Saturday, August 27, 2011

A change of plan...

I had intended this blog entry to be about my visit to Thornden Woods but at long last a few dragonflies have started to appear and so I thought perhaps Thornden will wait for another day,whilst I share some shots of Odonata.

Click on any picture to enlarge.

This Common Darter as it's name suggests is a commonplace dragonfly but this year has been exceptional for the lack of most species locally.This is a male.

A full profile view showing the curved abdomen.

A dorsal view really shows off those fabulous wings too.

Our summer in this corner of the world hasn't been anything to write home about (which is just as well because I haven't been anywhere!). Today must have been reasonably warm though because I saw a dragonfly exhibiting a fabulous behaviour pattern that only takes place in warm sunshine.

It's known as 'obelisking' and involves the dragonfly standing in a head-down position, with it's abdomen pointing skywards. The purpose seems to be to stop the dragonfly from over-heating.

'Obelisk' position.

The dragonfly pictured above is of the same species as the first pictures but is a female, as you can see these are a lot duller in colour, as are the immature males, so much so that they can easily be confused with the females.

Although those wings look very delicate, the muscles that control them (which by the way, they can control independently) are not; at full speed most dragonflies can reach speeds of 40 miles per hour. They can hover, fly backwards, shoot vertically up or down and turn within their own body length, making them superb hunters.

A Common Darter on bracken.

And so at long last some dragonflies are to be seen locally. Although I've now seen a handful or so, they have all been the same species. I've had a few fleeting glimpses of other, larger 'Hawker' dragons as well but no close-encounters yet. It'll happen though, I'm sure of it and when it does, you can be sure I'll be there with my camera to record it.

Incidentally, dragonflies have quite a connection with stoneflies; evolution-wise stoneflies are thought to have appeared very soon after dragonflies and as we know, they are amongst the oldest of all insects.
It's thought that stoneflies may be represent an early stage in the evolution of insect flight as they have wings but rarely fly, even when they do take to the air, it's more a case of opening their wings and waiting to be lifted by a gust of wind.

 I'll no doubt be doing a piece on stoneflies next spring, for now though, here's a photo taken during spring of 2011.

A Stonefly.

Finally for now, you may by now be thinking that I've been 'messin' with the blog design/layout again?
Well a combination of frustration at several things that have gone wrong/astray that have been beyond my control, and I've also failed to find a 'fix' for, alongside advice from 'blogger' and other bloggers that I've spoken to has meant that the general consensus seems to be 'keep it simple' and there's less to go wrong, after all it is a free service.

And so that's what I've done, simplified it all and let's hope that from now on it all runs like clockwork and there are no more disappearances or glitches.

Until the next time then...

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Cause for concern?

Woodchurch is a small Kentish village around half an hour away from home by car.
I cribbed this information from their website: Long ago Woodchurch was in the middle of a forest which stretched from Pevensey on the coast to as far north as Tunbridge Wells. The earliest records go back about a thousand years. In 1100 Woodchurch was Wudecirce. Probably its church was made of wood but the current rag-stone building dates from the 13th century and took 200 years to complete.

On one of the sunniest days for a while we (myself and wife, Lizzie) decided to treat ourselves to a morning out visiting the Rare Breeds Centre in Woodchurch.

I was in particular looking forward to seeing the tropical butterflies again, (we had visited last year but a little earlier in the season) and it's always a joy to see them flying free within the enclosure.
Lizzie found the thought of the gardens and tea rooms more attractive I think but she was also looking forward to a much needed break.

Whilst we waited for opening time (10.30) we took a look around the gift shop (the building with the welcome sign). Lots of related gift ideas and the usual touristy things.
Having purchased a little, metal Gecko for the garden, we made our way to the entrance to pay the £8.50 each entrance fee. This included a 'free' sticker proclaiming 'I'm a rare breed'

Our first experience of 'wildlife' after being ushered through the entrance area and the 'wash your hands here' area was unexpected and less than welcome.

Under the (partial) shade of oak trees, a small area with a low fence contained the 'Birds of Prey'. We stopped to view, eager to see what they had on offer but at once Lizzie was concerned for the well being of the birds and once I'd put down the camera and looked at what she was pointing out, I could see exactly why.

There were quite a number of species represented. all with just a perch each and a saucer of water. What was upsetting Lizzie however were the tethers (is that the right term?) that prevented the birds from flying off or approaching visitors.

Each had not one but two, one on each leg with a short strap between keeping their feet fairly close together and making anything other than hopping/jumping difficult for them. They were obviously annoying at least one of the owls who had managed to catch a claw in one of these confining straps and couldn't free itself.
 We had to ask a member of staff to investigate. Luckily, there were some nearby but no actual staff member delegated to be at the area full-time to ensure the birds well being.

