Thursday 25 July 2013

Beauty and the beast on Anglesey

I have just returned from a few days camping on Anglesey with my youngest son, Jack, and Bryn, the dog. We managed to get away in time to take advantage of the end of the spell of hot sunny weather before it finally broke. The first three days were hot with wall to wall sunshine but the last day was cloudier and very muggy.

One of our favourite walks is around the southern shore of Red Wharf Bay below Pentraeth Forest. The first day we walked this section of the coastal path the sun was beating down and there were plenty insects around. Whilst walking the section of the path that runs along the top of a wall we spotted a Common Hawker dragonfly laying eggs in a small pool below. A still pool at the top of a salt marsh is not somewhere I would normally expect to see a dragonfly laying eggs so this pool must rarely get inundated with sea water and may also be spring fed.

I had left the DSLR at home and we only had a couple of compact cameras with us but we still managed to get some decent shots. This female was so engrossed in egg laying that she allowed extremely close approach.

female Common Hawker (Aeshna juncea)

When I say she allowed close approach I mean extremely close. The following sequence of shots was taken by Jack and show just how close I was able to get. I haven't seen such a confiding dragonfly before so getting this close and watching her behaviour was a real pleasure. The odd time I disturbed her, when I dropped the cap off the front of the camera or got too cheeky and removed the odd rush stem, she only flew round and fed for a minute before returning to lay more eggs.

Who needs a telephoto lens when you can get this close to the subject.
Getting close wasn't a problem but getting focus lock in the right place often was. We probably spent the best part of an hour taking photos and the dog got extremely bored. He eventually got fed up of waiting for his walk to continue and went to sleep.
Bryn yawns at all the fuss over a common dragonfly

While we were taking photos of the dragonfly another insect visited the pool but we couldn't work out what it was. It was about the size of a queen bumble bee but it moved so fast you couldn't really focus on it, all you could see was a blurred shape. It was a noisy beast and made a low buzzing noise but we still hadn't a clue what sort of insect it was. Whatever it was it would suddenly appear about 18 inches over the water and then drop down a few times in quick succession and you only really knew that from the ripples it made from contact with the water. The action was far too fast to see any details and all we were aware of was the buzz, the blur and the ripples. We pondered over what it could be but we hadn't a clue. I hadn't encountered anything like it before in all my years of working and ringing in wetland habitats.

We decided to visit the area the next day and Jack suggested we take a butterfly net should we happen on the mystery creature again. When we got to the pool where we had photographed the dragonfly the day before the mystery creature was there and causing ripples in the water. I climbed down from the wall as fast as I could but it had gone before I had chance to make a sweep with the net. I decided to wait and after about 20 minutes another or the same returned. I saw the first set of ripples and swept the net over the pool. I could hear I had caught something and put the net on the ground closing the bag of the net in the process.

On looking at what I had caught I could see it was a very large fly of some description but it wasn't like anything I had seen before in terms of size that is. It was huge as flies go and very scary looking too. I put it in a tub to get a closer look and to take some photos for identification. It was over an inch long and looked like it could give a nasty bite so I wasn't prepared to try and handle it outside of a tub. I tried to search for what it could be via the internet on my phone but I couldn't get a good enough signal so had to give up. We were due to go home that evening so it would have to remain a mystery until then.

Mystery a fly. Surely something this big was going to be easy to identify.

On getting home a few internet searches using phrases like 'largest fly in the UK' soon revealed it to be a large tabanid fly and probably the Dark Giant Horsefly (Tabanus sudeticus). There is a very similar and equally large insect called, unsurprisingly, the Pale Giant Horse-fly (Tabanus bovinus) but that is much rarer in the UK. I just didn't know we had horseflies that size in this country and it is not something you would easily overlook. It is the heaviest fly in Europe and is also known as the Dark Behemothic Horsefly. It seems to have a patchy distribution in the UK and is fairly common in parts of the southern England, Wales, the Lake District and in parts of Scotland. Thankfully it appears to be absent from this part of northwest England.

Dark Giant Horsefly (Tabanus sudeticus).
This is one scary mother of an insect. Only the female drinks blood prior to egg laying with the males only feeding on nectar. The eggs are laid on vegetation by water or over damp ground and the larvae are aquatic predators or predators of damp soils and rotting vegetation. I can only assume that the quick dips in the pool were the insect's way of grabbing a quick drink as I can't find any reference to them laying eggs in water.

Dark Giant Horsefly (Tabanus sudeticus).
Apparently they rarely bite people and it is hardly surprising as this beast makes too much noise to sneak up on you. Whilst searching the internet I did find a reference to a story of someone who wanted to know what the bite was like and if you want to find out more you can read about it by clicking here.

