Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Nature Notes 2016

Still warm, still early... or very late!
Although it's got a bit colder now, things that shouldn't be flowering together still are - for instance, for the last ten days or so we have had carnation pinks flowering next to snowdrops in our back garden (the pinks having already decided to bud and then bloom in December...), and I have seen daisies and dandelions flowering together...


I just saw a lorry in town that showed a striking melange of older and newer technological approaches... The cab was painted in the traditional English way with deep yellow and red old-fashioned 'tudor' lettering on a green background, with the excellent logo – ‘Mayling Transport Ltd – Who Cares Wins’ (!!!); and a wonderful fairground-style ‘streamlined sunburst’ pattern on the cab top faring. While the main body advertised ‘Integrated Logistics’  in 70s-style ‘modern’ san-serif slanted yellow lettering, with a red shadow effect - and then the website!

Ivy berries
Susan Sweeney
Wood Pigeons on Ivy
As I walked past large stands of ivy in the perimeter hedgerows of our local park, there were intermittent loud clattering, and numbers of wood pigeons emerged from the foliage and flew off. They must have been feasting on the ripe ivy berries – and those plump matt dark fruits look inviting even to me...

Royal Portbury Dock
I visited this isolated modern industrial area between the motorway and Severn Estuary docks, looking for siskins who’d been seen in alders there... No siskins, but yarrow in flower, and some hawthorne actually opening new leaves, with snow visible on the far Welsh hills.
I met a man walking with a scanner who said he was tracking a tagged peregrine in the close vicinity which he thought had brought down a duck – so he must have been a falconer and the peregrine was his bird...
Right at the far end past the last industrial unit, the lane I was following dead-ended against the high  perimeter fence of the Docks, with great cranes and a mighty container ship looming only a couple of hundred metres beyond. Here in this most unlikely situation cowers a little ‘park homes’ site (our English euphemism for trailer homes), seemingly owned by the docks. I wondered who would live there? -  there’s one algae-covered letter box and no other domestic facility for miles. Did security or caretaker staff for the docks get allocated there?
Portbury Docks
Jon Mills
A colleague replied:  I worked at the port for twenty five years but left when a private company took over the Port 1991.  Up to then there was just a chain link fence where you were and you could see everything going on in the docks and very impressive it was too.  The new company decided that the caravan site did not fit in to their business approach, I suspect, and offered the tenants a new site nearby.  Most of them moved quite readily, away from the noise of a 24 hour port and nearer ‘civilisation’ but as usual some were not interested and stayed put.  We are talking about twenty years ago – are some still there? ... under the guise of terrorist security the Port Authorities did block the views as you saw...’

Park life
St Andrew’s is a small but perfectly-formed park is in the middle of Bristol, where a friend holds a monthly hour-long bird walk open to all. Over the years a surprising number of interesting and unusual birds have been seen in that short time slot, and this Sunday in spite of pretty dire weather it lived up to its reputation with great views of a great spotted woodpecker, a goldcrest, coal tit, long-tailed tits, greenfinch, mistle thrushes, twenty five redwings, and abundant gulls, starlings, blackbirds, robins goldfinches and sparrows...

On the train to Swindon on one of the rare cold, clear blue days – I watched a buzzard fly low apparently chasing a rabbit across a field. But no – it was its own shadow running below it...
Prehistoric patterns
Wace & Thompson
Ancient patterns
On the same train was a young woman smartly dressed with a short wool skirt patterned with large straight and diagonal crosses in anthracite and red, and a wool scarf with big chevron, diagonal and straight line patterns in cream, anthracite and red. I liked how these designs echoed our most ancient pattern-making,  when we used straight-line designs in black, red and yellow ochres, on pots, cave walls, beads and baskets...

Easter Compton – Dyers Common
I started exploring this partly-developed modern industrial area just in from the Severn Estuary, which still contains open wetland and rhines. My bird list of a couple of hours shows its richness: 1 mute swan, 2 shelduck, 8 mallard, 3 cormorant, 2 grey heron, 5 buzzard, 2 kestrel, 200+ lapwing, 30+ rook, 12 long-tailed tit, 6 skylark, 20+ fieldfare, 1 song thrush, 10 redwing, 1 mistle thrush, 8 stonechat, flocks of 30 goldfinch and 40 goldfinch, 1  bullfinch, and a flock 16 reed bunting gathered in a rhine.
A local expert commended the reed bunting count, and when I said I’d never experienced such numbers before he confirmed that it was a ‘winter thing’ especially after a cold night...
But two blue tits were flirting enthusiastically in a hedgerow – one picking and offering dead leaves – and rooks were gathered in the local rookery and looking serious about nest building...

I went on a winter bird-watching trip to Cornwall...
Cape Cornwall – a wild westerly headland
Cape Cornwall
Tony Atkin
Down the hill in the pre-dawn to the car-park lookout. Big winds blowing – barely-visible oystercatchers pottering on the golf-course green, with buzzards pattering for worms...
Big waves, glaucous green and grey – as the day brightens, bright pale green and white  at the top when they flip over...
Gannets streaming south-west, down the coast line and into the winds with razorbills, skuas and shearwaters. and kittiwakes dancing lightly...
A jackdaw briefly flips and flies upside-down and sideways with the wind, before righting itself...
Perranuthnoe cliffs east of Marazion
Oh the wind! Strong initially – but turning that corner heading west it’s powerful enough to stop your walk and let you lean on it...
Out to sea – but not so far that eyes and binoculars can’t usefully see it – a black-throated diver peacefully sitting on the rolling ocean...
Lelant Basin, Hayle Estuary
Leaning on the roadside wall looking at this great peaceful expanse of sand and water heading towards the open ocean and St Ives - full full full of lovely birds that aren’t afraid to be quite close to us... ...wigeon, teal, grey and golden plover, dunlin, sanderling, ringed plover, redshank, oystercatcher, curlew, hundreds of lapwing, shelduck, cormorant, little egret, spoonbill, and gulls gulls gulls visually dominated by great black backs. An exquisite all-white Mediterranean gull with red legs, pottery-red/black beak, and its orbital eye ring also turned a scarlet-red, but with the darker summer head feathers coming in around...
Dozmary Pool
Steve G
Dozmary Pool, Bodmin Moor
Bleak and isolated high moorland, a lonely stretch of water, wind fiercely strong and mist down to the ground... small swimming figures dully visible on a far edge, one of which is meant to be the rare lesser scaup we are here to spot... I can’t identify a thing even through a telescope – but right next to us is a goldeneye so bright and cheerful (it’s those cheeks!) before it flies off...

Jans Canon
Jackdaws on our street (Written for a booklet of members’ 50 favourite birds, compiled to celebrate the Bristol Ornithological Club’s 50th anniversary)
I live on a street of 1920s terraced houses, densely urban on the road side with lanes and long gardens behind. About fifteen years ago Jackdaws started nesting on our roofs, which have many bird-friendly chimney-pot covers. Initially they were very shy of humans and avoided entering gardens – they might rest on a fence and look yearningly at scattered bread, but were usually too timid to swoop down. But gradually they became bolder until now they swagger round our gardens with insouciance. From my loft room I follow their yearly breeding – the loving pairing, the early investigation of nest sites, the terrible conflict with crows now keeping a close watch on proceedings, the juveniles forming family groups round the chimneys. I watch their exhilarating flights in stormy weather, and their soft ‘chacks’ accompany our days; and sometimes at dusk I see them stream off to roosting sites I know not of... graceful characterful blue-eyed birds.

