Of moths and other insects, and a bit more besides…

I’ve fallen behind with my Young Naturalists updates, but since meeting at the reserve for the first time in April, enjoying the bird song and river dipping, we’ve been out onsite enjoying all the reserve has to offer, looking for reptiles, improving our moth identification, pond dipping and enjoying the insect life in the meadow. We’ve also been campfire cooking and improving the biodiversity of one part of the reserve by spreading wildflower seed. 

At the end of May we went for a walk on the northern part of the reserve, in the hope of finding some reptiles. We saw chiff chaff, blackcap and reed bunting and enjoyed listening to the reed warblers and Cetti’s warblers calling in the reed bed. 

We headed off into the reedbed to check some of the reptile refugia or felts used by the volunteers when they survey the reptiles. Our first sighting however wasn’t of a reptile, instead we found this caterpillar of the Oak eggar moth on top of one of the felts:

oak eggar caterpillar

Oak eggar caterpillar

The hairy caterpillars feed on bramble, blackthorn, willow, hawthorn, hazel and other woody plants.

Under another refugia we were lucky enough to see our first reptiles, finding two adders. The first disappeared quickly into the vegetation, but the second stayed long enough for some of the group to get a good look and take some photos:

adder Daisy Meadowcroft

Adder by Daisy Meadowcroft

Adder by Daisy Meadowcroft

Adder by Daisy Meadowcroft

After leaving the reed bed we saw speckled woods enjoying the sunshine and watched the sand martins flying over Goosander Hide. We also saw a female adder basking on the bank by the hide.

After lunch we decided to pond dip, catching a very smart male smooth newt:

smooth newt

Smooth newt

We also caught an impressive Emperor dragonfly nymph, which given the number of exuvia around the edge of the pond was a bit of a surprise, there were still more lurking in there!

Emperor dragonfly nymph

Emperor dragonfly nymph

Dragonfly exuvia

Dragonfly exuvia

Dragonfly exuvia 2

Dragonfly exuvia

The larva’s final moult takes place out of the water. As the adult dragonfly emerges from its larval skin, the cast skin or exuvia is left behind. It’s always fun to carefully look for evidence of their metamorphosis amongst the vegetation (and man made structures!) in the pond margins and the group had a good hunt, photographing their finds.

In June I had planned to spend the session focusing on insects, but with the weather so changeable we ended up adding in some campfire cooking as well. We began by looking through the moth trap where the highlight was this Poplar hawk-moth:

Poplar hawk moth

Poplar hawk-moth

Alex with a Poplar hawk moth

Alex with the Poplar hawk-moth

We also had a Buff tip, with its amazing camouflage, a very smart Muslin moth and a Burnished brass:

Buff tip

Buff tip, doing its best broken silver birch twig impression

Muslin moth

Muslin moth

Burnished brass

Burnished brass

Rummaging through the moth trap didn’t take very long, and with the sun briefly making an appearance we hot footed it to the meadow before the showers came.

Meadow sweeping

Meadow sweeping

In the meadow we saw a small skipper butterfly, grasshoppers, a speckled bush cricket, a green leaf weevil and a green-eyed flower bee enjoying the selfheal.

We also saw a number of Thick-legged flower beetles, also known as swollen-thighed beetles and false oil beetles. They are often seen on the flowers of ox-eye daisies and other open-structured flowers and only the males have swollen thighs:

Thick legged flower beetle

Male Thick-legged flower beetle on Ox-eye Daisy

Female Thick-legged flower beetle

Female Thick-legged flower beetle on Perforate St John’s-wort

The meadow and the lichen heath are both covered in Perforate St John’s-wort at the moment, it is having a really good year. Traditionally it was used as a remedy for all kinds of ailments, including wounds and burns, and is still popular today for the treatment of mild depression. Research and opinions however differ on how effective the latter is.

It can be identified by its bright yellow star shaped flowers and the tiny ‘holes’ in its leaves. The holes are in fact colourless glands that apparently give off a foxy smell. If you hold a leaf up to the sun, the tiny holes are easy to see, but they’re definitely more obvious on a sunny day!

