Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Highgate Common 6th December 2011

Highgate Common

Today was my first free Tuesday for quite some time and so I took the opportunity to go down to Highgate Common and join their volunteer work party.

It was a chilly day with plenty of frost around first thing but that didn't put me off as I had about 5 layers on to counteract the cold!

We were asked to cut down some Silver Birch (Betula pendula) saplings which were encroaching onto the main heathland area of the Common.

We donned our gloves and hard hats and used both tree loppers and bow saws to remove the saplings and small trees.

I put together a few before and after shots so you can see the progress we made. (as always you can click on the photos to get a bigger picture).

As you can see we kept the big trees and only removed the small ones. As well as temporarily halting the encroachment of Silver Birch in this area it also improved the view from the picnic table.

We didn't see a lot of wildlife while we were working. I did find a Harlequin Ladybird (Harmonia axyridis) on one of the trees we had cut down. When I picked it up to have a closer look it started to excrete a yellow substance from its body. This liquid supposedly has a foul odour, a bit like old leaves (I didn't think to smell it), and is a self-defence mechanism called "reflex-bleeding". Most ladybird species reflex-bleed if agitated to deter predators. It obviously didn't like me disturbing it and soon took flight.

There was a Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) mushroom in the area that we were working but unfortunately it was not in a photographic state as it had been stood on and looked rather beaten up.

Cutting down the saplings and then cutting them up into smaller pieces was hot work and I soon had to remove some of my layers. We also had a fire going and this helped to keep us warm.

I played around a little with the colours in the last photo to try and highlight the flames in the fire.

Not all of the wood was burnt; we did set some aside to make a wood pile. The wood pile will provide shelter for a number of animals and invertebrates and as it rots down it will provide food for various invertebrates and their larvae, helping to improve the biodiversity on the site.

Wood set aside for habitat pile

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Apologies, thanks and ringing 12/11/2011

Hello all,

Sorry it has been a long time since I have posted anything to this blog but truth be told I haven't had much time or motivation to get out and about over the last few months.

Autumn is a busy time for a Meteorologist as we gear up towards the winter season and I find myself becoming slightly more lethargic as the nights start to draw in.

Almost all of the Tuesday volunteer days at Highgate seem to have clashed with work or other commitments and so I have only managed half a day in what seems like 3 months or more!

I managed to help with putting in some of the new Car Park signs for Highgate Common. Now we should have no excuses in forgetting the names for each car park.

I would like to thank the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust for writing such a wonderful article on me in their Wildlife Champion section of the Autumn/Winter 2011 Staffordshire Wildlife magazine. They have been very supportive of my activities on their Highgate reserve and I simply can't praise them enough for their encouragement and the work that they do.

I have been continuing with my ringing activities, although these have been few and far between as they wound down after a productive autumn migration and winter flocks are only just starting to gather in any significant numbers.

I was fortunate enough last Thursday to be invited over to Aqualate Mere by the Brewood Ringing Group to try and ring part of the Starling roost.

Aqualate Mere is a National Nature Reserve which is managed by Natural England but is part of a private estate. As such access to the reserve is strictly limited to public rights of way and permit holders. It does have a bird hide that overlooks the reserve and more information about this and the rest of the reserve can be found here.

The Starling roost is building quite nicely now and there must be tens of thousands of birds gathering to roost each evening.

We did not manage to catch any of the Starlings as they were roosting in another part of the reed beds but I did get to see them dance and swirl across the Mere as they gathered to roost.

It certainly was a magical sight to see and hear the cloud of birds twist and turn. The sound of them all beating their wings to change direction had to be heard to be believed.

A  Peregrine was trying to disrupt the flock but it didn't seem to have much success.

Scott Petrek (warden at Doxey Marshes) managed to get a photo of part of the flock and was kind enough to allow me to post it here.

Photo courtesy of Scott Petrek 

I know that more updates won't be forthcoming for the rest of the month as I will be extremely busy but I do hope to do at least one update in December.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Belvide 3rd September 2011

On Saturday I went to do some bird watching over at Belvide Reservoir.

