Birds, Beetles and Butterflies (and a bit more besides)

We are slipping into autumn, despite the weather remaining warm the signs are everywhere. Berries are ripening and birds are on the move. Over the last few days there have been between 500 and 1000 house martin over Ibsley Water, gathering before migrating south. On Ivy Lake numbers of winter wildfowl are starting to rise, at least 12 wigeon and 18 shoveler were there on Sunday and last week 3 pintail dropped in. In fact overall numbers of wildfowl are very high for the time of year, probably due to good weed growth.

Any visitor to Ibsley Water recently cannot have failed to miss the large numbers of cormorant and heron. They are feeding on the huge numbers of small common carp, a fantastic spectacle, but a sign of problems ahead. Such large numbers of small carp will grow into a very large population of medium sized fish which are likely to largely eliminate the weed and eventually most of the food for wildfowl.

Another very obvious feature at present is the lace-like leaves of the alders, they have been eaten away to skeletons.

alder leaves eaten

alder leaf eaten away by alder leaf beetle

The alder leaf beetles that are responsible are a striking metallic blue and were considered as an extinct species in the UK until just a few years ago, however their status has changed dramatically in the last few years and they are now not just present but super abundant. They seem to be everywhere at the moment and almost every alder leaf has been eaten away and they seem to have been eating hazel and even birch as well. Quiet why they have undergone such an extreme change in fortunes is something of a mystery.

alder leaf beetle

alder leaf beetle Agelastica alni

We are now heading into autumn and the moth trap is starting to catch species typical of the season, perhaps none more so than the aptly named autumnal rustic.

autumnal rustic

autumnal rustic

Another autumn favourite of mine is the intricately marked feathered gothic.

feathered gothic

feathered gothic (male)

The males use their feathered antennae to test the air for female pheromones, in effect using them to smell.

The main butterfly on the wing at present is speckled wood and they are very abundant this year, they are one of the few species that you can see throughout the season as they have a series of overlapping broods. Sometimes the first are on the wing before the end of March ans they can still be flying in November.

speckled wood

speckled wood

Autumn is also the fungi, actually they are to be found all year but many species are most abundant at this time of the year. When we were working today we came across a bright yellow patch on a log near the Woodland hide, but although many of the logs in that are are covered in fungi, this was not a fungus, but a slime mould called troll butter.

troll butter

troll butter slime mould

For those that like to venture up to the Lapwing hide in the winter or spring I have good news. The need to take the long way round or risk getting wet feet when the route through the reedbed floods will soon be a thing of the past, we are having a boardwalk constructed!

new boardwalk to Lapwing hide under construction

new boardwalk to Lapwing hide under construction

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The White Stuff

A Red Letter Day for Fishlake Meadows today, we finally have some cattle on site! We had hoped they would be on much earlier and next year I am sure we will. They will be grazing in Ashley Meadow for the next few weeks, hopefully helping us to maintain the rich fen habitat.

English White cattle on Ashley Meadow

British White cattle on Ashley Meadow

As we were unable to graze the meadow earlier in the year we did take a hay cut from about half of the field.

Ashley Meadow

Ashley Meadow showing the boundary between the cut and uncut areas

The intention is to maintain a mix of tall and slightly shorter herbage with very few trees and shrubs. Such habitats are very rich in plants and as a result invertebrates. Mowing certainly can deliver this, but the act of mowing is rather dramatic, eliminating large areas of habitat at a stroke, by contrast grazing achieves a similar result but at a more gradual pace. Gazing animals will also favour some areas and species over others so the variability in height, what is known as the “structure” of the grassland will be greater.

When I was in Ashley Meadow preparing for the arrival of the cattle today I saw a good range of species including several very smart small copper.

small copper

small copper

There was a very interesting article in a recent issue of British Wildlife magazine which highlighted the effects of different grassland management regimes on spider populations and species. I have not managed to identify the one below yet, but I saw it lurking on a flower waiting for an unwary insect to be lured in.

spider

crab spider on fleabane flower

When looking at grassland management there are many considerations, should it be mown or grazed,or both, most hayfields are cut for the hay crop and then grazed later in the season. Traditional hay meadows were cut around or just after mid-summer and this favoured plants that set seed by this time like yellow rattle or which spread vegetatively. Modern grass cropping by silage making produces a much larger grass crop but the grassland is more or less a mono-culture, the land may be green but it is certainly not pleasant as far as most wildlife is concerned.

