30 Days Wild – Day 6

Still catching up! Sunday was a much better day than I had expected and in the afternoon there were lots of damselflies out and I saw my first downy emerald dragonfly of the year. There are two very common blue damselflies at Blashford Lakes, one, aptly called the common blue damselfly has males with a black lollypop mark on the first abdominal segment.

common blue damselfly

The azure damselfly is as common but the males have a square “Y” on the first abdominal segment.

azure damselfly

There are several other damselfly species as well, the largest is the very distinctive beautiful demoiselle, which favours flowing water and streams with stony substrates.

beautiful demoiselle

With better weather the dragonflies are starting to emerge, although I have not seen many adults yet, but the pond near the Centre has lots of exuviae, the nymphal exoskeleton left behind when they emerge from the water. I counted at least 10 around the pond at the end of the day on Sunday. I think all were of emperor dragonflies.

emperor exuvia

We have had nesting mute swans on Ivy Lake this year and they have eventually hatched, but only one cygnet, perhaps they are a young pair, at least it should get lots of care.

mute swan family

30 Days Wild – Day 16

More than half of the 30 Days gone now, I think more people have taken part this year than ever before, perhaps we are starting to value our environment more in these strange times. I certainly think we have learnt to value greenspace close to home more than perhaps was the case. As you will have seen from Tracy’s post Blashford Lakes is opening in a limited way today. Our paths are quiet narrow so we are asking people to walk following a one-way system and keeping to the paths and using the passing places I have cut out. The hides, Centre and toilets remain closed and there is no immediate prospect of education groups returning. Hopefully if you visit you will see lots to keep you interested, at this time of year most of the wildlife is around the path rather than from the hides anyway.

Yesterday there were two grass snake on the dead hedge right next to the path on the way towards Ivy South, they stayed there even when I had to go passed on the quad bike!

grass snake

grass snake

With the warm weather insects are very much to the fore, I saw my first four-banded longhorn beetle very close to the snake, but on the other side of the path.

longhorn beetle

four-banded longhorn beetle

Dragonflies and damselflies are everywhere with more species emerging all the time. Butterfly numbers are increasing too with the “Browns” coming out now, lots of meadow brown and quite a few marbled white on the wing now and the first gatekeeper cannot be far off. Moth numbers are also increasing, one of the smartest of last night’s catch was a micro-moth Catriopa pinella.

Catriopa pinella

Catriopa pinella

Out in the Garden

Like most people who are lucky enough to have one, I have been spending a lot of time in the garden recently. Our garden is almost exactly the average size of a UK garden, so a little larger than most people will have, but still not a large plot. It does allow space for all the elements with a flower border, vegetable plot, lawn and most importantly a pond and mini-meadow. The aim has always been to maximise the opportunities for wildlife within a more or less conventional garden space and I am really pleased that it was as there has enough wildlife to keep me interested throughout lockdown.

Although the garden is very short of trees and shrubs the variety and features such as the meadow seem very attractive to lots of birds, probably just because it offers home to a large number and wide variety of invertebrates, the main food of nestlings.

blackbird female

Blackbird female

As we have been sitting out a lot it is really noticeable how much more tame most of the birds have become, a feature not just of birds that use the feeder, they just seem to have got used to us being out there.

I took the chance to refurbish our pond, which had evidently sprung a leak, so it was relined and filled from the water butts. In no time it attracted eight smooth newt and several damselflies and even egg-laying broad-bodied chaser with an attendant male.

broad-bodied chaser male 4x3

broad-bodied chaser male

The mini-meadow, which with the area of the pond is in a 5m x 4m space is the main attraction for most wildlife. It was made by initially allowing the existing grass to grow and cutting and removing the vegetation once a year. I then added some seed and a few small plants that I grew from seed and over the last five years it has developed.

common vetch

common vetch – just one of the species that was already present 

A flowery meadow is, unsurprisingly very popular with butterflies, over the last few days I have seen my first small copper and common blue of the year in my garden, both species I think breed in the meadow.

common blue 4x3

My first common blue of 2020

small copper pair

Small copper pair

Lots of other insects live in the meadow, most obviously lots of ants, I now have a number of anthills dotted about the patch, you may have spotted a couple of ants in the common vetch picture above, probably collecting nectar from the base of the flowers. A range of true bugs are wandering about, mostly, but not all, vegetarians.

Rhopalus subrufus 4x3

Rhopalus subrufus – one of the many true bugs

There has been a lot in the media in recent times about bees and pollinators. You could be forgiven for thinking that pollination is dependent upon honey-bees, occasionally in very industrial scale agriculture this is almost true, but generally this is far from the case. In fact it turns out that more diverse environments have more pollinators and more different types of pollinators, we have a pollinator “problem” because we have impoverished our environment. I notice in my garden that having lots of different plants with differing flower types results in seeing lots of different types of insects and especially different species of bees.

ashy mining bee

ashy-mining bee

The ashy mining bee is one very distinctive species of spring-flying solitary mining bee which is increasingly visiting gardens. Pollination is carried out by almost all insects that visit flowers and even by other creatures like birds and small mammals. Recently the importance of moths has received some attention, as they fly at night their role is often forgotten. Hoverflies are more obvious and it is easy to see them visiting lots of flowers, often with a coating of pollen grains. I was interested to see a species I did not recognise recently int he garden and luckily got a picture that was good enough to identify the species. It turned out to be a recent colonist to this country with larvae that eat house-leeks, it may have got here under its own steam, but more likely was brought here as a result of the plant trade. It was first found in 2006 and now quite widespread across the southern part of the country.

