Sunday, 10 January 2016

Nature Notes 2015

Waders at Severn beach. Simon Williams

January
Masters of freeze and thaw
Field Blewits
Ceridwen
I was taking a winter walk down the banks of the River Severn below Upton, and in a riverside meadow I came across some fungi, about six inches across with thick light brown smooth shiny caps depressed in the middle, pale gills and pale thick stems. What was striking was that after two nights of very heavy frost, and now being thawed by bright morning sun, these apparently fragile creatures still maintained their integrity and hadn’t deteriorated into a mush. I asked a mycology friend what they might be – she correctly replied, They could have been Field Blewits. I once took one home that was frozen solid and when it thawed it still produced its distinctive pale pink spore print!’ Clever nature – the most unusual creatures turn out to be masters of freeze and thaw.
(I also enjoyed an article in a recent New Scientist titled  'Soils of War' by Lynne Boddy, mycologist at Cardiff University, on fungi’s many cunning forms of attack and defense)

Shepperdine
Shepperdine. Ken Wilkins
I recently explored the Shepperdine village area on the Severn Estuary just north of Oldbury Power Station. It’s an  isolated area with the embankment running past wide skies and wide river to the west, and stubble and vegetable fields, big hedgerows, trees and rough areas inland. That day it was alive with mixed flocks of hundreds of finches and buntings - linnet, chaffinch and yellowhammer – creating a fabulously generous sight and sound, with treefuls of birds setting up great murmurings. In nearby orchards hundreds of  fieldfares were flying and chacking, and eating mistletoe berries in the trees.
The lane through the village is called ‘Nupdown’ – a loony-tunes combination of Up and Down. Walk along it and you’ll find the tiny 'tin tabernacle' of St Mary the Virgin Church, a corrugated-iron chapel dating from 1914 but still in use, accessed via a tiny plank bridge through a hedgerow and down a rough little path...

Gadwalls
Gadwalls. Tony Hisgett
I really like how selective in habitat those quietly elegant ducks the Gadwall are: they are most frequently found on their own little pools away from the hoi polloi of other water birds. A few days ago at Pilning Wetlands two pairs had left the first large lake to the shovellers, Canada geese, tufted ducks and quarreling coots, and had taken over a quiet arm of the further lake for their own, well away from any adjacent lapwings and curlews. And  walking from Clevedon back to Portbury Wharf behind the salt marsh recently, there were two pairs just visible in a most secretive secluded pool between rhines…

Crow attack
Just now in front of our house there was a fierce aerial attack by three crows on one other. They forced it onto the pavement where it lay on its back, legs waving and wings beating, while they gathered round and continued attacking it. It just managed to escape and flew off still hotly pursued by the others. I wonder what its crime was? - my impression is that crows generally rub along well enough with each other.
A colleague subsequently suggested I look up ‘Crow courts’ and ‘rook parliaments’ - and what a strange world I entered of folklore and eye-witness accounts of large groups of crows pecking one of their number to death. There is much speculation but no-one making a good case for a reason: one saying of rooks that they are punishing a persistent nest robber; one saying the crows are carrying out a form of euthanasia on a weak or ill member...

Severn Beach
Severn Beach
Matt Buck
For the first time that I can remember, Severn Beach actually has some sand sufficient to warrant its name! Today this mini-beach was graced with about 250 dunlin feeding busily along the shore line.
(Severn Beach is famous for its misleadingly alluring name, belied by the reality of its muddy gravelly foreshore and a backdrop of the Avonmouth industrial complex...)

February
Orchard Pools & Severn Beach
At Orchard Pools a song thrush was singing a refrain that surely had been copied from a reed or sedge warbler!
In Severn Beach village, twenty sparrows were having a dust bath on the high street, and more sparrows in surrounding thickets were creating their striking ‘wall of sound’ effect. I strolled along the new ‘beach’ and kicked the genuine sand - summer here we come!

‘Plant intelligence’ - a New Scientist article & letter
There was a fascinating recent article in New Scientist magazine on intelligence in plants. A summary reads:  ‘In the past decade, researchers have been making the case for taking plants more seriously. They are finding that plants have a sophisticated awareness of their environment and of each other, and can communicate what they sense. There is also evidence that plants have memory, can integrate massive amounts of information and maybe pay attention. Some botanists argue they are intelligent beings, with a ‘neurobiology’ all of their own. There is even tentative talk of plant consciousness.’
I responded to the hotly debated issue of what might define ‘plant intelligence’, and was very proud to have my letter published at the end of January. It read:
‘Intelligence is a slippery and elusive thing to define, as Anil Ananthaswamy’s article on plant intelligence (6 Dec 2014) shows. However, in the context of living creatures I would define intelligence pragmatically as an appropriate, non-mechanical survival response to an ever-changing environment. This seems to cover the case for plants as well as other organisms.’

Sexing foxes
Red foxes. Keven Law
A large fox was just exploring our back garden. The first time it came right up to the patio, and the second time it inspected the vegetable plot as I have seen them do before (I suppose sometimes they eat the vegetables?), before moving gracefully over the fence to next door's garden.
Previously I would have sexed it - 'a male' if it was large with a strong broad face - 'female' if it looked daintier with a narrower face. However I recently attended a talk by Bristol University researcher Jo Dorning called 'The private life of the red fox' ( based primarily on research on Bristol foxes), where we learnt that it is actually difficult to accurately sex them without looking at their private parts... We also learnt that females only come into heat for three days of the year, generally in January, while the males anxiously hang about for their mating chance; so a friend who saw a fox couple mating a couple of weeks ago while riding round Abbotts Leigh actually caught a rare sight. Both sexes are promiscuous though there is a dominant pair in each social group, and litters often have cubs with different fathers - but generally everyone in that group mucks in and helps rear the cubs...
Rookery. Rosser1954

Rooks start nesting…
A friend gave me a recent nature article from Matthew Oates ‘Nature Notebook’, saying that mid-February – Valentine’s Day  – is when we can see rooks start their nest-building. It quoted a beautiful poem 'Thaw' by Edward Thomas:

“Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
The speculating rooks at their nests cawed,
And saw from elm-tops, delicate as flowers of grass,
What we below could not see, Winter pass.”


Pattering for worms
Gull pattering
Stanley Howe
A gull was pattering for worms on a local motorway roundabout - very successfully as it got a beakful every few seconds. As usual it made me laugh - it's something about the incongruity of the ballet-like dainty movements of their feet, like big actor Bernard Bresslaw dressed up in women's underwear, as he was so often made to do in the ‘Carry On’ films...

Walton Moor
The First Celandine – heralds Spring.
The First Chaffinches heard singing a full summer song – heralds Summer.

Aust Ferry Nicholas Mut.ton
High Tide
I went to an early morning extra-high tide at Aust this morning – exciting as the water surges up and over the road where normally it never reaches. A crow and gull frenzy builds up around forty minutes before high tide - perhaps when the water goes over the normal high tide safety-zone for the small mammals and pushes them into the open. I noticed that the crows are much better at catching these small creatures, while the gulls then try to steal the limp little bodies off the crows! 

