I went for a couple of walks last weekend, not entirely with birdwatching in mind. One was round the country park – I know now that there is both a reed warbler and a sedge warbler there at the moment. I have also realised that the sedge warbler that I thought was singing from the reeds in the Industrial Estate all these years was probably a reed warbler – or at least it is this year. And I can confirm that despite trying to confuse me by duetting with a reed bunting, there are more reed warblers around Barnes Meadow than sedge warblers and quite a lot of common whitethroats this year too.
Even better though, I found my first ever willow warbler on my local patch. I had wondered if they were there, but I just didn’t know it and they were. It was singing its little drifting down song from the top of a willow tree on the old railway track, 5 minutes from home. I even managed to pick it out with my binoculars. So a lifetime first for me – that’s four new warblers that I’ve seen this year, and one new one that I’ve heard but not seen.
Hopefully I will remember everything from my warbler ID course after a long winter when there are no warblers about to bring sunshine into the grey.
Another day, another chance to find something new. I decided to go along the river today and hired a Boris bike to increase my exploratory range. I wanted to try and record some warblers in the reeds but the constant roar of traffic and building work meant that was a non-starter.
The river banks were full of rape flowers and cow parsley. The yellow of the rape was attracting quite a few red-tailed bumblebee workers and lower down there were some flowering nettles with carder bees buzzing about.
Further along the path I noticed a pair of dark coloured insects fluttering up and down in the air, almost landing, but not quite. They managed to dance for a short while before a breeze knocked them out of the air and onto the flowers. Time for my trusty close up binoculars whilst trying to keep the bicycle upright. A long body with what looked like three filaments at the end, bulging eyes and large, dark patterned wings. I was quite hopeful that this was a mayfly, my first ever. I grabbed my camera but only managed to get one quick shot off before it wised up to me and flew away.
Fortunately it wasn’t too bad, even the exposure wasn’t that bad considering the brightness of the flowers.
This was indeed a mayfly, Ephemera vulgata, one of 51 species of mayfly that live in the UK. Apparently the term mayfly is misleading (although it is still May) as they fly throughout the summer months. The name mayfly refers to a particular species that was usually first seen when the May (hawthorn) was in blossom. Another name for them is dayfly, as many of the adults live for only one day (or sometimes just a few hours) – not having any mouthparts or digestive organs being on the wing only long enough to find a mate and lay its eggs underwater. But this is not true of all mayflies, some live for longer than a day. Most of their life is spent as an underwater nymph, whiling away a year or two eating algae and other vegetation before emerging and flying to the bank and sheltering under leaves. Here they moult again and become a dancing, fluttering fly.
I am now obsessed with my close up binoculars (although I have to wonder what the 8x magnification looks like). A lack of nature over the weekend due to poor weather conditions has not stopped me though.
I’ve discovered a red-tailed bumble bee nest at the bottom of the garden. I watched several workers (I counted a maximum of five leaving without returning, but there might be more) coming and going. Most had orange pollen baskets full, although a couple seemed to come back without any provisions. I had a slight hope that the bees might have been the red shanked carder bee because I swear I saw some red hairs on the legs of one of them – but it might just have been pollen dust. I live in hope though and now I know where they live I can keep a watch. There was a different bumble species (possibly white-tailed) visiting the aquilegia and with full yellow pollen baskets, so I’m not sure where my red-tails were foraging.
The fern smut moths seem to be present in quite big numbers now I know what they look like. However, my ID skills stopped short of other micro moths – there was a very white one with black eyes that I have some terrible photos of to help with my ID. I watched a small orange fly with black spots on its wings (possibly a fruit fly) wait for a small spider to leave the corpse of another fly before moving in, and I saw another fly – probably a hoverfly, sitting on a leaf. I watched it lift its wings up to clean over the top of its abdomen with its hind legs and then clean each of its wings between these legs. The hind legs by the way were black but with a yellow stripe / underside. I mean, how cool is that, watching it carefully smooth each wing in turn between its legs?
And, there are so many spiders, many different types. How do you start to tell the difference? I noticed this one, a male Philodromus dispar, a type of crab spider sitting on a leaf. It was still there the next day. It seems to have two legs that are much smaller and thinner than the others. It does move, but it was back again in the same spot the next day.
