Friday, 4 August 2017

Dragonflies 2: Common Darter

Territorial male Common Darter
One of the commonest dragonflies in the UK, especially in the south, is the Common Darter Sympetrum striolatum. One of at least 50 species of Sympetrum, Common Darters have a vast range extending from Western Europe across to Japan, and are often migratory. Other species of Sympetrum are found across the whole northern hemisphere, and in North America they are generally called Meadowhawks.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Dragonflies 1: The Emperor

A.imperator ovipositing
One of the largest dragonflies in Europe, the Emperor Dragonfly Anax imperator has a range from North Africa to the North Sea coast and most of the south of the British Isles, and reaching east into the Ukraine. 

There are around 30 species of Anax worldwide, mostly in the Old World, but there are some in North America and there is one species native to Hawai’i. The genus belongs to the widespread family Aeschnidae, hawker dragonflies. Hawkers get their name from the behaviour – they catch and usually east their prey in flight and are powerful fliers. Dragonfly genera can usually be identified by behaviour – chasers and darters generally hunt from a perch.
A.imperator male
All dragonflies are predators and as adults feed on smaller insects, usually mosquitoes and flies but the larger species like Emperors will take butterflies or even small species of dragonflies and damselflies. As aquatic naiads they feed on smaller aquatic life and the larger nymphs may even take tadpoles or small fish.

Dragonflies and Damselflies – the Odonata – are one of the oldest lineages of flying insects. The oldest relatives of modern dragonflies are known from the Carboniferous around 300 million years ago, these are the griffenflies, “giant dragonflies” which in some species are believed to have had a wingspan of around 70cm. How they managed to support such a gigantic size with the high metabolic rate of dragonfly lifestyle is not certain, but it probably is related to the higher oxygen levels of the atmosphere during their reign, which at its peak may have reached 35%. This ended with the end-Permian mass extinction during which global environmental changes resulted in a fall of atmospheric oxygen levels to well below the present day level of 20%.
Anax junius
Although dragonflies are thought of as exclusively water-loving, water is only needed for reproduction. Once they have emerged as adults they may hunt over other habitats entirely, hunting around trees in woods, over fields, or preferring moorland heaths depending on the species. As adults they are fairly long lived, and in the several months many species live they can also travel long distances, as especially in tropical reasons they can have regular migrations following the rains. They can also be found as vagrants far outside their normal range – the North America Green Darner Anax junius has been found in the UK on several occasions having crossed the Atlantic in the same way as many birds do.

Emperor dragonflies begin as eggs laid directly into the water by an unaccompanied female. This last is slightly unusual – in many species the male remains attached by his claspers to the female while she lays her eggs in order to guard her from mating again. After an incubation period of three weeks the eggs hatch into the aquatic naiads that feed on aquatic insects and tadpoles for one or two years before climbing out of the water to moult into the winged adults.
Teneral A.imperator
On leaving the water the naiads may travel as far as 30m from their pool and 5m up a tree before shedding for the last time and appearing as an adult. With these large dragonflies even after emerging they take one or two weeks to attain the full colours and becoming able to reproduce. Males are very territorial and spend most of their lives in flight during the day, even feeding on the wing. 
Male A.imperator patrolling the pool where the female at the head of the post was egg laying

(Green Darner, Emperor emerging photos from wikipedia, others are my photos)

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

On the Wing: Small Copper

Small Copper
Currently to be seen flying over most grassy areas in the UK, especially sunny and sheltered spots including roadside verges is Britain’s only “Copper” butterfly, the Small Copper Lycaena phlaeas.

Monday, 17 July 2017

In flower: Solanum pyracanthos

A couple of years ago I obtained at Malvern Flower Show a plant of Solanum pyracanthos, the Porcupine Tomato. The reason for the name is pretty obvious – it is heavily armed on the stem and even the leaves with serious spikes.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

In flower: Pelargonium reniforme

P.reniforme flower
 Just come into flower in my conservatory is a new plant of Pelargonium reniforme, the kidney-leaved pelargonium. This species originates from the Eastern Cape province in South Africa, where it grows on dry flats which are subject to fairly regular fires. It is a small plant, growing as a shrub around 30cm tall, sometimes to 1m. The leaves are kidney-shaped (hence the name) and are covered with downy hairs which help reduce evaporation.

Friday, 9 June 2017

In Flower: Sinningia leucotricha

Sinningia leucotricha
This beautiful plant is known in known in its native Brazil as Queen of the Abyss, but it is sometimes sold as Brazilian Edelweiss as its leaves resemble in some ways those of the (totally unrelated) alpine Edelweiss.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

In Flower: Haworthia pygmaea

Haworthia pygmaea

Living across southern Africa is a large group (150+ species) of mostly small, rosette forming succulent plants in the genus Haworthia. Like their relatives the Aloes they are leaf succulents, storing water over the long dry season in fleshy leaves. Currently in flower in my conservatory is one of the smaller species, Haworthia pygmaea.

