A Little Brown Bird’s Shout of Approval!

Just recently I proudly added the 204thspecies of bird to the list of birds recorded at Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits on the southeastern edge of St Albans.  The bird itself was nothing to write home about in terms of looks – a Cetti’s Warbler (pronounced ‘chetty’s’), very similar in appearance to a large wren.  But the sighting was nonetheless very rewarding for this little bird had never before been recorded at the gravel pits despite the regular visits by birdwatchers every week since records officially began in the 1980s.

Though it is just another ‘little brown bird’ that skulks around in the reedy margins of waterways, the Cetti’s Warbler can boast one of the loudest voices of any bird – literally a ‘shout of notes’ that startles anyone walking through the otherwise quiet reed bed.  That voice alone is a pretty good assurance that until a few weeks ago a Cetti’s Warbler had not visited Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits:  if it had someone would have heard it!

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A Cetti’s Warbler shouting out his song.  This photo & featured image by Steven Round

Named after an 18thcentury Italian zoologist Francesco Cetti the Cetti’s Warbler has been expanding its range northwards, first arriving in Britain in the 1960s and appearing in Hertfordshire from the mid 70s.  Unlike many of our native songbirds Cetti’s Warbler populations have been doing quite well though it is vulnerable to harsh winters with the ‘Beast from the East’ decimating populations along the east coast of Britain earlier this year.

Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits has become the latest place to become connected to this little part of natural history and, as I write, the warbler is still shouting out its arrival to birders and dog walkers alike. It is a bird that many birdwatchers would consider long ‘overdue’ at Tyttenhanger, after all the habitat seems perfect and other sites around the county can boast resident Cetti’s. The Cetti’s arrival now suggests, at least to me, that Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits as a natural reserve has come of age.

I have been visiting the site regularly since I first discovered it as a teenager in the late 1980s.  Over the years I have seen the gravel pits develop from a barren treeless landscape, freshly created from the gravel workings (still active today), to one encompassing a huge variety of different habitats, from open water, reed beds, river and grassland to mature woodland, farmland and all the transitional areas in between.

It is a landscape that many would consider man-made and even tarnished by the extraction of sand and gravel.  It is true that the original water meadows of the Colne valley have long gone and a noisy conveyor belt now traverses the site, carrying the excavated material back to the processing plant.  The constant encroachment of the human on the landscape is very evident, be it walkers, dogs, fishermen, horses, bikes and sometimes motorbikes, not to mention the daily activities of farmers and the gravel works.  In the 1990s the woods resounded with paint-balling wars while the surrounding farmland played host to partridge shooting parties.  Disturbance is and always has been the order of the day and yet wildlife abounds.

For me there is a beauty and wildness to Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits that is quite unique, brought about by this constant interaction of the people with the natural landscape.   The ongoing gravel workings ensures daily change, be it in the fluctuation in water levels as water is pumped in and out to wash newly extracted gravel, or in the carving out of new landscapes to accommodate machinery or access. Farmland is ploughed, sown, harvested and then ploughed again.  Pathways and hedges are strimmed and cut back.   The overall effect is as dramatic as a tidal flood – demanding responses from wildlife and people alike.  But what can often feel violent at the time seems to produce exactly the kinds of habitats that attract wildlife, not least birds.

For me, Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits represents my “local patch” – an area fondly adopted by every birder as ‘their own’ local place to birdwatch:  small and near enough to cover in a few hours but large and varied enough to ensure continuing interest.  The ‘ownership’ of such sites is purely in memories built up over years of visits and observations such that the landscape and all it contains becomes personally known and any little changes are immediately evident.

The arrival of the Cetti’s Warbler is the most recent of those memories and is special not so much because of the bird itself but because it hasn’tbeen there previously.  That it turned up on my watch confers a renewed sense of ‘ownership’ on me, at least for now.  With so many actual different owners and invested parties Tyttenhanger’s future as a place for wildlife always hangs in the balance but, to date, it remains one of the best places to see birds in Hertfordshire.

