Forgotten Silence

I’ll start this blog with a picture from yesterday female ‘Lichen’ who has just a week left before her eggs hatch. She’s been a great mother so far, sitting in this horrific wet weather. I’ve kept an eye on her as I honestly thought that the ditch she was in would fill with water but luckily it hasn’t. I should have more faith in her nest location choice, they clearly know what they’re doing. 

Female Nightjar - Lichen

Female Nightjar - Lichen


I’ve spent more time sound recording this year than I have taking photo’s, but it’s mainly been for research rather than creating presentable audio. Listening to the world through an amplified microphone, does have two different affects on me. It mainly helps me focus on isolated sounds, focusing my brain on one thing which helps drown out noise-pollution. It can also however make you more aware of noise, as when the bird stops singing, all you’re left with is the sounds of over-head planes, distant traffic, or the roaring sound of off-road motorbikes. Finding locations that are noise-free in Gwent, is becoming near impossible. Is there any wonder that the world is suffering from the highest number of depression cases ever recorded?

A lack of understanding from the governments of the world regarding sound-pollution is mostly because ‘sound’ for them is some unquantifiable measure of consequences that cannot be contained.

This is so far from the truth! We need to approached the subject in a different manner and a start would be to recognise sound for what it really is, and that is Pressure.
No matter what the sound is, big or small, we receive that sound via pressure to our ears drums, and that pressure signal is interpreted by the brain. Our brains work so hard to filter out bad sound pressure, but it’s a battle we’re going to lose. This is why thousands like me escape to the countryside, to try and experience natures gift of silence. In many places we’ve lost it already, but it’s not too late.

There have been some huge milestones recently in the fight against noise-pollution - https://us.whales.org/2018/07/03/noise-pollution-chronically-stresses-whales-and-dolphins/
Marine scientists have been studying Whale sounds for decades and with thousands of Whales washing up on our beaches every year, finally it was proven that military-sonar was the cause. Sound travels much further under water, and as a result, much of our marine life has evolutionary adaptations to exploit this

While it’s a good thing that the world is being forced to think about air and water pollution, we also need to fight the corner for noise and light pollution too. We need protected zones all around the globe where traffic is diverted so we can minimise our impact on natural silence. Hopefully one day we’ll have silent zones close to home that are protected also but for now, it’s my goal to seek these locations out for my own mental health.

This video is a couple years old now, but please watch it. It highlights many of the things I’ve mentioned.

Nightjar and Firecrest Progress

Despite having a tough year so far, both financially and with my health, I still feel privileged to spend my free time with nature, and even more privileged to spend most of that time with Firecrests and Nightjar this season. I started the season collecting Firecrest recordings as I wanted to learn more about their mimicking behaviour. There are still many unanswered questions but I’ll update on this soon.

I’ve since got a little distracted, as Nightjar season has well and truly started. It’s almost a full time Job to keep track of the birds roosting patterns. You’ve got to be extremely cautious and committed to find roosting nightjar. Cautious because you don’t want to cause any disturbance, especially now in breeding season but also because they will inevitably see you long before you see them and flushing them is simply not an option if you wish to ever see them again. It’s a huge trust exercise and they need to learn that you are not a threat, so trampling thru breeding habitat hoping to find one is asking for problems. It’s knowing where they won’t be rather than knowing exactly where they are. I’m so glad I read up on these birds and took some great advice off experts as the last thing I would want is for my presence to have a negative impact on their breeding success. As a result I’ve witnessed some fabulous behaviour and characteristics of individual birds.

Meet Blackbeard, The male from pair no1. He prefers to roost in dense cover and as a result I’ve decided to leave him alone this season as there’s no way of approaching him silently. I’ve called him Blackbeard as he’s considerably darker than all my other Nightjars. Not just his throat, but the stripe down his breast, around his lower eye and also down his back is quite dark. He’s generally more rufous with a wider range of colours.