Click on photo for larger image

The centre is owned and run by the Canterbury Oast Trust who do brilliant work providing help for people with learning difficulties and are a registered charity. I don't want to infer that they are not providing what the law says is required for these animals but...the safety and care of the birds & animals must be paramount and I have to admit we both had misgivings during the visit.  Perhaps we are being unfair. or over-sensitive?

Is it O.K. to tether so many birds of prey, sometimes in what seems to be full sun and for 7 hours per day? Do they really need to be shackled in such a manner? Would just one tether be dangerous to them perhaps?

The little barn owl seemed distressed to us and was flying at the fencing in a disturbing and repetitive manner. We thought it was actually hitting itself against the wire, on examination of the slow-motion video we could see that in fact the tether was stopping it just short and snapping it backwards.
Click on photo to see animation sequence

The birds did seem to be in good condition to us and when the keeper went into the enclosure to look at the owl we had seen with it's foot caught, the little barn owl responded to him and seemed to us to want to stay with him. It jumped onto his hand and kind of snuggled against him and wasn't at all keen on being put back on it's perch.

He said to us that he was happy to pick up the owls but wouldn't do so with the larger birds of prey. That left us wondering just who does transport them to the enclosure daily and attend to any problems.

I suppose it boils down to the fact that we just don't like to see these wonderful birds in a captive, unnatural setting.
I guess they will be captive bred and would not survive in the wild anyhow, but to watch these knowing that they are displayed for the public in this manner day after day?

The reptile house was only small and housed about a dozen or so exhibits. We found them surprisingly fascinating and Lizzie even remarked that she had a few contacts on the internet who kept lizards etc.. and had always thought it 'a bit odd' but could now see how folks could want to keep and observe them.

Click picture for a larger view

The butterfly house was something of a disappointment for me on this occasion. Being later in the year, the butterflies that were to be seen were now looking a bit tatty as they do at the end of season. It was also hot and sunny and they were busy feeding, not stopping for the most part; making photographing them a challenge.

I did manage to have a long chat with the woman who looks after the butterfly house, and asked her if it would be possible to increase the native species that are housed at one end of the tunnel.
She explained that she was actually a horticulturalist and had been invited to take on the task of managing the butterflies as well. This meant that it was a huge commitment for her and to increase her work-load wasn't really possible for now. She also told me that it would mean 'catching wild butterflies to use' but I'm not sure that's true; there are reputable suppliers of pupae to the trade.

The butterfly house had a couple of interesting larva to see today. The first one is I'm fairly sure a third instar of Hyalophora cecropia-The Cecropia,or Robin moth.
It is a member of the family of giant silkmoths - the Saturniidae.

These are the largest of the American moths and will eat pear, apple and cherry, along with several other fruit trees and willow.

I was told that the larvae had been donated to the centre and as I've read that they are really difficult to raise indoors, I'll be keen to see just how they get on  and what the success rate is.

These are about the size of my little finger at present but by the time of the final instar they will have grown to around 4" (10cm)

The container that houses these was covered in fine netting, hence the rather less than sharp photo but it does give you some idea of just how impressive these larvae are.

Pictured on the left is how the moth that emerges will look.
As you would expect, it's quite a sizeable creature.

The second of the two caterpillars is Antheraea pernyi-The Chinese Oak Silk Moth.
I'm not too sure of which instar these were but would guess at 5th or possibly 6th?

Originally from southern China, they have become more widely distributed across Asia.

These are supposed to be much easier to raise indoors and will readily feed on both oak and hawthorn.

Chinese Oak Silk Moth

Chinese Oak Silk Moth Larva

All in all, a fantastic morning spent at The Rare Breeds Centre with one or two reservations. 
My next blog should be along fairly soon and will feature a visit to woodlands near to Herne Bay in Kent.

Until the next time then...

Postscript: If anyone has any thoughts on the Rare Breeds Centre and in particular the birds of prey, I'd love to hear from you. You can either comment directly here in the box top left of this post, directly below the post or by e.mailing me @

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Vanity Fare bringing some light relief....

It's 1969 and local man Eddie Wheeler and his band Vanity Fare named after William Makepeace Thackeray's classic novel (Albeit with a subtle change of spelling to avoid copyright issues) are about to receive a gold disc for their song 'Early In The Morning' 

They went on to achieve notable success, especially in America and are still touring here in Kent 40 years on (go and see them if you get a chance, they're still good value). Rock 'n' Roll they ain't but their sweet harmonies are pleasant enough and kinda uplifting.
It's the reason I chose them as an opener/introduction to today's blog entry. After the nastiness of the previous one, I wanted to put all that behind me and get back on track in a more light-heated manner.
Early in the morning is also apt because it's to be the subject of this entry.

