20 February, 2013

Almost Scandinavia

In some kind of miraculous act of kindness by the birding Gods, the six Waxwings from yesterday hadn't buggered off, and were still present this morning when I strolled down to have a look. Even more surprisingly, they'd called their mates to the party too; 19 more to be precise. That made 6 + 19= 25 Waxwings sitting in a tree so frustratingly close to the garden, and even closer to the 1km square boundary for the 1000 species challenge.

They hung about for a while, feeding on berries just metres from my face, before heading off in the direction of Hampton Court at about mid-day. I would have had some nice Waxwing themed pics to post on here if the camera hadn't decided to completely shut itself down and refuse to turn on again, after uploading last night's images.

As a result, most of the rest of the day was spent filling out forms and sorting out warranties, before driving to the Nikon Repair Centre to hopefully get the thing sorted out. In the meantime, meet Mrs. Chaffinch, a ridiculously tame Chaffinch that's been feeding non-stop in the garden everyday since that cold spell back in January. First class birding.

19 February, 2013

I Don't Lichen Waxwings Anymore

Spent most of this morning walking around a graveyard just up the road looking for Lichens, a group that I've pretty much completely ignored since starting the 1000 species challenge. It was a right barrel of laughs, and I've now ended up with loads of photos of (what look like) Lichens that I'm completely clueless on. Looks like I've got another couple of evenings in front of the books to look forward to...

... What?

.... Huh?

.... Yuwah?

... Say what????

... Come again?

Most of this evening was spent revelling over a flock of 6 Waxwings that flew out of nowhere and into a tree whilst playing tennis (me, not the Waxwings) in the local park. They were still chilling in the same tree when I returned with a camera just as the sun was going down. Nice to get a flock so close to home, the only annoying thing being that they're literally metres outside the 1km square boundary I'm using for the challenge. Gah! That's patch birding for you.

Now to find the best way to coax the Waxwings into the square... Apple on a piece of string? Plant a rowan tree on top of the car and see if they follow? Waxwing super-model disguise? Results tomorrow, although I think that last one's probably going to be a bit touch-and-go.

16 February, 2013

Under a plant pot...

Kept things local yesterday in the hope of hitting 100 species for the 1km square. A brief plant-pot-turning-over session in the garden struck gold when out sprung these two weird little insects that looked like they'd just escaped off the set of Alien... but then been shrunk to the size of a grain of rice.

A search around revealed them to be Springtails; a massive order of six-legged 'hexapods', that aren't actually classified as insects because they're entognathous- or as I like to put it more technically, because their mouths are inside their body. A bit more research, and it turns out they're both extremely common species associated with pretty much any soil environment. If my questionable ID skills are anything to go by, then the one below is Tomocerus minor, identified by the bluish tinge to the body and the short antennae...

Whilst this one is Orchesella villosa, quite smart looking when you get in close...

That long tail-like thing coming out of its back-end is called the furcula, used like a spring to send it up to 6 inches into the air if disturbed- apparently the human equivalent of jumping the Eiffel Tower. Insane.

Allow Dave to explain...

That fact that they are one of the most abundant creatures on the planet, with an estimated 100,000 per cubic metre of soil, raises the slightly worrying question on why I've never seen one before. I think I'll go and sit in the naughty corner.

14 February, 2013

Fieldguides... vs the Internet

Lately, a few natural history bloggers have been attempting to traverse the interesting relationship between increasing technology, and the modern day naturalist. Steve Gale's recent blog posts are well worth a read, and although I wouldn't agree that this change is as damaging as Steve makes out (sorry Steve), he certainly poses some interesting questions as to our overall reliance on taking photographs, subscribing to bird news services, and spending more time on internet forums that actually out in the field itself.

Having grown up in the age of the internet, where an increasing number of people have access to shared online information, I've found that its become more and more tempting to rely solely on others to provide the answers. Alas, when I first started 'watching wildlife' back in 2008, at the tender age of 14, I found myself constantly hanging around the Q & A sections of Birdforum, posting (usually rubbish) photos of birds and insects that I hadn't even tried to identify for myself, expecting other people to identify them all for me. I was only a beginner, but I was also lazy, hardly ever looking in a proper field guide for myself before consulting the 'experts'. Whilst its easy to find a huge amount of great resources online, I began to find that I only really progressed in knowledge by taking the time to browse through an actual book, in the field, getting to grips with various families and genera; probably like they did back in those olden days, when the size of your bookshelf determined your attractiveness to the opposite sex.

Here's a 'pick of the bunch' selection from across the taxonomic board that I've been enjoying recently. I know I'm just adding another cliche into an already cliche filled post, but books really do have that added sentimental value that the internet will hopefully never replace:
  • British Dragonflies (Dave Smallshire & Andy Swash, 2010)- Part of the excellent 'Wildguides' series, covering all of Britain's Odonata, with a double-page spread for each species, as well as a 49 pages dedicated to simplifying the identification process through various comparison tables and colour keys. Perfect for all skill sets, these are what modern day fieldguides should look like.

