March, 2012

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Bugs, Birds and Beasts in the East

All of our up to date fun and frolics in the East from office antics to great conservation stories and those magical connections with nature.
  • First sounds of Spring

    Blogger: Steve Rowland, Public Affairs Manager

    Spring seemed a long way off last week as I took my lunchtime walk through the woods, the leaves on the trees were yet to unfurl, the ground was bare and covered in a mulch of last autumns dead leaves, and a light, cold wintry rain drizzled down.

    And yet I realised that my mind had picked up on the subtle changes in the quality of light and drawing out of the days. I became aware of a slight tightness in my ears, an unconscious straining and heightened alertness to the bird song around me. And I thought that after more Springs as a birder than I care to remember, my brain was quietly and unobtrusively saying to my ears to be alert for couple of unremarkable notes of bird song one up followed repetitively by another down, up and down in short bursts, from a bird that takes its name from these two notes of song, the chiff chaff.  (photo below).

    Naming a bird after the sound it makes is known as onomatopoeia and two other species that occur in the UK the cuckoo and the kittiwake also take their names from their calls.

    I will acknowledge here that chiff chaffs are not blessed with the most captivating of names or musical of songs. But for me they compensate for that with the charisma that comes from being the first of our returning migrants to fill our bare Spring woods with their song, perhaps a month before the other returning warblers have got back from a winter spent south of the Sahara.

    Chiff chaffs like many of our other warblers, might at a glance appear a little drab and indistinct. In particular at first you might easily confuse a chiff chaff with its close relative the willow warbler.  (photo below).

    A rough guide to telling them apart is that a willow warblers legs are a light flesh colour whilst a chiff chaffs are black and a chiff chaffs has a more olive coloured plumage (being a birder you carry a veritable colour palette in your head to describe shades of green and brown feathers).

    But the surest way to tell these cousins apart is to listen to them singing. Compared to the chiff chaffs repetitive two notes, willow warblers have a to my mind a much nicer song, a lovely tinkling sound that seems to gently descend a set of musical scales before being hauled by the bird back to the top only to descend down them once more.

    Willow warblers arrive from their wintering grounds in Africa a little later in the spring than chiff chaffs which tend to spend the winter in the Mediterranean. So my brain wasn't tipping my ears off to listen out for a willow warbler practicing its scales, but for that starting gun of the season, a simple two note Chiff then Chaff song that would light up the woods and put a smile on my face, a sign of the end of winter and the beginning of natures headlong rush into spring.

    I didn’t hear a chiff chaff last week but I’ll be out again for a lunchtime walk in the woods this week, listening carefully for those two notes. If you have some time to spare over the next week or so why don’t you go out and see if you can hear a chiff chaff and then tell us here.

    Photos credit John Bridges (

  • A Little Mining Bee Adventure with Tommy

    Blogger: Emily Field, RSPB Volunteer & Farmer Alliance Project Officer

    The other day was walking home from school with Tommy (age 5) whinging in the usual way "come on Tommy what's keeping you?”

    he replied "I'm looking at the bees going into the ground mum!"

    I go back and find, with Tommy, to my surprise, lots of tiny little bees, with shiny tails, and orange legs, digging holes into the sunny sandy bank where they've planted a new hedge outside the doctors. You could feel the warmth coming off the bank, and smell the sweet scent form the heather in the doctor's garden... the perfect place to set up home if you're a little digging bee! 

      Photo: Tommy pointing at the hole.

      Photo: Close up of the bee burrow

    To give you little context, last weekend, Tommy had a major panic attack when a wasp walked over the seat next to him, and screamed so loud that we all thought he'd been stung.

    So you can imagine my delight at his new interest. Of course the mum in me saw this as the perfect opportunity to combat his misplaced fear of flying insects... with a little research homework.

    "wow- lets go home and look in the book to see if we can find out what they are..."

    "remember they've got white stripes mum!"

    We find my rather tatty old 'A Field Guide to the Insects of Britain' and quickly find a contender catchily named 'Dasypoda hirtipes' - so uncommon the poor thing does not even get a common name. Now, as the field guide is decidedly sparse on the details or habits of the species, to make sure, we decide to go back and take some photographs. When we go back, rather than busily digging as before, they seem to be buzzing around erratically, and flying up every time I put my little camera anywhere near them!

