Sunday, September 30, 2012

Hairy Caterpillar

I found this extremely hairy caterpillar this afternoon when I was picking raspberries. My thanks to Skev, who identified it as a buff ermine Spilosoma luteum caterpillar.

Friday, September 28, 2012

A single-animal stampede ....

I started digging the vegetable garden this afternoon but didn't get very far because I found this fine specimen of the centipede Haplophilus subterraneus curled up under a plant root. This is probably the longest garden species in Britain, although you wouldn't think so when it's coiled up in a ball like this.

When it unwound itself and began to run I'd estimate that it must have been close to three inches long. Ground-living centipedes have an aversion to light even though they have no eyes and this one instantly headed for a dark crevice (that's the head at the bottom). The last pair of legs are modified into touch-sensitive antennae-like structures that provide the animal with some information about what's going on way back in that final segment.

It's difficult to photograph these because they only come to rest when they are in contact with something above and below their body - when they are in a tunnel or under a stone for example. Despite their name, no centipede has exactly 100 legs. The books say this one has 83 pairs (seems reasonable, it was moving too fast to count them), so when it runs that's 166 feet stampeding - a wonderful feat of coordinating feet movements.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The 137th. Annual Eggleston Show

Eggleston, the last of the agricultural shows in my part of the Northern Pennines, is the subject of today's Guardian Country Diary. This year it moved to a new location at West Barnley, so the view from the commentary box, across the showground, extended all the way up the middle part of Teesdale to the fells on the horizon.

Perfect weather, with the sound of the Middleton and Teesdale Silver Band drifting across the events rings.

Judging the Highland cattle.

Some magnificent beasts ....

...... and a very young stockman .....

... who was a proud winner of a red first-prize rosette for his Highland calf.

I'm not sure what breed of sheep this is but the coat colour is very unusual.

Waiting for the start of the sheep judging which .....

... delivered a fine haul of winning rosettes.

A prize winning cockerel in the poultry tent .....

...... dahlias as big as a human head in the horticulture tent ....

... and, in the industry tent, the much-admired craft work of stick dressers, with walking stick handles carved in the form of .....

.... curlews, thistles .....

.... and leaping trout.

Only a second-place rosette for his Shetland pony, but the owner should have won a red rosette for that moustache.

Ponies and ponytails, perfectly groomed.

Adaptability and Resilience - the secret of survival?

After two days of gales and driving rain, these two well-fledged collared dove juveniles re-appeared in the hawthorn tree in our garden, waiting to be fed by harassed parents who have successful driven magpies away from their nest over the last few weeks. 

In a little under a century this species has dispersed from Turkey right across Europe and even into Norway. 

If I had to bet on a bird species that would adapt to climate change, I'd put my money on collared doves.

You can see one of their earlier breeding efforts here.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Commonplace Beauty

I think it's one of the fundamental truths of natural history that you can find beauty in all living organisms - even a commonplace dock Rumex sp. plant like this - if you look a little closer. The ripe seeds are attractive to look at and also favourite food of bullfinches in autumn.

Add a cobweb and some early morning sunlight and a whole dock plant becomes attractive.

Sunday, September 23, 2012


Two lovely examples of iridescent colours seen today..........

... the subtle pink and green highlights in the mother-of-pearl layer of a top shell, picked up on the beach at Whitburn this afternoon. Abrasion by sand has worn away the outer layers of the shell, exposing the lustrous nacreous layer underneath.....

... and the more vibrant iridescent greens and blues of the plumage of the magpie that come to drink at our conservatory gutter every morning ....

For magpie feathers under the microscope, click here

Friday, September 21, 2012

A Tiny Mammal with Iron-tipped Teeth ...

I found these photographs of a pygmy shrew Sorex minutus when I was sorting through some pictures that I took back in the autumn of 2006.

We encountered this delightful little animal, which is the smallest British native shrew, when we were walking in Hamsterley Forest in County Durham. From a distance it looked like a tiny ball of fur zig-zagging along the path. It seemed oblivious to our presence so I spent the next five minutes on my knees, trying to follow every move while it relentlessly searched the vegetation for prey. It never stayed still for a second and turned out to be one of the most infuriating animals that I've ever tried to photograph - these are the only sharp(ish) images from about 40 that I took. Following it, as my knees got wetter and muddier, and my language became more colourful, provided a lot of amusement for the family. 

With those tiny eyes, I suspect that pygmy shrew's vision isn't very acute and it must rely on that wonderful array of whiskers - like radar antennae - on its elongated nose for locating prey.

You can see the tail quite well here, which is surprisingly large for such a tiny creature. I've read that individuals that survive through the winter lose the hairs on their tails in their spring moult, so this must be a youngster.

Apparently pygmy shrews, like common shrews, have red-tipped teeth, due to iron deposits that reinforce the tips. 

 You can see the array of whiskers quite nicely in this image. The use of flash for the photograph makes the coat look much lighter than it seemed in normal daylight.

