Poor old Gilbert is getting restless. Despite the fact that there is more interest in wildlife than ever before, it seems that most of the so-called conservation organisations are losing interest in species. Instead they prefer to babble on about landscape scale conservation and ecosystem services (whatever they are). Could this be because most of their staff don't have any knowledge about species if they don't have four legs?
This is my attempt to encourage an interest in good old-fashioned natural history.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

BTO annual conference

It has been some considerable time since I posted anything but I hope to reinvigorate the blog.

I have just got back from the British Trust for Ornithology's annual conference in Derbyshire. The theme for the majority of the talks was the forthcoming atlas of breeding and wintering birds. Given the huge size of this undertaking and the resulting book, I fear that it will not be a cheap publication but if the various maps shown at the conference are anything to go by, it will be worth every penny and will be an essential reference for everyone with any interest in conservation in the UK.

The culture of the BTO has improved considerably in recent years. It is hard to find fault with them these days (if only the same could be said of many other organisations in the 'conservation' sector!) and this conference reflected that, with an excellent set of presentations and a number of exciting new initiatives. It is pleasing to see that BTO membership has grown significantly over the last 2 years when many other organisations have seen membership declines. It looks like the public isn't as stupid as we are lead to believe and in harsh economic times it is those organisations that are doing really good work that are thriving.

Two personal highlights from the weekend were an incredibly assured presentation by 16-year old Alex Rhodes on how to attract young people into conservation and a couple of video clips shown by Prof Chris Thomas showing Blue & Great Tits wimping out from attacking Peacock and Swallowtail butterflies respectively when the butterflies flashed defensive markings at them.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Life in the fast lane too hot to handle for Reed Buntings

The inaugural meeting of Team Eco-chick took place at Papercourt Marshes on 26th February and involved ringing Reed Buntings at roost. One of the Reed Buntings was already ringed and details have been received today. It was ringed on 27th January 2008 just 5km away at the Mclaren Technology Centre. This is where the Formula One cars are developed and tested but clearly consorting with the likes of Jensen Button was too much for this Reed Bunting and he opted for a quieter life at Papercourt.

Details were also received of a couple of Lesser Redpolls. In the winter of 2010/11 there were thousands of Redpolls on the heaths of Hampshire and West Sussex but this winter there were virtually none. So where did they go this year? Details of birds that I ringed during winter 2010/11 that have been recaught during the last winter are:
Calf of Man Bird Observatory (Isle of Man) on 27th October - presumably still heading south
Chobham Common (Surrey) on 5th November
Copeland Bird Observatory (Northern Ireland) on 13th October - presumably still heading south
Icklesham (East Sussex) on 1st November - probably on migration
Shotley (Suffolk) on 30th October
Dukes Warren (Surrey) on 21st November

Plus the two received today:
Wisley (Surrey) on 6th March
Santes, Nord Region (France) on 2nd November

It is interesting that none of these were re-caught during December to February so we are none the wiser as to where they wintered this year.

Spent a few hours this evening in the New Forest reading colour rings on Wood Warblers. None of the males sang during the whole time I was there; presumably still struggling to feed so not bothering to defend their territories. The highlight was finding the funky longhorn beetle Rhagium mordax on a beech trunk.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

The Aaaahhh Factor

Dan and I were joined by two of the eco-chicks for some Tawny Owl ringing this evening. We had two nests to visit. The first was in an old apple tree in Sweet Chestnut coppice. This contained one nestling and an infertile egg. Unfortunately, the hole was too deep to reach the chick but John's ingenuity meant that it was persuaded to sit in an over-sized spoon so that it could be extracted from the hole!

Nice nails Jess!

The second nest was in an incredibly decrepit dead pine. Each year I think the tree won't last till the following spring but it's still there. This nest also contained a single chick but then we noticed a dead chick on the ground by the tree. This was older than the live one and had presumably got a bit adventurous and fallen out of the hole. The presence of the dead rodents next to the chick shows that the parents tried to keep feeding it.

I've seen a ghost!

No, I'm not losing the plot. The ghost in question is the White-footed Ghost Dolichopeza albipes. The white feet actually show up really well when it is flying in gloomy woodland. I've seen several this spring in the New Forest and suspected it was this species but this was the first I have managed to catch and bring home to check against the keys.

Earlier in the day I had been sea watching at Milford shelter. I hate sea watching because that's exactly what it is; watching the sea. Not watching seabirds, just the sea. This session was little better than normal, with just a few Gannets and a single Fulmar. The exception was a group of five Pomarine Skuas, all pale phase with full spoons, that had settled on the sea to the west just before I arrived and then spent the next couple of hours drifting east on the currents. They were close inshore as they drifted towards us and I hoped for a rare chance of a photo but just before they reached us they flew further out, resulting in.....