  • The Encyclopedia of Fungi of Britain and Europe (Michael Jordan, 2004)- A large, comprehensive guide to over a 1000 species of fungi from across Britain and Northern Europe. Very simple layout with 3 species illustrated on a page, accompanied by a small description for each. An absolute bargain at £12.

  • Grasses, Ferns, Mosses and Lichens (Roger Phillips, 1980)- I picked up this 1980s classic second hand for 3 quid, and although its been greatly simplified, with many species omitted due to lack of room, its still invaluable for covering the more common species . The author clearly focuses more on high quality illusating for each species, rather than producing extensive written descriptions, which is nice to see for a change, especially with such a technical group of organisms.

  • A Photographic Guide to the Grasshoppers and Crickets of Britain and Ireland (Martin Evans & Roger Edmondson, 2007)- A small, concise, illusated field guide to Orthoptera. Its got a very useful key at the beginning, and boasts a large number of photos for each species, that way ensuring that all the possible colour forms that could be encountered are covered for. 

  • The Vegetative Key to the British Flora (John Poland & Eric Clement, 2009)- A collection of large keys aimed at allowing the user to accurately identify any British plant, even when it isn't in flower. The background information in the first few pages describing the anatonomical side to plants is top notch, as are the 23 coloured plates at the back illustrating different types of plant, but few illustrations within the key itself, and lot of technical bla bla means its definitely more suited to the experts, and will take some getting used to.

  • Field Guide to the Bumblebees of Great Britain & Ireland (Mike Edwards & Martin Jenner, 2009)- A very simple, introductory field guide to 23 species of British bee, giving a brief description on appearance, similar species, habitat, nest, and flower preferences. There's a handy key at the beginning which separates each species based on their abdominal banding- making it idea as a quick reference guide in the field, but the photos in the actual identification section are lacking a bit, and the fact that there isn't an index doesn't help much.

  • Collins Field Guide to Spiders of Britain and Northern Europe (Michael Roberts)- A fairly meaty volume (but still easily portable, 2001) describing over 450 species. Includes comprehensive identification keys at family, genus and species level, as well as 32 drawn colour plates in the middle of the book, and a section detailing spider field-craft (no mention of the rolled up newspaper method though). The only downside is that a lot of the distinguishing features rely on the user having a microscope handy.

  • A Photographic Guide to Shieldbugs and Squashbugs of Britain and Ireland (Martin Evans & Roger Edmondson, 2005)- Made by the same guys who did the Grasshopper field guide above, this one is set out in very much the same simple, easy-to-use way, with a useful picture key at the front, and brilliant close-up images to complement simple descriptions that go with each of the 43 species accounted for.  

11 February, 2013

Top Wildlife Identification Websites

Regular readers of this blog (yeah, I know the two of you) may remember that I've set myself a little challenge for 2013; to record 1000 species in my home 1km square by the end of the year. With a broad knowledge of British taxon, and a good bit of literature to refer to, this could be done and dusted without much fuss by the end of the summer. The only problem is, I have neither a broad knowledge of British taxon, nor much good literature (bar a few moth identification resources, and a battered pocket sized guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe).

In a desperate attempt to improve my hopeless identification skills, I've been on a mad one, scouring the internet for useful websites and decent field guides, to at least help familiarise myself with the different families and orders of various Diptera (flies), Coleoptera (beetles), and flora, before the full force of spring hits us. The literature search took a couple of days and a bit of dosh, but has resulted in a now fully packed bookshelf, as well as a 'favourites' bar stocked up with websites that should prove useful at some point. Being the kind-hearted sod that I am, I thought I'd share a few of the online resources that have particularly caught my eye:

  • BioImages: I've often stumbled across the site when trying to ID a moth online, but have never taken the time to fully navigate this monumental resource, which displays nearly 80,000 images of over 5,700 British species; from fungi to springtails, and almost all photographed and documented by one guy, Malcolm Storey. It's set out in a hierarchical format, starting (not surprisingly) with 'kingdoms' at the top, branching out into the lower ranks, before eventually reaching the different 'orders' and 'genuses'. Not only does this make it extremely easy to navigate the photo library, but it also provides a useful taxonomic breakdown for beginners. Of course, for a site attempting to document such a dynamic range of wildlife, there are bound to be gaps, but even where a genus is missing, the author provides links to other relevant resources, that may cover the subject.

  • British Bugs: A brilliant comprehensive photographic guide to most UK Hemiptera (true bugs: stink-bugs, leafhoppers, aphids etc), compiled by Tristan Bantock and Joe Botting. Set out with beautiful thumbnails for each family, as well as a brief description for each species regarding distinguishing features, status, habitat and flight period. Even if your not trying to identify anything, just go here for the amazing macro-photography.

  • The Coleopterist: This site basically attempts the impossible- to provide a comprehensive photographic guide for UK Beetles- and I wouldn't say its done too badly, with 766 species illustrated. It's set out in one big list (divided into families), but unfortunately there are no thumbnail previews, so its best to have at least some idea of what you're looking at before you start scrolling down and down... and down. On the bright site, it splits the families up nicely, and as far as I can tell, there's nothing else like it in terms of having access to so many species of beetle in one place (unless you're got access to the London Natural History Museum collections- in which case I envy you).

