Monday, 24 October 2016

Views of the Kennall Vale

Whilst it is great to live somewhere where there are endangered and charismatic animals like water voles (http://viewsoftheock.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/water%20voles) and otters (http://viewsoftheock.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/otters); near where stunning displays of starlings  can be seen (http://viewsoftheock.blogspot.co.uk/2010/11/murmurations.html) and where the nearby city has a world class Natural History Museum (http://viewsoftheock.blogspot.co.uk/2016/07/microsculpture.html), it is great to explore new areas.
For the past few years, we have ventured down to Cornwall, especially Porthleven (http://viewsoftheock.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/views-of-atlantic.html) - nothing can compare to watch seals fishing for crabs and dolphins swim past as you sit outside drinking a morning coffee or an evening glass of wine.
But a chance encounter led us to explore the Kennall Vale at Ponsonooth, near Falmouth.



Powered by the river Kennel, it was once the site of twenty water mills used to produce the gunpowder that was used in the local tin mines. But once the much safer TNT became established the mills were abandoned, leaving nature to take over and the vale has become an  eerie and atmospheric reminder of a bygone era.


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The site was not just used for gunpowder production, a flooded  quarry shows the site was also used for granite extraction and processing.
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The shallow and fast flowing river was not just an excellent source of power for the mills, it is an ideal habitat for an animal which does not occur in Oxfordshire - the dipper
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These small birds dip under the waterfalls as they search for insect larvae which make up their diet. Their size and colour can make them hard to spot and even harder to photograph, but when seen they are as endearing as anything found on a river in Oxfordshire.
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The Kennall Vale is now a nature reserve and managed by the Cornish Wildlife Trust and is really worth a visit if anyone is visiting south Cornwall: http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/reserves/kennall-vale

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Horniman Museum

It's probably not surprising that London is spoilt for museums - the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, and the science museum are all world class and famous institutions. And even places that a less popular with tourists, like the Grant Museum of Zoology are worth a visit (http://viewsoftheock.blogspot.co.uk/2015/06/grant-museum-of-zoology.html)
But for those who are willing to travel a bit further out of their way, there is another which is well worth visiting - the Horniman Museum in south London
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Founded by Frederick Horniman who used the money from the family business to house his collection of Natural History, Musical Instruments, and Anthropology, it opened to the public in 1901, eventually donating the building and its contents to the people of London, with the London County Council as  it's trustees.
Unlike most Natural History museums, the collection is not structured taxonomically, but in accordance with Horniman's wishes in the form of evolution and adaption in order to educate young people.
Hence, weaver bird nests can be found next to a trap door spider

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And a fossilised tetrabelodon skull is next to one its modern relatives in a fascinating display demonstrating the evolution of elephants.
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And human evolution and migration is explained via a collection of casts of modern and early human skulls:
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As well as the permanent displays, there are also temporary exhibitions.  The current one on how dinosaurs may have raised their young runs until the end of October 2016.
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The museum not only consists of dead stuffed animals, in the basement, there is a recently renovated aquarium, featuring small fish from around the world:
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It not only features exotic species but also a chance to see what is probably Britain's rarest animal - the pool frog.
Once found in a few locations in East Anglia it was thought to be an introduced species and by the time it was discovered to be native it was too late to save it from extinction in the wild.  
But the Horniman museum, along with institutions, are attempting to reintroduce it into the wild.
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And even when the museum closes, the gardens are still open where it is possible to enjoy some fantastic views of the City of London.
Before making the two and half hour journey back to Oxfordshire.



More information on this fascinating place can be found at http://www.horniman.ac.uk/ and on twitter @HornimanMuseum

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

No water voles on Radley Brook?

Several water vole colonies feature in this blog, obviously the River Ock in Abingdon - where this blog gets its name (http://viewsoftheock.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/along-lower-ock.html), Abbey Fishponds in North East Abingdon (http://viewsoftheock.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/abbey-fishponds.html) and Radley Brook (http://viewsoftheock.blogspot.co.uk/2011/06/water-voles-of-radley-brook.html), a stagnant ditch between the river Thames and Barton Fields Nature Reserve.


Most years - on Radley Brook - water voles can be heard munching on the reeds, or glimpsed amongst the foliage or even enticed out with an apple core.

But this year, there is nothing to be glimpsed along the brook


The reeds remain silent:


And the apple cores remain uneaten.


It seems to be a bad year for water voles in Abingdon...

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Microsculpture

The University of Oxford Natural History Museum (http://www.oum.ox.ac.uk/) is often featured in this blog and it has recently opened a temporary exhibition called Microsculpture, consisting of a series of exquisite photographs of 22 of the museums 5 million specimens from its Hope Entomological collection.

