Where have all the bugs gone?

25 Oct

Sometime around the middle of the last century (that makes it seem almost pre-historic) growing up in Northumberland there were plenty of insects around as illustrated by the amount of squished insects on the windscreen. To be clear these were very early memories….

Over the past 50 years the number of flying insects has reduced considerably to the point you just don’t get many squashed insects anymore. While this was my empirical view on things, which I have mentioned in the Cliffhanger before, the BBC reported on a very sobering study just completed in Germany. Scientists have neem measuring the biomass (the total weight of flying insects) in some 60 nature reserves over the past 27 years and can show the biomass has declined by more than 75% – and that’s in nature reserves!! What about the adjacent fields which are almost deserts as far an insects are concerned?

This has a significant number of implications ranging from the impact on animals and birds that feed on insects (fewer chicks etc), not understanding the impact on the diversity of the local ecosystem -such as pests that flying insects feed on (aphids etc) and not really knowing why this is happening. Children growing up today won’t have the memory of a car windscreen covered in squished insects so their ‘normal’ is very different so may not realise there is even an issue – and this may get worse from generation to generation.

On a more positive note there was another study published this week by a team from the University of Oxford who have discovered that since the 1970’s the length of Blue Tit’s beaks has increased by 0.3mm compared to earlier studies and those carried out in Europe where they haven’t seen any increase in beak length. They think it may be due to us humans in the UK providing lots of bird food in feeders and the extra length making it easier to get at the peanuts etc. This is evolution taking place literally in our own back gardens and in our lifetime!!

By the way – did you watch the Chris Packham interview about his life and living with Asperger’s – absolutely fascinating! Watch it on BBC iPlayer…


We are surrounded by amazing wildlife…

26 Sep

Below is a somewhat late posting of my monthly article in the Sherston Cliffhanger magazine – from July….. my bad…. and more to follow….

Summer is cracking along as we all realised in the recent heatwave. This caused quite a few problems with young fledglings over heating and the Sherston Avon getting quite low but overall most animals and plants are having a good season with lots of butterfly’s around.

We are surrounded by fantastic wildlife – as good as you will see on Springwatch!! It just takes a little time and understanding to find out some amazing life cycles that have evolved locally – and here are two great examples.

As you may know we have a little freshwater shrimp (whose scientific name is  Gammarus pulex) which gets eaten by fish etc.  On a dawn chorus walk in May, Harriet Alvis from the Bristol and Avon Rivers Trust found a spiny-headed worm called Pomphorynchus leavis in the Sherston Avon – is a really small wormy thing with a bright orange spot!! These infest the shrimp and, as the shrimp are almost transparent, the shrimp are easier for fish etc to find due to the orange spot. The spiny-headed worm’s target is to infest the local fish population and uses the shrimp as an intermediate step. Smart worm!!

Paul Ormiston kindly sent me a video of glow worms. Glow worms aren’t actually worms – in this country it’s actually a beetle which grows up to 25mm called Lampyris noctiluca. It’s primarily the females who glow to attract males. They can’t feed so only live for 14 – 21 days but once the female has mated she stops glowing, lays her eggs then dies. June and July are the best time to see them after dark (of course) and they are typically found in walls or low vegetation but can occur anywhere. If you do see them please leave them alone!!

That’s three scientific names on the last two paragraphs…. please keep reading!!
We are fortunate to have a healthy population of Swifts in the village  – the black birds that shriek up and down the high street. They are the essence of an English summer and shouldn’t be confused with the House Martin or Swallow – they aren’t closely related but are a great example of convergent evolution. These amazing birds only spend 3 months here to raise their chicks and otherwise spend their whole life in the air – and that includes sleeping and mating!! By the end of August they will be off back to West Africa for the winter as there will be lots more to eat there. Once the chick leaves the nest it won’t land again for 2 – 3 years when it’s ready to raise a brood.
That’s enough amazing facts for this month!!


Getting tucked up for winter….

24 Sep

The last vestiges of the summer have almost departed – there are still some small flocks of House Martins and Swallows to be seen around the village. These are off to much sunnier climes in West Africa where there will be lots more to eat although the migration across the Sahara and Sahel will take it toll on the young birds, some of whom have only just left the nest.

Our insects are also getting ready with some species of butterfly and ladybird finding their way into sheds and garages to over winter as an adult although large numbers of butterfly’s migrate to Spain and North Africa (how does such a small animal manage that!!)

Soon our winter thrushes will return from Northern Europe and Iceland along with large numbers of Blackbirds, Robins and Chaffinches. The Redwings and Fieldfares gather in small flocks in trees and fields around the village and are typically quite wary of people and migrate at night. If you stand outside at night in October you may hear flocks flying over with them making a contact call to one another.

