Monthly Archives: July 2012

The iconic avocet

‘Iconic’ is a word that is overused, but in the case of the avocet it is entirely appropriate. Those of you from the UK – and possibly some of you from further afield – may know that in the UK the avocet is the emblem of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – the RSPB.

A trio of avocet feeding on the water at RSPB Titchwell as a pair of swift hunt winged insects just overhead

The avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta, Dansk: klyde) had all but died out – in fact it may have totally died out – in the UK in the 19th century, but in the 1940’s a breeding population from the European mainland re-established itself when the coastal mudflats along the east coast of England were flooded as a defensive measure against a possible German invasion. So there you go, just occasionally something good can result from a war!

Avocet can be seen breeding on the east coast of England in the summer, and they are resident in the southwest during the winter, they are also winter and passage visitors. It is therefore an early symbol of conservation success and it was originally adopted by the RSPB in 1955 as the their symbol to adorn the new RSPB tie. Its continued success led it to be adopted as the RSPB logo in 1970. They are beautiful birds and they can be pretty feisty when it comes to guarding their territory.

The long upturned beak of the avocet, from which it gets it’s generic name, ‘Recurvirostra’, along with its black and white plumage makes it completely unmistakable. I have seen avocet before but not in such numbers and not so close and it was only on this trip that I realised they have very distinctive pale blue legs. So all in all it’s a very striking bird.

The upturned bill has a functional aspect too. It is the upper mandible which is curved and the avocet use it to stir up the sediment by sweeping it across the surface from side to side dislodging crustaceans, insects and worms which they detect by touch. The one below had captured a meal and the dark shadow just in front of its beak is a cloud of sediment churned up by the scything beak.

As with just about every species on the planet, including humans, the main threat to the avocet comes from inconsiderate human activity including reclamation of wetlands, depletion of water levels in rivers, infrastructure development and pollution by polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s), insecticides and heavy metals. Despite that, the global population is estimated to be between 210-460,000 individuals. It’s unclear if those numbers are stable, but as some populations decline others are increasing. So hopefully they’re OK for the time being.

I’ve been up to my eyeballs in non-blogging stuff in the last month so I’ve been struggling to keep up to date with all your blogs. The pace is unlikely to let up before September but I’ll try to visit as many as I can in the meantime. I will be back!

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Apodidae – the swift

Last month I spent a day at the RSPB reserve at Titchwell near Hunstanton on the north Norfolk coast. It’s a particularly dramatic bit of coastline and is home to a very impressive array of birdlife which is concentrated here on the reserve. As well as all the waders and other water birds squadrons of swifts were wheeling and zooming low over the water plucking insects out of the air.


Swift – Apus apus. Dansk – mursejler

Swifts have been declining in numbers and their conservation status is amber, but it was difficult to believe they’re struggling! There seem to be good numbers of them in the skies around Cambridge too. I love it in the summer when I open a window and the sound of shrieking swifts filters down from on high.

Insects beware, bandits at 6 o’clock!

Photographing swifts in flight is challenging to say the least and something I’ve never before had much success with, but there were so many of them at Titchwell and they were flying close to the ground so I gave it a go. They seemed to have preferred routes which I guess were dictated by where the insects were flying and that made getting pictures a little less tricky as their flight paths were more predictable. And here are the results.

Swifts are members of the Apodidae family and on ther face of it appear fairly similar to swallows and martins. But my oft ill-remembered scchoolboy Latin leads me to believe that ‘apodidae‘ means ‘lacking feet‘ whereas swallows and martins are passerines which means they have feet adapted for perching. Swifts do have feet but they are tiny and adapted for clasping and not perching, all four of their toes pointing forward. One thing that the three species do have in common is that they are all awesome aeronauts. A juvenile swift can spend up to three years aloft after fledging and it will spend most of its life on the wing: eating, sleeping, gathering nesting material and even copulating in the sky.

According to the British Trust for Ornithology swifts shut down their brains one side at a time in order to maintain stable flight. But I’d like to know how they found that out – I can’t think of an experimental design that would enable this conclusion!

The swift is a summer migrant to UK shores and they spend their winters in South Africa, and I suspect the journey doesn’t take too long, covering a thousand miles in a couple of days!

My day at Titchwell was gorgeous, it was during the foul wet weather we’ve been having but shortly after we arrived the sun emerged and stayed with us for the whole day. I took nearly a thousand photographs and I’m going to post the best of them in batches in the next few weeks, interspersed with some other local wildlife. I hope you like them!

An honour and a privilege

When I passed my O levels back in 1980 my Dad bought me a present. It was a Nikon EM 35mm SLR. I was only a kid and I couldn’t afford other lenses until I was a tad older, so I had to make the most of the 50mm lens that came with the camera. But where I grew up was adjacent to some old woods which at that time were full of many species of fungi, and as my passion for all things wild went back to when I was a youngster the fungi in the woods captured my imagination and provided plenty of subjects for some challenging photography.

Amanita citrina – the false death cap

One of the main challenges for anyone trying to photograph fungi is the lack of light in the leaf litter of a deciduous wood so I saved up and bought a flash gun for my new SLR. So very weekend I’d spend some time rooting around in the undergrowth trying to find species of fungi I’d never seen before, and I eventually amassed a sizeable collection of some pretty funky fungus pictures.

