Weekly Photo Challenge – Eye Spy a Butterfly’s Eye

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The Weekly Photo Challenge – ‘Eye Spy’ – A Butterfly’s eye is a wonderful creation, their spherical compound eyes with almost 360 degree vision are able to detect threats from behind at the same time as focusing on nectar probing. Predators and camera wielding humans are all to be avoided. In common with many other insects, each eye comprises of up to 17,000 ommatidia – individual light receptors with their own microscopic lenses. Surrounding the eye and extending through the body are long hair like scales which give a furry appearance.

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In late July and August our favourite spot to observe Chalk Hill Blues is Sharpenhoe Clappers, in the Chiltern Hills, managed by the National Trust, just a few miles from home. This species of Blue Butterfly is only found in the UK on southern Chalk Grassland Hills. The adults prefer a sunny sheltered south-facing spot for nectaring and roosting. Although this little Butterfly is not endangered, its habitat is diminishing. The caterpillars sole food plant is Horseshoe Vetch, only found growing on chalk grassland.

Roosting Male Chalk Hill Blue

Roosting Male Chalk Hill Blue

Sitting patiently waiting for Butterflies to land nearby and then staying to watch the sun go down with roosting Chalk Hill Blues alongside is quite a magical experience.

Wildlife Wednesday – Early Winter preparations

Over the last month high winds have brought down an ivy clad tree in our lane and many of the standing perennials I leave for sheltering invertebrates and foraging birds were blown to the ground. Temperatures have been slowly dropping and the first frost left its sparkling mark. We have put high energy, fat and suet up, to help birds maintain their body temperatures especially on cold nights.

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Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) on fat filled Coconut feeder

The Strong adult bills cope with seeds, sunflower hearts and peanuts but come springtime and early summer their chicks need caterpillars and up to 100 caterpillars a day, so for a brood of 10, thats 1,000 per day, collected from trees and shrubs. A very good reason to plant more trees, shrubs and a native hedge.

Blue Tit

Blue Tit

To the right of our east facing dining room window we have a veteran climbing hydrangea petiolaris, nearly 15 feet wide and 10 feet tall. The Summer flowers are a Bee magnet but in the winter when the leaves drop the gnarled structure becomes a playground for birds. Hanging fat filled coconut shells from the branches near the windows have brought in some confident Blue Tits. They are more common in our UK gardens now; once they would have lived primarily in deciduous woodland, where the food they need for their chicks to survive is hopefully abundant. The BTO report that males are usually brighter in colour than the females and the youngsters have pale yellow rather than white cheeks, but so far I haven’t been able to distinguish the adults apart, hopefully there will be a chance to see a chicks pale yellow cheeks next spring.

Squirrel

Squirrel stealing the birds peanuts

Another woodland but sometimes less welcome visitor is the Squirrel, we feed the birds every day and winter peanuts are pricey but birds bring so much joy and make our garden a better place to be. As winter begins several Grey Squirrels are visiting, all with a variation in colouring, we were really intrigued to see one with the cream underbelly colouring of our native Red Squirrel. But its not a hybrid, just a variation. The Greys are still causing controversy and the cull debate goes on. Anglesea an island off the north coast of Wales separated by the Menai Strait and linked to the mainland by two bridges have just declared they are a Grey Squirrel free zone. They achieved this by culling the Greys with the last reported sighting in 2013. There are now 700 Red Squirrels on the Island, which they hope will thrive.

Robin

Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

We have noticed Robins trying to extract seed from the feeders but they do not seem to be designed to cling on. Occasionally I put mealworms and sunflower hearts on a mesh ground platform for Robins but our wet November often left a soggy mess. So we placed fat filled cages adjacent to convenient branches, close enough for the Robin to reach across and take the spoils. Sheltering from the high wind this little chap was quite happy for me to stand close by with a camera.

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Elsewhere in our garden, I am bundling up the hollow stems of the wind strewn perennials and stacking logs to create ‘dead wood habitats’ which should rot down and any overwintering invertebrates provide more food for birds in the Spring. The hollow stems and seed heads will provide shelter for lady birds, lacewings and other beneficials. Piles of leaves have been stuffed into hedge bottoms. And we’ve been cleaning bird boxes and putting up new ones in readiness for the next cycle of life.

