3 Dec 2012

December 2012 Nature Notes - Pete Lambert

It cleaves so sweetly, the characteristic straight grain making the firewood pile grow steadily and with little effort. A short seasoning period is all that is needed and then on the fire to burn hot and easy.  I have a few long clefts saved for tool handles, hand shaped they are quirky and personal, the honey-yellow wood soaking up the impact of the swing, smoothing out each jarring whack.  Last week Sid’s side-axe and a favourite drawknife helped me cleave and carve a small chopping board to go in the rucksack for a leisurely mid ramble picnic. Whenever I work ash wood I get transported back to a heavy close planted Suffolk conifer stand where stately and ghost like, with its sandy coloured limbs twisted in sadness reaching up out of the gloom, a lonesome veteran ash tree had become locked away within the impinging rows. 

The recent alarm concerning the threat to our third most common native tree via an introduced fungal disease, Chalara fraxinea, has caused considerable debate and a steadily shifting variety of proclamations to confront this calamity. A number of personal thoughts occurred, firstly why have we been importing so many ash trees, when it so freely reproduces without any assistance from the attentions of a skilled nurseryman? And again why have we been planting trees without local provenance, wilfully importing genetic material against the standard advice of the Forestry Commission , Woodland Trust and the Wildlife Trust amongst other conservation organisations, advice which has been in place for decades! Sorry I have found myself ranting a little, and now calmer, what are we to do?

Infected nursery stock has been grubbed up and burnt, smart phone apps have been developed to help the wider public to identify the symptoms of the disease,[which are lesions in the bark and necrosis of the leaves, that’s dead bits at their tips] and the washing of dogs and small children.  Investigative activity will help track the infection as all good disease control should and in time understanding of the lifecycle of the fungus will help in prevention. It may in time prove that natural checks will limit the spread and the disease will just become another problem faced by our largest common living organisms, trees.

All trees are susceptible to disease, virus, insect attack, climatic change, atmospheric pollution, soil contamination, road salt spray, cat urine, and of course fungal attack to list but a few. Trees such as the oak can be virtually defoliated by moth larvae in the early summer, reducing photosynthetic resources, but the late summer Lammas growth occurs outside the lifecycle of the caterpillar and so the oak persists. As someone said today maybe the ash will decline in the ancient woodlands but the woodlands will remain. The most common tree in pre-history was the elm, the pollen record has shown that for reasons unknown this tree went into rapid decline about 5,500 years ago. The most recent cycles of Dutch elm disease have merely been attacking the remnants of a previously deep cloaking cover of elm. Later still, about 5100 years ago, the small leaved Lime went into decline, though it is felt this was attributable to pressure from early man and the palatability of the leaves and seedlings.

It is tempting to react to this crisis by planting lots of new trees, disease resistant, local provenance and in their millions. It is useful to reflect that In the aftermath of the 1987 storm, that smashed its way wilfully across the southern counties, a network of Tree wardens marshalled tree planting projects to ‘restore’ the woodlands. In the decade following the tree planting schemes had been overshadowed and suppressed by powerful natural regeneration that had been ignited by the sun reaching through the gale wrenched holes in the woodland canopy. The easiest way to secure the future of our woodlands regardless of their individual species make-up is to fiercely protect the woodlands we have already and for the new; simply enclose an open field, stop cutting and grazing, and nurture what nature delivers. Of course, I will also plant a tree or two to help nature on her way and fortunately Christmas is also the best time of year to do so!

Festive greetings,  Pete.

7 Nov 2012

UFO's discovered on The Wrekin!

A walk via the Badger Path to the top of Shropshire's most prominent hill often brings surprises. Things you didn't expect to see when you set out.

Once at the top I checked out the wear and tear on the summit where we'd rebuilt the top - you can see some of the protective layer is popping through the surface around the Toposcope and probably needs some attention.

Having then squeezed my way through the Needles Eye I took the path that runs along the eastern flank of the hill and there they were... UFO's!

I couldn't believe it but there was no mistaking it, and so many too! There was no-one else around to share this amazing discovery - not many people use, or even know about, this path so I was the only one to see them but don't worry I have photographic evidence and the best news is you'll all see this before the media gets hold of it (wooo... am I going to make some money with these pics or what?!).

Can you see them - the UFO's?

There are loads of them but most are quite small I'm afraid but if you look closely, very closely you'll see them... you might need to get a little closer to the screen... they all keep perfectly still and stand on one leg (some I noticed don't have a leg at all and sit straight on the ground). I haven't worked out yet how they move, they either hop or perhaps just glide - I'm not sure.

Can you see them now?


OK - I'll zoom in...

There they are... UFO's - Unidentified Fungus Oddities. They're really weird. There's hundreds of them and I counted 7 different forms; different colours, shapes and sizes.

Some of them troop down the hill in a line and are sort of funnel-shaped - we could call them Trooping Funnels

Others snuggle together to keep warm

Then there are some gorgeous looking ones like these

Where's Les ever when you need him?

Paul Watts

1 Nov 2012

November Nature Notes 2012 - Pete Lambert

The gloom of the public convenience was hardly inviting, very few public loos are such palaces that you rush inside to admire the fixtures and fittings, but at the end of a wet wander, necessity required a visit. The pale energy saving bulb flickered into life and revealed a denizen of this damp space, fully stretched out, halfway up the wall above the urinal, leopard striped and possibly hungry.  A slug! Yeuck!  Moments later I exited , I can wait I concluded and with care but speed headed home. 

That slug was very large and those mottles and stripes quite distinctive, quite unlike the ones that ravage our lettuce or rasp away at the paper in the shed. It turned out that out of over 29 species of native slug, from four families, that we had encountered the Limax maximus, one of the largest, keeled, lung breathing slugs in the world! It’s close relative Limax cinereoniger is the largest, also found in the UK. The slug is also known as the Leopard slug. Slugs can be identified using a range of features, their colour, the colour and consistency of their slime, whether the slime is from the body or foot, how they contract when threatened and if they possess an internal shell or an external shell. The Large Black slug, Arion ater, which is characteristically stout and rounded  when contracted, can also be a rich orange colour.  Some slugs have a distinctive lung opening on the right side behind the head called the pneumostome. The Leopard slug likes to feed on decaying plant material and is an aggressive predator of other slugs and snails. Not all slugs are garden pests, even the Large Black slug has a very limited impact on living plants. I had not expected the world of slugs to be quite so interesting, my I should panic less and I might learn more.

