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.

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Busy in the Sunshine

Sorry for the lack of posts, we seem to have been very busy and by the end of the day exhaustion has taken over. It is the time of year when there is lots of growth to cut back, bramble regrowth to cut off and nettle to remove from potential grassland areas. Today I spent the morning removing ragwort from one of the areas due to be mowed later this month and the afternoon mowing bramble regrowth from a bank beside Ibsley Water where we are trying to establish grassland. Hot and heavy work, there are times when I think I am getting too old for it! Being out in the sun did mean I saw lots of butterflies, meadow brown and gatekeeper are probably the most abundant now.

gatekeeper

gatekeper

There are also a number of summer broods out, I saw peacock, small tortoiseshell, common blue, brown argus and small copper. Possibly a side effect of the hot weather is the number of common blue that are unusually small, some as small or smaller than brown argus. I think this happens because the food quality of the plant the caterpillar was on was not good enough or in sufficient quantity for it to grow to full size.

When I had lunch I took a look at the Centre pond and there were dozens of pairs of azure damselfly pairs, egg-laying in tandem. They do this so that the male can be sure that the eggs being laid are the ones that he has fertilised. Some dragonflies do the same and others will stay hovering close tot eh female whilst she lays.

azure damselfly pairs

azure damselfly pairs

I know that I was only doing “What’s in My Meadow Today” during 30 Days Wild, but I will end with a picture from there anyway. One thing that is very noticeable as the grass has gone brown and then yellow is that some plants remain green, field scabious is one of these, which is not just green but flowering well.

small skipper on field scabious

small skipper on field scabious

30 Days Wild – Day 30 – Things Ain’t Always What They Seem

Yet another hot day and another spent mostly at home, I am working tomorrow at Blashford when we have a volunteer task, although what we will do in this heat I am not sure just yet. The day started with a check thought the moth trap, it had caught 26 species including a few first for the year, these were buff footman, grey/dark dagger (another species pair that cannot be separated on sight alone), bird’s wing and a waved black.

waved black

waved black

The waved black is a relatively scarce and rather strange Noctuid moth, it looks like a Geometrid, sitting with wings flat and out to the sides. The larvae eat damp fungi and even lichens and slime moulds.

The hot sun meant the garden was full of insects throughout the day, generally we do not associate moths with hot sunny days but there is one group that only seem to fly in such conditions, the clearwings. The day was ideal for them and I managed to find one species new to the garden, the large red-belted clearwing.

large red-belted clearwing (male)

large red-belted clearwing (male)

Clearwings are very odd moths, they not only fly in bright sunshine, they don’t really look like moths with their largely scaleless wings and in flight they look more like wasps than moths. The larvae feed under the bark of coppiced birch and alder and pupate there also. At this stage I will confess that I did not just look for the moth, I used a pheromone lure. This is an artificially produced chemical that mimics that produced by the female moth to attract the males.

large red-belted clearwing coming to lure

large red-belted clearwing being lured in

To give an idea of the speed of flight the picture above was taken at 1/1250 sec. The moth flew in and circling the lure before landing.

large red-belted clearwing at lure

large red-belted clearwing at lure

After a couple of minutes the fact that there is no female present seems to sink in and they leave, I managed to attract at least three males in about 45 minutes. The lures are usually specific to certain species, I tried five different lures today and only this one attracted any moths. Without the use of lures I have seen only a handful of clearwings in forty years or so of looking for them, use a lure of the right sort on the right day and they just appear.

It was a good day for looking int he meadow so, for the last time….

What’s in My Meadow Today?

Butterflies were very much in evidence with, appropriately enough, meadow brown being one of the most abundant.

meadow brown

meadow brown on field scabious

Small white, large white and small skipper were also much in evidence and there were also a couple of large skipper, a species I have only very occasionally seen in the garden in previous years.

large skipper 2

large skipper on field scabious

Field scabious is a great nectar source for insects and a great plant for a back garden meadow, it has bright showy flowers and a very long flowering season too. The picture shows the incredibly long tongue of the large skipper really well too, their tongues are more feeding tubes really, they reach to the nectar source and suck up the energy rich sugars.

Another great nectar plant is knapweed and these were alive with bees today, including lots of green-eyed flower bee, a small dumpy species with a very high pitched “buzz” that never seems to sit still for a picture.

green-eyed flower bee

green-eyed flower bee on knapweed

Where there are bees there are their followers, one such is the Conopid fly, there are several species and they intercept bees in flight and lay an egg that hooks between the bees abdominal segments, eventually hatching into a parasitic larva, not a pleasant story but it is extraordinary. There are several common species and the one I found was Sicus ferrugineus.

Conopid

Sicus ferrugineus

Juts as there are moths that fly in the daytime and pretend to be wasps there are also flies that pretend to be bees and wasps, some more convincingly than others. Most of the hoverflies in the garden are the various dronefly species that are fairly general bee mimics, but I also spotted one that was definitely more of a wasp mimic.

