30 Days Wild – Day 2 – Hawks and Dragons

Once again a day off at home trying to work in the garden, but the sun was a bit much so productivity was rather low!

However the day started with a look through the moth trap, most of the moths would have been attracted before midnight when it was warmer, but as the minimum was 14 degrees some will have been active throughout. The pick of the catch were a couple of hawk-moths.

lime hawkmoth

lime hawk-moth

Lime hawk caterpillars eat the leaves of lime trees, but also birch. Many hawk-moths are named after the larval foodplant, or at least one of them. The privet hawk-moth caterpillars eat privet, but also lilac and ash, it is our largest resident hawk-moth.

privet hawkmoth

privet hawk-moth

Other moths caught were buff-tip, heart and dart, treble lines, flame shoulder, light brocade and fox moth.

The sun brought a few butterflies out, I saw a male common blue and a female brimstone in the garden during the early afternoon.

brimstone female on storksbill

female brimstone nectaring on storksbill

The sun also encouraged a fair few hoverflies to feed on flowers in the borders.

dronefly on fox and cubs

Dronefly Eristalis horticola on fox and cubs

Eventually I gave up on the garden and went out for a walk in the New Forest, luckily I live close enough not to need to drive there. The recent wet weather has filled a lot of the small ponds and each one seemed to have a broad-bodied chaser or two.

broad-bodied chaser male

broad-bodied chaser male

There were also good numbers of emperor and four-spotted chaser too.

The New Forest is one of the largest areas of semi-natural open space in Southern England, although a “Forest” it has a lot of wide open treeless areas. This is because a forest in this context is a place where deer were hunted rather than, as we tend to think today, a place dominated by trees. To pick up on the theme of Jo’s post of the other day and also highlight a particular problem within the Forest, I did see a couple of invasive alien species on my short walk. Both were attractive escapes from cultivation and wetland species.

invasive iris

Iris laevigata growing in a New Forest mire

In the background of this shot is another invasive, the white water-lily.

white water-lily

white water-lily

Finally………..

What’s in My Meadow Today?

Although it is perhaps not really a meadow plant I do have a few wild carrot plants in the meadow, like all umbellifers they are very attractive to insects, so I allow them in. The flowers are only just opening and actually look rather interesting just before the flowers open with the head enclosed caged.

wild carrot

wild carrot flower head just about to open.

Two days gone, just another 28 to go!

The Blues

The last few days have seen warm sunshine by day but chilly nights, meaning it has been poor for moths but good for day-flying insects. Today at Blashford Lakes I saw my first scarce chaser and downy emerald of the year and there were other dragonflies about too with reports of emperor, broad-bodied chaser and hairy dragonfly.

Most of the butterflies that over winter by hibernation as adults are getting scarce now and spring species such as orange-tip are dropping in numbers. there are a few whites around with all three of the common species, but the highlight today was the emergence of  blues. The small meadow near Ivy North hide had six or more male common blue as I went to lock up and at least three brown argus as well, the argus is brown, but an honorary “blue” all the same..

common blue male

common blue (male), freshly emerged.

The brown argus look very like small female common blue, and the male common blues will get up to chase one if it flies by, however they quickly realise their mistake and give up. The first emergences are all males and the females will follow in a day or so. The reason for this is the same as that for male migrant bird arriving just ahead of the females. Evolution will push the males to be in place and ready for the first females to arrive, it does not pay to be late, so the pressure for males to be early is greater than that on females, who can afford to wait until they know there will be males to mate with.

The spring solitary bees are starting to disappear now, many species collect pollen from just a few plants and as these cease to flower they need to wrap up their breeding cycle. I did come across one interesting species today though, it was one of the nomad bees and the smallest species of them to be found in Britain, Nomada sheppardana.

