And then there were none.

150 years ago the Passenger Pigeon was the most abundant bird on the planet, estimates vary between two and three billion.  Either way, it is a pretty incomprehensible number.  Two thousand million pigeons in one flock in the United States.  By 1900 there were none left in the wild, Martha, bred in captivity, died in captivity on 1st September 1914 in Cincinnati Zoo, the last passenger pigeon on earth.

How did this come about?  That was the quest that Mark Avery, former Conservation Director of the RSPB, and author of Message from Martha, set himself.  And, the story of Martha and her fellow pigeons was one that Mark described for the Humfrey lecture at Northants Natural History Society (NNHS).

Passenger pigeons were, apparently unremarkable birds, somewhere in size between a collared dove and a wood pigeon and, looking very pigeon like; the male having a fairly rosy pink breast, the female not even being that colourful.  They lived in the eastern United States and mainly inhabited deciduous forests where they fed on acorns, chestnuts and beech mast, with some berries and occasional pine nuts thrown in for variety.

The only remarkable thing about these pigeons was the size of their flock.  There are various contemporary accounts from such luminaries as John James Audubon (of Audubon’s Birds of America book fame), John Muir (a Scot who instigated the National Parks of America) and Alexander Wilson (another Scot after whom a plethora of birds have been named, Wilson’s petrel for one).  They all describe a flock that stretched from horizon to horizon, how they watched them for hours and still the flock streamed over, bird after bird flying past at around 40mph.  It is from their descriptions that the two to three billion estimates came from and they probably knew how to count birds (although the description from one witness of their dung being like snow seems a bit far-fetched, unless snow was very different in 19th century America).

These birds moved wherever the food was, and, with numbers on that scale, they needed a lot of food.  Even when they nested they did so in numbers in the hundreds of millions.

So, what did for the passenger pigeon.  Were they hunted and eaten to death by Americans.  That would be the first guess as shooters did arrive on trains whenever they heard where the passenger pigeons had landed.  Tens of thousands of them were sent back to the east to be eaten, some still alive to make them fresher when they got there.  But, as Mark said, is it really likely that we ate two billion birds to death?  Perhaps it was disease, or loss of habitat, after all, by 1870 half of America’s woodland had been cleared.  Or perhaps something else ate them.  Mark is of the latter opinion, that their numbers had reduced enough through hunting and habitat loss that natural (not man-made) predation was enough to finish them off entirely.  And, he’s probably right, although we’ll never know.

Why is this important?  It seems that we don’t learn from history.  Whilst there are no birds that are as numerous as the passenger pigeon was, in the last thirty years the same number of birds have been lost from the EU, it’s just that they are spread across hundreds of species.  This loss is due to the same reasons, habitat loss and hunting, but do we care enough to do anything about it and stop the full extinction?  Unfortunately, the prevailing opinion in the room was probably not.  Let’s hope Mark’s talk can inspire some more people to take action and prevent the sixth great extinction.

It’s lichen a whole new world

Did you know that lichens are included in many high end perfumes?  They harvest 25 tonnes of a particular lichen each year in Macedonia, transport it to Germany to distill the oils and then add it to the perfume.  Apparently it makes the scent stick to the skin for longer, a desirable property in an expensive bottle of smells.

What about dyes – the original Harris tweed was dyed using lichens.  But, they can also give more interesting hues  – especially if you wee on them to fix the colours in the fibres.

Or, throat pastilles?  Because lichens usually live for so long they have developed some unusual chemicals to combat attackers so researchers are investigating their antibacterial properties for potential medicinal uses.

They have a downside too.  They absorb nutrients and anything else in the atmosphere – including radioactive elements and heavy metals.  When they are used as a foodstuff this can have disastrous consequences.  The Sami reindeer herders have the highest incidence of throat cancer in the world – they eat the reindeer that eats the lichen that absorbed radioactive elements after the Chernobyl disaster.

