December 12, 2017

Yellow-necked Mouse (Apodemus flavicollis)

Ever since I can remember I’ve wanted a Longworth Trap. This fantastic combination of shiny aluminium and post war British engineering allows the safe live capture of small mammals. Its a very elegant design featuring a kind of hallway and nestbox arrangement with a pressure sensitive bar that triggers a trapdoor once a creature is far enough inside. I’ve experimented with various baits over the years but a smear of peanut butter (crunchy – obviously) on the inside has proven the most irresistible.

Each winter,we share our old house with a few mice. They aren’t House mice (Mus musculus) but a mixture of Wood mice (Apodemus sylvaticus) and this species, Yellow-necked mice, who presumably decide that they’ll have a seasonally easier time of it by visiting us. This seems like the obvious reason but in a recent study, the Mammal Society concluded that although Yellow-necked mice are not fond of wet conditions, they’re not overly worried by the cold and that this house sharing behaviour may simply be down to the fact that population pressure means that young mice set off to find new territory at the end of the summer and they’re just exploring new habitat possibilities.

This winter, there have been fewer rodent visitors than in previous years. To make sure no trapped animals perish I monitor the trap frequently when deployed, and only ever put the trap down where there’s clear mousey evidence like nibbled packets in the larder, nocturnal scampering noises or, as has happened twice recently, when the bewhiskered guest boldly dashes across the carpet. In previous years I’ve relocated a mixture of species and up to ten or so individuals, but winter2010/11 yielded only four captures and of these only a single Wood mouse.

The mouse in this case was of a particularly large Yellow-necked variety. My son Joe, picked the trap up from the living room floor the other morning and as soon as he’d handed it over I could tell it was occupied as it was pretty weighty. Sure enough the Longworth’s resident was soon scrabbling around inside so we quickly rushed to put on wellies and coats so that we could set it free in the garden. We chose a highly salubrious location on top of our compost bins as a release site and I dismantled the trap inside a large plastic bag so that we could see and record whoever popped out.

This mouse was pretty unperturbed by recent events and sat on the top of the trap getting his bearings for a moment before trying a couple of experimental jumps, much to my son’s obvious delight. I then gently tipped the mouse out onto the compost bin beside Joe and with one mammoth leap of at least four feet, it had vanished into the catkin covered hazel hedge.

Incidentally, it stuck me as quite lyrical that I was taking pictures of a mouse with a Blackberry :)

Collin Park Wood SSSI

Back at the beginning of December I was inspired to visit this Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust Nature Reserve which I’d recently noticed was just off  the route I take to and from my son’s nursery. It was during a particularly cold snap which saw us having several consecutive days of freezing fog and some of the most remarkable Hoar frost I can remember.

As I got out of the car, the path into the reserve already looked like some path into Narnia and I was glad to have wrapped up so warmly. The fog and snow seemed to dampen any sound I made and it would have been eerie, had it not looked quite so beautiful. I was however beginning to have a niggling regret about not having brought some kind of magical device – the EOS 5D is a truly magnificent piece of kit, but it’s not much cop in the battling mythical creatures stakes -and I do like to be prepared.

Having walked for a few minutes and seen or heard literally no wildlife whatsoever, I put the wide angle lens on my camera and determined to capture some images which would give some idea of the sense of place, rather than it’s inhabitants, who were wisely holed up out of the -8° temperature.

After about half an hour it was becoming clear that I’d made the correct lens choice, the wide angle doing a great job of capturing both trees and the super frosty bracken and briar at ground level. This smug complacency didn’t last long. I was lining up another tasty panorama through the woods when I noticed a largish raptor shape speeding overhead and landing high up above me in the canopy. I was literally frozen. I think I’ve mentioned it was -8, plus I was kneeling down desperately trying to work out how to swap lenses whilst still keeping sight of the perched bird which by now I was pretty convinced was a Goshawk – too bulky for a Sparrowhawk – tail too long and behaviour and habitat seemingly wrong for a Buzzard. My binos, luckily having been ’round my neck, I settled for a closer look then, since it appeared to be having a bit of a preen, decided to try a lens swap. Before I’d even got my pack off my back, my clumsy mammal movements betrayed my position and said raptor was gone, leaving me with the even stronger impression of Goshawk. I know they are recorded in this general area but this was a first for me and I’m really wondering if there have been any other sightings.