I managed to get marooned myself in the middle of the road, and had to ask for sanctury from a parked Land Rover as the water came up  and over my boots...


France Lac du Chantecoq
In mid-February I went on a birdwatching trip to the Lac du Chantecoq region in central France, to see cranes and other over-wintering birds there while it is still very cold and wintery. It’s a region of huge man-made lakes and surrounding old forests, and I saw many species new to me, and beautiful spectacles including the haunting sight and sound of thousands of cranes flying and calling over the lakes, and a white stork pair mating on a village rooftop,...
Cranes migrating
Antonio
However one abiding memory is of the long long drive from Calais through France’s heartland of industrialised agriculture – literally hundreds of miles of wildlife desert with every scrap of wild verge, hedgerow or woodland copse eliminated or reduced to identical neatness. It sent a chill through me...
Storks mating. David Wilson

Singing Blackbird
Mike Pennington
In France we stayed in the centre of the medium-sized industrial town of St Dizier. One morning I woke  early before dawn, and heard a blackbird doing some soft practising outside our room - helped because even though it was cold the rooms were overheated so we had our balcony doors open. I think I always underestimate when the blackbirds start to sing - probably because my bedroom windows at home are still closed at this time of year, and they seem to practise so very early in the morning...


March
Shelduck
On the estuary foreshore by Shepperdine yesterday, six shelduck were gracefully courting each other with dancing steps, lowered and raised heads,
and crooning chattering calls

Common Reeds. Bernard Dupont
Reeds
At New Passage the large banks of reeds shook softly, and created a moiré shimmer...

New nest
There’s a rookery on the main road on the outskirts of Easter Compton. A new nest was being constructed, with one rook bringing in big twigs and the other arranging them. The latter (I’m sure it’s very wrong of me to assume it was the female...) took a twig, tried it here, tried it there, tried it over there – it reminded me of the artist Heather Jansch searching for the perfect piece of driftwood for one of her horse sculptures...

Warming!
Birdwatching today, for the first time I felt able to fling off my coat and sweater and roll up the trousers…

ClaptonMoor
On Clapton Moor south of Bristol, two herons were sitting quietly against a hedge, sheltered from a biting north east wind... However it was very cheering to see, in an otherwise almost leafless landscape, hawthorne hedgerows breaking into green along the road.


Rookery Survey
I and a friend took part in a five-yearly rookery count carried out by our local naturalist’s group. Our Tickenham area which my friend knows well, included five sites including on the moors, in woods and along roads - many being quite hard to access. But for me who loves rooks, it was a privileged chance to get closer to these lovely birds and their home life. Sadly almost all sites had fewer nest numbers, one in woods was severely reduced apparently by the actions of the neighbouring golf club, and one had disappeared altogether, and we found no new sites. However the rooks themselves don’t mourn but just get on with their busy chatty nest-building - their favourite trees were ashes and they do love to be next to big flat grass fields…

Scarlet Elf Cups
Ceridwen
Scarlet Elf Cups
On a bird walk below Marshfield, in lovely spring weather, we found Scarlet Elf Cup fungi in the woods – exquisite small thin deep cups of brilliant scarlet within, growing from decaying wood. They appear in late winter and early spring, and are apparently rare in Britain except in the west – rare enough for me to be asked to submit a record. We also saw primroses and purple violets, and one celandine flower with a record fourteen petals…

Avon observations
Avon mud. Linda Bailey
At Sea Mills today, a lovely early spring day…
Some vagary of tidal flow had just deposited a thick layer of the finest, shiniest, gloopiest mud along the banks. In places it was draped into glossy flobbery domes, whose only equivalent might be the look of fresh raw kidneys jostled together on a butcher’s tray.
There was a small island of mixed twigs, plant matter and rubbish floating down the river. A crow had perched itself there and was allowing itself to be swept downstream on its own little raft…

Blackbird song continued…
I had been thinking that I still wasn’t hearing the blackbirds’ song. Then on Saturday I woke stupidly early – 4.30am. The windows were slightly open, and at around 4.45am while it was still dark, a blackbird started singing beautifully. Before 5am it had finished and there were no other songsters; and if I hadn’t been awake for that small window of time this brief phenomenon would have totally passed me by...

Lapwings displaying, Goldcliff
Ken Billington
At this time of year about eleven years ago when I had just started bird-watching, I was by Horseshoe Bend on the tidal River Avon below Bristol. There, not understanding what I was seeing but only knowing it was magical, I saw a group of lapwings display-flying, tumbling in black-and-white aerobics. Ever since I have been hoping to see this again, but with the decline in local lapwings and the need to be in the right place at just the right time – I never did, and was resigned to it being a one-off experience.
However on a recent trip to the Newport Wetlands, within the protected environs of the Goldcliff reserve (entirely surrounded by fox-proof fencing) - lapwings were displaying – what a glorious sight. Oystercatchers were displaying too and they both were searching busily for nest sites. Black-tailed godwits were changing from their greyer winter plumage to summer garb with brick-red heads and necks.  A marsh harrier hunted low over the reeds; when it threatened scores of avocets they flew into the lagoon directly beneath it - to keep a better eye on the enemy, perhaps? Seawards, a lone whimbrel was bathing and preening in its own small pool atop the shoreline.

April
Tree flowers
Poplar catkin. Bob Embleton
Some ash tree flowers are very noticeable at the moment - like miniature dark red bouquets bursting out along the twigs. A line of grey poplar trees along my local main road are currently dropping an abundance of their big fat purple-red catkins that look like unnervingly like caterpillars...

Avonmouth sunset
Driving back home across the bridge from Wales at sunset with the Avonmouth industrial site in the background, there was a long cloud in the mostly clear sky over the factories, shaped like a crocodile and exactly holding the Sun in its jaws...

Philip Heron
Starling surprise
During the first ten-plus years we lived in our terraced house in Filton, starlings nested annually in a front corner of the attic, and the peepings of the nestlings formed a summery background noise in the bedroom immediately below. Then a subsequent loft conversion blocked their access to the roof space, though for some years afterwards they still tried to find a way in, and even many years later they were still looking.
Now this year we did hear sounds in the roof space beyond the converted area, but I thought it was still just starling attempting to get in from outside. However just now I was rummaging in that roof storage space with its access door ajar, when WHOOSH, a starling flew out and into the room! I rushed over to open a window to let it out, and it escaped - but not before it had defecated all down the window sill (the oily stain still lingers...) So, I am really hoping to hear the peepings of nestlings once again this year. But what a persistent memory they have of this nesting site - is it embedded in a scent trail, or their navigation systems or what? Miraculous really.

Crickhowell lamb
On Table Mountain. Rudi Winter
Yesterday walking on a path below Table Mountain at Crickhowell in Wales, we saw a tiny lamb bleating in the bracken - the closest to newborn I've ever seen, still with its umbilical cord trailing. One of our party spotted what we hoped was the mother about forty metres away. He picked up the lamb – which rested with complete trust in his arms - and carried it over to where she stood with another tiny lamb, and she seemed to accept it fine. A little way down on the path we could actually see where birth had taken place, and thought that perhaps she had been frightened by a passing walker and had left this one there, giving birth to the second away from the path? Anyway, we definitely felt we had done a good deed that day...

