Sunday, 31 August 2014

Osprey returns.

Cycled down to the bird reserve at Shapwick Heath with the children. A beautiful late summer day and the air full of that end of season character that settles on the landscape imperceptibly. 

Watched a distant osprey from the tower hide, perched on a dead tree and briefly hovering high over the water but clearly unable to commit to a fish before returning to its post. We watched an osprey here two years ago, on the same dead tree and probably the same bird, as it stopped off for two weeks on its way south.  The children were more interested in throwing stones into the water, clearly thinking that ospreys are two a penny and only a cycle ride from our house.

Tawny Barn Owls

I am running an owl pellet dissection session with children at the village harvest fair next Saturday and I have a shortage of pellets. Well to be precise I have a lot of what were once pellets that are now trays of loose bones and bits. The pellets in the shed have been feasted upon by clothes moths and so much of the mouse and vole fur has gone and the pellets have fallen apart - so no good to give to children to look at. (* I read that it is now thought that clothes moths evolved to eat feathers and pellets before we evolved to use the fur of sheep to make the wool on which they have now adapted to feast also) Those owl pellets came from a barn in Norfolk which has since been wired off to prevent the doves from roosting in it, and presumably the barn owls also, but it also means I can't get in anyway as the site is now being developed, as with so many across the country. I had another tray of barn owl pellets but after foolishly leaving them outside in the rain they now form what can only be described as a very stinky fur and mouse bone soup and I certainly can't present that to the youngsters next Saturday.

After a tip off from a farming friend I climbed into a barn on Friday night to hopefully collect some new barn owl pellets. The beautiful derelict building had a huge upper story with two large rooms full of old hay and bits of wood. If you tried to imagine an ideal place for owls to roost then this would be it. Quiet, full of hay and foolish mice, open bits of roofing for access and lots of high beams to sit on at the edge of the levels and surrounded by farmland and cattle sheds. As I entered the second room I disturbed two owls, not barn owls but large tawny owls, which flew almost noiselessly from beam to beam above my head. They bobbed their heads, called quietly to each other and hopped about a little under the apex of the roof staring down at me intently. I carefully picked up some pellets from a midden beneath their favourite roost site and tip toed carefully out over the perforated rotting floorboards, with the gaping holes allowing me glimpses of dangerous-looking farm machinery in the room beneath. I managed to pick up a few beautiful barred feathers as I sneaked out and left the owls to settle down again. 

The pellets are smaller than those from barn owls and less rounded, with bones sticking out of many of them and evidence of beetle wings also. The warm buff brown feathers are a little moth ragged around the  edges with beautiful markings on the soft smaller feathers in particular. I drove back home as it got dark, past the fields that were all under water only a few months ago, quietly pleased that such secluded and abandoned spaces still exist and to have seen owls at such close quarters and not just fleetingly across the beams of my car headlights.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Butterfly Counting and Hummingbirds

In the last days of August we finally find 15 minutes to count butterflies in the garden. Alexander, Bertie, Freddie and I worked our way around the big buddleias and other butterfly friendly plants and did our best to count butterflies once. Lots of butterflies making the most of a late summer sunshine and pollen but only four species and very few Peacocks.

Pieris rapae - Small White: 11
Inachis io - Peacock: 2
Aglais urticae - Small Tortoiseshell: 13
Vanessa atalanta - Red Admiral: 24

On a related note. Whilst at the annual Ashcott Beerfest end of summer BBQ yesterday we saw a Hummingbird Hawkmoth. Gary and I had been talking about them only this morning on the sidelines at the first of the children's football Saturday session. I have seen them in France, and Gary had seen them over the summer in his garden in Shapwick, but we hadn't ever seen one in Ashcott and then one almost flew into me while I ate my burger. Before I could shout to Gary it flew across the garden and into the conservatory where he was sitting, a bit weird, and we had an exciting few minutes trying to catch it whilst explaining to everyone what it was.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

To collect but not to kill.

I choose not to kill insects. I am interested in insects, I know how to kill insects and I accept that I am allowed to kill insects but I have no desire to kill insects. I have no legitimate scientific reason why the collection of specimens is valid and I get great pleasure from using photography and drawing to record live specimens in the field, when they sit still, and yet as others have before me, I desire to collect. 

Collecting is as part of me as breathing, my sheds, shelves, freezers and home are full of things I have collected and many, most of them to do with natural history (*apology to my long suffering wife). This passive limitation, with regard to not killing to collect, does of course limit my collections and it also means that the specimens are often battered and imperfect. I don't mind this, in-fact I have embraced this in a number of artworks, mounting and presenting all of the insects I have found dead over the course of a year in  'Natural Causes - 2004' and other works. The aesthetic satisfaction that I gain from pinning and organising finds can, for me, be met by arranging these imperfect treasures and it encourages me to look very closely at the floor at all times, on windowsills, road edges and in swimming pool filters. Consistent close attention opens your eyes to the often overlooked and disregarded and the beauty to be found in the miniature tragedies that surround all of us. Road kill is another matter, in scale and complexity, and I am continuing to teach myself taxidermy to free up freezer space for family food, and some things are simply too big to pickle. This way of working means that you also can't predict what you might stumble on, literally, so I carry pots, gloves, pin boxes and other items so that I'm ready to take advantage of exciting discoveries, although on more than one occasion I have forgotten about a dead sparrow popped into a pocket on the cycle back from college. 

