Of moths and other insects, and a bit more besides…

I’ve fallen behind with my Young Naturalists updates, but since meeting at the reserve for the first time in April, enjoying the bird song and river dipping, we’ve been out onsite enjoying all the reserve has to offer, looking for reptiles, improving our moth identification, pond dipping and enjoying the insect life in the meadow. We’ve also been campfire cooking and improving the biodiversity of one part of the reserve by spreading wildflower seed. 

At the end of May we went for a walk on the northern part of the reserve, in the hope of finding some reptiles. We saw chiff chaff, blackcap and reed bunting and enjoyed listening to the reed warblers and Cetti’s warblers calling in the reed bed. 

We headed off into the reedbed to check some of the reptile refugia or felts used by the volunteers when they survey the reptiles. Our first sighting however wasn’t of a reptile, instead we found this caterpillar of the Oak eggar moth on top of one of the felts:

oak eggar caterpillar

Oak eggar caterpillar

The hairy caterpillars feed on bramble, blackthorn, willow, hawthorn, hazel and other woody plants.

Under another refugia we were lucky enough to see our first reptiles, finding two adders. The first disappeared quickly into the vegetation, but the second stayed long enough for some of the group to get a good look and take some photos:

adder Daisy Meadowcroft

Adder by Daisy Meadowcroft

Adder by Daisy Meadowcroft

Adder by Daisy Meadowcroft

After leaving the reed bed we saw speckled woods enjoying the sunshine and watched the sand martins flying over Goosander Hide. We also saw a female adder basking on the bank by the hide.

After lunch we decided to pond dip, catching a very smart male smooth newt:

smooth newt

Smooth newt

We also caught an impressive Emperor dragonfly nymph, which given the number of exuvia around the edge of the pond was a bit of a surprise, there were still more lurking in there!

Emperor dragonfly nymph

Emperor dragonfly nymph

Dragonfly exuvia

Dragonfly exuvia

Dragonfly exuvia 2

Dragonfly exuvia

The larva’s final moult takes place out of the water. As the adult dragonfly emerges from its larval skin, the cast skin or exuvia is left behind. It’s always fun to carefully look for evidence of their metamorphosis amongst the vegetation (and man made structures!) in the pond margins and the group had a good hunt, photographing their finds.

In June I had planned to spend the session focusing on insects, but with the weather so changeable we ended up adding in some campfire cooking as well. We began by looking through the moth trap where the highlight was this Poplar hawk-moth:

Poplar hawk moth

Poplar hawk-moth

Alex with a Poplar hawk moth

Alex with the Poplar hawk-moth

We also had a Buff tip, with its amazing camouflage, a very smart Muslin moth and a Burnished brass:

Buff tip

Buff tip, doing its best broken silver birch twig impression

Muslin moth

Muslin moth

Burnished brass

Burnished brass

Rummaging through the moth trap didn’t take very long, and with the sun briefly making an appearance we hot footed it to the meadow before the showers came.

Meadow sweeping

Meadow sweeping

In the meadow we saw a small skipper butterfly, grasshoppers, a speckled bush cricket, a green leaf weevil and a green-eyed flower bee enjoying the selfheal.

We also saw a number of Thick-legged flower beetles, also known as swollen-thighed beetles and false oil beetles. They are often seen on the flowers of ox-eye daisies and other open-structured flowers and only the males have swollen thighs:

Thick legged flower beetle

Male Thick-legged flower beetle on Ox-eye Daisy

Female Thick-legged flower beetle

Female Thick-legged flower beetle on Perforate St John’s-wort

The meadow and the lichen heath are both covered in Perforate St John’s-wort at the moment, it is having a really good year. Traditionally it was used as a remedy for all kinds of ailments, including wounds and burns, and is still popular today for the treatment of mild depression. Research and opinions however differ on how effective the latter is.

It can be identified by its bright yellow star shaped flowers and the tiny ‘holes’ in its leaves. The holes are in fact colourless glands that apparently give off a foxy smell. If you hold a leaf up to the sun, the tiny holes are easy to see, but they’re definitely more obvious on a sunny day!

