Dave Kilbey Photography

Here be dragons

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Even before toads have started moving, male great crested newts will be starting to make their way back to their breeding ponds

Perhaps due to Adrian Mole’s influence, having an interest in newts can feel like a taboo subject but these fascinating creatures deserve a more credible reputation.  For a start they are stunning looking animals and in early spring male great crested newts resemble small dragons exhibiting a prominent and deeply toothed crest down the centre of their back and tail.  Underneath both sexes have a dramatic fiery orange belly patterned with irregular black markings and they also possess charming, striped feet.

Adult male great crested newt in full breeding condition

Although quite distinct from our other two species; the smooth and palmate newt, all three have similar features and they share the same bright yellow - deep orange belly markings; a signal of their distastefulness or toxicity.

Adult male smooth newt showing orange underbelly

Adult male palmate newt coming into breeding condition

Also known as the “warty newt” great crested newts store relatively powerful toxins in small glands over their bodies.  A Victorian naturalist once took it upon herself to test the efficacy of these compounds by gently biting a newt, enough to stimulate a defensive reaction.  After several hours of facial numbness, foaming at the mouth and convulsions she concluded that they were more than effective enough for her liking….

Adult female great crested newt.  The “warts” are predominantly white and can be clearly seen here

When it comes to egg laying, female great crested newts employ a great deal of care.  Particular plants and leaves are chosen by sight and smell, with water forget-me-not being one of the most sought after plants.  Females carefully fold a leaf in half with their hind legs and deposit a single egg inside before clamping it shut for up to half an hour until the leaf and egg have formed a bond.

Eggs take about three weeks to hatch (depending on the water temperature) and the newly emerged larvae, known as efts, move to open areas of water where they drift in the water column feeding on minute zoo plankton.  This habit of preferring open water makes great crested newt larvae particularly vulnerable to fish predation and the two will not happily coexist.  It is known that great crested newts are able to detect the presence of fish in water bodies by smell and are therefore able to effectively avoid inappropriate water bodies.

Like all newt larvae, baby great crested newts possess obvious gills during the early stages of their life but these disappear as they develop and later metamorphose into miniature adult form.

Great crested newt eft or larva

Close up of eft showing prominant gills

Adult males will leave the pond any time from early spring onwards in search of additional, receptive females.  They lead a more nomadic and terrestrial existence than females who, preoccupied with egg laying, remain in the pond for many months.  Both adults and young newts predominately hibernate on land and will seek shelter in nooks and crannies close to the pond favouring log piles and compost heaps.

Adult male great crested newt going walkabout.  They look much less impressive and darker on land than in water



Saturday 26 November 2011

This autumn I’ve been helping out some friends with dormice surveys in a local woodland.  Due to the fact that the autumn and early winter have been so warm many dormice have still been (hyper)active and therefore, unphotographable (is that even a word?)

However, the last visit of the season turned up two dormice in the boxes erected for them to nest in and both were fast asleep.  Here’s a few pics of them… adorable!

Juvenile dormouse hibernating

Juvenile dormouse fast asleep on surveyor’s hand

Juvenile dormouse fast asleep in nest box

Montagu’s Harriers

Monday 13 June 2011

A major highlight of my stay in Extremadura this year was finding a colony of Montagu’s Harriers which were nesting in a field adjacent to a road I drove up every morning whilst trying (sometimes very unsuccessfully) to photograph Great Spotted Cuckoos.

Male Montagu's Harrier at sunrise - Dave Kilbey

Male Montagu’s Harrier at sunrise

Female Montagu's Harrier in flight - Dave Kilbey

Female Montagu’s Harrier putting the brakes on

Black kites would regularly overfly the area they were nesting in which sometimes seemed to cause the harriers concern… but not always.  I got the distinct impression the kites did this when they were bored and fancied a bit of a tussle!

Male Montagu's Harrier seeing off a black kite - Dave Kilbey

Male Montagu’s Harrier seeing off a Black Kite

Black Kite chasing a Male Montagu's Harrier - Dave Kilbey

Black Kite chasing a Male Montagu’s Harrier

Black Kite chasing a Male Montagu's Harrier - Dave Kilbey

Black Kite closing in on a Male Montagu’s Harrier

Surprisingly, given that the site seemed to be about as far away from a large area of water as possible, black kites weren’t the only bird to upset the montagu’s harriers.  This female marsh harrier was promptly seen off when she overflew the nest site

Male Montagu's Harrier seeing off a female marsh harrier - Dave Kilbey

Male Montagu’s Harrier seeing off a female Marsh Harrier

Female Montagu's Harrier chasing off a female marsh harrier - Dave Kilbey

A Female Montagu’s Harrier taking over the chase

Female Montagu's Harrier hunting - Dave Kilbey

Female Montagu’s Harrier hunting

Female Montagu's Harrier alighting on a post- Dave Kilbey

Female Montagu’s Harrier coming in for a rest


Extremaduran extravaganza

Sunday 12 June 2011

My third and final stop in Spain was Extremadura and I headed back to the same spot I came to last year in Monroy (principally because I enjoyed staying with my friends Jesus and Tere at La Bogeda del Herrador so much last year I couldn’t resist doing it again). 

