Wednesday 22 October 2014

Bramiana Reservoir in Autumn

Last week I ended by saying that I was waiting for something rather special to share with you and that it hadn’t happened yet. Well, it still hasn’t so I thought we’d take our final seasonal trip out to the reservoir at Bramiana and see if there are any migratory birds passing through and have a general prod about in the undergrowth to see what else we can find.

Castor Oil Plant
Before we get there, we’ll just stop on the roadside here, a few kilometers away, to admire this gorgeous shrub with its showy red flowers. This is the castor oil plant; beautiful, useful and very, very deadly. Medicinally it has long been used as a laxative but it also plays a part in chemotherapy cancer treatments and antiretroviral HIV treatments. It is also highly poisonous and a handful of raw seeds could kill you quite horribly after a few days. Before you go off to dispose of your rich uncle Mortimer I should warn you that it is treatable and deaths are rare. For those of you with long memories you may well recall the assassination of the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov who was ‘shot’ in a London street with a modified umbrella back in 1978. The pellet that killed him contained ricin, the active ingredient from this plant. More recently, July of this year in fact, an American bit-part actress, Shannon Richardson, received an 18 year jail sentence for sending mail laced with ricin to U.S. President Barrack Obama. Indirectly, castor oil was responsible for a number of deaths of German pilots in the first world war: the allies used it as a superior engine oil making their planes more reliable than their German counterparts.

Low water at Bramiana reservoir
Enough of this digression lets motor on up to the reservoir and see how it’s doing. As you can see it is pretty low at the moment (we still haven’t had much rain). That little dot in the centre is an old church and it makes a pretty good yardstick. Today the water is about half way up the walls. The inset picture is from October 2007 when the water level was right down to its foundations. By the end of March the water should cover that spit of land and half submerge the trees on the bank as the second inset picture shows.

Great White and Little Egret
Moving on, let’s go and find some birds. Surprisingly few today, I was expecting more. Some Yellow-legged Gulls, a few Cormorants, a couple of Coots and a pair of white blobs wading in the far distant shallows. Pass me the binoculars will you? Aha, Egrets! Interestingly I’ve never seen these two species together before, maybe others have. The larger one in front is a Great White Egret and the smaller one behind with the yellow feet is a Little Egret. Back in the 1870s, particularly in Europe and America, there was a great fashion craze for hats festooned with egret plumes (called aigrettes after the French for egret) and by the early twentieth century they were worth more than gold. With such a commercial incentive plume hunting became an adventurers’ charter and the birds were slaughtered wholesale. Thankfully people like George Grinnell in America and Emily Wiliamson in England decided that enough was enough and the plumes looked better on their original owners. Through their tireless efforts and campaigns against the trade both the Audubon Society in the U.S. and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the U.K. (originally called the Plumage League) came about. Which is why we can see egrets here today – albeit at a distance.

Harvester Ants with Woodlice and Silverfish
Time for a bit of stone-flipping I think. We’ll mosey on to the western bank and see who’s about. Centipedes, snails, a couple of disgruntled geckos and the inevitable ant nest. Hang on though, that’s interesting, the ants are not alone. These are harvester ants and they are sharing their nest with woodlice and some curious little ivory creatures. The ivory fellows are silverfish and you may see their relatives flashing across your carpet in the evenings like a drop of quicksilver. They are from a pretty ancient order of insects called the Thysanaura. The woodlice are not insects (too many legs) but crustaceans; terrestrial relatives of crabs, prawns and lobsters. The ants are quite happy to share their nest with both animals as they feed on the debris in the nest and help to keep it clean. In return the silverfish and the woodlice get food and a stable environment – a bit like having a house full of servants. If the ant nest gets disturbed and the ants decide to relocate, the silverfish and woodlice pack up their bags as it were and go with them. Both animals being virtually blind they might not always make it to the right nest but the thought is there. Quite loyal staff really.

Vestal Moth
There’s still not much bird life out on the water and the sun is getting a bit high in the sky now. The average daytime October temperature has risen by about three and a half degrees in the past nine years and at 33 degrees today 2014 looks like being another record breaker so I suggest we trundle on back and find a cool drink and some shade. You know, there’s one place I haven’t taken you on our travels this year and that’s my bedroom. No, you’re not coming in today either but I have got a photograph to show you that I took this morning. Every evening when I go up to bed at this time of year a cluster of moths await me around the terrace light. This can delay my retirement for anything up to half an hour as I potter about with tins to offer some of the less frequent visitors overnight accommodation. I usually manage to pick up a couple of stowaways on my clothing as well and such was the case with this pretty little specimen. This is a Vestal Moth (Rhodometra sacraria) who’s food plants include knotweed, dandelion and sorrel (none of which can be found in my bedroom) and can usually be seen on steppes and scrubland throughout Europe from the Mediterranean to the Baltic. 

Now, did someone mention a cold beer straight from the fridge? Until next week – happy hunting.

Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)


  1. I think I enjoy your posts even more when I'm back in the UK, it is great to see your take on places I know well, and benefit from your knowledge. Thank you and keep them coming....

  2. Thank you for your kind comments.

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