The Naked Eye

On Friday I broke the first rule of birding: never get caught without your binoculars.

IMG_8530Out on an insect-collecting fieldwork session, I was too busy concentrating on the first rule of entomology – never get caught without pots – and, to a lesser extent, the first rule of botany (since my fieldwork also involves being able to identify the plants I’m collecting from), though I’m not sure what that is. Always carry a camera? Use a hand-lens? Wear a feather in your hat? Speak only Latin?


IMG_8982Whatever, thanks to that oversight – perhaps I should say under-sight – I can’t be certain whether the bird I was hearing calling from a small wood on the other side of a cornfield was a lesser-spotted woodpecker or a kestrel. This may sound like an alarming admission from somebody who prides himself as a half-decent ‘ear-birder’, one who spent quite a number of hours last spring and summer in the company of Dendrocopos minor whilst living and working in Kent. But factor in the heat, humidity, tiredness, unusual context and the fact that the two can sound surprisingly similar at a distance (compare this clip to this one, for example) and I think I can be forgiven.

IMG_9058My suspicion rests with the woodpecker, which was my first instinct at the time of hearing. I’m sure I heard a few brief, high pitched ‘pik’ notes from a woodpecker as I retraced my steps a half hour later, and if kestrels were active and vocal I’d be surprised not to have seen one in flight. Nonetheless, even on an American style heard-only-counts list – as of this year, that’s how I keep mine – I’ll have to put this one down as un-tickable (and by extension, un-recordable – it wouldn’t represent the sort of data quality I’d be looking for from an honest citizen scientist!).

IMG_1352In my defence, I’m not sure the source of the noise would have been particularly visible from the other side of a cornfield even with enhanced magnification. And if there were a time of year to leave the binoculars at home, this is it. Fluked possible lesser-spots aside, it’s a relatively slow season on the bird front, unless you happen to be within easy reach of a good site for wader migration. They’re all busy moulting, lying low to make up for their increased vulnerability whilst in a state of semi-undress.

IMG_8249Instead, this is the time of year when even die-hard birders cast their eyes insect-wards. And the best insect spectacles of all are easily, maybe even best, seen without binoculars, unless yours focus to about 20 cm. For example: butterflies are doing well at last, as the summer species have found a warm, sunny July much to their liking.* The three common browns especially – meadow brown, gatekeeper and ringlet – are ubiquitous in many places, a stern test for the counting skills of observers taking part in the Big Butterfly Count. And the new generation of peacocks is looking absolutely resplendent.

IMG_8985Marmalade hoverflies are another star of the season. A partial migrant, they can arrive in spectacular numbers in the right weather conditions, coming up from continential Europe across the channel. We’re not quite into biblical plague scale territory yet, but I’ve been seeing an awful lot of these charming orange and black flies over the last week. At some of my fieldwork sites on Friday, three or four were perched on every head of hogweed, such that I had to gently encourage them out of the way to get at the small beetles and bugs lurking underneath. Sharing the hogweed with them, common red soldier beetles are also abundant at present – they’re better known as ‘hogweed bonking beetles’, for reasons that become obvious once you’ve seen a few.

IMG_7354Zipping between them all is one of my favourite insects, the improbable ‘thick-legged flower beetle’, Oedemera nobilis. An impressive metallic green beast, the males sport what must be amongst the most preposterous thighs in the animal world. How such fantastic femurs help him through life I cannot say. I can only imagine that females of the species find them irresistible, or perhaps it just gives them something to laugh at.

I certainly find their antics and anatomy entertaining, and they, along with all the other insects mentioned above, can be enjoyed with no binoculars required. Leaving optics behind might not always be such a mistake after all, at least whilst we bask in the heights of summer.

Photos from top to bottom: Red soldier beetles, marmalade hoverfly, peacock, thick-legged flower beetle (male), ringlet, marmalade hoverflies, thick-legged flower beetle (female).

*Binoculars do help with butterflies, especially for identifying distant ones, but it’s hard to follow them; in general, butterfly-watching will go pretty well with no special equipment at all.

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