Sunday, 29 April 2018

Delightful Durlston

The local roe deer have been much more visible over the last few weeks and I've had several close encounters with them.

It's interesting to compare these two male deer and note the differences. The top deer is probably a few years older as it has much longer antlers(1) and it's both bigger and more muscly than the lower deer. I think the bottom deer is about three years old and despite its diminutive size it was very confident. It was only a few feet away from me on the other side of a low fence and once it gave me a good stare it ignored me and carried on grazing. 

Last weekend I visited Durlston Country Park near Swanage in Dorset. The park has a range of habitats from woodland and meadows to sea-cliffs so it's a good place to see a range of wildlife. 

I found a few insects in the meadows such as this bloody-nosed beetle

This flightless beetle gets its name from it's unusual defence mechanism- when breathed on it secrets a blood-red liquid from its mouth which irritates the mouths of many mammals(2)

Another insect I spotted was this dark-edged bee-fly

Like many species these insects have evolved to look like bees as a defence mechanism but they are actually harmless flies. Well, harmless to humans. Their larvae are parasitoids of mining bees that nest in colonies in the soil(3). The female bee-fly will hover above a mining bee area and flick eggs onto the ground. When the bee-fly egg hatches the larva crawls into the underground nest of a host bee and attaches itself to a bee grub to suck out its body fluids. I love looking into invertebrate life-cycles! 

You can spot what looks like a sting coming out of the bee-fly's head which is actually a proboscis or tongue. Like a hummingbird, these insects hover in front of deep flowers like primroses and stick their long proboscis into the flower to drink the nectar. 

I noticed what looked like cobwebs on a lot of the bramble bushes and a closer look make me realise they were webbing nest of brown-tail moth caterpillars. 

These larvae spend the winter inside the webbing nests before emerging in the spring to feed communally(4). Few insects feed on plants of more than two different families but this species has been recorded as feeding on plants from as many as 13 families. 

You really don't want to mess with these larvae. The loose hairs break off and can cause all sorts of problems for humans such as rashes, skin irritation, headaches and breathing difficulties. You shouldn't get too close to it and should wear thick gloves if you ever have to handle one. A related species which causes similar effects, the oak processionary moth, has been in the news this week due to outbreaks in London(5)

Cows were grazing on the meadows at Durlston and I was amazed to see a brazen jackdaw use them as a feeding opportunity. 

This jackdaw was casually walking all over the cow pecking at insects that were attracted to it. The cow didn't seem too bothered (if anything the jackdaw as probably doing it a service) though it did lift its head a few times when the jackdaw got too annoying. 

I was really pleased to see some guillemots at the foot of the cliffs. 

These seabirds only come to land to breed and spend the rest of their lives at sea(6). From the top of the cliffs they look like penguins and their colour scheme is the same as penguins for the same reason- when they are swimming in the sea from below the white colour makes them blend in with the sky and from above the black colour makes them blend into the sea. 

The breeding colony at Durlston is the second largest on the south coast and also the most easterly- it's also right at the southernmost limit of their worldwide range(7).

Whilst it was a lovely visit, I was disappointed that I wasn't able to see the peregrine falcons which are regularly seen on the cliffs and the area is also a good one for spotting dolphins but I had no luck there either. 

Durlston Country Park is a great place to visit to see wildlife and somewhere I'd definitely recommend checking out. 

Sunday, 22 April 2018

April Nature News

It's the third weekend of the month which means it's time for my latest round-up of wildlife and environment news from my local area and the UK.

The Final Straw?

The government have been discussing the possibility of banning plastic straws and cotton buds from sale1. It's estimated that around 8.5 billion straws are thrown away in the UK every year and though pressure is beginning to build on companies to stop using them, we are still a long way away from them disappearing altogether.

At this stage all they have actually announced is a consultation on doing it so if a ban ever does come into place then it will be some years in the future. Still, it's good to see it being talked about and this idea was discussed at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting with the UK encouraging other members of the commonwealth to consider the same idea.

