Crosswise

This morning, for the second time this week, I was standing on a well-trodden track on the Surrey-Berkshire border looking up at a couple of pine trees. This track crossed a plain of moor-grass and heather interspersed with small clumps of pines, known as Wishmoor Bottom. Since late November a flock of Parrot Crossbills has resided here, part of a national influx of this rare species.

The influx started with a large flock found on the Norfolk-Suffolk border, at Santon Downham. The numbers there peaked at an incredible 42 on one day, which is possibly the highest number ever recorded in the UK. Wishmoor Bottom was then the second site to host the Parrots, with slightly lower numbers remaining around a constant maximum of 16. The Derbyshire-South Yorkshire border was the next county boundary to be treated to Parrot Crossbills, with the forest around Howden Reservoir holding about a dozen. Most recently, 3 turned up at Broxbourne Woods in Hertfordshire (just inside the London boundary!) a few days ago.

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The Parrot Crossbills’ favoured tree in the drizzle

Influxes such as this one we are currently experiencing – I wouldn’t be surprised if further flocks are found – are mainly caused by a dearth of food in the species’ usual ranges. The Hawfinch invasion that’s in the news at the moment is most likely caused by a lack of beechmast and other tree nuts in continental Europe, with the crossbill invasion probably due to a poor crop of pine cones in Scandinavia.

After a long drizzly walk from the car park to what appear to be the crossbills’ favoured trees, we waited patiently for about an hour to see if the crossbills would show up. In that time a few other birders joined us; then we received a message through Rare Bird Alert that there were 16 Parrot Crossbills present on-site, right where we were standing. There were no other birders in sight!

“Someone must be having a laugh,” one birder said; we probably would have found it more humorous if we had by then actually seen the birds.

We were just about to split up to search the other clumps of trees spread out across the Bottom when my mum and I spotted a small group of birds fly towards us and alight in the tree directly in front of us. Most dived right into the needles of the pine, although one remained perched in clear view for a few seconds, enough for us to identify it as a Common Crossbill. That was good news, at the other sites where Parrot Crossbills have been present, they sometimes form mixed flocks with Commons.

Once the crossbills within the tree had surveyed their surroundings to make sure there was no danger, they set to work extracting the seeds from inside the pine cones. This made them more visible, and we were able to see that there were indeed Parrot Crossbills within the flock! Over the next hour I was able to watch them incredibly well. Although crossbills have a habit of staying firmly out of site within the dense branches, during the time we watched them there was always at least one on show.

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The above photos show the red-colouration of male crossbills, the females being a paler green colour. They also show the fascinating bill, with the lower mandible curving upwards on one side of the bill and the upper mandible curving downwards on the other side. It is unclear what determines the side on which each mandible curves, although the numbers of birds with mandibles curving each way seems to be equal. A crossbill feeds on the seeds within the cones by inserting its crossed bill between the scales and opening them and extracting the seed inside with its tongue.

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A female tackling a cone

Crossbills are by no means showy birds, so it was a real Christmas treat to be able to see this flock so well. Fingers crossed the influx continues and more flocks are found, possibly even closer to home!

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Lover of a lonely mountain (or London reservoir!)

When I awoke on the morning of the 25th November, I had no idea that American Horned Larks existed. So just before breakfast, when I checked the notifications on my phone and saw “Horned Lark still present 8am” I thought that the perilous auto-correct had struck once more. However, once I looked into it in more detail, I realised that this wasn’t just the product of a birder with cold and numb fingers.

I have to say that Staines Reservoirs is not the most inspiring birding location, which is probably why my parents have been unwilling to drive me there before. It is comprised of a North and a South basin, with a central kilometre-long monotonous causeway separating the two. Yet when I was dropped off at one end on the chilly November morning, I was quite eager to get to the other.

The news was negative when I first arrived at the far western end of the causeway, where most of the visiting birders seemed to be clustered. I began to scan the cold concrete apron on both sides of the causeway, to no avail after about 10 minutes. The resident Pied Wagtails were constantly distracting me with their calls.

