Mating Damselflies are always fascinating to watch. On the Chesterfield canal we watched Common Blue and Blue-tailed Damselflies in their tandem flying mode, as well as in the ‘wheel formation’ when they are actually mating. The male Damselflies, typically more brightly coloured than the females, use their claspers, at the end of the abdomen, to clasp a special ‘shield’ on the females thorax, and the connection is strong enough for them to fly in this formation, as well as to land, rest and mate. Some species mate quickly and separate, while others remain linked for several hours to deter another Male from mating with the female. In fact, some males dig out the sperm of a previous Male In order to replace it with their own. You can watch this tandem flight and wheel along many slow-flowing streams and canals or pools. Conditions: A more normal summer day, with sun and cloud. Temperature: Max 23 Min 13 C.
Reed Bunting- These lovely long-tailed, sparrow-sized birds traditionally nest in damp areas and reed beds but lately have spread to drier habitats, probably due to the loss of wetlands, and are becoming pretty successful nesting in the shelter of Oil Seed Rape fields, although these are usually cut before they can get a second brood in. The strikingly bold patterned male finds a suitable nest site and the more muted female builds the nest. This female was finding plenty of insects, which the young and adults eat in spring, before adding seeds to their diet in summer. She was dropping down into the nest in the bottom of the grasses, but if a predator is around, as with some other birds, including the Lapwing, the Reed Bunting will feign injury and move away from the nest to draw the danger away.
Waking up each morning to the beautiful song of the Willow Warbler again, and having heard both this and the Chiffchaff singing on nearby Parkwood Springs I thought it was time to revisit these beautiful, elusive and similar-looking spring migrants. Chiffchaff arrive mid-March and Willow Warbler, migrating further, arrive in April. This difference in migration journeys also explains one of the visual differences, with Chiffchaffs having shorter wings and Willow Warblers, flying further, having longer primary feathers/wing length. Chiffchaff have dark legs while Willow Warblers have pale pinkish legs and a brighter eye-stripe. Since they are hard to see, the easiest way to tell them apart is by song- Chiffchaff singing a two note eponymous song, and Willow Warblers have a lovely long song ending with a downward trill. The BTO have a great little on-line video on telling them apart. (The photo’s of the Willow Warbler are from our garden, the Chiffchaff from Spurn).
Conditions: Milder with sun and showers. Temperature: Max 13 Min 4C.
Orange-tip Butterfly: it is so lovely to see these beautiful butterflies back in the garden. Having some damp patches in our garden, we have planted Ladies Smock, as it is one of the main food plants for their caterpillars, as is Jack By The Hedge which grows wild in many hedgerows (see photo’s) but Alys Fowler wrote recently about how the much more common garden plant, Honesty, is also a great caterpillar food source so that is an easier way to encourage them into our gardens. Conditions: warming up for the next few days. Still mainly dry. Temperature: Max 13 Min 5 c.
Another beautiful, bright gold spring flower with deep green, glossy leaves is the damp-loving Marsh Marigold. Many small insects crawl over these big, shiny blossoms, gathering pollen and incidentally and valuably pollinating the flowers. Marsh Marigold, in flower now and for several weeks, are commonly named ‘King-cup’, derived from the Old English “cop” meaning a button or stud, as once worn by King’s. Farmer’s would hang a bunch of King Cups in their cow-byres on the first of May as a protection against the evil spells of fairies and witches and they may be the flowers Shakespeare wrote of in Cymbeline: “winking Mary-buds begin to ope their golden eyes”. Their flowers are smaller in the north.
Shoveller Duck: it is a fairly quiet time for garden wildlife (though Waxwings are being spotted around Sheffield, so that is exciting) so I am doing an occasional series on duck identification, as it can be tricky for some, beyond the ubiquitous and well-known Mallard. The Shoveller (one l or two seems fine) is another easy one to identify. It is quite a large duck and, even though the female is much less colourful than the male, is distinctive in both sexes because of its eponymous and unique bill. The large, flattened bill is called ‘spatulate’ and it has a comb-like edge which enables it to sieve out food, so you will see it swimming around surface feeding. Being omnivorous (weeds, seeds, small animals, molluscs and plankton) also probably helps it survive and for years the population was increasing but lately it has been decreasing again, hence it being placed
on the amber list. Our numbers, a few hundred breeding pairs in summer, are swelled to around 16,000 birds in winter so this is the best time to see it. Conditions: A bright, cold day following a very heavy frost. Temperature: Max 4 Min -1C.
All birds need to wash to keep their feathers in good condition and Mute Swans are a dramatic and accessible (being on many lakes in local parks) way to observe just how vigorous and thorough this process needs to be. A family of five Mute Swans were washing recently (alongside some synchronised swimming Mallards, as you will see) and the photo’s show how they separate their feathers so that water gets to every part. Surprisingly little research has been done into this process but when birds are deprived of water, they have been shown to be much clumsier in flight. Regular washing is essential to condition the feathers and helps reduce damage from mites, lice and bacteria. This is why it is worth having even a little bird bath in your garden if you don’t have open water nearby. Conditions: Alternating grey and bright days. Temperature: Max 5 Min 0C.