Little things round Portishead...
Many small groups of lapwings were flying between Portbury Wharf foreshore and the lakes behind, accumulating to large numbers in all. Of all these, just three did a full tumbling display flight in front of us – brief but lovely.
Then at the mouth of Portishead Marina, two hundred-plus dunlin were wheeling over the mud banks. As they flew, first one and then three more black-headed gulls joined in with the flock, turning as they turned...  just some fun, or a deeper reason?

A blackbird was singing in front of our house at 8am (sunrise at 6.45am)

West Sedgemoor
Chris McKenna
RSPB West Sedgemoor, Dewlands Farm (BOC)
We visited a Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds restricted-entry site on the Somerset levels. About three miles square, it comprises moorland that is flooded in winter, and grazed and cut for hay through the summer. Lovely abundant birds included lapwings, golden plover, pintails, shovelers, wigeon, teal, kingfisher, cormorant, peregrine, marsh harriers, buzzards and cranes. We watched from a hide in the upper part of an open barn; a barn owl roosts here and its droppings and pellets were everywhere! We opened some pellets and found field vole skulls and skeletons within – I brought a few home for my ‘nature table’...

...and song again
Today a blackbird was singing in front of our house at 7am.

Orange breast
Wood Pigeon
Hedera Baltica
Yesterday a wood pigeon flew towards me with the sun on its breast - it gleamed dark orangey rainbow colours like oxidised metal. Today I watched two on the roof opposite, one again with very pronounced orangey breast, the other with the commoner more pinky tones. Is the former juvenile colouring? I just hadn't bothered to notice this before...

Towerhouse Wood and the Land Yeo river, inland from Clevedon
This small but ancient wood on the edge of moorland levels is graced with small-leaved limes and bluebells; and reveals signs of badger, dormice, bats, deer, fox, otters and water vole. On its edge lies a pond which bubbles with natural carbonated gases whose source is still not fully understood...
The pretty little Land Yeo river which skirts it had herons, kingfisher, reed bunting, chiffchaffs, buzzards and grey wagtails along its banks.
Land Yeo
Martin Bodmin
Our guide was an expert on otters and other water mammals. She showed us water vole footprints with the first and last digits sticking out at right angles, very cute and distinctive; and otter tracks and spraint full of frog bones (some of which I took home to join my barn owl pellets...). Apparently frogs are their favourite dish at the moment: a subsequent TV nature programme showed what was apparently the first film ever of otters catching them during the frog mating season – eating a very large number every night, with the poor frogs obviously concentrating on other matters....
Here the Land Yeo passes a trout fish farm where the owners have sensibly created a special sacrificial lake just for the otters where they put fish that is substandard for fishermen but great for the animals.
Bullrush fluff was flying around. I picked some up – like many seed heads, it was so soft and fine that it seems to disappear like fondling seafoam, leaving just a delicate lanolin-like residue on ones fingers...

First catch your adder...
Liz Burke
At a Bristol Naturalists Society mammal field meeting last Sunday, two members were discussing a recent project to study the DNA of adders each side of a main road towards the Mendip Hills (famed for its adder population), to see if this road formed a sufficient physical barrier to prevent mating by snakes on either side. I asked – how? Well, first catch your adder, then stuff it up a glass tube, then get a swab sample (did they really say from the mouth, or was it the rear area?), and then release. How peeved would that adder be! – one has to admire the cojones of the naturalists involved.

Redbrook view
John Thorn
From Redbrook
We went for a walk starting at the village of Redbrook on the east bank of the River Wye upstream from Tintern, at the base of the deep wooded Wye valley. The river was a dark clouded green flowing fast. We crossed to the Penalt hamlet on the Welsh side on a quirky footbridge bolted to side of an old railway bridge,  where until the First World War they had a millstone industry using the local quartz conglomerate.
It's odd how immediately 'Welsh' it becomes west of the Wye with oak woods, tumbling rocky streams, sheep-grazed old pastures. Full of birdsong – bright siskins on bird feeders, coal tits and chiffchaffs, grey wagtails flirting across the streams... Bluebells were starting to flower in the woods with bright wood anemones. An ancient Welsh longhouse marked on our guide book was now only represented by the ‘footprint’ of the new bungalow on its site. The guide book also pointed out ‘Britain’s most ancient pigpen’: a neat stone-built cave dug into the steep hillside off the road back down to the Wye, so well masked by a wheelie bin that we almost missed it...
Stone walls were covered with a marvellous shaggy 'ferny moss' which I don't remember ever seeing previously. It turns out it was no moss but a liverwort - the excellently-named 'Handsome Woolywort'. Apparently as so many mosses and liverworts didn't have common names, the authors of our source, ‘The Field Guide to Britain & Ireland's Mosses and Liverworts’ decided to create some, of which this is one!

Swallows & rainbows
I saw my first swallow at Dyers Common this afternoon. There were strange rainbows arcing across the industrial landscape – very bright, thick, and low down with a shallow curve...

Grandmother's Footsteps
On this warm sunny day I was digging my vegetable plot in our back garden. After some time I glanced behind and was amused to see a couple of jackdaws on the fence just two metres away, and more on the lawn only three metres away - extremely close by their standards! It was obviously like a game of Grandmother's Footsteps - as long as I wasn't looking at them the jackdaws were creeping close and closer. But as soon as they saw me glance back they became uneasy, and soon flew off to more distant spots...

S Rae
I saw a long bank of yellow Coltsfoot on the edge of the levels at Ingst. My botany teachers confirm that this fleshy early Spring plant with sunny flowers is relatively rare, but once it has established a spot it sticks with it! So as the bank is at the start of my new Breeding Bird survey route, I can look forward to seeing it again regularly each Spring...

I was walking at Lawrence Weston Nature Reserve today – a classic urban-fringe reserve bounded by motorways and industry. Chiffchaffs abounded - twenty or more – foraging on the ground
Stephen Burns
or hunting insects from branches in flycatcher mode, preening, and singing...

Today at Dyers Common industrial area, a lone lapwing was circling around near me before it settled on a more inaccessible area - the habitat here is a large area of low-lying land that has been raised a few feet up with fill, rubble etc, drained with rhines but not yet developed, and has a thin covering of scrubby vegetation. No disturbing walkers or dogs come this way, though the land is still open to other land, water and air predators... might the lapwing be thinking of nesting here?

Urban Gulls
Wildlife can be found in the most unpromising places... If you go north along the main road out of Bristol beyond where I live, there's a big fenced-in gravel car park / wasteland  between the road and the airfield and aerospace buildings. All through the year when this area gets wet it develops large long-lasting puddles which gulls love, and even when it's almost dry they seem very happy resting there - mostly herring and lesser black backed gulls.
Pete Rock, Avon’s gull expert and enthusiast, also guided me towards another  fertile gull area directly opposite where the huge flat roofs of new industrial development form happy homes for many of ‘his’ ringed gulls – he follows their lives as they commute locally to landfill sites or more distantly to Spain or Gambia ...

Stealthy high tides...
I was at Aust this morning to experience an extra-high tide. It’s always a shock how quickly but stealthily the water comes in: raising binoculars to look at gulls out in the estuary, one realises they are actually sitting on water at eye-level unnervingly close and high, and the deep Pill tidal inlet is suddenly full and then overflowing with swans gliding across its banks...

