How Stean Blog May 2017
How Stean Blog May 2017
A family of birds which I always enjoy are the flycatchers, no prizes for guessing why they are so called and by definition almost the name suggests they must be migrants and indeed they are, after all we don’t get many insects in Stean in winter. What we do get in Summer however are two species of flycatcher, the splendid, pied and the much plainer spotted, both are hanging on in Upper Nidderdale when they have if not disappeared certainly dramatically reduced in numbers elsewhere not only in Nidderdale but the country, a familiar tale and one we would do well to do our utmost to reverse. Indeed the first point of call for me to see either bird is Upper Nidderdale, around the ‘tunnel’ on the Scar road for pied and How Stean cafe and Stean village for the spotted. The BTO describes the pied flycatcher as conservation status red data list species because, “because Recent Breeding Population Decline (1981-2010), Recent Winter Population Decline (1981-2010), Recent Breeding Range Decline (1969-2010), Recent Winter Range Decline (1981-2010).” Spotted flycatcher, birders tend to drop the catcher bit and refer to them as pied fly or spotted fly, has suffered in the same way and has the same red conservation status.
Flycatchers have one endearing habit which from a bird watchers point of view is very helpful, the sit on a perch and fly out to catch a passing insect before frequently returning to the same or nearby perch, so once you see one there’s every chance you will get a good view and great opportunity to positively identify it. The male pied fly, as the name suggests is a smart black and white bird around the size of a robin it has a further redeeming feature aided and abetted by kindly local bird enthusiasts, it likes nest boxes, so if you see a nest box in suitable habitat then wait around and see what’s around and it may be a pied fly. They prefer deciduous woodland with plenty of mature oak trees and there’s many places in the Dales which fulfil this requirement and a few in Upper Nidderdale. The female is brown where the male is black and the white areas are less bright. I have reason to believe that pied flys may not be the most clever of birds after watching a female in a wood just above Lofthouse, on the Nidderdale Way, working hard to collect nesting material to line it’s chosen nestbox. Meanwhile nearby a female chaffinch was under taking a similar task building it’s nest high in the canopy. Every time the pied fly returned to the nestbox with more nesting material the chaffinch waited until the pied had gone off on another foray before entering the nestbox and stealing the material for it’s own nest. I didn’t wait around too long but guess the one unsuspecting Nidderdale pied flycatcher built two nests that year. Unlike in humans it seemed that the males paid no role in these nest building activities! One of the reasons for this may be because the male indulges itself in Polygyny, the marriage of a man with several women. It does however help with feeding the young. Pied flycatchers winter in West Africa.
Spotted flys are almost LBJs, little Brown Jobs to the uninitiated. I say almost because they are really little smashers and despite their somewhat dull uniform they somehow over come this, in human terms, handicap and stand out as they wait erect on their chosen branch, sitting quite erect and flicking their tails as they wait for a passing insects to chose the wrong route. it’s streaky breast is always a give away. Spotted flys seem to almost enjoy human company and one nested for a couple of years within a few feet of the entrance to How Stean cafe, they are also more likely to be seen in villages and around buildings than pied fly and they prefer open nestboxes and not the enclosed holes of a pied’s choice. Sadly this must make them more vulnerable to predation and may account for why both male and female spotted flycatcher have the same lack of identification species.
Now’s the time to look out for these lovely birds, but remember they are both reducing in numbers in the spotted flys case dramatically so, so please look and leave don’t do anything which might draw their present to predators or even fellow human beings with less kindly thoughts than your good self.
Nigel Heptinstall (Outdoors2015)
How Stean Blog April 2017
Spring Has Sprung
Well it’s certainly starting to uncoil, especially regarding birds. I spent a day in Upper Nidderdale and was pleasantly surprised at what was about. Maybe you might find time to do the same, but I suggest you choose a dry windless day if that is ever possible at Scar House. Anyway we started at Gouthwaite and looked from the viewing area. There seemed to be more mud than usual and I attribute that to whatever work is being undertaken on the dam wall. You might know what is happening, I don’t. Mud is of course brilliant for many birds, but especially for waders because it allows them to probe deep for invertebrates. When I say probe deep I recognise that the length of the bill plays an important part in how deep you can probe and it’s understood that different beak lengths allow different birds to eat from different strata and therefore don’t compete with each other. I’m never one hundred percent sure about this but I’m no scientist and it’s the scientists who determined this. In my view if you have a beak then you can probe anywhere between the surface and the total beak length, which means if you have a longer beak you have a greater area to search, what do you think? What is for sure is that soft mud is better than frozen or hard mud, at least as far as probing is concerned.
Enough about beaks, we recorded around 35 species at Gouthwaite including waders such as lapwing, curlew, oystercatcher, dunlin, ringed plover and redshank. In fact it’s many years since I have seen so many redshank together. I would estimate there may have been as many as 30, usually I feel privileged to see one or two. We can only guess at what these birds were doing there but the probability is that some were planning to breed locally but others may well have dropped off to feed up before moving further north, most likely to Iceland where many redshank breed. Redshank are of Conservation Status AMBER because they have suffered recent population declines. For full details visit the BTO Redshank Fact File. Another interesting bird sighting was my first sand martins of the spring and they were seen in good numbers, so it’s likely that the new sand martin wall near Ramsgill will receive plenty of visitors this summer. There were also plenty of duck species present including mallard, tufted, goldeneye (soon to leave us), goosander and shelduck. If you are new to birding and want to learn the different species then grab a bird book or phone app, a pair of binoculars and see what you can see, now’s a great time of year to do it.
