Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Four Spot and the Strawberry

Regular readers of The Naturephile may have noticed numerous references to the loopy weather we have experienced in this part of the world this year, in particular the wetness of the spring and the subsequent brevity of the summer. And you may also have cottoned on to the fact that I have a spider fascination.

Despite the unusual summer weather conditions, later on in the summer and into the autumn I found lots of spiders including two species which I haven’t seen here before. Common garden spider webs (Araneus diadematus) adorned every surface in my garden in the autumn and this particularly nice example was strung between two hawksbeard stems in the local meadow:

Garden spider web bejewelled with dew

One of the most intricate webs I found was that of the labyrinth orb weaver (Agelena labyrinthica), they’re amazing constructions and most of them aren’t very visible until there’s a cold morning and the webs are laden with dew, then it’s possible to see that they adorn all the hedgrows and undergrowth.

The two species I found which I hadn’t seen before were the four spot orb weaver (Araneus quadratus) and the strawberry spider (Araneus alsine, aka orange wheel weaving spider).

The green body of the four spot orb weaver

Both my initial encounters with these little beauties were a little unnerving because I was unaware that spiders with these colours were lurking in my local undergrowth. The four spot flew past me at high speed when I snagged it’s trip line when I was trying to get in position to photograph a male common darter dragonfly:

https://i0.wp.com/farm9.staticflickr.com/8066/8155314987_f0c0087b41.jpgA male common darter dragon – non-arachnid interloper in this post

And a strawberry spider dropped down a few centimetres from my eyes when I was unlocking my gate! All I saw was a bright red bulbous abdomen so my first thought was “Bloody hell, it’s a black widow!”. So I ran to get my camera before it disappeared. Both of these were females and around the same size as a regular garden spider, but as you can see the colours were very different.

The bright red body of the aptly named strawberry spider

Another spider I found in my garden this year was the missing sector spider (Zygiella x-notata). I was intrigued by the name of the missing sector spider and it transpires it comes from the design of the web. If the planar, circular web is a clockface, the part between 11 and 12 o’clock has no spiral threads, so is effectively a ‘missing sector’.

The missing sector spider making a meal out of a cranefly

This particular individual was busy securing a cranefly and it seemed to take great pains to ensure the fly was maximally envenomated. It spent a couple of minutes running around the struggling fly, inflicting multiple bites before wrapping it up in a cocoon of silk and carrying it off to be hung from the window frame and consumed at leisure.

Crabs and Compasses

As a fitting coda to our trip to the Isle of Wight we had been invited to join some friends in Lyme Regis for the weekend. As I mentioned in my Isle of Wight post the eastern half of the English south coast was tipped on its end by tectonic forces so the geological history of that part of the world is exposed for all to see. In fact, moving from east to west is literally going back in time, heading as far as the Lower Jurassic era at Lyme Regis and Bridport, which is around 183-200 million years ago.

The Jurassic rock strata of the south coast westward from the Cobb at Lyme Regis

Those of you with a cinematographic interest may recognise the sea wall at Lyme Regis, it’s known as the ‘Cobb’, and was the location for the famous scene in The French Lieutenant’s Woman where Meryl Streep stands gazing out to sea. Which incidentally, is the only thing that myself and Meryl have in common, albeit for rather different reasons.

All our activities whilst we were in Lyme were marine orientated, I even managed to spend a couple of hours sea kayaking and peering into the crystal clear waters. The clarity of the water was incredible, it’s difficult to judge depth but I reckon at the deepest point I saw it was probably 15-20 feet deep. I could clearly see the bottom and the kelp fronds waving in the current, fish were darting in and out of the kelp and jellyfish were floating at the surface. I resolved to get up early the next morning and head out on the kayak to go snorkelling off the boat. So I got up and paddled out into the bay, but overnight a swell had risen which was swirling the sand around on the seabed and there was zero visibility in the water. So I need to make a return trip in the not too distant future so I can get in the water for a snorkel.

