Neil Pont

Wildlife Photography

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While in Covid-19 lockdown, I am updating this blog twice a week - on Tuesdays and Fridays...

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Birds - at last...

Posted on 19 May, 2020 at 8:30 Comments comments ()

Last Friday, as the lockdown loosened, we went for a drive up the coast - just to look, not walk.  Many of the spots we had thought of were blocked off - but we stopped at Lynemouth Flash, to look over the wall. We saw birds we would expect - including our first hirundines of the year: sand martins, house martins and swallows. Later we saw a swift too.

Just over the wall, on the edge of the Flash, I spotted a wader.  I was pretty sure it was a sandpiper - and knew it was not a Common Sandpiper.  So I slipped out of the car with my camera and was able to get good pictures of what I later confirmed was a Wood Sandpiper.  A great first 'lockdown bird'...

Despite having just about forgotten how to adjust the camera, I did manage a flight shot of a Lapwing.

And here are some photos I've taken earlier in the year - and perhaps in 2019, of other birds we  saw...

On our little outing, which included a stop at Widdrington Moor Lake, we clocked up 33 species clearly heard or seen.  A pretty good effort which we hope to repeat soon.

The bad, the good and slightly interesting

Posted on 15 May, 2020 at 4:55 Comments comments ()

More insects to day - but no buzzy, stingy things.

First, the bad...our roses are suffering - but these are all God's creatures...

I'm trying to convince myself that we have to 'live and let live' because the greenfly are a good feed for these...

I have had a quick visit to to ascertain that this is called (not surprisingly) the Two Spot Ladybird (Adalia bipunctata - and I even get the Latin!)

I have heard of Harlequin Ladybirds and thought of them as being black with red spots.  But not always so apparently.  They can come in many guises.  I believe this is one:

And, indeed, I think it is Harmonia axyridis succinea - the name just trips off the tongue.

The harlequin ladybird, native to Asia, was introduced to North America in 1916 but became established much later in 1988. It is now a common and widespread ladybird species on that continent. It has also invaded much of Europe and South America and parts of Africa. It was first found here in 2004. The link between its arrrival and the decline in native species is still being investigated. (Something spreading all over the world from Asia?...hhmmm...)

Staying on the good, we have had very few butterflies yet in the garden but I have managed photographs of two.

And because my friend Chris Newman might be reading this, here is something 'sightly interesting' - a Zebra Jumping Spider (on Julia's trouser leg).

See you next week - and I have no idea what I will be writing about!

Sorting out the stripes

Posted on 12 May, 2020 at 5:10 Comments comments ()

Many insects are yellow and black.  This gives off the message 'I can sting you!' Some do sting, some don't - but it may not be worth finding out...

I photographed this beastie last week in the garden.  It had me confused (not unusual...) but I could see it was not a wasp. [I'll show a picture of a common wasp later].  I also now realised, because of my 'learning from a book' (and from Charlotte at NHSN) that is probably a bee because of the long antennae.  Hoverflies have very big eyes and very stubby antennae. 
So what is it?

It is a Nomad Bee.  In particular, Nomada Marshamella (male), common name, Marsham's Nomad Bee.

Nomad bees (Nomada sp.) can easily be mistaken for small wasps. Most feature yellow and black waspish markings, or have brick-red/brown-red and black bodies and heads. They are a 'cleptoparasite' (cuckoo) species.

Cleptoparasites are organisms that take over the nest or nest cell of the target host species. The cleptoparasite's offspring then feed off the food supplies intended for that of the host.

Nomada lay their eggs in the nests of other bees, especially Andrena (mining) species. Some species have very specific hosts, whilst others have several target host species.

N. marshamella targets the Chocolate Mining Bee - interesting that I photographed one of these in the garden too..

Although the Nomad bee has a wasp-like look there are clear differences on close inspection.  This is Vespula Vulgaris - our common wasp.

And the other stripey critters are some hoverflies. As I am battling to get to grips with bees, hoverflies are trailing low down on my learning curve.  But my book tells me (!), rightly or wrongly, thay this is probably of the Syrphus tribe ('tribe' seems to be a term used in hoverfly circles to sort out the species)

Just to emphasise the 'big eyes, stubby antennae' ID feature here is another hoverfly - Eristalis tribe, I think.

