Friday, July 30, 2010

Randall's Farm WLT, Stewartby

During an invertebrate survey at Randall’s Farm, I suddenly experienced a familiar buzzing around my head with regular attempts to use it as a landing pad, and I knew that the time of year had arrived when I would have to start dealing regularly with this character again:

It’s Chrysops relictus – the Twin-lobed Deerfly – and it’s after blood…my blood! I can cope with males, because they only gaze at you from a flowerhead as they feed on the sugary nectar, but females have a more malicious intent.

Those mouthparts are sharp and custom made for sawing into flesh in order to extract the blood that it needs in order to ensure that the developing eggs mature fully. The Deerfly specializes in extracting its blood from the back of the neck, which is very sneaky as far as I’m concerned. They do give you warning, though: flying like Spitfires around your head before softly landing so, if your radar picks them up soon enough, you’ve got a chance of swatting them. But I warn you, they don’t give up easily.

Which is why I was fascinated to come across the following product advertised in the United States:"If you have one of our deer fly patches on the back of your cap, they will immediately be trapped when they land. The patch will not stick to your fingers, but will still trap the deer flies. It's all small-scale jungle warfare.
Offered in packages of four or 12 sticky patches, each measuring 2-1/2" x 5-3/4". One patch will stay effective for several days."

Is this a wind up? And, if it isn't, where can I order a set from??

Chandos Road, Ampthill

A County-first on Tuesday, and a garden-first today when I found this beauty in the moth trap this morning: Pale Prominent (Pterostoma palpina). I’m assuming that the second part of the Latin name refers to the stonking mouthparts, or palps, which are particularly noticeable on this male. With the tail tufts at the other end and the pale but cryptic colouring, you can see how any hungry birds would struggle to find this individual tucked away during the daylight hours!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Randall's Farm, Stewartby

Late this afternoon I set 18 Longworth small mammal traps at Randall's Farm, the Wildlife Trust Education Centre. I went back this evening and found this Bank Vole in a trap set by a gap in the shed:It's the third Bank Vole I've come across today. Earlier I stopped off at Stewartby Lake and looked under a refuge that I had placed here some months ago, revealing a beautiful chestnut-backed individual. I then visited several other refuges close to Ampthill Park. One was home to another Bank Vole, with a Woodmouse in a nest under a further refuge just a few metres away. The other refuge here - a large sheet of MDF rescued from Dad's garage - revealed several Toads and a Great-crested Newt. It all goes to show just how effective sheets of tin or wood can be - I'm always on the lookout for suitable pieces!


In my last post I mentioned the day that John O’Sullivan and I had spent around Studham surveying for hoverflies. Today, John e-mailed me to say that a small dark hoverfly that I had netted from the top of a Hogweed umbel had been identified as Cheilosia scutellata, a first for Bedfordshire.

The other notable record was the presence of 5 of these: the impressive Volucella inanis, which has been expanding its range northwards over the last decade or so. It looks like a giant wasp and is, indeed, a wasp mimic, its eggs known to be laid in the nests of the Hornet and of some of our common social wasps. One reputable source notes that the strangely flattened larvae can ‘fit into the larval cells beside the wasp larvae on which they feed’ [Ball & Morris, 2001], whereas another hoverfly aficionado writes, ‘the larvae probably feed on organic debris accumulating in the nest cavity below the nest itself’ [Falk, 1991]. What’s amazing to me is the fact that they’re there in the first place!

Another insect that’s been expanding its range quite dramatically in recent years is this one: Roesel’s Bush-Cricket. It used to be a rare inhabitant of coastal meadows. Why Roesel’s? Because it’s named after the German entomologist, August Johann Rosel von Rosenhof, who studied insects and painted them. He died in his mid-fifties, and I can’t help wondering whether he would still have been able to hear this species calling towards the end of his life as the high-pitched song, created by rubbing the wings together, is not easy to pick up as our hearing deteriorates with age. I can still hear them…but for how much longer, I wonder?

Notice how long the wings are on this individual, extending past the end of the abdomen. This makes it the ‘macropterous’ form. In the usual form the wings only reach about half-way along the abdomen. I’ve never noticed this before. The author of the Wikipedia article on this insect states, ‘This form appears predominantly during hot summers and enables the species to extend its geographical range rapidly while conditions are suitable; such migrations may also be in response to local over-population.’

This individual was close by – I think it’s a Common Green Grasshopper, though I’m happy to be corrected.

Here’s a question for you to think about: What colour is Grasshopper blood? I was surprised when I found out. Any ideas?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Night Journeys

At 1am this morning, I listened intently to the strange sounds of the Bedfordshire countryside: a rich assortment of grunts, snorts, yaps, howls…and a regular rumbling groan that I could only liken to a Hippopotamus with indigestion!

I admit that it wasn’t typical for this part of the world because I happened to be sitting in the middle of the Chiltern Way alongside the perimeter fence of Whipsnade Zoo but, closing my eyes and letting my imagination run riot, I could have been in the middle of the rolling plains of the savannah, or else sat up a tree in a tropical rainforest: a surreal experience that I’d recommend as the 502nd thing to do before you die!

I decided yesterday morning that I wouldn't be going to bed last night and so, whilst visiting our local shops first thing, I was delighted to find a homeless giant Teddy Bear in the local charity shop. We both got on really well and I couldn’t resist purchasing it so that Carole wouldn’t be on her own in my absence!

John O’Sullivan and I had spent the day conducting a hoverfly survey around the pretty village of Studham on the south-western boundary of the County, and it was to Studham that I returned soon after 10pm, hoping to encounter an Edible Dormouse or two in the local woods. These are very common and active in parts of the Buckinghamshire Chilterns at this time, so I thought it would be worth having a look-see locally, too.

On the way into the wood I’d watched a Brown Hare in the night-vision scope as it weaved its way through a herd of cattle but, over the next hour or so, I couldn’t find sight nor sound of anything within the wood itself….apart from a Hornet that made me jump as it suddenly buzzed loudly right past my ear in the darkness (I confess that night-flying Hornets being attracted to the light is the thing that makes me more nervous than anything else when wandering alone through pitch-black woods in the middle of the night!).

A female Muntjac grazed next to the road as I drove to Whipsnade, and another sauntered nonchalantly out of my way as I walked down the Icknield Path and, thence, onto the Chiltern Way and around the Whipsnade Zoo perimeter. In a small copse I came across a young squeaking Tawny Owl which sat gazing quizzically at me from its perch just a few metres away. A further ramble brought me to the section of fence where I sat listening to the strange cacophony of sound emanating from the Zoo. In the midst of this kaleidoscope of sound, I was pretty sure that I heard an Edible Dormouse chattering & chuntering in the depths of the thick Oak tree canopy above my head, too, though mainly by a process of elimination because I couldn't think what other creature it might have been apart from a Grey Squirrel dreaming!

After a further hour here, I made my way back to the car and thence, via the M1 (and a cup of strong coffee at Toddington Services), to the Barton Bypass in the hope of seeing a Polecat. No luck here, despite several ‘passes’ between the Streatley & Barton roundabouts, though I watched a Hedgehog scuttling around by Harlington Station, and another in Flitwick.

And so, at about 3.45am, with a beautiful bright moon right ahead of me, I found myself parked once again in my favourite spot on the road out of Steppingley (see below), listening to a lecture by Tom Wright, outgoing Bishop of Durham, and sipping an orange & mango juice purchased from the 24-hour Tescos in Flitwick. No Polecats again….not even a Red Fox, in fact, but fascinating as always with browsing Rabbits, canoodling Grey Squirrels and a beautiful female Muntjac. A massive brown bird flew low right over the top of the car just after 5am. There are a family of Buzzards around, but everything about the ‘jizz’ shouted out “female Goshawk”. Later, I saw it fly down the edge of the wood – stunning!