My son Jake and his friend Sam inspecting the contents of their crabbing bucket

Glancing over the sea wall while the children were crabbing I saw this handsome compass jellyfish (Chrysaora hysoscella) gently patrolling the periphery. I’d seen several of them in the bay the day before when I was kayaking and they’re common around English shores. They can pack a nasty punch for any poor unfortunate who makes contact with the tentacles which can cause a stinging, burning sensation and red raised lesions on the skin. I don’t know if it can get worse than that but it’s apparently fairly unpleasant while it lasts.

The compass can grow up to 30cm across which is about the size of this one.

Eyeing up the progress of the crabbing exploits was a hungry herring gull (Larus argentatus). He was very interested in any potential meals the kids may catch for him and he was ready to swoop onto any escapees.

Looking eastward from the Cobb are more cliffs and the rocks here are full of fossils. We were staying in the white houses on the left and just round the corner from there lies a prime fossiling beach which alas we were cut off from by the tide. There were lots of folk busy cracking open rocks on the part that was accessible but I think most of the fossils from that spot had already been found.

The cliff on the right with the yellow patch is called ‘Golden Cap’ and is the highest point on the south coast of England, rising to 627 feet (191m).

The catch:

Shore crabs – Carcinus maena

The bait for the crabs was bacon, they’re mad for it, and there was a prize for the first crab caught, the largest crab caught and the most crabs caught. My daughter won, every time she dropped her line into the water it was a couple of minutes or less before she hoicked one out. So, much to the chagrin of the boys, she won all three prizes and was as smug as hell for the rest of the day!

And as the bucket filled with crabs the gull got braver and braver:

But he was to be disappointed. At the end of the competition our bucket of crabs was emptied into the water at the bottom of those steps and they all scuttled away to freedom.

The Isle of Wight, Part 2

My first view of the Needles, at the western tip of the Isle of Wight, was a long time ago when I flew round them in a light aircraft. The weather was much like it is below and it was quite a spectacle!

The Needles looking across to the Isle of Purbeck. Old Harry Rocks are the thin sliver of white chalk in the distance at 11 o’clock from the lighthouse

I’d heard it said that the Needles were at one time joined to the Old Harry Rocks at the southern end of Studland Bay, around 15 miles away on the Isle of Purbeck. I’d thought it entirely possible but never had it confirmed. And then just after I took this photograph I overheard a very knowledgeable old gentleman telling his companion all about the local geology, so I stood close by and earwigged the conservation.

As you can see, the Needles are made of limestone and apparently they were once a single strip of rock with a gap in the middle from which a single calcareous stack protruded, known as ‘The Needle‘. And then in the 18th century a storm caused a collapse which resulted in the Needles of today.

But before that, Old Harry and the Needles were a single limestone structure and the Isle of Wight wasn’t an Isle, and the Solent – the stretch of sea which separates the Isle of Wight from the mainland – was the River Solent. But around 4-5000 years ago a storm breached the limestone wall and the River Solent became a seaway overnight and the inhabitants of the Isle of Wight were cast adrift on a new island. And interestingly, all the rivers on the mainland from Poole Harbour in the west eastwards to Portsmouth: the Meon, Itchen, Test, Avon, Frome and Piddle all flow southward, and those on the Isle of Wight: the Eastern Yar, Western Yar, Newtown, Wootton Creek and Medina all flow northward, and they all drained into the River Solent.

Pyramidal orchid – Anacamptis pyramidalis

The terrain all around the Needles is chalk downland which has very characteristic flora and fauna, amongst which is the pyramidal orchid and this lone flower was lurking at the edge of The Needles carpark. It thrives on the chalk downs to such a degree that it has been chosen as the county flower of the Isle of Wight. In the air high over the car park was a peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus, Dansk: vandrefalk) but I didn’t have a telephoto lens with me on this trip, so alas, no pictures. From the car park it’s about a mile to walk to The Needles themselves and on a sunny day it’s a terrific walk, the views are magnificent.

To the east, north and west the air was full of falcons, songbirds, bees and butterflies, and when we got to the very end there was a historic naval gun emplacement. In WWII the gun guarded the Solent and the strategically important ports of Poole, Southampton and Portsmouth against enemy shipping, and just over the top of the cliff from the gun emplacement was a test site for missile engines which had been hewn from the rock – a hangover from the Cold War. The whole thing was fascinating, geologically, biologically and historically!