I haven’t even started on the slugs and snails yet… So much to discover and I don’t even have to go very far.
I’m in to the third month of my bumble bee walks and I am becoming obsessed with watching the weather to see which is likely to be the optimum Saturday or Sunday to go out and look for bees.
This time it was a bit breezy, but the sun did put in an appearance and it was generally warm (that was a week ago and it has been quite chilly and wet this weekend so it was a good call).
My walk is divided into five sections, according to the type of habitat. I tried to choose some near houses, some near fields and hedges and some near disused land. Again though, there were not many bumbles about. In the first section there wasn’t a lot flowering other than hawthorn which I was surprised to notice was pretty much bereft of any insect life. I assume something must pollinate it or there would’t be any berries, but it wasn’t popular on this Saturday. I returned a score of null points for this bit.
I wasn’t very hopeful for the second section as it is along a path besides some new housing (which they are just finishing off). Fortunately I was in luck and spotted three different types of bumble bee. Next up was a long stretch with fields of crops on the left and houses on the right, mainly grass, but hedgerows, umbellifers and dandelions were scattered liberally. It was the dandelions that rescued me on this stretch, with a red-tailed and white tailed worker gathering pollen and nectar.
Off back into the houses and we found loads of mason bees, but also some bumbles, including a couple of queens feeding on lonicera. Fortunately this seems to be a favourite with both housing developers and bees, otherwise we would have drawn a blank again.
On the final stretch we have some disused land – it was a field and I’m sure they will build some houses on it, but for the time being it had some vetch, birds-foot trefoil and dandelions flowering on it. I counted three carder bees and a red-tailed on the birds-foot, but also my first cuckoo bee of the year on a dandelion – a queen red-tailed cuckoo bee Bombus rupestris. It was quite lethargic which allowed me to get a good look at it’s back legs – all hair, no shine or pollen baskets. Coupled with its very smoky wings and this was definitely a cuckoo bee.
So another disappointing bee walk. I’m starting to get concerned about the lack of bees (I’m not even seeing huge numbers in my garden). It can’t have been the weather this time as we spotted lots of butterflies – including orange tips and even a brimstone. At least by doing this regularly we will hopefully find out if it is indicative of a decline or just that there still aren’t many workers out yet.
The suggestion was made – ‘wouldn’t it be cool if you could watch insects in real time with the same magnification as with your macro lens?’ And yes, it would be but does such a thing exist, can you get closer than a few metres to look at insects with a pair of binoculars. Enter the Pentax Papilio in either 6.5x or 8.5x magnification.
The online reviews were very good, but I have to admit, that I was a bit skeptical of the one that said they could count the segments on the antennae of a butterfly. But, with a minimum focus distance of 0.5m and the potential to use them for birding as well I had to give them a go. I got the 6.5×21 version as it should make it easier to track an insect about.
First up, was a moth that I saw at work – it looked a bit tiny with the naked eye, but with the bins I saw texture on the wings, white lines across it and little furry feet. I have no idea about the segments in the antennae as it didn’t appear to have any. This is what it looked like through my point and shoot camera – and I could eventually manage to ID it as a chocolate tip moth. Very cute, very furry and sticking two fingers up to the moth people that wouldn’t come and do any moth trapping at work because we didn’t have any interesting moths – it is all relative!
However, this was only a limited test and I needed to try them out in the garden and see what was there. First test – bees in the front garden zipping about the rosemary. I have been trying to ID them, and I know some are probably red mason bees, but others look different, and behave differently, rarely stopping to nectar at all, these looked much greyer, almost white on the thorax and head. My bins passed the first test. Not only did I get a good view of the female mason bees (as shown on forget-me-not below), but I discovered that the others were male mason bees. They aren’t grey at all, just very blonde and very furry with quite long antennae. I was confused as well by some of what thought were females but which looked grey on the thorax with a red abdomen – my new bins showed that this was a result of having lots of rosemary pollen stuck to their hairs! As a result I am fairly confident in my Osmia bicornis ID skills. It’s amazing how orange and how furry these bees look in close up!
