Category Archives: Birds

Once in a lifetime!

It’s not often an extinct species turns up breeding on your nature reserve. All too infrequently if you ask me. But that’s what’s happened this week (this minute to be perfectly honest) and I am very proud to be able to bring you the news here in this column.

Now, from the outset I must point out that I am merely bathing in the reflected glory of others with this story, I had only the tiniest of roles to play in this discovery, but a role I had nonetheless and I am chuffed to pieces to be within the gravitational pull of this little piece of biodiversity history.

The real honor falls at the feet of the chap who provided me with my first photograph this week, entomologist and ladybird expert Richard Comont. He very kindly came along to the recent BioBlitz held on the Axe Estuary Wetlands and boy, is he ever glad he did?

The species in question has been officially extinct in the UK for the last 60 years and this will be the first confirmed breeding of this beetle ever in mainland Britain. I remember as a boy being told that the number of spots on a ladybird’s wing cases told you how old it was, not so, there are many different species and the thirteen-spot, is officially now my favourite!

You may remember last year I wrote about the discovery of a thirteen-spot ladybird at Seaton Marshes, discovered by local naturalist Catherine Willerton, well she has been something of a tub-thumper for these beetles ever since and it was her insistence which got Richard to come and take a look.

13-spot ladybird photo: R Comont

It’s one thing to identify this beetle, it’s long and almond-shaped rather than round like most of our common ladybirds; however to recognise a larva as something potentially significant is another thing alltogether. During his minute scrutiny of the wetlands in July, Richard discovered a larva which he thought might be from this long gone beetle. He took it back to the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology to raise it on to adulthood for confirmation, and seven minutes ago I got the tweet I had been waiting for: the emerging adult was indeed a thirteen-spot ladybird!

This particular ladybird is a wetland specialist, so it’s fitting that the new discovery was made on the newest wetland in the Country. Until now all post-1952 recordshave been continental immigrants which occasionally arrived  – Cathie’s was one of just 11 sightings since 1980 . Now we have found this individual I am sure there will be much work to determine the size and distribution of the first breeding thirteen-spot ladybird colony in the UK in 60 years!

One thing is for certain, I’ll let you know as soon as I do!

Autumn movements

Compared to the previous news the following is a little bit banal, but after that significance everything was going to pale in comparison.

Autumn is well underway in the bird world, and its time to get out and see a wonderful host of wagtails, wheatear, whimbrel and winchats as they pass through our local patch.

You don’t have to go far from home to witness this spectacle (although it helps) any bit of coastal scrub or rough hedgerow is bound to turn up whitethroats and migrating chiffchaffs at this time.

However, if you want to see the full glory, a visit to an estuary is imperative. Waders are the birds which, to me, typify autumn migrations. Birds like this graceful greenshank which breed in the Arctic and spend the winter in tropical West Africa, pass through our region in autumn and spring, but it is in the Autumn that they can be enjoyed for a little longer.

A greenshank admires its reflection, and well it might!

At Black Hole Marsh last week there were three wood sandpipers, two ruff, a gaggle of dunlin which contained a curlew sandpiper, three little ringed-plover and umpteen green and common sandpipers. I’m sorry I didn’t get exact number of all of these waders, but I only popped my head into the hide for a few minutes and the water was covered in fabulous birds. I left with my head positively spinning!

The great thing about the Island Hide is that it is only a few meters dashing distance from the reserve car park, so even if its lashing down with rain you can make a run for it! the car park can be found by driving carefully through Seaton Cemetery, through the gap in the hedge and out into the grasscrete parking area beyond.

If you visit early in the morning and you intend to take photos, make sure you go to the Tower hide at the far end of the lagoon, overlooking the estuary, as the sun will be behind you and you will be able to get good shots. The Island Hide comes into its own for evening photography when the sun is behind you and the birds are within a few feet of the hide itself – simply stunning!


Posted by on September 2, 2011 in Birds, Insects


A Blitz on Biology

Some weeks a photograph just leaps out at me that, no matter how tenuous the link, I simply have to use it for the article. This is one of those weeks.

