Notes on nature

Wildlife

Wildlife
We're about more than just birds (though obviously we like them a lot).

Notes on nature

We love nature... from every little bug on a blade of grass to birds, butterflies, otters and oaks!
  • Hornet or moth?

    A striking-looking creature has caused a stir on an RSPB nature reserve today.

    It looks like a huge hornet, but on closer inspection - note the furry antennae, small eyes and chunky body - it's actually a moth. A lunar hornet moth, to be precise.

    The magnificent moth was spotted at RSPB Exminster, part of the Exe Estuary reserve in Devon, by Visitor Experience Manager Sammy Fraser, who managed to take this great photo while on her lunch break.

    "Sammy was out for a walk at lunchtime and managed to snap some great pictures," says Peter Otley, Site Manager at RSPB Exe Estuary. "These are stunning moths - really large and charismatic. They have been seen before on the reserve, but not for a few years."

    By mimicking the appearance of a hornet, the moth is able to trick predators into keeping well away.

    Says Peter: "In nature, yellow and black are universal warning signs which are used by a range of animals. The size of the moth, combined with those warning colours, would discourage predators like birds and small mammals because hornets really do have a powerful sting.

    "It's amazing that nature can come up with something like that. The degree of mimicry and level of detail is just incredible - it really does look like a hornet, with the clear wings, which you don't really see on moths."

    Lunar hornet moths are active between June and early August, so it's likely this moth has only recently emerged.

    "It'll be looking for a partner now in order to lay eggs for next year," Peter explains.

    RSPB employee Rosie Earwaker, who runs a moth group at The Lodge, Sandy, was also excited by the find. 

    "Lunar hornet moths are fairly common but not commonly seen," she says. "The larvae live in willow trees, emerging early in the morning.'

    As well as these incredible moths, there's plenty more to see at Exminster this month.

    "Currently we've got a large number of lapwing chicks on the reserve, and a dragonfly called the 'hairy dragonfly'," says Peter.

    "There are some truly amazing things out there and, though there's no guarantee, there's always that chance you'll see something really spectacular. That's the joy of wildlife watching. Even on a normal walk, if you look hard enough, you'll probably see something new: I don't think I've ever been out and not seen something I haven't seen before, or that's worthy of a photograph. Sammy's photo of the lunar hornet moth was only taken on a phone, so you don't necessarily need a whizzy camera either!"

  • Midsummer on Shetland

    Today is the longest day of the year. Stonehenge steals all the media limelight, but what’s going on at the opposite end of the country?

    Just like every other day, our team is hard at work on Shetland, managing our nature reserves to give nature a home. Keeping an eye out for ‘pirates’ as he goes, Patrick Cook is our assistant warden on Fetlar – our northernmost reserve...

    My fieldwork can begin very early here, especially when the ‘simmer dim’ comes into effect. Being so far north during mid-summer, there is constant light with the sun only dipping below the horizon for a few hours each night. This means you can enjoy a nice walk at midnight without the need for a torch as it never gets properly dark.

    Return of the phalarope

    I work on our northern Shetland reserves, particularly the island of Fetlar. On a still evening, several wader species can be seen and heard at once, including the lapwing, dunlin, ringed plover, oystercatcher and ‘drumming’ snipe, along with the haunting calls of the curlew and its smaller relation, the whimbrel. The island also provides homes for plenty of seabirds.

    View of Fetlar from Yell

    Being so far north, spring comes later to Shetland, with bright yellow marsh marigolds and pink orchids bringing some colour back to the northern isles. I'm also glad to see the return of the red-necked phalarope, a very rare breeder in the UK and one the RSPB works very closely with in the mires - areas of really wet ground found in basins that contain a mixture of open water and sedges.

    The first phalaropes return in May with the females arriving before the males. With phalaropes, the gender roles are reversed - so the females try to attract the males and are more brightly-coloured.

    Massive migrations

    Our work to learn more about the phalaropes has two parts. The first is finding any birds that have returned with geolocators.

    The geolocator is a tiny data-collecting device which the phalaropes wear like a miniature backpack. The birds spend most of their year far away from Shetland. The geolocator records information which lets us calculate where they’ve been – but we have to get the geolocators back so we can analyse it!

    (in 2014 we found out that one of our Fetlar phalaropes had migrated all the way to the Pacific Ocean and back again, which wasn’t what we expected! So there’s much to learn)

    Female red-necked phalarope

    The second part of our work is estimating the number of breeding males. This is done by observing the male’s behaviour throughout the breeding season. First of all we determine if he is paired up, then if he is alone and acting frantically which indicate he is on a nest (the male phalaropes do all the incubation and raise the chicks). The final behaviour is alarm-calling when his chicks have hatched.