Blackbeard (Male no1)

Blackbeard (Male no1)

This is his current Female that I’ve named ‘bark’ as she prefers tree stumps and has consistent colouration from head to tail like tree bark without any lichen. Not a very feminine name I know but it’s descriptive enough for me to ID in the field. She was my first ever self found Nightjar. She’s now sitting on eggs but is also in deep cover so this pair I tend to enjoy watching at night only, from a vantage point, rather than pursue them in the day time and possibly cause disturbance.

Female no1

The second pair is a complete different ball-game, and are much easier to approach without making too much noise. They’re both roosting close to the ground but he likes logs or even plastic tree guards. She’s about 10 meters away in a small ditch and is now also sitting on two eggs. I’ve named male no2 silverback due to his overall light shade of grey. He was proving to be quite an attentive partner but since we’ve been having heavy rain, he’s taken to a more sheltered part of the forestry 60+ meters away which is very dry. Do you blame him? I don’t. The female however has no choice but to endure the elements till nightfall where the male then brings her food or they’ll swap over so she can feed. I do wonder if Silverback has gone off with another female while she’s been sat on the eggs as there is a female even closer to his current dry roost that’s been landing on the path and wagging her tail in front of him. He has shown interest in her so it wouldn’t surprise me if he did copulate with her too, this is common with Nightjars. Once his original female has hatched her eggs however, he should take over parental duties when the chicks are large enough, at which point he will copulate with her again, and she’ll lay a second brood elsewhere. The saying, ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket’ is a literal strategy for these birds and in doing this, they increase their chances of survival, even if only one chick manages to fledge.

This pair is a reminder that they’re so vulnerable to predators on the ground, whether it’s snakes, other birds, deer, badgers, foxes, mice, PEOPLE.. there’s so much out there that seek to kill them, which is why they invest so much (or so little) energy into keeping up their ‘log’ act. It’s vital they aren’t seen moving in the day time. Not so easy when you’re soaking wet and cold, or boiling hot in the sun with insects crawling over you.

Below is female no2 which I’m now going to call ‘lichen’ as the contrast of her dark shoulder really makes the lighter wing strips stand out, like a patch of lichen on a branch. She also has quite short wings and a more rounded shorter head than the Male who has a long, flat head shape. Their shape does vary as they manipulate their plumage in different positions but these features are generally unmistakable in the field once you’ve spent some time with them. This is her below sitting on the eggs, it’s a cropped image and from quite far off as I’d rather not disturb her.

Lichen Nightjar Female Sitting

This next bit might make some laugh, but I certainly didn’t find it funny at the time, but a group of young irresponsible adults bumped into me one night while recording Nightjar at dusk. They didn’t bother me at first and showed very little interest in what I was doing but they did turn the music up louder in their car to annoy me. What they did next though questions their insanity.., as they must have drove all the way home, picked up a family members wind instrument (possibly trumpet), with the intent on coming back up the mountain so they could destroy any chance of me getting clean recordings. Take a listen below, you couldn’t have made this up honestly.. Skip to the end..It’s actually hilarious the more I think about it. I just can’t believe the measures some people are willing to take to disrupt other peoples lives.

Between the trumpets, I was watching quite a few bats on the wing while watching the Nightjar and all I could hear thru my headphones were the faint sound of beating wings. I did wonder if my Telinga Microphone could actually pick up such high frequencies and it turns out, IT CAN! After slowing my recording down in Logic Pro X, I was able to pick out each ‘tweet’ that the bats were producing. These tweets are not audible without slowing the recording down but i’m amazed how much detail I was able to capture. It makes me wonder how many bats are in my previous recordings and the only way of telling would be to lower the pitch or slow the recordings down. I’ve always wanted to record bat sound but always thought I would need a Bat detector to do so.

I do have 3 other pairs of Nightjar that I know roughly where they’re roosting but you need to spend weeks observing them before considering yomping thru their habitat. Please be responsible, all breeding birds are protected and I would not be pursuing them if I wasn’t 100% sure I could do so without disturbance.

Born from Destruction

I find it hard to explain just how much I love Nightjars but hopefully by the end of this blog you’ll understand why.