Sadly we have killed off many of their lichens, as a result they have now found a use in pollution monitoring.  In the 1970s anxiety was rife (amongst lichenologist at any rate) that we would lose many lichen species as they couldn’t survive the acid rain  – indeed in some places old trees still don’t have any lichens on their lower trunk or branches.  Then there was a worry that the lichens that specialise in high nitrogen environments (so love the pollution of diesel cars) would take over and crowd out the other lichens.  Fortunately this has not come to pass and we have over 2,000 species of lichen in this country (compare this to the  1,800 species of flowering plant).

I learnt all this and much more in one hour listening to Ivan Pedley of the British Lichen Society talking about lichens in churchyards.

For those that may not know, a lichen is a symbiosis of an algae (or occasionally a cyanobacteria) and a fungus.  The algae does the photosynthesising and the fungus provides the nutrients from the atmosphere and protects the algae from dehydration.  They grow quite slowly and some are more susceptible to pollution than others.   It was proved that the Rollright stones (ancient monument in Oxfordshire) were vandalised by the Victorians – some of the stones had the wrong lichens and so were probably imported to make the circle look good, and others had been lifted from a horizontal position – the lichens were 400 years old (estimated from the size) on one side and just 150 years old on the other!

Apart from showcasing the variety and beauty of lichens – some small stone ornaments had tens of species of lichen on them – the main point of the talk was to illustrate how easy it is to lose some of these ecosystems (home to may little bugs).  Churchyards are particularly important in this country for lichens; the species present will vary from region to region because of the type of stone.  But all too often lichens are lost when gravestones are scrubbed or put in the shade or stood against a wall – lichens need sunlight for photosynthesis.  If they were birds or mammals, or possibly even insects, there would be an outcry if we went round just scrubbing them out, but we regularly do that to lichens – and some in Northamptonshire are quite rare, specialising on our ironstone.  So the take home message of the evening was – don’t clean your garden ornaments or gravestones, rebuild your dry stone walls, replace your fence posts or even clean your car (Ivan was proud of the five species on his four year old Ford).  You might have 20 or 30 species of lichen on there!

churchyard lichen

New for me

Time for a confession.  Before the start of this year I had never heard of a Brown Argus.  I didn’t know that it was a butterfly.  How bad is that.  Moreover, I saw them in the results for the Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey, and assumed that they were a specialist that I would never see.  I saw pictures on Facebook and then thought nothing much more about them.  In fact I wasn’t sure I would recognise one if I saw it.

Yesterday I took my camera out for a walk – for once the weather was warm and not very breezy.  I saw a lot of gatekeepers, a very lovely small copper – a butterfly that I had never seen in Daventry before.  I also saw some common blues flitting about the field edges.  Lots of photographs were taken as you can probably imagine.

Today I decided to upload them and sort out the fuzzy from the sharp as well as those that might not be the best, but could be useful for ID purposes.  After I had sorted and tagged them it occurred to me that I had assumed that the small brown butterflies were common blue females (which have wings that vary from blue through to brown) because they had frequently been disturbed by blue males.  But, for some reason I thought I would see what the difference was between a brown argus and a female common blue.

A brown argus has no blue on the upper side of its wings, whereas there may be some blue scales on the female common blue.  It also has more orangey spots along the edge and often a dark brown spot in the middle of its brown wings.  Not much help because my photos were all of the underside of the wings.  So, for the undersides the description was related to two spots with that form a figure of eight on the hindwing and the absence of a spot on the forewing for the Brown Argus.  This didn’t seem to be much help either – I was a bit non-plussed until I saw what they were talking about in pictures on the UK Butterflies website.  Suddenly I knew what to look for and guess what?  Yes, one of the butterflies I photographed was in fact my very first Brown Argus – colour me happy!

brown argus

I’m not sure if this is a viable population as my Northamptonshire butterfly book states that their range has contracted a lot in the county and that their traditional food plant is rock rose and, where this is not available, they have moved onto crane’s bill.  Unfortunately the only things I could see around the field edge were ragwort and a chamomile, along with lots of grass.  I will have to have a look around there to see if I can find the requisite flowers!


