End-of-May Birdscape

Last year's robin chick

Last year’s robin chick

Today there is a young robin in the garden. It let me walk very close behind before it flew off over the fence this morning, and just now it has been ticking sternly from the stump of an amputated branch. Its mottled plumage is already beginning to show hints of red, and its overall shape has been sculpted into the sleeker form of adulthood by so many practice flights. But it still retains those fleshy mouth corners that give fledgling chicks the air of disgruntled cartoon characters.

The little robin is joined by new additions to next-door’s blue tit family, who in the past week have been doing their best to keep away the local gang of pillaging magpies. All it takes is a single piebald corvid to alight on a branch for the air to fill with ratcheting alarm calls. The songs of the blackbirds have mellowed, and the tree-top trills of the wren long-since passed. The perennial cackling of the magpies, punctuated by rasping conversations between overflying crows, sharp starling interjections, and the constant background burble of dunnock, robin, and tit has now been joined by the wondrous, eerie screams of swifts. Returned from another hemisphere, and truly creatures of the air, these other-worldly beings wheel through the air on scythe-like wings, eating, mating, and sleeping in the sky. Summer is almost here, and it does not seem all that long since the swifts last departed.

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Bank Holiday Dead Fish Fun!

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Earlier this week I attended a fascinating members’ event at the Natural History Museum on comparative anatomy. Led by Dr Ralf Britz, we looked at a range of bony fish skulls to determine homologous bones of the lower jaw. In comparative anatomy, homologous structures are those which share a common origin evolutionarily and developmentally, such as a bird’s wing and a human arm. This is distinct from analogy, in which different traits converge on the same function in different species – and example would be a bird’s wing and an insect’s wing.

We spent a good hour and a half playing around with skulls – the most impressive (and terrifying) being that of the wolf fish – before Dr Britz exhorted us to pop down to the fishmonger and try some comparative anatomy of our own.

Now, it just so happened that a couple of months ago I had had the same thought and retained the skull of a sea bream (family Sparidae), the rest of which made a slightly odd curry. Hoping to preserve the skull, and having conducted the necessary Google searches, I did this by placing the head into hot but not boiling water for around half an hour. After taking it out, the flesh came away easily – but unfortunately so did the connective tissue. A bony fish’s skull is extremely complex, consisting of far more separate bones than that of any other type of vertebrate – many of which I lost. Moreover, the variation across species is huge – hence the importance of understanding homology for identifying particular bones. I was left with a jumbled mess in some rather smelly water.

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However, being of the mind that my fish remains would make for a fun, if macabre, icthyological jigsaw, I cleaned them, and placed them in acetone for about twenty-four hours. Acetone, I had learned from the Internet, is far better for degreasing fish bones owing to their high phosphorous content. As with insects, it sucks out the fat, but does make the bones very brittle. After that, I placed them in hydrogen peroxide for a couple of days to whiten them. This worked, but I left them in rather too long, and some of the thinner bones began to dissolve. Lesson learned for next time.

After that the dry, bleached bones languished in a Tupperware box until this morning, when, armed with my anatomical diagram and new knowledge of fish osteology from the workshop, I decided to spend my Bank holiday morning as all such mornings should be spent – re-assembling the disarticulated skull of a sea bream. Fortunately, Google revealed that someone else had once attempted something similar, furnishing me with a photo of the fully restored skull of the fish in question – an indispensable reference. I am rather proud of the final product, and eager for a good excuse for another fish supper…

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Rewilding the Lynx

Eurasian Lynx Photo Credit: Tom Bech, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License

Eurasian Lynx
Photo Credit: Tom Bech, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License

Three weeks ago it was reported that the Lynx UK Trust has launched a major pubic consultation on reintroducing the Eurasian lynx. The Eurasian lynx has been extinct in the UK for around 1300 years, but the benefits of its reintroduction are potentially huge. I am extremely excited by the prospect of lynx once again roaming Britain – and even more about the potential this has for restoring our ecosystems.

The ideas of ‘rewilding’ is one I have only recently begun to engage with, having read George Monbiot’s excellent and immensely inspiring book Feral .Before that, I had a vague idea of it as involving reintroduced animals, but no real understanding. Monbiot’s book, and the various articles and papers I have read on the topic since, thoroughly converted me to the cause.

