Monday, 30 December 2013

5 Marsh Harriers

A wet, muddy but beautiful evening walk at the Strumpshaw bird reserve, Norolk. I grew up here, in Strumpshaw not in the reed-beds themselves, and the smell of the dykes, emotive call of the coots and the cough of the pheasants are all familiar and take me straight back to a childhood spent exploring with my friends, binoculars and fishing rod. We talked to our friend John, RSPB warden in the hide, and he let us scan the reed fringes with his telescope in the hope that we might spot an evening bittern. Others have seen bittern and otter within the last 24 hours and the excited scrawls on the clip board records in both hides bear testament to the close proximity of these wonders, but today they eluded us. We took the bold decision to walk to the river (Yare) and then on to the tower hide, the best part of a mile into the deserted reserve. With children largely carried and skidding in the mud we made it to the hide and climbed the wooden steps to look out over the sunset and the birds coming in to roost. Geese, ducks, small waders and a flock of excited lapwing were all settling on the small pools. The highlight of the walk was watching 5 marsh harriers tumbling in the wind over the reed-beds. We saw them a number of times over the hour before the sun set, briefly hunting over the beds on the south side of the river towards Claxton before returning, harried by rooks, to their roost. Perhaps they are parents and young, or a group of young birds working together in some way ? We trudged and slipped through the mud on our return to the van, arriving home in the dark.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Seals at Winterton - Norfolk Coast

A terrific walk along the coast at Winterton. Having learnt our lesson last year we chose to avoid Horsey, as the popularity of the seal pupping draws an astonishing crowd over the Christmas holiday. The seals here, and along the coast at Blakeney spit, have raised well over 1000 pups this year and although many were briefly washed away by the pre-Christmas tidal surge and storm it now appears that most managed to find shelter, although some were rescued. Walking along the big open beach was as beautiful and inspiring as ever with the children running ahead and the boys leaping off the sand dunes. A large bull seal watched us from the surf as it made it's way along the coast, the large black head appearing briefly with a snort and a peak at us on the sand looking back. As the dunes levelled out into a series of sheltering rises we began to find evidence of this years breeding, 3 seal carcases in quick succesion, all young and probably only a month of 2 old having recently developed their dappled coat. The young seals, born at about 30lbs, put on 4.5lbs a day feeding from their mothers 60% fat milk. Once they reach about 100lbs and loose their white coats the mothers abandon the pups inthe dunes where they remain in little groups until they are hungry enough to make their way to the sea and begin the next stage of their lives. Although only about 5% die as young pups, 50% don't make it through the first year, a measure of the rough start they must get when they first crawl into the wintery North Sea. It's always tremendously exciting to see the seals in the dunes and particularly so with our children, knowing that they will remember these moments on this beautiful shoreline and perhaps bring their own children back in years to come.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Early Murmeration

First visit to Ham Wall bird reserve this year to see the starlings. Adam and Bec staying with us and we squeezed in a little walk at sunset before we headed off to the wonderful Somerset Carnival in Glastonbury. As soon as we got out of the van it was clear that, in-spite of my fear that we were too early in the season, there were indeed starlings gathering. Clouds of birds were making there way past, low in the sky and heading towards the reed-beds in Shapwick Heath. I had heard that the murmeration was divided this year and thought that perhaps we were at the wrong site but there were still groups gathering over the familiar site at Ham Wall. As the birds came in from all directions, after a day's feeding on the fields and cattle troughs, they funnelled into the reeds without much delay. Groups  of hundreds swelled over the reeds on occasion as they jostled for roost space but the large murmeration seemed to have eluded us. Then as the thousands of birds chattered in the reed-beds a marsh harrier came over and suddenly the huge mass of birds was airborne, as one - (See very blurred phone photo above as I gawped) - The marsh harrier was clearly rather disorientated and sloped away over the reeds to pursue less dramatic quarry as the birds bulged and swelled before re-settling into the roost. It was great to share the local seasonal spectacle, it really is such an amazing sight and it's only going to build as the winter begins to bite.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Hummingbird Hawk Moth

Lepidoptera watch continues...we had a Hummingbird Hawk Moth in the garden this weekend. Fabulously exciting insects - large, exotic and scarce - I've never seen one. I didn't get a photo unfortunately as it was a fleeting visit but here's one culled from the BBC. Apparently the mild summer and autumn weather has attracted quite a few migrants from the continent.