Perforate St John's Wort

Tiny ‘holes’ in the leaves of Perforate St John’s-wort on a sunnier day

After a short while in the meadow, we headed back to the Centre collecting nettle tops on the way to make some nettle soup. We also picked some mint and lemon balm from around the pond to make tea. After gathering the kit and our lunches, we headed to the campfire area.

Alex decided to toast his sandwich and after eating we boiled some water for the tea and made our soup. Both had mixed reactions, although to be fair some teas did contain nettle, mint and lemon balm and we possibly gave the wrong person the nettles to wash… so our soup did contain a number of less welcome additions!

July’s session was also influenced by the weather. I had planned to do the Big Butterfly Count with the group last Sunday, something we have participated in with them for the last few years. The UK wide survey is running until the 8th August, so there’s still time to take part if you would like to, you just need 15 minutes and a sunny spot…

Thankfully, moth trapping has improved over the past few weeks, with more species and numbers of moths coming to the traps, and we were able to spend the morning having a good look through and identifying most of what we found.

Daisy made a list of those we were able to identify (we lost a few on opening the traps and some of the micro moths did stump us) and we managed to record 70 moths of 39 species in the first trap and 63 moths of 28 species in the second trap. Both traps were close to the Centre, with one positioned out the front towards the mini meadow by the Welcome Hut and the other positioned out the back of the building.

Our grand total from the Saturday night was 133 moths of 52 species. Here are some of the highlights:

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The Large emerald in particular proved popular:

Large emerald 2

Large emerald

Rosie photographing the large emerald

Rosie photographing the large emerald

After lunch, we went back to the meadow to see if the Bird’s-foot trefoil had gone to seed. If it had, we were going to collect some to add to the other seed we had from Bob to sow, but unfortunately it wasn’t quite ready. We did see a Common blue butterfly resting on a seed head:

Common blue

Common blue

We then went looking for wasp spiders on the lichen heath, managing to find two in amongst the soft rush. Their colours mimic the common wasp, keeping them safe from predators.

Wasp spider

Wasp spider

Wasp spiders build large orb webs in grassland and heathland. Their webs are quite distinctive, with a wide white zig-zag running down the middle known as a stabilimentum.

After some impromptu boat making by Kimberley and Harry, we stopped off at the river to see whether or not their boats would sail:

We then began our seed sowing, adding Bluebell seed in amongst the hazels to the side of the path between the bridge over the Dockens Water and the road crossing to Tern Hide. We swept away the leaf litter and put the seed thinly on the soil surface, before brushing the leaves back over to cover them.

We then crossed over the road towards Tern Hide and went through the gate to the part of the site currently still closed to visitors. This was once a concrete plant, and when the plant was demolished we began restoring the area, including the old main entrance roadway. Although it has taken time, this spot is now well colonised by lots of plants and our addition of some extra seed will hopefully help improve it even more. 

We added Wild carrot to the driveway, scattering it thinly onto patches of bare ground, Devils-bit scabious up on the bank as it prefers a deeper soil and Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon on the same bank, poking each seed individually into the ground using a pencil (we also saved some of these for the mini meadow by the Welcome Hut). Finally we also added Yellow rattle seed and some assorted hawkbits and crow garlic.

Fingers crossed some of them come up!

Thank you to the Cameron Bespolka Trust for funding our purchase of tools and equipment for the group.  

Green-eyed flower bee

Green-eyed flower bee on Inula hookeri by the Education Centre

 

Wildlife Tots is back!

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Blashford Lakes Wildlife Tots by Rex Waygood

Following on from last Monday’s update about our Young Naturalists group making a welcome return to on-site meetings, we’re very pleased to announce our Wildlife Tots sessions will be following suit, with the first sessions planned for Monday 7th June.

Our Wildlife Tots group offers fun outdoor play and wildlife discovery activities for pre-school aged children and their parents or carers once a month, usually (but not always!) on the first Monday. On the 7th we will be discovering the weedy depths of the Blashford pond…

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Pond dipping by Rex Waygood

Booking is essential via Eventbrite – for further details and to book a space on Monday 7th June please visit one of the following two listings:  

Morning – 10.30am until 12noon

Afternoon – 1pm until 2.30pm 

If you can’t make the 7th but would like to join us at a later date, please email BlashfordLakes@hiwwt.org.uk and ask to be put onto our Wildlife Tots mailing list for details about future sessions.

