Saturday, 26 April 2014

Easter Egg-ventures

Well, I had to get an Easter pun in somewhere. I realised that this little blog has been a bit neglected for the last couple of weeks as the Easter holiday came to a close and the summer term started. Here is what I have been up to, with some exciting updates about our blue tits!


My parents house

The first time my fiance visited my parents' house with me, he said he could see why I was so interested in nature. I hadn't really thought about this before, but he does have a point. Their house has a big garden, with lots of suitable trees for birds to hide and perch in. We saw a number of different birds queuing up for the bird feeders, especially for their new sunflower heart feeder. My mum wanted to attract the goldfinches she had seen in the area, so I suggested this, and it seems to have worked - although I never was fast enough with my camera to get them. Here are just a few of the birds I was fast enough to catch, but there were more, most notably sparrows! We don't see sparrows hardly ever where we live in Norfolk, so it's always a treat to watch them and listen to them chattering away to each other when we head back to Cambridge.

A pair of green finches enjoying their sunflower hearts

A little wren who has a fondness for foraging in my dad's hanging baskets and pot plants

Not quite in focus - A parent and young dunnock who we watched harass its parent mercilessly

A slightly calmer dunnock perching on a fence

Wicken Fen

We also took the opportunity to visit a National Trust nature reserve about half an hour outside of Cambridge which I remember visiting during sixth form for my biology A-level. We last visited over a year and a half ago where we saw our first bull finch ever. Unfortunately, our timing was bad this year, we managed to coincide with a children't Easter egg hunt... and it would seem lots of small loud children and wildlife don't mix all that well... Although as the day warmed up we did start to see a number of butterflies, even if our bird count was relatively low. We also saw some (I think) water beetles in one of the streams, which were making wonderful patterns of ripples in the water. Here is a little of what we saw.

Chaffinch singing - took a while to track down who was making such a racket, but I can now add his song to the bird songs I am slowly memorising.

Male house sparrow - I love these cheeky little birds, and wish I saw more of them where I live in Norfolk
Some kind of water beetle? Regardless, they made mystical patterns on the water

Hoverfly of the genus Eristalis (thank you again, these critters keep fooling me with their mimicry too, I think I need to learn a few more of them.

Speckled wood butterfly - my first one this year

Small tortoiseshell butterfly, possibly newly emerged from the way he was glistening in the sun


Our local patch

From our wanderings around our local patch and our views of our bird feeders, there has been lots of new action and species to report. Our greater spotted woodpecker is back (or perhaps it is a new one) in all his splendour, bullying our flock of starlings for a share in the 'bird cakes'. Bluebells have sprung, although I am seeing far more of the Spanish variety than our native ones. Also, one of our resident collared doves has built a nest in a tree in our carpark, and her young have now fledged.
Collared dove sitting on her car park nest. I have seen one fledgeling since this photo was taken.

Male small white butterfly. Apparently the female has two spots, but the male only has one, if any, on the hindwings.

A cheeky squirrel clambering through the trees

A blue tit posing nicely for the camera

Spanish bluebells

Our beautiful greater spotted woodpecker who has just started visiting our bird feeders again this year.

Our school blue tits

Our little bird box and blue tits is causing much excitement - the female has now laid 11 eggs, and I think she started incubating on Monday 21st April, so hopefully we will have little fluffy blue tit chicks in the next week or two. Watch this space!

As well as our lovely blue tits, we have also been down to visit our beehives this week. Our number one beekeeper also keeps bees at home, and they had swarmed. He brought in a box of bees to fill our empty hive, then fed them. Watching them was fantastic, and I'm really looking to going on the bee keeping course later this year. I'll try to remember my camera next time we visit our bees!

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Sleeping Sandpipers and Broody Blue Tits

Spring in Southsea

Being so close to the sea is always a treat when we visit Southsea. We had a few walks down to the seafront, and I was very happy to see, on every occasion, a little flock of purple sandpiper - even if they were always dozing! It seems that we are very lucky to see them here, I hadn't realised quite how lucky we have been; according to the distribution maps, they shouldn't really be here. I would assume that they won't be here much longer either, spring is well and truly on it's way and they should be heading back to Northern Europe to breed.

I also decided to do some bee-watching in the back garden; there seemed to be no end of different species, none of which I could be sure of. The only one that obliged to be photographed by staying still long enough was this little hover fly, Myathropa florea. Thank you again people of iSpot for helping to identify!

Myathropa florea

Spanish bluebell

Spring in my Local Patch

We haven't walked around our local patch, the water meadows just off the A140 (see my-local-patch), in a good few weeks, so the change in vegetation cover has been pretty spectacular; everything is very green! Even the bluebells are out, although they are Spanish bluebells, Hycacinthoides hispanica, rather than our native bluebells. I have only really started to pay attention to the differences this year, and I am hoping that when we do visit my favourite woods at Foxley, I will find they are at least mostly native ones! On of the best places I have found to aid identification is here:

I had a few other sightings on our walk yesterday, and another first for the year; a large white butterfly, Pieris brassicae, that settled and allowed a photo or two. I was also at work in Reepham today and saw my first orange-tip butterflies of the year, but unfortunately I was not equipped with my camera, nor was I fast enough to follow them!

