Thursday, 28 March 2013

The Changing Nature of Garden Birds

The RSPB Birdwatch has produced more evidence of dramatic declines in 'garden birds' ( including a 63% fall in House sparrow (Passer domesticus) numbers and an 82% crash in Starling (Sternus vulgaris) populations. Concomittantly, there have been increases in the numbers of Herring gulls (Larus argentatus), Fieldfares (Turdus pilaris) and Jays (Garrulus glandarius) visiting our gardens. The current cold spell (due to last until the end of April) looks set to produce major changes in bird species seen around our houses. 

Forgetful Bees?

A recent study ( has suggested that worker Honey bees (Apis mellifera) and other pollinating insects exposed to neonicotinoid pesticides are slower to learn associations between floral scents and the presence of nectar. In some cases, neurons in their brain stopped firing with 20 minutes of exposure and they became unable to learn at all. This impairment would cause the bees to be of very limited utility to their hive (their efficient foraging is crucial to its survival) and would largely negate the role of the insects in pollination.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013


It has been confirmed that many UK butterfly species have been devastated by the wet summer of 2012 ( with populations of species such as the, recently discovered and already rare, Black hairstreak (Satyrium pruni) declining by 98%. More common species such as the Heath fritillary (Melitea athalia) and the Common blue (Polyommatus icarus) have halved their numbers. It is not only the wetness but loss of habitats continues to play a role in the declines of these species. The report notes that there are probably currently fewer butterflies in the British Isles than at any time since the arrival of our species here!

Sunday, 24 March 2013

They Sikkim Here, They Sikkim There....

Spent a wet Friday at the Darwin Centre (Pembrokeshire College in Milford Haven) explaining to 6th form school children and. later an adult audience, the attractions of running a cross-disciplinary field course in the Indian Himalayas.

Seeing the Changes 553

In spite of the cold weather (and flooding here), Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) is showing both leaves and flower buds in Penclacwydd.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Seeing the Changes 552

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) was coming into flower in Penclacwydd.

Seeing the Changes 551

At Langland, Rock cinquefoil (Potentilla rupestris) and Common comfrey (Symphytum officinale) were coming into flower.

Birder's Bonus 125

Noted quite a lot of bird activity at Langland on Saturday. A female Blackbird (Turdus merula) foraged and a Dunnock (Prunella modularis) bounced around. A European robin (Erithacus rubecula) threatened with song from the bambles (it was the day of the Welsh victory over the English in Cardiff).

Friday, 15 March 2013

A Kind of Fame

I noted with interest that Swansea University was setting up a Nature Trail on the campus (to be opened by Iolo Williams ( Seeing one of the illustrated signs, the following week I was surprised and gratified to find that many of the images used were mine. It's always nice when stuff serves a real educational purpose and counters my wife's suggestion that 'nobody ever looks at your pictures' (mind you, I can understand her irritation with what might seem like an obsession).

Reflecting on Fracking?

There has been some suggestions that even 'greens' (environmentalists) must learn to love the contributions that gas extracted from shales by 'fracking' can make to affordable and 'clean' UK energy production ( Having said that, others ( have noted that the process does result in contaminated waters that have to be disposed of (if it can all be collected) and that shale bores to do not produce gas for very long (necessitating repeated bores). I am really not sure that this technology has a place on a relatively small and crowded island.

Deposing the Monarch

Disturbing news from central Mexico where it appears that numbers of over-wintering Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) have declined this year by over 59% ( This continues a decline noted over 5-6 years. These striking orange and black butterflies have larvae that feed on Milkweed (Asclepias sp) and incorporate the toxins from the plants into their tissues (hence the bright colours) as protection against potential predators. The migrations of these butterflies from Canada and North America to their over-wintering sites is one of the great animal migration spectacles. A report puts their decline largely down to the use of herbicides (farmers are not too keen on Milkweed) and logging in and around the over-wintering sites (even small changes in microclimate are said to influence numbers). It has also been suggested that spells of dry weather can kill the butterfly eggs. It would be interesting to know whether climate change could also disrupt the migration of the insects. Wind direction and strength can alter ability to cover distances. Rain isn't very helpful and the adult butterflies need to refuel on nectar.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Back to the Middle Ages?