We are looking forward to seeing everyone again soon!

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Newt

dragonfly nymph2

Dragonfly nymph

Pond life!

As Jim mentioned when he blogged on Saturday, our family pond dipping sessions have been very well received and a fun time has, I think, been had by all even during last Wednesday’s downpours… you’ll be able to tell which were the soggy sessions from the photos!

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We have caught some great creatures, including dragonfly nymphs, damselfly nymphs, lots of efts or baby newts, lesser and greater water boatmen, mayfly nymphs, water mites, phantom midge larvae, ramshorn snails and leeches to name a few. We even managed to catch an adult newt:

One of the highlights, for me anyway, was this little water measurer, an insect we do get here at Blashford but not one we catch very often:

water measurer

Water measurer, difficult to photograph as they don’t stay still!

They live on the surface of the water, hunting and scavenging for insects and are very sensitive to the vibrations on the surface, using these to locate their prey. Once located, they spear their quarry with their mouth parts and suck out the contents.

Another highlight was this very pale or leucistic eft, either we have a couple in the pond or we caught the same one on two different days:

leucistic eft (2)

Leucistic eft 

 

Leucism refers to the partial loss of pigmentation, which causes white, pale or patchy colouration of the skin, hair, feathers or scales but does not affect the eyes.

Everyone enjoyed sorting their creatures into the sorting trays so they could take a closer look at some of them. Here’s a photo of Bertie’s sorting tray:

sorting tray

The other highlight of the sessions was definitely our new tippy tap, which Geoff helped to make and Bob installed for us out by the pond. Hand washing was possibly as exciting as pond dipping for some, if not more so…

Oliver also found some time to see who else was living near the pond, using his magnifying glass to take a closer look at the flowers and insects and having a look at the bug hotel.

studying the mint

Studying the water mint, it smelt so good!

looking for insects

Inspecting the mullein flowers

Tomorrow’s sessions are all full but we do still have availability over the next couple of weeks and details along with links to the Eventbrite booking pages can be found on our website here. It has been rather lovely to be pond dipping again!

marmalade hoverfly

Marmalade hoverfly, Episyrphus balteatus, enjoying the mullein flowers

Open for pond dipping…

Whilst many things stay the same, with the Education Centre including the toilets and the bird hides remaining closed, we have been looking at what we can safely offer our visitors and in particular the families who visit the reserve to take part in educational activities.

As a result we now have procedures in place for running family pond dip sessions and hope to start these as of Monday, 17th August.

So, if you would like to discover the wonderful freshwater life of the Blashford pond on a socially distant family pond dip in the safety of your own family bubble, or know someone else who may be interested, please read on!

Emperor dragonfly

Emperor dragonfly

Bookings are for one family bubble at a time to enable social distancing (up to a maximum of 8 people) and clean equipment will be provided for each participating family taking part over the course of the day. The person making the booking will be asked to read and agree to our covid secure guidelines.

Sessions are available on a Monday, Wednesday and Saturday for an hour, starting at either 10am, 11.30am, 1.30pm or 3pm. Session cost depends on the number of participants per family bubble, prices are £12 for up to 3 people, £15 for up to 5 people or £20 for up to 8 people.

Sessions must be booked via Eventbrite and links to all available sessions can be found here on the Trust’s website which will hopefully make booking easier. We hope to add more dates soon.

Hand washing facilities will be available by the pond, but the Centre and toilets will be closed to those participating. At this point I had hoped to be able to share a photo of our new ‘tippy-tap’, which will reduce the amount of contact made when hand washing, but sadly although volunteer Geoff very kindly came in to help prepare them yesterday, we (read Bob) are waiting for some slightly cooler weather towards the end of the week to install them outside the back of the Centre.

We hope the sessions prove to be popular and are looking forward to pond dipping with families again!

Here are a few pond creatures to whet your appetite…

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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.

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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:

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Banded demoiselle

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

Fitting it all in…

At the end of April our Young Naturalists were joined by Paul from Strong Island Media, who had come along to take photos and film them during a session. As a result we managed to fit in a number of different activities to showcase what we get up to and enjoyed a very varied day!