Rookery Survey
Our local naturalists’ club runs a five-yearly Spring survey of rookeries in the Avon county area. I love rooks, so this year I and a friend volunteered to survey some ten-kilometre squares, on the coast and inland south of Bristol. It was a fascinating glimpse into the rising and falling fortunes of their lives, and their preferred nesting sites.
One thing we’ve been theorising about is rooks’ great predilection for building along busy roads and motorways. We think this is unlike pied wagtails for instance, who seem to love man-made sites like supermarket and service station car parks to forage and roost in, and who don’t seem to find humans threatening. However rooks often seem to select their rookery sites where roads form a harsh, off-putting barrier to humans, and presumably to at least some ground-based predators. And the rooks in those sites certainly reacted in a very upset manner when we got near or underneath their trees. Yet others are so accepting, like those who pick trees in school car parks!

Bird displays
Yesterday a coastal wren did a bold display on a twig with its little wings stretched out as it bowed and danced. Today on Sea Mills station platform, one wood pigeon followed another with its own magisterial display, chest repeatedly bowed so low it almost touched the ground and tail pushed up so high behind it went almost vertical...

Nesting in St Andrews Park
Two jays were searching for just the right nest twigs. The park’s resident pair of mistle thrush are nesting in the same tree they used two years ago but in a higher crook, with their nest intriguingly incorporating such urban materials as coloured plastic and fabric pieces.

Land Yeo aquaduct
Martin Bodman
Sometimes places close to home look so insignificant or traffic-ridden on the map that you don’t bother to explore them – yet when you do they hold a small wealth of interest. Such was Gatcombe by Long Ashton on the west edge of Bristol, a farm on the site of a huge, impressive Roman villa which is now quite invisible to the casual visitor. Up woods, down meadows into Long Ashton, over and along deep railway cuttings; then by the pretty Land Yeo venturing forth from Barrow Tanks Reservoir nearby and then oddly taken across the deep  railway on its own little aqueduct...
Later I revisited with another friend whose father had been a doctor at the adjacent Barrow Gurney mental hospital – a name that struck a chill in us growing up in Bristol ... She re-found the small brick twenties house where she had grown up, now almost derelict, on the edge of the hospital estate which had been her playground... now being redeveloped as luxury homes. Strange memories!

Snowy Owl
Snowy Owl
Sylvia Duckworth
I went on a bird-watching trip to the Scilly Isles, a place I had last visited in my twenties. Of the many lovely birds we saw, the most magnificent was probably the rare Snowy Owl we saw on the small island of Bryher. It was a mighty beast sitting on a heather headland and shining as bright as new-frozen snow. I was very intrigued how its face is so insulated with feathers that its features disappear into mere smudges – eyes and beak quite covered with fringes of plumage.
Asked which of all the birds we’d seen were our favourites, I decided mine were the razorbills. Every day we sailed to a different island and accompanying the boat would be successions of guillemots, puffins and razorbills bobbing on the surging ocean. And though those other birds are lovely, there’s just something about handsome black-and-white razorbills with their powerful beaks, their insoucience and somehow a sense of reckless fun...
I was also very intrigued by the Scillies flora. Basically never having frosts but being buffeted by salty storms, they have a southern Mediterranean / desert appearance with many succulents; but where plants might grow large in the Med, here they not only grow large but also stocky, rugged and weathered - a fascinating look...
Our hotel on St Mary’s was close to the island dump. There the small mountains of waste were draped from top to bottom with super-large nasturtiums, with just one or two buds breaking into orange bloom before we left...
Green Flash
I had a blast from the past on this Scillies trip. On a previous year’s geology trip to north Brittany close to where I holidayed as a child, I was reminded of a phenomenon by seeing a seaside house named ‘Le Rayon Vert’: staying in the little seaside town of Rotheneuf in the 1950s, on very clear evenings our father would walk us to a west-facing cliff to watch as the sun went down over the sea. If we were lucky, as the very last brightness disappeared it would glow green – an optical phenomenon called ‘the green flash’, which I had never experienced since...
However our hotel on St Martins faced west across the harbour, and by doggedly following the sun down on consecutive evenings of fine weather and then being frustrated by last-minute skeins of cloud on the horizon – there it was at last, that extraordinary green glow!

Breeding Bird Survey
For the first time I volunteered to take part in the British Trust for Ornithology’s Breeding Bird Survey, taking a kilometre square in an area I already know and love – Ingst on the S Gloucestershire levels. The methodology is complicated, requiring training, and pre-walking and surveying the environment of the plot, before doing the two actual early and late bird surveys. You have to start as early as possible – it was 6am on a clear, still but heavily frosted morning, crossing meadows, crop fields, streams and small lanes. I logged some nice birds like sedge warblers, but was intrigued how much richer the species list was around any human habitation or activity, rather than the conventional farmland...


Ian Kirk
A Brimstone butterfly in our back garden...

Stock Doves
One of our best birdwatchers has a special knack for spotting Stock Doves – those handsome wild pigeons with no white on their necks or wings - but in spite of my best efforts I never seemed to get the knack myself. However in the Scillies Stock Doves were common and at last I got close views. So I was excited to finally make an identification on my own, of two birds in the fields of a riding stable on Bristol’s outskirts. They are lovely, sturdy birds with gunmetal grey plumage, and strongly iridescent and defined green and pink patches on their necks.
Stock Dove
Chris Cant

House Martins
Today at Sea Mills Station on the tidal Avon, twenty or more house martins were busy flying together and calling with their hoarse chirrups, collecting river mud, and visiting their nest sites under the Victorian station’s eaves. They favoured one particular section of mud - I suppose every day and tide they look for the 'Goldilocks' patch which is not to wet and not too dry, not too hard and not too soft... For the first time I noticed their extremely smart white legs which give them an appearance of a Regency dandy in tight white breeches and hose, and pinkish toes.
House Martin
Gail Hampshire

More back garden Butterflies
A Brimstone and a Holly Blue butterfly in our back garden.

The Observer’s Book of Birds’ Eggs
A friend just gave me a copy of the 1954 Observer’s Book of Birds’ Eggs – a valuable gift as it is so hard nowadays to get good identifying  information, as everyone is rightfully paranoid about illegal egg collecting and vandalism.
In the Foreword is the following startling observation: ‘Our grandparents put birds’ eggs into the drawers of a musty cabinet, shot highly coloured species like the Kingfisher to set them up in the parlour in a glass case where they slowly gathered dust and dirt, or massacred grebes and terns to embellish feminine headgear. (And yet, so hard do these barbarous habits die, that even in recent years the writer has had the unpleasant experience of sitting opposite a woman whose hat was decorated with the whole head and the red breast feathers of a Robin.)’ Good god! At least we have come on a bit since then, I think!

Ash flowers
Donar Reiskoffer
Walking round Nettleton yesterday on top of the Cotswolds east of Bath, it was striking how the ash trees had still not really broken bud (efflorescences were mainly the big flower sprays, not leaves), and their bare branches continued to contribute a wintery note into a generally lusher May landscape.
On Sunday and yesterday 15th May, the St Mark’s Flies were flying  - but again late for them, as they are usually punctual on their saint’s day of 25 April.

