Friday, 17 August 2012

Barking Riverside

Fooled Coco this morning, we walked around Ripple Nature Reserve, a small reserve, afterwards Coco settled on the backseat of the car. I drove just around the corner to Barking Riverside park, got out the car and Coco looked at me as if to say ‘What we have had our walk!’. She soon jumped out and we had a walk along the River Thames. Spotted this Hoverfly Eristalis intricarius. This large hoverfly is unlike the other UK Eristalis species in being a furry bumble bee mimic. The colours are variable but it often has a white tail.

Spotted these cinnabar moth caterpillars feeding on ragwort

and this worn looking six-spot burnet moth

Monday, 13 August 2012

A walk along the River Thames

Took Coco for a walk along the ‘Riverside Walk’ this morning. Really liked the talking post, very informative.

Looking west to the three wind turbines at Fords of Dagenham.

Came across a Buddleja davidii with a few small tortoiseshell along with peacock butterflies feeding on it. I remember seeing loads of these during my childhood.
The Small Tortoiseshell is one of our most-familiar butterflies, appearing in gardens throughout the British Isles. Unfortunately, this butterfly has suffered a worrying decline, especially in the south, over the last few years.
This butterfly has always fluctuated in numbers, but the cause of the most-recent decline is not yet known, although various theories have been proposed. One is the increasing presence of a particular parasitic fly, Sturmia bella, due to global warming – this species being common on the continent. The fly lays its eggs on leaves of the foodplant, close to where larvae are feeding. The tiny eggs are then eaten whole by the larvae and the grubs that emerge feed on the insides of their host, avoiding the vital organs. A fly grub eventually kills its host and emerges from either the fully-grown larva or pupa before itself pupating. Although the fly attacks related species, such as the Peacock and Red Admiral, it is believed that the life-cycle of the Small Tortoiseshell is better-synchronised with that of the fly and it is therefore more prone to parasitism.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Walking The Dog

Took Coco around Mayesbrook Park this morning, we didn't go too early, after all it is a Sunday.

View across one of the lakes
The willows here are impressive
Impressive willow

Wildlife? Plenty including both Green & Great Spotted Woodpeckers, loads of ducks, geese and swans as you would expect. And this Grey Squirrel sat in one of the willows and totally unphased by Coco, mind you she is on the small side!

Grey Squirrel
Speckled Wood
Mute Swan

Have you seen ripe blackberries yet?

While walking in the countryside, who can resist the lure of a ripe blackberry? Not me, that’s for sure.
I was out and about over the weekend and spotted several clusters of glistening ripe berries, but also plenty of green and pink unripe ones. So it seems that blackberry season is not yet in full swing around here, but it’s not far off.
Everyone knows that blackberries are delicious (the BBC Food website has an array of delicious-sounding blackberry recipes). They’re also good for you! But did you realise how important they are for wildlife?

Butterflies like commas (pictured above) love to sip on blackberry juice. Wasps and flies are also partial to it. And a bramble bush makes a fine perch for dragonflies like migrant or brown hawkers, which might try to snatch some of the smaller blackberry-slurping insects.
Blackberries also go down a storm with birds at this time of year.
Before migrating to southern Europe, north Africa or even through the Sahara, birds like blackcaps, whitethroats and garden warblers use sugary berries as an energy-rich food source. Their bodies convert the sugar to fat which will fuel them on their long journeys.
As evidence of this, watch out for purple poos near you!

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Where have all the Swifts gone?

Have you looked up into the skies recently? Notice something missing? The swifts have gone. No longer are they racing around in flocks over our homes, showing an impressive turn of speed and ‘screaming’ their excitement. Their summer show is over for another year and I for one miss them already!

By the time you read this, most swifts will be well on their way to Africa where they will spend the winter, leaving just a few lingering youngsters. When we go on our summer holidays, we prepare by arranging for a neighbour to feed the cat and water the plants, and stopping the milk delivery, some of the things we think about before going away. For the birds preparing for their long haul flight, preparation of a very different kind is needed.

Take a few minutes to watch birds like swallows, house martins and warblers over the next few weeks. You’ll see that they spend a lot of time feeding; filling up on the abundance of insects and natural fruits available at this time of year.

They’re not feeding for fun though. They’re busy stocking up – and turning all that food into layers of fat for their big journey ahead. For birds like swallows, this can be as much as 200 miles every single day until they reach their destination south of the Sahara Desert. With around 5,000 miles to cover in total, that’s a whopping 25 days of flying before they can start their holiday!

It isn’t just birds that migrate though. Take a close look among the butterflies and bees collecting nectar from the flowers in your garden for the small, but perfectly formed, marmalade hoverfly. These beautiful little black and orange striped insects arrive in large numbers in August. They are easy to see in most gardens – usually perched on a flat flower with their wings held out.

