Birds, Leps, Observations & Generalities - the images and ramblings of Mark Skevington. Sometimes.

Monday, 29 March 2021


Had a rough few days doing nowt, although my part-rejuvenation has coincided with the weather briefly perking up so perhaps I will get out tomorrow. In the meantime, any action has been indoors.

Last year I found a sawfly larva in the garden that I'd have to try and rear through to confirm which species - Abia lonicera or Abia aenea. Remarkably it survived despite being mistreated for prolonged periods and a spell of very cold weather whilst any larvae and pupae I had were in the shed, and it emerged on Friday 26/03/2021 after being transferred to a newly acquired rearing cage. I was hoping that would be enough, but sadly not - it appears that the adults are not readily separable either and it's going to have to be pinned and scrutinised more closely to confirm (by absence/presence of microsculpture on mesosternum). There is also a subjective antennal character which I can't make head or arseholes of. It is far more likely to be Abia lonicera; that was apparently new to VC55 in 2018 and there are a number of subsequent records although it's not clear that any have been properly scrutinised. There are apparently no records of Abia aenea for VC55.

It's a funky fat sawfly either way. I fully expect that there will be more of these, whichever species, on the front garden Lycestria bush in due course.

Today whilst on a work phone call, I spotted what appeared to be a small micromoth on the inside of the office window, although the window was wide open at the time. I managed to deftly pot it one handed whilst continuing the call. It was only later when I looked at it with an eyeglass that I realised it was one spanking looking micro, though off the top of my head I wasn't sure which one. After a bit of literature trawling I realised it was mint-fresh and out of season Chrysoesthia drurella, at which point my elation turned to nagging doubt. You'll recall I found and collected some mines last year, but I thought the larvae had all died after leaving the mines. And anyway, how could one be on the window if it was supposed to be in my rearing box (which had long since been re-purposed for the Ctesias serra larvae I'm trying to rear). The mystery and doubt would have endured forever had I not casually looked at the said rearing box and noted something flitting about in it - yes of course, another Chrysoesthia drurella. So not new for me or the garden, though good to see an adult. I had a quick effort with the TG-6, not happy but better than nothing. Anything shot with this really has to be absolutely still to get the best in-camera stacking results.

The moth trap is out tonight for the first time since Thursday; low expectations as today has been unseasonably warm and tonight will be seasonably cold. With a breeze.

Tomorrow I am expecting delivery of a couple of tortrix pheromone lures; there has been a National epiphany this year with many records of multiple Pammene giganteana to various lures for other tortrix spp. - turning it from an absent/rare species to apparently common in the process. I've ordered lures for Grapholita lobarzweskii and Grapholita molesta. Perhaps I can add Pammene giganteana to the square list by hanging a lure off of the two biggest oaks, and re-record G. lobarzweskii later in the year.

Tuesday, 23 March 2021

Quick and Snappy

I've not got the energy at the minute to think of a neat title or chose a themed track.

I emptied the moth trap this morning to the chirpy repetitiveness of a Chiffchaff on the embankment next to the garden. I wonder if any other early warblers had arrived, so between medical appointments and other tasks I nipped to both Jubilee Park and Everards Meadows for a quick walk through.

Jubilee Park was quiet, no sign of the Oystercatchers and nothing else new in. A quick look at the new 'scrape' gave up nothing but wagtails. Everards Meadows was busy around the car park/cafe area, but as ever it doesn't take much to walk away off the main paths and avoid people. The scrubby cover between the meadows were alive with birdsong, but aside from another couple of Chiffchaffs no other warblers. Not surprised as it's early, but this will be the best chance on my patch of picking up Garden Warbler I reckon.

Who doesn't like a smart Pied Wagtail in spring though? I also found a fallen dead ash tree covered in Cramp Balls. You would be amazed what I found on that. 

Back at home, the garden Snakes-head Fritillaries have pushed through and not far from full flowering, so it can only be a matter of days before the first Scarlet Lily Beetles show up.

