Thursday, 23 August 2012

Saving Turtles Doves & Twitching Egrets

The internet really does seem to give power to the people in a way which they've never really had before. Never mind the Arab Spring and all that, here in the UK Twitter and blogging has scored some notable conservation victories in the last month or so. First there was Buzzard-gate where Defra were planning to cull buzzards because of the tiny numbers of pheasant chicks that they might kill in a year. Thanks to a vociferous internet campaign from outraged internet-savvy conservationists this was dropped within a couple of days. In addition, today rumblings began (see e.g. here) about hunting trips organised by Davis & Bowring ("Chartered Surveyors & Land, Sporting & Estate Agents" according to their web-site) to go to Morocco specifically to hunt Turtle Doves. As if Turtle Doves don't already have enough on their plate! Hunting them is now illegal in the E.U. (not that that stops the Maltese hunters but that's another story) but I suppose is legal in Morocco. Anyway, as an outraged birder I fired off a stiff e-mail to the appropriate person. I also posted several Tweets on the subject, trying to whip up a storm about it. With Buzzard-gate it soon got quite a momentum on Twitter though the Turtle Doves didn't really seem to catch on in the same way despite my catchy #StopTurtleDoveHunts hash-tag. Anyway, imagine my surprise this afternoon when I got back the following e-mail from them:

Thank you for your email. We have no plans to send any hunters to Morocco and have removed this from our web site.
Nick Mason 

True to their word the offending page had been removed from their web-site and in it's place was a satisfying 404 message ("Page not found" for the non-internet savvy). Result! Not that I can in any way claim much credit but it doesn't take many people collectively sending in e-mails like this or posting things on blogs for a company to decide that it's not worth their while carrying on with the offending behaviour.

One thing that struck me about all this is how easy it is to protest. Back in the old days you actually had to go somewhere and stand around in the freezing cold for ages with a placard to make your point. But now, with the click of a few buttons you can be suitably outraged from the comfort of your own home and what's more to let lots of other people know and hopefully get outraged themselves. For some reason I've got over 400 followers on Twitter (@PMBirding if you're interested) and it only takes a few of them to get on board for it to achieve critical mass. Power to the people I say!

Anyway, you may have noticed a distinct lack of bird posts of late on this blog. This of course has been due to the summer doldrums which from my point of view seem to be continuing well into August. I can't really complain, my patch at Port Meadow has been on song with good numbers and varieties of waders for quite a while now but in terms of there being something juicy to twitch there just hasn't been anything within my self-imposed distance limits that's tempted me. 

Well today Keith Clack found a Great White Egret at Farmoor reservoir though he saw it for all of 30 seconds before it flew off in a north easterly direction. Now this was in the direction of Port Meadow so I went over mid morning to see if it had landed there. No such luck though there were two Ruff new in, as well as the usual waders. However, later this afternoon Roger Wyatt re-located the Egret at Cassington GP which was only 10 minutes drive from my house. Now I don't need Great White Egret for the county list and had it been much further I probably wouldn't have bothered but seeing as how it was so close it would have been rude of me not to pop in to pay my respects. So it was that a satisfyingly short time later I was pulling up by the appropriate pit in the Cassington complex.

The bird was on show the whole time though usually all you could see was its head and neck poking up through the vegetation on one of the main islands. Quite a few of the usual county birding suspects turned up and we all had a good natter in between ogling the Egret. Whilst I was there it did have a brief fly around and I took a few snaps with the super-zoom but all my photographic efforts turned out to be fairly crappy. Still here they are for the record.

Dodgy Great White Egret Photos

It's amazing how quickly Great White Egret has gone from a county (and national) rarity to being a rather regular bird, even within my own short birding lifetime. Still it was very nice to see a decent bird in the county again after what seems like far too long - it's amazing how quickly a good spring can fade from memory! Let's hope this trend continues and we start seeing some of the other rarer herons and egrets regularly in the county as well.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Heath-Robinson Moth Trap

When Badger took back his moth trap my VLW was rather relieved: perhaps this new low in my nerdiness was just a temporary blip. But I found that I was missing the mothing: setting it all up in the evening and watching it to see if there were any early arrivals, all the excitement of wondering what was in the trap each morning, it was rather addictive! However, I knew that getting my VLW to authorise a top of the range Robinson trap that came it at over three hundred quid was going to be somewhat problematic so I thought that I'd have a go at building my own. Now, I'm not know for my handywork - I've always been more of a theoretician rather than a hands-on sort of chap but I did some research and came up with a very cost-effective moth trap. Here's how I did it.

The most import aspect is of course the light and the electrics I wasn't going to bother trying to cut corners here. From experience with Badgers MV (Mercury Vapour) light, I decided that it was just too bright for a suburban setting and also got rather hot so one worried about running it if it were to rain. I therefore decided to go for an Actinic bulb instead which puts out mostly UV light so is not nearly so blinding and also runs cold so won't shatter in the rain. I'd read good things about a supplier called Paul Batty in Sheffield so looked him up. He has about the worst web-site I've ever seen but he does sell what you want and was happy to discuss my requirements over the phone. I ended up buying a 40W Actinic U-shaped bulb + electrics from him, some vanes in which to mount them and an 18cm plastic funnel for the grand total of a little over £70. The next stop was Ikea where I picked up a plastic storage box for a couple of quid. I cut a hole in the lid - this was rather difficult because the plastic was rather prone to split so I drilled some holes in it first and then used some garden secateurs to cut between them. The lid goes on the box, the (sawn-off) funnel goes in the hole and the vanes and light rests in the funnel. I added some dark black sheeting (the stuff you lay under gravel to stop weeds coming through) over the lid to ensure that it's nice and dark inside for them to rest (the lid is somewhat transparent) - this can be lifted off to see what's inside when required. I sourced some large egg box trays on eBay for £1.50 + postage and voilá a "Heath-Robinson" moth trap for under £80.