We were interested how blasé the owner of a local Cotswolds-top farm was about his abundant yellowhammers – familiarity indeed breeding if not contempt, then a lack of wonderment!

Bluebells at Portbury
Barnaby Kirsen
Driving up through the woods from Portbury to Failand west of Bristol, the ground was one mass of bluebells and only the clichés apply: a river, a lake, a sea, an ocean of blueness, up from which the trees dreamily float up...

Swift Day
On Sunday I attended a ‘Swift Day’ at the home of Bristol’s leading swift preservationists (proudly seen on ‘Springwatch a while back...). They are working with a local swift ‘consortium’ to make suitable nest boxes available to the public, with proper instructions and installation including the audio equipment to play swift songs, without which the birds will not be lured into a new home...
The roof eaves of their suburban house are lined with nest boxes and the swifts were just starting to call to each other and sortie out. Each box has a webcam and it was beautiful to watch the couples on their nests preening each other, with eggs just laid or about to be laid – a rare privileged glimpse that only modern technology makes possible.

Jonathan Couch
At Oldbury on Severn village a large rhine debouches into the Seven Estuary via a weir by the pub. Hanging over the bridge we could see five or more large Chub fish there, each a foot or more long – identified as such by a local young fisherman.

Shelduck rears
Birdwatching along the expanses of the Severn Estuary, we mused on how dazzlingly white the shelducks’ rears were in flight, and how they managed to remain so spotless while dabbling along the oozy mud? A pair circled inland and landed on a small pool on the saltmarsh just below the embankment, and had a wonderful bath and preen.

Brown Hare
Evelyn Simak
Second BBS
I carried out my second Breeding Bird Survey at Ingst. This time the crops and grasses were high and the dew extremely heavy, stiles overgrown and all an unexpected struggle for my short legs!  However it was again a privilege to be out with the wild things so early, I got a fine list of birds, and had the luck to see a brown hare close-to.

At 4.15am this morning there was an unearthly banshee wailing from outside  – a mixture of a gull and a baby screaming, that  carried on for over ten minutes.  I looked out my window, and saw a fox slink off up the road...

Rodborough Common
Rodborough Common
Brian Robert Marshall
A botany trip to one of the beautiful limestone commons that top the Cotswolds Hills south of Stroud. On the steep south-facing slopes and glinting in the sun was a brilliant Green Hairstreak butterfly (my first ever); and almost as lovely but a more bluey iridescent green – many Forester Moths. A female Common Blue, with its dark top wings strongly edged in white with orange, white and dark spot border, looked as though it was a different species from the male.
On the grazed common top were large patches of Chalk Milkwort of a lovely deep bright blue; and flowering Bee Orchids.
Green Hairstreak
Forester Moth
Gail Hampshire

I have just read an eye-opening book, ‘The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary origins of human emotions’ by Jaak  Panksepp, 2012. Panksepp, a neuroscientist and psychobiologist working primarily with animals, coined the term 'affective neuroscience', the name for the field that studies the neural mechanisms of emotion. Modern work on human/mammalian and other animal minds/brains shows that they have evolved emotional hierarchies. The primary emotions are created and governed by the oldest evolutionary area of the brain and form the fundamental level. These can then be controlled and modified by more recently evolved structures such as the amygdala, forming the next level up and giving more social and emotional control and variation (such as shame, jealousy, vengefulness). Then humans have a top layer of intelligence and self-consciousness created by our most recently evolved brain areas, allowing a further level of control of, and detachment from, the emotions below.
Panksepp’s research is into the fundamental  primary emotions, that can be identified and tested neurologically. He lists them as: Seeking, Care, Panic/Grief, Rage, Fear, Lust and Play. They have been researched in mammal, birds and some reptiles; generally the behaviours resulting are rewarded by powerful brain chemicals such as dopamine. What I find so interesting is that while this list includes the raw and violent emotions we think of as occurring at this level, it also includes ones we may think of as far from primary - as sophisticated and elevated. Rage, Fear and Lust speak for themselves, though unmodified by ‘higher’ emotions they usually have a purity without punitive motivations. But see how ‘evolved’ the others can be:
- Seeking: Why any of us do anything! The desire to do, to discover, to persist that needs to happen in even the humblest creature if is to find food, evade danger and live on; but that also drives our search for knowledge and our desire for beauty and creativity.
Swans & their cygnets
Kalispera Dell
- Care: particularly shown in the devotion of animals that raise their own and sometimes other’s young; and that we could easily call - love.
- Panic/Grief: the emotion that as well as protecting youngsters from danger, is used to generate life-long societal bonds and the need to be part of a social unit.
- Play: the desire for often rambunctious, competitive rough-housing with others of ones kind and the environment, naturally controlled by others’ willingness to join in, preventing it degenerating into real violence or unpleasant control. It also turns out that many other mammals beside humans have primary laugh reflexes with enjoyable ‘tickle’ areas! Play is possibly also a daytime equivalent of dreaming, allowing integration of new events.

S Rae
Scotland (A geology trip to Isla and the Oban area)
On Isla I saw my first Bogbean flower. From a distance I saw this striking orchid-like white flower standing up in a bog; it had feathered insides to its petals like Fringed Water-lily, and is indeed the same family - the fringes have it!
I also saw my first Lousewort – another acid-loving plant of bogs, heaths and moors. Semi-parisitic, it has recently been moved from the Figwort to Broomrape family, and has the lipped flowers  typical of these groups - in this case a pretty pink colour.
My first brief view of a hovering Golden Eagle was disappointing – without expert guidance I’d have had  it down as a humble buzzard...
Falls of Lora
Falls of Lora
Michael Jagger
For me, the most striking and evocative place of our whole trip was the Falls of Lora, where the Firth of Lorn enters tidal Lock Etive near Oban (with our old-fashioned hotel just above it). A natural narrow rock dyke forms a dam between the two wide bodies of water, so when the tide tries to come back into the loch, the water piles up in the firth and you have the utterly counter-intuitive sight of water falling upstream over the dam! Your body knows something is wrong, but somehow your mind can’t work it out... Then on the outgoing tide, the water falls over the dam in the ‘right’ direction!
The loch is broad, clear and serene, but flows with concealed but ferocious speed at the turn of the tides, and with such boiling power over the Falls that it forms a playground for extreme canoeists. Its banks were edged with oystercatchers, common sandpipers and female mergansers with terns hunting above. I would come down early and late from the hotel, immerse myself in the shallow water edges (we had a heat wave!), and on one occasion watched a lesser back-backed gull catch and eat frog...

Lulsgate Landfill Site
Thomas Nugent
Lulsgate Landfill Site
I crept my way through the fence into this disused landfill site near Bristol Airport, to find many lovely wild plants forming splashes of colour down the lumps and dips, including common figwort, water crowsfoot, and meadow and bloody cranesbill.

Yellow blooms seem at their zenith, partly because bird’s-foot trefoil is so richly abundant this year. Have a look at the verges on the dual carriageway down past the Mall Shopping Centre, Cribbs Causeway, where  hop trefoil, hawkweeds and hawkbits and their ilk, and the bird’s-foot trefoil, make a lovely carpet.