The moth trap incidentally was devoid of anything new, but this Red-green Carpet is from Sunday night.

Monday, 22 March 2021

Fable of the Urban Fox

I take no pride in adding this to my PSL ....

At the same time, I have no shame in adding it! A Forsythia growing bold as brass along a rural lane significantly far away from any gardens. It is almost certain that I've seen Forsythia growing somewhere else away from gardens in the past and omitted it, but not convinced.

Also a NFG beetle to the moth trap last night, common but I doubt I'd find one in the garden other than at the light trap ....

Agriotes obscurus

Meanwhile, remember the Fox that visited the garden before Christmas? Well absolutely bugger all sign of it so far when it matters, ie during the square-listing year. I have noted Hedgehog doings on the lawn in the last couple of days so should see one any night soon, bit otherwise I'm going to have to get out walking the square after dark before long to see what is scuttling about and active.

And to balance my comments yesterday, City folk are just a capable of being as crass a Cuntry folk, as this neatly crafted tale details (a nod to Jolyon Maugham perhaps ....).

"One cold and hungry night, they find their dinner sitting pretty
The foxes can't believe their luck, who keeps chickens in the city?
But the chicken lover sees them prowl his pricey habitat
So he bashes both their heads in with his trusty cricket bat"

Sunday, 21 March 2021

Hunter C(o)untry

Yesterday late afternoon I dropped into Jubilee Park on my way back from shopping at Fosse Park. I hoped that arriving later in the day might throw up some movement of birds in/out of the area, and I was not far off right although nothing spectacular. Whilst mooching about a redhead Goosander dropped in, Wigeon were constantly milling about between feeding on the grassy area and dropping into the pool, and several large gulls and cormorants arrived. The pair of Oystercatchers were still around, the Tufteds were up to five, and a number of Greylag Geese were 5MR yearticks. A quick walk around didn't throw up much else, and after a last scan of the pool I was about to head off when local birder Pete Asher popped up. We had a good natter, during the course of which the pair of Oystercatchers departed, a Chiffchaff flew across and into bushes behind us and - at last - two Kingfishers flew past over the field, short-cutting the path of the river.

I also had a quick look at the balancing pool at Grove Park which was almost literally devoid of wildfowl save for four pairs of Mallards and a pair each of Coot and Moorhen. On Friday a quick scan over the flooded fields off of the Guthlaxton Trail yielded some Teal for another patch yeartick.

Today I've had Goldcrest calling and moving through the embankment adjacent to the garden, and a few more spring insects have popped up including Tree Bumblebee, Peacock butterfly and Common Wasp.

Moths over the last couple of nights have included both Chestnut and Dark Chestnut - nether in their finest livery ....

This afternoon I headed for a quick walk along the lane and carried onto Whetstone Gorse Lane. I just had my bins, sadly, as once I'd got to the area that is (mis)managed for Pheasant shoots I could hear someone yelling at their dogs. Sure enough, after loitering for a while, a pair of typical Cuntry folk appeared some way behind their trio of small terriers: one of which was completely loose and two were tethered together but free to drag each other along. They appeared to be being used illegally, as evidenced by a Muntjac bounding away from the tethered pair only to be chased avidly by the lone dog. As far as I understand, a single terrier may be used by gamekeepers on shooting estates to eg force a fox out of a hole to enable it to be shot; the Hunting Act 2004 doesn't allow anyone to run their trio of terriers through gamebird cover and leave them free to chase and get whatever they can. Neither of the folk were carrying a gun, so no legal shooting of 'pests' disturbed by a lone terrier, let alone three of them. When it was clear that they had little control, I shouted that the dogs seemed more interested in hunting. I expected some sort of comment that there was no hunting going on etc, but the response was bold as brass "that's their job". Cuntry folk eh.

