Posted by: Ross Gardner | November 18, 2018

The element of surprise

One of the greatest compulsions of the natural world is its apparently unending capacity for surprise.  This I was reminded of, very recently, by…… some ducks.

The Mallard is perhaps the most familiar of all British duck.  The Wigeon and Teal perhaps less so, but any who were inclined to take an interest in birds would quite soon become acquainted with them; while breeding populations may be small, both winter around the UK in their hundreds of thousands.  I have watched all three of these species more times than I could remember, yet yesterday I saw a behaviour I had never seen before.

Teal 4 (scaled)

The Teal (Anas crecca) is a common winter visitor to the UK.

At the RSPB’s West Canvey Marshes reserve there is a long, open body of water.  At one end it terminates in a sloping bank, not too steep and colonised in the drier part of the year with a weedy growth of plants.  On this occasion it was alive with ducks, of the above-mentioned species.  At any given moment two or three dozen of them could be seen running up the bank, busying themselves amongst the mud around the plants and then waddling just as purposefully back down to the water’s edge to ‘drink’.

This was most intriguing to watch, all these ducks running their perfectly straight lines, up and down from the water and back.  Two theories I have for this behaviour; someone reading this might know for certain.  At first I pondered whether they were taking advantage of a windfall of seeds fallen from the plants growing on the bank, scurrying up to gather a beakful, but requiring a good drink so as to swallow the dry food.  Then I wondered if instead they had discovered an abundance of some invertebrate or other, thriving in the mud at the top of the bank, taking in what they could before returning to the edge to take on water so as to more effectively sieve them from the substrate.  The latter, I think, seems the most likely.

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The fleet at West Canvey Marshes.

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Posted by: Ross Gardner | October 28, 2018

A Wild Rover

So the autumn finally decides to feel a bit more like autumn, arguably taking a temporary swing towards the winter to come. Yet a few days before we were still extolling the virtues of rather more than a mere lingering warmth of a summer already quite distant – all Comma butterflies and dragonflies, bumblebees and even reptiles.

And there was another among this list of warmth loving animals, one that I’m always happy to renew an acquaintance with.  The rather ominously monikered Devil’s Coach-horse is a creature that stands out in the memory as one those that made a particular impression on me as a boy, like the little-finger-sized Emperor Moth caterpillars that inhabited the bramble-filled wasteground near where I lived and Slow-worm that used to frequent the garden.

The Devil’s Coach-horse, for the initiated, is a beetle (Ocypus olens) and a member of the huge family of Rove Beetles (Staphylinidae) with more than 60,000 species world-wide.  The 1000 or so that live in the UK account for around a quarter of the national beetle fauna.  Most are typified by a narrow, elongated body shape and short wings that, unlike other beetles, exposes a greater part of the abdomen.  The Devil’s Coach-horse is no different and at around 3cm long is also our largest species.  They are formidable looking creatures, equipped with powerful jaws with which they doubtlessly terrorise the smaller animals which may happen across their path and on which they feed.

The thing that perhaps really sets them apart and maybe can especially capture the imagination of an impressionable young boy, is the threat display exhibited when alarmed.  The abdomen is curled upwards and forwards scorpion style, as is more than ably demonstrated by the insect I encountered and photographed below.  They of course have no sting and are harmless to humans, but they do have quite an array of deterrents for any would be predators, from fluid issued from the mouth, to noxious chemicals produced by glands on the tip of the abdomen, to the releasing plain old fecal matter from the anus.  These latter qualities I was not aware of as a lad, but I’m sure that especially the last listed would only have served to enhance the appeal of these splendid little beasts.

Ocypus olens (scaled)

Devil’s Coach-horse (Ocypus olens). Copyright 2018 Ross Gardner.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | October 23, 2018

Of wind and wonder

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Aust Cliff

A breezy day yesterday at Walton-on-the-Naze put me in mind of some verse I had penned a few years back, for a different place but at the same time of the season.  For both the attraction was the same – the lure of fossils on a beach.  That previous location however, was far from Northeast Essex coast at Walton.  It was the other side of the country in fact, in the lea of the red and grey facade of Aust Cliff, on the banks of the River Severn, in view, pretty much, of the Severn Bridge.  And instead of the Eocene exposure of the crumbling east coast cliff, bearing its hoard of 50 million year old shark teeth and more recent (but still ancient) fossil shells and fragments of whalebone, those western cliffs yield Triassic fossils of much older origins, 200 million years before – shark teeth also, but maybe for very fortunate bone fragments of plesioraurs and ichthyosours.