Teasels – Dipsacus fullonum

Whilst trying to photograph a stonechat which was darting around next to the path I noticed these teasels which were still sporting their downy purple flowers. I have lots of photographs of the dried out brown seedheads of teasels after they’ve flowered but but I’ve been after a good one of the flowers themselves. And I think this is the best backdrop I could have found, looking out across the Solent towards the New Forest on a sunny day.

Also flitting around in the chalky grassland were hundreds of chalkhill blue butterflies. It was a very windy day and I think the butterflies may have been staying down low becausse of the wind, preferring to be stationary rather than risk being blown away. Consequently they were fairly easy to get close to:

Chalkhill blue male (Lysandra coridon)

I absolutely love blue butterflies. In fact anything living and blue – insects, flowers, fish reptiles – blue seems to convey a unique beauty on a creature, so to see so many of these blues was a real pleasure. And the chalkhill blue is a big butterfly too, with a wingspan of 33-40mm.

One of the curious facts about blue butterflies is that some of them are actually brown, and with chalkhills as with common blues, the females are brown:

The female chalkhill blue. She’s brown, not blue, but still a beauty!

Chalkhill blues mating, the brown female is on the left

Apparently this year was a particularly good one for the chalkhill blue. Despite being a devastating one for most other butterfly species in the UK, there were huge numbers of breeding chalkhills recorded in their traditional territories, and in my humble opinion that’s very good news indeed.

The view along the north of the island looking east towards Southampton, with yachts racing toward us

The geology of this part of the south coast is remarkable too. Limestone was formed at the bottom of oceans by the compaction of dead shellfish over millions of years, so it may seem odd to find it at the top of the cliffs. Or indeed whole cliffs made of it. There is a clue to how this happened in the cliff below, which is looking round to the southeast from The Needles, in which there are clearly delineated strata in the rock running upwards from left to right at around 45 degrees. The reason for angled strata is that in this part of the world tectonic shifts have concertinad the rock strata all the way from the east of England along the south coast as far as Dorset to the west forcing them upwards.

This folding of the rock means that in the east the rock is relatively young but the deepest, oldest, layers have been exposed in Dorset around the town of Lyme Regis. So the region around Lyme is referred to as the ‘Jurassic Coast’. Of which more in a subsequent post.

The Isle of Wight, Part 1

This summers holiday took myself and the family to the Isle of Wight. I’ve often sat on the mainland and gazed at the island wondering what it was like, but apart from a sailing weekend from Cowes some years ago I’d never been there. Prior to the trip, several folk I spoke to who had been there said, ‘It’s very nice, but very 1950’s’, implying that were a bad thing. I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant, so I set off expecting bakelite telephones, knobbly knee competitions and casual racism. But the reality was nothing like that, in fact the Isle of Wight turned out to be a lovely place, very green and full of cool wildlife.

Shanklin Bay looking over the garden of out holiday abode

Within a day of arriving at our destination at Shanklin, on the southeast corner of the island, we’d encountered a pair of ravens who were keen to share our fish and chips on the seafront, and several red squirrels running around the trees in the garden below our apartment. Red squirrels are delightful creatures and the island is one of the few places in the UK where they haven’t been ousted by the bigger and more aggressive North American grey squirrel. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get photographs of these but there was plenty of other flora and fauna to keep me occupied.

The weather on the island during the first week in August was remarkable, it was hot and sunny virtually the whole time we were there, but that coincided with continuous heavy rain and big floods a short distance to the west in Devon and Cornwall. As well as the trees in the garden, there were flowers and butterflies basking in the glorious sunshine:

Wild pansy (Viola tricolor)

The wild pansy is a lovely little flower and has been used as a herbal remedy for eczema and asthma and it was believed it was good for the heart, hence its other name of ‘heartsease’. It’s laden with potentially beneficial chemicals including salicylates (aspirin), antibacterials and antiinflammatories and has many amusing common names such as ‘love lies bleeding’ (!), bullweed, ‘tickle my fancy’ and ‘love in idleness’.