By the time I write the swallows have gone and the hues of autumn are in near full flush. Regular sightings have been made of our local aquatic bird life, whether the kingfishers of the canal and our little local river the Weir Brook, the cormorants of the Perry or the grey/yellow flit of the wagtails working the bankside. Sadly another member of the red-haired badger clan that lives near the by-pass has been felled by a passing vehicle. Elsewhere a hot debate has opened up again in regard to the relationship between bovine TB, cattle and badgers. A limited trial of vaccination of badgers is being run in the north of the County , a limited badger cull is in the offing and energy is being expended on measures such as biosecurity for farms. No easy answers in this deeply difficult problem.

Too far away to be certain but so distinctive .  A slim body, long tail, agile and moving rapidly with pouncing loops. Stoats and weasels are all members of the Mustelid family which includes Otter, Pine marten, Ferret and Mink. The family are all carnivores, characteristic long, sinuous bodies and short legs. Judging by size my mustelid was too small to be a polecat or ferret, though could have been a youngster, but not small enough to be a weasel, which grows up to 20cm[8in] maximum. I could not determine whether the tail was tipped with black or plain. Weasels have no tip colour. Possibly a stoat , if so this fierce predator does hunt by day or night using a very sensitive sense of smell to track it’s prey. It is the stoat that in northern parts will turn partially or fully white to then be called ermine.  Stoats can move up to 20 mph as they move through their hunting territory. A few years ago I had seen a weasel type mammal cross the road in front of me near Nesscliffe, I do hope one day it might slow and let me have a proper look!

I replenished the bird table at the weekend in readiness for the winter, I wonder who will fly in this year?

Happy Wildlife Spotting, Pete Lambert

13 Oct 2012

Nature Notes - October 2012 - Pete Lambert

I must begin with an apology. I had only meant to jump out of the darkened stone walled chamber and with a roar make my fellow castle explorer jump a little. Instead he just groaned at the predictable and not unexpected attempt to surprise, but I had surprised something. The slumbering bat above us was stunned into grumpy wakefulness. Hanging upside down, his wings folded alongside his body, the bat wrinkled his mouth and nose in annoyance and what I took at first to be the angry V of furrowed eyebrows but were actually ears, twitched and signalled his tetchiness.  This Daubenton’s bat had chosen to spend its daytime roost in the gloom of one of Hopton  Castle’s remaining rooms.  Bats collect sound waves to help them navigate by a form of sonar, this aural sensitivity the result of an evolutionary road that lead to flight and a nocturnal lifestyle to avoid predators and establish a niche in a crowded natural world. It also made it vulnerable to the rowdy bellow of this clumsy visitor.

The night time world attracts its own distinctive fauna. Driving back via Mile End services on the A5 we were passed by a barn owl, this large light coloured bird had skirted over the roundabout and twisting past a road sign, headed off into the fields beyond. Later as we headed down the homeward lane I was able to swerve and avoid adding a hedgehog to the toll of road traffic victims. This reminded me that a few weeks earlier I had found a slow worm, minus tail, which had succumbed to injury on a quiet back lane near Llangollen.  Both the hedgehog and barn owl run great risks from vehicles, the owl specifically from high sided vehicles. The hedgehog is a danger to itself as its reaction to imminent threat is to curl up into a prickly ball!

The Hedgehog is Britain’s only spiny mammal, an unfussy eater of beetles, caterpillars and earthworms, a good swimmer and though vulnerable to man-made dangers a determined adult with its 5000 spines can deter most natural predators. They are usually nocturnal, though we recently stopped to allow an adult to pass us when on a trip to Montgomery. At this time of the year the young are busy foraging for those vital fat reserves to carry them through the winter hibernation. Late born hoglets tend not to survive the winter and may also be abandoned by the mother if the nest site is disturbed, though juveniles will be carried to safety. Hedgehogs are inquisitive, nosing out slugs and other morsels around the garden. Sadly many fall victim to accidental poisoning by the use of chemicals such as metaldehyde which is found in blue slug pellets. This chemical persists and will eventually find its way into our rivers and is a major pollutant. It is extremely difficult to remove during water treatment and compromises our wildlife and water supplies nationally.

It is not only our mammals that take refuge in the dark. In the matrix of ivy above the chicken coop the gang had noticed numerous small, feathery grey bundles. Going back out with a torch, a closer look revealed exactly where that flock of sparrows goes to after a busy day eating the scattered chicken feed, missed by the pecking egg-layers below. House sparrows are a gregarious species, hanging around in mixed groups of males and females, the many eyes of the flock alert for danger. The torch revealed that not all the birds were asleep at the same time, a few watchful eyes keeping their snoozing fellows safe till the dawn flight.

Night or day carries great danger for our wildlife as it adapts to dominate one cycle while hiding away in another. Even with such fine tuning in behaviour and habit close escapes can occur, like our garden toad who attracted by the slugs underneath our tin can recycling box had taken to resting up in an empty can to avoid the drying heat of the day. That was until I decided to flatten all the cans with a heavy wooden mallet, fortunately I had to empty the rainwater from the cans and found our toad mate before the hammer fell!

Happy wildlife spotting whether night or day, regards Pete

29 Aug 2012

Nature Notes – August 2012 by Pete Lambert

It rained and rained making water the constant theme of conversations and a daily test of clothing choices.  A long trek on a rare sunny day took me along the Monts canal as far as the Carreghofa locks, I had wanted to take a look at the unusual aquatic plants that I had heard were to be found in the water trough of the Vrynwy aqueduct. Canals when still in-water and before navigation erodes their wildlife interest are unique reservoirs of our rarest water plants. The action of motorised craft churn up the water, exclude sunlight, cause siltation and disturbance. It is very difficult to balance the needs of navigation with biodiversity, locally off-line nature reserves at Aston locks are part of this challenging struggle to match the pleasure of leisurely travel and conserving the unique niches offered by these man-made water courses.