The draws of La Bogeda’s ambience and Tere’s excellent food aside, Extremadura is also an incredible area for birds.  You inevitably begin to become rather blase about it after a while but there are birds by the bucket load here.  It’s not the diversity that’s remarkable but the shear number of birds.  There are corn buntings, crested and calandra larks everywhere you care to look. 

Crested Lark at sunset - Dave Kilbey

Crested Lark silhouetted at sunset

Corn Bunting singing on a post - Dave Kilbey

Corn Bunting singing

However, that’s not to say that photography here is easy.  Due to the fact that the climate in Extremadura is often rather warm (to understate in the extreme) you have very limited windows of opportunity for taking photos - a few hours in the early morning and again late in the evening; when the temperature is bearable and the light conducive to taking photos.  Added to that is the frustration of being surrounded by birds but almost never being able to find one that will sit for long enough to allow you to take a photo.  The number of times I had one in frame only for it to scarper at the very last moment….. Some things never change! 

But I digress; it’s not just larks and buntings that are abundant.  There are constantly moving feeding parties of both house and spanish sparrows and white storks are almost constantly in sight as they drift en route from nest to feeding sites.  The ubiquitous black kites can sometimes be seen in the several hundred in a single area, where they gather to feed on various invertebrates and small mammals…. and by the looks of it, to socialise and cause mischief.

Flock of Spanish Sparrows, Extremadura - Dave Kilbey

Flock of Spanish Sparrows

White stork in flight - Dave Kilbey

White stork flying in to feed

White stork displaying on nest at sundown - Dave Kilbey

White stork displaying on nest at sundown

White stork on Monroy Castle wall - Dave Kilbey

White stork on the castle wall, Monroy

Black Kite in flight - Dave Kilbey

Black Kite in flight

Woodchat shrikes seem to hold quite small territories (food is obviously so plentiful they don’t need much room) and in some places you see a pair hunting from shrubs and fence posts every few hundred meters along roadsides and tracks.

Woodchat shrike sitting on a post - Dave Kilbey

Woodchat shrike sitting on a post


Bluethroats in the Sierra de Gredos

Tuesday 24 May 2011

My second stop - the mountains of the Sierra de Gredos were a real change from Pedro Munoz.  It should have taken about 3.5 hours to get there but I found, yet again, that relying on my SatNav (for anything other than raising my stress levels and getting me very lost), was a big mistake.  It took me 6 hours instead….. I ran out of swear words after the first hour.

Reluctant as I was to leave the lagunas and grebes behind and despite the SatNav traumas, the stunning scenery and distinct bird life of the Gredos made it feel instantly worthwhile (in addition to a really warm welcome from another fabulous couple in my accommodation - see later for info). 

My main reason for visiting the Gredos mountains was to try and see and photograph bluethroats - one of those birds that has evaded me time and time again everywhere else.  Thankfully, this time, after a fairly long trek up into the mountains, I found them.  There must have been about 5 or 6 holding territories around me and they totally ignored me - they were far too intent on seeing off their neighbours and one of them seemed to take a shine to me - I think he was eyeing up my camera and tripod as a strategic song post at one point!!

Bluethoat in the Sierra de Gredos - Dave Kilbey

A Sierra de Gredos Bluethroat - “the friendly one”

Other birds in the area included rock buntings, blue-headed wagtails and ortolan buntings - all of which are fairly abundant higher up in the mountains. 

Blue-headed Wagtail in the Sierra de Gredos - Dave Kilbey

Blue-headed Wagtail in the Sierra de Gredos

Rock Bunting in the Sierra de Gredos - Dave Kilbey

Rock Bunting

To cap it off, there are also very healthy numbers of Spanish Ibex on the higher ground.

Spanish or Iberian Ibex Sierra de Gredos - Dave Kilbey

Spanish Ibex

The crowning glory for me though (after the bluethroats that is) was this fire salamander found in a high altitude mountain stream.