Friday, 19 March 2021

Hedging Bets

No, nothing to do with managing pooled investment funds or the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Recently there was an interesting thread on Twitter about hedge management, this one:

To be honest, for many of us with a vested interest in hedgerows as habitat for birds, mammals and invertebrates there was nothing new or revelatory. But it was good to see some perspective for others who may be less aware. It boils down to this - lots of people get massively upset when hedgerows are cut, in the belief that leaving them unfettered would be better. The truth is somewhere in between: leave a hedgerow to grow without management and it will become a bunch of trees with less density at the lower level, and over time those trees thin out and the hedge loses structure, so rotational cutting is beneficial. The flip side is that cutting too regularly, at the same level or too harshly will also damage the hedgerow, with loss of fruiting potential and again loss of structure over time. Hedgerows need to be carefully and sensitively managed, with cutting on a two or three year cycle, not to the same height and using appropriate machinery.

But, I would happily bet a large sum that the vast majority of hedgerows are badly managed and trashed, hence the regular consternation from people not impressed by cutting. I think that the problem is that most hedgerows that people see border fields and farmland, and they are managed by farmers who just see the hedgerow as a cheap means of partitioning land and segregating fields from roadways and people. They are not managed sensitively with the benefits of a hedgerow to wildlife in mind.

The hedgerows down the lane here are classic examples of being badly managed. They are cut every year (at least once, sometimes twice). They are cut to around the same height and width, leaving trashed stems and scar knuckles. The hedges are losing structure and density, don't offer much blossom/fruit and are in desperate need of rejuvenation. Here are some examples from this week (hedges were cut in mid-January) ....

Even if they were managed better, the hedgerows along here are lacking in diversity. They are mainly hawthorn and Ulmus sp., and other shrubs are few and far between. Within the hedges are a few trees, and the odd sapling that will never amount to much as they are cut the same. Believe it or not, the middle image above shows a group of Goat Willows ....

I'm sure I'll get some shots of these hedges through the year for comparison.

I've been mulling over a couple of twigs that I brought home on Wednesday. Both feature some sort of micro-fungi, but so far I've not got anywhere with putting names to them and I've given up for now.

Bumpy bits on hogweed stems

Spotty bits on burdock stems

Finally, here's a couple from the moth trap last night:
Twin-spotted Quaker

Diurnea fagella

I've got a few things to get done over the weekend, but hopefully I'll be able to get out at some point before my next chemo cycle starts on Monday.

Thursday, 18 March 2021

Down by The River

Today was dull and cloudy in the main, but I had time and enthusiasm enough to take myself to the river and head out onto the patch at Jubilee Park. The water levels have dropped a lot since the last time I was there, with a big drop from the bank down to the water ....

The poor lighting was not ideal for bird photography, especially with everything on full zoom, but I pointed it at a couple of nice 5MR yearticks:

This Treecreeper was constantly active up, down and around a large tree overhanging the river and getting any shot at all was a miracle - this the only one vaguely in focus/still enough to use. A near-silent Chiffchaff was also noted but too obscured by twiggery to bother trying for a snap; no singing, just a couple of pathetic 'hooeet' calls. Best of all though were a pair of these around the pool ....

I have seen Oystercatcher at this site before, and this pair was mating frequently so perhaps they'll stay. Still plenty of Wigeon around the pool, and the lone drake Tufted Duck was now joined by a pair. Both drumming Great Spotted Woodpecker and no less than four fly-past Green Woodpeckers were nice, but oddly no Little Egrets today and sadly still no sign of Kingfisher.

Just across the road, there is a large channel/scrape that was created last year. I assume it was an attempt at flood management but it's not been effective on that front. But when the water levels drop it looks like it could be attractive to the odd common wader (and it certainly wasn't created for that purpose):

Common Sandpiper, Dunlin and LRP have all been noted around the Jubilee Park pool in past years and could easily use this. Perhaps Green or Wood Sandpiper could drop in. No waders on it today though, but both Pied and Grey Wagtail bobbing around the perimeter.

Here's a beetle from yesterday that you're going to have to take my word for ....

