Thursday, 28 April 2011

A Tale of Two Beetles

A Tale of Two Beetles and some pond snails.

Whilst walking along by the Montgomery Canal at its mid-point near Pool Quay, I was first absorbed by the plant life: a profusion of primroses, violets, ground ivy, garlic mustard, emerging cow parsley, stands of cuckoo pint at the flashing stage, and liverworts in the leaky walls of locks. But the whirligig beetles whizzing about on flat water, slaloming between new rushes and rising horsetails, soon grabbed my attention. It was like having an aerial view of expert dodgem drivers. On the water the beetles look dark – silvery black if they’ve trapped a bubble of air. They have split vision. The bottom half of their eyes are adapted to seeing under water and the top half to seeing in air. I was thrilled by their speed and agility but none of this registered with my greyhounds who wanted to move on to some shade.

The darker section of water was Pond Snail City. Most creatures were parked on the bottom like clockwise, corkscrew trailers. I expect they were guzzling detritus. A few big ones hung upside down from the surface O2ing and filling their lungs. I couldn’t resist mouthing back to them.

Back in the sunlight I noticed a beautiful dark, metallic turquoise beetle had become my brooch. A whirligig was taking a chance to be still. I felt honoured to have such a neat, bright creature, slightly smaller than a ladybird, hitching a ride on my T. shirt. I didn’t see fly away but I hope it was accepted into a new zooming colony.

The morning after I found a dead cockchafer beetle across the road from Newtown’s night club and made a mental note not to leave lights on and windows open. I can admire the architecture of maybugs when they’re still: huge, domed, shellac wing cases, and the go-faster white pennants which edge their abdomens, but I don’t welcome them hitching a ride. Sometimes, when carrying out a benign eviction, I think they’ve flown off into the night only to get into bed and hear their motors start. They’ve embedded the leaves of their huge antennae into my hair or into a fleece.

Last year I saw them flying by daylight for the first time. At first I thought a magpie was attacking me as it swooped low and brushed my head but its focus was the ginger whir just ahead. The magpie snapped with relish. A few feet away another cockchafer was descending. I expect she was about to lay her eggs in the meadow.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011


I love the woodlands but I wish they would not keep catching fire. This is the 3rd fire I've helped put out in less than 3 weeks. The bracken is quick to recolonise the scorched earth and shrivelled bluebells put on a brave face.  

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Vanishing elms

Vanishing Elms?
Now is a brilliant time for spotting elms. In hedgerows and wood edges, elms light up at this time of year, aglow with thousands of golden fruits; with the light behind them, these greenish-yellow seed-holding discs briefly transform an elm into a spectacle. But you have to be quick. Other trees such as oak are bursting into yellow-tinged leaf, and elm leaves rapidly follow the fruits, covering up their glory.
In the late 1970s we were warned that there would be no more elms – Dutch elm disease, a fungus transported by a bark beetle, had done for them. One elegiac book was called ‘Epitaph for the Elm’. A recent guide to wild flowers notes that common elm flowers and fruits are rarely seen, because trees old enough to flower are killed by the fungus. Yet all the lanes around me have elms in them, there are a dozen in my own hedges, and I have counted hundred of trees in full fruit. Many of these may be Wych elms, which have more resistance to disease, but I think most of the hedgerow trees are common elm. The elm is back.
Funnily enough, one of the few places where you don’t see elms in on newly planted sites, because elms have been written off as a species worthy of planting. Nature has a way of confounding human certainties. I rejoice, as elms are the food plant for several moths, and for that scarce, little-seen butterfly, the white-letter hairstreak. But mostly because, for a few days in April, elms become visible from hundreds of metres away, illuminating wood and hedgerow. Then, as quickly, they are absorbed by the gorgeous green of early summer foliage.

Heaven On Earth!

What better place is there to be, than a Welsh sessile oakwood in late April – on a sunny day of course? The young oak leaves are just beginning to emerge but the sun still gets down to the woodland floor. The celandines and wood sorrel are in full flower and the bluebells are just coming out. Speckled wood and orange-tip butterflies flit about over the fallen oak leaves. You can hear a full hand of summer migrants in song – pied flycatchers, redstarts and the first few wood warblers. Actually, the redstarts prefer the old ash trees further up the valley, near the falls. I look inside one nest-box and see an almost complete flycatcher nest. All it needs is a lining and 7-8 blue eggs.
Various questions come into my head – will the first egg date be even earlier this year? Will the looper caterpillars be ready at just the right time to be fed to young flycatchers (and young tits)? After several years of low predation rates, will a rogue weasel get into the boxes and cause havoc again? Maybe you can detect my priorities here – caterpillars are for birds to eat, but a weasel that eats birds is ‘rogue’!
Just in case you are wondering – my sessile oakwood is Coedydd Aber NNR, near Bangor; Kate and I live about two miles away. Others are even more fortunate – Natur Cymru blogmeister Huw Jenkins lives in a sessile oakwood (Coedydd Maentwrog, also an NNR, near Porthmadog).
So, get yourself to your nearest sessile oakwood as soon as you can. Galapagos? Antarctica? Ngorongoro? Seen them all on the TV, don’t need to go there. Heaven on earth is right here, in Wales.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Every day since the 24th November 2010 when I was treated to a spectacular kingfisher sunset I've longed to see the kingfisher on the stretch of the Severn that runs through Dolerw Park in Newtown. But the big freeze lasted and lasted and the new path on the other bank got busier and I thought all the kingfishers dead or settled into new territories. This morning, a patch of red caught my eye. At first I thought it was a robin on the riverside mud having a drink, but my gaze triggered flight and turquoise ignition. The river is so low that it's showing its soft gums and sharp knuckles.