    Working with and seeing phalaropes - such a beautiful and charismatic wader - at such close range is one of the definite perks of the job. We manage the phalaropes’ breeding mires to create the perfect mosaic of habitats, which provides everything they need to nest and raise their young.

    From otters to bogs, bonxies and tirricks

    Covering the northern isles of Shetland, we also work on Unst and Yell. This usually involves an early morning ferry when the northern light is at its greatest quality, stretching from horizon to horizon interrupted only by the jagged outline of the islands and skerries.

    On a still day this can be a great time to see mother otters fishing with their cubs. This is a great treat at the start of the day and one of the reasons I was attracted to working in Shetland in the first place.

    Watch out for flying pirates

    A bonxie - or great skua

    At the end of a day’s fieldwork, the melancholy call of the golden plover and the trill of the dunlin will be ringing in your ears. Another interesting call or wail that is often heard from the lochs on the blanket bog is that of the red-throated diver.

    They are incredible, reptilian looking birds that lie close to the water. With a bright red eye and smart red throat patch, they are among the most beautiful of Shetland’s breeding birds.

    Amongst other sounds to be heard throughout Shetland are the blunt calls of the bonxie, the mewing of the Arctic skua and the screech of the Arctic terns (or tirricks). Arctic skuas specialise in grabbing food from other birds, particularly Arctic terns. They are effectively the pirates of the bird world, so I guess part of my job description is surveying pirates!

    Sadly the Arctic skua is in sharp decline, linked to the decline of the Arctic tern and the sandeels that underpin the food chain here.

    That brings together a summary of some of what I do in Shetland. Many days end with a ferry trip home where there is always a possibility of seeing something extra-special like a white-billed diver or surf scoter - and on a clear day sunset over Bluemull Sound is second to none. Shetland is an amazing place to work - and where better to spend midsummer’s day?

    Sunset over Brough Lodge and Bluemull Sound, Fetlar

  • Monday's magic moment: Once Bittern, not so shy?

    Bitterns, everybody knows them, some people have heard them boom and even fewer have caught a glimpse of these elusive birds.

    Like many of you I’ve been caught up in Springwatch fever recently so rushed back to one of my favourite reserves, RSPB Minsmere. Here in the glorious sunshine me and the other eager visitors sat in the hide were treated to an absolutely fantastic display of wildlife. The purple heron that has been at Minsmere recently floated lazily past, whilst a marsh harrier sat on a branch out in the open. A hobby banked inches from the hide, gleefully displaying the dragonfly he had grabbed for lunch. But the one thing which excited the crowd more than anything else... the bittern.

    This rare heron is having a bit of a renaissance at the minute, thanks to the work done by the RSPB and other conservation organisations there were over 150 ‘boomers’ as the male bittern’s are affectionately called heard in 2015. Not bad for a species that was on the way out with only 11 booming males heard as recently as 1997.

    When I first entered the hide it was pretty quiet, the ten or so people already there muttering to themselves mainly, until one voice rose above the rest, ‘Bittern!’ In a flurry of movement suddenly everything else seemed irrelevant as scopes and cameras whirled around, everybody focused on one tiny part of the reedbed. Descriptions of where it was passed around like chinese whispers and just as people were calling defeat to the bitterns amazing camouflage abilities it stepped out in its strutting pose, head held high demanding attention. It wandered across the edge of the reedbed for half an hour, occasionally stopping to show off its fantastic hunting skills, striking the water in a flash pulling out a fish to the tune of a hundred camera shutters.

    Thankfully, Minsmere isn’t the only reserve these secretive birds can be seen and right now is one of the best times of year to spot them as they make regular flights to feed their young, why not search out your own magic moment at a reserve close to you, here are five of the best across the country for bitterns and other reedbed wildlife.

    Minsmere

    Bittern capital of the south, the diverse habitats this reserve is home to makes it one of the most famous nature reserves in the country.

    Leighton Moss

    The largest reedbed in north west England is an ideal home for bitterns, bearded tits and marsh harriers.

    Ham Wall

    Somerset has more bitterns than any other county and the very first nests were discovered at Ham Wall back in 2008.

    Blacktoft Sands

    The largest tidal reedbed in England is a fantastic place to see elusive bitterns, as well as being a good place to spot barn owls hunting for voles in the late afternoon sun at this time of year.

    Lakenheath Fen

    Once a carrot field, Lakenheath Fen is now an incredibly important reedbed as well as a fantastic place to spot hobbies and kingfishers.