Danger, Danger…

There are many insects that make use of warning colours, particularly yellow and black, to ward off predators.  Some are just faking it, others are definitely not for the eating.

cinnabar moth caterpillarThe cinnabar moth caterpillar definitely falls into the latter category.  Unlike the adult moth which is black with smart red hindwings that really stand out in flight (they are named after the red pigment, cinnabar), the caterpillar is the standard stripy yellow and black.  These caterpillars are usually found wherever there is flowering ragwort – they feed on both the flowers and the leaves.  I’ve seen many plants completely stripped of any foliage – but whilst it might be a bit early in the season so far this year, I’m not seeing as many as I would expect – and I have wandered around several ragwort filled fields.

The ragwort of course is known for its toxicity to livestock (although the horses in the field I was looking in seemed perfectly fine) and it is this that the caterpillar takes advantage of.  It stores the poisons from the leaves in its body and even keeps its toxicity once it has pupated to an adult.  The moths are usually found in rabbit grazed fields (which this definitely was), but numbers are dropping – probably due to the removal of ragwort (declines of over 80% in the last 35 years have  been reported).  In New Zealand they took the opposite approach and introduced the cinnabar moth to control the ragwort.

I’m still trying to work out why they have such long hairs – if they were to stop them being eaten then I would expect them to be denser, besides, they’ve already gone to the trouble of being colourful, why have an extra defence?

It seems that the only danger to the caterpillars are farmers and each other – they are known to be cannibalistic.

Adults are on the wing in May and June, with caterpillars around in July and August – they spend the winter under the ground as a pupa.

Summer’s here and so are the tern chicks

Despite my best intentions, I haven’t been to the country park since the last bank holiday in May even though I know the tern chicks should be hatching any time now.  After a warm, sunny day spent unsuccessfully trying to photograph bees, I went looking for the chicks and I wasn’t disappointed.

I counted four chicks on the two new rafts – a couple looked slightly bigger than the other two – these latter were from one nest and stayed close to their parent.  The older chicks were more mobile and spent some time wandering in and out of the pipe shelter that they’d been provided with.  These were just the ones I can see.  There are another four tern rafts that don’t give good views.  I have a theory that those on the very old rafts might be the lower ranking or younger terns that might have had to make do with what they could get, in which case they might hatch a bit later.  I could be completely wrong though.  The oldest looking chick was just where I expected it to be following the early courtship and mating of the parents.

I also saw another tern removing bits of broken eggshell from the nest area, so hopefully there are some more fluffy little ternlets there.

The swan was at its grumpiest again.  This time the family of greylag geese bore the brunt of his ire.  Fortunately the adults were giving back as good as they got and, once again, they were both attacked by the terns dive-bombing their heads – serves them right.

I don’t know what has happened to the Canada goose family, but it appears to be the place to hang out for Canada geese – I gave up counting when I reached 84.

I was a bit concerned about the heron chick – I couldn’t see him anywhere and thought he’d either fallen into the water or was much older than I initially thought.  I saw one of the adults across the water, and eventually saw the chick in the nest.  I think he’d wandered up the branch a bit and was hidden from view behind a tree trunk.

Over the noise of traffic and terns I managed to use my new found powers of warbler ID and heard a willow warbler calling away as well as blackcap and chiffchaffs.  These seem to be much noisier in the evening – I haven’t heard any in the last two weeks when I’ve been in the park early in the morning!

My new highlight though was a couple of little ringed plovers.  I’ve seen them before at Brandon Marsh, but never at the country park – it seems there’s always something new to see here.  Who needs exotic locations?

One of the best £25 I have spent?

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.

Mayflies, Dayflies

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.

More minibeasts in the garden.

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?hoverfly

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.

Philodromus dispar

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.

Bumble Bee Walk No 3

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.


My new bins – first impressions

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!

chocolate tipHowever, 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!

red mason beeI 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:

small dark moth

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.