From my collections I am then able to draw, paint, assemble sculptures and photograph and as a resource for my work as an art lecturer they are invaluable and frequently loaned to staff students and the biology department. In France this summer, perhaps due to the rain, specimens were rather thin on the ground, if you forgive the use of phrase, however I assembled the box beneath and so another space on my shelves is filled and I can again focus on stuffing the seagull in the ice box.

Carpenter bee found beautiful, iridescent and dead behind the window shutters in the French house.

Grasshopper that unfortunately jumped into my hot coffee as I drew crickets at night by torchlight.

Hoverfly that I found dead on the floor by the wardrobe in the french house corridor.

Moth which I dried out having retrieved it from the swimming pool where it drowned.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

French Insects

Two terrific summer weeks in the south of France with my family. The first week near Bergerac was notable for the unseasonably cool weather and rain although we all had a splendid time and even enjoyed an evening fire in the hearth. Subsequently there were fewer insects around than might be expected but it was as exciting as ever to see the unfamiliar, the lizards on the path, the swallowtail butterflies and the hummingbird hawk moths and carpenter bees around the flowering plants.  There was much excitement one morning when the children came running to me to say that there was a snake in the pool filter. I went to retrieve the reptile and with excitement and trepidation I carefully lifted off the lid as the children squealed, to capture a ...... children's beanbag. Over the course of the week I fished a number of drowned insects from the pool and pinned them in my boxes, including quite a few hornets, clean and purposeful in their design but which seemed fatally drawn to the pool at night. My home made moth trap was spectacularly unsuccessful, I need to learn more about making an effective box beneath the light, and seemed to only attract hard to identify micro moths

We then spent a number of wonderful days camping by the river Dordogne under the castle on the cliff-top above Beynac and with the returning sun the insects were suddenly more evident. The meadow next to the campsite was teaming with giant bush crickets, cone-heads, mint beetles and many species of grasshoppers and I spent hours catching them in our net and taking photographs and drawing. There were also lots of caterpillars about, wasp spiders, banded agrion damsel flies, crayfish and barbel in the river, sand wasps on the banks and a red squirrel in the trees. The largest cricket was spotted by Freddie from inside the tent as it cast a shadow on the ceiling having alighted on the canvas in the early morning. The excitement and pleasure of seeing these lovely creatures, and actually having the time to sit with a light outside at night and to draw them, gives me a small and enviable understanding of how Wallace and Darwin must have felt when they first arrived in a tropical rainforest clutching an insect net and a satchel of containers.

Wasp spider - Argiope bruennichi - web quite distinct as it has thick ladder-like sections vertically across the face of the web, called a stabilmentum. When found out and about the spider is quick on it's feet and hard to photograph.

A black and yellow Buff Tip caterpillar, Phalera bucephala.

A hawk moth caterpillar with it's distinctive hind-end horn. The shape of the caterpillar, with it's small head and tapering body, makes me think it might be the Hyles hippophaes, similar to the bedstraw hawkmoth, but the horn looks bluer than the picture in my collins insect guide.

I think that this may be a long-winged conehead, Ruspolia nitidula,  I also saw short-winged coneheads and both were notable for their size and the large ovipositor at the end of the abdomen. (*See photo on ruler and watch of a large specimen, above) These are astonishingly hard to see amongst the long grass and rather slow moving so not easy to catch in the net like the more jumpy smaller grasshoppers. To catch these you need to just look hard until you can see them and then pick them up carefully. As with so many wild things I didn't see any until I had seen the first one and then the brain 'learns' what to look for and you see more. As well as the grasshoppers and green crickets there were black field crickets running about on the ground amongst the grass.