The title sounds a bit dramatic, and that’s because the Nightjar for me is much more than just a cool looking bird that makes an unworldly sound. This bird for me is a reminder that even in a world full of environmental destruction, there are animals out there that have adapted to an ever changing landscape.

The Nightjar has done just this, by using clear-felled woodland to their advantage, as the bare ground, twigs, logs and cut stumps make for a perfect place to blend in and a perfect place to breed. The regrowth of these (often upland) clear-fells bring all kinds of plants, from heather, foxgloves, bracken, broom, gorse and native broadleaf trees, all of which are great for moths and insects which the Nightjar specialising in eating on the wing during the night. In the night they eat and drink on the wing, opening their mouth wide like a Swift and skimming lakes, tree tops and low vegetation for food and drink.

Below is a picture of my first self found Nightjar but hopefully not the last of the season. I have 6 pairs between two locations that I’m keeping an eye on. I hope to record enough male songs to confirm a theory that you can identify males by their BPM. This is a female, so she won’t be using this roost every day, especially once she lays her eggs as she will then incubate on the ground never to be seen again as the ground is mostly dead bracken which she blends into even more! The male was close by. He’s never too far away during this period as he will watch guard over them both. I hope to locate the male later on in the year once they’ve officially began breeding as it’s still early days yet and he’s still copulating with her.

I’ve shared this recording before but it’s still the best one I’ve captured so far, with perfect weather conditions and capturing the song from beginning to end.

If it wasn’t for the new green growth of the green bracken, I don’t think I would have spotted her at all.

I hope to get more opportunities but the most important thing for me at this stage is to ensure I don’t disturb them breeding so I’m going to let them settle in and see how the season goes. I might also continue to look for the other 5 local pairs and may even explore some new clear-fells in the valley to see if they’re attracting Nightjar yet. Either way, it’s quite exciting to finally get time in the day with these birds as I’ve spent so much time watching them in the night, it’s nice to see them in full light.

Marsh Fritillaries

It’s been on my ‘todo list’ for a few years now to make the effort and see the beautiful Marsh Fritillary butterflies at one of our last known breeding sites in Aberbargoed. I believe most of the site is a former colliery, a habitat formed from the scars of industry, but this scar has healed, even when it was thought to never heal again. It’s actually proving to be a ‘win’ in conservation terms, as the coal spoil itself has created a variety of micro habitats because of the way the spoil handles water. Some water gets trapped creating marshy habitats, some completely runs off creating dry patches. This water management has resulted in such a variety of plants occupying the same habitat, which is proving to be just what our insects need, as with most insects, they need a variety of plants to complete their life cycle.

This is why our modern farm practises aren’t good for biodiversity. Fields are drained to turn into dry grassland, replace with poo and chemicals which pollute our waterways. Ground nesting birds still move in, lay their eggs, and then the farmer will cut the grass, killing all that once lived there, Reptiles, Amphibians, Mammals, all dead or injured, which then attracts the predators, foxes, birds of prey, crows and gulls, of which are then blamed for feeding on still-birth lambs, and until quite recently, persecuted for it, because NRW allowed for licensed shooting of these animals who are just cleaning up after our mess.

Specialist species like the Marsh Fritillary don’t stand a chance in modern Britain. We’re so caught up in that ‘human race’ thing called life, that we forget we’re ruining it for our future generations. The exploitation needs to stop. We need more protection for nature. There are good farmers out there doing all they can to minimise their impacts on nature but it’s doing to take more than just the good will of the minority. Wildlife Trusts, Butterfly Conservation, RSPB, they are all doing their part to try and balance the equation but it’s not enough. If our government doesn’t act now, species like this will be lost forever.

Sorry rant over, also included in the photos were some very fast Dingy Skipper Butterflies, a Drinker Moth Caterpillar, some microscopic Gorse Shieldbug Eggs and a scenic shot of an emerging Fox Glove in a field of blossom. All these shots were taken with my Canon 100mm macro which is proving to be good investment. It’s nice to roam around with a small lens for a change. Lugging the telephoto and tripod around can be a bit much all the time.