Fire Salamander in the Sierra de Gredos - Dave Kilbey

Fire Salamander in the Sierra de Gredos


If you’re thinking of visiting the Sierra de Gredos (particularly if you want the flexibility of self-catering) then I’d highly recommend La Casa del Holandes in Madrigal de la Vera.  The place is amazing and owned by a really great couple - Hans and Nieve.  Both Hans (from Holland) and Nieve (from Spain) speak fluent English too but will happily talk to you in Spanish if you prefer.  After 5 mins I felt right at home like I’d known them for years.  The rooms are beautifully done out and to a really high standard.  Each room has its own really neat kitchenette but if you can’t be bothered to cook Hans is a chef and has a restaurant and bar area downstairs - also beautifully done out.  I really didn’t want to leave and am already thinking about my next trip back!!


Black necked Grebes in Spain

Tuesday 24 May 2011

Black-necked Grebes in Castilla La Mancha

Having enjoyed it thoroughly last year I’ve headed out to Spain again to visit some new areas (Castilla La Mancha and the Sierra De Gredos) and also to revisit Extremadura.

The area collectively known as the Lagunas de la Mancha Humeda in Castilla La Mancha was my first stop (in particular a small town called Pedro Munoz). 

Pedro Munoz Laguna - Dave Kilbey

Pedro Munoz Laguna - Black-necked Grebe habitat

This was principally to find black-necked grebes which are relatively abundant in the area….

Black-necked Grebe - Dave Kilbey

Black-necked Grebe

In fact, the area has one of the largest breeding populations in Europe.  Despite this they’re not all that easy to photograph largely owing to the fact that most of the water bodies are large and the birds are quite some distance away.  Inevitably I spent a lot of time searching out locations that would enable the birds to approach close enough and in half decent light – and thankfully, I found a hide that did the job (there are quite a few hides dotted around the area but most are locked, face into the light or, as was the case several times, had been used as a toilet - yuck!).

So, with suitable location found I spent the next two days laying low and providing the local mosquitoes with breakfast, lunch and dinner.  However, it felt worth it as I got some great views of not only the black-necked grebes but also flamingoes, ferruginous ducks, black-winged stilts, white-headed ducks and red-crested pochards along with the odd fly-by from the resident pair of marsh harriers.

Black-necked Grebe - Dave Kilbey

Black-necked Grebe

White headed duck - Dave Kilbey

White-headed Duck



The real highlight of Pedro Munoz turned out not to be the birds but meeting the owners of my accommodation, Mila and Juan.  They work in Madrid during the week but head back to Pedro Munoz for the weekend.  As soon as they got back and we’d had the chance to say hello they opened a great bottle of local white wine and we spent the evening chatting.  They then whisked me off to a local Fiesta to show me how the locals celebrate… and I provided yet more of the local mozzies with dinner.  I’d highly recommend their house if you’re thinking of heading to the area, and if you’re about during the weekends to meet Mila and Juan then so much the better!

Their website can be found here: http://www.lacasadelaermita.es/


White Tailed Eagle

Sunday 08 May 2011

If you’ve ever wondered whether you’d be able to tell an eagle from some of our other larger birds of prey as it soars over some distant peak, you’d be in the company of a good many wildlife enthusiasts.  What you really need in such a situation is an irate buzzard to join the scene in order to add some perspective. 

white tailed eagle

This immature white tailed eagle was flapping lazily along a ridge of hills in Clackmannanshire and is probably one of the birds released in Fife.  I still can’t quite get over the sheer scale of these birds.  How they ever get off the ground I’ll never understand.

Black Oil Beetles

Monday 28 March 2011

It is often the unexpected occurrences that make having an interest in the natural world so rewarding.  I went out on the Wiltshire Downs this weekend ostensibly to photograph the landscape.  Building up to the weekend the weather had been perfect - the air had been crystal clear and the skies an almost Mediterranean azure blue.  However, when I had the opportunity to head out, the perfect conditions had been replaced with a not-so-perfect thin blue sky and a smog-like haze. 

Not to be deterred, I shouldered my camera gear and struck out for the Downs, prepared for the 3 mile trek to my destination.  In practice, I travelled less than a hundred meters from the car before getting distracted.  The reason; in a bank, clambering through the grass was a creature I hadn’t seen for at least 10 years - a large Black Oil Beetle.

Black Oil Beetle by Dave Kilbey 

A female Black Oil Beetle

Doubtless spurred into action by the unseasonably warm (almost hot!) temperatures and dry conditions I found not one but more than 40 of these intriguing insects itinerantly rambling through the spiky downland grass.  Quite what the purpose of their incessant wandering was I can’t say - they seemed to ignore other beetles when they encountered one another and just kept walking (sometimes going backwards and forwards over the same patch of ground).

