Thursday, 23 May 2013

Small is beautiful

Having a small person in the house now means that some things have changed radically. Our time outdoors is constrained by sleep patterns (to some degree) and time spent with the camera is now precious. That said, the recent spell of (whisper it) fine weather here has given me an opportunity to get out into the garden and appreciate what's lurking in the vegetation there.

Some background... when we moved in, the back garden was effectively a wasteland only recently reclaimed from a seething mass of bramble, with a small patch of dog-fouled perennial rye grass at the bottom. We began by digging out bramble roots and pulling up ash seedlings which sprout like weeds in this area, but aren't really suited to a tiny garden, and mulled over the possibilities inherent in the grass patch. I hesitate to call it a lawn... Both being of a somewhat wildlife-friendly bent, we decided that chucking a bit of species-rich hay around might be quite fun, so we asked a friend of ours for a couple of bags of hay next time he cut his patch - and duly got about 15 sacks of clippings (thanks David!!). We raked over the rye-grass until there were some sizable bare patches amongst it, strewed the clippings, and jumped up and down on them for a while, just to make sure.

The next spring, we began to see the fruits of our labours - well, the flowers. Germander Speedwell, Ribwort Plantain, Meadow Buttercup, Sweet Vernal-grass all came up with some vigour, and a handful of Yellow-rattle plants emerged too, to our pleasure. In the autumn we repeated the grass-strewing over the bare patches, and were rewarded with Centaury, Common Knapweed and Bird's-foot Trefoil joining the party.

This year I've noticed that we seem to have an abundance of invertebrates, when compared with my memories of previous years. OK, last year was nothing to shout about for most wildlife (except bryophytes and molluscs, perhaps) but this spring hasn't exactly been brilliant weather either. However, looking over the back garden now during a sunny spell and the air is full of a myriad shining wings - mainly small hoverflies and other flies. This intrigued me, so I thought I'd take the camera out and have a look... and what's pictured below might not yet be identified - and indeed may not be identifiable - but it gives a flavour of what's going on in the garden.

One of a number of slender hoverflies which cruises the garden - this one a rather black/bottle-green animal.

A small, yet perfectly-formed longhorn beetle of some description, working its way over the raspberries (the raspberry canes have proved to be a fertile hunting ground for photos this year - nearly as good as the hazel-honeysuckle tangle nearby). Edit: thanks to Tim Worfolk, below, a name: Pogonocherus hispidus

One of the flesh-flies, as far as I can tell. Edit: TW suggests perhaps Graphomyia sp (Muscid)

Leaf-mining flies (Liriomyza sp.) doing their stuff on the comfrey. Perhaps not identifiable to species, but they bear a passing resemblance to L. pusilla - and as the name suggests, they're small! About 2mm long, snout to tail-tip.

A more conventional hoverfly, brilliant in black and yellow. Edit: Eupiodes c.f. luniger is suggested

A tiny teardrop-shaped spider which feasts on aphids. Go to it...

Yet another fly - there is a startling diversity in the garden... Edit: this one appears to be perhaps Beris c.f. chalybata, a Stratiomyid fly.

A solitary bee, one of the Andrena species. This one seems to have a particular liking for our dandelions.

Apropos of which, dandelion clocks too are worth a closer look. Their geometry is pleasing when the clocks are whole...

...and there is also beauty to be found in the detail of the seeds when they are exposed.

Even plain old Ribwort Plantain takes on a new dimension at this scale: I hadn't realised that the anthers seem to be swollen bags of pollen. These release their pollen on the wind, but if you see them on a still day when the rain is falling gently, you can see little puffs of pollen clouding up, for all the world like miniature cannon-smoke drifting across the grass...

Another small fly which enjoys hanging out around the honeysuckle growing through the hazel. Notable particularly for its antennae... Edit: Dolichopodid fly: Syntormon sp.

A scorpion-fly, I think. Edit: an Empid of some species - anyone feel like raising the bar?!

Micropterix calthella - a tiny micro-moth, about 4-5mm long, which has decided our raspberry canes make a great place to lure in some of the opposite sex. They spend a lot of time wandering up and down their few cms of stalk, waving their antennae around, looking left and right and occasionally scrapping over the right to use a particularly choice spot.

Another hoverfly, this one with powder-blue markings on the dorsal side of the abdomen, and a rich ochre stripe along the sides. Edit: Platycheirus sp. (female); thanks to 'Ophrys' on i-spot for that one.
Final edit: Many thanks indeed to Tim Worfolk (two bird theory blog - visit: it's great!) and 'Ophrys' on I-Spot for their help with identifications so far...