.... possibly the worst bird photo ever! You can just see two blobs just left of centre. The other 3 must have been in the trough of a wave at the time.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Effects of the weather

There isn't much good to be said about the weather at the moment but the flooding at Keyhaven means that there is very little habitat for most waders to feed around the lagoons and todays Wood Sandpiper was therefore forced to feed at extremely close range, enabling this photo to be taken.

It's not often that I get a photo of a bird that I'm actually proud of!

The Garganey from yesterday were still around but this time I saw all three and actually heard them call; something I don't recall hearing before. They weren't asleep all the time but none of my photo's when they were feeding are much good.

After the diversion to twitch the Wood Sand (my 200th species of bird in Hampshire this year), I headed into the New Forest to change the frass traps and sticky traps that I put out last Sunday. In the event, there was no point changing any of the frass traps as none of them contained any frass at all. The sticky traps were also enlightening, the photo below shows a typical example.

So that is all that has been attracted in a whole week in quality deciduous woodland. What on earth are the insectivorous birds eating at the moment?

Sunday, 6 May 2012

A non-race bird race

Traditionally at this time of year we take part in the Hampshire bird race. You know the sort of thing, 22 hours without sleep, rubbish weather and missing all sorts of stupid things. This year one third of the team had to work and the other two thirds couldn't be bothered so instead we had a more leasurely days birding around Hampshire, aiming mainly to pick up the migrants that we hadn't seen this year.

We started off at Keyhaven where the previous days Glossy Ibis had kindly decided to stay for another day. Initially it was asleep and obscured by vegetation but after we'd been for a wander round it was more cooperative.

Also in the area were 3 Garganey (2 drakes & a duck) and large numbers of Whimbrel, a selection of which are shown below.

One of the more interesting observations was all the hirundines sitting in gorse and bramble early in the morning. Presumably it was so cold and miserable that there wasn't any point wasting energy flying around looking for non-existent food. After a typical Hampshire sea-watch (rubbish) we headed inland with stops for Goshawk & Wood Warbler in the Forest and Little Ringed Plover.

We then went to a place I've never visited before; Casbrook Common. The site seems to be a former landfill site and like many 'brownfield' sites, is actually more interesting than 'pristine' countryside. Here we had a smart female Ring Ouzel, two Whinchat, Garden Warbler and 4 Nightingales, one of which showed quite well.

Last stop was the downs where we got good distant views of a pair of Stone Curlews. As we were driving up the hill away from the site we were stunned to see a Short-eared Owl sitting on a post by the side of the road. What is that still doing here?

With thanks to Gilbert's brother for all the photo's except the Nightingale (you probably guessed that they were too in focus to be mine).

Thursday, 3 May 2012

A slight improvement

Went to Chiddingfold Forest this afternoon for a meeting. Lots of Nightingales in some areas, at one point I could hear 6 singing at one time. Although there were still some areas where they normally occur where none were heard. Last night I had a look at the BTO's Birdtrack pages. It's not normally something I look at because whether things have arrived 3 days earlier or 5 days later than last year is of little interest to me. However it was interesting to compare the current situation for various migrants; some such as Nightingale appeared to be arriving pretty much as normal but others such as Willow Warbler, Whitethroat and Tree Pipit are in very poor numbers. Earlier this spring I heard that there was concern that drought in the Sahel might significantly affect the numbers of migrants making it back this year. So it the current situation due to the awful weather here or is there going to be an early-1970's type crash in populations of some species due to Sahel drought? Time will tell.

The slight improvement in weather today meant that there were a few insects around. Plenty of St Mark's Flies resting on the bushes plus a few of the common longhorn moth Adela reaumurella. A couple of shieldbugs that I photographed were Hawthorn Shieldbug:

and Green Shieldbug:

On the way back I stopped in at Hindhead Common. It's quite strange to actually be able to hear birdsong there, now that the A3 tunnel is open. It was good to see a pair of Cuckoos there with another calling further down the slope. This area used to be very reliable for Cuckoos but I haven't see any there for a couple of years. Hopefully they will be back in good numbers this year. The following record shot shows the limitations of my bird photography.

Monday, 30 April 2012

It stopped raining.....

........ just long enough to lull me into going down to the New Forest to set up the frass traps and sticky traps that I am using to assess invertebrate populations as part of my Wood Warbler studies.

Needless to say, the heavens opened before too long and I got drenched. The volume of rain over the last 48 hours is obvious from the photo below which is of a stream that I can usually jump across.

Before the rain got too heavy, I did see four male and one female Wood Warblers. The female was one that I colour ringed last year a couple of kilometres away. Wood Warblers are notorious wanderers and previous colour ringing studies have shown a very low proportion of birds returning to where they have bred before so it is good to get a result so quickly. Apart from the flooding, the severe weather was apparent from the number of freshly fallen or snapped beech in the woods.

