Monday, October 29, 2007


Just a few observations here.

After my post on October 2nd 2007 (regarding winter Thrushes) I've since heard these birds at night, overhead, pretty well every night. A thin "TSEEP" is the best way to describe the contact call.
I SAW my first flock of winter Thrushes yesterday - a flock of a dozen or so Fieldfare, flying south over the garden, just before dusk, calling to each other as they flew - more of a "CLACK" for Fieldfares.
I know many people in the country, and indeed the county (Berkshire) have seen large numbers of Redwing and Fieldfare arrive already - a flock of approximately 200 Fielfare was seen about 2 miles from our garden only last week.
They shouldn't go short of food during their sojourn in th UK this winter, what with the huge berry crop this year (thanks, in part, to all the rain we've had).

I've noted also, that whilst we haven't seen the Goldfinches at the feeder for months now (well, not more than once or twice, anyway), the level of seeds has been slowly dropping over the past week or so.
Today, I found out why.
A group of House Sparrows (maybe half a dozen or so) flew in from their old nesting territory (2 houses down the road) at 8am this morning, and raided the feeder. The Goldfinches are sure to be back though, when their natural food supply quite literally dries up, in a month or two.


Not many Bumblebees around now. A few Common Carder Bumblebees (the latest flying of all our Bumblebees) have been spotted across the country (like mine that took a nap in the Bindweed last week) and a few Common or White-tailed Bumblebees but thats about it. The rest are either dead, or in their underground nests for the winter.


Again. Most of these are either in hibernation / overwintering mode, or dead. There are however a few Red Admiral fluttering about that I've seen recently, and again, these are one of the latest (and earliest) flying of our native butterflies, so no real surprise there.


Image courtesy of Wikipedia

This may make the news soon ***(if it hasn't already). If it hasn't, then you've heard it first here!

A strange thing is happening in the sky above us.
The Comet "Holmes" which orbits the sun every seven years has JUST THIS WEEK intensified in brightness approximately a million times (possibly due to gases being ejected from its body - no flatulence jokes here please)!
In the space of 2 days it has gone from magnitude 17 (pretty well invisible, certainly to the naked eye) to 2.8 - visible NOW even under city-polluted night skies and with a near-full moon pretty close to it. In fact there are only 175 stars brighter than this comet in the night sky at present.
No-one knows for sure why it has suddenly "flared up", and no-one knows for sure what will happen next - but if it continues in this manner, you won't be able to ignore it in the sky at night...

Anna and I trained our astronomical telescope on it last night and it is really exciting to see! It looks like a big fuzzy star.

You might remember Comet Halle-Bopp that hung around in the western sky (in Britain) a decade or so ago - very bright, very obvious (even at dusk) and with an obvious tail.
Well, Holmes is not so obvious and is only just forming a tail - so like I said, it looks like a big fuzzy star at present - but it is certainly worth having a peep at, even with your naked eyes, or better still, a pair of binoculars.

Want to find it?
Ok. In Britain, at around 9pm (with a clear night sky) stand facing ENE. Look up about 30degrees and you'll see one of my favourite stars, the beautifully bright red/blue twinkly star Capella (the "She goat given to the baby Zeus" in Greek myth), in the constellation Auriga (the "Charioteer").
Continue to look up, higher than Capella, and let your eyes drift marginally, slowly to the right and as the constellation Perseus comes into view you'll catch sight of this large, fuzzy, quite bright star. Only its not a star. Its comet Holmes.
Google it to get a constellation map if you're still unsure, but I guarantee you f you have a clear night sky and let your eyes become accustomed to the dark before searching, if you face ENE and look up, you'll see it, even with just your naked eyes and no binoculars or telescope. NB At present, the nearly full moon is just to the right of the comet, and inevitably drains some of its brightness.

A really wonderful sight - and very rare.
Take a look for yourselves...

(More information and photographs can be found HERE)

*** NB. 31/10/07 (2 days later), and the BBC have it as newsworthy. Click on the BBC science news feed at the bottom of the main page of "Blue-Grey", or if the link has gone by the time you read this.... HERE.

