Sunday 30 March 2014

Week 10, Bonus: Afternoon Delight

…not in the Starland Vocal Band sense……but, in the Kingfisher flypast sense…

       Female Kingfisher (Verulamium Park, St Albans, Feb 2014)

I was strolling along the river on Bulbourne Meadow, when a male Kingfisher came whizzing past, calling, with a fish in his mouth (I know, clever chap). Kingfishers have been reported at Boxmoor all winter and I knew a couple had been seen recently. I eventually caught up with the fish-carrying-Lothario and grabbed some video footage (below). I've included the photograph (above) of a female Kingfisher, which I took in St Albans last month, to illustrate the difference in bill colour between the sexes (the male has a smart all black bill, whilst the female adds a little je ne sais quoi with an orange base to her bill). Watching the video with the sound switched on will bring the mighty song of a tiny Wren and the chiming of a Chiffchaff into your day.

Friday 28 March 2014

Week 10, Extra: Just A Snippet

After a week spent mostly indoors and inactive, I sprang(ish) into action(ish) yesterday. Both my regular readers will, I’m sure, be bristling with excitement. By now, optimistically, firing on a quarter of a cylinder, I called in at Dellfield and at Bovingdon Brickworks. The life and times of tiny black specs encased in balls of jelly are irresistible (it’s got to be decades since I followed the progress of common frog spawn). However, before that, I stopped off at Dellfield and was lucky to enjoy 3 Red Kites soaring through the skies, over the Oak. One even landed in the neighbouring Scots Pine.  Two of the Kites were an obvious pair, staying close (one following the other), mirroring one another’s movements and displaying to one another. Unfortunately, I was in the wrong place to capture the action properly (shooting into the sun) but caught their silhouette’s over the Oak (below, right. I applied a blue gradient filter to enhance the image - it was either that or black birds against white sky). Having hurried back up the hill, I did manage a somewhat distant shot of one of the birds (below, left).

Courting Red Kites 

    Red Kite (Milvus milvus)
    Red Kite (Milvus milvus)

Developing Frog Spawn 

The frog spawn at Bovingdon is coming along nicely. Different clumps are at different stages of development. One section is now probably more than 5 weeks old, with the new tadpoles wriggling around in a large mass on top of the jelly. I am not entirely sure whether the tadpoles in the photograph below are Common Toad or Common Frog. I suspect the former but will hopefully confirm if/when I know.

Tuesday 25 March 2014

Week 10: Glory of the Grass Verge

This week, my brain is about as useful as a soggy tissue pulled from the pocket of wet jeans, fresh out of the washing machine. Hopefully the pretty pictures will compensate for barely being able to string a sentence together (and don’t ask me how long it took to come up with that opener! The answer "too long" is a serious understatement). OK, so, firing on half a cylinder at best, I stuck to Dellfield and its surrounding fields, yesterday. Over the last couple of weeks, a variety of small, early spring flowers have steadily emerged. Primroses, Wood Dog Violets, Cowslips and Meadow Buttercups have joined the Daffodils and Grape Hyacinths dotted around the Box Moor lands. And, yesterday, I finally remembered to go and look at another little flower I’d noticed growing along the grass verge leading to the Dellfield carpark. In the morning’s brilliant sunshine, they looked like miniature starbursts and would very definitely live up to their name, “Glory of the Snow”, should the white stuff descend. (To enlarge the smaller images, just click on them).

Glory of the Snow (Chionodoxa)

Leaf buds are bursting open now on many trees, although the Oak will be a while yet. At the south end of Bovingdon Reach, there is a rather mighty Horse Chestnut, its skeleton just beginning to carry splashes of colour. Unfortunately, I couldn’t capture its sense of fresh decoration on camera so you have the tree in black and white (right) and the beautiful, new leaves in colour (below)

High over head, 2 Buzzards were circling and calling and a Red Kite hovered. A Mistle Thrush was sunning itself on the ground, turning its head towards the warmth and seemingly closing its eyes in pleasure. Without slipping further into anthropomorphism, I reckoned this rattler had the right idea and I could have happily sat alongside and soaked up some rays as well.

Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum)

Through the woods, towards Preston Hill, I was looking up into a still leafless canopy.