Don’t however restrict yourself to Gouthwaite, drive up to Scar House, park in the car park there and look for the birds there and you may well be rewarded with some more unusual species, from the car park – perhaps even from your car – if it’s very wet or windy and it often is. Search for the spring migrants. There are not too many birds around here in winter but now spring has arrived a few birds have returned and a special one is the ring ouzel, the mountain blackbird. Superficially similar to the blackbird and probably a species that has only recently in evolutionary terms separated from the blackbird, unlike the blackbird both males and females sport a crescent of white across their breast, more subdued in the females, called a gorget. You can find more info about ring ouzels on the RSPB ring ouzel page. To see these birds once in the car park scan the area of hillside in front of the car park. They are well camouflaged so look carefully and be patient although some say that they appear at 1pm in a tree towards the top of the hillside. If you stand with your back to the car park and look towards 10 o’clock you’ll see the tree towards the top of the hill. Personally I wouldn’t rely upon this but it’s a start! Also back are meadow pipits, the ubiquitous LBJ, little brown job of the hills, they can be everywhere in summer and are often seen ‘parachuting’ down from a height as part of their courtship display. Finally another summer migrant to search for here is the wheatear, a delightful bird which lives and feeds amongst the rocks and is recognised by its white rump when it flies away.
Enjoy your birding.
Nigel Heptinstall (Outdoors2015)
They Elevated Burn’s Soul … The Curlew
One of our most loved birds is surely the curlew and it is especially loved by those who encounter them on their breeding grounds on, amongst other places, the hills of Nidderdale. Most loved perhaps for their delightful evocative, almost atmospheric, call, variously described as “bubbling song and whistling cur-lee calls” or a “far-carrying, rising, fluty, melancholic whistle, cour-lii.” However you describe it – and different folk seem to always choose a different description – unlike most bird calls it really is, I think, once heard never forgotten, although in case I am wrong or you need a reminder visit the RSPB website and watch and listen to the video. The curlew is a distinctive bird with its large size, some say as big as a female pheasant. Although I have my reservations at that it is nonetheless one of our biggest waders and with the huge curved beak very distinctive.
Around now curlew are returning to the breeding sites and once again we can enjoy their delightful call. Curlew leave our hills after breeding and move further afield where pickings are richer and certainly in recent times gone by these have included the coast where frozen ground is less likely and there they are joined by wintering curlews from further afield, which might include Scandinavia and northern Russia. In fact it is estimated we have as many as 65,000 breeding birds and wintering birds may number as many as 150,000. But don’t be fooled, don’t think that these are good numbers because they aren’t, the curlew is considered a red list species. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) tells us that “The Curlew is one of our most rapidly declining breeding bird species showing a 46% decline across the UK from 1994-2010 with this figure exceeding 50% in Wales and Scotland. The UK holds 28% of the European population and in response to these declines, and those seen elsewhere in Europe, the species has recently been listed as globally near-threatened, one of the few British species on this list. The wintering population in the UK originates largely from Scandinavia, but also includes a significant proportion of breeding birds, and has declined by 20% in the last 15 years.” The BTO have set themselves a goal to urgently identify the reasons for these declines as the first stage in the plan to conserve the species. Possible reasons for these declines include:
- Increases in generalist predators reducing breeding success
- Afforestation of marginal hill land
- Changes in farming practice reducing habitat quality
- Climate change
Britain’s estuaries support internationally important communities of wading birds due to our mild climate and key position on the East Atlantic flyway. However, our estuarine ecosystems are under ever increasing pressure from human activities, such as development and agricultural intensification. This .pdf file outlines the plans that the BTO have to save the curlew and provides ideas for you to help.
Now as often is the case here in Nidderdale you may think there is no problem with curlew declines, well that is certainly not the case elsewhere in Britain as the figures above reveal and just because ours are seemingly OK, which probably isn’t the case anyway, it just means that it is even more important to protect what we have got, because if we don’t then the future for our curlews will be very bleak indeed.
The word curlew has been in use since at least 1349 (curlu), 1377 (corlue) and 1387 (curlewes). Derived from the French word corlieu, it is basically an onomatopoeia imitation of the curlew’s call. Curlews have been around much longer than this and were recorded from the Pinhole Cave, Cresswell Crags, Derbyshire and considered to be the Late Devensian period or last Ice Age. The call of the curlew is of course well liked and loved and eminent writers have expressed their pleasure in hearing the curlew’s call. No less than Robbie Burns wrote, “never heard the loud solitary whistle of curlew on a summer noon … without feeling an elevation of soul.” Lord Grey wrote in The Charm of Birds, “there is none that I would prefer to the spring notes of the curlew … The notes do not sound passionate: they suggest peace, rest, healing, joy, an assurance of happiness past, present and to come. To listen to curlews on a bright, clear April day, with the fullness of spring still in anticipation, is one of the best experiences that a lover of birds can have.”
Long may we continue to be moved by the curlew and surely we must do what we can to ensure the curlew remains for those following us to equally enjoy.