This stunning shot of a hummingbird hawkmoth was actually snapped across the boarder in Dorset, but its an insect which is becoming increasingly familiar across the South of Britain, especially in East Devon. Local press photographer Alex took this shot of a hummingbird hawkmoth as it fed from valarian flowers, in its characteristic manner which gives it its name.

A hummingbird hawkmoth drinks nectar from the flowers of red valarian. Photo c. Alex Walton

As soon as I hear a report of a hummingbird being seen in the vicinity, I know a hawkmoth has made it across the channel and has been seen feeding. 
This day-flying moth attempts to satisfy its insatiable hunger by feeding on the sweet nectar of flowers, using an enormous proboscis tongue to suck the sugary fluid deep from within the bloom. Just like a hummingbird, it hovers a few centimetres from the flower and dips its tongue from a distance, wings a blur and its bright orange tail flashing, its easy to see how this little insect is sometimes confused with a tiny bird.

It is glimpses of exactly this wierd and wonderful biodiversity, that an upcoming event on the Axe Estuary Wetlands intends to bring to life. An ever popular event elsewhere, this will be the first BioBlitz hosted by the East Devon District Council Countryside Service. A BioBlitz is a period of 24hours when everything that grows, walks, crawls, slides, swims or flies on a particular site is surveyed and recorded.

For the visitor it is an amazing chance to visit a nature reserve with a host of experts, and for those of us who manage nature reserves, it gives us an invaluable record of all those strange, esoteric and complicated groups of plants and animals we had no idea about!

By working with my good chums at Natural England, I have managed to secure the services of some of the country’s leading experts in their field. These are the people who don’t just know about the big, the brash and the obvious; these people know about the odd squidgy bits and pieces other people overlook. We’re in for a fabulous time.

The event kicks off on Saturday 30th July at 9pm for a guided walk around Stafford Marsh in search of bats. Local ecologist, mammologist and licensed bat surveyor Ian Crowe will take us on an illuminating walk in the gloom to find the various species of bat which call the reserves their home.

Considering that we have the rarest bat (and therefor the rarest mammal) in the country living just a few miles up the valley in Holyford Woods Local Nature Reserve, it is something of an ambition to record Bechstein’s Bat on the Axe Estuary Wetlands, perhaps we’ll encounter one tonight?

Overnight, Fraser and I will be running a moth trap, sampling the diversity of moths which fly over the marshes at night. The following day we will be starting early for a moth breakfast, where local moth experts will come along and help us identify everything which ends up in the traps.

When I run a moth trap, either for work or pleasure (yes, my job does have massive cross-overs with my hobby) I end up overlooking at least 60% of the contents, deciding to leave the small micro moths and flies to another day. On Sunday morning it will be crunch time as we attempt to work out what everything is, however quirky. After the moth breakfast, the rest of the day will see scientists, and naturalists scouring the reserve, accompanied hopefully by large crowds of people interested in learning more about our local wildlife. I certainly will be hanging on their every word.

Birds, mammals and reptiles are pretty well studied on the site, so a few walks to look at these groups will be included, but it will be the less eye-catching groups which will no doubt prove the most interesting. I have something of a mental block when it comes to scientific names, and much of what will be found will only be known by its scientific or Latin name.

Please don’t let this put you off, as I intend to make it my day’s task to assign a ‘common’ name to everything we find. Episyrphus baletatus is a mesmeric little hoverfly, known more widely as the marmalade fly, so why aren’t more little flies given such memorable local names? Come along and help me come up with the couple of hundred new names which might be needed if we really strike lucky on the 31st July and hit a rich seam of form in finding creatures.

The new facilities on the Axe Estuary Wetlands will be put through their paces too, as it will be the first time we really use the Field Studies Base for its intended purpose. The solar array will be working overtime to power microscopes, as people identify those odd spiders which can only be clinched by looking at the shape of their genitalia, while the stove will be cranking out a few hundred gallons of tea to keep all those involved fully refreshed throughout their hard work.

I am looking forward to this event possibly more than any other this year, its everything I enjoy about natural history: there’s always something new to get your teeth into!

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Posted by on July 29, 2011 in Birds, Insects, Reptiles


Deerpark 2011

Large family flocks of choughs were easily found on Deerpark, the young are very vociferous when demanding food!

