Monday, 7 July 2014

Promised photos

Like a bus - wait ages for one, then two come in quick succession. The moth-trapping was not too bad. Some 60 individuals of about 30 species, though only one or two micro-moth species which were new to the garden list. The most spectacular was - of course - an Elephant Hawkmoth, pink and green like some over-the-top sweet. Their season is coming to an end now, so it wasn't quite the vibrant beauty of the earlier ones, but fun nonetheless.

Some pictures to make up for the boring previous blog - they're a mish-mash from this weekend and earlier in the year...:

The Buff-tip. A moth that looks like a chip of birch-twig at rest. I'll take a decent photo from the side one day and post it.

Sugar sugar. Our first hawkmoth species: Elephant Hawkmoth. Tropically exotic.

Papa! Eine rosa motte!

A popular hawkmoth: the second species we've recorded - Poplar Hawkmoth. One from earlier in the year

The latest - and largest - of our hawkmoths: Privet Hawkmoth.

The Spectacle; so named because it looks like it's wearing spectacles from the front. I'll dig out a photo...

The Coronet. Not the best of photos, but a very fine moth.

Common Wainscot. Perhaps a quintessentially boring brown moth?

Finally, just because I like it, some ballooning spiderlings on the knapweed in our 'meadow'.

Saturday, 5 July 2014


Tonight (July 5th) I intend to run the moth-trap for the sixth time this year (or thereabouts). It’s a miniature Robinson trap, which looks something like the end of a plastic barrel with a conical lid, out of which someone’s chopped the centre so that a second, inverted, cone can sit inside, on top of which is a mercury-vapour lightbulb. Sounds more complex than it actually is: in essence it’s a way of attracting moths to the bulb, baffling them and then funnelling them down into a nice dark place full of old egg-boxes, where they can wait out the rest of the night in safety.

Moth-trapping is something which appeals when you have small children in the house. They can get involved catching the moths in little pots to identify them, finding the right species in the book (OK, not too exciting when it’s a boring brown one, but pretty whizzy when it’s big and spectacular like a Privet Hawkmoth), and then have the fun of releasing the moths into some suitable cover when they’ve been tallied. It’s building an interesting picture of the Lepidoptera inhabiting the small patch of woodland and grassland immediately adjacent to our garden and it’s also keeping me working at learning something new on a regular basis.

We started out with an overnight session in mid-November 2013, with just a single Feathered Thorn in the trap to show for the night. The second session in early December was even less rewarding: not a moth to be seen. The neighbours made some appreciative noises about how the oak looked when floodlit from below, but that wasn’t really the purpose of the exercise. Late autumn and early winter moths are obviously harder come by even if the conditions seem good…

By the time the weather had improved sufficiently to encourage me to try again it was early March. Sixteen moths of six different species seemed like a proper catch after the winter doldrums - and all of them were new species for the garden. A March Moth (how appropriate), a Pale Brindled Beauty, six Oak Beauty, five Common Quaker, two Early Grey and a Satellite. Not too bad for a beginner!

The season progressed from there. Bar the odd blip like one night in mid-May, where only eleven moths bothered to show, the catch has got larger and more diverse: last session was 91 moths of 39 different species, and each time another handful are new for the garden: we’ve recorded about 120 species now and there’s plenty to be found, I’m sure.

I’ve fallen into the habit of running the trap every couple of weeks if there is suitable weather. That prevents me from overloading mentally, becoming a moth bore, making it all too dull for Bina and running up an extortionate electricity bill. So, let's see what tonight may bring... Some pictures may follow.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Oldcrest and carr

Back out to do some ringing - it seems like forever since the last session, though in fact it's only (only!) a month. My glamorous assistant cried off late on Saturday evening, so I had the site to myself - and as wife and child are living it up in Germany for a couple of days, I had the luxury of no guilty conscience at work by the end of the session...

Having only filled feeders the morning before, I had little expectation of being overrun by birds and this proved to be the case. Sure, Blue Tit and Coal Tit made up the bulk of the catch, but there was plenty to appreciate. For instance: a Song Thrush. We only catch one or two each year on site, and have as yet had no recaptures or recoveries. The site is very edge-of-range - on the fringe of the high moors - but there are always a few pairs breeding in the adjacent conifers. What will happen when the conifers are felled and replaced by (presumably) native broadleaves? That will be interesting!
Old Coal Tit. Given the text in the Helm family guide (Tits, Nuthatches and Treecreepers), this ought to be a male, with such an extensive bib. We just don't catch them in the breeding season to be able to confirm!

For the first time, a Sparrowhawk managed to stay in the net. We've had a couple of near-misses with this species in the past: a male low in the net last autumn managed to extricate himself before we could reach the net, and the year before that one left its dinner in the bottom of a net, in the shape of a freshly-plucked and trimmed Woodpigeon pullus. Yesterday, however, I turned the corner to a net and there was a male Sparrowhawk, neatly cushioned in the bottom shelf and glaring balefully up at me. I carefully disentangled him and took him back to the car to be ringed, measured and weighed - I wonder if he's the same bird as previously escaped?
Sparrowhawk. Talons safely the other side of my mitt.

