Archive | Nature Diary

19 November 2013 ~ 0 Comments

6 Top Tips To See More Wildlife

Badger

If you’re like me then you spend a fair amount of time out in the countryside on “nature walks” simply looking for interesting plants and animals in their natural environment. However in discussions with a number of friends recently it seems that many people are somewhat disappointed by the “lack” of wildlife when they actually go out into the wilds looking for it.

Here, then, are my six top tips for getting the most out of your nature walk…

Start Early

Not only are many animals more active in the early hours of the day but furthermore you’re likely to see far more before all the “normal” people come out with their mountain bikes and noisy families.

Yes, you’ll have to get up early, but it’s a comproise worth making. And, for the reptile-fanatic like me, you’re far more likely to get a good view of lizards and snakes before they’ve had a chance to warm up as opposed to later in the day when the ambient temperature is far higher.

Camp

One trick I like to use is to go camping (or caravanning) whenever possible. The Caravan Club is a great place to start your search for sites and if you choose your site properly, you’ll be able to sleep within moments of promising habitats. In this way not only can you save on travel in the early hours of the day but you’ll be able to get started even earlier.

And, for the really serious nature-nut, you’ll also be able to pop out again towards dusk when everyone but the keenest walkers have gone home and you once again virtually have the place to yourself.

Stay Off The Beaten Track

Many animals are rightly scared of people so sticking to well-known routes and paths can be a recipe for disaster. Instead, buy a map (or use the GPS feature on your phone) and be willing to venture down smaller paths or go “off road” where permitted.

By avoiding the crowds you’ll see far more wildlife as well as having the feeling that you’re really stepping into nature in it’s rawest and most natural form.

Know What To Look For

I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to simply “seeing what turns up” but it can greatly increase your chances of success if you do a little research beforehand. For example, try looking at what butterfies should be on the wing, or learn which wild plants are most likely to have caterpillars on right now.

By doing some research into the habitat you’re visiting and the specific season you’re going in, you’ll be able to “get your eye in” on the species you’ll likely find and you’ll be surprised at just how much more success you can have as a result.

Stay Invisible

We’ve mentioned avoiding noisy people. But we can also give ourselves away. For best results, aim to be as “invisible” as possible. That means no strong perfumes, no bright colors, no sudden movements. And watch where you’re stepping; with the right footwear and some awareness it’s amazing just how silently you can walk through nature.

Be Patient

Lastly, the big one. Don’t be in any rush. Don’t aim put aside just an hour or two and go storming out looking for wildlife. Some of my very best wildlife experiences have been a result of extreme patience. Literally dilly-dallying along, often sitting down for a quick break, when a deer or a fox or whatever literally wonders straight past you. Patience is really the biggest key of all.

Creative Commons License hehaden via Compfight

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08 January 2012 ~ 1 Comment

Great Mullein And The Mullein Moth

Great Mullein

Despite spending much of my free time out in the countryside observing nature for as long as I can remember I recently stumbled across a new find in the form of a plant I’d never seen before.

Whilst it isn’t rare it is most exotic-looking and my first thought when I saw it was that this plant had blown in as a seed from a nearby garden. After some research I managed to identify the plant as a mullein. Whilst there are a number of different mulleins in the UK it seems from my research that the plant I found was the largest (and seemingly commonest) of the group – known as Great Mullein.

Great or Common Mullein, latin name Verbascum thapsus, is an impressive plant that can reach over 6 feet in height with rosettes of large leaves each one cloaked in bristly white hairs giving it a Mediterranean look and the appearance of greyish foliage thanks to the combination of the white hairs on the green leaves.

Great Mullein plant

mullein

Just as interestingly while trying to get a number of photos of the plant to help me identify it I stumbled across a number of large, brightly-coloured caterpillars feeding on the plant.

The combination of a minty green background together with the yellow and black spots gives it a most attractive and indeed impressive appearance. It turns out that these are the caterpillars of the mullein moth though I was somewhat disappointed that the adult moth itself is far less impressive in appearance that the larvae.

