Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Steppingley-Woburn Road

Driving back to Ampthill with Carole after a pleasant afternoon spent in Woburn yesterday, I pointed out my 'Polecat-layby', referring to the hours I have spent there these past months waiting for that all-elusive sighting (after finding a dead Polecat close by and Badger-watching Man seeing a live one at exactly the same spot the following day). A few hundred metres up the road we rounded the corner and came across this...
...another dead Polecat! Carole's used to being left in farm gateways while I examine an interesting corpse in the road, and she waited patiently as I retraced my steps to check this one. I didn't have any kit to examine it properly, but it looked like a juvenile. Interestingly, there was also a dead Stoat nearby.

I'd already planned to spend some time in this area yesterday evening, and enjoyed a pleasant hour driving up and down this road between 11pm and midnight - the Dire Straits album gave just the right ambience! No Polecats, but I did chalk up a load of Rabbits, 1 Chinese Water Deer, 3 Wood Mice and a black and white Cat!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Biggleswade Common

The large Sparrowhawk soared up in front of me, rapidly gaining height and skilfully negotiating the strong gusts of wind as it banked right, and then left. When you’re searching for a rare bird, especially one that spends a lot of its time perched on the top of posts, the sight of a Sparrowhawk is not the most comforting omen! Back in March 2004, a group of birders were congratulating one another on catching up with a rare American Robin – which had somehow travelled from the States and ended up on an industrial estate in Grimsby – when a Sparrowhawk suddenly swooped down and grabbed it right in front of their eyes…they must have been so gutted!!

I’d made my way over to Biggleswade Common following the sighting of a Red-backed Shrike here yesterday. Shrikes are well-known for the characteristic way in which they catch insects and small mammals and then impale them on thorns, creating their own larder. No wonder they are commonly referred to as 'Butcher Birds'! One older birder I spoke to today told me that his parents used to speak of how they would often come across these larders when walking in the countryside in times past. Unfortunately, the Red-backed Shrike no longer breeds regularly in the UK, despite government attempts to encourage it to take up residence in numbers again by 2015.

It was soon after 3pm when Rob Dazely gave me a shout to say that the bird had been spotted….a stunning female! Steve Blain has given me permission to reproduce his brilliant photo here (that looks like a Speckled Bush Cricket sticking out of its bill!).

I spent the next 2 hours watching this bird as it slowly made its way down the fenceline next to the railway, undisturbed by the regular trains that careered by. At one point I saw it catch and consume a bumblebee….that will be an interesting record for Colin, our Bedfordshire Bumblebee Recorder!!

Friday, August 27, 2010


I couldn’t believe it when I started up the car first thing this morning and put it into gear. As I moved forward there was a horrible grating noise. I put it into reverse and there were further grindings and the back of the car lifted alarmingly! It turned out that a rear brake shoe had seized. “Please, not today,” I groaned to myself! But I’m forever in debt to Lee who came over from Tavistock Motors and, with a bit of clever manoeuvring, and a whack with a hammer, got me going. I was over an hour late, but had nothing to lose and so headed south to Studham where, guided on the mobile by Pam, I caught up with the local Dormouse team in the depths of an ancient hedgerow just in time to meet this character…

….a typically winsome Hazel Dormouse! This was the second Dormouse that Steve, Pam, Fiona, Fay & Ali had found as they checked the specially-constructed Dormouse boxes.

And here’s a photo of the very cosy des res! This was a female, and she had constructed a typical nest, skilfully weaving strips of honeysuckle bark into a round sphere and then adding concentric layers of leaves.

Of course, certain birds also take advantage of the Dormouse boxes. Here’s a Blue Tit’s nest that we found in one of them. Sadly, the parents must have been disturbed and deserted, leaving these five eggs as a poignant reminder of just how precarious life can be in the wild!