Stuart Wilding
Woolaston, Forest of Dean
We went walking on the edge of the Forest of Dean near the Severn. It was an ‘earthly paradise’ of early spring in hidden valleys, woods and ridges. Swathes of white Wood Anemones ran across the woodland floor, with pale purple Lady’s Smock snuggled in with Primroses, and a yellow Brimstone butterfly flying through. Eight buzzards circled over one meadow – possibly four pairs sorting out their mutual territories.

Chiffchaff
A Chiffchaff was singing in our Filton back lane - a real first for me here after over twenty years, bringing a delightful breath of the country into this densely urban area.


April sky.  Notafly
Below Almondsbury
Springtime richness down the lanes and levels below Almondsbury today:
Birds included chiffchaffs, blackcaps, buzzards, kestrel, sky larks and long-tailed tits. Bluebells were flowering abundantly down the hedgerows. There was an abundance of butterflies - peacock, comma, orange tip, small white, small tortoiseshell – literally scores of the latter.
One tree in a distant copse was bursting out in an explosion of shocking green amongst its unfurled brothers. Is that special bright April blue sky colour created or just enhanced by the acid brilliance of new grass and dandelion flowers?
The little old field-access bridges across the rhines, are built of small stone semicircles which reflect as perfect circles in the water...

Greater Celandine. Emoke Denes
Kilcott near Hawkesbury Upton
More brilliant shards of Spring in this Cotswold haven: whitethroats, yellowhammers, scores of swallow and house martins, green  and great spotted woodpeckers, the calls of treecreepers & marshtits, song of mistlethrush, a blackcap’s ‘stone-tapping’ call . Buzzards hovering, bowed exactly like kestrels.  A brilliant blue shard of blackbird egg with remnants of embryo, lying on the road. Flowering garlic mustard, greater celandine and yellow archangel…


Priors Wood, Portbury
Today in this woodland south of Bristol, I was shown two unusual plants I’d been hoping to see for a long while:
Moschatel. Andrew Curtis
- Moschatel, the ‘Town-hall Clock’: a unique woodland plant flowering in spring. The tiny yellow-green flowers at the end of each stem are structured like the top five faces of a cube, with four 5-petaled flowers facing out sideways (the faces of a clock tower), capped with a four-petaled flower facing skywards!
- Herb Paris: another unique-looking plant forming a woodland grove of sturdy long-stems each with a lower collar of 4 (sometimes 5 or 6) large shiny leaves, supporting the strange single flower of thin spidery greenish petals and stamens with a central dark berry, which will become larger as summer progresses.
Herb Paris. Bob Embleton
There was also much Toothwort in the bases of coppiced hazel trees.
 A member gave me a chunk of rotten wood she’d found on the woodland floor, stained a dark metallic blue-green by the  Green Elfcup fungus (Chlorociboria aeruginascens) that more rarely produces fruiting bodies of the same brilliant hue. (Apparently wood thus infected was prized by marquetry makers) I shall put it with my geology samples as it is superficially indistinguishable from a real copper ore, compounds of which ironically are used as agricultural fungicide – one of nature’s little jokes!

Ducklings
Homein Salem
There were eight tiny Mallard ducklings on the New Passage tidal pill (creek) today. Their brown-coloured mother was so well camouflaged that as the babies clustered up to her, initially I thought they were pushed against the muddy river bank rather than her flanks...

Orville’s fate...
The old-fashioned ventriloquist Keith Harris just died, leaving behind his dummy Orville, a big, fat, pathetic duckling. A friend mused, ‘Just wondering what birders think about the chances of Orville surviving on his own? Will he be pecked to death by other birds, or perhaps mate with a Dunnock?’ I replied, ‘The extraordinary ventriloquist Nina Conti recently did a documentary about a home for orphaned ventriloquist dummies in America, that she visited when left the puppets of her own mentor on his death. Maybe Orville will find his way there, finally mature into an adult bird, and find love and happiness?’ Another friend added, ‘I read in the BBC obituary piece that at one time when he was depressed Keith thought about killing himself in a duck pond….. I still can’t work out whether to laugh or cry at that one…’.
And I see that in his later years Keith actually did an 'adult' Orville show called 'Duck Off'...’ 

May
Starlings success
So the starlings that finally managed to get back into our roof space (see April above) have bred successfully, and I can once more hear the cheeping of nestlings when the adults arrive with food. But I reiterate - isn't that the most extraordinary story of perseverance over many years? I suppose that each year they chipped away at a bit more roofing felt, plastic eaves or whatever else stood in their way  until they broke through into their old haunts - but what was the drive that kept them persisting? My hat goes off to them, and to Mother Nature.

Troopers Hill
Mouse-ear Hawkweed. 
Anne Burgess
Troopers Hill is a Bristol park, a lone outpost of rock rendered acidic by centuries of mining, and with interesting botany to match. On a recent trip there on the quite barren slopes, single bright magenta flowers of common vetch were very striking, as were the masses of broom in many shades of yellow-to red, and big patches of furry mouse-ear hawkweed with brilliant pale lemon flowers. Many busy black mining bees crawled about the earth paths.

Killcott on the Cotswolds
Within the woods, great pools of alternating bluebells and wild garlic. Wonderful lane-side banks of spring flowers: still many primroses, violets and wood anemones, and now also opposite-leaved golden saxifrage, yellow archangel, stitchwort, wood sorrel, red campion, greater celandine, tufted vetch, green alkanet and comfrey.
Water vole. Peter Trimming
Meadows on steep valley slopes were covered with long rich brown silky flowering grass heads, moving in the wind like the pelts of beautiful animals…
In the village valley we saw what we thought could only be a water vole in the beautifully clear, shallow stream that runs through it; there were also many small burrows in the banks at water level. I later researched to find there was a small isolated community of water voles in that area; and subsequently reported the sighting to the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust.



Oxford Ragwort
Oxford Ragwort. Ian Cunliffe
I was most intrigued by a new flowering daisy-like plant with almost feathery foliage that that has been colonising our local motorway central reservations in a few specific locations. Whizzing past at speed, it appeared chamomile-related with large-centred flowers in shorter, more flattened clusters - was it yellow chamomile? Unable to stop and look, I became so frustrated that I found myself hoping for a holdup so I could jump out and identify it! And then as soon as one leaves the motorway and could stop more easily - the flora reverts to buttercups, dandelions, charlock and a host of other yellow flowers that aren't THIS one.
From my crude descriptions, Bristol Wildlife’s botanical expert initially suspected Crepis vesicaria (Beaked Hawk's-beard). However he then correctly reported, Having spent a fair time queuing on the M5 on Friday, I now think the answer to Lois's question is Oxford Ragwort (Senecio squalidus).’ Other members pointed out its interesting origins – a native from the slopes of Mount Etna – as well as thinking that the "squalidus" was a bit unfair - though it is invasive...