I watched a couple of hoverflies, well, hovering, one was definitely a marmalade hoverfly, but I couldn’t ID the other, but I could even watch their legs and feet tentatively making contact with the rosemary flower as they touched down – amazing!
A bigger test for the bins though was in the back garden – it is usually much gloomier due to the large amount of foliage shading the area. I wasn’t sure that I would find anything to look at, but I was wrong. I watched a spider tense itself under a leaf when a fly landed on the top surface, only to be thwarted as the fly took off again after a quick clean. I saw a tiny yellow and black fly on a hazel leaf that I wouldn’t have even noticed otherwise. It was less than 5mm long, yellow underneath, with orange legs and a yellow almost checkerboard pattern on the top of the abdomen / thorax. It had a yellow head with a blackish stripe between its eyes and thing yellow stripes on its scutellum. It is not the kind of thing I would be able to take a picture of, but I think I managed to ID it from my notes as a grass fly, Chlorops sp.
The good thing about the bins is that they show you things you would never have seen otherwise (either with or without a macro lens). I saw a moth crawl out from under a leaf. It was tiny and looked like a black speck and I probably would have thought it was just that if I hadn’t seen it arrive. It had glossy purple black wings and a yellow head and legs. It was so small I couldn’t even get a good picture with my macro lens. This is as good as it gets:
This is a fern smut moth Psychoides filicivora, I had never noticed them before amongst our many ferns! Now I’ve seen quite few of them crawling around at the bottom of the garden.
So, the verdict. The view through the bins is even better than through a macro lens – not least because it is in real time and works without a tripod in poor light. The only downside is that there is some barrel distortion, but it doesn’t ruin the view. Can you count the segments on a butterfly’s antenna? I still don’t know because I haven’t seen a butterfly since I got them, but my guess is yes.
My new bins are opening up a whole new world full of creatures or behaviours I’d never noticed before, and I’m afraid I’m going to be boring you with lots more mini beasts that are inhabiting the garden.
I am eagerly awaiting the first chicks from the common terns at the Country Park so I am going to try and get down there once or twice each week for the next month or so (not a hardship). There are no signs of chicks yet, I am sure there would have been more bringing of fish if there were, but I think there are at least 6 or 7 nesting pairs. The new tern rafts give a pretty good view of the terns and there were several looking as though they were quite settled, some were on scraped up shingle, one was redistributing shingle around the ‘nest’ and I saw a change over between a pair – so definitely some eggs incubating going on. There was quite a bit of bickering and fighting amongst the terns on the raft and even some mating, so I think chicks might be hatching over the space of a few weeks.
However, the terns are not the only nesting birds at the Country Park. For the first time I have found a grey heron’s nest. The last time I was there the heron was sitting there, looking pretty comfortable. This time it looked empty. Fortunately, when I had another look a bit later on, one of the parents had come back and was feeding a youngster. It seems that there is only one in there , so perhaps they are new parents, or the cold weather has reduced the brood. Either way, the chick didn’t look very old – it was definitely grey and tried to flex its stubby little wings. I shall have to keep an eye on this nest as well as the terns!
Anyway, back to the high drama. Other than the herring and lesser black backed gulls that the terns often had to chase off (we watched one almost drowned after being forced into the water), they also had a go at some canada geese and a mute swan. But this isn’t the drama I am referring to.
As well as a mallard with eight ducklings and a pair of greylag geese with four goslings (very different parental approach between the ducks and geese), the aforementioned pair of canada geese also have four goslings. The reason that they incurred the wrath of the terns was because they had been chased halfway along the reservoir by a male mute swan with a huge attitude problem. I know that despite appearances swans are not at all serene and peaceful, but this one seems to see everything as a threat. Suffice it to say there is only the one pair of swans at this end of the water (and they have six cygnets).
At no point did this family (four adults and four goslings) go anywhere near the cygnets, but he chased them across the water and at one point seemed to separate out one of the goslings from the rest (a bit like the sheepdog on One Man and His Dog). The adults would attack the male swan, diverting his attention so the gosling could get further away. But, sometimes this wasn’t enough and several times one or more of the goslings dived underwater (they can stay under for quite some time) to avoid being killed. One poor gosling got completely separated and was chased away from the family group by the swan. Two of the adults worked together to try and get the gosling to safety, whilst the remaining goslings appeared to be under the care of the other two geese. This chase / attack lasted for a good fifteen minutes or so, with the gosling going on land, under water and in the reeds. Eventually it was led to safety by one of the adults and shepherded up to the far end of the water with its siblings whilst the other goose kept the psychotic swan occupied.