For more information on the flora and fauna of Tyttenhanger please visit http://friendsofthgp.wixsite.com/ornithology

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Nature’s Master Builders

Last weekend we, as a family (minus two of the kids), visited The Lodge RSPB reserve in Sandy, Bedfordshire.  I had never been before, which is perhaps amiss of me as a birdwatcher as it is the headquarters of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds or RSPB and only 45 minutes drive from home.

On arrival we were given a short introduction to the reserve at the visitor centre.  The beautiful heathland and woods were very quiet bird-wise we were told, but someone had just found a wasp spider in its web just earlier in the day.  We googled ‘wasp spider’ and discovered that this is a very striking, large spider (at least as far as the females are concerned) with, as the name suggests, yellow and black stripes on its abdomen.

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A Wasp Spider – Argiope bruennichi – photo by Violart (Shutterstock)

We headed out along the reserve paths and, as predicted, the birdlife was very quiet and so we began to look for spiders.  It took a while to adjust my eyes – so used to scanning the treetops and skies for birds – to focus in on the gossamer constructions in between the foliage at knee height.  My daughter was far better at spotting the webs and we found many but sadly no wasp spiders.

What we did discover however was a world of tiny beauty often revealed by simply lifting a leaf.  Many webs did not at first appear to have spiders, but an inspection of the underside of adjacent leaves more often than not revealed the owner and hunter, hidden and poised to strike should the web do its work.

I had never walked through a nature reserve in quite that way before – pausing, stooping and cricking my neck to see what tiny worlds might be hidden just beyond my nose.  I might be a relative expert in the world of birds but here were new frontiers, unexplored and complex, whose intricacies I could not fathom.

Walking back towards the visitor centre we passed a number of young oak trees.  With our newly adjusted and fine-tuned eyes what had formerly appeared to be just oak leaves and acorns surrendered more to our vision.  Little brown balls, easily dismissed with just a cursory glance as acorns, turned out to be oak marble galls – the fruit not of the oak tree but of an insect:  a species of gall wasp.

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An Oak Marble Gall – home of the Oak Marble Gall Wasp Andricus kollari – showing the hole where the new wasp exited

Contained within these little spheres is one of the most astonishing works of nature you’ll come across – it has to do with one of the most efficient house-building schemes on earth!  We are all quite used to living in houses built using various materials sourced from far and wide involving many man-hours of labour, but the gall wasp takes house-building to another level.  By harnessing the growing power of trees they not only get the job done for them with materials they never had to find, but also ensure a well stocked larder within their new house!

Sometime in early spring, gall wasps inject their eggs into the developing buds of an oak tree effectively putting a deposit down on a house.  But this deposit is all that is needed for the work to begin and as the new wasp larva hatches so it stages a chemical takeover of the oak tree’s resources, hijacking the tree’s natural growth patterns and genetically altering them.  The result is that the tree grows a ‘gall’ that provides a safe home for the developing wasp and a supply of nutrients for it to eat.  In the case of the oak marble gall wasp this home is a little round marble-sized ball, initially green but browning as the summer goes on – it is after all part of the tree!

It is hard to imagine human engineering being capable of such a feat and builders would be out of work if a genetically altered plot of land produced a three-bedroomed house complete with fully stocked larder!  Parasites they may be, but I think the gall wasps have it figured out when it comes to providing a home for their young, and their galls do not appear detrimental to their host trees.

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The Knopper Gall – home of the Knopper Gall Wasp Andricus quercuscalicis on an acorn, showing the exit hole

As we discovered on our walk, it is a great time of year to look for these secret worlds of insects, be they webs or galls.  One of my favourites galls to look out for is the ‘robin’s pincushion’ gall – a fuzzy, red flower-like growth found on wild rose bushes and appearing to all intents and purposes part of the plant.  But don’t be deceived – it is the genetically modified home of yet another species of gall wasp – as flamboyant as any grand design, yet beautifully camouflaged!