Vocal Learning
Radio 4 had a fascinating programme called ‘What the Songbird Said’, about animals who do ‘vocal learning’ – who learn a language/song from their parents and community. So far the only ones known are us humans, cetaceans, sea lions, some bats, probably elephants – and songbirds including parrots and hummingbirds. And it’s the birds who seem to have the closest neurological and brain structure similarities to us, with an optimal learning period in childhood, a left-brain specialization, etc. The summary said:
Tom MacEnzie
‘Could birdsong tell us something about the evolution of human language? Language is arguably the single thing that most defines what it is to be human and unique as a species. But its origins - and its apparent sudden emergence around a hundred thousand years ago - remains mysterious and perplexing to researchers. But could something called vocal learning provide a vital clue as to how language might have evolved? The ability to learn and imitate sounds - vocal learning - is something that humans share with only a few other species, most notably, songbirds. Charles Darwin noticed this similarity as far back as 1871 in the Descent of Man and in the last couple of decades, research has uncovered a whole host of similarities in the way humans and songbirds perceive and process speech and song. But just how useful are animal models of vocal communication in understanding how human language might have evolved? Why is it that there seem to be parallels with songbirds but little evidence that our closest primate relatives, chimps and bonobos, share at least some of our linguistic abilities? In this programme, Angela Saini meets biologists and linguists investigating what research on songbirds and other species might have to say about the question of how language, with all its beauty and richness, may have evolved.’

Ian Watkin
Cotoneaster & Bees
It’s interesting how much bees love cotoneaster flowers, which are so inconspicuous. Our bush today is covered with both.

Fledgling feeding
I had a first view of a starling fledgling on our back lawn today (which I assumed / hoped was one of those from the nest in our roof). Its parents had tugged a large worm from the grass, minced that into a ball, and were feeding this to the youngster.

Spanning Continents
Reed Warbler
Francesco Veronesi
A Bristol Wildlife member wrote, ‘A Reed Warbler right next to Chew Valley lake hide is an impressive songster, some great mimicry including Great and Blue Tit, Chiffchaff (call, not song), Buzzard, Blackbird, Swallow and something distinctly melodic and fluty that clearly isn’t reed warbler, presumably some species I’m not familiar with from its wintering grounds in Africa.’
I responded, ‘It's absolutely fascinating to think that you were hearing mimicry of an African bird. We don't often ponder the daily realities of the 'other half' of migrating birds' lives... the different foods, environment & climate, pests & diseases, predators... and how they move apparently effortlessly between the two. Graceful bridging of schizophrenic worlds...’



Herring Gull chick. 
John Haslam
Birds in Brittany
Last week we finished a geology trip in north Brittany with a trip to Mont St Michel - somewhere I last visited 50 years ago when it filled me with horror at its tourist-displayed dungeons and torture implements. However that seems to have been swept away, and I liked it this time - full of birds! In particular, on some large cylindrical water tanks half way up the mount and overshadowed by trees, gulls were nesting (herring I think), with a pair of gorgeous chicks tottering about under their parents' eye. With their spots and fluff I do think they are wonderful, and I also enjoyed this nursery glimpse when usually back home it's much more hidden on high roofs.
I also heard my first turtle dove, as an adult at least – sadly not in Britain but in the Baie de la
Mont St-Michael. Jean--luc Lebrun

Fresnaye in north Brittany, a large lonely estuary surrounded by wooded cliffs. It is a lovely sound that seems hauntingly familiar – perhaps a childhood memory from when turtle doves were more common in Britain?

Photographing our Fish
Biodiversity Heritage 
Library
One of the nicest bonkers things I’ve seen on ‘Springwatch’ was underwater film-maker Jack Perks, aged 24. He has made it his ambition to film all 54 British native fish (did you even know there were so many?) and has 44 under his belt so far. By hook or by crook, in his wet suit in streams and rivers large and small, he pursues his species – only in Britain, eh?
(‘Spring/Autumn/Winterwatch’ are popular and very interactive annual BBC nature programmes, with many contributions from the public and from amateur naturalists)


June
Severnside sunset. Steve Hale
An early summer evening from my loft…
Looking west out my loft window just past 9pm this evening – there was a beautiful clear rosy sunset deep towards the north-west, with great sweeps of mackerel cloud formations. Jackdaws were flying off north-east towards the mysterious destination where they roost, and starlings were flying south-west towards their equally unknown roosting spot. The local swift group were performing a shimmering evening dance – a total of eight of them in that brief second when they bunch and you can see them all together. And a blackbird was singing loudly as he sat on an aerial opposite…

St Ives snapshot
Common Sorrel
Ivar Leidus
Visiting St Ives recently on the north-west Cornish coast, I walked a stretch of the coast path just below the town. There was a typical medley of interesting plants growing on and between the rocks. On one boulder were bracken, heather and English saxifrage all together; another adjacent boulder was covered with ivy with foxglove and pennywort pushing up through it. A larger rocky hill was surrounded by such a dense growth of flowering sorrel that it seemed to rise from a rosy mist formed by the long red flowering spikes. Though it was June, there were still many fresh bluebells, mixed with yellow flags, big heads of sheep’s-bit scabious of that almost unbelievably intense blue, and an extensive swathe of pink orchids.
Over the sea but unusually close in to the cliffs, gannets were hunting followed by shearwater and
Porthmeor Beach sunset. OLU
fulmar… a gannets’ very shallow dive is almost as awe-inspiring as its vertical drop!
In St Ives itself I experienced an unusual (though not wildlife-related) phenomenon. The main
Porthmeor beach faces due north, and our rented house up the hill behind it had big living room windows also facing due north over the sea. Because it was so near midsummer, in the morning you could watch the sun rise and shine into the living room through the right-hand side of the window, and in the evening you could watch the sun go down and shine into the living room through the left-hand side of the window!  Disorientating when one is so used to experiencing sunrise and sunset on opposite sides of a building...

New Passage & Severn Beach
Dyer's Greenwood
Zell
New Passage at very high tide this lunchtime, with water to top of Chestle Pill banks and Pill mouth flooded like a lake. The meadow verges round the Pill outfall were a jolly riot of red and white clover, and yellow buttercup, cinquefoil and meadow vetchling.
Along the verge of the road in to Severn Beach, I finally managed to identify another flower that has tormented me on inaccessible motorway verges for years. It grows in large clumps of refined spikes of flowers that look a sulphurous yellow from a distance – it is Dyer’s Greenwood, Genista tinctoria of the pea family, used from ancient times to make yellow and green dyes.

Ants at Blaise Castle
In  the Blaise Castle parkland in Bristol today, swarms of flying insects must have been emerging from the grassland. They were being followed by hundreds of gulls and scores of swifts, firstly pursuing them on and over the grass sward and then as the insects flew higher, the birds following them in their masses…

Selsley Common. BaryonicBeing
Selsley Common
Yesterday I climbed with a friend to the top of Selsley Common on the Cotswolds  just south of Stroud. The steep west face of the limestone grassland common was a mass of orchids - there must have been literally thousands evenly spread through flowering grasses and yellow rattle, including common spotted, pyramidal and possibly common fragrant. Also the occasional pure white one which might be ‘alba’ variants - apparently in most of the grassland orchids the flower colour tends to be variable. There were also many of those wonderful tiny lime-lovers like fairy flax and common milkwort or even the rarer chalk milkwort.. Sky larks were singing in profusion; and many jumping up almost from our feet; one, unusually in my experience, doing so stationary from a low bush.