 On arrival at the aqueduct I was to be disappointed, the ironwork must of  sprung a leak sometime since my last visit, plugs of clay had been placed at both ends and plant life was absent.  As some compensation Azure damselflies were out in great numbers, either as pairs caught in a mating loop or singletons confidently flying to and fro across the water. This section of the canal up to and just beyond Llanmynech is abundant in emergent vegetation, the aquatic damselfly larvae climbing these stems to fix themselves for their final transformation into the adult flying form. The Azure damselfly is a member of a family of red and blue damselflies all of which can be told apart by the variation of stripes of colour along the slim body and markings such as the ace-of-spades marking on the Common blue.

Parking awkwardly I leapt out to take a peek down onto the river Perry at Milford bridge near Baschurch. I had been here back in May to enjoy the rising mayflies and occasionally get a closer look as they rested  on the parapet. Today it was the fluttering and strikingly gorgeous Demoiselles. The Banded demoiselle has a very distinctive dark blue/black metallic stripe across its wings, the Beautiful demoiselle wings on the other hand are uniformly black with iridescent veins. Unlike the Dragonflies, the damselflies hold their wings folded upright above their narrow, slim bodies. The Banded demoiselle dominated the throng, its aquatic nymph preferring the gravels and weedy margins present along this stretch of the river. The Beautiful Demoiselle nymph seeks slower streams with muddy bottoms, which explains their greater abundance higher on the river where it flows slowly across Baggy Moor.

Along both canal and brook the Hemlock Water dropwort has been in flower. The umbels of tiny white flowers are held on numerous rays rather like an exploding snowball. Bright green ridged stems grow stoutly to form a large waterside plant. It is one of our most poisonous plant species, easily mistaken for wild celery and the cause of a number of tragic fatalities. It has a pleasant parsley aroma, but even this can cause light-headedness. Cattle have also succumbed when inadvertently brought down to graze on a waterside where the Hemlock Water dropwort can be found, this was certainly this case during a very dry spell during the 1990’s in the West Country. There are a number of other water dropworts in the UK all of which are poisonous. 

Considerably less menacing is the non-native Monkey flower. First discovered on islands just off the Alaskan coast in 1812, this yellow flowered plant easily naturalised here by the mid 1800’s and I found mine enjoying the very damp conditions within the disused lock at Carreghofa, the leaking lock gate creating a misty cascade and the ideal conditions for this unusual but colourful plant. 

As a final footnote to the wettest summer I can remember friends were surprised by the loud splash of a squirrel diving into the canal, swimming across to the far bank and then adeptly clambering out to loop into the woods beyond, the message, I think is, be adaptable!

Happy nature watching, Pete.


18 Jul 2012

Nature Notes July 2012 by Pete Lambert

As a school child in suburban south-east London I remembered listening with mild scepticism as an adult told me that the leaves of the May thorn growing around the tarmac playground tasted like ‘bread and cheese’, I tried a few leaves and remained unconvinced. I was startled into this memory by an encounter in the car park of Montgomery Castle, deep scarlet double flowers adorned what turned out to be a cultivar of the Midland hawthorn, known as ‘Paul’s Scarlet’ or the ‘Pink May’[Though this is the proper name of a Common Hawthorn variety].  The abundance of flowers and their rich hue are most satisfying in such a modest sized tree.  The Midland hawthorn easily hybridises with the Common hawthorn and they are distinguished by the leaf shape, the Midland shallowly lobed as against the deep cut of the Common hawthorn leaf. Later when the haws are present you can split the flesh and if a single pip is found then the thorn is the Common, 2 to 3 pips then usually you have found a Midland [ though beware of all the hybrids!]The thorn at the Castle had been planted, native Midland thorns not being found in great quantity in the north, but in the southern counties associated with old hedges, ancient woodland and clay soils. ‘Paul’s Scarlet’ first originated in 1858 at Waltham’s Cross and now a popular suburban favourite which I think, brings me back to my school day memories.

Just above the garage project, and tucked under the eaves stuck by some ingenious birdy glue were slung a set of mud- cup nests. The human engineers craned their necks to admire the avian master builders, but also wonder why the entrance hole had been made so small that the adult bird had great difficulty in getting back out of the nest once the internal brood had been fed. First a wing, then the head but not both and finally an ungainly squeeze to swoop and soar to find more insect sustenance for its gaping young, who could be seen in a partially completed nest a few joists down.  The bird had white under-parts and a white rump, the tail was short and mildly forked a House martin.  Other birds have learnt to appreciate the advantages of the built environment; recently a Grey heron caused a stir in a local garden as it landed heavily on the tiled roof ridge. We have a brick walled old barn opposite the house and as the aged mortar has dislodged, a sociable flock of breeding House sparrows has taken up all available resulting holes for nesting caverns. Sadly not all birds appreciate the benefits of our construction projects, windows being clear and hard proved fatal for a male chaffinch last week, the paper-lad placing the still warm body in a more respectful location than its poignant falling place in the centre of the gravelled path below the glassy panels.

For a brief while the early summer lifted and with a clatter of aluminium we set up our stove to brew up atop Pole Bank, the summit of the Long Mynd. The long walk up from Bridges had been pleasantly cool and the views were easy over the short, stiff, heather moorland. We had found a patch of dry acid grassland, short cropped, spongy and in no time at all covered in a disturbing number of millipedes.  I tried to rationalise, the millipede unlike the centipede, has two legs per segment and importantly are a vegetarian species feeding on living and dead plant matter. Our lunch spot was being invaded by a black millipede, Tachypodoilus niger; occasionally they would curl like a watch spring when disturbed by our attempts to avoid them. I learnt later that the Tachypodoilus will climb trees to feast on mosses and algae, so they climb too! I think it’s the movement of all those legs that creates our irrational response to this essentially harmless arthropod. At the end of the day emptying our rucksacks, I took the mugs down to be washed and yes, a millipede, we did laugh, nervously!