And one hovering...

It really is amazing what is all around us - without us noticing.  Thankfully I am starting to notice a bit more...and just in our garden!

Bees for VE

Posted on 8 May, 2020 at 7:50 Comments comments ()

As Manuel said in Fawlty Towers, "I learned it from a book"...

Queen bumblebees that are emerging this spring were mated last year and then hibernated. All other bees - males, old queens (!), workers - will die before winter comes. The first bumblebees to emerge in the UK are usually Buff-tailed Bumblebee, Tree Bumblebee and, not surprisingly, Early Bumblebee.

Having found a place to nest she creates her first brood cell - about the same size as her body. She collects pollen and nectar and puts the pollen into the brood cell. This will be the food for her first offspring. She also fills a honey pot with nectar brought back in her honey stomach. Once the brood cell is full of pollen she will lay her first eggs.

Several eggs are laid onto the top of the pollen in the brood cell. She then seals them in with their food, with wax.  The bees will go through the normal insect life cycle - egg, larva, pupa, adult.

The queen is able to control the sex of each egg she lays (how? that's a whole other chapter!) and the early eggs will all be female workers as they will forage for food once they reach the adult stage.  Males will be produced later in the summer.

We've certainly seen several worker bees in the garden. This is an Early Bumblebee (Bombus pratotum):

You can clearly see that she has been busy collecting pollen.

Garden Bumblebee (Bombus hortorum):

And Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum):

I'm, slowly, starting to recognise the difference between the species...

The cotoneaster horizontalis has also been very popular with Honey bees (Apis melllifera):

And the fact that our garden is a sea of mud seems to attract mining bees - here is a Chocolate Mining Bee - named after its colour, not its taste..

Tuesday's plan is to carry on with bugs and beasties - but, you never know, I may change my mind...   :)

Home schooling

Posted on 5 May, 2020 at 5:45 Comments comments ()

I had planned to post various bugs and beastie pictures today - but, once again, have changed my mind.  Confinement to the garden has made me look more closley at the bees and there has been a steep curve of learning.  I am definitely being schooled at home.  So today I am starting to share some of that learning, using my own photographs as visual aids.

The bee of choice is the Common Carder, which loves to visit our flowering Rosemary.

One of our commonest bees, she is quite distinctive with a bright gingery coloured thorax and stripey abdomen.  Which brings me to the 'naming of parts'...

The three main part of the bee are (1) the head (2) the thorax (3) the abdomen.  The abdomen is divided into 5 tergites (not all visible here).  The bumblebee wears its skeleton on the outside - hard plates of chitin joined together by flexible sections.  It is black but covered in coloured hairs.
The pygidium, at the base of the abdomen, is used to make a waxy secretion for lining the nest.
Hopefully I may be able to get a close up of the head and eyes at some time.

Here you can see the tongue (or proboscis) in action.  The bee dips its tongue in nectar, usually deep inside the flower, and the fluid soaks its way up the tongue and into the bee's mouth - they don't suck it up!

Bumblebees are covered in branched hairs. As they fly this creates a static charge attracting pollen grains as the bee lands on a flower and encourages them to stick to the hairs. The bee grooms itself using the spurs and stiff bristles on their legs to comb the pollen out of their fur.  This action pushes the pollen into the pollen baskets on the tibia of female bumblebees' hind legs.  Pollen, wetted by a little saliva, builds up into a lump with the consistency of plasticine.  A full pollen basket may contain up to a million grains of pollen.

And another good view of the Common Carder - the view you may well get when spotting Bumblebees in your garden (or out on your walk - lucky things...)

The text books for my home learning are:

Tune in for more lessons on Friday!

More Macro Magic

Posted on 1 May, 2020 at 5:30 Comments comments ()

Well - o loyal fan - I promised macro bugs and beasts today.  But I've changed my mind...

Firstly, there will be no photographic mumbo jumbo following my admonishment on Tuesday's blog. I've got that out of my system - and whatever I said then still holds today (and does not bear repeating).