Meanwhile, a Lords select committee have been very critical on the government's countryside policies and said that it is failing the natural environment2. It says there has been "consistent failure, over a number of years, to prioritise the 'rural affairs' element" of the remit of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and that this has had a "profound negative impact... to the cost of us all".

In a previous edition of Nature News I discussed how poor many of the government's environment policies are so the findings of this committee are no surprise. I hope that it can help to put things right.

New Forest Pine Marten
One of my very first posts on this blog was discussed the fact a pine marten had been caught on a trail camera in the New Forest. This was in about two years ago and I've not heard anything further until now.

Twitter user Jon Cuthill (@joncuthill) shared this amazing video of a pine marten in his garden in the New Forest3:

Obviously this was not been properly verified but it's from a BBC journalist and certainly appears to show a pine marten in a New Forest garden. Pine martens used to be widespread in the UK but became virtually extinct outside of Scotland. Re-releases and small populations have meant they have returned to parts of England and Wales but the New Forest is not generally thought to be one of them. The trouble is that pine martens are usually nocturnal and are very elusive so seeing them is difficult enough, yet alone surveying how many there actually are locally.

Osprey Lost
Last year eight juvenile ospreys were released in Poole Harbour in the hope that they would be the start of setting up a new population there. The birds migrate to Africa over the winter and until this month two had been spotted there.

Now a third bird has been discovered, LS6, but unfortunately this one was found dead in the the Gambia4. The image below was sent shortly after the discovery of the body but was actually taken two months before it was found. Here LS6 is seen with a large piece of tail feathers missing, likely from a dog or even a crocodile. Though LS6 escaped initially, the lost tail feathers may have hindered it's fishing.

Like most migratory birds, it's fairly common for ospreys to die in the first year- only around 20-30% of juveniles return to the UK as adults. Though it's sad news about LS6 there are positives to take from it. It means that at least 3 of the 8 translocated birds made it to Africa with Poole Harbour's close proximity to the English channel allowing them an easier route than birds that set off from further North.

RSPB in the New Forest

The RSPB have announced that they are going to create their first nature reserve in the New Forest5. The reserve will be called Franchises Lodge and is near Nomansland in the north of the forest. The reserve was previously privately-owned land and is big, some 386 hectares. 

Once it's open to the public it sounds like it will be a fascinating place to visit. It's apparently home to an internationally important lichen community and exciting birds like hawfinch, spotted flycatcher and wood warblers. I can't wait to go! 

That's all for this month but there will be more Nature News in May.

1: BBC News- Plastic straw and cotton bud ban proposed
2: BBC News- 'Radical change' needed on countryside
3: Twitter: @joncuthill
4: Roy Dennis Foundation: Sad news about LS6
5: BBC News- 'Secret' woodland to be first RSPB New Forest reserve

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Signs of Spring

It is finally starting to feel more like Spring although we've still had lots of grey, drizzly days this week.

With the sun out one day I was keeping a close eye on a verge looking for insects when I managed to spot this well-concealed slow worm.

Slow worms, like other reptiles, hibernate over the winter(1) so this was probably one of the first times it had emerged this year. The thing I found most surprising was the location. It is no doubt on the verge because it faces the sun but seeing it next to a footpath not far at all from the centre of town was totally unexpected. 

More plants are coming into flower now that the temperatures have risen. One that I've seen a lot lately is pussy willow

Willow trees are single-sexed and these flowers only appear on the male trees(2). Both sexes produce nectar but these male flowers are important to insects due to the copious amounts of pollen they produce- the yellow blobs are the pollen. 

In several local woodlands I've seen carpets of wood anemones appear. 

Given the way they cover woodland floors you would be forgiven for thinking that they spread very quickly. However, wood anemones only spread at a rate of six feet every hundred years so are a good indicator of ancient woodland(3). Hoverflies like wood anemones are an important pollinator for the species but it's not much used to most animals as food because of an acrid taste. 

