Moth Count Down

Less than a week to go until the summer Garden Moth Scheme starts, so I’ve been dusting off the trap and my ID skills, such as they are. Although I’ve been moth trapping for a couple of years now, this will be the first time I’ve submitted my results to any study like this and I’m really looking forward to it.

So on Friday night I put the moth trap out as a sort of a dry run,  in the site I’ll be using through the summer for the scheme.  It was a slightly warmer night than it has been recently (a balmy 2.3°C) and virtually no wind, so I was reasonably optimistic about catching something at least. Sure enough, my optimism was rewarded with the grand total of 7 moths of 4 species; more moths than I’ve had in all the other trap nights this year put together. I even had one species I’ve never recorded in the garden before (probably because I don’t normally trap in February). The Grey Shoulder-knot (Lithophane ornitopus) below most probably hibernated as an adult moth over winter to emerge in the spring.

Grey Shoulder Knot

The remaining 3 species all belonged to the Orthosia genus of moths, which would have spent the winter as pupae. The first of these was the Common Quaker (Orthosia cerasi) which I’d already caught this year and mentioned in earlier blog posts.  The second was the unfortunately named Clouded Drab (Orthosia incerta) seen below camouflaged very well against a stone background.

Clouded Drab

The final species was the much more interestingly titled Hebrew Character (Orthosia gothica), named apparently because the dark mark on its wing looks like the Hebrew character Nun: It’s not a perfect match, but you can see what they were getting at, when whoever it was named this moth.

Hebrew Character

So 6 species of moth under my belt for this year so far and looking forward to seeing what the garden holds in the coming months. Having the discipline of having to put the moth trap out every week for the scheme, will hopefully yield a few extra species that I would otherwise miss. And it’s nice to know that our Malvern moths are in some small way contributing to the wider knowledge of the UK moth fauna.

 

Birds in Focus

At last I’m finally getting some photos that are not only in focus (just about), but have real live animals in them – a dream come true after a couple of weeks struggling with the new trail cam!

Blue Tit trail cam photoI still wouldn’t claim to have mastered it, but the learning curve is definitely on the up. My new 250mm close up lens has certainly helped get (not surprisingly) closer images. The downside of using this lens is that your field of view shrinks dramatically, so you’ve got to be sure you’re pointing somewhere where there’s going to be some action. For some reason I seem to nearly always position the camera slightly too low, so I’ve got lots of clips now of bird feet, while their heads tuck into the bird food out of sight of the lens! I’ve also got a lot of clips of branches shaking, as something lands just above the field of view – I swear sometimes the birds are just sitting there, rattling the twigs to torment me. This underestimation of the required lens height may have something to do with my own height (or lack of), but I can hopefully train myself out of this one.

I’ve been much more impressed with the quality of the video clips than the still photos. But what I have found is that I can often get pretty good snapshots from the videos and turn them into photos. The images of the blue tit above and long-tail tit below were both taken this way.

Long tail tit 250mm lens

 

I tried the new lens out in the garage on the mice and was delighted when it captured two of them for the first time.

Two mice trail cam imageAt least I think I’m delighted, although maybe I won’t be so keen when 2 mice become 4 become 8 etc. They are getting through a lot of bird food as it is. Putting out the trail cam these last few weeks has incurred incidental expenses that I hadn’t anticipated when I first got it. In order to maximise photo ops in the garden, I’ve increased the numbers of bird feeders, so have of course needed more bird food too. There’s also been the additional lens, plus a new ground spike for the trail cam that I hope to try out at the weekend, to get photos of some of the ground feeding birds.

I’ve also been forced for the first time in ages to do a bit of judicious pruning round the garden to get clear shots of the feeders – that tree has just too many twigs growing specifically it seems with the intent of ruining my photos! I’ve been down on my knees trimming bits of grass out of the way of that elusive perfect shot and moving stones and other debris that spoiled the look. At this rate I may even find myself weeding the garden!

But I’m sure it will all be worth it come the spring. We’re really hoping that the blue tits will nest in the bird box again this year – in which case I will be poised ready with my new trail cam skills to capture the moment. Not sure when blue tits start nesting, but spring feels like it’s on its way. Despite a very cold night last night (-4.2°C according to my latest toy – a max/min thermometer for the Garden Moth Scheme), I heard the first froggy croak in the garden this afternoon and the daffodils are almost out, so hopefully the blue tits will feel it too.

In the meantime, here’s a couple of short films of the ever-adorable Long-tailed Tits in the garden today. First film is taken with the 460mm lens and second with the 250mm.

