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)

 

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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.

 

Make your Love of Nature Count!

To read this article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click here: Nature Notes – January 2018

I have to confess to having a love-hate relationship with statistics – perhaps this is true of most people? Statistics, numbers, charts and tables have the power to petrify us in boredom and the subsequent analysis can lead to mental paralysis! And yet all that collected data is powerful – it tells us things we need to know and informs us about action we need to take. This of course is no less true when it comes to data about wildlife.

I have always subconsciously resisted serious data collection and analysis when it comes to my love of nature. For me it is like reducing my marital relationship to how many times I’ve bought flowers, washed up or provided a taxi service for the kids. I love nature, like I love my wife, and any form of serious statistical analysis feels reductionist and, well, unromantic.

Nature, for me, has always been a kind of romance with magical moments of discovery, vast swathes of beauty and complexity, and layers of mystery and wonder. The words of the biblical proverb resonate with me, “There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a young woman.” (Proverbs 30:18-19)

And so I have been a reluctant latecomer to data collection and analysis, but like so many things I have initially resisted, it has proved rewarding in its own way. Regularly recording and submitting my observations to organisations such as the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) via BirdTrack their online data collection portal, has demanded of me a more rigorous approach to nature observation – not just vague incomplete lists, but times, dates and numbers recorded over regular, sustained periods.

All of this has been counter-intuitive to me but it has deepened my understanding of the places I go and the wildlife that inhabits them. Regular detailed observations have revealed patterns and behaviours that I wouldn’t otherwise have appreciated: the Little Owl’s favourite tree; the best time to watch gulls amassing in their pre-roost flocks and when they will have left for their final roost; and more recently, the feeding habits of Hawfinches – their love of hornbeam seeds. This in turn has led me to become expert in identifying hornbeam trees as this winter, as never before, finding hornbeams gives you a very good chance of finding that elusive finch!

While I never want to lose that sense of open-mouthed wonder when it comes to the natural world there are also moments that give pause for thought when we realize all is not perhaps as it should be. In the last thirty years, House Sparrows, Spotted Flycatchers and Swallows have vanished from my garden, both as breeders but also even as visitors. It seems that, in the same way that we occasionally have to sit down as a married couple and work out how to make improvements when things aren’t working, we must also stop and work out our relationship with nature.

Birds and wildlife that might feel scarce in our area may turn out to be thriving elsewhere, however, the data is often revealing a decline on a national scale. Swallows and House Sparrows really are vanishing and Spotted Flycatchers have all but gone. The observations that I have made in my own garden over the years suddenly connect me to a wider world of nature and a greater understanding for what may be at stake for the birds visiting my garden.

This weekend (27th-29th Jan) is the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch and an opportunity for everyone who has a garden, however small, to do some serious (but not onerous) data collecting and contribute to the latest snapshot of the state of our nation’s birdlife. By spending just one hour recording what you see in your garden and submitting the data to the RSPB you will be making sure the national picture that emerges is as accurate as possible.

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Last year’s survey revealed that Greenfinch numbers have declined by 66% in the UK over the last 10 years.  The species may now be added to the conservation ‘Red List’ of most endangered species in the UK.  Photo by Steve Round

Equally it’s an opportunity to connect with your nearest green space and one that often gets overlooked most of the week, especially at this cold time of year. Gardens by their very definition are enclosed spaces but not to the birds that visit. Instead they are vast arterial networks of greenery providing food, shelter and migratory routes for thousands of birds right across urban spaces.

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So switch off the TV for an hour and tune in instead to the natural world on your doorstep – you may be surprised at just how many birds visit your garden in an hour. For more information and to participate in the Big Garden Birdwatch visit: www.rspb.org.uk

Where People and Nature are thriving…

Please click on this link to read my Christmas 2017 “Nature Notes” as it appears in the Herts Advertiser:  Where People & Nature are thriving…

Where People and Nature are thriving…

This time, two years ago, we decided to get a dog.  It was a decision that marked the end of a long period of resistance on my part.  I was not so much a ‘dog-hater’ as a ‘dog dis-liker’, but a clever pincer movement by the rest of the family left me out-manoeuvred.  Added to this, chinks were beginning to appear in my own armour, as I had to concede that recently acquired pups of friends weren’t entirely unlikable.

And so, on Christmas Day, two years ago, we ‘unwrapped’ the decision to the absolute delight of the children.  There were shouts of glee, tears of joy and Christmas was made. A month later we collected a tiny black bundle of wobbly fur and our hearts melted, including mine.

Max, as we named him, was here to stay and, though there were occasional early moments when I wished he wasn’t, two years on and he is a fully integrated and accepted member of the family.  He brings much needed laughter, energy and madness to our lives that are all the more rich for it.

I think one of my fears as I surveyed the prospect of dog ownership was that my lovely quiet walks in the countryside would come to an end.  I had images of a dog routing every form of wildlife that could flee and relieving himself on every part that couldn’t.

Never for a minute did it cross my mind that rather than detract from my enjoyment of nature he would actually add to it.  Not only has he proved an excellent companion, warrant- ing the title “a man’s best friend”, but he has also, in subtle but significant ways, helped bridge the gap between the human and the natural.

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“One Man & His Dog” – Me and Max out on a walk – photo by Kathy Evershed

We are so used to hearing about the negative impact that we as humans have on the natural world that it is easy to assume a chasm exists between us:  the needs and habits of humans appearing irreconcilable with those of nature.  I think this perception underlay my concerns about getting a dog and that this human habit of dog walking would somehow seal that disconnect with nature.

I was wrong, and walking this domesticated animal has taken me down new paths (literally) and led me to reevaluate our relationship with the natural world.  With the need to find suitable dog walks not far from home I have begun to explore what I think of as the “edgelands” of St Albans – the zones where houses and the built environ- ment give way to more rural areas and countryside.  There is an intensity about these areas as urban recreation mixes with farming practices and busy paths and roads parcel up the land.

In the past, I had chosen more remote locations for my walks, away from built-up areas, away from people and away from dogs on the assumption that my experience of nature would be that much richer.  But, led by the dog, I have discovered these busy ‘edge- lands’, a truly domesticated landscape, to be far wealthier in wildlife than I had ever imagined.  In fact, they appear to be more bountiful than the undisturbed and undoubtedly more scenic countryside walks I have done elsewhere.

One of my favourite “edgeland” walks is around Highfield Park and the surrounding farmland on the southeastern edge of St Albans.  Prior to owning a dog I hadn’t really explored this corner of suburban St Albans, albeit only a short distance from home, but it has proved itself a treasure trove of wildlife.

Despite the constant roar of the dual carriageway bordering the area, the hedgerows and fields are rich in birdlife.  Consequently an array of predators – kites, foxes, buzzards and the occasional peregrine – are regulars here.  Two sets of little owls have found a home in old tree holes, one overlooking the noisy games of kids’ football held every weekend.  The site is also home to some of the largest populations of breeding yellow- hammers in the area – a species on the conservation Red List due to its rapid decline in the UK.

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A Yellowhammer – photo by Steve Round

Clearly the park managers at Highfield and the local farmers are doing something right but what I find most striking is that all of this wildlife is thriving in the midst of busy human activity.  When we are so often cast in the role of either the destroy- ers of nature or its saviour it is gratifying to find evidence of a happy co-existence. I wonder if I would have appreciated this had not that domesticated dog, embodying the link between his wild ancestors and his human owners, demanded a walk?  Good boy Max!

Winter Chills but Nature Thrills…

Please click on this link to read my November 2017 “Nature Notes” as it appears in the Herts Advertiser: Winter Chills but Nature Thrills…

Winter Chills but Nature Thrills…

I had been wondering if she would be there. I had encountered what looked like the remains of her feasting along the path. The telltale circle of piled feathers that indicated a pigeon devoured, plucked breast up, the carcass taken for final pickings by its captor.

Usually I would attribute such feathery leftovers as the work of a sparrowhawk but today the pile is huge, with a wide radius, as if something far more powerful has torn and plucked the bird. Around me too the landscape has shifted closer to winter when I would most expect to see her again.

And there she is, perched midway up the pylon, busy preening and cleaning herself. Her size and plumage tell me she is an adult female peregrine, returning hopefully to her wintering grounds – my ‘local patch’. Her dark black hood speaks suitably of the skilled executioner she is. Indeed at my very feet another pile of pigeon feathers ruffle in the breeze. She has been busy and now clearly is engaged in a post-postmortem cleanup.

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A juvenile Peregrine with its prey (a Moorhen) – photo by Steve Blake

Peregrines must bathe daily to clean off the inevitable blood and guts of their hunting lifestyle. It is a little observed behaviour of the bird, known better for its aerial supremacy and powerful stooping dives on prey. It is behaviour that I have been lucky enough to observe at a local gravel pit. I watched, in that instance, a young peregrine, bedraggle itself at the water’s edge, unusually vulnerable and ruffled. Nothing mobbed it, no crow swooped down to take advantage of the predator’s pause. I wonder if it was just simply because the peregrine was unrecognizable, stripped of its threatening prowess and hidden in its bath-time obscurity.

Such behaviour was written about by that great admirer of the peregrine – JA Baker, who found his local peregrines returning again and again to a quiet spot along his local river in Essex. More recently a peregrine has been filmed washing at the edge of the River Thames in Central London, observed by the many tourists along the embankment.

The peregrine before me today may be a bird that has bred not too far away. Increasingly peregrines are being observed in the breeding season in nearby larger towns such as Watford and Luton, usually perched high on an industrial structure, always with a precipitous view and teetering ledge. Wherever this bird has come from, she commands the airways as she hunts from her pylon peaks – her own corridors of power.

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A juvenile Peregrine looks down from its pylon perch – photo by Steve Blake

I, for one, welcome the return of the peregrine – I expect the local farmer does too for it is the ultimate bird scarer! The bird never fails to add a thrill to the wider landscape and makes those ugly pylons objects of interest, to be scrutinized carefully lest they conceal a roosting peregrine.

Autumn has its own spring for while leaves fall and plants die back there are new arrivals, like the peregrine, that are as welcome a sight as returning migrants in March. Though they arrive on cold winds to a damp landscape they revitalize it with their busyness and the drama of their flocks. On the dullest day there is never a dull moment and this is nature’s gift to us if we can brace ourselves in the cold months ahead and leave the dull subfusc eye of electric bulbs and ceilinged spaces to get outside in it!

 

A Taxing Time of Year – Profit or Loss?

Please click on this link to read my October 2017 “Nature Notes” in the Herts Advertiser: A Taxing Time of Year – Profit or Loss?

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The humble Wood Pigeon – photo by Steve Round

 

Passenger Pigeon

The now extinct Passenger Pigeon – illustration by Nicolas Primola

 

Exotic Travellers in Herts’

Please click on this link to read my September 2017 “Nature Notes” in the Herts Advertiser: Exotic Travellers in Herts’

European Bee-Eaters

European Bee-eaters – photo by Wim Hoek (Shutterstock)