The Wild Wolves of Sussex

Last weekend, 1-2 July, I was fortunate enough to be attending a two-day bee workshop led by pollinator expert Steven Falk at the Rye Harbour Nature Reserve near Rye in East Sussex. Throughout the weekend we were blessed by an incredible diversity of solitary and social bee species alike, with around 50 species of the Apoidea being found during the weekend.

However, one species that caught my eye wasn’t in fact a bee. Covering the sandy paths at some points were a multitude of wolves, excavating burrows and looking for their next meal. They prowled along the tracks and up the sandy slopes, concentrating their efforts on the path-side bramble bushes. This is where their prey is most often found feeding, unaware of the wolves sneaking up behind them until they latch on with a relentless bear-hug.

Of course, the wolves I’m talking about aren’t the canids that roam remote areas of Eurasia and North America. Just as fierce, however slightly smaller, are Bee Wolves, Philanthus triangulum. Bee Wolves are the largest solitary wasp in Britain and they need to be in order to tackle their favoured prey: honey bees.

Bee Wolves used to be not only the largest but also the rarest solitary wasp in Britain. However, since a couple of decades ago, their population has been on the increase and they’ve spread to a number of new sites. Their numbers are not as large now as they were a few years ago, however there are still more about than there were 25 years ago. It’s great that these fascinating insects are more widespread now as they’re incredible to watch.

They weren’t too scared of humans at all, in fact we were able to watch with such proximity that on a couple of occasions one actually landed on Chris Glanfield’s phone while he was trying to take a photo!

Being solitary wasps, they each dig their own long burrow. These burrows contain many small chambers, as many as 30, each containing several bees. In each chamber an egg is laid, and when it hatches the larva feeds upon the bees inside the chamber before emerging as an adult Bee Wolf. The bees are not dead but paralyzed as it helps them to keep fresh and juicy for the developing larva.

We were lucky to be able to watch several wasps excavating and entering their burrows as well as carrying their prey around. This was the first time I had ever seen a bee wolf and I’m hoping I get another opportunity to watch them before too long!

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An adult Bee Wolf on the path

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a Bee Wolf outside a burrow it has only just started to excavate

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A Bee Wolf proudly outside an unfinished burrow I watched her excavate in only about 10 minutes!

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Adult Bee Wolf

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Bee Wolf

 

Amphibian lifer!

As many of you will know, I’ve been working hard on my pan-species list recently. It’s a list of all the species I’ve seen in the UK and I’ve just broken the 2200 species mark. With an ambition to get to 3000 by mid-August 2018, 13.5 months away, I need to use every opportunity I can get to boost my total! Mostly these days my lifers are invertebrates with some plants, mainly beetles and bugs. Very rarely do I get a vertebrate lifer and I certainly wasn’t expecting to get an amphibian lifer any time soon! However, last weekend I visited Warnham LNR, a fantastic little wildlife site right on the edge of the large town of Crawley.

I have visited this beautiful local reserve only once before, yet then I had no idea about the population of a rare British vertebrate that inhabits the small ponds and the main lake of the reserve. Of course the reserve always holds plenty of wildlife and therefore my first visit was excellent, yet my recent visit was made all the more special by this exciting creature.

With a distinctive call that has earned this species its alternative name of laughing frog, the Marsh Frog Pelophylax ridibundus has been a main attraction at the reserve this spring/early summer although I only found out about it not long ago. With my amphibian & reptile total relatively low on my pan-species list, a new addition in either group was greatly needed and wanted and therefore I was eager to visit and hopefully catch a glimpse of this generally shy species if I was lucky.

My expectations were that I would possibly hear the plop of a frog jumping into the water unseen, or catch a swift movement of a frog fleeing out of the corner of my eye. However, these expectations were soon proven very wrong. It is a non-native species only introduced into the UK in 1935 in Walland Marsh, Kent and has since spread to areas in East Sussex and London. The population at Warnham LNR must be one of the only places where this species is found in West Sussex. The purpose of its introduction was to occupy an ecological niche as it is more aquatic in nature than the native Common Frog and more frequently breeds in ditches and dykes. Many of the places Marsh Frogs inhabit aren’t busy, such as the East Sussex levels, which I suppose has lead to its tendency to leap into the water at the slightest human disturbance. But the Warnham Marsh Frogs behaved in a way completely opposite and, probably due to the large numbers of visitors, were not too afraid of humans at all! Throughout the visit I must have seen at least 10 of varying colours, patterns and sizes. Not a bad looking species whatsoever!

