Friday 24 December 2010

First sign of Spring!

The farm has played host to a good number of birds during the recent severe weather. I've counted up to 260 Golden Plover feeding on the pastures. They especially favour the fields below the windmill, where the sloping ground thaws a little more quickly. Thirty or so Lapwings and a few Dunlin are around, with at least 55 Snipe also feeding out in the open amongst the plovers.

Over 100 thrushes have arrived over the last few days. Most numerous are Redwings (50+), followed by Blackbirds and Song Thrushes, with a few Fieldfares too.

All the pools are frozen over so there are no wildfowl. There's no doubt that some birds are struggling to survive now. As I walked along this morning, a Wren was fluttering weakly amongst the rushes in front of me instead of powering into cover as one would expect.

BUT......the first frog-spawn of the Spring was found this week!!!

Sunday 28 November 2010

From Potrero to Zero

My first visit to the farm today for a month. I returned from the Pacific coast of Costa Rica on Friday and am still trying to adjust to a temperature drop of 50F+! I was still wearing my glasses with the photo-chromatic lenses, hardly ideal for birding in sunlight. The brand-name is Reactions, but I think Over-reactions would be more appropriate.

I see that a couple of new species have been added to the reserve bird-list in my absence: Common Gull (long overdue) and Mediterranean Gull (which we expected sooner or later). The total is now 157. Today all the pools were frozen, which doesn't happen too often on the Lizard. A flock of 140 Golden Plover were feeding out on the pasture but there wasn't much else around. It's a real shame that we have no crops to feed the finches this winter, especially if we're in for a hard time. Our usual arable contractor having retired, we were let down by another farmer who failed to keep his promises.
In the absence of any new photos from the farm, I'm posting a few I took in warmer climes!

Friday 22 October 2010

Scrape and polish

When we acquired the farm over eight years ago, the only water-body was Ruan Pool, which in those days was only a fraction of its original size due to steadily invading vegetation. We decided to create a small scrape to attract a few wildfowl and waders. It was dug in late 2002 in a boggy area at the bottom of a very gentle slope at the edge of the pasture.

To prove that you can create something from nothing, it regularly attracted duck during the winter (six species) and, if water levels were suitable, a nice variety of spring and autumn waders. The Cornwall Wildlife Trust reserves team built a rather imposing tower-hide to overlook it. Highlights have included Little Egret, Pink-footed Geese, Garganey, Little Ringed Plover, Black-tailed Godwit, Little Stint, Pectoral Sandpiper, Jack Snipe, Water Pipit and, best of all, a Citrine Wagtail, which was present for 35 minutes on the morning of 16th May 2004 (marvel at the quality of my video clip). Reed, Sedge and Grasshopper Warblers and Reed Buntings breed in the phragmites. I've also seen Marsh, Hen and Montagu's Harriers hunting over it - and a very possible Pallid!

Of course, nothing lasts for ever and over the last two or three years nature has been steadily working to return the land to its former condition. Recent visitors carefully entering the hide have probably been quite perplexed (and disappointed) to find themselves looking at a lot of rush and reedmace, very little water, and no birds. Hence this week our expert contractor Andy Tylor has been on site and......we have a scrape again!

Sunday 26 September 2010

A painful lesson is learnt!

I'm on my way down to the farm this morning and Dougy, who seems to have a problem sleeping and is already there, is on the phone to tell me there's a Little Stint and three Dunlin on the pool variously known as the Plantlife pond (as Plantlife funded it), the dead pool (because for the first couple of years its existence it seemed devoid of any form of life) and I Can't Believe It's Not Walmsley, this last one being a sarcastic reference to the fact that every now and then it does attract a wader or two.

So I amble across the field and there's the man himself, standing behind his Velbon monopod and Nikon 'scope looking very pleased with himself. After all, this is only the third Little Stint ever to be seen on the reserve. It's a typical juvenile, dashing about all over the place, loosely accompanied by two of the Dunlin which are trying to keep up with it.

"The other one's over there - it's been half hidden behind the rushes" says Dougy. He hasn't had a proper look at it yet as he's been enjoying good views of the stint.