Over the last few weeks I have found myself back at Nant y Arian in the Pumlumon and this time clear skies allowed a clear view of the feeding Red kites. Better still a recent birding trip to Dolydd Hafren, a Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust nature reserve, and a quiet half hour in their high hide was rewarded by the another Red kite encounter, a looming shadow the first sign of the raptors presence. And finally a week later, as we had trekked down the Portway at the northern end of the Long Mynd, the same giveaway shadow alerted us to another Red kite sighting, nice!

Happy Wildlife spotting, Pete.

14 Jul 2012

Rain, rain, go away...

Last night - Friday 13th - saw the wettest night out for the WuFuV MuGs (Wrekin Forest Volunteers Moth Group) at Apley Castle.

The rain started as a drizzle just as we were setting up and then just got worse! It never really stopped from 8pm and was still there when we left at midnight, so the moth count was dismally low.

But there were some personal successes: I didn't lose my car keys and I only managed to leave one item behind on site; my big black Audi umbrella, so if anyone sees it rolling around somewhere you'll know whose it is!

We had 6 traps out last night and I'm guessing there were less than 50 moths trapped between us - if you could all let me have your very small list asap I'll pop them all into a spreadsheet and publish them out once Tony has verified everything, which should take him all of 30 seconds.

Disappointing for 2 of our visitors who were new to an organised (organised?) moth night - Andy and Janet, but Rosemary and David from Friends of Apley Castle looked after us and kept our spirits up by feeding us some of Rosemary's home-baked fayre - those feta cheese with mint mini-pasties and sponge cake sumptously filled with damson jam were fabulously delicious! And the wine - oh yes - sitting under the gazebo eating and drinking with the rain descending heavily, we almost forgot what we were there for!

There were a couple of moth highlights with Liz's lovely Buff Arches

and an Elephant Hawkmoth, although quite a common species to traps at this time of the year, I don't think any of us were expecting to see it on such an awful night, but it arrived, shortly before I called it a day, in Tony's trap.

Other than that and a few Small Fan-footed Waves (and waves are the last thing you want to see when it's raining heavily), a miscellany of micro moths and a handful of macros, there was not a great deal more to report, apart from Keith's really trendy hat of course, Liz's random photos of people and moths, Andrew's motorbike and Nigel's new home-made trap. I'm hoping the weather hasn't put Nigel off entirely - it was only his second night out with us over four years - it's not always like this Nigel - honestly - sometimes it's warm and dry with more moths than you can shake a trendy hat at.

Anyway, it was a great get-together, with lots of miscellaneous chat, a bit of banter, food and wine - who needs yet another comfy night in watching reality TV when you can escape to the woods even if it is in the very wet stuff!

Catch you all soon

Paul Watts

6 Jul 2012

Watchmound, Stirchley and Fletcher's Meadow

My long-standing friend (I do wish she'd sit down!) Vera Wayfromer is, like many of us, on a cost-cutting mission but I do wonder about her sometimes...

A conversation we had yesterday went something like this:-

"When I've finished planting the carrot tops back in the ground I'm going to fill my car up" said Vera

'Does that work?' said I innocently.

'Well of course it does you silly man, how can I get around if there's no petrol in the car?!' she retorted.

'No... I meant the carrot tops!"


"Planting carrot-tops... do they grow again?" I asked.

"Dunno - but it's worth a try, it's such a waste otherwise"

"Well, in your quest to save the planet and your bank account I trust you're combining the petrol trip with another in the same area - it's a 10 mile round-trip isn't it?" I said.

"I'm doing even better than that" said Vera "Don't forget I've got my free bus-pass - I'm going on the bus! Won't cost me anything!"

There's really no answer to that is there?

Anyway as I write, the rain continues after cancelling yet another moth night but last Friday the WuFuV's dodged the rain (well mostly dodged the rain) to carry out another of our Heathland Project Surveys, this time led by Margaret, which necessitated several of us having to remind Steve that this was led by Margaret! In fact at one point we had to stuff an Elephant Hawkmoth in his mouth and cover his head with a net!

We know how to treat persistent offenders!

It was an excellent day out - always good fun and we managed to not only survey the areas in the remit but had time left over to amble and bimble through Fletcher's Meadow - a place often talked about yet seldom found - you have to enter through a secret doorway midst the hazel and hawthorn - there's even a man stands the other side with a funny handshake and a wheelbarrow made of stone

On leaving the site a lady with a flat-pack bottle of milk counts everyone out, no-one is allowed to stay for more than an hour. It's a very secret place and I doubt that anyone who was there that day will ever be able to find it again. Great mystery surrounds it still.

Even attempting to disguise yourself doesn't help...

There must be something in the water!

We managed to ID all the micro-moths on site which must have been a first - Keith and I usually end up with pockets full of them to ID (or attempt to) later. Spiderman Nigel had committed himself to not looking at spiders for the whole day as he didn't want his backlog of 125 to build anymore so he only took 23 away today!

Although the heathland areas we surveyed proved to be virtually non-existent as heathland areas it was nonetheless an excellent day out between the showers.

And if you see a lady on the bus struggling with 2 dozen jerry cans don't apprehend her - she could be dangerous!