Discovery

Columbine

The one thing that I absolutely love about the natural world, you’re always discovering new things. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been studying, how old you are, there’s always something you haven’t seen, heard, smelled or touched. It might not be a significant find by any standards, but this week I added two new species, one flower called Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) and though it’s widespread and common, I’ve never seem them before.


Granulated Ground Beetle

The other species came in the form of a beetle which I’ve seen a lot of photographs of, but never actually seen one in person and that’s a large ground beetle called the Granulated Ground Beetle (Carabus granulatus). Seeing one of these large ground beetles makes me want to find the rarer Blue Ground Beetle (Carabus intricatus) which I’ve been told is a mainly nocturnal species of ancient woodland that feeds on slugs and snails. There’s so much to discover, even in the Uk where we have a fairly low number of over-all species on this island compared to mainland Europe.


To keep my birdie friends happy and for anybody who likes to know the ‘how’ behind an image. Below is a pic of me inside a custom made hide, designed by John Marsh of which I’ve made some modifications to suit me. It’s essentially 4 height adjustable spiked poles with 4 cross support beams made out of aluminium. The hide is square and has scrim netting over the main front hole which is the best for being able to still see out of. There’s nothing worse than being in a hide to photograph something that you can’t actually see. Hides are by far the best way to get close to nature. I’ve tried just throwing netting over myself in the past and while it does work, you have to remain completely still, which over extended periods of time is agonising. This hide is small, but it’s big enough that you can still move around, stretch and get comfortable in, even if you are sat on the ground.

My Hide

My Hide

In the making

In the making

Male Pied Flycatcher

Male Pied Flycatcher

Food Chain

I love birds, but the more I learn about the natural world, the more i’m fascinated by the smaller things in life. Despite popular believe, it all starts from the bottom up, without the bugs, nothing else would exist.
A little example of which I found inadvertently while observing Pied Flycatchers and their chosen food prey items. This male Pied was bringing back all sorts of prices for his female who is currently incubating a clutch of eggs. He’s been pretty good so far, though only bringing in single items, which doesn’t seem to go down very well with the female, but it does allow me to ID the bugs. They were mostly catching beetles but also some species of Sawfly, which I believe to be an Oak Sawfly. A quick look under the oak leaves and I did find some Oak Sawfly larvae to confirm their presence. Ancient broadleaf woodland is such an important habitat and one oak tree alone can support thousands of species.

I’ve included some pictures of Spiders of which I know some of my facebook friends have turned their eyes away from. I get that not everyone will come to love spiders but I hope to show them in a different light through my photography. The Zebra spider is quite commonly found on homes and gardens and my home is no exception. This little guy was only 2-3mm long as it’s this years hatchling. I see them mostly on warm days but after a couple of showers, this zebra was sporting a brilliant water droplet hat.

I skipped past the Pied Flycatchers without giving them the attention they deserve. I have to thank Richard Evans at Project Nestbox for introducing me to these birds some years ago. I haven’t gone a single year since without going out of my way to see and hear these birds. Once you do so, it’s hard to imagine a woodland without them. Sadly, that is becoming a reality for many historic breeding sites across wales but thanks to the help of people like Richard, these nest box schemes do help increase remote populations.

Bluebells, Froglets and more Mimics

Wifi has been down for a week so I’ve got lots go catch you up on. I’ll start with some beautiful woodland Frogs amongst the Bluebells which doesn’t seem significant but I look forward to finding them every year in this wood. Any excuse to use the macro lens and to include flora in my images. It looks like it’s going to be a good year for bluebells. I’ve even seeing them high on the moors, which seems unusual.. certainly not something I’ve ever noticed before. I just always associated them with woodland but I guess that’s because everything else is intensely farmed..

While I’m on the uplands, it was pretty special bumping into not 1 but 2 Ring Ouzel in an undisclosed location. We’re at the start of the breeding season for these birds now so it will be interesting to see whether they stick around or if they continue on their migration.

