Here be dragons!

Yesterday we had our second Young Naturalists catch up via Zoom, looking once more at the moths in the light trap using the digital microscope and also at some pond creatures I had caught out of the new dipping pond first thing.

We talked about dragonfly and damselfly nymphs and had another look at an exuvia I had found floating in the pond (the dried outer casing left behind when the nymph finishes the aquatic stage of its lifecycle), looked at lesser and greater waterboatmen and a couple of different diving beetles and a diving beetle larva, talked about what materials cased caddisfly larva use to make their cases (the one I caught was thinner and more streamlined than the one in the photo below, living in a tiny tube made of pieces of reed or leaf), talked about the feathery gills on the baby newts or efts which enable them to breathe underwater and are absorbed as they develop, and watched a whirligig beetle whizzing around on the surface of the water – they definitely have the best name out of all the pond creatures!

I didn’t get round to taking any photos of the creatures as a number were trying to escape whilst I was talking about them, so they were swiftly released back into the pond whilst volunteer Nigel chatted through the moths he had caught in his light trap at home. Here are some photos I took a while ago now, it was quite nice to go pond dipping again!

Nigel had also prepared an A to Z of birds quiz which kept the group entertained, especially as not all of the birds were native to this country. Bonus points were also awarded for additional questions about each bird, so I think the group learnt a thing or two, including where Nigel has been on past holidays!

After a very soggy start to the day the sun came out after lunch so I went for a walk around the reserve. In the meadow I was treated to some great views of a female Black-tailed skimmer, who I had disturbed when passing but seemed content to settle again on the grass:

Female Black-tailed skimmer

Female Black-tailed skimmer

Seeing dragonflies and damselflies at rest is one of the best ways to tell the two apart, dragonflies rest with their wings outstretched, as above, whereas damselflies rest with their wings held together over their abdomen or body:

common blue damselfly

Common blue damselfly at rest

I also found a Mint moth, Pyrausta purpuralis enjoying the ox-eye daisies. Although the grass and flower stems turned brown very quickly with the absence of rain, the flowers themselves are still blooming.

P1180411 (2)

Mint moth, Pyrausta purpuralis

On my way up to Lapwing Hide I saw what I first thought was a bumblebee, but on closer inspection realised it was a bumblebee hoverfly.

Bee mimic hoverfly volucella plumata

Bee mimic hoverfly, Volucella bombylans var. plumata

This hoverfly is an excellent bumblebee mimic. There are two main varieties, Volucella bombylans var. plumata seen above has yellow bands and a white tail, mimicking the Garden, White-tailed and Buff-tailed bumblebees whilst Volucella bombylans var. bombylans is black with a red tail, mimicking the Red-tailed bumblebee.

Mimicry reduces the chances of the fly being predated because it resembles a bee. In addition, the females lays their eggs in the nests of bumblebees and wasps where the larvae feed on the nest debris and occasionally the bee larvae as well.

On my way back to the Education Centre I was lucky enough to spot another female Black-tailed skimmer, who also posed beautifully so I could take a really good look and take some more photos:

Female Black-tailed skimmer 2

Female Black-tailed skimmer

Female Black-tailed skimmer 4

Female Black-tailed skimmer

Female Black-tailed skimmer 3

Female Black-tailed skimmer

Dragonflies have amazing vision, which they use to locate and catch insects whilst on the wing. Like most insects they have have compound eyes: each eye contains several thousand individual facets, with each facet containing a tiny lens. Combining all the images from each lens makes their sight better than most other insects.

Their eyes are holoptic, which means they meet along the middle of the head and take up most of it, wrapping around the head from the side to the front of the face. In comparison a damselflies eyes are also large, but they do not meet and there is always space between them. This is known as dichoptic and can be seen on the Banded demoiselle below:

P1030688 (2)

Banded demoiselle

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

Sunshine and Solitude

Another sunny, spring-like day and finally people seem to be getting the message as there were many fewer people about. Sadly the few who are out include a high number of people who are behaving very badly, often in restricted areas after climbing gates and fences and ignoring signs. I had thought that fewer people might at least mean that wildlife would get less disturbance, but the last couple of days suggest that it will actually suffer a great deal more.

As I knew I was coming in I ran the moth trap overnight and although the night was cold quite a few moths were attracted. New for the year was an early grey.

early grey

early grey

There were also several common and small quaker and clouded drab, which although grey and brown is not as dull as the name suggests.

clouded drab

clouded drab

The sunny days have really brought out the butterflies, my impression is that numbers of all the hibernating species are very good, perhaps at odds with the idea that they survive better in a cold winter. Unfortunately we will not know for sure if this is true as the long -running Butterfly Transect Survey, which monitors numbers, is understandably suspended. The same is true of all bird surveys, bumble-bee and dragonfly transects, in fact all the long-running datasets that tell us the impact of what is actually going on in our countryside.

peacock

peacock

I also spotted this caddisfly larva which I found oaring its way across the surface of the Centre Pond at lunchtime, it has a wonderful spiky case, if we had something similar but scaled up of course, the 2 metre zone would be easier to maintain!

caddis larva 4x3

caddis fly larva

I will end with a plea to anyone who is going out for their daily exercise on Trust reserves, or indeed anywhere else. I know usual viewing points are often closed, but please don’t get round this by wandering “off piste”. Although paths are open in most places, remember these are often narrow and will not allow you to keep 2 metres apart if you need to pass anyone, some very popular sites such as Fishlake Meadows are a particular problem in this regard. Going out in nature is so valuable to us all, but we need to consider the impacts carefully and do this safely and with minimum negative effects.

Water world

On Sunday our Young Naturalists joined us for a watery session, discovering the life lurking at Blashford in the pond and the Dockens Water.