Large white butterfly

I have also been on the lookout for frogspawn, but have failed to find any as yet. About a month ago, we saw a huge number of common frogs mating in the side-shoots from the river Wensum that runs through our local patch, so I'm remaining hopeful that we might find some soon.

All of a sudden, the trees seem to be full of grey squirrels, and they are certainly not being shy or retiring! Everywhere we look there seem to be squirrels performing acrobatics and generally being loud and boisterous. One stayed still just long enough for a photo.

Grey squirrel

Even more local, in our car park, a collared dove seems to have picked the most exposed place to build a nest, in the fork of a rather bare birch tree, and right at the entrance to the car park... She's been incubating for over a week now, so hopefully we'll have some cute and fluffy chicks soon.

Collared dove nest

Spring at School

Staying on the theme of nests, I have some very good news about our school bird box. We've been watching the blue tits hopping in and out, beginning to build then changing their minds about what to use, and now, finally, we can see the fruits of their labour. There are at least six eggs in their nest as of today, much to my excitement, and to the excitement of some of my year 12s who were in school revising. The female is not yet incubating, so I'm hopeful that she will lay more, and I am equally hopeful that we will not miss too much over the next week of the holiday!

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Spring Strumpshaw Spectacles

It's official. Spring is here! The swallows, house martins and sand martins told me so at Strumpshaw Fen today. It wasn't only members of the Hirundinidae family we saw either, the marsh harriers were out in full force, as were some common lizards that appeared out of nowhere. You can see all of the species we spotted in my diary entry here, along with a couple of sketches for #dabday (Draw A Bird Day) today.

It was beautiful, if breezy day, and as I was a with a friend who had not been to the reserve before, we had a long stomp about, down all of the possible paths and visited both hides. There seemed to be marsh harriers in whichever direction we looked; often with at least four in the sky at any one time. One was carrying something around in his talons whilst we were watching, possibly nesting material. Even though you're almost guaranteed to see them here, today was spectacular for views of them in flight.

One of the marsh harriers

Pair of marsh harriers circling
Our other surprise finds of the day were three common lizards hiding on a little track, two of which gave us enough time to take a few shots!

Common lizard basking in the sunshine
In the woods we also saw two nuthatch clambering up two trees, another first for the year for me. There were also several pairs of great crested grebe on the water. It is amazing the difference that only a few weeks can make; last time I was here, it was cold, muddy, wet, and although still a beautiful place, very brown. Today, it was bright, green and had that beautiful earthy and boggy smell wherever we went. The birds were all in full song too, even if they didn't always show themselves. There were even a few bluebells starting to show their nodding heads. I think our next visit will have to be the ancient woodland of Foxley Woods to see the carpets of bluebells. I'll keep my fingers crossed that they are as spectacular as last year!

Blue tit update:

As of Monday 7th April, this was the progress made by the blue tits in their nest!

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Wildlife at Work

This is my first proper post about attempting to get the pupils I teach involved in wildlife, so for those of you who are not familiar with the school environment, I will give you a short introduction. Schools are interesting places to work. Each day is never quite the same, they can be brilliant, and they certainly have their challenges too. But, unlike some would lead you to believe, it is not all doom and gloom! We do have fun (pupils and staff alike), and there are lots of opportunities to get involved in almost anything...

2013 and 2014 Big Schools'
Birdwatch certificates
I run STEM Club at my school, that is 'Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths' Club. As part of this, I have managed to purchase and set up some great wildlife resources, like a bird box with installed camera that my tutor group and I are keeping close tabs on, and our bird feeders that are set up near the library -  a big help for the Big Schools' Birdwatch!

Noctuid moth chrysalis'
I also have a pop up 'butterfly garden'. I am planning on ordering the painted lady caterpillars that come as part of it soon, but at present I am guardian of seven moth chrysalis' (I've recently learnt they are not cocoons, because cocoons are the silky protection around the chrysalis). They have been in hibernation since the beginning of December, just after the caterpillars were saved from the greenhouse and delivered to my lab. After doing some research, it seems they may be Noctuid or owlet moths, but with over 35,000 known species of this type of moth, I think I'll have to wait until they emerge to really find out what they are!

We are also having discussions about what we're going to do with our 'wildlife garden' and 'nature area'. The wildlife garden once had a pond, but hasn't for a long time, and we want to get it back to how it should be, with a complete pond and wildflowers to make it a haven for wildlife once more. That will then make it a brilliant resource for the ecology based projects that the science department carry out, and as an extra-curricular resource too. Our nature area also has some fantastic aims; there will be raised beds to grow fruit and vegetables, there are the beginnings of an orchard, and there will be swathes of wildflowers to help the honey bees that we keep. This is a fantastic time because we are just starting to flesh out our ideas about exactly what to include and how we're going to do it, and the pupils will be helping us a lot with that.

I will finish with some of the action from our bird box thus far - the blue tits have been very busy this week, today in particular, and their nest seems to be almost ready! They are causing so much excitement, even in our year 11 and sixth form classes. Anyone walking down the corridor must wonder what's going on when there is a sudden "Oh! There's a BIRD!"
Date: 17th March 2014

Date: 18th March 2014

Date: 18th March 2014

Date: 18th March 2014

Date: 18th March 2014

Date: 31st March 2014