Thursday, 17 July 2014

Have You Seen This Butterfly?

Birdguides received news early this week that an unprecedented invasion of Scarce Tortoiseshell (also known as Yellow-legged Tortoiseshell) nymphalis xanthomelas La Vanesse du saule or Tortue à pattes jaunes  was taking place in the Netherlands — a country which had never previously recorded this eastern European species. There was until this week only one British record of this species, in 1953. Already a handful of new records has been confirmed in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex.

They're coming - are they on their way here? They are unknown in France too. My pocket guide describes them as preferring valley bottoms and willows - we've got plenty of those! All photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Scarce Tortoiseshell by J.M.Garg, taken at Kullu Distt., Himachal, India

Scarce Tortoiseshell by Alpsdake, Mount Gozaisho, Japan
The Scarce Tortoiseshell is sometimes referred to as the Large Tortoiseshell. The latter name now belongs to Nymphalis Polychloros, which looks very similar, but has brown legs, hence its other name Black-Legged Tortoiseshell (er...). This species is native to Western Europe and we occasionally see them here.

As you see, they look very similar!

By Algirdas
By Algirdas. Image rotated through 90 degrees
Here's a comparison:




Monday, 14 July 2014

Only its mother ...

... could think a moorhen chick was beautiful. They are bald, beaky balls of black fluff. These two little chaps (taken 25th June) have a certain cuteness about them, I suppose. They usually go to the edge of the millstream under the overhanging vegetation to be fed.

Wot? Eh wot? Anyone there?

These two were scrambling around in the iris leaves. They used their stubby wings like grapples to climb over the stems.


Myrtle is always in charge, of feeding, of cleaning up afterwards, of construction work.

Removing a faecal sac

But how many chicks are there? And - how many Myrtles? This bird seems at some point to have injured a wing, and never gets it quite flat against its body.

Count the fuzzy black blobs. Are they chicks or shadows?

Three chicks. And the one at the back is bigger. Hang on, is that another leg?

How many chicks?

Yes, it's another leg. And where did the other one at the front come from? Five chicks.


On Saturday (6th July) it rained heavily. Myrtle swung into action to reinforce her brood platform. On Sunday (7th July) she continued, while the second adult led the chicks upstream out of the way. Myrtle worried at the iris stems around the platform area, her activity highlighted by the sudden onset of vigorous shaking of a small group of leaves that could not be attributed to the water flow. Only occasional glimpses of her could be seen, which is her purpose in selecting that nest site and winning it against all odds. When a leaf finally broke off, she immediately took it to the platform and got weaving. At one point she came in with a poplar leaf, and that went in too. She worked at this for over an hour, while yours truly watched, fascinated.

Myrtle only stopped when a small flotilla of mallards barged through the middle of the iris bed. This was an adult female (cane) with three well grown youngsters (canetons) at least as big as she was. La cane could easily have been "our" duck whose progress we observed over so many weeks. If so, she did well to raise three ducklings to the point where they will soon be independent. Myrtle's crew has a long way to go before that stage.

She had to reinforce the platform again today (14th July). The second adult seemed rather dithery, swimming up and down aimlessly most of the time, although she may have been guarding the chicks again. One chick insists on staying with Myrtle, and was treated to a sharp peck for getting out of hand. In one furious burst of activity the adults were working together, Myrtle (the dominant bird, generally the female in any kind of pair) was working on the platform while her helper carried materials in from the bank.

The helper is probably a daughter, a younger sibling or even an aunt. This kind of cooperation outside the pair bond is found normally between birds that are related. She has a small platform of her own, under the far bank. And some day she may become Myrtle and take over the iris bed.

Monday, 7 July 2014

The kingfisher trap

According to Tim, Bill Oddie described the "Kingfisher Trap" on one of his wildlife TV programs, but short of buying the DVD boxed sets and playing them all, I couldn't say which one. I have a small side bet on "How to Watch Wildlife", a series first broadcast on BBC2 in early 2005.

The reasoning behind the Kingfisher Trap goes like this:
  • birds never sit still
  • when they sit still, you can't see them properly
  • when you can see them properly, you haven't got your camera with you
  • so you provide them with a perch positioned where you can see it, and you sit there with your camera and take pictures when the bird turns up.
It works.

My first ever picture of a kingfisher - an adult male

All you do is fix a pole over the water where the electric blue bullet whizzes to and fro, making that piercing "Hweet" call. This one is over the millstream, visible (after a little judicious gardening) from the bedroom window. You still have to find a way of persuading your kingfisher to stay long enough to focus the camera, but that's down to the likely prey in the chosen stretch of water. No prey, no stay.

Other birds like to use the kingfisher trap, too. It provides a convenient spot for an incoming bird with food for chicks to check that all is well and no predators are watching before going to the nest.