Paul Watts

8 Jun 2012

Nature Notes June 2012 by Pete Lambert

An ingrained instinct had shot my hand forward and squish, the silverfish was no more, a smear on the lino and I was left with an uneasy sense of remorse at my casual extinction of this harmless creature. As a child the sprinting presence of a silverfish along the kitchen floor or around the bathroom was a palpable symbol of dirtiness and mild horror. The Thysanurans or Bristletails are three ‘tailed’ insects, clothed in scales and bearing biting jaws. The silverfish is only one of a number of Bristletails found in or outdoors, preferring damp places it likes to feed on starchy foods such as paper or spilled flour, which I think quite neatly explains why its traditional haunts include the kitchen cupboards or behind the wash basin. A relative, the Firebrat prefers it a bit warmer, so can be found in bakeries and heating ducts, another has adapted to the splash zone along the coast and another is very commonly found amongst thick vegetation. They have no wings and unlike other invertebrates undergo very limited or no metamorphosis during their lifecycle. I think that I would still not be happy with the nocturnal silverfish running rampant in the self-raising flour but I can see that a complete household purge would be impossible when I enter the bathroom to find the children have stored all the used towels in a heap in the corner!

I had been very kindly given the code to the bird hides at the Wood Lane nature reserve, just south of Ellesmere. A light but persistent rain made my choice of covered birding a wise one and I settled in on the wood warm bench, popped the flask and got watching. Oystercatcher to the left, probing the soft soils of a wet grassland, black headed gulls colonising one shingle island, whilst the other was controlled by Common gulls and little pied wagtails working the grounds between. On the open water created by aggregate extraction paddled coots, a pair of moorhen, tufted ducks, two Shelduck and hugging the shoreline some teal. Busy lapwings burbled over the throng and occasionally strutted on the grasslands, pecking the ground and showing off their splendid crests. On the central pool I had seen a Great crested grebe sailed past, a slight movement to her rear turned out to be a chick and even better, perched cosily on her back a second chick taking a ride. Just before moving for home I spied a brown swallow type bird, which turned out to be a Sand martin. Heading car-ward after less than two hours, a worthwhile trip and I must mention, quality hides, just must remember to thank my friend for a top birding destination.

It has been a busy time of late and I needed to get a bluebell walk in before the season slid by. Parking in the Forest Glen car park at the base of the Wrekin I met the group and headed up into the Ercall woodlands. Rich aromatic stands of ransoms were at their best, thick strappy leaves curved away from an upright stem holding the clustered white flowers aloft. Occasional dog violets peeped out along the paths edges, sheltering under woodland grasses and hairy woodrush rosettes. We had looped through Limekiln woods and then climbing the ridge entered the best of the bluebell swathes. I made a futile attempt to capture the splendour by taking photographs, settled for chatting about the problems posed by the Spanish bluebell with its unruly ‘anyway’ flower-head, overly wide leaves and dreadful promiscuity that leaves a trail of unwanted hybrids behind it. The bluebell has a restricted global range and the UK enjoys a considerable proportion of the total world population. It is a plant easily trampled and tends to retreat when under such direct pressure, a shame when it should be present in many locations but has shrunk away from the boot and wheel. On the return to the cars I took in a lingering look at the blue haze, satisfied that I had a top up to get me around another set of seasons. Add to this the Orange tip, peacock and enigmatic white butterflies back in the skies and certainly the full swing of late spring has arrived.

Happy wildlife spotting, fond regards, Pete.

22 May 2012

Granville Country Park Butterfly Count - May 17, 2012. Keith Fowler

We were pottering around on the Western Stockpile at Granville in the early afternoon on a day that had improved steadily. A small group were studying the dominant lichen – Cladonia sp; others were searching the silver birch scrub and heather for signs of life; Graham was having a quiet moment leaning on the fence and Matt had disappeared.

A shout was heard from behind a screen of Silver birch. “Graham, Liz – over here”. No-one moved. Liz and her little group continued to study the lichen, others continued their searches, Graham was unmoved and Matt was still missing.

The call was repeated, a little more urgently this time, “Graham, Liz – over here!”.

This time one or two of us, with reluctance, heeded the call and made our way, leisurely, over to the source of the frantic call. What we found was Matt crouched down holding his net over a patch of ground.

“It’s in there”

We peered and saw nothing, unimpressed. “What’s in there?”

“Dingy skipper!”

Our attitude changed immediately; Matt had done it; he had actually managed to find and capture the target species – but we still could not see it under his net.

Carefully, very carefully, Matt inserted a pot under the net and fiddled around for a while before producing the elusive butterfly. Well done Matt.

Now, of course, everything changed, the small group abandoned the lichen, the searchers of Silver birch and heather appeared and Graham decided to let the fence hold itself up. The butterfly was handed around, studied, photographed, handed round again and more photographs taken. Finally it was released and, as if in gratitude, posed on a sprig of heather while even more photographs were taken. Eventually it got bored of all the attention and flew off.

This was, more or less, the finale of a day in Granville counting butterflies. It started off in the rain and cold when a group of half a dozen or so of us met at Granville’s car park. Matt briefed us - although we were unlikely to see butterflies we would survey the site looking for food plants.

We started off in Waxhill Meadow. The rain had stopped. We soon realised that searching for food plants without a competent botanist (or, dare I say it, a Vegetative key) was pretty difficult. Arguments over Common and Bush vetch raged but eventually we got our eye in for a few plants.

It did help that Liz found Grapholita jungiella, a micro-moth whose food plant is Bush vetch, so we knew it was there – somewhere.

From Waxhill we inspected the Dingy skipper bank and noted that it needs some attention during the winter. We paused for lunch, perching on the dragonfly, then made our way to the Western stockpile via the “Top of the World”. The clouds were thinning and it was getting slightly warmer.
In the eastern corner; was that a glimpse of a Dingy skipper? Desperate searching yielded no butterfly.

We moved on along the southern slope. The sun started to break through. A few gathered around a lichen; others went off to search the Silver birch and heather; Graham decided to check the fence and Matt disappeared.

