Daily Archives: April 3, 2012

Birds and bee(flie)s

The day after the cold weather put paid to my snake hunting exploits I decided to take the dog for a quick run in the afternoon. He had just had a small tumour removed from his back leg and so he had a lampshade on his head to stop him chewing his stitches and consequently this walk was only meant to be a short one, and I wasn’t even going to take my camera. But on the way out the door I decided because it was very sunny and very warm I would take my camera. And I’m glad I did because there was wildlife in abundance.

Peacock butterfly, Inachis io, sunning itself on the path

The air was abuzz with insects including butterflies. I really like photographing butterflies and peacocks are good because they present a medium sized challenge. If you approach with stealth and don’t cast a shadow on them they let you get to within a few feet. The peacock is a species that can be seen at any time through the winter as it can wake in response to warmer weather, but they emerge in spring around the end of March/beginning of April, so the timing for this one was spot on.  As I was photographing the peacock a sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus, Dansk: spurvehøg) flew past at high speed, much too fast to enable a usable photograph, it’s always good to see a bird of prey because I think it suggests the prey species are in good order too.


Long tailed tit, Aegithalos caudatus, Dansk: halemejse

The field where I found the peacock butterfly has a corner which faces south west and it was sheltered from the wind and bathed in spring sunshine. It was really warm when I arrived there, so I stood still and watched and listened while the dog went off to explore, and the trees around were full of birds including the long tailed tit, above, and a song thrush, below.

Songthrush, Turdus philomelos, Dansk: sangdrossel

While the birds were capturing my attention in the trees, butterflies weren’t the only insects there. In my corner there were also beeflies buzzing around. I was keen to try to photograph them in flight which is a tad more challenging as they would hover for a few seconds before darting off at very high speed in zig zag lines. But they were making the most of the shelter from any breeze that prevailed in this sheltered spot and I spent a good hour trying to photograph them.


Beefly, Bombylius major

The beefly, as the name suggests is a bee mimic. It has a very prominent proboscis which is used to extract nectar, and the fur is part of the bee disguise. It is a very good pollinator but is detrimental to other pollinators.

It is detrimental because it parasitises other bees and beetles. And the way it achieves that is another of those bizarre evolutionary adaptations that even the most imaginative science fiction writer wouldn’t dream of. It mimics bees in order to get close to their burrows where using its legs the female will flick her eggs into the hole where it hatches and attaches itself to the host. Then the gruesome bit: it lies dormant until the host commences pupation and then becomes an ‘ectoparasite‘ which means it remains on the outside of its host but extracts the body fluids to fuel its own growth. After draining its host dry it reaches the pupal stage which can vary hugely in length and they have been known to overwinter before emerging as an adult the following year.

Beeflies have appeared in several blogs in the last week or so and there are some more very fine images here:

http://www.leavesnbloom.com/2012/04/bombylius-major-bee-fly-aerodynamics.html

Rosie from ‘leavesnbloom’ has a wonderful collection of images of Bombylius major and Harlan from ‘The Roused Bear’ has also captured one in Iowa in the U.S.:

http://therousedbear.wordpress.com/2012/04/07/a-fuzzy-bee-fly/

They can be found across the whole planet except Australasia.

More birds which appeared in the trees around while I was chasing beefly were the common or garden greenfinch and chaffinch:


Greenfinch male pecking at a twig
Chaffinch male just taking it easy

Both greenfinch (Carduelis chloris, Dansk: grønirisk) and chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs, Dansk: bogfinke) are common or garden, but are both beautiful birds, and they can be seen here in the U.K. all year round. But a species that isn’t here all year round and returns after its winter migration to north Africa is the chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita, Dansk: gransanger):

The chiffchaff, named after its characteristic song, is a warbler and despite being a small bird they are tough. Their migration takes them south across mainland Europe, across the Mediterranean Sea and into north Africa, to retrace their flight four or five months later in the spring. And despite the hardships associated with such a gruelling endeavour, according to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), there are around three quarters of a million territories in the UK. They are one of the first migrants to arrive back in the U.K. and can be heard singing as early as late February. But this my first one in Cambridge on the first weekend in April.

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Blakes Wood

In my last post I visited Danbury Common in Essex. After getting over the disappointment of not seeeing snakes we headed to Blakes Wood which is another National Trust site situated on the opposite side of Danbury to the Common. It’s an area of ancient woodland, predominantly hornbeam and sweet chestnut under which the ground was covered in withered chestnut husks emptied of their contents long ago by squirrels or mice, and in the springtime wood anemones (Anemone nemorosa) and bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) carpet the forest floor.

Bluebells have been voted Britains favourite flower and they normally reach their flowering peak in mid May.


Bluebells are delightful flowers when there is only one plant, but when they stretch across a forest floor as far as the eye can see they’re absolutely magical. I didn’t expect to see any at the weekend, it still being March, but they are starting to flower already.

The Natural History Museum is conducting a survey of bluebell flowering times as a means of monitoring climate change. A quick glance at the data is starting to get alarming, the earliest flowering time seems to be getting earlier, from first flowerings in Essex in May in 2010, moving to the middle of March in 2012, in just three years since the study commenced. I don’t know what the long term ramifications of climate change will be for our native flora and fauna, we’ll have to wait and see but I hope the bluebell woods survive.


A single wood anemone protruding through the bluebell leaves

The wood anemones are as beautiful as the bluebells even if they don’t have the same level of ‘Wow‘ factor. The forest at Blakes Wood was liberally bespattered with carpets of wood anemones and I got down in the undergrowth to try to fill the frame with flowers:

I was keen to capture a shot with both anemones and bluebells in the same frame and that turned out to be tricky because of the sparsity of the bluebells, but I eventually found this one:


Spanish bluebell bulbs have been sold in garden centres but they are a different species, Hyacinthoides hispanica, to our UK bluebells. Flytipping of garden waste has resulted in the Spanish variety getting into our woods and cross breeding with the native species. This is a real problem because it is anticipated the hybrids may eventually take over from the natives, but I console myself that the invaders and hybrids are lovely to look at too. I can’t wait to visit the woods again in May when the bluebells are in full bloom, and when I do I’ll share the results with you.