Stoats are weaselly distinguished

As regular readers will know, the dog and I are often to be seen tramping the footpaths around farmland, the local spinney, and the drainage ditches known as lodes. A year ago today I videoed said pooch running through the snow as Britain supposedly suffered the onslaught of some cold snowy weather in the form of the so-called Beast from the East (video here). It wasn’t at all beastly, just a bit cold and a bit snowy and it brought the winter thrushes (my video here), the Redwings and the Fieldfares, into our village gardens from the fields.

By contrast, today it’s an incredibly balmy 18.5 Celsius out there. Certainly not too cold to sit down by a style with the dog for a short rest on the off-chance that some interesting birds might come along. Well, there were the usual Dunnocks, Goldfinch, Robins, Long-tailed, Great, and Blue Tits, Blackbird, Rook, and Wood Pigeon.

Then, a very worried sounding Wren darted into the closest hedgerow attempting to evade a predator! It was almost murder, she stoat.

The stoat (Mustela erminea) is sometimes known as the short-tailed weasel (to contrast it with the smaller least weasel). In Ireland, where there are no least weasels, it’s simply called a weasel. But, the same larger species, in its almost completely white winter fur is known as an ermine.

In this heat, it’s Stoatally tropical…almost. Fur fake’s sake…

He’s now in the Vertebrate section of the Imaging Storm Wildlife gallery.

Last of the Short-eared Owls

UPDATE: 22 Apr 2019, I wasn’t there but apparently, still Shorties at Burwell Fen.

Short-eared Owls (Asio flammeus) like to spend their winters where it’s slightly warmer than their native lands of Iceland, Scandinavia, and Russia. I say warmer, they migrate to northern, eastern, and parts of central southern England especially around the coast. But, they also seem to have favoured NT Burwell Fen this winter.

Got quite close to the Owl photographed above without spooking it, but there was a group of people up ahead who had an even better view when it landed right in front of them, but they decided to blunder ahead and get even closer than 20 metres for their photos, scaring the bird and ruining everybody else’s chance for a closeup.

There have been sightings of six or so Short-eared Owls over the last few weeks. I have seen at most two at one time there in the last few days, but possibly a third. Other photographers and birders there suggest only two remain. They will only be here for a few more days, maybe weeks, the weather and food source will perhaps dictate how much longer they will stay.

Digesting ten unpalatable myths about food

I’ve put together a menu of my favourite food myths #DeceivedWisdom and separated the fact and fiction based on the debunking of nutrition myths in a recent well-referenced feature on Myth 10 is my own bonus myth debunked.

Myth 1: Carbs are bad for you

Fact: As long as you do not overindulge, there is nothing inherently harmful about carbohydrates.

Myth 2: Fat is bad for you

Fact: If you eat too much and don’t get enough exercise, and so stay in a caloric surplus, a low-fat diet won’t help you lose weight. You need some omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Saturated fat won’t give you a heart attack, but too much trans fat might.

Myth 3: Protein is bad for your bones and kidneys

Fact: Protein, even in large amounts, isn’t harmful to your bones or kidneys (unless you suffer from a pre-existing condition).

Myth 4: Red meat is bad for you

Fact: The risk of getting cancer from eating red meat has been vastly exaggerated. Healthy lifestyle choices, such as maintaining a healthy weight, exercising, not smoking, and drinking alcohol only in moderation is far more important to overall risk.

Myth 5: Salt is bad for you

Fact: Salt reduction is important for people with salt-sensitive hypertension, and excess salt intake is associated with harm. But drastically lowering salt intake has not shown uniform benefit in clinical trials. See Myth 4 for general comment on health risk reduction.

Myth 6: Fresh is better than frozen

Fact: There are only tiny nutrient differences between truly fresh fruit and veg compared with frozen produce. Choose to suit your taste, budget, and lifestyle, any fruit and veg is better than no fruit and veg. Some supermarkets cold store “fresh” fruit and veg for months, so in that case frozen might even be fresher.

Myth 7: You should do a ‘detox’ regularly

Fact: The concept of a detox is pseudoscience. Nothing dietary you ingest will accelerate significantly the body’s natural processes (in the liver and kidneys) of waste products. Moreover, some supplements add to the burden on the liver and can even interfere with medication, leading to more tox than detox.

Myth 8: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day

Fact: You don’t need to eat breakfast to be healthy or lose weight.