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Tasty. Tystie.

Sunshine and light winds and a contented baby mean this is the ideal time to introduce my daughter to the delights of Peel, on the west coast of the Isle of Man. We haul up and over the island's central hills, pausing briefly for a couple of pairs of distant Hen Harriers, then drop steeply down to the narrow western coastal plain, swinging south past Kirk Michael, through green fields dotted with sheep and the occasional patch of grubby snow left-over from the March snows, then wind down through the higgledy-piggledy multifarious houses of Peel to the harbour. Lunch is a bacon and egg roll with coffee (or a kipper roll with tea for the ladies), eyed up by a troop of ever-hopeful House Sparrows and a couple of cocksure swaggering Jackdaws, all of whom descend with delight upon the crumbs and fragments thrown around by S.

After this, there's only one thing to be done: head around the harbour walls and find our way to Davison's ice-cream parlour, who pride themselves on selling the best Manx ice-cream there is. I've not been able to contradict them yet... We wander back over to the beach where S discovers the pleasure of being able to sit on the sand and play without being wrapped up to the shape of a football, we devour our ice-creams (blackcurrant & liquorice with ginger for me: a surprisingly good combination) and we are watched with unblinking fascination by some of the locals, just in case we drop anything... A couple of Sandwich Terns on the edge of the tide parade up and down, heads tilted back and tails cocked, trying to impress a female who looks as if she'd actually rather just digest that last fish, thank you so very much.

Herring Gull. This young bird was the first in - bold enough to settle a few metres away from us, but not enough to come and get the fragment of cone I threw it...

...and as soon as there was any sign of food, in came an adult. Immediate display of dominance and the younger bird sensibly retreated before any damage was done.

Finally we walk back around the harbour and upriver a little to pay our respects to the inhabitants of the harbour walls: old (blocked) drainage holes have proved the ideal size for the Tysties which live round the coast, giving what must be a rat-proof and collapse-proof residence. Sure enough, two birds were present with heads jutting from the holes and occasionally reaching out and twittering in a most un-auk-like fashion. The spring's late this year and they aren't yet nesting, so our interest proves a little too much for their nerve and they flutter out onto the water below, scarlet legs akimbo and white wing-patches gleaming against their otherwise velvet-black plumage, where they float downriver on the current and pretend they were never interested in those holes anyway.

Another black bird I'm admiring. Starting to think there's a pattern developing.

But those red legs lend a touch of the exotic.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013


A blowsy, blustery day with the sort of brisk northwest wind that billows round you and leaps out at you from gaps in the gorse to leave you breathlessly exhilarated. We walked along Maughold Head to have a look for Puffins, but no sign of any today - just Fulmars whirling along the cliff edge in effortless loops, Tysties trilling on the water below and a big bull Grey Seal porpoising through the chop towards Ramsey.

We followed the coast path to the Cormorant colony, where paired and single birds sat darkly ungainly on the bright green turf. They look rather uninterestingly black from a distance in the cloud-shadow, though white patches at thigh and chin catch the eye, but creep closer to them and as soon as the sun strikes through you are faced with a surprisingly attractive bird.
Despite their antics, with the sun in, Cormorants are - well, frankly, a little dull-looking...

The black feathers prove glossy with hints of purple and green as the light catches them from different angles, white feathers grizzle the black on the back of their heads and their wings are a coppery bronze, each feather edged neatly with black. Closer still you can appreciate the ice-cold jade eyes, which regard you with wariness, a mild concern at your approach.
...but with the sun on them it's a different story.

Lie down in the bracken debris and watch, and their stretched necks relax back into a curve, the tufty crest on their nape settles down a little and they return to the important business of preening, pair-bonding and rearranging any nest material which has been brought in. No eggs yet this year - late, but not surprising in view of the cold late spring - but birds were flying in now and then, trailing vegetation in their bills, so the breeding season's getting well under way at last.

We strolled back to the car with the wind at our backs, pushing past the clumps of coconut-scented gorse, with Choughs bouncing through the air above us, filling the sky with wheezy 'ciao's. It's nice to be back on the Isle of Man!

Moss rolls down ivy stems and across the drystone walls on Maughold Head.

North Barrule from Maughold Head

Looking south along the east coast of the Isle of Man.