Cinnabar moth
Cinnabar Moth
CharlesJSharpe
There was a Cinnabar moth in our front garden today.

Swift party
Yesterday morning there was a full-on though short-lived swift screaming party at our local Filton site, made up of fifteen birds. This was an encouraging total to see, as during the nesting period I’d only seen them in threes and fours - and every year their total numbers dwindle.
Discussing this online, one member asked, ‘Juveniles adding numbers?’ I replied, ‘I was told that the extra numbers at this time of year are year-old swifts without partners, while the new fledglings apparently don't hang around but immediately start the migration back to Africa. Is this your understanding?’
He said, ‘You could well be right, swifts don't breed till four years so non-breeders will be joining in the screaming parties (they may actually try to breed but according to literature are never successful - not sure how extensive that research is though), and it may be true that juveniles depart immediately but I don’t know how they evidence that to be honest. I'd be interested to know how they come to that conclusion (date of ringing recoveries in wintering grounds? sightings in wintering
Swift
Monica Korzeniec
grounds?). If satellite tracking has taught us anything it’s that much of our 'knowledge' of bird migration in many species is b****cks! Dont know if they've satellite tagged any swifts, would be interesting. Juvenile swifts are identifiable in flight given the right views but how many bother to look? They may or may not be present but on 'sightings' I suspect they're under recorded, if recorded at all - something I'm guilty of myself.’
Another member added, Yes, they have satellite tracked Swifts and yes it is interesting: http://www.bto.org/science/migration/tracking-studies/swifts

July
Brecon Canal
Moorhen chick. Paul Chapman
I went walking the southern end of the Brecon-Monmouthshire Canal in Wales - Newport to Pontypool and the westwards Crumlin Arm up the Valleys. It is very lovely – mostly un-navigable at this end, lined with majestic mature trees and full of water birds, mostly moorhen and mallards and their prolific broods at various ages. Some moorhens were still on nests, not just secreted under banks as I am used to, but in the middle of the water – on a sunken shopping trolley in one instance! The tiniest babies looking straight from the shell with black fluff and bald patches, scudded about or peeped and begged pitifully. A parent and youngster honked together in a high and low tone creating a tune like an old-fashioned car horn. An adult swum with a long reed for nest-building: holding it in the middle he let the forward end touch the water and drift past, then touched the new forward end to the water as though he was kayaking… Two confiding adolescents
Big feet! John Fielding
wandered close, showing their huge khaki feet more resembling an ostrich or an iguana.
Mallard males going into eclipse hung out together in groups of tens and twenties - some of their heads literally looking like a knife had been roughly scraped through the shiny green top coat to a dull brown beneath.
A sparrowhawk swooped close by with bloody prey dangling from its claws, landing in an adjacent oak tree to eat.

On a length of open water, a swift skimmed down to drink once – 
Swift drinking
Billy Lindblom
twice – thrice, wings gracefully uplifted.

On a very busy M4 roundabout, two adolescent mallards were busy crossing three lanes – I hope they made it…

Beautiful water and waterside plants tended to go in themes, with just one or two species dominating a length. On the banks were pale pink marsh woundwort as pretty as orchids, water figwort,
Brooklime. Alan Murray-Rust
meadowsweet, meadow vetchling, bush and tufted vetch, hemlock water-dropwort and forget-me-not. In the water were bright blue brooklime, exotically-flowering arrowhead, water plantain, white and yellow water lilies – the latters’ chunky yellow flowers held solidly a handspan above the water – and smaller, graceful yellow fringed waterlilies. Fields were bordered with statuesque marsh thistle five foot high, with their tiny but intense purple flowers. On a busy road verge nearby, zigzag clover displayed its large almost shocking-pink and white petals.
There were surprisingly few dragon- or damselflies till the last, warmest, stillest day when they appeared in force, including a golden-ringed dragonfly and a broad-bodied chaser.
I do love the Welsh! On a shop end where the canal met a road, local youths had graffiti’d their gang name in large letters, and then in medium letters added: ‘Sorry about your wall’ !!!
People effortlessly mixed Welsh and English. Overheard from a group of older couples having tea in an eccentric canal-side cafe: Welsh-Welsh-Welsh – ‘should have done it years ago’ – Welsh-Welsh – ‘making her plum jam’ – Welsh-Welsh…
Zigzag Clover
JCSvenning
One little canal-side terraced house still had its original wartime Anderson* shelter in its tiny garden, used as a shed and covered with decades of layers of tarry paint… (*arched corrugated Second World War domestic air raid shelter)

Moths & Mulleins
On a geology walk in the Malverns on Saturday I saw the magnificent caterpillar of the Mullein Moth: a large smooth pale blue with bright yellow stripes, on a Great Mullein plant.
Mullein Moth caterpillar
Ian Kirk
And yesterday in Marshfield triangle I saw a single yellow Moth Mullein plant flowering. And a brown hare.


Severn Beach area
Amphibious Bistort. Derek Harper
At Pilning Wetlands, a flock of forty linnets (one on a fence post most strikingly bright pink). A mother tufted duck with her five ducklings bravely diving. One of the pools currently full of beautiful pink-flowering Amphibious Bistort.
At Orchard Pools, the surrounding area showing a lovely medley of pink-purple flowers: mauve Meadow Crane’s-bill & Teasels, dull purple Red Bartsia, and a small pale-pink Mallow.



Oldbury Power Station
This nuclear power station on the Severn Estuary north of Bristol has created fine nature reserves round its now-disused lagoons. I found a good swathe of Spiny Restharrow on the bank leading up to the old lagoon, Oldbury Power Station. I don't know how rare it is in this area, but it is the first I have seen.
 Oldbury Power Station
Alan Kent
Access to the newest lagoon near the road was lined with those small Cherry Plum trees with pretty little early fruits. Individual trees hosted fruits of distinctly individual colours – one tree had pure yellow, another red, and others had yellow streaked red, or a dark red-purple. But what was striking was, as you plucked plums from separate trees - each colour tasted distinctively different too!