I point my bins across the pool at the precise point that the fourth wader emerges on to the open mud. I suggest to Dougy that he might like to take a closer look. Although he makes an admirable attempt to appear unfazed, I can tell he is shattered as he realises that it is in fact a Pectoral Sandpiper!

I'd like to point out that Dougy, never one to let pride spoil a good story, insisted I tell it like it was. He has now learnt his lesson, i.e. grill everything properly before anyone else arrives....

All the waders suddenly took off and flew toward the airfield, but we later relocated the Pectoral on Ruan Pool, where we got great views from the old hide. It was unusually flighty, even being spooked by a passing Jackdaw, which then chased it round in circles before allowing it to re-settle.

This is the third record for the farm - it's as regular here as Little Stint!

Friday 17 September 2010

Hybridising hirundines?

Nothing too out of the ordinary to report lately. A juvenile Marsh Harrier was found standing in the shallows (thoughts of the Rolling Stones there...) of one of the dragonfly ponds on 3rd. We've had a few waders through: Ringed Plover, Greenshank, Ruff, Whimbrel, Curlew, Dunlin, Green Sandpipers. One of the Curlew had a horribly damaged leg, bending 180° backwards from the knee. The Whimbrel was hobbling a bit too. There's been an average passage of Wheatears, Whinchats, Spotted Flycatchers and Yellow Wagtails. A Wryneck failed to make it on to the farm by a matter of feet last weekend.

And so the rarest bird to pay us a visit this autumn dropped by this morning as I was standing by the Plantlife pond. A bunch of about 15 Swallows came down and skimmed the surface. Amongst them, flying away from me, was one with a big white rump patch. It was not a House Martin. Red-rumped Swallow flashed through my mind for about a nano-second, because as it turned, it was just a Swallow. In every respect except that rump, it looked like a bog-standard young Barn Swallow.

Off they went, gaining height and moving south, leaving me scratching my head and wondering if it was just an aberrantly plumaged Swallow or a hybrid x House Martin. I think the fact that the white patch was regularly-shaped and clearly defined makes the latter the more likely.

Sunday 22 August 2010

More angst for arachnophobes

Although Ruan Pool is pretty well dry, some of the our other pools look suitable enough for waders, yet they're in distinctly short supply so far this autumn. Stithians Reservoir is having a sandpiper-fest, so I can only presume that Simon, the warden up there, is playing dirty and has set up some kind of feeding station for waders. Well Simon, we have a secret weapon that will be kicking in soon and I am strongly tipping Windmill to turn up an American or two before September is out.

So this morning our thoughts turned to butterflies, dragonflies, moths - and spiders again, especially as the overnight mist had left thousands of webs glistening in the sunshine. We found a number of large orb webs very similar to that spun by our resident Wasp Spider (see posts below), but the inhabitants, although quite large and colourful, didn't have quite the same impact as the stunningly scary Argiope bruennichi.

We took a number of photos and were later able to i.d. them as two common species of Araneus, namely quadratus (above) and diadematus (below). Thanks to Dougy Wright for the top left and bottom right photos and supplying his shorts for the backdrop to that at top right.

Tuesday 10 August 2010

Feeding-time for the beast

I renewed my acquaintance with the Wasp Spider today. The hayfield will be mown soon so I cordoned off the area where it lives. As I approached it I disturbed a grasshopper which jumped straight into its web. Now that's unlucky. It was immediately set upon. They quickly immobilise their prey by wrapping it in silk. It is then bitten and injected with venom and a protein dissolving enzyme. Nice.

This spider is listed in the Cornwall Red Data Book. Rosemary Parslow tells me that they found two in a field on Scilly three years ago. It's amazing how they spread.

Sunday 8 August 2010

An exciting discovery with a sad twist

I came across the most incredible spider at the farm this morning. The abdomen was about 1.5 cms long and from the tip of the front legs to the tip of the back legs was about 5.5 cms. That is some BIG spider! I was able to identify it from the Collins Field Guide to Spiders as Argiope bruennichi, known as the Wasp Spider. It's a female, full of eggs. That zig-zag ribbon of silk is called the stabilimentum - there are several theories as to its purpose.

In Europe this species is locally distributed in France, Germany and the Low Countries. Following the first British record in 1922, it is apparently now well established in locations near the English south coast and is spreading northwards. The females make their webs in long grass, often near field edges, and that's just where this one was.

