Sunday, 27 October 2013

Imperfect Day

Saddened by the news of the passing of Lou Reed today. Got into his music late (after seeing him support U2 at Wembley in 1986) Perfect Day one of my all time favourites.
But the show must go on :

Still a few darters around today at Far Pasture in the brief periods of sunshine around mid-day. Small tit flock and scattering of red kites, buzzards, sparrowhawks and a kestrel. Otherwise fairly quiet.
A ruff and 2x Dunlin at Shibdon Pond earlier.

Finished my latest ink and watercolour dragonfly, a black darter as promised :

Next up, Four-spotted Chaser.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Life in the Freezer

Another interesting question from Johnnykinson asking if I know the lowest temperature at which a dragonfly can survive.
The quick answer is no but that hardly constitutes an interesting post to keep my reader(s) happy ;) so a bit of research was necessary to go with my basic general knowledge.

It's a fact that dragonfly species inhabit every continent but the Antarctic, and it's generally accepted that all around the world the arctic treeline is the most northerly latitude for dragonflies to thrive.

Looking at distribution maps for Europe, the range of some species extends to northern Scandinavia (Common Hawker and White-faced Darter for instance) and there are others which are sub-arctic specialists and only found in the north like Azure Hawker and Northern Emerald, indeed the scientific name for northern emerald (Somatochlora arctica) actually translates as 'Green-bodied of the Arctic'.

Only one European species, the Treeline Emerald (Somatochlora sahlbergi) is found exclusively in remote regions north of the arctic circle, surviving also the inhospitable climates of Alaska, north-west Canada and Siberia, overcoming the remoteness of the habitat, poor weather conditions and a very short summer.

They survive in small, deep ponds and lakes of the arctic tundra, mainly woody heathlands with a scattering of small birch and pine trees. The fact that average adult lifespans are no more than 6-8 weeks in most species of our region means the summer season doesn't have to be that long, but habitat would also have to contain a decent amount of prey species to ensure survival of the adult dragonfly (same reason birds migrate and bats etc hibernate).
Obviously the ponds themselves would have to contain food species too, and as most of their lives are spent underwater, a lot depends on the hardiness of the larva to survive the winter months. Experiments have actually taken place which have proven that all but the smallest of larval stages can survive being frozen (to about -5c) and thawed out again so that shouldn't present too much of a problem if the water is deep enough to avoid freezing altogether.

So no definitive answer I'm afraid as far as actual temperatures are concerned for the adults. Being cold-blooded anyway they have their own inbuilt temperature regulators, (wing-shivering being the most obvious) but as long as food is available and enough short periods of warmth exist for the adults to be active, dragonflies of one species or another will survive all but the most desolate of climates. It always amazes me anyway that after a few days of cold wind and rain (like recently) a bit of sunshine sees them out in numbers again, even in October (see last post).   

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Late October but another year-first :)

Just had to take advantage of the sunshine today but with only an hour or so to spare this meant yet another trip to Far Pasture.

Gibside Hall from far Pasture roadside
looking splendid m the autumn surroundings

But the session finished well when a hunting migrant hawker in the bull field (which incidentally now has horses in) turned out to be a female when it eventually came close enough and away from the sun's rays. A cracking bright yellow specimen, she seemed to be in prime condition, but better still, the first I've come across this year. I watched her hawking the field for some minutes in hope she would land close by for a photo opportunity but it wasn't to be, and after feasting on a host of little flying greeblies (quite low down at times) she disappeared in the distance. But I was well happy with the sighting.

Earlier a southern hawker (male) also proved elusive along the access road, and there was still a double-figure count of common darters, mainly over-mature females but a few prime males around and three tandem couples.

A very over-ripe female now sporting the leather look

The 'rusty' wings of this male give his age away too

Unlike the hawkers, the darters don't mind posing
for the camera.

note this individual shows an extended frons, unusual in common darters. 

From the hide just a few darters on the pond, and 13 basking snipe were the pick of the birdies here. Goldcrest in the car park and a mixed tit-flock carried a chiffchaff through as well. The raptor count was disappointing for the conditions, 3 kites, 2 buzzards, 1 each of kestrel and sparrowhawk.

A glorious afternoon, not many left now I'll bet.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Another shitty Day in Paradise . . .

Back to normal today, the sunshine and dragonflies of yesterday already a distant memory . . .but it wasn't raining so I decided to check out the damhead for migrating salmon.
Couldn't believe it though, as soon as I saw the river from the viaduct I realised it would be a waste of time as the water level was no different to the norm, and rather than looking like builders tea the river was clear as a pint of watered-down club bitter.

I continued my journey anyway and glad I did as I bumped into an old marra and caught up with a bit gossip.
The damhead was as feared, no prospect of any piscatorial entertainment so I decided to continue on to Shibdon Pond as I hadn't been for weeks and there might be a few uncommon waders there.
There weren't.
I did bump into another old acquaintance not seen for a couple of years so caught up with a bit of different gossip but apart from 328 lapwing and an overhead sparrowhawk, not much to report from here either.
Believe it or not I had a walk around the reedbeds looking for migrant hawkers despite the cold and murk but all I found was a wasp.

