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Conservation

A Week for Welsh Bugs!

I’m back on the Nightjar, this time at a completely different location, just to switch things up a bit . So far I have 3 pairs , including this Male that’s switching his roost up every night but does come back to the same ones every now and again. Each roost he uses though is pretty well covered so I won’t be trying to get close photographs of this one, which does not matter to me at all, as once you’ve spent as much time as I have researching them, just finding one without disturbing them gives you such a great sense of achievement and most of the time I just rock up, look at them through my bins from a distance and go straight home.

Male Nightjar

The great thing about searching for Nightjar, it requires similar searching methods to how you would search for rare insects, paying great attention to the small details. I always bring my macro lens with me and this week, I’m so glad that I did, as not only has it been fun photographing a variety of different species in beautiful sunshine, every now and again you stumble upon a gem!


A short walk along the Gwent Levels and upon arriving back at the car, I noticed a very small Hoverfly that was so brightly marked I thought it was a wasp. It just to happened to be a member of the Chrysotoxum family which are ‘wasp mimics’ and if it weren’t for the featherlight flight pattern, it would have had me fooled!.
I’m not going to pretend like I knew what it was in the field, as I didn’t. All I knew was, I’ve never seen one of these before, as I do have a photographic memory. I managed to snap a few different photo angles, trying to get the full back pattern and the antenna which are usually key features in identifying hoverflies. There are around 280 different species of Hoverfly in the Uk, some of which are isolated populations in specialist habitats. In the case of Chrysotoxum, they are described as being ‘The Difficult Five’ as they are very similar and usually requires close examination by an expert in order to ID them. Luckily for me I always take multiple angled pictures when photographing insects as I’ve learned the hard way that it’s not always possible to ID via a photograph. This is why so many bug specialists take home life samples to study under a microscope.
As soon as I got home I looked in my Hoverfly book which I downloaded on my phone, it’s called ‘Britains Hoverflies’ and it’s written by Stuart Ball & Roger Morris. The book was great, and the description / images provided me with enough detail to rule out a few species straight away and it was looking good to be Chrysotoxum Verralli. This is still new territory for me though, so I went straight to my ‘bug friend’ Liam Olds, who has a vast amount of bug knowledge and is very open to receiving the odd ID request from me, which I’m truly grateful for! He quickly checked for key features and as I suspected, it looked good for Chrysotoxum verralli, but he requested I still ran it by the Uk Hoverflies facebook group to be 100% sure, as if it was C.Verralli, it would be a first record for Wales!

The stakes just went up! so I popped all my pics on the facebook group and who should comment, but the co-author of my Hoverfly book! Roger Morris himself! and confirmed that it is indeed Chrysotoxum verralli. I couldn’t have had a better person to confirm that for me so I’m chuffed to bits.

Chrysotoxum Verralli

I shouldn’t get too excited though, as this actually happens quite a lot. In the same week, Martin Bell discovered a Sandrunner Shieldbug in Slade Wood which is another first for Wales! The truth is, there’s probably a lot more out there that we simply have not discovered yet and I am living proof that anybody, no matter how much experience you have, can discover something new, if you just slow down and pay attention to the details.

Gwent Naturalists

If you’re on Facebook and live in Gwent, you might be interested to join a new group called Gwent Naturalists.

It’s an extension of the Gwent Birders group that has over 600 members so far and every now and again we get questions about butterflies, moths, dragonflies and flowers, which is fine, but it made me realise that we could do with a group that covers more taxonomic groups.

We’re very lucky in gwent to have dedicated naturalists that have spent a life-time studying nature in their respective field. Whether it’s spiders, slime moulds, mosses, micro moths, birds, bats, reptiles, flowers, bees, beetles, you name it, there is somebody out there with the knowledge.
This isn’t to take away from the existing - South East Wales Biodiversity Records Centre group - which I still highly recommend you join.

The Gwent Naturalists group isn’t just a place to share photos and ask for ID’s, I hope that we can use it to discuss conservation topics in our area, organise field events, and generally work together to help encapsulate our knowledge and work together towards a common goal.



