Neil Pont

Wildlife Photography

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The birds and the bees - well, bees anyway...

Posted on 24 July, 2020 at 17:45 Comments comments (1091)

A day late again!  I need to get back into my routine....

Today's blog is built around something we saw in our garden for the first time: bumblebees mating.

There are 4 stages in the lifecycle of a bumblebee:
1. Queens emerge from hibernation and start a new colony (she has been fertilised the previous year, before hibernation)

2. Workers (females) are produced and start to forage; the colony develops and grows
3. Unfertilised eggs (males) are laid and worker larvae develop into new queens
4. Males and new queens mate

When the adult males emerge they spend a few days in the nest, but do no work, and then they leave the nest for good and forage for themselves. They can often be seen sheltering under the heads of flowers when it rains or when it gets dark.

New queens emerge about a week or so after the males. The new queens leave the nest to forage for themselves, returning to the nest for shelter, but they do not add to the existing nest provisions. When the new queen is ready to mate she flies to where the attractant chemical has been deposited by the male and waits for a suitable mate. Then the two mate - as in these pictures of the Red-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius)


The adult male bumblebee (in common with most adult male insects) has only one function in life - that is to mate. He will fly in a circuit depositing a queen-attracting scent pheromone produced from a gland in his head in suitable places, usually in the morning, and replacing the scent if it rains. Different species have different preferred flying heights for this, and different queen attracting scents.

The pheromone is used to scent-mark prominent objects (tree trunks, rocks, posts, etc) on the circuit which is usually a few hundred metres long. The scent of some species can be detected by some humans. Usually the males patrol at species specific heights.


Mating usually takes place while resting on the ground or on vegetation. At the start of mating the male grabs on to the queen's thorax to get himself into the correct position.

In order to mate the female must extend her sting so that the male can insert his genital capsule.


The time taken for matings varies widely from 10 minutes to 80 minutes. The sperm is transferred within the first 2 minutes of mating, and the bees are in a rather vulnerable position, so why do they continue for so long? Well, after the male passes his sperm into the queen he pumps a sticky mixture into her genital opening. This genital plug takes time to harden, and once hardened can completely or partially block the entry of sperm from other males for up to three days. So even though the two are in a vulnerable position, it is in the interest of the male to hang on to ensure that his genes have a good chance of being passed on to the next generation, and as most males don't even manage to mate, and those that do usually just mate once, he wants to be sure his genes will be passed on.

New queens usually search for a hibernation site soon after mating.


I'm not sure we would have been looking so closely at what is happening in our garden if it weren't for "lockdown". 
Food for thought...

It was great to deepen our understanding of how 'nature' works.

Youngsters

Posted on 22 July, 2020 at 2:30 Comments comments (65)

Oops - sorry fans; missed my deadline yesterday.  Busy making bread then receiving visitors; followed by taking them to Rising Sun CP.

So, a brief Wednesday morning blog.  The undoubted highlight of our walk yesterday was seeing fledgling Whitethroats still being attended by their parents.  Why are young animals and birds always so cute?




The young birds were very fresh and smart - Dad looked a bit more ragged and worn out!



We saw these birds in a hedgerow near the wildflower meadows to the North of the site.  Very few people go there and it is the best part of the park for flowers and butterflies.  The Meadow Cranesbill is lovely...



Our visitors from Surrey enjoyed their trip to deepest, darkest Wallsend...

Tern and tern again

Posted on 18 July, 2020 at 0:30 Comments comments (1)

Yesterday Julia and I went to the beach just north of Newbiggin - hoping it would be fairly empty.  It was - except for the normal smattering of dog walkers. And also - a 'cat walker'.  So - we are not the only ones who take our cats for walks in a harness.  Mind you, ours only get to the garden - not the beach!

Most bird life was out to sea - and zooming by.  Gulls, gannets and terns were on show.  Gulls I avoid but I did attempt some pictures of the speedy terns...



A Sandwich Tern by my reckoning... Easier to get close up photos on the Farne Islands, as with this Arctic Tern a couple of years ago...


Gannets were quite a way out, flying both north and south - some adults, some juveniles (with the darker markings)





Again, if you go to the right location you can get much closer views - witness these pictures from Bempton Cliffs in 2012




There weren't many shore birds about - a couple of distant Sanderling and Dunlin - in summer plumage; but the closest was a female Linnet


An unspectacular but pleasant enough outing - all that was missing was finishing at a cafe for 'coffee and cakes'!

Another stroll

Posted on 14 July, 2020 at 8:35 Comments comments (0)

On Sunday, 12th July, we had one of our infrequent trips out.  We would have preferred to go midweek but the weather was inclement.  We opted for Bolam Lake.

