Get writing!

You need to get your entry in to the Terra Incognita Wildlife Blogger competition by the end of the month – click here.


Guest blog – Leopoldius by filbert cobb

filbert cobb is a regular commenter on this blog and has been since its early days (since February 2012). I suspect filbert cobb may not be his real name. He has produced two delightful guest blogs here in the past; Remember not to Forget,  30 September 2016 and The Sunken Garden, 25 September 2014.

I do admire the images of insects posted on ‘ere by Paul Leyland, representing as they do some of the best images that can be hadwithout resorting to microscropy. I have been trying to get a good close-upshot of a Ruby Tailed Wasp on a wall for ages, but they won’t keep still forlong enough. But I live in hope so I was wandering optimistically around thegarden taking pictures on a late July afternoon this year when I saw a veryyellow wasp on a very purple Buddleia. I have only what is amusingly called atravel camera, though I have never known it to travel, but for its small sizeit has a clever zoom lens that goes in and out when there is enoughelecatricity in the end of the camera although trying to see anything on thelittle screen thing is hopeless in bright sunlight but as the film never runsout I just keep pointing and clicking and sometimes I find I’ve taken a pictureof what I was intending to take a picture of of and sometimes it’s even infocus. Anyway I spotted this wasp that was smaller than a hornet but longer andmore yellower than your usual wasps and nothing like any wasp I had seen beforeso I zoomed up to it and managed to get a couple of shots off of it before itflew away. It was a bit long and skinny so I thought it might be an ichneumonwasp so I started looking those up in the Google book of Insect Pictures butcouldn’t find anything resembling my funny yellow wasp. Nothing for it but tostick the little plastic card from the camera in the little dust slot in mycomputer that is there to assemble an interesting dust, insect and dog-haircollection and to magic-up pictures from a piece of plastic.

Within several minutes I had a 21 inch picture of the yellow wasp on my screen. Whoaaah! The funny yellow wasp has knobs on. So it’s not a wasp.

Now I knew that without having to look it up because I had been learnt it at school by a slightly irritating chap called Mr Holley who taught us Zoology. He was only slightly irritating because he would criticise our microscrope drawings without being willing to show us how to do them in a way he wouldn’t criticise. Otherwise he was a normal for a teacher, who called you by your surname in a sneery sort of a way like teachers were trained to do and who had a little sports car and was engaged to someone called Sally. And a speech impediment that prevented him pronouncing the letter “ell”, which always popped out as the letter “arr”. Now this, maybe surprisingly considering this was BPCE in a Sarf Lunnon school, didn’t make him a figure of fun and the worst thing that happened was that someone stuffed a raw potato up the exhaust pipe of his powerful little car that smacked someone’s kneecap quite hard when it eventually shot out. But he did have an unfortunate propensity for unfortunate life choices. In addition to his chosen subject, and his betrothed, he specialised in the Tipulidae, the Daddy Longlegs family, and in addition to Sally his passion was constructing marine tidal aquaria so that he could watch molluscs like whelks and limpets die while we busied ourselves drawing uriniferous tubules or the penile bone of the Otter which has no articulating surfaces and is called the baculum, or the alimentary tract of Lumbricus The Worm. Most famously, while expounding on the population dynamics of greenfly his answer to a question as to how anybody could possibly know these facts, Sir, was an assertion that the greenflies had been kept in lots of little celluloid cylinders, forcing six teenagers to instantly acquire insight into what zoologists did for money in addition to drawing penis bones and the valuable and pragmatic life-skill of mirth-stifling.

So – because I had hung on Mr Holley’s every word I knew the hind-wings of Diptera are reduced to knobs on sticks or halteres as exemplified in the Tipulids so my funny looking wasp wasn’t a wasp but a fly, and found it was very probably a thick-headed one, probably male, of a species where the females grab hold of proper wasps in flight, often near flowering Ivy, and lay their eggs on them so the emerging larvae have a nice wasp ready to parasitise without having to creep up on one. And that they aren’t all that common. Scarce, even.

Although I saw the scarce yellow not-wasp-but-fly in July, I had forgotten about it until now, having been reminded of the purple of the Buddleia davidii in the sunshine while driving in the sunshine past the eight-foot tall Purple Cock of Towcester and wondering what Mr Holley would have made of Leopoldius signatus  and why entire chapters of distant inconsequential memories can be prompted for recall in an involuntary instant in heavy traffic on the A43 when recall of more recent stuff like your own mobile ‘phone number may take days after the time you actually need access to it. If ever.


This is a good idea apparently getting nowhere

I keep an eye on the UK Parliament petition site and this one caught my eye.  I think it is a very good idea. No, really, a very good idea.

But very good ideas can wither through lack of promotion. 

There is practically no chance that any of our wildlife NGOs will take up this idea and promote it and yet their jobs would be made far easier if such a duty existed. And I’d love to see Therese Coffey’s response to it which would be along the lines of  ‘nah, not interested’.