As I made my way back to the car, very pleased with my pictures and the Hawk sighting, I was snapped out of my reverie by the sound of something large crashing through the undergrowth ahead of me. Dog? I thought. Wolf? Balrog? Then onto the path emerged a rather surprised looking Roe deer about 20 meters in front of me. Again I thought, “lens swap time” and again I missed the shot, but paused long enough to get a really good look, before the animal bounded away through the trees, spooked by my movements.

RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch

No huge surprises during the hour’s bird watch, but it was nice to see that the Song and Mistle thrushes didn’t miss their cue even if the woodpeckers, Wrens and Jays did.

The winning species in terms of numbers at least, was the humble Chaffinch:

Species Scientific Name Number
Listed in the order they showed up
1 Magpie Pica pica 2
2 Nuthatch Sitta europeaea 1
3 Robin Ericathus rubecula 2
4 Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs 7
5 Blue Tit Parus ceruleus 3
6 Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto 2
7 Great Tit Parus Major 3
8 House Sparrow Passer domesticus 3
9 Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis 1
10 Dunnock Prunella modularis 1
11 Blackbird Turdus merula 5
12 Jackdaw Corvus monedula 4
13 Moorhen Gallinula chloropus 1
14 Wood Pigeon Columba palumba 2
15 Starling Sturnus vulgaris 2
16 Greenfinch Carduelis chloris 1
17 Song Thrush Turdus turdus 1
18 Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus 1
42

Smooth Newt (Lissotriton vulgaris)

We get a lot of these little fellows in our garden and I usually remove a few individuals from our cellar each year. Our house is surrounded by farmland and the interconnected network of drainage ditches provides plenty of useful habitat. Like our other species of newt, the Palmate and Great Crested, the adults generally only really frequent ponds during the breeding season between February and June.  The rest of the year is spent foraging and generally being terrestrial creatures, albeit preferring to spend their time in damp places.

Like our other newts, these amphibians hibernate during winter in sheltered places often under logs and stones. To help them out in this respect I’ve built several substantial piles of stones, in certain key areas of our garden. The scientific name for these is hibernacula – protective cases, covering, or structures, in which an organism remains dormant for the winter. I finished my largest yet last summer, so I’m hoping I may record even more newts in the garden this year.

Fallow Deer (Dama dama)

Not really a wildlife picture this one as it was taken in a deer park in Denmark but I’m away on a ‘Stag Do’ tonight and this buck is the closest I’ve got.

Hawthorn Shield Bug (Acanthosoma haemorrhoidale)

Shield bug or stink bug? Our colonial cousins across the pond favour the stink but us ‘say as you see’ Brits prefer the shape reference. Either way, we must all agree that they’re pretty much shield shaped and they do smell funny.

The funny almondy smell they exude when they feel threatened, is a cyanide compound which rather predictably does deter predators. I’ve always thought it smelled rather nice and it turns out that in Laos, Pentatomid bugs from the same family as A. haemorrhoidale are mashed up with chillies and other spices and served as a tasty side dish.

Figwort Sawfly (Tenthredo scrophulariae)

This is a very exciting post for me. I took these pictures 5 years ago with my first digital SLR and a newly acquired macro lens (a Tamron 90mm – which I still use) and was really pleased with the results. Looking at the yellow and black colour scheme and general shape and layout of this insect, I assumed it was a wasp, tagged the pictures as ‘parasitic wasp’ and moved on.

Writing my ‘one a day’ species posts has made me examine my archive and really learn about what I’ve captured in my pictures.  Although this species superficially resembles a wasp and is in the same taxonomic order, the Hymenoptera, which includes wasps, bees and ants, its actually from the sub order Symphyta – the Sawflys.

This is exciting because it’s opened up a whole new set of creatures for me. I knew that sawfly larvae closely resembled butterfly or moth caterpillars but for some reason the adults were a total blank, a complete mystery to me. Well lets face it there’s a lot of invertebrates out there and obviously you could never recognize every individual species, but to have missed a whole sub order of the magnitude of wasps or bees was a bit of a shock!

My favourite aspect of this series of photos is the clarity of the ocelli. These so called ‘simple eyes’ are the three round structures between the compound eyes. Lots of flying insects have these and as well as complimenting the compound eyes which are comparatively slow and less sensitive to light, they’re thought to play some part in flight stability and high speed orientation.

