So many insects, and a baby toad

Last Thursday I was passing the marjoram in the planter outside the front of the Education Centre when I noticed a bee I had not seen before. It was quite large and very striking, with a strong pattern on the underside of the abdomen. I managed to take a couple of photos and after a bit of research decided it was one of the sharp-tailed bees and probably the large sharped-tail bee, Coelioxys conoidea. Since Thursday it has been a fairly regular visitor to the marjoram and has been seen and photographed by a number of visitors, and Bob also confirmed it was a large sharp-tailed bee.

coelioxys conoidea (2)

Large sharp-tailed bee, Coelioxys conoidea

Sharp-tailed bees are cuckoo bees, laying their eggs in the nests of megachile (leaf-cutter bees) or anthophora (flower bees) species. Only the females have the pointed abdomen which is used to cut a slit in the partition of the host’s cell so the egg can be placed inside. The coelioxys species hatches first, with the grub devouring the host egg and its food source.

This particular species favours the coast leaf-cutter bee, Megachile maritima. As the name suggests, they have a strong liking for the coast but can be found inland in areas of the New Forest. On Monday I noticed a leaf-cutter bee enjoying the Inula hookeri which is now flowering outside the Centre. The plant has large flower heads which the bee was meticulously working its way round before flying off to the next, so I was able to watch it for some time. Although not completely sure it was a coast leaf-cutter bee, they must be onsite somewhere if the large sharp-tailed bees are present.

Leaf-cutter bee

Leaf-cutter bee enjoying the Inula hookeri, possibly Megachile maritima

Bob has been on a mission to fill the planters with plants that are good for pollinators but not liked by the deer, who have taken quite a liking to a number of them. The Inula hookeri however is not to their taste and the large yellow flowers are providing a brilliant nectar source for insects and its been great to watch the butterflies and bees visiting.

Brimstone (2)

Brimstone enjoying the Inula hookeri

Whilst watching the brimstone enjoying the flowers I noticed a bright green and very smart leafhopper, Cicadella viridis:

Cicadella viridis

Leafhopper, Cicadella viridis

There are also still blue mason bees around, they quickly made use of the new bee block Bob added in to the end of the planter and can often be seen resting on the planter itself.

Blue mason bee

Blue mason bee

On Sunday I popped to the meadow in the hope of seeing another bee I haven’t seen before which this time favours heather. The heather is now in bloom, but seeing a heather colletes bee proved harder, or at least seeing one still for long enough to get a good look was quite a challenge. They whizz around even faster than the green-eyed flower bees do.

Eventually one settled long enough for me to get a look and half decent photo:

Colletes succinctus (2)

Heather colletes bee, Colletes succinctus

Whilst watching the bees whizzing around I noticed a bee-wolf fly straight towards me clutching a honeybee. It landed by my feet, I had obviously been right next to its burrow and had taken it slightly by surprise, but after sorting itself and its prey out it flew to its burrow and disappeared. It was fascinating to watch.

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Bee-wolf with honeybee prey

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Bee-wolf with honeybee prey

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Bee-wolf with honeybee prey

The light trap has revealed more than just moths over the past week. Last week we had a couple of visits form a rather large longhorn beetle, the tanner beetle, which is also attracted to light. They are a large beetle with a body length of 18-45mm and are broader than the other longhorn species.

Credit for this photo goes to regular visitor John 6×4, as I have been regularly working from the Welcome Hut since our wifi was improved and he bought the beetle over, on a log, for me to photograph. We were also able to show it to a passing family who were rather impressed!

Another beetle that found its way into the light trap was this species of dor beetle. It was very active so was a bit harder to photograph:

Dor beetle

Dor beetle

On the moth front the two traps have contained a good variety, although many are quick to fly first thing where it has been so warm. Highlights have included bloodvein, coxcomb prominent, light crimson underwing, pebble hook-tip and a stunning gold spot.

Bloodvein

Bloodvein

Coxcomb prominent

Coxcomb prominent

Light crimson underwing

Light crimson underwing, photographed in the trap, it instantly flew once I took the towel away properly

Pebble hook tip

Pebble hook-tip

Gold spot 2

Gold spot, the photo definitely doesn’t do this moth justice

We have also received some great photos this week from visitors. Jon Mitchell visited on Sunday for the first time since lockdown and was able to see and photograph both the large sharp-tailed bee and the heather colletes bee, along with damselflies, a gatekeeper and a couple of dragonfly exuvia by the pond. The second dragonfly nymph clearly thought the first had picked a good spot when it crawled out of the pond.

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Sam has visited a number of times recently and asked his mum to share photos she took of the toadlet and alder beetle larvae he found whilst exploring here on his last two visits:

Toadlet by Sam

Toadlet spotted by Sam

Alder beetle larvae by Sam

Alder beetle larvae spotted by Sam

We do enjoy seeing photos taken by visitors whilst out and about on the reserve so if anyone else has anything to share please email it to BlashfordLakes@hiwwt.org, along with whether or not you are happy for us to share it wider via the blog.

Thank you very much to Jon and Sam for sharing your photos with us.