We began the day though with a rummage through the moth trap, a task greatly enjoyed by the group last year so it was great to have the opportunity again now the weather has warmed up and there are more moths on the wing.

Emptying the light trap

Emptying the moth trap

Moth id

Moth identification

We only had five different species to identify so our task didn’t take too long, but there were plenty of moths in the trap: 25 Hebrew character, ten Common quaker, five Small quaker, 6 Clouded drab and one very smart Lunar marbled brown:

Lunar marbled brown resized

Lunar marbled brown

After carefully putting the moths back in the trap to be released at the end of the day, we spent the rest of the morning having a closer look at the life lurking in the Education Centre pond.

Pond dipping 2

Inspecting our catch2

pond dipping

Pond dipping

The pond has certainly sprung to life with the warmer weather and after a lot of dipping, it was time to take a closer look at our catch.

Inspecing our catch

Having a closer look

Having a closer look at some of our smallest finds

We were lucky enough to catch a number of newts, both adults and newt tadpoles, known as efts. The efts breathe through external feathery gills located just behind their heads, which really make them look like miniature dragons!

Adult newt and eft by Talia Felstead

Adult newt with eft by Talia Felstead

Male smooth newt

Male smooth newt, with its frilly crest extending from its head to the tip of its tail

Newt handling

Careful newt handling, with very wet hands!

We also caught a number of cased caddisfly larvae. Cased caddisfly are probably my favourite of all the pond (and river!) creatures as they construct the most amazing cases to live in, providing themselves with excellent camouflage. They use whatever materials they have available to them in the pond or river, which could be sand, tiny stones, segments cut from weed or other water plants, old snail shells, seed pods, the list is endless! They really are the ultimate swimming stick:

Cased caddis

Two cased caddisfly larvae by Talia Felstead, these two have used plant material to create their cases

One of the many different caddis

Another cased caddis, this one has used older pieces of plant matter and old seed pods

We also caught a number of water stick insects:

Water stick insect

Water stick insect

Finally, after exhausting the pond we headed down to the river in search of other aquatic life, including fish. We had to search a little harder, as the invertebrates in the river along with many of the fish will hide in amongst and under stones and rocks on the river bed to avoid being picked up by the current and taken downstream. We did though manage to catch a number of bullhead and brook lamprey:

Bullhead

Bullhead by Talia Felstead

Brook lamprey

Brook lamprey by Talia Felstead

The brook lamprey are often confused with small eels, but instead of having jaws they have a sucker disc with their mouth in the centre. Now is definitely the time of year to look for them as they spend most of their time buried in the sand or silt on the river bed, emerging in spring to spawn and dying soon after.

If you look closely in shallower stretches of the Dockens Water when passing, you might be lucky enough to spot some!

 

Thunderous start to a beautiful day

As I pulled up outside the road entrance to Tern Hide this morning there was a flash of lightning followed almost immediately by a clap of thunder. Although it wasn’t raining at that point I very quickly unlocked the gate and the next one and in the short interval of time it took to do that and park up ready to open Tern Hide the heavens had opened. After dashing for the sanctuary of the hide I decided that there were unlikely to be any early visitors wishing access to the hides and car park over the road and therefore opted to sit it out and hope that it passed.

The rain really was very heavy and the poor birds did not look very happy at all! It was interesting to see how the different birds responded to the down-pour – the geese all sat/stood bolt upright, necks outstretched and facing into the rain (seemed a bit daft to me, but then I’m not sure that geese are thought to be one of the smarter birds…!), the great crested grebe adopted a neck outstretched, head down and just above the water low profile position  and the tufted duck spent as much time under the water as they possibly could, just emerging to take a quick snatch of air before diving for cover underwater again. Meanwhile the coot all seemed to be too busy bickering with each other to take much notice!

Tufted duck - the only one of several pictures where I was actually able to grab a shot between dives!

Tufted duck – the only one of several pictures where I was actually able to grab a shot between dives!

Unsurprisingly there were no grass snakes outside Ivy South Hide this morning, although they soon did show themselves later in the morning and lived up to current expectations for the rest of the day. What did catch my eye was what I could only assume was a black headed gull chick on one of the buoyancy aid rafts that have been put out as artificial nesting islands for birds like great crested grebe and coot. Not content with muscling in on the tern rafts several pairs have been apparently sitting on these smaller rafts but today was the first time that I had seen a chick – Blashford regular, birder and ringer Kevin Sayer, confirmed later that he had seen 3 chicks on one of the floats and 1 on another. Not sure how they’ll fare as they grow and wish to stretch their wings, but they seem to be doing surprisingly well so far!

Black headed gull and chick on one of the floats intended for grebes.

Black headed gull and chick on one of the floats intended for grebes.

Fortunately, for all it was very heavy, the storm passed over very quickly and the sun was out by mid-morning in time for the “Pond and River Dipping for Adults”. Unfortunately the weather does seem to have put people off as only half the people who had booked on actually attended, but it has to be said that those who did come were rewarded well for their effort – including a marvellous flyby by a kingfisher on our route down to the river. Juvenile bullhead, a minnow, freshwater shrimp, flatworms, caddisfly larvae, stonefly and mayfly nymph were all caught and identified:

Inspecting the river catch

Inspecting the river catch

Afterwards the pond revealed its secrets, with highlights including some very large dragonfly nymphs, lots of smooth and palmate newts and a couple of great diving beetles. For my part, I was astounded again by the number of swimming caddisfly larvae in the catch – for whatever reason they are having a remarkably good year in the centre pond this year and are “starring” frequently on the pond-cam at the moment. Also of particular note today was the sudden emergence of Daphnea (water fleas) which were absent when I last dipped the pond a week ago and which are now one of the most common, if not the most common, invertebrate in there.

Pond dipping

Pond dipping