Huge arrivals have been noted at the coast, on beaches and in coastal towns, proving that marmalade hoverflies cross the sea between Britain and Europe – quite incredible when you see how small they are!
Marmalade Hoverfly – Episyrphus balteatus male David Nicholls
When I was a child, on my summer holidays on the Norfolk Coast, I remember an ‘invasion’ of little orange and black flies. They were everywhere: on my bucket and spade, on my Dad’s car and on the door of every amusement arcade and fish and chip shop. I now know they were marmalade hoverflies.

Butterflies do it too. Painted ladies, red admirals and the dazzling clouded yellow arrive in large numbers in August. These late summer arrivals are the offspring of butterflies that bred in southern Europe earlier in the year.

And moths. The hummingbird hawk moth – causing confusion to some who think they have seen a real hummingbird as it hovers at flowers – migrates too. They love gardens and the flowers that we grow in them, as does the silver y moth, named after the ‘y’ shaped mark on each of its wings.

Take a stroll down your garden at dusk and you’ll see them flitting from flower to flower in your garden like little ghosts. They love the buddleia bushes in my garden. It’s great to see so many of them enjoying the nectar of the flowers.

So, as you sit back enjoying the break, remember to keep an eye out for the travellers of the natural world and see if you can spot them taking a break from their amazing journeys near you

Friday, 10 August 2012

Hunting High And Low

Although I find most birds endlessy fascinating, there always seems to be something particularly magical about catching a glimpse of a bird of prey – whether it’s watching a sparrowhawk that’s just landed in my back garden, or seeing buzzards catching some thermals in the air above me.

But what makes birds of prey so good at, well, being birds of prey? Below I let you into a few of the secrets that make birds of prey top predators.
Barn Owl
Heart-faced assassin

Barn owls have the keenest sense of hearing of any known animal. By just listening, they can calculate exactly where a noise is coming from, helping them catch some 2,000 mice, voles and small animals every year!

Their secret? Having a face shaped like a satellite dish and ears that are positioned ever so slightly askew from each other.

As sound waves hit their dish-shaped face the sound is channelled into their ears allowing them to work out the direction that the noise is coming from. Kind of handy when most of your prey likes to remain hidden in vegetation.
Keen-eyed Kestrel
Another bird of prey whose prey would also rather stay out of sight is the kestrel. But rather than hearing, a kestrels main weapon is its eyesight.

Voles are a much-preferred meal for kestrels, and while they might be small and difficult to see when scurrying about under long grass, that poses no problem to a kestrel.

Voles and other small rodents lay scent trails of urine and faeces, both of which reflect ultraviolet (UV) light. And while UV light is invisible to you and I, kestrel are able to see it.

Bad news for small mammals, great for kestrels looking for their next meal!

Not so slippery customer
Having spotted a fish from 30 m up in the air, an ospreys next meal doesn’t really stand a chance.

With (nearly always) perfect accuracy, ospreys take a near vertical plunge dive towards the water with wings half-folded and feet thrown forward at the last moment plucking the chosen fish clean out the water.

While you could probably have guessed that ospreys have great eyesight, have you ever wondered what other weapons they have to help keep slippery fish in their grasp?

Well, ospreys have big feet and an opposable toe, allowing them to get a firm grip on their catch, while sharp spines on their feet give extra grip.

To protect themselves as they hit the water, ospreys also have a patch of dense feathers on their chest. Pretty neat!

Fast living
Clocking up speeds of nearly 200mph when in a hunting ‘stoop’, peregrines are one fast bird.

But being able to hit such top speeds wouldn’t be of much use if you couldn’t breathe! As you would expect, peregrines have that covered.

To protect their lungs from the damaging change in air pressure such a feat produces, small growths on their nostrils change the airflow and reduce the pressure experienced, making breathing easier!

Peregrines also have a third eyelid which allows them to clean their eyes while still being able to still see! Definitely useful when you move at such speeds.

What other techniques do birds of prey use? Do let me know in the comments below, as I’m sure I’ll have missed some…

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Times they are a changing, well at least for some!

The breeding season is over, migrants are preparing to leave the country and the birds around us are a-changing.

Well, most birds!
Wood Pigeon - Ben Hall
A pair of woodpigeons in my garden are bucking the trend. I have been watching them flying about carrying twigs. They rummage around in gardens for suitable building material before flapping into the air with their awkward cargo and disappearing into a fir tree at the bottom of my neighbours garden.

Pigeons and doves are some of the few species that can breed at almost any time of year. Their food sources enable them to be more flexible than other birds – blue tits, for example, are largely dependent on certain caterpillars, so a breeding attempt without those creepy-crawlies is a non-starter.

I even remember seeing a pair of collared doves participating in some festive fornication during the Christmas holidays one year!

So, keep an eye out for strange goings-on in your garden, on your way to the shops or in the park – you never know what you might see!