We should start to get more Little Egrets arriving for the winter. The Little Egret can be identified from other Egrets (all of which are all white) as it has a black bill and yellow feet. There have been reports of Great White Egrets being seen around Sherston – this is the size of a Heron with a yellow bill and black feet and an extra kink in its neck.


Conkers are dropping and the Virginia Creeper is losing it’s bright red leaves so it’s time too think about getting the bird feeders out if you haven’t already. If you have peanuts and fat balls left over from last year it may be better too replace them as they do go stale.

Wash your bird feeders and water bowls every week or so with hot soapy water as there are some really nasty fungal diseases which spread from bird to bird and may cause fatalities especially with Greenfinches and Chaffinches.

There are still bats flying at dusk and a few House Martins left – but not for long!! Get the supplies of logs and oil in!!

Small worlds .. again.

19 Jun

In last months blog I started to explore the part of life around us that we don’t really see as it’s so small.

A very short walk along the cliff with macro lens for my camera produced the images below. The black fly is a conopid fly of some sort (from someone who knows about the things) and is about 5mm long. For those looking at this in black and white the minute detail is quite remarkable and both insects have small counterweights sticking out from their sides to help in flight.
Following last months article suggesting that drawing something natural, such as a flower, to help appreciate the complexity of what seems simple, a couple of people contacted me who had tried it – and had a very good experience of really looking at something and drawing it. Even if your drawing skills aren’t great pop out into the garden, pick a flower and have a go!!
By the time this edition of the Cliffhanger has been published the latest WildSherston event will have taken place on the 23rd June so hopefully we will have had a good turn out. If anyone has a particular interest in any element of our local wildlife such as bats, wild flowers, beetles or even slugs!! I am sure I can arrange a speaker for a future meeting. If you have an interest and knowledge you would like to share please do let me know.
Finally – I had a thought provoking email a couple of weeks ago regarding cats and the nature of cats. On one hand the millions of cats in the UK provide enormous pleasure and company to millions of people and on the other they kill millions of small rodents, birds etc and they illustrate a microcosm of the balance and tensions in the way we live in this country. In Tasmania, for example, they have regular cat culls to try and protect the local marsupial and bird populations which won’t survive unless the introduced predators are removed.
Cat’s have a deep hunting instinct in spite of being domesticated for many generations and do bring all manner of dead and partially living residents home with them which is sad especially at this time of year when young birds are easy pickings. There is a simple answer which may help some prey items escape and that is for cats to have a small bell. We have a cat ourselves who will soon be wearing one!!

WildSherston event – 23rd June

12 Jun

The next in the irregular series of talks and activities will be on the 23rd June at Sherston Village Hall (near Malmesbury in Wiltshire, UK) starting at 7’30pm.

We will have three different talks. The first, by Butterfly Conservation, will discuss our local butterfly and moth species. This will be followed by an update on the local river improvement project by the Bristol Avon River Trust and finally Wiltshire Ornithological Society will discuss the 100 species of birds seen in the village.

It’s free and will be a fantastic antidote to the Brexit vote the same day!!

It’s been a while…

22 May

It’s been quite some time since I posted (aside from the one a few minutes ago) so below is a gallery of some the UK wildlife photo’s taken over the past few years… hope you enjoy.

Different perspectives

22 May
We tend to walk around with the same perspective on our environment – we look up and down maybe 15 degrees and only absorb what we are familiar with so we tend not to actually see that much. I was in London a few years ago when Antony Gormley (of the Angel of the North fame) placed some 30 human sized statues on the top of buildings around Charring Cross. This very simple but challenging set of installations got lots of people looking at the tops of the buildings and the architecture that’s up there. It’s quite amazing but most people don’t look up!!
I have tended to focus on birds and butterfly’s and found I needed to look for one or the other when I am out – it’s hard to keep shifting the distance you are looking at on a regular basis (at least for me).
Having seen lots of Masonry Bees in the garden building their extended colony of single burrows I decided this summer was the time to find out more (story for a later date) so bought a macro lens for my camera – one where you get very detailed photo’s of small things.
When you start to explore the small world that exists all around us, nature reveals incredible complexity and beauty and colours (see photo’s – except for the colour bit!). One picture is of the centre of a cornflower, one of a Shield Bug emerging from a dandelion and a 7 mm fly – just look at the details on its feet.
So here’s a challenge…. get something from your garden – a flower or leaf or insect or even a slug – and draw it!! The action of drawing will make you LOOK at the flower etc in great detail and while the results may not win a prize, the process of discovery is such a joy. If anyone does this please let me know.
Finally – June 23rd (Euro referendum day) Wild Sherston talks. Starting at 7.30pm we have a couple of talks arranged – The 100 birds of Sherston by Wiltshire Ornithological Society (did you know there are 100 species of birds around the village) and a talk from Butterfly Conservation on our local butterfly’s and moths. There will also be an update by the Bristol Avon River Trust on the on-going work around the village to improve the river…. and it’s free!!