Monday, 27 June 2011

Shark in the Mist

At first when I woke up this morning and looked out of the caravan I thought somehow I'd been transported into purgatory, so thick was the fog cascading in from the sea. When I'd left the moths in my trap at 1am the skies were beautifully clear, the stars twinkling away and not a breath of wind.... but I am in Cornwall.... the weather changes at the drop of a hat and it can be incredibly local. For instance, a few weeks ago at Lands End it was awful, worse than awful.... we could see 5 foot in front of us for the whole day with the thick sea-fog, however, in Penzance - a mere 9 miles away - it was blisteringly hot, blue skies and everyone was enjoying their ice creams.

Brussels Lace (Cleorodes lichenaria)
Although the weather was poor, I felt pretty good about the nights trapping and went out to see what I'd got. After an hour of sorting and identifying the haul, I'd ended up with 277 moths of 66 species including a rather delicate species I'd not had before, Brussels Lace (Cleorodes lichenaria). This species is pretty common in the south-west, but much rarer in other parts of the country. It belongs to the family of 'beautys' but unusually feeds on lichens rather than the foliage of leaves and plants.

the Drinker (Euthrix potatoria)
Plenty of hawk-moths with another 8 Elephants, 2 Poplars and another Privet, 3 species of emerald and a really funky moth called the Drinker. It is called this (supposedly) due to its caterpillar having a liking for drinking droplets of dew.

Going into work was something I wasn't really looking forward too, by the time I was driving in, the fog had thickened further and when I got into the hide the sea was completely obscured by a veil of grey. For the first two hours I didn't talk to a single person, nor had I seen any kind of wildlife to speak of apart from the odd Jackdaw and Herring Gull ghosting out of the fog and over the hide. I decided to take an early lunch which was a great idea as when I came back, the skies cleared just enough to see the sea, and the sight that greeted me was fantastic.... a Basking Shark drifting around in the bay below the hide. It gave me a great opportunity to test my new lens and I'm pretty pleased with it to be honest, even in poor light it was pretty quick and although I had to bump up the ISO on my camera, it's not as grainy as I thought it would be.

Basking Shark (Cetorhinus maximus)
The Basking Shark is a summer visitor to our shores and a pretty spectacular animal to boot. Measuring up to 30ft (10m) in length the oceanic behemoths cruise across the surface filtering plankton from the water. With a mouth that can be 2m across they can eat a huge amount during the day, filtering so much water through their gills that they could fill an Olympic size swimming pool in just one hour. They start arriving around our shores in mid-May, peaking half way into July and sometimes the numbers can be staggering, up to 60-70 sharks in Sennen Bay alone.

Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis)
Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis)
This year the sharks have been few and far between due to the unsettled weather we've had down here since April, so I took the chance to watch this awesome creature for as long as I could. Even when it disappeared around the corner, with hardly anyone in the hide and those who were wanting to see more of the shark, we left a sign on the hide door, locked up and trooped round the corner to watch it for a while longer. The shark continued to perform well for some time but the Fulmars were trying desperately hard to steal the show, skimming over our heads as the wind howled in, gliding effortlessly as they circled around the cliffs in front of us, a few even coming to land in front of us as if curious to what we were all staring at the sea for.

After the shark and the visitors had gone I had a wander along to cliffs in the hope to see another shark in one of the bays but the weather started to close in. On my way back to the car I decided to sit down next to a rock and have a quick scan around when out of the corner of my eye I noticed a flicker of movement on the other side of the rock next to me.... with my camera poised I gradually edged round the rock until filling the frame of the camera was the head of a Kestrel looking the opposite direction to me. I managed to creep around just enough to fire off a shot, but the Kessie heard the click, and dove off the rock and out of sight. A great end to a surprising day!

Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Moths and migrants

Since my last post I've been back to Somerset and, as I previously mentioned, I was hoping to catch up with another species of butterfly, the Large Blue.... unfortunately the weather was petty awful so we didn't get to see them and with their flight season being so short, it looks like I've missed them for another year, but it gives me something to look forward to next year I guess.

Coming back to Cornwall, the weather continued to be overcast, but the rain had, for the while, abated so it gave me a chance to get the moth trap out again..... this time I had a couple of little helpers in the shape of Tabatha and Marius Hall. They were staying at the youth hostel overnight with their mum and dad (Phil and Flora) the night before Phil played a gig in Penzance with his band.

During the evening I'd had a chat to them about moths and other bits and pieces and because I felt that the children were taking such an interest I thought I'd invite them to check out what we'd got in the morning.

8am came, and we opened up the trap... it was more quality rather than quantity, with 18 Elephant Hawk moths, 2 Poplar Hawk moths and singles of Privet and Eyed Hawk moths. Along with 45 other species it turned out to be a successful nights catch, and although the resident Robin (who has now located my trap and realised that it's an easy breakfast) managed to make off with a couple of the hawks, the children helped me to release (most of) the moths and I think it made quite an impression on them. They asked loads of questions and seemed very sad to have to go, but hopefully, their new experience of nature has instilled a passion which will continue on throughout their lives and give them experiences similar to mine..... I really enjoyed the families company too, it was great seeing them so awed by the experience and I wish them all the best. They are hoping to come back to the hostel at some point through the summer.... it'll be great to welcome them back, and the trap (weather permitting) will be waiting for round two!

