Sunday, 29 January 2017

Big Garden Birdwatch 2017

We took part in the RSPB's annual Big Garden Birdwatch this morning. The idea is that everybody spends an hour over the weekend counting the birds in their garden. You then log the results on the Big Garden Birdwatch website, providing the RSPB with data about how our back garden birds are faring. We chose to do our count early this morning before the rain started, so the kids were excited to be doing the count in their pyjamas!

We saw 28 birds of 12 species:
  • 1 blackcap: We were thrilled to see a female blackcap hiding in the bushes, making an occasional brief trip to the bird table. I thought I saw her a few days ago, but wasn't sure.
Only the male blackcap has a black cap. The female has a ginger cap.
  • 4 goldfinches: We are starting to see more and more goldfinches in the garden and they are often around. They love the teasel and evening primrose seeds, so I always leave them for them.

  • 6 house sparrows: We love our cheeky house sparrow family. There are often a lot more than 6 of them, but that's all we saw this morning. 
  • 2 dunnocks
  • 1 robin
  • 2 long-tailed tits
  • 2 blackbirds
  • 2 woodpigeons
  • 2 starlings
  • 2 blue tits
  • 1 chaffinch
  • 3 red kites: Whistlejacket was sat in his tree and there were two more kites sat in a tree nearby. He was quite cross that they were there and he was whistling at them (a lot). They were just ignoring him!
We'll enter our results on the website later today

Friday, 20 January 2017

An inadvertent twitch

There was a lot of excitement this morning as I walked around Weston Turville Reservoir. It was well below freezing and the sun wash shining, so I was there to enjoy the frost and the wonderful views across the water.

It seems everyone else was there to look for the bearded tit that was spotted there yesterday. I've never seen a bearded tit, other than on Springwatch, so I hung around for a while hoping it would appear right next to me and pose for a photo. There were some big cameras, scopes and binoculars on show and you could feel the excitement in the air. It seems I'd inadvertently become involved in a twitch! It was exciting, for about 10 minutes, then my fingers froze, my nose started to run and my eyes watered, so I left them to it and walked around the reservoir. I don't think I have the patience or the thermals for twitching!

Not a bad view while I waited for the bearded tit
Suddenly I heard a noise that sounded like a squealing pig at the waters edge. Then a brown blur skidded across the ice and disappeared into some reeds. I didn't get a very good look at it and I definitely didn't have time for a photo, but I think the noise was a giveaway. I'd seen my first water rail, or else there was a piglet sliding around on the ice.

I waited for a while to see if it would move or squeal again, but there was no sign of it. Then I jumped out of my skin when I realised I was stood very close to a heron. I only realised it was there at all because it moved it's head.

The walk around the edge of the water was beautiful, with the frost adding a bit of sparkle to everything.

I heard a woodpecker drumming in the woods and a little egret was sitting in a tree watching me.

Little egret
In the end the closest I got to a bearded tit was a family of long-tailed tits that were flitting through the bushes as I walked. Not as rare as a bearded tit, but still a lovely sight, and what a fabulous place to spend a frosty January morning.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Pine Hawkmoth

(Post from BMG)

Last year when I was out on a walk I found a Pine Hawk Moth caterpillar crawling around looking for somewhere to pupate. We took it home and soon after it pupated, so I decided to do a drawing and give you some information on these amazing moths.

You can read the post where we found the caterpillar here.

This is what the moth looks like and I drew a pencil sketch  (below)

Right now, the caterpillar has pupated and we have it safe with a collection of other chrysalises that we raised over the summer.  When it hatches in the spring, I'll post a picture of it, then release it into the wild.

My chrysalis collection
Fact file: Pine Hawk Moth
This Moth's Latin name is Hyloicus Pinastri. It has a wingspan of 65-80 mm, and it's wings usually have three or four black streaks in the centre. In the wild, it lives in a habitat where there are Pine trees (hence the name), where it lives from May up until August. It's larvae eat the Pine needles that grow on the trees. Although this species lives mainly in the West and South of Britain, it's common in Continental Europe as well.

Monday, 2 January 2017

#NewYearPlantHunt 2017

It was a beautiful frosty morning this morning as we set out on our New Year Plant Hunt. The hunt is an annual event organised by BSBI to record as many wild plants in flower as possible over the New Year period. Data is collected from all over the country so that it can be analysed to see how our wild plants are responding to changes in weather patterns.

Some of us were hunting for flowers harder than others!
We decided to go back to Pyrtle Spring, the place we hunted for flowers last New Years Day, so we could compare this years finds with last years. Last year we found 15 plants in flower, so we had quite a lot to live up to this year, especially as we've had some hard frosts recently. The chalk in the fields had a layer of ice on it and you could see where the water in the chalk had frozen and cracked it open.