Saturday, July 24, 2010

Polecat Musings

Last night I dreamed that I saw a live Polecat and managed to photograph it. I can't remember the details but it shows just how much this beastie has been on my mind in recent weeks. I'm hoping to spend a few nights out in the countryside in the next week, baiting suitable areas, lamping, and using Richard's night vision scope (thanks for the loan, Richard). In the meantime, here's some Polecat excerpts from a 1960 book, British Animals of the Wild Places, by J. Wentworth Day:

'We stood one night in a little willow holt, a tangled jungle of soaring poplars, graceful osiers and blackthorn bushes, where soil was black and oozy and tasselled reeds and cream-yellow meadowsweet grew shoulder high. It was on the edge of Wicken Fen, that untamed wilderness of reeds and sedge, and peaty waters, where still the bittern sometimes booms on nights of spring, and the wild duck rears its brood.
That night, as we stood beneath the whispering leaves of the tall poplar that rose, faintly murmurous, a great silvered spire, reaching for the stars, there came a quiet patter on fallen leaves. The crackle of a twig. Quick insistent footsteps.
Moonlight struck a wan, white patch of bare ground between the bushes and the reeds. I stood in the black shade of the poplar. Suddenly, out of the reeds snaked a long, sinuous animal. Half as long again as a rabbit it seemed in the moonlight. It paused suddenly. Lifted a fore-foot. Eyes gleamed greenishly towards the half-seen figure in the poplar shade. My companion, a lion-hearted terrier, stiffened like a wire-brush. He plunged forward.
The strange animal whisked sideways in the moonlight, disappeared almost instantaneously in the reeds. The dog crashed after it. There was a momentary gleam of a rich dark-brown coat - and then the most appalling smell that ever smote the nostrils of man or boy in an English wood. That smell seemed to linger for days.
That was my first, and last, vision of a true, wild polecat in his native haunts in England...

....The average man can live a lifetime without seeing - still less smelling - this prize murderer of the wilds...

...There is little to commend polecat or marten, although both are handsome, courageous and ancient. They were here long before the Romans came. Both, however, are ruthless killers. They kill for the sheer lust of slaughter. Game birds, hares, rabbits and poultry are never safe when either is abroad.
In the North Country, particularly the Lake District, I believe that the polecat still survives in limited numbers, and, indeed, some years ago there existed a scratch pack of smallish hounds of a more or less nondescript breed, which were used for hunting "foulmarts", as the polecat is called, among the rough moorland pastures and the drystone walls of the Lake District...

...In the winter of 1943 I was staying at Clochfaen Hall, far up on the head-waters of the Wye in Montgomeryshire. There, on a wild unkeepered estate of some four thousand acres of moorland and sheep farms, tracks of polecats were plainly visible in the snow. One farmer even told me that he had seen no less than fourteen of them hunting in a pack! Heaven help any new-born lamb which that bloodthirsty gang should chance to encounter.'

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Patiently waiting.....

I’m a great believer in ‘sitting & waiting’ as well as actively searching for wildlife. I’ve got a few spots where I’ve spent some time over the last few weeks. This is a spot close to the bridge over the M1 heading along the road from Steppingley. It was here on the left that I found the dead Polecat on 26th June. Badgerman found it, too, and saw a live one running across the road in the same place the following day. You can read his thoughts on his excellent blog. I spoke to someone at the weekend who had noted 2 dead Polecats in this place a few years ago. There are wood edges each side of the road here, and it is obviously as good a place as any hereabouts for seeing Polecat. Having said that, I have spent a number of hours sitting in the car here early in the morning (3.30am onwards on a couple of occasions) and not seen any yet. But I'm not disappointed at all, because I've seen various birds, a number of Red Foxes, Muntjac Deer, Grey Squirrels, Rabbits, a Wood Mouse, and Badgerman himself who drives past and waves on his way to the station just before 6.30am!