Rewilding is commonly associated with big, powerful animals – wolves, bears, lynx, moose, bison – but as I see it, its goal is not directed at particular species per se, but is rather the comprehensive ecological transformation that results from their reintroduction. Of course, there is something undeniably charismatic about big predators, something which, in this country, we currently only get from birds of prey (badgers for example are immensely charismatic, but not in quite the same way as wolves, bears, or lynx).

Monbiot argues that the UK is, to be blunt, ecologically boring. He demonstrates with great command of his subject that most of Britain’s landscapes are kept artificially tree-free by past and present agricultural practices, particularly sheep farming – but also, compellingly, that as generations pass we become less and less aware of the sheer abundance of flora and fauna which fully-functioning, sheep-unwrecked ecosystems can support.

But ecosystems are not damaged purely as a result of agricultural practices – and this is where the lynx comes in. Britain’s terrestrial ecosystems are missing major components as a result of ‘defaunation’ (Dirzo et al. 2014), the extirpation of keystone species by humans over the last few millennia. Reintroductions of lost species are not always successful – Seddon et al. (2014) cite several factors contributing to relative success – but both here and in Europe various extirpated species are gaining ground. In the case of many bird species, they have reintroduced themselves (Smyth 2015). Beavers – already beginning to make a comeback in this country as a result of ‘escapes’ and trial reintroductions – are an excellent example. They have major effects on ecosystems through their habit of felling trees and damming rivers which, among other things, helps to reduce flooding, and provides microhabitats for other species.

What is particularly striking in Britain, though, is the absence of an entire trophic level, that of apex predators, the very top of the food chain. The reintroduction of lynx and wolves would restore this vital component of our impoverished ecosystems, and have far-reaching consequences. Rather than merely controlling the numbers of herbivores such as red deer (which at present have to be culled in huge numbers), apex predators also change prey behaviour, with major effects known as ‘trophic cascades.’ The return of wolves to Yellowstone National Park provides an excellent example, and one which Monbiot and others have frequently cited in support of rewilding (Chapron et al. 2014; Ripple et al. 2014; Evans 2015). For example, deer wary of predators spend less time in exposed areas such as river banks, meaning they eat less river bank vegetation and compact the earth less, reducing erosion and allowing trees to gain a foothold. This in turn provides new habitats for other species at all levels of the food chain, significantly increasing biodiversity, and even altering the course of rivers. Moreover, as prey and predator move around the landscape, the transform it as they go, restoring the dynamism of successional habitats which we currently lack (and which is not helped by a prevalent preservation-at-all-costs attitude to conservation), and thus bringing benefits for other species. Hence, the argument that we should concentrate on preserving the species we do have instead of rewilding is doubly redundant (such arguments in any case tend to be based on the flawed logic that doing one thing somehow prevents one form doing anything else).

Apex predators are increasing in numbers in continental Europe, and in many places re-expanding into their historical ranges (Chapron et al. 2014; Evans 2015). This is not always welcomed, and conflicts do arise (Chapron and López-Bao 2014). Humans, after all, are apex predators too. However, direct dangers to humans from wolves and, especially, lynx (there are nor recorded incidents of lynx attacks on humans), are minimal. Indeed, Monbiot makes a good case for licensing wolf hunting as a means of discouraging problems between wolves and humans, and also as a key means of protecting them by providing them with a lobby – like fishing. Bears are a rather different matter, but do not seem to be on the rewilding cards at the moment in the way lynx and wolves are. However, in many European countries, and the US and Canada, people and bears successfully coexist.

Chapron et al. (2014)argue that coexistence has been key to the success of apex predators in Europe. Unlike the US and Canada, Europe is very densely populated, and a ‘separation’ model of predator conservation based on fencing protected areas, as is common in southern Africa, would simply not have worked – protected areas are too small. Rewilding in Britain would most likely require a similar ‘coexistence’ model. A major objection to reintroductions of predators like the lynx is the potential impact on livestock through predation – but in Europe this has been mitigated through the provision of compensation for losses, the revival of traditional guarding practices, and the use of deterrents such as electric fencing. There is no obvious reason why the same could not be true here.