Friday, 12 May 2017

In flower: Rebutia fabrisii

Among the easiest cacti to grow and flower here in the UK are the various species of Rebutia. This group of small, mostly globular cacti originates from the Andes of Bolivia and Argentina along with many other species. The exact number of species in the genus is rather debateable as they are quite variable and there are numerous local forms.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

In Flower: Pelargonium aridum

Pelargonium aridum
One of the most familiar of garden and house plants in much of the world are the various forms of what are often called Geraniums or storksbills, when they are not referred to as their proper generic name of Pelargonium.

Friday, 14 April 2017

On the Wing: the Holly Blue

Holly Blue Male
Of the ten resident species of “Blue” butterflies to be found in Britain only one is likely to be seen in suburban gardens, the Holly Blue Celastrina argiolus. The spring brood is just now emerging, and will be on the wing until early June. A second brood begins to appear in late July and will be seen until September.

Monday, 10 April 2017

On the wing: The Orange-tip Butterfly

A.cardamines male
The warm spring here in Bristol has resulted in the emergence of a wide range of butterflies. Overwintering adults that have now left hibernation and are busy looking for mates and egg laying sites that I have seen so far are Peacock, Comma, and Brimstone, and those that overwintered as pupae and are now hatching include Holly Blue, Speckled Wood, and the subject of this post, the Orange-tip Anthocaris cardamines.

Friday, 31 March 2017

British Birds: Eurasian Nuthatch

Eurasian Nuthatch, Sitta europaea caesia
After Blue Tits and Great Tits, one of the British Birds most likely to be seen at a feeder in a garden, especially near woodland, is the Eurasian Nuthatch Sitta europaea. This species is currently doing well in the British Isles, and is currently spreading northward in Scotland, although it is currently absent from Ireland. There are at least 20 subspecies, with a range from western Europe across to China and South Korea, and southwards into the Caucasus. The form in the UK is caesia, which is also found in much of western Europe, and is typical of a group of subspecies with buff underparts and a white throat. Further east from Scandinavia across Siberia the europaea group has white underparts, and finally in China the sinensis forms have the throat and underparts pale buff.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Pleione Orchids

One of my interests has always been odd or unusual plants, and last year I decided to experiment with growing some of the near-hardy terrestrial orchids known as Pleione. After flowering some last year in the spring, I grew them on over the summer and have now produced a new set of flowers.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Bristol Birds: Waxwings!

Bohemian Waxwing, Bristol
The UK is currently experiencing an invasion of Waxwings. These starling-sized birds originate in Scandinavia and Siberia where they breed, but travel to the UK in the winter to feed on berries. Usually they mostly stay in Scotland and eastern England, but this year the flocks have spread much further to the southwest and are now found in the Bristol area close to where I live.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Spain 26: Butterflies

Clouded Yellow
By November the number of butterflies on the wing even in Spain. We saw very few most days, but on the trip down to the Ebro Delta we stopped for lunch in a warm spot where we caught up with a few late individuals:

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Spain 25: Horseshoe Whip Snake

Horseshoe Whip Snake
Given that the Spanish trip was in November, it is unsurprising that few reptiles were seen. Aside from a Wall Lizard, the only one was a distant view of what appeared to be a Horseshoe Whip Snake, Hemorrhois hippocrepis. The species gets its English name from the horseshoe shaped mark behind the head, and it one of four in the genus. Aside from the Iberian peninsula it is also found in north west Africa. The other species are found across north Africa and through the Middle East into central Asia.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Spain 24: Red? Squirrel

Red Squirrel - Spanish form
Once upon a time the only tree dwelling squirrel to be found across most of Europe was the Eurasian Red Squirrel Sciurus vulgaris. With a global range from Spain across to the Pacific coast and north to Siberia, there are currently 23 subspecies defined by size and colour of coat. 

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Spain 23: Spanish Ibex

Spanish Ibex
Across the mountains of the Old World, from Spain east to the Himalaya, and south into Ethiopia and Sudan, one of the most characteristic large mammals are the various species of Ibex. One of these was eventually domesticated and today has a worldwide range across North and South America and many islands in the form of the domestic goat, Capra aegagrus. However, the wild species still survive and one of these we tracked down in the hills near the ruins of a town called Belchite, which was heavily bombed during the Spanish Civil War. These were a family party of Iberian Ibex, Capra pyrenaica.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Spain 22: Chamois

Pyrenean Chamois
One of the characteristic mammals of the high mountains of Europe and the Caucasus is the chamois. There are actually two species, the Alpine Chamois Rupicapra rupicapra from the Alps and eastward, and the Pyrenean Chamois Rupicapra pyrenaica in the Pyrenees. It was the latter species that we found in the mountains on the French border.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Spain 21: Rock Bunting

