Friday, 18 August 2017

My very own Nature Reserve 17th August 2017

I have declared the drive we share with our neighbour a Nature Reserve. It's all unofficial but with the willing agreement of our neighbour, no insecticide or herbicide will be let loose on any of the vegetation. What little weeding is required will be done by hand. Mine, I guess, but that is a price I'm willing to pay.

We already have five buddleias planted and flowering in the border alongside the bottom half of the drive and a very old, twenty foot high hedge which is  mixture of Holly, Elder and Ivy extends along the other half of the drive by the end of our house.

I plan to introduce various butterfly friendly plants such as Knapweed, Sedum, Scabious and vetches under and around the buddleias to extend the season and hopefully attract more species of butterflies and insect life. The Holly Hedge has, in the twenty plus years we have lived here, always harboured a colony of Holly Blues, although our previous neighbour was going to fell the hedge before I pleaded for it to be left intact. Thankfully I was successful in persuading them to leave it be.

Today there was a very strong but warm wind blowing, moving the countless leaves on the trees to create an endless flickering of sunlight and shadows across the ground, like ripples on a pond. The buddleias were again busy with butterfly life, the fragile insects being tossed and jostled by the wind as it blew the flower cones into a frenzy of movement. The gusts came regularly but the butterflies clung on with closed wings, riding the bucking flower cones until a lull ensued between each gust of wind.

A subtle change was apparent in the numbers and species of butterfly that were here today. Many more Small Tortoiseshells and Large White butterflies were now visiting the flowers. Last week there was only one Small Tortoiseshell but now up to nine or ten were making the most of the flowers. Each was looking fresh and presumably their condition and the increased numbers are the result of them recently hatching. In contrast the Large Whites were showing obvious signs of their perilous existence with battered and torn wings and it was only the occasional individual that looked untouched.

Small Tortoiseshells
Peacocks and Red Admirals were, as ever, flying around, the former slightly more in number whilst the latter had definitely decreased. Today a few of the Peacocks and Small Tortoiseshells were settling on the unmade drive, wings spread wide, a jewel of colour on the bland ground or with wings closed, their presence only betrayed by a dark triangular profiles, like tiny dark sailed yachts on a pale sea of sun baked earth.

The Peacock's closed wings are virtually featureless, almost an unsullied soot black,  rendering them slightly sinister but when they partially open their wings the vivid contrast in colours could not be more stark and glorious, and so is it also for the Small Tortoiseshell, whilst the Red Admiral shows a much more varied, almost colourful underwing, in comparison. Many of the butterflies were closing their wings for short periods this afternoon no doubt to aid some form of thermo-regulation in the warm sun but then would wander over the buddleia  cones, partially opening and shutting their wings as if unsure which pose to adopt, open or closed.


Red Admirals
Butterflies are, for me, a joy to watch. The sheer exuberance evidenced by their  behaviour cannot fail but lift one's spirits. Rarely, if ever, still for more than a few seconds, they are constantly opening and shutting their wings, creating tantalising flashes of colour only to be extinguished as they close their wings again or flying around, spiralling up and down, chasing each other and then settling, before capriciously they are off on another aerial odyssey.  They flick their wings in annoyance at the clumsy bumble bees trampling into them as they gather pollen from the buddleia cones or if the bee's insensitive behaviour becomes too much to bear, flying around in swooping flights like small children with an excess of energy, forever restless.

I can easily stand for an hour or more just watching the non stop activity of these wonderfully coloured and patterned insects and it is all here, literally feet from my doorstep.

Right outside the house is the Holly hedge, just metres from our kitchen window. Here, in the afternoon come Common Starlings from the surrounding fields, many of them young birds slowly moulting into their iridescent black and white spotted plumage. They form a sociable gathering every afternoon to murmur, chuckle, gurgle and click away with  countless vocalisations, high in the hedge, safe and secure in the ragged, uneven holly tops, holding what for all the world appears to be a conversation about the successes or otherwise of how the day has gone. 

Juvenile Common Starling
They are usually joined by our resident flock of House Sparrows who contribute to the murmurings with hard, loud  chirrups. In winter this same evergreen hedge is a safe roosting place for Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and Redwings as well as the Common Starlings and House Sparrows. Goldcrests often pass through it in the winter months and at migration times it usually harbours the occasional Common ChiffChaff, Willow Warbler and Blackcap.

And as long as I am here so it will all remain.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Hummingbird Imposter 12th August 2017

Saturday and after a cloudy start it became sunny and warm around noon. After a singularly uninspiring morning at Farmoor Reservoir I returned home. Once out of the car I walked down our drive to inspect my own mini butterfly reserve - a line of five small buddleia bushes growing along one side of the drive.