Rewilding is a hugely complex topic – as is anything that concerns the functioning of entire ecosystems – but its potential benefits to biodiversity, ecological dynamism, habitat integrity, and of course wildlife tourism and people’s connection with nature, far outweigh its potential (and mitigatable) costs. Reintroducing the lynx, if successful, could pave the way for a more comprehensive rewilding of the UK, and given its potential to re-invigorate our landscape and our lives, it would be tragic not to try.

References

Chapron, Guillaume, Petra Kaczensky, John D. C. Linnell, Manuela von Arx, Djuro Huber, Henrik Andrén, José Vicente López-Bao, et al. 2014. “Recovery of Large Carnivores in Europe’s Modern Human-Dominated Landscapes.” Science 346 (6216): 1517–19. doi:10.1126/science.1257553.

Chapron, Guillaume, and José Vicente López-Bao. 2014. “Conserving Carnivores: Politics in Play.” Science (New York, N.Y.) 343 (6176): 1199–1200. doi:10.1126/science.343.6176.1199-b.

Dirzo, Rodolfo, Hillary S. Young, Mauro Galetti, Gerardo Ceballos, Nick J. B. Isaac, and Ben Collen. 2014. “Defaunation in the Anthropocene.” Science 345 (6195): 401–6. doi:10.1126/science.1251817.

Evans, Roz. 2015. “Rise of the Carnivores.” Biosphere, no. 5 (February): 38–45.

Kirkup, James. 2015. “Forget Big Cat Sightings – an Angry Badger Is Magic to Me,” March 8, sec. News. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/wildlife/11458050/Forget-big-cat-sightings-an-angry-badger-is-magic-to-me.html.

Monbiot, George. 2013. Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding. First Edition – Later Print Run edition. London: Allen Lane.

Ripple, William J., James A. Estes, Robert L. Beschta, Christopher C. Wilmers, Euan G. Ritchie, Mark Hebblewhite, Joel Berger, et al. 2014. “Status and Ecological Effects of the World’s Largest Carnivores.” Science 343 (6167): 1241484. doi:10.1126/science.1241484.

Seddon, Philip J., Christine J. Griffiths, Pritpal S. Soorae, and Doug P. Armstrong. 2014. “Reversing Defaunation: Restoring Species in a Changing World.” Science 345 (6195): 406–12. doi:10.1126/science.1251818.

Smyth, Richard. 2015. “All Change: The Many Ways the Birds We Think of as British Have Come and Gone Over the Past 30 Years.” Bird Watching, February, 25–33.

Swift, Camilla. 2015. “Forget about ‘Rewilding’: We Should Be Focusing on the Species That We Do Still Have.” Spectator Blogs. Accessed March 29. http://specc.ie/17rNHj0.

Turner, Camilla. 2015. “Wild Lynx to Return to Britain after 1,300 Years,” March 8, sec. News. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/earthnews/11457882/Wild-lynx-to-return-to-Britain-after-1300-years.html.

 

Birds at St James’ Park

Last weekend, I spent a cold but extremely satisfying Saturday morning photographing birds (and ubiquitous grey squirrels) in St James’ Park, London. I had originally intended to explore Battersea Park and venture to the power station in search of its fabled peregrines, but a late departure led me to seek the less exciting, but more predictable, ornamental wildfowl north of the river.

Where to Watch Birds in the London Area suggests that the birding prospects of St James’ Park are pretty bleak for those after anything more unusual than a blue tit, but I had already decided that the morning would be about photography rather than recording and observation, and waterfowl make obliging subjects (as it turned out, they featured in relatively few of my shots). Besides, I am not much of a rarity-chaser. Of course I feel the thrill of seeing a new bird for the first time (and given the limited geographical range of my regular birding expeditions, even my first bullfinches on Epsom Common in mid-December were something to get excited about), but what I yearn to gain from birding is less lists of ticks and more an understanding of the ways of other species. For such an end, even the humble robin is fascinating. (However, I remain resolutely unable to get excited by woodpigeons. Even feral pigeons are more interesting.)