I cycled back home thoroughly pissed off then read the Birdman's last post from the Scillies and cheered right up. No matter how bad it gets, there's always someone worse off than you, and all the better when it's one of your mates :)

Footnote : The Birdman has rediscovered his mojo with a good days local twitching, can't begrudge it after his last few days. :)


Thursday, 17 October 2013

Nice day, but could have been better . . .

Checking the met office forecast each day for the last week I'd been looking forward to Thursday as it has remained the only day likely to be free of the cold, wet and gloom of an otherwise crappy mid-October.
So a bonus was the sunshine which greeted me this morning, the only downside now was that the schoolteachers were on strike (typical) so I was left with two sprogs to look after. This meant I couldn't get up to Shibdon to check for Migrant Hawkers or even the damhead for leaping salmon (river levels should be v.high after all the rain) so a walk along to Far Pasture (for a change) was my best option to see if the cold and rain over the last week or so had seen off the last of the dragonflies.

Well they're a hardy bunch, with the sun out in blue skies the roadside fences were still dotted with a decent number of darters, and every now and then tandem pairs flew up out of the fields over towards the pond.
On the pond itself there were maybe half a dozen pairs and a few singles, though we didn't stay long as my sprogs are not the quietest in the presence of others in the hide.

So I just stood at the gate halfway along the road chatting to Roly as the boys scootered up and down. Best birds in the area were two kestrels, a buzzard ignoring about forty jackdaws, and a flock of 24 redwings circling a couple of times.

A blurry kestrel on a distant fence, but look at the bright sunshine

Serenaded by a Robin, and look at those
blue skies ....magic!
At last a hawker came on the scene, a female southern, showing well and buzzing us on a few occasions but not posing for photos. I snapped a few darters (as you never know when its going to be your last) and a pristine comma which must have just recently emerged to be in such good condition.

Strong colours . . .

Strong light . . .

Strong shadows . . .

Strong contrast . . .

Strong composition . . .

Other butterflies still present were a white species and what looked like a raggy meadow brown (not my strongest subject).
Back up the track another hawker, this time male and very dark so I think common, unfortunately a car came along the road as I was tracking it so had to reel in the kids and couldn't relocate it.

A canny little session though, would liked to have got along to Shibdon in view of the number of dragons still showing here, but tomorrow is forecast to be shitty :(
What might have been . . . (now for the Scooby Doo ending). . . if it wasn't for those meddling kids !


Saturday, 12 October 2013

Gloom and Doom . . .

Autumn can be the most beautiful and inspiring of seasons, but at the moment with summer still fresh in mind and the dragonfly season all but ended it's just gloomy and depressing

Matters made worse by the 2013 breeding figures for the local red kites. It doesn't make for good reading with only 18 known fledglings from 27 nesting attempts and all but two of the nests were in the core area of the lower derwent valley. A disappointing return for all concerned.

Two nests are known to have failed through predation, with close-by nesting crows the main suspects, and probably guilty in more cases given the number of corvids in and around the valley. But that's nature, whereas the reasons behind the non-spreading out from the core area may be altogether more sinister.

I've been in conversation with the publicity officer of FoRK (Friends of Red Kites) over the last few days, she mentioned that there is a kite from Central Scotland on our patch at the moment and I said I'd keep an eye out for it as I had a similar visitor from the Black Isle over the garden last year, a first year juv.
She informed me that sadly that bird was found dead on the moors near Muggleswick earlier this year, poisoned along with another of our own kites nearby. I hadn't heard this (I couldn't even find mention of it on the FoRK website) and was shocked this should happen so relatively close to home.

It beggars belief, a young bird makes its way here from the north of Scotland only for its life to be ended through archaic attitudes and human greed. Now I understand the grouse moors are an important habitat for many other birds and animals which otherwise would struggle to survive in any other environment, but intolerant landowners seem to be above the law. The few corpses that are found are most likely just the tip of the iceberg.
Any kite venturing up to Northumberland has received the same welcome; in the very first year WT10 'Flash' became the first (known) victim of the moors murderers, and just lately a pair were poisoned during the breeding season, resulting in their chicks starving to death on the nest. Gawd only knows how many more have been 'lost' up there and remain unaccounted for.

I'd also been talking to a Far Pasture regular who also gets up to Muggleswick and Derwent Reservoir a lot. He tells me that (allegedly) the gamekeepers there run around on quadbikes in the spring, blasting anything that resembles a buzzard nest (or kite nest?) out of the trees with shotguns. Whether this is true or not I don't know, but it wouldn't surprise me if it was.
Same bloke had a hen harrier in the area about four weeks back. Hasn't seen it since so hopefully it was just passing through.
But in my opinion therein lies the answer to why our kites haven't spread beyond local boundaries, and why so many go missing without trace. Vast areas of moorland just to the north, south and west amounting to no more than miles and miles of avian minefield.