It wasn’t long until negative turned to positive however. Alerted by a call that sounded almost fluty, I spotted a quite chunky small bird fly low over the causeway. The careful rush of the birders closest to where the bird had landed confirmed my suspicion that the bird had returned. For the next 30 minutes or so, the assembled birders had brilliant views of the the American Horned Lark on the northern side of the causeway, often venturing within 10 feet.

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The photos I was pleased  to have taken of quite a mobile bird show the features that separate this American Horned Lark from the more regular Shore Lark. Shore Larks are winter visitors to the UK, with usually around a hundred overwintering on the East coast. As their name suggests they are mainly restricted to the coast, so even a normal Shore Lark would have been a brilliant record for London/Surrey.

Eremophila alpestris is the species that Shore Larks and American Horned Larks belong to. Although some authorities split them into separate species, most recognise them as only subspecies. The species is actually split up into a massive forty-two subspecies by some authorities, which is what makes Horned Larks so confusing. The regular Horned Larks found in the UK (Shore Larks) belong to the subspecies flava. And although this particular Horned Lark is named as ‘American Horned Lark’, around twenty-one of these 42 subspecies are found in USA and Canada. This particular bird is considered to be either:

  • alpestris – the nominate subspecies, found along Eastern Canada and Eastern USA.
  • hoyti – found in Northern Canada, wintering in Northern USA.
  • praticola – sometimes lumped together with alpestris, found in South-eastern Canada, North-eastern and East-central USA.

Luckily, and unsurprisingly for a bird with so many subspecies, there are noticeable differences between the British flava and the American subspecies listed above. The main ones are:

  • The extent of the yellow on the face is much less than in flava (as the name suggests, flava translating as yellow, golden), with a completely white ‘eyebrow’.
  • The flanks and overall colouration are much more russet than the pale-brown colouration of flava.
  • More obvious breast streaking than flava.

So although at the moment there is little doubt that the Horned Lark at Staines during the last week of November was of an American origin, the challenge of identifying it to subspecies still remains. Luckily however, if the Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris is split into different species, it is likely that all the American subspecies will remain as E. alpestris and the British subspecies will become E. flava.

A nice article to sum up the proposed splits of Eremophila alpestris can be found here: http://birdingfrontiers.com/2014/02/06/horned-lark-not-one-but-six-species/

Oh, and if you were wondering about the title of this blog post, Eremophila alpestris roughly translates from Latin to ‘lover of a lonely mountain’ – a reference to the breeding habitat of most of the subspecies!

References
https://www.hbw.com/species/horned-lark-eremophila-alpestris
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horned_lark#
http://birdingfrontiers.com/2014/02/06/horned-lark-not-one-but-six-species/
http://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Eremophila-alpestris

Pectoral Sandpiper

Last Sunday afternoon I sat in the West Mead hide at Pulborough Brooks, with my binoculars focused on the far right corner of the pool directly in front of me. Among the Lapwings and the Teal was the silhouette of a Pectoral Sandpiper in terrible back-lighting.

There was no mistaking that this was a bird I was very pleased to see. One challenge of mine for this year is to get to 200 bird species for BBC Wildlife Magazine’s #my200birdyear, and this was my 193rd. Furthermore, Pulborough Brooks is exactly where I saw my first and only previous Pectoral Sandpiper, over 3 years ago. On that day in 2014 the Pectoral Sandpiper was so distant I didn’t even attempt a photograph, however this time this one was unusually close.

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The lighting was really poor, but at least I attempted a photo unlike my previous sighting three years ago!

Pectoral Sandpipers breed in North America and Eastern Siberia, yet despite the great distance from their breeding grounds they are still the most common Nearctic wader to reach our shores each year, mainly during autumn. Sussex definitely seems to attract its fair share, and in my experience Pulborough Brooks seems to be the best site in Sussex for them at the moment. There may have been at least three at this wetland site this autumn, which is an amazing total for a bird that would have had to cross the Atlantic or the whole of Siberia and Europe to reach here.

I have about a month and a half to find seven more species to make 200 for the year. It is possible, although it will be difficult. There are quite a number of species I’m yet to see, but it will all rely on how lucky I am!

Myrmecomorphy in action!

Sunday the 15th October was the date of the Amateur Entomologists’ Society field meeting at Rye Harbour Sussex Wildlife Trust reserve. It’s not often that I do a focused invertebrate hunt at this time of year, so I was looking forward to seeing what we found.

The field meeting was unexpectedly good on the arachnid side of things. I had no idea that the reserve was so rich in numbers and species of spider. We spent most of our time in a compartment of saltmarsh and shingle, where the shingle was really shallow. The layer of shingle was about two stones thick, and the soil beneath it was compact. This meant that the spiders could not escape deeper into the shingle as they would at most shingle sites.

One of the highlights of the field meeting spider-wise was the fantastic Myrmarachne formicaria. As the scientific name suggests, this species of spider is an ant-mimic (the prefix ‘myrm’ means ‘ant’ and a formicarium is an ant farm). The mimicry of ants in the animal kingdom is known as ‘myrmecomorphy’ and is quite common across a number of invertebrate orders. Invertebrates that are known to be ant mimics include young grasshoppers, true bugs (Hemiptera), flies, beetles and of course spiders.

But why do so many invertebrates mimic ants? Ants are known among the predators of invertebrates to be aggressive or distasteful, so they are avoided. And the predators will also avoid any insects that look like them, but lack any means of defence such as the young grasshoppers. This is known as Batesian mimicry, as it was first described by H W Bates. Some ant mimics have even gone as far as to mimic the ants chemically as well, by emitting ant-like pheromones, which is referred to as Wasmannian mimicry.

However, Myrmarachne formicaria may mimic ants for a different reason. It is thought that some spiders mimic ants not only for protection against predators but also so that they can hunt the ants themselves. Ants will overlook the spiders as one of their own colony, giving the spider the perfect opportunity for a meal. This type of mimicry is aggressive mimicry. As you can see from the photo below, the spider has a long abdomen, which helps it to resemble an ant.

Myrmarachne formicaria male by Evan Jones

Myrmarachne formicaria, photo by Evan Jones, one of the field meeting attendees.

Myrmarachne formicaria really was a fantastic sight, and I hadn’t personally seen anything like it before. It was fascinating to learn how and why so many different invertebrates mimic ants. The sheer number of ant mimics must indicate that ants are one of the most successful of all invertebrates.

Technology: Help or Hindrance?

My recent blog post – Youth & Nature: Is There Hope? – sparked a lot of interesting discussion on the role that technology plays in connecting and inspiring young naturalists. I mentioned in the blog post that screens tend to consume hours of young people’s time that could profitably be spent outdoors. However technology clearly has many benefits as well. In this blog post, I’ll mention some of the many ways in which technology is aiding the development of young naturalists.

July 2016, the incredibly popular game Pokemon GO was released. The objective of the game is to go in search of Pokemon characters, and ‘catch’ them. This got hundreds of millions of people outside, doing an activity which could be equated to geocaching. But the problem was, were they really interacting with the natural world, or were they too engrossed in their screens to pay attention?

In my opinion geocaching is much better for getting children outside. It’s like a treasure hunt, where families can follow co-ordinates through wild landscapes to find hidden boxes. Many nature reserves and other wild spaces have geocaches hidden inside, and the fact that you are actively looking for a box in real life rather than on a screen means that you are far more attuned to the natural world around you. And when you’re out there, exploring, looking for geocaches, the chances are that you will bump into some brilliant wildlife.

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Furthermore, technology has been incredibly important in connecting most of the young naturalists I know today. Using platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, young naturalists have been able to share their work and discuss ideas. Without a doubt, social media has given many young birders, botanists and all-round naturalists the support they need from others to get them going.

It may be, for some naturalists, that the daunting prospect of identifying things that they see is off-putting. One used to have to spend hundreds of pounds on literature to  master even a single group like fungi before technology. Now on social media like Twitter and Facebook there are accounts, groups and pages especially to help people identify what they have found. One example is the @MothIDUK Twitter page set up by Sean Foote, which answers many ID queries from puzzled naturalists every day. Without a doubt accounts, groups and websites like this are making naturalists’ lives far easier, and allowing them to enjoy nature that extra bit more.

Collins Bird Guide is one of several apps that have increased people’s connection with and knowledge of the natural world.

