Not A Cloud In The Sky

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After a few pretty murky days a cloudless crystal sky, warmth and a breezy clarity in the air. A lot of the garden plants are starting to feel the pace but some, as above, are still doing their best to attract pollinators.

There was a new face in the insect cast today as I registered the first visit to the garden of a gloriously vibrant brimstone (no doubt from the second emergence). That takes the species count to 14.

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I’ve often watched the bees crawling in and out of the hibiscus flowers, getting progressively weighed down by a head to toe covering of pollen. While they’re digging about in the flower they make a fairly simple target for the camera but I was keen to catch one in flight. I tried a number of strategies to obtain the correct focus for the moment of gravity-defying, logic-confounding take-off. Using my fastest shutter speed to freeze movement left me with a super-narrow depth of field. I had to take a guess as to whether the bee would move towards me or away when it launched. I then used either the nearest or the furthest petal on the flower head as a reference and focussed a fraction further away from the centre. Then it was a matter of waiting for the bee to perform. Several times it vanished so far into the flower that after a while I decided it must have gone. Needless to say, if I removed my eye from the viewfinder or my finger from the shutter, a pollen-encrusted head would appear, look around and buzz off before I could get reset. Multiple shots were the way ahead, I decided. The moment the insect next appeared, I fired off about 20 shots at 5fps. It didn’t fly. It actually walked to the next flower. I was being trolled.

Luckily I’m persistent and the bees were peckish. As is so often the case, the best images happened almost as a by-product of my efforts rather than a direct result. My favourite isn’t actually that sharp, but in its softness has a slightly unreal quality that emphasises the bee’s apparent unsuitability for a life of flight.

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I’ll include a couple of others for your perusal as well:

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With nature it is, of course, always the ones you least suspect and I think it’s worth taking time to appreciate some of the less glamorous creatures you might come across. While I was framing a shot on the topmost hibiscus bloom (a tired-looking flower but with a clear blue sky background) a greenbottle touched down for a split second. Click. Gorgeous. My favourite shot of the day:

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Let’s Sack The Countryside Alliance

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UPDATE: Message from Chris Packham (at the end)

The Countryside Alliance has called on the BBC to dismiss Chris Packham, claiming that he uses his position to push an extreme agenda. Of course, it’s all a question of perspective. Packham’s views on just about every wildlife topic are the polar opposite of the CA’s. There are plenty of folk exasperated that Chris isn’t more outspoken, such as when he deliberately avoided discussing the badger cull, leaving co-presenter Martin Hughes-Games to deliver a blandly “balanced” statement.

An insight into the mindset of the CA can be drawn from their resignation from DEFRA’s Lead Ammunition Group, set up to examine the impact of lead gunshot on both the food chain and the wider environment. This group has just released a preliminary report summarising its work and findings. It is patently clear that the CA jumped ship when it became clear that the LAG would come down unequivocally against lead. The report comes extremely close to saying that the debate is a simple one of money vs scientific fact.

By walking off in a huff, the CA have acted no differently to a school bully taking his ball away. And it seems this attitude is behind the Packham flap as well. The squirearchy don’t like being lectured to or told what they can’t do and they won’t stand for it. Well that’s up to them but perhaps they could finally stop pretending to represent rural people and their concerns. By taking sides against one of the country’s most authoritative and respected nature broadcasters and refusing to take seriously the harmful effects of lead poisoning from shooting, the so-called Countryside Alliance is showing itself to be firmly opposed to public opinion, scientific opinion and, frankly, anybody’s best interests.

Butterfly Bonanza

Avid readers of this blog (yes, you) will be aware that I’ve kept my back garden uncut for most of this year. I don’t unfortunately have any baseline data to compare with (what an amateur) but I’m convinced that my wilder garden / meadow / jungle has hosted a greater diversity of insect life than previously. Rather like birds on a wider scale, butterflies are a useful indicator because they’re relatively easy to spot and to differentiate (compared, for example, to grasshoppers). And this year, so far, I’ve seen 13 different species, including the usual suspects like small tortoiseshell and peacock as well as a real surprise (brown argus). Food chains being what they are, quite a few dragonflies have buzzed through as well.