My second pair of Nightjars were victim of an egg thief just two days from hatching, so I’m giving them plenty of space as they choose their second location for clutch 2, which is so far looking to be a much wiser choice, in a clear-fell that has much more cover, making the nest less exposed. I did wonder if their first choice was a good one, as it wasn’t far from a major dog walking route, and they did get quite a few close fly-bys from Jays and Great Spotted Woodpeckers, but the list of predators for ground nesting birds is huge, so it’s lucky they’ve adapted to this by not putting all their eggs in one basket, having a second clutch as a backup plan should the first choice go wrong. With the hot weather though, I’ve turned my attention to the vast amount of insects that are now at peak.


I did note 3 Silver-washed Fritillaries on the wing this week at a local woodland which could be a good sign that this species is spreading out. I usually go to the Forest of Dean to get my Silver-washed fix but instead of doing that I’m going to make more of an effort this year to find them on my doorstep. I’ll leave you with this incredibly out of focus, cropped image :D

Shape Conforming

I hope you’re not getting tired of hearing about Nightjar but honestly I don’t care haha. Spending time with one species, learning more about their characteristics and behaviour is what I love and it’s the only way you’ll ever get a chance of photographing this species in the day. I’m now on my 4th pair and my 7th individual (yet to locate the female of the 4th pair). I find it interesting that each pair has chosen a different type of habitat, or at-least the same habitat at different stages.

  1. 3-4 Year Old clear-fell, mostly small-medium sized trees

  2. 1 year old clear-fell, only bracken, grass.

  3. 3 year old clear-fell, mostly grassland, bracken and heath

  4. 3 year old clear-fell, totally rocky habitat with bracken between.

It goes to show how versatile they are, so long as there is suitable habitat around them for moths, they’ll roost almost anywhere there’s suitable cover.
The pair that’s chosen the rocky habitat is the one that I’m most interested in, as he’s also choosing to roost on rocks, rather than logs/sticks. If you look closely, even the shape of his back appears to match the shape of the rock. I wonder if this is strategic? Shape conforming is common amongst species that rely on camouflage to survive and they do appear to match their chosen roost spot. If on the end of a log, they’ll sit tall, short, tail town as if they’re part of the end of that log. If they sit across a stick, they’ll sit in the same direction and flatten themselves out.

As a contrast, here’s the female of pair number 3 showing that typical flattened out pose that matches the long shape of a stick. I loved this chosen roost spot, but it’s doubtful she’ll use it again though as she looks ready to burst. I’m surprised she hasn’t laid yet. Maybe she has and her first clutch failed? I hope that isn’t the case.


I’ve also been studying their vocalisations but I’ve needed a few years worth of field recordings on Nightjar, in order to confirm a theory that you can identify individual males by their song. The way you would do this is to work out the average BPM, length of phrases and also the frequency of both exhale and inhale.
I’ve collected so far at-least 6 different males, though I’ve focused on returning to the same territory for the last 2 years in the hope to confirm it with one individual male. So far it looks like I can confirm this theory, as I’m finding only a 0.8 difference between the BPM recorded in 2017 to present day. A couple more years worth of recording Males and I should be able to give more weight to this theory.
The analysis is actually pretty easy and could even be done in the field so long as you had a laptop to return to. I’ll publish more details about my methods at the end of the season.

Nightjar Identification

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.

Mimicking Continues

Last week I introduced a Firecrest mimicking a Goldcrest song and this week I wanted to show you another example of a classic mimicking species, the Sedge Warbler! Now the recording isn’t very good with high winds and noisy planes that have been filtered out, that and the fact that the bird was only singing at quarter volume which is often called ‘sub-song’ but you can still make out the pitch perfect attempt at a Blue Tit song, eventually weaving back into it’s typical chattery mixture of notes. It also attempted to fit in a few phrases of Blackcap and Wren but the Blue Tit was by far the best I’ve heard for a while.

This Sedge Warbler was spotted at a new location along the Gwent Levels.

Sedge Warbler

Sedge Warbler

I also spotted a Water Vole in a rhyne. Testament to the hard work of the Wildlife Trust at Magor Marsh and NRW. It’s great that they’ve spread this far across the levels. Unfortunately this spot is directly threatened by the proposed M4 ‘Black Route’ so all this hard work could be lost. If you haven’t already, check out ‘CALM’ https://savethelevels.org.uk/ to learn more about what you can do to help protect the Gwent Levels from development.