Gatekeeper

Also frequenting the garden was the equally beautifully coloured, but less poetically named, gatekeeper butterfly (Pyronia tithonus). I was pleased to see lots of butterflies here because the dreadful spring weather meant I’d seen very few around Cambridge, a horrid situation which, alas, prevailed for the rest of the summer.

Below the garden at the bottom of the cliff was lots and lots of beach with lots and lots of birds, including the ravens I mentioned earlier. And amongst them was this gull youngster. It wasn’t at all fazed by me and my son running around and seemed more curious than nervous.

A young gull – either a herring gull or a lesser black backed

Alas, I’m not sufficiently knowledgeable about gulls to be able to differentiate the first year herring gull (Larus argentatus, Dansk: Sølvmåge) from the lesser black backed gull (Larus fuscus, Dansk: sildemåge), even with my Collins bird guide to assist. And while the gull was peering at us a sandwich tern patrolled the shallows occasionally diving into the water:

Sometimes returning to the surface with a fish… and other times not:

Sandwich tern (Sterna sandvicensis, Dansk: splitterne) fishing off Shanklin beach

From our limited explorations around the island it seemed to be quite distinctly in two halves. The eastern end, where we were based was green and agricultural with wide sandy beaches, and the western end, at least on the south side, was more chalk down rising to imposing cliffs toward the Needles at the far western tip. All the photographs in this post were from in and around Shanklin in the east and I’ve divided the IoW into two posts, so ‘Part 2’ will be from the western end.

I don’t normally do reblogging, I think it can be cheating and plagiarising other peoples’ hard work. But I’m reblogging this post because anyone who is prepared to live at the top of a tree to make such an important point deserves to be publicised as widely as possible. Please view and redistribute to ensure Miranda gets the support she needs! And if you want to read about all of her arboreal experiences look here ‘http://observertree.org/’

La Paz Group

Click above for the video made by Australian environmental activist Miranda Gibson, who has been living on a platform in a Eucalyptus tree in Tasmania’s southern forest. She has vowed to stay there until the forests receive more protection from logging. She writes about it at Observertree:

Observer Tree needs your help!

I’ve been at the top of this tree for over 300 days now. I think it’s time for the world to know I’m here. The more people who find out and add their voice to the call for forest proteciton… the sooner we can save Tasmania’s forests and I can get down!

View original post 190 more words

Diapause and Diminishing Diversity

Capreolus capreolus, aka the roe deer, is native to the UK and can be seen in good numbers in the Fens. During an evening stroll there in July I encountered several. As well as being delightful to look at they have some interesting reproductive biochemistry. The roe deer rut takes place in July and August but the fawns are not born until the following May or June, nearly a year after the rut. The length of roe deer gestation had puzzled zoologists for a very long time and then they discovered that the roe undergoes delayed implantation, or ’embryonic diapause‘.

A roe deer peering at me as I meandered around Wicken Fen

But that wasn’t the end of the story. It was assumed that hormonal messages from the mother would tell the dormant fertilised egg, or ‘blastocyst‘ when it should implant into the endometrial layer of the uterus, but the search for the maternal hormonal trigger which has been observed in other mammals drew a blank. It transpires the trigger is a novel mechanism whereby the embryo, which at that stage consists of around 30 cells and has its own internal timer mechanism, secretes a messenger molecule called ‘rdPAG’ (roe deer Pregnancy Associated Glycoprotein) which precipitates a maternal hormone cascade of oestrogens that initiates the second stage of the pregnancy with implantation of the embryo. This is a remarkable piece of biology because it is orchestrated by the embryo, not the mother, and ensures the fawn is born during the favourable weather conditions of the summer thereby guaranteeing it sufficient time to prepare for the winter.

