Sunday, March 28, 2010

A bit of a different post today. The photo above is of my wife, Carole, sitting overlooking Byron's Pool in Grantchester, near Cambridge, where Lord Byron used to swim. We spent today at The Orchard, where Rupert Brooke and his famous gang of 'Neo-Pagans' used to eat, drink, converse and dream together, and where Cambridge University students today still gather. It was Virginia Woolf who coined the phrase Neo-pagan and the group also included such luminaries as E.M.Forster, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein & Maynard Keynes. This was in the years preceding the First World War when, shortly before his death, Brooke wrote his oft-quoted poem, The Soldier.

After a jacket potato lunch we wandered through the Grantchester Meadows to Cambridge alongside the Granta River where various yellow composites were in glorious bloom: Lesser Celandine, Dandelion and Coltsfoot. The Lesser Celandine yielded my first hoverfly of the year - an unidentified Cheilosia. As we made our way back to The Orchard, a Blackcap was singing away in the hedgerow. Later we enjoyed a speciality afternoon cream tea, sitting in our deckchairs under the trees (see photo above) before wandering down to the pool past Brookes' Old Vicarage, now home of the celebrated author, Jeffrey Archer.

I'm really looking forward to visiting this special place again soon, when the orchard trees are in bloom and when we can listen to the bees and explore the flora as we enjoy our tea. In the BBC documentary clip here, broadcaster David Dimbleby rows along the river here, the film footage anticipating the lushness of the meadows in the weeks to come!

Dimbleby quotes a few lines from Rupert Brooke's famous poem - The Old Vicarage, Grantchester - written during a spell in Germany when he was homesick, and really evoking powerful memories of his beloved English countryside. He loved the natural world - here are a few excerpts:

Just now the lilac is in bloom,
All before my little room;
And in my flower-beds, I think,
Smile the carnation and the pink;
And down the borders, well I know,
The poppy and the pansy blow . . .
Oh! there the chestnuts, summer through,
Beside the river make for you
A tunnel of green gloom, and sleep
Deeply above; and green and deep
The stream mysterious glides beneath,
Green as a dream and deep as death.
— Oh, damn! I know it! and I know
How the May fields all golden show,
And when the day is young and sweet,
Gild gloriously the bare feet
That run to bathe . . .
'Du lieber Gott!'

Here am I, sweating, sick, and hot,
And there the shadowed waters fresh
Lean up to embrace the naked flesh.
Temperamentvoll German Jews
Drink beer around; — and THERE the dews
Are soft beneath a morn of gold.
Here tulips bloom as they are told;
Unkempt about those hedges blows
An English unofficial rose;
And there the unregulated sun
Slopes down to rest when day is done,
And wakes a vague unpunctual star...

ειθε γενοιμην . . . would I were
In Grantchester, in Grantchester! —
Some, it may be, can get in touch
With Nature there, or Earth, or such.
And clever modern men have seen
A Faun a-peeping through the green,
And felt the Classics were not dead,
To glimpse a Naiad's reedy head,
Or hear the Goat-foot piping low: . . .
But these are things I do not know.
I only know that you may lie
Day long and watch the Cambridge sky,
And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass,
Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,
Until the centuries blend and blur
In Grantchester, in Grantchester. . . .
Still in the dawnlit waters cool
His ghostly Lordship swims his pool...

Ah God! to see the branches stir
Across the moon at Grantchester!
To smell the thrilling-sweet and rotten
Unforgettable, unforgotten
River-smell, and hear the breeze
Sobbing in the little trees.
Say, do the elm-clumps greatly stand
Still guardians of that holy land?
The chestnuts shade, in reverend dream,
The yet unacademic stream?
Is dawn a secret shy and cold
Anadyomene, silver-gold?
And sunset still a golden sea
From Haslingfield to Madingley?
And after, ere the night is born,
Do hares come out about the corn?
Oh, is the water sweet and cool,
Gentle and brown, above the pool?
And laughs the immortal river still
Under the mill, under the mill?
Say, is there Beauty yet to find?
And Certainty? and Quiet kind?
Deep meadows yet, for to forget
The lies, and truths, and pain? . . . oh! yet
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Ampthill Park

I noticed an appreciable rise in the volume of birdsong over Ampthill Park this morning. Robins, Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, Great Tits, Goldfinches, Dunnocks, Treecreepers and Dunnocks were all singing away.

And love wasn't only 'in the air' as the song was 'in the pond' too! There were hundreds of Common Toads around the fringes of The Rezzy. The males wait for the larger females to arrive and then hitch a lift, holding on for dear life, aided by special pads that develop on the front feet which help them to cling on. I visited The Rezzy at night a few years ago and counted over 1500 Toads!

