What my grandkids might not be able to see (II) – Common Quail

Quail Fields in Summer

by James McCulloch

As the mist clears

And the church bells ring,

God’s angels are brought to my land.

‘Wet my lips, wet my lips’

Is what I hear them sing.


Balls of life,

Dusted with down,

They bring wealth to church and parish.

A nobleman’s dish to many,

A bird of such renown.


As the gale blows,

And the rain sets in,

My heart fills with loss and sorrow,

For such ethereal creatures,

Of ephemeral nature.

The Quail is such an enigmatic game bird – with a size closer to that of a Robin’s than a Great Spotted Woodpecker’s! As inferred by the poem, what the Quail loses in size it makes up for in fluffiness. This adds to its appeal, who doesn’t like a tiny, cute, fluffy chicken?

With all its great features, one would think that everybody would be striving to save it and the population would be high and stable. However, sadly that is not the case. As with other migratory birds, Quail are being shot, captured and killed for their meat. Some of the main culprits of this mass murder are in Malta – a seemingly innocent holiday destination which happens to be right in the path of migrating birds each spring and autumn. Many Quail choose to migrate across the Mediterranean through Italy, then Malta and ending up in Tunisia or Libya (if they’re lucky).

Thank goodness there is another main flyway: Spain, to Gibraltar and then into Morocco. The inhabitants of Gibraltar do catch birds, however. Fortunately, they are captured for ringing and other monitoring and conservation programmes. For those who don’t know, ringing is where people put a very light metal ring on a bird’s leg. Each ring has a specific code on it, for example EX12345 and a place or organisation. Most birds ringed in Britain have the Natural History Museum ring on them, for example. Ringed birds can then be recovered at another site or spotted by a member of the public and then the record can be sent into organisations like EURING in Europe or SAFRING in South Africa. This helps track the birds’ movements and development, crucially helping us to better understand the behaviour of our ‘feathered friends’.

A Quail being extracted from a net in Malta (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

A Quail being extracted from a net in Malta
(AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

Maltese hunters recently celebrated victory in a referendum on whether it should be illegal to kill birds before they have a chance to breed. This was to the dismay of various organisations and people fighting against the slaughter of these birds, such as BirdLife. However, those fighting the slaying mustn’t give up, it was only a very narrow win for the opposition. 2,200 more votes to ban the hunting would mean the killing could be ended completely!

The hunters are given a quota on how many birds can be killed. This is currently 5,ooo Quail and 11,000 Turtle Doves. I think most people reading this will agree that this is 16,000 too many. Even worse is that hunters are accused of ignoring these quotas and even illegally hunting protected birds like Storks, Swifts and Gulls.

How you can help: If you happen to live in Malta, you can report illegal hunting here, on BirdLife Malta’s website. Details on which hunting is illegal is included. If you live elsewhere, you can still help. You can donate to BirdLife Malta here.

An Insight into Daphnia biology

Daphnia are truly amazing. They are often called ‘water fleas’ as they look like tiny fleas swimming around in lakes and ponds. However, they are harmless and fascinating to observe. You can easily find some at home – just scoop a bit of water out of your pond with a pot and hopefully there’ll be plenty of these complex organisms bobbing about!

Believe it or not, Daphnia are actually tiny crustaceans, related to crabs, lobsters and woodlice. The reason they don’t look very similar is that the shell of Daphnia is uncalcified (not hard). This means they’re see through, and so great to put under a microscope. Yesterday and today I collected a few Daphnia from the pond with my pipette (like a small turkey baster), put a drop of water containing the Daphnia on a microscope slide and placed a cover slip gently on top so that the Daphnia wouldn’t be squashed.

Looking at them under a microscope reveals a whole new view on their lives, which we could never see with the naked eye. This photo I took yesterday and I find it most intriguing, Daphnia obtusa giving birth!

Daphnia giving birth!

Daphnia giving birth!

In the photo you can make out a smaller version of the adult Daphnia just below it’s rear end, at the bottom. Look for the black eye. To add to that, as the Daphnia is see through, you can also see its twin still inside the adult!

With the Daphnia collected today, I could also see their tiny heart beating. This short video I recorded shows it well:

To help give an idea of where the heart is on a Daphnia, this is the image of the pregnant Daphnia with most of its anatomy labelled:

Simple Daphnia Anatomy

Simple Daphnia Anatomy

The antennules – These are antennae, but instead of being sensory organs, they have evolved to be used to propel the Daphnia through the water. The ‘proper’ antennae are found beneath the rostrum, and are tiny. The mound on which the ‘proper’ antennae are born, sensibly called the antennal mound, is an important identification feature of Daphnia obtusa and is just visible in the image above. Daphnia obtusa has a noticeably larger antennal mound than similar species like Daphnia pulex.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post on Daphnia. Hopefully this has inspired you to look for Daphnia in your own local pond or lake. Daphnia are incredibly unrecorded for such an abundant animal, which is probably present in nearly all squares in the UK:  >>CLICK<<

A Fungi Foray at Nymans

On Saturday, I visited Nymans Gardens in Handcross for a foray led by two experienced members of the West Weald Fungus Recording Group. The WWFRG mainly runs forays in Surrey, but this one was quite close to me so I went along. There were quite a few inexperienced people taking part, so the foray worked on some of the more basic fungi. That was ideal for me though, as we found excruciatingly common fungi I had previously overlooked.

The walk started in the arboretum. There wasn’t much there apart from a patch of Sulphur Tuft (Hypholoma fasciculare) and a single fruit body of Agaricus silvaticus. The Sulphur Tuft is an abundant species, found growing on living or dead tree matter and sometimes on nearby ground. But don’t worry, barely any fungi have any detrimental effects on trees.

When we reached the woodland, more fungi started to appear. In patches of fresh grass there were a few Mycena, very small and delicate fungi. Near a stump was a huge patch of Glistening Inkcap (Coprinus micaceus), so called because of the small glistening white scales on the cap. We also came across lots more Sulphur Tuft!

Butter Caps (Collybia butyracea) were also plentiful in the woods, a few different colour variations too. This is one of the species I’ve previously overlooked but now it seems so recognisable. The cap of Butter Cap is very viscid, like melted butter. They’re an average sized fungus, some having brown caps and some having butter coloured caps (another reason for the name Butter Cap).



A bit further along the path was a Sycamore log, which was very popular with fungi. These included Candlesnuff (Xylaria hypoxylon), Honey Fungi ( Armillaria cepistipes), Dead Moll’s Fingers (Xylaria longipes) and a scarce species called Pseudocraterellus sinuosus. The candlesnuff was very interesting and I learnt that it gets its name from the fact that when it is flicked, the spores burst out of the fruiting bodies in a pale ‘smoke’, like when you snuff a candle.

To finish off the walk, the leaders gave me a challenge. We had found a Russula on the walk, which needed identifying. At the start of the walk I was given a book on Russulas by the leaders, called “The Genus Russula in Great Britain” by Geoffrey Kibby. I was to use this book to find out what species this Russula is. It discolours reddish-brown before black when it is cut, but the gills are too crowded for some other species with this feature. It also tastes very acrid when the gills are chewed for a short while. All this points to Russula densifolia!