And here’s the other place where I’ve spent some time over the last day or two: a bridge with the busy A6 above and a stream below. There are loads of mammal footprints in the mud of the left-hand tunnel, including Red Fox & Brown Rat with many more obscured by the amount of activity. I've been sitting on the right-hand side looking down onto this scene. I had a Wood Mouse bounding about last night….and noticed this creature yesterday morning:
It was only a quick record shot, hence the quality, but it’s the first Signal Crayfish that I’ve seen in Bedfordshire. It stayed in the shallow water here for a few minutes before disappearing into the deeper water beneath the broken clay pipe in the background. I’m hoping to pick up many more species over the coming weeks!


There’s great news regarding the baby Noctule Bat that I wrote about on June 8th. Here’s a news article that details what’s been happening recently.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Maulden Wood

This morning, during the monthly Dormouse Box check at Maulden Wood, Ken, Marion and I came across this wasps’ nest that had been dug up overnight.

When I was a young boy, my friends and I used to dig up wasps’ nests, and in the French Dordogne a few years ago I was privileged to come across a Honey Buzzard in the process of ripping apart a wasps’ nest and devouring the grubs. But the culprit here was a Badger – the perpetrator had even left behind a calling card just a metre or so away…a deep freshly-filled latrine!

The Gwent Badger Group tell the story of a woman who called them to say that she had a badger digging a sett in her garden and asking for someone to come out. They write: ‘a GBG officer was sent out only to report back to the caller that the badger had actually dug up a wasps nest and had eaten the contents, to which she replied in so many words, “Blooming Heck, I paid £45 to have one of them removed last week!” Maybe the badger should have moved in first, I'm sure he would have loved the chance to dig it out for her and a bit of lawn seed is cheaper than the £45.’

Over the years I have found a number of these nests excavated by hungry Badgers, especially in this kind of weather when worms are harder to find. They are after the fat and juicy protein-rich grubs, though one person found 300 adult wasps in a Badger’s stomach….I couldn’t help but wonder whether the Badger had been unfortunate enough to suffer from anaphylactic shock!

It was the 3rd Dormouse box check of the season and, thankfully, one of the teams found a live dormouse, our first here this year. I didn’t get to see it, but there’s still three more checks to go, so I’m still hopeful!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Potton Wood

I rolled out of bed just after 4am this morning, tired after a fitful night’s sleep, but excited about my plans to catch up with one of Bedfordshire’s less common mammals.

Just after 5am I was seated high up at the intersection of two rides at Potton Wood in the east of the county, the one ride orientated just about north-south, and the other east-west….I sat and waited. Pheasants were calling, a male Wood Pigeon flirted with his partner, roller-coasting and wing-clapping, and a Marsh Tit just couldn't hold it in - I always think that the familiar pitchoo pitchoo pitchoo song just explodes out of their beaks….

…and then, at 6.15am, my heart leapt as I noticed the mammal I’d come to see standing out on the north ride in front of me: Fallow Deer. June is the time when the fawns arrive, so I was hoping that I might get to see a mother and her young offspring…and I wasn’t disappointed. You’ll probably have to use your imagination a bit for the photo – but it was early and they were fairly distant!

This was just a brief view as the pair crossed the path from left to right but 40 minutes later, just before 7am, they appeared again on the path to the east of my position, having wandered through the wood. Then they disappeared into the woodland on the south side of this ride, before the doe appeared once again – on her own this time – at 7.10am, spending 15 minutes browsing just 50m or so from me.

Suddenly she looked up and stared straight in my direction, sniffing the air. A breeze was now blowing and I was upwind….though up high, too. But I think she must have gotten wind of me…I’m sure she couldn’t hear the Hayley Westenra song that was issuing quietly from where I had dropped my iPod earphones!! She sauntered back into the wood and I didn’t see her again.

