Making hay

On Thursday I began cutting the mini meadow by the Welcome Hut to hopefully keep or increase the flower species present and keep the surrounding grasses under control. Without this the grasses can form an impenetrable thatch which which the wildflowers struggle to grow through.

This little patch of ground by the Welcome Hut was laid with wildflower turf last year and has looked fabulous this spring and summer, with ragged robin, marjoram, yarrow, clover, selfheal, wild carrot and bird’s foot trefoil flowering, to name just a few. The wild carrot may have been a later addition, planted by Bob, along with some scabious and I think he also added some yellow rattle seed…

Ragged robin

The meadow in May, full of ragged robin

Over the summer it has been alive with grasshoppers, crickets, butterflies, beetles, bees and more: 

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Skipper sp. resting on a blade of grass, taken in June


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Small copper, taken in July

Although many of the flowers and grasses have now died back, whilst cutting the vegetation I watched a number of spiders scurrying about and disturbed this very smart looking caterpillar:

Ruby tiger caterpillar

Ruby tiger caterpillar

At first the garden tiger moth sprang to mind, its caterpillars are also known as the woolly bear, but it didn’t look big enough or quite right, so after a bit of searching I think it is the fully grown caterpillar of the ruby tiger moth:

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Ruby tiger moth

The caterpillars feed on a variety of herbaceous plants including ragwort, plantain, dock and dandelion. This caterpillar is probably from a second brood and will overwinter as a caterpillar, emerging during early spring: I relocated it to a safer spot away from my shears. 

I have quite a bit more cutting to do, but it is good to cut a meadow in sections and to leave some sections untouched. I might wait for some nicer weather before carrying on!

Whilst outside the front of the Education Centre I also saw this common carder bee enjoying the Inula hookerii which is still flowering:

Common carder bee

Common carder bee

The light trap only contained two moths, the highlight for me being this frosted orange:

Frosted orange

Frosted orange

The last few days have not been so pleasant, although the original dipping pond I imagine is grateful for the rain. This morning I spied this very bedraggled looking bumblebee on one of the planters outside the front of the Centre. Despite looking very sorry for itself it was moving around, so I attempted to warm it up slightly, gave it some sugar water (which it literally lapped up) and released it somewhere hopefully more sheltered as it had become very active. My good deed for the day, fingers crossed it survives the night…

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Soggy bumblebee

 

Golden delight

Yesterday I accompanied Bob to the old Hanson concrete plant to see how the area was developing, what was growing and what insects were around. On our way we popped in to Tern Hide where there was a common sandpiper foraging on the shore of Ibsley Water:

Common sandpiper

Common sandpiper

The old Hanson plant, now named by Bob as ‘the empty quarter’, does look rather barren. Most of the area has crushed concrete underfoot, but plants including St John’s wort, ragwort and lots of common centaury are growing, alongside grasses and the pioneer tree species silver birch, which is quick to colonise new habitats following disturbance and will need managing to ensure the saplings do not take over.

Hanson site

The Empty Quarter

The sandy looking area in the photo above was probably the most interesting as here there was less crushed concrete and an abundance of holes in the softer ground, evidence the area is being used by solitary bees and wasps. There is obviously enough flowering on this part of the reserve and the surrounding banks for the green-eyed flower bee below:

Green eyed flower bee

Green-eyed flower bee

There were lots of dowdy plume moths (identified later by Bob, who also discovered one of their favourite larval food plants is common centaury) and we also saw a species of leaf-cutter bee and a six-spot burnet moth:

Leafcutter bee

Megachile sp

Six spot burnet

Six-spot burnet moth

I haven’t set foot on this part of the reserve before so it was nice to get the opportunity to have a look and see how it is developing. For those of you who are regular, long-standing readers of the blog, please don’t ask about the footpath, there is still no news…

Elsewhere on the reserve I have seen my first cinnabar moth caterpillars, with their distinctive black and yellow stripes. Their bright colours are a warning to predators not to eat them: as they merrily munch their way through common ragwort, the toxins present inside the plant build up inside them, making them unpalatable to predators.

Cinnabar caterpillar

Cinnabar caterpillar

There are also plenty of gatekeeper butterflies on the wing, like this one enjoying the common fleabane in the sweep meadow:

Gatekeeper

Gatekeeper

When I emptied the moth traps this morning there were a couple of nice species inside, including a yellow-tail, coronet and a canary-shouldered thorn.

