Friday 26 September 2014

Week 36: New Kingfisher & Menu of the Oak

Dellfield meadow underwent its annual hay cut on Monday which felt like the final nail in Summer’s coffin. It is officially Autumn. October looms large on the horizon. With limited time this week for Box Moor visits, I decided to make a bit of an effort to photograph the resident Kingfishers. Ah yes, I hear you cry, “limited time” is just what you need to photograph Kingfishers?! OK, as with anything, you make the best of what you have. Tuesday’s weather looked promising, I’d observed the Kingfishers regularly along the Bulbourne on Monday, and I’d found and erected a great looking new perch for them just where I had seen them fishing.

Tuesday morning, I rose, bleary-eyed thanks to my local Tawny Owl screeching its little feathery socks off seemingly all night. I arrived at Bulbourne Meadow at about 9:20am and set up under the willow, opposite the perch. What I hadn’t realised, in my haste on Monday afternoon, was that that stretch of the river is in shade until about 11:40am….  I ploughed on, hoping for some luck. 4 or 5 fly pasts, including a pair together but only two touchdowns, not on my perch but on the concrete surround of the inlet pipe from the canal, which was actually closer to me. The second time, having waited patiently for 1 hour and 40 long minutes, I managed 4 frames before a walker disturbed the bird and the opportunity was gone. I stuck it out another half an hour before I decided I couldn’t tolerate my numb bum any longer. I returned in the afternoon for another hour but there was far more disturbance and although I could hear the Kingfishers around the area, they didn’t even fly past this time.

I can’t complain. In fact, after chatting with a very experienced birder friend, it appears I managed to photograph one of this year’s young. It was the fine white tip to the bill which initially made me wonder about the age of this bird. My friend then pointed out that the tops of the feet are slightly darker than you’d expect on a mature adult and the red base to the bill covers a smaller area than you’d expect. When I filmed the adult pair courting/nesting back in March, I never dreamt I’d actually get a good look at one of the young they produced. I guess that over the next few weeks the resident adult pair will encourage this first year bird to move on and find her own territory, hopefully not too far away.

Below is the stretch of the river Bulbourne which I staked out from Bulbourne Meadow. Across the river is Bulbourne Moor and beyond the fence, behind the bench, is Harding’s Moor.
Bulbourne River

Although my new perch wasn’t tempting to the Kingfishers, a Grey Wagtail had a go. Shame about it being in deep shade but best laid plans and all that...

On Monday, I’d returned to the spot from which I’d photographed Bulbourne Meadow in February. This time the trees are in leaf and the shadows dense. (Both photographs together here)

Monday afternoon, having set up my ever-so-promising new Kingfisher perch, I headed up to Dellfield to photograph the Oak. The sun was shining, the air was still...and....a tractor was scything its way through the hay. It’s strange. On some level, I had obviously thought that the approach of Autumn could be halted if only the meadow remained wild and uncut. In that instance, the seasons changed and I was confronted with the unyielding nature of time. Summer has passed.

I stayed for a while, watching the meadow slowly succumb to the scythe. It was oddly poignant, having spent so many hours considering the life and interactions of that parcel of land. From the mycorrhizal fungi deep within the earth, sustaining the Oak; to the rampant worms enriching the soil; the emergence of that magnificent carpet of Cowslips....the Dandelions and wild flowers; the orchids; the Tortoise beetles; the hours spent chasing little moths and butterflies around until they settled; the Kestrel family fledging and feeding over the meadow; the Barn Owls hunting for Field Voles scurrying through the long grasses; and finally, last week, the Hornet catching and eating the Crane Fly out there in the meadow. All of it over for another year. But, of course, the cycle will begin again and for now the land rests, seeds bed down and the cut hay goes on to sustain Box Moor’s cattle through the winter.

Dellfield's Annual Hay Cut
By the time I left, 6+ Red Kites were following the tractor, diving down to pick off small mammals which had been exposed or fallen prey to the process

Finally, the Oak is determined to feed me. This week, a new edible fungus has sprouted from another old wound in the trunk. First it was Chicken, now it’s Beefsteak (Fistulina hepatica). In fact, it looks like the tree is sticking its tongue out at me (go on, tell me that doesn't look like a tongue?!). The upper surface of the fungus is rough and red (see upper right insert in photograph below), the lower surface is creamy-white and densely packed with tiny little pores (lower right insert). From these pores, which are the openings of tiny tubules, the spores are released. “The genus name is a diminutive of the Latin word fistula and means "small tube", whilst the species name hepatica means "liver-like", referring to the consistency of the flesh” (Wikipedia). What is more, apparently, when cut, “it bleeds a dull red juice” making it look all the more like meat. Tempted...?!

