I found out the answer to my monster wasp in winter question by watching WinterWatch 2013 last week. ‘Season’ + Watch+ year is a BBC nature series, big on live nature cams and pre-recorded video footage of any kind of nature during the particular season it is being aired.**
Before revealing the answer, just a few words about Winterwatch. As some of you may know, I have been a severe critic of various aspects of this show in the past-the jokiness of the presenters, the lack of precision in language that leads to subjective observation and comments (or, sexism in science and naturalist shows) (for past rants, see here and here for a taster). And in case some of you think I am just being cranky, the problems with the presenters have been noted in reviews, and fans of the show are not always amused (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/natureuk/posts/Well-that-was-Winterwatch-what-did-you-think).
This year, though, I have to say from those perspectives the show was a lot better. I don’t have a problem with an informal approach, but the orchestrated hijinks and bad jokes had got a bit out of hand in the past. This year, the approach, while still informal, was more serious, more informative. Moreover, the presenters avoided the ‘he-generic’, with Chris Packam doing the best job, Michaela and Martin indulging every once and awhile.
Some highlights from the show
We always knew that robins could be aggressive, if not downright deadly, in the protection of their territory. We’ve watched Fuzz (our resident robin boss) and co. winging around the yard chasing each other enough to know that, at heart, they are loners who only tolerate company when they have to (i.e. when they are breeding, raising a family).
But WinterWatch showed some film footage of robins actually attacking each other, and I for one one found it a bit distressing to watch. Especially as one of the ways we know that Fuzz is Fuzz is a scar under one of his eyes (see here to see what I mean). If you can bear to see the little bruisers scrappin, see here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A3kZ-NYXvbo
On a brighter note, and I may be one of the last people to have ever heard of this, did you know that there is a good chance that Santa’s reindeer might be female? Seems that both sexes sport antlers at different times of the year. The first cool thing is that whichever is wearing the antlers in the family, so to speak, is dominant, meaning each sex gets a turn at being boss. It would appear that while males have the antlers in the warmer weather, the females have them in the colder weather. So, 1 + 1 = ??? You can find an explanation here Note, though, how unbearable the prospect of female reindeer and Santa’s sleigh is. It’s just the urbanlegend web site’s sarcastic perspective, but it may be surprising to know that some male scientists’ perspective is not too far off that kind of subjectivity.
Now, readers of this blog may have gathered that I am no real fan of the squirrel and wage a continuous war with them over bird feeders. But even someone as hard core as I am cannot deny that they are fascinating, comical. And so it was with Winterwatch. They devised an experiment where they filled three jars-one with raisins, one with unshelled hazelnuts, one with shelled hazelnuts-to test which would tempt a squirrel the most. Much to everyone’s surprise, the squirrel did not take the quick snack of the raisins or unshelled hazelnuts. It took the shelled hazelnuts and then promptly cached them. Only then did it go back for the unshelled hazelnuts, and didn’t bother with the raisins.
We decided to somewhat reproduce this experiment, but instead with shelled hazelniuts and shelled almonds. We laughed when one of our resident squirrels squared up to the glass jars: you could see how badly it wanted to dive in, but held back–was it a trap? they’ve never left anything for me before? why isn’t anyone else interested in this treasure trove? Self-preservation won out over greed, and it wasn’t until a few days later, I saw it take the hazelnuts one by one to cache around our yard and over the fence in the manor house yard. After finishing with the hazelnuts, it then proceeded to make off with the almonds, again caching them. It really was fascinating to watch. Yesterday, it systematically moved about the yard, digging some up and eating them.
And those wasps?
It seems that the queens will cocoon themselves, almost in self-contained hibernation, and not uncommonly around the house. At the first sign of spring or warmth, the queens emerge. Evidently, the wasps around our house have been hoodwinked a few times by spring-like weather.
**Apologies for not providing links to Winterwatch episodes. They are only available on the BBC iPlayer for a certain amount of time, even in Britain. And if you are outside Britain they may not be available at all.