Neil Pont
Wildlife Photography

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While in Covid-19 lockdown, I am updating this blog twice a week - on Tuesdays and Fridays...


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Home schooling

Posted on 5 May, 2020 at 5:45 Comments comments (2)

I had planned to post various bugs and beastie pictures today - but, once again, have changed my mind.  Confinement to the garden has made me look more closley at the bees and there has been a steep curve of learning.  I am definitely being schooled at home.  So today I am starting to share some of that learning, using my own photographs as visual aids.

The bee of choice is the Common Carder, which loves to visit our flowering Rosemary.



One of our commonest bees, she is quite distinctive with a bright gingery coloured thorax and stripey abdomen.  Which brings me to the 'naming of parts'...



The three main part of the bee are (1) the head (2) the thorax (3) the abdomen.  The abdomen is divided into 5 tergites (not all visible here).  The bumblebee wears its skeleton on the outside - hard plates of chitin joined together by flexible sections.  It is black but covered in coloured hairs.
The pygidium, at the base of the abdomen, is used to make a waxy secretion for lining the nest.
Hopefully I may be able to get a close up of the head and eyes at some time.

Here you can see the tongue (or proboscis) in action.  The bee dips its tongue in nectar, usually deep inside the flower, and the fluid soaks its way up the tongue and into the bee's mouth - they don't suck it up!





Bumblebees are covered in branched hairs. As they fly this creates a static charge attracting pollen grains as the bee lands on a flower and encourages them to stick to the hairs. The bee grooms itself using the spurs and stiff bristles on their legs to comb the pollen out of their fur.  This action pushes the pollen into the pollen baskets on the tibia of female bumblebees' hind legs.  Pollen, wetted by a little saliva, builds up into a lump with the consistency of plasticine.  A full pollen basket may contain up to a million grains of pollen.



And another good view of the Common Carder - the view you may well get when spotting Bumblebees in your garden (or out on your walk - lucky things...)



The text books for my home learning are:



Tune in for more lessons on Friday!




More Macro Magic

Posted on 1 May, 2020 at 5:30 Comments comments (1)

Well - o loyal fan - I promised macro bugs and beasts today.  But I've changed my mind...

Firstly, there will be no photographic mumbo jumbo following my admonishment on Tuesday's blog. I've got that out of my system - and whatever I said then still holds today (and does not bear repeating).

Secondly there was a very rare occurence last night for April 2020 - it rained! Ever the opportunist I ventured outdoors with my camera.  Here are some of the results - so - no more words, just pictures. Hope you enjoy...

















And I've changed my mind again...if you have reached this far down the blog here is a minute beastie that I snapped too.  You can see the size when you realise that it is balancing on the petal of apple blossom.  No idea what it is!!


Next Tuesday could bring bees, wasps and flies - you have been warned...



Macro Magic - take one...

Posted on 28 April, 2020 at 9:40 Comments comments (3)

Macro photography is a unique form of photography that involves photographing small objects to make them look life-sized or larger in the photo. The usual subjects include flowers and small insects, which we don’t normally get to see up close with the naked eye.

I now basically work with two bits of kit for photography.  I switched to Fuji Mirrorless (XH1) for my long range shots, with a 100-400 lens (sometimes with a 1.4 'converter' to reach even further) - the equipment is lighter and more portable.

When I bought the Fuji I traded a lot of Canon equipment (which I had bought over the years - and seldom used!) but kept my rather battered Canon 5d iii and one Canon lens - my 100mm 2.8 Macro lens.  This lens lets you take images 1:1 - and then, of course, crop in closer on the computer.

Use of the Fuji is now very limited as we are confined to the house and garden. But I have been able to practise some macro skills. The fine sunny weather has made things easier and has given us some beuatiful colours in the flowers.



It also allows you delve right into the flowers - and even see what beasties are lurking there!


Here you can see the rhodedendron's stamen and anthers in great detail - quite an arty picture!



And here too on the tulip...



Another feature of good macro lenses is that they go 'down' to a large f-stop...in my case f2.8. This means a lot of light can enter - but also that there is a very shallow 'depth of field'. This means that only a small part of the picture will be in focus. This can be a help or a hindrance depending on what effect you are trying to achieve.  In this picture of a lavender flower, I wanted just a tiny flower tip in focus with the rest blurring in the background.



In order to get well-focussed pictures you need a fast shutter speed - or you need to work on a tripod.  Camera shake can be a problem.  But, all these pictures were taken 'hand-held' because the light was so good that I could achieve shutter speeds of 2000th of a second or more.