Today I was pleased to see the first bluebell of the year near the fishing lake, one solitary plant in flower. 

I went out into the New Forest this week which always leads to some lovely views. 

Whilst in the forest I heard several cuckoos calling which meant they have arrived back for the breeding season from their wintering grounds in Africa. Over the last few months I've been following the BTO's tagged cuckoos, particularly Selborne who was tagged in and returns to the New Forest(4). It's staggering to see how he has flown across much of Africa, including the Sahara desert, before crossing the sea to eventually arrive back at the New Forest. 

Meanwhile, I've spotted lots of Spring behaviour in the birds in our garden. Starlings and other birds have been ripping at the woody plant growing on the garage which backs onto our garden and flying off with whatever they can get hold of. 

The starlings nest in the cavities of the houses on our estate as they are easily accessible. You can see them disappear into the holes. Often we have some nesting in our roof and you can hear the chicks calling when the feeds begin early in the morning. 

Meanwhile it's been open warfare for the blackbirds recently. 

We seem to have two male blackbirds visiting the garden at the moment but it's not really big enough for the both of them. When they spot each other they lunge towards each other until one back off. They never seem to go far though and retreat to the safety of the shed or a fence before trying to sneak back into the feeding area. Inevitably they are spotted by their rival and the fight continues once more. 

To finish today here is a lovely piece from Ringwood TV about the Poulner Toad Patrol who help amphibians crossing the road to get to their breeding area. 

Sunday, 8 April 2018

From Rain to Sun

We had a lot of rain here over the Easter weekend. The river levels reached as high as I've ever seen them with one measure suggesting water levels reached as high as four feet (1.2 metres).

The river meanders across the footpath meaning that the path and the few trees either side of it were the only dry land for some distance. This probably explains why I managed to spot this bank vole right next to the path. 

Bank voles have a longer tail than other voles, usually some fifty percent of their length1. They live in burrows with multiple entrances and I saw this individual disappear into one of them. It's likely some of the other led into flood water so this vole was probably limited in where it could go. They are a common species and an important prey species for foxes, owls and other birds of prey. 

I think the rain probably triggered a large amount of sap to secrete out of a recently cut tree branch along one of the paths. 

The smell of the sap was really strong and it was attracted lots of invertebrates. In the photo above you can see a woodlouse feeding on it and there was a steady stream of ants coming to and fro to the sap. 

The wetter weather has also probably supported some of the fungi species I've seen this week. These golden globules on a fence post are fungi of the genus dacrymyces probably a common jellyspot.

These fungi often appear on fence posts and can be found at any time of year where there's wet weather2

I also spotted this witches butter fungus

This fungus gets its name from it's yellow colour though during wet weather it turns much darker as you can see. 

On Thursday the rain finally stopped and the first butterflies of the year emerged. 

This is a brimstone and I saw lots of these in flight on Thursday. Brimstones hibernate in the winter in ivy, holly and bramble and then re-emerge on warm spring days, though usually a few weeks earlier than this3.I also saw a handful of peacock butterflies which also hibernate over the winter4.

I was also pleased to see some more flowers emerging

This is lesser celandine, a woodland flower which is one of the first to flower- as you can see here, they provide a useful lifeline to insects when few others are in flower. 

This is a primrose which although I saw in the wild looks to me like a cultivated variety. Though primroses are often yellow it's also quite common to see them in this paler form. The name 'primrose' literally means 'first rose', indicating it's early flowering. 

Finally, here's a bird I stumbled on at a quiet patch of river, a little grebe

This bird is already in it's summer plumage. Little grebes eat fish like other grebes but as they are smaller only eat smaller fish, meaning they are distributed more widely. Though relatively common they can be difficult to see, especially at close range, because they are shy and normally dive under the water and resurface some distance away5. This individual tried to do that but it was still close enough for me to photograph when it emerged. 

1: Konig, Claus (1973). Mammals. Collins and Co. pp. 110-111