Sunday, October 28, 2007


At the bottom of the main page of this blog, you'll see a list of countries, residents of which, have visited "Blue-Grey" (using a Google search mainly).
I have kept records of these (and individual visitors), since the 14th september 2007.

Well, I may have had visitors from more than 50 countries by now - this blog has been running since January after all, but I have only documented the 50th today - about 10 minutes ago.

The 50th nation to have visited "Blue-Grey" is....... (drum roll please).....


Someone in Slovenia's capital, Ljubljana (between Vienna and Venice, so to speak, see map) typed "How humans conquered the world" into a Slovenian Google search engine, and decided to pay "Blue-Grey" a visit, (to delve briefly into my New Scientist feed of the same title).

I notice also that they felt they would like to look at my post on "White-Tailed Bumblebees" whilst they were here. Must be a few Bombus terrestris in Ljubljana at this time of year possibly?

Congratulations to Slovenia then.
It may be a wee while before "Blue-Grey" gets its 100th international visitor...
(Don't watch this space)!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


After my post a month or so ago, the Government Chief Scientist has deemed it necessary to cull 80% of the Badger population in vast swathes of the country. This, despite much evidence and reports to suggest that the Badger is an insignificant vector in the transmission of Bovine TB.

Once again, I do not intend "Blue-Grey" to become controversial, angry or political, but this decision (and the timing of the decision also) smacks of the Government trying to appease angry farmers after a summer of Bluetongue and Foot and Mouth.

The Badger has been caught up in a political situation. No mistake.

Read up on the situation if you like, but please click HERE to sign the (new) House of Commons petition. ( I know a couple of you signed the last one - thanks) to protest against this nonsensical slaughter of innocent animals, which have been caught up in a political argument and a failure of the farmers and the government to admit to (pressurised) poor animal husbandry procedures.



Just a test shot really, of a nearly full moon, taken (in a very dodgy fashion (all shakes) by holding my mobile phone up to the telescope eyepiece) through the lowest telescope magnification in the back garden, last night.

Apologies for the rather blurred image - this is very difficult to pull off, without the normal camera bracket for a telescope.


This furry wee beastie was inside the lone Bindweed flower above the compost heap in our back garden this afternoon. I'm pretty sure it is the Common Carder Bumblebee, or Bombus pascuorum, which exhibits bright ginger hairs on its thorax (our only Bumblebee with this colour hair on its thorax) and flies well into October, even November sometimes.

It has been pretty cold, windy and overcast today in Reading - no weather for a Bumblebee. I think it was taking shelter, and had fallen asleep inside the flower, as it wasn't feeding or moving much!

I don't blame it!

NB. A day later. (25/10/07) The Bindweed flower closed (as they always do) last night, trapping our sleepy Common Carder Bumblebee. When it felt energetic enough, this afternoon, it did manage to sqqqeeeze out of its floral jail (which didn't open properly at all today), and this enabled me to get a better shot of it - below. You can quite clearly see its ginger hair on its thorax in this shot - very distinctive.


I was unfortunate with this shop - it was closed for the day.

I had to therefore search elsewhere for my Cash Michine, sorry, Marsheen, sorry, Mushin, sorry Moshene, Hole in the Wall.






A foliose (leafy) lichen. You bet. Thats all I can find out about this nice yellow lichen.
All lichens are symbiotic associations between two organisms - a fungus and either algae or cyanobacteria.
Found in the New Forest again.


Just a nice photo of one of our 10,000 species of Bryophytes (mosses) which carpeted parts of the dark New Forest we walked through at the weekend.
This is a Polytrichum species.
Which one?
Don't go there...!


Anna found this little furry beastie crawling up a single lane road on our walk around the marshes in Hampshire on Sunday gone.
I thought it might be an Ermine moth caterpillar of some sort, but the people on the excellent WAB site have identified it as a Ruby Tiger Moth Caterpillar!

The Ruby Tiger Moth adult is a fantastic looking moth - very conspicuous indeed - click HERE to follow my WAB link and observe another member's photo of the adult.

I hear that the caterpillar can exist from July to the following April, and does indeed overwinter as a larva - so no problems with finding it on a very warm, sunny day in October then!
It prefers coastal habitats and inland heaths - again, that tallies up nicely with where we found it!
Good stuff! I'd love to see the adult now!