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BTO Birdcamp 2017 – Part 2

It was a 4.30 wake-up for me on Saturday although I was awake well before that, awoken by the sound of a Cuckoo persistently singing outside the tent! Not a bad problem to have, despite the loss of sleep…

The attendees were split into three groups the previous evening and I was in group one, the only group that had to wake up so early. However I didn’t mind all that much as our first activity was bird ringing down at the BTO Nunnery Lakes reserve and an early start usually means more birds!

The Nunnery Lakes reserve is a network of lakes created by the gravel workings of the past. As well as lakes, there is also a myriad of other habitats including sandy heathland and wet woodland. An excellent 60 different bird species breed on the reserve, not including all those that pass through or spend the winter on the site. One of the key species on the reserve is Cetti’s Warbler, a localised resident species found in only the southernmost locations in England and Wales as well as across Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex.

We were able to catch a couple of these birds during our ringing session. They may be drably coloured but they are full of character. I believe that breeding wasn’t able to be confirmed at Nunnery Lakes in previous years, however one of the birds we caught clearly had a brood patch. Brood patches are bare patches of skin that develop in the breeding season. They only occur in birds which are incubating eggs as the added proximity of the blood vessels to the surface of the egg allow heat to be passed on to the egg more efficiently. It was great to be able to confirm breeding of this uncommon species.

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A Cetti’s Warbler that we caught at Nunnery Lakes

Cetti’s wasn’t the only warbler species we caught during the session. We also managed to ring Sedge, Reed and Garden Warblers. We ringed a few Reed Warblers and there were clearly others singing around us, along with more Sedge and Garden Warblers. Clearly the reserve supports good breeding populations of each species. They all have slightly different habitat requirements and it is evident that Nunnery Lakes provides the perfect breeding location for them all.

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Reed Warbler

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Sedge Warbler

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Garden Warbler

Although there were plenty of birds being caught, ringed and released, there was still a number of avian attractions to steal the attention. Cuckoos were calling from every direction, and there must have been at least 3 males heard calling through the whole morning. The sound of the male Cuckoo is well-known however the female’s is less so yet nonetheless distinctive. We were lucky to hear the call of the female which is described as a ‘bubbling’ sound, quite bizarre! Shortly after first hearing this unusual sound the female herself came into view, flying quickly across the pit nearest the ringing station.

It didn’t take more than a first glance to realise that this individual female Cuckoo was not an ordinary female Cuckoo. Most female Cuckoos look very similar to the males, with only a small patch of rufous colouration on the breast. However, this Cuckoo had more than a little rufous colouration on the breast, in fact almost its whole body had a rufous tinge! Rufous morphs like this one are quite uncommon to see so I feel privileged that we had caught a glimpse of such an unusual Cuckoo. These photos below were taken by Elliot Montieth (@Elliot_Montieth www.elliotsbirdingdiaries.wordpress.com):

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It was following the ringing that our group moved on to the nest recording part of the morning. We were each given a long, wooden stick that, we were told, was to be used to gently tap vegetation to see if a bird flies off a nest. We all set off gorse bushes here and small trees there however not finding much using that technique. It wasn’t long into the session however that we located a Bramble and Gorse thicket that was a possible nesting site for a Willow Warbler. After a lot of searching and poking about within the spikey vegetation the nest was eventually located, with several young in the nest:

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Willow Warbler chick

As you can see the chick is not very developed with lots of down and adult feathers only just coming through. The white bars on the wings are what are known as the pin feathers, a sort of sheath before the feather veins expand and become the feathers seen in the adult bird. This chick clearly has a lot of growing to do before it fledges!

Lots of time passed until the next nest was found and we resorted to using the tapping sticks again. I was tapping most of the gorse and bramble bushes, as well as the short oak and hawthorn trees dotted around. Most taps were generally unsuccessful however one unassuming Hawthorn tree did give me a bit of a surprise when a female Blackbird flew out from the centre after a light tap! Knowing that this probably meant that there was a nest present, I immediately looked inside the tree for a nest. It wasn’t hard to spot as it was right in the centre of the tree and with the help of Toby Carter’s purpose-bought selfie-stick we were able to see that there were indeed eggs in the nest!

I was quite pleased to find my first Blackbird nest as it is not a species I was expecting to find. This is because as the Blackbird is a resident species, most pairs are already well into their breeding attempt with many having already fledged young. Few would have started their first attempt so that they would be on eggs at this time of year, so I doubt that this brood is the first to be attempted to be raised by the parents this year. I imagine that either this pair started incredibly early and have already fledged young which are now independent and are attempting a second brood, or the nest failed (e.g. it was predated or the nest itself destroyed) and the pair have now started again.

