Thursday, 1 May 2014

April Highlights

April, for me, is a magical and exciting time of year. The countryside becomes alive with beautiful bird song, woods light up with colour as new growth, bluebells and fresh leaves push through, and of course the warmer temperatures encourage a wider variety of moths, butterflies and other fascinating insects to begin their emergence. It is this time of year that makes me really excited for what the next few months may bring.

Boy's Wood, Dorset
This April certainly did not disappoint either. With a mixture of warm temperatures, bright sunshine and occasional showers, the plant life has quite literally bloomed!  The bluebell woods behind my house are looking stunning, possibly the best I have ever seen them. There are a good amount of Wood anemone and Lesser celandine still holding on too. 

Butterflies and moths have been enjoying the warmer, dry days and nights. I saw my first holly blue, green-veined white, orange tip and speckled wood of the year this month. I've also noticed a lot of brimstone butterflies (see below). These butterflies hibernate as an adult over winter so appear again on the warm, sunny days of Spring.

Female Brimstone nectaring

I have managed to put the moth trap out a fair few times in the last month. For those of you unaware of moth trapping, it's a fun and easy way of recording what moths are in a particular area. The trap is essentially a box full of egg boxes with a bright light over the top. Moths are attracted to the light, fall in to the box and tuck themselves away within the egg boxes.  

April produced some exciting finds for my garden. Some of the prettiest had to be angle shades, purple thorn, muslin moth, lunar marbled brown, dark sword-grass and nut-tree tussock.  The least common was probably this Scarce Prominent - a 'local' moth, meaning it is common but only in particular areas, that inhabits mature birch woodland.

Scarce Prominent

Birds have been extremely busy in the garden too. In fact as I am writing this blog there is a female chaffinch fluttering around my windowsill collecting up spiders and bugs caught in their cobwebs, there's chaffinch, collared dove and goldfinch calling in the bushes, and house sparrows are collecting up feathers in the garden.

No sign of chicks yet but I'm almost certain that there's dunnock, wren, great tit, wood pigeon, greenfinch, house sparrow, and collared dove nesting in the garden so fingers crossed it won't be long now!

An odd sighting for the garden though was this stock dove - I've never seen one before so I was quite excited to see one just a few metres away from my window!

Stock Dove in my Garden
Other sightings during April included 2 fox cubs, numerous baby bunnies, wheatear, swallows, early purple orchids, and a massive drinker moth caterpillar.  After such a great month, I'm looking forward to seeing what May has in store for us!

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

All A Bit of A Bumble

In the last few weeks I have noticed a lot of bumblebees buzzing around.  I know very little about bumblebees and normally feel quite envious of people when they say 'ooh look a buff-tail just flew past' pointing to a fast fluffy blob with wings fly off over a hedge.
This week I decided to change that and start learning about these fascinating insects. Yesterday I bought an FSC Guide on Common Bee species and today I made the most of the weather and headed out with my camera in tow.

I only needed to go five minutes down the road and I'd seen four different species already! The first I managed to photograph was this: a red-tailed bumblebee (or at least I think it is... I later found out there are cryptic bees but I'll tell you about them another day when I understand them a bit better!).

Red-tailed bumblebee
Bumblebees it turns out are much like butterflies, when it is sunny and warm they do not stay still for long and are pretty tricky to photograph! Luckily I managed to find a flowering willow that seemed to attract a wide variety of nectaring insects including bees, butterflies, and flies.

Tree Bumblebee & Peacock Butterfly on Willow
On the willow there was a Tree bumblebee and another species of bee I was not sure about as none of the FSC pictures matched up perfectly.  After a quick Google search I ended up on the Bumblebee Conservation Trust website and found myself signing up to 'BeeWatch'.  The Trusts website has a handy guide to bees and a little more information about each of them than the FSC guide can fit in.  
After looking through all of the bee species I was still not confident to ID my bee so I sent a photo off to the experts at BeeWatch.  

Here is my photo of the unidentifiable bee - I believe it may be a Common carder bee but I am waiting for confirmation... 

Possible Common carder bee
Having never heard of BeeWatch before I was really impressed with the website and their ideas! I particularly liked that:
  • people are encouraged to post pictures of the bees they have found as a form of recording
  • if you post a picture you get a personal reply back from an expert that tells you not only the species of your bee but also what features tell you it is that species
  • you can practice your bee identification skills by looking at other peoples photos and using a simple filter system to help you guess what species the bee is.

After a little wander around the woods and seeing many more bumblebees that were not so cooperative I returned home just in time to see what I believe to be a Garden bumblebee flying out of my driveway.

I've enjoyed my first day bumblebeeing. I was surprised and quite pleased to learn that there actually aren't that many species of bumblebee to learn - there are only 250 species in the World! And only 24 of those live in the UK :)

Friday, 7 March 2014

Garden Games

I have been spending quite a lot of time looking out of my window recently.  It is that time of year that my garden becomes alive with the sound of birdsong and the sight of lots of flittering wings all on a mission to defend their territories, find a mate, or build their nests. 

Normally at this time of year I would just appreciate the soulful sounds of the dawn chorus and enjoy watching the variety of bird life in my garden grow.  However this year I have decided to try and learn a bit more about the birds that I share territories with.