Keith Fowler

19 May 2012

Nature Notes May 2012 by Pete Lambert

I had set myself a challenge to identify the differences between Reed mace, the familiar cigar-tipped wetland plant and its fellow water hugging species. To help I had cycled along the towpath to the new nature reserve adjacent to the lower Aston lock. A solid wooden bench beckoned, I gave up on the botanical test and merely listened in to the wildlife around. Honking Canadian geese, a peewit, the bang and clatter of a snipe from the ditch alongside the main canal, eager drumming by a Great spotted woodpecker [a slower, lower pitch than its rarer cousin the Lesser spotted woodpecker] and a chorus of crows and rooks, singular and in mobs. A pheasant raucous against the tuneful noodlings of the hedgerow bound blackbird. I enjoyed the sizzle and plosh of mallards landing for a lazy feed on the open water and finally a reedy rustle of the coots tending to their nest. My hearing may not be great but enough of an aid to enhance a quiet ponder on a warm bench in a delightful spot.

The network of roads, tracks and pathways that allow us to travel around appear to be a fixed web, unchanged for centuries, but nothing could be further from the truth. On a recent ramble around the Ceiriog valley we had crossed a lane called Hen Fford, the Old Road, a little higher up the valley side than the current modern road which follows the route in the main of the now lost tramway. Returning with our bikes a few weeks later we cycled up to Glyn Ceiriog and took the old road back. The verges were resplendent in primrose, violets, nodding bluebells, wood anemones and many other wildflowers, at that moment mere rosettes of leaves or pale green shoots.

Nature is irresistible and will return relentlessly when man’s presence slackens, but real quality takes time and ease. The lack of disturbance on the verge had allowed the soil to re-arrange its profile, rainwater percolating nutrients downward, a thin layer of organic matter building on the surface and the relationship between the sub surface geology intimate and familiar. Our native wildflowers are unused to highly fertilised and enriched soils, they have happily adjusted to thrive on low nutrient levels and on admittedly man made features such as a verge will, if allowed to, dominate and flourish.

Spring has returned, the first swallow being seen at Haughton on 27th March by a meticulous observer of the local bird scene. He has also noted that the cuckoos tagged last year in the Thetford Forest are now attempting to cross the Mediterranean, that is 14th April, fingers crossed they make it across the indiscriminate guns of the southern European shooter. Last year the hirudine pair that occupied our barn fledged a small brood, time for me to start looking out for the familiar white splashes on the laundry that hangs there during damper days!

In Knockin a few weeks ago I spotted a bobbly mass of frog spawn in a bramble shaded ditch. Each gelatinous bauble contained a black squiggle, motionless, though it would only be a matter of time before the transformation into tadpole would make a mockery of this quiet pensive scene. Less than a week later over 2000ft in a broad col of the Aran ridge, Snowdonia, a similar tapioca lump caught my eye, this time a much larger mass of spawn in the centre of a tiny flushed pool. Frogs when breeding gather in quite impossibly small bodies of water, the males and females mating in a seething orgy of frog-kind. The spawn though comprising hundreds of viable individuals now begins a terrible attrition as predator and environment takes its toll and finally a few lucky froglets enjoy the precarious joys of adult life and a year later a return to the breeding puddle for the frantic process to begin again. 

The hedges are now more green than brown and the verdant herbage at their bases is rapidly thickening. The spring seems to be full of close encounters, a startled fox down by the Perry or today driving down Grug Hill towards Ruyton, I noticed too late that the thick ryegrass and burgeoning cow parsley had concealed a buzzard and its recently seized prey, a juvenile rabbit. Standing on the brakes I tried hard to avoid the bird as it tried to lift clear of the sunken lane, despite the power of its downward wings the raptor choose to drop the meal rather than hit the car, the limp carcass narrowly avoiding bouncing off the bonnet. We came back the same way, the coney had gone, I just hope it was the buzzard that had claimed back its kill and not some casual feathery passer-by.

Enjoy your spring encounters, take care, Pete.

2 May 2012

An Oswestry Monster!

Three Wrekin Forest Volunteers (Liz, Keith and me) had an excellent day with Pete Boardman around Oswestry searching for Shieldbugs today.

Alan, Jim, Ian and Sue also joined us.

We found a monster beetle, which I'm guessing not many people reading this would have ever seen - certainly not as large a specimen as this one but before I show you this fabulous beast let me tell you we also had 5 species of shieldbugs:


Plus: Drinker Moth Larva

and a Common Footman larva

But have you ever seen anything quite as spectacular as this in the beetle world? None of us there today had! What an amazing creature. 

Found at Oswestry Hillfort, we knew pretty soon that it was an Oil Beetle but it wasn't until Pete had managed to get a decent 3G connection on his phone that we were able to positively ID it - with the help of  buglife.org.uk - we nailed it to species: The Violet Oil Beetle Meloe violaceus

They are apparently hugely variant in size but this has to be right at the top of its range. As adults they gorge themselves on celandine and soft grasses. The Buglife website states 'their abdomen becomes distended and can extend some way beyond the tip of their wings' I reckon that's an understatement with this particular one - its wings are tiny in comparison to its body.

Just to give it some scale here it is seen crawling out of a 60mm diam pot and then sitting on my hand. This thing is 35mm in length and 10mm wide. Now that's a BIG BUG!

And who found it? If you're familiar with the names of the attendees mentioned at the start of this post who would you select? You got it - it was none other than Liz again! So well done for a fabulous find Liz. Keep 'em coming!

3 Apr 2012

Nature Notes April 2012 by Pete Lambert

Nature Notes April 2012

A double junction closure was sending me south in to the flatlands of Cambridgeshire, not a landscape that I appreciate or wish to linger in. Congestion crushed us into a reluctant queue and being stationary a movement within the hawthorn scrub of the embankment alongside caught my eye. The red brown colour and prominent ears said fox but a little shift in the car ahead gave me a better view of a little Reeves Muntjac. I was pleased with the sighting though my pleasure has to be tempered as this tiny ungulate is also a very serious pest. The Reeves Muntjac is named after John Reeves who was a Tea inspector for the East India Company in the 1800’s who observed and gave his name to a number of south east Asian species including the Reeves pheasant. First released or escaped from Woburn Abbey following its introduction to this emparked estate in 1894, this deer originally from the subtropical forest of south- East Asia, has successfully survived and thrived in the southern parts of the UK.  Muntjac tends to live alone or in pairs, rarely seen, they have tiny, un-branched antlers and a voracious browsing habit. The buck has prominent fangs and a v-shaped ridge marked with dark stripes running down its forehead, the doe has a dark triangular patch instead, I had seen a doe. Their success in the UK can be partially attributed to the lack of a breeding season and the rapidity of readiness following fawning. Muntjac slots have been seen in many urban areas and certainly they have reached Telford but I am sorry to say I do hope they stray no further.