But while the fossil hunting was not especially successful it was the wind that day which stuck in the memory…

Storm Rising
The wind drums at the cliff-face,
Through bridges, beneath the eaves
Of houses facing the blast.
Rattles the flashing leaves
Of poplars seething with every
Grabbing, grappling gust.
Churns a chocolate sea, breaking
Over wave-smoothed mud
In a foam of creaming surf.
Boomerangs the gulls above,
Throws starlings looping
Over fields of quivering turf.
Tolerates a kestrel hanging
In a precarious hover,
Defying the rush of air.
The wind shuns each feather,
The elements of sea and stone,
Raising its voice to the Earth's ear.

 

 

Posted by: Ross Gardner | October 8, 2018

Raptors

It’s not often you get a five raptor day within a stone’s throw of the South Essex urban sprawl.  This though, was very much the case last weekend.

As I have made mention of more than once within the pages of this blog, amid this spread towns and industry are to be discover considerable stretches of open country.  So it was yesterday that I found myself walking the seawall around the RSPB’s West Canvey Marshes reserve, the remarkable brownfield reserve of Canvey Wick (an entomologists treasure trove in due season) and their adjoining acres.  This all comprises a landscape of grazing land, dykes and ditches, scrub and saltwater creek frontage.  It is an area not unknown by local naturalists as a potential draw of wandering birds of prey, not only raptors, but owls too.

Marsh Harrier 4b (scaled)

Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus).

First up was a beautiful female Marsh Harrier, all brown, but for her creamy yellow crown.  She was loafing over the saltmarsh on easy, languid wing-beats, showing only the faintest interest in the Curlew she had spooked beneath her.  Not long after a Buzzard sailed overhead, much to the chagrin of the Carrion Crow paying its close, harrying attention.  I am always impressed by these birds, something which is undiminished by their resurgence of recent years and returning to former, long vacated haunts.  Their occurrence around these part is becoming increasingly regular.

Buzzard - close-up (scaled)

Buzzard (Buteo buteo).

The Peregrine racing over the fields an hour or two later was indeed a treat, perhaps one of the two birds I had seen a few miles eastward a couple of weeks back.  Even before the slate-grey upperparts are clocked, these birds a quite unmistakable; undoubtedly a falcon with all its narrow-winged aerodynamism; undoubtedly a peregrine, emanating that sense of predatory power and robustness.  The recovery of the Peregrine from the pesticide disasters of the mid-20th century is well-known, to the extent that they now inhabit many of the UK’s larger towns and cities, enjoying rich pickings from the thriving populations of city pigeons.  As birds general quite faithful to their breeding areas, there is however, a small proportion of these falcons given to migratory movements and so some of those that haunt the coastal landscapes during the winter may well have their origins in Scandinavian Europe.

The Kestrel, I am pleased to say, have long been a feature of such places, but its presence here today no less a welcome one.  The last of the five though, was perhaps the biggest treat of all.  It was provided by a Merlin fly-by.  These are the smallest falcon, scarcely bigger (if at all) than a Blackbird.  They are hunters of upland realms during the breeding season, dispersing, often to coastal areas for the winter and perhaps joined also by migrants from Northern Europe.

It’s not often that birdwatching pans out quite as conveniently as this, but when it does it is good fortune to be cherished.

 

Posted by: Ross Gardner | September 30, 2018

Shingle

Shingle

My hands are the sea, dug deep

To feel garnered warmth

And the waves clawing at the beach.

Wringing songs from the stones,

Cajoling and coercive,

Gathering voices towards a tumult

Only to recede unfulfilled

In a softly sibilant hush.

The shingle wins and the shingle losses

And small things pick up the pieces.

Chesil beach and The Fleet (scaled)

Chesil Beach, Dorset.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | September 23, 2018

A Collective Interest

Funny how quite trivial, random occurrences can set the mind thinking along equally unexpected pathways.  In this instance it was the chance noticing in the back of a 1981 edition of the Collins Pocket Dictionary (a book which among others I had rescued from the oblivion of landfill) of a page of collective nouns.  It provided a few minutes enjoyable distraction from whatever it was I was supposed to be doing at the time, enough indeed to write about it here.

Brent Geese on the wing (scaled)

Winter flocks Brent Geese (Branta bernicla) gather in their thousand around the sheltered coasts and estuaries of Britain.

Many in the list were fairly run-of-the-mill; the herds of this and flocks of that.  Others though had clearly, some time in the past, caught the imagination of their observers, leading thoughts toward the pleasingly onomatopoeic and occasionally, it would appear, to a decidedly poetic turn of phrase.  Of the former, a ‘gaggle of geese’ is a very well-known and most apt case in point, as anyone who has listened to the gathering winter flocks of Pink-feet and Brents would no doubt testify; the word gaggle is derived from the Old English gagelen – to cackle.  Others, like ‘a leap of leopards’, ‘a chattering of choughs’ or ‘a pack of hounds’, provide no less descriptive examples.