The Fallow Deer brings me up to 30 Bedfordshire mammal species so far this year. Here's the complete list:

1) Rabbit (1st January – Kempston Hardwick verges).
2) Chinese Water Deer (1st January – Flying Horse Farm).
3) Grey Squirrel (2nd January – Millbrook Plantation).
4) Muntjac (2nd January – Millbrook Plantation).
5) Red Fox (4th January – Brogborough Lake).
6) Brown Hare (7th January – Ampthill area).
7) Brown Long-eared Bat (13th February).
8) Natterer’s Bat (13th February).
9) Barbastelle Bat (13th February).
10) Daubenton’s Bat (13th February).
11) Common Shrew (17th February – Ampthill Park).
12) Pygmy Shrew (18th February – Ampthill Park).
13) Wood Mouse (18th February – Ampthill Park).
14) Stoat (24th February – Ampthill Park).
15) Bank Vole (5th March - Stewartby Lake).
16) American Mink (8th March - Stewartby Lake).
17) Water Shrew (12th March - The Lodge, Sandy).
18) Water Vole (24th March - Sandy area).
19) Otter (24th March - Warren Villas NR).
20) Weasel (18th April – Chicksands Wood).
21) Common Pipistrelle (20th May - Wood in Eastern Bedfordshire).
22) Serotine Bat (20th May – Wood in Eastern Bedfordshire).
23) Soprano Pipistrelle (10th June – Priory CP).
24) Hedgehog (10th June – Priory CP).
25) Badger (11th June – Local wood).
26) Noctule Bat (28th June – Stockgrove CP).
27) Roe Deer (28th June – Kingshoe Wood verge).
28) Brown Rat (29th June – Wardown Park).
29) Field Vole (1st July – Rough Ground north of Redbourne School).
30) Fallow Deer (14th July – Potton Wood).

Friday, July 2, 2010

Chandos Road, Ampthill

These are 11 Emperor Moth caterpillars that I’ve been breeding through. They’re pretty striking, both in terms of colour and size. We rediscovered Emperor Moths on Cooper’s Hill a few years ago where the caterpillars have been found feeding on Bramble. These ones took readily to Hawthorn.

Impressive or what! These must be about full-size now and I’m expecting them to pupate anytime soon.

At the other end of the scale, this micro-moth, Lozotaeniodes formosanus, is small, but beautiful. Its caterpillars feed on Scots Pine. It turned up in the moth trap last night for the first time.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Wild Britain & Ampthill

At last….my first Field Vole of the year! Field Voles go through ups and downs over the years in terms of their population sizes, and the last few years have been pretty lean, but there are still plenty around and I finally caught up with this one tonight in the rough grassland north of Redbourne School.

It’s certainly been a small mammal day. First thing this morning, I joined Andrew Green at Wild Britain in Wilden and we checked the Longworth traps that we set yesterday evening.

We came across several Bank Voles, a juvenile Wood Mouse, and a Common Shrew, but star of the day here was this tiny Pygmy Shrew, our smallest British mammal, weighing in at a miniscule 4g. That’s a tiny maggot castor that it’s standing next to!

And this is our smallest mouse - the Harvest Mouse, though I’m cheating because this one is in a tank, part of the breeding programme that Wild Britain are undertaking with this unique species. Hopefully, I’ll come across one running wild in Bedfordshire in the next few months.

At 5am this morning, I was sitting in my car hoping that a Polecat would cross the road in front of me at a Polecat crossing-point near Steppingley. I really enjoyed the early morning sunshine whilst listening to an audiobook on my iPod, but I never did see a Polecat. The individual in this photo is Diesel, a male Ferret that came to Wild Britain last year from the Three Shires Ferret Rescue Centre. I spent ages watching Diesel and his white companion, Rocket, playing together and searching their enclosure…I can’t wait to see this kind of activity in the wild!