If like me you settled down to watch the new BBC documentary 'How the Earth Made Us' on Tuesday, you'll have found a great program that does as good a job as can be hoped of making the non-living elemental parts of our world exciting and interesting. The first episode was on rocks, geology, faults, etc. and will be followed up with water, fire and air. I'm looking forward to them already.

I'm also glad to see that the BBC didn't pull the programme from the schedules entirely, since it covered earthquakes. The recent disaster in Haiti could have made an 'isn't geology exciting' programme such as this come across as very poor taste. Instead they handled it fairly sensitively, updating that portion with mention of Haiti and sticking to the facts and the devastation caused down the ages. If anything it makes for particularly pertinent television and explored the question (if only briefly and somewhat naively) of why so much of mankind knowingly lives in jeopardy on top of natural fault lines.

This BBC news article on the incredible Naica crystal cave shows a snippet of the first episode.

DuckBath

GadwallPair

First off I should point out that Gadwall do not always come in neatly opposing pairs like this! But this is a nice female and male duo, with the female on the left looking a lot like a Mallard female. The most notable difference is the white wing bar (present on both male and female) instead of metallic blue/green on a Mallard. However in both species that may be hidden entirely depending on how the wing is positioned, as in the picture above, in which case you're back to much more subtle clues for identifying the female, it being a bit smaller and daintier with a different bill. That said the black stripe down the centre of the yellow bill that my identification guide promises doesn't seem evident in the photo above! Frankly I find that identifying the nearby males to which they're attached is the easiest route, but maybe I've been fooled and Mallard females are in fact hanging out with Gadwall males.

The male is almost entirely grey, with a black rump and white belly. The grey body is actually very finely textured and rather beautiful, as shown in the close-up below. Apologies for the fuzziness of the picture, but Gadwall are much more timid than Mallard and tend to stay a good distance from people, so this is the best my 400mm lens could manage on that day.

GadwallMaleCloseUp

 

MysteryBulbFlowers

Finally the wait is over, and my mystery bulbs have sent up flowers, artfully photographed above. Catch up with the thrilling story so far, if you're not familiar with it, in three original instalments.

The popular money was on Grape hyacinth, but that would appear to be proven wrong confronted with this new evidence. These flowers that have bloomed are a very delicate pale purple, with each bell less than a centimetre across. Note that the time of year is probably no clue as these are growing indoors in a pot.

So what are they? Send in your answers via the comments below.

Update (April 2010): Almost certainly they're Bluebells. Loads of them have now come up in the borders, looking rather more vibrant than these, but I think that's just the effect of growing them indoors.

LittleEgret

I saw this big, snowy white bird – a Little egret – as it flew over and I legged it round the corner to where it had landed in the margins of a small shallow lake. It only stayed there for about a minute before flying away, but I got a couple of good photos from afar as it stalked briefly through amongst the plants.

Its long black legs are mostly hidden in the water, as are its bright yellow feet. You also can't see any evidence of the typical long slender plume on the back of its head. Overall it's most similar to a Heron, but smaller and pure white and hard to mistake even in flight.

These birds are most numerous around the South and East coast, though it's still relatively rare (but increasing rapidly – mostly as a winter migrant) so I was fairly lucky to see this one 40 miles from the coast in Hertfordshire.

It's not Autumn any more, but now the snow has cleared (well it has where I am) it's time to throw yourself back into the great outdoors. This BBC Autumnwatch page with several videos contains notes on bat tracking, wild flowers and bird ringing.

Personally I'm off wassailing tomorrow in a local orchard. Wassailing you ask? It's where you go places in a boat with no engine. Not really – I jest – it is in fact an ancient tradition to bless the forthcoming year's apple harvest. I'm not into the superstition, but it's a fun community event all the same and currently regaining in popularity in the UK.

StarlingWinter

I spotted this bird in a tree and though I was fairly sure it was a Starling I wasn't immediately convinced. It seemed a bit odd to me, with the fairly brown back and head, and the odd bill with some yellow colour toward the middle but then a dark tip.

Subsequent research suggests it can't really be anything else other than a Starling in its wintery clothing. I thought perhaps the bill was just dirty since I could only find photos with either vibrant yellow bill or pure black, until I found a very similar photo on this page, showing winter plumage and bill that matches my specimen. Case closed.

The BBC has a fascinating article on new discoveries about British Puffins, which are now shown to congregate in the Atlantic halfway to Iceland over winter, with birds form both the East and West coasts of the UK heading out that way. It was previously assumed that East Coast birds stay head out into the North Sea.

That's interesting in itself, but the article stands out for the little bonus facts that it throws in as part of the voyage of discovery. You'll have to read the article to find out for yourself how the Puffins' location was tracked with a 1.5g device that uses a simple trick to record its position, and how it was fooled by the birds tucking their feet into their feathers whilst sleeping on the water.

RedwingSnow

Many people will have noticed an influx of interesting new species of birds to their gardens since the snow fell. Partly this is because those people are at home during the day when they should be at work, and partly it's because there really are refugees from the bleak countryside coming into our gardens in search of food. It's clearly captured the imagination of the Great British public, with Snow Watch on the BBC this evening taking a good look at the exotics appearing in garden (including Woodcock) and even The Sun carrying an article with bird identification guide (glimpsed over a shoulder on the train).

Redwings in particular have been very numerous and are relatively easily identified, looking like a thrush (in fact it is a type of thrush) with a stripier head and an red/orange area beneath the wing. The photo above is a Redwing plumped up on a snowy branch.

Fieldfare

Amongst the Redwings, look carefully and you may also see a Fieldfare (photo above) which is a bit bigger and with a slightly different paint job: bright yellow on the base of the beak, mostly grey head, dark brown shoulders and back, and of course no red blob under the wing. Fieldfares are rarer than Redwings in my garden, having only seen the first one today whilst Redwings have been ever present for the past few weeks (but even more numerous in the last few days) – so here's another photo of a Fieldfare to celebrate and to help you identify them. From this angle at a moment's glance you might think it was a female blackbird but the grey head and glimpse of more mottled belly give it away.

Fieldfare2

As described here, don't forget that the BBC Snow Watch special is on BBC 2 tonight at 8pm.