6.1.14

My Recommendations | Brilliant Botany

The other day whilst surfing the web looking for botany blogs, I found a total internet gem.
     Brilliant Botany is a site full of all sorts of awesome bits and pieces and nuggets of info - stuff from gifs of pine cones opening to stunning close ups of leaves and their cells, and amazing facts such as that NASA are planning to grow plants on the MOON! (Sorry if I'm a bit slow with that news).
     If that wasn´t good enough, there is also a YouTube channel which is equally ace (especially if you´re too lazy to read a blog) - I highly recommend checking both out!

BLOG: brilliantbotany.com

YOUTUBE:

28.11.13

Bird Drawing of the Day: Woodpigeon

    Some of you might remember the series of posts that I used to call 'Biro Bird of the Day', where I showed my biro drawings of birds (duh). Encouraged by some of my friends, I've decided to start over this section renaming it 'Bird Drawing of the Day', as I feel encouraged to use new techniques such as watercolours. For my first drawing I chose one of the commonest birds of our part of the world, the Woodpigeon.

Goodbye old friend... A blog post 8 months overdue



BEN
???? - 2013


Some of you may have seen my post 'Ben...', which I published almost a year ago on here. For those who don't know about 'Ben', to cut a long story short, he's a Churchyard Beetle (Blaps mucronata). He was given to me by my Dad's old Biology teacher, and was sent in the post in a small sandwich container with only some cucumber and a small piece of kitchen towel to his name. Chuchyard Beetles are members of the Tenebrionidae family. They are black, of about 28-30ish mm in size with  slightly pointed abdomen, are flightless, and their habitat of choice (as the name suggests) are dark, damp environments. A letter was sent along with Ben, giving me some information about him, and one of the key points made by David Nash (the biology teacher in question) was that this species wasn't going to live for a great deal of years. I received Ben in February 2003.
        Fast forward to the eve of my 20th birthday, the 8th of April 2013 and Ben was still alive (a decade later!) though wasn't acting himself. He would often 'play dead' as I like to describe it, laying on his back and not moving for a while, but after a gentle nudge with my finger or a pencil he usually came around and was back to crawling around his mini artificial desert in no time. But that night, was different. Ben had been lying, not on his back, but not moving for a few days. Much longer than he would usually play dead. I am sad to confirm that at around midnight between the 8th of April and the 9th (my birthday) 2013, Ben passed on.

Here is Ben's obituary, written by David Nash and featured in the latest issue of Suffolk Naturalists' Society magazine, White Admiral.

I would like to thank David for sending me Ben, who has seen me through half of my life, and who has given me much fascination and has been my most loyal pet. May you rest in piece my coloepterous friend.

The obituary can be found here, and the article 'Is a pet for life even if it is only a Churchyard Beetle?'' here. Unfortunately, the back issues of White Admiral are not available from 2003, and there for the first article is not accessible online. Finally, I also recommend a read of White Admiral which, particularly for those of you in and around Suffolk, provides an excellent read. http://www.sns.org.uk/pages/wad.shtml



19.11.13

Pressing Matters pt. 1 | Flora

My Herbarium: Way too girly, I know.

For the past five months or so, I have been working on a herbarium. For those of you who maybe don't know what a herbarium is (I didn't until this year, shamefully, considering I am studying for a Zoology degree and my parents are basically botanists), it is a collection of pressed plant specimens, each with a label to give information about that particular plant, and is something often created by universities or botanical gardens, along with other organisations and individuals.
        For me, my herbarium started out as just something for me to learn a little about plants but just have a nice time compiling. Now however, my purposes have changed somewhat. Although I still want it to be something to do for my own enjoyment in my free time, it has totally changed my perspective on plants, and in fact Plants are becoming to me just as, if not more interesting than birds.
        My herbarium wasn't at first as succesful as some other people's (my lack of a botanical press making me a little lazy to get all my books out and pile them on top of specimens, to blame), but after my trip to Spain I was able to really garner some motivation - how could I not with the stunning diversity of Flora there, and so my herbarium is now up to (enter number) species. 

One of my first herbarium plates. The old label design, which was definitely lacking in useful information.