Even feral pigeons are more interesting...

Even feral pigeons are more interesting…

Arriving at the Buckingham Palace-end of the park, my first diversion was a lone carrion crow – a species which, more than any other, brings home the point that watching common birds behaving can be absolutely fascinating. This individual did not disappoint. The bird had come across a nut of some sort, and set about the task of cracking it open. I watched it for a good five minutes as it repeatedly picked up the nut in its bill, gently flapped a few feet into the air, and dropped it, before returning to earth itself to check on its progress. Its ingenuity paid off, but perhaps made over-zealous by its success it swallowed the kernel whole, so I spent another few minutes watching it contort itself and cluck until it dislodged the thing from its throat.

Attempting to disgorge

Attempting to disgorge

Walking along the lake, one is followed expectantly by greylag geese, the occasional swan, and oh-so many squirrels. The squirrels, as in any central London park, are incredibly bold, and will not hesitate to climb one’s trousers or leap onto one’s bag in hopes of extracting some sort of morsel. They are also the darlings of the tourists, and the objects of most photographic attention – and I couldn’t resist taking a few snaps myself.

Awwww

Awwww

People also feed the pigeons – and the crows do a good deal of thievery. (Nobody feeds the crows. I’d feed the crows.) A poor attempt to photograph a flying coot led me to a gaggle of greylags which, either bored of human company or exasperated by the brazen attention-seeking of the squirrels, had opted to waddle off through the low sunlight to a quieter spot. At that point I noticed that the green area ahead of me was extremely popular with the local corvids – they will always draw my attention away from waterfowl – and I wandered over in hope of capturing a decent in-flight shot, something which has thus-far eluded me. The result was a good score or so of images of a single bird on a branch emphatically refusing to take flight. Oh well.

Waddling off

Waddling off

The next distraction was a pair of great tits in another tree. Small passerines are not something I have ever really associated with city parks, but I followed the path down to a large planted area, and it was doing this that made my day. The shrubs were full of avian life – blue tits, great tits, long-tailed tits, a coal tit, jays, magpies, parakeets, an incredibly confiding robin, and even a smattering of goldfinches. Most exciting of all was how bold the birds were – they are used to being fed, and I must credit many of my images to the couple of people who occasionally came by to hand-feed them. Robins have a reputation for being willing to eat from a human hand, but here even the jays partook of these intimate snacks. A return trip with birdseed and mealworms is a must!

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A good hour and several hundred photos later I tore myself away, and began to make my way to the north entrance. This took me past the resident pelicans, descendants of birds gifted to the royal family by the tsars, which were similarly obliging. A pair of cormorants cast haughty glances from their rocky perch as they held their wings out to dry. I felt it my duty to take a few shots of the goldeneye and ruddy shelduck as I passed them.

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I had seen a pair of herons wheeling over the lake as I approached, and just before leaving, my hope for the opportunity to photograph them was satisfied, as one flew across in front of me, soon to be joined by the other. The resulting images were nothing exceptional, but the best I’ve achieved of these birds so far, and a most satisfying end to a hugely enjoyable morning.

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Hooray Hooray for the Wonderful Jay!

One of the confiding park jays

One of the confiding park jays

The Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius) is a wonderful creature. Compared to its brazen, monochrome brethren, the jay is a coy but flamboyantly-dressed beast, shy and fleeting – known from a snatched glance of azure coverts over black-and-white, breast-stroking through an autumn sky, a flash of salmon in a maze of branches, or a startling shriek from the canopy. Occasionally, though, the jay is more confiding, and will forage in full view, hopping through the trees while it keeps a liquid jet eye fixed on you, ready to bolt at the slightest threat. Last Saturday, I was treated not just to one but a pair of jays flitting through the trees of a local park, immediately next to the path. Autumn, that wonderful provisioner of avian treats, yields one’s best chances of fully appreciating this glorious technicolour corvine – it is at this time of year that the birds set about tireless procurement of sylvan bounty, particularly acorns. They seem to collect them non-stop; on a recent trip to Richmond Park I observed no less than nine jay fly-overs, the birds’ beaks propped open by oak-sprung delicacies, in the space of ninety minutes. Of course, they may well have been the same few birds flying back and forth, but if so, what a testament to the single-minded determination of their caching!