Xanthogramma pedissequum

Xanthogramma pedissequum

So this is the end of the 30 Days for another year, although I try to get a bit of “Wild” everyday, I may not get around to blogging about it daily. Thanks for your comments and if you have a garden try a mini-meadow, they are great fun and pretty good for wildlife too. Whatever you do, try to have as many Wild Days as you can!

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.

 

Garganey!

When I opened up the Tern hide this morning I was greeted by the sight of a pair of garganey feeding just to the right of the hide. It is always a treat to see these small ducks, our only duck species that visits for the summer having wintered in Africa. They used to be called “Cricket teal” after the call of the drake, or “Summer teal” because they are about the size of a teal and come here for the summer. The only other notable birds was a another common tern, at present they seem to be adding one a day.

Later in the morning I was amazed to hear that there were now 7 garganey on Ibsley Water, some years we don’t even record a single one, clearly there had been a significant arrival of these ducks.

It has been much more spring-like in the last two days and there have been lots of butterflies seen, including brimstone, peacock, small tortoiseshell and comma in some numbers. Adder have been spotting basking by the paths north of Ellingham Drove and the great tit are nest building in earnest. Perhaps spring has finally arrived.

common dog violet

common dog violet, one of the real signs of spring.

Reserve Visiting

I have just returned from a holiday up north where I visited a few reserves myself, but the title here refers to a visitor we had at Blashford today, an avocet. Not perhaps quite the rarity they once were, but still very unusual, unfortunately I missed it. It flew in in the early afternoon and gave good views for  a short time from the Tern hide, I am told there are pictures too, so perhaps some will make it here. I then discovered that there had been an avocet at the Trust’s new Fishlake Meadows reserve in Romsey at about 11:30 and that it had flown off heading west, it seems highly probable that these two sightings relate to the same bird travelling between the two reserves.

The one problem with going away is the number of things that have to be caught up on when you get back and the dread emails kept me in the office for a fair bit of the day, which is not to say that I did not get out on the reserve as well. The sun had brought out a few butterflies, but numbers are on the decline now. I did find a very smart comma near the Goosander hide.

comma

comma

Not far away I also came across a female Roesel’s bush-cricket sitting on one of our benches.

Roesel's bush cricket female

Roesel’s bush-cricket

Looking from Tern hide I saw Walter the great white egret now looking very relaxed with a large group of grey heron. The herons seem not to take so much notice of him these days, at one time they would constantly be chasing him around, perhaps they have just got used to him. It is a curious thing that when little egret were first turning up they were often mobbed by gulls but now they are just ignored. Perhaps there is something about the unusual that elicits these responses and once something is regular they just become part of the scenery.

Locking up I was pleased to see that at least one of our wasp spiders is still going, I am not sure if something has predated the others or if they have laid their eggs. This one looks a though it will not be long before she lays her eggs and disappears.

wasp spider female

wasp spider, female

Emperors

Another very hot day and a good one for insects, hot conditions allow them to be especially active as they do not need to spend time sitting in the sun to warm up as they would on a more normal English summer’s day. I saw my first Blashford silver-washed fritillary of the year, they are regular in small numbers, but never common on the reserve.

silver-washed fritillary

silver-washed fritillary

Later I came across a pair of brown argus, these are the start of the second generation for this species this year.

brown argus pair

brown argus pair

Brown argus are one of the “Blues” but one that forgot this and so is not blue. The same area of grass was also hiding several stridulating Roesel’s bush-cricket, I am quite pleased that I can still hear these as they are quiet high frequency and so one of the species that slip away as we get older. If you do get to see one the pale line around the lower edge of the pronotum is an identifying character.

Roesel's bush-cricket

Roesel’s bush-cricket

However the highlight of the day was none of these fine insects. After lunch I went over to Ellingham Pound to check how the common tern chicks were doing, the answer was just fine and it looks as though all seven will be flown off very soon. It is a good place to see dragon and damselflies and one of the only regular places on the reserve for small red-eyed damselfly and a quick check found one floating on some algae. I then started to look at the dragonflies in the hope of finding a lesser emperor, as there have been quite  few in the country recently and one was reported from Ibsey Water a couple of days ago. After seeing a couple of emperor dragonfly, a distinctive male lesser emperor shot past, after many attempts I got a couple of shots, not great, but I only had a 60mm lens with me!

lesser emperor male

lesser emperor male

The mainly dark abdomen with pale blue “saddle” is what identifies it. As I waited for it to skim past again I inevitably snapped other dragonflies too, when I looked at these pictures later I think one of them shows a female lesser emperor.

lesser emperor female

female

The lesser emperor is a migrant from the south, it used to be regarded as very rare but is getting more common, especially in warm summers and certainly tries to breed here now. It seems it is another species that is trying to colonise thanks to warming temperatures. The Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) seem to be especially responsive to these changes with many species spreading across Europe dramatically in the last couple of decades.