On arrival we were a bit dismayed by the number of cars but most of the occupants either seemed to be feeding loaves of white bread to the swans or be grouped around the ice-cream van! So the one-way walking system that is in place and our desire to walk the less popular paths meant that we were able to be fairly well isolated.

Birds were not plentiful - neither to see nor hear. But there were plenty of plants to keep Julia occupied and a thistle meadow that teemed with insect life.

Red-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius):



Common Blue Damselfly:


A few butterflies too...

Small Skipper


...the UK's most common butterfly - the Meadow Brown...


...and a rather scruffy Red Admiral...


Flower heads and emerging plants made for interesting pictures too...




In the darkest part of the woods, by a feeder, we did see various tits and a Nuthatch.


On our way home we called in at Prestwick Carr, which, as we guessed, was very quiet - in terms of humans and wildlife!

As we left, we did spot a Kestrel - and this is a real 'record shot' just to remind us it was there...


So another pleasant walk - nothing startling but plenty to keep us interested.


Extra! Extra! Read all about it!

Posted on 11 July, 2020 at 0:30 Comments comments (2)

Yesterday evening (Thursday 9th July) a knock came on our door.  It was neighbour Tracy telling me that a Sparrowhawk was devouring its kill right outside their house! And so it was...

A magnificent female Sparrowhawk was making short work of a juvenile Woodpigeon.

I grabbed my camera and rushed out.  Unfortunately I had just been working on the previous blog (about my stroll around Rising Sun CP) and the memory cards were lying on my desk.  I snapped away merrily for about 10 minutes - then had that horrible sinking feeling.  I checked the camera - no cards in it!!  So, hot foot back into the house to grab a card - praying that the bird would still be there when I re-emerged. It was... (thankfully!)

I have uploaded just 12 of the 150 photographs elsewhere on the website (the album called Sparrowhawk July 2020) (sorry - no hyperlinks working...)

Tracy's son, Harry, was out there snapping away too.  He is a professional videographer and a very brief video made by him is on the home page of the site.

I wasn't totally sure of the victim but close examination of these photos by some of my gurus confirmed it was a juvenile Woodpigeon:




As David Noble-Rollin told me:

It's a young Woodpigeon. You can see the Sparrowhawk has broken the crop and there are peas and mealworms that the pigeon had just eaten. The ID is that the feet are pigeon type. The white on the edge of the wing is Woodpigeon only. The age is the colour of the feet (they start going red usually when the tailed and flight feathers are fully grown towards autumn) and the short tail which has the characteristic black band showing on the underside picture.

 

 

This was a fantastic encounter with a beautiful bird.  It just shows that you never know when you are going to come across events in the natural world which will fill you with awe. 

It is also a salutory lesson that you need to turn OFF the 'take pictures without memory card' instruction in your camera!!!


No flies on me...

Posted on 3 July, 2020 at 7:35 Comments comments (1)

What a miserable week of weather - haven't got beyond the garden - so no birds today.  We are back to little things lurking in the vegetation.

Hoverflies are always around and I spotted something different the other day.  It is a 'bee mimic' fly - Merodon equestris, also known as the Greater Bulb Fly.  It gets its name from the fact that its larvae develop in bulbs - especially daffodils.  I had trouble identifying it from my 'Britain's Hoveflies' book because it is 'polymorphic' and therefore can come in many guises, depending on which bee it is mimicking.  I had to use the UK Hoverflies Facebook page to get an identification (very helpful peole there).



It seems to me that this fly is trying to mimic a Red-tailed Bumblebee:



When you start looking carefully you can see that the bee has longer antennae and the fly has much bigger eyes.


But, it's clever stuff isn't it! The theory is not that they are trying to fool other bees or wasps.  Rather it is 'Batesian mimicry' (as first proposed by the naturalist H.W. Bates).  The theory is that a palatable species evolves colour patterns which imitate the warning signs of a noxious species, directed at a common predator.  In other words, by looking like a stinging and distasteful bee or wasp, a hoverfly gains a degree of protection from predators, even though it is actually perfectly edible.

To some, this chap may look like a wasp:





There are many yellow and black marked hoverflies - this may be Eupeodes luniger (but - there again - it may not be!).

Another creepy crawly we've got few of is the Ladybird larva.  Would never have guessed that such a scary creaure would turn into something so bonny and helpful...



We do see insects around our pond plants; which are growing by the minute. So let's finish with our splendid Yellow Flag Iris...



With a song in my heart

Posted on 30 June, 2020 at 4:45 Comments comments (7)

So - why do birds sing?


A bird's song is only one type of sound birds make, but it is the most recognizable. Birds have very complex vocalizations, often with more than one tone produced simultaneously, thanks to the specialized syrinx (their equivalent of a voice box) that allows them to create independent sounds in different parts of their trachea. Songs may last 2 to 10 seconds or more and are often repeated in long sequences. A song is generally more musical than other calls, and often incorporates a range of pitches and rhythms into one connected sequence.

In many bird species, only the males sing—they do so conspicuously from high, exposed perches so their song will travel greater distances. As this Whitethroat at Wallsend Rising Sun CP demonstrates...






Birds sing for a number of reasons:

  • claiming and defending territory
  • attracting a mate
  • general communication - warnings; keeping in touch with contact and flight calls

    Greenfinch, also at Rising Sun...




Fresh songs come to our shores when the warblers return in the spring and summer - a Blackcap at Washington WWT




And although the Chiffchaff's song is not particularly memorable, it is always good to hear as it is often the harbinger of spring.  This one was at Big Waters NR...



Learning the various songs and calls is quite a task - but can be done if you get familiar with a few at a time and get them in your 'aural bank'.  Of course, hearing them can be a challenge for 'men of a certain age' (like me).  My tip? Go birdwatching with a wife who has keen hearing!

Owling

Posted on 23 June, 2020 at 7:35 Comments comments (2)

Wallsend Rising Sun Country Park is our 'go to' place at the moment - right on the doorstep and there is often some interesting stuff to see. We had received reports of successfully breeding Long-eared Owls - with the owlets often being easy to spot.

So, last Saturday, off I went.  The walk, past East Benton Farm, usually has some surprises as well as regular sightings. There is always a goodly number of House Sparrows and Hogweeed makes statuesque flower and seed heads.


There were Goldfinches feeding...


Also feeding was a male Red-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius).  Why male? The yellow hairs on his face and the yellow collar distinguish him from the female.  There are no pollen sacs because he does not forage.  He is feeding himself up - ready for the one job he has to perform later in the season (!)



Further on, just before entering the park I came across some really smart new Small Tortoiseshells feeding on thistles...





As I entered the park I was lucky to bump into a well-known local birder.  He had been to see the owlets and was able to tell me exactly where they were - which was about 50m away from where they had been the day before.  This certainly saved me a lot of time and frustration. There are 3 young in this brood.  I got good views of two.  The first was playing hard-to-get and was not easy to photograph.


I could see a second bird further back in the tree - which, luckily, was right next to the footpath. I was able to work my way through some longish grass to get behind the tree and get a good look.  At times the bird stared me straight in the eye and did not seem fazed at all.  The gentle click of the camera got his attention...


I plan to post more pictures of these birds on Friday - along with owls I have seen in the past.  So tune in on Friday, O loyal reader, for more strigine surprises.

Walltown

Posted on 16 June, 2020 at 7:50 Comments comments (9)

First of all, O Loyal Fan, apologies for not posting last Friday.  Excuse? It was my birthday and - amid all the jollity - I forgot!

On Sunday (14th June) we went on one of our rare outings.  Tired of the continuous low cloud hanging over the coast, we travelled westwards along the Military Road and Hadrian's Wall.  We ended up at Walltown Crags - where it was, indeed, a lovely sunny day.

There were plenty of interesting plants for Julia to look at and we saw Large Skippers 'at it'...


There was a Meadow Brown showing his under-wing markings well too...


The large pond was obviously suffering from the prolonged drought in May but there were thousands of tadpoles ready to lead a frog takeover...


There were plenty of birds to listen to as well.  We had good views of a Song Thrush at full volume - a sound we don't actually hear all that often - and Willow Warblers and Whitethroats too.  But best all - we heard a Cuckoo!  Sadly this is a very rare occurence.  It reminded me of our trip to the Danube Delta in 2017.  They were ubiquitous.  And often perched showingly...


We came home via Aydon - just north of Corbridge - hoping to see a field of glorious poppies.  It was not to be - but there were a few dashes of vivid vermillion amongst the green.


We reflected that this had been what we would regard as a 'normal' day: a trip out into our beloved Northumberland; binoculars and cameras to hand; flask and comestibles to refresh us.  This is what it was like 'before'. 

So - we were cheered and in good spirits and realised what there is plenty to look forward to....

Gosforth Nature Reserve

Posted on 9 June, 2020 at 9:45 Comments comments (0)

The Natural History Society of Northumbria (NHSN) plays quite a big part in our lives - and Gosforth Nature Reserve in particular. The Reserve has been closed for several weeks now - but has just re-opened, with social distancing guidelines in place.  Unfortunately, our 'shielding' situation means that it is not really an option for us.

Here are some images I've taken at the Reserve - to show what we are missing!
Kingfishers always attract the photographers...






Common Terns nest on the platform in the lake.  They make for some beautiful flight shots...








Moorhens are very common - and largely overlooked.  But I enjoyed watching this one tussling with reeds for nest-building purposes...



And, of course, the other activity I miss is the forced labour of the working party - clearing reeds is always a popular pastime!