It's really very simple, all it takes is a little time and observation and you can soon see which birds are pairing up with who, which species or individual is more dominant than the other and roughly where these birds may be thinking of building their nests.  Anyone can do it really, even if you don't know your great tit from your greenfinch!

I've also been trying to distinguish males from females.  In some species this is really simple, for example the blackbird.  Male blackbirds are black with a bright yellow beak, females are brown with a dull coloured beak. 

Chaffinch this time of year are also really obvious.  Males have a pinky orange breast, grey head and quite striking black and white wings; the brighter the colours the fitter the bird. Females on the other hand are a light brown colour all over with just the wing pattern being similar to the male.

Male and Female Chaffinch
Images by Ron Knight and John Haslam

Some species however are a little more tricky.  The great tit is do-able but you may need binoculars and ideally you want the bird to be hanging off a feeder or similar to be able to see its underside.  Male great tits have a lot of black between their legs whereas females only have a little bit of black.  When you have seen both it starts to become a lot more obvious so hang on in there.

Great tits: female on left and male on right
Image by Shirley Clarke

Another common bird you can sex this time of year is the wren.  Unlike other songbirds the female wren has nothing to do with building the nest.  A male wren will build many nests which he then shows off to females, if the female is happy with one of the nests he has built then she shall move in. So this time of year when you see a wren frantically gathering nesting material it is almost certainly a male :)

Until next time, happy garden watching!

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

A Ringing Week

Bird ringing has been a hobby of mine since the end of last summer. I started my training at Abbotsbury Swannery with ringing trainer Steve Hales.
For non-birdy people the Swannery is actually home to a lot more birds than just swans. Some of these birds live here but a lot of them are just passing through, feeding up or roosting for the night before they continue their long migrations.  A large part of the site is covered with reedbeds with most being inaccessible to the public.  It was here where I was to spend many autumn evenings learning to ring.

An Evening at Abbotsbury Swannery

My first day as a trainee is one I will take with me forever.  I remember feeling slightly nervous, maybe apprehensive. What if I didn't like it?! I had wanted to go bird ringing ever since I had seen it for the first time at the Kingcombe Centre (West Dorset) 3 years ago but had never had the chance to go out until now. The first bird we caught was the first I was to ring... so my first bird?!  A young male blackcap (and I loved it!).

So a few hundred swallows and wagtails later here I am back in East Dorset hoping to find other ringers to go out with.  Last week I managed to find two, so I was lucky enough to go out three times to two beautiful locations, both bringing an abundance of 'new' birds for me. By 'new' I mean species that I have not ringed before. This included goldcrest, lesser redpoll, nuthatch, siskin, treecreeper and great spotted woodpecker.

One of the locations was Manor Farm in Hampshire.  I have been here once before to ring and it is a stunning place, especially at sunrise.  You may know the farm from the BBC series Wartime Farm featuring Ruth Goodman. It is a relatively small site with a farmyard supporting a good number of sparrows and large grazing fields where birds such as blackbird, redwing, pigeons and various species of gulls may be found. There are a lot of hedgerows and a small orchard attracting smaller passerines such as finches, tits and (gold)crests.  On this particular day we were targeting redwing.

Redwing @ Manor Farm. Photo by Rob Skinner.

My personal favourite though, and a 'first' for me...

A Goldcrest (male).
He chose to stick around for a little while before flying off.

For the other two sessions I was based at Blashford Lakes, a Hampshire Wildlife Trust reserve on the edge of the New Forest. I would highly recommend this place to anyone who has a slight interest or respect for birds.  It is just incredible; so full of life, especially at this time of the year and the dawn chorus is like nothing else you have ever heard.  I have visited quite regularly over the last 4 years and I have seen a lot of birds there that I have never seen before.  This makes it a very exciting place for me to be ringing and it certainly didn't let me down last week. By the end of my first day ringing there we had lesser redpoll, mealy redpoll, and siskin on our list.  On the second day I got to ring great spotted woodpecker, nuthatch and treecreeper. All very beautiful birds in the hand, even if the woodpeckers are trying to tear your hands to shreds!

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

The Beginning

I have been meaning to start this blog for a good few months now.  The idea and title came to me on a sunny day last year as I wandered around Weymouth Harbour in Dorset.  I was watching a herring gull fishing for crabs, carefully scooping them up in his beak before smashing them into tiny pieces on the wooden walkways.
I find animal behaviour fascinating and it's something I come across very regularly, every day in fact with the career I am trying to pursue (conservation). I wanted somewhere where I could record and share these fascinating little moments with wildlife.
So here it is my very own Little Nuggets of Nature Blog and my first Nugget from today:

A Great Spotted Woodpecker.  I have only ever seen these birds clinging to tree trunks, bird feeders or branches but today I saw my first one on the ground.  They don't look natural on the ground at all. A striking black, white and red bird is not hard to see when out in the open, nor is it easy to miss when its stride is an awkward hop.  This bird appeared to be feeding on something amongst a jovial of dunnock. Once content it took flight and headed towards me.  I was lucky enough to catch a good glimpse of the bird as it flew past, it was carrying an acorn!