Lamplighters Nature Reserve
Vipers Bugloss
Anne Block
 Lamplighters Nature Reserve on Bristol’s edges on the lower tidal Avon, is giving a fine showing of its seasonal common and more unusual plants, growing larger and lusher than usual after the cold spring. (I measured the stem of some mouse-ear hawkweed which I know as quite a shy grassland plant – one specimen was nearly 70cm tall). Along the path is a continuous show of hedge crane’s-bill whose flowers while small are an intense eye-catching magenta purple, creeping cinquefoil, and white briony lacing the hedgerows full of blooming dog rose. There’s a fine swathe of dainty moth mulleins, both the yellow and white with their pretty brown flower centres. And on the gravelly areas are vipers bugloss, vervain, great mullein and extensive areas of bright yellow biting stonecrop (Sedum acre) – youths have created some BMX bumps there which are now artistically decorated with the stonecrop and bugloss...

Latticed Heath Moth
Botany at Shepperdine to Oldbury Power Station
Along the Severn Estuary mud, a shelduck pair walked with their eight youngsters. Along the embankment were an abundance of moths and butterflies, including Meadow Browns, Five-spot Burnets, and  Burnet Companion, Straw Dot and Latticed Heath Moths – the latter indeed showing an exquisite miniature lattice of black on white on its wings, like a spider’s web draped across them.
The embankments were lined with lush displays of Rough Hawksbeard grown to quite majestic sizes (one was nearly 1.5m tall), and masses of Bee and Pyramidal Orchids some of whose own stems had grown to great heights. Other more unusual plants included Sea Clover, Yellow Vetch, Grass Vetchlings, Hairy and Smooth Tares, Sea Wormwood, Stone Parsley, Greater Sea Spurrey with distinctively larger flowers, and Rough Chervil.

Pilning Wetlands by the Severn Estuary
One of the bigger inland pools here has its seasonal display of large rafts of Amphibious Bistort flowering bright pink. The lane inland has a most extravagant mass of feathery grasses lining the embankment, with Meadow Vetchling, Meadow Brown butterflies and blue Damselflies.
Swifts were hunting along it, and three times came extremely close to my head – a very different experience to close encounters with swallows, as the swifts’ extra size, strength and speed makes it feel quite threatening... but a frisson to be so close to such iconic creatures!

Fox & strawberries
Before 6am this morning I heard an ongoing cacophony of alarm calls in our back gardens, and looked out assuming a cat or fox. Continuing watching, ten or so minutes later a very small fox – little more than a cub – entered our garden and made straight for my strawberry raised bed where it neatly plucked and ate every fruit it could.
Now for around twenty years I have been trying to grow good strawberries without great success, and in the raised bed they are as cosseted and pampered as they have ever been but still with quite poor results. Has this been the problem all along – sneak thievery by foxes? I’ve never netted them permanently before but will today – and henceforth...

Aust Services
On the cliff edge looking over to the old Severn Bridge, the stone wall hosted a lovely display of flowering plants including spiny restharrow, hedge bedstraw, meadow vetchling, pyramidal orchid and goatsbeard.

Poo piles at Sea Mills
Sea Mills Station
Matt Buck
The deep eaves of the fine red brick Victorian structure of Sea Mills Station on the River Avon, annually host twenty or more house martin nests who use the river mud to build their nests. Watching one of the nests, I saw two well-feathered bottoms poke sequentially to projectile-eject a white pellet of poo, which joined an existing and obviously growing pile at the base of the wall. I surmised that one can follow the development of the nest and the nestlings by following the piles of poo below...

Rainbow Footbridge, Montpelier
Sharon Loxton
In this quirky inner urban area of Bristol, there’s a small maze of paths, railways and allotments. One cutting is crossed by a metal foot bridge painted in hippy rainbow colours, and on it and just by it were flowering  moth mullein and musk mallow...

Water Crowsfoot
Little Avon River
 Linda Bailey
 I was hanging over the bridge above the small but beautifully clear and characterful Little Avon River at Stone village north of Bristol, observing bright green Water crowsfoot trailing in the water that had exceptionally large white flowers... our local botany expert observed that ‘the Crowsfoot family is very plastic’ – by which he meant that it morphs easily into differing forms...
There’s a couple of village names nearby which are also one-syllable nouns – Ham and Hill. Why is this so amusing?

Rabbits at New Passage.
In the rough smallholding meadows adjacent to the embankment were many rabbits. One very large one lounged under a bush with its back legs negligently stretched out... Three younger ones on the embankment were a bright ginger – really the colour of a golden retriever! Is this natural deviation from their norm, or contact  with domesticated breeds?

Gail Hampshire
Lamplighters Flower List
Such a rough little reserve carved from disused port industrial land – but what a list of flowering plants today! White campion. Biting and English/White & Caucasian stonecrop (Sedum spirium). Mayweed, Cat’s-ear everywhere, Bristly ox-tongue, Marsh thistle. Sonchus Arvensis, Nipplewort, Yarrow,  Hemp agrimony, Mugwort. Meadowsweet. Hedgerow crane’s bill. Viper’s bugloss in profusion. Wood sage, Hedge woundwort, Self-heal, Black horehound. Common mallow, Musk mallow, possible Small tree mallow. Great mullein, yellow and white Moth mullein. Narrow-leaved everlasting pea in huge abundance, Bird’s-foot trefoil, Melilot, Tufted vetch. Upright hedge parsley. Hedge & Lady’s bedstraw. White briony  Vervain. Great hairy willowherb. Scarlet pimpernel. Wood small-reed, Early meadow grass, False oat grass
...and butterflies and other insects: 4 Comma, a few Gatekeeper, 1 Ringlet, a Skipper. A Cinnabar Moth caterpillar on ragwort, and a Rosechafer.

Michael Wood
Hedgehog tracks
There is a motorway service station on the M5 just north of Bristol called ‘Michaelwood’, but it never occurred to me that it was named for a real Michael Wood in which stands. But now I have started exploring this area, and though the motorway goes right through it, it is still beautiful and unspoiled with the Little Avon river winding through it in grassy valleys.
We saw: Four muntjak deer; hedgehog tracks delicately imprinted in the mud of the path; Beautiful Demoiselle damselflies and  Emperor dragonflies along the river; two kingfishers, and what I hope and believe was a merlin. Grey poplar trees lining the road left deep ‘snowdrifts’ of soft white seedheads along the verges...

Au plein air
We went down to paint sea and rocks ‘au plein air’ at St Ives in Cornwall. Along the coast I admired lush blue tussocks of sheep’s-bit scabious, and dark pink betony, a Golden-ringed Dragonfly and Beautiful Demoiselle damselflies.
There were signs & portents on this trip...  On our way down we saw a sundog with a horizontal beam of light striking through it. As we painted, porpoises disported in the bay, and in the sea rock below us a swarm of bees hummed round the crevice they had made their home...

Gloucester Services Pond
I just visited the striking new (built 2014/15) grass-roofed Gloucester Service Station off the M5 motorway, the younger sister of the famous original on the M6 in Cumbria which supplants the usual chain food outlets and electronic games with elegant modern design, home-cooked food, and landscaped species-friendly pools outside. I found Gloucester’s graceful pool at the rear, where species visible included black-tailed skimmer dragonflies, house and sand martins and swallows all coming across low to drink with moorhens on margins and pied wagtails on the paths. The lush flowering plants round the pool edges included red mimulus, pontederia cordata (pickerelweed) with big bright blue cylindrical flower heads, purple loosestrife, water plantain, spearmint, great hairy willowherb, meadowsweet, and reeds. But like its older sister, the water is strangely murky-looking...