This is Ptomaphagus subvillosus, or at least is seems to key to that okay using Duff, a new one for me. The photo above probably looks a bit odd: that's because I spotted and took some snaps of it on the shiny black roof of Isabelle's Mini before potting it - not quite the usual habitat for this group of beetles. I've squinted at it live under the microscope but not taken any snaps as yet, and I expect it will curl up into an uncardable blob once euthanised.

The moth trap has picked up a little in terms of numbers, but not so much in species diversity. Here's a couple of NFY from the last couple of nights though:

Light Brown Apple Moth

Small Quaker

And here's some catkins to cheer us up: a few more days/degrees and these should be buzzing with inverts:

Wednesday, 17 March 2021

Common as Muck

I managed to nip out for a refreshing walk into the square this afternoon; nothing too strenuous, just a stroll with my net, a few pots and camera. The sun was out, mostly, after a dull start. Skylarks singing, Yellowhammers calling, but no early warblers. In fact there are still plenty of Fieldfare and Redwing around here - nothing to suggest anything moving.

When it comes to early-season flowers, I am sure that many behold the first flowering Lesser Celandines as the indicator that spring is here (along with garden and escaped snowdrops and daffs of course). However, I think on balance seeing one of these in bloom is a better indicator ....


Whereas the celandines give plenty of warning with their emergent leaves, flower buds and then the blooms, Colt's-foot just seems to emerge from nowhere with the flowers preceding the vegetation. I like that - surely they wouldn't bother if it wasn't really spring. Meanwhile the celandines keep going; they were flowering when I was last out which is getting on for three weeks ago.
Lesser Celandine

Of course the main thing is that the early yellow flowers, including dandelions and buttercups, are potential magnets for flies and bees. Not that I saw any on the flowers today. I did manage to net what I thought was a large fly that turned out to be a pair in cop - now pinned for later scrutiny. I've also got another fly and a couple of beetles to look at from today. Whilst out I spent some time specifically looking at and around a long-dead ash tree which had cramp balls on it. No sign of the anticipated Scarce Fungus Weevil. Later, I casually rolled a bit of random log to look underneath - nothing exciting, but when I repositioned the log I noted a bumpy variegated blob on top that I'd missed before the rolling ....

I sometimes find these when looking for them, but more often find them when I'm not. I just can't be that lucky, they must be genuinely common around VC55.

Tuesday, 16 March 2021

Moth Bonanza ....

.... in lots of places, just not here.

I can't remember such a poor spring for garden mothing. My garden is never great in the early and late season but this has been ridiculous. This spring has seen far more clear, cold, windy, snowy or wet nights than moderate conditions. On the few occasions when I've put a trap out, there have been more blanks than nights with a moth, and one or two moths at the most has been about it. Last night felt like it should have been much better, with mild cloudy conditions early on though it was forecast for rain in the early hours. It was certainly the best night so far this year, but it was still pants: 5 of 5sp. in the garden trap, 2 of 2sp. at the front of house actinic bulb, six species overall. Three new species for the year in that paltry lot; an Early Grey that refused to sit for a photo and I gave up after an hour, and these two:

Oak Beauty

Clouded Drab

Meanwhile spring keeps stuttering. I had a Brimstone flying through the garden yesterday, along with what was probably a Small Tortoiseshell. I've seen a few large bumble bees - only one of which lingered long enough for me to get out and look at (Buff-tailed). But whilst yesterday was nice and sunny and felt like a turning point, today has gone back to mainly grey and damp. I need a day of decent sunshine to perk me up and get me out and about walking.

Wednesday, 10 March 2021

Tape Tip

Yesterday was gloriously spring-like in the morning, and not too bad in the afternoon either. Warm, sunny, light breeze, perfect for getting out. I was busy. Today ... meh, wet, wild and windy. In between a return to college-taxi duties, I noted this on the front of the house:

One of those oddly leggy things that by virtue of having halteres qualifies as a fly. By the way, can you imagine how truly horrifying that 80s film would have been if Jeff Goldblum had morphed into a giant leggy twat with massive palps. He is quite tall .... Anyway.