Our one was enjoying the nectar available to long-tongued species from the Nicotiana by the back door. This plant has been a great hit with moths all late summer, notably in the evening when its scent is quite heady although this particular visitor was in the morning. It was spotted by my visiting Uncle Bill, rather fittingly, as he was the first person to introduce me to moths and butterflies when I were a lad!

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Pupa on the wall.

There are three of these beautiful and distinctive pupa attached to the side of my house and they appeared about 2 weeks ago - 19mm in length. (*photographed with a DSLR, 35-80mm lens and macro extension rings) They are clearly the pupa of a butterfly or moth and are all of the same species. The caterpillars must have crawled quite some distance to get to the side of the house, as the wall is separated from the plants and flowerbeds by a wide concrete walkway, so I can only assume that some genetic trigger in their little brains says that they must find a wall of significant height so that when hatching from the pupa they are well above the ground. Each of the beautiful pupae have a square of 4 highlighted spots, almost as if they have been delicately gold leafed. Q - How does a small caterpillar judge the height of the thing that it is climbing ? What species are these ? - I have so much to learn.

Surface detail:

Jo Donnelly, (Ecologist) - Identified my last caterpillar as probably that of a 'Grass knot moth'
Thankyou Jo.
Note: Thanks Ads - as I note that you had already come to the same ID conclusion in the comment stream attached to blog post, thanks also.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Common Hawker

At RSPB Minsmere - I think a Common hawker Aeshna juncea. Just amazing insect life there on a sunny Autumnal day.


Saturday, 5 October 2013

Another caterpillar

Following on from Dunc's caterpillar, this is one I found in the garden. I think it is the caterpillar of the Pale Tussock moth Calliteara pudibunda. Given that it 'used to be a pest of hop', and we have hops growing in our hedge, it would make sense if it were that.

It shouldn't be a suprise that there seem to be a lot of caterpillars around at the moment, as it was an excellent year for butterflies and moths. They are great - such extraordinary things which come in all sorts of amazing variations and colours, and with the added textural delight of hairs and assorted protuberances. This one could be a Jim Henson creation...

Friday, 27 September 2013

What will this become ?

Can anyone out there help me to identify this caterpillar ? It was crawling about on the mint plant in the Strode College Sustainability garden. I have also been working on a blog to track the garden's development and the link can be found here:

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Hedgerow Finding

With autumn's bounty being particularly, er, bountiful this year, we went foraging for blackberries and elderberries in the hedgerows today. As well as getting free food, this also forces us into a very close communion with the fantastic habitats that hedgerows provide. At the moment, the ivy is blooming, providing a welcome late summer burst of pollen for bees and other insects. The fruit that we are seeking also provides a source of nutrition to birds (the purple stained droppings on leaves giving ample evidence of this) as well as invertebrates such as wasps and this shield bug.

Being forced into such close proximity brings one to a more minute engagement with what is going on in such a habitat. After a few minutes of pushing through spiders' webs and commenting on how they seemed to all be in the way of the fruit, I realised that this is probably not accidental; by positioning their webs between the wider world and the fruit, spiders maximise the chances of catching insects that are attracted to the sticky juices.

I also noticed details that I wouldn't were I just walking by, such as this Oak gall, nestling amongst the leaves. I know almost nothing about galls, but a quick google suggests that this may be Andricus kollari, an Oak marble gall, caused by a gall wasp.

After a summer of enforced immobility thanks to my ankle injury, it feels good to be out and about and able to get up close and personal with local wildlife again.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Piano Migrations

Interesting audio-visual work inspired by natural phenomena, such as birds...

