30 Days Wild – Day 2

I was at home on Day 2, another bright, hot, sunny day spent largely in the garden. I rebuilt my moth trap a while ago and have not been happy that it has been catching as well as it was. The new design just did not seem to be retaining the moths, so I decided to reconstruct it all over again.

So this was the last catch with the old trap, not many moths but a couple of nice ones, a very fresh lime hawk moth is always good to see.

lime hawk

lime hawk moth

There was also a very smart buff-tip, this species recently won an online pole to find the Nation’s Favourite Moth, so I will court popularity with a picture.

buff-tip

buff-tip

I also caught my first four-dotted footman of the year, this is a very common moth on the heathland nearby and no doubt had wandered from there.

four-dotted footman

four-dotted footman

As I was in the garden I was able to enjoy the mini meadow we made when we moved in six years ago, it is now well established with species we introduced now seeding themselves.

mini meadow

mini meadow

It is approximately 4m x 5m including a small pond. At present ox-eye daisy is the most obvious species but but there are lots of other species, a personal favourite of mine is the corky-fruited water dropwort.

corky-fruited water-dropwort

corky-fruited water dropwort

So many flowers do attract insects, although I saw no butterflies at all! Well I did see two species, but both as larvae, large white and brimstone.

The insect highlight of the day was a new species for the garden and only my second ever sighting, it was the very striking mottled bee-fly Thyridanthrax fenestratus, a heathland species.

Thyridanthrax fenestratus 4x3

Mottled bee-fly Thyridanthrax fenestratus

30 Days Wild – Day 29

A day off in the heat, I spent much of it in the garden, although staying largely to the shadier areas. I was going to have a look for insects, in the hope of adding new species to my garden list, but my willingness to stay out in the full sun for very long thwarted this. I did manage to record one new species though. I used the pheromone lures for clearwing moths again and this time attracted several male red-tipped clearwing moths, these are quite frequent at Blashford, but I had not recorded them at home previously. I did try to get some pictures but in the heat they were so active that this proved impossible.

The mini-meadow is looking great now, the ox-eye daisy and corky-fruited water-dropwort are just starting to go to seed but the field scabious, knapweed, wild carrot and bird’s-foot trefoil are just coming to their best.

field scabious

field scabious

knapweed

knapweed

Both the scabious and knapweed are particularly good nectar sources, being very well visited by bees and butterflies.

corky-fruited water-dropwort

corky-fruited water-dropwort

The smaller individual flowers that make up flowerheads of wild carrot and corky-fruited water-dropwort are less attractive to larger insects but will still have lots of insects, in this case pollen beetles.

30 Days Wild – Day 14 – It’s Not Just Grass!

A day off catching up with domestic tasks, so wildlife watching was largely restricted to the garden. The mini-meadow is looking very fine at present, it may only be 5m by 4m, but it is packed with flowers and has  a very good structure. The term “structure” in relations to grasslands means the variation in height and the layering of the vegetation. A well structured grassland will have vegetation at every level. In mine the lowest level is occupied by lesser stitchwort, mouse-eared hawkweed, cowslip, bugle, bird’s-foot trefoil and white clover. Slightly higher is the yellow rattle, creeping buttercup, dandelion, ribwort plantain, red clover and bloody cranesbill.  Higher still are the ox-eye daisy, hawkbits, field scabious, perforated St John’s wort, meadow buttercup and corky-fruited water-dropwort. The top layer is mostly taken by knapweed. There are several different grass species and a number of other herbs dotted about. 

This structure allows insects to move about all through the area at every level and light can get through to the ground. This is the opposite of an intensive grassland where the objective is a dense even grass sward, these may be fields, but they are really high yield grass crops, with high biomass and low biodiversity. Traditional forage crops were hay, and repeated cropping tended to increase biodiversity and and reduce the biomass. It is easy to see why farmers seeking lots of forage would move to an intensive model, but the result has been a 97% loss of herb rich grasslands in the UK in a lifetime.

“Views over green fields” might be trumpeted by estate agents or implicit in the idea of the “Green Belt”, but green fields are ones that have lost their biodiversity. Similarly green lawns, verges and civic areas are ones that have had their diversity and wildlife stripped away. It is easy to see why agricultural grasslands have been “improved” to increase their productivity, these are businesses seeking to make a profit. Despite this most of the best remaining herb-rich grasslands are on farms and farmers are at the forefront of improving the situation.