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Robin’s Pincushion Gall – home of the Bedeguar Gall Wasp Diplolepis rosae on a wild rose bush

Wasps are great! But there’s a sting in the tail

A few years back I was fixing a shed in our garden and had enlisted the help of my young son.  We were busy moving rotten pieces of wood from the side of the shed when suddenly I felt sharp stabbing pains in my lower legs.  Before I had a chance to investigate my son started screaming in pain and it took a few more seconds to realize that we were trampling on a wasps’ nest!

They were very angry so we ran inside the house, stripping off as we went.  My son had been stung all up the legs and was crying in pain.  I had been stung quite a few times too but tending to his stings thankfully provided just the distraction from the pain I needed.  Twenty minutes later we were both virtually pain free but seared on our memories was the experience of encountering the wrong end of a wasp!

Thankfully neither of us had any allergies to such stings but there are very few people for whom the mention or sight of a wasp does not immediately induce revulsion and varying degrees of fear.  It is not hard to see how our dislike of the wasp, often extending to raw hatred, has come about.

With their yellow and black striped ‘jackets’ and facial markings that give the impression of an angry masked bandit these little insects fit the bill as ‘the bad guys’.  Reinforced from an early age with children’s TV programs such as ‘Fifi and the Flowertots’ featuring Stingo the nasty trouble-making wasp, the wasp is one of the first characters of natural history we will become familiar with.  On the appearance of a wasp, adults and children alike quickly recite that ‘bees only sting once and then die, while wasps can keep on stinging’!  The ever-virtuous bee is cast as the noble character whose power is only exercised as a last resort in contrast to the evil wasp who may sting at will…and will sting!

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Stingo the ‘bad guy’  (Fifi & the Flowertots by Dreamworks)

As if this isn’t enough they are at their most annoying at this time of year and into autumn – plaguing us at picnics and outdoor parties and refusing to leave either our food or us alone.  Their scientific name –vespula vulgaris– seems to capture something of how we feel:  they are ‘vulgaris’ (everywhere) and well, vulgar.

The ‘vulgarity’ of wasps is exacerbated because, by and large, we see them at their worst.  From late summer onwards, they have become little insect vagabonds – unemployed social outcasts who have hit hard times and now, drunk on fermenting windfall fruit juice, hungrily seek whatever sugary sustenance they can find.  With winter approaching their fate is sealed. It is perhaps no wonder that we, who love sugary food too, should clash with this desperado at this time of year!

But the wasp’s sorry state at this time of year is not the whole picture and earlier this year I got a glimpse into the world of this social and industrious insect that can equal any ant or bee in organizational efficiency.  Walking along a footpath locally I was stopped in my tracks by a persistent sawing sound next to me.  Pushing aside the foliage I eventually found a wasp busily sawing away at a dead and dry stem.

Just last week I found the fruit of its labours just a few yards along the bank. A hedge-cutter had torn over the surface of the bank and revealed a wasps’ nest built in the cavity of a fox’s hole.  The nest was ruined and hundreds of wasps crawled over the remaining surface busily repairing as fast as they could.  Built from chewed-up wood pulp wasp nests truly are a work of art with thousands of perfectly hexagonal cells to house the new wasp larvae.  These larvae are fed by adult worker wasps who in turn can feed on sugary droplets secreted by the larvae.

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The exposed wasp’s nest

The nest is the very definition of organization, initiated by a single queen wasp and then built up and policed by thousands of worker wasps, the one aim to raise more queens to start next year’s nests and males to mate with queens from other colonies.  Once this has been accomplished (or a hedge-cutter passes by) the work of the majority is done and the worker wasps must leave, jobless and in search of sugary sustenance now the larval supply has gone.

This knowledge of their honest and hardworking beginnings may not be enough to move us to feel love and compassion for the wasp but perhaps we can recognize that they are a more than just a pest to be swatted.  As predators they play a vital role in controlling other potential pest insect and caterpillar populations and have been shown to be a vital contributor to the work of pollination.  Without them we might just we worse off!

To read this article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click here

 

 

The season’s changing, but take a breath first!