The whole issue of antibiotic resistant bacteria has come into focus again ( It has been pointed out that many new antibiotic resistant strains have been developed in hospitals and elsewhere (aallegedly with some help of patients insisting on being given the drugs even for viral infections and then failing to complete prescribed courses and the use of antibiotics in farming to boost meat production). We appear to have a rather restricted range of types of antibiotics (many developed decades ago) and drug companies seem to be less willing to invest resources in finding new antibiotics as these drugs are only taken sporadically for a short period (so the associated profits are likely to be limited). With the development of bacterial strains that are resistant to currently all available antibiotics, we may effectively return to a pre-antibiotic age when slight injuries and common operations become potentially life-threatening. Ideas on how to boost our range chemical armamentarium are being kicked around.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Deer Oh Deer!

Experts (including Dr Paul Dolman of East Anglia University) have suggested (on the basis of studies) that there needs to be a cull of 50-60% of the deer currently roaming the UK (meaning that about 1 million animals would be shot p.a.)( This suggestion has resulted in complaints from game keepers that their livelihoods would be put at risk. This is a complex issue. A number of the species on the loose in our woods and gardens are exotic escapees (like Muntjac deer) and 'wild' deer, until recently, were only encouraged for hunting by the aristocracy. In England, Scotland and Wales deer have no real natural predators to keep numbers in check (wolves disappeared some time ago and, in spite of suggestions that they should be 'reintroduced', there seems to be little prospect of this happening). The deer, in their grazing habit, certainly have a powerful impact on vegetation, preventing the formation of mature forests in some locations. I am less worried about their impact on gardens but they are reportedly increasingly finding their way into town and city centres. Deer are also involved in a relatively large number of collisions with cars, resulting in around 450 injuries or even  deaths of drivers and passengers p.a. These mammals are also reservoirs of some nasty infections, such as Lyme's disease, passed on by ticks to humans. It is, however, nice to be able to glimpse these elegant beasts. It seems to be true, however, that the UK is over-populated by deer and that some control over numbers is needed. Whether this is best achieved by a mass shoot is somewhat debatable. I am not sure what the gamekeepers are really complaining about. The deer in their locations are not really under their direct control anyhow.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Seeing the Changes 550

A sudden splurg of plant activity with the leaves of the Horse chestnut (Aeaculus hippocastanum) emerging and Common whitlow-grass (Erophila verna), Dandelion (Taraxacum sp) and  Bell heather (Erica cinerea) in flower in Loughor. Also spotted a Small totoiseshell (Aglais urticae) in flight there. In Bynea, Red dead nettle (Lamium purpureum) and  a member of the Cherry (Prunus sp) family were in flower.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Seeing the Changes 549

At the Swansea University campus, Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) was in flower.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Even More Weather to Talk About?

Defra has confirmed that climate change appears to be already with the UK ( as 2012 was punctuated by floods and droughts, often in the same areas. The disruption caused havoc to agriculture, transport and tourism. The report suggests that we are likely to experience more extreme weather events in the foreseeable future so there needs to be planning and investment to try to ameliorate the disruptions. I suspect that this will be resisted in some quarters but these seem to be sensible precautions. 

Birder's Bonus 124

On the Loughor Estuary, Black-tailed godwit (Limosa limosa) were hard at work.

Seeing the Changes 548

Common dog violet ( Viola riviniana) was in flower in Loughor and female flowers of Hazel (Corylus avellana) were flashing red in Penclacwydd.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Cicada and Chips?

It has been suggested that, with burgeoning human populations and current concerns about the food chain,  we ought to reconsider insects as sources of human protein even in the UK ( Insects are plentiful, easy and quick to 'grow' (on a wide range of materials) and much less environmentally problematical than cows, sheep, goats et cetera. I know that there is no tradition of eating our caterpillar chums in this country but are they so different from prawns, shrimps and lobsters?

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Seeing the Changes 547

A bit sunnier! Ivy-leaved toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis) was in flower whilst a Common wasp (Vespula vulgaris) buzzed in Loughor.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Ratty Surfers?

An interesting study has been reported involving a rat in the USA and a rat in Brazil, both housed in Skinner boxes where they have to learn to press a lever to get the reward of water, have had their electrode-implanted brains connected by the internet ( It has apparently been possible to see evidence that one rat has modified its behaviour to help its long-distance chum also obtain water. I suppose it's only a matter of time until all teaching will be done this way!

Busier Than Bees?

A study suggests that it isn't only the decline of the Honey bee that we have to worry about ( It seems that many wild insect pollinators of our fruits and crops are also in a spiral of decline in various parts of the world. These losses may be even more serious as their varied methods of feeding appear to spread the pollen to a greater extent than our honeyed friend.

Seeing the Changes 1470

Traveller's joy ( Clematis vitalba ) in flower in Loughor.