So why are local authorities and corporate owners of mown grasslands so set on removing their variety has always been a mystery to me. Many years ago I worked at a Country Park and took to leaving the banks and other areas not walked on to be cut just once a year, mowing the rest as paths and patches around picnic tables. Pretty soon we had meadow brown, common blue and marbled white flying between the picnic places. However I soon got complaints, not from the site users, but from councillors and others who declared it “untidy”, I did not give up but as soon as I moved on they restored the old regime.

P1050731

My mini-meadow, it really is not difficult to have diverse wildlife friendly spaces rather than dewilded grass.

Some land uses demand regular mowing, but it should not be the default approach, we should expect habitats to be managed to maximise their environmental value. Wildlife lives everywhere, given the chance and should do so, we should expect land managers to be properly discharging their responsibility for the land they manage and to be looking to increase biodiversity, not mowing, or worse still, spraying it to oblivion.

meadow brown

Meadow brown in the meadow, hiding from the wind

Bombus lucorum

Bombus lucorum, the white-tailed bumblebee on ox-eye daisy

30 Days Wild – Day 6 – Digging no More

On my way to open the Ivy South hide this morning I found a dead mole lying on the path.

dead mole

dead mole

As sad sight but it did offer the opportunity to take a close look at one of these common, but not often seen, little mammals. They are fantastically well adapted to their life underground, with very dense velvety fur and the most amazing front feet shaped like clawed shovels.

mole front foot

mole’s front foot

The claws seem to have serrated edges, I would guess as an aid to grooming the fur the keep it clean. Living underground they have little need for eyesight and instead use their sense of smell and sensitive whiskers to find food.

mole nose

mole’s nose

The end of the nose looks very like that of a pig, as both find food by shovelling their nose along through the soil I imagine we have to assume that this design is the optimal one for this purpose. Moles are fierce predators, although their prey is mostly worms and insects and they are very effective hunters with voracious appetites and extremely sharp teeth. If ever find a live one and pick it up do so with great care as they will bite and can easily break the skin.

This time of year often sees dead moles above ground, especially if the weather is dry, I suspect lack of food forces them to move around more. Competition with other moles, which can be very vigorous and aggressive, probably leaves some without a set of tunnels and lack of food result in death.

Moth trapping both at home and at Blashford produced no surprises this morning, although at home I did have a fine male fox moth, the large antennae are used to smell for the female pheromones on the air and so find them for mating.

fox moth (male)

fox moth (male)

I was mostly catching up on paperwork int he office today so it was good to get out into the garden for a bit when I got home.

What’s in My Meadow Today?

One of the species that I have managed to establish in the meadow is corky-fruited water dropwort, it is an umbellifer and like most of this family of plants very popular with insects. It is typical of grasslands along the south coast and was very common at Farlington Marshes when I worked there and I’m sure still is.

corky-fruited water dropwort

corky-fruited water dropwort

Whilst looking at the dropwort I saw a blue-tailed damselfly resting in the grass, I don’t see them so much in the daytime, so I think they come to the long grass to roost in the evening as there are often several in the meadow at this time.

blue-tailed damselfly (male)

blue-tailed damselfly (male)

Blue-tailed damselflies are one of the most widespread species and can withstand low levels of pollution and some salinity, so can occur where other species cannot survive. There is a very similar but much rarer species, the scarce blue-tailed damselfly, which I have not seen for a few years. It looks almost identical but the blue segment of the abdomen is one segment further towards the tip. It is most often found in acid areas such as the New Forest, but even here is uncommon, I might have to go and see if I can find some this summer.

Dumping and Cutting, a Tale from the Roadside

There seems to be a lot going on at present. At Blashford we are resurfacing a lot of the paths, the entrance track and a few other improvements will follow.

We have also been putting out the tern rafts, so far the gulls have been taking most of the space but hopefully the terns will get their act together soon.

Out on Ibsley Water the lapwing have not been doing well, with most nests failing at the eggs stage, I suspect fox or badger, as the birds nesting on the islands seem unaffected.

I was at Fishlake briefly today and saw my first hairy dragonfly of the year, it was beautifully perched, but I did not have a camera with me!