Just a word or two of warning.
Anna and I are very new to fungi, and even though we had amazing luck finding so many on our walk through The New Forest at the weekend, we had great trouble identifying them, even with our field guide (bought after the walk) and my friends on the WAB site.
Some of our identifications MAY BE INCORRECT! So for christ's sake, don't go picking any fung and eating them on the basis of what you see on "Blue-Grey" - or chancea are you'll die. (Well at least I can't be sued)!
We are going on a proper Fungi Foray organised by my expert eldest sister in a coupleof weekends, and maybe she can absolutely definitively identify oyr New Forest fungi before then?
Anyway - thought I'd pop that disclaimer in!

Only a few New Forest / Hampshire posts left now, you might be glad to hear. A plant or two and a caterpillar, that has lost track of what month it is...
Watch this space...
























(but cook well...)








EDIBLE (if you are extremely cautious and do not touch ANY alcohol for days afterwards)!


Smells of radishes. EDIBLE!


Click to enlarge


On our last day in the New Forest, we took a long walk through the deepest, darkest parts of the Forest proper, away from the ramblers and tourists.
The ancient New Forest (a lot of which was planted and or conserved by William The Conqueror as a hunting estate) is a magical place.
Wild New Forest Ponies (see later post) roam free, as do Wild Boar and farmed sheep and cows.
The huge area of mixed woodland, both deciduous and coniferous, provides an amazing habitat for all kinds of flora and fauna including Badgers, Hobbies and the elusive Honey Buzzard (a bird I still would dearly love to catch a glimpse of).
The Forest is interspersed also with huge areas of ancient, heathery moorland, if thats your bag.

Anna and I both prefer the "fairy-tale" woodland though. We must have spent a good few hours and covered 10 miles or so, walking through dark forest, with a thick moss carpet and the sounds of birds and squirrels around us.
I was just explaining to Anna (who heard the bird first I should add!) how one can tell that the bird on a tree in front of us was a Nuthatch just by looking at its movement rather than its size, shape or plumage, when a sight that I don't suppose we'll see again in a hurry, confronted us.
The Nuthatch you see, always walks DOWN a tree, unlike most Woodpeckers and the Treecreeper - which walks UP the trunk.
The New Forest, I suppose, is just the type of place where you'll see a Nuthatch travelling down a trunk, passing a Treecreeper travelling up the same trunk - and thats exactly what we saw! Great!

Some parts of the Forest are carefully managed, it is a National Park after all, and it was really nice to see the stumps of felled trees acting as tables (quite obviously) for Squirrels. We lost count of the number of stumps with Sweet Chesnut husks on them - broken open by the Squirrels, all in a sea of thick, furry, bouncy moss.

The New Forest is also exactly the type of place you'll find the sight I photographed in the first post above, and investigated.
Something had obviously taken a Woodpigeon, deep in the forest.
You are almost certainly looking at a Fox or a Hawk here (either Sparrowhawk or even possibly a Goshawk in this part of the world).
You can tell by looking at the quills of the plucked feathers. Hawks pluck their prey, leaving the quills intact, whereas your staaandard Fox will rip the feathers away, breaking many quills.
The Pigeon kill above had many of its quills snapped - Fox then.
NB. Very often a Hawk will eat a bird the size of a Woodpigeon on the spot. Even for a large female Hawk (which would probably be the only sex to try and catch a Woodpigeon), this is a large bird to kill and then carry away. The Hawks also will just tend to eat the breast and back muscles of the bird in question too - a bit of a giveaway that.
(I've written about this here, so you can enlarge the picture I took above, if you like).

At this time of year, wander off the beaten tracks, (like we did) and you'll find (if you look) a huge array of Fungi, some of which are edible, some of which are so toxic that they'll make short work of you.
I think we found 20 or so species , that is to say, Anna found most of them and whilst I was photographing them - she'd find some more - (what a lucky boy I am!) - I'll post about them above (or at least the more interesting ones that my pals on the WAB site have tried to identify for me, or the ones that Anna and I have identified using our new Field guide) but limit the description to one sentence.

A wonderful walk in a fantastic place.