Perforate St John's Wort

Tiny ‘holes’ in the leaves of Perforate St John’s-wort on a sunnier day

After a short while in the meadow, we headed back to the Centre collecting nettle tops on the way to make some nettle soup. We also picked some mint and lemon balm from around the pond to make tea. After gathering the kit and our lunches, we headed to the campfire area.

Alex decided to toast his sandwich and after eating we boiled some water for the tea and made our soup. Both had mixed reactions, although to be fair some teas did contain nettle, mint and lemon balm and we possibly gave the wrong person the nettles to wash… so our soup did contain a number of less welcome additions!

July’s session was also influenced by the weather. I had planned to do the Big Butterfly Count with the group last Sunday, something we have participated in with them for the last few years. The UK wide survey is running until the 8th August, so there’s still time to take part if you would like to, you just need 15 minutes and a sunny spot…

Thankfully, moth trapping has improved over the past few weeks, with more species and numbers of moths coming to the traps, and we were able to spend the morning having a good look through and identifying most of what we found.

Daisy made a list of those we were able to identify (we lost a few on opening the traps and some of the micro moths did stump us) and we managed to record 70 moths of 39 species in the first trap and 63 moths of 28 species in the second trap. Both traps were close to the Centre, with one positioned out the front towards the mini meadow by the Welcome Hut and the other positioned out the back of the building.

Our grand total from the Saturday night was 133 moths of 52 species. Here are some of the highlights:

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The Large emerald in particular proved popular:

Large emerald 2

Large emerald

Rosie photographing the large emerald

Rosie photographing the large emerald

After lunch, we went back to the meadow to see if the Bird’s-foot trefoil had gone to seed. If it had, we were going to collect some to add to the other seed we had from Bob to sow, but unfortunately it wasn’t quite ready. We did see a Common blue butterfly resting on a seed head:

Common blue

Common blue

We then went looking for wasp spiders on the lichen heath, managing to find two in amongst the soft rush. Their colours mimic the common wasp, keeping them safe from predators.

Wasp spider

Wasp spider

Wasp spiders build large orb webs in grassland and heathland. Their webs are quite distinctive, with a wide white zig-zag running down the middle known as a stabilimentum.

After some impromptu boat making by Kimberley and Harry, we stopped off at the river to see whether or not their boats would sail:

We then began our seed sowing, adding Bluebell seed in amongst the hazels to the side of the path between the bridge over the Dockens Water and the road crossing to Tern Hide. We swept away the leaf litter and put the seed thinly on the soil surface, before brushing the leaves back over to cover them.

We then crossed over the road towards Tern Hide and went through the gate to the part of the site currently still closed to visitors. This was once a concrete plant, and when the plant was demolished we began restoring the area, including the old main entrance roadway. Although it has taken time, this spot is now well colonised by lots of plants and our addition of some extra seed will hopefully help improve it even more. 

We added Wild carrot to the driveway, scattering it thinly onto patches of bare ground, Devils-bit scabious up on the bank as it prefers a deeper soil and Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon on the same bank, poking each seed individually into the ground using a pencil (we also saved some of these for the mini meadow by the Welcome Hut). Finally we also added Yellow rattle seed and some assorted hawkbits and crow garlic.

Fingers crossed some of them come up!

Thank you to the Cameron Bespolka Trust for funding our purchase of tools and equipment for the group.  

Green-eyed flower bee

Green-eyed flower bee on Inula hookeri by the Education Centre

 

Saved by the moths…

We have been running our fortnightly Young Naturalists catch-ups now since the the end of May and, seven catch-ups in, they are keeping me on my toes in terms of content. Although shorter than a normal on site meeting, making sure we have plenty to discuss for the whole two hours online has kept me busy, collating their photos so we can share them with everyone during the session, catching pond creatures beforehand so we can look at them under the digital microscope, and putting together presentations on other topics, chosen by them and generally not my area of expertise!

I have fallen behind with my Young Naturalist blogs but August’s sessions focused on dragonflies and damselflies (thankfully I now have a good number of photos of different species which made putting together a presentation quite easy)…

lifecycle

Life cycle of a dragonfly and damselfly

…and owls (thankfully the Trust’s image library has a number of fabulous photos of owls that have been taken by other members of staff or sent in by very generous photographers, along with their permission for us to use them)…

owls

Owl presentation

Other birds of prey have also been requested, so the image library will be coming in quite handy again at some point… 

It is always a bit nicer to look at something living though, so at every session we have had one if not two light traps to rummage through and volunteer Nigel has also run his trap at home to add to our moth chances. With the exception of a few cooler nights, we have had a great variety of moths to look at, they have become a regular feature! 