On another note, a new lens has arrived in my photography armoury... a sigma 150-500mm APO DG, so in the next few days hopefully I'll get the chance to get out with it and give it a bit of a road-test..... check back soon to see the results.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Greenscoombe Woods

Yesterday was the start of my weekend and so on thursday night I decided to come back to Somerset as I haven't been here for a while. On the way, after work, I decided to pop into a renowned site in East Cornwall called Greenscoombe Woods, near Luckett. The area is part of the Duchy of Cornwall's Greenscoombe Valley plantation and is leased from the Duchy by the Cornwall Wildlife Trust. It consists of mostly broadleaved woodland and old hazel coppice in which clearings are maintained to encourage butterflies.

During the summer over 20 species of butterfly can be seen, including 6 of the the 10 species of British fritillaries. This was the reason I wanted to visit the site, as one of those fritillaries is one of the rarest butterflies in the country - the Heath Fritillary (Melitaea athalia). This butterfly is found in only a few sites in Cornwall, Devon and Kent, with a small re-introduction scheme at a site in Essex. It was on the brink of extinction in the 1970's but it was the extinction of another butterfly, the Large Blue (Maculinea arion), that led to a renewed effort to conserve this species due to the shock felt by entomologists at the loss of a British species.

Whilst wandering around the site the work undertaken at the reserve was obvious to see, huge areas of under-storey cleared to allow the encroachment of bramble - the favoured food-plant of the Heath Fritillary imago. For over an hour I spent walking the trails, hoping to find a fritillary..... the weather wasn't great, clouds, a cold breeze and the light was starting to go. I got round a corner and had a choice, take the left path and head back to the car, or go up the hill to the right..... looking up the hill, there was a small patch that was bathed in the last of the sunlight and I hoped that it would be where my search would come to an end..... walking up, the clouds came across and everything went really dull.... I'd had it surely... but a thin beam of light broke through onto one bush 10 yards from me and I saw a flicker of movement, looking hard at the spot I couldn't see anything so I crept forward..... inch by inch, eyes constantly looking at every leaf until finally, perched right out in the open, two Heath Fritillaries nectaring on the brambles.
Heath Fritillary (Melitaea athalia)

Heath Fritillary (Melitaea athalia) underwing
 The sun decided to show itself and for 15 minutes, I took photo after photo and amazingly they just sat there not bothered at all, giving me a great opportunity to look at the detail of the underwing (which is usually the easiest way to tell fritillaries apart... they can be pretty similar on the top of the wings). Whilst I was there, a man walked up to me to ask what I was looking at.... he was a local, and hadn't seen the fritillaries before despite looking for them for the last 5 years, so I showed him and we watched them for another few minutes before he asked me if I'd like to see a reather special orchid... a Lesser Butterfly Orchid (Platanthera chlorantha).

Lesser Butterfly Orchid (Platanthera chlorantha)
It is quite a well spread species, found across the majority of the UK, but they are only found in low densities. We walked up to the top of the hill and got to a hay meadow area and there dotted across the fields were the orchids, their delicate white flowers glowing in the evening sun. Smelling the flowers you get a quite strange aroma, one that I can only describe as a mixture between aniseed and vanilla, a very pleasant sweet smell. I'm not entirely sure why it is called a 'butterfly' orchid, the flowers could suggest a winged insect, but butterfly wouldn't spring to mind to be honest. But still, an elegant plant all the same. All in all the trip to the site was well worth it, a great place and I'll be sure to go back at some point and try again for the frits. But this weekend there is another butterfly that I'm hoping to catch up with here in Somerset, the weather isn't looking good for it, but I'll give it a go....... check back soon and see if I do catch up with it!

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Birds and the Bee (Orchids)

The past couple of days have gone by with not a lot happening on the nature front, no Basking Sharks or dolphins through at Lands End, but I haven't really been there all that much. A long week last week meant my days off were moved a little later, a regional meeting in Weymouth and hours off in lieu all keeping me from the site.

It is quite a suprise that we haven't seen more marine wildlife other than the constant passers-by, (Gannets, Manx Shearwaters, Kittewakes, Guillemots and Razorbills mostly), considering the 'relatively' settled weather we've been having down here.... but, with May having been a bit unsettled, it seems that the plankton is still keeping down in the Bay of Biscay, so we await a decent spell of still and sunny weather to inspire its movement towards our coastline.

Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera)

Away from the coast though, the wildlife has been fantastic, the trip down to Radipole Lake RSPB reserve after the morning presentations at the regional meeting gave the chance to catch up with an orchid that I've missed out on seeing for the past couple of years, the stunning Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera).

