Just like buses …

It seems that these days mother nature has quite a few surprises out there waiting for me.  But, then, it might be because I am going out looking for them more.  So far in my morning / lunchtime nature ramblings I’ve been privileged to watch a kingfisher fishing on the River Nene most mornings for a couple of weeks, spied a treecreeper and goldcrest in amongst a flock of long-tailed tits and seen a goosander diving up and down.  All within 10 minutes walk of Northampton Town Centre and all around 8am.  I’ve also had the misfortune to listen to a very screechy jay several times – no problem with the jay, but that sound, now I’ve heard it, is unmistakeable.

My latest surprise came on Tuesday lunchtime – a sunny but breezy December afternoon, when I decided to go for a walk away from town and chose to wander down to Barnes Meadow Nature Reserve.  I have to admit, I’ve not seen many water birds down at this end of the river, not that you can blame them, it’s a bit noisy and barren.  Today though there were quite a few swans and Canada Geese.  But, my big find of the day, were some Little Grebes, aka Dabchicks.  These are dumpy, fluffy, compact little brown birds – a bit smaller than a moorhen.  In the summer they are quite smart in their chestnut-red and black plumage, but in winter they are a little more subdued in their brown feathers.  But, if you see them within a river’s width away they are quite distinctive, both in size and shape and the way they dive into the water.  They dive more frequently than coots and moorhens and stay down for longer, looking for insects and small fish to eat.  They also seem to almost throw themselves in the water, they are so fast.

I was quite surprised to see a couple of them quite close to the bridge over the river.  I was even more surprised to see three more a little further on.  What was even more surprising was the noise they made – I resolved to get back there in the same week with some sound recording gear to see if I could cut out some of the construction and road noise.  It sounded much more tropical than you’d expect from a bird found on Britain’s muddy waters – I couldn’t decide if they were laughing or squabbling.  Further along the river I found another couple, one that had been successful in its fishing ventures with a relatively large fish soon dispatched down its beak, both looking much brighter and redder in the sun.  Then, I found a third group, and a fourth.

I know that these are quite a common bird, but it has been years since I saw one.  Then, a couple of months ago I spotted three at the country park and now more than ten on the River Nene.  The little devils are everywhere!

You can’t easily make them out – but there is a pair on the far side of the river in front of the scrubby tree in the centre.


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.