Sunday, 31 January 2016

Falmouth night life - the wild side

Over the last few weeks, myself and a number of friends here in Falmouth have spent a lot of time searching for invertebrates during the night-time. Although a walk around nearby College Reservoir during the day would indicate that there aren't too many insects braving the winter conditions, the exact same places play host to an impressive diversity of all sorts of wildlife when darkness falls. Will Hawkes has been conducting invertebrate transects from the campus on a weekly basis thus far this year, and has recorded over 300 species already! It really is amazing to get out and see such a diversity of species emerging from the nooks and crannies in the most unexpected of places.

For some species, these alcoves and warm hide-aways are the site for their winter hibernation, for example the cluster of six Herald moths huddled together underneath a motorway overpass; other invertebrates are utilising the above-average winter temperatures to emerge early and spend time foraging for prey and food when the night has drawn in. Presumably emerging at night avoids the costly predation effects associated with daylight. I will depict just a handful of the species we have encountered below, and try and include some of the more fascinating ones too!

Particular highlights for me has been learning to identify the diverse range of arachnids, isopods, myriapods and dipterans that reveal themselves on the calmer nights. Spiders are by far the most abundant genus currently at large, with impressive beasties like Snake-back SpiderBuzzing SpiderNoble False WidowWalnut Orb Weaver and European Garden Spiders to name but a few. If you have a spare hour or so on one of these dark winter nights, why not take a walk to a local wood or peer into you log shed to see what amazing creatures are taking refuge?

Some useful identification resources online include:
 - Naturespot
 - UK Safari
 - UK Wildlife Trusts

Hundreds of these Orb-weavers are around at the moment, called Zygiella x-notata. They prefer the metal railings and other such manmade structures on which to construct their webs. These webs have a characteristic shape, consistently missing one of the radial segments and thus giving the appearance of a gap in the web
I was surprised to come across some 30 Common Toads (Bufo bufo) around the local reservoir a few nights ago. Most seemed to be male, and were stood alert in the middle of the path. Hopefully they will find enough food to keep them tied over until later in February, as disturbance from hibernation can severely affect their ability to last out on their winter fat reserves

These smart Common Shiny Woodlouse are amongst around four different species of isopod commonly encountered at the moment: the other three are the Common Rough, Common Striped and Dwarf Red Woodlouses

It has been great to come across three different species of shieldbug already this year, including this handsome Hawthorn Shieldbug, several Gorse and a handful of Common Green Shieldbugs

Although of a minute size, these characterful little springtails are pretty cool creatures: they can propel themselves into the air with the equivalent force of a nine caliber bullet from a Revolver!

Onto the spiders...(so don't continue if you are an arachnophobe!)
These stunning beasties are the species are at the head of a fierce misunderstanding on the public's side: the Noble False Widow Spider (contrary to popular belief) can administer a bite only as painful as that of a mild bee sting, although is unlikely to do so unless carelessly provoked. There are three species of widow spider that occur in the UK, all of which are quite similar, but Steatoda nobilis takes the lead in terms of size (they can grow over 15mm)

This smart specimen is one of the rarer species we have come across: the so-called Snake-back Spider

Walnut Orb-weavers are attractive members of the Araneae family that are strictly nocturnal, emerging on their spun webs to trap flying insects and winged prey

A delicate-looking species which seems to be one of the commonest currently around Tetragnatha extensa is particularly numerous at the moment

Although not a great picture, this is a fascinating species: the Buzzing Spider (Anephaena accentuata). During courtship, the male of this species repeatedly taps his abdomen on an underlying leaf to produce an audible buzzing sound that presumably acts to entice females to mate 

Monday, 25 January 2016

Exploring Penzance and Mount's Bay

Despite a rather bleak forecast for the day, I decided to join forces with fellow photographers Max ThompsonJack BurtonJack Barton and Rhys Kaye, and head down to the coast around Penzance for the day. A few tempting long-staying rarities in the form of Pacific Diver and Hudsonian Whimbrel were enough to give the extra boost of enthusiasm to our day out, despite heroically dipping on both during our visit.