An internet search for "Cornwall spiders" led me to, a real enthusiast's resource where you can download a distribution map for every species found in the county. The map for the Wasp Spider shows only seven locations where it has been recorded, the nearest being on the Fal estuary. Coverage throughout the county is patchy but the Lizard and West Penwith have received more attention than most other areas.

I noticed that the maps haven't been updated since April 2006. Another search and I was shocked to learn the reason why. Steve Hopkin was killed in a road accident the following month. He had been a senior lecturer in zoology at Reading University, a scientific associate in entomology at the Natural History Museum in London and was the spider recorder for Cornwall. What is especially poignant is that the biography on his website is still in the present tense. A work in progress was abruptly and tragically terminated.

Friday 16 July 2010


I've noticed that several of my fellow bloggers have been publishing photos of invertebrates recently, so not to be out out-done, here are a few hoverflies from the farm.

Clockwise from top left:

Helophilus trivittatus

Helophilus trivittatus

Helophilus pendulus

Syrphus ribesii

Scaeva pyrastri

Leucozona glaucia

"British Hoverflies" by Stubbs and Falk is one of my favourite natural history books. All of these shots were taken with my dawn-of-the-digital-age Nikon Coolpix 4500, which I originally bought for digi-scoping, a really exasperating activity which I wouldn't recommend to my worst enemy.

Friday 9 July 2010

Cattle diss the warden

I was down at the farm the other day and came across a huge group of people - well, at least 30 - wandering around with butterfly nets and pooters and magnifying glasses and the like. Turns out they were the Ecology and Conservation Studies Society from Birkbeck College, London, on a week's field trip and jolly. I introduced myself and was immediately surrounded (I hesitate to say mobbed) and bombarded with questions, some of which I was able to answer, such as:

"How do you manage your hay-fields?"

"When does the Cornish Heath flower?"

"Where's the nearest pasty shop?"

"What's the capital of Azerbaijan?"

The leader of the group told me that when he had walked into the first field he had been delighted to see a specimen of Parentucellia viscosa. "Yellow Bartsia!" he explained, on noting my blank expression. He then went on to say he had been completely astonished to find the next field, and the next, and the next, absolutely full of the stuff. This is an uncommon plant and he had never seen anything like it in his life. So I was able to brag about it, quite a lot.

Resuming my walk round I was struck by the numbers of young birds around: Willow Warblers, Whitethroats and especially Goldfinches. It seems to have been a great breeding season so far.

I ran the moth-trap again on Wednesday night and it produced 242 moths of 51 species. You can add to this a few escapees, a couple of micro-moths who will have to remain unidentified and a full English breakfast for the Sedge Warblers who live in the adjacent bushes and picked up many of the moths unlucky enough to have parked up in nearby vegetation. These numbers are an improvement on the last couple of summers but I reckon they are still down on five years ago. The most numerous species in the trap was surprisingly Elephant Hawk-moth, with 32 individuals. Here are some of the squadron waiting for the signal to scramble.

And here's a Plain Golden Y, a beautiful moth, though not quite as beautiful as the Beautiful Golden Y!

Yesterday I found a group of cattle which had managed to infiltrate the meadows which are kept for hay, via a broken electric fence-wire. They were clearly having a wonderful time chewing on the succulent long grasses. I went over and and made an attempt to herd them back out on to the pasture. No way were they going to agree to this. They just went round in a circle and settled back down where they started. I tried to appeal to their better judgement:

"This is your winter feed. If you eat it now you might regret it later." I said.

Here is their spokescow, mouthing "We're staying put, so get lost!"

I left them to it and phoned James, the farmer. It's his problem, not mine!

Sunday 13 June 2010

Pure gold

When the farm was acquired back in 2001 and we started to take stock of what species we had, it was generally believed that Marsh Fritillary wouldn't be one of them, on account of the fact that it's probably too exposed. The following summer, one day in July, I was therefore pretty surprised to find a single, very worn individual, leading us to wonder if we could have a colony after all.

Well it turns out that we did. Our best counts were of 18 butterflies in 2004 and 12 in 2006. Then we had that run of lousy summers. After seeing just two specimens in 2007, we had two blank years and we reckoned the colony had been lost. But.....last weekend Dougy was mooching around along the western edge of the heathland and, lo and behold - two beautiful, crisp Marsh Frits!