Here are the highlights from the last couple of sessions, plus possibly a few that were caught in between:

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Sticking with the moth theme, this morning there were a pair of Burnished brass in the trap, unmistakable with their brassy, metallic forewings. There are two forms of this moth, which differ in the brown central cross-band which is complete in f. aurea but separated into two blotches in f. juncta

P1200974 (2)

Burnished brass, f.juncta on the left and f. aurea on the right

We haven’t just been catching moths in the light trap, but also lots of caddisflies, shield bugs, beetles and this rather smart looking Eared leafhopper:

Eared leafhopper

Eared leafhopper

They can be found on lichen covered trees, in particular oaks, but are incredibly hard to spot due to their amazing camouflage.

Fingers crossed for some mild September nights so we have some nice autumnal moths to identify for a little longer, or we may have to get into caddisfly identification…

Elsewhere on the reserve the dragonflies continue to be very obliging, with common darter and southern and migrant hawkers perching on vegetation behind the centre to be photographed – the migrant hawker below was pointed out to me by regular visitor John:

Migrant hawker

Migrant hawker

Migrant hawker 2

Migrant hawker

This morning large numbers of house martin were gathering over the main car park by Tern Hide and Ibsley Water, in preparation for their incredible migration to Africa, whilst the shoreline has also become busier, with an increase in wagtails over the past few days.

Yellow wagtail

Yellow wagtail

Pied wagtail

Pied wagtail

Pied wagtail (2)

Juvenile Pied wagtail

Yellow wagtails are summer visitors and they too will head to Africa for the winter. Most Pied wagtails are residents however those that occupy northern upland areas will head south for the colder months, boosting the populations already found in the warmer valleys, floodplains and on the south coast. They can migrate as far as north Africa to escape the cold.

Our Young Naturalists group is kindly supported by the Cameron Bespolka Trust.

A clear surprise

This week I have been putting out a number of temporary signs to highlight some of the wildflowers currently in bloom on the reserve, including herb robert, red campion, foxglove and hedge woundwort.

All are brightening up the woodland at the moment, but I particularly like the hedge woundwort with its hooded magenta-pink flowers. It is known more for having a particularly unpleasant smell, which from getting close to it to photograph the flowers and put the sign in I have to agree it does! As its name suggests, it was in the past used as a herbal remedy with its bruised leaves said to alleviate bleeding.

hedge woundwort 2

Hedge woundwort

Whilst walking round I noticed a couple of other plants growing I don’t remember noticing before, possibly because this time of year is usually our busiest for school visits and as such opportunities to stop, look, photograph and identify something different are usually few and far between. I spotted woody nightshade or bittersweet growing amongst the bramble in the hedge by Ivy Silt pond, and another one growing near the boardwalk past Ivy South hide. Belonging to the nightshade family it is toxic. The flowers appear from May to September and are followed by clusters of poisonous bright red berries. The leaves apparently smell of burnt rubber when crushed, although I didn’t crush them to test this out!

woody nightshade

Woody nightshade or bittersweet

Further along the Dockens path I found some stinking iris which has dull yellowy purple flowers. Also known as the roast beef plant, it gets its name from the smell of the leaves when crushed or bruised, which is said to resemble rotten raw beef. In the autumn its seed capsules will open to reveal striking red-orange berries, which do ring a bell.

stinking iris

Stinking iris

The moth trap has also revealed a number of different moths over the last few days. On Tuesday there was a peach blossom in the trap, which is definitely a favourite with its pretty pinkish spots on a brown backgound. There was another in the trap yesterday which looked fresher:

Other highlights included a cinnabar, buff tip, burnished brass and today an elephant hawk-moth.

Yesterday I walked a bit further up to Lapwing Hide to see what was about and saw mandarin duck and a pair of kingfisher on the Clearwater Pond. Closer to Lapwing Hide there was a little grebe feeding young on Ibsley Silt Pond. From the hide I was surprised by how many birds were on Ibsley Water, as it has been fairly quiet recently. Whilst watching the swallows, sand martins and house martins swooping over the lake I realised there were more swans on the water than I had seen before and in counting them reached a grand total of 99. There could have easily been over 100 as I couldn’t see into the bay by Goosander Hide or the other side of the spit island.

There were also at least 86 greylag geese and 40 Canada geese. They must have been disturbed off the river and decided Ibsley Water was a safer spot.

On walking round to Tern Hide I saw at least four meadow brown, the most butterflies I think I have seen at any one time this year so far. This one settled long enough for a photo:

meadow brown

Meadow brown

From Tern Hide I saw a distant little ringed plover, off to the right of the hide on the shingle and my first sighting of one this year. The biting stonecrop around the edges of the car park is flowering: it is also known as goldmoss because of its dense low growing nature and yellow star shaped flowers. The common centaury which can be seen in places off the edges of the footpaths and also on the lichen heath is beginning to flower. As with other members of the gentian family, its pink flowers close during the afternoon.

The planters outside the centre are still providing good views of insect life, despite the drop in temperature and absence some days of sun. I managed to get a photo of one of the dark bush crickets that have been hiding in amongst the Lamb’s ear and also spotted a ladybird larva which after a bit of research I think might be of the cream spot ladybird.

Today I popped briefly to the meadow which apart from the large numbers of damselfly was quite quiet. I saw one solitary bee enjoying the ox-eye daisies and also spied a female bee-wolf in her sandy burrow. I watched her for some time.

The damselflies have still been active on the wing despite the lack of sunshine and I managed to photograph an azure blue damselfly to the side of the path and a pair of I think common blues mating in the mini meadow by the welcome hut.

Today’s highlight though has to be bumping into a visitor, Dave Shute, who had come to Blashford in the hope of some bright weather and seeing a clearwing moth. He just about got away with it!

Clearwings are a group of day-flying moths that look a bit like wasps but are usually very rarely seen. As their name suggests, they differ from other moths in that their wings frequently lack scales and are instead transparent. As a result of them being hard to track down, pheromone lures have been developed to make finding them that little bit easier, and these are artificial chemicals that mimic those released by female moths to attract the males. Bob has put out lures here in the past, usually attracting red-tipped clearwing whose caterpillars favour willow, and last summer also found an orange-tailed clearwing which was attracted to a lure designed for both these and the yellow-legged clearwing.

I was lucky enough to see the orange-tailed clearwing last summer but don’t think I have seen a red-tipped clearwing before, and this was the lure Dave had bought. He had seen one come to the lure but disappear before I saw him, but whilst we were chatting another came and this time rested on a nearby bramble allowing us to photograph it, I think the sun disappearing at that moment helped!

red tipped clearwing

Red-tipped clearwing

The lures do not harm the moths, but they should only be used for a short period of time and it is best not to use individual species lures regularly at one site in one season so as not to disturb the insects too much.

It was great to see and a surprise for an otherwise rather grey and wet day, so thank you Dave!

Camping out

This summer our Young Naturalists once again spent a night on the reserve, cooking dinner and breakfast over the campfire, setting and checking mammal traps, listening to bats, sleeping under a poncho or tarp shelter and getting up nice and early for a morning stroll up to Lapwing Hide.

Meeting in the morning, our first task was to finish off the bug hotel which we had almost completed the month before. To finish it off, we lined the roof with pond liner before adding a piece of wood around each of the four edges which enabled us to add a layer of gravel on top of the liner. We then put some sedum matting which had been left over from the construction of the Welcome Hut on top of the gravel.

Should it rain heavily, the top of the bug hotel will be protected by the liner which will stop water from seeping down and the gravel should allow a space for drainage ensuring the sedum does not become waterlogged.

The bugs have been quick to move in! We have already spotted spiders, parasitic wasps checking out the bamboo canes and our Welcome Volunteer Gail, after some very patient waiting, managed to take this photo of a Digger Wasp inside one of the tubes:

Digger wasp by Gail Taplin

Digger wasp by Gail Taplin

It was then time to head over to our camp area and put up our shelters for the night, using tarpaulins or ponchos and whittling tent pegs from willow. Finley and Percy had a go at making clay models – their clay men looked brilliant!

Clay people

Clay people by Finley and Percy

Shelters by Torey

Shelters by Torey

After setting up camp we gathered firewood whilst locking the hides, put out some apples and Geoff’s trail cam by the Woodland Hide to see what wildlife we could film overnight, set some mammal traps near the Education Centre and re-set the moth trap.

It was then time to get the fire going and cook dinner:

Camp

Chatting by the fire

 

Cooking

Ben in charge of the chips (we did eat more than chips!)

That evening we went on a night walk in search of bats and had a great time on the edge of the Lichen Heath and in Ivy South Hide listening to them on the bat detectors. We also heard Tawny owls calling and spotted a couple of constellations (The Plough and Cassiopeia) in the night sky. After a pudding of marshmallows, baked apples or bananas filled with chocolate it was time to retreat to our shelters and try to get some sleep.

Fire

Campfire

After threatening the group with a four am start (they weren’t keen) we were up just after five am and after a quick snack, headed off up to Lapwing to see what wildlife we could spot.

Damselfly

Damselfly hiding behind the soft rush

Heading back via Tern Hide we opened up the rest of the reserve, retrieved Geoff’s trail cam and checked the mammal traps set the night before. Whilst most of them were empty, we were lucky enough to catch a woodmouse in one, which we looked at before releasing it carefully back into the bramble:

WoodmouseIt was then time to light the fire again, cook breakfast and tidy away our shelters.

After breakfast we went through the light trap to see what had been attracted to it the night before, and this Burnished brass was definitely the highlight:

Burnished brass

Burnished brass

Finally, we had a look at Geoff’s trail cam and we were delighted to discover images of a jay, lots of footage of the fallow deer enjoying the apples and rather excitedly a fox:

jay

Jay

deer

Fallow deer

fox

Fox

A huge thank you to Geoff and Yvette who very kindly volunteered their time for the campout and stayed the night, we definitely couldn’t run such sessions without their help. We had a lovely time!

Our Young Naturalists group is supported by the Cameron Bespolka Trust.

30 Days Wild – Day 23 – Skippers

Plans to go out came to nothing and various small tasks took over, still these were interspersed with looks around the garden, so all of today’s wildlife is back garden based.

The night was actually quiet cool and the moth catch was correspondingly modest but included one species new for the year, a burnished brass. There has been much discussion recently as to the possible existence of two species within what we have known as “burnished brass”. It seems likely that moths with the two brassy areas significantly joined to form an “H” shape are the “new” species being christened the cryptic burnished brass.

burnished brass

burnished brass

This one has got the two areas joined but not widely enough to be likely to be a candidate for the cryptic version.

What’s in My Meadow Today?

The day was warm, although not always sunny it was quiet warm enough for butterflies to be active the whole time. During the day in the meadow I saw several meadow brown, including egg-laying females, large skipper, small white and small skippers.

small skipper (male)

small skipper (male)

The ends of the antennae lack the black “full stop” of the Essex skipper and the dark line on the forewing, known as the “sex brand”, is longer and not as straight.

Large, small and Essex skippers, and come to that Lulworth and silver-spotted too, sit with their wings in this half open position, unless with wings fully closed.

small skipper (male) 2

small skipper (male)

Although they were perched for long periods on the wild carrot flowers they were not feeding, it appeared that they were using the flat, white surface of the flowers as a reflector.

Also visiting the wild carrot was a tiny bee, it is one of the yellow-face bees, these can usually be identified by the pattern of pale markings on the “face”, if I am correct this one is the white-jawed yellow-face bee Hylaeus confusus.

Hylaeus confusus crop

white-jawed yellow-face bee (female)

Having a range of flower types in the meadow attracts different species of bees and other insects, different species being adapted to feeding from different flowers. The leaf-cutter bees prefer larger flowers and especially like the trefoils.

bee on bird's-foot trefoil

leaf-cutter bee on bird’s-foot trefoil

The other day I featured Jack-go-to-bed-at -noon in flower, one of the alternative names for this plant is goat’s beard, now it has gone to seed it is easy to see why.

Jak-go-to-bed-at-noon seedhead

Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon seedhead

The seeds are quite large but the fluffy “parachute” they float on is very large and they can get carried considerable distances.