Cheilosia caerulescens 4x3

Cheilosia caerulescens – the house leek hoverfly

 

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 4 – In Training

Not a very Wild Day today as I was mostly inside receiving First Aid training, important but not very wildlife-filled. On the plus side the training was taking place at Testwood Lakes, so at lunchtime I got out for a short walk around the area nearest the Centre. They have a fine education pond and it had several dragonflies racing about over it, I saw emperor, four-spotted chaser and black-tailed skimmer. On the emergent stems around the edge there were lots of damselfly exuvia, the case that is left when the larva leaves the water to transform into the flying adult. Unlike butterflies and moths this is done without a pupal stage, the aquatic larva walks from the water, the larval skin splits and the adult emerges, this is known as “incomplete metamorphosis”. Other insects that use a similar route are grasshoppers and true bugs. I could not get a picture of a damselfly exuvia but I did find an emperor one close enough to photograph.

emperor exuvia

emperor dragonfly exuvia

The pond is planted up with a good range of native water plants and marginals, we have many very attractive species to choose from. This makes the trade in invasive pond plants all the harder to defend, we do not need them to achieve an attractive pond and dealing with them when the get out into the countryside is very costly. One of my favourite native marginal species is the flowering rush and Testwood has several on full bloom now.

flowering rush

flowering rush

I was first introduced to this species when working at Titchfield Haven many moons ago in a time before digital cameras and mobile phones, hard to imagine such a time now I know!

What’s in My Meadow Today?

It was rather breezy and cloudy when I got home but as quick look in the meadow and I found a resting male common blue, it was waving about alarmingly in the wind but this shot is more or less in focus.

common blue

common blue at rest

Training continues tomorrow, so I doubt I will see much wildlife, but at least everyone should be a little bit safer on the volunteer tasks.

I am lucky as usually I get to spend a lot of my time out in the open and in wildlife rich places, today I had to grab what few minutes I could, but luckily there is, or should be, at least some wildlife somewhere to make every day just little bit wilder.

Insects on the Up?

The progress of the season has been rather erratic this year, with spells of very warm or even hot weather interspersed with much colder days. Overall I think that we are still a little behind the average of recent years, but it is a very mixed picture.

Sunday was a fine, warm, sunny day with little wind, ideal for insects and I saw my first beautiful demoiselle, broad-bodied chaser, four-spotted chaser and emperor dragonfly of the year. The four-spotted chaser had emerged from the Centre pond, I think th efirst time I have proved that they have done so there, although I have seen individuals there a number of times. Numbers of large red, common blue, azure and blue-tailed damselfly are also continuing to build.

I am trying to look more closely at the bees on the reserve this year, Blashford has a lot of dry ground with sandy slopes, ideal for solitary bees. In fact “brownfield sites” such as Blashford are particularly good for bees as they often have variations in soil type, slopes and banks ideal for nesting.

Andrena bicolor

Andrena bicolor

Gwynne’s mining bee, Andrena bicolor is one of our commonest spring mining bees and also has a summer brood, it is a close relative of the much rarer grey -backed mining bee, Andrena vaga which was found on the reserve for the first time a couple of weeks ago. The rarer species is still around, but not in the same numbers as a fortnight ago, some of them are getting worn now and so look rather like the much commoner ashy mining bee Andrena cineraria.

ashy mining bee excavating

ashy mining bee Andrena cineraria excavating a nest tunnel.

For several years now there has been increasing evidence of an overall decline in total insect abundance, it is very hard to prove absolutely but accounts of declining moth trap catches and a general scarcity of many insects is attested by many. Older people will remember that when travelling any distance by car in the summer it was necessary to clean many squashed insects off the windscreen. Of course more aerodynamic cars may be a factor too. Whatever the reason it has become much harder to find many insect species in the average summer these days. It was pleasing to see a fair few hoverflies out yesterday including a number of Cheilosia species, a rather difficult genus of mainly black species, the identification of the images below maybe open to revision!

Cheilosia bergenstammi male

Cheilosia bergenstammi (male)

Cheilosia impressa

Cheilosia impressa (female)

Despite the warmer days the nights are still quiet cool and so the moth trap has remained quiet. The pick of the catch was a chocolate-tip moth, it is evidently quiet a good year for therm as this was the third we have caught recently.

chocolate-tip

chocolate-tip

The only grasshoppers and crickets about at present are a few tiny nymphs, but this is the time for finding adult groundhoppers, although the only one I saw was a common groundhopper, but at least it posed for a picture.

common groundhopper

common groundhopper

It would be good to think that we are turning a corner in the insect decline, unfortunately I doubt it, I suspect the wider environment is continuing to become less insect friendly. Although some of this is down to the use of very effective insecticides and industrial mono-culture farming, it is also our overall failure to leave any space for them, even where it would be easy to do so.

