Thursday, June 30, 2011

Duck End Nature Reserve

Yesterday I went out into the local countryside for the first time since getting back from our holiday in Canada & Alaska. I didn’t see any bears or whales, but an hour at Duck End Nature Reserve emphasized, once again, that there’s a jungle out there, wherever we may be. I have to say that I didn’t see many flies during our holiday but here’s a few from Duck End which is heaving with ‘em!!

This first one’s cheating a bit because it’s a Damselfly and not a true ‘fly’ at all. But I had to include it because I was really pleased with the photo. It’s an Emerald Damselfly. This species seems to me to be going through a real increase in numbers, and no more so than at Duck End where it was relatively uncommon until a mini-population explosion over the past few seasons. I love the metallic green colours and the way in which it holds its wings out like the larger dragonflies.

And here’s another stunner – the generally scarce wasp-mimic, Chrysotoxum verralli Hoverfly, the only record for Bedfordshire so far this year. Mr Verralli seems to have lent his name to a number of species: the flies Aphantorhaphopsis verralli, Brevicornu verralli & Thaumalea verralli, the scuttle-fly Megaselia verralli, the midge Tanytarsus verralli, the cranefly Ephelia verralli, a horsefly Tabanus verralli…the list seems to go on and on!

At this point I decided to do an internet search to find out something about this character whose name I mention regularly! It turns out that Wikipedia have an article about George Henry Verrall, who was born in 1848. I was reminded about the famous song which begins, “I know an old lady who swallowed a fly…” Several verses later it concludes, “I know an old lady who swallowed a horse, she’s alive and well of course.” For George it was the other way around: he started with horses and ended with flies! To cut a long story short he became Clerk of the Course at some of the most prestigious race meetings, eventually moving to that horse-racing Mecca, Newmarket. To be fair, his interest in flies developed alongside his proper job and, from 1866, he was over time a member, Secretary and then President of the Entomological Society. He and a colleague described some 900 species of Diptera! Alongside his entomological pursuits George was also a doughty politician and it appears that exhaustion from an election campaign led to his demise in September 1911, aged 64.

I shall never look at Chrysotoxum verralli in the same way again!

Here’s a fly that’s not named after George. It’s the tachinid fly, Thelaira nigripes. Thanks to Chris Raper for the identification. This is another photo that I was really pleased with (it’s a shame that the Chrysotoxum flew off before I could get anything more than the record shot above). It clearly brings out a number of the features of this tiny creature. You can see why George and others have fallen in love with flies…

….O.K., maybe I’m pushing it a bit there!! :)

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Canadian Rockies & Alaska

I’ve fallen in love again! My love for Carole hasn’t diminished at all, and it was our special celebration of 25 years of marriage that led directly to this fresh focus of loving attention: our recent trip to the Canadian Rockies and cruise up Canada & Alaska’s Inside Passage.

Allow me to share my experience of the mammals seen – some 26 species in 16 days.

The sightings began to rack up even as we travelled from Calgary Airport to Banff with Mountain Goat and a couple of Elk.

On our second day we travelled to a number of sites in the Banff National Park and it was at Johnson Canyon that we caught up with this Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel. Two other members of the family were seen that day: Hoary Marmots were running around and whistling below us as we rode the Lake Louise Gondola, and a Columbian Ground Squirrel was later seen close to the impressive Bow River Falls in Banff.

There were several of these cheeky birds on the flying to and fro along the shoreline of the dramatic Lake Louise – Clark’s Nutcracker – but the most surprising sighting of the day occurred when, unseen by the crowds, a delightful Short-tailed Weasel hunted for prey in the ornamental plant beds!

The following morning I went out for an early morning walk, hoping to spot deer. Following a fruitless search in woodland just outside of the town, I came across this Mule Deer (named after its ears) in a small piece of woodland right next to our hotel. It was perfectly at ease in my presence, allowing me to take these photos from just a few metres away.

Later that afternoon, Carole and I went for a walk around the marshland alongside the Bow river. We watched the dramatic courtship of a male Rufous Hummingbird as a Wilson’s Snipe called from the marsh behind us. There were signs of Beaver, but the only mammal seen – and seen in abundance – was the delightful Red Squirrel. It was only later in the holiday that I learned of the common sightings of Pikas alongside the Vermillion Lakes on the other side of the River, which would have swayed the decision about where to walk that afternoon!

At the same time as we were on our walk, several people in our party had seen Black Bear during a trip along the famous Icefields Parkway, but my sighting had to wait until our trip across the Rockies to Vancouver on the Rocky Mountaineer train. I can’t begin to express how wonderful it is to spend 2 days travelling through the most amazing countryside and scenery. Soon after departing Banff we spotted two Elk wading through the waters of the Vermillion Lakes and I was fortunate to see a Snowshoe Hare next to the track, but the highlight was the Black Bear which I saw a few hours later as I was hanging out of the window. It was right next to the track, looked up at me, and gave me a wave before bounding into the forest! Later that day I also saw my first White-tailed Deer staring at the train from a forested hillside.

