Thursday, 26 October 2017

Bone detectives

About a week ago I found a skull whilst I was out walking. We decided to do some investigation work today to try and find out which animal it belonged to. We started off by comparing it to the roe deer skull we'd found last year to look for similarities and differences.

Half term skull detectives
The skull is 12 cm long and much smaller than the roe deer skull. It has large, forward facing eyes, so we decided it belonged to a hunter that's active at night. It has different shaped teeth, including small incisors, large canines and big grinding molars at the back of the mouth, so we thought it must be a meat eater. We decided it has to belong to either a fox or a badger, but we weren't sure which (although either one is pretty cool!) We looked for help online and ended up on the Jake Bones website, which has a great section on the difference between the two types of skull, which you can read here.

Roe deer on the right and our mystery skull on the left
According to the website, the size of our skull is about right for a fox or badger. If it was a badger, the bottom jaw would usually still be attached and it would have a very prominent ridge of bone on the top of the skull. Ours had neither of these, so we suspected it was a fox.

We looked at the shape of the skull and it looked more like the badger pictures. Fox skulls have a dip at the start of the nose, but ours is more rounded. There are also no sutures (small lines) on the nose, which made us think it was a badger skull. Badgers are really tough, so their bones are firmly fused to make them strong.

Next we looked at the teeth, but our skull only has its very back molars. We could count the holes where the roots of the teeth would have been though and worked out our skull had 6 incisors, 2 canines and 4 back teeth each side. That would make it a badger and the two big back teeth are used to mash up worms!

We're fairly sure it's a badger skull, from the size, shape, teeth and strong bones. The only problem is that the lower jaw is detached (which it usually isn't with a badger) and the ridge of bone on the top of the skull is missing. We thought that maybe the skull is quite old and had been worn down and beaten up a bit, explaining the missing bits.

Finding a skull is always exciting, so we went back to the spot where I found it to look for more bones. No luck though as it seems you can only find them when you're not looking for them!

Tuesday, 24 October 2017


When we moved into our new house at the end of February, the end of the garden was full of crocuses and primroses.

It was very pretty, so we decided to leave a patch of the lawn unmown so that we could see what else flowered over the summer. We ended up with a beautiful mini-meadow full of ox-eye daisies, clover, ragwort, self-heal and all sorts of other things.
Mini-meadow with our pond behind
During the summer I planted a few seedlings from my Mum's garden, including teasels, cowslips, evening primrose and fax and cubs, which will hopefully all flower next year. We also have an abandoned sports ground at the end of the garden, which is absolutely full of wildflowers (you can see some of the flowers that are just over the fence here). Hopefully lots of seeds will be blown over the fence and into our meadow!

We thought we'd also have a go at sowing some seeds this autumn, just to see what happens. We had wildflower seeds that we'd been given at various events (in our 30 Days Wild pack and at the Wild Fair in Oxford) and half a packet of old seeds that were waiting to be used up. We also collected a few seeds each time we were out and about, including knapweed, agrimony, vetch, some big spiky thistles, teasels, goldenrod and wild marjoram. We collected a few rosebay willowherb seeds for the elephant hawkmoth caterpillars and Mum gave us some dark mullein for the striped lychnis moth caterpillars. There were lots of other seeds in the mix ... those are just some that I remember.

We had cut the meadow a few weeks ago and got rid of all the cuttings. It's been so mild though that the grass had grown quite a lot, but so had some of the flowers. We found one primrose in flower and plenty of primrose leaves, plus the ragwort that had been cut to the ground had flowered again.

Primroses in flower in October!

Ragwort flowers - these plants were covered in stripy cinnabar caterpillars in
the summer
We sowed our seeds this afternoon. After raking up the leaves from our ash tree and some of the dead grass, we scuffed up the ground as much as we could. Then the kids chucked the seeds everywhere, using a variety of techniques!

Barefoot and controlled seed dispersal

Fling it far and wide seed dispersal
I had also bought some yellow rattle seeds, as this plant is particularly good at keeping the grass at bay. It's semi-parasitic on grass and will hopefully allow the wildflower seeds to take hold and not be swamped by grass.

Now we just have to wait and see what appears in the spring!

Monday, 16 October 2017

Fungi hunting

It was a beautiful morning for a walk around Pulpit Hill and was so warm I was out in a short sleeved t-shirt (not a regular occurrence in mid October!). With the remnants of hurricane Ophelia due to hit later in the day, it seemed wise to make the most of it and head for the hills.