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 2: In the Garden

My weekend started early and I was on a day off today, so I took the chance to do some work in the garden. Although not large and a pretty typical suburban garden it is now home to a good range of wildlife. When we moved in nearly three years ago we decided to leave part of the lawn and develop it as a small-scale meadow. It has come on well and looks the part quite convincingly now, with yellow rattle, field scabious, knapweed, ox-eye daisy and much more. It is perhaps more accurately a herb-rich grassland as some species are not entirely typical of true hay meadows, but it looks good and the wildlife seems to like it.

Ox-eye daisy

Ox-eye daisy

We do also have more conventional flower borders and here we have gone for plants that are good for nectar and pollen, such as geraniums, fleabanes and scabious species. Today I came across a brightly coloured fleabane tortoise beetle on an elecampane flower bud.

Fleabane tortoise beetle

Fleabane tortoise beetle

I did not manage to dig a pond in the first year so it was a bit of a late addition, but a very necessary one in any wildlife garden. A pond, even a small one such as our, does bring in so many more species, especially if you do not add fish.

pond skaters

Pond skaters feeding on a drowned bumblebee.

We even get a fair range of dragonflies and damselflies and today I found a pair of large red damselfly egg-laying.

Large red damselfly pair egg-laying

Large red damselfly pair egg-laying

The male remains attached to the female whilst she lays to ensure that the eggs he has fertilised get laid.

We also planted a few native shrubs, including an alder buckthorn, the food plant of the brimstone butterfly, this has almost worked too well and our tiny tree has more than ten caterpillars and almost every leaf has been nibbled!

Brimstone caterpillars

Brimstone butterfly caterpillars

I like the fact that I can be at home in the garden but still be surrounded by a bit of the wild. Gardens can be fantastic for wildlife, especially for insects such as bees and others that require nectar and pollen, growing good plants for these species also gives you a great flower filled garden so is a win all round.

Stay Close

At the Tern hide there is still a pair of lapwing with three chicks and now also a pair of oystercatcher with two chicks. Lapwing are good parents, they will defend their chicks vigorously, but they still have to find their own food and so wander off making them vulnerable to predators. Oystercatcher are great defenders and also find food for their chicks. This has two clear advantages, the chicks can stay very close to their parents and they get  a lot more food. I watched the birds yesterday afternoon and the adults were feeding the chick a good sized food item every 30 seconds or so.

stay close

Oystercatcher chicks stay close for protection and food.

A number of people told me there was only one chick, but this mistake is easy to make as the adults seem to concentrate on feeding one chick at a time the other resting, well hidden and probably digesting all the food it has just had.

More dragonflies are noticeable around the reserve, yesterday I saw broad-bodied chaser and black-tailed skimmer and numbers of damselflies are really impressive.

black-tailed skimmer

Recently emerged black-tailed skimmer

Progress Against an Invader

Thursday at Blashford is volunteer day and we had a good turn out of fourteen for our first Himalayan balsam pull of the year. After many years of pulling this plant we have very significantly reduced the population and it is nowhere the dominant plant. The advantage of doing the first sweep early in the season is that we remove a significant number of plants but also get an idea of where the main problem areas are and so where to concentrate on our later visit. Pleasingly we found no more than a couple of hundred plants on about half the length of the stream, enough to suggest that there is still a seed source upstream  somewhere but not so many that it is having a serious impact on native wildlife.

The common terns are finally taking some interest in the rafts on Ivy Lake, although they are still not really taking control of any in numbers sufficient to deter the black-headed gulls. I tried putting out another raft during the afternoon in the hope that a new one might tempt them in. The gulls often just loaf around on the rafts, but have the annoying habit of bringing reeds and sticks and leaving them scattered  over the surface. I suspect they are mostly young adults, as the older birds started nesting a couple of weeks ago, a few may eventually build a proper nest, but in the meantime their practice efforts are putting off the terns.

Generally things were quite across the reserve, most of the birds are now nesting or getting ready to do so. Our visitor form North America, the Bonaparte’s gull is still to be seen, although it does not now attract more than the occasional admirer. I did manage to get a slightly better picture of it, which does show a couple of the differences from black-headed gull. You can see the slightly smaller size and overall thinner, more “pointed” look. Now that it is getting a summer plumage hood you can also see that this is blacker than that of black-headed gull, which is actually chocolate brown.

Bonaparte's gull

Bonaparte’s gull (right)

A very noticeable feature of the past week has been the huge increase in the numbers of damselflies around the reserve. Common blue and azure damselflies are now out in numbers, but the large red damselfly, typically the commonest spring species is very hard to find, perhaps due to the very poor April weather last year.