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Dismantling Owl Pellets with the village children.

Great weekend camping with the children up at the village playing fields with many other Ashcott families. Many group activities; BBQ's, rounders, football etc For my contribution I ran a natural history session with the children on the Sunday and we all dismantled owl pellets. 

The children were all really into the activity and spent more than an hour tweaking the pellets apart with tweezers and dissection tools. I gave a prize (*big packet of sweets) to the child who retrieved the most bones and many of the children did a beautiful job cleaning the vole leg bones, shrew skulls and mouse jaws and organising them in their little labelled bags. They became very proficient at identifying the bones in a very short time and it was great to hear them telling each other what they were looking at and sharing particularly interesting finds. Amongst the pellets we found a couple of rat skulls, notably more robust than the mice and voles, and by the end of the session the group of Mum's were left alone focussing intently on their own pellets as the children raced off to play bike zombies, recharged after a quiet sit down.

Note: The swallows that I had previously thought had left for Africa haven't left at all, I have seen them every day this week and in large numbers on the phone lines in the village.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Lyme Regis Rockpools

Great day at Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast. The rock-pools were full of baby prawns, not the shrimps so common on the Essex coast. Many small fish, blenny, shanny and also urchins, anemones and hermit crabs. beautiful clear water and the children snorkelled as the tide came in and we then moved down the beach to hunt under the cliffs for ammonite fossils.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

The summer is waning, the insects are falling.

Grabbed a last few days in Claxton as August creeps on and the quality of light and the departure of the swallows betrays a turning of the seasons and a suggestion that this summer chapter is ending. One of the many small indicators that we have had the best of the season is the number of dead bumblebees I am finding on the ground. In the last week I have found as many as I have found in the rest of the year, just by keeping my eye out, watching the floor and pavement edges. The conservatory at Claxton was littered with dead insects yesterday and I laid out the one day's finds, see beneath. The large white butterflies seem fatally drawn to the warm glass room and lie like fallen blossoms on the windowsills amongst the scattering of flies, moths and bees. Also a possible 'Ringlet Butterfly - Aphantopus hyperanthus (*Third row, far right ?). 

First experiments tonight with my camera extension rings. A lot cheaper than buying a new lens but requiring a lot of light and a steady hand so I will have another go tomorrow in daylight with a tripod. I think this small specimen might be a 'Common carder bee - Bombus pascuorum' and I now plan to photograph all of the bees to help identification and to use as reference for a series of illustrations.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

The Ted Ellis Norfolk Room - Norwich Castle Museum

Great afternoon in the Norwich Castle Museum with the family. We always spend time spotting animals in the dioramas and then I have to carefully point out the butterflies on the trees and the nightjar hiding on the forest floor. The children then escaped to look at the polar bear, make the stuffed tiger roar and to throw coins down the enormous well in the keep - it's a wonderful museum. I have always loved the dioramas and as a child I used to look closely at them as I walked through the hall on the way to museum club and they haven't changed at all. The quality of the painting is wonderful and the combination of natural history and theatre and the required suspension of disbelief makes them seem familiar and slightly magical, and again I am inspired to paint backdrops within my artwork and to echo this quality.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Vobster Perch - Diving in a flooded quarry.

Great afternoon at Vobster Quay dive centre, nr Shepton Mallet, in Somerset.  I haven't dived here since 2003 when it first opened and I was testing a home-made underwater video camera housing with Ed, who had milled a wonderful and very robust aluminium case. The housing worked and I later I dived with it successfully in St Kilda in the outer Hebrides and got some great footage down to 50m before flooding it, and destroying the camera, at 6m whilst decompressing above the wreck of the Hispania in the sound of Mull later in the same week.

Jason and I explored the flooded quarry workings and man-made artificial wrecks and section of a small ship etc for about 40 minutes. I managed to knock my wide angle lens off the camera and watch it fall into a deep dark pit, but dropping into the gloom I managed to retrieve it from the silt in the very cold water down at 25m. The nicest bit of the dive was towards the end as we explored the flooded quarry slopes in the sunlit, and much warmer, shallow waters at the east end of the site away from the other divers and disturbed silt. The shallows were full of confident and strangely static shoals of perch, mainly young but some large specimens, and fleeting groups of nervous rudd and roach on who's offspring the many perch presumably feast.