Whilst Joel and Vaughan headed off to the Woodland Hide with Nigel to photograph birds the rest of the group opted to pond dip, something we hadn’t actually done in some time. We caught a number of dragonfly nymphs, water stick insects, some fabulous cased caddis fly larvae and a smooth newt. We also spotted a large red damselfly on the edge of the boardwalk, so moved it to a safer spot away from our tubs, nets and feet.

We then had a look through the light trap which we had begun to put out more regularly with the weather warming up. The trap unfortunately didn’t contain an awful lot as it had been cold the night before, but there were a couple of very smart nut tree tussocks along with two Hebrew characters and a common quaker.

Volunteer Geoff had very kindly made up some more bird box kits for the group to put together, so we tidied away the pond dipping equipment and they had a go at building the boxes:

Brenda has been keeping us posted on the activity going on in the nest boxes the group made in October and we put up in January, using them to replace some of the older boxes on the reserve. Out of the twelve boxes made, six are active with the others either containing a small amount of nesting material or nothing: Poppy’s box contains 11 warm eggs and the female is incubating them; Geoff’s box contains 7 hatched, naked and blind blue tit chicks along with 2 warm eggs hopefully to hatch; Ben’s contains 3 downy and blind great tit chicks which will hopefully be large enough to ring when Brenda next checks; Will H’s box contains 7 naked and blind great tit chicks and 2 warm eggs hopefully still to hatch; Megan’s box contains 7 downy and blind blue tit chicks and 1 warm egg which may not hatch and finally Thomas’ box contains 9 warm great tit eggs.

Brenda has also been taking photos of some of the boxes for us to share with the group:

Thank you Brenda for continuing to update us on the progress of our nest boxes, we look forward to the next one!

After lunch we headed down to the river to see what else we could catch. Again we haven’t done this in quite a while so it was nice for the group to get in and see what they could find. We caught a stone loach, a dragonfly nymph, a number of bullhead and a very smart demoiselle nymph:

Finally, those who joined us in February were delighted to see the willow dome is sprouting. As the shoots get longer we will be able to weave them into the structure, giving it more shape and support.

willow dome

Thanks to Geoff and Nigel for their help during the session and to Paul from Strong Island Media for joining us, we look forward to seeing his footage of the group and being able to share it to promote the group and our work.

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

Spring Dipping for Lamprey

It was lovely to be back at Blashford on Sunday after a two week break, with the sun shining and chiffchaffs calling from what seemed like every other tree. It was time again for our monthly Young Naturalists meeting, and with the weather warming up we began with a rummage through the light trap. It revealed a number of Common and Small Quakers and Hebrew Characters along with this rather pale Brindled Beauty.

Brindled Beauty by Talia Felstead

Brindled Beauty by Talia Felstead

The light trap also contained a number of Clouded Drabs, with this one in particular making us take a closer look:

Clouded drab by Talia Felstead

Clouded Drab by Talia Falstead

We wondered if it could perhaps have been a Lead-coloured Drab instead, but couldn’t be sure. Having only a photo to show Bob today, we’ve decided it probably was a Clouded Drab, as their colours can be quite variable, but you never know, we might be wrong!

After carefully putting the moths back in the light trap to be released later in the day, we headed down to the Dockens Water in search of Brook Lamprey. Brook Lamprey can grow up to 15cm and can easily be confused with small eels, but they lack jaws, instead having a sucker disc with a mouth in the centre. They also lack scales, any paired fins and a gill cover, instead having a line of seven respiratory holes behind the eye. They are easily overlooked, burrowing down into sand, silt or mud before emerging in the Spring to spawn. They die soon after spawning, but their corpses are quickly devoured by fish and birds so often are not found.

Now was the time to go looking for them, and we knew a couple had been caught on a school visit the week before. We were in luck, catching nine in our usual river dipping spot and another two when we searched further downstream.

We also caught bullhead fish, mayfly nymphs, caddisfly larvae and pond skaters. On moving further downstream, we caught a large number of dragonfly nymphs, fourteen in total. We decided they were likely to be nymphs of the Golden-ringed dragonfly, a species that usually patrols upland and heathland streams. The nymphs often burrow down into the stream’s muddy or sandy bottom, leaving only their head and the tip of their abdomen exposed. They may remain in the same position for several weeks, waiting to ambush any prey that passes by.