Beefsteak Fungus (Fistulina hepatica)

Friday 19 September 2014

Week 35: Gentle Giant, Furry Cats & Edible Dormice

With a title like that, I feel as though I should open with “Once upon a time...”. I started this week feeling somewhat bereft now that the butterfly season is coming to an end. Their presence makes life that little bit more exciting - you never quite know what is going to flutter past you and whether or not it’ll settle or just give a fleeting view and leave you with an unsolved mystery and a reason to scratch your head.

On Monday, I had a good walk around Roughdown Common. The Juniper bushes are looking beautiful and gothic, adorned with berries which glisten in the sunlight. A Chiffchaff was still singing, the Harebells are flowering but what stopped me in my tracks was a group of 18 hungry, hairy caterpillars munching their way through the leaves of an Oak tree. You could actually hear them chewing! These were the larvae of the Buff-tip moth (Phalera bucephala), feeding up before they drop to the ground, burrow down and overwinter in the soil as pupae (chrysalides). In the spring, they will emerge as fantastic little Buff-tip moths. If you’ve never seen one of these, it is worth taking a look at a photograph. They are the master of disguise, hiding in plain sight, looking to all the world like a broken Silver Birch twig. Amazing little creatures.

Buff-tip Larvae (Phalera bucephala) [approx 5-6cm long]

The sunny, clear skies of Tuesday evening saw me standing in the parched, golden meadow at Dellfield. I wanted to catch the Oak in the last light of the day. Needless to say, every footstep was accompanied by a flurry of Crane flies. But, a short while later, just as I was about to leave, things got a little more exciting, with the arrival of the giant of the eusocial wasp world, a European Hornet (Vespa crabro). I first spotted one of these at the Brickworks back in August. The overriding impression was of a whopping, great big flying insect with a massive yellow butt! It was a good 2.5cm (1 inch) long but never settled and quickly went out of sight. The second encounter was also at the Brickworks and was just as tantalisingly brief. Finally, on Tuesday evening, one of these super wasps flew past me and within a matter of seconds had caught and devoured a defenceless Daddy Longlegs! I heard the clatter of the wings as the Hornet snatched its prey. The sequence of shots below cover a period of less than 60 seconds. They aren’t perfect but hopefully give a flavour of the action.

European Hornet (Vespa crabro) snacking on a Crane fly (Tipula paludosa)

This was a male Hornet (if I’ve counted the abdominal segments correctly: 7 on males, 6 on females), approx 1 inch long, with limited life expectancy(!). In late summer, the queen Hornet (who does all the egg-laying), stops producing worker Hornets (who build the nest, pick up food supplies and take care of the brood), and produces a new generation of males and females. At this time of year, the males leave the nest and perform “nuptial flights” (i.e. mate with unfertilised queens). Unfortunately, the males die soon after mating; the workers and unfertilised queens not long after that, with only the fertilised queens surviving into next Spring. Although they look intimidating, they are less aggressive than your common wasp and will only sting as a last resort or to defend their hive. Ultimately, as the largest european social wasp they are impressive insects and this male certainly made light work of the unsuspecting Crane fly.

Now, I don’t go out much at night...It takes something special to tear me away from my comfy sofa and mindless telly. Wednesday evening, instead of drooling over Mary’s mouthwatering pastries I was wandering the woods of Westbrook Hay. I enlisted the help of a friend with ninja nature skills and we went in search of Edible Dormice. It was this friend who had first shown me this curious, nocturnal mammal back in 2011, near Tring, the site of its original, accidental introduction by Walter Rothschild in 1902. The species is common throughout western Europe but not native to England and can be something of a pest. Its diet is primarily plant-based (nuts, seeds, berries, apples etc). During the day it will sleep in unused bird’s nests, holes in trees or a safe nook or cranny. Over the coming weeks, as winter approaches, they will go into deep hibernation, emerging again in the spring.