Female blackcap with breakfast

This pair of blackcaps has a second brood, having successfully raised about four from the first. They have relocated to the side of the tree nursery area, in a space previously occupied by a wren. She used the perch too, and is also on a second brood, somewhere.

Other species, such as grey wagtails, use the perch as a survey point to catch insects over the water. Last Friday a family group of at least four birds, adults and young, landed on the pole in great excitement. Unfortunately the evening sunlight was coming straight down the pole and all I got in the picture was a reflection of the camera.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Get off my cherries, you little beggars!

Outside our living room window is a cherry tree. It's been there for many years - planted by Richard Décharte's father - and the best view into its depths is from the guest room window. In winter we hang bird feeders in it. In spring it is a mound of blossom. We even provide a fluff dispenser - cat fur combings, dry moss and hemp wool - for them to line their dear little nests with and keep their babies warm. In June - it's every bird for himself. And the babies in particular.

This is what they are after:

Peck in place or carry out
The sweet cherry (cerise) is a cultivar of the wild cherry prunus avium cerisier sauvage, cerisier des oiseaux or merisier, sometimes hybridised with other species in the genus Prunus, mainly the sour cherry, prunus cerasus cerisier acide. We have no idea what variety this is, though going by its firm flesh it's probably some kind of bigarreau.

It seemed that all I had to do was point the camera at the tree and click, and somewhere in the image would be at least one bird stuffing itself. The tree is too tall for us to reach the top branches, so the birds can have those, but I wish they'd leave the ones  lower down!

Daddy blackbird - he takes whole cherries

Adult male blackbird - cherries make your beak glow

Immature blackbird

Immature blackcap

Two immature blackcaps, and a number of half cherries! Some hail damage, too.

Daddy blackcap - looking a trifle worn - with good reason, now on his second brood

Spotted flycatcher (right) standing lookout with a house sparrow

Blue tit - he did it siiiiide...ways

Immature house sparrow I never done nuffin, sweet little fellow I am

Immature house sparrow - right, is anyone looking?

Immature house sparrow - OK, let's get stuck in
More hail damage to the leaves

Here was the big surprise

Immature greater spotted woodpecker. Now which one shall I have?

There were also great tits, jays, crows, no doubt the woodpigeons had a few ... and when the cherries were all gone they turned to the redcurrants and snaffled the lot. At least there are still some whitecurrants, they don't understand those. Yet.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Brueeeuk! Puk-puk-puk

Or, she's done it! This morning we saw Myrtle the moorhen, back on her favourite flag iris bed with at least two newly hatched chicks. This is a definite case of the triumph of hope over adversity. There's no sign of a resident male - she must just have used her gentleman friend as a sperm donor. He probably came from a neighbouring territory where he had a mate of his own. That explains his somewhat shifty look as he sidled away. Myrtle appears to be a single parent by choice. That won't get her a council flat.

She has modified the ruins of the old nest to create a nursery platform on which she was brooding the chicks. As chicks will, they were shooting off in all directions, and she was rounding them up. Many of the iris leaves are arched over, and she has woven them together forming a bower in which she can hide them if she wants to.  In this picture, the yellow horizontal stems are part of the platform.

Myrtle's nursery
Unfortunately the growth of vegetation has made it almost impossible to photograph the little family, but we hope to bring you better pictures soon. Meanwhile...

Myrtle is behind the left hand teasel, and I'm sure that's the red head and yellow beak of a chick

Tuesday, 17 June 2014


On the D750 between Barrou and Descartes is the Sablière Bergeresse, a sand and gravel quarry currently undergoing "environmental improvements" on the boundary of La Guerche and Abilly. That is not the subject of this post. Just two fields along in the Descartes direction, on Sunday we saw a blue field. I thought at first sight it was linseed, but then realised it was a rape (colza) crop blued from end to end with cornflowers (centaurea cyanus, bleuet des champs). It's spectacular - worth a special trip just to see it.


As well as resuming their courtship, the tawny owls strix aluco chouette hulotte are moulting. I found a feather in the hanger on my potting bench, which had been in use the previous day. They were singing to each other in the  hangar during the night, exchanging trills and soft calls in the most intimate way. The acoustics of the hangar seem to suit them, with one metal wall, one mortared stone wall and two open sides, which allows for a quick exit, not to mention a selection of handy metal beams to perch on for singing, canoodling and grooming.

I found the second feather in the front garden a couple of days later, after another operatic exchange in the hangar. It is more obviously damaged than the first, having lost the tip.

Both feathers are coverts, which spring from the bird's "upper arm", as it were, and cover the bases of the main flight feathers. The first is a greater covert, and the second is I think a lesser covert, from  close to the bird's body.
From, diagram by Peter Grant

What gives them away as owl feathers is their velvety surface, which gives them a slightly out of focus look, and the fine fringes on the edges of the feather.