It's one of the joys of natural macro photography that you can often get your best shots in either the warm evening light, or the early morning before the sunlight becomes too harsh. It's also, given the right atmospheric conditions, a great way of finding and photographing bugs and insects that have 'roosted' for the night and can oft be located motionless and covered in 'morning dew' (there has to be another song title there?)

Yesterday morning looked ideal when I peeped out of the bedroom window at around 5am.
Gathering together all of my macro gear, I pulled on my trusty wellies (gumboots) and headed for a likely spot.

On arrival it was clear that firstly, there was barely enough light yet (it was still only around 5.30am) and then that the fields were indeed clothed in a fine mist and lots of wonderful 'morning dew' I've have to pause here and explain that everytime I write that phrase ('Morning Dew') another song pops into my head and I can't resist the urge to also add a LINK to that one!
It's not the original but still a cool version.

My first find was way down in the undergrowth, well long grass anyhow; it was a tiny spider and it's prey. I had a go at photographing it using just natural light but sans my tripod (I decided not to take it today) it was proving impossible to get enough light without a very slow speed and that meant movement. I settled on leaving the spider be and hunting out something else. The one shot I did save makes for interesting light patterns in the strands of spider web though. Look at the movement on the very fine strands and how it's separated the light into fabulous, subtle, pastel colour blocks.

Click on image for a larger view

Hmmmm...a sleeping snail! No really, this'll make for a better photo? I got into position, knees soaking up the dampness from the grass I was in contact with and trying not to disturb him (?) I carefully began to shoot the mollusc. It was right at this point that the thought occurred "I wonder what snails dream about"  Possibly, where to find a good NHS dentist? I say that because most snails have thousands of microscopic teeth on their tongue (called a radula) that acts like a file, ripping their food into small, edible bites.

Click for larger version
He (I'm calling it as male but have no idea how to tell the difference really) seemed quite comfortable on his perch and after a few shots I also left him alone to enjoy his rest. 

You can't have snails without slugs too! It was obvious that slugs are early risers compared to snails and hence there were loads of them around taking advantage of the moist conditions.

The angle on this shot clearly shows the slug's 'Pneumostome' or breathing-hole. Spiders, slugs and snails...not very inspired choices of invertebrates to begin? I guess that although I find them fascinating and worthy photographic subjects, you'll be wanting something a little more photogenic?

How about a couple of shots of a ladybird then? Everyone loves ladybirds don't they? I've not seen a terrific variety of ladybird species this year but at the moment, these 7-spot ones are plentiful.

By now I'd been wandering amongst the grasses and assorted wild flowers of my local meadow for quite a while; the sun had risen to a height where the intensity was beginning to increase and I now need to pick my spot carefully to avoid harsh shadows. It was still reasonably good, warm light for photography but I knew that time was now at a premium. If I wanted more photos, it would need to be in the next few minutes or it'd be too late for today, Tempus fugit! 

Interestingly (at least I would like to think so, I'll leave you to decide) the term Tempus fugit is said to have first appeared in a poem by the Roman poet Virgil.

The full (translated) quote from the poem goes thus:
"But meanwhile it flees: time flees irretrievably, while we wander around, prisoners of our love of detail."
How very apt too! Prisoner of my love of detail is exactly how I feel at times

Back to the plot then.....
Having spotted and photographed the ladybird, I'd begun to look skywards a little, rather than at my feet. Often it's possible to come across butterflies that have been roosting for the night and it was in my mind that perhaps, even though sightings of lepidoptera in general have become fairly rare this year in comparison to others, I might be lucky today. As it turned out, no sooner had the thought entered my mind than on a long, dry grass stem I saw a familiar flash of blue amongst the beige.

A 'Common Blue' (Polyommatus icarus) revealed itself as I drew nearer. Probably a male as far as I could tell, wings closed. About 15mm in size and like everything else, apart from the slug, motionless and awaiting the full warmth of the sun, before being able to dry it's wings and fly.
Once the sun had done it's job of bringing back the butterfly to life, it would not have to work too hard to source nectar; the filed was scattered with large patches of bird's-foot trefoil, its favourite food-plant.

Click on picture for a larger version

Finally for this entry, I walked home after my photo session through some more fields and these had been recently cut; the resulting grasses were now forming those huge rotund shapes, covered in black plastic that seem to populate most farmland at this time of year.