Looked hard for the freshwater crayfish that live in the protected quarry, separated from the waterways and the invasive American signal crayfish, but failed to see any. It is small breeding programme, a very large quarry and white clawed crayfish are very small and so my ongoing quest to actually see any UK crayfish anywhere, ever, continues. 'I will find you, you can run but you can't hide', well they can and that's the problem! (Austropotamobius pallipes is an endangered[1] European freshwater crayfish, and the only species of crayfish native to the British Isles. 'white-clawed crayfish' - wikipedia)

Monday, 5 August 2013

The swifts have gone.

We returned from our holiday yesterday and at a BBQ today with Gary he pointed out that the swifts left here a couple of days ago. When We went to Norfolk a week and a half ago there were still groups of swifts still swooping low over the house with their distinctive squeals but sure enough they do seem to be gone. Gary says they arrive each year in the first few days of May and leave on about the 2nd of August. They also seem to have been replaced by wasps.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Cuttlefish Eggs

We found a clump of strange 'weed' on the beach. It was similar to a number of bladder species of seaweed but unusually the bladders were full of water, much like a bunch of grapes. The weed was put in a jam jar to be identified later and then forgotten. A couple of days later I noticed that the jar was full of small white shapes about 10mm long. On close inspection I realised that the grapes must have been cuttlefish eggs as the tiny white forms were miniature cuttlefish but tragically all seemed to be dead. One seemed to possibly be moving so I released them in to the sea with the remaining unhatched eggs. Saddened by this turn of events I can at least recognise that they were probably lost once they washed up on the beach and also learn from this and will know what I am looking at in future if I ever find more.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Shrimpnet finds - Frinton 2013

Things that we found in the sea at Frinton this year : Sand eels, worm pipe-fish, compass jellyfish, sea goosebury, shrimps, prawns, porcelain crabs, shore crabs, cuttlefish eggs, baby dab, shanny, isopods, sea slater, brine shrimps and a dead weever fish on the tideline.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Worm Pipefish - Shrimping at Frinton

Terrific days shrimping at Frinton. Exploring the breakwaters and seabed at low tide with the nets, more interested in the by-catch than the shrimps. Only found one worm pipe-fish in amongst the weeds at the tideline and no hermit crabs this year when on other years there have ben hundreds. Not sure why each year can differ so much from another as we are here on the Essex coast for the same week every year, the weather, sea temperature and other factors must effect the type and number of species. A chap talked to me about how fishermen used to get a boat out to the distant sandbanks to shrimp professionally in the low tide shallows. Having the fishtanks on the beach soon draws a crowd and it's great to see the children lifting out the shrimps and running off to show their parents crabs and prawns.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Mating red tail bumblebees

Watching the bees on the lavender plants on the greensward at Frinton-on-sea and the painted lady and torsoise-shell butterflies. Walking back to the beach hut I bent over to pick up what I thought was a dead bumblebee on the grass only to notice that it was actually a mating pair. I ran back to the hut and returned with my camera and found the bees again to get some photos. I was able to lift the bees onto a sketchbook page for a clearer shot and they seemed distracted enough not to care although they briefly flew off and settled again on the grass. I assume the female was the much larger and darker bee and she was sporting a large sting barb and when flying the male hung beneath.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Moths drawn to the light: 27th July 2013

Adam and I spent an excellent half hour looking at moths attracted to the conservatory lights in claxton. Excellent in that there were many moths but also that with identification sheets in hand we could actually identify a number of them with reasonable certainty. (To attach a list of moths). A beautiful large white moth settled in a bush and then, confused by the light and attention, it settled on my face which gave us time to identify it as a 'swallowtail moth'. On a second night by the BBQ we again saw a swallowtail moth and managed to have a look at it in a magnifying pot with it's distinctive wing markings. Adam now thinking about writing a song about moths and I'm again deciding I must draw from life more consistently, however fleeting the subject.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Hatching Dragonflies in Norfolk.