There is still time to book a place at the Yorkshire BTO Conference at York University on Saturday, 18 March. Fantastic value at £22 per person including all refreshments and a buffet lunch. Look forward to talks on: Black Grouse, Gannets, The Lower Derwent Valley NNR, BirdTrack Project, Breeding Waders, Rare Bird Recording and much more. Exhibitors covering optical equipment, outdoor clothing, art, natural history books etc. To book just go to www.bto.org and follow the link to “News and Events”. I attended the last Yorkshire BTO event and it was very interesting
Nigel Heptinstall (Blogging at Outdoors2015)
“The History of Birds,” DW Yalden & U Albarella
“Birds Britannica,” Mark Cocker & Ricard Mabey
“The Oxford Book of British Bird Names,” WB Lockwood.
How Stean Blog January 2017
Some folk might consider January a dull time for wildlife and birds – after all, some creatures, such as bats, are hibernating, some have long since departed for warmer climes and others have chosen to winter on our estuaries. Thankfully others have decided to join us from areas even colder than ours; in fact, as I have mentioned in previous blogs, many birds do just that. The most spectacular however may well be on its way now, in fact it might even be here now. The bird, the Supermarket Bird, known and loved by all birders as the waxwing, is surely one of our most exotic visitors.
These delightful birds are so called because they have a small patch of red on their wings which is the same colour as the wax used, in days gone by, to seal letters. You need to be pretty close up to see this mark, but fortunately the waxwing can be reasonably confiding, although like most wild animals there is a limit to how close you can get and keeping quiet and moving slowly really does help. Why Supermarket Bird? Well they will happily feed on cotoneaster, pyracanthus and viburnum berries and these plants, as exotic as the waxwing, are often planted in supermarket car parks, presumably because they need little care, after all gardening costs money and affects profitability. More often found in flocks than as singletons, look out for a starling-sized bird, in fact at this time of year check out all starling flocks just in case. They are brown and pale grey with silky plumage, a black and white eyestripe, a crest, a square-cut tail and pointed wings. Absolutely gorgeous they are, but I hasten to add at this point not more so than my wife, Jackie, who will be proofreading this article. Waxwing belong to the genus Bombycilla, of which only three species are in the family, the Japanese waxwing (B. japonica), the cedar waxwing (B. Cedrorum) and our own exotic visitor the bohemian waxwing, usually just called waxwing. Bohemian is not really correct, they don’t hail from central Europe, despite it being the old German name for the bird, and it simple denotes something exotic and foreign. In 1555 Gesner called it Garrulus bohemicus, literally Bohemian Jay; in 1678 it was mistranslated by Ray as Bohemian Chatterer, a strange decision because the waxwing is normally mostly silent. After 1816 Vieillot grouped them into a genus of their own and they became waxwing in 1817 (Stephen). Another ancient name for them was silk tail, apparently alluding to their soft plumage.
The number of waxwings to visit us is usually controlled by how cold it is in their breeding places, the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions such as Scandinavia, and the amount of food available for them there. This means that some years we can get an ‘invasion of waxwings’ whilst other years we get many disappointed birders. It seems that these birds get a lot of attention from birders, perhaps even scientists – someone who perhaps ought to get a life observed a waxwing feeding at Avoch in the Moray Firth eating 500 berries, three times its body weight, in six hours. Another bird, in Carmarthenshire, reportedly ate between 600 and 1000 berries in six hours, this caused it to ’empty its bowels every four minutes’ and the result was droppings just as colourful as the berries it had consumed. This of course suggests that they don’t get too many nutrients from berries, hence the need to consume such huge quantities. Maybe gannet would be a better name for them. The normal procedure for waxwings is for them to stay at a food supply until it is exhausted, so if you hear of some on the grapevine get there quickly before they move on and, yes, they really are worth seeing.
Despite their preference for fruit of all kinds, their diet can change. When the circumstances are right they will eat insects which they will both pluck from foliage or even catch in mid-air. We, of course, rarely see this behaviour in this country because there are no insects in winter, although visitors to Scandinavia recall how strange it is to see this behaviour in what we perceive as purely berry-eating birds. The female bird incubates the young, fed by the male, until the eggs hatch when both birds then feed the young. Both sexes look identical.
Nigel Heptinstall (Outdoors2015)
Birds Britannica – Cocker and Mabey.
The Oxford Book of Bird Names – WB Lockwood
How Stean Blog December 2016
What is Britain’s smallest bird? Well many folk reckon it’s the wren, whilst in fact it’s officially the goldcrest, or maybe the goldcrest’s near cousin the firecrest. I guess it really depends upon how you describe smallest. Let’s draw an analogy with Rugby Union Lock forwards, at 6ft 5in and 17 stone you might be considered relatively small when a big boy might be 6ft 10in and 19.5 stone, see Irish International Devin Toner. Wrens and goldcrest, thankfully, don’t reach these dizzy heights and their true dimensions can be determined by checking out the links to the BTO BirdFacts. So size can be determined by wing span (cm), wren (15); goldcrest (14), making the goldcrest just the winner, but the biggest difference is weight (in grams) and what a difference, wren (10); goldcrest (6gm). It seems that the goldcrest is smallest by virtue of weight and for folk like me who don’t understand the units and don’t yet do metric that is a goldcrest weighs about as much as a 5p piece and you get four adult birds to the ounce. Furthermore a clutch of 12 young represents as much as one and half times the adult female’s weight. The beautiful goldcrest nest, usually in a conifer, is a tiny cuplet of moss and spiders web overtopped by a layer on insulating feathers. Goldcrest chicks are fed by both adults and they frequently have a second brood. The number of chicks and a second brood could well be important because like wrens these birds suffer greatly in bad winters and as many as eight out of ten birds might perish if things get really bad. Their prolific breeding mechanism helps them to relatively quickly regain numbers.
