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Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Bob the Eagle Owl visits Nature Club!

A few weeks ago our local owl sanctuary very kindly gave me some owl pellets and feathers to show the Nature Club. We dissected (well, I did!) a pellet and found all sorts of interesting bits - bones and fur.  

Owl pellets are what owls regurgitate once they have swallowed all the bits they can digest. The rest - the bones, fur, beaks, insect wing cases etc, are squashed together in the owl's gizzard and then "coughed up". You can find all sorts of gruesome things - all absolutely fascinating. The kids loved it. There were lots of oohs, aahs and urghs!

Today, we were absolutely thrilled that Brian from the Folkestone Owl Sanctuary visited us and brought along a gorgeous Eagle Owl called Bob and two beautiful Barn Owls. 

Not only that but we also got to share the experience with the Greenfingers Club too!

Brian told us all about owls - what they eat and where they live and how humans have affected the barn owl population so badly that they are now nearly extinct. We were very sad to hear that and we all want to help make sure that they are protected in the future.

The children listened carefully and were very well behaved. They all lined up beautifully to stroke the owls. 

We managed to collect a nice amount of money to donate to the owl sanctuary - a charity which totally relies on donations to survive. 

Brian told us that the gauntlets they use to protect their hands and give the owls somewhere to sit cost £50 each and they only last a couple of years. 

They also have 8 to 10 enclosures that all need new roofs - at £500 a time!

We are pleased to help them. The Greenfingers club have planted up lots of sweet pea plants which they are going to sell at 50p each and this money will be donated to the owl sanctuary. 

We also hope to get Brian and his owls back in for the whole school to see. And hopefully as a result we will be able to raise even more money for them.

We had a wonderful time today - thank you Brian for sharing your expert knowledge and beautiful birds with us. 

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Nature club adventures

12 children between the ages of 4 and 7, glue, paint, leaves, worms and spiders - "what could possibly go wrong?" I hear you cry.

Yay, I'm running a kid's Nature Club at last!! Woo hoo! I've wanted to do it for years and I've finally bitten the bullet (or should that be "bitten off more than I can chew"?).

So what could possibly go wrong? 

Well actually (I really shouldn't say this because it's just asking for trouble) - nothing so far - all is well...

Oh wait... yes of course - there were the escapee paint-covered conkers rolling around on the classroom carpet. Oh and the accidental smashing of a sellotape dispenser & the shame of handing dirt-covered children back to their parents...

After 45 minutes of shouting, running, squabbling, painting, sticking and shrieking every week I'm truly shattered, but I'm loving (most of) it!

So far we have made pipe cleaner spiders:

We've met a cockchafer larvae, 6 butterfly caterpillars, 5 damselfly larvae, 2 crane flies, a garden spider, a daddy-long-legs spider, countless worms, snails & wood lice and a cross earwig.

We've made leaf fireworks:

We've done conker painting (hence the paint-covered carpet) and I've hole-punched a whole pile of pretty autumn leaves so that we could thread them onto string to make decorations.

We've made spider paper aeroplanes, coloured in some lovely autumn pictures & stuck seeds, leaves & twigs into scrap books with many, many strips of sellotape. 

We've also wiped down the toilet mirrors A LOT after washing our hands and I have shouted "stop playing with Mrs Keeler's electric pencil sharpener" more times than I can count, but boy have we had fun!

But, I just couldn't do it without my girls, who are the best little helpers anyone could ask for, and if it hadn't been for Sharon, the school Family Liaison Officer (who probably regrets ever saying she'd be more than happy to help), I doubt I would have lasted more than a week!

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Lovely Leaf-Cutter Bee

I do love a Leaf-Cutter Bee, but the one I saw the other day was extra special.

Leaf-Cutter Bees are solitary bees who lay their eggs in leaf-lined nests which they build themselves. 

They look for a suitable hole & then focus all their attention on cutting & collecting leaves which they line the hole with, creating a tube-like structure.

An egg is laid inside & the hole is capped with one or two more leaves. They even produce their own special glue-like substance to stick it all together.