Just after that activity ended it was time for some birding before the next activity (and, to a lesser extent, breakfast). Just standing around seeing what flies by proved to be a useful exercise with my first Hobby of the year accelerating past high above the nearest lake. Arriving in the UK in late April to May they sometimes gather in large groups (up to 50!) at popular prey-rich wetland sites soon after arriving. However this was the only one I was to see that morning. Still, it was not bad to get a year tick.

Following the replenishment of energy, my final activity of the day commenced. This was learning how to do the Common Bird Census (CBC). For the CBC, one needs to note down the locations of individual birds on a map, and visit the site several times each year. By doing this one can begin to build up an idea of each bird’s territories. Whilst learning about the Common Bird Census we took a circuit of some of the lakes, which were rich in invertebrate as well as bird life.

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The above beetle is a species of longhorn, so named due to their long antennae. There are a number of species in the UK and they are a favourite among many entomologists due to their size (they can get larger than this) and how easy they often are to identify. Annoyingly, this is one of a few similar species, however I believe that it is Stenurella melanura. Longhorn beetles can often be found on flowers like this one or on the dead wood where they have spent most of their life as a grub. Occasionally, as they are so large compared to many other beetles, I spot them in flight and follow them until they land. One species that is easy to spot and identify is Rutpela maculata or the Yellow and Black Longhorn Beetle. If you do spot any longhorn beetles, the Longhorn Recording Scheme would love your records via iRecord.

After a much-needed rest back at the Nunnery and a well-earned lunch, we set off to Lakenheath Fen just inside Suffolk. I was looking forward to visiting this reserve as I’ve never visited it before and it’s home to a number of species that are tricky to see, such as Bittern and Marsh Harrier. Upon arrival at the reserve, we were split into two groups as this reserve trip was not simply a walk to see what we can see but a bird race: a competition between teams to see as many species as possible.

My team set off in a different direction to the other, and our first stop was a viewpoint overlooking a wetland. With Oystercatchers, a Redshank and Common Terns flying down the river it was clear that Lakenheath was a reserve full of birds even with an incredibly strong wind blowing. After seeing all that was in view at that viewpoint we continued along the path beside the river. We saw a Marsh Harrier and another Hobby, both birds of prey characteristic of wetlands.

It wasn’t much farther along when the highlight of the visit to Lakenheath appeared. On huge, pounding wingbeats a Bittern made its way across the reedbed, presumably with food for its young. At this time of year most breeding Bitterns will have young in their nest, and this makes them easier to see as they make feeding flights to and from the nest in order to feed the growing chicks.

The final stop before heading back in the direction of the visitor centre was where a Marsh Warbler had been seen for the past week. With it being incredibly windy I knew that we were never going to hear it let alone see it, but it was nice to stop for a short while and wait. There was a Marsh Harrier quartering the nearest reeds and a Cetti’s Warbler flew around us. Despite not seeing the Marsh Warbler I felt satisfied by our visit to Lakenheath as we had managed to see a number of key reedbed specialists. I’m hoping I can visit the reserve again sometime, because as it’s so large there is lots more to explore!

One of the highlights of the day was this stunning Stone Curlew giving exceptional views in a field. I do not want to disclose the location of this unusually unwary individual as it is on a breeding site, and as Stone Curlews are in decline I do not want it to gather unwanted attention from people with unfavourable intentions. All that aside it was superb to get such a rare opportunity to watch this species at a range that wasn’t hundreds of metres!

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Writing part two made me realise that I have a lot more to write than can fit into 3 parts so this series of blog posts will now be extended to four parts. In the next part, look forward to hearing about an adventure with Nightjars, a successful moth trap and a search for Dartford Warblers!

There’s a fungus on the Town Hall Clock!

If you’ve read my latest post you would know that I am a regular participant of #wildflowerhour. During last week’s Wildflower Hour there were predictably more photos due to the increase in flowering plants as spring progresses. Among these flowering plants was the easy-to-overlook Moschatel (Adoxa moschatellina), which I had never recorded before.

So last week I set out with a picture of Moschatel in my mind so that if I did come across the species I would recognise it. Yesterday I visited Pulborough Brooks RSPB reserve in West Sussex and I did both of those things: I came across a couple of large patches and I recognised it!

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The flower head. You can see that it is cube-shaped, which is what lead to the alternative vernacular name of ‘Town Hall Clock’.

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The whole plant

As you can see from the above photographs, Moschatel is not a hard plant to miss. Its flower heads are only slightly lighter than the leaves and therefore not easy to spot when they are lined up against the foliage of a woodland floor. To be honest, I was quite pleased with myself for managing to spot this indistinctive plant!

However once I had a closer look, there was more to see. One particular patch was very heavily infected with what appeared to be the fungus Puccinia albescens, which covered the leaves, stem and flowers of several plants. This species is a rust fungus, which is a type of fungus that usually parasitises wildflowers and other small plants. There is an incredible diversity of host plants within the 7000 species of rust fungi as most plants are only infected by a single species.

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The close-up photograph above shows the pustules of the rust fungus, which is just one part of the complex life-cycle of rust fungi. These pustules erupt at this time of year and produce uredospores which are carried on the wind to new plants of the same species to infect.

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Telia

Also present alongside these pustules are what I believe to be the telia of the same species. These telia – the dark, round spots – are produced in the autumn in most species and would have overwintered. The telia produce teliospores, which are another method the fungus uses to spread as they disperse to find more plants of the same species to infect, just as the uredospores do.

The life-cycle of rust fungi is very complex and here I have explained it only briefly – different species of rust fungi can have different life-cycles and some infect two completely unrelated species during their life-cycle. These multi-host fungi are known as heteroecious fungi and one host plant is infected by the uredospores and the other is infected by teliospores. As Puccinia albescens is not heteroecious (and is autoecious), its life-cycle can be completed on just a single host species – Moschatel – and the single host species is infected by both the uredospores and the teliospores. Some good websites to visit for more information on the life-cycle of rust fungi are:

http://www.biologydiscussion.com/fungi/life-cycle-and-the-spore-stage-of-rust-fungi-fungi/64083

http://website.nbm-mnb.ca/mycologywebpages/NaturalHistoryOfFungi/Pucciniales.html – this one includes a lot of information, however it also contains a lot of scientific jargon and complicated vocabulary.

Purple Toothwort

The Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland (BSBI) is a fantastic organisation ‘for everyone who cares about the wild plants of Britain and Ireland’. It gives support to botanists and recorders of all levels of expertise and leads many projects to help better understand the flora of the British Isles. One of the ways in which the BSBI has been helping to bring British and Irish botany to the wider public is through social media and especially using the hashtag #wildflowerhour on Twitter.

Wildflower Hour takes place every Sunday at 8pm and is an opportunity for everyone to share their photos of wildflowers taken over the past week. Many people come together to share their plant sightings and Twitter becomes a hub of botanical activity. Wildflower Hour is not only a good way to share wildflowers with others but also a chance to revise plant identification and see what has been recorded in your local area.

A couple of  Sundays ago, Wildflower Hour took place as normal with many tweets on early spring wildflowers. One of these tweets was by @KateGold24 and included some photographs taken at Wakehurst Place in West Sussex. As I live quite close to Wakehurst I was interested, and even more so when I saw that one of the photos was of several flowers of a Purple Toothwort Lathraea clandestina.

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As I have never seen Purple Toothwort before, I was excited to visit Wakehurst Place on Friday afternoon just after we broke up for the Easter holidays. I was expecting to have to search long and hard for them due to the fact that they are not the largest of plants, however I was very wrong. They were all over the place! As well as in the main part of the gardens they were also in the deepest part of the woods and even on the bank of Westwood Lake.

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As you can see from the above photograph, the plant is currently without leaves and it will remain without leaves. Leaves are necessary for photosynthesis as they contain chlorophyll which is vital for the process. However, this plant contains no chlorophyll and is therefore unable to photosynthesise and produce energy in that way. Then how does it produce energy?

You will, most of the time, find this plant growing below mainly Poplar and Willow trees. This is because it is these trees it most usually parasitises, and it does so using its roots. These grow at a gentle downward angle until one of them finds a root of the tree they are parasitising. Each root has haustoria, suckers, on the end which attach to the root of the tree and from there the toothwort gets its energy.

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The Purple Toothwort is closely related to the Common Toothwort, Lathraea squamaria, which is also a root parasite. The Common Toothwort is more common, however it is a species I have yet to see. I am hoping I’ll be able to find some this year before they stop flowering in May. The generic name ‘Toothwort’ comes from this common species: their flowers look like a row of teeth!

 

Tricky Zygodons! Or are they?

Last Sunday I was able to attend a field trip of the South-East branch of the British Bryological Society, to Duddleswell Valley nestled in the expanse of Ashdown Forest. The key site in this valley is a wooded ghyll, which has been a very popular location for bryologists since at least when the brilliant botanist Francis Rose visited in the mid-1950s.

Once we had waded our way through no less than eight different species of Sphagnum mosses we arrived at this famous ghyll and what greeted us was a steep and slippery slope down to the stream below us. Luckily we all made it down safely and we were able to begin!