Thursday, August 26, 2010


This Bank Vole was the first one of 5 that were caught overnight in John & Nancy's marvellous garden. The target species was Yellow-necked Mouse, which has been caught here frequently in the past, but the only mice caught today were two Wood Mice. The door hadn't tripped on the last trap, but the tooth marks on a piece of apple indicated the presence of a much larger rodent...it might have been a Brown Rat, or else the elusive Yellow-necked Mouse!

Nancy raised an interesting question for thought: Why have the Yellow-necked Mice populations seemingly declined in many places when their robust size, vigour and strength would seem to make them potentially more successful than the smaller Wood Mouse?

I'm hoping to add a new 2010 Bedfordshire mammal to my list tomorrow...watch this space!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Great news from Scotland

Photo credit Steve Gardner/Scottish Wildlife Trust

This past week I’ve spent hours sitting in the midst of a large rabbit warren, reading and hoping for a close view of Stoat….or even a Polecat! I’ve spent further hours fruitlessly searching various local habitats for Harvest Mouse…but it’s been great to be out and about.

Today I’ve been stuck inside, preparing for a trip to Somerset over the weekend, but I’ve been celebrating the news of 2 Beaver kits from different family groups being spotted in Scotland’s Knapdale Forest, where strenuous efforts are taking place to reintroduce this special mammal back into the wild.

It’s brought back memories of the time I spent searching for Beavers during a family holiday on the shores of Lake Annecy a few years ago. At the southern end of the lake is a nature reserve where Beavers are resident. A daytime wander revealed a number of pencil-point trunks, a lodge, and a small dam.

I returned late one night, making my way through the thick undergrowth. I stood by the side of the main channel for a while until I thought I heard a noise. I switched the torch on just as a Beaver swam past in front of me with a branch clasped in its jaws. Further downstream it left the water and spent a few minutes watching me from the bank. Wonderful!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Ampthill Park

Earlier today I went over Ampthill Park in order to search for Harvest Mouse nests. I could only spare a few hours and, in the event, my plans changed when I came across two Xylota sylvarum hoverflies spending their time in the vicinity of an old fallen tree stump. It's the first chance that I've had to photograph this attractive hoverfly. This individual got used to me over a period of time and even perched on my jeans & boots!

There were also several of these attractive wasps flying about amongst the bramble leaves:

Thanks to Tim Strudwick of the BWARS Newsgroup who has identified it as Mellinus arvensis. An internet search reveals it to be a wasp that is likely to be seen over the next few months searching various bushes in a hunt for flies. It places up to a dozen of these in a near-vertical sandy burrow that can be some 40cm long! Jeremy Early has conducted an interesting study of some of his local individuals here.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Beadlow Manor

Q. What's the difference between a stoat and weasel?
A. A Weasel is weasily wecognised and a stoat is stoataly different!

In practice, though, it’s not quite as straightforward! I often get asked about the difference between a Stoat and a Weasel. This is a Stoat that I found dead alongside the A507 between the Beadlow Manor Golf Course and Sandy Smith Nature Reserve:
The black tip to the relatively long tail is obvious here, and I find it the most reliable character when confronted by a small Stoat or Weasel suddenly running across the road in front of me.

And this photo demonstrates why. This is a dead Weasel from Maxine's garden. It's appreciably smaller than an adult Stoat, but that's not easy to tell from the photo, and the same is often true of Weasels seen in the countryside, where the sighting can be agonisingly brief. Look at the tail, though. You can see how the presence of the Stoat’s thick, black-tipped, tail is a giveaway compared to the small thin tail of the Weasel.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Chandos Road, Ampthill

This is the Banded Burying Beetle, Nicrophorus investigator, perched on the wall of my moth trap!

Recently, I did a study on our 7 species of Burying, or Sexton, Beetles and discovered just how fascinating their lifestyle can be. Have you, like me, ever wondered why so few small mammal & bird corpses are found considering how abundant they are? This little beastie and his friends is probably the main reason.

