Sunday, 26 January 2014

Salamanders, newts and frogs in January.

So far this has been a mild winter in France, particularly so in the west and south west. This always creates a risky situation for amphibians, especially those that are temperature sensitive when it comes to breeding such as the Common frog that is always an early breeder. Although the Common frog, (Rana temporaria), is a species that isn't present in Vienne I understand from talking to people in other Departements that Common frogs started to spawn in December and there are already tadpoles to be seen. Severe cold weather is always likely here until at least the end of February and any sustained freeze will destroy spawn that is on or near the surface or in the case of shallow water that freezes completely any tadpoles.

Salamanders, (salamandra salamandra), will also release their egg sacs or young larvae into the water any time from Autumn 'til Spring if it's mild and my pond currently has larvae in various stages of development with adult females at the waters edge last night.

Click on photos to enlarge.

Also to be seen in the water last night were a few Palmate newts, (Triturus,(Lissotriton), helveticus), perhaps a little early in the season but unlikely to be a problem for them.

Also I saw this little frog, either Edible frog, (Pelophylax kl. esculentus), or Pool frog, (Pelophylax lessonae), no more than 3 to 4cm making its way to the pond, again very early but it would soon find somewhere to hide away should the weather turn very cold.

Plenty to come on Amphibians in the near future.


Saturday, 11 January 2014

What's hiding under the hive roof

I think it's best to start for non Bee keepers with a short explanation of a basic hive structure. Shown below is a French Dadant Ruchette which is basically a small starter hive and is exactly the same as a full size Dadant hive in design, Dadant being a style of hive.

The box structure at the bottom is called the Brood box which is where the bee colony lives. 

Next with the hole in the middle is the Crown board or the cover that goes over the bees. The hole in the center is for placing a syrup feeder over or for placing a block of fondant for the bees to eat. When not in use it is normal to close it with a small cover.

Finally standing on edge in this photo is the outer metal covered weatherproof lid. All very simple really.

From time to time I lift the outer lids on my active hives to check everything is OK and as it's quite common to find various creatures that have made it their home I thought I'd take a few photos over the last week to have a reference for the future and of course a bit of winter fun. 

Perhaps no great surprises but here they are:

Mottled shield bug Rhaphigaster nebulosa and Common European earwig  Forficula auricularia 

Heterogaster urticae Nettle Ground Bug and Aphanus rolandri.

Melanocoryphus albomaculatus, Seed bug 

Rhyparochromus vulgaris 

Ruby Tiger caterpillars Phragmatobia fuliginosa with Pupa below.

Seven spot ladybird Coccinella septempunctata

Anyphaena accentuata ??

Garden spider Araneus diadematus??

A nest of  four Wood Mice Apodemus sylvaticus (Mulot sylvestre in French)

Clubiona stagnatilis ?? 

Harvestman spider sp??

Leaf cutter bee "nest"

Weevil -  Larinus sp. (poss-turbinatus)

Agonopterix arenella a moth that hatches in the autumn and spends the winter as an adult and a mud nest of Auplopus carbonarius a solitary wasp that eats mostly spiders.

Asian Harlequin ladybird, an introduced species. 

Invasive Harlequin ladybird France

Reduvius personatus or the masked hunter, an Assasin bug that covers itself with dust and other particles in the Nymph stage.


Sunday, 5 January 2014

Skylark hunting in France

Skylark hunting in France - a tradition that should be confined to history books?

Most people are unaware that Skylarks are still legally hunted in some member countries of the EU and are equally unaware of some of the methods used in the name of tradition.

In France Skylarks can be shot anywhere in France during the open hunting season, normally set from around the middle to end of September until the end of February. In practice for most of France this may only amount to perhaps a few thousand in total although it’s unlikely that any serious reporting of numbers of kills takes place.

The main hunting using clap nets takes place in the Departemnets of Gironde, Landes,  Lot-et-Garonne and Pyrénées-Atlantiques.