Cambridgeshire is all big skies and occasionally our home county can offer some of the same. On an excursion to Melverley I was struck as ever by the flood trash combed into the hedges, a twiggy tidal line four feet or so above ground level. Stopping off to check directions before roaming any further down the meandering lanes I heard my first skylark of the year. This ground nesting bird is silent for the winter but now rises from early in the morning to late evening to pour forth a boiling stream of song and sibilant mimicry. Its song can last up to 15 minutes without break. My skylark had not gone unnoticed as a sparrow hawk bolted across the sky to attempt a mid-air snatch, an ill matched duel began and was quickly called off as the skylark now alerted, twisted and spiralled its way out of danger. As the excitement died another aerial conflict kicked off between a languid buzzard and a crow. The Carrion crow boldly harassed the larger bird who banked away and fled the scene, a victory for the little guy.

Lengthening days mean more time in the garden and the door does not need quick slamming to retain precious heat. Other changes are also to be welcomed, putting out the empties a moth flitted past my head and into the living room. A short ballet followed to everyone’s amusement and I had my first Angle Shades of the year. This Noctuid moth has a lovely crimped back edge to the forewings and a colour pattern a little like a Victorian ink swirl. The moth can be found in most places though can be difficult to see as in rest it can look like a dead leaf.

Other signs can be found of the arrival of spring, the rapidly greening hedges and the movement of species into their breeding territories. A pair of Dippers on the Upper Ceiriog had laid claim to their stretch of the river, somewhere nearby their prospective nest site, and an active upland stream to feed in, and I say ‘in’ as they can quite happily swim underwater! Elsewhere reed buntings are about gathering food, straying away now from familiar canal side haunts into local gardens.

And before February was out my first Lesser Celandine in flower, yellow, fresh and a herald for what’s to come.

Happy Wildlife spotting, Pete Lambert.

4 Mar 2012

Nature Notes from Pete Lambert March 2012

I had accepted an invitation to speak at a double assembly at our village school and was intimidated by the prospect. They had been running a packed fortnight of activity that included making feeders and investigating their local wildlife. Concerned that my interest in wildlife would be met with glum indifference and boredom I set up my slides. I needn’t have worried as they threw up eager hands to tell of birdy encounters in their garden, ask bright and direct questions and a surprising number had had close encounters with barn owls. Inspired by their enthusiasm I reflected that the future was not as bleak as so many paint what with these young wildlife champions on the way.

At the Felton Butler slip road at the southern end of the Nesscliffe bypass a field with winter greens played host to a 200 plus strong flock of lapwing, and on today’s journey north a similar field had just said goodbye to an airborne mass of this crested wader.

The UK picture is not good for lapwing, though the local farming community are doing their best to accommodate the wet grassland preferences of this popular wild bird, re-wetting fields were possible and crop regimes adjusted carefully to generate the clumpy damp sward preferred by the ‘peewit’. Recent walks along wide field margins, left to encourage wildlife corridors in even our most intensely farmed landscapes, revealed other beneficiaries. A discarded sheet of broken hardboard when deftly flipped over exposed a common shrew, the thick feggy grass close by was riddled with bank vole tunnels.  As the winter lingers the mixed flocks of fieldfare and redwing are still to be found, mainly raiding the last fruits of the hedgerow and occasionally into the garden for an apple treat.

Driving down into the hollow our headlights were reflected back by what we took to be cats eyes, but these moved and rapidly too, turning tail and back into the hedge. It was a polecat, in its winter coat, which tends to be much denser than its slim summer incarnation so it looks lighter in colour and rounder. 

Once known as the foul-mart because of its strong smell, this wily predator had faced near extinction. The pelt or ‘fitch’ was prized and it was felt the animal was considered a threat to game and livestock. Slowly as persecution by trapping has declined this nocturnal carnivore has expanded back out of its Welsh heartland to cross the border back into England. Polecats occupy family territories which they mark using stink glands located at the base of the tail, this noxious spray is also used defensively, urgh! The polecat has a distinctive Zorro-like face mask and white ears, its near relatives the polecat-ferrets and the ferret proper lack such a distinctive look. Occasionally they hunt during the day but our late evening sighting is the more likely viewing.

Only my second sighting in a lifetime, the leafless scrubby woods allowed a wonderful look at the leaping and fleeting display of the woodcock as it made its spectacular aerial escape.

The woodcock is a wading bird that has taken to the woods, the Llynclys area seeming to be a favourite haunt. Its long narrow bill is used to probe the ground for worms and other food, the high set eyes giving it near 360 degree vision.  The woodcock is able to grasp its young brood during the breeding season and airlift them to safety, either clutched in its claws or between her thighs. A spooky beating of its territorial bounds through March to July is known as ‘roding’, this slow flight accompanied by frog like croaking and high pitched whistling. As the winter shows signs of its inevitable end I hope to return here to experience for myself the Roding of this enigmatic and remarkable British bird. Spring is coming, stay alert it waits for no man, so much to look out for!

Happy wildlife spotting, 

fond regards,

Pete Lambert.

4 Feb 2012

Nature Notes - February 2012 by Pete Lambert

Just when I thought the winter was about to pass by in a gust of wet winds and swirling damp fog I awoke to find the garden decorated with a fine filigree of ice.  A week ago we had sat in a bird hide sheltering from the drizzly attentions of the low cloud that had lain duvet like across the Pumlumon mountains. The object of our vigil,  the Red Kite , or we hoped hundreds of kites as optimistically promised in the leaflet!  Nant  yr Arian is a Forestry Commission centre, an innovative building hosts a cheap, clean cafĂ© and is the starting point for trails designed to please walker or off road cyclist. Each day throughout the year one of the Ranger team puts out raw meat scraps to attract the iconic Red kites to feed and enjoyed as they land and soar up and away once full.

