Tuesday 28 September 2010

Beautiful Birds (7): Chuffed - or Choughed - to Bits!

We headed off to St Davids (no apostrophe in the name for some reason) in Pembrokeshire, West Wales, last Saturday in the hope that we might spot some young seals along the coast. You can see one of the fluffy pups we saw last year if you click the link here to my seal photo and accompanying poem. Please feel free to cast a vote or leave a comment for any of the poems in the competition. You will see a link to them all at the bottom of the linked page. I believe the poll closes at the end of this month.

Sadly there were no pups in evidence this year, though we heard that some had been spotted earlier in the week before the gale. Even worse: we saw a dead seal on the shore. Thankfully the one above was alive and kicking. I think (s)he may be quite a veteran.

We were just leaving the cliff path when we noticed a streak of red and realised that it was the curved bill of a Chough. I have only seen these birds twice before, but they are not as rare as they were a few years ago. As you can see, it turned out to be two for the price of one!

Be sure to look at Adam Tilt's stunning Chough photos here - and his footage of an Otter in Pembrokeshire. 

Friday 24 September 2010

Butterflies and Moths (11): The Hummingbird Hawk-Moth

Hummingbird Hawk-Moth at Methoni, Messenia, Greece

David and I have occasionally seen the odd Hummingbird Hawk-Moth in the UK, but this summer has been a bumper year for us. The first examples we saw were flitting and fluttering around the castle walls at Dinefwr near Llandeilo in Wales. They were well camouflaged against the stone - and they proved far too fast to catch on camera. Their name in Latin, Macroglossum stellatarum (Linnaeus, 1758), presumably means large tongue (or proboscis, used for extracting nectar), and I imagine the second word must relate to stars.

We were particularly delighted to find a 'flock' of these feathery creatures, making their way along the row of geraniums outside our apartment in the Pylos area of Messenia in the western Peloponnese. 

We made a couple of visits to Methoni with its vast castle, where more of these moths were attracted to the pink pea-like flower you can see in the top photograph. 

The picture below shows the tower promontory, or Bourtzi, comprising a tiny fortified island at the seaward end of the castro with its Venetian walls. This part of Greece is steeped in legend: Homer assigned the epithet, 'rich in vines', to Methoni. Much later on, Cervantes is said (by some) to have been a prisoner here: his experiences are recorded in Don Quixote.  

Methoni, Messenia, Greece

Above and Below: Hummingbird Hawk-Moth in Yialova, Messenia, Greece

Wednesday 22 September 2010

Butterflies and Moths (10): The Tiger reigns in Greece

Like Odysseus, the wanderer has returned ...

I have just spent a special holiday week in the Pylos area of the Western Peloponnese in Greece. You can see Pylos harbour in the photograph below. It was my first time out of the UK in almost a decade, and my first return visit to Greece in almost a quarter of a century. The weather was a steady 30 degrees Centigrade and the sea a sparkling Aegean Blue. We saw colourful examples of fauna and flora, some of which I hope to share with you in the coming days.

Homer speaks of 'sandy Pylos', the home of King Nestor, who offers hospitality to Telemachus, son of Odysseus. Telemachus arrives by sea in search of his father, who has yet to return to the island of Ithaca from the war in Troy. Archaeologists are currently trying to assess a complex on the island, which may (or may not) have been home to the heroes. There have, of course, been other similar investigations.

Given this background, it seemed appropriate to stick with the theme of journeys - so I will begin with a migrating butterfly. I believe it is a relative of the Monarch Danaus plexippus, called the Plain Tiger Danaus chrysippus. The plant in my photograph below is a species of Butterfly (Milk)Weed, also known as Pleurisy Root or Asclepias tuberosa.

You can read about these rare migrant Tigers on the Greek Birding blog here. Although they are not often seen in Greece, they are a common sight in India. You will notice one on the header of Kanak's lovely blog.

[Postscript: Kanak has kindly informed me that the species on her header is in fact 'the Red Lacewing'. She adds 'I do have quite a few photos of the Plain Tiger in my old blog', which we can find here. Many thanks, Kanak, for your help]

The bright orange colour serves as a warning to predators. The butterfly can fake death and emit a foul liquid, which will cause illness in a potential predator. Other less toxic butterflies, e.g. the Diadem Hypolimnas misippus, mimic the stunning amber appearance as a form of protection (see Batesian mimicry). The Tiger is one of the earliest butterflies to appear in extant art. A 3500 year old fresco from Thebes aka Luxor (Egypt) depicts an artist's impression of this species.

Tigers lay their eggs on Butterfly Weed; but I have a feeling that the web below may belong to another butterfly species, as I have been unable to ascertain that these butterflies spin webs. I have come across lepidoptera webs before, but never in Greece. Do let me know if you can identify the secret spinner!

Thursday 9 September 2010

Squirrels (1): Red Squirrels in Scotland

I was delighted to see Red Squirrels in Scotland back in June. There is a magnificent Fox Squirrel on Naquillity's blog (do take a look here), so I thought it was about time my squirrel photos had an outing, too.

My Squirrel photography is far from brilliant here: you can either blame the midges, the dark shade in the wood or the fact that this was my first experiment with a small tripod and maximum zoom.

We had been told that we might see a Red Squirrel in woodland not far from Kingussie. It was a real thrill when we caught sight of several at once. They were extremely active.

Grey Squirrels were among the first creatures I saw as a young child in Greenwich Park, but Red Squirrels are rare these days. I last saw one or two some years ago on Brownsea Island (where I bought my first binoculars!). Have you seen any recently?

Wednesday 1 September 2010

Orthoptera (2): Grasshopper or Cricket?

Having posted about a Grasshopper in my last post (also on our car windscreen), I thought it would make sense to post this creature here. It was actually spotted in September 2009 in Wiltshire. Judging by the long antennae, I guess it may be a Cricket. There are ten species of Bush Cricket in Britain, apparently.

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