In the past month I have been lucky enough to see more than my fair share of these birds. My regular trips to Epsom Common almost invariably yield at least one in the woods or on the Common itself. But I have also seen them flying close by my window as they carry their acorns, and, on an occasion of utmost excitement, early one morning seen a particularly handsome specimen caching a nut in the edge of the lawn, barley six feet from the kitchen window. How I wished I had my camera – but one of the greatest pleasures of birding is that of simple observation of another species going about its business, a window onto a world seen through avian eyes, often better unmediated by a lens. Last week, though, I had my camera, and though they are by no means spectacular, the photos I did take ae the first of these creatures with which I am pleased – a lot better than the usual blurred or noisy in-flight speck.

A noisy speck, alas one of my better flying jay photos

A noisy speck, alas one of my better flying jay photos

The flying jay, unless one has an especially capable long lens or is extremely lucky, is best appreciated with binoculars or the naked eye. Its flight is often described as ‘butterfly-like’, though to my mind this does not do the bird justice. The description, I suspect, owes its existence to the jay’s colourful plumage, broad, rounded wings, and slow, undulating flightpath. However, it does not flutter, but rather almost swims through the air with fluid but purposeful strokes. Jays tend to fly relatively low, particularly between perches, and this often affords sumptuous, if fleeting, views of the blue, black, and white of their wings gliding across their buff-pink flanks.

A calling jay

A calling jay

Often, though, the jay is heard, not seen. The first auditory encounter with one can be rather disconcerting, for what the jay possesses in sartorial splendour and cognitive elegance it entirely lacks in vocal aesthetics. Whilst walking around the local park, I am frequently alerted to the presence of one of the resident pair by an unearthly screech of such tortured timbre that in the first instance I was compelled to wade well into the undergrowth to investigate what I presumed was an act of predation by a cat or sparrowhawk. I found nothing – for the jay, despite its colour, is a master of concealment. When not shrieking, the birds can also be heard making softer but no less abrasive calls, best approximated as those of a cat in a state of mild gastronomic discomfort.

But such ominous vocalisations have a tender aspect. This morning, my encounter with the park pair was limited to hearing, but it revealed that the couple (which I presume they are, as pairs actively defend territories) were communicating with one another, maintaining contact via an exchange of soft rasps and gurgles. The male jay procures food for his mate, and in doing so appears to recognise his partner’s particular culinary desire based on what she has previously eaten (Ostojic, Shaw, Cheke, & Clayton, 2013).

Jays, like their corvine brethren, are birds of sublime intellect, and in ascribing desire to one another demonstrate complex social intelligence. It is their expertise in caching, though, that brings out a more Machiavellian side. A study of Spanish jays indicated that they will cache acorns anywhere between three and five hundred and fifty metres from their arboreal source – but they strongly prefer the open ground of forest tracks and recently-abandoned fields to areas of greater botanic encroachment, where their carefully hidden prizes are liable to theft by pilfering rodents (Pons & Pauses, 2007). In the presence of potential conspecific cache-stealers, jays will preferentially cache at sites obscured from the view of others (Legg & Clayton, 2014), and appear aware of the auditory perception of their fellows, choosing to cache in quiet substrates when in earshot, but not sight, of another jay (Shaw & Clayton, 2013).  Potential pilferers also vocalise less when observing others caching (ibid.). Moreover, dominant birds readily approach the caches of subordinates, often when they are still caching, with a view to comestible thievery, but subordinates with similarly underhand motivations bide their time and keep their distance from dominant birds before making any such attempts (Shaw & Clayton, 2012). Not what one might have in mind as ‘bird-brained.’

So there is little not to admire about the wonderful Eurasian jay – smartly dressed, casual but graceful in movement, and a deft social genius. Truly one of our most characterful woodland birds, and one of the great outdoor pleasures of the autumn.