This morning, despite the fact that it was overcast with quite a cool breeze at home in Wendron, I eventually mustered enough enthusiasm to go down to the farm to join Dougy in looking for them again. As is so often the case when all points north are shrouded in cloud, the sun was blazing on the southern end of the Lizard.

As it happens we didn't find any Marsh Frits, but we did see some Small Pearl-bordered, along with Large Skippers and Common Blues, and lots of Common Heath moths, Four-spotted Chasers, Black-tailed Skimmers and some pristine Emperor dragonflies.

We started to wander over to Ruan Pool and Dougy idly remarked that it was time we found something good. Suddenly I stopped dead in my tracks. Did I just hear a Golden Oriole??? A brief pause. YES I DID!!! It was singing repeatedly. From a tall willow hedge not 50 yards away. I just couldn't believe it. Sure it's a bird we always hope for, but in warm south-easterlies in late April or May, not a rather cool north-westerly airstream in mid June when Cornwall hasn't appeared on the scarce/rare birds websites for some while. Anyway, we walked the hedge for a while, hearing it all the time, but they are sods to see in the foliage. It then moved across one of the meadows to another hedge, but a few minutes later we had great flight views as it flew back across. It was clearly a 1st summer bird, a bit green and streaky, but with a nice yellow rump.

Amazingly this was my first oriole in Cornwall in nearly 25 years birding here. And of course to see it at the farm was just priceless.

Saturday 5 June 2010

Creatures of the night

I had the moth-trap running at the farm on Wednesday night, its first outing of the year. With a clear sky and fresh south-easterly wind, conditions were not ideal and I only had 80 moths of 24 species, plus a few cockchafers. Clockwise from left: Puss Moth, Eyed Hawk-moth, Cockchafer and Elephant Hawk-moth. The moth species list for the reserve is 294.

Thursday 3 June 2010


I sat in the old hide at Ruan Pool this morning, watching the same 1st summer Hobby that we saw earlier in the week. At first it was hunting from a perch on a dead branch, making short dashes to the ground to pick up prey. When the temperature reached the point where the dragonflies started flying, things got very exciting. It would come dashing towards me, then shoot back and forth across the pool, making sudden twists upwards to catch its prey. After a few minutes it would return for a short rest before doing it all over again. It made at least a dozen forays in the hour that I was there and it was extremely efficient, catching around 25-30 dragonflies in that time. There were moments when it flashed past only feet away and at one point it nearly came straight through the hide window! These are among my best shots.

Monday 31 May 2010

Bank Holiday rarity!

Relax, I'm just talking about the sun. It was beautiful on the Lizard this morning. The 1st summer Hobby showed up again but not long enough for me to improve on my photos taken in very average light yesterday, when Dougy and I watched for it hunting over Ruan Pool for over half an hour. The summer-plumage Black-tailed Godwit that Dougy also saw wasn't around today.

There were lots of dragonflies and damselflies on the wing today. Here are shots of a teneral (= recently emerged) Broad-bodied Chaser and a male Beautiful Demoiselle. The best area to see lots of the latter is along the western boardwalk.

Meanwhile the short boardwalk behind the old scrape (the one in front of the large hide) is great for Common Lizards. Walk along slowly on a sunny day and you can get very close without disturbing them.

The Hereford cows' dreams came true this morning when the bull arrived. When they saw him coming down the ramp out of the trailer they all went charging across to greet him, but he did his "Treat 'em mean, keep 'em keen" act, turned his back and got stuck into some serious grazing. That lasted about five minutes before he realised he was in heaven. For a while he didn't know which way to turn, but he left me in no doubt that he didn't welcome any paparazzi clicking away while he was at work. That photo (right) was taken with a standard lens and, just for a moment, I was ever so slightly worried! My advice is to give him a wide berth until he's used up some of that adrenalin.

Our contractor has buried a flexible pipe in the bank of the pond formerly know as the dead pond (see a previous post), to allow us to maintain a low water-level. The bit sticking out needs pruning but I'm showing this photo first to demonstrate how the colour of the pipe has been carefully chosen to blend in with the environment....