So far this year there seem to have been very few fungi around in the woods near us. Everywhere is just so dry (although the dog seemed to manage to find plenty of muddy puddles) that the fungi just aren't fruiting yet. Perhaps the storm will bring us some rain and make the conditions just right.

I found a few large clouded funnels, one or two rosy bonnets, some sulphur tuft and some small patches of porcelain fungus. I didn't see a single puffball, amethyst deceiver or safffrondrop bonnet ... which should all be easy to find at this time of year.

Clouded funnel - there were a few 'troops' in the leaf litter

Porcelain fungus growing on a fallen branch
A small patch of grey coral fungus was growing in the middle of the hill fort on the top of the hill. This is a common fungus, but I've never spotted it before. It looked more purple than grey, but I'm fairly sure that's what it was.
Grey coral fungus
There were signs of new fungi appearing. I suspect this will turn into a parasol or dapperling, but I'll keep an eye on it as it grows.

Last week I noticed some interesting fungi just starting to appear on some felled beech tree trunks. I was keen to go back today and see what they'd turned into. 

A week ago ... hard to tell what they'll be!
I'm fairly sure they're golden scalycap, with large sticky yellow caps that are covered in little brown scales. Quite an unusual find, so it was nice to see.

To finish off my hunt through the woods, I spotted a large white object in the leaves. I went to investigate, thinking it might be a fungus and found a large skull. I'm guessing it's either a fox or a badger, but I will challenge Bug Mad Girl to find out what it is later. She loves it when we find bones, especially skulls!

Now the wind has picked up and the sky has turned red (apparently the storm has blown sahara sand into the air, which is turning the sky a very strange colour). Time to brace ourselves for the storm!

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Moth Night 2017

Moth Night has been running this weekend (it's actually over three nights, not just one), where we're all encouraged to get out and see what moths are still flying at this time of the year.

We put the moth trap out and waited to see what would be in there in the morning. We always have our fingers crossed that we'll catch a hawk moth (or two) and the recent 'heatwave' meant conditions were good for the rare immigrant silver-striped hawkmoth or the huge convolvulus hawkmoth. You just never know what might be passing and be attracted to the light. There's even a slim chance that there could be a fabulous death's-head hawkmoth (I wrote about them here) sitting in the trap when we open it in the morning ...

... unfortunately, not this time!  It always feels a little like Christmas morning when we lift the lid on the trap and see what's in there. No hawkmoths for us, but there were still some very pretty surprises.

Green-brindled crescent
Black rustic

Blair's shoulder-knot

Red-green carpet

Red-line quaker
There were a few other insects attracted to the light, including some little orange ladybirds, lacewings, a shield bug and a very cool ichneumon wasp.

Orange ladybird

Ichneumon wasp
Moth Night took place just in time, as we had unseasonably warm weather all weekend, but the remnants of a hurricane are due to arrive here next week! We'll record our moths on the Butterfly Conservation website and pack away the moth trap for the winter.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Little devils

There are only a few days left of the summer holidays, so I took the kids for a walk around Yoesden. It's always a brilliant place to see butterflies and they love hunting around for bugs, but now is also the perfect time to see the devil's-bit scabious that flowers in a part of the reserve known as the hole in the woods.  A carpet of purple pincushions, covered in bees and butterflies, is such an amazing sight!

I took two cameras with me and almost as soon as we arrived the kids took one each, leaving me with no camera! Bug Mad Girl headed off to try and get pictures of the little blue butterflies that were all over the slope.
Using stealth tactics to creep up on the butterflies
There were definitely Adonis blues still flying, but many were very old and tattered, so it was hard to tell them apart from the common blues. She got some nice photos, but often seemed to have trouble with a stray blade of grass in the way (I know that problem well!)

Male adonis blue

Female Adonis blue
There were lots of other butterflies flying, including small tortoiseshells, speckled woods, commas, small heaths, red admirals and a beautiful, newly emerged brimstone. She got a lovely photograph of a male brimstone on a devil's-bit scabious flower.

She also took this photo of a bee with its head stuck into a gentian flower.

Her little brother took my other camera and took several hundred out of focus photos of everything, including his hand, the sky, grass, butterflies etc. Landscapes seem to be his thing though and he took a nice photo of the view from the top of the slope.

I showed him how to get the camera in focus and he managed to photograph a comma on some blackberries, which he took by balancing the camera on a fence post to keep it steady.

I finally wrestled one of the cameras off the kids and took some photos myself. The devil's-bit scabious was as wonderful as I'd hoped and I even found some white flowers, which seems quite unusual.

A single flower is beautiful, but the expression "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" definitely applies here and the flowers are most spectacular when viewed en masse (especially with a couple of bug hunters buried in the middle of them!).

I love that they both seem keen to take some photos, but I'm really going to have to make sure we all have a camera each!

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Heir Island

During our recent holiday to Ireland, we spent three days on Heir Island. 1 km wide and 2.5 km long, it's about as far South as you can get in Ireland and is just off the West Coast of Cork, next to Sherkin Island and Cape Clear Island. It's only a five minute ferry ride from the mainland, but there are very few people (about 25 residents, plus a few day trippers and holiday makers) and only a handful of cars. We weren't quite sure what it would be like, but it was exciting to give and a go and have a look .... turns out it was absolutely beautiful!

The bridge of Paris - the centre of the island and as built up it got!
The scenery was breath taking and we had views across the other islands, right out to Fastnet and the lighthouse.
Cape Clear Island

Fastnet in the distance
We were lucky as there was hardly any wind while we were there, so the sea was as flat as a mill pond. (Not sure it's always like that!)
Down by the bridge of Paris
An island across the bay with some windswept trees and a derelict house -
apparently the island is for sale for 1 million euros

You can see the pink tower of Kilcoe Castle (owned by Jeremy Irons) between
the masts of the white boat
Traditionally it was a fishing community and you can still watch the fishermen from the island go out to check their lobster and crab pots each day.
Lobster pots

Rusty anchors left up against a wall - they looked like talons reaching
out of the undergrowth
We really enjoyed the peace and quiet and the chance to ramble around and explore the island. The kids swam (in wetsuits, it wasn't that warm!), explored rock pools and scoured the beaches at low tide for shells.
Going for a swim

It was a bit chilly

Low tide treasures
Bug Mad Girl can't resist a rock pool, in fact she likes them best when they're deep enough for her to actually get in them! Her best find was a very strange looking thing that she emerged from the sea clutching.

It was a sea cucumber that was about 25cm long and looked like a black slimy lump of sausage shaped jelly. When she put it in the water it obviously had short tentacles and it had sucker feet that held on to her and a bright orange underside.

Sea cucumbers are related to starfish and sea urchins and apparently you can eat them, but we weren't tempted and made sure it went safely back to the sea!
It was quite a find - she was very pleased with it!
We later found out it was called a cotton spinner, as it can shoot out a string of mucus to deter predators. This crab ran towards it after we had put it back in the water and got caught up in the 'cotton' that the sea cucumber squirted at it.

The 'cotton' can be seen hanging down from the crab
One end of the island ended in steep cliffs, topped by a colourful carpet of gorse, heather and wildflowers.
Heather and gorse
Western eyebright - much chunkier than the Chiltern eyebright we get at home

Lousewort - very pretty
The cliffs were covered in mosses, lichens and flowers.

There were lots of bees up there and we saw a few butterflies and moths.

One of the bees - not very happy about having a camera in its face!

Burnet moth
We found lots of crab claws and shells, where the sea birds had taken them onto the top of the cliff to eat. There were also several little piles of bones, but we couldn't piece them back together to work out what they were.

Crab claws
There were lots of great birds on the island, but a few stood out. 

The cormorants looked like pterodactyls lined up on the rocks out at sea

Big black and grey hooded crows picked through the mud
and sat on the telephone poles.
Lovely little wagtails
There was a small flock of starlings on the island, that gave us the spectacle of a mini-murmuration each evening. We also heard the curlews and saw them fly over head from one side of the island to the other at dusk. However my favourite birds had to be the masses of swallows that lined up on the telephone wires and dived and swooped all around us.

The stone walls were full of beautiful ferns and mosses.

Our evening entertainment was crabbing off the small pier next to the bridge. The crabs can't resist a piece of bacon on a line and hang on tight once they've got it.
Sometimes you can get a lot of crabs on the bacon.
We always put them back in the sea, but they occasionally
get their own back!
 As the sun went down, the views only got better! What a wonderful place!