Tigers, kittens and emperors

Emptying the moth trap this morning revealed a beautiful garden tiger moth, which was definitely a treat to see. When disturbed they display their orange hind wings with blue-black spots, the bright colours acting as a reminder to predators that they are unpalatable.

Garden tiger

Garden tiger moth

Garden tiger 2

Garden tiger moth

The larvae of the garden tiger moth are large, black and covered in long, dense, black and ginger hairs, giving them their name the ‘woolly bear’. They feed on stinging nettles, dock leaves and a variety of garden plants. They can be seen from August until the following June and are often seen moving rapidly across bare ground when fully grown so are a good caterpillar to keep an eye out for, although it is best to leave them to it if you do see one as the hairs can irritate.

When the sun is shining the pond is still a brilliant to spot to look for dragonflies, with common darters often resting up on a chosen spot and both brown hawkers and emperor dragonflies hawking overhead or egg laying:

Common darter

Common darter resting on a picnic bench

Emperor dragonfly

Male emperor dragonfly pausing briefly on vegetation

There are still plenty of damselflies around and I managed to photograph this pair of common blue damselflies mating. The male is blue and the female is a more camouflaged olive green colour:

Common blue damselflies

Common blue damselflies mating

The male dragonflies and damselflies have two pairs of hooks at the tip of the abdomen which they use to grasp either the neck (in damselflies) or head (in dragonflies) of the female. Pairs can often be seen flying together in tandem and shortly after capturing a female they will mate and form the ‘wheel position’ seen in the image above. Some species remain coupled for several hours amongst vegetation whilst others, like the chaser dragonflies, couple briefly for just a few seconds. Following mating the female is ready to lay eggs.

There are also still plenty of butterflies on the wing, including this common blue which was outside the front of the centre earlier today.

Common blue

Common blue

On Sunday we held another of our online Young Naturalist catch ups where we expanded on the last session delivered by Owain from Amphibian and Reptile Conservation and discussed all six native reptiles. We were treated to some fantastic photos by Kimberley, taken on her phone, of a very friendly male sand lizard she had encountered whilst walking her dog at Dewlands Common in Verwood.

I used to visit Dewlands Common regularly when employed by East Dorset District Council so it is great to know they are still present on the site.

Will also shared some photos he had taken, including a lovely photo of a wool carder bee on lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina). We had been hoping the lamb’s ear in one of the planters outside the Education Centre would attract wool carder bees as they will scrape hairs from the leaves to line and seal the brood cells in their nests, but sadly there has been no sign of any.

Will also shared a photo of a small skipper butterfly which was taken up on the Laverstock Downs, a gatekeeper which he had photographed at Horatio’s Garden at Salisbury Hospital, and an abandoned robin’s nest in his bird box at home – the robin’s had for some reason moved elsewhere.

We also looked at the moths in the light trap, where the highlight was this very fresh looking Sallow kitten:

Sallow kitten

Sallow kitten

Finally regular visitor and volunteer Phil shared this photo with us of the Osprey which visited on the 16th July. It was only here on that day, but did spend quite some time sat on the perch out on Ibsley Water and Phil was able to get a photo from a distance. I was on leave that week so completely missed it!

Osprey by Phil West

Osprey by Phil West

Our Young Naturalists are kindly supported by the Cameron Bespolka Trust.

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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!

Moving in

Clearing the vegetation growing in front of the bug hotel a number of weeks ago has opened it up to a lot more sunlight, and as a result I noticed this week that the leaf-cutter bees have been busy and used one of the blocks of wood:

Evidence of leaf cutter bees

Evidence of leaf-cutter bees

They will happily make their homes in solitary bee hotels positioned in a sunny spot, so our south facing bug hotel is ideal.

The females collect sections of leaf which they chew into a pulp and mix with saliva to create the walls of a cell for their offspring. Inside each cell she lays an egg and leaves it with a mixture of pollen and nectar on which to feed. The cells are then sealed up before she moves on to the next one, and finally she plugs the hole to the whole cavity with more leaf pulp. The young will develop over winter and emerge the following year.

I had a good look at the other blocks of wood the Young Naturalists had drilled holes in and added to the hotel and noticed another had four holes each with a solitary bee in it, the weather was not so nice so they were probably deciding whether or not to venture out. One did emerge from its hole, flew to a couple of bramble flowers then decided to fly back to the comfort of the wood.

As well as enjoying the comfort of the bug hotel the bees have been favouring the rather large thistle which has sprung up behind the Education Shelter.

Whilst by the bug hotel I spotted a couple of dark bush-crickets on the ground below:

Dark bush cricket

Dark bush-cricket

Bush-crickets have very long thread-like antennae, compared to grasshoppers which have much shorter antennae.

When the sunshine has been out female emperor dragonflies have been busy ovipositing or egg-laying in the newer of the two ponds by the Education Centre. They can lay hundreds of eggs over their adult lives, in batches over a few days or weeks. The eggs are elongated in shape and laid into plant material on or near the surface of the water using a scythe-like ovipositor.

Emperor dragonfly

Female Emperor dragonfly egg laying

Whilst having lunch earlier in the week I was joined by a red admiral, which seemed very happy to settle on the gravel and let me get very close for a photo:

Red admiral

Red admiral

I also managed to get my first ever photo of a ruby-tailed wasp… but they do not hang around for long so it is a bit of a distant photo!

