Category Archives: Isle of Wight

Isle of Wight Part 2

The IoW avians:

We took our annual holiday two years running at Shanklin on the Isle of Wight, and one thing I noticed during the first visit was that there were ravens on the cliff face behind the beach at Shanklin. As I didn’t manage to take any close-up photographs of them on the first visit I resolved to try a bit harder the second time around.

Then one afternoon I found myself on the seafront with the kids and the usual gulls were wheeling and squawking in the air:

Herring gull – Larus argentatus (Dansk: Sølvmåge)

I like herring gulls, their shrieking call is reminiscent of fun-filled childhood trips to the seaside. And it makes me laugh how easily they overcome their natural fear of humans and come right up close to try to scrounge a chip.

And another gull which frequents the coasts of the UK, but which I see more of on the fields inland is the black headed gull:

Black headed gull, Chroicocephalus ridibundus (Dansk: hættemåge) – undercarriage down for a landing on the beach

Having touched down a quick pause for a pre-prandial scratch before poking around in the silt for something to eat

And while the gulls were doing their thing I noticed a big black shape on the cliffs a few hundred metres away which I thought could be a raven. So I chivvied the kids along the beach to get closer and sure enough it was indeed a raven. It flew down from the cliffs onto the beach and landed around 30-40m away but as I was of the opinion that ravens would be like the other crows, not terribly comfortable being in close proximity to humans, I gathered the children close and told them to be calm. But as we stood and watched it strolled down the beach towards us and didn’t appear to be remotely fazed by our presence, or for that matter, anyone elses:

Close encounter with a raven (Corvus corax, Dansk: ravn)

He strolled on past with a purposeful gait and what struck me was the size of him. Ravens are huge! I’d read before that they are the size of buzzards and seeing one this close it’s easy to see they really are.

So for comparison, an obliging rook posed in the background, and even though the rook is 5-10m further away the size difference is stark. There’s no confusing this chap for any other type of corvid!

And the reason the raven was behaving as bold as brass was that it was on a mission to examine the contants of a litter bin for a late afternoon snack:

First it made a small incision with its powerful beak – one of natures tools that’s magnificently fit for purpose. Once access was gained, it proceeded to extract the contents through this hole and snaffle up all the pieces of food jettisoned by that afternoons beach goers:

When I left it was still emptying the bin and was only distracted once when a large group of noisy folk walked right past, but he just hopped away a few metres and waited for them to pass before burying his head inside the bin once more to continue the meal.

I really like this series of shots because it shows a spectacular and enigmatic bird being incredibly resourceful, and it’s the first time I manage to get really close to a raven.

Some years ago I went kayaking in the Johnson Strait between British Columbia and the Canadian mainland to see orcas, and while I was there I learnt a bit about the indigenous people of that region, the Haida indians. As with many indigenous folk, they had a conservation minded and mystical relationship with their environment because their very survival depended entirely on the forests and oceans and the inhabitants thereof.

And one of the creatures they held in particular reverence was the raven. A modern day Haida called Bill Reid has written a book consisting of a series of short stories based around the orca, the eagle, the bear and of course, the raven, all from Haida legend going back centuries to a time before Europeans intervened and ruined everything. If you ever stumble across a copy buy it and enjoy it, it’s called ‘The Raven Steals the Light’ (ISBN 1-55054-481-0).

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Isle of Wight 2013

Part 1 – Lepidoptera

I’ve already grumbled in earlier posts about how the weather over the last three years leading up to 2014 was cold and unpredictable here in the UK, and how it had a very bad effect on our wildlife. In particular, overall numbers, and numbers of species, of butterflies, which are very sensitive to environmental change, seem to have been dramatically affected over those three years here in Cambridge at least.

But last year whilst on holiday on the Isle of Wight I took a walk from Shanklin up to the old WW2 radar station which is the highest point on the island, and apart from a flypast by a peregrine falcon, the most eyectaching natural phenomena were the butterflies, which seemed to be in direct contrast to the previous three years.

Comma – Polygonia c-album

The first part of my route took me through a wooded area bound by sea cliffs on one side and farmland on the other. A huge buddleia bush overhung the pathway which was hosting numerous species of butterfly, including the comma, above, and a painted lady, of which I’d seen plenty in 2010 but virtually none in the intervening years when the weather had turned bleak.

Painted lady – Vanessa cardui

The comma is resident to the UK and in recent years its numbers and range have actually increased and this has puzzled the entomologists as it is bucking a general trend amongst all butterflies here in the UK. in contrast, the painted lady is a handsome migrant which, according to my field guide, may or may not show up in the UK, consequently the entire population depends on immigration from Africa. But that raises the question what happens to the adults that are born here?

But since my guide was published, some research has been published where populations were tracked in and out of the UK on their migration routes by radar, and it revealed that painted ladies leave the country at high altitude – 500-1000m – where they can’t be seen by eye. The application of technology is revealing many hitherto unknown phenomena about many species and it’s interesting that up until now it was thought the whole UK population of painted ladies died out each year simply because they fly back just out of visual range.  And even more amazingly, it has now been discovered that this species takes up to six generations to make a circular 14000km (9000 miles) round trip from the Arctic Circle to Sub-Saharan Africa!

Which raises another mind boggling question: how is it hard wired into this tiny creature to make successive steps of this awesome migratory feat, covering half the globe, all in the same direction, at any one time? Unbelievable! But on the other hand, if populations on a previous leg of the journey take a hit for whatever reason it may be the explanation of why population size can vary so much from year to year in the UK.

Common blue male  – Polyommatus icarus

After emerging from the woods I climbed a steep incline, crossing the main Shanklin to Ventnor road and up the chalk downland of Boniface Down towards the WW2 radar station. Consequently, the terrain and the vegetation changed and so did the butterflies. The common blue is another species which I sighted frequently before the three year cold snap of 2011-14, but this male was the first one I’d spotted for a while.

Silver Y moth – Autographa gamma

The silver Y – it’s easy to see how it got its name – is a migrant moth which isn’t peculiar to chalk downlands and can be seen in most habitats, including the farmlands here around Cambridge, and this one was soaking up the sunshine on the down.

Marbled white  – Melanargia galathea

But the real gem of this trip was the marbled white, of which there were numerous examples fluttering around the down, and this one was sipping nectar from a greater knapweed flower. The marbled white is a UK resident and its favoured habitat is chalk downland.

Emerging on the top of the downland the vegetation changed to primarily low scrub consisting of acres of thistles which were home to more gatekeepers than I’ve ever seen before in one spot, I’m not exaggerating when I say there were literally hundreds of them. The information board at the entrance said that small coppers were also in residence but I only saw one and unfortunately it didn’t settle, which was a pity because they’re beautiful little brown and orange chaps and I wanted to get a photograph of one to share. Oh well, next time.

Gatekeeper – Pyronia tythonus – this one is a male, identifiable by the brown patches on the forewings, the ‘sex brands’

During the winter of 2013-14 and so far through this year the weather has warmed up, the cold, the rain and the high winds have all abated allowing many species to start to recover. It’s been a good year so far for butterflies and dragonflies, and hopefully lots more insects and the other creatures that predate them. The resilience of the natural world is astonishing, but I’m hoping we get another couple of mild years so the recovering wildlife can consolidate its numbers before the next big change in the weather.

The views from the top of Boniface Down were lovely. The cliffs on the southern edge of the island falling away to the English Channel were to the left, and when I looked north I could see mainland England. It’s not discernible in this photograph but the Solent and the south coast of the mainland are in the distance:

The only bird I managed to photograph up there was this little fellow who I think is a meadow pippit:

The pippits were very busy feeding youngsters, toing and froing across the scrub with beaks full of insects.

And the other reason I hiked up the hill was to see the old radar station at RAF Ventnor at the top of Boniface Down. This was one of the original installations set up before WW2 and was instrumental in detecting and reporting the massed attacks on southern England by the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain.

The remaining pair of radar towers at RAF Ventnor – there were originally six

The station was twice bombed by the Luftwaffe and I believe it holds the dubious distinction of being the only radar station to be destroyed by the enemy!