A bunch of keys: tackling identification
As someone who had never really looked all that closely at plants before, my method of identifying the plants mostly involved looking at a photo guide or just the drawings in key, a mortal sin to most biologists

Pressing matters
Having a press isn't necessary in order to have a successful herbarium, though it does make things a little easier and quicker and mean you can have everything in once place as opposed to having piles of books everywhere. I'm looking to get a press for about forty pounds or less, which seems to be the average price and there is one on the Watkins & Doncaster website that seems as though it would be perfect for both using at home as well as out in the field, in order to start pressing the plants whilst as fresh as possible.
        Sadly, being the poor-ish student that I am, money doesn't always permit purchasing luxuries such as botanical presses, and so for now books are my only option. But this also means that creating a Herbarium can be one of the cheapest natural pursuits out there. All that is required are some big heavy books, some newspaper for absorbing the excess water from the plants (remember to change this regularly), the plants themselves (of course), and some paper to mount them on which could be just simple A4; all things you're likely to have lying around the house.

The wonderful press of Gui, I had the privilege of using during the summer in Spainland. 

Labels
Labelling your herbarium is key. What you include is totally up to you, and is likely to depend what you'll be using yours for. The minimum information needed, is the plant name, and it's always a good idea to make sure you include the Scientific name, as this is the most reliable and many plants have a number of different common names. For example, at first I only saw my herbarium as a recreational thing, so my labels were pretty simple with only the Common and Scientific names, the order (not very useful really...), date, who collected it, and where. If your herbarium is for science, then you can add as many other categories as you like, such as family, biotype etc etc. Taking a look on the Google images at other people's herbariums may prove helpful as it did for me, as many templates for labels can be found.

Newer label design (Spanish edition) which sounds much cleverer.

Compiling your herbarium
Once I have mounted the plants I keep them in plastic wallets in a lever-arch file. This has worked for me so far, and the plastic wallets are a good two in one, protecting the plants but allowing you to see them at the same time. However, as my collection has somewhat expanded, this isn't providing the best storage for me any more, and I have a few options. A cheap option would be to keep the plants in their existing wallets, but to have instead of the lever-arch file, one of those boxes you see alongside them in shops (I apologise if that makes no sense, I don't know what they're called). Alternatively, I'm also considering removing the plastic wallets, and putting each specimen in an individual paper folder with a label on the inside, and then just piling them up with something heavy on top and sticking them into a drawer or cupboard or shelf (as I have seen many others do). These are all I've thought of so far, so if anybody out there has any suggestions of alternatives I'd be very grateful if you'd leave me a comment.
        If this all seems like too much effort (which duh, it often is for me), there are other ways of Herbariuming, one of which I will talk about later in this post.

The perfect storage option for an ever-growing herbarium. 

Caught green handed
There are, of course, plants which by law cannot be pressed. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the Orchidaceae family which is protected in Britain, but there are many other species which should not be picked given their threatened status, not only because we are told not to but also it is a shame when it is much nicer to see these in there natural habitat in all their glory. Information on which plants you cannot pick, can be found here. 

Photo(synthesis)
As I mentioned earlier there are other ways of creating a herbarium, if, for whatever reason, pressing isn't for you. The best alternative (that I have come across so far) is of course a photographic herbarium, which can too yield awesome results. Although I do have many pressed specimens, there are some plants which cannot be pressed very well, for example some flowers, and also succulent plants, as this would lead to damaging the plants, and in the case of the flowers perhaps detracting from their true beauty as the colour seems to become a lot less vivid after pressing and they tend to lose their shape (though maybe in some cases it could be that I just haven't mastered the technique). It might also be that some plants which it is illegal to pick and pres, or that you simply don't have the space to have books piled everywhere, or the time to be keeping an eye on your specimens to check the paper's dry and they're pressing well etc etc. Either way, part of my herbarium is digital, and it is a great way to show off your photography. You can create an online database or page which is quicker to refer than a physical herbarium, and it makes a nice addition to your blog or website.
        I myself have made one, though as it currently stands it's basically a photographic list of all the plants I've seen, without any useful information. But I'm working on it! You can see that here.