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References

Legg, E. W., & Clayton, N. S. (2014). Eurasian jays (Garrulus glandarius) conceal caches from onlookers. Animal Cognition, 17(5), 1223–1226. doi:10.1007/s10071-014-0743-2

Ostojic, L., Shaw, R. C., Cheke, L. G., & Clayton, N. S. (2013). Evidence suggesting that desire-state attribution may govern food sharing in Eurasian jays. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(10), 4123–4128. doi:10.1073/pnas.1209926110

Pons, J., & Pauses, J. G. (2007). Acorn Dispersal Estimated by Radio-Tracking. Oecologia, 153(4), 903–911.

Shaw, R. C., & Clayton, N. S. (2012). Eurasian jays, Garrulus glandarius, flexibly switch caching and pilfering tactics in response to social context. Animal Behaviour, 84(5), 1191–1200. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2012.08.023

Shaw, R. C., & Clayton, N. S. (2013). Careful cachers and prying pilferers: Eurasian jays (Garrulus glandarius) limit auditory information available to competitors. Proceedings: Biological Sciences, 280(1752), 1–7.

October Transitions

This morning’s clear crispness has given way to a gradual but relentless overcastness. It is cool outside, as one feels it ought to be late on a mid-October afternoon, and the heavy sky mutes the emerging fieriness of the autumn leaves. There is something of a refreshing sharpness in stepping away from the desk and out of the warmth of the house into the breeze. The leaves atop the pear tree are buffeted back and forth, and September’s bounty of apples is all but gone from the lawn, picked off by birds and the last of the summer’s insects, or else fermenting sickly-sweet in baskets in the shed.

The changing of the airborne guard that accompanies the transition from summer’s lazy warmth to autumn’s crisp decay is almost complete. Of the year’s cohort of flying insects, only the last lonely honey bees and drowsy flies remain. The butterflies are gone. But the air is once again awash with birdsong, and for the last few weeks the garden back at home has once again welcomed its usual avian tenants. The dunnock trio is back, much to the robin’s dismay, and the great and blue tits once more squabble in the trees.

Today, though, a brief wander around my grandmother’s garden yields a different avian set. As I step outside, a quintet of parakeets whirl northwards, taking their distinctive raucous soundscape with them – and they are soon followed by three more. They are heading home earlier now, as the days grow shorter. And there seem to be more and more of them – though perhaps only because I am now that much more aware of their existence. My mind wanders to where they may be going.

It is the wicked cackling of the magpie, though, that fixes my attention. That rattling laugh tinged with a slight flavour of wickedness that adds to the bird’s aura of mischief, which is that much more muted in its larger cousins. It streaks over the fences and treetops, a whirr of black-and-white across the slaty sky, a first sample of winter’s simple palette. But the absorbing crimson of the Acer by the shed insists that autumn’s hues reign strong for now.

An Entomological Excursion

The southern hawker shortly after being found

The southern hawker shortly after being found

Today, a failed attempt to be up on time for a birdwatching trip led me to spend my morning positioning and photographing a dead dragonfly. A fine use of a September morn, and what finer way to round off the day than to spend the evening relating the tale of said dragonfly to you, dear reader, as I sit at my desk with a robin nibbling on massacred slugs in the evening light to my left, and the refreshing bitterness of a decanted bottle of Wychwood’s King Goblin to my right. (That’s right, no fear on my part that I may, ahem, taste something.) And, excitement of the day, having just seen a wren in the garden for the first time in at least a year! Life is good.

And so to begin this little foray into the entomological. Said dragonfly was found dead some time in the late morning of last Sunday. The huge (around 70mm long) and beautiful creature had found itself trapped beneath the glass roof above the back door, and unfortunately expired on the ledge. A female southern hawker (Aeshna cyanea), in life, a queen among insects, in death her abdomen still a masterpiece of enamelled jet and emerald, her eyes retaining their deep satin, and her four wings remaining the most glorious lattice of veins and cells, each completed by a tiny stained-glass pool of amber. A testament to three hundred million years of evolutionary success, and in death, worthy of preservation.

