Posted by: Ross Gardner | April 1, 2021

The endeavours of early spring

The warm days have encouraged something of a flush of insect life out into the open. The real surge of life is yet to come, but those more hardy, more adventurous early risers have brought a noticeable buzz of activity into the quieter corners of our green places.

A few species of mining-bee habitually emerge early in the spring. The conspicuously ginger-haired tawny mining bee (Andrena fulva) is one, a frequenter of gardens and the excavators of the little ‘volcanoes’ of soil that might appear in the lawn. These are the ‘mine’ entrances whose passages lead to a cell (or cells) into which these solitary bees deposit an egg.

It was not the tawny that I discovered in the woods yesterday, but another early species, Clarke’s mining bee (Andrena clarkella). I noticed the honey bee-sized insect buzzing deliberately about the face of a bank of bare soil. The pollen brushes on her hind legs were laden with a mixture of pollen and honey that she will place in one of the subterranean cells on top of which she will lay an egg. She had already dug out her burrow and I watched (and photographed) as she settled, having seemingly satisfied herself that it was safe to enter, before proceeding to dig her way into the finely worked soil of her previous labours and disappear from view.

It might have been that her neighbour, having stocked one of her own cells or perhaps just completed her excavations and now ready to go foraging, was waiting for me to move off before heading out…

With cold weather set to return, their promptness may be just as well.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | March 22, 2021

Spring, simply

The Comma (Polygonia c-album)

My first butterfly of the spring this year was a comma. In some years it might be a brimstone, occasionally a peacock or red admiral, but often it seems to be a comma. It was sunning itself along a woodland ride, absorbing the late afternoon warmth of one of those dreamily mild early spring days.

It made me stop to look more closely at my surroundings, to listen more intently to the sounds that threaded the still bare, but bud-swelling branches. I saw a bee-fly nosing about the brown leaves piled at the base of a tree and heard the hungry pecking – so very much quiter than the drumming I’d heard earlier – of a great spotted woodpecker endeavouring to get at whatever lurked within a split in the bark of a nearby silver birch. I looked back up the path along which I had just walked to see it scattered with the winged motes of tiny insects glancing the sunshine.

I haven’t posted on this blog for a few weeks and wondered what I might write when I came back to it, wanting on this occasion, perhaps, to give a more original take on the welcome unfolding of spring. The things is, days like today just cannot be ignored and the substance of them not requiring of any supposedly artistic contrivances in recounting them.

It was a snatched half hour on the way home from work, in a fine old wood on a splendid spring day. Simple as that.

The aptly named, bumblebee mimicking Bee-fly (Bombylius major)

Posted by: Ross Gardner | March 1, 2021

Bumblebees abroad

A queen Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) coated in crocus pollen.

So not a fortnight after shivering in the sub-zero, snowy cold, spring raises its head above the wintry parapet for a first, tentative look around, giving all a much appreciated impression of what’s to come once winter has finally done its bit. Such caprices of prevailing conditions is, I think, one reason why the British are so renowned for spending much time discussing the weather. As I type a rather cold day is plummeting again towards zero and while that latter season is not done yet, its relenting does at least allow for a brief reacquainting with some welcome, familiar faces. The newts have returned to my garden pond and I was delighted to catch sight of a comma butterfly racing beneath the fresh spring sunshine. And we have, of course, the reappearance of the bumblebees.

Bumblebees are well-suited to the mood-swings encompassed by the British climate at this time of year, as also will be found other regions where an early flight-season might present them with some decidedly inclement periods of weather to deal with. There is actually a species, one Bombus polaris – the Arctic Bumblebee, that lives quite happily in the high-Arctic latitudes of Europe and North America. Being covered in furry layer of long hairs certainly helps in this regard, but they are able to employ other tricks. Not least of these is the ability, having disconnected the wings beforehand, to use their flight muscles to ‘shiver’ and raise their internal body temperature high enough for them to fly and forage. So even when basking alone is insufficient to achieve the required minimum internal flight temperature of 30°C, they are able to help things along enough for them to be active in air temperatures as low as around 10°C (I have on occasion observed bumblebees out and about in 8°C).