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With many thanks as always to Tina at My Gardener Says for her inspiring Wildlife Wednesday meme.

Happy Wildlife Watching!

Wildlife Wednesday – Great Spotted Woodpeckers

For the last month, we have been visited by a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers, the male is larger with a black cap and crimson red rectangle on his nape, the female is smaller with black cap extending to the nape. To tell them apart look at the back of their heads as he has a distinctive red rectangle and she does not. They do not appear at the same time but the odds they are a couple are high. On balance we seem to see the skittish female slightly more than the male. They have been tricky to photograph but a couple of weeks ago, I came home to find the male clinging to one of our peanut feeders.

Male Woodpecker

Male Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)

We live in a house with very large picture windows, so whilst we can see out easily, birds can spot if I am moving towards a window with a camera too, so Pink Panther style I crawled along the floor, holding my breath and camera and slowly slid up a wall. He was still there, still seemingly hanging on. I could not believe he was happy to pose and began to take photographs.

Male Woodpecker with closed eye lid

Male Woodpecker with nictitating membrane across eye

When I looked later at my photos I could see he had closed the nictitating membrane across his eye briefly. I’ve since read this is to both protect the eye from flying debris when they are chiselling wood and to clean the eye surface in much the same way we do when blinking. The longer I stood taking photographs with only a slight breeze moving the peanut feeder I began to worry his claws were entangled in the wire and he was frozen with fear. I thought through the process of trying to keep the bird calm whilst I unhooked him from the feeder.

Great Spotted Woodpecker with passing Blue Tit

Great Spotted Woodpecker with passing Coal Tit

Other birds flew by, he ignored them and just as I was finally bracing myself to help this beautiful bird, he flew off. I looked at the time line on my camera, he had hung there for just over 10 minutes, completely still. I then looked his behaviour up and my RSPB Handbook of British birds reports that Great Spotted Woodpeckers ‘freeze’ when danger threatens usually on the side facing away from danger. Does he not know how gorgeous and striking he is, that the flashes of red are most alluring?

The female of the species was much harder to photograph.  Annoyingly, we also have a large Magpie in our garden that dive bombs the Woodpeckers. I think his/her behaviour may be protective as like Magpies, Woodpeckers can eat other birds eggs and chicks and although any Magpie eggs should now be hatched, fledged and on their way to adulthood, the Magpie probably had a bad experience. However, a few days after the male had been so obliging I was delighted to be able to slide along the floor again, up the dining room wall and peek out from behind the curtains to see the female Great Spotted Woodpecker engrossed with peanuts.

Female Great Spotted Woodpecker

Female Great Spotted Woodpecker

The RSPB report they are the size of a Blackbird, the male seems larger, maybe its his puffed out chest. We occasionally see a pair of Green Woodpeckers looking for ants in our lawn but this is the first time we’ve been regularly visited by a two Great Spotted. Primarily living in woodland they use their powerful beaks to bore into trees and their long tongues to find the adults and larvae of wood boring beetles. Both the males and females also use their beaks to create nesting cavities within tree trunks and branches of mainly Birch and Oak. The repetitive knocking on wood sound is distinctive and joyful, one of the easiest birds to recognise by ear.

Female Great Spotted Woodpecker and Male Great Tit

Female Great Spotted Woodpecker and Male Great Tit

Great Spotted are one of 3 UK Woodpecker Species, Green, Great and Lesser. The Great Spotted are a success story, with numbers rising rapidly since the 1970’s and again in the 1990’s according to the BTO. A new colonisation of Ireland was recorded in 2008, where previously there have been no Woodpeckers. The BTO estimates 140,000 breeding pairs in the UK. I continued to watch the female Woodpecker who in turn was watching the Male Great Tit.

Female Great Spotted Woodpecker observing a departing male Great Tit

Female Great Spotted Woodpecker observing a departing male Great Tit

Then as the Great Tit jet packed off, I shifted slightly and she flew off too. We feel very fortunate to see these Woodpeckers visiting every couple of days, along with all of the usual suspects – Chaffinchs, Great Tits, Coal Tits, Blue Tits, Dunnocks, Sparrows, Blackbirds, Wrens, Wood Pidgeons, Jackdaws, a pair of Robins that so far I haven’t caught on camera but will keep trying. Pheasants, Long-tailed-Tits, occasional Goldfinches and the squabbling Starlings are all back too. But this month our honoured guests are having Wildlife Wednesday all to themselves.