And then after my O levels I transmogrified rapidly into a stroppy teenage wastrel and almost failed my A levels, but I just managed to retrieve the situation in time to salvage my 6th form years. But only just.

Mucilago crustacea  – a slime mould

And that was largely as a result of weighing up my options with the biology teacher at my upper school who convinced me to stay back for another year to get an A level in biology to strengthen my application to do a biochemistry degree. His name was Alan Wright and he was incredibly encouraging and recommended that I squeeze the two year course into one year and apply for university straight away. Alan was one of those brilliant teachers who simply new what made clueless teenagers like me tick, so I did the A level in a year and went on to do my biochemistry degree.

My school had been a grammar school until the year I went there and a relic of it’s past was the annual prize giving. Alan, who had heard about my photography, told me that if I put together a written project based around my photographs he would put my name forward for the ‘Wake Natural History Prize‘, donated by Sir Hereward the Wake, hence the name. I did, he did, and I won the prize, which was a £15 book token. I spent it on a copy of Jacob Bronowski’s ‘Ascent of man’ which was presented to me at the prize giving by Lady Wake. (I lent that book to someone in the 1990’s and I never got it back and now I can’t remember who borrowed it. So if it was you can I please have it back!).

I still have the project and one day I’ll scan it and either post it here in it’s entirety or add a link to it.

Birch bracket on a silver birch stump at Backwarden in Essex

I got my degree, and then my Ph.d. and ended up working in Cambridge where I get down to the annual Cambridge Folk Festival as often as I can. And about 10 years ago I just happened to bump into my old biology teacher, Alan Wright. Meeting ones old teachers may not always be a pleasurable experience, but this was a man who I was really pleased to meet again and we hooked up at several Folk Festivals after that. We had lots to talk about and he was always keen to hear about the stuff I was doing at work.

Then in April I had an email from him to ask if I was going to the festival this year because he was being treated for lung cancer and was not expected to make it through the summer. This was shocking news and I hoped we would get the opportunity to meet up one more time. But alas, it didn’t come to pass, Alan died last week before we had a chance to get together.

Amanita muscaria – the fly agaric

A large chunk of anything I’ve achieved is a result of the encouragement and assistance from Alan, at a time of my life when I needed a good kick up the catflap. He was passionately into the science and only weeks before he died we swapped emails when I told him about a paper I’ve been working on, about which, even in the plight he was in, he showed huge interest, and he was very enthusiastic about The Naturephile too. He’ll be massively missed by an awful lot of people, I’m sure there are plenty more like me who have benefited from crossing his path.

So Alan, this post is for you. It was a real honour and a privilege being taught by you, and then latterly to know you as a friend. Go in peace wherever you are!

More wild flowers

I keep seeing herb robert lining my route to work and in the hedgerows along my regular footpaths. It’s a member of the Geranium genus and is found in hedgerows, woods and on disturbed ground


Herb robert – Geranium robertianum

I’m a tad confused by this plant because it has all the normal attributes of herb robert; the pink flowers, leaf shape, hairy buds and stems, but this one has the same bud shape as a cranesbill and a quick web search hasn’t yielded another image of herb robert with seed pods shaped like this. (So if I’ve made a taxonomic error please let me know!). Herb robert smells quite unpleasant and has been used as an insect repellant.


Dandelion – Taraxacum officinale

These pictures were taken a few weeks ago and at that time they were loaded with insect life, this danselion has six flower beetles (Oedemera nobilis) foraging on it, and it wasn’t at all unusual to see flowers in the meadow with this many bugs and more feeding on them.


White clover – Trifolium repens

Clover grows abundantly in grassland. It is pollinated primarily by bumble bees but as bumble bee numbers decline it has become a major source of nectar for honey bees, therefore beekeepers became important people for cattle farmers who grow clover as a fodder crop for their livestock.

Jack go to bed at noon – Tragopogon pratensis

The lovely yellow star of ‘jack go to bed at noon’ is so named because the flowers open early in the morning and close up again at noon. It is also known as ‘goats beard’ and is a native annual in the UK. It has a milky latex sap which, according to Wiki, children from the countryside in Armenia make bubble gum from. It has a wonderful seedhead which is much bigger than than the dandelion and has fewer larger seeds.


Jack go to bed at noon seedhead

As with alot of other wild flowers, they are rampant just now because of the warm wet weather and are numerous in fallow fields and hedgerows.

A jack go to bed at noon seedhead with a closed flower behind it at the edge of a field

Also common around Cambridge right now is the birdsfoot trefoil. The flowers here are a gorgeous golden yellow but can also have red or orange which gives them their other common name: bacon and eggs.


Birdsfoot trefoil – Lotus corniculatus

Birdfoot trefoil is a legume which means it can actively fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. It can do this with the help of symbiotic bacteria which colonise root nodules and convert inert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia, a form of nitrogen which plants can use. This ability makes the legumes a natural fertiliser because nitrogen is required by all plants, but unless they can fix it in this way they are reliant on alternative sources in the soil. Poor soil can be boosted by the application of other fertilisers such as good old fashioned manure, or more recently ‘NPK’ (Nitrogen/Phosphorus/Potassium, ‘K‘ being the chemical symbol for potassium). Or, when cycles of crop rotation are used, one of the crops used may be another legume, such as peas, which can help to replenish nitrogen levels in the soil naturally.