Or the genus Dipsacus (derived from the word for thirst because the leaves at the base of the stem act as a cup, and fill with rainwater, preventing sap sucking insects from climbing the stem).

A common, well known, well loved plant with purple flowers soon going to leave a prickly, oval seed head, which Goldfinches adore.

There were lots of these around the marshes in Hampshire, some with a few flowers still present.


More berries, this time found by us in Hampshire, though you'll have seen that this year, the Holly trees have gone mental with their berry production - its been a very good year for Holly.

The Holly (there are 600+ species, so I'll not go there) is mainly dioecious, ie has male and female plants. The female plants (of course) produce the berries only.

Humans should not eat the berries - they cause vomiting and incontinence, and even birds struggle to digest them before they've been softened by a few hard frosts.

When they have been softened in that way though, they form an important part of the diet of our winter visitors such as Fieldfare, Redwing and Waxwing.


A very distinctive evergreen shrub, often found on the coast (where we saw loads of it o our weekend in Hampshire).
The Gorse is a relative of Broom, and belongs to a sub-family of the peas.
Gorse has spined leaves and bright yellow flowers which smell of coconut. It has a very long flowering season, sometimes all year round, which gave birth to the old country saying:

"When Gorse is out of blossom, kissing is out of fashion".

Gorse, because of its thick, spined nature, provides cover for nests of birds such as the Stonechat (which we saw many of on our walk around the coast) and the Dartford Warbler (which I've yet to see, or indeed look for).

Gorse flowers are edible, and can be used in salads or tea, or to make a non-grape based wine.
In Devon, Gorse is known as Furse, also the clan badge of the MacLellan clan in Scotland.


The Brent Goose exists in four different subspecies - all down to belly and flank colour really.
They look like a much smaller Canada Goose, with far less white on their face - more of a dog collar really.

The first time Anna and I went for a weekend in the New Forest, 2 years ago, we walked down the beach at Christchurch one morning, in foul weather, and I saw a Brent Goose flying hard along the beach, west to east. I was quite pleased as I hadn't seen one before.
I knew they bred in Arctic Russia and over wintered here, on our coasts, but I had no idea where!

Well, the Dark Bellied Brent Goose over winters on the Beaulieu estuary (Lymington) as well as a few places on the east coast.
That ties in nicely with what I saw 2 years ago!

We saw hundreds of Dark-Bellied Brent Geese in the marshes - and I guess (unless we travel to Norfolk for a holiday - NOT likely in my opinion) we'll not see them anywhere else...


You may see flotillas of literally hundreds of these on reservoirs and gravel pits around the south east of England during winter, but you'll not see them fly that often.
The goosander is our largest sawbill, (Grebes / Divers etc...) and because of its fine abiliy to catch fish, it has been persecuted widely by some angling groups. I think it still has no protected status in Scotland for example, where it is spreading, and a few nest.
We only saw one Drake Goosander on our New Forest break, flying hard and fast for one of the lagoons.

Nice to see though.


I think these striking ducks and fantastic. Anas penelope to give them their scientific name, (Penelope's (wife of Odysseus?) duck? I still can't work that one out).

Also known as Whistling ducks because of their constant calling to each other.

We found quite a few Wigeon (look for the chesnut head and gold stripe running down it in the Drakes, and the very bold white wing bars (especially when flying) in both sexes) on the salt marsh lagoons south west of Lymington.

Wigeon, like the Brent Goose above, tend to breed in Arctic Russia in the main, and overwinter in the UK.

A really nice find - I haven't seen this bird for an awful long time.

I hear they taste very nice too.

Unfortunately our local farmers market doesn't sell Wigeon. Picked up a wild Mallard t'other day, which we'll eat soon I know, but no Wigeon.

Aw well.

Both photographs (c)Arthur Grosset. See link. Thanks Arthur.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


Much, much more to come on our weekend in Hampshire soon. Including one of my favourite ducks (which I haven't seen for a decade or so), sawbills, wild geese, beautiful flowers, a VERY LATE, very furry caterpillar, and loads of wonderful, strange, fungi.
Watch this space.


Click (as always) to enlarge!


Turnstone - smaller bird to the right of the Black-Headed Gull (in winter plumage). Click to enlarge.