MacroMagic - part 2 (you will have to wait until Friday!) will feature insects - bees, hoverflies, wasps and ladybirds.  And perhaps something else if I can capture any photos before then...

Poor social distancing

Posted on 27 April, 2020 at 2:30 Comments comments (0)

A little bonus blog - posted on Monday instead Tuesday - let's see what I can come up with tomorrow!

The trail camera picked up 3 hedgehogs for the first time recently.

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Wildlife gardening

Posted on 24 April, 2020 at 8:40 Comments comments (1)

There are plenty of websites where you can find out about how to attract wildlife to your garden - but I thought I might just show you what we are trying to do. Also, we need to realise just how important our gardens are in terms of the greenspace that they provide.

The UK National Ecosystem Assessment showed that 
just over half the land (54%) in our towns and cities is greenspace - parks, allotments, sports pitches and so on. Furthermore, domestic gardens account for another 18% of urban land use. Unfortunately a lot of front gardens are paved over; paving levels are highest, it was found, in the North-East of England where 47% of front gardens are more than three-quarters paved.

A book I would like to recommend to you is 'Rebirding' by Benedict Macdonlad (Pelagic Publishing) which has some salutary lessons - but does also have some positive messages. He tells us that 22 million people - and 87% of all homes - have acces to a garden; thank goodness for that in the current situation. The way that many of us feed birds means that in the 21st century Britain's gardens have become the equivalent of 18th century hay meadows - a massive life-support system, tipping the odds greatly in the favour of some birds.

But we do have a disease - EDT.  Ecological Tidiness Disorder is how he expresses our need for everything to be neat and tidy. Scruffness is good! He bemoans our vanishing verges - though I have noticed that some of our councils are promoting wildflower swathes; the land adjacent to Cramlington High School (sorry...Learning Village!) springs to mind.

So what are we doing in Forest Hall? My latest little venture came courtesy of neighbour Martin.  He was about to throw out some substantial, but mostly rotten, tree support posts. He knew I could use them for a 'project'.  So half an hour's sawing and a bit of drilling led to us having a rough log pile in the corner of the garden.


Of course, water in the garden is vital.  Ponds can be  small or large - and anywhere in between.  At our previous address I used a washing up bowl  - and frogs found it.  We did, for a while, have a small pond here:



But now we have a larger one:



I know, you're thinking that a pond usually has water in it.  Unfortunately 'lockdown' has curtailed the work of our landscape gardeners - but they will be back - and the hole will still be there!

We have a variety of foodstuffs on offer:

For example, dried mealworms and fat balls - as well as mixed seed. I find that suet balls are so much better than cheap fatballs which are hard - and seem to be full of sawdust.  I get my mealworms online from 'Chubby Mealworms' - a £40 sack fills a dustbin and is so much more economic than little packets from Wilko (other shops are available...).

A 'bird bath' is also important - especially during dry spells like this one.



Tulips and garden gnomes are optional...

During spring, when birds are nesting, it can be helpful to put out wool.  This is actually alpaca wool which we got when visiting an alpaca farm in Sussex. I will soon be adding to it with cat hair!



Homes for insects are important too.  You could buy one:



Or make one yourself:



And, of course, we need a hedgehog house - as previously advertised on this blog.



So - we are trying our best; and when the garden makeover is complete with a wildflower meadow and the planting of new borders with plants that are attractive to bees, hoverflies and butterflies we hope to be(e) abuzz and awash.

With a Song in My Heart

Posted on 21 April, 2020 at 4:05 Comments comments (2)

I have to say that my favourite bird song is the Blackbird's mellifulous tone.  I suppose there are are two main reasons.  Firstly - I can hear it! Secondly, despite it being so recognisable, there is huge variety - and it is everywhere.  People go on about the nightingale - but what's the point 'oop North' - we never hear it.  And, actually not many people anywhere in the UK hear it either...

Here in locked own Forest Hall I see 3 Blackbirds every day.  And here they are...


This male is instantly recognisable because of his white feathers - more of that in a minute.

This is his rival...



And this is the lady of their dreams..


At the moment I'm not sure which male is holding territory in our garden or if two of them are paired up.  There is a lot of chasing about but no real victor.

The busines with the white feathers is quite common. These birds are known as 'leucistic'.  We had one in our garden in Jesmond too...