Finally, there’s no way that I would be writing this blog post without the help of technology. I wouldn’t be able to raise the issues of youth & nature, and the benefits of technology. I’d like to thank people like Calum Urquhart, Dara McAnulty, Megan Shersby, Josie Hewitt and others who reminded me that technology, although it can distract from the natural world, can also be incredibly useful for connecting existing naturalists and inspiring new ones. There are probably several points I’ve failed to mention here; and as technology advances I’m sure that the number of ways in which it benefits naturalists will increase. 

Youth & Nature: Is There Hope?

Only a few decades ago, before the advent of time-consuming technologies such as laptops and phones, getting out and enjoying nature was a thing of normality. Although many young people wouldn’t have considered it in that way, they were exploring the countryside and discovering the environment for themselves, which is what’s important.

In my view and that of many others, technology is the greatest factor that has caused the young people of this millennium to become sheltered from nature. Eyes just cannot be peeled from screens; young people are more often than not interacting with their phone or device rather than the natural world. Quality time needs to be spent away from one’s phones or tablets, however that so rarely happens.

Young people need to look (and be fascinated by) the intricate detail of all living organisms.

Another major reason for the decline in young people making connections to the natural world is over-protective parents. It is clear that there is a difference between the parenting styles of the 20th century to those of the 21st; as the years have progressed so has the reluctance of parents to let their children explore on their own. This has in many cases restricted children’s opportunities to get out and discover.

Ironically, phone technology allows today’s parents to keep a closer tab on their children by means of messaging and trackers. And children who are allowed to roam outside will roam outside. Young people have a natural tendency for exploration, and together with fascinating discoveries such as a bird’s nest or a badger sett, this can cement an interest. This interest will then stay with them, stimulating them to make positive changes later in life for the benefit of our planet.

Exploration allows young people to understand the world around them and build a better connection with nature.

The lack of opportuities for people to positively influence the environment is the aspect that most worries me in the recent decline in young people interested in wildlife. The more people are on their screens the less they can explore, and the less they can learn about how amazing nature can be. Without them realising how fascinating the natural world is, they feel no urge to protect it.

Therefore, I believe that the priority of people interested in the conservation of nature and the environment should be educating the youth of today. They need to be taught the weird and wonderful ways of wildlife so that they can see that nature really should be conserved. Obviously young people are the future of this planet; the future of this planet lies in their hands. We don’t want to see the environment neglected and disrespected in the decades to come, so we need to make it in the best interest of the next generation to preserve it.

Amazing and intimate encounters can stay with a young person for life.

But what can we do to help? We need to ensure that young people are inspired to cherish the world around them. We need to make sure that they are motivated to protect all living things no matter how seemingly insignificant they might be. We need to get them off their screens and instead we need to get them outside and exploring!

H is for Hawk: A New Chapter (TV Review)

It’s always a treat for me when something wildlife-themed comes on to the TV, and at the moment I am spoiled for choice. There was a fantastic documentary on Chris Packham and his Asperger’s and next week Autumnwatch returns. One programme that really caught my eye was H is for Hawk: A New Chapter.

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H is for Hawk: A New Chapter is a BBC documentary presented by Helen Macdonald, the author of a book of the same name on how she trained a Goshawk (one of the trickiest raptors to train) called Mabel after her father’s death. The documentary is almost a film rendition of the book, however this time Helen is training a new Goshawk who she names Lupin.

Falconry is not something I’ve really looked into before, so the film was really interesting in that it showed how falconers train their birds and the patience that it requires. Included are a few old traditions and superstitions that really are fascinating. And not only was it good from a falconry point of view, but it also showcased the lives of wild birds when Helen tried to watch some of her own.

Emotional is not a word I’d usually use to describe nature-based documentaries and films, yet this production was full of emotion as I learnt about the emotional connections between Helen and Mabel and her father. The snippets of reminiscences really helped to tie together a documentary that was informative and enjoyable.

While watching the documentary, I recalled the occasion when I saw my first wild Goshawk. Although it was only a glimpse, it was very memorable. It was at the time of year when birds are displaying prior to the breeding season, which makes them more visible as they arc over the forests. Below is a drawing of the encounter.

Goshawk drawing

I would thoroughly recommend watching H is for Hawk: A New Chapter. It is available on BBC iPlayer here.