This is from CABS.

Although shooting of Skylarks is permitted in France, as in other Mediterranean countries, four French Départements also allow trapping of the endangered species in nets. In the Bordeaux region of Aquitaine 10,000 trapping installations with gigantic trapping nets lies between the migrating birds and their winter destinations in the south. The dunes on the Atlantic coast and the harvested fields in the immediate hinterland are full of nets in autumn.

Live decoy birds are used as lures. The larks trapped for this purpose are tethered by their feet and are connected to the trapper who sits in a hut at the edge of the installation, by a long cord. When birds approach the nets the trapper pulls on the cord and the decoy bird starts to flutter its wings. At the same time the trapper mimics Skylark calls on a pipe and so lures a whole flock to their doom. When enough birds have landed the trapper releases a mechanism and the nets, several hundred square metres in area, clap together over the birds.

As if this wasn’t enough, two Départements also allow each trapper to set out up to 300 cage traps for larks!

More than 3,000 bird trappers are officially licensed to catch larks. The trapping quota varies in each Département - in Gironde for instance each trapper can catch 336 larks annually. Altogether one million Skylarks can legally be trapped in France every year; the true figure is probably a few hundred thousand in excess of this figure.

Below: Official figures for the EU countries that have derogated using “tradition” as a reason to allow hunting of Skylark.

Below we have school children on an arranged day outing being taught the wonders of trapping and killing Wood pigeon and Skylark. (Travail réalisé par les élèves de la classe de CM1 CM2 de l’Ecole de CASTETS en DORTHE dans le cadre du projet sur le patrimoine cyclo.)

Tying a skylark SOURCE

Needless to say this is only part of the picture. There are large numbers of Finches and Ortolan Bunting illegally trapped and killed in south west France with impunity mainly to supply an elite market but more of that another time.

Although the Skylark has a huge range and benefits from having a large population base it has been in decline now for many years and most would conclude that habitat loss is the root cause. On the basis that they are in decline should be good enough reason to call an end to killing this tiny bird just because it’s deemed to be traditional.


Saturday, 4 January 2014

Peregrine Falcon 2013 Poitou-Charentes

Peregrine Falcon - A good news story !!!

That's right, it's not always bad news.

This is a bird that requires a relatively specific habitat for a nest site and in Poitou-Charentes there is very little suitable natural habitat for Peregrine Falcons to nest, the region is generally quite flat with some small hilly places here and there.

Although they will use old unused large nests in tall trees this is not generally their preferred location and overall when old nests from other birds are used there is an increased chance of failure in bad weather or if the nest structure collapses. By preference a natural site will be a relatively high ledge or rocky outcrop that is usually slightly earthen, perhaps where a small amount of scree has accumulated with some light vegetation. Here they don’t actually make a nest but scrape a small hollow or clearing where the eggs are laid.

Following the massive population declines from the 1950’s the Peregrine has slowly recovered since about 1985 / 1990 and the first couple were recorded nesting in a natural situation in Poitou-Charentes in the Vienne in 2004. In 2006 this became two couples and in 2013 6 couples were recorded.

The oldest couples from 2004 and 2006 both successfully raised one chick each to fledging.

One couple failed to produce for reasons unknown.

One couple raised two chicks to fledging and the other two couples both raised three chicks to fledging.

10 young Peregrines in total that flew their nests is good news for a species that still has a relatively fragile population.

Outside of the breeding season Peregrine may be seen at a number of other locations throughout the region as they disperse for winter often to wetlands, lakes and marais where there is good hunting.

I should add here that this bird when nesting is extremely sensitive and vulnerable to any human disturbance. This is an increasing problem with the growth of rock climbing and should you become aware of a nest you should only mention its presence to a recognised ornithological group / association or the ONCFS. This is one of the bird species where actual nest sites are kept from the public domain for obvious reasons.

On no account should you approach any actual or potential nest site any closer than 200 metres.



