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.