My new favourite tree.
Growing
Unfortunately, this time of year isn't the greatest for pressing as most plants are without flowers, and many without leaves too. For this reason, I'll only be photographing any plants I see of interest, rather than collecting specimens, as it is a good way to get record of how the plants look at different times of the year and provide yourself with a reference for identification.
       I'm looking forward to when everything is back to being green and in bloom, and to collecting some new and interesting flora to add to my collection, in my new patches, further afield in the UK, and once again in Spain. And hopefully by then I'll have a press to make it all so much easier!

One of the nicest smelling specimens in the herbarium.


DISCLAIMER: (after the post) I apologise for the unfunny titles

14.10.13

La Mancha August 2013 | Weeks 3, 4 & 5 – Semanas III, IV, V

This post is going to be shorter and more random than the last one, as for one reason or another we didn't end up doing as much this past three weeks but I'm going to write about some of the highlights. 

Madrid: We went to Madrid on the 14th September, one of my favourite cities and the first stop was the Real Jardín Botánico. What an amazing place! As we walked beside the gardens and approached the entrance, the sound of parakeets resonated everywhere. The gardens are phenomenal with plants familiar to me from England such as Quercus robur (English Oak), alongside more exotic species such as Hibiscus syriacus, and Spanish endemisms such as the Canarian Palm (Phoenix canariensis).
    As we were walking around, I noticed a large butterfly flying around - A MONARCH! - I couldn't believe my eyes, as it was one of those species that was so familiar to me but not in the flesh. One of the best nature moments ever for me, and I even managed a decent-ish picture was a miracle for me.

Monarch Butterfly Danaeus plexippus



Plants: As with the last trip, Gui and I spent some time collecting plants for our herbariums. One day, in what I think was the third week, we once again spent the day in the mountains in the south of the province. This time we went to a different area to the previous, and instead went to the Riópar area. One of the most amazing places I have ever visited, which we visited that day was El Nacimiento del Rio Mundo. Mountains, waterfalls, pines, vultures... what more could you want! And an amazing array of flora. Ferns were one of the main plants we saw this trip, and the park of the Nacimiento del Rio Mundo was no exception. We saw four species on the site alone; Asplenium trichomanes, Ceterach officinarium, Adiantum capillus-veneris, and Pteridium aquilinum; one of our most familiar and widespread Fern species: Bracken. As if five species of these fascinating plants wasn't enough, whilst driving through Riópar on the way for Lunch; Gui spotted some Equisetums (Horsetails) on the outskirts of the village. After Lunch we stopped off to get some cuttings for our herbarium and after some identification at home we came to the conclusion of Equisetum telmateia. One of the most interesting additions! 
        Although we did get many other species, I'm going to save it all for a Herbarium post which you can expect at some point in the future so I can go into a bit more detail, and also due to the fact that I am not with them right now and have forgotten most of them. 

Dotterels: Our last wildlife trip out was to see one of the most beautiful waders: the Dotterel (Charadrius morinellus). We (Rafa, Gui and I) didn't have to journey far as in Albacete, the sandy, agricultural land in the outskirts of the city provides a great stopping ground for these birds whilst on passage. We first travelled down some of the many dirt tracks which wove between the fields, but were unsuccessful on the Dotterel front for a while, though we did see Short-toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus), and my first views of one not in flight, as well as Black Kite (Milvus migrans), Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus), Little Owl (Athene noctua), and always lovely, a Hoopoe (Upupa epops). When we arrived at the site of the Dotterels, we were traversing the sandy field, trying not to sink in when Gui spotted a strange looking falcon. On the first glance, Hobby seemed the obvious option as the behaviour was very much the same; chasing a Hirundine. However after having a closer look, the shape was not Swift-like like a hobby, and the bird was slightly larger and furthermore different in colour. After a moment of pondering, Rafa confirmed that it was in fact an Eleonora's Falcon; a lifer for Gui and I as we had missed out the last time in Spain, as Rafa had seen some in the same site just a couple of days after we went. As if this wasn't awesome enough, within a minute or so of the sighting, we finally found our Dotterels. At first, we didn't get such great views but they were quite obliging and on getting closer I even managed to get an ok photo. We walked on further, towards the car and found a field full of individuals, and got even better views, but as we did the sun started to go down and so it was time to head home.

Short-toed Eagle feeding on a Woodpigeon
Hoopoe

Dotterel

And that's it for the Spain reports for now, though I am hoping to return at Christmas for the third instalment!