Approaching Preston Hill pond frequently results in me accidentally disturbing a bathing Blue Tit. It always chooses the same spot and we always surprise one another! Today, I decided to check the pond more carefully from a distance before approaching. No Blue Tit but, in its place, something a little more exciting, a male Grey Wagtail. In fact, it was a pair of Grey Wagtails, likely on their way to find a place to breed. They only stayed a minute or two but it made my morning. This was the first time I’d seen this species on Box Moor land. The photograph (right) shows the male, with his developing black throat unfortunately hidden from view.

Finally, this week’s Oak photograph is again not for the purists. With the tree in its leafless state, I find I’m drawn more to its shape and the structures of its setting. To the original image (which I’ve included for reference), I applied a dark blue, inverted gradient filter in PSE. I’m currently not able to go wandering around at night (well, not on purpose anyway) so this is me improvising.

The Oak by Moonlight (sort of)

Wednesday 19 March 2014

Week 9, Extra: Bovingdon Brickworks Chiffs & Frogs

The green arrow points to numerous clumps of frog spawn.
The white arrow is the area shown in the top photograph, with the easy-to-miss frog
The alternative title was "Sneaky Frog seeks Blog Fame!"

This week, I'm largely confined to the immediate area so thought I'd have a wander around Bovingdon Brickworks. As the name suggests, this is outside the Boxmoor district of Hemel Hempstead, located in Bovingdon. In 2000, approx 40 acres of land owned by the Brickworks were gifted to the Box Moor Trust to be used as a conservation site. This afternoon, it was Chiffchaff central! I counted at least 7 singing birds, all of them clearly keen to drive me absolutely nuts. Getting a decent photograph proved beyond my capabilities (and patience) today, so, just a taster (below) which I hope to improve upon.

A number of shallow gullies are still full of water from the winter’s prolonged and heavy rains. Two of them (photographed right) are now home to developing Common frog spawn….and a visiting Common Frog which may well have been there to lay more eggs.

I’m all for happy accidents, in fact, most of my blog content is a happy accident. The orchestration of birds, butterflies, bees, worms(!?) or even celestial bodies, for that matter, has nothing to do with me. However, 99% of the time, I’m aware of what I’m photographing. Today was that 1% where I might as well have been shooting with my eyes closed. I was completely oblivious to the fact that I'd actually managed to photograph the frog. I had seen it whilst exploring the the edges of the gully but didn't know that it had secret desires to make its internet debut on my blog. I’m very glad it popped its head out when and where it did!

During one of my failed attempts at Chiffchaff stalking, I'd reached the brow of a particularly large and deep gully and come face to face with a beautiful Red Fox. I'm not sure who was more surprised. The Fox instantly lifted itself from its resting place and darted off into the scrub before I could catch my breath. And, the afternoon wouldn't have been complete without the calls and soaring of Common Buzzard (photographed below, right) and Red Kite.

Tuesday 18 March 2014

Week 9: My, What a Long Tongue You Have!

…"All the better for drinking nectar with," says the Garden Bumblebee…

I was out and about for a gentle stroll on Monday afternoon this week. I started off around the Bulbourne and Harding’s Moor area. The Grape Hyacinths (Muscari) are flowering now and this Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) was probing each of the delicate little bells for nectar.

Clumps of Red Dead-Nettle (Lamium purpureum) are in full bloom (right). These are easily overlooked as a roadside “weed” but, nevertheless, are rather lovely and one Garden Bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) was busy making the most of it...

Little did I appreciate that I was watching a master at work. This dinky fella (photograph below) has the Mother Of All Tongues (I kid you not)! In fact, it has the longest tongue of all bumblebees in central Europe (ranging from 1.5 to 2cm in length). I can’t say that I’m jealous but owning a tongue as long as your body is nothing if not impressive! It seems eminently sensible that it doesn’t always bother retracting this Whopper of an Instrument when moving between flowers.

Elsewhere, a Chiffchaff was singing, a Mistle Thrush was picking at the earth for food and, overhead, 2 Red Kites and a Buzzard were soaring on the thermals.

The Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) are flowering

Finally, I made my way to Dellfield. This week’s shot of the Oak isn’t for the purists. My vague plan was to go for “nature framing nature”. This involved finding a suitable “frame” in Ryders (the field next to Dellfield, west), and, as I was to discover, kneeling in fresh and particularly vicious stinging nettles (nothing like suffering for your art). Ultimately, I quite liked the composition but the image was flat and, after a bit of playing, I opted for the Graphic Novel filter in PSE to achieve my ends.

Friday 14 March 2014

Week 8 Extra: Roughdown Birds & Butterflies

I had an unexpected opportunity to get out locally this morning and plumped for Roughdown Common.

As a keen birder, hearing my first local Chiffchaff of the year brings about a swelling of joy and a flood of warm, bird-filled memories of Spring and Summer days. So, you can imagine my delight this morning when, as I approached Lower Roughdown, bathed in sunshine, a Chiffchaff burst into song. Bliss.

There were a number of fluttering butterflies, hibernation over, feeding on the nectar of willow catkins (2 Commas and a Small Tortoiseshell).

Nearby, a Song Thrush was creating all sorts of weird and wonderful sounds whilst a Nuthatch also called repeatedly.

Later, as I walked back from Further Roughdown, a pair of Bullfinches flew through the trees. These seem to be as rare as hens teeth around here so fantastic to see.

Thursday 13 March 2014

Week 8, Part 2: Patterns in Nature

The Daisies are out in bloom now, their yellow centres arranged beautifully in Fermat’s spirals. This gives me the perfect opportunity to return to the idea of patterns in nature. Unfortunately, my brain is somewhat hampered this week and, so, this isn’t going to be quite the post I had intended. I won't go into Fractals, for example, but you can google those if you're curious (today's Oak photograph goes some way to illustrate a fractal in nature, sort of). However, I hope a glimpse will provide food for thought or spark some interest.

More than half a lifetime ago, I submitted an A-level Fine Art dissertation entitled “Mathematics and Art...?”. Ever since, the division between science, art and nature has, for me, been arbitrary at best. As far as I’m concerned, there is beauty in mathematics just as there is precision in art, and nature encompasses both. There is no better way to experience this than to take a look at one of the fields of mathematics which is expressed in the beautiful patterns of nature.

If you don't want to read the technical bit, feel free to skip to the video at the end. No words, just beautiful illustrations set to music.

In 1202, a chap known as Fibonacci proposed a sequence of numbers whereby successive integers are the sum of the preceding two integers i.e.

0,  1,  1,  2,  3,  5,  8,  13,  21,  34,  55,  89,  144 and so on to infinity.

The result of dividing the current integer in the sequence by its previous integer tends towards the value 1.61803399 (e.g. 89 / 55 = 1.618). This became known as the Golden Ratio, best illustrated in the Golden Rectangle, where the ratio of length of the long side to the short side is the golden ratio ((a +b)/a) = 1.618.

The golden rectangle is composed of a square and rectangle. Each rectangle can be subdivided into another square and rectangle with the same proportions, ad infinitum.

Incredibly, this simple series of numbers and its ratio can be expressed in the most wonderful and beautiful ways both in mathematics and in nature (the above illustration includes the golden spiral, which can been seen in the structure of Nautilus shells. And, the Fermat's spiral, in the daisy head, also derives from Fibonacci's numbers. In botany, there are phyllotactic spirals. And so it goes on). Hopefully, the following short video from Youtube will capture your imagination. If you have the time, it's worth viewing….full screen, with the sound switched on.

(A beautiful short film on the Fibonacci sequence in Nature – ‘Nature by Numbers’)

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Week 8, Part 1: Little Egret up a Tree

Two posts this week. Both a little shorter than I had hoped but this blog is about doing what I can, when I can.

Today started off foggy but by the afternoon the sun had won through. On Bulbourne Meadow, two male Greenfinches had positioned themselves on the very tops of tall trees and were filling the air with their rousing enticements to pair up and make lots of little Greenfinches. I must admit, if I were a lady of the Greenfinch variety, I would have been tempted. One of the songsters was right at the top of the Willow of my reflection obsession and I watched and listened to him for a good minute or two.

Making my way through Harding’s Moor, I could hear a pair of Mistle Thrushes rattling away over on Station Moor. Through binoculars, I could see that it was a territorial dispute. A Magpie was chasing the pair all round one particular tree. Up, down and through the branches and every time one of the Thrushes tried to get back into position, the Magpie would quickly pounce. I was then distracted by the sound of another Mistle Thrush rattling close by. It had obviously just landed on the ground and was now searching for food, prodding the earth. It too had a mate.