Young Reed Bunting
At Pilning Wetlands a young reed bunting sat on the pools fence, still a bit gapey and cheeping for its parents. The mother foraged below and – yum! – came up with a great green caterpillar to feed to its eager fledgling, gulped down before they both flew back into the reeds...

Speedy caterpillar
Today in our back garden were Gatekeeper and Holly Blue butterflies. A caterpillar that I think might be a Cream-spot Tiger Moth got shaken from a plant, but then moved with remarkable speed from where it landed on the  lawn, back into sheltering vegetation...

Red Admiral
Magnus Hasdorn
Butterfly glow
At Pilning Wetlands today were many fine insects including Gatekeeper, Meadow Brown and Red Admiral butterflies and an Emperor dragonfly.
A couple of the Red Admirals looked incredibly fresh, and I admired how the upper red stripe on the top wing surface shows through to the underside, and being transparent, glows scarlet from this view as the light shines through it...

What fish?
MoD lake, Filton
Adrian Pingstone
The amenity lake outside the huge Ministry of Defense development near us, currently has a lot of fine fish visible, up to 20cm long with red fins and tails – which covers a multitude of British freshwater fish, and makes me feel I really need to know more about our finned friends...

Young birds
There seem to be a lot of young birds audible and visible at the moment – quite late in the day, no doubt resulting from our late Spring:
In Filton - a gang of young magpies with squeaky calls racketed about the rooftops and attacked unripe apples on back garden trees. At Stoke Lodge Estate in a big cedar – downy young coal tits and goldcrest fed busily. At Sea Mills Station – a newly-fledged house martin stood on a masonry window arch but was still being fed by its parents.
I asked a local expert: ‘ I am seeing and  hearing a lot of young birds of a stage that normally I  would have expected six to eight weeks ago, and I see other people  are also reporting young bird sightings. Are these second  broods and I somehow missed the first ones altogether, or  has the year really been so late? Or maybe first broods  failed and these are the second but successful broods? What  think you?’ He replied, ‘As I was doing BN last month I was struck by the same notion. So I looked up loads of species on the BTO-about birds-bird-facts and counted from the arrival date, adding the incubation, time to fledge, and came up with - must be second broods – even though many of these species certainly don’t usually have two broods.’

More young birds - jackdaws
There are six young jackdaws resting on the roof opposite with four adults nearby – presumably two adult pairs and their joint youngsters. Their hoods are a dull brown rather than grey with more dull brown on their bellies, their eyes do not yet have the ice-blue appearance of the adults, and they still look a bit downy and dopey...

Highridge Common (a botany trip)
Just below Dundry and  high on the west edge of Bristol, this small park looks like dry common yet was noticably wet close up, and was full of unusual plants. These included beautiful Perennial Flax with yellow-centred warm blue flowers with a brilliant blue central style; and large patches of striking Betony whose bold purple- pink flowers our leader considered superior to orchids! Their long narrow leaves have an elaborate border like some wonderful fabric.

A trip to the south
I went on a car-camping trip to explore the chalk streams of Hampshire, the South Downs Way, and Chichester Harbour and the Selsey Penninula – all in chalk and flint territory...
River Test
Peter Jordan
-First stop was the River Test at Stockbridge: This charming Hampshire town is criss-crossed by that archetypal chalk stream – the Test, as exquisitely mesmerizingly gin-clear as rumoured... The National Trust’s Common Moor is directly behind, and for a mile or so allows you to walk by the river through rough marshy common... banks full of  meadowsweet and orange and yellow mimulus, river full of water birds and every now and then a  big fish – a trout presumably as these streams are famed for trout fishing.
-Then the South Downs Way at South Harting: The South
Giant Bellflower
Mike Pennington
Downs Hills stretch for over 100 miles from Winchester to Eastbourne, and you can walk the whole way along the South
South Downs Way
Chris Gunns
Downs Way. At South Harting near Petersborough, they rose up sharply from the surrounding land, imposing, mysterious, heavily wooded with hidden fields; with the path running secretively below the summit through beech and oak, sometimes narrow, sometimes well-used farm track.  In the

hedgerows were many beautiful Giant Bellflowers, habitués of
this type of environ-ment, with showy purple-blue flowers pointing upwards.
-Then to the Selsey Penninsula: a strange area of flint, agriculture and holiday camps which projects south of Chichester with its great placid Harbour to the west, and the extensive tidal flats of Pagham Harbour Reserve with lovely birds, to the east; and the newer Medmerry Reserve facing the English Channel southwards. Sights included:
Cream-spot Tiger Moth
Danny Chapman
- A beautiful white, black and gold-orange-patterned day moth by the Pagham Harbour path – a tiger moth, perhaps a Cream-spot...
- At the Church Norton end of Pagham Harbour - massive shingle banks dotted all over with sea kale...
- By Medmerry Reserve car park – Flowering Rush, tall and imposing with large pink three-petalled flower heads.
Flowering Rush
Ian Cunliffe
‘Swimming’ off Medmerry
Along the south coast of the Selsey Penninsular are mighty, brutal shingle beaches that face the Channel  and bound the Medmerry Reserve. These long stretches are billed by the local tourist blurb as ‘some of the best beaches in West Sussex’ – well, God help visiting families and their children if that is so! I visited three days running in good though sometimes windy weather, and while the protected Chichester Harbour offered fine sand and gentle waters, this coast uniformly offered a dauntingly grim, grey, dangerous visage, with wicked waves lurching onto the steep flint cobbles slopes punctuated with groins. This grimness is not helped by the lack of any attractive esplanades: all the seaside towns seem to try and prevent you accessing the water, with main roads that abruptly and ungraciously dead-end at the coast with ugly concrete and scaffold-pole railings.
Selsey Penninsula coast
Mark Trenchant
The cobble shingles form a great wall of  high ‘dunes’ that protect the adjacent small towns and countryside from inundation. The Medmerry Reserve is part of a new flood relief scheme where the sea is being allowed to naturally breach this wall between Selsey and Bracklesham and flood inland, to relieve pressure on the towns. One of its paths takes one out onto this lonely four kilometre stretch of coast, and here in hot sunshine I ventured down to the water’s edge, determined to enter in some fashion. Wading in, I could feel it was too rough to swim but decided to lie on the edge and let the surf drench me – but staying within clinging distance of a low wooden groin! Yet within a few minutes an extra-strong wave had charged up the steep slope and bodily pushed me violently up across the pebbles (and though short, I am no lightweight...), scraping the skin off my bum so I left bloodstains on that stretch of beach! It was exhilarating - but you wouldn’t want to let a child near it except at low tide when finally a flatter more sandy stretch of beach appears...
Some birds of the trip...
On the South Downs Way in Hampshire, a confiding young greenfinch sat by a puddle. Its neck feathers were still in pin, and its beak looked bulky and bony. When it sipped from the water, it threw its head back like a bunting...
A family of young goldcrests in oaks were foraging successfully for themselves, but also still being fed titbits by their parents...
...but at Pagham Harbour young little grebes were begging from their parents  to no avail - the
Pagham Harbour
‘heartless’ period had set in!
An over-confiding young green woodpecker foraged on the path just feet away, its tail still a stump, and beak also looking big, dark and bony. But it made an adult-sounding yaffle!
A young black tern nestled down in the shingle on ‘Tern Island’...
At East Head, Chichester Harbour, a tern re-emerging from its neat sea dive briefly shook itself like a dog...
Along the shingle beaches fronting the Medmerry RSPB reserve, a group of 12 sanderlings ran around me. It’s been a long time since I’ve been lucky enough to be so close and able to admire their smart black legs and beaks, and observe that rather anxious manner they have...
Some joys of car-camping...
There are strange but nice unexpected side effects of car camping, doing normal things in the oddest situations... for instance:
-   At South Harting in the South Downs,  I camped in a small carpark near the church, but early in the morning drove up to wash at a prettier more countrified spot I’d scouted the previous afternoon. It had rained hard all night and was raining still, there were big puddles on the little road...  so if life gives you lemons, make lemonade! Generally if sea or streams aren’t handy I wash in a bowl (usually crouched by the car so passing drivers can’t see me), but today glorious clean puddles were mine to splash in!
- At West Wittering on the Selsey Penninsula, I camped in a proper campsite. Now the advantages are – toilets! But the disadvantages are the odd lack of privacy in a car when one is used to more solitary ‘wild’ parking. Again very early in the morning I’d had a lovely shower and wanted to do my exercises - always a challenge on the wet or hard ground which one often wakes up to, or here in too-public view of the other campers. So I stole through to the children’s play area which was bounded by enormous hedges, and there in early sunshine on the soft grass between the badminton net and the swings, did my Pilates...