Secondly there was a very rare occurence last night for April 2020 - it rained! Ever the opportunist I ventured outdoors with my camera.  Here are some of the results - so - no more words, just pictures. Hope you enjoy...

And I've changed my mind again...if you have reached this far down the blog here is a minute beastie that I snapped too.  You can see the size when you realise that it is balancing on the petal of apple blossom.  No idea what it is!!

Next Tuesday could bring bees, wasps and flies - you have been warned...

Macro Magic - take one...

Posted on 28 April, 2020 at 9:40 Comments comments ()

Macro photography is a unique form of photography that involves photographing small objects to make them look life-sized or larger in the photo. The usual subjects include flowers and small insects, which we don’t normally get to see up close with the naked eye.

I now basically work with two bits of kit for photography.  I switched to Fuji Mirrorless (XH1) for my long range shots, with a 100-400 lens (sometimes with a 1.4 'converter' to reach even further) - the equipment is lighter and more portable.

When I bought the Fuji I traded a lot of Canon equipment (which I had bought over the years - and seldom used!) but kept my rather battered Canon 5d iii and one Canon lens - my 100mm 2.8 Macro lens.  This lens lets you take images 1:1 - and then, of course, crop in closer on the computer.

Use of the Fuji is now very limited as we are confined to the house and garden. But I have been able to practise some macro skills. The fine sunny weather has made things easier and has given us some beuatiful colours in the flowers.

It also allows you delve right into the flowers - and even see what beasties are lurking there!

Here you can see the rhodedendron's stamen and anthers in great detail - quite an arty picture!

And here too on the tulip...

Another feature of good macro lenses is that they go 'down' to a large my case f2.8. This means a lot of light can enter - but also that there is a very shallow 'depth of field'. This means that only a small part of the picture will be in focus. This can be a help or a hindrance depending on what effect you are trying to achieve.  In this picture of a lavender flower, I wanted just a tiny flower tip in focus with the rest blurring in the background.

In order to get well-focussed pictures you need a fast shutter speed - or you need to work on a tripod.  Camera shake can be a problem.  But, all these pictures were taken 'hand-held' because the light was so good that I could achieve shutter speeds of 2000th of a second or more.

MacroMagic - part 2 (you will have to wait until Friday!) will feature insects - bees, hoverflies, wasps and ladybirds.  And perhaps something else if I can capture any photos before then...

Poor social distancing

Posted on 27 April, 2020 at 2:30 Comments comments ()

A little bonus blog - posted on Monday instead Tuesday - let's see what I can come up with tomorrow!

The trail camera picked up 3 hedgehogs for the first time recently.

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Wildlife gardening

Posted on 24 April, 2020 at 8:40 Comments comments ()

There are plenty of websites where you can find out about how to attract wildlife to your garden - but I thought I might just show you what we are trying to do. Also, we need to realise just how important our gardens are in terms of the greenspace that they provide.

The UK National Ecosystem Assessment showed that 
just over half the land (54%) in our towns and cities is greenspace - parks, allotments, sports pitches and so on. Furthermore, domestic gardens account for another 18% of urban land use. Unfortunately a lot of front gardens are paved over; paving levels are highest, it was found, in the North-East of England where 47% of front gardens are more than three-quarters paved.

A book I would like to recommend to you is 'Rebirding' by Benedict Macdonlad (Pelagic Publishing) which has some salutary lessons - but does also have some positive messages. He tells us that 22 million people - and 87% of all homes - have acces to a garden; thank goodness for that in the current situation. The way that many of us feed birds means that in the 21st century Britain's gardens have become the equivalent of 18th century hay meadows - a massive life-support system, tipping the odds greatly in the favour of some birds.

But we do have a disease - EDT.  Ecological Tidiness Disorder is how he expresses our need for everything to be neat and tidy. Scruffness is good! He bemoans our vanishing verges - though I have noticed that some of our councils are promoting wildflower swathes; the land adjacent to Cramlington High School (sorry...Learning Village!) springs to mind.

So what are we doing in Forest Hall? My latest little venture came courtesy of neighbour Martin.  He was about to throw out some substantial, but mostly rotten, tree support posts. He knew I could use them for a 'project'.  So half an hour's sawing and a bit of drilling led to us having a rough log pile in the corner of the garden.