The sun had brought out the usual lepidopteran visitors, a dozen or so Red Admirals, some as immaculate as it was possible to be while others were tattered and faded. Peacocks were putting in an appearance and up to three were feasting on the flower cones. Large and Small Whites, Gatekeepers, a Small Tortoiseshell and a Comma, so faded and worn it hardly showed any colour at all, completed the gathering.

I stood and inhaled the delicious honeyed scent of the buddleia bushes with their white, purple and blue cone shaped flower spikes, happy to see that there were still many flower cones to bloom and so, weather permitting I would still have the pleasure of watching the butterflies for some days to come.

An indistinct movement low down by one of the bushes caught my eye. A small brown and orange insect, no more than an inch and  half long was floating, disembodied, in the air in front of one of the white flower cones, its wings moving at such a speed they were but a haze of orange and brown whilst its portly, brown furry body was held still and horizontal, displaying a chequer patterning of black and white at its tail.

Having been to South America, for a moment, instinctively I thought of hummingbirds but this was no hummingbird but the nearest equivalent we have here, a Hummingbird Hawkmoth. Although not scarce I do not see one that often, certainly not annually and it is always a thrill to find one of these day flying moths, especially in one's own garden or at least driveway.

I stood entranced as it fed, now probing the purple cones of a buddleia, hovering a couple of inches from the flowers and extending its wire like, outrageously long proboscis to imbibe the nectar. It floated from one flower to the next, powered by wings that were almost invisible to my eyes as they moved at such speed. The moth moved sideways, forwards and even backwards, deliberately and systematically examining and feeding from every flower cone on the bush before moving on to the next bush. For thirty minutes at least, it was feeding, never resting but in constant motion, its wings moving with such speed that I marvelled it could expend such energy for so long without resting.

Occasionally it would swoop up and around to circle above the bushes at incredible speed before returning to feed once again. For all the world just like its avian feathered counterpart it brought a bit of the exotic and magic of true hummingbirds to my mundane driveway in Kingham.

This year is meant to be a good one for observing Hummingbird Hawkmoths in Britain and they are traditionally particularly noticeable in July, August and September. It is abundant and resident from Portugal and all the southern European countries around the Mediterranean, with its distribution extending eastwards across central Asia to Japan. North of the Alps, in Europe and the Caucasus in Russia they are encountered only as summer migrants as they are unable to survive the winter. 

In Britain they have been recorded in every county, even as far north as the Orkney and Shetland Islands but only visit Britain as a migrant in varying numbers each year, mainly coming from southern France.They cannot survive our winter and there is evidence that some migrate south in autumn. The late summer peak in numbers is largely due to moths that will have hatched here in Britain from eggs laid by earlier migrants that arrived in Spring.The individual feeding from my buddleias was probably one of these.

Sighting this moth is also considered to be a good omen and there is a rather charming tale of how on D Day and the Normandy landings, a swarm of Hummingbird Hawkmoths were seen migrating across The Channel. How poignant that this delightful creature carried on its natural existence innocent of the hell and carnage that we humans were creating on the beaches of Normandy.

They like to fly in full sunlight but will also fly in dull conditions, even rain, as well as at dusk and dawn. In order to power their flight and replenish their energy levels they need flowers with a plentiful supply of nectar such as Red Valerian, Buddleia, Honeysuckle and Petunias. They also have the capacity to memorise a good source of nectar and will return to the same source every day at about the same time. So no guesses where I will be on the next sunny day.

Yet another wonder of our natural world

Friday, 11 August 2017

The American Night Heron re-visited 10th August 2017

A long arranged lunch date with my good friend Panos found me today at the appropriately named, for a birder anyway, gastro  pub, The Swan with Two Necks at Blackbrook in Staffordshire. Panos is both a Doctor and a Physiotherapist and we go back a long way having originally met due to our respective involvements in the world of acupuncture.

After lunch Panos kindly offered to give me some acupuncture to treat my still slightly troublesome shoulder so we went back to his house and treatment room and after some acupuncture needling and good advice about exercises to strengthen my shoulder I felt much happier. So much so, I felt confident enough to cancel my doctors appointment  in Chipping Norton for the next day.

Panos lives but forty minutes from Shrewsbury which is in the neighbouring county of Shropshire so it seemed a good opportunity to renew my acquaintance with the long staying Night Heron frequenting The Dingle, a manicured floral extravaganza with a small lake at its heart and a well known tourist attraction, sandwiched between the town and the River Severn.