Insects are like little machines, designed to work in a specific way. They are programmed to do what they do & they just... well.. do it! However, I believe that my little leaf-cutter bee may have been created with a slight malfunction (or maybe she just needs practice).

Standing in the garden, I heard a buzzing sound, but not like a bee just buzzed past - more like a bee had got stuck somewhere. I turned to look and found this little bee trying in vain to squeeze into one of the many accommodating holes in my insect box with a piece of leaf held between her legs under her body.

Usually a bit of forceful shoving gets a leaf into the right position, but this little lady had obviously been having trouble. All around her were beautifully cut pieces of leaf caught in the cobwebs at the front of the box. This issue was not new to her - she'd been here sometime! 

I watched for a while. She pushed & shoved and eventually got it into the hole, but she wasn't happy. As she flew out she stuck her head in a few other holes, probably to check them out as suitable alternatives. Eventually she buzzed off & when I came back later the hole was half lined as it had been when I had last been there. There were more leaves stuck in the cobwebs though, so she hadn't given up easily, but it was looking unlikely that she'd persevered.

Even though I truly felt sorry for her, I must admit it did keep me amused for a while. She stood out for me as an individual - and that's not common in the bee world. Poor little thing - I hope she found her perfect hole!

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Post-floral whateries?

It was "that" hot day in July when the Purple Vetch seeds "pop" from their seed cases. As I stood trying to get a glimpse of it in action I became aware of two or three ants hanging around at every leaf node along the stems of the plant. What were they doing?

A busy bee on a Vetch flower
Whatever it was, they were all on the same mission and all seemed to have a bit of a thing for a nice green leaf node.

Now, I could narrow the behaviour down to something to do with reproduction, survival/defence or food source, which you can do with pretty much any living thing, apart from humans who seem to be constantly distracted by many meaningful (or not so meaningful) tasks. So I was heading for the food source idea.

I know that ants like to drink sweet stuff - who hasn't found one in a glass of fizz or squash at some point? 

And I also know that plants produce sweet nectar, but surely that's just from the flowers...

Well, it seems not. After a bit of research I found out that it's all to do with "Extra (or "Post") Floral Nectaries" (EFN) - a phenomenon which has barely been researched, especially here in the UK. 

It turns out that some plants produce nectar from their leaf nodes & other areas as well as their flowers, but why? 

Well again, it's either reproduction, survival or food source & from the plants point of view this is all about survival/defence.

A Purple Vetch wants to successfully reproduce & to do this it has to protect it's seeds from danger until it's pods are ready to "pop", at which point it has accomplished it's task. 

Drunk & Disorderly Ants
The plant & the ant have evolved a symbiotic relationship. 

There are many plant pests who would happily munch on a Vetch seed, but much like ants defend aphids in return for a sweet treat, in this case the ant is defending the plant & it's seeds in return for some of the plant's nectar - isn't that incredible! 

So, why don't ants just help themselves to the nectar directly from the flowers? Apparently, they are physically prevented from taking floral nectar by the dense stamens - yet another clever trick!

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Ants - the aphid's defender!

If you ever find aphids on your plants at home, before squirting them with something toxic, take another look. 

Where there are aphids there are usually Black Garden Ants.

Why? Well, they've learnt that teamwork can benefit them both.

Aphids are a great meal for a hungry Ladybird, but they've found an ingenious way of protecting themselves. They produce a sweet nectar from their bodies which ants just love to drink. 

The ants stroke (or "milk") the aphids which respond by producing blobs of "honeydew" for the ants to drink. In return, when a hungry Ladybird comes a-hunting, the ants see it off!

It's been proven that this sugary substance gives the ants an addictive high - they get "drunk" on it!

More amazing ant facts (not UK species, but definitely worth a mention):

Leafcutter Ants are the foragers & gardeners of the ant world. Leafcutter ants are capable of carrying over 50 times their own body weight. They carry leaves back to their nest and use them to make a fertiliser to grow their own special fungus-food in! They tend this fungus garden which is their only food source.

Fire Ants form living rafts to move the colony away from flooded areas. 
Fire Ants have developed the ability to team together to form a raft to survive the flooding of their habitat. The entire colony links arms and legs and floats above the water's surface - incredibly, even the ants on the bottom layer stay dry! 