It is the buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) and the aptly named early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) that are most likely to provide sightings of the ‘first bumblebee of the year’. Bumblebee colonies do not persist through the winter as with honey bees and only the queens hibernate. Having mated the previous summer, she will emerge from her torpor, firstly with task of finding food to replenish her reserves and bring her reproductive system back into function, then with the similarly pressing need to find a place to found her nest. The buff-tails this will be underground, often making use of old rodent burrows. The early bumblebee is less picky in terms elevation, as content to nest off the ground as it is under it.

Early Bumblebee (Bombus pratorum)

Posted by: Ross Gardner | February 13, 2021

Suburban invasion

A fall of fieldare

A covering of snow and persistent sub-zero temperatures across our part of the country appears to have prompted something of a suburban invasion. This winter seems to be a good one for winter thrushes around these parts. Every area of woodland or scrubland has had its attendant flock of redwing, scouring the branches for berries (the berry crop, for example, on hawthorn last autumn was the best I can remember for years). There have been fieldfare too, but in collectively smaller numbers, as would befit the relative abundant of the two species wintering in the UK each year. Both species descend southwards from the likes of Scandinavia and Russia to escape the harsh northern winter and feast on our autumn fruits, shifting to a more invertebrate-based diet later on when the berries become fewer and further between. The song thrush-sized redwing can number upwards of 8 million, dwarfing (to say the very least) the UK’s Scottish breeding population of a dozen or so pairs. The handsome chestnut and grey fieldfare occur in rather smaller quantities, but with well over 600,000 birds coming to us (usually only 1 or 2 pairs breed in Scotland) they are a common enough sight.

It may just be coincidence, with the exhausting of the berry crop around the countryside, but it seems that the recent snowfall has encouraged them into the gardens in search of sustenance, places where some berry-laden holly bushes and such like might still be heavy with fruit. The soft chack-chack-ing of the fieldfare and thin, whistled contact call of the redwing has become a familiar sound around town over the recent week or so. In our garden, for instance (not far from Southend in Essex), we normally have a handful of redwing turn up a few times each winter, with the fieldfare being a far less frequent visitor. The 36 strong flock of the latter, with a couple of redwing thrown in for good measure, crowding into the crown of our cherry tree, was therefore a most welcome surprise.

Such icy shifts in the weather ask questions of our winter wildlife, as alluded to in the previous post (and a few winters back my parents had a woodcock spend the day in their back garden, something to which the supermarket shoppers over the back fence would have been quite unaware!). Next week the forecast is suggesting a change perhaps to the low-teens centigrade. Within a few days we might be seeing the first butterflies of the year!

Fieldfare – Turdus pilaris

N.B. I endeavour to use my own images with these posts, so for a clearer image of the fieldare you might want to click here.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | February 7, 2021

The tenacity of small things

A snowbound Pound Wood nature reserve

Snow comes to the South-east of England, with the promise of sub-zero temperatures for the days ahead and I find myself freshly fascinated by one small bird. This small birds is, in fact our (and Europe’s) most diminutive; the goldcrest is on average a shade more slight that the closely kin, firecrest.

The fascination in this instance stems from the bird’s eating habits. With probably more than a million goldcrest resident in the UK, plus many more that come here to winter, it enjoys a fairly numerous presence in this country. And while a realise that the British winter, especially down south, is a good deal milder than elsewhere in Europe, I still find it rather impressive of such a tiny bird, that it is resolutely insectivorous. A couple of our summer migrant warblers, namely the chiffchaff and blackcap who share a similar dietary predilection to the goldcrest, remain in the south of the UK for the winter, but both these birds will turn to fruit to tide them over through the tough times. Yet the goldcrest sticks to its guns.

Herein lies the tenacity of small things.

The decidedly diminutve goldcrest (Regulus regulus)

Posted by: Ross Gardner | January 26, 2021

Wild Geese

Winter is a time for flocks, of the birds in their millions that move southwards in search of conditions less harsh, be they Scandinavian thrushes, sandpipers or plovers, ducks or geese. It is to the last of these that my attentions are drawn to here.