Planet of the Bugs
Earlier this year I read a newly-published book about insects called 'Planet of the Bugs: evolution & the rise of insects', by Scott Richard Shaw (professor of entomology, Wyoming). I found it so interesting that I did a precis of its most arresting points. Re-reading this recently, I thought some other people might enjoy it so I copy it below:
·         If insects became extinct, ‘the terrestrial environment would collapse into chaos’.
·         Less than 1% of insect species are significant pests. Also by stressing over-vigorous plants they allow more species to coexist in smaller spaces.
·         Most plant-feeding insects are food sources for other wildlife, & a fundamental, nutritious source for vertebrate species including humans.
·         They adapt to most extreme conditions on earth. One fly’s dehydrated larvae can tolerate  immersion in boiling water and liquid helium.
·         They can feed on and metabolise plants highly toxic to vertebrates.
·         They quickly evolve resistance – despite our best attempts we have not exterminated a single species.
Dragonfly metamorphosis
bgv23
·         They innovated complex metamorphosis which is an outstandingly efficient form of development and gives youngsters a very protected well-nourished start, which can ride out environmental changes and catastrophes. Youngsters don’t compete for food with adults.
·         In the Cambrian the first multicellular animals lost little time in evolving structural support and protective gear: cuticles, skeletons and shells appeared in only 5 my.
·         As atmospheric oxygen levels rose, potential oxygen toxicity drove cells into clusters for safety, and aerobic respiration drove greater activity.
·         The Cambrian continental drift rate was apparently 10x faster than now – which reconfigured earth rapidly, with land masses nearer the poles which stabilised climate, and provided more shorelines, habitats etc. Also the Earth span faster, the Moon was closer, and higher tides caused rapid pulses of nutrient flow.
·         Early shelly animals built portable hard parts be secreting waste products that solidified.
Arthropod anatomy
Justus Watson Folsom
·         By the Silurian the first land animals evolved (arthropods etc.).
·         Plants couldn’t survive on land till an ozone layer developed, and they had developed structural supports: by the late Silurian they had evolved lignin and cellulose.
·         Contrary to conventional wisdom, animals may have moved ashore long before the plants, and in order to move ashore the plants needed the animal communities to prepare the soil.
·         Insects evolved six-legged locomotion which is the most stable, efficient and quickest.
·         During the Devonian arthropods got smaller – they were thus less easily predated, could take advantage of safe mossy-type micro-environments, could breathe directly through their cuticles, grow & reproduce faster, and needed fewer resources for survival. They also survived the first forest fires!
·         Springtails survive extreme conditions – some have glycol antifreeze in their blood and are the only hexapods known to live along Antarctic shorelines. Some survive dessicating deserts, & can dry out and rehydrate when it rains.
Springtail spaermatophore
Peter Brockman
·         327ma during the Carboniferous, wings evolved (possibly as solar panels) and rapidly expanded. They were one of the great innovations that kept insects ahead.
·         In the late Carboniferous, wood roaches evolved a symbiotic relationship with their gut microorganisms and became the first macro-consumers of dead wood. Also plant-rotting fungi and other soil-creating and -recycling microorganisms steadily developed - hence we would never again see coal laid down in such abundance.
·         It appears that though the end-Permian extinction massacred life in the oceans, insects living in freshwater pools and streams found adequate sanctuary.
·         Great arthropod innovations during the Permian period included homopteran piercing-sucking
mouthpart design; complete metamorphosis; and silk-spinning which let aquatic insects inhabit many diverse micro-habitats. They also learned to live in fast-moving streams.
·         The Triassic saw the rise of the wasp family with saw-like oviposters to place young deep inside plant tissues; which would also become the tool for parasitism and stings. This family would give rise to the social insects (bees, ants and social wasps – see below). The two largest wasp groups each contain more species than all the vertebrates combined!
Parasite wasp
fir002
·         During the Jurassic, wasps learnt to disable a hosts’ immune systems using viruses, so enabling them to parasitise live hosts; and saw the rise of termites, the first social insects.
·         The Cretaceous saw the development of angiosperms with flowers and fruit, pollen and nectar, and new symbiotic relationships and developments with the insect world. This enabled plant species to spread much further, faster.
·         In the late Cretaceous, moths and butterflies developed with their innovation of the caterpillar; and the bees, ants and social wasps arose.

Thistle stem gall
Today on a walk round the woods and fields of Warmley Forest to the east of Bristol, we saw many examples of the thistle stem gall caused by the fly Urophora cardui . These formed quite large smooth pale-green pitcher-shaped galls on the stems of Creeping Thistles.
The area was also pleasantly full of moths, butterflies and dragonflies - Six-spot Burnet Moth, and Marbled White, Small Copper, Small Essex, Meadow Brown and Gatekeeper butterflies, and Southern Hawker dragonflies.

August
Field Milk- thistle
AnRo0002

Aust Cliffs
The Field Milk Thistle (Sonchus arvensis) is flowering all along the concrete causeway that leads to Aust Cliffs – some of its big brilliant yellow  raggy flowers are up to two inches across, and to look into their glowing centres is like looking into the heart of the sun…
There was a camper van parked up nearby with a big grey cat stretched along the dashboard in the front of the van, on its own cuddly bed. When the owner drove off, the cat remained contentedly lying there…

Buzzard. Brian Thompson
Headless below Almondsbury…
Walking down a lane bounded by rhines on the levels below Almondsbury this afternoon, I saw a buzzard at a distance in front of me perched on the earth of the path. As I approached it flew off at low level down the lane carrying something dark in its claws, stopping to rest then carrying on as I moved behind it. Then at its original perching spot I found  the corpse of a moorhen…  headless…

…raising my game?
Male Red-veined Darter
Katja Schultz
On the same walk I saw what I hope I correctly identified as two Red-veined Darter dragonflies: one
male yellow-green with wonderful part-pale blue eye parts, the other a reddish female or immature. It’s a rarer dragonfly round our parts, and started me attempting to make a more scientific identification using my new reference books - but oh it is hard for me to push myself into scientific mode, to talk of pterostigma and antihumeral regions, to use someone else’s ideas of what is noticeable and distinctive which can vary so much from what strikes me in the field…

Brimstone moth. MURichardson
Brimstone moth
There is a lovely Brimstone Moth on our sitting room wall.

Brecon Canal again
I made a second trip to the Brecon Canal in Wales, and have now reached the zone approaching the Brecon Beacons where the waterway  has been restored sufficiently for boats to travel.
The water was absolutely crowded with many species of fish, from small fry to impressive 14 inchers, cruising close to the sunny surface.
Grey squirrels cavorted through the trees like monkeys, stripping nuts from the hazel trees with madcap agility – my favourite was one hanging full length from the slenderest twig-end above the water by its front paws alone, before adroitly pulling itself back up.
The canal edges were beautiful with forget-me-nots, speedwells, gypsywort, water mint, marsh woundwort, angelica, meadowsweet, hemlock water-dropwort and willowherbs; and lance-leaved water plantains and arrowhead water plants flowered in the canal.
Rosebay Willowherb seeds
Mike Garratt
Fruiting rosebay willowherb may have the purest white ‘down’ of all plants from its silky-haired seeds – so fine that when you grab a handful it goes to nothing like pressing sea foam, leaving a silky residue on your fingers like a plant lanolin…
Sitting by a tall stand of flowering stinging nettles against a bridge abutment, I observed a puff of smoke. I thought someone smoking must be walking down – but there was no smell, no person – and another puff appeared, and another… it seems the nettles were releasing these puffs of pollen as they warmed, a sight I have never witnessed before.
Jay. Dave Hughes

Orchard Pools
At Orchard Pools today, I watched a wood pigeon fly down to surface of the water of the main pool, and then enter the water breast-deep in flight before re-emerging and flying off  – was it pulling something out of the water? It looked a daringly acrobatic manoeuver…
In the richly-fruited scrub and woodland adjacent, two jays flew off one after the other, each holding a small fruit in their beak…

High tide
I went early to see an extra-high tide at New Passage this morning -  it came completely over the extensive salt marsh and right up to the Severn Way embankment. But even with all the birds pushed up to higher ground, I still didn’t manage to see the yellow wagtails that are currently there - this brightly-coloured little bird is obviously not as visible as I’d hoped!

September
Noon Flies
Noon Fly
Charles J Sharpe
At Shepperdine by the Severn Estuary today, I watched a large group of striking-looking flies feeding on blackberries – they were the size of a bee with  shiny black bodies, black wings with rust-orange bases, and dark eyes with a small cream-yellow area. They turn out to be the Noon Fly (Mesembrina meridian), common apparently but not one I’d been aware of before.

Brimstone.
Lovely to see the sulphur yellow of a Brimstone butterfly in our back garden today.

Wood Sandpipers?
Wood Sandpipers at Pilning. Paul Bowerman
At Pilning Wetlands today I walked undisturbed to the furthest pool at end of the side lane, hoping to see the rare wood sandpiper that had been staying there recently. And there, only a few metres from the lane, were what I felt hopeful were two - and totally undisturbed by my presence. One was standing, one sitting on tussocks in the shallow water, doing a bit of preening but otherwise quite still – and how I wished I’d had a smartphone to capture them! Their patterned back feathers were very pretty (‘spangled’ or ‘chequered’ as a friend put it), and the daintiness of the sitting one was almost like a phalarope.
But had I been mistaken? - only one had been seen recently (though more were seen in August), I didn’t have field experience, and better birdwatchers questioned my report… I had a crisis of confidence.

Spotted Flycatchers
Spotted Flycatcher. Ron Knight
On the annual walk we lead for the Bristol Ornithological Club, my keen-eyed friend caught sight of  three spotted flycatchers – an adult and two young – flitting about on the woodland edge high on the ridge of  Cadbury Camp.

Clevedon Goldcrest
At a house by Clevedon Harbour today, we watched a goldcrest perched on a windowsill and apparently peering inside – uncommon behavior for these tiny birds who, whilst not shy, don’t generally favour man-made structures!


October
Sodbury Common
Sodbury Common. SteveF
I and J. explored a new area today – the large spread of common land just north of Chipping Sodbury, noted for its abundance of interesting small birds. I haven’t been able to find out why this spread of rough, untouched open grassland and scrub has been left ‘unimproved’ – is it historical or geological? – but it’s an inspiring place to visit, and we were lucky enough to see plenty of small birds including skylarks, stonechats, whinchat, lesser whitethroat, and snipe
Acorn cups lay by the side of a large log, with a hank of cow’s hair tucked into a crack in the bark – J. Says it’s signs that a jay has been hiding treasures there...

Redshanks at Sea Mills
On a highish tide today, a dog running through the salt marsh flushed about fifty redshank from the north side of the river bank. The birds zigzagged sharply across the water, then dropped down to rest invisibly in the sparse mudbank vegetation of tall sea asters on the opposite bank. It is incredible how even mid-sized birds like redshanks, and in large numbers, can render themselves so invisible when they wish to…

Water Rail at Aust Ferry
Aust Ferry. Mark Hobbs
Walking along the hidden saltmarsh behind the big area of reeds along Aust’s disused old ferry line today, I flushed a  water rail which flew rapidly back into its reedy cover...

Flashing teal
Common Teal. Lip Kee
At Littleton Pill on the estuary, a distant teal stretched to fully show its green speculum – the feathers caught the low bright autumn sun and threw off a great flash of neon colour out of all proportion to the size of the source...


Cornish birds
Walking the esplanade between the towns of Newlyn and Penzance in
Turnstones
Roger Cornfoot
Cornwall recently, we watched small groups of turnstone pottering busily all along the sand and pebbles, so very unafraid of the humans walking near them… 

And two pairs of swans swam serenely far out in the big bay, with St Michaels’ Mount behind them.
St Michaels Mount Bay
Wolfgang Glock
Sitting drawing on the rocky peninsular of The Island in St Ives and watching nearby meadow and rock pipits and oystercatchers – two black redstarts flew in to a few feet away, flitting and settling round the boulders and showing their lovely red tails.
There were yet more turnstones on St Ives’ harbor beach, still happy to share their space with the great tides of humanity that constantly wash through this popular town…

Oldbury Power Station
Musk Mallow. Derek Harper
On a visit to the Oldbury Power Station reserves today, I had a fine view of a smart tit with a peaked black cap, in roadside hedgerow. But was it a marsh or a willow tit, both quite uncommon for me?  I don’t have the experience to distinguish them, but luckily local birders knew it was a marsh tit which has been frequenting the site over the last few days.
On the rim of the youngest lagoon, now all dried up to scrub, there were mallows with pure pink flowers but  deeply divided geranium-type leaves which I hadn’t seen before. They are Musk Mallows, and apparently squeezing the foliage releases a perfume – I look forward to trying this!

Wood Pigeon & Cotoneaster
On a chest-height cotoneaster overarching the pavement from our front garden in our densely urban small back road – a wood pigeon was sitting eating the berries. Its apparently fearless behaviour seemed more typical of colder, hungrier times – especially as these berries never seen that popular with birds, who generally only bother with them when tastier fare has gone...

Birds obtaining Vitamin D
In response to a query about a blackbird stretched on a lawn with wings and tail spread, a New Scientist reader thought this behavior was ‘sunbathing’ rather than anting:
‘UV-B rays in sunlight facilitate a crucial step in the biosynthesis of Vitamin D. In humans this occurs directly in the skin, but in birds the skin is shaded by feathers. To resolve this, birds use an oil secreted by the uropygial gland, or preen glands, near the base of the tail. This contains a precursor steroid that is converted into Vitamin D by sunlight. The bird spreads this oil on its feathers by preening, then suns itself either by ‘sunbathing’ or more briefly in flight, and consumes the photosynthetic product with the next preening.’ I hadn’t heard of this clever system – have others?

November
Glossy Ibis at Pilning. Martin Tayler
Odd things round Pilning
I went to see the exotic Glossy Ibis at PiIning Wetlands this morning, that has been a regular there for some days. Watching it feeding along the pool banks with an egret foraging nearby - why, we could have been on the edge of the River Nile!
 At a distance from an adjacent pool I thought someone had left two model yachts to blow across the water - but the paired and angled white triangles were just the hindquarters of two mute swans feeding up-ended...
Meadow Cranesbill was flowering at Orchard Pools, and Common Blue Sowthistle below Severn Beach…
On roadside power lines between Easter Compton and Pilning - two redwings sat on one stretch with seven rooks adjacent – neither of them species that favour such perching spots, round our way at least…

Filton rooks
Rooks on sward. Mike Pennington
Today, alerted by a friend, I watched three rooks feeding on the grass on of a nearby large sports ground, BAWA, amidst the crowd of gulls, crows and jackdaws which are habitually there. Now rooks used to graze on our local Millennium Green which is only about two thirds of a mile 'inland' from this sports ground, and it was a pleasure to watch these lovely birds so at home there; but from around ten years ago the rooks left and never returned. 
So did our Filton park start to feel too urbanised for our rooks? Did the woody planting that was established in our park in the millennium year make that space feel too dangerous, when rooks obviously favour feeding on nice open sward or fields? In comparison, the spacious BAWA grounds could be seen as 'almost' country as they back onto the more rural spaces of Filton Golf Course and the now-disused airfield. 