The Willow Tits at the southern end of the site appear to have paired up. Both were in the net together and flew off together when weighed and released. It would be nice if they managed to breed successfully this year - last year's nest failed. The male was originally caught in October 2010, so is now a very experienced bird within his territory.

Yesterday produced a handful of experienced individuals: two Coal Tits which were originally caught in January 2011 and a Goldcrest first caught in September 2011. The latter is always somewhat impressive: that a bird which weighs in the same as a sheet of A4 paper, or a 2p piece should survive year-round on Dartmoor is somewhat admirable. The longevity record for Goldcrest in the UK is a whole 4 years, 2 months 24 days, so this one's got a while to go before he reaches the record, but he's doing well nonetheless!

With it being a quiet day, there was also opportunity to admire the lichens and mosses on the trees around the car, to seek out the tiny red stars of Hazel flowers and to relish the willow carr - such an under-appreciated habitat. There are patches of carr woodland on site which are breathtakingly rainforest-like. Walk into them and the air is redolent with the fresh damp greenness of the carr. Old fallen willow stems snake across the ground, starring out from the original tree's base with linear thickets of young poles growing vertically from them. The old stems are felted with a luxuriance of mosses and lichens, whilst the young stems remain grey and smooth. The boggy ground between the wood is a verdant carpet of plants bewildering in its complexity of form and colour so that the eye just sees green at first, but has to then pull back, refocus and concentrate to appreciate the subtle beauty. Drips and drops fall all around and everything seems to pulse with moistness: whatever you touch, wherever you step, wherever your hand lands...
Hazel flower.

Masses of elf-cups, Cladonia pyxidata (I think) reach up from old willow stems in the carr

Another Cladonia lichen, this time coniocraea amidst a mat of Hypnum mosses

Drips and drops - decomposition is rife within the carr. This seemed a better picture than the remains of the frog.

Peltigera lichens and the moss Kindbergia praelonga grow over one another on the ground.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Rain, rain, rain, rain, rain...

You could be forgiven for thinking the Atlantic had tired of sweeping the shores and decided to reclaim the land by air-drop. It's been pretty soggy here for the past month or so. Not, I'll grant you, as bad as Somerset, Dorset or further east still, but still relentlessly soggy. The skies have been grey and weepy, the ground growing increasingly squelchy, and the river Bovey has been up and down like a back-bencher in a lively parliamentary debate. We're fortunate to live a couple of house-heights above the river, so flooding is the least of our worries, but there are a few buildings in town which tread a delicate line along the river's edge and are a salutary lesson not to buy property in a flood-plain (as if the lesson were needed)!

We're quite high up the catchment and the rivers here are short and inclined to spate conditions, so flooding never lasts that long on any one occasion, but it can repeat over and over again if the weather gets it just so. Just before Christmas (doesn't that seem a long time ago?!) I had an hour of free time just before it got dark, and the Bovey was overtopping the banks - so I managed to shoot out and take some pictures. The river is bottle-necked where the west-bound road crosses just below the town centre. Once there was a ford there beside the old mill, now there's a neat little hump-backed bridge, and a flood-bank to protect the houses on the west side of the river. As it's quite an old bridge, there's a two-arch span, and this constrains the water perfectly, so it ponds back and spills over the adjacent playing field. By the time I got there the water was about welly-top depth across the end of the park - the brand new, newly-gravelled cyclepath only indicated by a forlorn sign asking cyclists to respect the pedestrians on the track. The gravel had been neatly swept off the path and deposited in a sweeping system of deposit bars to gladden the heart of a fluvial morphologist. To cap it all, there was a Cormorant fishing on the field.

Living here would make me nervous. But I wouldn't live here anyway!
The old mill - now home to the Devon Guild of Craftsmen - lives on the edge. You wonder how often it flooded in times past...

The road-bridge through town

No conflicts today...

Looking across the cycle path

Looking south, towards the bridge

Further upstream the field rises slightly, and then there is another narrow point where the A382 crosses the river - this time in a single-span bridge, but with a carefully-constructed underpass for cyclists and walkers to avoid the road-crossing. Not today, though.

Low and narrow, yes. I think I'd prefer to take my chances crossing the road.

By the time I reached my intended goal, the light was appalling, so most of the photos were on delayed timer and at half a second or more exposure time. The weir was a spectacular sight: the difference in water height between top and bottom of weir is usually a good 1.5m; today, more like half a metre. The water surged over the top of the path, submerging the entire woodland floor across the bend where the weir sits - normally a well-trodden sandy patch where dogs frolic and children play chase. In the gathering gloom it was a distinctly suspect proposition to venture in and take photographs, so I contented myself with some atmospheric pictures of 'the end of the path as we know it'. Given the exposure times, the tripod would no doubt have been so shaken around by the water that the photos would be even worse in any case!

The weir: normally a well-trodden relaxing spot

The weir itself is hiding under that bank of water just above and right of centre

The end of the line...