Ring Ouzel

Ring Ouzel

Other notable images from my weeks adventures were mostly bugs. Mating Green Tiger Beetles was a first but Hairy Shieldbug and a Common Crab Spider posed well. The shieldbug image is a 3 image stack, which enabled me to keep a soft background while using the 3 images to pull focus on various parts of the shield-bug in order to get it all in focus.

If you enjoy my mimicking recordings, this one might be a new one for you. It certainly was for me! Siskin have a complex song, but I've always found them pretty easy to identify, therefor didn’t really give them much attention. I don’t know whether it’s just this individual or whether they all do this, but this Siskin could mimic a Blackbird alarm call, a Magpie contact call and a Green Woodpecker call, all mixed into its own song.
It was a real windy day and recording thru numerous branches but you can still hear it if you listen carefully. I’ll revisit this bird on a clearer day to get some better quality recordings. What I love about mimicking birds is, it reminds me that all birds are total individuals, capable of making their own choices.

Goldcrest Poll Results

If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter you may have spotted a little quiz where you got to decide which of the spectrograms below is a real Goldcrest.

Twitter Results

Twitter Results

Facebook Result

Facebook Result

Test ID Sepctogram.jpg

Well, the results were pretty unanimous on both Twitter and Facebook. The majority of people thought that B was the real Goldcrest. Well I’m quite happy with that result, as the answer was in fact A !!!

So far I’m yet to find a Firecrest that’s been able to produce the Goldcrest song with 4 notes per phrase. It’s the last note of each phrase that appears to be the most challenging for the Firecrest.

Firecrest Mimic

I’ll leave you with a picture of a lovely Froglet, one of many covering the woodland flower at the moment that’s plastered with Bluebells. It’s going to be a good season by the looks.

Common Frog Bluebells 28th April.jpg

Research

Steve Williams took this photo.. I’ve clearly been eating too much chocolate this easter haha.

It was great to meet up with Liam Olds, Steve Williams and Mike Kilner over easter. I aimed to show them my Violet Oil Beetle location and we weren’t disappointed with over 40+ individuals found. I’ve since found them a few miles away also on a road side verge. Proof that this valley has to be one of the largest strongholds for this species. We recorded 10 Species of Bee thanks to Liam Olds’ vast knowledge, including a Chocolate Mining Bee which was a first for me. It really is great to be surrounded by such knowledgeable naturalists, there’s so much knowledge to obtain about the natural world, I wish I could soak it all up faster! Everything I know, I’ve learned from other people, or by myself through personal discovery and research. It goes to show that if you’re passionate about something, you learn much faster. This is why most people struggle with their current Jobs as you really need passion to drive you forward. I know I’m currently struggle with Jobs, being out of work since October, but I do believe I’m heading in the right direction, to obtain a Job that will give me a sense of purpose, which is after-all what we all want in life.


Here are a few pics from easter. I’ve spent more time out with the recording gear really so haven’t got too many images but I did have some good moments - My first Wood Warbler of the year, a showy Sedge Warbler and my favourites were actually the bugs, Black-spotted Longhorn Beetle and those cute glaring eyes of the Jumping Spider (evarcha falcata). I did go down to see Blair Jones’ Red-necked Phalarope at Goldcliff which has been proving to be a great birding spot this spring, with Black Kite, Spotted Redshank, Curlew Sandpiper, Grey Plover and all the usual supporting cast. While it does tick a few boxes for me, I’m not sure ticking boxes is really my thing. I’ve never made a year list, local list or life list of any kind, I just want to experience nature and take whatever opportunity nature decides to throw at me.


Firecrest Update

If you haven’t been following, I’m studying mimicking behaviour in Firecrest this year and so far, 3 out of 3 males on territory have been able to produce a goldcrest mimic to varying degrees.
The original bird discovered is still by far the best at mimicking goldcrest which is probably why it stood out to me so well to begin with, but the others have used mimicry in a more subtle way.