With the Dockens starting its journey to the sea in the New Forest, it is not surprising the nymphs have found their way downstream to us, and whilst we don’t get many sightings of the adults on the reserve they are sometimes seen hawking low over the water.

It was great to see so many nymphs of all different sizes, we should have Golden-ringed dragonflies emerging from the Dockens for a good few years!

Whilst down by the river, we took some Elder cuttings from nearby trees for Bob. A small deciduous tree native to the UK, elder grows well on wasteland, as well as in woodland, scrub and hedgerows. As they do so well on disturbed ground, they will be planted by the volunteers on the Hanson site where hopefully if they root well their flowers will be an important nectar source for a variety of insects whilst their berries will be a great food source for mammals and Autumn migrants.

After lunch we were joined by Corinne from the Cameron Bespolka Trust, who came with us for a spot of nettle pulling alongside a stretch of path in the woodland. Whilst nettles are fantastic for wildlife, we have plenty on the reserve and clearing some areas gives other flora the chance to thrive. We’re hoping to see increased amounts of ground ivy and hopefully twayblades, a medium sized orchid that can be easily overlooked, so keep your eyes peeled!

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

A varied Sunday!

Our Young Naturalists had a practical session on Sunday, building shelters to go out on the new set of tern rafts currently being put together by our volunteers. The shelters will provide excellent cover for the tern chicks once they hatch, enabling them to hopefully avoid any hungry dive-bombing gulls.

We were joined on the day by Corinne, Cameron’s mum, who together with family and friends formed the Cameron Bespolka Trust in his memory, which is supporting the Young Naturalists group at Blashford alongside other projects. It was great to have an extra pair of hands for such a practical activity!

When collecting our wood and tools, we spied this blackbird which had made her nest close to our store. We had a super quick peak before leaving her in peace, constructing our shelters at the back of the centre.

Blackbird on nest

Blackbird by Talia Felstead

The task was a great challenge for the group as we had a couple of old examples to use as a guide and lots of offcuts of wood, so making them was a good test of our team building skills – it was a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, finding the best pieces to fit and figuring out the best way to join them:

Cutting wood

Cutting wood 2

Sawing planks to make the shelters

Hammering

Hammering 2

Making the shelters

We managed to make four shelters during the morning, which I’m sure will be very well received by the tern chicks when the time comes:

Finished shelters

Chick shelters

Our four finished chick shelters

During lunch we were watched rather closely by an inquisitive jackdaw, which Talia managed to photograph:

Jackdaw

Jackdaw by Talia Felstead

After lunch we headed back down to the river as we’d enjoyed dipping so much last time and not all of the group had had the opportunity. We managed to catch more bullhead fish, brook lamprey and trout fry, along with dragonfly, mayfly and stonefly nymphs and beetle larvae.

Whilst down by the river we spotted lots of fresh deer tracks in the soft ground along the edge of the river bank, following them until they headed off up the bank and into the trees:

Deer tracks

Deer tracks in the soft ground

There were also a small number of bluebell in flower – hopefully more will follow and the woodland along the Dockens Water will soon be a splash of blue.

Bluebells

Bluebell by Talia Felstead

After river dipping, we headed over to Ellingham Pound to have a look at the prototype tern raft which had been launched a week or so ago so the group could see where their chick shelters would eventually end up. Whilst there, we were distracted by ripples on the surface of the lake which seemed to move around rather purposefully, and realised we were watching alder-fly which had recently emerged from the water. One conveniently left the surface of the lake and landed nearby, allowing us to take a closer look:

Caddis fly

Alder-fly by Talia Felstead

Finally on heading back to the centre, we spied this speckled wood butterfly sunning itself. It took a while to make sure everyone had seen it as it was so well camouflaged against the dead leaves and sticks on the woodland floor.

Speckled Wood

Speckled wood butterfly by Talia Felstead

Our Young Naturalists group offers monthly conservation tasks and wildlife activities to young people aged 13-17 years and is kindly funded by the Cameron Bespolka Trust. To find out more or join the group please telephone Jim or Tracy at the Education Centre on 01425 472760.