Myth 9: You won’t lose weight if you eat before bedtime

Fact: Eating late won’t make you gain fat, unless it drives you to eat more. Also, tasty, high-calorie snacks are very attractive after a long day.

Myth 10: There is a magic formula to make you healthy, wealthy, and wise

Fact: There isn’t. Eat sensibly, don’t overindulge in any one food, get plenty of exercise, preferably in the fresh air where you can hear birdsong away from traffic. Don’t smoke. Don’t drink to excess. Avoid worrying about your health and nutrition.

Oak Beauty (Biston strataria)

I missed out on the Merveille du Jour moths late last year, had a few November moths, and a Winter moth, but no December moths. I was beginning to think that our garden environment was too far away from oak trees for some of the species that are attracted to oaks.

But, then having started “lighting up” again a few days ago been graced with the presence of numerous Common Quaker the larvae (caterpillars) of which prefer deciduous trees, including oak and willows. Then I had a couple of Pale Brindled Beauty (Phigalia pilosaria), which also favour oak. And, best of the bunch in terms of patterning and antennae, an Oak Beauty (Biston strataria). The Dotted Border is also a fan of a range of deciduous trees.

Oak Beauty
Oak Beauty
Oak Beauty
Oak Beauty showing its patterning and antennae
Dotted Border
Dotted Border almost camouflaged on a business card from a local pub

Short-eared Owls at Burwell Fen

A 7- or 8-mile hike from NT Wicken Fen car park out through Burwell Fen to The Anchor in Burwell and back via the electric sub-station. Timing was perfect, just ahead of sunset by the time we got to the western side of Burwell Fen, there were about 20 others with cameras waiting for the local Short-eared Owls (Asio flammeus) to emerge for their late-afternoon prandials. Reckon we saw three of possibly six that live around this Fen.

Short-eared owl Burwell Fen

Like I say, there were quite a few people on the Fen watching out for owls and hoping for a great photo.

Short-eared owl photographer

Short-eared owl photographers

Oh, and here’s that 7.65 mile route to the pub and back via the owls…

Walking route Wicken to Burwell

Then, there were these snappers who seemed to be snapping me rather than the shortie heading across their bow.

Oh, and one last shot just the sun was sinking and one of the shorties headed off over the Fen.


Sex antenna

That feathery protuberance on this moth (Pale Brindled Beauty, Phigalia pilosaria) is one of a pair of antennae. What you cannot see clearly in my photo is that it’s fractal with each tiny hair on the main stem having its own array of tiny hairs and so on down to the molecular level.

Feathery antennae like this are found only on male moths and are basically its sex radar. They can catch a few molecules of female moth sex attractant pheromone on the breeze sometimes coming from miles away and guiding the male to where the female might be found. The female of this particular species has no wings and so the male must go to her to mate.

What use are moths?

Steve on one of the mothing Facebook groups told us he gave a talk about moths and was asked if we had any use for them. Other than making silk from silk worms (the larvae, or caterpillars, of the domestic silkmoth, Bombyx morihe) was at a loss to suggest any purpose to moths other than their role in the wider concept of life on earth and diversity and all that. He posed the question on the group and was offered quite a few reasons to be cheerful when it comes to moths.

Hebrew Character moth

Shaun suggested that people have an odd relationship with moths as they are used as symbols and in myths in a variety of cultures, as food – some people eat the larvae and they’re an important protein source packed with essential minerals, they can be used as invasive plant controls and for the study of genetics etc. As decoration in jewellery, clothing, tattooing etc. Paul pointed out the traditional food of Aboriginal Australia, the witchetty grub, which is the larva of several moths, most notably the Cossid Moth Endoxyla leucomochla. There are a food source in Europe too and a form of tea that is brewed with moth and other insect faeces in China.

Martin’s take was that we make use of moths for interest, study, research, and in hobbies. They “brighten our lives,” he says. They also act as a gateway into other activities and interests, such as flowers, trees, walking, travel, and friendship.

Common Quaker moth

Antony pointed out that pollination is probably the main use.

Matthew, somewhat tongue-in-cheek asked what do we use blue tits for? Or shrews? It’s not all about utility!

Roly asserted that moths have an important position in nature’s foodchain. Many birds wouldn’t exist without caterpillars for their chicks. He also added ever so slightly flippantly, I think, that his wife reckons she finds moths very handy for making her clothes look moth-eaten, proof that she needs continually to shop, though I’ve never seen a clothes moth in our closets, Roly emphasises.