The red kite represents the most successful reintroduction programme in the world. The UK population had been reduced to just two pairs by the late 1800’s, hiding out in remote mid Wales valleys and therefore making them extinct in England and Scotland. Last century captive breeding programmes were able to provide kites for planned release in Mid Wales  amongst other locations. The Red kite though well known as a scavenger from Samuel Pepys description of the birds cleaning the filth ridden streets of Restoration London of offal and other detritus, also hunt rabbits and other prey.  The bird soars buoyantly, its head and tail hang down slightly in flight and the characteristic forked tail constantly twists to help it maintain position. After 45 minutes of waiting since the bait had been cast and 5 tantalising glimpses of the kites wheeling away without landing just visible in the thick gloop of cloud, my young companions tummy began to rumble and we left the hide. Stopping occasionally to look back just in case the kites had  noticed we had gone and swooped down in a russet swarm to gulp down the morsels, but no, and satisfied with the ghostly glimpses we both agreed to come back on a brighter day.

With the trees completely shorn of leaves identification is down to the subtleties of bud, bark, form , size and location. One little tree that gives itself away quite easily in the winter is the Crab apple.  Piled at the foot of most Crab apples during the colder months we can find the yellow, hard fruits. Bitter and sour  to the taste but they  can be turned into the most grown up jelly for breakfast toast. The Crabapple’s  scientific name is Malus sylvestris which means ‘apple of the woods’ and this small tree which grows rarely above 10m can be found in oakwoods and along hedge lines.  The Crab is the rootstock from which all our orchard varieties are derived, the leaves of the domestic apple are usually wooly or hairy backed whereas the petioles or leaf stalks are hairy on the crabapple.  My favourite Crab can be found on the flanks of Caer Caradoc, near Church Stretton, and in May a walk there will be rewarded by a profusion of white blossom. Closer to hand there are a few on the A5 and many in amongst the jumbled woodlands of Llanmynech and closer still the homebound hedged lanes play host as well.

The Small tortoishell butterfly upstairs battered against the window, whilst the Small tortoishell downstairs created a subtle lightshow by flying around inside the lightshade. These hibernating adults had risen too soon, the nettles have not begun growing again and sadly I think the gently lengthening days and our central heating had summoned these sleepers prematurely. Snowdrops have been noted and the radio had spoken of the first daffodils being sighted. Hard times are still to come though and the loping fox on Grimpo Lane spied earlier this week will be working hard to find food to keep him going. But for nature watchers this is the time of year to look out for those coming signs of Spring, so happy wildlife watching, fond regards, Pete Lambert.

12 Jan 2012

Nature Notes - January 2012, by Pete Lambert

The road conditions have been dreadful and my journey slowed a number of times by broken taillights and emergency vehicles.  The buzzard was unperturbed by the craning drivers as she pecked away at the road traffic victim, standing erect between tugging bites of her curved beak, talons pulling down on the lifeless body. The vixen or dog fox had probably perished the night before and become sustenance to a sharp eyed gourmand. Buzzards are usually seen circling lazily on high or perching on a lamp post, telegraph pole or handy tree look-out.  The buzzard has soaring wings, long, broad and deeply cambered for maximum lift. The deeply slotted ‘fingers’ at the wing tips smooth out turbulence and the full tail gives manoeuvrability, stability and lift. A glide can take an individual birds speed up to 70 or 80 mile per hour and combined with excellent eyesight makes the buzzard a very successful predator. In fact a buzzard can discern detail eight times more sharply than a human. The fovea, which is a part of the retina, has one million cells compared to only 200,000 in man. Occasionally other birds will mob a lone buzzard, on most occasions the bigger bird will fly on unhurriedly to out distance its tormentors but sometimes it will flip over to meet its enemies with its powerful talons. My reflections came to an end as finally the traffic moved again and she slipped out of view.

An early Sunday ramble took me around Llanmynech and the little fields and paddocks of Llynclys Common. The incredibly varied habitats make for a constantly changing scene as I felt the weakened daylight try its best to lift the gloom and possibly the temperature. I followed a narrow path up between a wire fence and straggly hedge, not being in a hurry I paused to take in the sudden cacophonous pinging around me and found myself surrounded by Long tailed tits. The small pink tinged body a counterweight to the characteristic extended and slender tail. As we know they form up into mixed flocks with other tits, but invariably the long tailed tits will feed at the highest level of the group. But today hidden, well nearly, was an even tinier delight. Europe’s smallest bird is the Goldcrest, a lively, fearless and very handsome bird and there but two feet away was a gorgeous example. The crest is a deep orange bordered both sides by successive stripes of yellow and finally black. During courtship the crest spreads and rises, male behaviour can be very aggressive and fights to the death have been known between rival males. The Goldcrest favours conifers, slinging its intricate nest by ‘basket handles high in the evergreen crown. Harsh winters can depress numbers of this little bird very drastically but they have so far always managed to return.

The bare armature of the woodlands in the winter make a bird watch walk so much more rewarding than a stroll in the cloaked woods of late summer. My final treat of the day came in an unfamiliar part of the patch, a mixed gaggle of birds fled into the upper limbs but a group of three downward pointing Nuthatches hung around to give me a grand view of their sleek profile. The Nuthatch can be a regular at the bird table and invariably will climb down a tree seeking food in bark crevices. The bird enjoys working out on a hazel nut or beech mast, jamming the tough outer into a split in a tree and hammering away with its ‘hatchet’ like bill. I like the smart colouring of field grey, keen black eye stripe and soft buff-hued belly, and today three of these distinctive woodland specialists.

The winter may be keen to drag its heels but while it lasts I am enjoying my clear views of our great British birds. Wrap up warm and venture out, walk off the festive excess and who knows what might be seen?

Happy wildlife spotting , Pete Lambert.