Harvester Ants Vs Night Ants 
In the Arizona desert food is scarce & the only things ants can eat are seeds. Harvester Ants collect the seeds during the day, but have to be fast as the desert heats up quickly. 

By nightfall they are back in their nests having filled their underground larders with seeds. 

When they are safely tucked up for the night another species of ants wake up & start to forage - the Night Ants. But, seeds are scarce in the desert & more often than not there are few about by nightfall because the Harvester Ants have collected them all. 

The Night Ants though, have a cunning plan. They spend the night shifting stones & plants to block up the holes of the Harvester Ant's nest - by morning it's clear why - they've trapped the Harvester Ants in the nest! 

It takes the Harvester Ants most of the next day to clear away the rubble, which means they have less time for foraging, which in turn means that by nightfall there are still seeds on the ground for the Night Ants to collect! 


Monday, 14 July 2014

A mysterious noise!

Wandering around the patio with my camera slung round my neck, waiting in anticipation of what might flit past me I was intrigued to find that it was actually my sense of hearing that was pulled to attention before anything else.

In front of me was a pile of sleepers, some Purple Vetch, a wooden planter and an old hollow tree trunk lent up against it for decorative effect & I was suddenly aware of a scratching sound - or was it popping - or nibbling - I wasn't sure, but it was pretty loud! There was something there, but where? 

It was either coming from the hollow log or the planter so I lifted the hollow log away & the sound came with it! Aha! It was in the log. 

I listened more closely & realised it was a nibbling sound - was it a beetle or shock horror - woodworm?! No there were no woodworm-sized holes. Phew! I looked all around the outside of the bark for tell-tale signs - nothing! I was going crazy - there was this incessant nibbling and nothing to see! What the hell was it?

Then, all of a sudden, a "poof" of sawdust shot out from the inside of the log - and there at the top of the inside of the hollowed out log was a hole no bigger than 1cm across. Something had kicked the sawdust out and was nibbling a tunnel through my log! What could it be? Well I got myself comfortable on a garden chair & positioned myself with the camera resting on the log ready to snap whatever it was as it emerged. 

20 minutes later... still nothing to see, another 10 minutes of nibbling and I could feel the back of my neck burning in the midday sun and the guilty pull of all the housework I should be getting on with inside. 

Then all of a sudden - pop - a furry bottom! A bee was backing out of the hole! I snapped & snapped, but only got this rather unflattering shot - it was so fast! Off it flew, probably to get itself some lunch.

After a bit of research I found out that this was a type of carpenter bee - you can see why.

I checked a couple of times later in the day & the nibbling was still going on. Two days later she was still nibbling! She was one busy little mum-to-be-bee!

Monday, 30 June 2014

A missed opportunity!

This gorgeous specimen of a bug was spotted in amongst my Geraniums a few weeks back. Was it a Firebug? Nope - not the right shape & different markings. After a bit of detective work I found out that it was in fact Corizus Hyoscyami, aka a Cinnamon Bug.

Well, I took a picture (a blurry one I must admit, but at that point my macro filters were winging their way to me via Royal Mail, so I was unable to pick him out in all his glory) & found out that they are pretty rare in the UK, never having been found any further north than Liverpool.

I thought that was it, but whilst idly googling the other day I came across a fact that I was completely unaware of until that point - that the Cinnamon Bug is so called because it SMELLS OF CINNAMON! Aaaargh! Well it was long gone & I'd missed my opportunity to have a good sniff - boo-hoo!!

So, why are bugs so brightly coloured? 

Aren't they picked off more easily by birds if they are so obvious? No - why? Because to a hungry bird that bright colouring means "Don't eat me, I'm poisonous" even if the bug is not! 

Plus, as a female bug looking for a mate, you want to choose the best male to father your offspring & the brightest colours & the most symmetrical markings are a sign of being strong & healthy.

I feel bad I didn't get a good whiff & I don't feel my photo has done this lovely chap justice, but hey it's another species added to the list & a rather special one at that.