Wednesday, 2 August 2017

1st August - I Feel Clean Again

It seems as if warm, hot summer has left us, and we have drifted back to the usual British summer with heavy down pours, cool conditions and very little sunshine.  This has been one of the reasons for the lack of activity over the last weeks of July.  The start of this week saw a couple of days of sunshine, but nothing like the warmth we have been experiencing.  It did though provide an opportunity to get out for an evening walk, and while I can't say there was much about, there were a few signs that things are changing already, and that the seasons is starting to change.

Rather than walk through Old Down as we had been doing we decided to head along the lanes, we thought the wood might be a little wet after all the recent rain.  On Monday we walked along Lymington Bottom to the school, and then up to Kitwood and the pond.  I have noticed small Ink Cap fungi appearing on the lawn at home, but they were nothing like the parasol Mushroom we found along the side of the road.  It hasn't yet unfolded into the typical parasol shape, but will do so soon.


It would seem that the very dry and warm conditions through June and early July, followed by the rain towards the end of the month has sparked the emergence of many fungi quite early this year.  We came across several different types in all phases of development, with most already half eaten.  Another early sign was the stalks of Lords and Ladies covered in orange berries.  Along the side of the road the brambles are also covered in many ripening Blackberries.

We walked on past the pond and down the hill towards Gilbert Street, and then turning back to come up Brislands.  Despite the coll weather and time of day there were still butterflies about, Large and Small Whites, Red Admirals and one or two Speckled Woods were seen.  A Yellowhammer sang from the wires, and we could hear the begging calls of Buzzards in the woods.

The fields were full of ripe cereals.  It would seem that these are now ready for harvesting, and across the fields towards the Watercress Line a combine harvester was throwing up spumes of dust as it made its way through the field.

Looking up hill Old Down Wood looked splendid in the evening sunshine and the blue sky.  The usual summer tiredness that becomes the leaves on the trees being held back this year by the sudden amount of rain to fall.


As we made our way along Brislands toward the crossroads with Gradwell a Buzzard was hovering over the fields, clearly searching for possible prey to satisfy the continuous calls of the young birds from the surrounding trees.


On the following day, the start of August we walked again in the late evening, this time taking a route down from Blackberry Lane to Alton Lane.   The footpath here crosses the open field, but is now fenced in.  This year the grass has not been cut, and there is plenty of thistles and flowers.  We could see butterflies, and tantalisingly a few Common Blues, but I could not get close enough to photograph them.  As we walked down towards Willis Lane there were Meadow Browns, a Comma and more Red Admirals.  We walked along Kitwood and then back through Old Down, where again Buzzards were calling, but there was nothing else to catch the eye of the camera.

Back home in the garden, we have had a good show of Oxford Ragwort, and as a result these have attracted some visitors.  On the yellow flower heads were several yellow and black striped caterpillars.  These are the larvae of the Cinnabar Moth.  Interestingly this is known as a day flying moth, but I have never seen one in the garden, but they definitely must have been here!  The yellow and black stripes of the caterpillars are a warning to any predator that these caterpillars are not good to eat as a result of eating the poisonous ragwort.  The caterpillars will pupate in the autumn, and the cocoons will spend the winter on the ground emerging as adults the following June.



There have been lots of words in this post and few photographs, and this now is to become even more as things have finally changed in the garden, breeding has now definitely finished, and the number of adult birds visiting has significantly reduced.  All of the birds that have raised young this year were starting to look a little tatty and with faded feather colour.  This comes about as a result of frantically having to feed young chicks and squeezing in and out of hedges.  At the end of this busy time the adult birds take stock and start the process of renewing their feathers, or as it is better known, moulting.  The individual birds tend to hide away at this stage while they moult, in order to avoid predators at a time when they are less manoeuvrable on the wing, and contain their energy which allows a focus on the feather replacement.

Despite the resilience of the feathers, and the fact that birds do keep them under constant care through preening and bathing, they do discolour, wear out or become damaged.  A full grown feather is a lifeless structure, and unlike our nails and hair that grow continuously the worn feathers have to be replaced.  The old, worn feathers are loosened from their follicles and are eventually pushed out by the new feathers.

In the small song birds these feathers do not just drop out at the same time, the large flight feathers of the wings and tail are moulted in a strategic sequence, depending on the species, but in the main flight feathers are replaced from the innermost to the outermost feathers.  Water birds such as ducks shed all the feathers at once, and can remain flightless, it is at this time the males assume the drab or “eclipse” plumage similar to the female to aid camouflage at a vulnerable time.