It never ceases to amaze me how swiftly nature moves through the seasons.  The intense heatwave we are currently enjoying perhaps masks the seasonal movement giving us the sense of eternal summer days and slowing us to a more leisurely pace.  And yet, come 1stJuly, or maybe the Summer Solstice, some invisible magnetic compass swings 180° in the internal mechanisms of nature’s inhabitants.  The impulse to move, to return, to leave and to migrate is awakened literally, it seems, overnight.

At the local Tyttenhanger gravel pits near London Colney migrating waders have begun to appear at the muddy margins – Green and Common Sandpipers, a few Redshank and a Black-tailed Godwit – all just passing through.  More dramatic is the increase in gulls with Black-headed Gulls now in excess of 500 birds and yet only a month ago there were none.  For us summer is in full swing but for these birds winter has come into focus.  For many wild creatures it is a time to feed and move, feed and move until they find themselves in a safe place for winter and well fed enough to survive.

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A Green Sandpiper at Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits near St Albans

Of course, not all our birds and wildlife are looking to move off.  Many of our resident birds are busy with second or even third broods of chicks.  Woodpigeons with their hastily thrown together nest of twigs will keep raising young into September.  We have a Song Thrush nest in our garden with unfledged chicks perched precariously on top of the fence but cleverly tied into the adjacent hawthorn bush.

On my recent walks I have come across a number of young Little Owls sitting out in the open and calling noisily for food. Both the baby Song Thrushes and the owls were located because of their persistent squeaky calling but I do wonder how they survive predation by marauding magpies and crows.  The parent birds must be constantly torn between hanging around to fend off attacks and leaving their noisy young in search of food!

While many species have bred or are about to finish raising young there are others, like the Painted Lady butterfly, that are only just arriving to breed.  Migrating up from the desert fringes of Northern Africa, the Middle East and central Asia, these long distance migrants arrive in the UK to breed and feed.  Some years can see a huge influx of these butterflies and, in 2009, breeding conditions in North Africa were perfect and millions of Painted Lady butterflies headed north following warming Spring temperatures to arrive en masse in the UK. That year hundreds of Painted Lady butterflies were recorded, sometimes in swarms or ‘kaleidoscopes’ from almost every corner of the British Isles and as far north as Shetland.

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A Painted Lady butterfly – by Nimblewit (Shutterstock)

They are beautiful butterflies that are often easily approached as they feed.  Sadly however for the Painted Ladies that arrive here it is a journey’s end as they are unable to survive our winters.  If weather conditions are right a few may make the return journey but for the most, like so many of our butterflies, they are an ephemeral gift to us, the final flourish on the heights of summer.  So look out for these little travellers – the new arrivals will be pristine rouge in colour that fades towards more autumnal browns as August progresses.

This year has been a good year for butterflies and this summer continues to provide plenty of sunshine for these aerial dancers so it’s a great time to go out looking for them. There are of course the familiar ‘cabbage’ whites and Red Admirals of our garden borders but venture out to different habitats and others will appear.  Grassland commons are a great place to look for Marbled Whites and Common Blues, while shady woodland edges are home to Speckled Woods and the occasional White Admiral.  A walk through Symondshyde Great Wood on the edge of St Albans recently took me through dancing Silver-washed Fritillaries – one of our larger butterflies that love the sunny rides and clearings in mature woodlands.

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A Silver-washed Fritillary in Symondshyde Great Wood near St Albans

If you come across a tattered-winged, orangey-brown butterfly you have probably found a Comma butterfly – so called for the tiny white ‘comma’ mark on its under-wing.  The ragged-edged wing when closed perfectly mimics a dead leaf on a branch but once opened the beautiful orange and black markings are as striking as any butterfly.  For me the Comma is the perfect bridge between summer and autumn – the beautiful flickering colours of its upper-wing closing to the leafy autumn browns of the underside.

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A Comma butterfly – note the clear white ‘comma’ mark on the underwing

It seems very fitting that this aptly named butterfly, the Comma, should punctuate the seasonal shift.  It is time to take a breath and take in the beauty of summer before the cycle starts again.

To read this article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click here

Have you heard the Cuckoo Clock?