A few weeks ago I went to Brandon Marsh and bemoaned the fact that I couldn’t tell the difference between a reed warbler and a sedge warbler. Fortunately I had already booked myself on a course to learn to identify warblers that was run by the local wildlife trust (Beds, Northants and Cambridgeshire).
So, I set my alarm for 5am this morning so I could get up in time to meet the instructor at 7am at the lovely Summer Leys reserve. Despite the gloomy weather forecast, the sun was shining and the sky was blue (although it was still a bit chilly) as I joined 12 other people hoping to be able to tell their Sylvidae apart.
Fortunately for those of us in the middle of the UK, there are only about 10 warblers that we are likely to encounter which is just as well because they all tend to be somewhere on the spectrum between grey and olive passing through brown. Out of these, the grasshopper warbler is distinctive in song, and tends to just pass through the area (which I didn’t know) and the Cetti’s warbler (new to the UK since the early 1970s) has an explosive, loud burst of song. Hmmm, I need some practice at birdsong recording methinks.
The main goal of the course was to be able to tell four groups of similar warblers apart; willow warbler and chiffchaff (look almost identical, but sound completely different), garden warbler and blackcap (look different, sound very similar), reed and sedge warbler (look different, superficially sound the same, but difficult to see), common and lesser whitethroat (look similar sound very different).
We were lucky enough to hear and / or see eight out of the ten warblers; unfortunately we didn’t find a lesser whitethroat, a bird that I’ve never seen before.
We started with a walk around the reserve, which was filled with birdsong, and some less tuneful birds like the gulls and greylag geese. Even better, there weren’t that many people about. After nearly two hours we headed off to see some pictures and hear some recordings of the birds (the BTO website has some brilliant ID videos) before going back to see if the birds were still singing. (Some were in exactly the same spot, but the road noise was horrendous, even though we were in the middle of nowhere).
So, am I now wise in the ways of warblers – other than the lesser whitethroat, I think I am. I heard the willow warbler (unfortunately I didn’t get a good recording of it)
– and now I wonder if I have been hearing them all the time, but mistaking them for chaffinches. They really have a lovely song – the instructor likened it to a falling leaf. I will have to go out and see if I can find one in the local country park. I think I can tick these two off my can recognise list.
Sedge and reed warblers – this was trickier at first, but there is a big difference in the pace and the complexity of the songs – the reed warbler is quite plodding whereas the sedge warbler is more frantic with lots of whistles and changes in pitch – they also sing in the air as well and are found away from the reeds, usually in scrub, unlike the reed warbler. So, I will have to go back through the recordings I have made at Barnes Meadow and go back to Brandon Marsh, but I think I have these two sussed as well.
Common whitethroat – much shorter song and I think I can visually recognise one.
Blackcaps and garden warblers – probably the trickiest and at times the instructor couldn’t say for certain. However, the blackcap, to me, sounded as though he knew he was going to finish, whereas the garden warbler just garbled on for some time before stopping. Besides, they look different and, although we saw one garden warbler during the day, we saw a lot more blackcaps – they are much showier. I think I am on about a 90% confidence with these. I just have to learn their other calls, as I didn’t realise that it wasn’t only the blackcap that makes a noise like two pebbles being bashed although to my ear the garden warbler call sound was more like a squirrel than a pebble.
In the end we saw a Cetti’s warbler (very rarely seen and a first spot for me), reed and sedge warblers (so now I have seen a reed warbler, although only briefly), blackcap and garden warbler (my second ever garden warbler, the first being last weekend during a run), heard a willow warbler, saw and heard a chiffchaff and saw and heard a couple of common whitethroats. Stick in a little egret and about 8 hobbies and I would call that a good morning’s birding. Oh, and yes, I think I can say that I can now ID warblers (most of the time).
So, the moral of the story is, get up early and go out listening, then stand and watch.