The sight of wild geese, for me, carries with it something quite unique. They could be the pink-footed goose by the thousand, in a murmuring clamour overhead and drifting down skein after skein onto an East Anglian marsh. Or perhaps the gathered, soft and ceaselessly babbling brent geese crowding onto a coastal grazing marsh, edged off the shore by a rising tide. The brents come in their thousands close to where I live and their gatherings something I relish with fresh anticipation each year. The huge flocks of pink-feet that grace the Norfolk marshes (as well as elsewhere) I get to enjoy less frequently, but never a fail to provide a highlight on any winter visit to that county. Both come to us from well within the Arctic, bringing with them a breath of the wilderness to wherever they amass.

A flock a pink-footed geese (Anser brachyrynchus) pass high over the marshes at Horsey, Norfolk.

There is another I want to mention here, a bird not without some controversy. I was out just recently on the RSPB’s West Canvey Marshes. Across the fields were not the thousands aforementioned, but still geese in their hundreds. They were not pink-feet or brents, but Canada geese, non-natives introduced from North America initially some three centuries ago and widely scorned by birdwatchers and ornithologists as a result of their unintended misdemeanour. Opinions will always be divided and the debate is perhaps a healthy one; alien species can bring (and have brought) problems for native wildlife. With the Canada goose, its presence in our country has been a long one and it’s not likely to be going anywhere too soon – there are getting on for 200,000 spread across most of the UK. The 300 or so scattered across this Essex grazing marsh – some ambling purposefully among the tussocks and grazing the shorter turf, some just loafing or snoozing – were no less a ‘completer of pictures’ for their lack of true British lineage. The scene, I think, would have been poorer without them.

The ‘controversial’ Canada goose (Branta canadensis).
Posted by: Ross Gardner | December 23, 2020

Jackdaw

Jackdaw (Corvus monedula)

I have long been a fan of the crows, such canny and resourceful birds as the are. The jackdaw is no exception. I have enjoyed many a close encounter with this small and rather smartly adorned member of the clan, often involving visitors to the garden with a keener than usual interest in our alfresco dining habitats or nothing more than a generally inquisitive and somewhat mischievous curiosity in whatever we happen to be up to.

Much has been said about their intellectual qualities, as indeed there has about many species of crow. Konrad Lorenz, for example, sought an insight into the communication among his own free-flying flock of these most loquacious of birds, translating many of the numerous kiarrs and kraws that comprise their rich and varied ‘vocabulary’. It is often the case that a bird with a particularly developed syrinx (the organ that makes it possible for birds to produce their songs and calls) are those that can deliver the most complex and intricate songs. Crows however, buck that trend, having as they do this highly developed organ, but very little in terms of melodious song. It is something perhaps with crows that is put more towards the great array of communicative sounds that many of them possess, such as can easily be observed such birds as jackdaw, rook or raven.

It is my own increasingly crepuscular habits of late that bring the jackdaw to the pages of this blog. I have been enjoying many a dusk visit to my favoured haunts, such as is necessitated by the shortened winter days and correspondingly limited opportunities around work. It is this that has led me to the discovery of a jackdaw flock that comes together to settle among an expanse of dense scrub. With the light fading a couple of hundred birds gather for their wonderful preliminary winter roosting ritual. As one, the flock swoops and banks over the treetops, tricking the watcher into thinking that they’re about to descend before sweeping upwards into the sky. A turn this way and they almost disappear with the thin line of the wings angling straight ahead nearly lost in the grainy light; a turn that way and the full silhouette of the wings looking blacker than ever; all the time chattering and chuckling to each other as they perform their murmuration. It is not quite the 30-40,000 birds that can quite literally fill the air over the Norfolk Broads (click here for a short video that can only realistically provide an small inkling of such an extraordinay spectacle), but it is nevertheless a small thing of beauty and wonder.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | December 5, 2020

The sounds that birds make

I was in a wood yesterday evening, in the cold, grainy light of dusk. I heard the noise of a bird among the tree tops above me that I didn’t quite recognise. This is fairly unusual as I have come to know well the bird songs and calls one can normally expect to hear in the woods of the local area.