The highlight from the moth trap though was a hornet. Hornets are attracted to light, but are very docile first thing in the morning, taking a while to warm up and fly off. This one was quite content walking around the bench until it was ready to fly away, and it was nice to have a really good look at it up close:

Hornet

Hornet

Although hornets may get a bad press, they are much less aggressive than their smaller relative the common wasp and will only sting if attacked. They play an important role in pollination and are a gardener’s friend, helping control unwanted pests with their diet of insects.

Today has been a really good day for dragonflies, with common darter, emperor and brown hawker all on the wing over the ponds by the Education Centre. The common darters in particular have been posing nicely and letting you creep up quite close for a photo:

Common darter

Common darter

Today’s highlight though has to be the golden ringed dragonfly a visitor spotted over the ponds behind the Centre, with regular visitor John letting me know so I could take a photo:

Golden ringed dragonfly

Golden ringed dragonfly

This striking black dragonfly has yellow rings along the length of the abdomen, hence the name, and green eyes. The females are the longest dragonfly in the UK due to their long ovipositor which can reach 84mm in length. If they choose to rest they may stay in one place for some time and although present on the reserve (we sometimes catch their nymphs in the Dockens Water when river dipping, where they prefer flowing acidic water to still water) they are not quite as easy to see here as some of our other dragonfly species. It was a rather nice end to the day!

30 Days Wild – Day 13 – The Eyes Have It

After the long sunny spell of lockdown we are now in a spell of old fashioned English summer weather, a bit of sunshine then a shower or even a thunderstorm.

silt pond

Approaching shower over the Ivy Silt Pond

When the sun comes out it is strong and very warm, these conditions are actually good for insect photography as the insects need to warm up after each cloudy spell meaning they are basking a lot more than in continuously sunny conditions. The timber of the planters outside the Centre make an idea spot to warm up and are being used by lots of species.

leaf cutter bee

leaf-cutter bee

I know Tracy has already posted some pictures of the green-eyed flower bee, but prepare yourselves for another, as they are very smart little insects.

green-eyed flower bee

green-eyed flower bee (male)

The eyes of many insects are very large and provide a huge field of view using an array of separate element arranged together in a compound eye. This is evidently very effective  enabling them to move at speed, through dense vegetation and often backwards or sideways. In some insects the eyes are patterned or coloured, the green-eyed flower bee is both as are the horseflies.

Tabanid

band-eyed brown horsefly Tabanus bromius (male)

This is a male horsefly and so it won’t bite, like a lot of male flies it has much larger eyes than the female providing very close to all-round vision. The size of the eye facets also varies across the eye surface, sometimes in ways that will identify the species. It seems that the larger facets give better acuity. Male horseflies feed at flowers, so not too difficult to find, the large eyes are for finding and  identifying females and avoiding predators as many are large and tempting prey for birds. Horseflies are also very fly fast and it seems they can process visual information much faster than we can allowing them to navigate between obstacles at high speed. The males of many species also perform dance flights, often in the very early mornings, long before the day has warmed up.

I made a site check walk around the reserve, which told me that the rain has produced a spurt of growth in brambles and next week I will need to get out and cut the path edges again. I also found a “new” pyramidal orchid, that is one somewhere I had not seen before and a very fine example it was.

pyramidal orchid

pyramidal orchid

The marsh thistle is just coming into flower, it comes in two colour forms, this being the pale one and is a plant I always associate with silver-washed fritillary, as they seem particularly fond of nectaring at the flowers.

marsh thistle

marsh thistle

Although I ran the moth trap there was not a great deal caught. In the great days of the Victorian moth collectors they did not have lamps to attract moths in any quantity and so found lots by looking for and then rearing larvae. I found this caterpillar on an oak branch, checking in the excellent and recently published Field Guide to Caterpillars by Barry Henwood and Phil Sterling, I concluded it was almost certainly a maiden’s blush.

maiden's blush

maiden’s blush (I think)

 

Bug-ingham Palace

Last Sunday our Young Naturalists made a rather magnificent bug hotel in a sunny spot close to the new dipping pond. The improvement works here on the reserve resulted in a rather large number of pallets accumulating, so it was great to be able to put some of them to good use.