A Tipula sp. There are a few very similar species, of which I tend to see one earlier in the year and one later. Or at least I believe I do, I don't look at enough of them critically to be certain. A quick check from the side should confirm ....

... a nice clear and obvious dark line on the side of the thorax from the neck to below the wing, which should be enough to declare this is Tipula rufina. I'm not going to pretend I keyed it all the way, I already knew what it could/should be.

A bloke that I'd never heard of died today, but whose work had a major impact on the lives of many of us that are a certain age. Lou Ottens, the lead inventor of a nifty recording device - the tape/cassette. Imagine how different life would be not having experienced the massive adrenaline rush when you pushed the buttons bang on time to record the latest pop smash without getting the radio DJ voice spoiling it ... it'd be like living in my kids generation where everything happens by magic and no one gives a shit about how it happened.

Monday, 8 March 2021

Virtually Nostalgic

Do not feel obliged to click on any of the hyperlinks!

Christmas 1983 - what did you get? Back then my interests included music and girls; natural history was something I enjoyed on the telly, but never experienced or looked for in the real world.

Christmas 1983 I was 15, and I know exactly what I got; a particularly special present that I'd clamoured for and that my parents must have felt was worth saving for. Expensive presents were not the norm in my happy childhood, I must have been a very good boy that year! It was one of these ....

The iconic Roland SH-101; a truly excellent monophonic analog synth with built in step-sequencer, Gate in/out and - best of all, a separate modulator hand grip so you could hang it with a strap like a guitar and look like a real synth-wanker. It came in grey initially, with red and blue models to follow. It only had a single oscillator, and in the great scheme of things was about as basic a synth as you could get even then. But it sounded brilliant, especially for snappy bass sounds and squelchy leads. This cost c£240 back then, a fair chunk; a decent condition one now costs £900-£1200. With heavy heart I sold mine for £250 in c1996 when I needed the money more than what was by then an obsolete and not much use to me 'gadget', before the term vintage applied and retro gear costs escalated rapidly.

This was desired as part of a plan involving a mate Kev and his cousin Liam. We'd already got some very basic keyboards (not synths), including the ridiculously popular Casio VL-Tone which (literally) was a calculator with a built in 2.5 octave keyboard, some tinkly sounds on it and a some basic rhythms (remember Da Da Da by Trio - based on a VL-Tone with some additional guitar and shit vocals, also the track Get Carter on Human League's Dare album is a VL-Tone). Anyway, around the same time that I was truly creaming my pants on finding the SH-101 was before me, Liam was enjoying the same feeling whilst Kev was going one better. He got one of these ....

Wow - look a the knobs on that. The equally iconic and in many ways more capable Sequential Circuits PRO-ONE; also monophonic, with two oscillators that could be detuned, big beefy analog sounds, again a built-in step sequencer and Gate in/out. But no grip, wooden frame and reduced synth-wanker potential. I think these were c£350 back then; you might pick one up for c£1800 now ....

With the acquisition of these three synths, we set about becoming a globally renowned electronic band. That was the plan anyway. Within a short time we'd saved and added a couple of key items to get us going properly .....

The Roland TR-606 'Drumatix'. At the time this small box was the tinniest and crapiest drum machine you could imagine, but it was affordable for us and - crucially - it could be used to sync all three synths and the drum machine together through the gates to keep in time. We used the step-sequencers to run basslines, arpeggios and simple sequences over a series of programmable electro-drum patterns, and it was a thing of spellbinding beauty. With the one exception that none of the synths had the ability to 'save' sounds or sequences etc. Every time we wanted to do something it was start from scratch and run it all again. Until we got this ....