The bird in question turned out to be a green woodpecker, a very familiar bird around these parts. The noise though, was not the very distinctive laughing call of a ‘yaffling’ woodpecker. The wood was calm, with a stillness that softly, but firmly rebuffed the distant roar of Friday rush-hour traffic. It was a stillness that yielded the subtler sounds of the wood. It was the woodpecker’s wings that I had heard above me – whirring and then silent, whirring and then silent, reflecting the bird’s typically undulating flight, each burst of wing-beating accompanying with the quiet whistle of air over feathers. I was hard pushed to remember if I had ever consciously notice the beating of a green woodpecker’s wings before. The fact that the most familiar of places can still offer me fresh experiences made me smile.

Green Woopecker (Picus viridis)

Some birds are nevertheless, far more readily associated with noise of their passing. Aside from clatter of wings clapping through the branches, most, I would expect, be familiar with wheezing flight of the woodpigeon. What I didn’t notice however, until fairly recently, is how the very closely related stock dove makes a similar but subtly different sound, with a wheezing slightly more high-pitched and less obtrusive. This talk of flight sounds makes me remember well the bellbird of New Zealand whose briskly beating wings fairly warbled as they passed.

Later on in the wood half a dozen long-tailed tit flew just above me and fluttered like falling leaves onto the bare branches of tree in front of me. Even the sound of their tiny wings registered to my senses.

The Bellbird (Anthornis melanura) – endemic to New Zealand.
Posted by: Ross Gardner | November 18, 2020

A kestrel hovers

Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

There are few finer sights in nature than a kestrel hovering. I watched one today in the gathering dusk. I was standing on a slope so that the bird was almost level with me. It was the old name of ‘windhover’ that came to mind as it steadied itself in the rising wind, staring fixedly on the ground below.

A falcon aligns his head

To the centre point

Of the whole universe

From all angles a hunting kestrel is an image of beautifully sculpted efficiency. As I watched this one through my binoculars I twice saw it turn its head towards me to check that I posed no threat, but with scarcely yielding a centimetre to the wind. It barely need to flap its wings to hold its position in the gusting air, relying only on the deft, sometimes almost imperceptible angling of its tail and wings.

The fanning feathers of the tail

Slanting groundwards,

The primaries quivering

Upon the cloaked span of his wings,

Each are a mockery of the wind.

On sighting its prey it will descend in stages, dropping a few feet, then a few more, before slipping forcefully groundwards, with legs out-stretched and talons splayed open in expectation. If the likes of a vole or mouse proves to be the quarry, the falcon may have tracked it down by following the trail of urine visible to it as an ultra-violet reflection. Many are the adaptations of this most elegant hunter of small things.

(with excerts from the poem ‘A Kestrel Hovers’ by Ross Gardner)

Posted by: Ross Gardner | November 8, 2020

A wood of sounds

The dusk wood is a wood of sounds. Of a stillness infiltrated by the small noises and a silence that stays intact despite the extraneous sounds from without. Somewhere to listen for the lesser sounds absorbed by the daytime.

A thin, quiet, but somehow penetrating whistle as two Redwing pass by overhead on purposeful, rapidly beating wings – wings that have carried them many miles from the north in search of milder conditions and more plentiful food.

Pausing in the dip of small stream valley I can hear the leafy fidgeting of magpies settling to roost. A pipistrelle flickers past me, making good of this unusually mild November weather. This way and that, it flies within inches of me so that I can hear the soft flutter of its wings as it passes.

I walk on in the direction of the sound of shrieking foxes. I don’t see them, but I hear the rustling of smaller creatures in the undergrowth as I pass; a wood mouse perhaps, or a bank vole nosing among the leaf-litter. Or are they just the sounds of autumn leaves tickling through the branches above, the same that shower down when my passing rattles the woodpigeons from their tenuous slumber. It is that softer leafy sound that accompanies me throughout as the dusk easy into night.

Bank Vole (Myodes glareolus)

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