Reading articles on the British Birds, BTO and RSPB websites it seems it is not to be totally clear why this happens.  Something is happening that stops pigment (usually melanin) being deposited in the feathers.  It seems to be a genetic affect and is different from albinism where the whole bird is affected (and the bird will have pink eyes).  It is most often noted in Blackbirds - perhaps because it shows up easily, being white feathers on a black background.

Studies have shown that leucistic Blackbirds are more likely to be found in cities - and, accordingly, there has been supposition that it may be linked to a poorer diet (too much bread!). Whatever the reason, it does help me distinguish between my two birds in the garden.

The Blackbirds we see in winter may not be 'our' Blackbirds.

The arrival of many thousands of Blackbirds during the autumn months goes largely unnoticed, primarily because they look the same as those birds that are here all year round. However, an early morning visit to some berry-laden coastal scrub and hedgerows will reveal these immigrants, feeding alongside newly arrived Redwing and Fieldfare. The efforts of BTO bird ringers have revealed that our winter immigrants originate in Finland, Sweden and Denmark, with others arriving from the Netherlands and Germany. Some of these birds are only passing through, and will continue south to winter in Spain, France and Portugal.

But - we started with song....

The Blackbird is one of a small number of species that sometimes sing during the night, a behaviour that occurs more often in the presence of street-lighting. Blackbirds have large eyes, relative to their body size, and BTO research has revealed them to be the first species to arrive at garden feeding stations on dark winter mornings. Visual capability at low light levels influences when a species is first able to move around and find food.

As I get older I cannot hear high-pitched sounds which makes idenitification of birds by their song even more dificult for me.  It helps having Julia's ears alongside me! But I can manage a few of the more common ones - and at the moment we have a really vocal Dunnock in the garden, so I am getting better at that one.

Here is a link to a nice You Tube video that is quite short but very good for listening to our more common birds (although it does include the pesky Nightingale)>

Listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RHnzqKfxSQw

Happy listening - wherever you can get to...

Bee Happy

Posted on 17 April, 2020 at 5:10 Comments comments (4)

We are taking part in the Natural History Society of Northumbria North East Bee Hunt.  You can check it out here:
https/www.nhsn.ncl.ac.uk/activities/the-north-east-bee-hunt/ 

NHSN is using 'citizen science' to track five under-reported bees:

Ashy Mining Bee                       Tawny Mining Bee
                 


Red Mason Bee


Tree Bumblebee                             Red-tailed Bumblebee

I have to say that it is only through membership of NHSN and talking with fellow-members like Chris Wren and attending courses led by Gordon Port that I have begun to have any understanding of the amazing diversity of bees and their incredible lives.

As we have been confined to our garden it has given us the opportunity to look more closely at the insect life.  Hoverflies have added to our confusion!  Actually taking our kittens on leads in the garden has helped track them down - they see and hear them before we do and are off like truffle pigs to hunt them down.

We have seen, and reported, three of the species: Red Mason, Tree Bumble and Tawny Mining.  Getting decent pictures is another rmatter.  I have snapped a couple on my phone and also the holes which they have excavated - one advantage of our garden being a sea of mud as we wait for the aborted makeover to be completed post-lockdown.

Tawny Mining Bee (phone picture) - and the hole down which it disappeared...






And a Tree Bumblebee...


I have also been into the garden with my Canon 5D with 100mm Macro lens - kit which I have not used for a while since I invested in the Fuji XH1 mirrorless camera.  I did manage to get some more detailed pictures of a Common Carder bee...






And I was reminded that a couple of years ago Julia and I attended a one day course on macro photography hosted at the Dilston Physic Garden (near Corbridge). 

I managed a fair flight shot of a Honey Bee there:




Here's hoping for more sunny weather and a buzzzzzzz in the garden....


More on being neighbourly

Posted on 14 April, 2020 at 7:15 Comments comments (0)

Our new neighbours here in Forest Hall soon realised that we are keen on wlildlife - and birds in particular.  Our next door neighbour showed me a picture that he had take on his phone of mystery birds that he had seen in the Avenue trees.  These weren't 'tree climbers' this time.  But I could tell from the very distinctive silhouette that he had seen Waxwings. 

Before we moved here I knew that there is a site where Waxwings have visited regularly, just around the corner by the bus stop opposite St Bartholomew's Church.  I had seen them there before.  As luck would have it they visited again.  I was able to get new shots to show Martin of these very charismatic winter visitors.





I was also "inspired" to produce a painting...




Martin and I also have some friendly banter about these chaps...