As I arrived near Station Road, the regular Little Egret flew in from Station Moor and eventually perched up in one of the large trees overhanging the River Bulbourne. It was still there when I drove past the area an hour later!

I am rather lacking in energy and capacity this week, so my visit to Dellfield was focused entirely on the Oak. This week’s shot is all about seeing its shape in context. I applied a grey-scale gradient filter and inverted it, making black white and white black. 

Another way of seeing its shape….standing in its shadow

Saturday 8 March 2014

Week 7 Extra: Tall Trees & Tiny Mites

I have been wanting to photograph the beautiful Common Alder (Alnus glutinous) on Harding's Moor for weeks. To get the composition I was after, I needed a sunny, mostly blue sky afternoon and also to be free at that time. Yesterday was almost T-shirt weather (15 deg C!) and my best opportunity. I also happened upon my first bee of the year, wriggling around in the grass, just beyond the tree. A female Red-tailed Bumblebee with unwelcome guests in the form of phoretic mites, around her neck.

Confession: The temptation to spend large sums of money I don't have on macro and landscape lenses is getting increasingly difficult to resist. Go on…tell me you need to see every hair on that little bee's red butt and that your life depends on being able to count the individual lenses of its compound eyes…no?…oh, ok, I shall resist.

Wednesday 5 March 2014

Week 7: Loose Catkins, Hungry Clouds & Rampant Worms

The title might suggest that instead of searching for fungi, I have kicked off my wellies, settled on a damp log and munched my way through a paper bag full of hallucinogenic mushrooms. I haven't, I promise (I couldn't find any). All will become clear, I hope.

The loudest voices on Bulbourne Moor, Meadow and Harding's Moor this morning were the Wrens and Great Tits, full of Spring vigour, calling as if their chests would burst! The resident male Sparrowhawk was keeping watch overhead and more than a dozen Magpies patrolled the grounds. The Little Egret was leg-waggling its way along its favourite stretch of the River Bulbourne, by Station Road. And, I also spotted a pair of courting Jays in the little wooded area separating Two Waters Moor (west) from Bulbourne Meadow. The male, I presume, was making subdued, short calls whilst extending his body so as to be as straight as an arrow (the two Jay photographs above are the same bird, calling gently).

A handful of Wild Daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) clumps are flowering now on Harding's Moor and Bulbourne Moor. I neglected to mention the single spray of Crocus flowers last week but that has been trampled and has all but disappeared.

In just 12 days, the Common Alder (Alnus glutinous) male flower catkins have loosened and lengthened, enabling the light yellow-green pollen within, to be released into the air. The female flowers are the compact, red, bud-like flowers just out of focus in today's shot.

    21 February 2014
    05 March 2014

There wasn't a puff of wind, making it ideal to photograph the still waters.

The view across Hardings Moor, towards the KD Tower

Too long spent contorting myself into Twister-type positions in order to get Daffodil photographs, meant that by the time I'd walked back to Bulbourne Moor, the clouds had eaten away at the blue sky and were threatening to take over completely. However, I can't seem to resist this tree (left, a species of Willow, I think?) and its reflections.

The next stop was Dellfield and the Oak. Unfortunately, as I arrived, the biggest black cloud imaginable gobbled up the sun and all drama disappeared from the landscape. The photo above (top, left of the Jay) is essentially the one I had in mind for this week, but, I opted for black and white, emphasising texture, as an alternative to the rich colour and contrast presentation that I had envisaged. I’ll have to wait for another blue-sky day for that.

The biggest surprise of the morning was discovering that, in the course of 7 days, Dellfield had been overtaken by RAMPANT WORMS! I don’t mean that in the racy sense (although, who can be sure when dealing with hermaphrodites?!). No, I mean the field is littered with worm casts. Each deposit is less than a foot away from the next and so on....everywhere! It is impossible to avoid them. Apparently, early Spring and Autumn are indeed worm cast highs. Soil temperature and soil air-to-water ratio are such that the worms are active nearer the surface.