Elsewhere on the reserve there were at least three common sandpiper on Ibsley Water where there was also a juvenile little egret and, at the end of the day, 3 adult yellow-legged gull. I also found that the pair of Mediterranean gull on Long Spit had managed to fledge a single chick, or at least I could only find one. Although they have nested with us before I cannot be completely certain they have raised a chick to flying on Ibsley Water previously.

Hopefully it will cool down a bit next week and I can get some of the paths trimmed, they certainly need it! I had intended to try today but it was just too hot.

On the Hop

On Tuesday we were working on the western shore of Ibsley Water again with the volunteers. Over the years we have been controlling ragwort and nettle that used to be the dominant here to convert it to grassland, at last we are seeing some real results. Much of it is now mainly grass with a good range of herb species, especially bird’s-foot trefoil. We are also seeing a lot more butterflies and other insects, marbled white are especially frequent in the grass there now.

As we worked I heard a lot of Roesel’s bush-cricket and saw field grasshopper and meadow grasshopper. The grassy sward is not ideal for all species though, the mottled grasshopper likes grassland with lots of bare ground and very dry conditions, at Blashford they are mostly found on the lichen heath.

mottled grasshopper male 2

mottled grasshopper (male)

One distinctive thing about the males of this species is that the ends of the antennae are bent out and swollen, they are also our smallest grasshopper. The males were chirruping, or more correctly stridulating, the object of this is to attract a female and I found one that was evidently playing the right song.

grasshopper pair

mottled grasshopper pair

The females are quite a bit larger and have more conventional grasshopper antennae.

Hover Bother and Getting a Goat (Monday)

After yesterday’s attempt at a picture of a flying hoverfly I had to have another go today and I got the chance on my way round to close up at the end of the day. Yesterday’s was a Syrphus species, today’s was Volucella pellucens.

Volucella pellucens

Volucella pellucens in flight

The warm nights are improving things in the moth trap with catches increasing in number and species diversity. The highlight overnight was a very fresh male goat moth.

goat moth

goat moth

These extraordinary moths have caterpillars that eat wood by tunnelling into live trees, especially willows. As wood is not very nutritious they take several years to grow to full size.

It is also proving a good year for butterflies, with most species well up on recent years on the transects. Just now the summer brood of comma are very obvious, nectaring on bramble and just perched out in the sunshine.

comma

Comma, this one has received some damage to the left wings.

Dragon and damselflies are also enjoying the warmer summer with good numbers of most species. The only ones that were scarce seem to have been the spring species, possibly because last year’s spring was so poor there were few to hatch this year even though the conditions were good. So far I have failed to add any new species to the reserve list, despite there being several that could wander here, especially from the New Forest. For instance there is the scarce blue-tailed damselfly, which could easily get blown in and is known to wander from breeding sites. It is rather similar to the much commoner blue-tailed damselfly, which may be one reason why we have so far failed to find one.

blue-tailed damselfly

blue-tailed damselfly (male)

 

30 Days Wild – Day 29: A Grave Day

Luckily not as bad as it sounds, in fact actually a “Jolly”. Each year the volunteer team have a day out at Kitt’s Grave, it is part of the Martin Down National Nature Reserve but belongs to the Wildlife Trust. Although it is managed by Natural England we usually go up top do a couple of tasks each winter, although we did not make it last season. We have been assisting in the clearance of scrub to open up glades and ultimately restore areas of chalk grassland. As we have been doing this for some years it is interesting to see how the habitat has been developing, I am pleased to say that the answer is well so far.

Our visits are usually a great chance to see lots of butterflies, but as we left the car park this morning we were wondering if we would see any at all. Luckily we had a good start in other ways, with a turtle dove purring away in the thorns. Crossing the road to Kitt’s Grave we heard a lesser whitethroat and heard and saw yellowhammer and corn bunting. Then a surprise, a ringlet, then more and marbled white, small skipper, meadow brown, small heath and even dark green fritillary. Although it was overcast it was warm enough for insects to be active, but not so warm that they were too flighty, this allowed a great chance to get really good views as they basked in an attempt to get warm.

ringlet

basking ringlet

Some of the butterflies were warm enough to get on with life.

ringlets

ringlet pair mating

The marbled white were especially numerous and lots of the females were egg-laying.

marbled white

marbled white male basking

I noticed one small skipper below a pyramidal orchid flower spike, at first I thought it was sheltering, but it did not look right, then I realised that it was actually in the jaws of a crab spider, ambushed as it was trying to get warm, or maybe feeding. Luckily not all of them had fallen victim to predators.

small skipper

small skipper on scabious

We also saw silver-washed fritillary, but the most surprising butterfly seen was a purple hairstreak, picked up off the path, but which flew off before a picture could be taken. Although we never saw the sun we did see a common lizard, sitting out in the hope of catching a few rays. As we always do and despite unpromising conditions we had a great time and saw a lot of wildlife. Martin Down is a magical place to go and a reminder of what large parts of the southern chalk must once have been like.