and farmland punctuated by small, red-tiled hilltop towns, we found that birdlife was much less evident than in our corner of Norfolk. We hypothesised that this may be to do with a range of factors, from land management regimes, lack of hedgerows, hunting and widespread feeding of birds in the UK. But maybe the large numbers of lot of raptors also gave a clue?

But the diversity, size and abundance of insect-life was really staggering. If your thing is crickets, grasshoppers and butterflies, it is the place for you. In the garden around us there were huge numbers of all of these. And this in turn meant large numbers of things that predate insects such as lizards, spiders (including this beautiful Wasp Spider Argiope bruennich) and amphibians.

For me, one of the most exciting insects was this enormous bee that we saw. It was around an inch long, fat, mostly black with iridiscent blue wings, and sounded like a small power tool. I think it is probably a Violet Carpenter bee Xylocopa violacea which have occasionally been seen in the UK, but are mostly only found in southern Europe. The butterflies were also great - more about those to come.

And just like Duncan in France, no trip abroad is complete without nearly treading on a huge, ugly toad, such as this chap...

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Beautiful Mill Bay, Devon, UK

A terrific weekend on the Devon South coast with family, staying in East Prawle where we used to camp and dive the wrecks of the 'Bolt' with the poly club. Nothing has changed, as beautiful as ever and we all enjoyed the last of the summer sun today in wonderful Mill Bay. Got the little ferry over to Salcombe for lunch and walked back along the sand in the afternoon as the tide receded and  we picked up shells and bits of crabs and looked in the small caves. I have very fond memories of waiting on the beach here, as a new diver, for the first wave to return in the hope that as we headed back out, towards the wrecks and past Wolf rock, that we might be lucky enough to see a basking shark.

Watched two herring gulls having a good time dismantling an edible crab and others squabbling over an unfortunate sand eel and we also found a tiny spider crab on one of the mooring ropes retaining the tenders moored in the estuary. I have never seen such a delicate crab, possibly a 'Leaches spider crab.' Inachus phalangium Bertie held it carefully for a while before we put it into the sea and we continued looking for sea potatos, (urchins), in the surf, buzzards calling overhead and the weather on the turn.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Diving in Plymouth

Great weekend diving off the Plymouth coast with my Cabot diver friends. Dived the wrecks of the torpedoed WWII liberty ship James Egan Layne and the Scilla (*deliberately sunk as an artificial reef in 2004 - ). The life on the Scilla is quite astonishing considering that it has only been underwater for 8 years. Corals, many plumose anemonies, young rose corals and sponges and mats of young barnacles. (*underwater camera failed to record any film due to a memory card fault) Spent the Sunday exploring the reefs and gulleys around Hillsea Point and the Mew Stone, all familiar dives but good visibilty and a lot of wildlife. Shoals of bib, large pollack, bass and mullet on the wrecks and dogfish, spider crabs, blennies, squat lobsters and many wrasse on the reefs, Ballan and Cuckoo. I briefly pursued a large cuttlefish in the kelp which didn't want to hang around and flared its primary tentacles each time I approached, colours flushing up and down, always quite astonishing to watch. Toby and Chris saw a large Bull Huss on the Mew Stone, where I saw one a couple of years ago, a large species of dogfish more like a nurse shark than a dogfish. One of the great things about diving is that it affords you time to crawl around on the seabed looking closely at life, often as small as tiny shrimps and nudibranchs, in a way that you so rarely make time to stop and focus on the small things under your feet when on the surface.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

The beauty of things

The quality of September light has struck me as never before this year. It is so warm and golden, bringing a rich glow to the world as it falls low and slow on trees, flowers, fields and hedges. It invests everyday scenes and objects with a luminescence that seems to draw the eye anew. Coincidentally (or not?) I have also started using the instagram app on my iphone to treat photos that I have taken on it. The array of filters and effects that it brings provides a remarkably quick and effective way of enhancing shots. The phone is never going to be as good a camera as a fully functioning digital SLR, but it is portable and always with me, so when an opportunity arises I can usually capture something. And once treated with instagram, the low quality of the exposure can almost contribute to the effect, as with this photo of a queen Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) I took over the weekend.