Water Vole

Water Vole

Mimicking Birds

By now you’ll realise that I’m quite interested in mimicking birds, having done talks to the Welsh Ornithological Society and studied them during my sound degree in University.  Mimicking species aren’t always easy to find however,  because sometimes they mimic so well, that you assume they are the species they are mimicking and don’t care to look twice. This was evident in my recent discovery, where a friend of mine found a new Firecrest territory, just a mile from one that I found last year. Upon visiting the territory myself, I noticed something a bit odd about the Male Firecrests song.. It didn’t sound like the long-drawn out-monotone notes that I expect to hear in their typical song.. and if that wasn’t enough to raise suspicion, it then let out 3-4 phrases of GOLDCREST song! :O

The bird didn’t appear to show signs of hybridisation, with all the standard Firecrest features intact, so I instantly contact around to see if anybody else had heard or read about mimicking Firecrest before. Nobody had heard of this behaviour and after some research on the web and thru books, I couldn’t find any documentation on this. That was until I contacted Chris Hatch, who said that he would look into it for me. Chris later rang me after finding some information in one of his volumes of the ‘birds of the western palearctic’ which did note that Firecrest was able to produce both Firecrest and Goldcrest vocalisations but this was only on rare occasions. I mean it makes sense, especially in Gwent where the population is so high for Goldcrest. Despite them being able to live alongside each-other, they do still compete for the same food so it is within the best interest of the Firecrest to keep Goldcrests out of its territory. This could be the reason why it’s mimicking, but being such a similar species, who knows. There is a documented case in 1974 where a Male Firecrest was seen tending to a Female Goldcrests nest, from which fledged at-least 5 chicks. Document Link.

There are a couple scenarios that I can think of that would result in this Identity Crisis, especially in species that are so similar, but more research is needed. Luckily I have good friends, and providing everything goes well on NRW’s end, I’ll be able to study this subject bird under license this season. Below is a video showing a distant pic of the subject bird and a recording of the longest bout of Goldcrest song it produced. Hearing the recording alone, I think most people would struggle to pic out any differences. Looking closely at the spectogram, there are some minor differences but I’ll study that in more detail once the license comes thru.

Below is my first recording of the subject mimicking bird, starting off half singing / calling and changing to the goldcrest song at 1:30 seconds.

If you’re unsure of the differences between a Firecrest and Goldcrest song, below is a recording I did 2 years ago of both species singing in the same tree. I’ve noted in the comments where the Firecrest phrases are.

I only managed a couple of distant pics of the subject bird but as you can see in the photo below, the features are pretty concrete. The white supercilium is strong, with a clear black line thru the eye and a bright vibrant green back that appears more vibrant in the sun. The only feature that I have a question mark on is the apparent short legs. I’m not sure if it’s a documented feature difference between the two species, but through my own observations, I’ve always found Firecrest to hold themselves a little higher from the perch, giving the appearance of longer legs. I didn’t see that in this subject, but that could be nothing.

Mimicking Firecrest | March 2019

Mimicking Firecrest | March 2019

Should everything go to plan with NRW, I’ll keep you informed throughout the breeding season.

Climate Change

While Britain stalls the upcoming shit-show that is Brexit, the EU continue to move on their path towards a greener future. Without the influence of EU Law, how long do you think it will take for the Uk to catch up onto the increasing threat of climate change? You’d think 20 degrees in February would be enough to silence the critics? Don’t get me wrong, it felt amazing to bath in this weeks sunshine and it did break me out of a little winter depression, but for our migratory birds, butterflies, moths and early emerging plants, if this weather takes a turn back to the depths of winter (which it could very well do), it could spell disaster for this years spring breeding season.

https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/uk-weather-heatwave-climate-change-global-warming-february-met-office-a8797136.html?fbclid=IwAR3EV4ML80Y0iiFKaxboe43LgRlo-cinfdEabrc9sNut7tKfn2YBYxbkNz4