Meanwhile back at Blashford we received an overnight donation of two large tractor tyres, several car tyres and the remains of a trailer. Not the kind of donation we want as it will cost a fair bit to dispose of. Fly tipping in the countryside is an increasing problem as the cost legitimate disposal increases.

Another increasing roadside problem is the decline in the the diversity of flora found on verges. I remember a series called “Wayside and Woodland” books, I always took the implication of the title was that much of the wildlife featured was to be found on waysides, that is path and road verges. The reason is the accumulation of nutrients, in fact this is probably one of the greatest threats to wildlife diversity in almost all habitats. It is no accident that habitats that are very poor in freely available nutrients are rich in species, they have to fight it out for resources and tiny differences in adaptations mean that one species will win over if even a very small change in the environment happens. Thus a thin chalk soil can produce an incredibly rich sward with huge species diversity. Where nutrients are easy to come by a few very vigorous specie swill overwhelm the competition and species diversity is low and growth vigorous.

Road verges suffer the twin threats of car exhausts, which are rich in nitrogen a key nutrient for vigorous plant growth. This growth then gets cut, often many times a year and the cutting left as a “mulch” further aiding the building up of nutrients. Cutting once  later in the year and removing the cuttings would reduce the nutrients, reduce the vigour of the growth and promote plant diversity. In fact Plantlife have just produced an excellent guide to managing road verges The Good Verge Guide

The Highways Agency also produced quiet good guidelines for highways managers, but these do not seem to have been widely taken up by the people that set the contracts for the work. A case in point is a very fine round about close to my home, this morning I admired the good show of ox-eye daisy and could make out the soon to be flowering stems of corky-fruited water dropwort as I waited at the traffic lights. On my way home tonight I see it has been mown and the cuttings left as a deep green mulch, it is large round about and easy to see across so there is little need for cutting for safety reasons. Slowly but surely this fine area of herb-rich, semi-natural grassland is being destroyed by the state, an act of causal degradation of our biodiversity in the midst of an extinction crisis.

I will end with a couple more moths form yesterday, the catch was small but included perhaps the smartest pebble prominent I have ever seen.

pebble prominent

pebble prominent

There were also three very fresh poplar hawk.

poplar hawk 2

poplar hawk

30 Days Wild – Day 15: Trying to Impress

I was out on the eastern side of Ibsley Water with the volunteers this morning to clear the areas we cut and which are grazed by ponies of ragwort. It is toxic to animals, but they will usually not eat when it is growing, however they will if it is cut and gets mixed with grass or hay. At one time it was one of the commonest plants in this area but now it is much reduced and overall the grassland is looking much better, with quite a good range of species. A couple of highlights this morning were several patches of corky-fruited water-dropwort.

IMG_1455

corky-fruited water-dropwort

Corky-fruited water-dropwort is an Umbellifer, one of the carrot family and is very attractive to insects, this one had lots of pollen beetles on it. It is quiet frequent in unimproved grasslands in a swathe roughly south of the M4, so it is pleasing to see it at Blashford where the grassland is still recovering from the ravages of mineral extraction. Another find was knotted clover, a plant of dry sandy places, often near the coast, I am not sure if I have found it at Blashford previously.

knotted clover

knotted clover

At lunchtime I tried the pheromone lures for clearwing moths again, completely without success. However I did spot a handsome black-and-yellow longhorn beetle.

black-and-yellow longhorn beetle Rutpela maculata

black-and-yellow longhorn beetle Rutpela maculata.

After doing various odd jobs in the afternoon I went to lock up the hides and found a pair of crab spiders on a hemlock water-dropwort flower head, The male is quite different from the female and a lot smaller so he has to tread carefully if he is not going to get eaten.

crab spider pair

crab spider pair

It seemed it was not only the spiders that were making plans, on a nearby ox-eye daisy I saw a female hoverfly Eristalis horticola, with a male hovering low over her and darting from side to side. I am not sure if she was impressed but he was trying hard to dazzle her with his advanced hovering skills.

Eristalis horticola pair

Eristalis horticola pair

I also found another slime mould, on the same log as the one the other day, although this was clearly a different species.

slime mould

slime mould

The only new bird sighting of note today was of a first summer little gull as I locked Tern hide. It was pleasing to see that the single oystercatcher chick from gull island has fledged and that the remaining one near Tern hide is close to doing so. In additions the single large lapwing chick is also close to flying and two of the smaller ones are still going strong. Even better was a sighting of two well grown little ringed plover chicks today. On Ivy Lake the common tern chicks are growing well and most broods seem to still be of three chicks.