There was a ringing session in the morning but I couldn't make this. I had been working overnight and needed some sleep before setting out.

Despite missing the first Meadow Pipit of the year for the ringing group I still had a very enjoyable day.

During the day a group of the Belvide regulars took part in a friendly "day listing" competition against Upton Warren in Worcestershire. Basically you go around compiling a list of all the birds your team sees on your respective sites during the day and the team with the biggest list wins. They were up at the crack of dawn (when I was still working) and had finished by dusk (when I was at home having a nice tea).

In total the Belvide crew saw 90 bird species whilst Upton Warren could only muster 78. For the full list go to: http://www.surfbirds.com/blog/Belvide84/22554/Belvide+Overcast+SSW+2-3.html

As I wasn't participating in the day listing I was able to roam the site in a more leisurely manner. My trip to the dam at the front of the Reservoir was rewarded with close views of either a female or juvenile Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe).

Oenanthe oenanthe

However, I didn't get those close views without a little fieldcraft and a lot of luck.

I happened across the Wheatear as I was walking along the dam. I didn't even see it at first until I flushed it by nearly stepping on it! It then flew across to the controls for the sluice gate.

Wheatear on sluice gate platform

 As you can see, even with a 400mm lens I wasn't close enough. I went somewhat awkwardly into a crawl on my hands and knees with my binoculars and field guide bag still around my neck. I realised this wasn't going to work so I lost the bag and the "bins" and lay down flat on my belly. This was better but it still took me some time to shimmy closer to the bird.

A little closer.

Whilst the bird in the photos above isn't filling the frame I like the overall effect of it sitting on the fence. Click on the photos for a bigger picture and you will see what I mean.

Now I was getting a little too close without any cover and the bird flew off. Luckily it dropped down just the other side of the sluice gate so I was able to creep up to this and use it as cover. My next two photos were taken whilst I was poking my head around the corner.

The other side (@100mm)

Much closer (@400mm)
I am very pleased with the photos but my arms were stinging quite a lot from all the cuts and grazes by the time I got home. A useful tip is to make sure you cover your arms if you intend to crawl along on you belly for any length of time! Also try not to do it with a belly full of food.

A little later I went around what is known as Gazebo Bay and found a male Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) dragonfly sunning itself on a bench. It didn't seem to mind me sharing its bench too much and I managed to take some good photos of it.

Sympetrum striolatum

Sympetrum striolatum
Red-veined darter (Sympetrum fonscolombii) is also present at Belvide and the male is differentiated from the male Common darter by blue on the lower eye rather than a yellowy green (as in the Common darter above), red veins on the front part of both the fore-wing and hind-wing, yellow at the base of the hind-wing and a yellow to orange pterostigma (red in Common darter) strongly outlined in black (see http://www.british-dragonflies.org.uk/species/red-veined-darter).

Ruddy darter (Sympetrum sanguineum) is also somewhat similar but has completely black legs (http://www.british-dragonflies.org.uk/species/ruddy-darter). This Common darter has a yellow line running the length of its legs which is diagnostic (http://www.british-dragonflies.org.uk/species/common-darter).

In case you were wondering what a pterostigma is (I know I was) then I have labelled it here for you:

Pterostigma = in this case a red marking
towards the tip of the wing.

After photographing the Common darter the leading edge of a weather front passed overhead, bringing to an end to the good light conditions my camera had been enjoying.

The poor light didn't stop me firing off a couple of photos of Mandarin duck (Aix galericulata) though.

Aix galericulata
This duck species is originally from eastern Asia but the magnificence of the male duck in breeding plumage has made it a popular bird for people to keep in wildfowl collections here in Britain. It has since escaped captivity to set up a feral breeding population within Britain.

Mandarin is quite uncommon in Staffordshire and the West Midlands. "The new Birds of the West Midlands" by the WMBC estimates the West Midland region (as defined in the book) population to contain c100 individuals.