I was helping to build a stage over a pond in Claxton, don't ask, when I noticed the case of a hatched dragonfly larvae attached to one of the reeds. Once I started looking I found more and soon had a collection of 20 or so. All perfect, incredibly light to hold and split in the same fashion beneath the wing casings. We did find one dragonfly in the act of hatching and watched as it dried out it's wings in the sunlight.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Diving the Manacles - Lizard Peninsula, Cornwall UK

A wonderful 3 days diving on the Manacles. We dived the major reef drop offs on the Vase, Penwin and Raglan reefs, a drift and 2 wrecks. Great visibility underwater, a pod of bottle-nose dolphins and wonderful sunshine. The underwater scenery on the Manacles is fantastic with the nooks and crannies hiding all manner of life from squat lobsters, prawns, blennies and shore crabs to the large spider crabs and conger eels. The kelp beds above 12 meters always provide lots to look at as you decompress with the fronds hiding nudibranchs and small crustaceans and the forest of stalks a thoroughfare for the wrasse that dominate with the Cuckoo wrasse (Labrus mixtus) posing and challenging in their bright colours and the ever inquisitive Ballan wrasse (Labrus bergylta) seeing if you've stirred up anything to eat. The wrecks are alive with shoals of bib, congers peek out from the metal plates and rusting boilers and the sea floor wriggles with tube worms, scallops, urchins, brittle stars and other starfish. All of the exposed surfaces in the tidal areas are covered in filter feeders with the walls coated in jewel, plumose and other anemones, dead man's fingers, soft corals and sponges waiting for slack to pass and the race of nutrients to pick up as we end our dives. Toby, vigilant as ever, spotted an impressive angler fish (Lophius piscatorius) on the seabed beyond the boilers on the 23m deep wreck of the Epsilon. He was positioning himself to photograph the carpets of brittle stars and nearly put his hand on the angler fish, the camouflage is astonishing with the seaweed shaped flanges and mottled skin reminiscent of the wobbegong sharks of warmer seas. It's only having seen and recognised it that you can see it at all, lost against the surrounding seabed all but invisible except for the sharply defined and all seeing golden eye above the innocent looking lure and the wide subtle grin lined with pin sharp teeth.

Wreck of Epsilon:
274 nhp; triple expansion engines. The Dutch steamship Epsilon was on her way from Buenos Aires to Amsterdam, when she struck a mine and sank in the English Channel on January 31st, 1917. The mine was from the german minelaying submarine UC-17. The Epsilon was one of the three ships of the ”Vrachtvaart Maatschappij Bothnia” that were lost during WWI.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Drawing from LIFE

Inspired by the work of Keith Brockie, after buying the book 'One Man's Island' - absolutely terrific. His drawings of the natural history of the Isle of May off the East Lothian coast in Scotland are just beautiful, the studies of the sea birds that I know so well from my diving and of the grey seals are simply stunning. The book was originally published in 1984 and I'm surprised that I hadn't seen it before and pleased to note that he is still working today - I recommend highly.
Link to his website -

Inspired, I spent a lovely 20 minutes on Saturday morning with my son Alexander, both trying to draw a frog which had got into the paddling pool outside the front of our house. Both of us sitting in the early morning light trying to snatch little studies as it as it moved about the pool trying to find a way out. Difficult trying to draw a moving subject and as noted by Brockie in his book, it's about patience and trying to piece together repeated poses to catch something of the animal. Drawing also forces you to look closely and if I had previously drawn a frog from memory I would have missed the fact that the back legs have a third section, extended foot bones making up another piece between foot and what we would call an ankle. Plan to draw more from life this year, not just from death as I so often do with the subjects that I find on the road or beach, however at least they stay still.

The frog was then happily released into the flowerbed with everything damp from the recent rain.