Monthly Archives: March 2015

March Flowers

Coltsfoot - Tussilago Farfara

At this time of year I get a bit distracted from the birds by the emerging flowers and wild plants which seem to be springing up almost overnight. It’s been quite a slow start to spring in the north east but the temperature is slowly climbing and the growing season is soon to take off.

The Coltsfoot (tussilago farfara) above is always one of the first flowers to bloom at this time of year.

Lesser Celandine - Ranunculus ficaria

This Lesser Celandine (ranunculus ficaria) was one of many in Holywell Dene last week and all of a sudden they seem to be everywhere.

Red Deadnettle - Lamium purpureum

The Red Dead-nettle (lamium purpureum) has to be one of my favourite flowers – it’s beautiful and it’s loved by the bees.

Common Chickweed - Stellaria Media

This last photo is Common Chickweed (stellaria media) which probably goes largely un-noticed by everyone except gardeners who want rid of it from their lawns and flower beds.

Its tiny white flowers have a delicate beauty and its leaves are edible and full of vitamin C. Common Chickweed also plays an important role in the diet of many farmland birds and its seeds are enjoyed by the Chaffinch in particular.

Nature is awesome.

Bumblebee Conservation

On Thursday evening I attended a talk given by Professor Dave Goulson, founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and probably the UK’s leading expert on bumblebees. I have read his book A Sting In The Tale so had a pretty good idea what he would have to say but it was fascinating and educational nonetheless.

I must confess I have a real soft spot for bumblebees – they are charming creatures but they are also incredible insects which play a vital role in our ecosystems, helping to pollinate the majority of crops in the UK, not to mention our wild flowers. Unfortunately they are under real pressure, as a result of habitat loss, pesticide use and disease.

Here are some of the stand out points Professor Goulson made:

The UK has lost around 97% of its hay meadows and unimproved grasslands, replaced by intensive agriculture of arable crops or single species silage fields.  This has had a devastating effect on those bumblebee species that are adapted to meadows, such as the Short-haired Bumblebee (extinct but currently subject to a reintroduction programme) and the Shrill Carder Bee (seven, possibly now just six populations in the south of England).

Overzealous use of pesticides is another key factor driving bumblebee declines, as well as declines in other species of pollinators.  Apparently it is not unusual for crops in this country to have over twenty different pesticide, fungicide and fertilizer treatments applied in a single growing season, a third of which are known to be extremely harmful to bees. If you grow vegetables in the garden, there is no way you would use that many chemicals and then eat what you had grown, yet this is the way we farm.

Modern neonicotinoid pesticides – currently subject to an EU moratorium and therefore prohibited from use – are extremely toxic to all insects. The lethal dose of a typical neonicotinoid, which would kill a bee on 50% of the occasions it was exposed, is just 4 nanograms or 4 billionths of a gram. A teaspoonful could therefore kill one and a half billion bees. This is 6 or 7 thousand times more toxic than DDT. And by the way, only 5% actually ends up on or in the crop – about 94% ends up in the soil and in our watercourses.

Like honeybees, bumblebees can be sold and shipped all around the world in order to provide pollination services. Unlike honey bees, there are few if any controls or restrictions on this practice, meaning diseases, infections and parasites can be transmitted to native bumblebees, as well as other species of pollinator. Where native bees have no evolutionary response to those infections, there is the possibility of extinction, as is currently the case in South America where the world’s largest bumblebee is close to disappearance.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. The Tree Bumblebee reached the UK naturally in 2001 from the continent and has now spread all the way into Scotland. Its success is probably down to the fact that it can thrive on garden flowers and makes good use of nest boxes we put up in our gardens for the birds.

And there are plenty of ways we can help make a difference for our bees, be it through planting our gardens with them in mind, cutting out pesticides, getting involved in meadow restoration projects, pressuring our local authorities to do more for bees and other pollinators or just teaching our kids the value of bees.

 

Late to the party

Common Frog

Timing is everything but this year I seem to have missed the chorus of breeding frogs at the pond on my work patch.

Common Frogs

When I arrived on Monday lunchtime there were only a few dozen frogs remaining, who between them could barely muster a croak. The pond however was nearly overflowing with frog spawn!

Common Frogs

There was still some coupling going on though and plenty of interestingly marked frogs to see.

Common Frogs

I’ll have to come back next year for a cacophony of croaking amphibians…

Frog Spawn

But in a couple of weeks there should be plenty of tadpoles to keep me amused!

 

Short-eared Owls

My luck was finally in on Friday evening at Prestwick Carr, as I managed to catch up with two of the long-staying Short-eared Owls. Wow! What absolutely sublime birds they are. For me, there is no finer bird to be seen in England.

The wind was up again so I wasn’t hopeful that any of the owls would show but I timed it right and for about half an hour the wind eased a little. Then suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, first one, then two owls appeared in what I gather is their usual spot.

They proceeded to hunt the field, with some nice hovering and a few close up views but also quite a lot of perching on the far side of the field. I didn’t care though, nor did I get a decent photo – but I am thrilled just to have seen these majestic creatures in action.

After a while, the wind began to pick up again and the birds were spending increasing amounts of time perched at the far side of the field, so I decided to take my leave. What a great way to spend ninety minutes or so though – amazing!

Coast

Whitley Bay

Braving the gale force winds on Sunday morning I headed towards the coast, figuring it might be the best place to see some birds. At Whitley Bay only a few hardy groups of Sanderling fed along the tide line, whilst Turnstones and a Rock Pipit foraged amongst the sea weed on North Bay.

A lone Curlew and a few Ringed Plover fed by the shore here, as well as two Oystercatchers but the wind scoured almost everything off the land and water. On the wetland there were about 30 Teal and several pairs of Mallard, whilst a group of Redshank rested on the shore. As I watched, a Kestrel flew over, struggling against the wind before rising up high and then out of sight.

After about an hour of having sand blown in my face, I thought I would try my luck elsewhere and at Tynemouth the small bay was more sheltered. With the sun out and between gusts it almost felt warm. It was quiet too though, with the highlight a small group of Purple Sandpipers feeding close to the pier.

On the path beside the Priory a bird caught my eye, flitting about in the scrub – my first returning Chiffchaff of the year! In a few weeks the woods will be full of them again but for me, there is something magic about migrants. This bird must be one of the first to return – what sights has it seen during its winter? Where is it going? This is why nature will never fail to fascinate me.