Of course, water in the garden is vital.  Ponds can be  small or large - and anywhere in between.  At our previous address I used a washing up bowl  - and frogs found it.  We did, for a while, have a small pond here:

But now we have a larger one:

I know, you're thinking that a pond usually has water in it.  Unfortunately 'lockdown' has curtailed the work of our landscape gardeners - but they will be back - and the hole will still be there!

We have a variety of foodstuffs on offer:

For example, dried mealworms and fat balls - as well as mixed seed. I find that suet balls are so much better than cheap fatballs which are hard - and seem to be full of sawdust.  I get my mealworms online from 'Chubby Mealworms' - a £40 sack fills a dustbin and is so much more economic than little packets from Wilko (other shops are available...).

A 'bird bath' is also important - especially during dry spells like this one.

Tulips and garden gnomes are optional...

During spring, when birds are nesting, it can be helpful to put out wool.  This is actually alpaca wool which we got when visiting an alpaca farm in Sussex. I will soon be adding to it with cat hair!

Homes for insects are important too.  You could buy one:

Or make one yourself:

And, of course, we need a hedgehog house - as previously advertised on this blog.

So - we are trying our best; and when the garden makeover is complete with a wildflower meadow and the planting of new borders with plants that are attractive to bees, hoverflies and butterflies we hope to be(e) abuzz and awash.

With a Song in My Heart

Posted on 21 April, 2020 at 4:05 Comments comments ()

I have to say that my favourite bird song is the Blackbird's mellifulous tone.  I suppose there are are two main reasons.  Firstly - I can hear it! Secondly, despite it being so recognisable, there is huge variety - and it is everywhere.  People go on about the nightingale - but what's the point 'oop North' - we never hear it.  And, actually not many people anywhere in the UK hear it either...

Here in locked own Forest Hall I see 3 Blackbirds every day.  And here they are...

This male is instantly recognisable because of his white feathers - more of that in a minute.

This is his rival...

And this is the lady of their dreams..

At the moment I'm not sure which male is holding territory in our garden or if two of them are paired up.  There is a lot of chasing about but no real victor.

The busines with the white feathers is quite common. These birds are known as 'leucistic'.  We had one in our garden in Jesmond too...

Reading articles on the British Birds, BTO and RSPB websites it seems it is not to be totally clear why this happens.  Something is happening that stops pigment (usually melanin) being deposited in the feathers.  It seems to be a genetic affect and is different from albinism where the whole bird is affected (and the bird will have pink eyes).  It is most often noted in Blackbirds - perhaps because it shows up easily, being white feathers on a black background.

Studies have shown that leucistic Blackbirds are more likely to be found in cities - and, accordingly, there has been supposition that it may be linked to a poorer diet (too much bread!). Whatever the reason, it does help me distinguish between my two birds in the garden.

The Blackbirds we see in winter may not be 'our' Blackbirds.

The arrival of many thousands of Blackbirds during the autumn months goes largely unnoticed, primarily because they look the same as those birds that are here all year round. However, an early morning visit to some berry-laden coastal scrub and hedgerows will reveal these immigrants, feeding alongside newly arrived Redwing and Fieldfare. The efforts of BTO bird ringers have revealed that our winter immigrants originate in Finland, Sweden and Denmark, with others arriving from the Netherlands and Germany. Some of these birds are only passing through, and will continue south to winter in Spain, France and Portugal.

But - we started with song....

The Blackbird is one of a small number of species that sometimes sing during the night, a behaviour that occurs more often in the presence of street-lighting. Blackbirds have large eyes, relative to their body size, and BTO research has revealed them to be the first species to arrive at garden feeding stations on dark winter mornings. Visual capability at low light levels influences when a species is first able to move around and find food.

As I get older I cannot hear high-pitched sounds which makes idenitification of birds by their song even more dificult for me.  It helps having Julia's ears alongside me! But I can manage a few of the more common ones - and at the moment we have a really vocal Dunnock in the garden, so I am getting better at that one.

Here is a link to a nice You Tube video that is quite short but very good for listening to our more common birds (although it does include the pesky Nightingale)>

Listen here:

Happy listening - wherever you can get to...