This male duck is lacking its stupendous summer plumage and is in what is known as "eclipse plumage". However, I still find this much toned down bird quite beautiful in its own way. Many birds must shed/moult their worn feathers after the breading season and ducks are no exception. As ducks moult they become flightless for short length of time. They are unable to fly because they moult their flight/wing feathers in one go.

Other types of bird moult their feathers sequentially so that they can retain the ability to fly.

To give male ducks a greater chance of surviving this flightless period they swap their bright breading plumage for a more cryptic plumage, which often closely resembles that of the female.

Open wing of Mandarin
In the photo above you can see the open wing of the Mandarin as it flexes and stretches itself. The black feathers towards the tip of the wing (known as the primaries) look quite long compared to the white tipped feathers towards the inner wing (known as the secondaries). I don't have an intimate knowledge of duck moult but it looks like this bird has nearly finished growing its new flight feathers.

 You can see another example of eclipse plumage in the photo below.

Male Mallard in eclipse plumage
 on the left and female in the centre.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Highgate Common 3rd August 2011

Today was very hot (for me that is) and as I don't like the heat I decided to hold off a bit and go for an evening stroll when the temperatures had subsided somewhat. This proved to be a stroke of genius as the evening light over Highgate was just right for some landscape shots. The sky looked lovely too.

We did even more bracken bashing on Tuesday and we found three types of heather in one area. I was hoping to get some photos of the heather this evening but all the cross leaved heath (Erica tetralix) was in shade - not so good for photography.

I did manage to get some photos of the Bell Heather (Erica cinerea) before the sun dropped too low.

Erica cinerea
Erica cinerea
It is quite easy to tell the difference from Bell Heather and Common Heather as the flowers are enclosed in a "bell like" structure on Bell Heather, whilst Common Heather has an open flower. Cross leaved heath has a similar flower structure to the Bell Heather, but the single leaves form a cross shaped grouping of four on the stem. In Bell heather the leaves are in tight clusters, or whorls, of three.

Other sightings of note were a Green Woodpecker, a party of Linnets, a low flying Common Buzzard, a few Tree Pipits flitting around and some Gatekeeper and Small Heath butterflies.

Enjoy the landscape shots below... or don't... it's up to you ;-)

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Ringing and stuff

Last Thursday and Saturday I went to do some more bird ringing over at Belvide with Brewood Ringers. On Thursday we had a reasonable session with 52 new birds ringed. The main highlight of the day was getting to hold a Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major). We also got to see a Hobby hawking over the res after Swallows.

Dendrocopos major (photo courtesy of Rebecca Stallard)
On Saturday we only managed 34 new birds. When you take into consideration that we had about 12 nets up across the site, 34 birds really isn't many per net (2.84 birds per net)! This would have been disappointing enough but it was even more so when you take into account that I'd only had two hours sleep before hand. I'd been out to Stafford the night before to watch one of my friends play in a cover band Spiral Six (which was a really good night, despite the poor turn out). I did get to see my first Leopard Slug though.

The main birds that we tend to catch are Reed Warblers, Sedge Warblers, Willow Warblers, Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps, Blue Tits and Great Tits, with a few other common birds thrown in at times. Despite the low numbers caught I am finding it highly addictive as you never know what is going to turn up. There are some Grasshopper Warblers that have bred in the area and I'm hopping we'll catch another one of these (the first one this year being caught at a session I couldn't attend).

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Highgate Common 26th July 2011

I went over to Highgate Common again today as part of the volunteer work party that happens there every Tuesday. We were clearing more bracken, a process that will be ongoing for some time yet as there is lots of bracken to get rid of.

In terms of wildlife observations, things got off to a promising start when we were first gathering near the Warden's Office, with Goldfinches in the thistles and a pair of Green Woodpeckers flying past. When we arrived on the common there were lots of butterflies flying around; Gatekeeper, Small Copper, Small Skipper and a Red Admiral were the main ones that I could recognise. There were a couple of white butterflies as well but they didn't settle for long enough for me to get a good look at them.