At the start of our plant hunt we found very little, just a few rapeseed flowers growing on the edge of a field that had previously been planted and some ivy that had really gone past flowering.
Rapeseed in flower

The spring had no water in it, but still looked lovely in the sunshine. We looked hard but couldn't find any violets or celandines this year. We couldn't even find a daisy, dandelion or dead nettle. Things weren't looking too good for this year's plant hunt.
A very friendly robin joined us as we hunted and seemed very curious about what we were doing.

Robin (bottom right) and BMG
We found lots of other cool things, including fungus growing up one of the huge trees in the spring and a tiny frosty toadstool growing on the edge of the field. There were plenty of buds starting to show, some beautiful lichen on the tree trunks and a large huddle of snails in one of the bushes.

A frosty fungus
Sticky buds

Elder buds


A huddle of snails bedded down for the winter
Back to the plant hunt ... we cast a little spell to help us find some flowers and headed for home.

Three generation spell ... guess who's been watching Harry Potter over Christmas!
The magic seemed to work (or perhaps we no longer had the sun in our eyes) and found field pansy, groundsel, speedwell (could be either germander speedwell or common field-speedwell), hairy bittercress and grass in flower.
Field pansy


Grass flowers

Hairy bittercress

So not as many flowers as last year's hunt, but still a very enjoyable morning. We'll log our findings on the BSBI website later today.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Looking back at 2016, but mostly looking forward

To be honest 2016 has been a difficult year for our family and I'll be glad to see the back of it. My husband had a stem cell transplant in February, so we all spent much of the year visiting him in hospital and trying to keep him healthy when he was home recovering. The children were such tough little things and coped magnificently (me less so, but I did my best!) Being outdoors was a great help and some of my best memories of the year are of all of us just being together in the beautiful Chiltern hills.
A family walk around Pulpit Hill

Tea in a tree

Sunset at Coombe Hill monument

I had a lot of fun writing this year and am very proud to have been able to contribute to the Spring and Autumn books in the Seasons series. These gave me my first publishing contracts and even a Christmas card from my publisher (words I never thought I would say!) I also wrote a couple of pieces for BBOWT that were published in the Bucks Examiner and I won the invertebrates category of Mark Avery's writing competition with a piece about death's-head hawk-moths.

Two of my photographs were selected as runner up and commended in the My Wild Life category of the Oxford Festival of Nature Photography Competition. It's lovely to see them appearing from time to time on BBOWT leaflets and flyers.

Playing in the stream - runner up in the My Wild Life category 
I explored a few BBOWT nature reserves I hadn't been to before, seeing monkey and lady/monkey orchids at Hartslock and military orchids at Homefield Wood. I also slithered down the side of Pulpit Hill and found the bird's-nest orchids that I'd heard flowered there and tracked down the very special Rhodochila common spotted orchids at Yoesden. Another orchid highlight has to be visiting the hundreds of bee orchids that flower on a bank in West Wycombe. Such a sight to see so many of these amazing orchids in one place, interspersed with broomrape, another of our more unusual flowers.
Monkey orchid at Hartslock
Rhodochila common spotted orchid at Yoesden
Moths and butterflies played an important part in our year. We took part in moth night and caught our first ever eyed hawkmoth, as well as beautiful poplar and privet hawkmoths. It's amazing to think these fabulous moths are just hanging out in the back garden!

Eyed hawkmoth

Privet hawkmoth moustache
We chased Adonis blues around Yoesden Bank, sat amongst dozens of chalkhill blues at Grangelands and stalked the incredibly rare Duke of Burgundy butterflies at their (not so) secret location near us. It felt generally like a bad year for the butterflies, but we were lucky enough to have the occasional days where the buddleia in the garden was covered in peacocks, red admirals and tortoiseshells or we'd see silver washed fritillaries dancing on the hogweed or green hairstreaks posing on a bush. All moments to treasure.

Silver washed fritillaries bouncing up and down on the hogweed
We spent much of the autumn snuffling through the leaves looking for fungi and found some new and exciting discoveries. A dozen huge devil's bolettes appeared overnight, then slowly dissolved in a noxious cloud over the next couple of weeks. Two solitary amanitas put in an appearance (together, so not solitary at all) and we found ashen chanterelles poking up through the leaf litter. There were plenty of our old favourites as well, such as a stinkhorn (absolutely stinky) covered in flies, a patch of stunning magpie inkcaps that appeared in the car park at Pulpit Hill and finding out-of-this-world earthstars in unexpected places.
Devil's bolette

Stinky stinkhorn (with flies)
As for next year, we're looking forward to spring and all the adventures it brings.

Here's to a healthy, happy and wild 2017!