Today was all about the birds

I have had a love-hate relationship with Brandon Marsh for many years, but whenever I am feeling at a loose end or a bit grumpy then I plan an afternoon over at the reserve.  Today was one of those days as I paid a traditional holiday visit to what is really a giant reed bed with some other watery bits.

I was greeted by three swallows flitting across the entrance way, shards of summer against an leaden and cloudy sky – perhaps these were a positive portent for the afternoon.  I started with a traditional stop at the Badger Tea room – no badgers and not really much cake either, so just a hot chocolate for me.  The tea room was noisy but all conversations blended into a general hubbub.  There were two large tables of people, I don’t think they were connected, one populated by older, mainly male visitors to the site, the other younger and with more than one token woman.

There were no birds to be seen on the feeders outside, but as only the nut feeder had any contents this was not really a surprise.  I downed my hot chocolate with more speed than the £2.20 cost deserved but I was eager to go out birding.   It was a bit cold and breezy, although the sun did come out at times (as did a bit of rain) so today was all about the birds and I had no expectation of seeing any insects.

At the start of my walk, the sound of the cement works pretty much drowned out everything, even the most vociferous of chiffchaffs.  I was briefly distracted by what I thought was a Volcuella Bombylans (or bee mimicking hoverfly) sitting on the dragonfly ID board and doing a not very good impression of a bee, but it stayed no time at all, so I am not one hundred per cent convinced.  A little further on greylag geese honked in numbers to drown out the cement works and then I heard the whisper and rustle of the wind in the just opening leaves of the tall poplars.

I headed to the main set of hides and suddenly came across a carpet of violets which was a bit of a surprise; round the corner there was a bank of primroses still in full flower.  I bent down to take a photograph of a cuckoo flower and heard, just twice, cuckoo, cuckoo off in the distance.  How appropriate!

cuckoo flower


Cuckoo Flower

There are still long tailed tits contact calling, a really comforting sound from what is probably my favourite bird (although on another day I might have to admit that a red kite is in fact my actual favourite).

Whilst I was looking at what were probably the holes made by some species of mining bee, it was too cold for them to venture out,  I happened to look up briefly and got a cracking view of a whitethroat in the tree in front – my first for the year.  It then darted off into some nearby scrub, but started singing at me.  I also heard a sedge warbler.

mining bees


Mining Bee Holes?

The first proper stop that I made was at the Teal Pool Hide.  I usually wander in just in case there’s something interesting on the pool outside the windows, and every time I usually find that there are actually no birds at all, not even dull ones.  Today there was a family of mallard; mum and ten or eleven chicks.  I should have been able to count them, but they kept zooming and careening about.

teal pool hide


View from the Teal Pool Hide – note the lack of teal or other birds

I often describe Brandon Marsh as an all or nothing place – today it had almost all.   There were some ringed plovers patrolling the edge of the water.   One of them looked a little different to the others, it had more black on it and, on closer inspection (using the magnificent zoom capabilities of my telescope) I discovered that it had a black tip on the end of the orange bills.  Likewise, the zoom also showed a distinctive eye ring on the other birds – so that would be one Ringed Plover and several Little Ringed Plovers. They were quite active and flew about the different islands.  They also looked quite tiny compared with the redshanks that were wandering around in the slightly deeper water as well as along the shore (I love the whistling of the redshanks).  Whereas the ringed plovers spent their time looking along the shoreline, the redshanks stuck their head in the water up to their eyeline.  The sandpipers (common or green, no idea which) wandered along the mud, bobbing away, but not getting in too deep.  There were also lapwing and oystercatchers on the islands, possibly nesting.  A sleeping oystercatcher kept one eye on proceedings and a white butterfly wandered past – the sun must have come out.

Sand martins were there in abundance, zooming about and checking out the two sets of nests that have been provided for them – this is the only place I’ve seen sand martins – I hope they do well.  There were a couple of terns near the tern raft – but the raft was occupied by two sleeping greylags – apparently they hand’t read the tenancy agreement.

There was a reed warbler singing outside the hide making his presence known.   It would make brief flights upwards into the air, chest puffed out, wings back, then plummet down into the reeds and slowly climb up one of the stems and sit warbling away for ages.   I can’t tell the difference between reed and sedge warblers and thought it sounded like a sedge warbler – shows how much I know.  Someone recently told me that reed warblers just don’t stop singing.   I always think of sedge warblers as being more scratchy and reed warblers being more rounded in their song.  There was a man in the hide with an expensive camera lens who got some great shots who said it was a reed warbler.  Later on he admitted he couldn’t remember whether it was the sedge or reed warbler that had the eye stripe – it is the sedge warbler and this had an eye stripe – I still have never seen a reed warbler!  But at least I was right about the song – it was scratchy and he did sometimes pause for breath.


 Wild Violet – so very pretty

Three bees are better than two bees

I decided to do this month’s bee walk on Saturday even though it was a bit breezy and not very warm.  I checked the weather forecast and saw cold and potentially rain for the next week or so and figured that the sunshine and a warmer week running up to Saturday might have been enough to tempt the bees out.  Unfortunately I was wrong.

During the bee survey (which lasted over an hour) we saw a grand total of three bumblebees (one unidentified, one carder bee and one red-tailed).  There was plenty out there for them to eat and we saw plenty of hoverflies and solitary bees, but virtually no bumbles.  After we had finished the survey and were walking home we found another two bees, but still five was a bit unexpected.