Pale Brindled Beauty moth

Stewart had a research example of moth usage: Spodoptera frugiperda and Trichoplusia ni cell lines are used in the recombinant baculovirus expression system to produce proteins. The baculovirus most studied for this is Autographa californica multicapsid nucleopolyhedrovirus.

A pair of Snipe at RSPB Fen Drayton

I haven’t yet been to see the Snipe (Gallinago gallinago) living on the edge of our village pond, but a visit to RSPB Fen Drayton today allowed us good views of a pair roosting and then feeding on the little islands right in front of the Coucher Hide there.

Snipe, Gallinago gallinago

This species is incredibly well camouflaged in its normal environment. I spotted the first of two, Mrs Sciencebase the second. A fellow birder couldn’t quite home in on the places we’d seen them until the birds began to move to feed with their classic sewing machine bill action. Not to be confused with the Jack Snipe, which has shorter legs, a shorter bill, is a little smaller, and has more detailed and stronger markings but lacks the central yellow stripe on the crown of its head.

Here’s a shot from the hide of the more distant of the two Snipe we saw. This image is as it came out of the camera, uncropped, with no sharpening or processing, other than to resize for the web to reduce file load. Spot the Snipe!

RSPB Fen Drayton Snipe uncropped

The bird gives its name to the term sniper in reference to how British soldiers in the 18th Century used to hunt the species in India.

Welcome to the first moths of the year

Okay…first moth I’ve seen this year was a Common Plume (Emmelina monodactyla), which I think may well have been hibernating in our car and flew out when we arrived home on 15th February landing on a Ribes bush to be phone-photographed seconds later.

Common Plume moth

Second moth was in the trap (accidentally, as the timer had lit it up briefly evening of 19th). This moth, a Common Quaker (Orthosia cerasi), usually flies from March onwards. First time I’ve seen one. Added to the lepidoptera list and gallery.

Common Quaker moth

Apparently, to some moth-ers the arrival of brown moths, such as the Common Quaker, are an indicator of Spring being on its way.

Other moth species on the wing in February March that might turn up if you’re trapping over the next few days: Pale Brindled Beauty, Early Moth, March Moth, Dotted Border, The Chestnut, Hebrew Character, Spring Usher, The Satellite, Dark Chestnut, Early Grey, Clouded Drab, The Herald, Oak Beauty, Winter Moth (which I spotted twice in December 2018 outside the trap), Red Chestnut, Angle Shades (which appeared regularly from when I started in July 2018), Small Quaker, Yellow Horned, The Engrailed, Silver Y (another regular visitor last year).

Meanwhile, butterflies. We saw a Small Tortoiseshell on NT Tubney/Burwell Fen 14th February and then a week later (21st Feb) a Brimstone and a Peacock at RSPB Fen Drayton.

First Peacock butterfly of 2019, RSPB Fen Drayton

Scopelessly in love with birds

I made a start on a bird book, but there are so many around, it seemed like a futile effort, once I’d done a bit of due diligence and spoken to my publisher. My plan was originally for a nice, bright and glossy, book of full-colour plates, but they’re expensive to repro in print. The unique selling point (USP), aside from my photos, was to be discussion of the etymology of the different birds’ names, their recognised names, their folk names, and their scientific names. But, then I found and read Stephen Moss’s excellent book Mrs Moreau’s Warbler, which basically covered it.

So, here, in part-work form are the first few chapters from the sampler of what was to be Chasing Wild Geese – Spotting your first 100 birds. Apologies if you put your name down for a more positive update regarding a hardback, unless somebody wants to take up the option this book may never materialise. That said, my list is up to well over 100 birds now, so I could add new chapters over the coming months if there’s enough interest.

Chasing Wild Geese – PDF sampler version with bonus chapter about the author

Preface -  Scopelessly in love with birds
Chapter 1 -  Robin
Chapter 2 -  Barn Owl
Chapter 3 -  Blackbird
Chapter 4 -  Wren
Chapter 5 -  Red Kite
Chapter 6 -  Kingfisher
Chapter 7 -  Mute Swan
Chapter 8 -  Blue Tit
Chapter 9 -  Kestrel
Chapter 10 – Yellowhammer
Chapter 11 – Linnet
Appendix -  Birding Glossary