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First frog

Of Mice and Apples

I decided to play dirty this week in my ongoing attempts to capture wildlife footage with the trail camera, so offered bribes to the mice in the garage. We had a load of apples and some cheapo cake from the supermarket,  so I thought I’d see what the mice made of them. The mice clearly don’t take after their garage owner, as they went straight for the apples first and only ate the cake once all the fruit had gone. They must have been really keen on the apples too, as they triggered the camera within 5 minutes of me putting the food out. The first film shows one determined to drag a piece of prize fruit back to his nest – it took him 4 attempts before he managed to carry one off. I am slightly worried that this now means I’ve got a stash of rotting apples somewhere in the garage, so I hope they eat all they’ve carried off.

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The video was shot using the 460mm lens and isn’t quite as sharp as I’d like (having seen other bloggers’ much better images), but it’s not too bad.  I’m still practicing getting the camera set at just the right distance and angle. I did find a very useful video tutorial from Wildlife Gadgetman, which suggested tying a piece of string to the camera, with a knot at the correct distance to aid positioning. A simple trick, but very effective.

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The second video I liked just because of the mouse’s nonchalant flick of his back foot as he trundled through the food. Both videos suffer slightly from glare at the beginning of each film as the infrared light flares before it settles down – I have at least seen this on other people’s videos though, so it’s not just our camera!

The third video shows how good (to my mind at least) the colours are on the daytime shots. This clip was taking earlier today on a very grey morning, but the colours are still good. The pink bits are some berry flavoured suet pellets (not sure the colour is entirely natural though) that the blackbird seems to be particularly enjoying.

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Today the postman delivered my new 250mm lens, so I have high hopes for better close-up shots. The camera’s out with the new lens as I type, so hopefully by tomorrow I’ll be able to post some better videos and/or photos – although it may depend on what I find in the cupboards to bribe the mice with tonight!

A Down-trodden Female and a Bit of a Puritan

Whilst waiting for my trail camera skills to miraculously perfect themselves, I decided to run the moth trap at the weekend. It was cold but dry at least, so I ran the trap both Friday and Saturday night. Friday drew a complete blank, but Saturday produced the huge haul of 2 moths, bringing my grand total for the year so far to 3 moths – at this rate I should hit double figures by about June! The Garden Moth Scheme starts in a few weeks’ time, so I hope numbers pick up a bit by then.

One of my 2 prize specimens this weekend was another Common Quaker (also the one moth to be trapped in January). The Quaker moths are apparently so-named because they’re supposed to look dowdy and dull and not given to flashy colours – appearances of which the religious Quakers would have approved. But looking at the photos I think they have a more subtle charm and aren’t deserving of their drab reputation. Admittedly the one on the left isn’t looking his or her best on a bit of kitchen paper, but I’m to blame for the aesthetics of this photo, not the moth. Once it had flown down onto the soil, the camouflage potential of its subtle colouring becomes clearer as it blends in with the dead leaves – bright colours are all very well, unless they get you eaten!

Common QuakerCommon Quaker on soil

The second intrepid February moth was a male Dotted Border. I’m not usually so confident at sexing my moths, but with this one it is easy, as the female of the species has got a really duff deal. The Dotted Border is one of the relatively few British species where the female is flightless – they have only stumpy vestigial wings. This seems wholly unfair to me – surely the great joy of being a moth (on the slightly romantic assumption that moths can experience great joy!) is being able to fly! The poor down-trodden females just have to sit and wait for the Mr Dotted Border to come and visit. The moth on the left is my lucky male (again apologies for lack of aesthetic photo, he blew away before I could get better) and the one on the right is the female. This photo comes courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons website (so free to copy here), as I’ve yet to find a female in the garden here.

Dotted BorderAgriopis_marginaria_fem

After Dark

So my mission to master the Trail Cam goes on! It seems there’s a lot more to it than just pointing the thing vaguely in the direction of some animals, but I guess if it was that easy, we’d all be professional wildlife photographers!

Latest attempts have been at filming our little mammalian friends after dark. We’ve known for a while that we had mice in the garage (merrily munching their way through the bird food supplies), so they seemed a logical subject for our nocturnal trials.

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Hopefully what the garage footage shows is a typical house mouse and not a baby rat! For some reason mice in the garage seem quite cute, but rats are less appealing.

We then turned our attention to the garden at night. Although we do get hedgehogs in the garden they are hopefully still hibernating somewhere and though we’ve seen foxes out the front, we’ve never seen them in the back garden. So the best bet for nocturnal mammals was once again rodents (and next door’s cat) and so it proved to be.

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Again I think it is a mouse and not a juvenile rat, but if anyone can confirm either way, it would be much appreciated. The images still aren’t perfect by any means, but I’m hoping that with a bit of practice we’ll be ready to take better shots once the hedgehogs emerge.