Dark green fritillaries were in abundance on sunny warm days in July on the Deerpark

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Posted by on July 12, 2011 in Birds, Insects


Skomer 2011

Touchdown for one of Skomer's 10,000 breeding puffins

This puffin watched hundreds of others wheeling around the cliffs before leaping off to go in search of sandeels for its pufflings

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Posted by on July 12, 2011 in Birds


On the trail of a little white tail

“Its like Lionel Messi turning up in your local park.”

This was how one twitcher described the arrival of a White-Throated Robin in Cleveland. A tiny bird, similar in shape to our European Robin but with its red breast swept back beneath the wings, this drab little superstar has caused a lot of excitement in the North East. Its only the second time this American bird has been found in the UK, the last being relatively recently in 1990 and, because of this, hoards of binocular and telescope-toting twitchers have descended to tick it and move on.

Of course the fact that it has been seen here twice makes it less of a rare occurrence than seeing Messi play five-a-side in Cleveland Municipal Gardens, but for the sake of a killer quote we’ll let that point of order pass.

If I was a twitcher I would think nothing of popping up and scoping this bird. A mere 5 or six hours travel is nothing for a bird of this rarity. Luckily my sanity prevails and twitching is not something which gets the adrenaline coursing through my veins. I prefer to stick around here and see what I see, I’m not really list-obsessed.

Which makes me a birder, or birdwatcher; someone who takes great pleasure in seeing birds of all shapes and sizes, but not compelled to chase about after vagrants and rarities to fill an Excel spreadsheet on my laptop. Which is why it is so frustrating when the term twitcher is bandied about in reference to anyone with a passing interest in birds: if you’re not traveling to a specific place, at a specific time, to see a specific bird, you are not twitching.

I’ve tried twitching once or twice, like the time a Long-Billed Murrelet turned up off the beach at Dawlish and hung about for two months. It was only 20 minutes down the road from my house, but even so I go there 10 minutes after the bird had flown away.

So I have long-since given up on chasing the tail feathers of wind-blown birds, astray in the UK. It would seem I have better luck with insects.

Last week I got a call from a friend about a very special insect he had found nesting in his bay window thatch. A knot formed in my stomach as I grabbed my camera and car keys and dashed out of the house.

Two minutes later I dashed back into the house, scooped up my toddler and dashed back out again.

It was a dazzlingly sunny friday morning and Ellie and I were on the trail of a new bumblebee for the UK, one that has only recently colonised the country. When you mention bumblebees, most people assume there is only one sort. In the same way most people think there is one sort of wasp or the only bees buzzing around the garden are honey bees.

When I say that there are 24 species of Bumblebee, its normally met with surprise. Well, make that 25; the tree bee is here. Bombus hypnorum is the appropriate scientific name for the hypnotic beauty of the Tree Bumblebee. Unlike most of our bumbles it lives in quite large colonies and makes its nests above ground, normally in tree crevices, nooks, crannies and bird nestboxes. They were first recorded in the UK 10 years ago on the Hampshire/Wiltshire boarder, and for many years remained in a very small geographical area. However, in the last four or five years the tree bee has experienced something of a population explosion, with records covering the South and East of the Country, as the bee moves North and West.

Distribution map of Bombua hypnorum c. BWARS

The Northerly expansion has been well recorded by BWARS, the Bee Wasp & Ant Recording Society, however, as the map shows, instances of the bee are less common down here in East Devon, which seems a little odd.

The bee is perfect for public recording, as it is easily recognised, no other bumblebee has the same markings. A black head is fringed by a hairy ginger thorax and its jet black abdomen is tipped with bright white hairs. If you see this bee please get in touch, as it is important that we keep track of its spread.

Tree bees, no other bumble in Britain looks like it

Winged insects settle from the continent every year, with some making an annual migration across the Channel each year, however it is not often that a species successfully breeds and colonises our shores. It is thought that this new addition to the UK’s Hymenoptera list is having little or no impact on native species. It nests in different places and is not directly parasitic or predatory on our more established bees.

However, it is only by monitoring its progress through the UK, that a picture of its place within Britain’s ecology can be pieced together.