However, I don’t think the colder weather was to blame, after all, bumbles are furry little creatures and can manage the cold better than a lot of other insects.  I think this was a matter of timing.  Early in the year bumble queens, the only bumbles to overwinter, emerge from their winter quarters looking for food and somewhere to nest for the year.  Once they have enough nutrition they lay create a wax cup that they fill with nectar and create a pollen ball in which they lay their eggs.  After a few days these hatch into larvae which then remain in the nest for a few weeks until they metamorphose into a bee.  During this time the queen has to brood the eggs and larvae to keep them warm (hence the nectar) and she can only go out foraging for short periods of time.  Hence, I think most of the queens were in their nests and the first lot of workers have probably not emerged yet so there is a paucity of bumblebees at the moment.


I think that spring has finally arrived when the chiffchaffs are calling, but this can be misleading.  However, once the butterflies are out, and, in particular, the ones that didn’t overwinter as adults, then I know spring is here.

There are a few butterflies that are due out in the first weeks of April.  One of the most distinctive (well, the males, anyway), is the orange tip.

orange tip

These butterflies are found along many lanes, and are particularly fond of garlic mustard (as shown above) and cuckoo flower which are amongst the food plants of the caterpillar.  The female orange tip looks like the male, but without the orange tips, so could be confused with some of the other whites.  But once the wings are folded it is again unmistakeable with green mottling on the underside.  Although they are usually seen in May, if the weather is warm they might be out in April.  However, blink and you will miss them – they will be more or less gone by the middle of June.

Today’s new discovery

Today seemed like a good day to go insect hunting.  The sun was out, the sky was blue and, for a change, it was warm.  As the back garden seemed mainly to have flies in it and little else (other than a rather lovely toad) of interest, I put my boots on and we went for a walk along some of our bee transect.

However, we hadn’t even got as far as the old railway track before the butterflies were out showing themselves.  And, to be fair, the front garden had a couple of bees (red-tailed and tree bee) as well as a basking small tortoiseshell.

We walked for a mile or two, and saw butterflies in many of the sections we went along, although, noticeably, not in the newer housing sections – good job as they probably would have starved.  There are four, possibly five, butterflies that overwinter as adults – the jury is out on the red admiral which normal migrates over.  The definite four are Brimstone, Comma, Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock and all of these were out in abundance, sometimes a couple on the same flower.  Dandelions seemed to be the flower of choice for the small torts, peacocks were a bit more interested in the willows and flowering cherries whilst the commas were mainly on viburnum tinus.  As for the brimstones, they were just dashing about like mad things.

So, I took lots of photos, had a big smile on my face, saw some bees and discovered that in contrast to the rest of them, commas have white legs.


On the upper side of their wings commas are a beautiful bright orange, but underneath they look like an old dried up leaf – move along birdies, nothing to eat here, type of leaf – a dull, brown, raggedy old leaf.  This is in fact the only butterfly with such jaggedy wings, although they are perfectly symmetrical in shape.  However, they are named for the small, white, comma shaped mark on the underside of the wing.  I suppose it is better than being called a dried up old leaf butterfly.

As usual, I only saw single specimens of these, as they are one of the few spring butterflies that isn’t often seen in any groups with others of its kind.

Have you seen this butterfly?

Once the weather finally makes up its mind to be warm for more than a few hours, have a look for this butterfly, the Speckled Wood, Pararge aegeria.

speckled woodIt’s quite a common butterfly and should be out and about in the beginning of April.  Like many of the browns, it tends to breed on grasses, and this one likes soft grasses in dappled shade.  In Daventry there will usually be quite a few along the old railway track and in the country park.  The sunlight usually picks up their distinctive yellow spots (numbers and markings vary) and often several will be seen having a bit of a tussle in the air.


The Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey and Butterfly Recorders’ Meeting

As I previously mentioned, I was asked to talk about the WCBS at the recent National Butterfly Recorders’ Meeting.  This was a nerve-wracking moment as I don’t do a lot of public speaking and there was a room full of butterfly greats there – Matthew Oates really should have his own accompanying drum roll.  However, I did managed ten minutes with virtually nothing included about butterflies; for me it was about the people who do the surveys.

I started co-ordinating the butterfly survey for Beds and Northants 3 years ago, and inherited 10 surveyed 1km squares which is not very many in an area of 3000 km2.  It had been higher, but the previous co-ordinator had gone off chasing swallowtails in Norfolk (and he did three of the squares).  We are now regularly surveying over 20 sites (over 30 if you include those from the BTO).

My presentation was about how we had increased to more than 20 squares and, with the help of some volunteers from the BTO, had amassed records of nearly 35,000 butterflies (more details on the actual butterflies in another post).

I’ve tried various ways of upping the numbers: Twitter, the local wildlife trust, and local wildlife groups, but only some have had any affect.  Maybe I am targeting the wrong people.  I had a bit of luck at the local AGM – after all these are people who like butterflies enough to spend a Saturday afternoon at a meeting, and I will try this again this year.  I’m also going to try and target local areas with a lot of empty squares and see if we can get some of them covered as well as talking to the local agricultural college and university.

It really is a nice survey to do and is seen as one of the best scientific surveys that Butterfly Conservation carry out – mainly due to the random allocation of the squares.  It also targets the more common butterflies as it is carried out in July and August – just two visits on a sunny afternoon are required so it isn’t a massive time commitment.

I get a lot of good feedback from volunteers about the survey – some really do love it and look forward to it each year.  The question is – how do I persuade more people to come and do their bit for butterflies and for citizen science?  Answers on a postcard please…