One of many brown and hard to identify grasshoppers. This one, here on a loo roll, was notably stocky and had beautiful white borders on top of it's thorax and along it's wing casings.
The glorious little mint beetle, a brilliant jewel amongst the leaves - Chrysolina menthastri

Sand wasp - I think Sceliphron destillatorium, as it has a black abdomen and yellow and black legs. I watched it marching about with purpose on the sandy Dordogne river bank, perhaps looking for a nest hole or hunting for spiders and other prey to paralyse.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Brown Sparrowhawk

I haven't seen a sparrow hawk this year and then I see two in as many days. The first was sitting in the road as I rounded a corner driving back from the willow farm and it sat there until the last moment before bursting off into the trees. I am sure it was a sparrowhawk , by the way it flew and acted, but it was darker, a deep brown rather than the familiar grey and stripes. Then on Saturday I disturbed another, 5 miles from the first, but also brown and confident, like a cocky little man in a pub who knows that he can handle himself. Not scared by being disturbed but almost annoyed with me for getting in its way and the pursuit of prey.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

French Crayfish

The children enjoyed drawing the crayfish. When you see them from the river bank they sit statically on the mud or in the weeds and move slowly and carefully with their pincers raised. Then as you approach they suddenly shoot off as though electrified, with a flip of their powerful tails, and disappear down burrows.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Bees bees bees

I'm still learning about bee keeping and it was great to help 'Bee Bob' work through the hives. The apiary is still recovering from the loss of many colonies in the cold snap last spring but several hives are strong and doing really well. Spent 2 great hours opening up hives in my bee suit and learning to work through the frames calmly so as not to disturb the bees. Learnt a great deal. Each hive has a different character but most of the bees seemed quite calm as we lifted out frames and there wasn't much need for the smoker. Great to be able to see the newly laid eggs and the workers busying themselves over the surfaces of the frames laying down honey. The eggs are laid in circles on the frames, with capped cells surrounding the newer cells, with bees being born and laid in rotation by the queen, with the colony forming a ball within the hive structure, sliced through by the frames so that you can see the expanding mass as you leaf through each layer. The honey laden frames were remarkably heavy and lifting one out I was able to see the larger queen moving amongst the smaller workers. It was all incredibly interesting and am keen to keep learning with the intention to manage my own hives and hopefully to get a hive onto the college campus also.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

The Jersey Tiger - Euplagia quadripunctaria

I've seen quite a lot of these in recent weeks and am always captivated by them, although this one had a slightly deformed wing and appeared a little worse for wear. Day flying and large these tiger moths are rather exotic and unexpected when you see them. The body is beautifully orange and the simple curve of the dramatically striped wings gives the moth a rather clean, vulcan bomber'esque, profile. Sat doing some sketching with Alexander in the garden and he did a terrific little painting.


Peppered Moth
Had a fabulous night of moth-trapping with the South Yare Wildlife Group over the weekend. 3 traps overnight yielded over 50 species identified with many more micro moths and just sheer huge numbers. As I've commented before moth names are wonderful, some extraordinary gothic others just weird. I wonder who named them - were they named through folk tradition or was there a specific exercise in naming them by some Victorian Naturalist?? Favourites include 'Hebrew Character', 'Canary-shouldered Thorn' and 'Ruby Tiger'.

Black Arches

Large Emerald

Poplar Hawk Moth

Creatures from the 'Essex' Deep

Shrimping every day for a week gives you a clear sense of the location, the fauna and the ability to reflect on previous year's catches and to talk each day to members of the public and interested children. We haven't seen a hermit crab for a couple of years and the only one we caught this week was when I put out the lobster pot over night on the Thursday, also clearly the best way to catch a lot of healthy large shore crabs. I was surprised that a hermit crab ventured out over the seabed and managed to climb into the lobster pot, perhaps they're more active at night ? Also some years there are few pipe fish, prawns or flat fish but this year we caught a lot of all of these. There were 5 or 6 pipe fish in an hour's shrimping consistently over the first 3 days and then they seemed to disappear later in the week, whereas the juvenile flat fish were caught more frequently as the week went on and Angus caught loads on the last day. If you consider each long breakwater to be a sort of reef, with the last 8 sections remaining underwater at all states of the tide, then the catch might vary simply because we fish the same site day after day. The prawns re-stock day after day but favour the left hand breakwater over the right, possibly because the woodwork overhangs and creates a habitat for them. The flatfish were caught on the open sand at low tide, where the sand shrimps are caught, and as with so many of the creatures they were clearly immature and I wonder if the low shallow warm sea around the Essex coast acts as a sort of nursery for fry, with the low sandy visability perhaps also protecting them from larger predators. No sign of weaver fish this week but lively 5 bearded rockling, dab, plaice, pipe-fish and a wonderfully characterful 'Shanny' with it's frog-like face and jumpy manner.

The highlight of the week was a clump of cuttlefish eggs which we kept hold of all week, having found a clump so now able to recognise the water filled bladders distinguishing them from the air filled floats of the sea weeds. Two baby cuttlefish hatched on the second morning and then, with two changes of water each day, the majority of the brood hatched on the last day. The baby cuttlefish were born almost white and quite still but within hours they were darker, more active and already demonstrating that they could produce ink and change colour at will. So perfectly formed and otherworldly as they used their jet propulsion to hover about the jar but almost impossible to photograph and film, as quite unpredictable and each only about 1cm in length. I tried to record the different species more carefully this year and photographed them alongside a 2p piece to get a sense of scale before releasing them back into the sea and packing up the containers and nets for another year.