As we were clearing away the bracken we came across some Common Footman moths that were sheltering in the bracken and tall grasses.

A Great Spotted Woodpecker swooped down into some nearby trees and we could hear both Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff calling from the same trees. A Yellow Hammer was singing some way off and three Common Buzzards were circling high above us.

One of the other volunteers was lucky enough to find a Common Lizard basking in the sun but I managed to miss seeing it.

We did get a little bit distracted today from our normal volunteer work. Some nice people from Natural England and the MP for Staffordshire came to see what we were doing. A photographer also tagged along so maybe you'll see a photo of me holding a scythe somewhere in the not too distant future.

Last Saturday I also went bird ringing over Belvide Reservoir but cold, damp and foggy conditions meant that we only caught 32 new birds. The main highlight was getting to ring a juvenile Bullfinch.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Highgate Common 19th July 2011

I went over Highgate Common today to do a bit more volunteer work. A group of us were clearing Himalayan Balsam from a butterfly glade in some woodland, and then we moved on to doing a bit of Bracken clearing.

Whilst working in the butterfly glade I came across a number of Scorpion flies of the genus Panorpa. I managed to get one fairly poor record shot using my phone, but it gives you a fair idea of what it looks like.

 Panorpa Sp.
This is a female scorpion fly. The male's tail looks like that of a scorpion, hence the name. The wings are clear, but with black venation and black markings; the thorax is long with yellow and black markings, but with a red tip; the eyes are reddish-brown and the antennae are very long.

The weather wasn't the best for butterflies but it did warm up enough in the afternoon for us to see Green-veined White, Large White, Small White and Meadow brown.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Highgate Common 14th July 2011

Sorry for the long absence, I've been quite busy lately but I hope to be able to do more frequent blog updates through the end of July and into August as I have some leave booked off from work.

Yesterday I went over Highgate Common once again, but this time I thought I would look at identifying and photographing flowering plants.

One of the quieter parts of Highgate Common

I must admit that I am not overly familiar with flowering plants, which is one of the reasons that I chose to look at them yesterday. I am probably not as bad as some though as I have picked up a bit of the terminology along the way. For example I understand what an inflorescence is and if pressed (and in the possession of a hand lens) I could find a ligule on a grass specimen. However, to a beginner like me, the technical language used to describe the parts, structure and even colouration of a plant can seem overwhelmingly vast and sometimes a little confusing. For instance, I knew that a ligule was to be found at the junction of a leaf blade and leaf sheath on grasses, but until just now (when I was looking up the correct spelling of ligule) I didn't know that it was also the term used to describe the fused petals of a ray floret in a composite!

I find that in comparison, identifying many (but not all) birds is child's play. For a start there isn't as many species.

I now see my lack of botanical skills as a gaping whole in my skill set which needs filling, but even as little as 6 or 7 years ago I remember telling a Travelling Naturalist/Limosa tour group "plants are boring as the don't move". I hope they realised that I wasn't really being serious as I did say it with a smile on my face!

I never thought that this was truly the case, it was more the fact that I find it quite hard to identify plants (because of the reasons above) and I simply couldn't find the motivation to learn.

I understand the need to study and conserve plant life as it is the base to most food chains (bacteria often plays an important part as well, and lets not forget fungi), without it we would all undoubtedly perish.

My increasing interest in arthropods (invertebrates) and the natural world in general has now given me the incentive to learn.

Anyway enough of me waffling on and on to the fun stuff.

I must admit that I couldn't help but get slightly distracted by interesting insects I saw along the way. One of the first things I saw was an interesting brown beetle hanging out on some Ragwort. It was almost certainly a click beetle and was possibly Prosternon tessellatum.