Once the cutting regime is settled there is grazing to consider, but not all animals graze in the same way, sheep and horses cut the grass short using their teeth, cattle rip the grass in tufts using their tongue to gather each bunch. The resulting grassland will look very different and be home to very different wildlife. Timing of grazing will also make a big difference, mid-late summer grazing tends to produce the most diverse flora, but this will vary with location and ground type.

Lastly different breed of animals will graze in different ways, our cattle at Fishlake are British Whites, a traditional bred that will eat grass but also likes to mix in some rougher sedge and other herbage as well as some tree leaves and twigs, ideal for a site such as Fishlake Meadows.

It was not only a white themed day at Fishlake, as I locked up at Blashford Lakes the view from Tern hide was filled with birds, in particular 13 brilliant white little egret and 2 great white egret.

herons egrets and cormorants

egrets, herons and cormorants

Ibsley Water has been attracting huge numbers of fish eating birds recently, with up to 300 cormorant, over 100 grey heron and the egrets, although I have failed to see them there have also been 2 cattle egret seen.

Ivy Lake has also produced a few notable records int he last few days, yesterday a bittern was photographed flying past Ivy South hide, far and away our earliest reserve record, but with the British population doing much better these days perhaps something we will get used to as young birds disperse. There have also been a few notable ducks, yesterday a juvenile garganey and today 4 wigeon , 3 pintail and a few shoveler as well as good numbers of gadwall and a dozen or so teal.

Warning, survey ahead

Just a quick heads-up that tomorrow Wessex Water will be carrying out their annual weed cover survey of Blashford Lakes, during the course of the day they will be crossing the lakes with a canoe on transects to measure the weed amounts and take samples. Each survey will only take a short time but during the day all the main lakes will be subject to survey and, inevitably some disturbance.

Walter Returned

Jim, reported the sighting of a great white egret on Ivy Lake the other day and speculated that it might be “Walter” our regularly returning bird. This bird was ringed in 2003 in France and first arrived at Blashford in August of that year, since then he has come back to spend each autumn and winter with us. We know that it is the same bird each year as he was ringed as a nestling with a combination of coloured rings. He is now 15 years and 3 months old, a good age for almost any bird. I have seen a maximum age for this species in Europe of 17 years, but it seems the official European bird ringing site (EURING) reports a maximum age of only 13 year and 9 months, which would make Walter Europe’s oldest great white egret by some margin.

With this in mind I was very keen to establish if the bird seen was actually Walter and not some other visitor and as I locked up yesterday there he was outside Ivy North hide, with rings on full show. This egret was indeed Walter returned and apparently a record breaker.

Of course he would have also been Europe’s oldest last year as well, he was reported then and does not seem to have made it onto the database, so perhaps there are others, even older out there that have also not got into the records yet. But, for now at least we will claim him as the oldest.

So how old might he get? The oldest great white egret (also known as “Great egret”), I can find is 22 years in North America and a grey heron has reached 37 years 6 months, so we could be seeing him for some years yet with a bit of luck.

Arrivals

Although there has not been much sign of migrating birds at Blashford Lakes so far, there have been some insect arrivals. The birds at this time of the year are returning from breeding to the north, the insects, by contrast, are arriving from the south. It seems likely that there will be many more in the days to come as the high pressure builds back and temperatures rise again.

So far we have recorded a couple of lesser emperor dragonflies, but no southern migrant hawker as yet, but I am hopeful that someone will spot one somewhere on the reserve soon. The other migrant so far have all been moths. This morning the traps had silver Y, rush veneer, diamond-backed moth, dark sword-grass, Cydia amplana and Yponomeuta sedella, all probably freshly arrived from the south.

Cydia amplana

Cydia amplana, a migrant Tortrix moth that seems to be getting more frequently recorded each year.

Yponomeuta sedella

Yponomeuta sedella, this could be a migrant or a scarce local resident, it feeds on Sedum species, mainly the larger ones such as orpine, which does not grow at Blashford.

Perhaps oddly there have been very few migrant butterflies this summer, just a few painted lady and those several weeks ago now. It has also been a very lean year for humming-bird hawk-moth and convolvulus hawk-moth so far, but maybe numbers will pick up.

Just as I wrote the above I heard a buzzing sound at the window, only to find a humming-bird hawk-moth trapped inside the house!!! I have just successfully released it into the great outdoors to continue heading north.

I wonder what tomorrow will bring…………

 

A Couple of Tanners

Despite continued warm nights the number of moths coming to the trap are actually declining, I suspect it might have got too warm and especially dry for many moths to cope with. This does not mean the traps have been devoid of interest though, on two recent mornings the catch has included one of Britain’s largest beetles, the tanner beetle Prionus coriarius. 

tanner beetle

tanner beetle

This is something of a New Forest speciality, being quite frequent in the area and rather scarce across the rest of south-east England.

It will be interesting to see if the numbers pick up again now that it has rained and the weather settles down again, as it is supposed to do by the end of the week.

At Blashford things remain pretty quiet, there are unusual numbers of gadwall making the most of the weed in Ivy Lake, the peak count so far is 139. Numbers of coot, both there and on Ibsley Water are relatively high as well. There has been very little sign of migration so far, although there are several common sandpiper around and at least one green sandpiper. There has been some indication of small birds on the move, the ringers have caught whitethroat and grasshopper warbler and there are a few willow warbler and chiffchaff that seem to be passing through.

 

Dots of Green

The prolonged dry conditions have caused the grass to go brown almost everywhere you look at the moment. Grasses are a group of plants that are drought adapted and when it rains you can be confident that it will green up again quite rapidly. Other plants respond differently, most annuals are as crisp as the grass, often growing less than usual and seeding earlier before the lack of water kills them. What is obvious though is that even in the brownest grass there still dots of green, these are the deep rooted perennial plants. In my mini-meadow the field scabious in particular still has green leaves and is covered in flowers.

The plants that can keep growing in these conditions provide valuable nectar sources for insects. At Blashford Lakes one plant that just carries on is burdock and the plants near the Education Centre are a magnet for insects.

sil;ver-washed fritillarysilver-washed fritillary

Most butterflies have had a good season, numbers overall have been higher than in recent years, although many are not flying for very long. The species that over-winter by hibernation such as peacock and small tortoiseshell have disappeared, they will be hiding away in sheds and cellars, before they fly again in the early autumn.

One group of butterflies that don’t seem to mind the conditions are the whites, perhaps being white their colour reflects the heat better than the dark browns, which hide away in the shade during the hottest part of the day.

small white

small white

As well as butterflies the same flowers are attracting bees as well, at Blashford Lake, a swell as the bumble-bees, I have seen lots of green-eyed flower bee on the burdock flowers. These smallish, compact bees are very fast flyers and have a distinctive, high pitched buzz.

green-eyed flower bee

green-eyed flower bee

In general the reserve remains quite for birds. On Ivy Lake over a hundred gadwall is a good count for the time of year and on Ibsley Water there are good numbers of coot and tufted duck, although counting them is proving tricky. A few migrant waders are turning up, a common sandpiper or two and the occasional black-tailed godwit are witness to approaching autumn. The ringers have reported catching willow warbler, whitethroat and grasshopper warbler recently, almost certainly all migrants rather than local birds.

30 Days Wild – Day 29 – One More Time Out with the Blues

Just two days to go before another 30 Days are over. I spent part of Day 29 in my garden mostly looking at the meadow.

What’s in My Meadow Today?

There continue to be a good few small skipper and today also one large skipper, although in the heat it was so active that, try as I might, I could not get a picture of it. The hot weather suits most insects very well, allowing them to be more active for longer periods of the day. This may well mean that many species will be around for a shorter period than we are used to as they will have managed to fulfil their destiny and breed successfully in less time than usual. So I anticipate that lots of butterflies will be recorded in high numbers but for a short season if this weather continues.

Many people will know the common chafer beetle, sometimes called a “May bug” which flies mainly in May, but the smaller summer chafer is less well known, although still common. It seems to be having a good season as I am seeing more than I can remember this year. I got a picture of one on top of a wild carrot flower head.

summer chafer catching evening sun

summer chafer catching evening sun

I have featured a number of species of bee in this blog but honey-bee does not often get  a look in. The honey-bee Apis mellifera also known as the western honey-bee is our familiar bee species for most people. Its population in the UK is probably dependent upon domestic, artificial hive based colonies and it is speculated that it arrived here with humans at some time in the distant past. That said the honey-bees in more northern areas are darker and better able to maintain colonies in cooler conditions and it has been suggested these are native populations, they certainly seem to be genetically distinct from the more familiar paler bees found in southern England. Although most honey-bees do live in colonies in man made hives wild colonies are not unusual and there was a colony in a large Turkey oak at Blashford Lakes for several years, although it now seems to have been abandoned.

honey bee on field scabious

honey-bee on field scabious

Although I did get out to take a look in the meadow most of the day was taken up with domestic activities. So as the evening was fine I took the chance to go out onto the nearby Forest to see the silver-studded blue once more. There were many groups roosting in the heather, often ten or more together and probably 80 or more roosting in no more than about 0.3ha.

silver-studded blue female

roosting silver-studded blue (female)

roosting silver-studded blue

roosting silver-studded blue

Just one more post to go in the “30 Days”.

30 Days Wild – Day 22 – True Love

It seems we are having a very odd year, after a winter with some wintry weather we now have a summer with summery weather. I was late into Blashford as I had to attend a meeting off-site in the morning,  the moth catch was somewhat reduced after a rather cool night but did include a very fresh true lover’s knot. The name derives from the complex pattern, the name “true lover’s knot” has been associated with many actual knots, perhaps most often with one comprising two circular but interlocking knots that can move but not be pulled apart.

true lover's knot

true lover’s knot

The moth is common and although a heathland species feeding on heathers, will wander widely so is often caught well away from this habitat, they probably also feed on heathers in gardens.

I spent much of the afternoon mowing paths, a rather thankless task, as soon as I cut the strip beside the path the taller vegetation behind tends to fall, resulting in a path that is barely more passable than before.

Locking up at the end of the day I came across a pair of spiders, looking somewhat “loved-up”. I don’t think this species is one where the male is at great risk, but it probably still pays to go carefully when your partner is much larger and a fierce predator with a mean set of fangs! (or perhaps long-jaws).

pair of spiders

A pair of spiders – possibly the long-jawed orb weaver

Mating in spiders is achieved by the male passing a sperm packet, using his modified pedipalps and I think this maybe what is happening in this picture.

It was still very sunny and warm when I arrived home and took a look in the garden.

What’s in My Meadow Today?

The grass is really drying out now and flowering of many plants is accelerating. The knapweed is well out now, having gone from nothing to loads of flowers in just two or three days.

knapweed 2

common knapweed

Common knapweed is actually rather infrequent in true meadows, at least in southern England  as they would get cut before it goes to seed, it is more frequent in rough pasture or roadsides that are not excessively cut. It is a very good nectar source for lots of insects and so a couple of plants are a must for me.

It was a very fine evening and I realised I had not yet gone to look for the roosting silver-studded blue on the heath over the road form my house. These butterflies form small colonies usually on damp heathland and will roost in groups, typically on a slight slope that gets the last rays of the sun each evening. They make great subjects for photography, although the low light levels by this time of the day are always an issue.

silver-studded blue 5

roosting silver-studded blue (female)

silver-studded blue 2

roosting silver-studded blue (male)

The low light can offer the option of taking either with the light, as the top picture, or against, as in the lower.

Although the site is officially “wet heath” it is now bone dry and lots of the plants that should be surrounded by spongy bog are high and dry, which makes them much easier to photograph without getting wet knees. There were several bog asphodel plants in flower.

bog asphodel

bog asphodel

With the sun having set we were heading back when a cotton grass head standing out pure white in the gloom caught our eyes, in a typical year walking to a cotton grass plant could mean being up to your knees in a bog.

cotton grass

cotton grass seed head after sunset

Going out on the heath on a fine summer’s evening is magical and certainly something everyone should do if they can, ideally carry on well after sunset and go and listen for nightjar, woodcock and snipe, what could be better! Britain is home to a large part of the European lowland heath, valley mire and a lot of it’s upland counterpart too come to that, so it is a very British experience.

 

30 Days Wild – Day 12 – The Power of a Flower

Tuesday at Blashford is volunteer day, or at least one of them, we also have a regular work party on a Thursday as well, today we were balsam pulling. The balsam in question is Himalayan balsam, a garden plant that escaped into the countryside and particularly likes growing along river and stream banks, “riparian habitats” as they are known. It is an extraordinary plant, growing to two or three metres tall in a matter of a few weeks,outgrowing all native plants that live in similar places. It also has explosive seed pods which can throw the seeds a metre or more when they pop. Being a non-native it has escaped its natural disease and insect controls and grows almost without check, which is why it has become a problem.

before

a disappointingly large stand of balsam

We have been removing this plant by pulling them up for many years now and have made good progress on the upper parts of the Dockens Water, where there are very few plants now. Clearly though, we failed to find quiet a few plants last year for there to be quite such a dense stand as this. Flooding carries the seed along and will also concentrate it where the seed gets deposited. We had a lot of plants to pull up, but we did pull them up and this is what it looked like a short while later.

after

after balsam pulling

What is very clear is that once the balsam is gone there is very little other vegetation, showing how it out competes other species.

Himalayan balsam has very nectar rich flowers, leading some to claim it is “Good for bees”, bees and other insects will take nectar from it, but I think the case for it being “good for bees” is very questionable. When it flowers it is very popular, but before this it shades out all the other flowering plants that would providing nectar, so across the season it probably provides no more than would be there anyway, it makes the habitat one of feast or famine cutting off food sources earlier in the season.

Flowers are immensely rich sources of food for lots of creatures, perhaps especially insects, but I have watch deer carefully picking off flowers and leaving the rest of the plant. The flower has the protein-rich pollen and the sugar-rich nectar, in short the stuff needed to make animals and keep them running. The flowers are not giving this largess, they are trying to get their pollen transferred to another flower to allow seed formation and make new plants. As the year progresses different flowers become the main attraction for lots of insects. Just now hemlock water dropwort is very attractive, but a new draw is appearing in the form of bramble flowers.

bramble flowers

bramble flowers

We easily notice the larger species such as butterflies, but look closer and you will see lots of tiny insects.

bramble flower with pollen beetles

A bramble flower with several small beetles

I think the beetles in the picture are pollen beetles, but I am not certain.

Closely related to brambles, the roses are at their peak now, the similarity in flower form between the bramble and this dog rose are clear even if the rose is the showier.

dog rose

dog rose

I was pleased to receive reports of four little ringed plover chicks seen today from Tern hide, the first proof of any hatching so far this year. It was also good to see the common tern arriving at the rafts on Ivy Lake carrying small fish to feed newly hatched chicks.

My moth trap highlight today was a lobster moth caught at home, not a species I see very often and I still have to find the extraordinary caterpillar which is the source of the moth’s name.

lobster moth

lobster moth

To refer back to my earlier comments about the food value of flowers, I noticed the mullein moth caterpillar in my garden has eaten most of the flowers off the figwort plant, it has eaten all the best bits first!

mullein moth on figwort

mullein moth on figwort

What’s in My Meadow Today?

I know it is not a plant that belongs in a meadow in southern England, but I like bloody crane’s-bill, so I have it in the meadow, where it grows and seeds quite well.

bloody cranesbill

bloody crane’s-bill flower

Something else that does not really belong are the anthills, this is not because ants are not native here, but you do not usually get anthills in meadows. This is because a meadow is really a field that is grown to produce a crop of grass, so the act of cutting the field would knock down the anthills before they became large. I cut the grass around the anthills taking care to leave them to get bigger year by year as I rather like them. This maybe because I spent many years working at Farlington Marshes where the masses of anthills are a significant feature of the reserve.

anthill

One of the anthills being extended by the ants.