This fantastic flower, (which, incidently, is the county flower of Bedfordshire), is called a Bee Orchid due to the shape and colouration of its lower petal which resembles the appearance of a bee. This is designed to entise male bumblebees to land on the flower and 'mate' with it, giving the orchid the chance to dust the fooled bumble with pollen ready for next visited flower. They can be found mostly in the south-east of Britain, but do crop up in the Midlands - I do know of a couple of places back home in Shropshire where they appear.

Another highlight of the day was watching a Marsh Harrier over the reeds, a sight becoming more regular in the UK. Having seen plenty in East Anglia and in Somerset at first I didn't take all that much notice, but then it dawned on me.... everywhere I'd seen them before were places right in the middle of no-where, far from any chance of disturbance as these birds are incredibly shy and secretive breeders..... yet, here I was, smack-bang in the middle of a busy town, the constant rumble of the by-pass on one side and a train trundling across the view on the other, watching this harrier fly with a back-drop of housing estates.... It was at that moment that I saw Radipole for what it really is... an urban oasis, giving people from the town a chance to see wildlife that just shouldn't be there..... not right in the middle of Weymouth! Obviously the guys at Radipole have worked furiously hard to get the reserve back to rights... for those of you who don't know, the RSPB's lease ran out and the reserve was in a terrible state 5 years ago,.... so much so, that the council were thinking about not renewing the lease and the reserve was classed as a 'unfavourable declining' area. Through a bit of a struggle the RSPB negotiated the lease successfully and through the years, loads of renovation work has gone into the site, clearing ditches and creating pools moving it up into a 'unfavourable recovering' site. This year however, the hard work has really done the job and it has now been classed as 'favourable' condition.... and you can see why.... if ever you get the chance, go and visit.... it's a cracking place!

Ghost Moth (Hepialus humuli)
The moth trap has been out the last few nights too, plenty of the usual suspects like the Elephant Hawks and the smaller noctuids, however, I did get a cool looking female Ghost Moth (Hepialus humuli) and, (incredibly),  a male Beautiful Demoiselle damselfly (Calopteryx virgo).

The trap is back out tonight, so hopefully the rain will hold off!

Beautiful Demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo)

Sunday, 5 June 2011

The First Post

Hi, my name is Chris Griffin, I've been a wildlife enthusiast for the vast majority of my life..... since I was 6 in fact....... and now, 22 years on, I am going to share my daily experiences of nature with you all in the hope that maybe, just maybe, you'll get the inspiration and the drive to get out there and see for yourself just how amazing the natural world can be.

My main passion is bird-watching which, I guess, is most peoples introduction to wildlife - going down to the local pond and throwing bread in the water for the ducks for instance. My mum and dad have always greatly encouraged me, often dad would drive me over to the house of a good friend of mine, Alan Heath, at 4am so that he could take me off for a days birding anywhere in the country. This is something that I am eternally greatful for, not just to my parents, but to Alan, Len, Coot, Tone and John - the guys who 'took me under their wing' and taught me the vast majority of what I now know about ornithology. The time that they spent with me, the places they took me and their never-ending patience with a very lively school-boy, incesantly questioning everything is a debt that I can never repay, but hopefully they will feel proud that they are the reason I do what I do today.

I now work for the RSPB, currently down in Cornwall at Lands End, showing people the wildlife of the area like Basking Sharks, dolphins and a whole host of seabirds. If you're ever in the area, pop on in, we're there every day 10-5! In my spare time I am training to obtain a license for bird-ringing, I set up a moth trap most evenings and I spend as much time as I can out with my camera taking pictures of the wildlife that I see around on my walks.

Eyed Hawk-moth (Smerinthus ocellata)
Lime Hawk-moth (Mimas tiliae)
Elephant Hawk-moths (Deilephila elpenor)

Light Emerald (Campaea margaritata)
Mothing is a relatively new hobby for me, I keep on finding my interests widening, but I'm trying to take it easy at the moment, just try to learn one new subject each year rather than everthing at once.... after all, there's a hell of a lot to learn! Last year it was butterflies, this year moths and over the past couple of days, the trap has been out most nights. Each morning I go out to see what appears, and this morning the trap was completely choc-a-block..... It always amazes me just how many species of moths there are in the UK.... when you think that there are only 56 species of butterflies that reside in Britain.... there are over 800 species of moth! That's not even including what are known as 'micro' moths..... (these pictures are all of 'macro' moths, the ones that most people think as a moth), there are over 2000 species of 'micros' with most of them just a couple of millimeters in length. Suffice to say I'm sticking with 'macros' at the moment, that's hard enough work as it is.... This morning it took me 2 hours to identify all the moths that I'd trapped, with 52 species, including all of the ones pictured.
Beautiful Golden Y (Autographa pulchrina)

That's me done for now, the first post out of the way.... but do keep checking back and following what's happening in the natural world!
Privet Hawk-moth (Sphinx ligustri)
Peach Blossom (Thyatira batis)