Sexton Beetles have a nose or, perhaps we should say, antennae, for a corpse, flying in from some distance in order to fulfil their vital task. We wouldn’t consider a corpse romantic but, for the Sexton Beetle, it’s the place to meet up and get to know one another. They bury the corpse and then lay their eggs close to the body as a future food source for their little ones!
(photo-credit: www.animalbehaviour.org)

What I find most amazing about these creatures takes place next, as the parents don’t high-tail it off to another corpse, but stay behind to feed the growing larvae before they’re able to look after themselves! The photo above shows just this amazing behaviour!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Well Head and Totternhoe area

John O’Sullivan and I spent yesterday undertaking a hoverfly survey in the south of the County. We spent a few hours at Well Head, where the water gathers at the base of the Dunstable Downs. After lunch, we walked along a few footpaths on the chalk in the Totternhoe area.

There were hoverflies everywhere. As John put it, “For every bee there must be at least 100 hoverflies.” I think the number was probably much higher than that!

Not a good photo, but this was my favourite hoverfly of the day: the stunning Helophilus trivittatus, the biggest and brightest member of the Helophilus family. It’s only the second individual recorded in Bedfordshire so far this year.

I love the eye patterns on this species: Eristalinus sepulchralis, though you'll have to click on the photo to get a better idea of what I'm talking about.

The other hoverfly highlight was the presence of 4 male and 1 female Volucella inanis individuals on the same patch of bramble!

There were good numbers of butterflies around, too, including lots of Common Blues.

At Wellhead, we were surprised to come across this Chalkhill Blue.

Last year we had an invasion of these beautiful butterflies, originating in the Atlas Mountains of northern Africa: the Painted Lady. This year their numbers have been much fewer and far between!

Below are our butterfly and hoverfly lists for the trip: a great day out!


Large White; Small White; Green-veined White; Meadow Brown; Gatekeeper; Ringlet; Common Blue; Holly Blue; Chalkhill Blue; Small Copper; Large Skipper; Small Skipper; Red Admiral; Painted Lady; Comma.


Melanostoma scalare; Melanostoma mellinum; Platycheirus rosarum; Platycheirus peltatus; Platycheirus clypeatus; Platycheirus albimanus; Syrphus vitripennis; Syrphus ribesii; Melangyna comp/lab; Melangyna umbellatarum; Eupeodes corollae; Eupeodes luniger; Episyrphus balteatus; Dasysyrphus albostriatus; Scaeva pyrastri; Sphaerophoria scripta; Sphaerophoria taeniata; Cheilosia bergenstammi; Cheilosia pagana; Cheilosia impressa; Cheilosia proxima; Cheilosia soror; Melanogaster hirtella; Neoascia podagrica; Eumerus funeralis; Pipizella viduata; Volucella pellucens; Volucella inanis; Syritta pipiens; Eristalis tenax; Eristalis pertinax; Eristalis horticola; Eristalis intricaria; Eristalis arbustorum; Eristalis nemorum; Eristalinus sepulchralis; Myathropa florea; Helophilus pendulus; Helophilus trivittatus.

…a total of 39 species, which is a new record for me in terms of species seen in a day!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A6 stream bridge

This Signal Crayfish was scampering about on the bottom of the shallow stream at this site midday yesterday. Notice the white area on the claw. The Swedish biologist, Gunnar Svärdson, who gave this species its colloquial name, observed individuals waving their claws at one another, and the white patches reminded him of train dispatchers signalling to the engineer!

Signal crayfish, originally hailing from the United States, have been spreading throughout the UK ever since escaping from ponds where they were farmed for food in the 1970s. They readily walk overland. The bad news is that they reproduce rapidly and numerously and, even more ominously, carry a plague that can wipe out our native White-clawed Crayfish.

The small Bedfordshire population of White-clawed Crayfish collapsed a few years ago, though we don’t know whether the Signal Crayfish invasion was to blame. Other factors that are worrying conservationists are the amount of native species that the omnivorous Signal Crayfish consume – upsetting delicate ecosystems; and the way in which they burrow into the banks of rivers, streams and ditches – thus destabilising them.