Males can often outnumber females by up to 10-1 and intricate wrestling matches ensue as they try to outmanoeuvre their rivals. This often leads to so-called 'mating balls' like the one in this photo. There was a lot of croaking going on, and it's reckoned that males which are trying to dislodge the rival that is currently in amplexus with the female can gauge whether he is bigger and stronger by the depth of his croak, and back off if need be!

Each female Toad can lay up to 5,000 eggs, in two strings - one from each oviduct. It's reckoned that the average is 1,500 though...which is still not bad going! You can see some strings of eggs wrapped round the vegetation in this photo.

This fungus was growing on a fallen tree trunk. I think it is the Oyster Mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus). The largest cap is about 10cm across with decurrent gills. It smells traditionally 'mushroomy' and is fawn in colour. The edges of the caps are wavy with a number of splits. Hopefully, that description will help our Fungi Recorder, Alan, to confirm the id or otherwise. (31/4/2010 - I've just picked up the cap from my work surface to find a lilac-like coloured spore print, which seems good!).

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Updated List

Here's the updated mammal list. If you live in Bedfordshire, and can help me with any of the difficult mammals I've yet to see, then please get in touch!

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) Pipistrelle Bat sp (13th February).
10) Barbastelle Bat (13th February).
11) Daubenton’s Bat (13th February).
12) Common Shrew (17th February – Ampthill Park).
13) Pygmy Shrew (18th February – Ampthill Park).
14) Wood Mouse (18th February – Ampthill Park).
15) Stoat (24th February – Ampthill Park).
16) Bank Vole (5th March - Stewartby Lake).
17) American Mink (8th March - Stewartby Lake).
18) Water Shrew (12th March - The Lodge, Sandy).
19) Water Vole (24th March - Sandy area).
20) Otter (24th March - Warren Villas NR).

And here are some of the species that I'd like to catch up with:

Hazel Dormouse - I hope the Maulden Wood survey will get me one of these little beauties!
Edible Dormouse - A tough one...any contacts really appreciated.
Field Vole - I should record this at some point.
Harvest Mouse - I've never seen one...hopefully this is the year!
Yellow-necked Mouse - Another tough one - only a few recorded colonies in Bedfordshire.
House Mouse - I should get to record this with traps in appropriate places, though no records were received by Richard Lawrence last year!
Common Rat - Should turn up under one of my refuges soon.
Hedgehog - I'm hoping Margaret will give me a call when one turns up in her garden!
Mole - Lots of creative ideas....but could be tough.
Badger - Shouldn't be too difficult.
Weasel - A bogey species for me, but hopefully I'll catch up with it at some point.
Polecat - I couldn't confirm a brief glance on the Barton Bypass in January - this will be really difficult.
Grey Seal - Maybe another one will travel up the Ouse this year - stranger things have happened!
Fallow Deer - Hopefully, I'll pick it up in the north-east of the County in the Autumn.
European Roe Deer - I did see one a few years ago, but they are only just spreading into Bedfordshire and will be very difficult to see.
Sika Deer - Odd records in the Woburn area...I'm not counting my chickens over this one...
Red Deer....nor this one!
Noctule Bat - Should see in the next month or two.
Leisler's Bat - Get me this one, Bob, and I'll kiss you!
Serotine Bat - a fair chance with the Bat Group aiming to survey Serotines' this year.
Common Pipistrelle - I've seen one of the Pipistrelle species on the Hibernation survey...I should pick up both species.
Soprano Pipistrelle.
Wallaby - Richard Lawrence pointed out I had omitted this on my original list. This was followed with the comment, 'Good luck with that, though'!!

Warren Villas NR

David Barnes' photo of the Otter at Priory Country Park has featured on this blog before, and I've included it again because it's the only photo of a Bedfordshire Otter that I've got, and because I want to celebrate finally catching up with an Otter this evening!!!

Over the past few months I've chalked up hours and hours of field-time, trying to record Otter, mainly focusing on dawn watches at Stewartby Lake. As Richard Lawrence, our Mammal Recorder, said at the Bedfordshire Natural History Society AGM last night, "There are a lot of Otters around and they're in all the watercourses!", but seeing one is not quite so straightforward!

Having found a spot where Otter(s) cross from the Nature Reserve to the River Ivel this morning, I stationed myself about 25m downwind and waited. This was just after 6.30pm which was pretty late: having done some last minute shopping, got caught in heavy traffic, and having trekked once again from Biggleswade! But, within 10 minutes, I looked up to find an Otter standing on the path right in front of me. It must have known that I was there but, after a few seconds, it sauntered down the steep bank and, presumably, into the River Ivel, though I never did see it again. What I'll always remember is that amazing tail which looks so long close up! I had planned to do my very best to catch up with Otter & Water Vole during this holiday week, and I've managed to see both - Wonderful!