Due to our regular feeding of both the Robins and Blackbird in the garden we have been able to observe how they behave at this time, and this does vary between the different species and even the same species.  The Robins have only just seemed to have disappeared, and in their place we have seen the speckled juvenile birds coming to take the worms.  Of the Blackbirds, our favourite and tamest bird has been showing a different behaviour now for the last three weeks, and there is clear evidence of feather moult, most recently all the tail feathers have gone.  We only see him first thing in the morning and later at night, he still comes to the whistle though, but is extremely nervous, creeping under the hydrangea pots and refusing to come out into the open.  He will eat the worms and once had enough he flies off calling after again creeping around the hydrangeas.  There are also two other Blackbirds that are in various stages of moult but are not so cautious and will often be seen in the open

I did some research and found a paper on the internet written in 1969 by D.W. Snow in Bird Study called “The Moult of Thrushes and Chats”.  Here a study by the BTO found that the average time for a full Blackbird moult was around 80 days, conversely a Robin was shorter at 50 days.  Ninety six percent of the records showed that the given dates of the onset of moult were in June and July.  The timing of the moult though was most immediately affected by the date of its last nesting attempt.  We believe this year our bird raised successfully three broods.  The nesting attempts is dependent on weather and the availability of food, so the good summer up to now and our supplemental feeding has been a factor on this success.

In the timing of the moult no difference has been found between the sexes, but younger birds do start their moult earlier, probably again due to breeding success.  It may very well be then that the more confident Blackbirds are younger ones that have already been through a moult.  Food also can affect the timing of moult too, with seed eaters taking longer than insect, and bug eaters, here the chitin found in the food providing a valuable resource for feather development.

Clearly eighty days is for the full moult, and the nervousness and hiding will not last for the whole period, we would expect to see our bird looking resplendent in his new feathers towards the end of August.  It is also at this time we can expect to hear the song of the Robin as they emerge from their moult with bright orange breasts, and the urge to establish or take back territories from this year’s juveniles.

With August now upon us we will start to see the movement of migrants as they start the long journey to their winter grounds.  Already there are good numbers of Swallows collecting over the fields along Gradwell, and the contact calls of Chiffchaffs can be heard in the hedges.  Who knows what this year will turn up.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

18th July - A Rub Dub, Just Relaxin' In The Tub

The heat returned on Monday, lots more sunshine, and afternoon temperatures up to just below 30 degrees.  Another feature of the day was the emergence of millions of flying ants all around the country.  Even weather radar was picking up the clouds as they emerged from the ground.  Helen and I decided to go out late afternoon for a walk, and as we set off from the house there were still plenty of ants about.  This had not gone unnoticed by a Green Woodpecker that came up from the grass, onto a small tree, and then flying away from us.  Not one of my best photographs but I had to find someway to mark flying ants day.



It was to be the usual route, along Gradwell and then into Old Down across the fields.  In the paddocks before crossing the field was a Song Thrush which appeared to still be feeding young as it foraged the grass along side the hedge.



In the woods as we came into an area of sunlight the Meadow Browns and the Gatekeepers were still around in good numbers, however new as a very smart Peacock on the bramble flowers.



Along the main path towards Swelling Hill the long grass here is attractive to the skippers, and I found an Essex Skipper resting on a dried grass stem, the first of the year



While there were plenty of Gatekeepers about and it is easy now to overlook them, this one sitting with wings open on the seed head of another grass.



Red Admirals have also been around in good numbers this year, they could be seen chasing other butterflies up into the canopy, but would also come to rest on the bramble leaves in the sunshine.



They have a very powerful flight, and as they pass you their white marking flash against the dark background of the trees.

As we walked along the path it is best to keep checking the bramble as butterflies continually fly up.  While watching the Gatekeepers fly away I noticed one deeper orange butterfly continuing to sit in the sun.  Slightly smaller, and with more markings it turned out to be another first for the year, the Small Copper.



Along with Small, Large and Green-veined Whites, in the short time we had walked through the wood we had seen eleven species, and this soon became twelve when I found a Large Skipper.



Just before the way out of the wood yet another Red Admiral basked in the sunshine.



There was very little else about as we walked home.

On Tuesday through out the day it was warm and humid, but as is the way in this country, the heat was to spark off thunderstorms.  Early evening they had not arrived in Four Marks, but the blue skies had been replaced by a blanket of grey cloud.  It was though still very warm and humid.

From inside the house, with all the windows open I could hear the contact calls of Long-tailed Tits, and as I came down stairs I could see a group of at least eight juvenile birds around the feeders.  Then they moved to the bird bath, and along with juvenile Great Tits, Blue Tits and a single Coal Tit, they started to approach the water.  It was clear they wanted to bathe, but a combination of wariness, and perhaps experience contributed to quiet an amusing situation.

By the time I had got my camera the Coal Tit had moved on, but the Long-tailed Tits and Blue Tits were still around.  The Blue Tits were a little more confident and adept at washing.



Showing the long-tailed Tits what they need to do.



