Basin Notes

THE TV programmes Springwatch and Autumnwatch undoubtedly bring wildlife to the attention of a mass audience. The question is, do they get more people out to watch wildlife and if they do, are they disappointed?

The problem the producers have is to fill an hour of TV with as many good stories and images of wildlife as they can, and using lots of cameras recording everything that happens for many weeks means that they can do that. However, when someone is enthused by the programmes and goes to their local nature reserve, what do they see?

Well, they won’t see into the nests of birds and they won’t see the drama of feeding, fledging and predation, which is the programmes’ stock-in-trade. Depending on the habitat, they may see nothing at all and that is where the programmes fail in their duty.

Watching wildlife is a skill that needs practice because a lot of wildlife is trying to hide from predators and, therefore, you. The best place to start learning to see wildlife is in your own garden (if you have one). Even if you only glance out of the window once in a while, you will build up a picture of the wildlife using your garden as well as when it uses it and where. All of these things are important pieces of information to use to know when and where to look for wildlife.

If you don’t have a garden, then a walk round somewhere like the Curlie pond is an easy way to find some wildlife. Most obvious will be the mute swans, mallard and black headed gulls. Also heron and coot can be seen skirting the reedbed in the middle of the pond. The gorse and trees round the pond have the usual garden/woodland birds as well as many insects.

And that brings me to another failing of Spring and Autumnwatch – the lack of insects. They do get the occasional mention, but they don’t get the same attention as the birds, which is a shame because insects are much more numerous and diverse than bird species. The problem, of course, is that they are very small compared to birds and do a good job of hiding in the undergrowth.

Some insects, like butterflies and moths, are easy to see and the key here is the fact that they move about in the same way as birds. As most of us are used to seeing birds fly around, we are conditioned to see that movement. Currently, there are lots of day flying moths like Udea lutealis, with delicately brown marked pale buff wings that form a triangle when settled on a blade of grass. Also abundant at the moment is the smaller Crambus perlella which is pale and settles with its wings held close to the body so that it looks like a tube.

Other garden favourites are the hoverflies and bees, which are also easily seen flitting from flower to flower in search of a good meal of nectar. The most common is the marmalade hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus) with its split yellow bands. Another common one is Heliophilus pendulus with its yellow thorax stripes.

Some people commonly mistake hoverflies for wasps, which also have yellow and black bands on the abdomen, but hoverflies have no sting and do what their name suggests – they hover absolutely stationary in the air. Identifying moths and butterflies can be difficult but there are some very good identification guides available to help.

The problem for the TV programmes is that these insect are difficult to follow and their stories are difficult to tell and a lot of them don’t have common names; only their scientific ones (as you can see above). However, insects are the primary food for many of those birds that are featured on the TV, so they are a vital part of the story of our countryside. So enjoy Autumnwatch in October and if they don’t show enough insects you can write in and complain.

In the meantime, what can you do to increase your wildlife spotting skills? One way is to go out with an expert. They will know the best places to go and the best times to go to ensure a wildlife experience. There are lots of guided events coming up at the SWT Visitor Centre, so start your wildlife watching training with the Family Fun Day this Saturday, August 25 from 1pm to 4:40pm and pick up an events leaflet to see the range of events planned for September that will give you the chance to experience a wide range of habitats and wildlife in the company of an expert.

Andy Wakelin