So I am making progress and learning a few things along the way, most of which are fairly obvious when you think about them – but clearly I didn’t think about them first. For instance if you leave the camera out to run through a very cold night into the next day – the first few hours of daylight photos will suffer from the dewy condensation on the lens until the sun warms it up enough to clear. I have a lot of very foggy photos of early morning birds due to this! Ideally you need a fair amount of sun (virtually non-existent here since we bought the camera), but you don’t want to be pointing too much up at the sky. Videoing a swinging bird feeder produces (not surprisingly) lots of films of swinging bird feeders, not necessarily with any birds (258 videos one day alone). At night you need to balance the strength of the infra-red light against the distance to your subject – too strong and too close and it’s a white-out; too weak or too far and it’s a blurry image.

Hopefully spring will come soon bringing more photo ops and tempting this fair-weather blogger out into the garden to rummage through the weeds for invertebrate subjects – I’m missing my little spineless friends!

 

Trails and Tribulations

So the saga of the new trail cam continues. Two days on from the last post and I do at least have a few more bird photos – still none that are great quality, but at least I’m getting greater quantities of the duff ones, so I guess that’s an improvement! Here are a couple of the stunning examples so far:

Blackcap Sparrow

Somehow I’d thought we’d just stick the camera out and it would miraculously take perfect, in-focus shots of everything. Of course that doesn’t happen. First the camera was too far away from the subjects, then too close. Then there were twigs in the way, then it was too dark. Yesterday’s attempts were hampered by constant rain. Today the sun is out, but the wind is blowing a gale. We had the camera pointed at a bird feeder, which even from the sofa I could see was lurching around on the branch. The result – in the half hour the camera was out, 197 photos of flailing suet feeder, of which only 8 actually had a bird in!

I have been forced to take drastic action and read the manual. Whilst I grudgingly admit that the manual has some good points, there now just seems to be even more things to consider – infra-red levels, motion sensitivity, shutter speed etc. None of which will come as a surprise to anyone else no doubt, but for a technophobe like me it all feels a bit daunting.

The good news at least is that the birds aren’t at all phased by the camera, even if I am. They are happily flying around it no matter how close it is to their food – maybe I can just get them to take the photos – birdie selfies? We’ve also got lots of recordings of birdsong, so nothing wrong with the sound.

But finally after many trials and even more errors, I have managed to get a few half decent videos.  They’re only short and they’re far from perfect, but they’ve got recognisable birds! This is the highlight so far, a pair of Long-tailed Tits on the suet block.

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I suppose the moral of this particular post is patience. I’m trying to console myself with the thought that if I get all the most brilliant shots in the first weekend, there’ll never be any need to put the camera out again. At least this way I’ve got months (oh god) of anticipation waiting for that perfect shot.

New Toy!!

So excited this week, hubby and I finally got round to buying a trail camera for the garden. Must admit we were partly inspired by Winterwatch (although we may have to downgrade our expectations from their Scottish Wildcats to Malvern’s domestic moggies) and partly by frustrations at our inability to get close enough for decent bird photos without one (and the neighbours probably think we’re crazy enough without stalking the birds in camouflage gear!)

I’ve always been of the “life’s too short to spend ages doing sensible research” ethos when buying anything and tend to go for the first one I see “that looks nice”. So after reading one whole review and a quick look on Amazon, we’ve got a Bushnell camera. First attempts produced a very attractive photo of my knee (available on demand) and a brief video of our cat coming in for treats. But at least this proved it worked.

The bracket to attach the new toy to a tree hasn’t arrived on Thursday, so thought we’d try out some ground shots. Camera duly positioned at ground level and left to do its thing for the day. Came home that afternoon optimistic for a memory card full of bird videos. What we actually got was a memory card full of videos of the bush blowing gently in the breeze against the skyline – I’d got it angled all wrong in the morning. One (of the twenty or so) videos did manage to capture the top of a blackbird head and one got a fly going past, but they weren’t exactly the footage I’d hoped for.

With dusk falling, the camera was out again, but the birds were of course insisting on feeding in other parts of the garden. (tempting thought that maybe we need to buy more cameras?) We left the camera out overnight and managed to capture a photo of next door’s cat – progress of sorts! Unfortunately we must have a setting wrong somewhere as most of the photo was a white out and overblown.

Friday and we finally have a photo of a bird! Not a brilliant photo, but a recognisable blackbird. Clearly still not got the settings right though as it is hardly a sharp and detailed image. So if anyone’s got any tips on how to improve, they would be most gratefully received. But in the meantime – ta-dah:

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