You can see goldcrest at How Stean and what a delight they are. On my last visit a few weeks ago I saw a pair, the best place to look being in the conifers. Birders will tell you they are usually heard before they are seen and thereby lies a dilemma, at least for me. Their call is so high pitched that I can’t hear it, even when stood under a tree where fellow birders claim a goldcrest resides. Anyway listen out for a high pitched call and search the canopy for the caller. It is said that the inability to hear the goldcrest is one of the first signs of old age. I have been ageing for the last 20 years!
The goldcrest is so called because the male sports a Mohican-like headdress of gold, or rather it does when in courtship mode when the crest stands to attention, no doubt to attract the female’s attention. At other times the bird’s headdress is less distinctive so look for a small greenish-grey bird with a pale belly and a black and yellow stripe on its head with, on the males, a gold centre. Goldcrest are insectivorous and for that they have a thin beak. The goldcrest, like most birds, has other names including, in the past, the golden-crowned wren and golden-crested wren. The term wren was apparently disliked by some naturalists and eventually goldcrest won the day. Folk names include golden cutty and, more interestingly perhaps, herring spink, tot o’er seas and woodcock pilot. Like redwing and fieldfare, and at the same time despite its small size, goldcrest cross the North Sea from Scandinavia to spend their winter with us. It seems that in the past they would alight for a well-earned rest on herring boats, hence the two nautical allusions above. Woodcock pilot is a Yorkshire name I have never heard, but apparently goldcrest were said to precede the returning migratory winter woodcock by a few days.
After they have completed their marathon cross sea journey these birds are obviously tired and hungry – who wouldn’t be? Well if you are lucky enough to encounter them at this time they apparently can be found anywhere on the shoreline and seem to be fearless of humans. There are even reports of exhausted birds landing on humans and instead of quickly flying away, searching through the humans’ clothing for a morsel of food. If you want to see a goldcrest then the best starting place is in a conifer tree and why not search at How Stean if you are there? It’s possible, although not proven, at least to my knowledge, that goldcrest breed at How Stean. In winter you might find goldcrest amongst flocks of foraging tits, so look carefully and the good news is goldcrest are not considered to be under any conservation concerns at present.
Nigel Heptinstall (Outdoors2015)
Birds Britannica – Cocker and Mabey.
The Oxford Book of Bird Names – WB Lockwood
If You Go Down To The Woods Today….
A visit to your local woods, especially if they are coniferous, may result in a pixie sighting, if not then at least that red fungus with the white spots which pixies are famed for sitting on – perhaps other fungi are not so comfortable. It may be that fairies sit on them, not pixies, but whichever, I don’t recommend if you see this fungi waiting for the fabled creatures to appear, you may be disappointed!
These fungi are called fly agaric (Amanita muscaria). They are also considered to be dangerously poisonous so if you do see one, and they are considered common, don’t touch it, never mind eat it. Indeed it is probably the most widely known of the poisonous fungi in Britain, eaten raw it causes stomach cramps, hallucinations and, possibly, death. It is in fact – although it is not generally realised – strongly psychedelic. In Lapland apparently reindeer get high on it and leap around, which some say may have given rise to tales of Santa’s flying reindeer. Now don’t do this at home, even if you have easy access to a reindeer. Lapps have a custom of deliberately fee
ding fly agaric to their deer and then collecting and drinking the urine because most of the toxins are filtered out by the reindeer’s digestive system. They have also been eaten in the past in this country, especially by druids using a similar technique involving humans, the shaman and fasting. I strongly advise you not to even think about it. It may be that the tradition of Santa Claus was intrinsically linked to fly agaric. The fungi has long been part of Christmas festivities in Central Europe but is it from Siberia that the legend of Santa coming down the chimney started? Apparently the shaman, as part of mid-winter festivities, would enter a yurt through the smoke hole and shin down the supporting pole carrying with him a sack of dried fly agaric. He would then proceed to conduct whatever festivity or ritual took place and leave the way he first came. Folk in the yurt believed that the shaman either flew away or was carried away by flying reindeer. It’s easy to see how our Santa Claus traditions arose and even why Santa wears red, the colour of fly agaric, and lives in the far north.
There is, however, another use for this lovely looking fungi as an insecticide. It has been used as a fly trap for centuries. In the 13th century folk broke it up in milk and placed jars of this concoction in fly-infested rooms. In Eastern Europe it is still used as an insecticide, although today folk replace the milk with a sugar solution. Please remember, despite such fascinating legends attached to this fungus, folk have died from eating fly agaric.
Some say Stan Beer’s a fun guy – but the true fungi seem to prefer the damp and now is the time to see them. There are well over 1,000 different fungi in the UK and if you want to get to know more about them and maybe even recognise a few then joining a fungi foray is a great introduction. A pocket book of common fungi can help, but keep it simple and visit a website such as First Nature. I don’t really recommend picking any fungi, like much of our biodiversity it’s in dangerous decline and never eat mushrooms unless they have been picked off a greengrocer’s shelves.