A visit to Wicken Fen always provides multiple unique photographic opportunities such as this pair of grey herons whose paths crossed, almost on a collision course:

Wicken Fen was mentioned in a BBC News article a couple of days ago about the importance of the Fens as a wildlife haven. The article is about a study into the biodiversity of fenland since 1670. Apparently, since the start of the study period 100 species of birds, bees and butterflies have been lost from the Fens and in total 504(!) rare species have not been recorded there in the last 25 years. A moments comtemplation on that rate of biodiversity loss is terrifying, and the implications of it even more so. It boggles my mind that the political decision makers, who are aware of all the environmental devastation, don’t appear to give a damn about it. Or at least not enough to want to do anything about it.

Despite that the Fens are still a very important refuge for endangered species, which I can vouch for based on my observations made whilst wandering around Wicken. The Fens are much maligned but are a unique and important haven for many species of all kinds of wildlife.

In order to manage and maintain the flora of the Fen which then provides shelter and sustenance for a multitude of other species, horses and cattle have been installed there, one of which is this magnificent chap:

This image doesn’t really do him justice, he is absolutely enormous – like a minibus on legs!

Passerines and Ponies

One weekend in the middle of July we took off down to the New Forest for a couple of days. The New Forest was originally a hunting forest for King William in the 12th century and 800 years later was eventually awarded National Park status in 2005. It lies along the south coast of England in Hampshire in a triangle delineated by Southampton, Salisbury and Bournemouth, and covers around 150 square miles, which in the context of southern England is a fairly sizable area. As the name suggests it consists of ancient forest which is interspersed with large areas of heathland and it’s renowned for its wildlife, being home to many less abundant species of birds, butterflies, mammals and reptiles.

One day while we were there we found a secluded spot on the edge of Stoney Cross to eat our picnic. We parked the car adjacent to some woodland where the canopy was so dense it was nearly dark on the forest floor and impossible to see in. There were lots of small birds darting around and I could see that some of them were chaffinches, but there were others that it was simply too dark to see properly and identify. So when one of the kids had finished their sandwich and there was some left over I broke it up and put it on a rotting tree stump on the edge of the forest and sat in the boot of the car with my camera. Within seconds the stump was full of birdlife, and now I could see them properly most of them were chaffinch:

Hen chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs, Dansk: bogfinke) eyeing up a crusty morsel

It was challenging photographically because it was starting to rain and as you can see above, looking into the forest it was very murky indeed, so I increased the ISO to 800 and hoped the shutter speed would be fast enough. Shortly after the chaffinch descended, there were great tits (Parus major, Dansk: sortemejse), marsh tits (Poecile palustris, Dansk: sumpmejse), a robin (Erithacus rubecula, Dansk: rødhals) and my favourite of them all:

Nuthatch (Sitta europaea, Dansk: Spætmejse)

I like nuthatch and I rarely get to see them. Occasionally my parents have one visiting their feeders in the winter but it’s a long time since I saw one in the wild, so this was a treat. And this one liked sausage roll:

The nuthatch is a woodland bird which nests in holes in deciduous trees and is the only bird I can think of which I have seen walking headfirst down a tree. The marsh tit is also a bird of dense deciduous woodland which nests in cavities in old and rotten trees, so it was no surprise to see either of them in this particular spot. But I can highly recommend taking an old baguette or sausage roll to entice them down out of the tree canopy to get a good view.

Marsh tit (Poecile palustris, Dansk: sumpmajse)

The most famous and charismatic residents of the New Forest are the wild ponies. They are common in the forest and can be seen wandering around the towns and villages:


My daughter making friends with a New Forest pony

We were standing on the terrace of an ice cream shop tucking into our soft-ices as a small herd of ponies sauntered down the road from the direction of the car, top left. They spotted us and three or four of them came up the slope to join us on the terrace and attempted to share our ice creams! They are completely wild but they’re accustomed to humans being about. But if you happen to be in the forest when a herd come thundering past at high speed it’s an alarming experience, as we found out shortly before this picture was taken. They came by around 25m away and a few minutes later came back even closer. I’ve stood on the rail at Cheltenham watching the Gold Cup as the horses come past on their way to the finish line, and it’s extremely exciting – but it’s a lot more exciting when there’s no rail and no jockeys to keep them in a straight line!