Black Oil Beetle by Dave Kilbey

A male Black Oil Beetle - wandering…

Oil beetles exhibit pronounced sexual dimorphism and females with their distended abdomens are about twice the size of males.  And they are remarkable creatures both in appearance and lifestyle.  I’m not squeamish about picking insects up, but when you see an unfamiliar creature this peculiar looking and of this size you think twice about handling it.  However, my curiosity quickly got the better of me and you’ll be glad to hear they don’t bite!  In fact, they are very gentle and seemed to appreciate the warmth of my skin.

Black Oil Beetle by Dave Kilbey

A female Black Oil Beetle in the hand

The name oil beetle derives from the fact that when under duress they can exude a caustic, oil-like substance from their joints.  They tend to favour heathlands and coastal grassland environments - often areas with sandy soil (which perhaps goes some way to explaining why I’ve so rarely seen them around Wiltshire). 

The adults are strictly vegetarian but the rest of their lifestyle is nothing if not intriguing.  Females will dig a burrow close to solitary bee colonies into which they deposit eggs which hatch in the spring of the following year.  When they initially hatch they look like small, louse like critters called triungulins (they have 3 claws on each foot - hence the name).  These small beasties immediately climb up the nearest flower head where they wait for a bee to visit. 

If a triungulin is in luck it will latch onto the bee and hitch a ride back to its nesting site where it drops off.  Once inside the bee’s nest site the small larva then sets about devouring the bee’s eggs, larvae and pollen supplies.  It also changes form - into a maggoty grub. Eventually, when fully grown, the larva will metamorphose once again into an adult beetle.

Black Oil Beetle by Dave Kilbey

Female digging a burrow

It is a bizarre and fascinating life history.  Yet, whether due to the scarcity of bees generally in recent times or other factors, such as habitat loss, it does appear that oil beetles are declining rapidly.  There used to be 8 species in the British Isles, but only four now remain and they seem to be struggling.

Quite by chance, a friend of mine sent me a link on Oil Beetles this morning.  Buglife are trying to monitor their distribution, so if you see any check out the survey link: Oil Beetle Survey


Waxwings at long last (well, one anyway)

Wednesday 02 March 2011

After months of very successfully managing to miss every waxwing that has graced Wiltshire with its presence I finally managed to catch up with one this weekend.  And it really was just one. 

Waxwing eating berry by Dave Kilbey

For days, flocks of between 50 and 90 had been descending on berry bushes in West Swindon but in the thick of this period of activity I sat for hours and watched nothing but empty bushes.  I checked every tall tree for signs and scrutinised each aerial in the vicinity but each was distinctly deficient in waxwings.
Not one to admit defeat readily I returned several days running and it seemed that my remarkable track record with missing waxwings was set to continue indefinitely.  In what has been one of the best years I can remember for these handsome birds it appeared I would fail even to see one, let alone photograph any.  With spring already here I felt this could be my last chance.  On the cusp of giving up, my dogged persistence paid off (for once) and I happened upon a lone bird peering inquisitively at me from within a bush.  An obliging subject he (or she) stuck around for several hours but normally always in areas where it was difficult to see clearly - shrubs are lovely things but with all those branches they’re poorly designed for photography :o)

Waxwing by Dave Kilbey

What struck me most about this punk-crested, Scandinavian vagrant was its tolerance: of people, loud noises and more worryingly, several rather interested cats.  Not lacking alertness it kept tabs on all of us but appeared to take everything in its stride; preening and feeding intermittently.  I’ve rarely spent time with a bird that’s been as relaxed around people as this (apart from “Mrs B” - the imaginatively named, tame female blackbird in the back garden) and it’s an experience that always brings a smile to my face. I wonder how long it will be before I have the chance to see another?

Waxwing by Dave Kilbey

Cycling for Bustards

Sunday 02 January 2011

Sponsored ride to help Great Bustards

For some years now efforts have been underway on Salisbury Plain to re-establish one of the world’s most impressive birds - the Great Bustard.  Standing at 1 m tall and with a wingspan of up to 8 feet Great Bustards are enormous birds, and not just in terms of surface dimensions - males can weigh in excess of 16 kg.  This makes the Great Bustard the world’s heaviest flying bird species. 

The Great Bustard Group is making excellent progress towards permanently re-establishing this handsome bird in the UK with 2009 seeing the first successfully fledged Great Bustards since 1832 and further breeding success in 2010.

