Thursday, 29 May 2014

Sand Martins at RSPB Minsmere

We continue to be avid watchers of BBC Springwatch from RSPB Minsmere, our (pretty) local nature reserve. The photo above shows a sandy cliff on the reserve, and you can see where sand has been 'burrowed out' by ... 

... Sand Martins, who are among the first spring migrants to appear in Suffolk from their winter quarters, south of the Sahara.

The tunnels can be almost a metre in length.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Newts - and BBC Springwatch - at RSPB Minsmere

© David Gill (cropped by me)

We were very excited when we heard that the BBC Springwatch programmes would be coming from RSPB Minsmere, which is a reserve we thought we knew quite well. The first programme has already put paid to that feeling as we found ourselves learning a number of new facts as we watched the screen last night.

However, we made a new 'discovery' of our own at the weekend when we noticed several newts on site. Does anyone know if there is a collective term for them? I know very little about these attractive creatures, but we soon realised that there appeared to be more than one species in the water.

We had hoped that the newt in David's photo above was going to be a Crested Newt, a variety we had not seen, but I suspect the red belly points to an ID of a male Smooth or Common Newt (Lissotriton vulgaris / Triturus vulgaris) since these amphibians display crests during the breeding season. You can read more about them on the ARKive site. You can read about their conservation status here and about their protection under the law here

If you are reading this blog and can confirm or refute my tentative identification for the newt above, I would be extremely grateful! To complicate matters somewhat, I understand that the Great Crested Newt can have an orange underside ...

The light conditions made it difficult to catch a good glimpse of the creatures, but we enjoyed seeing them all the same. The newt photographs below have been cropped and enlarged. I had been looking for dragonflies and damselflies, so the newts were an added and unexpected bonus!

Springwatch at RSPB Minsmere

Thursday, 15 May 2014

(First) Large Red Damselfly in Home Patch

We saw our first (Migrant Hawker) dragonfly in our garden in August 2012, but had not seen any damselflies, so I was particularly excited to find this Large Red female on the Escallonia yesterday morning. She was still in the garden today, although in a slightly different spot. 

The Large Red Damselfly is one of the earliest to take wing. The photo below shows the thin red band around the pronotum. Males do not have the yellow ring around the base of each abdominal segment.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Quiz Time: What breed of Bird is this Baby?

I was delighted when I looked out yesterday through the glass of the patio door and saw this little bundle of feathers - but was it a young Dunnock or a baby Robin? Do let me know your thoughts on this! The fledgling appeared at first to be sunning itself and relaxing (do birds 'relax'?) under its orange Geum parasol.

The bird began to lift a wing, making it look as if it was some effort to do so. At this point I felt a little concerned, knowing that neighbouring cats sometimes pass this way. I wondered if the fledgling had fallen out of its nest or whether it had become exhausted after its first solo flight. 

I became more concerned as it rolled on its side. I continued to watch through the glass, knowing that I should stay put and make as little noise as possible. 

The bird extended its wing a bit further. I have seen adult Blackbirds, doing this, particularly in warm weather.

Some long minutes later, the little chap raised its head and began to look more alert. 

It opened its bill, and if I had been outside, I expect I would have heard a cheep, cheep sound. 

The fledgling turned its head towards the shrubs at the back of the garden ...

... before turning in my direction. Then it took off and flew over the fence as if nothing unusual had occurred.

If the youngster is a Dunnock, it will keep pretty much the same colouring as it grows. If it is a Robin, I hope it will soon look as strong and sleek as the adult bird in the photo below!

  • The RSPB has some excellent advice about baby birds on this page.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Carlton Marshes ... Spiders and Fluff

The fluffy thing above is a mystery is to me. Is it a moth cocoon? We saw it on Monday at Carlton Marshes. I feel I have seen this sort of thing before, but may be thinking of a kind of feather or the fluff from Rosebay Willowherb! Do please let me know if you have an idea ...

© David Gill 2014

The web contraptions in the pictures above and below definitely marked a couple of spiders' lairs.

Carlton Marshes is one of only a very few sites in the UK where you can find Fen Raft Spiders. I have not been lucky yet, but one of these days we hope to see one. Meanwhile I shall enjoy their blog ... here!

Friday, 9 May 2014

Carlton Marshes Nature Reserve

We spent much of Bank Holiday Monday here at Carlton Marshes, a nature reserve in the care of the Suffolk Wildlife Trust. The small bird (is it perhaps a Whitethroat?) was singing from the highest point of the willow as we arrived.

The Carlton Marshes reserve comprises fen, meadow and waterway. The tranquil views always remind me of a Cuyp landscape - and, of course, the Netherlands are not far away!

The bushes and trees were alive with birdsong. Summer migrants continue to arrive - though I have yet to see a Swift.

This small iridescent beetle attracted my attention. I assumed at first that it was a Dock Beetle, but with its marked triangular scutellum behind the pronotum and between the forewing bases, I am not so sure. It was very small (the size of an average 7-spot Ladybird). I don't believe it was a rare Rose Chafer Beetle, (the size of a small fingernail), though I was interested to discover that these beetles had been recorded in Suffolk in the last five years.

The sun came out intermittently, encouraging insects to show their faces. I think the creature below is a Common Cranefly.

We were thrilled to find our first Damselfly of 2014, which you can see in the photo below. I have not been able to identify it with any certainty yet, but its opaque grey-blue eyes must surely provide a clue.

We also saw our first Dragonflies of the year in the form of a couple of Hairy Dragonflies, members of the Hawker family, who were too quick for my camera.

The marshy areas were alive with butterflies. Most were Orange-tips, but this seems to be a Green-veined White.