Finally, another interesting and commonly found fungi for you is the Razor Strop (Piptoporus betulinus), also known as birch polypore or birch bracket. No prizes for guessing what tree to find it on. It’s a bracket fungi rather than the traditionally shaped fungi, which means it’s found sprouting out of trees. These fungi have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties and it is speculated that the Tyrolean Ice Man used them for medicinal purposes. Barbers used to ‘strop’ or sharpen their cut-throat razors on the tough, leathery strips cut from the surfaces of these polypores, and so they became known as the Razor Strop Fungus. This fascinates me, firstly -why do people shave? But, more interestingly, unless perhaps you use a Kurdish barber, it’s probable that you’ve never seen a cut throat razor and for young folk, used to using electrical equipment or multi bladed hand tools and squirty stuff out of a tin, it must be strange to think folk once trusted their exposed necks to these dangerous tools which were then sharpened on mushrooms. I guess if you cut yourself you could always use the antibacterial properties of Razor Strop fungi to treat the wounds!
Nigel Heptinstall (Outdoors2015)
Is it a Moth or a Butterfly?
You may well ask, it’s not easy to tell the difference despite a list of differences which ought to make it easy distinguish between the two. This month is a good time for seeing butterflies and moths, or at least it ought to be if there were the usual numbers around, but in fact butterfly numbers especially seem to have dropped disastrously with some species such as small copper doing especially poorly.
We have around 56 species of butterfly in the country and maybe as many as 2,000 moths so the chances are what you see is a moth, except it isn’t that easy because moths tend to be nocturnal and butterflies fly during the day. Even this isn’t reliable, however, because some species of moths fly during the day and I believe some butterflies are attracted to moth trappers’ lights and some species of butterflies possibly migrate during the night. Confusing, isn’t it? Incidentally, don’t be confused by the term moth trappers, these aren’t at all like, say, fur trappers, all moths are released unharmed and alive after trapping and trapping is normally done as a scientific exercise. The results of such exercises can usually be found in reports produced at local, regional and even higher levels, for example Harrogate & District Naturalists’ Society produces an annual report, as does the Yorkshire Naturalists’ Union. Now folk who research butterflies and moths are called lepidopterists and moths and butterflies come under the term lepidoptera, so they are pretty closely related but there are small differences. Butterflies tend to have clubbed antennae whilst moths have no clubs although they might have feathered antennae, especially the males.
Butterflies tend to hold their wings upright or vertical when at rest whilst moths tend to hold their wings horizontal or flat. Another difference that you’ll probably never get near enough to see is the frenulum, which is a filament arising from the hindwing and coupling with barbs on the forewing on moths. Many moths, especially the night flying ones, although by no means all, tend to be relatively dull coloured, although there are some spectacularly coloured night flying moths, but dull colours do serve you well if you wish to lie up during the day without being seen.
Any the wiser? Well maybe it’s best to just enjoy them without bothering to know whether they are butterflies or moths and maybe it’s best to be grateful that there are any around at all after the effects climate change has had on our recent summers and the effects of so much pollution in our skies from exhaust fumes, chemicals and goodness knows what else.
Moths and butterflies each undertake that miracle of nature metamorphism, where they change from an egg to a larva to an adult, and there are some really spectacular examples of this. Take the cinnabar moth, which as a caterpillar is yellow and black because it feeds on ragwort and is poisonous. After it changes into an adult it becomes a brilliant red colour, again a warning of the poison contained in its body. Because it has these defences it seems happy to fly during the day and doesn’t have to resort to a life in the dark. A night-flying moth which feeds on rosebay willowherb is the elephant hawkmoth. This moth is big, but not that big, and it gets its name from the trunk-like appendage on the caterpillar. This moth is a brilliant pink and whilst a night flyer can sometimes be seen on resting willowherb or bedstraw during the day. The caterpillar pupates underground and when ready to do so can be seen crawling over the ground looking for a suitable piece of ground to undergo its final change. It’s at this time that I get emails from folk saying they have seen a snake, albeit a very, very small snake, in their gardens.
Nigel Heptinstall (Outdoors2015)
Biodiversity in Decline!
I guess, because I wasn’t there and know no one who was, that in prehistoric times there was far more wildlife in Nidderdale than what we see today. Strangely, perhaps I base this totally unscientific view on native Amazonian Indians. They seem, if David Attenborough is to believed and I certainly believe him more than our politicians, for example, that these Indians sit around most of the day, indulge in a little swimming, carefully avoiding the piranhas and other nasties, and every few days someone says let’s go off and catch some meat. Well before cultivation surely something similar happened in Nidderdale and the available ‘meat’ was certainly more variable than it is today. For example we know from Stump Cross Caverns that wolverine were around. These are nasty pieces of work, very aggressive, very dangerous and very carnivorous. That implies there was plenty of meat for them to catch and probably plenty for any prehistoric humans as well. Some of this food would include reindeer and bison, both sadly missing from today’s Nidderdale fauna. For the vegetarians amongst you I suspect the flora was equally diverse and different. Indeed our wildlife may well have declined because the plants at the bottom of the food chain also disappeared for whatever reasons, but what might these reasons be?