OK, so we started our search along the tree-lined path which runs the north-west side of Bovingdon Reach, taking us down into Ramacre Wood. The first creature we actually heard was a Little Owl (Athene noctua) calling from somewhere in Hay Wood. Tawny Owls soon piped up too. But, initially, no sight nor sound of arboreal dormice. Finally, in Ramacre wood, success. My friend homed in on to the subtle sound of an Edible Dormouse feeding (ninja nature skills, I tell you). Unfortunately, we could only hear it (not see it) and eventually had to admit defeat and move on. Walking back the way we came, we had two close encounters with fast moving dormice about 4 feet up in bushes. No chance of photographs though. On our third attempt along this path, it wasn’t a dormouse we saw in the trees but a beautiful Tawny Owl (Strix aluco), looking straight at us (see above photograph)! It can’t have been more than 10-15 metres away, perched on a low branch right above the centre of the path. For a good 25-35 seconds each of us stood staring back at the other. The owl barely moving, us not wanting to break the spell. Of course, the owl eventually decided enough was enough and flew off into the night.

Back to our dormouse hunt. In fact, after 1.5 hours searching, it was all suddenly very easy. Walking from the Dellfield car park, a few metres up the road towards the Old Barn, we found a very obliging fella. He (or she) sat fairly still on a branch for 2-3 minutes whilst I faffed about with camera equipment, flashes that didn’t work and angles that weren’t quite right. Thankfully, I did come away with a few photographs.

Edible Dormouse (Glis glis)

Special thanks to my friend for helping to locate the dinky dormice, identifying the Little Owl call and, most crucially, for holding the torch steady!

If you’re wondering why the night time photographs have a red glow to them, it’s because we used red light for observation. Nocturnal creatures are essentially blind to red light so are not disturbed by it or aware that they are illuminated. You don’t need special equipment, just a standard torch and some red transparent film to put over the front lens. Job done and away you go.

The Little Owl (Athene noctua) in Hay Wood was producing a call similar to this one from xeno-canto (just press play)

The week may have started with missing Summer’s butterflies. But, standing, gazing into the wide eyes of a wild Tawny Owl, hearing a Little Owl chirping away in the darkness and photographing a nocturnal mammal is a stringent tonic. Perhaps I should close with “...and they all lived happily ever after”....although not the Crane fly or the soon-to-be-dead Hornet of course...

Friday 12 September 2014

Week 34: Early Autumn Moon & 'Shrooms

They were everywhere this week....long legs, long bodies and papery, translucent wings...Crane flies! On Monday morning, as I walked over the moors west of Station Road, it was as if the previous night had been declared Pupation Deadline. There had been a mass emergence of these gangly insects and every footstep I took seemed to send one or more of them lolloping awkwardly over the grass or flying raggedly to the next safe perch. These lanky adults have just 10-15 days to find mates and for the females to lay eggs before their short lives end. They don’t even get to enjoy a last meal before they metaphorically gasp their final breath!

Maintaining the balance of life and death, the number of butterflies on the wing this week has dropped significantly, in spite of the sunny, warm, settled conditions. I didn’t see one Common Blue at Roughdown, only a handful at the Brickworks and not a single Brown Argus at the colony. Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell, Comma, Large and Small Whites and Speckled Woods were the only butterfly species I came across on Monday and Tuesday. Common Darter dragonflies were still buzzing around by the river Bulbourne and at the Brickworks, where Southern Hawkers also persist. In addition, I saw my first Migrant Hawker (Aeshna mixta) on Trust land this week, a male at the Gadespring Cress Beds off Old Fishery Lane.

Of birds, the male Kingfisher was making use of the new obstacles in the river by Bulbourne Meadow. He’d nabbed a fish and scarpered downstream before I could even form a thought let along take action and photograph him. A pair of juvenile Grey Herons continue to surreptitiously pop up at random locations in the style of a Where’s Wally? farce. They favour the moors but I’ve seen them up on Preston Hill at Westbrook Hay too. A couple of Great Spotted Woodpeckers whistled past me to the little woods on the east side of Bulbourne Meadow. No idea of sex or age but always great to know they are around. I also spied the juvenile Little Egret which has settled in the area.

Wednesday night, I abandoned Mary Berry and her bakers and headed to Westbrook Hay to photograph the Supermoon with the Oak. I won’t bore you with the details but, unlike last time, I failed miserably, heard a couple of Tawny Owls calling from Hay Wood and an Edible Dormouse squealing. That being said, I did photograph the Moon. And, I did photograph the Oak this week. With a bit of tinkering I’ve combined the two. Obviously not meant to be realistic, just a bit of fun. It was either that or a photograph of a Daddy Longlegs.

The Chicken of Woods fungus (Laetiporus sulphureus) living on the Oak has grown by a couple of centimetres in the last week (I haven’t eaten it). Not to be outdone, the Scots Pine has also sprouted a fungus from the trunk. I am reliably informed that it's Dyer’s Mazegill (Phaeolus schweinitzii). It may or may not be harmful to the tree. It causes butt rot but this particular eruption is 5-6 metres up the trunk, nowhere near the base. Only time will tell, I guess. Its common name suggests it was/is a good source of pigment for the fabric dyeing industry.