Dabchick and young
Frank Vassen
Pilning Wetlands
Views of young birds continue! When I was at Pilning Wetlands today, I bumped into a local birders who have been following the fortunes of a dabchick pair nesting by the building on the first lake. Apparently they had tried three times to nest but each time the eggs had been predated. Now the birders had literally just seen hours-old chicks riding on their parents back... so success had finally come on the fourth try!
On the small side lane there lay three rabbit carcasses in increasing states of desiccation and flatness. Everything had been removed but the heads, pelts, paws, tails and skeletons – perhaps by raptors scavenging on rabbits afflicted by disease?
Black-tailed Skimmer
Gail Hampshire
A female black-tailed skimmer dragonfly at rest, dull bronze with a torpedo-shaped body, moved its head from side to side...

More foxy shenanigans
Early this morning I woke to shrieky angry fox sounds, and looked out to see the local grey cat smugly sitting on top of our tall back garden shed, with a fox below prowling round the base and apparently trying to find a way up. Eventually it leapt lightly onto the fence by the shed and within an easy further jump to the cat - but though its jumping can be as athletic as a cat, it couldn’t do that ‘walking along a narrow line’ once perched on the fence top,  so after a bit of awkward shuffling it jumped down again and went off...

Gree-veined White
Ian White
Green-veined White
At Clevedon Harbour today I saw the first Green-veined White butterfly that I feel I could identify with confidence – handsome!

And yet more foxes
At 4am, looking out at an almost-full apricot-coloured low moon - two foxes raced down the road, one noticeably larger than the other. They engaged in violent fighting in some front gardens opposite, making low growls and hurling into gates and cars with audible crashes...

Clevedon Harbour to Kenn Pill
Still young birds... One young (still downy) rock pipit, five young downy sparrows on a bramble bush with an adult male who did quick upward flights every now and then, while the youngsters did short flights out sideways and back - was it a parent encouraging them to venture forth?
A red dragonfly – a Ruddy Darter, small with a pinched-waist abdomen, and the golden wings they develop with age - in the sunlight the wings really shone like a transparent fabric of spun gold.
Bristly Oxtongue
Rob Hille
Bristly Oxtongue: I think all the hawkweed/bit/beard/sonchus dandelion-type flowered plants raise one's spirits, but today's praise is for bristly oxtongue which has been showing its many smallish firm yellow flowers for a few weeks now, of a joyful ripe-lemon colour...

Swallows & umbrellas
I just watched a local TV news item about an auto repair centre in Somerset, whose owner over the last 25 years has allowed swallows to nest in the steel roof trusses. Now they have from 12 to 15 pairs, and the way they stop the droppings annoying people and vehicles is – he hangs open umbrellas under the nests! So here you have mechanics beavering away in a busy industrial unit under a garden of umbrellas, accompanied by swallow flight and song! The last of the nestlings had just fledged and were filmed standing on a truss...

Why threes?
After a botany trip to Clapton Moor Reserve on the north Somerset levels viewing many water plants, I was prompted to ask, ‘Does anyone have a theory why so many water plants of different families, have three-petalled flowers?’ One of our botany experts gave this fine technical reply:
It is because they are all monocotyledons, where flowers are "trimerous"  (in threes, or multiples of three). Monocots form a clade, so all the different families have a single common ancestor. I think the water plants you have in mind probably all belong to the order Alismatales. When you have a Frogbit (Hydrocharis) flower, there is still a differentiation between the three petals (large and white) and the three sepals (small and green).When you have six petals in a Lily etc they are really "perianth segments", three petals and, in a whorl below them, three petaloid sepals that look similar to the petals.If you look at Butomus (Flowering Rush) it is a sort of half-way house with three large petals and three smaller petaloid sepals.An orchid has one specialised petal that forms the lip, two normal petals and three petaloid sepals.Grasses, Sedges and Aroids have extremely modified flowers where it is difficult to see that the components are in threes.’

Red berries
Guelder Rose berries
Derek Harper
At the Oldbury Power Station’s overgrown lagoons, hips, haws and berries were looking very bright & shiny. The rose hips were in strongly different shades from orange to maroon red, and guelder rose hung with profusions of translucent berry clusters glowing scarlet.

Giant Hogweed
Giant Hogweed
Exploring with a friend north of Yate, starting from Yate Rocks (in limestone quarry country), we passed a derelict cottage with an overgrown garden colonised entirely by the most enormous Giant Hogweed, now dried but some towering over three metres tall...

The Fogou: Visiting my Cornish friend with a house at the start of the Porthcothan valley, I walked up alone to the man-made Iron Age ‘fogou’ cave that is secretively hidden in the valley side a mile further up. I entered without artificial light and had to feel my way to the back, where looking back towards the light I could appreciate the beauty of its ‘upturned boat’ shape that heightens powerfully towards the rear. Creeping back to the entrance, two dark creatures flew out ahead of me – pipstrelle bats apparently who roost in a fissure by the entrance...
Cornish turnstones - what are they like! On Newlyn Quay while eating a sandwich, I encountered a
Turnstones foraging
Derek Harper
gang of about nine: the bold leader scurried to my feet where I chucked it a prawn which it gobbled immediately, while the others gathered behind. Though I know them as friendly little critters for what are wild waders, I hadn’t seen them demonstrate such scavenging ways before...
Choughs:  I was so pleased to see two choughs at Cape Cornwall. We were drawing and painting at this dramatic headland, and the choughs flew in and pottered around the cliff edge quite close to us.

The Syrinx
There has been a fairly recent discovery of a duck-like fossil bird Vegavis iaai (dating from the late Cretaceous so still contemporary with the last of the dinosaurs) on an Antarctic island; complete with its syrinx or avian voice box which has allowed scientists to study its vocalisation in comparison with modern birds. I read up more about this remarkable organ: in both this ancient bird and modern ones, it is placed at the base not top of the trachea, comparatively small but governed by many muscles, and uses almost all the air passing through it - compared with a mere 2% efficiency for the human voice box. No wonder birds can sing all day and create double notes and other marvels!