Next year is the tenth anniversary of the first release of the Northern Kites, a big celebration is planned. Might be a good idea to take advantage of the publicity this will receive by naming and shaming the people who's land has been involved in poisoning our kites over this period.

I've ranted enough; I sign the petitions and I pays my money to the RSPB in the hope that one day things might change. Instead it just seems to get worse. Ranting is all I can do. It pisses me off.     

Thursday, 10 October 2013

George and the Dragons . . .

Got an email from Shibdon George telling me there are still a few migrant hawkers frequenting the boardwalks at Shibdon pond, and a couple of canny pics to prove his point :

Migrant Hawkers at Shibdon (both males)
courtesy of George Simpson
If I hadn't stayed gassing for so long at the viaduct on Tuesday I might have got there meself, now I fear it'll be too late by the time my next opportunity arises. Ta for the heads up anyway George :)

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Last Hurrah?

Finished me ink and watercolour study of a Ruddy Darter I mentioned last post, might do a black darter next :

Ruddy Darter (male)
 Sympetrum sanguineum
Needed to go to the Metrocentre this morning so cycled along there, stopping off at the viaduct for a quick raptor scan, and bumped in to a fellow artist (and raptor specialist) Mike Henry, who funnily enough I hadn't seen since this time last year in near enough the same place. Our half-hour chat co-incided with some decent red kite activity, probably six birds in all including a couple of this year's juvs.
A single buzzard was the only other raptor around but three swallows heading south, a pied wagtail and a GS woodpecker flying over were the pick of the supporting cast before we parted company.

Job done I made the return journey but now didn't have time to call in on Shibdon where I was hoping to pick up a few waders and maybe a migrant hawker or two. The river level was so low it wasn't worth stopping at the damhead for salmon either so my first stop wasn't til Kite Hill where I patrolled slowly searching for migrant hawkers without success.
Only option now was Far Pasture, for possibly the last time this season now that the weather is set to turn for the worse.
Only darters on show today, maybe the wind kept the hawkers away but then again I didn't bother looking on the pond. The roadside fences held more old females than a grab-a-granny night.

One of many female common darters present at
Far Pasture roadside today 

And a male enjoying a meal of sorts

Still plenty around, though a quick look on the forbidden pond provided only a single patrolling male and a female ovipositing alone, quite a difference from this time last year when the mating frenzy here involved 60+ darters during the October mini-heatwave, just shows that no two years are the same where wildlife watching is concerned.

So that may be the final outing of the season, only time (and the weather) will tell. Maybe still time for that elusive female migrant hawker (haven't seen one yet this year never mind photographed one) but I'm not holding me breath on that one either.

But you never know; stay tuned . . . . . .

Sunday, 6 October 2013

October, but still going . . .

First time out today for almost a fortnight; been catching up with some work and doing a bit of painting. Just finished this ink and watercolour study of a broad-bodied chaser :

Broad-bodied Chaser (male)
Libellula depressa

Will probably put it on display in Newcastle Library next month along with a ruddy darter I'm working on.  

Anyway a very pleasant hour or so at Far Pasture around mid-day today in the late-season sunshine.

On the way along the access road I took this photo of a common darter thinking it might be my last of the season but I needn't have worried.

On the pond maybe a dozen or so common darters visible with a few pairs ovipositing, and a migrant hawker doing its rounds. 14 Snipe were the best birds on show and a brief flypast by a kingfisher. Other birds of note were a jay and a reed bunting.
To be honest I probably spent too long in the hide as it was much better outside in the sunshine.

A couple of bank voles were coming to the seed and nuts left out on the flat rock in the car park, and two willow tits joined the throng of commoner birds. A southern hawker flew through the car park and a migrant hawked the fields opposite.
Three red kites, two buzzards and a kestrel were the raptors on show enjoying the warm air and slightly cooler breeze.
A quick look at the forbidden pond, flushed a green sand, but just a few darters here too. Back on the roadside I was tormented by another migrant hawker which came very close but wouldn't settle, then a southern hawker obliged briefly before I flushed it when my shadow went over it as I approached (d'oh!).

I didn't realise 'til I looked at the photos that it had some damage to both rear wings, a couple of chunks out of the left and the whole outer half missing of the right, snapped off at the wing-node, so I presume a very mature male with all that wear and tear.

My final photo produced a bit of an ooh when I saw it. This facial shot of a darter on the fence shows a bit of an extended frons making me hope it might be a vagrant darter :O

I've checked loads of photos and (though there is a lot of variation) seen plenty of examples with just a small moustache like this one. Unfortunately I only took one shot as once again I didn't realise the anomaly 'til I looked at the photo back at home, but ironically after all the darters I've photographed this year which appear slightly club-tailed (a feature of the vagrant darter) this one looks to be as straight as a strialatum :(

Still, a bit of mystery brightens the day, and not too many of those left according to the forecast :(