So I retrieved the corpse and embarked on a digital search for directions. How does one preserve a dragonfly? A Google search revealed acetone to be the means of choice. Nail-polish remover – though alas not the diluted kind which is apparently most popular. No, a dragonfly requires nothing less than industrial-strength. So rather than go about ordering it I searched online until I found someone telling me the beast could be air-dried (or at least, that other insects could – see this very helpful video). So I put my southern hawker under the halogen lamp. However, come Monday morning, the lamp had fallen onto her abdomen, crushing one of the segments and calling forth an unpleasant and pungent brown ooze, which appeared to be discolouring both this and the adjacent segments.

Thus I resorted to the chemical solution (ho ho), and ordered meself a big ol’ tub of acetone. Which, incidentally, removes the fat from the insect. This is an important process – I discovered yesterday, in the course of labelling my dragonfly, that the mounted Goliath beetle that has been in my possession since I was but a wee boy was covered in a light but prominent crust of waxy greasiness, precipitating a good twenty minute’s riotous fun with a cotton-bud. (Labelling the dragonfly naturally led me to resolve to label the rest of the various bits of dead animal in my possession. And believe me, there are many.) The acetone, to return to the matter in hand, did not arrive until Tuesday, by which time the hawker had discoloured significantly. Bathing her in acetone for three days not only dried her to a crisp but also recovered a little of her former chromatic magnificence – though not much. I wonder – and would be grateful to know for future reference – whether immediate acetone-soaking preserves the original colours. Apparently the eyes inevitably lose theirs – though in this case they did not turn white.

Unfortunately the display box and insect pins I had ordered did not arrive until after – and rather than risk further discolouration I opted to acetone first and pin later. Which worked reasonably well, though I fully see now, the dragonfly having lost its left hind foot and having suffered the posthumous indignity of a superglued abdomen and re-attached cerci (small appendages on the tip of the abdomen), why pre-acetone pinning and post-acetone ‘relaxation’ are so widely recommended. But, all in all, a success – and I will be on the lookout for further late arthropods to add to my collection.

So here is my mounted southern hawker in her final resting place:

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Dragonflies, incidentally, are fascinating creatures, extremely accomplished fliers which hunt down other insects in mid-air. As larvae, they are terrifying xenomorph-like aquatic predators of tadpoles and small fish. As adults, they have exceptionally good eyesight compared to other insects, and are able to react to tiny and fast-moving prey within milliseconds, as demonstrated by Patrick Aryee and the film crew n the BBC’s current, and highly recommended, documentary Super Senses – The Secret Power of Animals. Watch it. The whole series is brilliant.

I’ll leave you with a healthy dose of taxonomy, just to keep you fascinated. The southern hawker is part of the Aeshnidae family of dragonflies (Anisoptera), which, along with the more gracile damselflies, form the order Odonata. Michael Chinery’s excellent Insects of Britain and Western Europe informs me that about one hundred species of Odonata occur in Europe, of around five thousand worldwide – so get spotting!

References:

Chinery, M. 2012. Insects of Britain and Western Europe (Revised 2012 Edition). London: Bloomsbury.

The Birds and Mammals of Lundy Island

Lundy Island pier

Lundy Island pier

A couple of weeks ago I took a day trip to Lundy Island from here I was staying in Dartmoor. Lundy is a tiny island off the north coast of Devon, notable for its breeding seabird populations – in particular, the puffins (Fratercula arctica), though as I understand, these colourful birds no longer arrive there in such prolific numbers as they once did. However, puffins were one of my major motivations for going, even though I knew that, already a good week into August, most would already have departed, along with their fellow auks, the guillemots and razorbills. Alas, this proved to be the case, and the timing of my visit was unfortunately also too early to catch the main passage of migrant birds stopping off on their autumn journeys.

Nonetheless, it proved an enjoyable day – and I would certainly recommend a trip to the island. It is reached by a ferry journey of around two hours. The rain and choppy sea on the way over were more than made up for by the opportunities for birdwatching. I didn’t see anything spectacular in that regard, but it was very satisfying to observe Manx shearwaters (Puffinus puffinus) slicing their way through the air above the wave tops, and fulmars (Fulmarus glaciaris) gliding stiff-winged alongside the boat, this being the first time I had seen these birds and been able to identify them. More familiar herring gulls (Larus argentatus) put in a good appearance, as did a beautifully-marked juvenile kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla). Bird-wise, though, the highlights of the ferry ride were a lonely late-departing young razorbill (Alca torda), and the impressive spectacle of diving gannets (Morus bassanus), wings bent back, plunging vertically into the water for fish.