The insects in this post have something in common in that they have been around in some form or other for a very long time. Both descend from a lineage that dates back to prehistoric times and both had much larger relatives in the past. Prehistoric dragonflies had wing spans of over two feet so I wouldn't want to have encountered the dinosaur blood sucking equivalent of our horsefly.

Sunday 14 July 2013

Latest recoveries include another Waxwing

The latest batch of recoveries has just been received from the BTO. The three I have chosen to post were all found in similar circumstances by members of the public. It is always worth checking any dead wild bird to see if it is ringed. For more information on how to report finding a ringed bird visit the BTO website by clicking here.

The first recovery is of a Waxwing ringed in the garden that was reported from Huddersfield. Unfortunately it was found dead having hit a window; a not uncommon fate amongst Waxwings that are found dead by members of the public. Whilst it hadn't gone far it still adds to the information on the timing of return migration. 

Waxwing     BV05885   5M   (map)
02/03/2013    Orrell, Wigan, Greater Manchester
02/05/2013    Huddersfield, West Yorkshire
Finding circumstances: Freshly dead, hit window
Duration: 62 days    Distance: 60 km    Direction: 78deg (ENE)

View BV05885 Waxwing in a larger map

The furthest recovery in this particular batch was of a Siskin to the Highland region. This is the second recovery of a Siskin in northern Scotland from the birds ringed in the garden in early spring. This bird was also found dead and was thought to be a window casualty by the finder.

Siskin     D277767   6F   (map)
30/03/2013    Orrell, Wigan, Greater Manchester
23/05/2013    Tain, Highland
Finding circumstances: Freshly dead, probably hit window
Duration: 54 days    Distance: 385 km    Direction: 348deg (NNW)

View D277767 Siskin in a larger map

Another window related recovery was of a Greenfinch found in Leyland. This bird was more fortunate than the previous two birds and was only stunned; it was subsequently released by the finder. This recovery hasn't been mapped as Google Maps started to play up on me.

Greenfinch    TJ67509   3F
20/09/2011    Longshaw, near Orrell, Greater Manchester
16/05/2013    Leyland, Lancashire
Finding circumstances: Hit window, stunned then released
Duration: 594 days    Distance: 21 km    Direction: 357deg (N)

Monday 8 July 2013

'One for joy'

The moth trap is producing a few new species for the year on a regular basis at the moment but numbers and variety are still well below what is normally expected at this time of year. Catches are around 50 to 75% down on those of a typical July. This morning was no exception with a relatively poor catch but 4 species of macro moth were new for the year.

Garden moth trap this morning with lid removed.
The most striking of new species was a 'Magpie'. I have only caught the odd one in the garden over the past 10 years or so making it a noteworthy record. However this post was prompted by an email from a friend who runs a moth trap in his garden about a mile away. The email was titled 'An AWOL returns' and simply said 'Magpie Moth at my MV last night ... first one here for 23 years (Aug 1990)!!!!'

Magpie (Abraxas grossulariata)
Many so called common and widespread species like the Magpie often only occur at a rather low density and are far less common now than they were 20 or 30 years ago. A 23 year wait just goes to show what a low density can really mean these days. The text books and on-line resources just can't keep pace with the changes in populations and distribution that many of our moth species are currently experiencing. More worrying is the fact that these changes are not being recognised as indicators of the health of our environment to the degree they really should be. For more information on moths and moth recording visit the Moths Count website here.

The other new species of macro moth for the year were as follows:

Burnished Brass (Diachrysia chrysitis)

Pale-shouldered Brocade (Lacanobia thalassina)

Dingy Shears (Parastichtis ypsillon)

Saturday 6 July 2013

More soaking up the rays

This afternoon I noticed more sunning activity in the garden from both Robins and Blackbirds. Several of them adopted the 'crash landing' pose which can look quite comical. This sunbathing is important for feather maintenance and birds often expose their preen gland in the process. This is also thought to be important for the production of vitamin D.

Juvenile Robin sunbathing.

Juvenile Robin sunbathing.

Adult Blackbird sunbathing.

Juvenile Blackbird sunbathing.

Reed bed session produces few birds

I managed to drag myself out of bed at 04:30 this morning which was an hour later than planned. I hate early morning starts, always have and probably always will and I take my hat off to anyone that doesn't find it a problem. I joined John G at Scotman's Flash at around 05:30 where he had already erected 6 nets. We quickly erected another 4 nets in the glorious early morning light in high hopes of a reasonable catch.

First impressions were not great as it was much quieter than expected in both the audible and visual sense. At this time of year adults should be busy feeding fledged young or young in the nest and some juveniles should have reached independence. This should result in a lot of activity and calls of young begging for food but this was far less evident than expected.

Adult Reed Warbler

Juvenile Reed Warbler

Adult sedge Warbler

Juvenile Sedge Warbler, this bird is likely to leave the country by the beginning of August.