Looking down on The Dingle
Bidding farewell to Panos I was, forty minutes later, negotiating the tortuous roads in the heart of Shrewsbury, which like all similar towns is now made unbearable by too many cars and buses trying to negotiate roads that were never planned to cope with such volumes of traffic. After twists and turns, uphill and down, back tracking and stuck at interminable traffic lights I arrived at the very same open air car park as on my previous visit in May and duly paid my money for the maximum two hours stay. That would be more than adequate if the Night Heron was showing itself in the nearby Dingle.

I walked back up the hill and turned into The Quarry which is a large area of parkland by the River Severn and at the heart of which is situated The Dingle. This afternoon was very different to the previous early morning visit I had made in late May. A major event was taking place in The Quarry, a Flower Show to be precise, with large marquees and surrounding satellites  of stalls selling anything and everything associated with flowers. The park was heaving with people out enjoying the balmy air and warm sunshine. I made my way through the throng to The Dingle, passed through one of the entrance gates and wound my way down the path to the small lake and a low wooden walkway which crossed over its northern end.

The wooden walkway that the heron sometimes hid under
and from where I and many others watched it
The Night Heron was not immediately visible but walking around the circular path I located it stood in the shallow water beneath the low wooden walkway. I walked back and as I did the heron flew out from under the walkway and feet of the people standing just inches above it and settled  on some low branches of an ornamental shrub sweeping low over the water. 

It stood here for quite some time, occasionally tearing at the vegetation and looking like it swallowed some of the leaves which I was unaware Night Herons were liable to do. Many passersby were stopping on the walkway to admire the heron, as it was so close it was impossible not to notice it. Some were local people who came to see it every day, others were visitors, there were parents with small children who stopped to show their kids the strange bird and a couple of birders cum photographers such as myself. It became quite apparent talking to the local people that the heron's prolonged stay and confiding nature had made it quite a celebrity.

Young family feeding the ducks.The Night Heron is stood
on the green branch overhanging the water extreme right

This Night Heron is not from the sub species found in Europe but has been identified from its subtle plumage differences as an example of the sub species found in North America. The unanswered question is whether it has come from there unaided or has it escaped from a collection somewhere in Britain or Europe. There are no rings on its legs to suggest a captive origin although that is no guarantee of wildness, but its exceptional tameness and long tenure in The Dingle mitigate against its wild credentials. It is also strange that it spends such a lot of its time out in the open when this species normally secretes itself deep in the cover of vegetation and only comes out in the late evening to feed - hence the name Night Heron. However wild Night Herons can be very tame and perch in the open as I have found in parks in China and Taiwan and it did arrive in The Dingle at an appropriate time for a migrant. I guess we will never know the answer, but I doubt it will be accepted by those who adjudicate on such matters but then again there was always, for me, the dubious Chinese Pond Heron in Kent which was accepted as a wild bird!

I watched the Night Heron for about an hour during which time it interrupted the long spells of relative inactivity with some preening and showed much interest in fish which were coming to swallow pieces of bread which were being thrown onto the water by kids for the ducks. The swirls of water caused by the fish as they seized the bread attracted the heron which anxiously flew from the foliage on one side of the walkway to the other, trying and failing to catch any of the fish as the water was too deep for it to land in. The fish were far too large for it anyway but it did not know this and on one occasion tried to seize a fish whilst in flight across the water.

It was beginning to moult and had already lost the two very long, thin white plumes of its breeding plumage that grow from the back of the crown and hang over its back. Occasionally it would fly right under our feet and into the shallow water below the wooden walkway, no doubt where it could stand and have a better chance of catching a fish. Many present thought it was eating the bread but  this was erroneous as it was the fish eating the bread that attracted it and I never saw it show the slightest inclination to eat any bread.

On one occasion it even started swimming from under the bridge but then flew up onto an overhanging branch. I reflected I had observed two things I never knew a Night Heron indulged in, eating leaves and swimming. So you see there is always something to learn if you have the patience to just stand and observe.

A small child dropped his sunglasses into the water and started screaming but it was so shallow by the bridge that his father managed to retrieve them with his bare arm whilst the heron, just metres away looked on impassively. There were other kids shouting and laughing on the bridge, throwing bread to the already overstuffed ducks, people with dogs and people with mobile phones taking pictures of the heron which was completely oblivious and unphased by all the attention it was getting. 

Small child and small heron!
Many people asked me what it was and if it was rare and seemed satisfied with the answers I gave. One small girl, bless her, thought it was a giant kingfisher as it stood quietly and motionless at the water's edge.I could see her point.

Whatever the origins of this particular Night Heron it was a great sight to see, quite an occasion in fact and it is, after all, a very beautiful bird and to all extents it was living a wild and independent existence and giving exceptional views for such a usually shy bird. So I felt no compunction not to make the most of the opportunity and share a pleasant hour with so many others.