    After a while Tommy got bored and made friends with a dog outside the surgery and declared he was going to sit on the bench and wait for me. I'm amazed by how few people asked why I was sitting on the pavement staring at a bare bit of soil with a camera (hopefully they don't all already think I'm mad!).  

    Tommy proudly showed a few friends the bees he'd discovered anyway, and one friend asked whether they were some kind of solitary bee, I said that's what we hoped to find out, and pointed out what I thought to be a male hovering around, and a female digging (it is a cruel fact of nature that the women always have bigger bottoms and do most of the housework!).

      Photo: bee male hovering towards female

    I finally got some great pictures of a bee digging, and we took the camera back home to double check our identification- there was nothing else that fitted the bill, so in our naivety, we decided it must be it! We decided to look it up on the internet just to make sure, and, found a picture that seemed to confirm our identification on this website. 

    So here is the science bit...On checking their distribution map for Dasypoda hirtipes, we see that the nearest 10km square with them is about 20 miles away, so we decide we must record our important sighting straight away! Here is where I have to thank the lovely chap from the records centre, who patiently explained that Dasypoda hirtipes only comes out in July- but it sounds like one of the 60 Andrena Species. This is Andrena flavipes, female (the males are much thinner and less clearly marked, can be very hard to name with certainty). Diagnostic features are the orange hairs in on the rear legs coupled with the bands of white hairs on the abdomen (be careful, there are other orange-legged species). You photos show these very well. Be careful of pollen on the rear legs as this can hide the hair colour.

      Photo: Tommy's Bee ID book Andrena species

    We feel really lucky to have been helped, via the magic of the internet, by someone so knowledgeable and patient, spending his evening helping some novices choose which of some 200+ different species of solitary bee found in the East they spotted on the school run!

    As these enthralling little bees, have helped to cure Tommy of his fear of black & yellow winged beasts, I hope our record helps to makes a difference for them- and is the first of many steps for nature for Tommy - my very own budding entomologist!

     [Editor's Note: Find out more about what our partners at Bug Life are doing at the moment here.]

    Photos by Emily Field.

  • Sorry but I get a bit confused: Which wader is which?

    Blogger: Adam Murray, Communications Officer

    Last June you may have remembered my Swift, Swallows & House martins - I am a bit clueless blog post, well just as think I have nailed some of my bird ID skills I recently went on my hols to Osea Island.

    We went as a family with my brother and his gang and spent the time walking the island when the causeway (as seen on the Woman in Black movie) was covered by the tide. The island was a perfect tonic as there were no modern day distractions that seem to fill our free time usually. This meant that we had an excuse of not doing very much at all – just what I needed after the crazy hustle bustle of the RSPB Eastern Region office in Norwich.

    Each day we would spend many hours in wellies walking the island. In the interior we spotted dancing flocks of skylarks, eyeing foxes in the distance and then the adventurers inside us would walk alongside the beaches and salt marshes to circumnavigate our little piece of Essex.  If we were lucky enough to get the tides right we would see vast numbers of birds coming into feed or queuing up ready for the seafood frenzy. The rest of my family were happy to spot a “funny looking goose” or distinctive oyster catcher with their carrot beaks. I on the other hand, trained zoologist and bitten by the RSPB bug, realised that I wasn’t just seeing a few species of animals out there on the mud flats but dozens – all ever so slightly different. However, this is my question to you – how on earth are you supposed to tell the difference? I am now going to give it a go. The keen ones amongst you, feel free to correct me, I won’t take it personally ;)

      Dunlin: Little fella, grey wings, white belly, slightly curved beak 

     Turnstone: Little, black wings, white belly, red legs

     Common sandpiper: brown body, straight beak, black eye stripe

     Curlew sandpiper: if you squidged the two sandpipers together

     Green sandpiper: dark, white bellied sandpiper that is not green

     Grey plover: a more speckly version of a turnstone

     Curlew: This one I get, bendy beak and big as a chicken!

     Redshank: Medium sized, red legs and red beak near face

      Spotted redshank: red legs, black top beak, red lower beak

    So, can you see why I was confused. It doesn't help that when I was reading the information on my RSPB i-phone app it told me that these are the winter plumages of these birds - so as new species come in for the summer I will have to learn this all over again. I did however figure out that the bird call I has associated with the wilds of southern Ireland ( a previous family holiday) was not the charismatic oyster catcher but the close neighbours the curlew.

    I guess the beauty of this whole thing is now, once I get my eye in, I realise how many different species find the eerie and beautiful Essex coast  a perfect tonic, just what they need.