We arrived at Penzance mid-morning, and walked along the shingly beach to Newlyn harbour, scanning through the gathering flock of 150+ Herring, 5 Lesser Black-backed, 30+ Greater Black-backed and Mediterranean Gulls on the beach front. The tide was quite low, which made it difficult to scan the sea for any divers present offshore; nevertheless, we were consoled by a single Great Northern Diver within Newlyn harbour, which was feeding alongside some 10 Cormorants. After brief scan of the gulls in the harbour, we were pleased to come across the smart first-winter Glaucous Gull which has been frequenting the area recently. It gave superb views, being seemingly unaffected by our close proximity, and so we were treated to a good half hour watching the bird here.

We then decided to head over to the far side of Marazion to Prussia Cove, with the aim of walking back along the stunning stretch of coastline in search of the Hudsonian Whimbrel (where it had recently been seen). After a misty and very grey start to the day, the clouds cleared away, the wind eased, and a bright sunny sky prevailed for the afternoon - this allowed temperatures to soar to around 16'C! A comfortable temperature for January...

The walk along the coast from Prussia Cove around to Perranuthnoe was stunning - a superb stretch of coastline. There was plenty of wildlife out and about too, with Kestrels hovering overhead, a couple of Black-throated Divers lingering in the bay, a handful of Fulmars eyeing up potential nest sites on the cliffs, and a pair of Buzzards being harried by Carrion Crows. We were surprised not to come across any flying insects, although Gorse Shieldbugs were present in good numbers within the spiky rosettes on the European Gorse bushes. A relatively long hike with several exploratory detours eventually terminated in a characterful little tea shop in Perranuthnoe for sunset. We were then informed that we had been looking in the wrong area for the Hudsonian Whimbrel, and that it was in fact roosting amongst a flock of Curlews further around the coast; a sprint along the coastal path in the dying light of the afternoon saw us desperately scanning the various bays, but no such flock was found. Hopefully we'll have better luck next time!

A great trip in another picturesque part of Cornwall - thanks to Max for the chauffeur service!

Smuggler's Cove, on a ridiculously warm and pleasant January afternoon!

This smart first-winter Glaucous Gull has been frequenting the area around Penzance and Newlyn for the last few days, so it was great to come across it at such close range within Newlyn harbour. Certainly the closest I have been to one of these beasts!

a tame Oystercatcher forages around for some wriggly prey, a fair sight easier than its usual bivalve diet requiring a tactical employment of its stout bill.  This individual actually revealed itself to have a 'stump' as its right leg, although this didn't seem to impede its feeding

Common Kestrel 

A pair of Buzzards along the coast towards Perranuthnoe were being mobbed fairly determinedly by the local Carrion Crows 

St Michael's Mount and Marazion, as the low cloud cleared away

Stackhouse bay, on the way to Perranuthnoe

Perranuthnoe - just a little late for picking out a Hudsonian Whimbrel along the tideline!

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Update from Falmouth

It has been a busy couple of weeks upon returning to Falmouth. It was good to finish exams last week, but the first few lectures of the term have eased in now, and getting back into the Uni timetable has produced plenty of work! I am part of the new editorial team for the campus-run Biology magazine 'Life', and so have been helping preparing the spring issue for release later in February; I am helping out with a talk by A Focus On Nature at Butterfly Conservation's annual conference in Birmingham at the end of the month; and getting involved with the campus societies and planning trips to various areas around the county has provided further entertainment! It has also been great to get out birding when the weather allows- and I haven't had to go far to be treated to some brilliant wildlife! The campus grounds have been teeming with wintering birds recently, from finch flocks to tit flocks; thrushes like Redwings and Blackbirds plucking earthworms from the soft earth, to chats like Robins and Stonechats picking out insects in areas of soft ground, and some cracking species like Green Woodpeckers and Jays have paid the odd visit.