The Evil Quartet
Jarved Diamond, an eminent biologist, coined the phrase ‘the evil quartet’ to describe the four main human-induced causes of extinction: habitat degradation, habitat fragmentation, introduction of exotic species and over harvesting. This has obviously resulted in a Nidderdale far different to that enjoyed(?) by prehistoric humans and there have been winners and losers in wildlife terms. Woodland destruction probably did for the bison and elk although today the roe deer seems to have worked out how to survive, no doubt aided and abetted by a lack of predators. The wilful introduction of mink seems to have seen the end of most water voles, although Wind in the Willows’ Ratty still hangs on in a few places. Vast fields of rye grass are great for feeding cattle but provide very little nutrients for many of our birds and small mammals and even field margins offer little refuge for native wild flowers. There is now only one really wild lady slipper orchid in Britain, cause habitat loss and collectors.
Let’s look also at other factors, the vast grouse industry provides excellent cover for, well, grouse, but at what expense? Our towns are flooded because of the lack of trees, and fast flowing grips. Predators are disposed of and some, such as the hen harrier, are driven to extinction. We all need to travel and to do so we choose pollution emitting cars and buses and then wonder why our children suffer from asthma and the like. Have you ever considered what effect this might have on our wildlife? If asthma can affect humans how can a small bird cope? How does an important pollinating insect manage? Environmental issues are a global concern, not just a national one. I doubt there are any wood warblers any more in Nidderdale, a species that has disappeared in the past 10 years. These birds are migrants and travel amazing distances but is every step of the way (well wing beat) fraught with danger? A generation ago corncrakes were a common sight in Nidderdale but today they have all gone, locally extinct. Not so many years ago a drive up Nidderdale resulted in plenty of cleaning to remove the dead insects from the lights and windscreens, much less so nowadays. Insects and plants are the foundation of the food chain. Climate change plays a further role as our creatures fall out of sync with each other. Are our migrants arriving too late for the rich source of food they once relied upon? Our sea birds, favourites like puffins, are finding their source of food, sand eels, not as readily available as in the past probably because sand eels have moved further north as the seas warm up.
What can be done?
Well we can all play a part in helping our flora and fauna but before I make a few suggestions may I make an important point. It’s easy to blame our farmers but they have a living to make, they have to compete with competitors at home and abroad and we demand cheap food, we want our wheat and to eat it cheaply. Supermarkets demand much of the farmers because allegedly we want straight carrots and round tomatoes – why? We can help by providing a wildlife habitat in our gardens, especially if our neighbours do the same. Don’t spend £4,000 turning your front garden into a car park, that amount of money could employ a gardener for years to mow the lawn. Lobby politicians to protect our wildlife, especially now to ensure we continue to support and enhance the EU Nature Directives. Support local and national wildlife groups, they all do sterling work in not only conserving and enhancing species but also engaging you and me and our children in nature. Some of what they do works very well, take the many successful individual species plans. Locally red kites is a fine example, but nationally we can see success across all wildlife orders. Help our wildlife, realise the problems.
Nidderdale Climate and Environment Group
I will be giving a talk entitled ‘Biodiversity in Danger – Our Declining Flora and Fauna’ to the group on July 11 at Broadbelt Hall, Glasshouses at 7:30pm and for those interested there is a short exploratory walk from the same place starting at 6:00pm searching for flora and fauna. Everyone is very welcome to join me. It’s free and your support would be welcome. I look forward to seeing you then. There may even be refreshments involved.
Nigel Heptinstall (Outdoors2015)
Stan has been contacted by someone who does a wild life blog. Here is the link, it has some nice images you might enjoy a peep.
How Stean Blog June 2016
Dragons and Damsels
As we move into June the birds become less vocal and are certainly less easy to see and for many folk who enjoy wildlife June is the month to look for dragonflies and damselflies. The spectacular dragons really are the tigers of the insect world. Not only do they rule the roost in the ponds and waterways they have lived in, but once out of their watery world they rule the roost in the skies. The damsels are more delicate and much less powerful. Both are great to watch and some are brilliantly coloured. Both dragons and damsels belong to the order Odonata and are divided into two distinct sub-orders, the Zygoptera or Damselflies and the Anisoptera or Dragonflies. How can we tell the difference? Well both have membranous wings, large eyes, slender bodies, and small antennae. There are however differences and if you learn these then you will certainly find it easier to identify the different species. The most obvious differences are the eyes, wings, body and resting position. Now bear with me on this a little because some of the differences are relative and consequently subjective, sorry.
Eyes: The dragons have eyes close together at the top of their head whilst damsels’ eyes are at the side and further apart.
Wings: The dragons’ front and rear wings are different in size whilst damsels’ wings, front and rear, are the same size.
Body: The elegant damsels have a long slender body whilst that of the dragonflies is usually stocky.
Wing Position: When at rest the dragons’ wings are held open but they can be horizontal or downwards. Damsels’ wings at rest are always closed, usually over their abdomen.
For a really good guide to helping identify these insects visit the British Dragonfly Society Identification help page.
It is however the lifestyle of these creatures that is the most fascinating. We usually only see them as they fly, having emerged from the water, crawled up a plant stem and undergone the most incredible metamorphosis. Most female odonata after mating deposit their eggs in the stems of plants, often under water, sometimes on land near water. Some dragons, but no damsels, deposit their eggs directly on the surface of the water. They do this by flying over the water and dropping the eggs at regular intervals on to the water. Eventually the egg hatches, when depends upon the species, it can be from a few weeks to overwintering before the eggs hatch. From the egg comes what we call a prolarva which quickly moults into a true larva. These are the aquatic nymphs which terrorise the ponds and waterways of their birth.