10.9.13

La Mancha | Weeks 1 & 2 – Semanas I y II

So, I´m back in La Mancha again and this post is going to be a summary of all the stuff I´ve seen in my first week and a half here.

Due to feeling crap due to a really bad throat, the first three days or so didn´t involve much in the way of nature but after some antibiotics Gui and I were back out in the field.

24.08.13
The first nature outing was very brief, and was to a fountain in the outskirts of the village, and wasn´t the most fruitful of excursions, though on the way, a Red-rumped Swallow (Hirundo daurica, golondrina daúrica) was a nice surprise, though again I didn´t manage a photo. Also on the way were many Pallid Swifts (Apus pallidus, vencejo pálido), the only species left in Chinchilla as the Common Swifts (Apus, apus, vencejo común) have already begun their long migration, and house martins, and a single common kestrel (cernícalo vulgar). When we arrived at the fountain, it was a little dissappointing as the majority of life seemed to be mosquito larvae, however we did find a nice worm to add to our natural aquarium which we began last time I was here, about which you can read more in Gui's post. And that is the end of the summary of our first outing, but unfortunately the next is going to be just as brief.

25.08.13
We decided to go visit some of the pines at the bottom of the village close to the main road that we had seen returing to the house the night before to see what was around. On the way I got an invertebrate lifer in the form of Iris oratoria, however it dissappeared very quickly not allowing me to get a photo. When we arrived at the pines we were again dissappointed, hearing Iberian Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis sharpei, pito real) and literally nothing else. (I apologise for the slightly lacking summary so far but I promise it does get better).

26.08.13
The next day, we finally went to the mountains. After lunch, we decided to rest a little before going and wait for the rain to die down. From the terrace, we were surprised to see a gathering of ~37 hirundines on an aerial close by, the majority Swallows but with a few Sand Martins in the mix, clearly preparing for their long migration. 

The beginnings of the gathering
After a quick stop off at the shop for sugary foods we stopped close to the bottom of the hill up to the mountain to look in some “adelfas” or “baladres” (Nerium oleander) for mantises, and to our luck Gui found one almost right away, a female Mantis religiosa, and luckily this time managed a picture. The next interesting thing to happen was losing my phone in a forsest full of thousands of identical Pinus halepensis, but fortunately, after retracing our steps, I was reunited minutes later. In the mountain I saw many plant species which I had not noticed the previous trip such as Helianthemum sp. (still in flower, surprisingly), Cistus clusii, and some new thistle species yet to be identified, and many species which last time had seemed to be everywhere seemed much less obvious due to their changing form. As we got further up the mountain, the weather began to worsen and so we decided to cut short our visit and turn back and on turning around we got great views of an Iberian Hare (Lepus granatensis, liebre ibérica), a new species for me and an endemism to the Iberian Peninsula and noticeably different to the Common Hare (Lepus europaeus, liebre europea) I have seen so many times back home which is in my opinion much less interesting.

Mantis religiosa
27.08.13
Not much to write for today though at the very end of the day, on a very cold and windy walk around the village after a day of bad weather, I found one of the best things I've ever found. A first for me (in the wild) but something very close to my heart - an example of Blaps mucronata (Churchyard Beetle) - close to the caves. This is a species very important to me as I recently lost my own, Ben, after eleven years (yes, you heard me right). If you´re interested you can read about that here.

28.08.13
After almost 48 hours of stormy weather (which was at times a little scary), it was a perfect night to go on the hunt for amphibians. In the outskirts of Chinchilla we found a Natterjack Toad (Epidalea calamita, sapo corredor) which is something Robert, James, and I had tried for many times without success, and after dinner three more and also a single Common Parsley Frog (Pelodytes punctatus, sapillo moteado).