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Photographer Levon Biss has used a microscope lens to painstakingly take 8000 photographs of different parts of each subject, each with its own lighting arrangements and then combined them to produce these remarkable images, such as this orchid cuckoo bee:
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The exhibition also includes the actual insects, which demonstrates Bliss's remarkable talent in showing the exquisite beauty of these insects.
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Such as the Jewel longhorn beetle:


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And he has shown the Mantis Fly can look like something from a science fiction nightmare:
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Even the most mundane of British insects, like the blow fly, is shown to be just as magnificent as any of the exotic ones featured in the exhibition.
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The exhibition runs until the 30th October and is highly recommended to anyone in the locality or anyone visiting Oxford.

For those not fortunate enough to be able to visit, the exhibition has it's own website: http://microsculpture.net


Saturday, 18 June 2016

The orchids of Radley Lakes

It is somewhat surprising that Radley Lakes does not feature more often in this blog.
A collection of lakes formed by quarrying has produced a wildlife oasis in North East Abingdon: where otters can occasionally be seen swimming in the lakes; hobbies feeding on the abundant dragonflies; barn owls quartering over the nearby meadows and even the occasional migratory osprey stopping off as it heads to Africa for the winter.

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Not only are the lakes are a magnet for wildlife, but the poor quality soil means it is ideal habitat for some of our most impressive flowers - orchids.
The most obvious are the clumps of common spotted orchids.
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Elsewhere, the pyramidal orchids are starting to flower.
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Probably the most impressive of the local orchids is also the most difficult to find. The flowers of a bee orchid are less than 1 cm wide and occur in small groups.
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The distinctive flower has evolved for pseudocopulation - achieving pollination through emulating a female insect which attracts a male,  which tries to copulate with the flower, resulting in a frustrated male and a pollinated flower.
Unfortunately for the bee orchids at Radley Lakes, the bee it attempts to mimic is extinct in the UK and hence it relies on self-pollination to reproduce.
The resultant seeds are microscopic and can be blown for hundreds of miles to try and find suitable habitat, where not only will it try to find an insect to help spread it genes, but also a symbiotic fungus; its seeds are so small they do not have any food for the early stages of growth, and so extract it from the fungus.
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Whilst the orchids are impressive, they can be as elusive as the otters, owls and osprey, it is a more common plant which is probably the most attractive. The low nutrient soil restricts the growth of dominant grasses, with the result of thousands of ox-eye daisies turning a disused quarry into a fantastic vista.
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Friday, 27 May 2016

Otters 2016

There have been many highlights in the 7 years of writing this blog, but no doubt one of them has been seeing and recording the activities of otters on the Ock.
First seen in May 2011 were at a female otter and her two cubs:
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There then followed nine other sightings, including this one in June 2011 - in broad daylight. 


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Whilst the Eurasian otter can live up to 20 years in captivity, in the wild, they are lucky to make it to 4 years old, with sexual maturity occurring at 18 months for females.

Hence, the otter in the photographs above have almost certainly died, maybe this otter, seen in 2013 is one of the cubs having reached maturity or maybe even it's a grand-cub.
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This was the last sighting for three years, yet it's apparent that otters were still resident in the Ock as their droppings (known as spraints) could occasionally be found, the most recent in March 2016:

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And then, whilst looking for water voles in April this year, there was a very unexpected encounter with another otter - on the same stretch where the first otters were recorded. So unexpected it had dived out of sight before a decent photograph could be taken.
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So perhaps this otter could then be the great grand-cub of the otter first seen back in 2011....

But perhaps not, one of the reasons Eurasian otters have short life spans in that they are fiercely territorial and inflict horrendous injuries - often fatal - on each other.  

So maybe this otter is not even related to those seen 5 years ago, perhaps it is a descendant of a different otter which moved into the Ock and displaced or killed the resident female? 

But it may not even be a female, it could be a male with territories in the Abingdon area seeking a female?

As with otters, they often raise more questions than answers, but whatever its lineage or gender, it's just great to know these wonderful and seldom seen animals are still present on our small and somewhat insignificant river

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Peregrines of Aylesbury

Like many market towns, there is no specific reason the largest town in Buckinghamshire, unless like me you are visiting your mother in law.
It is the hometown of 80's neo-prog rock group Marillion,  a splendid new theatre and an attractive market square:



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But Aylesbury's most easily identifiable land mark is the 12 story edifice known locally as Pooley's Folly (after it's architect, Fred Pooley).
This building is home to the county reference library, the register office and a pair of the most impressive animals in world - peregrine falcons.
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This magnificent animal can can be seen from various view points in the town, but probably the best view is from the top floor of the Friars Square car park
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This year the pair have had four eggs, three of which hatched - one of which died prematurely.
The two remaining chicks are doing well and can be watched on a fantastic web cam:  http://aylesburyperegrine.org.uk/overhead%20cam.htm