Here are a few photos from recently. Can you identify them all? If you can’t, don’t worry – just enjoy them. Insects repay careful observation in spadefuls. Seen close-up, they take on a whole other level of personality and character. Now if I can just save up for a macro lens…

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Hen Harrier Day 2015

Time to add my own recollections and ruminations from the very splendid Hen Harrier Day event in Derbyshire’s Goyt Valley.

IMG_6371The lovely Goyt Valley, with the moors above showing the classic signs of intensive grouse shoot management.

I’m deliberately keeping it quite pictorial as others have written about the day at length, including Findlay Wilde, Billy Stockwell, and Georgia Locock. Mark Avery reported on the previous evening’s event in Buxton.

A feature of both events was this incredible model grouse butt, sculpted by the ever-creative Wilde clan (the link above includes a video of its construction). The butt formed an ideal and appropriate pulpit from which the speakers could hold forth.

IMG_6478_1BAWC’s Charlie Moores and RSPB’s Guy Shorrock with a bit of last minute set dressing.

IMG_6491_1Findlay’s creation from last year, Harry the Hen Harrier, was back to cast his unblinking gaze over proceedings.

IMG_6374A big mass of cheery folk, shortly before the start.

IMG_6501_1Who knows what Charlie Moores is pointing out to Chris Packham? Caption suggestions in the comments section please. 😉

IMG_6524_1“Now I know what it feels like to be a vole” said Charlie Moores, as he kicked off the speeches under the close supervision of @HenryHenHarrier

IMG_6536_1“Testify!” shouted Jo Smith, Chief Exec of Derbyshire Wildlife Trust. Actually, she didn’t but she did welcome us to Derbyshire and spoke powerfully of her desire to see Hen Harriers thriving in the county.

IMG_6540_1Jeff Knott is a raptor spokesman for the RSPB. He described how he’d become dispirited by the lack of progress on raptor issues but had been re-energised by the Hen Harrier campaign. (T-shirt by @YoloBirder)

IMG_6549_1The genial Mark Avery was his characteristic upbeat self.

Although I think his expression in the next picture suggests he may be trying to read a grouse industry press release without laughing:

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Never easy. Maybe something penned by this corporate henchman (Andrew Gilruth of the GWCT, who looked like he’d rather be anywhere else.)

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IMG_6560_1Amanda Anderson of the Moorland Association also cut a slightly incongruous figure.

IMG_6566_1Finally, Chris Packham took to the butt to deliver a rousing address, highlighting the widespread public revulsion over the killing of Cecil the lion as an indication that people generally do care deeply about wildlife.

Chris Packham’s full speech (approx 15 mins).

IMG_6579_1Chris and Henry share a tender moment.

After the speeches, people milled about for some time chatting, making or renewing friendships and posing for photos with 6ft birds. Eventually some of us reconvened in Buxton’s genteel Pavilion Gardens where we were pleasantly soothed by the resident silver band (with its “prize-winning euphonium section”).

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Being from Norfolk, I can’t visit anywhere at all rugged without looking for a hill to shin up and, if time (and energy) are in short supply, nowhere is better for that sort of thing than Mam Tor.

IMG_6379Mam Tor, on the left, is easy to climb because it has steps. Lush views though.

IMG_6599_1At the top of the Tor, I saw this carrion crow taking off. I told it not to go near any grouse moors. They’re not safe for crows (thanks to “legal predator control”).

As I descended the less travelled and altogether more tricky side of Mam Tor, I came across this small area of fenced in young woodland, proof that diverse vegetation would have no problem thriving in the uplands if it was just given a chance.