Epidalea calamita. Formerly belonging to the genus Bufo.
29.08.13
Today we went to Valdeganga. On the journey there, we saw three Lesser Kestrels (Falco naumannii, cernícalo primilla), two marsh harriers (Circus aeruginosus, aguilucho lagunero) and an Iberian Grey Shrike (Lanius meridionalis, alcaudón real meridional). Our main intention was to collect pinecones of Pinus pinaster (pino resinero). These are generally a more common sight in the southern, more mountainous part of the province, along with Pinus nigra, however Gui had found some near the village on his last visit, and after sucessfully collecting some and watching some migrating Bee-eaters close by we went on to the river. Our plan was to collect some more specimens for our aquarium, however we only managed a prawn (Atyaephyra desmaresti) and some snails (Melanopsis tricarinata , and (heard only) Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis, martín pescador) and Cetti's Warbler (Cettia cetti, ruiseñor bastardo). The weather was partly to blame, as all the rain and storms had made the water level very high and sediment was making visibility bad and another bad storm was brewing cutting short our trip.

Atyaephyra desmaresti taking a dump.
1.09.13
This morning we went to the mountains of Chinchilla, armed with six Cistus albidus, a species of Rock Rose (Jara blanca) and two Pinus pinea (pino piñonero) to try and continue with Gui'´s efforts to reforest correctly the area. On the way, we stopped at what Gui had told me to be a reliable spot for seeing Mantis. Sure enough, we found one Iris oratoria and not only this but an amazingly big 'grillo de matorral' (Decticus albifrons?). On arriving, we found a fairly healthy Cistus which had been planted at the beginning of the year and because of this decided to plant two more in the same place, watching a Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris, ardilla roja) as we did. We continued along the path, where we saw butterflies every step. In between plantings, we saw many insects particularly Shieldbugs, Grasshoppers, and as mentioned already butterflies, and at the site of one of the plantings, saw a blue-tailed young Iberian Lizard (Podarcis hispanica, lagartija ibérica). En route to the final planting site we saw many snails of the genus Sphinterochila. In the forest next to this we had planned to find the Quercus ilex (encinas) that Gui had planted before, however unfortunately we were unsuccessful, however whilst there I spotted a group of five birds – Woodlarks! A lifer for me... and at long last, as it was one of the birds I'd tried to see the last time I was here. Shortly after, we arrived at the final planting site, close to the perch of an Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo, búho real). Unfortunately, a Cistus that we had discovered to be broken last time, had dissappeared. The good thing was that we found two new Quercus ilex growing very close by. At this moment, as we were just about to plant the remaining plants Gui realised that he had lost the digging tool so we decided to return to the house and find it on the way. Whilst walking through the village, close to the shop we found a young Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros, colirrojo tizón) which allowed us to get very close but without time for me to get a picture, however to our luck just seconds later we encountered another of which I managed a few poor record shots, though the great views alone were enough to keep me contented. A nice end to the day.
Reforesting a mountain doesn´t always go to plan...
2.9.13
Today once again we went to the Sierra de Chinchilla to plant the Cistus and Pinus pinea left over from yesterday, as well as some Quercus ilex. Today, the mountain was full of cyclists and people; a little annoying when you want to observe the forest and its wildlife, and reforest without disturbance. Despite all of this, we planted the final plants successfully. At the site of the Eagle Owl , we got great views of a Short-toed Treecreeper (Certhia brachydactyla, agateador común), which until today I had only heard, not seen. After finishing planting, we ventured further to see if the acorns of the Quercus ilex and Quercus coccifera (coscoja) were ready but unfortunatly not; like everything this year, very late. These two perennial oak species more closely resemble a Holly (Ilex aquifolium), than either our own native Oak species (Quercus robur; Quercus petraea). After enjoying the views of the Manchego countryside, we returned home. On the way, we saw three Pin-tailed Sandgrouse (Pterocles alchata, ganga ibérica) crossing the path very close to us. Part of the journey back involved passing through a field of thistles (cardos), where in one single thistle we found four examples of Iris oratoria; three males (one green) and one yellowish female. We chose to return via a different path where I spotted a raptor which Gui identified as a Honey Buzzard (Pernis apivorus, halcón abejero) – A lifer to end the day and the first two weeks!
Iris oratoria (left: males, right: female). All in the same thistle!

6.8.13

Mariposas en mi jardín

The next post on Spain is still in the works, so until then here are some pictures I took with my iPad this morning in my garden.

Peacock - Inachis io









Small White - Pieris rapae




Large White - Pieris brassicae




Small Tortoiseshell - Aglais urticae L.




Our biggest Buddleia with Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) and Peacock butterflies.




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