Another letter published
In the 22 October 2016 edition of ‘New Scientist’ magazine, I was proud to find out that I had another letter published, headed ‘Evolutionary forces may evolve too’. You can find it in here in the ‘Science thoughts 2013--’ page.

Grey Squirrel
Anemone Projectors 
With autumn arriving and squirrel viewings abundant, I was intrigued by some information on their famed agility. The crucial adaptation seems to be the rear ankle joint which can turn backwards by 180 degrees – something shared with the clouded leopard and racoons. Combined with sharp claws and long fluffy tails giving great balance, this enables these animals to climb head-first down trees for instance; and the clouded leopard which can weigh up to 25kg, can even walk along the underside of a branch and hang by its rear feet...

 Along the pretty sheltered lanes round Upton Cheney in a wet blowy westerly yesterday – a dead grey squirrel neatly squashed flat on its back, paws symmetrically flattened.. At one end its tail plumes were reduced to thin clogged mats, revealing the long whip tail within; at the other its long curved teeth projected alarmingly from the skull - definitely an affirmation for those who like to call them climbing rats...
Autumn leaves...
Albert Bridge
The trees were still in vibrant autumn colours, but their leaves were tearing off in the high winds and giving us a full-on ‘showered with golden coins’ experience...
Back above my Filton street, a flock of over 60 jackdaws were making fantastic patterns cavorting in the wind. I think most or even all of them were local as their population increases year on year.
Early this morning along our back lane was a great murmuring in some thick cypresses – maybe 100 or more starlings vocalising. When I stopped beneath and craned upwards they shut up, but the second I moved on they began again...

Bird behaviours
I just watched a local jackdaw do a ‘yearning’ dance on a back garden fence – something I don’t see so often since over the years of their occupation of our north Bristol Filton streets, they have become much more bold and confident than when they first colonised. This bird’s head and neck craned forward and down towards a food item it wanted, but its legs bounced the body vertically up and down in an agitated dance, not daring to fly down... Comical!
Yesterday I watched a magpie moving apparently methodically down the front of the street along adjacent first floor window sills and bay roofs. It would stop and apparently peer into each window, peer up to the gutters, have a poke round any cracks, then move on to the next perch...
(Colleagues replied with stories of crows and magpies cacheing food in gutters and flower beds...)

A frosty walk up the River Chew from Keynsham
Jack snipe
We walked up this small river out of the small town of Keynsham between Bristol and Bath, on a brilliant cold frosted day. We saw a mandarin duck in an ornamental pool at the start – unringed and origin unknown, apparently it has been happily patrolling along the rivers between Keynsham and neighbouring Saltford over the last two years.
Rooks were paired in their rookery area in the surrounding wood, some already bringing in nest sticks.
There was a dead grey heron on meadowland further on, with blood on its drooped head – attacked by a fox?
Two jack snipe came up from the reedy river banks, moving ahead and resettling. Apparently they are unusual here, but frozen ground may have pushed them to these unfrozen margins.
Two common gulls were paddling for worms on a steeply sunny south-facing grass slope,
Two peregrines came overhead, calling and (play?) fighting. Young birds finding territories?
At one spot there were otter prints in the river mud.

Tree Mallows
Tree Mallow
Magnus Manske
A small grove of tree mallows has recently appeared in our back lane. There are about ten stems, some over two metres tall and a couple of inches thick, and they are still flowering with a few of those small but striking purple blooms with deep purple centres.

Owl Flight
I  just watched one of those TV animal 'superpowers' programmes, on owls. I was particularly struck with two lab tests they did with a barn owl contrasted with a wood pigeon and a peregrine, flying over an array of supersensitive sound recorders, and along a long bed of down feathers. The owl managed to fly in total silence - not a flicker on the recording screen - and its strongly beating wings still barely disturbed the bed of down... extraordinary. They showed the various ways that the feather structures damp sound - but also how these make them much less water resistant. Everything is a trade-off in nature!

Aust salt marsh
Short-eared Owl
 A bright day with an exciting southerly wind susurrating the rushes... Some linnets perched close by on a bush had the most pretty bright orange chests, strongly streaked.
A short-eared owl appeared  over the salt marsh near the road and quartered the ground for a good few minutes before dropping down. I watched the strong (though not low) downbeat of its wings, and if that creates a similar lack of turbulence as the barn owl demonstrated above – what a miracle of special engineering. I can understand how the feathers can be damped for sound, but not how turbulence is so reduced...

New Passage
Along the shoreline at new passage today were hundreds of waders - widgeon, godwit, knot, dunlin and redshank. And there must have been something extra-tasty in the mud – all the probing feeders were attacking the mud like little machines...

Stony Littleton
Stony Littleton Long Barrow
Neil Owen
On Boxing Day we visited the extraordinarily impressive but strangely little-known Neolithic long barrow / chambered tomb at Stony Littleton, by Wellow south of Bath. 3500 years old, it is thirty metres long with multiple chambers open to view, the roof height gradually rising as one penetrates, starting at a hunched crawl. As always with these monuments, one is struck by the beauty and elegance of the stonework – the cantilevered and corbelled roof construction, the mighty flat stones creating the entrance, the fine flat dry stone walling forming the low perimeter wall.
Old Man's Beard
Colin Smith
Old Man’s Beard along the way was sometimes as thick as a fleecy mattress...

In that strange between-worlds time between Christmas and New Year, I stayed for a few days in Elberton just inland from the Severn Estuary, walking the quiet country lanes round there...
- A fine old house had great yew bushes in its front garden, topiaried into the most grotesque shapes - like Easter Island heads by a cubist Picasso...
- A board at the entrance to a lonely farm’s drive advertised, ‘Farmhouse & Bar’ – not a combination we are used to seeing locally...
- Occasionally there would be an apple tree completely bare of leaves but
Apples in Winter
still proudly carrying unshrivelled fruits along its branches, glowing in yellows and reds like the finest Christmas decorations...
OPS at dusk: I drove to Olbury Power Station at sunset to try and catch a rumoured murmuration of starlings (when the birds gather in often tremendous numbers from a whole area, each flock performing those magic shadow dances in the sky before they plunge into reeds to roost together for the night). Although that murmuration turned out to have come and gone weeks ago, it was still quietly absorbing to sit in the car as dusk drew on and watch the night-time rituals of the visible birds. Blackbirds and robins are definitely the last to forage, as they are often the first and last to sing, and can apparently search in almost complete darkness; and a wren took a long luxurious ‘dust’ (or mud in this case) bath on the path beside me.
Oldbury Power Station
Sharon Loxton

Final thoughts for 2016 - Winter is the time for Romance!
Perceived wisdom says that winter is just a time of hardship and endurance for birds, but to me it seems as much a time of romantic holiday-making! Firstly, we know that with feathers being the best insulation in the animal kingdom and legs well primed with natural anti-freeze, birds aren’t feeling the cold as we sometimes anthropomorphically imagine. Secondly, if they can feed and make it through the long cold nights, it’s otherwise the period of greatest freedom and least responsibility - they aren’t yet fighting for territories and nest sites, or bringing up young.  So a time for flirting and courting!

...The End - till next year...

New Passage waders December 2016

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