Friday 27 February 2015

The Birds and the Bees

Being of a naturalist bent, one of the little 'hobbies' and interests I get up to to keep me out of mischief is doing surveys for the various Irish bio-diversity groups and submitting the data onto their websites, happily contributing sightings to the various map grid-ref squares in this part of Co Roscommon. The groups (Birdwatch Ireland, the Pollinator Group, the Newt Survey  and so on) are all trying to update their distribution maps for the various species and to then keep them up dated so that they can see trends in populations. They are using the modern method of engaging the public (or "Civilian Scientists" as they seem to call us (yoiks!)). We sign up through various websites, register our locations or walk routes and then start punching in sightings and data.

Buff/white tailed bumble bee. Picture blagged from the net.
In the UK, I know, one of the favourite such events is the 'Big Garden Birdwatch' where tens of thousands of volunteers agree to watch their gardens for an hour on a given weekend in January and score the biggest number of each species seen at any one time. We used to get over 30 house sparrows in ours and always prayed that the sparrowhawk would zoom through during the hour. Here, Birdwatch Ireland do things very differently, and you actually 'survey' for 13 weeks continuously from early December till the end of February (actually Sunday 1st March this year). You just keep an eye on the place and remember the biggest numbers of each species you saw at any one time each week, re-setting your mental counter to zero each Monday morning. We don't often get anything too exciting but this year we have had crossbills, a sparrowhawk and long tailed tits, as long as they are "using" the garden, not just over-flying. So this year I actually included a single grey heron, who was flying over but very low and curved round the big pond, definitely checking it out for fish potential.

We joined the Irish Farmers' Association just because it
ended up costing us next to nothing. 
By happy co-incidence, just as the bird watch finishes, we start the bumble bee survey. In this one you agree to walk a specific route (a dog-walk, say) of 1-2 km at least once a month from March through to the end of October. You map the route (on line) and describe the countryside (etc) you walk through and then on each walk you count the total individual bumblebees seen - you are allowed to assume that the lady you saw in the first 100 yards of the walk has not actually followed you in order to get counted several times! Obviously you need to get your eye in to sorting out the various species but fortunately, Ireland does not have many 'flavours' and there is another 'let off' around the two commonest species too.

A well mashed hedge. Nice one lads.
The workers of the buff tailed bumble bee (Bombus terrestris) and the white tailed one (B. luconum) are impossible to tell apart in flight even by an expert as the buffs can get quite pale (i.e. white) and the whites can get quite buff, so they are ID'd by dissection once dead (it is all on lengths of leg sections, internal layout and shape of face). We field surveyors are instructed to score them all as B Terrestris (agg), i.e. aggregated with the counts of luconum and the website is set up anyway to round them all up, no matter where you enter them. I only got involved in this after we got our honey bees, in June last year, so this will be my first March. In March the bumbles start to get active but it is only the fertilized queens you see to start with, who have got mated last year and then hibernated. These portly ladies apparently amble about a bit gathering their strength before they get stuck in to creating comb and laying some eggs to produce the drones and workers to assist them. It is the big queens you see in March and April, and then the workers more into May.

Clean air and plenty of damp makes for
some quite 'woolly' lichen growth on even
young trees. 
As well as these formal long term surveys I also submit any sightings for one offs like road-kill mammals or unusual animals or birds seen while I'm out and about. There are also surveys and websites 'out there' for most other forms of flora and fauna that might take your fancy, but we do not have the breadth of botanical skills to do the plants, for example. We tried to get involved in some bat surveying last year but a promised training session did not materialise in Roscommon (though the Silverwoods managed to go hunting Daubenton's (Water) bats in Co Laois) and we have not heard from the group since. We are reduced to sitting outside of a summer evening sipping our wine in the twilight while the 'bat-box' (ultra sound detector/modulator) hisses faintly in the background till our thoughts are interruped by the squelches, burps and pitter-pat emitted by a passing Pipistrelle.

Enough of that, now. "What of the fallen tree?" I hear you ask. Chatting to Vendor Anna, we find that the big spruce which fell in the last post, dates from the mid to late 50s, so it may be only 60 years old. Anna (then 3 years old) moved here with the parents and the Grand-Dad in 1953, she thinks, and Grand-Dad passed away in 1955. It was Anna's father (we call him TK Max here) who planted the trees as little whips at around that time as a windbreak for the then vegetable garden. Well, those whips are still doing fine, Grand-Dad, except for our recent tumbler, but at 60 feet tall they rather impede the growth of any vegetables in that space, so our pigs have taken over now. The other big spruces, the ones in the front garden for example, are considerably older, taller and thicker of trunk and would have been here long before the TK's time, but do not show in the 1900 picture of the house we have. We know that there were periodically Government grants available for tree planting and we think that TK Max availed himself of some of this cash.

The owner of the newest car in our lane also owns the oldest
still-in-use vehicle, this lovely old Ferguson tractor. He (Ian)
uses it for the odd bit of forestry and trundling about.
And yes, that V-tread tyre is on round the wrong way. 
Meanwhile, I am without Liz at present as she is over in the UK for a long weekend. A gang of her internet chums are meeting up down in Bridport (Dorset) for a few days of posh eating, pubs, drinks and socialising. They do this every year and call it their 'AGM' and because this is the first one since Diamond died and Diamond used to be on those internet forum sites as "Mrs Butterfield" (as in the song), this event is named the "Mrs Butterfield Memorial AGM". Liz has even written a small eulogy to read out at the main dinner, full of Diamond anecdotes and in-jokes. Have a great time you 'wrong-mo's  and make Diamond proud.

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