If you’re out and about in the late spring and early summer keep an eye out for mullein which thanks to it’s size and shape is easy to identify – and watch for caterpillars feeding on it.

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Mullein moth caterpillar

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24 July 2010 ~ 0 Comments

Interesting Jay Behaviour

It's my nut..and your NOT having it...
Creative Commons License photo credit: law_keven

On my visit to Woods Mill Nature Trail, managed by the Sussex Wildlife Trust, I heard a lot of commotion in a small forest area where a Jay was. Creeping forward to see what was going on I observed what I consider to be some fascinating behaviour.

The Jay was standing on the top of a tree stump, picking at something whilst calling at the top of it’s lungs with that strange rattling call that Jays have. But what was it doing?

It turns out that the Jay was flying down to the ground and picking off individual, furled leaves of a Lords And Ladies plant nearby. Then it was taking the still-rolled leaf over to the tree stump and pecking at them with it’s beak.

To my knowledge Jays don’t eat Lords And Ladies so I can only assume that perhaps insects try to hide in the tube created by the new rolled-up leaves and this Jay was trying to remove them.

I’ve never seen anything like this before so if you can shed any light on the situation please leave me a comment by filling in the box at the end of this article.

Below are photos of the tree stump with some leftover leaves, the individual plant that the Jay was plucking leaves from and a close-up of the leftover leaves showing where the Jay had been pecking them.

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03 July 2010 ~ 2 Comments

Mystery Moth

For those of you know I don’t know personally, one of my hobbies is keeping and breeding leaf insects. The typical hobbyist food of leaf insects in the UK is bramble so every week or so I find myself out in the countryside with a carrier bag and pair of scissors taking some leaves back home (all whilst trying not to get spotted by someone else so I don’t have to explain myself and look like a weirdo!).

At this time of year of course hundreds of different invertebrates use bramble as a food source or a place to hide and so I do my best to choose leaves without spiders on, cookoo spit and so on so they can carry on to adulthood.

However a few weeks ago I missed something. And that something was a couple of caterpillars. These lived perfectly happily with the leaf insects, feeding on the fresh bramble leaves that I gave them until they both pupated.

In the picture above you can see both one of the caterpillars and the other having already turned into a pupae.

The questions is – what are these pupae going to turn into? My assumption due to (a) their size and (b) the way they both pupated down on the ground rather than attaching themselves to a plant are that they are moths rather than butterflies but only time will tell. I also believe they are the same species due to the similarity in appearance of both the caterpillars and they resultant pupae.

Assuming they hatch out successfully I’ll try to get some photos and let you know what appeared!

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09 May 2010 ~ 3 Comments

Websites To Help You Identify British Butterflies

Coral hairstreak, on butterflyweed
Creative Commons License photo credit: Benimoto

Whilst I love to see butterflies, I am far from an expert and so regularly find myself leafing through books and websites to learn more about a species I have seen recently.

During my research I have come across a number of useful online resources for identifying British butterflies and their caterpillars and thought that it might be useful for other readers to gather the best resources into one place.

Possibly the best place to start your identification journey is with a visit to Butterfly Conservation’s UK Butterflies site which has neatly categorized all of the UK butterfly species, with clear photos of each making identification reasonably easy for most species.

As well as the photos, this site also groups butterflies by type, helping to narrow down your search and also has a handy “Flying This Week” chart on the left-hand side of the page which is a great place to start your hunt.

Butterfly Conservation’s main website also has some very useful resources including a complete A to Z listing of UK butterflies and a special “butterfly identifier” where you can select options from a form which will then offer up possible identifications.

Also worth mentioning is UK Leps which has lots of nice photos and information but unfortunately there is no overview feature. Because of this, UK Leps is probably not so useful for identification when compared to the two Butterfly Conservation websites but once you have worked out what your butterfly is, the site provides plenty more useful information on the species.

Whilst the flying adult butterflies are often the most visible form, it is of course not unusual to find caterpillars and these can potentially be even more problematic to identify.

What’s That Caterpillar is a great resource for identification of British caterpillars. To make your identification a little easier, try to identify the actual plant that you find the caterpillar on and then use one of the various lists of larval food plants to narrow down the options.

Some of the best lists of larval food plants I have found are Foremost Butterflies and Over The Garden Gate.

Lastly, if you have some top identification websites that you use for lepidoptera, please leave me a comment so we can all benefit from your knowledge :-)

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03 May 2010 ~ 3 Comments

A Visit To Faulking Hill

Ah, one of those classic British place-names to put a smile on the face! I recently took a stroll to Faulking Hill in East Sussex to take a look at the scenes and wildlife on the chalk downloads found there.

Whilst the sun was out, the wild was howling across the open hillsides and so while there were some amazing views, wildlife was few and far between. Up on the exposed hillside there is little plant cover at all so while crows and magpies were seen on every hillside, there wasn’t a huge amount to see.

Fortunately later in my walk I wondered through a farm which *did* have far more plant cover and it was at that point that I started to see quite a bit of wildlife.

Firstly a fox cub appeared no more than 15-20 feet away from me, and much to my surprise as I scrambled for my camera, didn’t seem overly worried by me. Whether he was used to seeing farm workers or was desperate for food I’m not sure but he stayed around long enough for me to get a few photos of him. What a beautiful creature.

However the guinea fowl in the next field along didn’t seem to pleased to see him as they squawked non-stop at the top of their lungs!

Secondly I was lucky enough to see a young house mouse dashing along the side of a farm building and he stopped long enough for me to creep up and get a few snaps of him in the grass by the wall.

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28 April 2010 ~ 0 Comments

Identifying British Deer

Britain has a rich number of different deer species which still astonishes me in such an “overcrowded” country with so few real wild places left but it seems many deer species are surviving alongside man without too many problems.

There are generally believed to be 6 species of deer in Britain at present. They are:

– Red Deer (Cervus elaphus)
– Fallow Deer (Dama dama)
– Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus)
– Sika Deer (Cervus nippon)
– Muntjac Deer (Muntiacus reevesi)
– Chinese Water Deer (Hydropotes inermis)

Fortunately identifying these species and telling them apart is, in general, reasonably simple and so with only a tiny glimpse one can have a reasonable chance of a correct identification, particularly if you take into account the habitat in which you see a deer.

Red Deer (Cervus elaphus)

Red Deer stag, Cervus elaphus on the south side of Beinn Eighe
Creative Commons License photo credit: Shandchem

Red deer are the largest deer in Britain and most frequently are found in “wilderness” areas most commonly the hills and glens of Scotland. Other populations do exist in the UK, such as in Norfolk and of course the semi-wild population in Richmond park.

The red deer has a characteristically shaped head and a thick, powerful neck while the males of course develop powerful antlers.

Fallow Deer (Dama dama)

Fallow Deer 1
Creative Commons License photo credit: ahisgett

Fallow deer are quite a bit smaller than red deer and more typically frequent broadleafed woodland than open hillsides. In colouration they may range between almost white right through to a melanistic version though a ginger colour with white spots on (classic Bambi) is the most common colour form seen.

The males develop characteristic antlers in the breeding season and fallow deer may often be seen grazing near woodlands in small groups. Two to five individuals is common though they may congregate in far larger groups of several dozen individuals in some situations.

Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus)

(Competition Entry) ;)
Creative Commons License photo credit: Alasdair Middleton

The roe deer is probably Britains most common deer species and can be found in a wide range of habitats from woodland to grassland. The roe deer is characterized by a pale yellow or white rump which is typically seen disappearing into the distance as the roe deer gracefully hops away, and by the large black nose. Again, this is the deer you are most likely to see and may even be seen feeding near roads or on farmers fields where woodland cover isn’t too far away. The roe deer is normally solitary.

Sika Deer (Cervus nippon)

Sika stag on Brownsea Island
Creative Commons License photo credit: Ian D Nolan

The introduced sika deer is still reasonably rare so you are far less likely to encounter this species than other “British” deer. Also the habitat of this deer is characteristic as it prefers conifer forests and heathland. Whilst it does resemble a red deer to a degree, this species is typically smaller in size and the colour will normally help to separate the sika deer from other species as the coat is typically far darker appearing almost black in many cases.

Muntjac Deer (Muntiacus reevesi)

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Creative Commons License photo credit: shimgray

The muntjac and chinese water deer are both small introduced species, typically around the size of a domestic cat or medium-sized dog though being far more delicate and elegant in appearance.

Whilst rumour has it that they escaped into the East Anglian fens originally both these deer species have spread rapidly and can be found in a wide range of habitats from wetlands through to many British woodlands.

Chinese Water Deer (Hydropotes inermis)

Chinese Water Deer (Hydropotes inermis)
Creative Commons License photo credit: cliff1066™

The chinese water deer can be identified by the elongated fangs present in the males of this species which are absent in the muntjac. Equally, the male muntjac has horns while the water deer does not and the appearance of the face is very different between the two species. Lastly, according to the British Deer Society, the chinese water deer is currently restricted to just Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk.

Why not leave me a comment and tell me what your favourite deer species is, and why?

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23 April 2010 ~ 1 Comment

Fox On The Prowl

Grand renard tout proche/Large very close fox
Creative Commons License photo credit: peupleloup

Walking along on a meadow over the weekend I was pretty amazed to spot a fox in broad daylight peering over the top of a hill at an unsuspecting rabbit.

I sat and watched for some time but he never made a move and both the fox and rabbit seemed pretty relaxed so maybe they were just enjoying the sunshine, but something tells me the fox may have had other things on his mind…

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21 April 2010 ~ 0 Comments

Cuckoo Flowers And Sallow Catkins

Light Walk in October
Creative Commons License photo credit: h.koppdelaney

Another sunny day, another nature walk and this time I was very taken by the cuckoo flowers (Cardamine pratensis) I found near a stream. Simple yet effective flowers and there was a veritable carpet of these soft violet blooms along the bank which really helped to add colour to the countryside.

On another note, I found a profusion of Sallow catkins (Salix ), which is exciting for a number of reasons. First off, these catkins are just gorgeous! Look at just how dainty and sculptural they look. I was particularly taken by the way the sun shone on them making them look almost like they were glowing.

Lastly, Sallow is a great food plant for a number of British caterpillars so when you see these catkins it’s well worth remembering to come back and look a month or two later because you can have some nice surprises – like the enormous hawk moth caterpillar I found last Autumn on a sallow.

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14 April 2010 ~ 0 Comments

Comma And Small Tortoiseshell Spotted

Comma 3
Creative Commons License photo credit: Ernst Vikne

I hope your weather is just as amazing as mine is right now. I took full advantage of it yesterday to go for a short nature walk and there was insect life everywhere. Whilst a few weeks ago I was excited to see my first bumblebee of the year, yesterday of course they were absolutely everywhere.

And I was also pleased to see a large number of butterflies. It always amuses me that the first butterfly of the year that I see always seems to be a Comma rather than the classic Brimstone. I managed to get a reasonable photo of him (or her!) though as you can see it was a pretty tatty specimen.

Compare that to a “normal” Comma and you’ll see what he *should* have looked like (top of post). Clearly the specimen I saw had been through the wars with various bits of it’s wings missing.

Here’s a snap of a lovely Small Tortoiseshell I also saw with those fantastic blue spots around the rear edge of the wing. I must have seen a dozen of these over just an hour or two but this was the one I managed to get closest to.

Strange to think that both these butterflies have probably overwintered here as adults, just as Brimstones do and a number of other early butterflies, and will soon start to lay the first clutches of eggs for the year. No wonder the Comma doesn’t look at his or her best after the weather we had this winter!

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