Little else to report; fair numbers of Redstarts, my first Cuckoo of the year and the common caddis fly Limnephilus griseus which I've not seen before (but I've only had the key for a few weeks!).

Friday, 27 April 2012

New Butterfly Conservation reserve

Today I visited the new Butterfly Conservation reserve in the Cotswolds. It's hard to assess the quality of a site in rubbish weather at this time of year but it looks like a decent quality limestone grassland which, unlike most new reserve aquisitions, doesn't seem to need urgent restoration management.

A varied assortment of species were seen between and during the showers; Roman Snail, the first I've seen in about 10 years.

A couple of Micropterix tunbergella were found resting on a beech trunk although only one poor shot was obtained before they flew off. Micropterix species are the most primitive moths and the adults have functional mandibles which they use to feed on pollen.

An Adonis Blue larva was a nice find. Apparently, if you put them on the tip of your tongue you can taste the sugary excretions that they use to attract ants. I didn't try!

Finally, we found a number of larvae under loose Sycamore bark. Thus far I have failed to put a name to them. Any ideas, do let me know.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Strange bedfellows

Well, the awful weather continues but, while it is a pain for us, it is far worse for the wildlife. I have been involved in a study of Woodlarks for the last few years. They always start nesting early, and generally manage to cope with early spring weather but this year they are really struggling.

Brood sizes have been small and many nests are losing chicks. The chicks that remain are growing far more slowly than usual and in some cases the whole brood is starving.

Having got fairly depressed with the Woodlarks, I moved on to Stanley Common. As I parked, a Robin appeared carrying food so I watched to see where it was going. A second adult appeared and the first one (obviously the male), fed the female. She then flew into the hole in a birch pictured below.

Robins are well known for nesting in a wide variety of situations but this is only the second time I've seen one nesting in a hole in a tree. I continued to watch and after a couple of minutes the male brought more food to the hole. Then a minute later a Blue Tit appeared with nesting material and disappeared into the same hole! It emerged shortly afterwards, minus the material. So it would appear that the Robins and Blue Tits are sharing the same hole.

A walk around the Common produced little of note; a few singing Willow Warblers and a courting pair of Marsh Tits being the highlights. I was however surprised by the number of hoverflies feeding on Common Gorse. Normally all you see on gorse is a few Honey Bees (aka Pollen Pigs) but there were a number of hoverflies of several species on the flowers today, including the Syrphus vitripennis pictured below.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Ooh err missus

Following my first posting, MB (who can always be relied upon to entertain) sent me the following image showing the similarity between Gilbert White and Mrs Slocombe.

I can promise readers that there will be no references to my pussy in this blog! For younger readers who have no idea what I'm going on about, count yourself lucky.

In the spirit of Are you being served, it is perhaps appropriate that I went to have a look at Grandfather's Bottom this morning! This is one of the most stunning landscapes in Hampshire although the photo doesn't do justice to the steepness of the slopes.

The purpose of my visit was to see if there were any Ring Ouzels around. Luckily the site was not too badly disturbed today and I found a superb male quite quickly. I had about 15 minutes to get some record shots before the first out-of-control dogs flushed it. With more dogs heading my way I decided to head off. The best of my shots is below.

On the way back to the car a Buzzard soared over my head. Having been so scarce in this part of the world for much of my life, I still find it thrilling to get such good views.

Other species seen included Grizzled Skipper, the attractive pyralid moths Pyrausta nigrata and P. purpuralis and a pill woodlouse whose exact identity will have to wait for another day.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Signs of spring

I started the morning with a short bird survey on the edge of one of the Surrey heaths. Upon arrival, my first Tree Pipit of the year sang briefly before deciding that the weather was far too grim to bother. Both the pairs of Woodlarks on the site appear to have successfully fledged their first brood and the Stonechat showed that he has got a mate after all.

I was getting near the end of the survey when, much to my surprise, a Redstart was singing from a narrow strip of pines, then a second male appeared in front of me. Just to remind me that summer hasn't fully arrived, a flock of about 30 Redpolls were feeding together with a number of Goldfinches and Linnets and at least two Bramblings. Given how scarce Bramblings have been this winter, this was not a species I was expecting.

I then moved to a site in West Sussex which had better remain nameless (the reason should become obvious!). I was looking for the larval feeding signs of the micro-moth Argyresthia glabratella on Norway Spruce and found them eventually, together with some strange slug-like larvae which need further research. All the while, my search was accompanied by singing Firecrests; a species which really is booming these days.

On the way back to my car I noticed a mine in the bark of a sapling oak. Now a couple of years ago, identification would have been east; the micro-moth Ectoedemia atrifrontella. Then someone rather selfishly added E. longicaudella to the British list. This species also mines the bark of young oaks and the mines are inseparable. Most British records are of the mines so we have no idea how common either species is. The only solution is to breed the adult moth and that requires some judicious coppicing. I just happened to have a bow-saw in my car.....!