I am genuinely chuffed that I get to write about earthworms this week (yes, I am slightly strange). Detritivores are so important to any ecosystem. They consume dead and decomposing plant and animal matter and, in the case of worms, deposit the digested material back into the soil in the form of casts. These are rich in minerals and very fine in texture and, inevitably, improve the quality of the soil. Linking this back to last week’s post, it is the detritivores which enable a developing ecosystem to move from comprising just the weedy plant species (that can survive in nutrient deficient soil), to attracting the more nutrient-hungry grasses and shrubs. Detritivores are a powerful component of natural succession, essential to improving the health of the soil substrate.

Earthworms are largely nocturnal due to being extremely sensitive to ultraviolet light (rather like vampires, although vampires are fictional, of course). However, during very wet weather, they are sometimes forced to the surface to avoid drowning and have to just hope (if worms can do such a thing?!) that they won’t be burned by the sun. Ordinarily, they venture out of their burrows at night and drag fallen leaves and plant debris down into the soil. This is another way in which they improve the structure of the earth they inhabit.

In terms of propagating the worm race, as wikipedia so romantically put it, “sexual reproduction occurs when two worms meet and exchange gametes, copulating on damp nights during warm seasons [I particularly liked that phrase]. Fertilized eggs are protected by a cocoon, which is buried on or near the surface of the ground.”

Eventually, I tore myself away from marvelling at the wonder of worms and glanced up at the tall Limes (I think) on Ryders (the field west of Dellfield). Perched at the top of the tree was a Common Buzzard (right), coincidentally a big fan of worms....for lunch. This seemed like a fitting end to the morning - thoughts had travelled from the soil, to its nutrients, to the beneficial nocturnal worms, to predator buzzards picking said worms out of said soil. The wonder of the food web.

P.S. Do I get a prize for including the words "detritivore" and "vampire" in the same post?

Sunday 2 March 2014

Week 6, Part 3: Short but Pretty

I confess, Wednesday’s early morning has taken its toll. Week 6, Part 3 will appear here at some point in the not too distant future (I hope).
[Edit: post now complete, follows below]

By way of explanation, I have various limiting health issues, which mean I need to manage my resources rather carefully. Sometimes my enthusiasm leads me to exceed my capacities and I have to put things on hold until I've recovered. I have no doubt that my blog output will be characterised by peaks and troughs, much to my frustration. For now, though, I’ll leave you with the sunny view across Bulbourne Meadow, towards the KD Tower. I'm looking forward to being able to repeat this shot when the trees are all dressed up in their lovely leaves.

The Real “Short but Pretty” Post

Hopefully this is a case of better late than never.

After spending far too long transfixed by rascally little lambs, I headed over to Bulbourne Meadow. I had a particular shot in mind, involving the fallen branches in the River Bulbourne (featured in this post). More specifically, I was after the “short but [ever so] pretty” moss which covered the branch in the bottom left hand corner of that photograph. This was the result...

The closer I looked at the moss, the more beautiful it became, glistening in the morning sunshine.

And finally, the closest view I could capture without a macro lens

Although very familiar with the sight of this moss - it is “common and widespread” - I didn’t know its name or, indeed, anything about mosses per se. I guess you could say this was my first formal introduction to Capillary Thread-moss (Bryum capillare).

For fellow initiates, two key facts about Mosses

1. They are bryophytes or non-vascular plants i.e. they don’t have a water bearing system which takes moisture from the soil up through the plant. Instead, water and nutrients are primarily absorbed through their photosynthesising leaves.

2. They reproduce via spores not seeds and they don’t flower. They can also reproduce from broken off parts of the parent plant (ouch!).

Hearing facts is one thing. Seeing them is another, so, thankfully the second of the above is easily anchored in reality. Taking a look at the close up of the Bryum capillare above, the vibrant green, pear-shaped pendulous structures, suspended from the relatively long, red stems or setae, are the spore-filled capsules. At this time of year they are nice and easy to spot. Over the coming weeks, they will ripen, turning a chestnut brown, before the end caps break away and the spores are released.

Although not possible to see (without a microscope) the first of the facts is the reason why peat mosses (Sphagnum species) were applied to wounds during World War I. Their wonderfully absorbent leaves and antibacterial properties made for an effective (at that time!) first aid dressing.

So, only another 10,000 or so species of moss to discover...!