My "Heath-Robinson" trap. Note the black weed-control cover - 
I often find moths tucked away in there rather than in the trap

So how well does it work? Well, the truth is an Actinic bulb doesn't attract quite as many moths as an MV one but I still get plenty coming in. I'm still experimenting with details such as the hole size at the bottom of the funnel and whether a bigger box means fewer escaping moths. When I set it up in the evening I've been checking up on it for the first hour or so to see how it works. It's effectiveness seems to vary from species to species: Brimstones seem to love the Actinic light and I get loads of them fluttering about though they don't seem to go near the funnel at all and I don't often get one in the box. Large Yellow Underwings on the other hand head straight for it and straight down the hole with a satisfying thud! By patrolling the trap for the first hour I've managed to get sightings of all sorts of extra moths that never otherwise make it to the trap. I also find that come the morning it's worth looking carefully around the area, including on the shed wall and on the bags and flower pots nearby for sheltering moths. Some of my "best" moths have been found like this.

In terms of numbers, it's a sad fact that being in an urban environment means that you're going to get fewer moths that out in the countryside. My best count to date is probably 50 moths in and around the trap whereas I know that Ewan Urquhart gets far more than this number every time. Still at present this is more than enough for me and it usually takes quite a while just to work out what they all are. For identification, when I'm clueless or would just like confirmation I turn to the internet. I've more or less given up on iSpot now and just use the BirdForum Butterfly and Moth ID sub-forum which is really great. There are a group of us who regularly post their ID queries there and several experts who can pretty quickly come up with the ID's. I've even started suggesting ID's myself now on some of the easier ones and so far no howlers by me!

One side benefit of not having so many moths coming to the garden is that I've started looking at the micro's as well. These are really tricky little blighters but fortunately the BirdForum experts are pretty hot on these as well. I've managed to add one micro (Agriphila Geniculea) to the Upper Thames Valley Moth Year List so far which was rewarding and I've compiled a photo library of all the garden micros that I've caught so that I can check up there first before asking on-line.

The fact that I'm enjoying this so much has lead me to ask what aspect of it exactly is it that's appealing (my VLW asks this regularly as well!). There seem to be several components: 

1) Learning to identify things. This involves acquiring the experience and ID skills to be able to identify different species. For the same reason that I like trying to ID tricky gulls I also like getting to grips with tricky moths.

2). Collecting things: the satisfaction of ticking things off a list. I know for a fact that I'm a very list motivated person and in my everyday life I like to work through lists of things that I need to do so it suits my personality. I've even made this list of why I like mothing!

3). The unpredictability and excitement of wondering what you're going to find in the trap each morning.

4). Dealing with nature in all its amazing forms and variation. You realise that there's another whole nocturnal world out there which I'd had no idea about.

These aspects apply also to birding of course and I'm sure that most readers of this blog will relate to most of the points above.

Anyway, enough of the waffle, let's have some good old moth porn to finish off. Here's a selection of some of the highlighs of my recent catches.

Copper Underwing -it's hard to distringuish this from Svennson's CU -

 Large Yellow Underwing - my comonest macro moth at the moment, I'm getting loads of them
 Red Underwing - found on the shed by the trap the next morning
 Setaceous Hebrew Character
 Marbled Beauty
 Old Lady - a huge beast
 Knot Grass
 Double-striped Pug - most Pugs are rather boring but this is quite a looker
Flounced Rustic

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Chalkhills & Silver-spots

Whilst thankfully we are now over the worst of the summer doldrums and my patch at Port Meadow is at last playing host to a veritable hoard of waders, I still haven't been on a proper bird twitch for some time now. Therefore, to appease my appetite somewhat I thought that I'd go on another butterfly foray as part of my continuing quest to get acquainted with some of the more specialist butterflies that we have in our region. Today's targets were Chalkhill Blues and Silver-spotted Skippers, both chalk hillside species that can be found in several places in the region. I decided upon Aston Rowant to look for them, partially because it was fairly close and partially because I'd only ever visted the South side (Linky Down) in the past so it would be nice to visit somewhere new. 

There was a certain amount of family logistics to juggle in the form of Daughter 2 who needed to be picked up from a sleep-over at a friends', but in the end she was happy to tag along with me so I picked her up en route. At the Aston Rowant car park I met up with a couple of seasoned butterfliers who'd been coming there for many years for the Skippers so we tagged along with them. For those who've not been, Aston Rowant is a wonderful steep chalk hillside site, full of flowers though unfortunately right next to the M40 motorway which rather spoilt what would have otherwise been a very tranquil and beautiful spot. It was teaming with butterflies with loads of Meadow Browns, some Gatekeepers nearer the car park and on the hillside itself plenty of Chalkhill Blues and Silver-spotted Skippers though there were some Small/Essex Skippers there as well so one had to be a bit careful. I spent some time trying to photograph them all though in the bright sunshine they were very active and often didn't settle for long before moving on. Other species seen included Brown Argus, a Small Copper, and quite a few Burnet moths. 

The flower-rich chalk hillside of Aston Rowant (taken by my daughter)

Chalkhill Blues

Silver-spotted Skippers

A six-spot Burnet moth

Daughter no. 2 waiting patiently for me
After about an hour and a half I reckoned I had all the photos I needed and I didn't want my daughter to start complaining about staying too long so we wandered back to the Gnome-mobile and headed for home.