Prosternon tessellatum?
I should point out at this stage that a lot of my photos aren't up to my usual standard. It was quite breezy which made it very difficult to get sharp, in-focus photos :( These are simply the best of a bad bunch. Also it should be fairly obvious that any Latin names with a question mark next to it means that I am uncertain as to the identity of a specimen.

Funnily enough I didn't think to get any photos of the Ragwort, but this is how I knew it was Ragwort and not something else.

Cinnabar moth caterpillar (Tyria jacobaeae)
There were also lots of Common Red Soldier Beetles around (Rhagonycha fulva). Indeed there were so many around that you'll see them in some of my other photos in this post.

Rhagonycha fulva
As Highgate Common is predominantly fragmented heathland with areas of woodland, one plant in particular is fairly common, especially after a lot of hard work from the management team and volunteers to remove invasive braken and trees. Common Heather or Ling (Calluna vulgaris) is now fairly widespread in Highgate, especially in the area I chose to study. There was also small amounts of Bell Heather (Erica cinerea) but I didn't get a photo.

Calluna vulgaris
Calluna vulgaris

In and around the same area I found some Compact Rush growing (Juncus conglomeratus). Rushes and sedges tend to be more spiky and erect than grasses. Compact Rush is relatively easy to identify as the inflorescence forms a tight or "compact" head.

Juncus conglomeratus
Juncus conglomeratus
There are lots of tracks running through Highgate Common and at one time people could drive their cars right across it. This is no longer the case, but the remaining tracks do open up space for other things to grow. No doubt the sides of these tracks were once a dumping ground for all sorts of rubbish, garden or otherwise, but thankfully that is no longer true. Alongside these tracks there were at least two, if not three, species of thistle growing.

The first specimen I am not entirely sure on the ID. I have added it to iSpot as a possible Plymouth Thistle (Carduus pycnocephalus), but this is quite rare/causal outside of the Plymouth area so I have my doubts. So far it is two-a-piece for Plymouth Thistle and Creeping Thistle (Cirsium arvense). If anyone has any ideas on the ID then please add it to the comment section. It had some winged spines on the stem, which Creeping Thistle isn't meant to have, but equally the involucral bracts look too short for Plymouth Thistle, making me doubt my initial ID.

I have been reliably informed via iSpot that the next thistle is Creeping Thistle. You will notice that the flower heads are very similar to the first thistle above.

Cirsium arvense
Cirsium arvense
Cirsium arvense
Cirsium arvense
The last thistle I noted before leaving was Spear Thistle (Cirsium vulgare). The flower head on this plant was obviously larger. The leaves were hairy and spear like in shape.

Cirsium vulgare

Obviously all of these flowering thistles were bound to attract some insects. One of these was a very pretty (or should I say handsome) bee feeding on the thistles. Due to the wind I struggled to get any photos that would do it justice. It turned out that it was a male Large Red Tailed Bumble Bee (Bombus (Melanobombus) lapidarius).

 (Bombus (Melanobombus) lapidarius)
 (Bombus (Melanobombus) lapidarius)
I thought that the workers were pretty but the male bee is really stunning.

I also observed a fair few Small Skipper (Thymelicus sylvestris) butterflies feeding on the thistles. Below is a male Small Skipper.

Thymelicus sylvestris
The Small Skipper is very similar to Essex Skipper (T. lineola) but the males can be told apart by the difference in size and shape of the male sex-brand. The sex-brand is the black line running through the middle of the fore-wing, but ending before it reaches the tip. It is longer and more distinct in Small Skipper.

Back to plants and I was quite excited to find this little gem of a plant (below) hiding away amongst some grasses. I didn't have a clue what it was, but it didn't take long for an iSpot member to identify it as Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris). Apparently most of the flowers had fallen off but I still thought it looked rather nice.

Prunella vulgaris
Prunella vulgaris
Now I have come to the end of this "little" post so I would just like to take the opportunity to thank all the members of iSpot that have helped to identify, or confirm the identity of many of my sightings. Without their help and support I would not be able to put names to some of these photos, and the blog would be much poorer as a result.