My ever grateful thanks to Tina who writes the eye opening My Gardener Says blog for hosting this meme and for providing the opportunity to both share and to learn about other folks wildlife.

Happy Wildlife Watching!

Gelli Uchaf, Wales and Noel Kingsbury

Last week we drove across country to Wales, a land of enormously varied and beautiful scenery, spectacular coastlines and Gelli Uchaf, the home and garden of Julian and Fiona Wormald in the west of Wales.

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View from the terrace of Gelli Ufach

Julian and Fiona live on the top of a hill in a welsh Longhouse and garden in challenging conditions but they have staggeringly beautiful views. He writes an intelligent, thought provoking and diverse blog, centred around their life and garden – The Garden Impressionists and some months ago Julian wrote about a planned workshop, Noel Kingsbury was holding in their garden ‘The Rabbits Eye View’. I have dipped in a few of Noel’s books and coupled with Julian’s accounts, the opportunity to attend ‘The Rabbits Eye View’ workshop and visit Julian and Fiona’s garden at the same time was irresistible.

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Noel, jolly and entertaining in the Gelli Uchaf borders

We booked a short stay in a wonderful cottage, Felin Fach near Lampeter as either side of our 4 day break had unavoidable work commitments.  Wales is renown for rain but as our trip approached we were delighted to see a largely dry forecast.

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Water Butt at Gelli Uchaf, every vista has beautiful detail

Before the Thursday workshop, our Journey from home on the Tuesday to West Wales took us through the Brecon Beacons, designated a national park, part GeoPark and now also has International Dark Sky status too. An area covering 1,344 square kilometres with glorious rolling hills, home to the Hay on Wye Literary festival and invigorating walks.

Brecon Beacons

Brecon Beacons – Bales of Bracken

Part of the Brecon Beacons is common land, which means that local farmers have the right to graze livestock and to take or use some of the natural products. Here the right of ‘estovers’ – the right to cut and collect certain plants such as the bracken, which is cut in Autumn and baled, then used as bedding for farm animals.

Bracken and Gorse on Brecon Beacons Mynydd IIItud common land

Bracken and Gorse on Brecon Beacons Mynydd IIItud common land

We arrived at our cottage, way after night fall as looking for something to eat in Wales is like looking for the proverbial needle in a Bracken stack, especially in autumn. Lesson learnt we stocked up at the first opportunity and Wednesday morning set off for the coastline in search of the National Trust owned Stackpole Estate and Barafundle Bay, which according to the Trust is often voted one of the most beautiful bays in the World.

Barafundle Bay

Barafundle Bay

We drove along some of the route my husband had cycled on two years ago, up huge hills and down again with glimpses of the coast and finally arrived at National Trust owned Stackpole, parked in the almost empty car park and walked on to Barafundle Bay, we were not disappointed, even with a watery cool autumnal sky, the sea was still very blue, we walked on further until the weather changed and a squall of rain came in, then headed back to the car and the journey back to our cottage. No road is quick in Wales, as they meander through hills and mountains, tiny villages and few street lights. So again we arrived back at almost 9p.m.

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Up early the next day, as Anne the cottage owner and fellow workshop attendee kindly offered to take me, whilst my husband went walking with an old friend. Anne drove smoothly through beautiful countryside and as she chatted it was clear she is a very knowledgable plantswoman herself. We arrived early as Anne was helping Fiona with food and I wandered off into their garden for a short while.

First view in the morning

My first glimpse of their daily view

To the front of their Longhouse is a terrace, divided into two areas both overlooking the views to sell your house for.

Julian and Fiona's Welsh Longhouse

Julian and Fiona’s Welsh Longhouse

It was hard to know which way to go first as in every direction was something to draw me along. Julian and Fiona open for the National Gardens Scheme, if folk haven’t visited before its likely they get giddy with exhilaration . And then a second visit, third and fourth must be just as  giddying.

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A table to enjoy the Gelli Uchaf views from

I had not properly thought through how much Noel’s course would resonate with me before attending but boy what an eye opener. Noel’s course ‘Rabbits Eye View’ encouraged us to think more about plants in ecological terms, how the relationship with environments and ethical sustainability affected plant and plant design choices for the good. And in a fun, warm and refreshing way.

