Author Archives: Doc Doolittle

About Doc Doolittle

I'm a prematurely retired medical doctor, thanks to a stroke at 52. Good recovery means that though I can't do my old job safely, I now have time to reconnect with the me of decades ago and pick up my love of animals and plants from where I left off to train in Medicine. Now I spend many happy hours looking after a domestic menagerie, volunteering in wildlife conservation, learning about horticulture, and simply nurturing our beautiful garden. Doctor "Dolittle" is in fact the correct spelling of the famous character's name -all the variations of this are already taken on WP so I have taken the liberty of using a mis-spelling. I am working on learning to talk with the animals. I am starting this blog with no clear idea of where it will end up. But then the journey is always so much more interesting than the destination.....

Angry sun

For a few days in October 2017, the tail end of hurricane Ophelia whipped up dust into the atmosphere from the Sahara and fanned Iberian wildfires which were belching smoke into the atmosphere. The combined effect of suspended atmospheric particles was to scatter sunlight and absorb the blue end of the spectrum of sunlight, leaving only the red. So at 14.43 on the 17th of October, the sun emerged briefly from behind low clouds to look as though it was setting -but high in the sky. It was an apocalyptic vision and everyone found it very eerie. The overall light when the sun was behind clouds was still strange, and very diffuse and directionless. So much so that I noticed we were not casting any shadows. That was very strange indeed!

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Heron here and there

An elegant aviator and bane of fishkeepers everywhere. A heron looks more like a pterodactyl in flight than any other bird in this part of the world. This one was looking for snacks at a respectable distance, and a bit later in the afternoon I was lucky enough to catch him in flight and landing.

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Not very clear as I was panning at full 1000 mm zoom hand held with no mono-or tripod. To be remedied soon as I now have the gear and less excuse for blurry shots. But the spirit of the movement is still there I think.

 

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The Neighbours

Oulton Marshes in North Lowestoft are also owned by Suffolk Wildlife Trust. As beautiful and calm a place as Carlton Marshes, but  with a little more variation in land contours and with some enclosed wooded areas that feel like a very different place all of a sudden when you arrive in them.

On an introductory walk there, we came across two very unusual neighbours

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A pair of Emus!

 

 

Spider surveys

I became involved in a survey of the Fen Raft Spider (FRS) starting in July 2017 and running till October 2017.  Dolomedes plantarius is the UK’s largest and least common species of spider. It is Red Listed by the IUCN and classified as ‘Vulnerable’. It is also Red Listed by several European countries, including the UK where it is currently classified as “vulnerable” -an “under threat of extinction” category.

Our foremost UK scientific authority on the FRS, Helen Smith,  came to talk to us about it at Carlton, and I was immediately drawn to this strikingly beautiful complicated and elegant predator. The more I learnt about it, the more I wanted to know. So my hand went up when the call for survey volunteers went out. As a former mild arachnophobe I surprised myself.

Helen had bred around 6,000 spiderlings in a laboratory, and her own kitchen (!) and populated a section of ditches at Carlton marshes with them, as part of a conservation translocation programme run by Natural England. The purpose of our survey was to measure the extent (or not) of their spread and thus the success (or not) of the translocation. Translocation because the FRS is not naturally resident at Carlton. There are only three other populations in the UK -Redgrave and Lopham Fen in Suffolk, Pevensey Levels in East Sussex, and and area outside Swansea in Wales.

Our job was to amble along the dykes, covering  both sides of the ditches in a mapped area of wetland, noting the location of FRS webs, and the presence of any spiderlings in the webs, or adults nearby, using the naked eye and close-focussing binoculars. On our first survey I couldn’t see any at all, until our guide had, with great patience, pointed out the location. We all found it hard at first, but, like any skill, we improved with practice.

The technique was a bit like looking at a “Magic Eye” picture. You have to de-focus your eyes and relax. You begin to notice hazy areas, then looking at them  through binoculars in clear focus, you can see the webs and the detail. Spotting the adults was also tricky, as they camouflage well into the melee of reed, sedge and water-soldier leaves.

 

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My first sighting of a ball of spiderlings.

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To the left of centre, my first sighting of an adult Fen Raft Spider

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A ball of spiderlings tight together

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Are these flowerheads, or spiderlings spread out and sunbathing? It can be very hard to tell sometimes. Here the plant material  (blunt-flowered rush) is in the middle and left of the web, and a ball of spiderlings  is on the right.