Great Bustard by Dave Kilbey

A male Great Bustard

In order to help foot some of the bill for this ambitious project David Waters and his team are undertaking a sponsored cycle ride of colossal proportions.  Saratov in Russia, where the reintroduced birds originate, is 2032 miles from Salisbury and David has committed to cycle this distance by himself around the lanes of Wiltshire and in the gym by August 2011.  His team are also taking on the challenge and are cycling the same distance (the return leg) as a group.  I met up with them today as they notched up another afternoon of hard cycling.  Impressively, their commitment to the project and the birds didn’t falter in the slightest as we waved them off from the warmth of the Black Horse in Great Durnford, pint in hand and with lunch waiting on the table.

Great Bustard Group Sponsored cycle ride © Charlie Moores/GBG

Great Bustard Group sponsored cycle ride © Charlie Moores/GBG

If you would like to help David and his team keep up the pace and meet their target of raising £2032 for the Great Bustards you can donate on the group’s JustGiving page.  You can also become a member of the Great Bustard Group and/or visit the site by arrangement, all of which will help the project go from strength to strength.  See their website for more details.

Great Bustard by Dave Kilbey

A male Great Bustard


How do birds survive the winter?

Monday 20 December 2010

How do birds cope with the cold and survive the long winter months?

  This article looks at some of the strategies they employ to ride out the worst of the winter weather.

In this cold weather spare a thought for our feathered friends.  Although well insulated against low temperatures birds can suffer high mortality rates in long periods of wintery weather.  The main problem is not the cold per se but a shortage of food.  If the ground freezes or we get a covering of snow, birds lose access to nearly all food sources and then have to rely on metabolising their finite fat reserves. Larger birds fare better in these harsh conditions but the smaller you are the greater the risk.  Goldcrests, wrens, tits and finches are among the first to burn through their reserves and succumb to the cold and their populations can quite literally be decimated by cold winters.

Wren by Dave Kilbey


Providing food for birds over the winter months makes a real difference to survival rates in local populations (goldcrests, wrens and treecreepers aside since they rarely visit feeding stations).  Fat balls, crushed peanuts, mixed seeds, mealworms and suet pellets are all excellent sources of energy for birds and if you feed and provide fresh water throughout the winter months you will develop a loyal following.

So how do birds survive at night?  When darkness falls they must rely on their fat reserves to see them through the night.  In addition they have various other strategies to cope with the cold.

  1. They will seek out sheltered, well protected nooks and crannies, dense foliage, gaps under tree bark, nest boxes and so on to roost in.  I have a blue tit that at dusk each evening uses a small hole in the mortar of my porch to gain access to what I hope is a very warm and cosy recess in my roof!
  2. Birds have a layer of down and are able to puff up their outer feathers trapping warm air against their bodies.
  3. They will also try to minimise heat loss from their extremities tucking one leg into their body feathers to save energy.
  4. They are able to greatly reduce the blood flow into their legs in cold weather to prevent heat loss.
  5. Some species will gather together for warmth at night.  Wrens, treecreepers and the-ever-sociable long-tailed tit are well known for this behaviour.
  6. Birds are also able to moderate their metabolism during the night, lowering body temperature slightly to reduce the amount of energy expended.

Robin in the snow by Dave Kilbey

Robin in the snow

Sadly though, if access to food disappears and freezing conditions persist, none of these strategies will be sufficient to prevent many unfortunate birds from perishing thus making feeding the birds not only a hugely enjoyable activity but a vitally important one.

Two Images In British Wildlife Photography Awards Book

Tuesday 14 December 2010

Two images selected for the 2010 British Wildlife Photography Awards Book

Quite some time after the book was published I’ve finally laid my hands on a copy of the lovely 2010 British Wildlife Photography Awards Book.  The following two photographs of mine were selected for it. 

Male Great Crested Newt by Dave Kilbey feature in 2010 British Wildlife Photography Awards

Male Great Crested Newt

Common Frogs in amplexus by Dave Kilbey feature in 2010 British Wildlife Photography Awards

Common Frogs in amplexus

The book is stunning and a brilliant showcase for the superb standards of wildlife photography in the UK and if you haven’t already seen it I’d strongly recommend it. 

Finches continue to die at garden feeders

Sunday 07 November 2010

This blog looks at why it’s important to regularly clean your bird feeders and table.  A rapidly spreading and fatal disease is decimating populations of Greenfinches and Chaffinches.

Trichomonosis - A killer in your bird feeders?

Feeding the birds in your garden is a wonderful thing to do.  Not only will you be able to help them survive the long winter months, but in return you will get privileged views and the chance to watch their often amusing and endearing antics.  However, it is important to remember to clean the bird table and feeders regularly.  Although it may seem like an unnecessary chore, regular cleaning will save birds’ lives.

Why do I need to clean bird tables and feeders?