The EU just voted to completely ban single use plastics such as straws, cutlery and tea stirrers. It’s something I’ve been hoping we would do also, but now… Brexit, the ‘power’ is back in our own hands, this includes our own environmental laws. Do you think we’ll set an example to the world and forge our own green path? So long as the Tory Government stay in power, I think we’ll do quite the opposite. I predict that we’ll be in such a financial mess post-brexit, that the government will consider further exploitation of our natural resources in order to make fast money.

https://futurism.com/the-byte/single-use-plastics-ban-eu?fbclid=IwAR3LsYYpJo1PzRDPpC202la88WN6K4xLIiCoqDwgWbXPWY7e3ru7wXDm9gk

Please be warned about the videos below, they may disturb some people, but I wanted you to see an example of the damage that Straws and Cutlery can do to our wildlife. The world of power needs to wake up.

Below is a pic I took a couple months ago at a fishing lake in Ebbwvale. Having spent many ours at Llandegfedd Reservoir, this is becoming an all-too common sight. Fishing nets, line, hooks, lures, all recipes for environmental disaster. I used to fish when I was young and I know from experience how easy it is to get your line caught on something, or hook snagging something in the water, and there’s nothing you can do, other than cut the line and let metres of environmental death traps go in the water. This happens all over the world, and I don’t want to directly blame the fishing industry but it’s because nets, line and rope that snag floating plastics that then turn into islands that attract marine life. Turtles, Fish, Crabs, they’re all attracted to these death traps for food and security. Before it’s too late, Law needs to change. I just hope whatever happens, the Uk will have strong leaders that fight for our future.

Blackbird Fishingline

Non-natives & Order Call

Today I took an hour to investigate reports of a Female Mandarin near the 14 Locks stretch of Canal, pictures online of which looked to actually be a Female Wood Duck. I’m not overly familiar with Wood Duck, till today anyway. After finding the bird, Wood Duck was confirmed with all the right features, with thick white eye-ring, point towards the eye at the base of bill, saturated wing tips, and upturned thin flank stripes. Not only that, the bird seemed to be quite chunky, only slightly smaller than the accompanied Mallards. Both Wood Duck and Mandarin are invasive species and spark a bit of controversy amongst naturalists as they have the potential to unbalance native populations of wildfowl by competing for similar food supplies. Personally, I’m unconvinced on this argument, and see them as a species that fit into their own category, but unlike invasive predators, it’s very difficult to assess the impact of invasive species like this. Mandarin and Wood Duck nest in holes in Trees which rules out any breeding competition with our native Ducks, but it does mean they occupy the same nesting holes as many of our Birds of Prey like Kestrels and Owls, most of which are in serious decline. As with everything in conservation, nothing is straight forward and the area of wildlife control creates even more controversy.

Here is a picture of this very Wood Duck. Likely to be an escapee from a collection rather than a wild bird, but beautiful either way.

Female Wood Duck

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Wasp Spiders & Roadside Verges

A perfect example of how important roadside verges can be for wildlife. A buffer zone has been left, probably not by choice, but there is a convenient reen at the bottom of a slope which the council thankfully! don't want to cut!

Wasp Spiders are a very remote species, often found in the exact same spot as previous years, so long as the eggs manage to last the winter. Any type of grass cutting would destroy the eggs and could wipe the population out entirely. I found 14 spiders altogether in 3 main groups, each group had a dozen or so together, likely to be the place they hatched. They don't travel far, as the habitat they're born in is exactly what they need to survive. Their prefered prey is Grasshoppers and their web is most certainly up for the challenge of catching them. 

Verhes

Verhes

One of three egg sacks found in the same tuft of grass. Easily wiped out with a simple end of year grass cut.   

Because the species is so delicate, a re-introductory plan would be beneficial in areas of suitable habitats, such as the west side of Cefn Ila backing onto Prescoed Prison. The un-managed land at prescoed could hold a decent population. Llandegfedd Reservoir wild flower meadows may also be suitable, if it wasn't for the fact that they cut the grass each year and graze it with sheep in the winter. 

Wasp Spider Egg Sack

Wasp Spider Egg Sack