He has one bird box and never puts out food.  We have several boxes and the garden is littered with various feeders with all sorts of comestibles.  And which box do the Blue Tits choose - not ours!

When I was finding my Benton Waxwing photos I noticed, in the same folder, this picture, hastily grabbed through a tangle of branches, of a Goldcrest. So - a bonus for you Martin if you are reading this.



That's all folks - it is sunny so some bees have appeared in the garden.  There could be a BeeBlog coming up...


Good Friday - good neighbours

Posted on 10 April, 2020 at 4:35 Comments comments (2)

Today is Good Friday - the middle of the Covid-19 lockdown; a situation that means you need Good Neighbours.  And we have them - in abundance. The first neighbour who greeted us - on the day we moved in to this lovely street (sorry..Avenue!) was Mike as he was walking past with the golden retrievers, Orla and the aged Ned (sadly no longer with us).  We soon met Ciaran, his wife, as she took her turn with the dogs.

Ciaran has become a 'cat sitter' for us - she is missing cuddling our kittens as our dooor is currently locked to all-comers.  But she and Mike have been wonderful - collecting fresh bread, delivering homemade scones and fetching and carrying for us at the drop of a hat.

The Avenue has a neighbours' WhatsApp group for mutual support and for posting various observations about this peculiar current lifestyle.  Recently Ciaran commented on the 'tree climbers' she had noticed on the magnificent trees that line the Avenue.  I was (politely) able to tell her the 'correct' name for her tree climbers - though it seems a pretty reasonable name to me...

Some of my best views of Treecreepers have been at the small (but beautifully formed) Clara Vale NR.  When we get mobile again I must return - it's probably two years since I have been there.



It's no wonder they are pretty good on trees when you see the set up of their feet!

Ciaran texted me yesterday about some birds that she was looking at in her garden.  When she mentioned features like 'red on the face', 'yellow on the side' it can only have been Goldfinches.  She described them as collecting nesting material - which is excatly what the two Goldfinches that I saw in our garden were doing.  I'm suspecting it was the same birds...



Bill Bailey (in a very interesting book "Bill Bailey's Guide to Remarkable Birds") tells us that they were very popular as caged songbirds in 19th century Britain. As many as 132,000 were trapped in 1860 alone.  There was also a medieval superstition surrounding these birds.  When someone was sick, a Goldfinch would be brought in.  If the bird looked directly at the patient, then they would get well. If the Goldfinch turned its head away - then you were a goner.  Doctors? Who needs them...?

'The Goldfinch' is also a long and tedious book by Donna Tartt that I read when we sailed up the coast of Norway to see the Northern Lights.  As it got dark so early (and for so long) there was a lot of reading to be done - I stuck with it....hhmmmmm.

And, just to finish off, here is a view of our lovely (deserted) Avenue...



These are the trees that Ciaran's "Treeclimbers" love.  So - thanks for good neighbours on this Good Friday. As the 99-year old veteran said on the BBC Breakfast show this morning, "Tomorrow will be a GOOD day".




Hog Day

Posted on 7 April, 2020 at 5:50 Comments comments (4)

I suppose our extra interest in Hedgehogs goes back to our time in Jesmond.  Unfortunately we found two injured hogs which we took to rescue centres - neither of them made it.

But we did have lots of hog activity in our back garden - which we could easily observe from our verandah.  Amazingly we had 5 hogs at once on one occasion - probably only one of them was female and she was having a hard time of it. We got more interested and became Hedgehog Champions for our street - making people aware that we had them and asking them to make sure the hogs could travel from garden to garden.  Hedgehogs travel very large distances on their nightly patrols and we can all make it easier for them.  We can thoroughly recommend https://www.hedgehogstreet.org/ for information.  We had planned to spread the word in our new street - before something else spread instead!  I have all the information ready and we will distribute it - sometime.  Because we do have Hedgehogs here... The evidence is lower down the page.

Last autumn I constructed a Hedgehog House out of timber that was spare:




Now Mrs P thought this was splendid and so she advertised the fact on her Facebook page - and soon orders were flooding in - and a production line had to be set up.



Eventually ours was installed, suitably decorated for the winter...



And now for the evidence...these are pictures from my trail camera taken in the last couple of weeks.  The hog is here every night and I am giving him supplementary food (puppy food).  There is evidence that the box is used as temporary shleter (the straw inside has been made into a nest) but I haven't actually seen him in there.  I don't think it was used in the winter by a mother.  Of course, all through the winter you do not disturb the box.







Hope you've got hogs too...look out for dark, wiggly droppings!


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