Recently a nasty disease common in pigeons and doves has spread to other birds.  Called Trichomonosis, and caused by a parasite, the disease primarily affects greenfinches and chaffinches and has caused Britain’s greenfinch population to crash.  It’s non-transmissible to humans but will spread rapidly within local bird populations frequenting the same feeding stations.  Once infected, the bird will invariably die since the disease prevents it from swallowing.  Signs to look out for include puffed up, sluggish individuals.  Often, the infected birds will linger around the feeding station all day and will be reluctant to fly away when approached.

The disease is passed on through saliva or droppings and so the cleaning of feeders and your bird table with hot soapy water and a mild disinfectant will help to reduce infection rates.  The parasite cannot tolerate drying out so always try to keep your feeders (particularly the food within) dry.  If you notice the food is damp or debris is building up empty the remaining food into a bag and dispose of it.  The disease is also known to be spread commonly through water so if providing a bird bath, empty, clean and refill it daily.

Greenfinch suffering with Trichomonosis

In my garden I have found feeding sunflower seeds in tall feeders to be a problem.  The greenfinches adore them and will often be out in the garden all day in small flocks.  However, it is precisely their close-knit social habits and the fact that seed feeders have very small, concentrated points of access to the food that leads to the disease being spread.  After a month or two of feeders being up I start to see an increase in the number of sick birds.  I have since stopped providing food in this way.  In place of these feeders I now put food openly on the bird table and ground.  Birds tend to linger less on the open tables and will often grab a seed and fly off to consume it in cover before returning.  This leads to less waste building up and happier, healthier birds.

Another key is to regularly move your feeders around.  If that’s not possible then try to clean beneath them.  For example, if you feed over patio slabs then wash them down with mild disinfectant when you clean the feeders or, if feeding over bare earth, regularly dig it over.

Himalayan Balsam

Wednesday 22 September 2010

Himalyan Balsam

The aliens are most definitely here….

The Victorians were fanatical collectors of plants and animals and the more exotic, the better.  They shot, stuffed, cut, cultivated, pressed and propagated their way all over the globe.  What they didn’t kill (and had room for) they attempted to bring home with them and, in the case of many plants, then set about cultivating and distributing to enthusiasts.  We have the Victorians to thank for a great number of our naturalised plants, many of which are beautiful additions to our parks and gardens but some of which have gone on to become a considerable threat to our native flora.  One such plant is Himalayan Balsam, Impatiens glandulifera

Himalayan Balsam flowers

An attractive plant, principally associated with watercourses, Himalayan Balsam is the tallest annual plant in the country and can grow to an impressive 2m in height dwarfing both our native river bank flora and in this case, our glamourous assistant.  It has large labiate-like flowers which give it one of its vernacular names “Policeman’s helmet”.  The flowers range from near white to dark pink -purple. 

Himalayan Balsam height example

An unusual feature of this plant is the teardrop shaped seedpods which explode violently when ripe. Seeds are hurled at tremendous speed in all directions and are reputed to travel up to 7 m.  The main, large-scale dispersal method is via watercourses and once in a river or stream the buoyant seeds enable the plant to rapidly colonise downstream sections.

Flower, seed pod, spent seed pod and seeds of Himalyan Balsam

Favouring moist ground, large concentrations of Himalayan Balsam are rarely found far from water.  The plant is capable of growing in very dense stands and with its tremendous vigour indigenous flora is easily outcompeted and overshadowed.  Being an annual, the dieback in winter presents an additional problem particularly on river banks.  The un-vegetated earth left behind is prone to erosion as water levels rise and this can lead to bank subsidence and instability.

River bank covered in Himalayan Balsam

One point of contention with Himalayan Balsam is the popularity of the flowers with honey bees and some of our later flying bumble bees.  Late in the season it is one of the most prolific of our flowering plants and the nectar rich flowers are a perfect fit for bees.  The bees become so coated in cream coloured Balsam pollen that they often appear to have changed colour completely.  Whilst the nectar is undoubtedly a convenient food source for the the bees, there is concern that native plants lose out once again since bees favour the abundant balsam flowers to such an extent that pollination of native species is very probably quite seriously reduced.


Being a very shallow rooted annual, control can be achieved best by pulling the plant early in the season (before flowering takes place).  Once flowers appear, the plant quickly sets seed and removal is less effective since disturbing the plants will trigger seed dispersal.

If seeds are present it is possible to reduce seed distribution by bagging the heads before pulling.  However, this slows progress considerably and is not always particularly successful.  Seeds remain viable for several years and so visits in successive seasons if necessary to eradicate balsam from affected areas.

Wiltshire Wildlife Trust has an invasive plant team set up to deal with Himalayan Balsam and other invasive plant species.  You can report sightings of pesky plants and also volunteer to go out on the pull with them in the spring and early summer.  See their website for further information (http://bit.ly/a3C5WJ).