Nomada sheppardana

Nomada sheppardana on forget-me-not

Visiting flowers is something many insects have to do to feed, it may sound an unproblematic things to do, the flowers want to offer a nectar reward, or perhaps bribe might be a better description, to the insects that will pollinate them. However it is not as safe as it might sound, flowers can hide predators, especially the camouflaged crab spider which match their colour to the flowers they sit on.

crab spider with hoverfly

crab spider with hoverfly prey

The crab spider here matched the hawthorn flowers so well that I missed it and initially set up to take a picture of the hoverfly, only then did I see the spider!

It has not been a good year for ground-nesting birds so far this spring, with most lapwing and little ringed plover losing their eggs to predators. I suspect mammals at night as the ones nesting on the islands are doing much better. Or at least they were, on Thursday might all the black-headed gull on Long Spit abandoned their nests. Although I don’t know for sure I suspect that something swam out there and ate their eggs, probably a fox or a badger. These mammals are usually not that keen on swimming, but if they are hungry they will go to great lengths to get the food they want, I think small mammals, which are their preferred prey, are in short supply this year, which might be why they are seeking birds eggs more actively.

Despite a bad time for some ground-nesters the pair of oystercatcher are still doing well, with their two chicks growing well. They hatched on Long Spit, moved off to the shore near Tern hide and have now returned to Long Spit, this meant they were not out there on the night of the predator raid. So far the main gull colony on Gull Island shows no sign of being attacked and neither do the tern rafts on Ivy Lake.

 

Insects on the Up?

The progress of the season has been rather erratic this year, with spells of very warm or even hot weather interspersed with much colder days. Overall I think that we are still a little behind the average of recent years, but it is a very mixed picture.

Sunday was a fine, warm, sunny day with little wind, ideal for insects and I saw my first beautiful demoiselle, broad-bodied chaser, four-spotted chaser and emperor dragonfly of the year. The four-spotted chaser had emerged from the Centre pond, I think th efirst time I have proved that they have done so there, although I have seen individuals there a number of times. Numbers of large red, common blue, azure and blue-tailed damselfly are also continuing to build.

I am trying to look more closely at the bees on the reserve this year, Blashford has a lot of dry ground with sandy slopes, ideal for solitary bees. In fact “brownfield sites” such as Blashford are particularly good for bees as they often have variations in soil type, slopes and banks ideal for nesting.

Andrena bicolor

Andrena bicolor

Gwynne’s mining bee, Andrena bicolor is one of our commonest spring mining bees and also has a summer brood, it is a close relative of the much rarer grey -backed mining bee, Andrena vaga which was found on the reserve for the first time a couple of weeks ago. The rarer species is still around, but not in the same numbers as a fortnight ago, some of them are getting worn now and so look rather like the much commoner ashy mining bee Andrena cineraria.

ashy mining bee excavating

ashy mining bee Andrena cineraria excavating a nest tunnel.

For several years now there has been increasing evidence of an overall decline in total insect abundance, it is very hard to prove absolutely but accounts of declining moth trap catches and a general scarcity of many insects is attested by many. Older people will remember that when travelling any distance by car in the summer it was necessary to clean many squashed insects off the windscreen. Of course more aerodynamic cars may be a factor too. Whatever the reason it has become much harder to find many insect species in the average summer these days. It was pleasing to see a fair few hoverflies out yesterday including a number of Cheilosia species, a rather difficult genus of mainly black species, the identification of the images below maybe open to revision!

Cheilosia bergenstammi male

Cheilosia bergenstammi (male)

Cheilosia impressa

Cheilosia impressa (female)

Despite the warmer days the nights are still quiet cool and so the moth trap has remained quiet. The pick of the catch was a chocolate-tip moth, it is evidently quiet a good year for therm as this was the third we have caught recently.

chocolate-tip

chocolate-tip

The only grasshoppers and crickets about at present are a few tiny nymphs, but this is the time for finding adult groundhoppers, although the only one I saw was a common groundhopper, but at least it posed for a picture.

common groundhopper

common groundhopper

It would be good to think that we are turning a corner in the insect decline, unfortunately I doubt it, I suspect the wider environment is continuing to become less insect friendly. Although some of this is down to the use of very effective insecticides and industrial mono-culture farming, it is also our overall failure to leave any space for them, even where it would be easy to do so.

30 Days Wild – Day 18: Hotting-up

Sunday and it certainly was a day of sun and one to try and stay out of it too. We were due to visit Wisley Gardens but before we went I had a look around our garden and found a male broad-bodied chaser perched on a dead stem in the border.

broad-bodied chaser

male broad-bodied chaser

We went from our modest suburban plot to the manicured expanse of the RHS gardens. As we have a perennial border I am always interested to see what the borders in these large gardens are growing. I am a fan of very big plants so am always on the look out for new ones, especially Umbellifers, which are usually good for insects. I was especially impressed by one huge one, when I checked the label I realised it was a plant I have growing as a seedling in a pot and here it was with towering 4m high flowering stems.

It was so hot that it was quite difficult to stay out in the more open areas, it was not only the people that were feeling the heat and in a shady grassland I came across a white-legged damselfly perched up out of the sun.

white-legged damselfly

white-legged damselfly

30 Days Wild – Day 11: Various Insects

Still a windy day but none the less quite warm in the sun, so if you could find some shelter it was very pleasant. The kind of day to go looking for insects making the most of exactly such places. In the garden the moth trap had one new species for the year, a varied coronet.

varied coronet

varied coronet

This moth was known only as a scarce migrant until about 70 years ago when it started to breed in Kent, since when it has spread widely, although I don’t often catch it myself.

I found a number of insects around the garden warming themselves including a number of hoverflies.

Merodon equestris

Merodon equestris

This one looks like a bumblebee in an effort to be left alone by birds, it is also known as the greater bulb-fly as the larvae feed on bulbs, it is not a favourite with many gardeners.

By the pond I found an unfortunate broad-bodies chaser that had emerged but failed to get its wings properly expanded, it will never fly, after a year of development in the pond it had failed at the last hurdle.

unfortunate Libellula depressa

unfortunate dragonfly

In the afternoon I ventured out into the New Forest for a short walk. Again it was the sheltered clearings that harboured the most wildlife and in one patch of sunlight I spotted a humming-bird hawk-moth, luckily it landed allowing me to get a picture.

humming-bird hawk-moth

humming-bird hawk-moth

There were also hoverflies, although not so many as in the garden. On one sunny logs I found a specimen of Xylota abiens.

Xylota abiens
Xylota abiens

These hoverflies almost never visit flowers, but are often seen sunning themselves or moving over leaves, they may find the food they need from honeydew on leaves rather than nectar from flowers. This individual ahs picked up a hitch-hiker in the form of a tiny red mite which you can just make on the top of the thorax.

I also found one dragonfly, this time a recently emerged keeled skimmer.

keeled skimmer close up

keeled skimmer close-up

This close-up shows how the front legs are not used for standing, but held up behind the head ready to be used for manipulating prey to allow feeding in flight.

30 Days Wild – Day 7: Top Tips

Up and out early, relatively early anyway, to do a bird survey at our Linwood reserve this morning. Many species now have fledged young so the trees were full of birds, the highlight was probably a redstart at a probable nest site on the reserve edge.

Then on to Blashford where I was pleased to see the three small lapwing chicks and at least one of the larger ones still surviving along with both oystercatcher youngsters, all from Tern hide. I had to remove a fallen branch from the roof of Ivy North hide, luckily it had not damaged the roof itself, I hope the winds have now abated and we won’t have any more down for a while.

I then went to do some nettle control on the shore of Ibsley Water, we are making great progress removing the large nettle beds and establishing a grassland sward with a good scatter of ox-eye daisy and other flowers. I did have to check first so as to avoid the patches with peacock and small tortoiseshell larvae. The western shore is usually well sheltered from the prevailing winds and so it was today. I saw a fair few meadow brown butterflies and a lot of damselflies and dragonflies including banded demoiselle and three species of chasers, four-spotted, broad-bodied and scarce, all making the most of the windbreak provided by the roadside trees. Scarce chaser used to be very rare but seems to have benefited from climate change and is now more widely seen, it has also   moved from breeding only in rivers and now uses lakes and gravel pits as well.

scarce chaser

scarce chaser

Both the females and recently emerged males look like the one above, but the males develop blue abdomens with age.

At lunchtime I tried out a lure for clearwing moths outside the Centre whilst I ate my lunch. These moths are rarely seen as they do not come to light and are very fast flying. The lures are artificial chemicals that mimic the pheromones produced by female moths. Each species has a unique chemical signal and I tried the one for red-tipped clearwing today and had immediate success!

red-tipped clearwing coming to lure

red-tipped clearwing attracted to a pheromone lure

In a short time I saw perhaps six individuals, with up to three at one time. The lure only attracted them for a few tens of seconds before they seemed to become aware they had been duped. They are very fast and even at a high shutter speed I could still not stop the wing beats. As you can see they do not really look like moths and it would be easy to pass it off as a wasp. Eventually one did land on a nearby bramble allowing me to get a somewhat better picture.

red-tipped clearwing

red-tipped clearwing

Red-tipped clearwing caterpillars feed on willows feeding on stems rather than leaves, most clearwings caterpillars feed by tunnelling into wood and roots, making them even harder to find that the adults. A great bit of “Wild” to go with my lunch!

 

30 Days Wild – Day 1: Weird Stuff

Here we are again, another June and another 30 Days Wild, I will try to keep up this year and post something every day.

I was at Blashford today with the volunteers tidying up on the southern shore of Ivy Lake, clearing away some old tern rafts and doing a little Himalayan balsam pulling, actually the volunteers did these things, I cut a few brambles and set up the telescope to count the nesting common tern. I am pretty sure we now have 25 pairs on the rafts with nests and eggs, possibly 26 pairs. So with five pairs on the Pound we have reached thirty pairs for the first time! This has been a really successful project and almost entirely the work of our great volunteer team. Over the last ten years the Blashford terns have consistently produced more flying chicks per pair than any other local colony, with many pairs achieving the magical 100% success rate, laying three eggs and fledging three chicks. Over the last year we have made a whole set of new rafts funded by a grant from Hampshire Ornithological Society (HOS) to a design refined and honed by our volunteer team.

During the course of the work we came across two grass snake, a nest of bank vole and a number of dragonflies including an emperor, scarce chaser and broad-bodies chaser.

The weirdest thing I saw today though was an old favourite of mine, a slime mould, these are strange organisms that usually live as single cells but aggregate to form sporangia and it is this stage that we can see on old wet logs. The one I found today near the Woodland hide was a Stemonitis, possibly Stemonitis axifera. They take less than a day to aggregate, develop and produce spores and then disappear.

Stemonitis axifera

Slime mould, probably Stemonitis axifera on a damp log near the Woodland hide.

Regulars will be pleased to hear that the two lapwing chicks and the two oystercatcher chicks are still doing well outside Tern hide, with an additional and larger, oystercatcher chick in the distance on Gull Island as well.

You can see various 30 Days Wild stuff on Twitter via #30DaysWild and probably lots of other places too and it is still not too late to join the over 45,000 people who have signed up to do something wild on 30 Days. Our environment is vital to our wellbeing, physical and mental health and it is where we live, despite this it is not getting much attention

Stay Close

At the Tern hide there is still a pair of lapwing with three chicks and now also a pair of oystercatcher with two chicks. Lapwing are good parents, they will defend their chicks vigorously, but they still have to find their own food and so wander off making them vulnerable to predators. Oystercatcher are great defenders and also find food for their chicks. This has two clear advantages, the chicks can stay very close to their parents and they get  a lot more food. I watched the birds yesterday afternoon and the adults were feeding the chick a good sized food item every 30 seconds or so.

stay close

Oystercatcher chicks stay close for protection and food.

A number of people told me there was only one chick, but this mistake is easy to make as the adults seem to concentrate on feeding one chick at a time the other resting, well hidden and probably digesting all the food it has just had.

More dragonflies are noticeable around the reserve, yesterday I saw broad-bodied chaser and black-tailed skimmer and numbers of damselflies are really impressive.

black-tailed skimmer

Recently emerged black-tailed skimmer

Damsels, Dragons, Millers, Footmen, Pebbles, Arches and an Elephant

It’s that time of year when, in the insect world, we would expect there to be an awful lot happening . So , as we have done for the last few years, we put on a dragonfly walk on the reserve. At the same time last year I actually ‘phoned around to the people who had booked, advising them that there was little to be seen.  If you remember last summer was a little short of sunshine and warmth.

This year’s walk  promised to be an entirely different affair. Indeed as we opened up the main car park near the Tern Hide there was a little blue gem of an insect by the gate.  It settled on a patch of gravel, darted of rapidly and returned to the same spot and repeated this activity several times, whilst I was trying to inset the key into the padlock. From its size, colour  and behaviour (settling on the ground) it was almost certainly a black-tailed skimmer, not a dragonfly I immediately associate with the reserve . Unfortunately with binoculars and camera in  our car boot and time pressure to open up the reserve and prepare for our visitors, I didn’t get a good view or a picture.  Things were, perhaps,  looking promising for the walk!

On the way round opening the other hides there were an enormous number of blue damselflies , mostly common blue damselfly. We extended our perambulations beyond  simply opening up the hides and were fortunate enough to see a couple of female broad-bodied chaser dragonflies.

We had a dozen participants for the walk.  The temperature was starting to rise so that we had,if anything, the reverse problem of last year.  so I planned a route that would start at the pond near the Education centre and then take us through some of the more shady parts of the reserve to the open, sunny glades where we had seen the damselflies and dragonflies earlier.

All worked fairly well and we had some views of common blue, large red, blue-tailed and emerald damselfly around the pond.   As we wandered further afield we were treated to little pockets of activity, where many common blue damselflies abounded, although we failed to find any azure damselfly which I had hoped would give us good comparison with the common blue. With the temperature climbing sightings of dragonflies were sparse and fleeting. A couple of Emperor dragonfly and distant brown hawker from the Ivy South Hide area and a brief view of  a broad-bodied chaser and another high-flying brown hawker, near the bridge over Dockens Water, were the best on offer.  Fortunately a quick stop at Ivy South Hide rewarded everyone with a clear view of a scarce chaser, perched on a branch over the water and periodically darting out and then back to its perch.

During the wind-up session, back at the pond,  a very obliging common darter (In best ‘Blue Peter’ tradition – ‘one I’d released earlier!!’) made a welcome appearance.

Sorry to say I don’t have any pictures to show you, most of them were moving too rapidly for me to get any decent shots, but I managed to capture an evocative image of some common blue damselflies.

Common blue damselflies

Common blue damselflies

But the heat that made the dragonflies so elusive was a positive help in encouraging  moths into activity and many were attracted to the light trap. With over 100 macro moths from 33 different species there were many attractive insects to catalogue.  In a strange echo of the somewhat mystic or medieval tag of ‘Damsels and Dragons’ which apply to the species mentioned above, many of the moth names have, for me, a resonance of earlier times.   Unlike the dragonflies these are most obliging and I love the myriad shapes and colours( I still don’t understand why are they so colourful when for the most part they are active at night???)  so I thought I’d share a few images with you:-

Miller

Miller

Rosy footman

Rosy footman

Pebble prominent

Pebble prominent

Buff-tip

Buff-tip

Buff Arches

Buff Arches

Elephant Hawkmoth

Elephant Hawkmoth

All the above were at Blashford, but if I may  I’d like to include one we caught at home Friday night – this wonderful Lime Hawkmoth ( a first for me!!)

Lime Hawkmoth

Lime Hawkmoth

As I said above, it’s a time for insects and other mini-beasts, not least of which at the moment are the huge numbers of harvestmen in, on and around all the hides. They are related to spiders, but with almost imposibly long legs.

Harvestman

Harvestman

But let’s not forget the animals that, perhaps, Blashford Lakes are most famous for, the birds.  In particular, the common tern where the tern rafts have, once again, proved very successful, despite earlier worries about the numbers of black-headed gulls that had also taken up residence. I’ll leave you with this image showing a couple of young birds with adults.

Common tern and young

Common tern and young

The drunken, merry god of the woodlands.

It now really seems as though summer has arrived.  The rise in temperature and bright sunlight are encouraging a bit more insect activity, although not yet as much as I would have hoped. On the butterfly front I’ve recently seen red admiral, meadow brown, speckled wood, small white and large white.

Three out of the first four visitors today were asking about dragonflies on the reserve. Good numbers of damselflies including azure damselfly, common blue damselfly, blue-tailed damselfly, red-eyed damselfly and large red damselfly are out at the moment.  Emperor dragonfly and scarce chaser have been seen and a female broad-bodied chaser was seen hanging up on vegetation around the small pond behind the education centre.

Female Broad-bodied Chaser

Female Broad-bodied Chaser

I always think of dragonflies as being superb aeronauts with almost magical powers of flight to hover, dart and even fly backwards or upside- down, so it was a bit of a shock to find a golden-ringed dragonfly floating in the water in a ditch, looking as though it had met its end. Rescuing it was relatively easy and it crawled off of my finger onto a tree stump,where it slowly dried out before flying off.

Golden-ringed Dragonfly  - drying out after being rescued from a puddle in a ditch

Golden-ringed Dragonfly – drying out after being rescued from a puddle in a ditch

The general consensus of opinion seems to be that the poor weather last year is responsible for the dearth of butterflies and moths, this year.  Whether (weather?) this is the case or not, there has been a decline in the numbers of moths coming to the light trap.  Last night there were some 24 individual moths representing 16 different species, not a large catch for what is probably the peak time for moths. Among the catch were a  privet hawkmoth and an eyed hawkmoth.

Privet Hawkmoth  - Sphinx ligustri

Privet Hawkmoth – Sphinx ligustri

Probably the most eye-catching of the rest was this buff ermine

Buff Ermine  Spilosoma luteum

Buff Ermine  – Spilosoma luteum

A constant fascination, to me, is the way that all animals and plants have an instinctive, in-built knowledge or awareness of the passage of time and the changing of the seasons. Only by this mechanism are they able to co-ordinate the synchronisation of, say, all plants of the same species  coming into flower together.   As I was wandering around earlier, opening up the hides, I chanced upon a fine display of flowers on several groups of sedges – I think!! ( Some of you will know that  my botanical knowledge is somewhat selective and when it comes to ‘grass-like’ stuff rather suspect!) Well whatever they are their flowers, although only yellow-green are really quite delightful in close-up.

sedge flower(?)

sedge flower(?)

Much of the vegetation on the reserve is of the green variety, so it’s always nice to see a splash of colour. Today one of the more obvious plants ‘on parade’ were the flowers of red campion, with their characteristic swellings behind the petals, they are almost unmistakable.  But, having been caught out recently on plant names, I thought I’d check. It’s only when you bother to look up some of these things that you find that even some of our common plants have interesting connections in folk-lore and fascinating biology. The scientific name for red campion is Silene dioica. Silene comes from Silenus, in Greek mythology,  who is the ‘drunken, merry god of woodlands’. The second part of the name dioica, refers to ‘two houses’  and refers to the fact that each plant has flowers of only one sex so that two plants are needed for pollination and seed production.

Red Campion - Silene dioica - the drunken, merry god of the woodands

Red Campion – Silene dioica – the drunken, merry god (goddess?) of the woodlands