Lundy's western shore

Lundy’s western shore

The birds, though, were all outshone by the pod of common dolphins (Delphinus delphis), which swam alongside the boat for some minutes (and did so again on the return journey). There is something deeply impressive and emotion-stirring about dolphins, and seeing them up-close and in the wild is an experience not soon forgotten. The pod approached the boat from behind, leaping through the water as it came up alongside us and soon overtook us. Common dolphins are smaller the more familiar bottlenose dolphin, also found in these waters, and more attractively marked, sporting cream and white marking on their flanks beneath a slate grey back. We only saw them for a couple of minutes, but those were easily the most memorable of the trip.

Disembarking at the island, we had a steep walk up to the hamlet atop the cliffs. It is possible to stay there – and I would certainly return earlier in the summer to spend a day or two exploring the island more fully and watching the seabirds, including going through the all-important nocturnal experience of being hit by incoming Manx shearwaters, which are notorious for their clumsiness away from the waves. The walk up goes through a small valley, which was full of chattering house sparrows (Passer domesticus) and goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis) , and criss-crossed by the flightpaths of plenty of swallows (Hirundo rustica). Reaching the top, past the buildings the plateau of the island stretches out for around three miles north to south. Much to my excitement, I was also greeted by a large raven (Corvus corax) perched on a nearby fencepost – these huge and stately birds, along with the far smaller carrion crow (Corvus corone), form the island’s resident corvid population.

After a brisk jacket potato, we headed out for a walk up the island. With over four hours or so until the return ferry, covering the whole length of the island seemed a reasonable possibility – though this failed to take into account stopping to take photographs, as well as the unexpectedly difficult terrain. The footpaths around the clifftops were not particularly strenuous, but walking across the island must be accomplished with no small amount of time being devoted to wading through tall grass on uneven ground, making for either slow or tiring progress.

A confiding young wheatear

A confiding young wheatear

A meadow-pipit calling

A meadow-pipit calling

Not a lot of bird life was in evidence – but there were scores of meadow pipit (Anthus pratensis) and wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe), the latter extremely confiding. I followed juvenile for quite some time along one of the footpaths, and it seemed little concerned if I got even within a few metres, though continually checked to see if I was still there. The meadow pipits chased one another in bouncing flight over the grasses and occasionally stopped to perch atop the odd shrub. Meanwhile, we were accompanied along the coast by a motley assortment of juvenile and adult herring and lesser black-backed gulls (Larus fuscus) cruising above the cliffs, accompanied by the occasional greater black-backed gull (Larus marinus).  Many of the views from the clifftops are spectacular, giving a real sense of ruggedness, and the return walk to the ferry affords some beautiful views. I also saw what may have been a late-staying guillemot (Uria aalge) – from above, an all-black bird perching on the rocks on the shore, and diving into the water every now and again – though too far away for a positive identification. Thinking about it, perhaps more likely a young cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) or shag (P. aristotelis), as these birds are resident on the island.

A lugubrious Highland cow

A lugubrious Highland cow

Grooming horses

Grooming horses

In addition to the various avian excitements, Lundy hosts a fair stock of domestic animals, most notably several lugubrious Highland cattle. These are, in my opinion, wonderful creatures, with long, curved horns and shaggy ruddy fur that flops in disarray over their sloping faces, giving them something of the look of a bovine Boris Johnson. They were grazing with a group of beautiful horses, which groomed one another with their teeth. Lundy is also home to a population of satisfyingly wild-looking feral goats, which seemed for the most part to be enjoying lounging precipitously on the cliff edges.

A clifftop goat

A clifftop goat

Unfortunately, we didn’t see any of the island’s grey seals (Halichoerus grypus), though we only made it around three quarters of the way up the island. The journey back, though, did present a lone seal briefly bobbing its head up from the water as we neared the Devon coast, followed by a plethora of assorted gulls, oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus), and another wader species which may have been a redshank (Tringa totanus).

All in all, a worthy trip – and heartily recommended for anyone interested in birds or sea mammals.