Autumnal colours arrive early

Wednesday 22 September 2010

Horse Chestnut Miner Moth

This year, more than any other I remember, horse chestnut trees have taken a battering in Wiltshire and across the country.  Appearing to be undergoing a premature autumnal colour change the cause of the problem is actually the tiny caterpillar of the Horse Chestnut Miner Moth.

Leaf Miner caterpillars in a horse chestnut leaf (each is 7-8mm long)


Horse Chestnut tree showing extent of Leaf Miner damage

Unknown in this country 10 years ago, and not scientifically described until 1986, this Moth has radiated out from its believed source in Macedonia with alarming speed.  There seems to be no definitive explanation for the sudden range expansion.

Although drastic in appearance the damage caused by the leaf miner is generally aesthetic and temporary.  The principal symptoms of attack include browning, curling and premature shedding of leaves. 

Horse Chestnut Leaf Miner damage

In the majority of cases the tree survives relatively unscathed and it will leaf and grow normally in following seasons.  As a relatively new phenomenon the likely long term effect of the leaf miner on horse chestnut trees is not comprehensively understood.  Repeated attacks on individual trees will undoubtedly stunt growth rate and, although not a known direct vector of disease, it is thought the moth may make trees more susceptible to more serious problems such as bleeding canker via the damage caused to leaves.

Facts about the horse chestnut tree (Aesculus hippocastanum)

A non-native species to the British Isles the first horse chestnut trees were believed to have been introduced in the early 1600s from the Balkans.

The common name of horse chestnut is thought to derive from its superficial resemblance to trees of the chestnut family coupled with the fact that the nuts (conkers) were fed to horses, in days gone by, as an emetic and to cure coughs.


And it’s gone…. the summer that is

Thursday 09 September 2010

No birds but plenty of butteflies… and the odd fish

July and August seem to have passed in a flash.  As a keen ornithologist I’ve been itching to get back to photographing birds but at this time of year they’re really not looking at their best.  This year’s youngsters still generally look pale and washed out - having yet to moult into their full adult plumage.  Adults look totally worn (out) and in some cases seem to have lost the majority of their feathers!  I’ve a barely recognizable robin in the garden and an almost totally bald-headed blackbird - the stress of that fourth brood perhaps just too great!  So, birds have not featured heavily in my work over the last two months and instead I’ve concentrated again on butterflies…and the odd fish.

Stone loach

These beautiful fish are relatively common in clean, well oxygenated rivers and streams.  They prefer shallow, fast flowing areas with gravel beds where they feed on a mixture of small invertebrates, algae and plant material.  They are bottom feeders and have 3 pairs of barbules around their mouth to detect prey.  Mostly nocturnal, and spending much of their time hiding under rocks and stones, they’re not the easiest of fish to photograph.  Minnows and 3 spined stickleback have been more obliging.


Three-Spined Stickleback

Back on dry land….. I’m fortunate enough to live relatively close to some chalk downland and this year I’ve made a point of returning almost every weekend to the same sites to monitor the changes in both the flora and the fauna.  Where in May I was photographing fields of orchids and beautiful marbled white butterflies, in July and August these were succeeded by swathes of devils-bit scabious and brilliantly coloured adonis blues.  During the latter part of August we had some dreadful weather in Wiltshire - gale force winds and torrential rain that lasted for days.  I’ve no idea how, but the butterflies seem to manage to cope with this climatic inclemency.  Getting close to these insects, as I regularly do, you have to marvel at their apparent fragility which seems at odds with their astonishing ability to withstand regular punishment from the erratic climate in this country.

Male Adonis Blue Butterfly

Timed to coincide with the ripening of fruit and berries, speckled wood butterflies can be found in good numbers now, particularly along woodland rides - and very often in people’s back gardens. 

Speckled Wood Butterflies

I’ve yet to see any Comma butterflies but I live in hope - with their beautifully marked, ragged wings and their predilection for over-ripe fruit they are the harbingers of autumn proper.  I am leaving fallen fruit and racemes of ripening blackberries unpicked to try and tempt any passing individuals to drop in.

Comma Butterfly on Devil’s-bit Scabious


Feeling Blue

Tuesday 24 August 2010

The second generation of Adonis Blues are on the wing now

This weekend I was back out on some of the Wiltshire Downs to see what changes had occurred in the butterfly populations at several sites I’ve visited every few weeks over the season - and I wasn’t disappointed by what I found.  Having missed the early generation of Adonis Blues this year (May) I was delighted to find a healthy population at one location.  Having arrived early (6.30am) the butterflies were still dormant and I spent an hour or so doing rough counts of species and trying to ID the blues, which with their wings closed are not all that easy to distinguish.  With the first rays of warm sunlight, however, an amazing spectacle unfolded as I was surrounded by dazzling male Adonis Blues all with wings fully spread to soak up the sunlight.  The colour is breath taking and, sadly, not done any justice by a camera sensor.