I have a habit of looking for macro-photo opportunities wherever I go and these looked like they could be suitable for a couple of shots. The black plastic covering them was still at this time of the morning (around 7.30 now) covered in water droplets.
I stopped for a time and messed around with reflections. The last picture here is the result of one of these shots.
It's probably the closest you'll ever get to seeing a photo of yours truly in one of these entries.
I ought to point out that the large white, round shape you can see in the reflection is actually my flash diffuser. However, the droplets have acted like a natural magnifying glass and it seems out of proportion, it's really not that big!

Click for larger version

I've said this many times, to many folk now but it has been a strange year for invertebrates. Many species have been well down in numbers and some I haven't seen at all, others are thriving locally.
Here we are approaching the second week of August already and yet, my tally of dragonflies is only 3 surely we will get to see some before the onset of Autumn? I know that the very early, bad weather may have affected them but I'm still hopeful of being able to devote an entry to these marvellous insects sometime soon.

Until the next time then...

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Are we still free to roam the countryside?

This won't happen very often I promise, but today's blog entry is going to be a bit of a rant!
Stay with it if you can though, as it concerns us all; at least all of us that love to walk in our beautiful countryside.

As an amateur photographer and keen invert-ist (I just invented that word) I love nothing more than getting out and about with my camera and notebook, photographing and recording insects & bugs. I do it for many reasons and uses but most of all for the solitude and tranquillity of meandering through meadows and fields, at my own pace, totally absorbed in my hobby but also aware of just how lucky I am to live in such a fantastic area of outstanding beauty.

So what is my gripe? 
Simply this-why can't people just leave me alone, let me go on my way, harming nobody without having some petty excuse to stop and hassle me?

Over the past few months I have been chased off land, accused of photography peoples property (houses), threatened with violence if I didn't "**** off". Verbally abused on numerous occasions, told that "I must show my photos" to somebody to prove I was only photographing insects, bothered by dogs off the lead with no owner in sight and then yesterday, the worst yet!

I need to state right at the outset here that I was in the wrong this time. I had parked my car partly obstructing an entrance gate to a field. In my defence I can only say that the gate is falling from it's hinges and looks as though, not only would it be impossible to open without great difficulty but it has not been moved for years. I have also parked there many, many times before without incident (again, no excuse, I know).

Anyhow, off I went photographing butterflies. When I was just about done I heard somebody honking a car horn but still didn't think it concerned me. A short while after a man walked towards me asking if it was my car at the end of the lane. I explained that it was and he said "Well move it, you're blocking someone in" with which, he turned and walked away with me following.

When I reached the car it was clear that I was stopping a tree surgeon from exiting the field. I apologised, saying that it was a genuine mistake, I really didn't think the gate was in use. He seemed O.K. about it and just asked me to park further back next time so as not to block the entrance, I agreed.

Then the other chap (the one who found me on my way back) who was standing the other side of my car, suddenly started shouting at me to "Move the ******* thing now" or he'd move it for me.
I was so shocked by this that (and I s'pose on reflection, this made it worse) I said to him "Alright, I've apologised and I am about to move-calm down or you'll give yourself a hernia, It's just a mistake, I haven't killed anyone" 

He rushed around my car and started pushing me in the chest, almost pushing me over. I shouted at him at this point "That's enough, calm down why are you being abusive, I'm trying to move" He then grabbed my camera, I managed to grab it back but he pushed me so hard that I was now off balance, then he thudded into me forcing me onto the bonnet of the pick-up truck that the tree surgeon owned.

He pinned me against the car, unable to move (I'm only of small build and very slight, he was a strapping farmer?) then he grabbed my car keys, unlocked my car, put them in the ignition, grabbed me (still trying to protect the camera), threw me against the car, knocking the mirror out of it's socket and shouted "Now get in the ******* car and move or else" As I got into my car he was still shouting and ranting at me (the other man said nothing, just stood by and watched it all) I left feeling shocked, bemused, assaulted and sore from his attack on me.

Whilst I agree it must have been annoying for the fella that I blocked in, he was fine about it, this man had nothing to do with the situation as far as I could tell and surely, nothing warrants a violent reaction like this?

It ruined my day and left me feeling that once again, it has proved difficult to find anywhere that I can just roam without fear of such incidents. What is happening to our beloved countryside? If it isn't something like this it's disgusting litter everywhere, or PRIVATE signs springing up everywhere I walk.

That's it then, it's off my chest and already I feel better. On a serious note though, it is a major problem and behaviour is becoming more and more unpredictable with violence becoming the norm.
I am a pacifist, I can't abide aggression in any form, I have never knowingly shown violence towards anyone and I try to live my life that way, when someone shows violence towards me it shocks and hurts me mentally more than the physical pain.

Thankfully my camera seems O.K. and I do have the butterfly photos. I'll post another (more upbeat) blog entry real soon!


(If you stayed with me and read this I thank you)