Rabbits eye View

Noel demonstrating the ‘Rabbits Eye View’

We got down to the nitty gritty of planting and looked at exactly how plants grow, challenging us to think through plant survival techniques and long term plant performances and especially to think ecologically as well as horticulturally. Noel took us through Julian and Fiona’ garden, which he clearly liked very much, he was warm, kind and encouraging and very charming. Noel is known for his naturalistic planting design and collaborations with other designers such as Piet Oudolf. Jason from Garden in a City reviewed his book Hummelo earlier this year.

Gelli Uchaf Woodland Garden. Photo Courtesy of Julian Wormald

Gelli Uchaf Woodland Garden. Photo Courtesy of Julian Wormald

As Noel guided us, gently interviewing Julian and Fiona at the same time he pointed out the details in every area of their garden, the smallest of details were joyous. I felt as if I should not be walking on the moss paths, my heavy footprints quite disturbing. We finally departed around 4.30p.m  –  7 hours had just whizzed by.

Moss paths through the woodland garden

Moss paths through the woodland garden with Saxifrage fortunei on left

If you have the chance to visit Julian and Fiona’s Garden, please take it as its so beautiful. I have only scratched the surface here, Julian’s The Garden Impressionists blog has far better photographs from every season to entice you and if Noel Kingsbury loves this garden then that recommendation is hard to beat.

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Photo courtesy of Julian Wormald Rabbits Eye View Workshop with Noel Kingsbury

On our last day in Wales before the journey east and back home we made the trip to New Quay on the Cardigan Bay, which is a Marine Conservation Zone. We stood on New Quay harbour with a Wildlife Trust volunteer, who was monitoring the Bottlenose Dolphins inhabiting these waters. He said as another rain squall came in behind us and I packed my camera away, this was unusually mild weather for the time of year. Within minutes a large Bottlenose fully leapt from the water tossing a fish in the air. The Wildlife Trust man, said we were incredibly lucky, that behaviour is rarely seen. Obviously I can’t show you that photo as I had just put my camera away, but we felt thoroughly blessed to have had such a wonderful trip to Wales. I shall leave you with one of Julian’s unbelievably beautiful early morning garden views instead.

Gelli Uchaf photo courtesy of Juilan Wormald

Gelli Uchaf photo courtesy of Julian Wormald

Wildlife Wednesday – Beneficial Balance

There’s been a mixed bag of weather during September, the hotter dry days made peering at insects a priority. They are mostly a joy to observe and obliging to photograph. Bees, Butterflies, Hoverflies, Beetles, Moths, Wasps have all been welcome. House flies have been really, really annoying. Beneficial or not Insects are encouraged here, invertebrates form the stuff of life, at the very least they provide food for birds, they pollinate flowers and fruit and without them we’d all be in a lot of trouble.  But they are a tricky lot to identify, unlike our visiting birds who by and large are much easier.

Long Tailed Tits and Great Tit

6 Long-tailed Tits are joined by a Blue Tit

To our sheer delight native Long-tailed Tits have made a reappearance in our garden, for most of the year they live on insects, foraged on woodland edges and hedgerows but in the Autumn and Winter we are fortunate to see them on our feeders, adding seeds and nuts to their diet. With a fast undulating flight, which is slightly comical to watch they are always uplifting to see. They are very social birds – parents, offspring and nest helpers all stay together and join in with other birds from the Tit family and can form flocks of 20 or so birds.

Jackdaw

Jackdaw

The Jackdaw is a bird that has us jumping up, banging the window or running out of doors clapping our hands loudly, he is ruthless. I think this one is a male as the grey ‘hood’ is quite distinctive and pale. As he swoops in, smaller birds disperse and he will take whole chunks of seed impregnated fat and if allowed he would polish the lot off.  Jackdaws are a member of the Crow family and are intelligent scavengers, their diet ranges from insects and seeds to scraps, road kill, eggs and young birds, they are social and usually seen in pairs although we often see just one – carrion birds fulfil a vital part of the food chain otherwise we would be knee deep in decay.

Female Greenfich and Blue Tit

Blue Tit with mottled head feathers on left and larger Female Greenfich on right

We were delighted to see a female Greenfinch back on the feeder and hoped the flashy looking bright green/yellow male would make an appearance too but so far he has been shy. In comparison, she is ‘drab’, with just a little understated yellow on the edges of her wings. They are about the size of a House Sparrow, larger than our Blue Tits and armed with a distinctive beak. Although not rare, they have been in steep decline recently due to the parasite disease trichomonosis, which prevents the Greenfinches from feeding properly.

Left, Male Chaffinch Right Coal tit, with moulting head feathers

On one of our many rainy days – Left, Male Chaffinch -Right Coal Tit checking out the company

Back to the tricky insects! At first I thought a bumblebee Queen had flown into our garden, I grabbed my camera and took photos from every angle, she was moving very slowly and walked between the Verbena stems, rather than flying on and off. I tried to photograph her markings, hind legs and some facial close ups. On closer inspection I could see the yellow band on her abdomen was broken and was almost giddy with the thought that I was looking at a rare Bumblebee. Turns out though, this is something else.

Southern Cuckoo Bumblebee

Southern Cuckoo Bumblebee with ‘broken’ yellow band

I logged on to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust website which the more I use the more I am gaining an understanding and starting to get my ‘eye’ in. After working through the options and eliminating possibilities, I was fairly confident I had photographed a Southern Cuckoo Bumblebee. I submitted a couple of photos for clarification and they confirmed my sighting. She is quite common though in the south of England and is no Queen.

Southern Cuckoo bumblebee walking with hairy legs

Southern Cuckoo bumblebee walking between flowers with hairy hind legs.

Cuckoo Bumblebees, do not have their own nests in the way true Bumblebees do, instead they sneak into the True Bumbles nests, evict or even kill the true Queen and take over her workers. There are 6 species of Cuckoo Bumblebee and each is designed to attack a specific species of True Bumble. The Southern Cuckoo attacks the nests of the Buff-tailed Bumblebee. I am not certain why these cuckoo bees have evolved this way but the dark evenings of winter are looming and there will be time to learn.

Nectaring Southern Cuckoo

Nectaring Southern Cuckoo bumblebee

As well as the birds there are several other insect predators lurking in our garden and this one lives in my potting shed! The Garden Spider – Araneus diadematus is in the process of parcelling up his lunch. Females are 15mm long and Males 9mm, this one was quite small, so guessing he was a he. If you look closely, he is in the process of preparing what looks like a Butterfly, as the tail extends to the last visible web line. There is a very helpful website the British Arachnological Society to help with lots more spider identifications.

Potting shed Friend Garden Spider

Potting shed companion – Garden Spider eating lunch

During the sunny last week of September a Common Darter Dragonfly came to rest on one the terracotta pots in my pile of ‘stuff to sort out’ Balancing on one leg I leant in to have a close up look. Adult Dragonflies also feed on insects including unwelcome midges. Dragonfly larvae, hatch in ponds and are strong swimmers, they are more voracious and include tadpoles in their diet. The British Dragonfly society has a very helpful website, detailing their amazing lifecycle and helping with identifications.

Common Darter Dragonfly

Common Darter Dragonfly

Still balancing on one leg and leaning over my ‘pile of stuff to sort’, I could sense movement to my left. There is a tarpaulin laying over some pieces of wood destined for a future project. And just sitting on top of the tarpaulin was quite a large frog, males are 9cms long and females 13cms, I did not have a tape measure handy but guessed she could be a she. Frogs eat insects, slugs and worms, they are threatened in turn by disease and loss of habitat.

Common Frog

Common Frog

We eye balled each other for a few seconds, as the frog was gulping I pulled back to stand on two legs, the Frog just turned obligingly to one side and waited for a while before slowly hopping off to the undergrowth.

Common Frog

Common Frog

Now this is an easy one for me to identify, in the UK we have only two species of Frog and two species of Toad, I hoped she was well and wondered why she moved so slowly, maybe the heat was slowing her down. In trying to research some more I came across a couple of articles who confirmed kissing a frog will not help in the search for a prince. Who knew! But for a more detailed informative website on amphibians Froglife is definitely worth looking at.

Many thanks to the very lovely Tina from My Gardener Says, who hosts this lovely eye opening, mind broadening meme. Her own post is packed with visitors and encouragement.

Happy Wildlife Watching!