I have enjoyed getting out with fellow photographers and naturalists Will Hawkes, Max Thompson and Jack Barton to various places, including Somerset last Sunday. The estuaries around Falmouth and nearby coast have been good fun to explore, with Red-necked and Black-necked Grebes, Great Northern and Black-throated Divers, and plenty of Mediterranean Gulls to entertain. Firecrests seem to be lower in abundance than when I left the county back in December, but I have still come across the odd one. It has been cool to come across migrants like Blackcaps and Common Sandpipers that have decided to overwinter in the area, too, no doubt a product of the wet and mild climate presiding over the area.

I plan to write a few blog posts in the next week or so, introducing this year's birding Patch for the 2016 Patchwork Challenge, and showing a few of the invertebrates that we have been discovering on night-time walks around the nearby reservoirs. Here are some images from recent weeks and days for now!

A tame male Stonechat on campus

a very smart Green Woodpecker


Redwing and a pretty wholesome worm!

Close encounter with the local Mute Swans!

Little Grebes on the local Swanpool 

Tufted Ducks

Common Sandpiper- not the typical wader you expect to come across at this time of year!

Great Northern Diver

Mint Leaf Beetle (Chrysolina menthastri

 Springtail (Collembola sp.)

Walnut Orb-weaver (Nuctenea umbratica)

Hawthorn Shieldbug

Tetragnatha extensia

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Hand-feeding Turnstones and Humpback Whales

There is only one place in the country where this combination is possible (at the moment at least!), and that is in the idyllic coastal town of St Ives. This characterful little town lies on the north coast of Cornwall, some 26 miles from Falmouth. I have been fortunate to visit the area twice in the last week, with my Mum and with a group of fellow photographers: Will Hawkes, Max Thompson, Rebekah Ball and Rhys Kaye. Both visits were very pleasant, with plenty of wildlife to look at, although it has to be said that the real target of the trips was the chance of caching in on a glimpse of one of spectacular Humpback Whales that turned up in the bay a weekend ago.

On our first visit (7th), the sea was relatively rough, which wasn't particularly conducive for spotting cetaceans! We spent most of our time along the harbour front watching a flock of 25 Turnstones as they ran about our feet ad occasionally took the odd peanut from our hands! It was brilliant to see these smart waders so close, and to watch the interactions and behaviours amongst them. We took a lot of pictures, trying to get some slightly more unusual portraits to take advantage of their tame behaviour. We did eventually get up to St Ives Island, where a half hour seawatch produced two Balearic Shearwaters, 14 Fulmars, a Red-throated Diver, 42 Kittiwakes and 65 Gannets. There was a single Purple Sandpiper hiding amongst a sizeable flock of 200 Dunlins on the rocks too. A very pleasant first visit!

Sunset from St Ives Island

We headed back to St Ives on the 10th, to see if we could have another crack at the whales. The weather this time was much more favourable, with hardly a breath of wind and a flat calm sea to accompany; ideal. We headed to the harbour to check out the Turnstones initially, of which there were many fewer. I then set up the scope and had a scan out to sea...

Half way through my scan, the dark shape of a cetacean's back suddenly arced into view as an animal surfaced- straight away I knew the beast in question, it was the Humpback Whale!!! I saw the superb animals for a full four or five seconds, taking in the uneven shape of its back and stunted little dorsal fin, before it disappeared. After many expletives and a bit of panic, we were all set staring out to sea with whatever optics were bestowed upon us- unfortunately it was quite distant, and we only had one more glimpse. After a while we decided to head up to St Ives Island for a better perspective, and discovered a crowd of people who had already seen it several times that day. 

We sat atop the mound for a good hour, but nothing materialised. A very smart male Black Redstart and two Purple Sandpipers were present on the rocks nearby, whilst a steady stream of Kittiwakes and Guillemots passed by out to sea. It was good to see a few Great Northern Divers too- a great trip all-in-all! 

HUMPBACK WHALE!!! Ok so no flukes or breaches, but a full 3/4 seconds as the awesome beast surfaced in the bay. This is a quick sketch of what I saw

Here is a selection of other images taken during out visits to the area, particularly of the Turnstones...
The flock of Dunlins