My signature was number 141 and in the Corby constituency.  Click here if you’d like to add your name too.


Save the date – 7-9 December BTO Conference

Details of the BTO conference can be found here.

I can’t make it this year – but it does look like a conference with plenty of high points.


Southern Arizona remembered

I was in southern Arizona at the end of May, for a couple of days. Both days were with the excellent bird guide Richard Fray – see two previous blogs from 2013 where I also was shown loads of birds by Richard (here and here). The second day this year was rather similar to my previous journey up Mount Lemmon with Richard – many of the same excellent bird species.

But the other day this year was spent closer to the Mexico border.  The birds were good but it hasn’t been the birds that have stuck in the mind most since that day. Although, let’s be clear the birds were brilliant.

We started by seeing both members of a pair of Rose-throated Becards and their amazing nest.  I’d like to know more about how such a small bird evolved to build such a  relatively enormous nest.  But most birders would be more interested that they had seen half of the US breeding population of this species (roughly, in most years).  It was fun to see it – and there is no chance at all that we would have seen them without Richard.

And the day ended with brilliant views of Rivoli’s (Magnificent) Hummingbird (which I might have found and identified on my own, on a good day) and then of Elf Owl (smallest owl in the world) and Whiskered Screech Owl (thanks to Richard!).

But it was in the mid- to late- morning that the most memorable event happened.  There were birds in this part of the day too – although no Elegant Trogons – including a species which I’d always vaguely wanted to see in the wild because it looks like a smart bird in the field guides, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher (smart bird indeed!).

We walked up a canyon and the day was getting hotter and hotter. The going was a bit uneven and we were clearly coming to the time of day when birds were becoming less active and the balance of pleasure was swinging back towards a cold drink and air conditioning, and probably a nap in the heat of the day.

We walked up the canyon and I’d finished the water in my bottle and I was clearly getting hot and tired as I was stumbling on the rocks now and again – a good sign of tiredness with me.

We came to an area of deeper shade where there were lots of plastic water bottles under a tree. Richard explained that these had been left by volunteers of the Border Angels as this was a route that was used by immigrants illegally entering the USA from Mexico.

Now I am a birder, and I’d been pleased to add several lifers to my list that very day, but I am quite interested in people too. I looked around and tried to imagine what it would be like to arrive here, from over the top of the canyon I guessed, and be desperate for water.  I was thirsty but I hadn’t been crossing deserts to get into this woodland and into the Land of the Free. Maybe there were some immigrants hiding away and fearfully watching us at this very moment.

You can’t have failed to notice that the current PotUS wants to build a wall in these parts. And as I had travelled through the US there had been plenty of mentions in the broadcast media of the Trump policy of taking the children away from the families of illegal immigrants.  I’d heard about all this in the UK, on my arrival in Chicago, as I drove through the High Plains, and as I drove south to here – but now I was standing in the type of place where all this happened. Where desperate people attempted to sneak into the country and where they faced physical ordeals on the journey and crushing disappointment if caught.  It took my mind off trogons.

As we headed back towards the car we glimpsed a bird which might have been a trogon (it’s not on my list) and just after we met a couple of mounted Border Patrol officers. 

These two young men looked very cool – both literally and metaphorically – and I envied them on both counts.  Quite how they looked so unhot and unbothered in that heat I don’t know but the neat haircuts, tanned faces, smart uniforms, shades and rugged good looks (which were reliably confirmed to me after they had gone by an experienced observer) accounted for the metaphorical coolness. And their horses were cool too – beautiful animals constantly moving their feet because they were standing on the canyon bed of football-sized boulders. The officers were perfectly friendly and asked the obvious question of what we were doing and we gave the obvious answer of birdwatching.  We had a quick chat along the lines of ‘anything about’ which I guess was a mixture of vague interest, a bit of friendliness, a bit of checking on whether we looked shifty about anything (if we had claimed the trogon we should have looked ill at ease) and a smidgeon of seeing whether we made any slip-ups.

So these were the people who were looking for illegal immigrants.  Of course, they seemed like very nice young men – polite, well-spoken and personable.  But then, we weren’t a group of hispanics who had come over the border the night before – we obviously weren’t!

They asked us whether we had seen anything (this wasn’t about birds) and how far we had gone up the canyon and then they wished us good day (I can’t remember whether they said ‘have a good day’ but they might have done). And then the two cool young men, on their beautiful horses, with their sidearms (of course they had guns!) headed up and we headed down.

Richard explained that they probably asked us where we had gone to check our story, as these areas often have hidden motion detectors to alert the authorities to parties moving around.  We may have triggered such an alert while watching Montezuma Quails.

That’s what I will remember the longest. Not a dramatic encounter,  and not a bird, but a lifer in a way.