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

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.

Water world

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

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

Emptying the light trap

Emptying the moth trap

Moth id

Moth identification

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

Lunar marbled brown resized

Lunar marbled brown

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

Pond dipping 2

Inspecting our catch2

pond dipping

Pond dipping

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

Inspecing our catch

Having a closer look

Having a closer look at some of our smallest finds

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

Adult newt and eft by Talia Felstead

Adult newt with eft by Talia Felstead

Male smooth newt

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

Newt handling

Careful newt handling, with very wet hands!

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

Cased caddis

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

One of the many different caddis

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

We also caught a number of water stick insects:

Water stick insect

Water stick insect

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

Bullhead

Bullhead by Talia Felstead

Brook lamprey

Brook lamprey by Talia Felstead

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

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