The Tascam 244 Portastudio - a four-track cassette machine. It used both sides of the tape from the same direction, with each stereo channel on each side becoming one track. It allowed us to record the drums, bass and backings and then to play over as a more finished track. Importantly, we always used one track to record a sync signal so we could add further sequences timed in with the existing tracks. It also allowed us to 'bounce' tracks, so we could mix two tracks to one and add another allowing us to record demos. With this, and a couple of basic Boss foot pedals for delay and reverb, we were set for some great times creating sounds, crafting our songs, recording backings and eventually playing a few gigs. And locally there was no-one else doing this in the same way at the time; I'm sure other bands had synths that were played with other instruments but it was another couple of years or more before we had other local electronic bands. Later in our journey we played alongside other bands in all-electronic nights.

Before I go further we picked up another, older, monophonic analog synth in the early days that is worth a mention too ....

The Moog Prodigy, the source of the name for the band The Prodigy ... which is exactly what we had called ourselves seven years earlier before we got the proper synths and became The Red Branch.

But it was a time of technical revolution. The synths we had were already a world away from the patch/matrix synths of the late 70s, and increasingly affordable and accessible. But equipment was superseded and obsolete within a couple of years. Or months! Right at the start of our journey, MIDI was in its infancy and only included on absolute top-end gear, but soon became the industry standard. FM synthesis was new enough that no one outside of the professional world knew much about it, until the DX-7 was all over Top of the Pops. Sampling was new in the mid-80s, multi-faceted workstation synths came along, direct to hard disk recording etc etc. Our journey became more of a race to keep up than being the next global electro phenomenon.

Our growing list of equipment included: Roland TR-707 drum machine - with MIDI and gate outputs which allowed us to run analog and digital together; x2 Yamaha CX-5M computer systems which were basically half a DX-7 FM synth in a box with some sequencing software and MIDI; DX-27 FM synth; Kawai K1 digital synth; Akai s612 single-shot sampling rack; Prophet 2000 multitimbral sampling synth. Our last major purchases were the Akai s2800 sampling rack and a Roland MC-50 step sequencer (which replaced the CX-5Ms). With these two, along with a Roland DEP-5 effects rack, we could effectively create and record a whole track in one go using nothing else as the sampler was multi-voice and the sequencer held multiple patterns and tracks - like a modern computer based DAW in that respect. And we could save everything to disk. We gained control, but lost the soul.

So, what's all this nostalgic techno-bollocks all about then.

Every now and then I get an unnaturally intense feeling that I should be searching online to see if the prices of some of the properly capable vintage analog poly synths are dropping. In particular, I would massively like to own either of these beasts:

The flagship Jupiter 8. Sliders, buttons, massive sounds. Which last time I looked was going to cost the best part of £12000. Or one of these maybe ....

The Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, like a polyphonic PRO-ONE but way better than that. A slightly less eye-watering £3000 - £4000 ish.

But then I have a moment of clarity. Maybe the nostalgia is rose-tinted, the sounds are retro, the synths themselves are bigger than I have space for and - most importantly - they can't really do anything that I can't recreate on the desktop through FL Studio and virtual studio technology (VST) plug-in synths. In fact, I have working demo versions of both of the above classics that I can create sounds and record into Audacity, and then load into a VST sampler to use. For free. With no more space than the PC keyboard. Even if I put that to one side and went for it, why spend £12K on a vintage Jupiter 8 when Roland have recently launched the Jupiter X - which is like having x4 Jupiter 8s and other synths wrapped up in a keyboard package that looks like the real thing but is essentially a number of VSTs in a big box with a keyboard. For c£1700.

And anyway, modern synths are nothing like they used to be; they use a variety of wavetable, digital, virtual analog, formant, sampling and any mix of these generators to create much bigger sounds than were possible before. There are even synths that will use a 'picture' as the basis for an editable sound. Here's a demo of a VST synth I downloaded today as an example:

Arturia Pigments: colourful, powerful, virtual. No physical knobs.

I'm sure the sun will come out soon and I'll have something to photograph and take my mind of other nonsense, but today after catching up with work I've had a great time just playing with creating sounds. Relaxing for me, probably aural torture for anyone else in the house.

Here's a proper synth-wanker, on a track that largely uses (probably several) SH-101s for the synth and bass parts (though not the way he's posing with it ....).