Bug hotel

Positioning the bug hotel

We stacked the pallets one at a time, packing them with various different materials to create lots of different nooks and crannies, including bark, sticks, pine cones, old roof tiles, bamboo, off-cuts of roof from the old Tern Hide, pebbles and sawdust. We also drilled different sized holes in some of the bits of wood.

We still have a few more gaps to fill with more pine cones, dried plant and reed stems and dry grass and I’m hoping we can add a green roof to finish it off, but we were pretty pleased with our efforts:

To make a sign, Torey and Sophie carefully broke up a pallet with Geoff’s help and some of the group had a go with a pyrography pen to burn writing and pictures onto the wood.

Sign

We didn’t quite have time to finish the sign on Sunday, but volunteer Lucy made a brilliant job of finishing it off on Monday, the bugs should be impressed!

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We’re looking forward to seeing who moves in!

Finley and Percy had a go at using the various bits and pieces we had assembled to make a bird feeder:

Bird feeder

After lunch we headed off to do the Big Butterfly Count. We decided to do ours in the wild play area where we do our den building and campfire activities, as although we had seen a lot of butterflies that morning around the Centre we fancied a change of scenery to the area where we had been working. On route we spied this Brimstone:

Brimstone

Brimstone butterfly

With Nigel as our time keeper, we positioned ourselves in the long grass and counted the greatest number of different species seen at any one time in our 15 minute window. We managed five species in total and 15 butterflies altogether: four Meadow brown, three Brown argus, three Gatekeeper, three Common blue, one Red admiral and one Speckled wood.

The Big Butterfly Count runs until the 11th August so there’s still time to get involved – you just need to find a sunny spot (this could be your garden, a park or in a wood) and spot butterflies for 15 minutes then submit your sightings online.

We had a few minutes to spare before the end of the session so decided to head back to the Centre via the lichen heath in search of wasp spiders, which we’d heard were visible in the patches of bramble and taller grass and rush.

Finally, we spied some Cinnabar caterpillars munching on the ragwort:

Cinnabar caterpillar

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

 

 

Exploring the downs

On Sunday we too were up on Martin Down with our Young Naturalists group. The reserve is home to a fantastic variety of plants and animals associated with chalk downland and scrub habitats so makes a nice change to Blashford and the New Forest. Unlike Bob, we avoided the nice shady part of the reserve at Kitt’s Grave and instead opted for the more open part of the site, parking at the end of Sillens Lane. It was rather hot!

Group at Martin Down 2

Young Naturalists at Martin Down

We had last visited Martin Down with the group at the end of May last year, a trip many of them could remember, so we took a different route this time and were interested to see what flora and fauna we would spot that little bit later in the year.

Will got our list of species off to a good start, spotting Bullfinch and Yellowhammer whilst waiting for us to arrive – we didn’t see any more Bullfinch but there were certainly plenty of Yellowhammer to hear and see and we also heard Chiffchaff calling. We were also lucky enough to hear the purring of Turtle doves at a couple of different spots.

The insects also did not disappoint and we soon saw Cinnabar moth (and later Cinnabar caterpillar) along with Meadow brown, Marbled white, Small skipper, Brimstone, Gatekeeper, Small heath, Holly blue, Ringlet, Small white and Small tortoiseshell butterflies.

The butterfly that delighted the group the most and kept them on their toes was the Dark green fritillary. There were a number flying low over the grass, giving the best opportunity for a photo when they landed on knapweed or a thistle.

We also spotted a Brown hare in a neighbouring field, which obliged us with glimpses when it crossed the gap in between taller vegetation and a couple of Roe deer. Sadly both were too distant for a photo. There were also lots of beefly and bees on the flowers, along with a five-spot burnet moth, soldier beetles and thick legged flower beetles.

The group were also intrigued by the tent webs made by the caterpillars of the Small eggar moth and there were a number to spot. After emerging from the egg, the caterpillars immediately construct tents out of silk either at their hatching site or nearby on the same bush. They live and develop in these tents as colonies, repairing and expanding the structure as they develop: the layers of silk fibres form air pockets which insulate the nest and provide resting spaces for the caterpillars inside. The tent is essential to the caterpillar’s survival and they do not abandon the structure until they are ready to pupate.

Whilst a number of the Common spotted orchids were now past their best, there were still plenty of Pyramidal orchids in flower.