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After a well-earned bite to eat in Castleton I hit the long road for home. Not very far along it, however, I found myself driving alongside an area of moorland. Feeling strangely compelled to go and explore it, I parked in a layby and went through a gate with an access poster warning dogs to stay on their leads. A bit of yomping up a path led me a natural hollow which had been recently cut in on one side to provide a distinct ledge. A short distance away the moor peaked in a ridge. I could imagine the grouse being put to flight by beaters walking up the slope towards the ridge. I could sense the exhilaration as the birds shot into view at up to 60mph. I could only guess at the noise of all the guns going off in a mad hurry. I could almost hear the lifeless thud of dead grouse tumbling to the ground. What a stupid, useless, pathetic activity. It is a source of constant embarrassment that this is what passes for a social life among the well-heeled and well connected. Happily, I was sufficiently invigorated by everything I’d heard and everybody I’d met throughout the day to feel too down. The clock is ticking for outdated, absurd, ecologically suicidal so-called “country pursuits”. They may be rich and powerful but we have science, we have common sense, we have decency, we have a sense of wonder and respect for the natural world. We have souls. If the shooters and their lackeys have any of those things, they’re keeping them well hidden.

IMG_6396Me in a (extremely rudimentary) grouse butt, looking for reasons why grouse shooting is a good idea. Nope, can’t see any from here.

A Grand Day Out

Well that was very nice – my first time as an Events Volunteer at RSPB Strumpshaw Fen. Today was the Big Bug Hunt, with several different habitats for families to explore. I began in the meadow where we got down flat on our fronts to see the tall grass from the point of view of the beetles, crickets and grasshoppers. Actually getting down and touching the ground really brings home just how warm and sheltered it is at the base of the grass. You can see why it’s so popular with insects. Sweep nets, swished about by eager young hands, quickly filled with crowds of plant bugs.

The woodland glade also had long grasses, as well as bramble thickets, trees and a sand bank: all ideal places for a range of creatures to find food and shelter. There was even enough cover to keep humans out of the rain shower (partially). When it cleared some of our explorers managed to find one of the day’s top targets – a female wolf spider carrying an egg sac.

  

Just after that a perhaps over-zealous junior Steve Backshall captured a slightly reluctant blue tailed damselfly. Happily it seemed cheerful enough once restored to the natural world.

  

And with that we were just about done. Hopefully all the folk who came along will have had new experiences, learned new things and gained new memories. I hope they enjoyed themselves – it was a ton of fun searching and finding with them.

Check out forthcoming events at Strumpshaw – there’s plenty going on whatever your age or interests.

The Great Foxhunting Swindle

  
It emerged yesterday, behind the smokescreen of wall-to-wall Budget coverage, that the Government is intending to propose amendments to the Hunting Act (2004). Currently two dogs may be used to flush foxes out of hiding so they can be shot. This is done under the guise of “pest control” by people who are wary of natural ecological processes (or ignorant of them). A number of senior Government figures like the idea of chasing foxes with much larger numbers of dogs but this is currently illegal. Rather than offer a vote to repeal the Hunting Act (which would quite possibly be lost and would involve lengthy debate) this new course of action provides a swift and scrutiny-free way of at least allowing hunts to chase with full packs. Clearly this narrows the gap to full hunting considerably. It would make it significantly more difficult for prosecutions for illegal hunting to be brought successfully. If not quite “legalising hunting by the back door”, it is definitely opening the garden gate and leaving a window ajar.

I suggest you get on to your MP pronto – the vote is a week today. There are a number of emails circulating with letter templates / forms etc. By all means use these but it may also be worthwhile sending personal emails or letters as well. I’ve emailed my (pro-hunting) MP and I’ve included the text here to give you some ideas.