Who could fail to find this little insect beautiful. It is only tiny, easily missed. Probably about 1cm in length.
It’s a ruby-tailed wasp (Chrysididae sp.). I’d like to say what species it is, but apparently they are difficult to separate unless under a microscope or you really know your wasps. It’s also known as a cuckoo wasp. And, yes, you’ve guessed it, it lays its eggs in the nests of other species, it’s a kleptoparasite. In this case it was on the hunt for the nests of mason bees and I can testify that this wall had a lot of nests to choose from.
The female looks for unguarded nests and lays her eggs inside. Once they hatch the wasp larvae eat the larvae of the mason bee and emerge the following spring.
There has been a lot of debate about green belt land and building on brown field sites, but the importance of urban spaces is often overlooked. A recently published paper by M.H. Surohi e al looked at the populations of bees (solitary and eusocial, the latter being where a non-reproductive individuals care for the young of a single female as is the case with bumblebees) in an urban centre – in this case Northampton, the town where I work.
They surveyed several sites over the flight periods of the bees (March to October) within 500 metres of the geographical centre of the town (aka All Saints Church) and also some sites slightly further out that were local nature reserves or orchards. Their results were somewhat surprising (especially if you know how built up the middle of Northampton is) and found 48 species of bees within the town, representing 22% of the known species of bee (there are just over 250 in the UK) including one that is nationally rare. They also found that the urban sites were more diverse and abundant in bees than the meadows and nature reserves on the edge of town. The areas surveyed in the town consisted of roadside verges and roundabouts, gardens and churchyards.
Most of the bees were seen in the period from March to June, and the most dominant genus was that of the mining bees, Andrena which shows the importance of having non-tarmaced areas! Less surprising was the fact that hte most abundant species was Osmia Bicornis, the mason bee which nests in walls – it would find plenty of those in the middle of Northampton.
All this makes me even more determined to try and determine the insects sharing the hospital site in Northampton – I have already seen the ashy mining bee there along with its nomada parasite. Time to get my camera out…
Ashy mining bee, Andrena cineraria, not at the hospital
This year I saw my first common terns back at the country park on 19th April – this is about the same time as last year, give or take a day or two and is one of the many signs of summer. Even better news is that there are now two shiny (figuratively speaking) new tern rafts with a much better view of the nesting level. Thank you Daventry Country Park!
I’ve been over a couple of times since they returned and will try and get there more regularly going forward (weather and work permitting). The first time was about a week after they had arrived. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, but very little fish catching in evidence. I only saw them dipping towards the surface, perhaps finding very small crustaceans or just taking insects.
None of the terns seemed particularly settled on any tern raft, so I don’t think they had particularly paired up. However, I did see what might have been courtship / pairing as described in the Tern book that I recently read. I saw two birds circling in the air, slowly gliding downwards passing past each other – called high flight in the book. I missed the ascent, but the book describes it as ‘a gliding descent in which the birds sway from side to side so that their paths repeatedly cross’. That’s pretty much what I saw.
Other things I noted that day was a grey heron’s nest above the water, three sandpipers and an absence of Black Headed Gulls – I guess these have gone off to breed, and a sedge warbler singing.
So, fast forward almost a week and I was back at the country park to check on my terns. This time there seemed to be even more terns making more noise – they are difficult to count, but there must be around a couple of dozen now. Quite a few were sitting on the tern rafts, both old and new – although the ducks seem to quite like them as well. I did see some fish being brought in, but not how they were caught. I think one was trying to impress a female, but had it stolen just as he was about to hand it over – kleptoparasitism is apparently relative common in these terns and some get the majority of their food this way! The female flew off unimpressed. However, the majority of the terns still seem to be skimming the surface.
I did see some battles above the old tern rafts but also a lot of posturing with wings lowered and heads in the air which I believe is a sign of non-agression. Showing the black caps to another tern is an out and out sign of aggression. I did see a pair that were quite settled on one of the new rafts (the lighter green one for future reference) and I did see them mating so there should hopefully be some chicks in just over three weeks – I will have to put a note in my calendar to go and have a look on or after 26th May! At least they were on one of the raised platforms so I only have to worry about the gulls, not flooding!