Of those more poetic turns the ‘charm of goldfinches’ is known by many and as indisputable as the geese above.  With such colourful appearance and sweet, jangling music how could they be regarded as anything other than charming?  There were others on the list however, that demonstrate a similar sense of intimacy possessed by the onlooker that first expressed them.  An ‘exaltation of larks’ requires little explanation given the beautiful, soaring songs of the male birds in spring.  The ‘shrewdness of apes’ puts me very much in mind the Orang-utan I was lucky enough to see in the forests of Borneo last year.  They would often tolerate our inquisitiveness and often not stir from their lofty vantage, looking back at us with a kind of sleepy thoughtfulness.  Yet always, one could sense, they remained quietly alert and harbouring, I dare say, their own thoughts about ourselves.

Orang-utan and baby at Danum (scaled)

Orang-utan mother and young one in the Danum Valley, Borneo.

One of my favourites though is ‘a wisp of snipe’.  A glance at the same dictionary defines a ‘wisp’ variously as “a small bunch or tuft“, or as “something delicate, frail, etc“, things which in their own way describe the demeanour of the birds on some winter marsh, huddling cryptically among the tussocks, or flushed from cover and that small shape arcing upwards into the grey sky and lost from view amid heaving, portentous clouds.

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Snipe (Gallinago gallinago). Copyright 2017 Ross Gardner

Posted by: Ross Gardner | September 16, 2018

Still Summer

Black-tailed Godwit flock (scaled)

Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa) gathering on the Essex coast.

But for the subtler signs of the seasonal change in the countryside, yesterday was a day plucked from a week in mid-summer rather than one in mid-September, delightfully warm and full of small, summery life.

The Essex coastal marshes are bearing the slow shift towards autumn, with their steadily growing hordes of birds that will have amassed to impressive quantities come the days of autumn proper; the likes of the Black-tailed Godwit gathered in their hundreds and the Teal scattered already plentifully along the low-tide water of the creek.  Yet a couple of hundred metres inland, among the grassy habitats and the woodland edge, butterflies flitted, maybe not with the intensity and number of a month previous, but all the same in a most pleasing number and diversity.

I was pleasantly surprised by the eight species I saw given the lateness of the season.  Among these were a number of Meadow Brown, somewhat unexpectedly as they rarely seem to fly far into September in these parts.  Less surprising perhaps were the Small Copper, Small Heath and Common Blue, the latter which seem to have enjoyed a particularly good year.  The Speckled Wood could still be seen, patrolling and basking in the lea of the woods or within their pool of light filling a gap in the tree canopy, while another Wall Brown fly by cautiously leads me to hope that this much declined butterfly is, locally at least, enjoying improved fortunes.

Pick of the day though was a certain Clouded Yellow, one in particular from the several that I encountered.  These are migrants to Britain, unable to survive our winters.  This one just seemed to gleam a sharper, brighter, almost lemon-yellow than its nevertheless beautiful fellows that I had seen earlier.

I don’t lament the gathering influence of the autumn as some folk might, but I am still given to cherish whole-heartedly these bonus days of summer

Clouded Yellow 4 (scaled)

A stunning Clouded Yellow (Colias croceus).

Posted by: Ross Gardner | September 9, 2018

Bush-crickets and Books

I hope you will forgive me the indulgence of staying with the subject of my last post for a bit longer so as to allow me to sing the not inconsiderable praises of one of my all-time favourite creatures.

It is not back to the New Forest I take you though, but to that special part of my home patch which I wrote of a few weeks before, the place I affectionately call ‘The Downs’, a wonderful area of wildlife habitat existing almost cheek by jowl with the urban sprawl of South Essex.  The creature in question is Britain’s largest species of Orthoptera (crickets and grasshoppers).  Muscling in with a length of 50mm or more and large enough to deliver a painful bite if not handled carefully is the undeniably impressive Great Green Bush-cricket (Tettigonia viridissima).  I had heard them on several occasions on my recent trip to the New Forest and Dorset and was delighted to finally lay eyes on one on my own doorstep……

Great Green Bush-cricket 5 (scaled)

Great Green Bush-cricket (Tettigonia viridissima)

They are not a particularly common insect in the UK, being restricted to the southern reaches of England and the extreme south of Wales and decidedly local within their distribution.  Where they do occur they may do so in number, a state if affairs which I am happy to say is the case over The Downs.  Even so – and despite a loud, far-carrying ‘song’ (that has been likened to the sound of a sewing-machine) – they can be surprising hard to locate.  Their song can be frustratingly ventriloquial and they are superbly camouflaged for a life clambering among the brambles and bracken.  It is always a treat to reacquaint myself with them and well worth a few thorn scratches on bare legs in doing so.