30 Days Wild – Day 6: And the Wind did Blow

And how it blew! And how it rained too, very unseasonal gales to tear at the trees and soak fluffy wader chicks. So it was with some trepidation that I got to Blashford today. Looking from Tern hide when I opened up I saw at least two of the small lapwing chicks and spotted one of the oystercatcher offspring too, although they should be well able to survive a bit of weather by now. A few of our trees had not done so well, no major fallers but several branches down, at this time of year, in full leaf and soaked with rain, the wind can really get hold of a branch twisting and breaking it off. Luckily the volunteers were in and between us we were able to walk the full length of all the paths clearing branches as we went and then returning to saw off the few larger leaning stems.

At lunchtime a smooth newt was spotted on the surface of the Centre pond, Jim then realised that it had been caught by a great diving beetle larva, these are ferocious predators but I was surprised that one would tackle a full grown newt.

newt and diving beetle larva

Newt being attacked by great diving beetle larva.

The newt was struggling but it was hard to see how it was going to get the beetle larva off as it had its jaws firmly embedded. As we watched a second, equally large larva closed in and joined the attack, I don’t think the newt had any chance against two attackers. I knew they would tackle prey larger than themselves but this was the first time I had seen one take on something so large. The picture is an example of “Digi-binning” that is holding the digital point and shoot camera up to one eyepiece of the binoculars.

Unsurprisingly the moth trap was very quiet, I doubt many moths tried to fly and those that did probably had trouble getting anywhere they wanted to go. Amongst the few that did get out and into the trap was a very fresh mottled beauty.

mottled beauty

mottled beauty

The weather did improve a bit in the afternoon and there were quite a few insects flying as I went to lock up, lots of damselflies and various things nectaring on the flower heads of hemlock water-dropwort, one of the best food sources for lots of species at this time of year. I cannot identify them but the many insects include a number of sawflies.

sawfly

sawfly (unidentified)

Looking after a nature reserve can be rewarding, especially when you can work to improve habitats, allowing them to support more species and individuals, in the jargon increasing biodiversity and biomass. On a reserve such as Blashford Lakes there is the additional goal of increasing the accessibility of this wildlife to allow appreciation and enjoyment for people. Increasingly it is being realised that this is good for our health, diverse green space really matters to our wellbeing, individually and as a society. It is also a small push back against a tide of mass declines in species abundance and variety, to make a real difference to that needs action on a much larger scale than just a nature reserve.

So on Day 6 of  my 30Days Wild I have to confess to getting a little wild myself. I have already blogged about my tiny back garden meadow and we are doing work at Blashford to enhance the grassland to support more species. Species rich grasslands and meadows have been one of the fastest declining habitats in recent decades, with the accompanying loss of wild flowers, butterflies and the rest of the species such places support. Local Authorities and Government Agencies have a duty to enhance the environment where possible. There has recently been much publicity about the importance of grass verges for wildflowers, it has made national radio and some species are now almost only found by roadsides.  The Highways Agency publishes very good guidelines for the management of verges, round-abouts and other roadside grass areas, with the idea that managers of such places will have a best practice guide to follow.

So what made me wild? It was the close mowing, for the second time this season, of the large (probably 0.5ha or so) round-about at the end of the road where I live. This does not improve safety, to do this at most a couple of metres around the edge would need mowing, nor was it tall, no more than 30-40cm and the mass of corky-fruited water-dropwort was just coming into flower. The first cut dealt with the cowslips and much else besides, this is a relatively herb-rich grassland that is being systematically destroyed by close mowing and swamped by a layer of mulched cuttings each time. Eventually this will ensure it has only a tall coarse sward of cocks-foot, thistle and nettle and another vestige of our grassland heritage will have gone. I don’t know which particular arm of authority undertakes this mowing, but the guidelines have evidently not reached them! So long as there is careless disregard for such places the march to environmental mediocrity will continue and we may as well lay Astroturf and be done with it!

Normal service will be resumed tomorrow, unless the “Wild” part of 30 Days Wild takes hold again!