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.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Belvide 2nd July 2011

On Saturday I was up at 4am eagerly anticipating my first ever bird ringing session. Nothing much else could have gotten me up at that time in the morning and I was very tired, but excited nonetheless.

I have been trying to attend one of these ringing sessions for some time but work and a bout of flu put paid to my plans of attending in the spring.

Before I get into details though, I guess I should give a little background information for those interested.

Belvide Reservoir is one of five bird reserves run by the West Midlands Bird Club (WMBC). To get access to the reserve you must be a WMBC member. Inclusive membership with a permit for the reserves currently costs £30 per calender year. See their website WMBC for more details.

Cumulonimbus cloud passing over Belvide

There is a brilliant blog for bird sightings at Belvide that gets updated daily by Steve Nuttall. This can be found at Belvide Birding. I really appreciate Steve's efforts in keeping the blog up to date each day, especially now I know the work involved in keeping a blog running myself. 

For those that don't know what bird ringing is there is an FAQ on the BTO website here

There is also a link on the website above for you to locate and contact your nearest trainer. Ringing birds requires a detailed knowledge of birds, a skilled hand for handling them and as birds are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, you also need a licence to trap and ring them.

In order to obtain a license which allows you to ring unsupervised you must first be trained by such an experienced person. It can take up to a couple of years for you to obtain a C licence depending on how much free time you and the trainer have for training sessions. The C licence enables you to ring birds by yourself, but under the remote supervision of your trainer.

In my case my nearest trainer is part of the Brewood Ringers Group and they do regular ringing sessions over at Belvide. Their website and blog is located at

I arrived at Belvide Reservoir at bang on 5am to meet up with the ringing group in the car park. Including myself there were only the 3 of us initially, although they often get more people in attendance.

It started off rather cold as there had been a clear sky and light wind all night. It did get sunny and warm later on in the morning though. Peter Bache and Collin McShane went about setting up the nets for the days ringing session. The nets look like big badminton nets, but they have a much finer mesh that the birds find difficult to see and they also have pockets in them made out of the net material for the birds to fall in.

It is very tricky getting the birds out of the nets and it takes a very skilled hand to retrieve the birds from the nets without injuring them. Once a bird was removed from the net it was then placed into a soft, dark bag so that it could be taken back to the ringing station. We visited each net approximately every 20-30min to check for new birds. Once we had checked all of the nets we would then take the birds back to the ringing station (patio furniture). If a bird already had a ring on it, the ring would be checked to see if it was recent. If the ring was recent then it would get released straight away without being placed in a bag.

If a bird didn't have a ring on it, then one would be assigned to that bird and then attached to it's right leg. A record of the ring number, the species of bird, the approximate age of the bird (immature/adult) and if known, the sex of the bird was all made in a log book.

If a bird was a re-trapped bird, then again the same records were made, but without the addition of another ring.

The main benefit from ringing birds comes from re-trapping birds that have already been ringed. Things like time since last capture and distance travelled from the site of last capture can then be worked out. By having a network of constant effort ringing sites and bird observatories across the world, Ornithologists were able to determine approximate migration routes for migratory birds long before the days of GPS.

As this was my first session I wasn't able to remove any of the birds from the nets, but I was allowed to handle and ring the birds under supervision once we got back to the ringing station.

We had a lot of Sedge and Reed Warblers but not much else. There was the occasional Blue Tit, Great Tit and Chiffchaff etc. but numbers were quite low. This didn't really trouble me though as I didn't want to be swamped by lots of birds on my first day.

Reed Warbler
Acrocephalus scirpaceus

For a list of the birds we caught see here

Most of the birds were fine to handle but the Blue Tits and Great Tits were a bit of hand full and not in a nice  way ;) They were quite aggressive and kept pecking at my fingers!

Overall though it was a very enjoyable experience and one I look forward to repeating in the near future as I attempt to gain my ringing licence.