There is also an odd behaviour which is being noticed at nest sites of Tree Bumblebees early in the summer, and video footage of this is also requested by ecologists. Swarms of smaller male Tree Bumblebees have been seen ‘dancing’ outside the entrance to nests, in what is thought to be anticipation of the emergence of the queen for mating. Again, more information is required before we know exactly what this fabulous behaviour is exactly for.

Bumblebees are gentle giants

I have read some cautionary tales on web forums (yes, I spend quite a bit of my free time scanning the internet for wildlife-related stories) about this new bee, and it links neatly to my column in last week’s paper about our innate fear of the unfamiliar.

Stories of tree bees acting aggressively outside the nest, and attacking our British Bumblebees, might strike a fearful tone, but until we know more about the bee we can’t make any firm accusations. All female bumblebees can sting, but unless you really provoke them Bumblebees are usually very reluctant to sting. Certainly on Friday, I spent a fair amount of time poking about outside the Tree Bee nest hole and was met with no hostility. If however, you’ve got a nest in a bird nest box and you lift the lid to get a better look at the colony, expect to get stung!

Also, the attack behaviour reported upon other bees could be worker Tree Bumblebees defending the nest agains parasitic cuckoo bees or mimic flies, which look just like bumblebees and want to lay their eggs in the colony.

I made a short film clip about the bee which will shortly be on my wildlife channel Youtube/user/wilddiary so if you would like to see a bit more about this bee, check out the film online.

If you think you have seen Tree Bumblebees locally, either get in touch with me at the District Council or contact BWARS directly with your record by visiting their excellent website where you can also find a fact sheet all about this fascinating little bee.


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Posted by on June 16, 2011 in Birds, Insects


Back from the USSR

The most clearly resonating memory from my undergraduate days is the importance of science to maintain an objective, unsentimental approach. Anthropomorphis is the cardinal sin for anyone wanting to discover more about ecology and the way in which biodiversity interacts. The usual illustration of this practice normally comes with the mention of a name intended to send a shiver along the spine of any self-respecting ecologist – BP. Not the oil company, Beatrix Potter.

With her collection of humanised animal characters, living in a-biotic harmony, this easily-pilloried example serves to remind all us to maintain scientific vigor.

However, the more I spend time working with British wildlife, the more I realise that a cold, laboratory approach only works in the laboratory. And the real world is anything but a laboratory.

The trouble is that in the field, one marsh tit, bank vole or common lizard is much the same as the next. To build a picture of the life history of an animal it is essential to be able to identify them as individuals and the most natural way to do this is to name them.

True enough, when it comes to experimental procedure you name your samples with consecutive code rather than nicknames; but whenever I see mute swans: ALU [yellow ring, left leg, female] and ALF [yellow ring, left leg, male] I can’t help but greet them as Alf and Alice. They’ve successfully fledged cygnets on Colyford Common Local Nature Reserve for the last three summers and I must admit to having a fondness for them which would make my old college tutor’s hair curl.

Birds undoubtably represent the ultimate group of animals which require individual distinction to piece together any kind of accurate picture of their conservation needs. Such unmasking of anonymity comes largely through the work of bird ringing, overseen and licensed by the BTO, the British Trust for Ornithology.

For the last four years a ringing group has been operating under license on the Axe Estuary Wetlands, and in that short time the highlights have been many.

The value an individual bird can provide by being re-caught is only the tip of the ecological iceberg of understanding which birds can provide us with. Birds are not caught for the ringers to admire their beautiful plumage at close quarters, though this is a pleasant adjunct, whether the bird is ringless or not, various data are collected about it, including weight, size and wing length. Biometrics such as this are vital in early detection of a variety of conservation concerns.

Of course, like all holywood superstars, it is the birds sporting rings which always court the excited anticipation of the ringers; Will it be another bird carrying a dramatic story on the little aluminium band on its leg? One such bird was caught in the very first season the Axe Estuary Ringers were in operation. A drake wigeon was caught in a perishingly cold canon netting session one February morning. The dull glint of aluminium was obvious as soon as it was rescued from the net.

