Friday 19 January 2018

When nature reads the script

Don’t act with children or animals is old cliché … or expect nature to perform as you’d hope would normally be equally sound advice.
Willow Emerald, a late individual, 7 November 2017.

However on our monthly guided walk round NWT Thorpe Marshes one evening in July 2017 we had a stroke of luck you would never dare predict.

There is a pretty damsel of which I am rather fond. The Willow Emerald Damselfly has a remarkable story anyway. It’s been in the UK just a decade. First found in Suffolk in 2007, it’s been at RSPB Strumpshaw Fen for several years and at Thorpe Marshes since 2013.

Willow Emerald distribution 2017, courtesy British Dragonfly Society.
A remarkable characteristic of this species is how the damselfly lays its eggs into small cuts made in a thin branch. This leaves a distinctive, regular pattern as scar tissue forms. That branch is always over water as the eggs overwinter there and larvae drop into the water in the spring. They develop underwater then emerge as adults in late summer.

Derek Longe, a regular at Thorpe Marshes, wrote a short, illustrated paper about his observations here for the specialist journal Atropos. At Thorpe Marshes, Derek and I have found Willow Emerald egg-laying scars on two species of willow, ash and alder. That’s a good range of ‘host’ species, but not out of the ordinary.

Derek also photographed his surprising discovery of damselflies laying eggs into dead, brown bramble, rather than their usual choice of young, live twigs.
A Willow Emerald lands on Derek's paper about Willow Emeralds (Derek Longe)

We were talking about this with our guided walk group and Derek produced a copy of his paper. A Willow Emerald Damselfly appeared, as if by magic, and landed on his paper.

It stayed long enough for Derek to capture the moment – the photo shown here.

Chris Durdin, July 2017

More than I can say … a tribute to Bobby Vee

I suppose it’s a measure of our different cultural reference points that the column inches devoted to the death of popular musicians can seem out of kilter to me. Pete Burns? My reaction was … who? Leonard Cohen I understand better, and Hallelujah is a fine, much-covered song. It reminds me of a girlfriend who listened to Leonard Cohen when she was feeling low. My advice then and now is it’s better to listen to the Beach Boys: to uplift your mood rather than reinforcing gloom.

These two had many column inches, but the passing of Bobby Vee in October 2016 earned just a ‘news in brief’ in my i newspaper. For me, the songs of Bobby Vee are wonderfully typical of the dreamboats-and-petticoats pre-Beatles era. He had a light, effortless tenor voice, with every word completely clear – which served to enhance the vocal tricks on non-words like the ‘Oh oh yea yea’ on More Than I Can Say and how he sings ‘you’ and ‘ee’ on Rubber Ball (you have to listen to get these). It sounds so easy when he sings. It isn’t – I’ve tried!

Rubber Ball, I admit, makes me envious of the song’s backing singers. Imagine being asked what you’d been doing at work today and being to reply, “Singing ‘Bouncy Bouncy’ in a recording studio.”

Bobby Vee had the bonus of performing songs written by the greatest of pop song writers, Goffin & King. ‘How Many Tears’ (the backing track sounds like ‘Young Jimmy Young Jimmy Young’), ‘Run To Him’ and, above all, ‘Take Good Care Of my Baby’.  This last song has one of those splendid eight-bar intros that I collect: ‘My Tears are falling since you’ve taken her away …’ that could almost lead into ‘Hats Off to Larry’, ‘It Might As Well Rain Until September’ and other classics of that period. But it doesn’t, and Bobby Vee’s vocal of

‘If you should discover
That you don’t really love her
Please send my baby back home to me.’

remains a lyric that tugs on the heart strings.

Bobby Vee was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2011 and, according to Wikipedia, he died from complications related to Alzheimer’s disease in 2016.

Chris Durdin, written in November 2016

Wednesday 10 January 2018

Elk in winter

Winter has arrived in Biebrza valley, writes Honeyguide's Poland guide, Artur Wiatr
The first freeze is a signal for elk to move from the marshes to higher and drier pine woods – their natural routine this time of year.
Elk at Biebrza National Park, Poland (Piotr Tałałaj).
Pine forest provides lot of food over winter time: the bark and needles of pine and other coniferous trees are a basic diet. Therefore, winter is the easiest time to watch this magnificent animal, sometimes eye to eye. Usually they form small groups consisting of an elk cow followed by a first and a second year calf. 

Elk at Biebrza (Piotr Tałałaj). More elk photos by Piotr on Facebook.
Sometimes there might be bigger groups – especially around those places where pine trees are cut down to give more food for elk and to stop them damaging agricultural crops in the neighbourhood.

Winter is also the time when bulls drop antlers – so one has to be careful when determining gender. Elk will stay in the forest for the whole winter and move back towards the marshes by the end of March and April. Biebrza Valley is the biggest refuge of elks in Poland. There are c. 600 elks living in Biebrza National Park and a few thousand in the whole country.

What makes Latvia special?

David Collins writes about Latvia's appeal.

Fuerteventura with Honeyguide leader David Collins has been fully booked for many weeks, but you can still travel with him to Latvia
“What is it that makes a destination an outstanding place for a wildlife holiday? Having travelled extensively in both Europe and beyond in search of birds and other wildlife, I have come to the conclusion that, for me, there are three things that have to come together. Firstly, the place itself has to have a sense of magic about it - something to make me feel I am in a special kind of place. Then it has to have a selection of birds that are both interesting and common enough to see fairly easily. And last but not least, there has to be a sense that something unexpected might be just round the corner.
"Latvia ticks all three boxes. It is not always easy to capture exactly what it is about a place that makes it feel really special, but I felt it immediately in Latvia. Latvia is at the western margin of the vast boreal forest of Asia, the largest forest on earth. But whereas much of that vast forest zone is inhospitable and rather difficult to access, Latvia is welcoming and straightforward. So you get all the excitement of the great forest without the downsides. True, there are farmed areas as well, but the forests in the area of Latvia that Honeyguide visits seem endless. And Latvia is civilised but not spoilt. The roads are good but there isn’t much on them, so there is a real sense of peace.
The part of Latvia we visit has large coastal wetlands. The wildlife is partly Scandinavian in feel, partly eastern and partly continental - perhaps this white stork qualifies for all of these (photos by David Collins). This is a return to Latvia for David having paid a private visit in 2014 (report here). 
Green hairstreaks
"The birds include a wide selection of boreal woodpeckers and other birds, as well as the more typical eastern European species. Perhaps more than anywhere else I have been, it is important to be looking both down and up as often as possible! Down at the woodland flowers and up to look for of migrant birds heading up the west coast of Latvia towards Scandinavia, including birds of prey. The combination of forest, wetland and sea means that there are always plenty of different birds to see and it is one of those places where there is always a sense that the unexpected is likely.
"Perhaps you will chance on a hawfinch or a bluethroat at close range, a golden eagle will fly low over the forest, or there will suddenly be a male capercaillie standing in the middle of the road. All of those things happened to me when I was there a few years back, but perhaps it was the elk that stole the show. We were driving slowly along one of the endless forest tracks and had just seen a hazel grouse. Suddenly we realised there was a huge bull elk watching us from among the trees close to the track. We watched it watching us for some minutes before it made its way slowly off into the forest.”

Valencia: bird ringing sheds light on wetland warbler survival

For many Honeyguiders, one of the highlights of our March Valencia trip is to attend a bird ringing session at Pego Marshes Natural Park. Ou...