The part played by these features in flight is to break up the turbulence of the air passing over the bird's wing into smaller vortices, and smooth it out, thus reducing the noise made by the bird passing through the air. The smoothed air flows silently - thus the owl is silent in flight and attacks without the noise of its approach alerting its prey. You can read more about this here.

With thanks to Tim Dixon, tutor, Birdwatching, York Educational Settlement, early 1980s.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

A choosy Dame and some burst bubblewrap!

Saturday morning I rescued a rather worn looking, female Humming-bird Hawkmoth [Macroglossum stellatarum] Moro-Sphinx from the inside of the kitchen window.

This is one I took earlier.... 2006, actually!
Their larval foodplants are bedstraws....
here we have the biggest of the lot...
Goosegrass or Cleavers [Gallium aparine]Gaillet Gratteron.
I wish it wasn't so abundant....
it pulls my young trees over....
and then buries them completely...
so I released her where there was a patch that is unlikely to get the chop in the "foreseeable".

She immediately began to lay...
it was fascinating to watch...
I thought she was feeding at first....
but it dawned quite quickly that she was hovering mainly at the unopened tips.
She would hover up and down a tip...
decide it wasn't right, or too small...
then move to another.
If it was deemed suitable, she laid an egg...
by dabbing her tail against the underside of a leaf about two inches lower...
she chose nice fat tips...
presumably with plenty of growth to come.
I will keep an eye open on that patch....

On the subject of laying eggs, the daft Fox Moths have been at it again....
laying on the edge of the door frames....

Rather like little eyes... or perhaps humbugs?

and another, an Ubu moth [Unknown because unseen], laid a batch of eggs directly on the glass...

Little round marbles...

they seemed to be doing nothing and....
as they were in full sunlight...
I thought they'd probably cooked...
and then, just as Pauline and I were going out...
I noticed each one had a black dot....
"I'll photograph that later", thought I...
on our return...
they'd almost completely hatched out.

All hatched out....

These pix give some idea of the hatching out process...
some of them crawled away...
others abseiled down the three feet on home-spun silk!

...and almost all gone!!

Now all that is left is the burst bubblewrap!!

They were leaving silk trails before they left the vicinity of the egg mass!!

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Oh, deer

It's déjà vu all over again. Yesterday I spotted Myrtle the moorhen having a spot of nookie with a gentleman friend. She then drove him away. For the first time since her male went missing her "flags" were showing under her tail, and they continue to show as she puk-puk-puks up and down the millstream once more. She still isn't achieving much but all the signs are she's feeling happier, despite the destruction of her nest.

The tawny owls are repeating their courtship behaviour from the end of February: excited "yik-yik-yik-yik" calling by the female in the hangar on Wednesday night, with a softly hooted response from the male and a gruff intervention by another female, then the "huia" call from her and trilling from him on Thursday, which we recorded. The timescale seems somewhat telescoped, but this time the pair are not strangers to one another, not to mention that there is not much of the breeding season left. The trail camera has arrived, and we are going to see what we can see tonight.

Tawny owls do not have two broods in a year unless they lose the first one. The timing is just about right for a second brood, and going on Baron's hunting success there is an excellent supply of voles. Another possibility is that work at Moulin de Chevarnay may have destroyed the nest. The huge evergreen hedge (too fine for leylandii, I think they are thuyas} has been cut down from about five metres to one metre a couple of weeks ago. All the machinery for digging a fosse septique was there plus lorries taking away the spoil. The noise and people will have disrupted quite a few nesting birds. At least our view is enhanced by the distant roofs and weeping willow that we couldn't see before.

We have one newcomer to report - a roe buck Chevreuil européen (Capreolus capreolus). Tim spotted him yesterday lying in one of the mowed areas of the meadow. Today we both saw him under the nearest of the big old willows, or rather under a network of new growth projecting from an old fallen branch that remained connected to the tree. His antlers still have velvet on them, and he's scraped some of it off since yesterday. He's obviously found this to be an ideal spot to rest, scrape his antlers, feed and shelter from the rain.


More than just a pronghorn

Just as long as you stay out of the vegetable garden, matey. And the orchard. You don't know how good you taste.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Where there's life

The flag iris have reappeared as the waters of the bief begin to fall. The plant is flattened by the force of the flow and it's impossible to tell at this stage whether it will spring back up or stay like that. There is little sign of the moorhen's nest.

No point in trying to rebuild while the river's at this level...

However Myrtle has been through to check. She mooched about on the iris, pulling at a leaf here and there, then had a good groom and swam away.

Got to look your best if you're to find another mate