Here's some other interesting Signal Crayfish facts that I came across:

• The female breeds from the age of about two when it is 40mm long.
• She breeds once a year and averages 275 eggs.
• The eggs are fertilised by the male in October/November.
• They are carried by the female folded within her tail until May when the young are released - if they can escape her jaws.
• The Signal is bigger and more aggressive than native crayfish.
• They are less fussy in what they eat and more successful and rapidly colonise new areas.
• They can live up to 12 years.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Steppingley-Woburn Road

At first light this morning, with rain falling steadily, I was parked in one of my favourite spots on the road between Steppingley & Woburn. A young Buzzard was very active, calling and flying to and fro over the field on the opposite side of the road. Just before 6.30am, a male Muntjac appeared at the side of the field which has recently been harvested. He wandered about for a while before disappearing, once more, into the long vegetation alongside the copse.

Then, just before 6.50am, a female Muntjac wandered into the stubble, followed by a lively fawn and, finally, the male lagging slowly behind!

After several minutes browsing, the family made their way back to the tall vegetation at the end of the field. The male and fawn bounded into it, whereas the female turned around and spent another ten minutes leisurely grazing in the midst of the stubble.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Cooper's Hill & Ampthill Park

Two striking but very different fungi encountered locally:

Southern Bracket (Ganoderma australe), here close to the base of a Silver Birch tree over Cooper’s Hill. When this occurs in a living tree, a corresponding white rot means that the trees days are numbered! You can see the brown dust below the fungus, the result of millions of cocoa-brown spores being released.

And this is the Parasol Mushroom (Macrolepiota procera), growing in the midst of a stand of Silver Birch trees in Ampthill Park. I was thrown for a moment because it looked smaller than the grandiose specimens that I often find in the Park, but the snakeskin pattern below the cap confirms its identity. Notice, too, the double ring on the stem, or stipe as it is known in fungi circles!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Ampthill Park

Having talked about the plight of our Horse Chestnuts, I came across this in Ampthill Park this morning:

It refers to a magnificent Beech Tree, and I fear that it may be the results of a fungal disease that has already led to several of the Park’s Beeches being felled.

At the other end of the size scale, I came across this Wood Mouse in her nest. On the 29th July I found her (presumably a female) in exactly the same situation. I assume she’s got young, the average being between 4 and 7 individuals, but I didn’t want to disturb her any more to find out. Up to six pregnancies, one after the other, have been recorded in the wild in Wood Mice, the population potentially doubling every month. When in the nest, females exclude other mice.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Alameda, Ampthill

A few days ago, I noted the fact that a Hedgehog faces quite a challenge just to survive day by day. Our Horse Chestnuts – ‘Conker’ trees – are also confronting difficult times. If you live in this area you cannot fail to have noticed the grim appearance of these usually graceful trees.

The leaf damage on this tree is caused by the aptly named Horse Chestnut Leaf Miner moth, Cameraria ohridella. It was only discovered in northern Greece in the 1970’s, but has since spread like wildfire through Europe, before being discovered infesting the trees on Wimbledon Common in July 2002. Since then it has continued to spread north through the UK at an alarming rate.

The moth lays its eggs in the leaf tissue and the larva subsequently eats its way through the leaves, causing them to turn brown and shrivel. You can see the leaf mines in this photo, though I couldn’t find any with larvae present.

If this isn’t bad enough, there’s an even worse enemy attacking our Horse Chestnuts. This is the trunk of the same tree:

It’s suffering from Bleeding Canker.

As far as we know, this disease used to be limited to India where it caused minor damage to the leaves of the Indian Horse Chestnut but, since arriving in Europe - probably on imported timber - it has been wreaking havoc. Initially it was thought to be a fungal disease, but research has confirmed that it is, in fact, bacterial.

The tree starts to ‘bleed’ yellow or red liquid in the spring before it gets darker in warmer weather, drying up to leave the effect evident on the photo, though it may ‘bleed’ again when Autumn comes, the bacteria almost certainly preferring mild & moist conditions. It destroys much of the essential tissue in the tree and can cause all kinds of secondary effects.