    Dyer’s Mazegill (approx 15cm diameter)
    Comma (Polygonia c-album) showing its comma at Roughdown

The avenue of mostly Common Limes along Ryders’ east boundary are just beginning to catch their Autumn colours.

And up in Ramacre Wood, I found a nice little clump of Common Puffball fungus (Lycoperdon perlatum). Each growth was approximately 3cm in diameter. Held up next to the moon (diameter 3476km), you can barely tell them apart.

To round things off, an elephant's foot….oh, ok, it's the trunk of the Oak and the Chicken of the Woods fungus. The Limes on Ryders in the background.

Friday 5 September 2014

Week 33: Mining, Growths & Another Argus

I should probably begin by confessing that I couldn’t resist another visit to the Brown Argus (Aricia agestis) colony. However, for those less inclined to pedantically scrutinise the wear patterns of battered butterflies, I’ll leave the results of that until the end. My visits this week to the rest of the Trust’s land have been very brief, which is a shame given the calm, warm conditions.

The Horse Chestnut trees (Aesculus hippocastanum) are looking at their best and worst. Their best, because they are laden with Autumn fruit (aka conkers!), and their worst, because the mining moth (Cameraria ohridella) has left no leaf untouched! Incredibly, although the damage looks decidedly vicious, the health of the tree is essentially unaffected. Its leaves will return as normal next year all set for another moth infestation, I expect. The light on Wednesday evening was beautiful, giving me the opportunity to enjoy the Horse Chestnuts (and horses) on Station Moor.

Early Autumn fruits are abundant now (blackberries on Bramble, berries on Hawthorn, hips on Roses, sloes on Blackthorn, elderberries on Elder etc) and acorns aren’t the only growths on the Dellfield Oak. A fresh eruption of the fungus Laetiporus sulphureus has appeared on the trunk less than 2 metres from the ground, on the east side, in an old wound. According to the internet, it tastes like chicken, hence its common name "Chicken of the Woods". However, I have no intention of wasting a good onion on finding out if wikipedia can be trusted or not.

Another conspicuous fungus which I photographed at the Brickworks is Tar Spot (Rhytisma acerinum) on sycamore leaves. It looks a lot worse than it is and again, like the mining moth, doesn’t do significant damage to the health of the tree.

    Fancy some chips with your chicken?!
    Tar Spot

Ok, to my guilty pleasure, indulged on Tuesday morning when the sun shone and the breeze was barely noticeable. A family party of tiny, trilling Goldcrests were in the trees as I made my way to the south-east side of Baker’s Wood at the Brickworks. A couple of Common Darter dragonflies flitted back and forth around the path. My eyes, however, were firmly focused on spotting the Brown Argus butterflies. I promised myself I wouldn’t spend more than about half an hour at this task, especially if I kept finding specimens I’d already seen on previous visits. The results were quite interesting (what?! they were).

I refound 6 specimens, 2 from last Thursday and 4 from Sunday, which just goes to show how little the Brown Argus wanders. I also found one more new specimen to add to the tally, making a total find of 14 individuals. I've christened this one Tatty, for obvious reason. Of the 6 refound, 3 had incurred further damage or wear, demonstrating just how quickly their condition deteriorates at this stage in their lifespan, even in a matter of 48 hours.

    The Brown Arguses would turn up anywhere along this path
    14. Tatty

Below are comparison photographs of the 3 refound butterflies, showing the changes in their wear patterns incurred in a matter of days. The original 13 butterflies can be viewed here.

3. Left Dink. The little tear in the left forewing has caused a small portion to subsequently fall off [shown left]

11. Worn. The trailing edge of the right hindwing has been damaged [shown below]

12. Big Notch. The damage to the left hindwing has worsened and there’s also now a small notch missing from the left forewing [shown right]

I think that's probably the last of my Brown Argus spotting (that wasn't a sigh of relief I heard was it?!). Knowing for certain that there are at least 14 individuals in the Brickworks colony is satisfaction enough. The peak count at Aldbury Nowers (the species stronghold) last year was 38 in week 22 (27/08/2013). The Nowers transect recorded 80% of the total number of Brown Argus observed across the whole of Hertfordshire and Middlesex last year. A count of 14 outside of that area is certainly significant and very encouraging.

Time for this week's horse photograph

Sorry, I meant Oak photograph