Thanks to iSpot, the Open University’s identification website, I’ve now been able to not only name something which has been on my office wall for half a decade, but also opened up an exciting new insect vista. With this in mind, a quick trip to Amazon to see what sort of guides to sawflys were available, and it turns out that the most likely candidate seems to feature T. scrophulariae on the cover:

Small world eh? Literally :)

Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum)

Continuing my series of Dragonflies and Damselfies, here’s the most often encountered species from the group of Darters.

I managed to spend a couple of hours at my local dragonfly spot early this afternoon, hoping to make the most of a brief sunny spell before the threatened rain and the continued onset of autumn. On the walk down, I was buzzed by a glorious looking Hawker racing along the hedgerow, swiftly followed by a less purposeful but equally un-photographable Darter. On arriving at the pond I set up the tripod and proceeded to be teased by a succession of Darters then cruelly mocked by a male Migrant Hawker (Aeshna mixta), who continually patrolled all around me, flatly refusing to land.

Thinking I’d try my luck away from the water as the females often only visit the pond to actually lay eggs, I wandered over to the bordering brambly scrub. I immediately spotted what I though was a female Common Blue butterfly feeding on some Ragwort and got a few shots. On closer inspection this evening and much head scratching, they’re hard to distinguish, this turned out to be a female Brown Argus (Aricia agestis) which was another new addition to my all taxa list. Excellent!

Whilst trying to photograph the future Argus, a Darter actually landed on my shoulder. Presumably to remind me what I was there for.

The first picture is a head on close up shot of a female Common Darter (S. striolatum). It turns out that this is a very useful angle for ID purposes because the ‘facial’ markings are a useful distinguishing characteristic.

The second image is of the same species, but of a pair mating in the copulation wheel position. I think this picture this is actually genuinely brilliant as I’ve not even seen them in tandem before, let alone in cop, and to be able to get a really close up shot like this is a terrific insight into a pretty alien world -for me anyway.

Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)

Seasonal post this one.

At this time of year the local Sparrowhawks make the most of the glut of inexperienced and deliciously nutritious recent fledgelings. I’ve never understood why people get upset about having these exquisite predators visit their gardens. They’re usually about as close as we get to genuine tip predators, those highly evolved specialists who sit at the top of the food chain, sharing their evolutionary niche with Polar Bears, Great White Sharks and Lions. Complaining that they take birds from a busy bird table is a bit like getting uptight about Orcas eating Sea Lions from a busy beach. Species necessarily coexist and the presence of predators in an ecosystem indicates that it’s healthy. If there aren’t enough resources lower down the food chain to feed everything else, then there won’t be anything to support those predators at the top.

Twice this week, I’ve seen a female Sparrowhawk like the one in the photo below, catching birds in the garden. In all likelihood it’s this same female that I photographed a few years ago or at least a close relative, because they’re pretty short lived, the average lifespan being just 2.7 years.

Early on Tuesday morning I raised the bedroom blind and thought that although the weather had indeed taken an intemperate Autumnal turn, I definitely wasn’t expecting snow just yet. Large, fat, floaty flakes too. Then I noticed the alarm calls from the birds in the yew tree.

Trying to loop the blind cord round the stubby stanchion thingy, requires delicate figure of eight finesse, especially when trying to prevent a toddler getting tangled up in it. Eagerly scanning the garden for an anticipated raptor encounter hampers this. Eventually, and with the cord in a terrible mess, I spot the hawk. She’s on the lawn, covering her prey with self consciously flexed wings like a child afraid that someone’s going to copy her exam answers. All the while a sizable tree brimming with thrushes, finches and tits is venting their collective spleen, so pretty quickly she tires of the attention.

A forward lean and full smooth wing extension turns a crouch into an upward swoop.
Flight feathers flick dew from the wet grass, once, twice, three times.
The dead finch’s head metronomes each off beat, then she’s gone.

Badger (Meles meles)

In wistful mood. Had word today that a long lost friend is irretrievably so. Perhaps it’s this then that’s made me feel even more bleak about the coalition government’s proposed Badger cull.

It’s a sad turnout that in the international year of biodiversity, extermination is considered a cheap and easy solution to any problem.

That’s enough politics, I’ll just let the picture do the talking, suffice it to say that I sincerely hope that this isn’t all that’s left of Brock in a few years time.