Thankfully, there is some good news. Earlier this year, scientists in Norwich decoded the genome of the bacterium (which goes by the chilling name of Pseudomonas syringae pathovar aesculi, or Pae for short!), which will hopefully lead to a bit of genetic warfare. If we don’t want to see our Horse Chestnuts going the way of our Elm trees, a solution can’t come soon enough!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Alameda, Ampthill

This molehill, which stands on The Alameda at Ampthill, was made at some point earlier today. It’s now been flattened, as has every other molehill along the length of this impressive avenue of trees, bequeathed to the town by Lord Holland in the 19th century. Over the last week or so, I’ve dutifully flattened any molehills in the morning and afternoon in order to get an idea of the activity that’s been going on. This very basic experiment has revealed the presence of half a dozen or so individual moles! If you’ve got molehills close to you, then it’s worth doing the same – like me, you might be surprised by the amount of excavation that’s taking place!

The UK’s most famous molehill was made during the early 1700s, in 1702 to be precise. It was in that fateful year, on 20th February, that King William III’s horse, Sorrel, stumbled over a molehill in Richmond Park, the frail 51 year old King William breaking his collar bone and dying of a subsequent fever a few weeks later, which explains why...

a) ….King William’s statue in St James Square includes a molehill!

b) …King William’s enemies, the Jacobites, used to raise a toast to ‘The Gentleman in Black Velvet’!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Harrold-Odell Country Park

This evening half a dozen members of the Bedfordshire Bat Group and a dozen or so members of Bedfordshire and Luton Mind, the local mental health charity, gathered at Harrold-Odell Country Park in the north of Bedfordshire for a bat walk.

The Mind group, who have also been making bat boxes, enjoyed a similar ramble in the rain at Priory Country Park a few weeks ago, but it certainly hadn't dampened people's spirits and many had returned this evening in anticipation of another bat-fest!

There was a special treat before we started the walk as Bob & Jude had brought along a female Brown Long-eared Bat that had been found grounded at Chicksands a few days ago, and which seems to be lacking any disposition to fly for some reason.

Kelly then led us on a walk around the Park. It was still light when we entered the wooded section, but already a Soprano Pipistrelle was flying to & fro amongst the trees and we were able to watch it and listen to it on the bat detectors. It was an ideal evening for bats, damp but clear after the earlier rainfall, and there was further activity around the lakeside, including a feeding Common Pipistrelle.

But the best show of the night occurred at a clearing by the lake where Daubenton Bats skimmed over the surface of the lake while Pipistrelles flew overhead, regularly flying right past our heads, much to everyone's delight.

A little further on and suddenly the detectors emitted a totally different sound at a much lower frequency. I likened it to the sound of nails being frantically knocked into a wall. It was the distinct sound of Noctule Bats feeding high above the trees.

I think everyone really enjoyed themselves this evening - it's no wonder that the Bat Group is going from strength to strength!

Hoverfly heaven!

In the United States, hoverflies are called ‘flower flies’ and, at the moment, there are often clouds of these engaging insects around stands of flowers in our gardens and the wider countryside. Here are two species that are particularly noticeable and well worth examining in greater detail when you find them:

Scaeva pyrastri

There is little mistaking this relatively large and conspicuous hoverfly, with its three pairs of white comma-like markings. The first individuals that we see from about June onwards are migrants from southern and central Europe which breed and, in good years like this one, give rise to large numbers of offspring that turn up just about everywhere. We don’t know whether any fly south again as the year progresses, but those that remain can’t survive our cold winters, a situation that global warming could reverse over the coming years.

It’s reckoned that the larvae of this species probably consume as many as 500 or more of the aphids that they feed on, generally low down in the vegetation but, once they’ve become adults, they content themselves with nectar & pollen, which helps to mature the eggs (thankfully, they don’t require blood like the deerflies below!).

Episyrphus balteatus

This is probably our most familiar hoverfly – it’s even got an English name: the Marmalade Hoverfly. It’s smaller than Scaeva pyrastri but has that wonderful marmalade-coloured abdomen with the double black stripes. It’s a form of what is known as Batesian mimicry, the harmless hoverfly mimicking a more dangerous species, thereby gaining protection from predators.

The Marmalade Fly larva is also an important predator of various aphids, and a number of studies have been undertaken of their beneficial effect in controlling pests in various crops. One experiment established that female Marmalade Hoverflies ‘are able to evaluate and adjust oviposition rates according to different aphid prey densities’, i.e., the greater the number of aphids, the greater the number of eggs laid!

The thing I find most fascinating is the fact that they are drawn to the aphid colonies by the honeydew secreted by the individuals. So it’s not the number of aphids which attracts them so much as the concentration of honeydew and, even then, they are able to differentiate between the honeydew of various species so that they are choosing the correct aphid species', too.


Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Alameda, Ampthill

They say that there's more than one way to skin a cat, and I guess that the same goes for our Hedgehogs, too! Over the last few days I've found 3 separate Hedgehog skins on the grass along The Alameda, two of them within a few metres of one another.

I grew up reading stories of gypsies coating Hedgehogs in clay and then placing them in the hot embers of a fire to bake them, the spines becoming detatched by the process. But this is the work of a Badger or Fox. My money's on Badger. Even though there's not a known sett closeby, they do wander around the local area. It's said that, if you don't find many Hedgehogs around in a suitable rural or suburban area, then one of the reasons may be the presence of Badgers foraging locally, and I think that there's a lot of truth in that, though Hedgehogs also have to contend with the dangers of getting squashed by traffic, strangled or suffocated by rubbish, drowned in steep-sided ponds, sliced up by strimmers, burned by bonfires, or else poisoned by snails & slugs (which have themselves been poisoned by slug pellets). All in all, it's not an easy life for a Hedgehog!

Back in 1981, here in the UK, Hedgehog Foods Ltd marketed Hedgehog-flavoured crisps! The flavouring used was actually pork fat, and Hedgehog Foods landed up in trouble with the Office of Fair Trading the following year. What happened next? As one website relates it, 'Bizarrely, a settlement was finally reached when Mr Lewis, of Hedgehog Foods, interviewed gypsies who actually did eat baked hedgehogs, to ascertain the flavour of hedgehogs. Mr Lewis then commissioned a flavourings firm to duplicate the flavour as closely as possible and changed the labels from "hedgehog flavoured" to "hedgehog flavour" and all interests were satisfied!'

Monday, August 2, 2010

Randall's Farm WLT, Stewartby & Ampthill

I wrote a few days ago about a small-mammal trapping session at Randall’s Farm WLT. Over two days I had the Bank Vole pictured below, a Field Vole, 5 Wood Mice, a Common Shrew and….a juvenile Brown Rat. It exploded out of the trap and jumped up and down in the plastic bag looking for a fight, by far the liveliest rodent that I’ve trapped to date!

I had several more genteel small mammals on my own local patch this morning:
Two Common Shrews, including this one in some rough vegetation along The Alameda next to the school playing field….

And two juvenile Wood Mice in the scrub alongside the Ampthill Rugby Club pitch.

My dedicated search for that all elusive Polecat sighting continues to be...well, elusive! On Saturday, whilst travelling with my wife, Carole, alongside the Woburn Abbey boundary, I drove over a dark-furred corpse which, in the rearview mirrow, showed a flash of white at the head-end. The coat colour wasn't quite right, but I thought it must be a dead Polecat. On driving right around the next traffic island and heading back up the hill (my wife, Carole, commendably uncomplaining and resigned to the inevitable) I found this:
A freshly-killed Mink. The flash of white had been the Mink’s throat patch rather than a Polecat’s facial markings!

I did come across another Polecat of sorts yesterday afternoon though:
…the Polecat Inn at Prestwood in the Chilterns, which we passed on our way home from a visit to Disraeli’s home at Hughenden!