Monday, 27 March 2017

Sand Crocus, small, rare and blue...

I'd like to welcome my brother Duncan Harris to the Three Counties Blog. Botany has always been close to his heart and he has kindly sent me the following post from his recent visit to Devon to see one of our rarest native plants...

“In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love’, or if you’re middle aged like me and into nature your thoughts turn to small, rare flowers. I hadn’t seen the Sand Crocus for over thirty years despite living fairly close, so when the first really sunny day of spring was forecast I decided to head to Dawlish Warren in Devon.

In the early 80’s I’d been to see it with Roger and our cousin Alan, in those days it was only known from this spot in the UK and then only on the first tee of the golf course. You had to get permission to go out, crawl around on the ground and get photos before the next group teed off, all the while being laughed at by people in the clubhouse. It was subsequently found at another site in Cornwall but it’s still incredibly rare. It’s now very easy to see behind the nature reserve visitor centre.

Sand Crocus Romulea columnae, Dawlish Warren, Devon
Duncan Harris

Sand Crocus Romulea columnae, Dawlish Warren, Devon
Duncan Harris

The Crocus is about a centimetre across and only fully open in bright sunshine , after a few minutes searching I found the first one. A very attractive small crocus, once you’ve got your eye in you can spot the little blue gems at a distance and they’re well worth having a closer look at.  As we head into April they’ll number in the hundreds but only in a very small patch. Definitely a welcome splash of colour at this time of year, a true Spring flower, and a rare one.

You can also follow Duncan on Twitter @duncanharris5

Thursday, 16 March 2017


Great morning out on Tuesday with Nigel Marven, exploring Wareham Forest in Dorset. One of our prime targets on this lowland sandy heath were Sand Lizards but sadly the overcast skies denied us the opportunity to see any of those despite extensive searching.

Dorset's lowland sandy heaths are a rich habitat to explore.

A couple of Woodlarks were heard briefly calling but vanished and could not be relocated. There were plenty of other birds singing though and it was nice to hear Chiffchaffs, Meadow Pipits, Stonechats and see a few Dartford Warblers to remind us it was Spring. We turned our attention back to reptiles once again and discovered our first Slow Worm Anguis fragilis of the year before relocating to another potentially good spot for Sand Lizards. By now the sky had lightened a little and it was mild enough for activity but without a break in the cloud to get them basking, we were unable to find any. A thorough search of the area failed to turn up even a Common Lizard although these emerging Wood ants Formica rufa provided a welcome distraction. They were clumped neatly together warming themselves up - not how you usually see them. The slightest vibration close to the nest brought them erupting out like a volcano though.

Nigel capturing a close-up of the main mass

Southern Wood Ants Formica rufa, Wareham Forest
Another nest, another intriguing pattern of ant bodies

We made one last effort to search for herps in the hope of at least seeing an adder and instead were rewarded by this, a lovely male Smooth Snake Coronella austriaca my first snake of the year and what a great one to start with!

Smooth Snake Coronella austriaca, male
A real beauty and totally unexpected after the
general lack of reptiles.
Smooth Snake Coronella austriaca, male
Portrait showing the buffish throat, rostral and nasal scales, a
very smart individual.
Smooth Snake Coronella austriaca, male
The only way to celebrate such a find was a pub lunch!

Later in the day we checked my garden pond and added Common Toad Bufo bufo to the day's tally along with a few Palmate Newts.  The toad numbers have rapidly depleted over the last few nights falling from just over 300 at the weekend to about 80 now. A great way to finish off a great day.

Typically the weather the following day was just perfect for Sand Lizards...just means we'll have to pay another visit soon.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Common Toads...

Every year now we get an influx of Common Toads Bufo bufo to the garden pond in late February. They arrive to breed in ever increasing numbers and peak in early March, last year my peak count was around 150. Yesterday that record was shattered as a count of 206 stole the title for the highest count ever recorded in the garden (Note: this record was subsequently broken again with just over 300 counted on 11 March, two days after this post!). After dark they are everywhere, you really have to watch where you're treading. There were 27 on the patio just outside the back door and loads more on the lawn around the pond, not to mention those already in the water. I had to take a bucket and rescue another 16 from the road at the front of the house but at least 7 had sadly been run over.

Today they were still in abundance and allowed for some photos at lunchtime.

Common Toad Bufo bufo: R. Harris

Common Toad Bufo bufo: R. Harris

Common Toad Bufo bufo: R. Harris

Common Toad Bufo bufo: R. Harris

Common Toad Bufo bufo: R. Harris

They were making such a noise I managed to get a recording of them too.

In addition to the toads there were also a handful of Frogs, Palmate Newts and a couple of Smooth Newts. Not a bad collection.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Straw-headed Bulbul...a closer look.

Update at end of post.

Following my trip to Malaysia last year, I got a real interest to learn more about the Straw-headed Bulbuls we'd seen. They have become incredibly rare in the last 10-15 years. We were very lucky and saw at least 5 or 6 individuals (including a group of three) in Taman Negara, probably the oldest lowland rain-forest on earth. I have to say they left quite an impression with their beautiful melodic song and their showy plumage (for a Bulbul). All part of their downfall.

Straw-headed Bulbul - one of a handful seen in Malaysia
Very rare and sadly on the decline.

The reason they have become endangered (IUCN Red List sp the species raised from 'Vulnerable' to 'Endangered' in Dec 2016), perhaps not surprisingly, is because of man. We seem to have a habit of screwing things up in the natural world and the Straw-headed Bulbul is just one of a long list of species who are knocking on extinction's door because of our greed and ignorance. Once plentiful, there are now an estimated 600-1700 individuals left in the wild scattered over Peninsula Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand. In fact Birdlife International estimates that because the existing populations are so fragmented, it is unlikely any one of them can support more than 250 mature birds and the entire population is decreasing. Collected for the cage bird industry and feeling the effects of habitat loss, one wonders how much longer the species will survive. Will the last Straw-headed Bulbul be a miserable specimen locked up in the cage of a private collection somewhere?

The saddest thing is that on the face of it there doesn't seem to be much that we can do to stop its demise. Everywhere I traveled in Malaysia there were palm oil plantations, some stretching as far as the eye can see. The only areas not effected are mountain slopes where the machinery to clear and plant cannot reach. Perhaps checking palm oil products come from sustainable sources will help but not growing palm oil would be even better, a big economic issue to be overcome. Whether palm oil or cage bird industry, it all comes back to money and greed and it seems we are prepared to wipe another species off the face of the planet to get it. Pulau Ubin and Singapore remain one of the species' best hopes for survival. You can see it, hear its bubbly song and learn more about the conservation efforts being made to save this incredible bird on YouTube.

UPDATE: Seems this post was very well timed and relevant. Shortly after publishing on 17 Feb there has been quite a lot in social media on this subject, including the following:

In addition, there is an interesting paper recently published by Muhammad S Khan on the defaunation taking place in Pakistan at the moment. It could just as easily be talking about the situation in many other parts of the world: