Wednesday 29 May 2013

Beautiful Birds: Common Tern at Oulton Broad

Oulton Broad
During our day at the Carlton Marshes Nature Reserve near Lowestoft, we spent some time watching the boats on Oulton Broad. There were a few gulls about, but one of them looked a bit different. I reached for my binoculars and saw this Common Tern, resting on the covered boom of a sailing craft. Perhaps it had just arrived in the UK. I have seen Terns on the island of Skye, but this was a first East Anglian sighting for me, despite the fact that the Tern is the icon of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust.

A resting Tern

So I will add it to my 2013 list, along with some other birds that I have encountered since my list of 8 April. Other species of bird seen since that date include ...

  • Common Tern (Oulton Broad)
  • Hobby (RSPB Minsmere) - a first sighting
  • Common Crane (Norfolk) - definitely a first sighting for me!
  • Puffin (RSPB Bempton Cliffs)
  • Gannet (ditto)
  • Kittiwake (ditto)
  • Fulmar (ditto)
  • Guillemot (ditto)
  • Razorbill (ditto)
  • Cuckoo (Essex)
  • Black-tailed Godwit (WWT Welney)
  • Sedge Warbler (WWT Welney)
  • Swallow (SWT Carlton Marshes)
  • Bullfinch (home patch)
  • Sparrowhawk (home patch)
  • Lesser Redpoll (NT Wicken Fen)
  • Reed Bunting (NT Wicken Fen)

Eye-Catching Insects: Red-and-Black Froghopper at Carlton Marshes

We spent part of the weekend at Carlton Marshes, a nature reserve under the care of the Suffolk Wildlife Trust near Lowestoft. I am always on the look-out for Ladybirds, and as I scanned the grassy verge at the edge of the car park, a red insect caught my eye. I could see immediately, even from some distance, that it was not a Ladybird. I grabbed my camera for a record shot, before moving a little closer.

I have only seen one of these insects once before - and that was at Sutton Hoo last year. The insect is, I believe, a Red-and-Black Froghopper (Cercopis vulnerata). I saw the Sutton Hoo one on 6 June 2012, so around the same time of year.

This insect is one of our largest Homopterans. These bugs are close relatives of our Hemiptera: both classes of creature have piercing-sucking mouthparts. Those Homoptera that have wings are graced with ones that are uniform in structure, hence their name, Homoptera, meaning “same wing".

It is rare to see the larvae as these develop inside solidified 'cuckoo-spit', tucked away underground on the roots of plants.  

As I mentioned, I like to keep an eye out for Ladybirds. I also enjoy seeing other brightly coloured insects. You can see three here that caught my attention when I was in the Peloponnese back in 2010.  

A question has arisen in my mind. We all know that brightly coloured insects or amphibians often use their colour as a warning (Aposematism) to potential predators, and indeed some may be toxic in some way.

Why is it safer or more effective, I wonder, to stand out from the crowd in a fiery coat
 than to be hidden in the verge with grass-green elytra for 'background matching' camouflage? 

Camouflage or Cryptic Coloration, of course, is itself essentially a form of visual mimicry. The Froghopper here is presumably protected to some degree by warning coloration.

Scientist have identified several kinds of warning coloration in the natural world, including ...
  • Batesian mimicry, when a harmless mimic poses as harmful
  • Müllerian mimicry, when two or more harmful species mutually advertise themselves as harmful
  • and Mertensian mimicry, when a killer mimic resembles a less harmful but lesson-teaching model.

You might be interested in this National Geographic article on the subject of camouflage.

Rider: my fascination in these insects (and indeed on most items on this blog) is purely from the perspective of an interested amateur. If readers spot inaccuracies, please feel free to leave a comment and point them out! I blog because I love to discover more about the natural world. 

Tuesday 28 May 2013

Beautiful Birds: Avocet Chicks

Avocet chick - such a small frame, such large feet!

When I was a child of about thirteen, we lived in Norfolk and would occasionally play a board game backed by the RSPB, called 'Conservation'. I liked birds at the time, but knew little about them. As a result of playing the game, I learned about the UK conservation status of species like the Avocet, the symbol of the RSPB itself. I don't think I could have guessed then that by 2013 I would have seen my first Avocet chicks back in East Anglia!

However, this last Bank Holiday weekend saw us perched in a hide with binoculars and camera, watching three fluffy, feisty youngsters.   

The Avocet had nested on a small area of land surrounded by water, so her chicks could run about in relative safety. 

Do take a moment to read the story of the Avocet's demise and come-back here!