Dear Mr Bacon,
I would urge you to vote against the proposed amendments to the Hunting Act (2004). I don’t think the general public will see these proposals as anything other than an attempt to move closer to the re-legalisation of foxhunting with hounds. This is not the will of the country, or of the countryside. As the elected representative for South Norfolk, you must convey your constituents’ opposition to foxhunting  to Parliament.
I’m sure you won’t be fooled by arguments which may be advanced by some that this legislation is merely concerned with “pest control”. We all know that’s a red herring. In any case, the “pest control” angle has repeatedly been dismantled by those with an understanding of ecology.
I trust the will of the people will prevail in this matter and I look forward to seeing your name among the Noes.
[Don’t forget to include your full address, including postcode, and a phone number.]
Find your MP’s contact details here

Quest Of A Lifetime

My Mum has always wanted to see a Swallowtail butterfly. Last year we went on a couple of missions to try and find one but without success. These aren’t straightforward ventures – she had a stroke three years ago and needs a wheelchair to get anything more than a few yards. Fans of nature reserves will be aware they’re rarely the ideal terrain for wheelchairs. But we’re stubborn both of us so we go along anyway and do our best.

Having seen my first Swallowtail last week at Strumpshaw Fen, I knew we needed to strike while the iron was hot. And while the weather was hot – there’s no point going butterfly spotting if it’s windy and rainy. Today felt ideal – baking hot, cloudless, not excessively breezy. It’s a bit late in the year (the first two weeks of June are generally best) but 2015’s Swallowtails have been slightly delayed by the cold periods in May. My sighting last week was freshly emerged so I knew there was every chance there would still be some around.

The plan was to return to the scene of my previous encounter, typically the favoured area of Strumpshaw for Swallowtails. Unfortunately it can only be reached in a wheelchair by doing about 90% of the circular path (and then retracing all the way back afterwards). We had about two hours. I would push for an hour and see how far round we got. Hopefully it would be far enough.

As I’ve said before, there is stacks to see and hear at Strumpshaw. At this time of year there are plenty of flowers still in bloom, with orchids lurking among the meadow grasses by the path. Cetti’s warblers erupt into their too-loud singing which can at times sound slightly like a Star Wars gun battle. Dragonflies buzz vigorously back and forth while the more demure Damselflies flit about almost apologetically. Across the reeds, Marsh harriers soar, swoop and circle with lugubrious muscularity, confidently ignorant of their own rarity.

I couldn’t really focus on any of this. I was constantly scanning the path just in front of the wheelchair, trying to spot and dodge any stone, root or divot that could snare one of the pathetic shopping trolley front wheels. However hard I tried, there was still the occasional hole disguised as grass that stopped us in our tracks. It was roasting. We stopped to rest whenever the path was dappled in shade. My camera dangled and swung about annoyingly. I could have left it behind but, well, if you’re even slightly into photography you’ll know how that would have made me feel much more uncomfortable.

I hardly dared look at my watch but knew I needed to be strict on turning back after about an hour. The tyranny of the domestic care timetable. Fortunately it was a late lunch call otherwise it wouldn’t even have been worth going. I knew it was nearly an hour. We were still well short of the reedbed area we were aiming for. The path was very patchy.

Movement to the left! A flutter and then, what? a hover or even a soar. Too big, too different, too yellow and black, to be anything other than a Swallowtail. The first thing was to point it out to Mum, to help her find it in the sky with her distinctly sub-par eyesight. Settle, come on, perch, stop flying for a moment, stay still. It came to rest on some nettles next to the path. It sat there with its wings outstretched. She saw it, focused on it, took it in. I grabbed my camera.

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In truth it was a bit of a poor old thing, raggedy, missing its eye spots, probably not long for the world. But it was still mesmerising to spend time in its presence, especially after all the effort of getting there. Its flight was like no other butterfly I’ve seen, soaring on fixed wing facing the wind, more bird than insect. For a time it tootled about the nettles, before returning to a perch up in a tree. Some other people came along and we pointed out the Swallowtail, much to their delight. I checked my watch.

Back round the path. Now I was really hot with increasingly tired legs and arms and hands so sore from the grips. To the Reception Hide to trumpet our triumph and plonk a Swallowtail marker on the map in that previously unregarded location, then back to the car and home in time for the lunch call (well, maybe half a minute late but who’s counting?) Mission accomplished. Now we have memories.