It seemed the Long-tailed Tit knew it had to bend down and shake itself, what it didn't seem to understand was the need to do it in the water.



By the side of the bath they were settling on the perch, and it looked as if they were taking turns to use the diving board to jump into the water.



Three of them lining up to get yet more instruction on how to bathe.



The Blue Tit has that surprised look as if to say what was that!



Finally they realise that to bathe you have to get into the water.



Another joins in, and there are now four around the bath.



They don't stay long, and returned to the tree, while a Blue Tit returns and are joined by a juvenile Great Tit.



But another two return, under the watchful eye of the Blue Tit, and end up looking like a pair of drowned rats.



As well as the stills I did manage some video, but as always as a last thought so all the main action was over.  But at least you get some idea of how cautious and uncertain they were, and also you can see another trying to wash out of water.



While all this was going on the Robin sat looking at us in the tree, expecting us to put out the mealworms!



The rain finally came, but the tits all stayed in the trees going from feeder to the leaves.  The thunderstorms arrived with a vengeance during the night with plenty of lightning and loud thunder accompanied by some torrential rain.  This year the summer has been very good and the storm didn't seem to make you feel down. it was almost welcomed, and enjoyed.  That may not be the case if the good weather has gone, but somehow I don't think so.

Monday, 17 July 2017

16th July - Let It Never Be Said

A different week with one day of very heavy intense rain, but in all still warm and mostly dry.  Around the garden things are beginning to quieten down, the Blackbird seems to have finally finished breeding, three broods apparently being enough.  We only see him early in the morning, and he is definitely going into a full moult.  The Robins remain busy coming for the mealworms, and taking them away into the conifer hedge next door.

Every so often there will be the calls of Long-tailed Tits, and Helen did see young birds on the feeders.  The commonest calls belong to those of the Siskins, announcing their arrival, and annoyance if the feeders are not full up.  Another regular visitor is the the Bullfinch family, the males vibrant colours standing out in the dark of the trees.

At the bottom of the garden the Ragwort has grown, and this has attracted several Gatekeepers, while the lavender bushes seem alive as the bees continually forage the flower heads.

A few walks through Old Down has not produced anything of real interest, just the continued huge numbers of Meadow Browns, the numbers now being swelled by the equally numerous Gatekeepers.  Another butterfly doing well this year appears to be the Red Admiral, they can be seen flying loops around the trees, and chasing away other butterflies.

With it still being quiet I turned once again the the moth trap, the warm weather being ideal conditions and this week saw some more interesting specimens, not least this one.  It was interesting for the way that it sat.



This is Endotricha Flammealis, common name rose-flounced tabby, and is a species of snout moth. It likes to nectar on buddleia of which there is a lot around the garden, and is quite common around gardens in southern England.  However it is the resting position of this moth that I found fascinating.  The front part of the body is raised up on the forelegs, and the wings held at an angle, with the edges touching the resting surface, as you can just make out from this photograph, almost tiny dragon like!



Next was a moth I haven't seen before, a Yellow-tail.  So called because under the white of the wings, the abdomen is yellow.


The female has the yellow tail and is larger than the male.  She has yellow hairs at the base of her abdomen which is used to cover the newly laid eggs.  Fairly common in the UK, it flies in July and August and can be found in lots of different habitats.

A Scalloped Oak was next, although this managed to escape as I tried to get it out.  Fortunately it didn't go too far.  It can have a range of colours and markings, but consistently has the two black spots on the wings that help to identify it.


This next moth has turned up on several occasions recently but has always managed to get away and avoid the camera.  This time I was more careful to ensure it didn't escape.  This is the Ruby Tiger, and the pinkish red abdomen is quite striking.


Its name is more appropriate in southern England, as moving north the body colour becomes a lot greyer.  Yet another common moth, it can also be seen flying by day.  Here you can see why it was able to escape all those previous times.


There is a species of Elephant moth, that is called a Small Elephant moth, and every year I think I have caught one as the size of the Elephant moths can vary considerably.  This one was very small, and I was convinced it had to be a Small Elephant, but when I referred to the books the multi stripe markings on the thorax and single pink stripe on the abdomen were so very obviously belonging to the Elephant Moth.  Still they are great to see, and hard to imagine that these beauties are flying around in the dark while we are all asleep.


Finally there were two beautifully marked moths, first the Buff Arches, named for the wings that are a combination of smooth grey and white with orange-brown arches. They have a liking for Bramble which is about in abundance around the hedgerows and woods.


The other was a Nut-tree Tussock, which is on the wing from April to June and July to September in the south, it is double brooded.  The colour of the forewings can vary from grey as is found here to a washed brown.  The larvae feed on beech, oak, birch and acer.


So a quiet period at present, hopefully things will pick up later in the month, but we are well and truly in the middle of the the warm dog days of summer at the moment.