Last week I had some exciting sightings just metres from the Powys border in Shropshire - a glossy male ring ouzel with a perfect white crescent bib perched on a stile close to the foot of Corndon Hill, and, about 10.30 pm on 14th April, I think I glimpsed courting nightjars near Bishop's Castle and again, virtually on Offa's Dyke, near Mellington.

My friend's car has a huge sunroof. I saw a pale flick, a float and a bank, then another bird with nuthatch coloured underparts and upheld wings. Though the image was brief, I knew that they didn't have the density or composure of owls. WhenI saw a similar pair a couple of miles on I was reminded of the agility of hawks. There are several small woods along the B4385 and the land rises south of this to the Kerry Ridgeway in a series of quite secret brackeny cwms. At certain points on the Ridgeway I've often remarked that these cwms look like something from Thomas Hardy's Dorset. I wonder if anyone else thinks it likely that these were nightjars?

Monday, 4 April 2011

Ticks – just hitching a ride

I’ve plucked many a tick from our dogs and an occasional one from myself or a member of the family. Always trying to get the whole thing out but never quite realising the significance until I spoke with a couple of people touched by Lyme disease.

The symptoms described are dreadful and the consequences far reaching. One person has been unable to work for the past 6 years, another is recovering but knows there is a chance of recurrence. It’s one of those fairly new diseases about which we know very little for definite.  

Why is it called Lyme? After the town in Connecticut where an unusual cluster of arthritis cases was brought to the world’s attention in the 1970s and a few years later the cause was connected with the tick. I bet that discovery has done wonders for the local tourism industry!

From what I understand the ticks lurk around at the top of grasses and other plants waiting for a passing host to snag into. Once on board they climb up to a suitable position then dig in, typically into the nape of a dog’s neck, but anywhere will do.

When digging in, the ticks inject an antiseptic to numb the area and disguise the invasion. Then they gorge themselves for maybe 10 days until the pin-prick sized beast is as big as a grape and drops off. After days of feeding off their larder of blood they’re ready for more, climb up onto the plants and wait for another unsuspecting host; maybe a rabbit, badger or polecat. A rich cocktail of bloods.

The other day, after removing several bloated ticks off Molly, our collie kelpie cross, we had applied the ‘frontline’ tick deterrent. Instead of burrowing in, there were four of them walking around the top of her white fur seeking more tasty skin. Inside the house or car this is a time when humans look particularly appetising to a hungry tick. I carefully plucked the ticks off onto the kitchen table to photograph them – the rest of the family was none too pleased.

Tick Bite Prevention Week begins Monday 11th April and there’s lots of information on their website at

For practical advice on tools to remove them, see this short film from someone living in Snowdonia.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Pied Flycatcher/Invisible Birds

Pied Flycatcher: I help to look after 99 nestboxes in Coedydd Aber National Nature Reserve near Bangor. These are used by about 25 pairs of Pied Flycatchers and assorted tits (Great and Blue, mainly). A keen group of students do the leg-work checking the boxes during the breeding season, but I do have to visit before April to check the boxes, repair and replace as necessary. I was up there last Tuesday (29th) replacing a box high up in the oakwood above the carpark, and heard what sounded like a Pied Fly singing rather quietly. Then I saw it - my first ever March record! First eggs are not laid until the end of April, and it will have to wait some time for a lady friend to turn up. Invisible birds: I've written an article about birds which are difficult to find, it's in the latest Natur Cymru. Naturally I was hoping for some response, and was delighted yesterday to get an email from Jim Marshall who lives beside the railway bridge at Dyfi Junction, a few miles down the river from Machynlleth. Jim has sent me a great list of birds he and Sally have seen at their feeding station this winter, including up to 9 Yellowhammers, a Black Redstart and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers (male and female). Jim's Lesser Spot W'peckers are the first records for the BTO Winter Atlas for SN69, the 10km square he lives in!