We worked our way slowly down the ghyll, finding extreme rarities such as Campylostelium saxicola; admiring huge walls of fruiting Pellia epiphylla and finding ourselves knee-deep in shallow-looking mud. I even managed to put my foot in the middle of the largest colony of Nardia compressa in South-East England!

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A large part of the only colony of Nardia compressa in the South-East

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Nardia compressa

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Campylostelium saxicola

Near the end of our excellent and bryophyte-rich walk we came across a good stand of willow trees with many species that we hadn’t yet encountered that day. These species included a small, inconspicuous tuft of moss, a Zygodon species. There are four regularly occurring Zygodon species in the South-East and they are hard to separate in the field. To be certain of an identification to species level you really need to get out the microscope.

Therefore I took a small part of the moss back with me to work on. I was expecting it to be a tricky task that might take me a while to perfect. What surprised me was that it was quite the opposite!

The features to look at are the gemmae. The gemmae of Zygodons are single cells that detach from the moss in order to reproduce asexually, meaning that the fusion of male and female sex-cells (gametes) is not necessary. When mosses and other organisms reproduce asexually like this it is referred to as fragmentation.

Not knowing how to get the gemmae off the moss and onto the microscope slide to examine, I first tried taking a small stem of the moss and seeing if I could spot any gemmae around it. This was unsuccessful and so for my second attempt I simply tapped the clump of moss onto the slide, added a drop of water and a cover slip. I placed this slide under the microscope and I could immediately see several gemmae under 100x and 400x magnification. That was much easier than I had expected!

Next came the actual identification of the Zygodon. The very helpful Brad Scott had narrowed my moss down to two species, Z. conoideus and Z. viridissimus. He also supplied photos of the gemmae of both conoideus and viridissimus, so all I needed to do was compare the gemmae of my moss with Brad’s excellent photos. It was clear: my moss was definitely Zygodon conoideus!

This experience has certainly shown me that not everything that needs microscopic examination is difficult. Certainly some species require very fiddly work to separate but that is not always the case.

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My photo of a gemma of Zygodon conoideus

Twit.

Yesterday I found myself lying down on an edge of a crater-sized hole by the side of the River Cuckmere, with my binoculars pointing down at a tiny, drab, little brown job scurrying about amongst dead grass and plant matter. Streaked brown all over, it resembled a small mouse creeping about feeding on minuscule seeds. The only bit of colour on the whole bird was its tiny yellow bill which would open occasionally to emit its single-noted ‘twit’ call from which the bird’s name ‘Twite’ derives.

Twite are usually gregarious birds in winter, feeding among plants along the coast before returning in Spring to their breeding grounds in the moorland. They are most commonly found between October-March on the east coast of England, where British breeding birds meet continental birds in saltmarshes and other coastal habitats. They are only rarely encountered South of Suffolk nowadays despite there  having been a regular wintering population on the Swale in North Kent in the past. They are therefore real rarities in south coast counties such as Sussex and they have appeared to be declining too.

Before the 1990s, double-figure counts were annual phenomena. However between 1990 and 2000 they were only rare occurrences. Now they have declined so much in Sussex that the last record on the Sussex Ornithological Society’s sightings page prior to 2017 was of a single bird with Linnets at Pagham in November 2013.

This particular Twite was first discovered in a patch of brambles along the River Cuckmere, East Sussex on the 5th of February. I was expecting it to be only a short-staying bird and that it would disappear soon. However it was seen regularly until the 15th February. For a period of 5 days after that it was looking like it had left with no news reported on the Sussex Ornithological Society’s sightings page.

Fine weather in Sussex allowed us to visit the Seven Sisters Country Park, and I took the opportunity of making a short walk to the coast through the marshlands of the Cuckmere river delta with no prior thought of seeing the Twite.

However the route we took happened to pass the site where the bird had been frequenting. Only about 30 seconds after arriving at the crater-like hole in the riverbank where the bird had been seen previously, I noticed a tiny bird fly up to perch on a large unidentified object which could have been a large piece of Styrofoam packaging. It proceeded to drink from a hole in the odd object while I managed to get good views of the bird through my binoculars. Small size; brown, streaky appearance; yellow bill… it had to be the Twite!

After allowing me to get some photos of it in the open it flew back down into the dead plant matter and continued to feed only 5-10 metres away from me. Despite its amazingly effective camouflage I was able to watch the bird well for quite a long time. It appeared to be oblivious to my presence and wasn’t wary at all, which surprised me for such a small and vulnerable finch. It felt like a great privilege to be able to get such close views of this Sussex rarity.

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Feeding amongst the dead grass and plants

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Drinking from the unidentified object

Here you can find a short video of the Twite: