A woodland fit for a kinglet

The Goldcrest (Regulus regulus) is the UK’s joint smallest bird (alongside the Firecrest, R. ignicapillus. They’re both usually about 90 millimetres long and weighing approximately 9 grams.


Both species favour pine trees, but you see them in other wooded areas and occasionally in gardens. I say “you see them”. But, they’re so small and flighty that it is quite hard to spot them and even harder to get decent photographs of them in their natural habitat.

They dart about in the darkest recesses of the woods, apparent only through their high-pitched whistling tweets and occasional flash of gold. So, I was quite pleased to catch one Goldcrest in the sunlight in one of our nearby woodlands, Rampton Spinney, about eight kilometres north of Cambridge.

The sunlight meant I could have a short shutter speed with the intention of freezing movement without the ISO being too high and the pictures noisy. These three shots were taken with a Canon 6D, with a Sigma 150-600mm zoom lens at full stretch, f/5.6, ISO 2500 and a shutterspeed of 1/1500 second.


The psychology of reunions

I just spent the weekend in another city with a bunch of people most of whom I hadn’t seen for twenty years. All-but-one-or-two of those people I met for the first time in another country when we worked together on a kids’ summer camp. It was a wonderful reunion, none of us has changed a bit…on the inside.

We didn’t stop talking at each other and laughing over the old stories (of which there were approximately 10476 or was it 10477, I lose count). We laughed and scoffed over the old photographs of us looking smooth-skinned and youthful and in the way we all know we still are…on the inside.

A word did come to mind though as we gassed and laughed and drank.


Ironic really as way back then, before setting out for those foreign shores we had been coraled albeit separately in the Spring of ’88, for an orientation course by the organisers of these student jollies that told us a little about the process of getting there, working and living there and how to think about what to do in terms of travel if any of us had time and cash left afterwards.


The vertiginous feeling of reuniting with very familiar faces with whom we had all had a deep friendship so long ago. Some had stayed in touch of course and there had been occasional sightings and visits over the winding course of three decades. But, this reunited group was much of the hardcore of Brits who had corresponded fervently for weeks and months and sometimes years after our American rite of passage. We were, back then, perhaps clinging on to the exuberance of that summer, trying not to admit that we were all back in Blighty and student studies had to be begun again or, perish the thought, jobs sought.

Disorientation at how after 30 years we mostly all had families, some of whom were grown up. We had all taken very disparate routes to other foreign shores for long and short trips. We had all eventually got very different jobs and made some amazing career choices that might never have come to mind when we were working in 96 degree heat among those not-so-lonesome pines.

We had all constructed new circles of friends with whom we had all created strong bonds in the intervening years. But, there was this feeling when we all looked at each and talked and drank that although our heads were full of the faces of newer friends and the experiences we had all had since we last met, that this strange shared experience of a summer working on a kids camp in West Virginia had taken us down so many country roads and yet we were still in the same place…on the inside.

Strange how nostalgia hits you in the stomach and brings a lump to your throat and puts a teardrop in your eye…almost Heaven.

Oh, and one more thing, I didn’t go bare-chested at any point during the reunion…despite their endless demands, hahaha.

Afterthought: Readers will no doubt have got the feeling that we all just picked up where we left off all those years ago. It’s true. And, almost everyone has similar experiences to report when being reunited with old friends. It is amazing that it seems to work like that. I think the “Dunbar number” theory about how many people a human can “keep” in their head in terms of social connection needs to be updated. Fundamentally, there may well be a limit to the number in any single clique or group to which we belong, but I reckon there is a layer above that. We can perhaps belong to many different groups and have a large number of connections in each of those too. Well, that’s my experience.

Then, there is the disorientation one feels when those different groups overlap or meet. That whole “So….how do *you* two know each other?” syndrome. It’s a fascinating social PhD to be undertaken, I reckon.

Inevitably, I wrote a song.

Cloudy night of autumnal moths

We have recently had some clear, cold, and damp nights and some rainy nights recently. The scientific moth trap has been running, but with very few lepidoptera making an appearance. I have been observing one or two specimens only each morning. That said, four species new to me in a couple of weeks and all added to my butterflies and moths gallery. However, the evening of 25th October 2018 was cloudy and thus a little warmer and while I cannot say that the trap was heaving this morning, there had been a few interesting species in the dark and one or two more present by morning.

Feathered Thorn (Colotois pennaria)
White Point (Mythimna albipuncta)
Green Brindled Crescent (Allophyes oxyacanthae)
Common Marbled Carpet (Dysstroma truncata), dark form
Common Marbled Carpet (Dysstroma truncata), light form
Feathered Thorn (Colotois pennaria)

There were two very different colourations of Common Marbled Carpet (Dysstroma truncata), Green Brindled Crescent (Allophyes oxyacanthae), two differently sized White Point (Mythimna albipuncta), and a rather interesting autumnal flyer, a male Feathered Thorn (Colotois pennaria). Also, not pictured, November agg (Epirrita dilutata), not seen any of the underwings recently, but there was a Lesser Yellow Underwing (Noctua comes), and finally, a Turnip (Agrotis segetum).

In that bottom photo of the Feathered Thorn I had to clone out all the yellow and white dog hairs that were on the carpet to allow the moth to stand out in the photo!

What’s the UK’s most common breeding bird?

It’s a classic pub quiz question: “What’s the UK’s most common breeding bird?”. Many people might think of Woodpigeon or House Sparrow, Starling, perhaps, because we see so many in our gardens. Indeed, House Sparrow is the most common bird in our gardens, but that doesn’t take into account the millions of birds in the countryside (ignoring chickens which aren’t wild birds). The answer to the question is in fact the Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes). There are about 8,600,000 breeding pairs of Wren in the UK compared with just 5,300,000 pairs of House Sparrow.

Bizarrely, when I posted this fact on Facebook with the above photo of a Wren at RSPB Titchwell, one friend asked, quite innocently, which is the most abundant UK breeding bird by weight? I assumed he meant mass and so I looked up the numbers and the average mass of a few species and did some calculations, I may well have overlooked a bird that comes in heavier, but here’s my Top Ten UK breeding birds not by number but by national tonnage:

Woodpigeon 457 g – 5.4 million pairs –> 4940 tonnes
Blackbird 100 g – 7m pairs –> 1400 tonnes
Collared Dove 181 g – 990,000 pairs –> 360 tonnes
Greylag Goose 3.6 kg – 46000 pairs –> 331 tonnes
Starling 75 g – 1.8 million pairs –> 270 tonnes
House Sparrow 32 g – 5.3m pairs –> 169 tonnes
Wren 9 g – 8.6 million pairs –> 160 tonnes
Chaffinch 25 g – 6.2m pairs –> 155 tonnes
Mute Swan 10 kg – 6400 pairs –> 128 tonnes
Robin 19 g – 6.7 million pairs –> 127 tonnes

Just outside the top ten, we have:
Song Thrush 80 g – 1.2 million pairs –> 96 tonnes
Dunnock 20 g – 2.3 million pairs –> 46 tonnes
Blue Tit 11 g – 3.6 million pairs –> 39.6 tonnes

Fake bird news

This is a version of my bird report for our local village newsletter scheduled to appear in December.

At the time of writing, the summer visitors, such as the swifts, swallows, house martins, and various migratory warblers were all long gone. Indeed, it is still sunny and warm during the day, but the nights have turned decidedly damp and chilly and one friend reported early-morning frost on his car windscreen (it was 90 days until Christmas, at the time).

Robin redbreast, Erithacus rubecula

Well, speaking of Christmas for the birder can mean only one thing, and I don’t mean turkey, nor do I actually mean the winter visitors such as the fieldfare, redwing, hawfinch, waxwing, nor any of the other species that head south from Siberia and Scandinavia during the winter to pick the leftover fruit and berries from our season of mellow fruitfulness and find some degree of warmth even if there is another Beast from the East. No, I am talking about the Robin, Erithacus rubecula.

There is all sorts of folklore surrounding this old world flycatcher with its tremulous and flutingly melodic song and its famous breast plumage. But, its appearance on Christmas paraphernalia is somewhat puzzling given that the bird is a resident. It’s fake news that they make an appearance only at the festive end of the year and prefer snow to soil. The bird is here all year, unlike those swifts and swallows which swan off [pardon the pun] back to southern Africa as our days shorten and the temperatures fall. It never leaves.

If I remember rightly, the Robin was voted Britain’s favourite bird. Fair enough, it is a wonderful, bold species with a history of finding a home near human settlements where it will be forever watchful and dart in to catch dropped food and crumbs. They evolved alongside other foraging mammals, such as wild boar, and are quite happy to piggyback in that animal’s stamping grounds too. Despite their popularity and cute appearance they are actually rather aggressively territorial birds and quick to drive away or even attack intruders.

There is one thing about Robins that might have confused all but the most casual observer of their plumage. The species is commonly known as the robin redbreast. But, the feathers on its chest are anything but red. That “rubecula” in its scientific name is also fake news. The rubecula comes from the Latin “ruber” meaning red, same etymology as the precious stone the ruby. Same root as “rufous” meaning red. But, that redbreast is most definitely not red, it’s orange!

So, why isn’t the bird commonly known as a robin orangebreast? Well, you may well ask the same question of a host of other “reds” that are also orange, such as redshanks, red knot, red admirals, and redheads.

The answer lies in the fact that until the 1540s, English had no word for the colour orange. Anything of what we perceive as a red or orange hue was just fifty or so shades of red. It was very black and white, no grey. When the common names were given to various species and hair colouration, whether they were orange or red, it was all the same – red.

The word orange arrived on our shores with the fruit, around 1300, but was used only as the name of the fruit. The word having come from the old French “orange”, which in turn and rather indirectly comes from the Sanskrit word for an orange tree, “naranga”. It wasn’t until the 1540s that the fruity word started to be used for the colour. If there had been any usage of that hue, then in Middle English it was citrine or saffron. Robins were not even always called robins. They were officially known as redbreasts until 1971 and long before that ruddocks, with its allusion to their being ruddy. The bird name robin, of course, also screams red as in ruby, ruby, ruby, despite it coming from the forename.

At least the avian cousin of the robin, the bluethroat is a lot more obvious and trustworthy in its name. It’s a bird with a blue throat. Except of course, you do get ones with a white spot in that blue patch and others with a red spot just to add to the confusion and don’t get me started on pied, white, grey, and yellow wagtails.

Knots Landing

They’re naming the new hide at RSPB Snettisham “Knots Landing” in honour of the bird, Calidris canutus, that flocks in vast numbers in and out over The Wash there with each turning tide.

The bird is named for King Canute (it’s not a long way from ca-nute to k-not and then dropping the k, in Dutch they’re called “Kanoeten”) because these medium-sized waders, which breed in the tundra and the Arctic Cordillera of Canada, Europe, and Russia will whoosh from the mudflats and sandbanks as the tide rises until they are ankle deep at high tide periodically forming vast flocks that shapeshift across the skies.

We visited on the third weekend of October 2018, catching the late afternoon high tide on a clear day that ended with a glorious sunset and seeing flocks of several thousand Red Knots. There were a couple of thousand Oystercatcher there too and perhaps 1000 or so Golden Plover, not to mention the hundreds and hundreds of Pink-footed Geese that leave behind their feeding grounds and head out to sea to roost at dusk safe from terrestrial predators.

Sometimes entangled in your own dream…knots…you can find the non-avian sunset photos on my Imaging Storm site.

Avian ancestry

Our feathered friends, the birds, are all descended from the dinosaurs. Specifically, birds evolved from the hollow-boned theropod dinosaurs which includes the Tyrannosaurus rex. All 10500 species of bird alive today and all the many thousands of others that are extinct came from the dinosaurs. But. Didn’t the dinosaurs die out 65 million years ago when a huge asteroid hit the Earth, you ask? Well, most groups that were still around at the time did, allowing the mammals to fill the ecological niches left empty by their sudden absence. However, the lineage of those hollow-boned dinos would persist too. The question is how did they survive when their cousins died out?

Writing in the journal scientists affectionately know as PNAS, researchers explain how they have found another adaptation that could have given the ancestor of the birds an advantage when things got very tough for the other dinosaurs. They have examined the fossilized lungs of a bird ancestor, Archaeorhynchus spathula, using scanning electron microscopy and found features in the lungs of those animals that resemble those of modern birds and are thought to be an evolutionary adaptation that supported flight include unidirectional airflow in the lungs, supplementary air sacs, and lung tissue that is finely subdivided to maximize surface area and so absorption of oxygen from the atmosphere to drive the huge energy requirements of flying.

Crocodilians are the only other living creatures that have unidirectional airflow and this characteristic is now thought to have evolved even before the ancestors of the early feathered dinosaurs.

The authors also discovered among the preserved plumage of the fossil a pintail feather structure that has not been seen in other known birds of the Cretaceous period but is seen in some modern birds. The researchers suggest that all of this evidence stacks up to the fact that key avian structures were in place by the Early Cretaceous and could have been what helped the ancestors of modern birds survive the extinction of the other dinosaurs.

“Archaeorhynchus preserving significant soft tissue including probable fossilized lungs,” Xiaoli Wang et al. Proc Natl Acad Sci (2018)

Female Cross Spider – Araneus diadematus

Cross, or European Garden, Spider (Araneus diadematus), also known as the Crowned Orb Weaver, Diadem, Orangie, and also the Pumpkin Spider, so perhaps I should’ve held off posting this until Halloween. There is, however, another spider that has the vernacular name Pumpkin Spider.

This is a female specimen. The legs of orb-weaver spiders are specialized for spinning orb webs (although this one had spun a flat web across a small windowpane). The spider constructs its web and then hangs head down in the centre or in nearby foliage, with one claw hooked to a signal line connected to the web waiting for a disturbance as prey enters the web. The spider bites its prey and quickly envelops it in silk. Some enzymes paralyse the prey and preclude the prey biting or stinging the spider. Other enzymes begin the liquefaction (digestion) of the prey’s innards ready for consumption.

Just for the record, this is one of those spiders that cannibalises the male after mating.

I asked arachnid expert Dr Richard Pearce (@DrRichJP) about the fact that spiders seem to have extra pairs of eyes and wondering why other creatures did not follow this evolutionary route. This is what he had to say:

Spider eyes are not necessarily comparable to our own. Many spiders have poor vision. Those with good vision tend to have two primary eyes to give binocular vision (e.g. jumpers - Salticidae; wolf spiders - Lycosidae). The other eyes do not form images in the same way.

Spider photo now in my Invertebrates gallery (non-lepidoptera)

Films from the Future

In Films from the Future – The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies, Andrew Maynard draws on his work on emerging technologies, responsible innovation and how we address the issues of risk. He introduces the reader to the profound capabilities presented by new and emerging technologies, and also to the complex personal and societal challenges they present.

In the twelve carefully curated movies, Maynard offers a starting point for us to explore potentially life-changing technologies and trends. From the genetic engineering of Jurassic Park and the brain-enhancing drugs of Limitless, to the ideas of human augmentation represented in Ghost in the Shell and artificial intelligence in Ex Machina. The concepts are woven together with emerging ideas on technological convergence and responsible and ethical innovation to give us a panoramic vista on where our technology might take us and how we might ensure it takes us to where we want to go.

More information from Mango Publishing (https://mango.bz)