Catching was slow, very, very slow given the conditions and amount of netting deployed. Although the weather has been reasonable recently we still seem to be suffering the effects of the late cold spring. There were far fewer insects around than expected which may not seem a bad thing in terms of the biting variety but this is clearly having an effect on our breeding birds.

Not sure what this is but if they don't bite you many reed bed insects look like they could.
The final ringing total was rather disappointing and seems to reflect a dearth of birds and a generally poor breeding season to date. The number of juveniles caught was well below what might be expected for both migrant and resident species. Hopefully what is left of the breeding season will see some improvement but only time will tell.
Ringing totals 06/07/13 with retraps in brackets
Reed Warbler 7 (8)
Sedge Warbler 2 (6)
Blue Tit 5 (1)
Chiffchaff 2
Willow Warbler 2
Reed Bunting 1 (1)
Whitethroat 1
Treecreeper 1
Blackbird 1
Total 22 new birds and 16 retraps

Friday 5 July 2013

Soaking up the rays

This afternoon I noticed 2 Blackbirds in the garden that were taking full advantage of the glorious weather. They spent quite a bit of time sunbathing and adopted various postures in the process. This is not uncommon behaviour but it is the first time if have seen 2 sunbathing in close proximity to each other.

Blackbirds sunbathing

Adult female Blackbird

Juvenile male Blackbird
I haven't done much ringing recently but I did spend a few hours on various stretches of the river Douglas today. There wasn't much moving but I did catch and ring a juvenile Grey Wagtail and Kingfisher. I also retrapped an adult Dipper.

Kingfisher being released.
Perhaps the most interesting thing I saw on the river was a Water Vole. I haven't seen one in ages and it is good to see they are still hanging on.

Tomorrow I am going to try and get up early to go ringing in one of the reed bed sites. There should be a few juvenile Reed and Sedge Warblers around now and hopefully a few interesting retraps or controls amongst the adults.

Monday 1 July 2013

Walkies 30/06/13

I have been busy at work over the past couple weeks and haven't had time to blog, not that I have had much to blog about. The dog has been feeling neglected too and hasn't had a long walk for a while. This morning there was the initial tail wagging fuss after I got up but then he gave me his miserable look in the hope of getting me to take him out for a walk.

Bryn with one of his sad looks
I eventually gave in, grabbed my camera gear and took him for a walk. It was very warm with spells of sunshine so I hoped there would be a few butterflies and dragonflies to photograph. We took our usual route towards my ringing site at Longshaw but the ponds we passed didn't have a single damselfly or dragonfly on the wing.

A happier looking dog but no odonata in this pond.
Butterflies were very thin on the ground and one of the few encountered was a Large Skipper. Large swathes of good habitat held no butterflies at all and we only recorded the aforementioned Large Skipper, 1 Meadow Brown and 3 Speckled Wood in 2 hours of searching. Some species are probably in between broods but the low numbers probably reflects the plight of our butterflies.

Large Skipper
If its been a bad year for butterflies, so far at least, it seems to be a very good year for orchids. Marsh Orchids seem to be plentiful and far more common than the Common Spotted Orchid. Marsh Orchid flowering has just about peaked but the Common Spotted Orchid was still in its prime.

Camera gear and patient dog in amongst the orchids

Common Spotted Orchid

Something gets Bryn's attention amongst the grass and orchids.
Bryn has learned to wait while I am taking photographs and will sit for long periods. As long as he is out he seems to be happy. He spotted something moving through the grass and orchids at one point. When I had a look it turned out to be a frog.

Common Frog
One insect that was prolific during our walk was a micro moth known as the Nettle-tap (Anthophila fabriciana). It flies during the day and is often found in large numbers in the vicinity of nettles, the larval food plant.

Nettle-tap on buttercup.

Nettle-tap (Anthophila fabriciana)
On our way back home I tried to get some shots of bumblebees in flight. There were several species present on a patch of flowers but the only sharp shot that I managed to get was of the back end of what I later identified as a Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum). This species was first found in the UK in Wiltshire as recently as 2001 and has rapidly colonised large parts of England and Wales. Much of the rapid colonisation of the UK has been attributed to the abundance of bird boxes which they frequently use for nesting.

Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum).
The same patch of flowers held a Silver Y. This is a migrant moth from southern Europe and one or two have started to turn up in the moth trap in the garden. Hopefully this year will be a better year for migrant moths compared with last year's washout.

Silver Y (Autographa gamma)
A more content Bryn cuddled up to his pink sheep tonight having had his 'walkies'.

A few post back ('Flaming June' posted 6th June) I mentioned that a singing bird that had really got my attention. I can now reveal it was a singing Brambling. Unfortunately it turned out to be a one day wonder and didn't hang around.