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Spiderlings spreading out on a sedge leaf, warming up in the sun in the safety of their nursery web

We had to learn to spot both new and old webs as both needed to be logged. Here’s an illustration.

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I have been expertly advised that she’s a post-partum female. In a male, the two palps at the front of his head are used to store sperm in to inseminate the females. In this picture, because the palps curl under, it’s very easy to think they are clubbed at the tip when in fact they’re not; this  would mark a spider out as male. In general, adult males have a wider cephalothorax (the head/chest segment with eyes and legs attached),  a very narrow abdomen, and proportionately longer legs than the females.

 

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Here she is again, closer in

 

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In the centre you can see the shed skin of an adult FRS. It was dangling in the breeze.

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and again -slightly different after being moved by the breeze. It looked as light as gossamer.

 

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The funny thing about the photo above is that we only spotted the adult after I’d taken the pic -I was interested in the widely scattered spiderlings.

 

The pics below show a particularly dark, handsome individual, with striking stripes, enjoying a snack. The wide abdomen marks her out as a female.

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On one of the last days I wished for a perfect pose from a FRS. Within five minutes my wish had been granted and this gorgeous creature came out from his rest and posed for me in a classic waiting-for-prey pose. This is a girl.

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Resting up….

 

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…. the spider climbed onto a water soldier and is resting her back legs on the meniscus of the water, waiting to sense vibrations signalling nearby prey

 

Below are two shots, far and near, of a lovely example of a labyrinth spider web.

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A ditch on our last survey day of the year, a cloudless beautiful October morning. The water soldiers are scarce, most have sunk to the bottom of the ditch where they will stay till next spring. There were no spiders to see at all. No one is absolutely sure where they go, but it is thought they might go down into the mud at the bottom of the ditch with the water soldiers.

 

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Goodbye till next year

 

Doing the survey yielded many positive things for me -the thrill of learning biology and botany again was invigorating -always my two most favourite subjects at school and in life. This alone made me feel 30 years younger! Then I have made new friends (you know who you are) and discovered the layout of Carlton Marshes. I’m also learning how to use my camera and a pair of binoculars properly -I thought I knew but thinking that is often  a sign of ignorance.

It’s great to be directly involved in helping the recovery of an endangered species, no matter how small it is. It has its part to play in our world, and its absence is a red flag highlighting degradation of the environment, for the FRS will only live where the water quality is good. Conversely its recovery will signal a return to health of the local water and land. Head over to the definitive resource on the FRS here if you’d like to learn more about this fascinating creature.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chinese water deer

Very shy and seemingly nervous, this individual ran at speed from the dyke just opposite us on a ditch we were surveying, only feet away. She bounded away in one direction, then turned and ran back and away in the opposite direction, giving me just enough time to get my camera out and zoomed in. I was panning by hand at full 1000 mm zoom without support, so I was pleased to get any shots at all, but I am happy with the movement these snaps show.

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Native to South-East Asia, they are not under threat in the UK where they are thriving, but their numbers are declining in their home habitat. The UK is thought to have 10% of the world population, originating from deer that escaped from Whipsnade Zoo in 1929.  They had been brought to London Zoo in 1873.

Stonechats, not Whinchats

These little birds provoked much excitement in my walking partner on a fine September morning’s fen raft spider survey. She tends to hit people when excited but I got away lightly and unbruised. The reason for her excitement was thinking we might have seen Whinchats. Close examination of my pics confirmed they are Stonechats. Me, I wouldn’t know the difference if they flew up my nostrils. But this page should help me learn a thing or two.

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Random snaps

Here are some random images from Carlton -just things I liked when I saw them.

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Two young swallows on a gate. Though they can fly, their mother was swooping down with tasty insects for them to eat. Weaning on the wing?

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There are often cows on Carlton. This one was looking intently at us from a distance. In a rather sinister way, I thought.

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The Pooh Bear cloud.  This perfect little cloud immediately reminded me of Pooh Bear floating up a tree, pretending to be a cloud whilst suspended from a balloon, to get to a bees’ nest where he might find Hunny.

“How sweet to be a cloud,

Floating in the Blue!”

It makes him very proud

to be a little cloud.

AA Milne  -Winnie The Pooh.