On the second day of the train journey we saw a number of Bighorn Sheep in the surprisingly arid wilderness west of Kamloops, Yellow-Bellied Marmots sunning themselves close to farmsteads, and a River Otter in the extensive lake system east of Vancouver. Another mustelid was added to the list thanks to the previous tenant of our hotel room who had forgotten to cancel the early morning alarm call! Wide awake, I decided to go for a walk in the wonderful Stanley Park. I was sat on some boulders close to a lake when the Red-winged Blackbirds suddenly called out in alarm and an American Mink suddenly appeared just a few metres away, running behind one of the stones and then launching itself into the water where it swam underwater to some reeds before surfacing. Later I saw it sprint alongside the far bank of the lake and into some scrub from which it didn’t reappear. It was good to see Mink where it belonged (and Canada Goose)! I was disappointed not to see any of the local Raccoons, but I have to say that I'm pleased that I didn't have the experience of one of our party who tried to feed one, was bitten, and had to be carted off to hospital for rabies jabs!

And here’s something else where it belongs! Grey Squirrels in Stanley Park were numerous.

The mammal list was dramatically extended over the following week as we cruised the Inside Passage as far as Skagway. This breaching calf Humpback Whale was seen during a dramatic morning whale-watching out of Juneau. The mother seemed content to feed, but the youngster was obviously enjoying itself! I’m embarrassed by my photos, but I’ve got some great video!

We also came across this harem of Northern or Stellar's Sea Lions.

And then, as the Captain of the boat put it, we got the ‘Grand Slam’ when we came across this pod of Killer Whales. We were told that they appear about once a week in the area and are the resident community, ranging over some 50 or 60 square miles. Now and again smaller pods of transient Orcas will pass through. Whereas the resident Orcas feed on fish, transient Orcas will feed on just about everything else, including the Sea Lions! Later that morning, a friend managed to get some much better photos, so - with a big thankyou to Peter Kipling - here are a few of his photographs (We've both got some amazing video but I'm not able to download video to my computer - something I'm going to rectify):

During a visit to one of the glaciers up what is called the Tracey-Endicott Arm, we spotted a number of Harbour Seals on the ice floes, many of the mothers having gone their to give birth to their pups which could be seen rapidly putting on weight! I also spotted 3 Sea Otters in the distance from our cabin balcony at one point, but it really was the whales that remain in my mind from this trip.

I had spotted a lone Orca whilst sailing out of the Puget Sound from Seatttle, and managed to see a number of Humpbacks by patiently scanning the shoreline. The highlight of the trip was a 15 minute period whilst travelling down the Lynn Canal from Skagway. Carole and I were sitting on our balcony, our breath taken away by the dramatic mountains to the west. We were watching a couple of Humpback Whales feeding and spouting when, suddenly a pod of Orcas swam past! Carole was as excited as me. I told her that I just needed to see Dolphins now and, as I sat down, several Pacific White-Sided Dolphins suddenly appeared riding the ship’s waves just in front of our cabin – wonderful, wonderful, wonderful! A couple of Dall’s Porpoises also swam close by about a half hour later, their white-marked fins looking like they’d been dipped in a tin of paint!

I say that the whales were the highlight, but there was one more special event for me when, the following day I went on a one and a half hour fast-boat trip from Prince Rupert to the Khutzymateen Inlet. After a focused search, we finally came across a female Grizzly Bear and her two cubs grazing the Lyngby’s Sedge on the shoreline. She was quite nervous, and so we wisely kept our distance but, as I stood there watching them I knew in my heart that I would be coming back to this wonderful land someday soon!

Saturday, June 4, 2011


Several people have noted the distinct lack of postings in recent weeks.

No one has been more frustrated than me at my inability to get out into the field due to various responsibilities, but I'm sure it won't be long before that changes.

Carole and I are off to Canada tomorrow for a special holiday celebrating our joint-50th Birthdays and our 25th Wedding Anniversary. We'll be spending a few days in Banff before making our way through the Rocky Mountains on the famous Rocky Mountaineer train. This will be followed by a cruise up the western coast to Alaska...this is going to be a wonderful opportunity to see all kinds of new flora & fauna, though it's going to be strange to go on holiday without a carboot full of nets, traps, tubes and optical equipment!! I'm sure that there will be a lot of wild life at home, too, as the boys celebrate our absence!

When we get back we have just over a month before we move permanently to Freshwater on the west side of the Isle of Wight. This will be a great opportunity to explore the wildlife present in a new area of the UK...I'm really looking forward to catching up with the resident Red Squirrels!

There will probably be a few more posts before this blog becomes 'Wight Wild'. Thanks so much for your interest & encouragement!