Male Adonis blue

Argus Browns were still in good numbers, although many are looking a bit worn now.  Often grouped together on flower heads they were flirting like mad with one another - a constant fluttering of wings and jostling for position when a female was nearby.  This one was taking a break from the melee and found a devil’s-bit scabious flower to call its own for a while.

Brown Argus

I found several Adonis blues coupling but single males were far more obvious in number than females on the whole.  Hopefully, the females were off laying lots of eggs whilst the males sun bathed, fed and indulged in other, slightly less savory pursuits…..

Male Adonis blue feeding on cow dung

Mud puddling…. quite a few butterfly species do this but some more than others (Purple Emperors spring to mind).  I found quite a large number of male Adonis blues feeding on cow dung this weekend.  Apparently poo is a good source of nutrients, such as various salts and amino acids.  Personally, I prefer a packet of crisps and a sandwich.  This charming little fella (again, an Adonis blue) took a shine to me and kept landing on my hand.  In the absence of any poo in the vicinity I think I was seen as the next best thing - charming!

Male adonis blue taking salt from hand

RSS added to site

Thursday 15 July 2010

New RSS feed for Dave Kilbey Photography now available

I’ve been working on an RSS feed for the website blog which is now available.  You can access it from the blog pages and also from the address bar of all the index pages - or just click on the RSS icon shown below.

If you’re not sure how to use an RSS feed and want to find out a bit more then read on….

RSS allows you to see news feeds from my website.  To see the news feeds you will need to use a news reader such as Google Reader or Bloglines.  When I publish a new article, blog or news on new images you’ll get a quick summary of the news listed in your “reader” of choice.  Once you have a reader you can choose to subscribe to lots of other sites to receive up to date information - such as the BBC News page, RSPB, and so on.  The summaries you receive will enable you to quickly click through to the website they pertain to.


Meadow Grasshopper under attack

Monday 12 July 2010

Grasshoppers killed by sci fi worthy fungus…....

At first I thought these were simply the shed skins of nymphs as they moulted.  However, closer examination revealed that these were completely dessicated but entire grasshoppers.  An entomologist friend of mine agrees that it is probably caused by a fungus.  He says that it’s probably in the genus Entomophthora. Amazingly, the fungus modifies the behaviour of the insect so they climb up plant stems before they die. The fungal spores can then travel further because they’re released from a greater height.

May and June Highlights

Sunday 04 July 2010

May and June were a packed month for photography.  With so much going on in the spring it’s always difficult trying to decide what to focus on.  This May I spent nearly 3 weeks in Southern Spain photographing birds (and confusing the locals with my broken Spanish).  Since coming back to England I’ve been concentrating on flowers, dragonflies and butterflies. 

June’s Photos

June has been a lovely month photographically speaking - lots of 4am starts at the weekends to try and photograph dragonflies and butterflies (I still haven’t quite recovered).  Orchids have been a major theme this month too with some incredible displays on Wiltshire Wildlife Trust managed reserves around the county.  Among the highlights have been Fly, Bee, Fragrant, Lesser-butterfly, Heath, Southern-Marsh, Pyramidal and enormous numbers of Common-Spotted Orchids. 

A four-spotted chaser

A female banded demoiselle

A male common blue

A large skipper

You can see some of these and other June images (including all the orchids) here:

A selection of June’s Images

May’s Photos

Having spent most of May wrapped up in bird photography I’ve found switching to insects and flowers an exciting change/challenge.  I was in Southern Spain for nearly 3 weeks at the beginning of May photographing the amazing bird life of that region from Collared Pratincoles through to Bee-eaters and a huge variety of herons and birds of prey. 

Azure-winged Magpie

Eurasian Spoonbill in flight

Griffon Vulture in flight

Squacco heron hunting in reeds with reflection on water

Meadow in Extremadura

Black-winged Stilt at sunrise

If you’re interested in seeing more of these pictures I’ve put a gallery together of some of the highlights at the link which follows. 

A selection of May’s Images

Other News

Never having entered competitions before I was shocked to find out that 3 of my images of amphibians (linked below) were short-listed for the British Wildlife Photography Awards.  I won’t find out until August if any of them have made it through but the nervous wait hasn’t caused me any sleepless nights - owing to all the early starts it’s staying awake past lunchtime that’s the problem.