During this aquatic stage, odonata nymphs breathe through gills. Damselfly gills are located at the end of the abdomen, while the gills of dragonfly larvae are found inside their rectums. The nymphs prey upon anything from a tadpole to an arthropod to even small fish. The nymphs are predators. Their hunting methods vary. Some species lie in wait for prey, and hide by either burrowing in the mud or resting within the vegetation. Other species hunt actively, sneaking up on prey or even swimming in pursuit of their meals. Odonata nymphs have modified lower lips, which they can thrust forward in a split second to grab an invertebrate, passing tadpole or small fish. Not much is safe from these ferocious predators. Whilst under water odonata undergo a series of moults, perhaps as many as 17 times. During these moults, or instars, and especially during the later ones their wings begin to develop, although they are kept well hidden under wing pads. Eventually with their wings fully developed under water the nymphs crawl out of the water and make that remarkable transformation into the elegant and beautiful insect we know. Larval development typically takes one or two years, but ranges from 2–3 months in the case of the Emerald damselflies to more than five years in the Golden-ringed Dragonfly.
Identifying dragons and damsels is not easy and made harder because often males and females are different. For an identification guide visit the British Dragonfly Society Website and look closely at their flight period, habitat and regions they are found in. Also in the case of dragonflies there are three types: Hawkers, which are usually dark with bright spots or stripes, although some can be mostly brown, others brightly coloured. They are generally large and robust and never have dark wing markings although they can have wingspots. They hunt by doing as the name says, they hawk over the water for their prey; Darters, Chasers and Skimmers, these, especially darters, tend to wait in ambush for their prey and can have a blue, red, yellow or brown body or a combination of some of these colours. They are generally smaller and stout bodied; Emeralds are as the name suggests usually emerald green in colour. Damselflies don’t fall so easily into groups and colour can be an important identification guide, but look at the wing colour and patterns, look out especially for the brilliantly patterned banded and beautiful demoiselles.
Look for these insects over and around any slow moving or still waterway and if you are lucky you may even see a nymph emerging from the water and undergoing that amazing change from a water loving creature to an aerial predator. I’ve also seen dragonflies eating bumblebees. A pair of close focusing binoculars is a good aid in watching these magnificent creatures.
Fossils of very large dragonfly ancestors have been found from 325 million years ago which had wingspans up to about 750mm (30in).
Nigel Heptinstall (Outdoors2015)
How Stean Blog May 2016
Hyacinthoides non-scripta, our favourite spring flower? Well one of them anyway. Also known as Granfer Griggles, Cra’tae – i.e crow’s toes. What flower resembles crow’s toes? Does anyone know what crow’s toes look like? Well I’ll put you out of your misery, I talking about the humble bluebell, that glorious woodland flower which carpets the woodland floor in colour. Now’s the time to see and enjoy them. Bluebells grow throughout Britain from Cape Wrath to Land’s End and is now universally known as bluebell. Once it was confused with harebell and the name was used for both species, as John Clare did in his poem The Nightingale’s Nest. Bluebells are much less common on the continent and almost 50% of the world’s bluebells occur in the UK. They are superbly adapted to burst into leaf and flower on the deciduous woodland floor before other woodland plants have come into leaf to cover the ground, and in advance of the foliage overhead forming a dense canopy. It seems possible that the toxic acid litter of conifers may have a poisonous effect on bluebells because they rarely grow in such plantations. Now all references refer to bluebells as a woodland species and maybe that’s true, but you can see them so often in areas where trees no longer grow that I reckon maybe they aren’t as dependent on trees as we think. I realise that they may well outlive the trees that once grew over them and this might account for them growing in the open today.
Bluebells, like so many of our spring flowers, have a bulb and their rich nectar provides food for many butterflies and other insects. Bluebells contain toxic glycosides and humans can be poisoned if the bulbs are mistaken for spring onions and eaten. Cattle, horses and dogs have been reported to suffer digestive problems after eating bluebell leaves. Beware therefore if you pick wild garlic that you are getting the right leaf. You also may wish to know that the sap can cause contact dermatitis.
Probably because of the large world population of bluebells growing In the UK, Hyacinthoides non-scripta is protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981). This prohibits landowners from removing bluebells from their land for sale, and prohibits anyone from digging up bulbs from the countryside. Its listing on Schedule 8 of the Act in 1998 made trade in wild bluebell bulbs or seeds an offence. Current threats to bluebells include the loss of ancient woodland habitat, the illegal collection of bulbs and cross-breeding with non-native bluebells. So how do we tell the difference between our native wild bluebell and the invasive Spanish bluebell? Hyacinthoides non-scripta grows with the stem slightly bent and the flowers on only one side. The Spanish bluebell grows more erect and with the flowers growing down more than one side of the stem. I wouldn’t suggest that you pull the Spanish variety up if you see them, so I haven’t (suggested it), but don’t plant them in your garden as they apparently hybridise easily with our native bluebells.
Bluebells have had a number of uses over the years. A glue obtained from bluebells was traditionally used as a means of sticking flights to arrow shafts and in book-binding. The bulb is reported to have diuretic and styptic properties. Starch derived from the bulb has been used in laundering.