In April come he will,

In May he sings all day,

In June he changes his tune

In July away he will fly

And in August, go he must!

This old rhyme sets a natural calendar for spring and summer based on the Cuckoo’s activities.  It is now July when ‘away he will fly’, but I wonder how many of us have seen or even heard a cuckoo this year?

I haven’t, at least not locally in the St Albans area.  I have enjoyed them in the oases of RSPB nature reserves in Kent, Suffolk and Somerset but not on my doorstep – and yet they used to call in my garden, a herald of spring and a sound of summer.

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The Cuckoo Cuculus canorus – photo by ERNI (Shutterstock)

The sad truth is that Cuckoos are in decline and over the last 20 years the number of birds visiting our shores has decreased by over half.  This iconic bird – famous for its simple song and infamous for its cuckold ways – is in danger of vanishing from our cultural experience.  No other bird is perhaps as imbedded in our cultural conscience as the cuckoo that has for centuries kept time and marked the spring and summer seasons.

From Aristotle, through Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth and beyond, the Cuckoo has been given mention and lent it’s name to many colloquialisms such as ‘cuckoo’s shoe’ for bluebells, ‘cuckoo’s leader’ for the wryneck (now extinct as a British breeding bird) and ‘cuckoo spit’ – the frothy blobs of foam found on plants in the springtime.  None of these – bluebells, wrynecks or cuckoo-spit – have anything to do with the cuckoo other than timing – they all coincide with the Cuckoo’s arrival and of course, the arrival of the much looked-forward to springtime.

But our cultural ‘cuckoo clock’ is fast becoming merely a cultural memory – a redundant reference akin to Beyoncé singing about ‘pagers’ or the hip-hop duo OutKast telling us to “shake it like a Polaroid picture”.  Craig David sings, “you left all your money on the TV” but I can’t help feeling that, just like our modern ultra-thin TVs are no longer the place we can reliably put things on, so the Cuckoo has ceased to be a substantial part of our natural furniture.

Spring has come and gone and, by and large, we did not see the Cuckoo come, sing all day or change his tune.  This has led the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) to set up The Cuckoo Project to investigate why Cuckoo numbers have declined and specifically to ask the question what happens to Cuckoos when, come July, away they fly to Africa?

Now, thanks to developments in technology, Cuckoos are being satellite-tracked on their journeys across Europe and down into the impenetrable swamp forests of the Congo basin of central Africa where they will over-winter.  Already the data has revealed that Cuckoos must decide on one of two routes:  a western route via Spain and Morocco or an eastern route via the ‘boot’ of Italy. Most birds it seems have a preferred route while a few alternate routes year to year.  The western route to date however has shown a lower survival rate.

One Cuckoo, nicknamed ‘Chris’ after the TV presenter Chris Packham, successfully made seven trips across the Sahara before meeting his end.  The tracking project is still live on the BTO website and individual Cuckoo’s progress, each with their own nickname, can be viewed on a day–to-day basis.  True to the rhyme, this year, most of the adult parent cuckoos are leaving or have already left and are now headed south through France.

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The BTO’s Cuckoo Tracking Project – find out more here

As I write this article, ‘Cameron the Cuckoo’, having left the New Forest on 7thJune arrived in northern France on 12thJune.  Even keener to get going was ‘Raymond the Cuckoo’ who has already reached northern Spain and has obviously decided to take the western route.  ‘Larry’ on the other hand is in the Balkans, clearly preferring the eastern route. Not so eager to leave is cuckoo ‘Carlton II’ who remains at home in the coastal marshes of Suffolk.

It is a fascinating project and viewing the live maps of the birds’ progress south one cannot but help feel concerned for the cuckoos’ safety and wellbeing. Hopefully each bird will return successfully next spring but with each mile they provide valuable data.  Much is still to be learnt about ‘our’ Cuckoos but the research is beginning to fill in the picture as far as the risks facing Cuckoos are concerned.