Thursday 23 May 2013

Home Patch: the Beautiful Bullfinch

We have been very excited by this visitor to our garden, a male Bullfinch. I don't ever recall having one in any of my gardens before. These birds usually frequent woodlands, hedgerows and orchards with blossom. We don't have much in the way of a wood, hedge or orchard, but we do have daisies ...
 ... and small areas that have grass seed (or did have grass seed!). I have yet to see a female, but I am hopeful that she may not be far away.

 The Bullfinch has been given an Amber Conservation Status.

Monday 20 May 2013

Nature Reserves: RSPB Wildlife Garden, Flatford Mill (Constable Country)

We went off in search of some sunshine after a grey cloudy spell, and having checked the forecast carefully, were delighted to find the Stour Estuary around Flatford Mill basking in a glorious summer day. The RSPB Wildlife Garden above was burgeoning with new greenery. Listings on the board included a grass snake in the water, and there was a good show of Orange Tip butterflies in the air.

It was very difficult to photograph the butterflies as they were active and airborne nearly all the time. I managed to get a 'quick pic' of this female Orange Tip as she came to rest momentarily, presumably for some nectaring.

You can see the distinctive shadowy markings on the outside of the wing in the photo above. It is only male Orange Tips that have the distinctive amber markings on the inside of the wings.

There were a few ragged Peacock butterflies along the tow-path, and we also saw a couple of Small Tortoiseshells.

This is Flatford Mill (above) ...

... and it is easy to imagine Constable living in this area and drawing inspiration from the scenes that were so familiar to him.

The ducks were flapping about, but we didn't see any ducklings. There was a bit of rivalry between these two!
Another 'Manky Mallard'!

Saturday 18 May 2013

Nature Reserves: Bluebells at Arger Fen

I believe this is a Buff-tailed Bumblebee

We had been told that Arger Fen was a good place for bluebells, so we decided to see for ourselves. The reserve, not far from Sudbury in Suffolk, belongs to the Suffolk Wildlife Trust. There were wonderful deep swathes of blue flowers, reminding me of the days long ago in the 1960s when we used to dance 'in and out the dusky bluebells' at nursery school in Kent. These days the flowers are a protected species.

We heard a male Cuckoo calling overhead, and sheltered under a tree to listen. Since the early 1980s, Cuckoo numbers have been in decline for about 30 years, and the bird is now a red list species. Having said that, we have heard more Cuckoos so far this year than in practically all previous years put together. We caught a fleeting glimpse of the male this afternoon as he sped through the trees once his song was over.
It was lovely to smell the Wild Garlic wafting in our direction ...

... and there were plenty of Horsetail appearing in the swampy areas ...

... but the Bluebells stole the show. 

Arger Fen is one of only two woodland sites in the east of England to have wild cherry trees, and I kept a sharp eye out in the hope that I would see them. 

Friday 10 May 2013

Butterflies and Moths: (Not So) Early Butterflies

A rather shabby Peacock, spotted at ...

Minsmere last weekend, taken as the light was fading.

A white butterfly (is it perhaps a male Large White?) also at Minsmere.

The pair of Common Blues in the garden were too quick for me, so here's one I saw last year ...

... and these Small Tortoiseshells were photographed some time ago.
The one I saw last weekend was very bedraggled and had probably emerged from hibernation.

There were plenty of Orange Tips at Minsmere in the sunshine last weekend.
(The one in the photo was in our garden last year)

... and finally, for now, I have seen a couple of (yellow) Brimstones flying about ...

I wonder which species will flutter past me next!

2013 List

1] Peacock
2] Small Tortoiseshell
3] ?Large White
4] Common Blue
5] Brimstone
6] Orange Tip

Wednesday 8 May 2013

Nature Reserves: (a Spider on) Carlton Marshes, Suffolk

We enjoyed a walk at Carlton Marshes, near Oulton Broad, on Saturday in warm spring sunshine. The reserve belongs to the Suffolk Wildlife Trust, and is linked at one end to the far side of the river by a ferry service from the Waveney River Centre. It was our first visit to the area, and the sound of warbling in the reeds and blackthorn was a delight. 

This teasel caught my eye as it had been eaten by some creature. I soon noticed this Spider. I haven't been able to identify it exactly, but it may be (related to) Xysticus cristatus (and here). I would be grateful for a definite ID!

I would initially have suspected a Crab Spider, but I have discovered that Crab Spiders use their front legs instead of spinning webs to catch their prey. There is a rather prominent piece of webbing in the photo above on the left. There is some helpful information about true Crab Spiders on the Arkive site.