Pygmy shrews' lives consist of alternating periods of rest and intense foraging, when they need to find enough food to compensate for their very high metabolic rate. They need to consume about one and quarter times their own body weight in prey items every day, just to survive. After five minutes whizzing around in front of the camera this one disappeared down a hole under a tree root, presumably for a snooze.

Monday, September 17, 2012

What's the model for this mimic?

Hoverflies, without stings, are well known for mimicking the colours and patterns of stinging wasps so the standard issue markings for most hoverflies are some variation on the theme of black and yellow stripes. This species, Leucozona glauca, is the exception to the rule and is turned out in this attractive black and denim blue colour scheme ...... which begs the question as to whether it's mimicking something or is simply a genetic variant with no particular natural selective benefit or disadvantage. 

According to British Hoverflies by Alan Stubbs and Steven Falk the markings on this species are normally yellow but this blue variant occurs frequently.  I haven't encountered it often and this one is part of a population that lives along a woodland ride in Hamsterley Forest, Co. Durham and is often quite abundant when hogweed and angelica are in flower. This individual is a female, identifiable by the widely spaced eyes.

It seems to have been quite a good summer for some hoverflies in my part of Co. Durham. I had a quite a few of this one, which I think is a particularly attractive variant of Helophilus pendulus, in my garden where it seemed to be partial to meadow crane'sbill flowers. 

I'm not completely sure what this large hoverfly species is but I think it may well be Sericomyia  silentis..... a convincing wasp mimic. It's been quite common in Teesdale throughout August and early September and I've seem several on  devil's bit scabious, which is supposed to be particular attractive to this species.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Stalker ....

This robin, sitting on the door of the byre, was one of two contesting ownership of the farmyard at Beamish Museum when we visited on Friday. 

We've also got a resident robin in our garden now, that's already getting bolder every day, swooping down to pick up tit-bits when we're digging the vegetable plot. Over the years I've hand-tamed quite a few robins and I'm toying with the idea of doing it again, although my recollections of the last one are making me hesitate.

It was a push-over to tame. All it needed was the lure of a mealworm and within a day it was taking them from under my feet, within two days it was taking them from my fingers and on the third day it was perching on my hand.

Throughout the whole winter it followed me everywhere in the garden. As soon as I went out of the back door I had a stalker .....

..... that let loose a burst of song if I was too slow in delivering mealworms.

It was still there in spring, getting in the way of seed sowing and potting activities inside the greenhouse ....

.... and whenever I looked up, there it was, waiting and expectant....

...... and then it found a mate, nested (in a neighbour's garden, not ours, which was a bit ungrateful, we thought) and soon we found we were feeding a family. For several months I was the best customer in our local fishing bait shop. I must have spent a small fortune on mealworms and I have more robin photographs than I know what to do with. 

Will I tame the latest arrival? Well, with robins you have to ask who is taming whom? In truth, the last robin tamed us, inveigling us into performing tricks like foraging for it, providing food on demand and supporting its family...... and the latest arrival will probably do the same. Resistance is futile.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Because they can .....

Back in 2005 I spent a morning in April photographing fulmars on the cliffs south of Craster on the Northumberland coast. I've long been fascinated by these birds, with their apparently effortless gliding, using the updraft created by cliffs and onshore breezes. They'll spend hours flying around in wide circles, skimming the edge of the cliff and then turning away into a wide arc out to sea, then back to repeat the performance. 

 Why do they fly so much, to no apparent purpose, when they could just perch and survey the scenery? Maybe it's just because they can, because they are as exhilarated by flight as I am by watching them.

Their flight seems almost effortless, with shallow wingbeats followed by long, stiff-winged glides. Sometimes, as they glide past, you can see the turbulence, from air flowing over their wings, lifting and ruffling the smaller wing feathers.

Sometimes they'll fly towards a cliff, lower their legs and touch the rock, they turn and glide away again ....

... or sometimes hang in the air, almost stationary for a moment, tail feathers splayed and cocked up, legs lowered, on the verge of stalling, before turning and racing away to skim the sea surface.

Those long, narrow, high aspect ratio wings are the prototype for every glider .

I've almost convinced myself that fulmars enjoy showing off. Often, if you stand on the top of a cliff, they'll circle around and repeatedly glide past you, just a few metres away, and will turn their heads to look at you as they pass. Maybe they're as curious about me as I am about them.

For all their solitary flying, during the early part of the breeding season fulmars  indulge in a lot of vocal interaction which sounds like chuckling, when they're choosing nest sites and pair-bonding.

This kind of interaction, facing one another with gaping beaks and seemingly trying to shout each other down, is common behaviour in spring.

You can see clearly here the peculiar beak with the tubular nostril which gives the fulmar family the name 'tubenoses', and also the claw-like tip to the beak which you can also see in this photograph of a skull

At this time of year there is, inevitably, a feeling of regret that summer has passed but also a remembrance of all the natural events that will begin again next spring - when fulmars return to their cliff edge nest sites.