Bird bath
Cake Pill
Dr Duncan Pepper
On the estuary side of the Cake Pill river sluice at Aust Warth, a little meadow pipit was bathing up to its middle in the shallow stream left at the bottom of the huge mud banks created by the falling tide. It was a grey, cold, wet, windy afternoon, and though the bird looked most contented and I admired its commitment to cleanliness, I couldn’t help but shiver in anthropomorphic empathy…

Newport Wetlands 
From the comfortable viewpoint of the Newport Wetlands Nature Reserve cafe, we could watch blue, great and coal tits attacking nuts in a nearby feeder with great gusto. Unusually the tits were gathered in equal numbers, allowing one to appreciate how very diminutive coal tits are in comparison with the others – but  boy do they have attitude to compensate! I couldn't perceive any actual pecking order, but felt if there were – coal tits certainly wouldn't let themselves be bottom!
We also learnt that these wetlands now have their own starling murmuration to rival the Somerset
Newport Wetlands Visitors' Centre
Pwimageglow
Levels. I certainly enjoyed the idea of this as an alternative venue – to anyone who has made the long trip to Somerset and stood around sometimes for hours in piercing cold in the middle of nowhere waiting for the flocks to arrive, it sounds
a wonderful alternative to be able to wait in this warm cafe – and quicker to drive to too.

Humboldt
I recently read the new biography of pioneering naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769  1859) by Andrea Wulf. His many striking contributions included:
·         Pioneering the ‘web of Nature’ approach which underlies modern environmental thinking, in which living organisms from large to microscopic are seen to contribute to an integrated whole. He studied and understood that deforestation, monoculture and overuse of natural water sources by man, were harmful to soils, living things and the climate; and that man had already been using these harmful practices for millennia and had consequently permanently altered much of the globe for the worse. He also forecast that overuse of fossil fuels would detrimentally alter climate.
James Steakley
·         Humboldt also seems to have been the first person to notice how flora and fauna change as one goes further towards the poles, in a similar way to how they change as one climbs a mountain, so there are zones of types affected by climate/temperature.
·         He observed the similarities of some species in both Africa and South America, and suggested the idea that separate continents might have been joined in the past – a forerunner of tectonic plate theory. This was helped by his suggestions that a continuous area of molten rock within the earth created volcanic events that were linked, and formed major geological features.
·         He wrote the first ‘popular science’ books. He held the first international inter-disciplinary scientific conference.
·         He had a huge influence on many other scientists, artists and thinkers, including the geologist Lyell, Darwin, and members of the Romantic movement like Coleridge.
·         He promoted the idea that indigenous people were not savages but had their own rich history, languages and culture. He campaigned against slavery his whole life, and encouraged democratic movements wherever he could.
He was incredibly famous in his lifetime and for subsequent decades, but if almost forgotten now except for the many geographical features named after him...

Urban Grey Wagtail
Grey Wagtail. Richard Bowerman
We sometimes see grey wagtails in Bristol – I’ve seen one on the River Trym as it flows through the middle of Westbury Village (originally a village, now completely absorbed by urban Bristol). Now my friend J. has had a regular grey wagtail visiting a pond in her back garden. She lives just off Stokes Croft which is as densely urban as you can get, crowded dwellings in the heart of the city. But her back garden is spacious, treed and not too neat, with a long deep narrow stone pond right against the house that hosts fish, frogs and weed; and the wagtail has made itself at home there.

December
Kenn Moor FollowMeChaps
Kenn Moor
We walked along the river and round the moors of this lovely remote-feeling area just east of Clevedon.  Along the river we saw a peculiar sight: within a thoroughly cleaned-out  rhine with all its bankside covering scraped away, something coloured was poking through the weeds floating on the water. Then we could see it was the head of a moorhen with only the red beak just poking through the weeds and the rest of its body submerged. Without bank cover to hide in as moorhens love to do, this one obviously had taken the only cover it could find...
Further on along a woodland drove, we saw three lesser redpoll
Lesser Redpoll. Mike Pennington
feeding low down. With their tiny size, pretty colours and expressive faces – they are almost unbearably cute!

Early?
Celandines are flowering on rhine banks below Amondsbury.
Colin Kinnear

There were swan families on the River Kenn. One adult pair were doing a courtship dance, with that beautiful mirroring of movements of bowing and billing. Does that lead straight to mating, and is it very early for that?

Still unseasonally warm...
Today I saw a magpie bearing what looked like nesting material to a tree, and two starlings ducking under a roof eaves as if scouting for nest sites... and have you noticed the numbers of gnat-like insects dancing about?

Raven & Buzzard. Howard Taffs
Ravens hunting
A friend knows an older couple who recently bought a smallholding on top of the Mendips, above Wells. Amongst their many woes of extreme weather, poor soil, animal predations etc, they have been trying to keep ducks and rescue chickens. However local ravens hunt efficiently in pairs there: they swoop down, one holds the domestic bird down, the other goes for the head and pecks out its eyes etc., and in a flash feathers are pulled and the stomach is opened  – soon the couple had almost no birds left.
Local farmers say the ravens go for their lambs in the same way.  It’s hard to keep objective about this, isn’t it... and the couple are quite traumatised.
In an ensuing discussion I added: ‘I think more than anything it's the brutally efficient technique of going for the eyes that horrifies - yet if you're a smaller predator trying to disable a larger animal, what more efficient way is there? And nature didn't give them those powerful tearing beaks for nothing, or the smarts to work together. Like others here, I am a ravenophile, just feeling tested at the moment.’ A colleague said, ‘Yep, the going for eyes tactic is also common in crows – I’ve spoken to farmers who have described how they walk up to lambs with their head swaying from side to side, which intrigues the lambs (described as seeming to have a ‘hypnotic’ effect) and soon as they’re close enough they take out the eyes.’
Another said, ‘I can't help but make value-judgements on predators and their methods. Take wolves for example. Gorgeous animals, but their hunting strategies, although advanced in terms of teamwork, seem to end in their prey suffering a long and painful death. Give me lions any day. A bit if a scratch on your back at first, but a quick bite to your jugular and it's job done. Ravens are the wolves of the bird world; Peregrines are the lions.’  

Sparrowhawk, owl, wagtails
This afternoon a sparrowhawk came down and perched on the handles of a bicycle lying on our back garden lawn…
Short-eared Owl at Aust. Paul Milsom
At Aust Warth this afternoon I watched a short-eared owl hunting across the salt marsh as a brilliant sunset moved to dusk, with a muted rainbow rising up to the north behind the old Severn Bridge. The owl quartered the grass in impressive acrobatic slow motion.
In the Aust Service Station, pied wagtails flew in to roost in small trees by the building entrance.



OPS mallards
At Oldbury Power Station lake I watched three male mallards doing a 'washing routine' in rough unison with each other: first a shallow dive as though washing, then a vertical rearing up and shaking of wings, then a drop down with shaking of tail parts, then repeat... I presume this was a version of their varied display and courtship behaviour.


Waders at Oldbury Power Station. Craig Lewis

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