What none of the collected bleary eyed ringers were prepared for was the gobledy-gook etched into the ring. It was the cyrillic alphabet and after several months wait, the record emailed from the Moscow Natural History Museum showed it to be a male wigeon of 18 years of age, which had been ringed as a first year bird in a wetland site, Khanty-Mansi, in the middle of what was then the USSR. If you were to imagine the current map of Russia as a dartboard, you would score a bull if you hit this site with a throw. This fearless little duck, D936242, had braved lashing rain, snow, wind and guns to spend its winters on the Axe Estuary.

For all this endeavor it seems utterly unfair to coldly refer to this wigeon as D936242, so without letting any of my colleagues know, I think I’ll call him Dimitri.

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Posted by on May 17, 2011 in Birds


A compromising position

My workplace, like so many others in the UK has a very tight policy regarding internet and email use. The policy document is good and thick and everyone who uses computers, which is all of us, must abide by these guidelines to ensure our conduct is above board.

In the normal course of events things run like well-oiled clockwork; information passes into me and I churn a multitude of things outward. Sometimes however, things get caught inadvertently in the net. The way in which computer security systems work means that some documents I receive will contain flagged words, for example  I was once sent a highly scrutinised report about woodland birds which contained too many references to the perennial favourite Parus major.

There are also some photos which are sent to me containing a large percentage of flesh tones. Autumnal heaths are notoriously tricky subjects for photo composure, and if some of the more heavy-handed IT filter systems are to be believed, they are also a hotbed for carnal  imagery too. Seldom the case with the photos I receive, I assure you.

Sometimes however, a photo evades the censor’s scrutiny and I gets through to my inbox. One such snap dropped in to my email system last week from a trusted source, which I was only glad I opened in a deserted office, such was its content. I was moved to send it in to the local paper.

So what caused all the hubbub? This fabulous picture of a pair of mating lizards, that’s what.  Despite their name, the common lizard is anything but common, and this behaviour is seldom seen, let alone captured on camera. The lucky cameraman photographed the pair in his garden, which is a timely reminder of the value of our backyards for wildlife.

Common Lizards mating - Bob Dark

As with another reptile which lives in northern climes, the adder, common lizards give birth to live young rather than lay eggs like most reptiles.  Viviparity, the birth of live offspring, allows the lizard to control the temperature at which the developing young are exposed to, through behaviour of the gravid female. If she detects that her core tempertature is low, she can bask in an open position to raise her body temperature. If she is too hot, she will retreat to a shady spot and let herself cool down. In the cool climate of the UK, it is seldom overheating which is the problem!

The young are born in July, between 3 and eleven individuals in thin eggs sacks which split as soon as the female has deposited them. The tiny, dark coloured babies are immediately very agile and will dash off into their habitat to develop unaided by the parent.

Males and female common lizards can be told apart by the pale, less speckled body colour, and the female’s wider belly size, which can be seen to physically bulge with developing young towards the end of June.

If you are lucky enough to see a common lizard handled, then the brightly coloured belly of the male is stark contrast to the female’s paler and un-speckled tum. However, you should never attempt to handle a lizard in the wild, as they are very delicate, fast-moving and difficult to catch safely and unless you are well-practiced you are very likely to harm the animal if you try to grab at it.

Better to sit quietly and watch the lizard through binoculars. If you approach slowly and calmly, a common lizard will often allow you to approach it in its favourite basking position to within a few metres. Got too close, too quickly however and the lizard will disappear out of view into the vegetation nearby.  However, do not lose heart, as they are dependable in their ensuing behaviour too. Back up a little and wait for the lizard to reappear. If you remain still, it will not notice you and will return to the same basking position as you found it in.

So to any of you budding photographers out there, by observing a little patience and guile,  you can capture good close up photographs of lizards without the need to get too close or interfere with them. Just sit tight and wait for them to come back to you.

East Devon is blessed with many very good places for reptile watching, the pebblebed heaths are a haven for many species of reptile, particularly this little fellow. Look for them on prominent features, low to the ground like rocks, or logs in sheltered spots on south-facing exposures. As ever with wildlife watching, you will need to wander about sites slowly to increase you r chances of seeing anything, and listen out too as the characteristic sound of a common lizard dashing into heather is often the first clue to a lizard’s whereabouts.

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Posted by on April 18, 2011 in Birds, Heathland, Reptiles