While I’m here, a quick note as regards a talk I am giving on my book ‘The Greater World of Little Things‘ for the Essex Wildlife Trust, Maldon and South Woodham Ferrers group on 12th September.  Click here for details.  If you happen to live near by it would be great to see you there.

Front cover WLT

Posted by: Ross Gardner | September 2, 2018

A many-jewelled crown

Mottled Grasshopper 6 (scaled)

Mottled Grasshopper (Myrmeleotettix maculatus). Ross Gardner 2018.

The New Forest is a special place.  It is special, of course, as a beautiful and historic landscape, but for the naturalist it is in many respects exceptional and, in a UK context, quite unique.  There are many of those inhabitants of The Greater World of Little Things  that find a British stronghold here and a few that have been found nowhere else in the country.  It seems that whenever I visit here I find something I’ve never seen before.

This summer it was with an eye for its Orthoptera (but not, I should add, exclusively) that I returned the place.  While some things may have passed their peak – the butterflies for example, or the early summer flush of wildflowers – mid-August is high-time for crickets and grasshoppers.  There was one in particular that holds a special enigma for me, the Large Marsh Grasshopper (Stethophyma grossum) – at up to 36mm our biggest grasshopper and being more or less restricted to the counties of Dorset and Hampshire also one of our rarest.

It was also one I’d never laid eyes on.  Being inhabitants of decidedly squidgy quaking bogs on acid heathland they are not exactly the easiest to track down.  Yes, I could go squelching in search of them, but I’d rather not be one of those people who risk precipitating potential damage to the habitat of the creatures they seek.  Restricting my searches to the edges of appropriate habitat I was thus reducing my chances of success.  But hey-ho, there was much else to be found.  Mottled Grasshopper (Myrmeleotettix maculatus) for one, certainly no rarity, but in their own way quite stunning little insects that come in a bewildering variety of colour schemes but quite easily identified with practice (very sharply indented side-keels are a most useful feature).  The Heath Grasshopper (Chorthippus vagans) is a something of a rarity, but one which in some areas of the dry heath were decidedly numerous.  And even being frustrated by a lack of Large Marsh sightings, finding the impressive Raft Spider (Dolomedes fimbriatus) was always a treat.

Raft Spider 4 (scaled)

Raft Spider (Dolomedes fimbriatus). Ross Gardner 2018.

And yes, just when I thought I had run out of time and opportunity, I did find my prize beastie.  A movement out of the corner of the eye and a rather fabulous creature settling down to munch on a grass-blade.

Large Marsh Grasshopper 4 (scaled)

Large Marsh Grasshopper (Stethophyma grossum). Ross Gardner 2018.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | August 30, 2018

The Watcher in the Rain

Redstart 6 (resize)

Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus)

I love having a campervan in the rain, not perhaps something that many would find normal.  Sat here in a wet New Forest car park in late August and I can see a decidedly forlorn looking icecream van, without its queue of sugar-hungry kinds (and adults, of course).  I’ve watched people head off, in couples and families, ponchoed and raincoated, striding away with that distinctly British demeanour of ‘making the most of things’ and maybe uttering to themselves a mantra something like “we’d never do anything if we were worried about a bit of rain.”  I’ve watched a few head back too, some who had evidently seen a weather forecast before they had started off – appropriately attired as they were – and others more bedraggled, having been led into that fateful summer sense of security.

I have watched also a Redstart, flutter onto a perch in  a curiously globular, stunted little holly tree; a perch made for bird and birdwatcher alike and curious in itself by the way it protrudes just perfectly for a bird to land upon and for the watcher to observe it.  It may not be one of those very sharply dressed spring-time males, but still a beautiful little bird for all its subtlety of plumage.  It hops away from view, but I can still hear it uttering its soft phweet of a call from somewhere inside the spiky foliage.  Then I see it again, fluttering around the silver-barked bole, trying, it appears, to hover long enough to snatch tiny flies out of the air, all the while flashing its richly-red rump and tail.  It alights once more on its protruding perch and remains there for a minute until seen off by a Robin.  Room enough for just one rufously adorned bird in this patch of the Forest it would seem.

Thus passed one of those memorable 5 or 10 minutes that happens every once in a while to those with an inclination towards the things of nature.  A simple exchange, effortless in its proceeding, yet profound in its significance.  I borrow for a few moments this window on the world and see, in a glimpse, a small part of its inner workings

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