Hopefully, with more than just the summer snapshot we have had of Cuckoos in the past we will now be better placed to conserve their numbers.  Maybe, a little like the Polaroid camera, Cuckoos will after all enjoy a comeback in Britain and their simple summer soundtrack will be current again!

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Dragonflies & Drones

One of my favourite summer activities as a child was pond-dipping.  I was fortunate enough to grow up in a house with a fairly large pond in the garden and so my pond-dipping activities often extended over days and weren’t as much dipping as a thorough exploration of the life in the pond.

Using a net and numerous containers of various sizes I would sift through the murky waters, peeling layers of rotting leaves apart, to see what might be hiding there.  Invariably anything alive would wiggle vigorously on exiting the pond so I would lay the contents of my scoops out and watch for movement.  Anything of interest would be plopped into one of my containers for closer inspection.

I was fascinated by the tiny bouncing daphnia or ‘water fleas’ that I would sometimes extract for even closer examination under a microscope.  Water beetles also scurried away seeking any corner they could find but best of all were the newts.  These tiny lizard-like creatures always delighted and were big enough to hold in the hand and examine close-up.

Just occasionally, another creature would appear amongst the siftings – a menacing-looking larva with six legs and bulging eyes.  Inhabitants of the dark recesses of the pond, these creatures, 3 or 4 cm in length, seemed to be from an alien world.  They were in fact dragonfly nymphs, biding their time at the bottom of the pond, eating voraciously and devouring whatever small creature crossed their path, from snails and tadpoles, to water fleas and worms.

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A Dragonfly nymph – photo by Vitalii Hulai (Shutterstock)

Fearsome predators, at least for much of the tiny pond life, I always handled these nymphs with nervous respect just incase (in my child’s mind’s eye) they nipped my finger.  Of course, dragonfly nymphs are prey themselves to larger aquatic life such as fish and birds but nevertheless, moulting up to fifteen times during their life in the pond, they can afford to lose a leg or two before their final form.

And that final form are the beautiful winged insects that we know and love, that having climbed heavenwards from the depths of the pond as full-grown nymphs, emerge in late spring and summer to whizz around bejeweling rivers and ponds with their sparkly metallic and iridescent colours.  Yet, in reality, we see only a brief few weeks of the dragonfly’s life for up to two years of its life is spent as a nymph growing in the shadows.

Every summer I would examine the tall flag irises at the pond’s edge to find the dried-out exoskeletons of the nymphs still clinging to the stems, a fading memory of a life spent in the dark underworld of the pond.  It is perhaps this murky past that has often given the dragonfly a sinister reputation in folklore.  Certainly, their huge, bulging, high-performance eyes give a sense of the alien and the discovery of their prehistoric ancestors with wingspans of up to two feet fuels the notion that these insects are from another world.

With the help of a number of fantasy movies it is not hard to imagine dragonflies and their nymphs being cast in some futuristic role to terrify us and threaten human extinction, but the future, as far as dragonflies are concerned, could be even stranger than science fiction.  Research engineers at Draper, a US research laboratory, have been working on a project called DragonflEye that blurs the lines between insect and machine. By genetically modifying a dragonfly’s nerve system the engineers are able to fit a tiny backpack to the dragonfly that ‘plugs-in’ to the insect’s nerve cord and allows engineers to steer the dragonfly remotely.  The result is a new kind of hybrid drone that combines miniaturized navigation, synthetic biology and neurotechnology to guide the dragonfly.

The ability to control such a small flying insect opens up incredible possibilities in many fields: for instance, it has been suggested that honeybees, whose population has collapsed by half in the last 25 years, could one day be equipped with Draper’s technology to assist with pollination.  I must admit that I personally find these developments far more scary than any fantasy film but recognise the significance of such pioneering work.

The technology is still being developed and we are hopefully a long way off seeing dragonflies with mini-backpacks on!  If there’s one thing that the research engineers agree on in trying to harness the dragonfly’s steering mechanism it is that the dragonfly itself cannot be improved on.  So let’s enjoy the real thing this summer – there’s nearly 60 species (including damselflies) to look for in the UK – and why not have a closer look at the reedy margins of ponds and rivers to see if you can find their empty nymph cases still clinging to the stems.