Not only was the original Firecrest better at the mimic, but it also used it way more often. This could be because there aren’t any other Firecrests in its territory, so why waste time singing Firecrest? Note in the spectagram that it’s producing 3 notes per peak and with the iconic ‘trill’ at the end. Over-all producing 29 notes including trill.

Firecrest No.1 Mimic


Firecrest No.2 only used the odd mimic within a single song and while it still produced 3 notes per beat, the end ‘trill’ is reduced to only 2 notes, notes of which are more typically expected at the end of the Firecrest song. On average the bird produced 16 notes including the trill at the end. It’s worth saying that the amount of beats doesn’t matter too much as even a real goldcrest song this can vary, however so far the birds who sing less notes and also singing a less perfect rendition of the goldcrest song which is why I’m documenting them.

Firecrest No.2

Firecrest No.3 is by far the most interesting bird, largely because of the circumstances in which it used the mimic, doing so directly after hearing a distant goldcrest singing inside its territory, this can be picked up on during the recording. It only lets out one burst of mimic, which is so simplified it hardly meets the requirements of mimicking but it does have the overall structure. Rather than 3 beats, it has just 2 and this bird neglected the trill at the end entirely. Again, this isn’t going to be a completely controlled study as even goldcrest vary, but it’s interesting to hear these mimics used naturally at a time of year where territories are being established and a birds song is never more imperative than in early spring.

Firecrest No.3

It’s worth noting also that the tempo for each bird also varies;

  1. 154bpm (Sang 12 or more times)

  2. 182bpm (Sang 2 times)

  3. 184bpm (Sang 1 time)

This could be nothing but the bird with the most accurate mimic does sing the phrase the slowest and the bird with the less accurate depiction sings the phrases the fastest. More recordings over the breeding season should reveal whether any of these observations are a coincidence or not but it’s all being documented included frequency of notes.

The reason I’m doing this is because I’d like to know just how accurate these mimics are and I’ll compare all my recordings this year side by side with real Goldcrest songs so that by the end of the study, we’ll hopefully be able to trust our ears again when listening out for Firecrest in the field.

So far I’m noticing that the Goldcrests sound is a little ‘thinner’ with less overall weight to it but that might not be enough to go by, on its own.

Birds, Bees and Beetles

My study of the Firecrest this season has continued but part of the research will include comparing other individuals and upon finding my second territory.. I was completely shocked to find that this bird could also produce both Firecrest and Goldcrest songs... Suddenly I’m starting to think that perhaps this isn’t such a rare occurrence after-all. I’ve read that they are capable of producing both, but nobody I’ve spoken to had heard of this behaviour and I myself have never noticed it before. It goes to show that you can learn a lot by simply spending time with the species in the field and I’m glad that this year I’m able to do so under license.

The wood is also starting to fill up with male Pied Flycatchers, who are already starting to investigate nest boxes, even if they’re already occupied! A Bluetit family had a fight on their hands upon entering their nestbox to find this Pied Flycatcher was inside. This often happens and I’ve seen whole nests with a full clutch of eggs underneath a Pied Flycatchers nest. They are so loyal to their nest holes it’s unreal. Siskin are also back in the tree tops singing away, though this picture was taken at Ian’s Woodland Bird hide that still has a strong number of them visiting the feeders this spring, along with Greenfinch! almost a rare sight in most of gwent these days but I have a feeling that their numbers are picking back up.

The Violet Oil-beetle numbers have spiked this year, with 18 recorded on one visit JUST along the path, and the next day on a more thorough search, more than doubled that amount! Mostly smaller males amongst the taller grass which could easily be missed and stepped on. I feel so protective over this field its unreal, I even spoke with the owners to ensure their grandchildren are careful when playing in the field as I didn’t want to them causing any damage. I’ve grown quite attached to them.. They are pretty prone to being stepped on, as they’re fairly slow moving in the long grass and cannot fly, so if you do find a population of your own, please tread with care. St Marks Fly also out on storm at the moment which is a whole 2 weeks earlier than last year.