Sandy area & Maulden Heath

I woke up at 4.30am this morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (especially after 2 bowls of Frosties!), and so decided to get up and make the best of the morning. By 5.45am I was walking along the River Ivel between Biggleswade & Sandy, hoping to catch sight of an Otter. There were plenty of signs - slides, runs, spraint etc., but no Otters to be seen. It was great to hear the Skylarks singing out over Biggleswade Common, and I had great views of Grey Wagtail and an electric blue Kingfisher that whizzed past me at a rate of knots, whistling loudly.

Later, I decided to try to catch up with Water Vole. Roy Langford and I spent last Saturday morning surveying likely locations. By now it was really the wrong time of day for chance views, so I decided that a sit and wait policy was the best option, choosing a wooden footbridge across a likely stream. Mid-morning yesterday, I had 3 Muntjac and a Red Fox in the adjoining field, though there were none present this morning. But just before 11am I spotted a Water Vole ploughing down the middle of the stream. There's something magical about swimming Water Voles - I'd forgotten just how big these are, and I love their chocolate-brown colour. I followed this beastie down the stream for about 75 metres before it disappeared into the emergent vegetation on the left-hand bank of the photo.

This afternoon, with the sun shining, my son Mark and I went up to Maulden Heath to see if we could see any adders. We came across these three:

The last and worst photo (taken by me - Mark took the other two!) was the most significant find because this specimen was very small and further evidence of successful breeding in past years.

On the way home, this Common Lizard was flattening itself out on a fence-post spar, enjoying the sunshine...the tail indicates that it has probably had a close escape from a predator at some point in the past. (Photo by Mark)

Monday, March 22, 2010

Chandos Road, Ampthill

The moth season is getting underway, and I was really pleased to find this beauty in the trap this morning...appropriately named the Oak Beauty (Biston strataria). It's my 182nd species for this little patch.

I'm on holiday this week and hoping to catch up with a few more mammal species, the main target being Otter. I've even borrowed a tent this morning so that I can camp out at a likely this space!

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Lodge, Sandy

Today I faced up to the fact that I will never make the grade as a wildlife cameraman. In the back of my mind I’ve always pondered some of the brilliant footage that I would have been able to wow the nation with, having witnessed some amazing wildlife experiences over the years….but today those dreams crashed and burned.

I arrived at the RSPB’s HQ – The Lodge – this morning, and made my way over to Jack’s Pond where, following a sighting reported earlier in the week, I was hoping to repeat some of the brilliant views of Water Shrew that I’ve had there in the past. Water Shrews have alternating bursts of activity and periods of recuperation, so I'd come prepared and brought a book, particularly in light of the fact that Water Shrew activity generally peaks just before dawn. I sat back, relaxed, and enjoyed the light rain that was falling.

At 11.20am I looked up to see a Water Shrew powering across the centre of the pond....fantastic! I made my way round to a point above a patch of brambles that overhung the water, and into which it had disappeared. Seconds later it made its way over to the other side of the pond, intermittently plunging below the water's surface, and I was able to get a bit of poor video-footage. Over the next 5 minutes or so I followed it as it made its way around the edge of the pond before losing it in the midst of some of the thicker vegetation.

Then, a few minutes later, it suddenly appeared just in front of my feet, and spent the next 10 minutes diving and feeding right in front of me while I was able to get some absolutely brilliant footage on the video camera. After this things went quiet and the Shrew didn’t reappear…a sure sign that it had gone back to its burrow for an hour or two’s kip. So I thought it was safe to view my exciting footage on the video camera screen. I looked down in breathless anticipation….only to discover that I’d forgotten to press the ‘record’ button…….

……you can imagine my frustration! But I don’t want that to take away from a brilliant 20 minutes, and the chalking up of my 18th Bedfordshire mammal species of the year after finding Bank Vole and American Mink in the last week or so, both at Stewartby Lake. If you’re local, and can find the time, it’s well worth popping over to the Lodge and waiting to catch a glimpse of this special creature. There’s another Water Shrew that’s taken up residence in the big ornamental pond in front of the main house, too, and it’s been the star of the show for the staff every lunchtime!

Incidentally, once my son shows me how to download…and then upload videos, I’ll put the little bit of poor footage that I did obtain on here, but don’t hold your breath! (I dropped and wrecked my camera's telephoto lens last week, which has really inhibited my photo capability for this blog...and further underlines my unsuitability to be the BBC's next cameraman supreme!)