Results from Kew have shown that bluebells flower as much as two weeks earlier than they did 30 years ago and scientists believe that man-made climate change has accelerated this. It seems that spring is getting earlier and earlier. This makes it difficult to predict when the peak time for bluebells will be each year and also signals an important warning for their future. It appears that different plants respond to climate change at different rates and the warming climate enables other plants to make an earlier start as well. Although bluebells are appearing above ground earlier in the year, their emerging leaves are finding an increasingly crowded environment and one that is more heavily shaded by the tree canopy above. It is widely feared that our bluebells are suffering as a result. Is it just me, but I have long thought that whilst wild garlic and bluebells each had a distinct flowering period this seems to have become more clouded over the years and they can now be seen flowering together occasionally. What do you think? Phenology has a lot to teach us about the ways in which the natural world is responding as our climate warms, bringing changes which will in the longer term have profound impacts on human life too.
Now after hopefully whetting your appetite for bluebells you’ll want to see them. Well fortunately most deciduous woodlands in Nidderdale have bluebells growing there, some in large quantities, so you really can’t go wrong, but go see them and enjoy them but as with all wild flowers leave them for others to enjoy. Take pictures not plants. A really good place to see bluebells is Old Spring Wood, Summerbridge, where Rosemary Helme has done so much to eradicate the bracken and provide a better environment for the bluebells to grow in. Thanks Rosemary.
Flora Britannia – Richard Mabey
Nigel Heptinstall (Outdoors2015)
How Stean Blog April 2016
Chacking Birds and White Bums!
Isn’t it great, we are now getting some sunny days and the world seems a little better as a consequence, especially if we ignore the news. Okay, not every day’s been brilliant but at least we can get out and about without getting too wet, appropriate clothing included of course. Did you know How Stean has a bunkbarn up at Scar House and Scar House is also a good place, during April, to see some early spring migrants. A couple of bird watchers’ favourite birds, both early visitors, can be seen up there, the ring ouzel, also known as the mountain blackbird, and the Wheatear.
Ring ouzels are very similar to blackbirds, only slightly bigger with a necklace or crescent of white and unless on passage they are only found on the high ground, frequently in places where blackbirds fear to venture. I suspect blackbirds are fairly fearless yet they rarely go to the altitude enjoyed by ring ouzels. Like blackbirds, ring ouzels are sexually dimorphic. Sexual dimorphism is the condition where the two sexes of the same species exhibit different characteristics beyond the differences in their sexual organs. Males are black, females brown, probably because females spend much of their time on the nest whilst males need to attract the females and spend much of their time providing for the hen and their brood. Scar House is a favourite and well known place for birders to come to see ring ouzels and they usually aren’t disappointed, despite the fact that ring ouzels have declined by 58% between 1988-91 to 1999. Further fieldwork in 2012 found that numbers had decreased by 72% since 1988-91, making the ring ouzel a red data bird, see BTO Bird Trends. Now ring ouzels seem to enjoy life amongst the rocky areas south of the car park at Scar House but they usually need searching for. They aren’t easy to find but with the patience of a saint and the luck of the Irish you should see them. Ring ouzels (Turdus torquatus) belong to the thrush family, turdus together with torque, neck ring. The male sings its loud and mournful song from trees or rocks. This leads to it getting the old Scots name of aiten chackart (ie chat of the juniper; aitionn = Gaelic for juniper; chackart = Scots for chacking bird). Continental birds tend to nest in trees whilst our birds seem to prefer ground nesting, this could well be the beginnings of the start of a new species, read the How Stean Blog in 1,000 years’ time to see how they are progressing. The main food source for our breeding birds is earthworms, and ring ouzels are migrants, they spend their winters in mainly North Africa, making them relatively short-distance migrants and consequently early arrivals in spring.
The other iconic early arrival to our shores and uplands is the wheatear, so called because of its white rump, although there are those who prefer a cruder description, a 16th-century linguistic corruption of “white” and “arse”. Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) were once considered like ring ouzels to be part of the thrush family but are now thought more likely to be part of the flycatcher brigade. Oenanthe apparently refers to the wheatears’ return to Ancient Greece just as the grapevines blossom and wheatear has nowt to do with ears of wheat. Most species have characteristic black and white or red and white markings on their rumps or their long tails. The wheatear is a small mainly ground-dwelling bird. It hops or runs on the ground. It is blue-grey above with black wings and white below with an orange flush to the breast. The male has a black cheek and white eye stripe. In flight it shows a white rump and a black ‘T’ shape on its tail. It is a summer visitor and passage migrant. Again the species is sexually dimorphic with the female being duller although still sporting the diagnostic white rump. Wheatears can be quite numerous and confiding, especially on limestone areas such as around Malham Cove. They are less numerous in Nidderdale but can still be found at Scar House and probably more easily than ring ouzels. Interestingly, as the ice retreated northwards after the last ice-age, the breeding grounds of the migrant wheatear shifted northwards, the birds migrating back to Africa, even those that now breed in Alaska. Wheatears are not considered to be under threat anywhere within their range and strictly speaking we should refer to our wheatears as northern wheatears so as not to confuse them with other worldwide species of wheatears. So next time you visit Scar House keep an eye open for these early migrants, you won’t be disappointed.
Nigel Heptinstall (Outdoors2015)