To read this article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click here.

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A Southern Hawker Dragonfly Aeshna cyanea – one of about 3000 species worldwide (photo by Steve Round)

 

Make an Appointment with the Dawn Chorus!

This last weekend, on Sunday, it was International Dawn Chorus Day: an event instigated in the 1980s after Chris Baines, a then TV presenter, reputedly invited friends to celebrate his birthday at 4am so that they could listen to the dawn chorus of birdsong.

Of course, the dawn chorus had been going on for many millennia before that, but it was the official day established in 1987 that ever since has highlighted, celebrated and promoted one of nature’s great wonders and one which we, living in a temperate region of the world, get to enjoy every spring.

Living in suburban St Albans the dawn chorus in spring is almost guaranteed from your bedroom window wherever you live.  You may not think there are that many birds in your garden but thankfully birdsong is not defined or contained by our fences and boundaries.  Instead, quite the opposite is true as birdsong declares and defines nature’s boundaries through song.  The dawn chorus is a bout of aural jousting between birds that the writer and naturalist, Mark Cocker, describes as “their version of territorial warfare conducted through music”.

Rising to the top of the singing charts in spring is the Blackbird whose patient and quiet practicing of his song during the winter months from the dark depths of a bush finally pays off. His squeaky winter sub-song endured the punching tones of his relative the Song Thrush and now emerges as the sound of spring – a soft warbling meditation that is the soothing backdrop to every first barbecue.  The song brings a depth to spring and a richness that wasn’t there in the winter months for each Blackbird is answered by a rival bird, maybe a few gardens away, and that in turn is gently rebuffed by another even more distant bird.  A luxuriant layer of sound is added to our landscape and enriches the balm of a warm spring day.

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The Blackbird (Turdus merula) – photo by Mirko Graul (Shutterstock)

The name ‘Dawn Chorus’ is bit of a misnomer in that if you rise as the sun appears the chances are you will have missed the main performance that actually begins a good hour before sunrise. It may be that you are well aware of this having been woken recently, like me, well before the alarm clock is due to go off, by the repetitive ‘squeaky wheelbarrow’ song of the Great Tit or the angry cries of Crows seeing off a skulking fox before first light. This is no way to enjoy the dawn chorus and if there is one thing I would encourage every person to do this spring it is this:  to make an appointment with the dawn chorus and get out in it!

This of course means setting the alarm clock for 4am, maybe even earlier, and getting outside, ideally in as rich a natural habitat as possible.  Sticking your head out of the bedroom window will give you a taste of what’s on offer but to be out in nature as the dawn chorus swells, rises and unfolds all around you is intoxicating.  Birdsong is beautiful but when combined in unison with the first light of dawn, the sweet smell of May blossom and the cool dew on shining gossamer threads you are left looking for your next fix.

Every year I make a pilgrimage to Kent in May for a mad day of birdwatching – the rough aim being to see as many different birds in a 24-hour period as possible.  It is a hangover from university days when a group of us raced around Kent as part of a yearly countywide sponsored competition. However, it is not the ‘day count’ as such that draws me back and the competitive flavour to the day has long since gone:  it is the chance to be out in nature at dawn and experience one of the best dawn choruses that the UK has to offer.

In an undeniably crazy rejection of the messages our bodies naturally give us we start in a marshland setting at midnight where the birds never really go quiet.  Bitterns boom, cuckoos call and marsh frogs holler – at times it is deafening.   We then move on to a parkland setting at 4am where the tentative song of redstarts ring out in the pre-dawn darkness, interspersed by the amphibian calls of roding woodcock and squeaking baby owls.  And then it breaks, slowly at first but quickly overwhelming:  the full voice of the parkland birdsong rises with the sun, banishing the lingering mist patches and warming every leaf in a carpet of song.

It is exhilarating, uplifting, deafening and any thoughts that it would have been better to stay in bed vanish as nature’s drug takes full effect.  My appointment with dawn is this Friday…when will yours be?

To read this article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click here.