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. 

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.

Beetles and Butterflies

I set out today with the intent to find Oil Beetles. A specialist species that are in major decline across the country. There are a few different species, all of which are pretty rare but the most commonly found is the Violet Oil-beetle, which is the only species I’ve managed to find myself so far. A quick walk around the site and I didn’t spot any, but upon getting back to the car I’d realised I must have dropped my sunglasses…. AGAIN! so I retraced my steps and this time, it turned out to be a good thing, as not only did I re-locate my glasses but I stumbled upon 3 adult female Oil-beetles AND thousands of larvae on their food plant, lesser celandine. These Oil Beetles must have been laying eggs really early this year for there to be so many larvae hatching already. That warm weather in February must have made them come out early as I wouldn’t usually find them out till April in this location. I’ve probably mentioned it before, but the lifestyle of these beetles is incredible. They are what we like to call a ‘symbiotic’ or a more accurate discription would be a parasitic species, which means their life is dependant upon another species. In this beetles case, they are dependant upon the life cycle of solitary mining bee’s, which, as their names suggests, burrow into the ground to make their nest. It’s then the female Oil-beetles job to find those nests and to burrow into them to lay her own eggs inside. When the eggs hatch, her larvae then eat the eggs of the Bee’s and the pollen supplies collected by the bees and once that supply is gone, they latch onto the bee’s like a parasite, for the bee’s to drop them off to the flowers from which the larvae use the bee’s to fly them to new flowers once they’ve exhausted the pollen supplies. This process can happen a few times too, as the bees could take the larvae back to a different nest.
Just incredible! If you’d like to learn more about the other species of Oil Beetle, check out this PDF put together by Buglife.

Other species noted were Gorse Shieldbug, Bronze Shieldbug, Spotted Sedge Caddisfly ( Likely Polycentropus flavomaculatus), Brimstone, Orange-tip, Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell Butterflies.

I didn’t take any pictures of birds on this trip despite lugging the big lens around but Blackcap, Chiffchaff and Mistle Thrush were the dominant songsters in the woodland. No Pied Flycatchers back in the wood just yet but lots of Badger activity. 

Jewells of the Forest

I could quite easily make a home in the Forest of Dean. It’s such a magical place, home to elusive species like Hawfinch, Firecrest, Nightjar, Willow Tit, Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers and the only population of Wild Boar in Wales. Today’s trip was forced after two weeks of ill health, of which I still haven’t fully recovered, but I refused to be stuck indoors any longer with this beautiful weather we’ve been having. I’ve planned to scan a spot that showed a lot of Boar activity two months ago, in the hope that I would find some new born piglets. Their stripes on a piglet (also called humbugs) are perfect camouflage in the forest and their preferred nesting spot in thick bracken makes them pretty invisible. If it wasn’t for the large Mother making a racket to warn me off, I wouldn’t have even spotted the piglets. It all happened so fast and this was after 4-5 hours of walking but I think I made the most of the opportunity as best as I could with the gear I had available.

Moving on to the Adder! As if the Boar wasn’t enough to make my day, if you’ve read previous blogs you’ll know how much time I’ve spent yomping around local heathland looking for Adder, that and I lost a very expensive pair of sunglasses while searching for said Adder. I gave in though, and travelled to a known ‘hotspot’ pun intended, in the Forest of Dean, only to find not 1, but 3! basking in the midday sun. They all appear to be males and were much smaller than I was expecting.. probably why I’ve never seen one before.