Monday, 30 December 2013

Bee eaters 2013

Bee eaters have been another victim of the poor weather we had for the first 6 months of this year and I’m sure there is going to be quite a list of losers as the figures come in and verify what I have already heard, seen or suspected.

Only 32 couples were recorded nesting in the Vienne department this year, less than half the number we have been seeing in recent years. Only two sites maintained their normal numbers, a quarry and a riverside location.  On the 9 sites that were used there were between 1 and 14 pairs.

Nesting took place extremely late with no young birds visible at the tunnel entrances as late as mid July.  This species was undoubtedly severely affected by the unusually wet and cold weather we experienced even into the month of July resulting in a substantial loss of flying insects or decent weather to hunt for them.

It’s more than likely that this is a situation that has been repeated in much of France this year.

Twenty plume moth - Alucita-hexadactyla

Another house guest for the Christmas holiday fluttering round the room was a tiny 20 plume moth. These micro moths are so hard to see in any detail with the naked eye and I didn't manage to get the best of pictures. The English name of this unusual little moth is something of a misnomer as each wing is separated into 6 'plumes'. The scientific name is more accurate, meaning 'six-fingered'.

Called Ornéode du chèvrefeuille in French due to the fact that the caterpillars of this moth eat the flower buds and leaves of Lonicera - species of honeysuckle. 

The adult moths can be seen throughout the year and are known for overwintering in houses and other buildings.

Eggs are laid in May / June and caterpillars are to be seen mainly in June and July with Pupation taking place in July and August.  

Found throughout Continental Europe, Scandinavia and the UK it is a common species wherever honeysuckle plants are present.


Monday, 23 December 2013

Winter work 2013 - 2014

Perhaps understandably many people I meet often have the strange idea that managing land for wildlife means doing nothing, just letting everything go and take its “natural” course. If only that was the case, which I suppose it could be if the objective was to allow everything to revert to woodland, but even there it would require managing in one form or another to maximise its benefits. Anyway there’s no shortage of trees in the general sense here – yet !!!

Where we live certain habitats have all but disappeared in recent years, the final nail in the coffin was the removal in 2008 of the requirement to put 10% of land out of production, a process known in English as “Set Aside”, (to leave fallow / en jachère). This has lead to just about every last piece of land that isn’t woodland and that can be used for cereals to be ploughed up as mentioned elsewhere. Even in 1996 when we purchased our house and three hectares things were bad enough leaving little choice for us but to at least try and create a little oasis of decent habitat and manage the bulk of it, (about 80%), as “rough meadow or natural grassland”. The remaining 20% was already trees or woodland which I have also been slowly changing aided by a couple of serious storms that helped with the thinning process.

This winter I’m trying to catch up on one particular section that has been neglected for a couple of years more than it should have been with a danger of some species being temporarily lost due to brambles, scrub and small trees swamping them.  

In particular there are quite a large number of Greater Butterfly Orchids that started to show after we had been here about 8 or 9 years on this part of the land and it’s a tricky balancing act with them. It’s quite strange that I haven’t found this Orchid anywhere else remotely near our property or the Loose Flowered Orchids that we have a couple of although they must have been around here historically. Bee, Pyramidal and Lizard Orchids that have also popped up on the land are to be seen locally in the area so not a surprise, but it does show what can happen even on land that has been intensively cultivated given a little time.

It’s also an area with a few different species of violet that need to be given a bit of light and space, all common species but important for the Fritillary butterflies we have here that use them - Weavers, Queen of Spain and Silver washed, all fairly common species as well but starting to struggle with the steady reduction of available plants. Many of the violet plants that do manage to survive are often by the roadsides that are constantly cut to the ground giving little chance for any eggs or caterpillars.

Masses of Lung wort, Pulmonaria, flourishes in this section as well and again although a common plant it’s just so important as a long flowering early insect food source, especially for Bumble bees when there is little else around in February. 

More of this later, Chris