As with such things, it is very easy to fall into a single aesthetic, forced down a set path by pre-set filters, so that everything ends up looking the same, consequently you wouldn't want to use it all the time. But in applying a sheen to the everyday it makes one look at things in a new way. According to the argument of Oscar Wilde, one of the main roles of art is to refresh the mental filters through which we see the world - as he put it 'life imitates art', arguing that when we see a beautiful sunset we are merely seeing it because artists like Turner have revealed its beauty to us. I wouldn't necessarily go along with that totally but I would agree that art has a very powerful way of constructing our view of the world, whether in an aesthetic or narrative sense. And maybe that partly explains my reaction to the September light this year - I am simply seeing through a subliminal instagram filter. So, though not putting it in the category of great art, it reminds me that nature can be so simply exquisite, as in the case of this young grass snake (Natrix natrix) in our garden. And that is no bad thing.

RIP Terry Nutkins

I was sad to hear that Terry Nutkins has died, from Leukaemia aged 66. It was great to see him quite recently on Deadly 60, with the equally enthusiastic Steve Backshaw interviewing, and it seemed so perfect that he lived in beautiful Glenelg near the Isle of Skye. 

A wonderful character and one of several people who inspired me to explore my love for natural history as a child -  ( Others include: Gerrald Durrel, David Attenborough, Tony Soaper, David Bellamy, David Attenborugh, Ted Ellis and Willard Price ). I so remember watching Terry on Johnny Morris's animal magic with Gemini his sea lion in the big tank and being fascinated by the story of the otter that bit his fingers off. Such a genuinely enthusiastic presenter who so clearly loved the animals he was talking about and who will be sadly missed.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Sperm Whale Teeth

Had a wonderful conversation with a new village friend, Ian, as we painted the walls of the pre school building on my birthday back in the middle of August. He lived on the Falkland Islands as a child and used to work on the fisheries protection vessel as an engineer in the seas around South Georgia. What a wonderful part of the world, so many stories and such history, adventures and wilderness.

Yesterday as we both manned stalls at the village Harvest Fayre he came over to show me two wonderful sperm whale teeth that he had got from his father, who still lives on the Falklands, and who had found them on a dead beached whale carcass. I am borrowing them to draw and he also leant me a terrific book about South Georgia. The teeth are very heavy and satisfying as objects, you get a sense of their strength and why whalers out of Nantucket and Whitby would hold onto them and scratch scrimshaw drawings of their journeys into the ivory surface.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Dem Bones

In a wonderful book I was recently reading 'Why Big fierce Animals Are Rare' by Paul Colinvaux, the author says that if you are an animal it is not a good idea to be the same size as someone else's mouth. As I sit dismantling many barn owl pellets I couldn't agree more as the endless voles and shrew bones demonstrate clearly just how effective a predator the barn owl is as it makes it's rounds each evening along the fields. I am working on new artwork for next month's show and need to order all of the bones into pelvises, skulls, femurs, jaws etc so that I can organise them in the piece. It is a long laborious but rather satisfying task.

In France two weeks ago, where I managed to find some owl pellets in a barn, I dismantled them in the hope that there may be evidence of different prey species. I was rather surprised and a little disappointed to find the same key species, mouse, vole, shrew but no sign of lizards. The lizards were everywhere, scuttling about  under bushes and up walls, and it seemed strange that they didn't form a cornerstone of the local owl's diets, perhaps they don't taste nice, or perhaps the pellets I found just happened to not have evidence of lizards ?

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Inclement Weather

Rain, and more rain. Perhaps sharpened by the contrast with a week in hot southern France last week, it seems horribly autumnal suddenly. Not in a good bright chill way, but in a wet way. We had an astonishingly heavy day of rain on Wednesday, so much so that when I cycled home after college I had to peddle for 200 yards in half-turns of the wheel to avoid immersing my feet in the flood water running out of the fields, cascading down the roads in a river. (*See picture )

The farmers in the village seem to have cut all of the hedges and so the crop of village blackberries, such as it was, is hugely diminished which is a pity, for both eh creatures that benefit and from the parents like myself who relish the seasonal markers and routines. The fruit were maturing later than usual and I was surprized to see that in France last week the hedgerow fruits were further advanced and the berries were already ripe. The lack of an autumn harvest is of course compounded by the strange spring weather we had earlier in the year with frost damaging the blossom and a lack of pollinating insects combining to reduce the crop as our pear tree doesn’t even have any fruit this year.  We were discussing, inly this evening how the reduction in apples will probably affect the cost of next year’s cider, as we begin to plan next summer’s village beer festival. The butterflies were everywhere yesterday but whereas they would normally be feeding on fallen pears and apples, this year they are making do with the buddleia and are trying to make the most of the nectar in dopey gangs while the sunshine still has any warmth in it, although today everything was even further depressed by a continuous fog of drizzle.