  • Garden Safari: A large website, providing species accounts (with photographs) for most aspects of wildlife to be found in the average British garden. There's no jargon, no confusing keys, and the links are easy to navigate; it's definitely tailored more for beginners, which is probably why I use it so much. Ideal if you want to quickly identify a house spider you've just found in your shed, not so ideal if you're after the distinguishing features seperating Empoasca decipiens and Empoasca vitis, for a hibernating specimen you've just swept from a conifer tree.  

  • Illustrated Guide to Weeds: Weeds are everywhere, which means they should form a large part of the challenge list. They aren't everyone's cup of tea, but its hard not to admire their competitive nature, their ability to adapt to often barren environments, and their consistent title as the reigning pisser off-ers of gardeners since the middle ages. This particular PDF file does exactly what it says on the tin- a photographic guide to all the weeds you'd expect to find in cultivated environments, namely gardens. The guide dedicates a page to each species, focusing on the most noticable ID features, and explaining them simply. What's good about this particular one is that it includes images of each plant in each stage of its development, not just the final flowering stage.

  • Lepiforum thumbnails: A German-run lepidoptera site containing images of almost every species moth and butterfly recorded in Europe. Whilst most of the site requires a German language degree, the 'thumbnail' part of the website (see the link) is presented like a piece of cake, allowing the user to quite easily seperate any micro or macro moth to species level (bar those requiring dissection), just by casually browsing through the thumbnails. By far the best moth site on the internet, period.

  • Roger's Mushrooms: One of the most extensive photographic collections of wild mushroom species available online, made by a fun guy called Roger (sorry). Most European and North American fungi are covered, and its pretty easy to narrow down your search by using one of the two keys on the left hand side of the homepage, after which you'll be given a list of thumbnail images representing species that matched the given criterea.

  • Amanita Photo Library: Covers most of the common fungi, invertebrates, trees, plants, mammals and birds of Britain and further afield, laid out as thumbnail images. Not as well presented or comprehensive as the previous site; there are no family splits, and many of the fungi images are only tentatively identified, but its still useful for quickly flicking through the possibilities.
This has all mostly been the result of having nothing else to do on a Sunday evening, but hopefully the links above will prove to be at least a little bit helpful to anyone looking to delve deeper into the world of British flora and fauna- I'm sure I'll be adding to the list as the year goes on. When I get more time, I'll do another post on some of the new bookshelf additions, but in the meantime, here are some assorted additions to the 1km square list so far, after a brief stroll around Stokes Field...

Stereum rameale- a relatively uncommon fungi, usually found on dead branches of broad-leaved trees...

Black Witches Butter- a nasty looking fungi, common on decaying hardwoods in winter and early spring...

Ribwort Plantain- a common weed of arable land...

Creeping Buttercup...

10 February, 2013

Changing the subject slightly...

... with some Pochards in Bushy Park.

Always been one of my favourite ducks- they just seem so chilled out all the time- I've ever seen a Pochard swim anywhere in a hurry...one minute they're feeding, next minute they've fallen asleep.

09 February, 2013

On the subject of gulls...

... here's a few Black-headed Gulls that I went all artistic and stuff on in Bushy Park on Tuesday, with a rare bit of afternoon sun providing some nice backlighting on a shaded pond in the woodland gardens.

... I need to stop being so amazingly creative.

08 February, 2013

That Gull Again

What's that? You want more images of that Bonaparte's Gull in Eastbourne? Fine, if I have to.

06 February, 2013

How to over-photograph a Bonaparte's Gull

Found myself taking a 75 mile detour to the local patch this morning via Princes Park, Eastbourne, to twich a winter plumaged adult Bonaparte's Gull on a small boating lake by the seafront. I haven't been to the seafront in donkey's years, so I'll use that fact as the main excuse for taking an hour and a half train journey to twitch a seagull (sounds pretty bad when you put it like that)... plus the fact that its a very smart looking bird, showing ridiculously well at times to the steady flow of photographers who have visited in the past week.

Unlike other gulls, Bonaparte's Gull is unique in that it build its nests in trees, mainly in the taiga forests of Alaska, with a few birds making landfall in Britain in most years. This particular bird seemed quite at home on the boating lake, generally avoiding the large congregation of Herring Gull and Black-headed Gull, but joining the feeding frenzy whenever a slice of bread was whipped out.

Note the all black bill, more 'compact' size, and pinkish legs, which helped distinguish it from the 100 odd Black-headed Gulls also present without too much hassle...

Two hours and 500 shots later, it was finally time to end an intense seagull photography session, and I headed back towards the station, passing a very confused Black-headed Gull in full summer plumage, and a single Turnstone scavenging along the concrete banks of the lake.

After a surprisingly easy journey home through Sussex and London during rush hour, I made it home with just enough light left to pick out a flowering Snowdrop in the front garden, bringing my 1000 species in a 1km square total to a pathetic total of 87... and there I was just last week promising myself that I would stay local this year!