Up until last Monday the only caterpillars I had seen this year may well have been from Brown-tail Moths since they were in tents on the Blackthorn bushes we passed on our way back from Stansted Airport some weeks ago. As you can see from the photo below, that situation has now been rectified ...

I seem to be drawn to red and black insects, but this fine specimen below is (to state the obvious) not a Ladybird. It is a Red-and-Black Froghopper, one of the largest homopterans in the UK.

I see I spotted one of these a year ago at Carlton Marshes.

This time we saw three.

And finally, our eyes alerted on another red and black insect lurking in the verge - a 2-spot Ladybird, and my first of 2014. It seemed very small. I shall be recording it on the UK Ladybird Survey.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Tree Following ~ April to May

This post is the third in my Tree Following series, part of a wider project run by Lucy Corrander from the Loose and Leafy blog. I am following a Silver Birch in Suffolk, UK, which you can see in the first photo below. You will find the other Tree Follower links for May 2014 here

On my last 'Tree Following' post I added the Starling (red conservation status) to my list of birds who congregate on or around my tree. The bird visited the feeder on 9 March, returning on 14 March with a mate. Since then a small flock of about five Starlings have discovered the fatballs which hang from the Silver Birch. The Great Spotted Woodpecker, seen previously in March, has re-visited the feeder once this month. We think she was heading for an ivy-clad tree some distance away.

More about my other feathered friends in a moment.

My Silver Birch

As you can see, spring is burgeoning in the garden, and we are about to move from our rainbow season of sun and April showers into the 'darling buds of May'. Here is a silver birch catkin, dangling down amid the vibrant green of the growing leaves.

I had spotted one Small Tortoiseshell butterfly last month in my Silver Birch patch, and since then there have been one or two more. This one in the photo below alighted on a Dandelion.

A number of Small Whites have flitted through my garden, but they have been too quick for my camera. I was delighted to see my first Orange Tip of the season just over a week ago. Females are white all over, so who knows, some of my 'Whites' may actually have been other 'Orange Tips' in disguise!

Orange Tip (male), my first one of the year seen 28 April 2014

There have been a few Ladybirds in the garden, but only two in the Silver Birch area, including the one in the photo below. It looked suspiciously like a Harlequin with all those spots, and I fear it is indeed just that, with its distinctive 'M' pronotum pattern. I shall be logging it on the Harlequin Ladybird Survey

It's always interesting to find a mystery insect! The creature below was flitting about in the grass, just below the Silver Birch one sunny morning some days ago. I don't think the long white projections are antennae: I'm guessing they were just part of the undergrowth, but who knows. If you can help with an ID, I would be delighted. The insect was little more than the size of a finger nail. It looks to me a bit like a sailor or soldier beetle, but I'm not convinced that its colouring fits. I also wondered if it could be a micro-moth ...  

Moths are becoming active, and this one below was making its way through the mossy undergrowth that the birds had disturbed, presumably as nest linings of choice.

During the course of the month, possibly as a result of the Magpies who have been dive-bombing the feeders, this piece of bark covering fell to the ground. I decided to leave it where it was lying in the hope that it would provide a good home for an insect of one kind or another.

The feisty Robin has not deserted the Silver Birch. Here he is looking particularly shifty ...

... and here is one of the Starlings. You can see from the drooping stems on the lower left of the photo below that April's Daffodils have given way to a carpet of Daisies and Dandelions.

I only learned recently that the Starling's bill turns yellow in the breeding season.

These birds will do all kinds of acrobatics for a sliver of coconut!

The Silver Birch is providing a vibrant green backdrop in my garden, but there are other shades, too, such as the emerging blue of the Ceanothus ...

... and the Easter white of our miniature cherry, which produced blossom for the first time this spring.

As one flower open, another turns to the dispersal of seeds ...

The Silver Birch, however, continues to display male and female catkins. The male ones are golden brown: they hang down while the female ones are slender and green. The female ones point skywards, as in the photo below.

There are quite a few male catkins on the grass ...

... but there are still plenty left on the tree.

Postscript ...

I knew very little about Silver Birch trees before I began to take part in Lucy's Tree Following project. It has opened my eyes and made me more aware of the trees around me. On a recent visit to Anglesey Abbey near Cambridge, I had the chance to re-visit my favourite stand of birch trees. I think you will agree that they are worth a peep through the open door.

So here we are, with David posing for me, in this enchanting grove. Last time I was here it was winter, when the white trunks took on a stark appearance. This time they sparkled, set off by the vibrant shade of tulip below.

Betula utilis var jaquemontii (Himalayan birch)
These trees come from the Himalayas, but you can easily see the similarities when you compare them with my tree - the silvery bark and the 'feathery' effect of the leaves.

I love looking up through this light canopy to the sky ...

... and I also enjoy taking a close look at the papery bark. The layers remind me of the skin of an onion.

The horizontal lines in the photo above, which are also present on my Silver Birch, are called lenticels. You also find lenticel blemishes on the skin of fruit such as apples. These pore marks or breaks in the surface allow key gases like oxygen to penetrate the trunk and reach the cells inside.

I have enjoyed comparing and contrasting the appearance of my pockmarked European Silver Birch (Betula pendula) with these pristine birch trees (Betula utilis var jaquemontii) from the upland Himalayan regions of Asia. The word utilis immediately implies 'use' or 'usefulness', and I am not surprised to discover that the bark was turned into writing material for Sanskrit texts. This Asian species of birch has also been a key source of firewood.

The photo above shows a corner of the Abbey, and the one below shows leafy walk along the stream by the mill, with what I take to be the same species as 'my' birch, Betula pendula.

Next month's post will be about the summer, as we move from May in all its verdure into the heat of flaming June. The year is whizzing by!