Rock Bunting - male
One of the over 40 species of true (Emberiza) buntings is the Rock Bunting Emberiza cia. What actually defines a bunting is a rather complex issue, as the Emberizidae also includes New World Sparrows, Juncos, and Towhees. On the other hand, Snow and Lapland Buntings are now placed in an entirely separate family, the Calcariidae, which is closer to tanagers, cardinals, New World warblers and other species found in the Americas. Emberiza buntings are an Old World genus, with various species found from southern Africa to northern Europe and across to Asia.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Spain 20: Hawfinch

In the UK the Hawfinch Coccothraustes coccothraustes is an extremely scarce and hard to see species, with a breeding population of under 1000 pairs. Across Europe it is doing much better and is consequently classed as Least Concern by the IUCN. Its range extends from Eastern Europe across temperate forests as far as eastern Asia and northern Japan. It is closely related to two American species, the Evening and Hooded Grosbeaks which have rather similar ecological requirements. Slightly more distantly related are other grosbeaks found in east Asia and the Himalayas.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Spain 19: Rock Sparrow

Rock Sparrow. Note yellow throat patch
All over the world, the English name for a small, brown, streaky bird tends to include the word “Sparrow” even if the bird concerned is not at all closely related to the pretty much universally distributed House Sparrow. Having said that, the subject of the present post, the Rock Sparrow Petronia petronia, does belong to the same family as House and Tree Sparrows, albeit a separate genus.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Spain 18: Spotless Starling

Spotless Starling
Out of the over 100 living species of starling only three breed in Europe. The most distinctive, the pink-and-black Rosy Starling Pastor roseus is found in eastern Europe. The Common Starling is native to Europe and Asia as far as Nepal and north to Siberia, but has been widely introduced to North America and Australia, and is also now breeding in South Africa and Argentina. The third species is the subject of this post, the Spotless Starling Sturnus unicolor.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Spain 17: Choughs

Red-Billed Chough, Ireland
Across Eurasia can be found two species of distinctive crows that are distinguished by the colour of their beaks, the Red-Billed and Alpine (or Yellow-Billed) Choughs. They are associated with short grass and rocky areas, especially mountains. Red-Billed Choughs Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax also use sea cliffs while Alpine P. graculus is only found in high mountains. They are rather distinctive crows and in some ways their ecology is similar to some starlings, although starlings are on a completely different branch of the passerine family tree.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Spain 16: Wallcreeper!

One of the most sought after birds in the mountains of Europe is the Wallcreeper, Tichodroma muraria. This relative of the nuthatches has a vast range from the Pyrenees across every mountain range in Europe and Asia to Eastern China in the breeding season. Outside the breeding season they spread more widely and to lower levels, with one even wintering in the Cheddar gorge not far from Bristol here in the UK in two separate years in the 1970’s.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Spain 15: Crested Tit

Crested Tit - Spain
One of the most familiar groups of woodland birds are the tits or chickadees in the family Paridae. Various species are found from South Africa across the whole of the Old World and in North America south into Mexico. Many come to feeders and are also familiar back garden birds to people with homes within the range of the various species.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Spain 14: Bluethroat

One of the tiny gems of the European avifauna is the Bluethroat Luscinia svecica. They have a vast range, with the nominate subspecies breeding across the Old World Arctic tundra and even extending (just) into Northern Alaska. To the south other subspecies can be found in the breeding season from Spain across to western China and Southern Tibet. Outside the breeding season they winter from North Africa to India and Thailand. The Alaskan birds winter somewhere in Asia, but where is not known exactly.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Spain 13: Crag Martin

Eurasian Crag Martin
Spain in November is not a good location to go looking for hirundines, but we managed to locate a Barn Swallow on the last day of the trip at the Ebro Delta. A more expected species we found in the Pyrenees was Europe’s only resident species, Eurasian Crag Martin Ptyonoprogne rupestris.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Spain 12: An exaltation of Larks

After covering so many species on my trip to Spain we finally arrive at the passerines, starting with the larks. This is an almost entirely Old World group, with only a single species, the Shore or Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris found in North America.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Spain 11: Sandgrouse

Black-Bellied Sandgrouse
One of the odder groups of birds to be found across Eurasia and Africa are the dry country birds known as sandgrouse. Despite their name they have no relationship to gamebirds, but are much more closely related to pigeons, and in fact they do look very pigeon-like in flight. Another related group are the Mesites, also terrestrial birds but endemic to Madagascar.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Spain 10: Gulls and Tern

Yellow-Legged Gull
Although a few gulls were seen earlier in the trip, most of the gulls and terns were seen on the Ebro Delta on the last day.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Spain 9: Stone Curlew

Eurasian Stone-Curlew B.oedicnemus insularum
The largest of the world’s waders are found among the various species of Stone-curlews or Thick-knees of the family Burhinidae. These strange birds can be found worldwide, often well away from water in grassy or sandy areas, with the notable exception of most of North America. In Europe and western Asia the Eurasian Stone-Curlew Burhinus oedicnemus is the native species.