We heard the croak of a Raven a few times and had a great view of a Linnet which perched nearby whilst we were eating lunch. Other birds included Buzzard, Skylark, Corn bunting, Stonechat and Swift.

Once back at the Education Centre we had time to look through the moth trap before the session ended, something the group really enjoy doing.

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

30 Days Wild – Day 8 – An Early Start

I was out early doing a farmland bird survey up on the Hampshire chalk, it was calm, which is good for surveying. The low cloud got lower and lower as I was surveying and just as I was finishing it started to rain. I like surveying in a very different area from my usual haunts as it means I see species I don’t normally encounter. Visiting chalk farmland meant that yellowhammer was frequent, a bird I very rarely see these days. My previous visit had also produced corn bunting and grey partridge, missing today, although I did add red kite this time.

At this time of year an early survey means that I can get home in time for breakfast, which I did today. I was having a day off, so most of the rest of my wildlife for the day was seen in the garden.

I started with the moth trap, the pick of the day was a very fresh beautiful yellow underwing. These tiny moths regularly fly by day as well as at night and so often fly from the trap as it is opened, luckily for me this one stayed put for a picture.

beautiful yellow underwing 2

beautiful yellow underwing

It does have yellow underwings, but they are covered by the upper-wings, however the upper-wings are beautifully marked.

The spring solitary bees have mostly finished now but the summer ones are just starting, one of these is, if I have identified it correctly, Willughby’s leafcutter bee. These bees collect pollen on brushes of hairs underneath their abdomen rather than on their legs as many species do. It is on the orange hawkweed often known as fox-and-cubs here.

Willughby's leafcutter bee

Willughby’s leafcutter bee

During the day I saw single green-veined white, red admiral and painted lady butterflies the latter two indicating migrant arrivals.

I came across a couple of new species for the garden today, a mullein moth caterpillar that I spotted from indoors when I was washing my hands after being in the garden and, rather less welcome, a forest fly which chased my around.

mullein moth caterpillar

mullein moth caterpillar

As the name suggests mullein moth caterpillars usually feed on mullein, however they sometimes eat other related plants such as figwort, which is what it is eating in my garden. It is another species with bad tasting larvae, which is why they can afford to perch in the open and be brightly coloured. Despite running a moth trap I have never caught the adult moth in the garden, but this is one moth species that very rarely comes to light.

The forest fly is a biting species that mostly feeds on ponies and deer, it is one of the flat-flies, which scuttle over their hosts and are very resistant to being swatted.

forest fly

forest fly

What’s in My Meadow Today?

For the first time thus year I have bird’s-foot-trefoil flowering in the meadow this year, for some reason it has taken some time to get established, but hopefully is now in place to stay.

bird's-foot-trefoil

bird’s-foot-trefoil

A feature of the meadow from the first year has been a large population of lesser stitchwort, focus down through the grass stems and there are masses of tiny white star-like flowers.

lesser stitchwort

lesser stitchwort

Finally I also found a further new species for the garden in the meadow, it was a small species of chafer beetle, if I am correct it is Welsh chafer Hoplia philanthus , despite the name it is not confined to Wales having a rather scattered distribution across the southern half of the UK.

Welsh chafer maybe

Welsh chafer beetle (I think)

  

30 Days Wild – Day 14

Some days are wilder than others, even when you work on a nature reserve. Today was not one of the wildest, the morning was spent in a meeting, where wildlife was a topic rather than present and the afternoon was largely taken up with trimming paths with the help of our volunteers. During path trimming we saw a few common spotted orchid and broad-leaved helleborine, I looked for twayblade and southern marsh orchid, both of which I have seen in the same area before but without success.

It was warming up as we finished and on the way back to the Centre we saw a red admiral and a male large white. Butterflies are very few and far between at present, but soon the browns will be out and this should change.

As I went to lock up the sun was almost out and near the Woodland hide the orange-tip caterpillars were doing their best to look like the garlic mustard seedpods upon which they feed.

orange tip caterpillar

orange-tip caterpillar

When I first saw these I discounted them as orange-tip, because they were not green, forgetting that they look quite different in their first few instars.

On the way down to the Ivy South hide is found a tree bumblebee sunning itself on a bramble leaf. This is a species that ha sonly colonised this country in this century, but is already common throughout most of England. It is similar to the common carder bee but the white tail gives it away.

tree bumblebee

tree bumblebee

Finally caught up, I just have to keep going to the end of the month now!