Ruby tailed wasp

Ruby-tailed wasp

They are though very beautiful to look at, even if from a distance. Ruby-tailed wasps are also solitary, however instead of doing all the work themselves like the leaf-cutter bees mentioned above, the females lay their eggs in the nests of other solitary bees and wasps, favouring mason bees in particular. When the eggs hatch, they eat the larvae of the mason bees, giving the ruby-tailed wasp its other name of ‘Cuckoo Wasp’.

Parasitising other bees’ nests is risky, but the ruby-tailed wasp has a number of defences. It has a concave abdomen which allows it to curl up tightly into a ball and it has a hard body cuticle that protects it from the stings of the host species. They can sting themselves, but this sting is not venomous.

Recent highlights from the light trap have included this black arches and eyed hawk-moth:

The planters in front of the Centre are still attracting lots of bees including the green-eyed flower bees we have shared photos of in the past. Earlier in the week there was a tiny species of yellow-faced bee on the astrantia along with a sawfly of some description:

Yellow faced bee

Yellow-faced bee

Sawfly

Sawfly

The mini meadow by the Welcome Hut is still good for butterflies when the sun has been shining, with four skippers dancing round each other earlier in the week. There have also been ringlet in the area of long grass and bramble by the boat, along with comma and red admiral on the wing fairly regularly. The gatekeepers are also now flying, the adults emerge slightly later in the season and are also known as hedge browns.

Gatekeeper

Gatekeeper

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

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!

IMG_0886

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.

 

 

Summer Passing

It seems that once the 30 Days Wild are over, the signs of passing summer become increasingly obvious. I heard my last singing cuckoo on 22nd June, we now know that many will have left the country southward by the end of June, thanks to the advent of tiny satellite trackers fitted to some birds by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), you can follow their progress via a link on their website.

At Blashford Lakes common sandpiper are returning and on Sunday there was a greenshank, returned from breeding, probably in Scandinavia. Lots of the swift have left already as have the first generation of young sand martin. Over at Fishlake Meadows an osprey is being seen regularly, with other sightings including up to six cattle egret.

Around the reserves we are now at the peak of butterfly numbers, with lots of “Browns” especially.

gatekeeper

gatekeeper

This week will probably see “Peak-gatekeeper” and we may have just passed peak-meadow brown. Speckled wood, by contrast are perhaps the only butterfly with a real chance of being seen throughout the 26 weeks of the butterfly recording season as it has continuously overlapping broods.

speckled wood

speckled wood

In places you may notice a few very dark, almost black, meadow brown, actually these may well be ringlet, with slightly rounder wings and multiple eye-spots.

ringlet

ringlet

Several species now have their summer broods emerging, this is true for common blue, brown argus, small copper and peacock.

peacock

peacock

The warm weather has been great for insects in general, there have been good numbers of dragonflies, including a single lesser emperor, a formerly very rare migrant species that seems to be getting ever more frequent.

 

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

The Heat Continues

After a June and 30 Days Wild which was extremely hot and the met office now tells us was the driest on record we have now hit July and things are not changing. I did see some cloud on Sunday, but all it seemed to do was increase the humidity.

The heat is making it difficult to work, despite this on Sunday five volunteers turned out and we pulled Himalayan balsam for an hour and a half, a remarkable effort. On Monday I saw removing ragwort from the areas I plan to mow on the shore of Ibsley Water.

All this heat continues to be very good for insects, the moth catch overnight on Sunday/Monday was the highest I have ever had at Blashford, one trap caught 96 species! This included a lot of micro moths, many of these are quite spectacular looking, but it is hard to appreciate what they really look like as they are so small.

Mompha propinquella

Mompha propinquella

The one above is actually quiet common and I see it fairly regularly. I did catch a few new species for the reserve including a chalk grassland species that feeds on marjoram, a plant which does grow in the gravel near the building, so perhaps it was a local rather than a wanderer.

Acompsia schmidtiellus

Acompsia schmidtiellus a species that feeds on marjoram.

There are lots of butterflies and dragonflies around the reserve. Silver-washed fritillary are having a good year and gatekeeper are now emerging as are the summer broods of small copper and brown argus.

gatekeeper

gatekeeper

Brown hawker and southern hawker dragonflies are both already flying in some numbers, although common darter are still quiet few.

southern hawker

southern hawker

The picture above was my best of a few attempts at getting a flight shot over the Centre pond at Sunday lunchtime. At the same time I saw a large red damselfly that had fallen into the pond and been preyed upon by a water boatman.

water boatman with large red damselfly prey

water boatman with large red damselfly prey

When you are an insect there are many ways to die more or less everything is out to get you! There are predators and more gruesomely parasites almost everywhere. I found a parasitic wasp hunting for a beetle larva in which to lay its egg.

Ichneumonid wasp Ephilates manifestator

Ephilates manifestator probing for beetle larvae

The needle-like ovipositor can be pushed deep into the wood, when not in use it is protected by a sheath, in the picture you can see the ovipositor in use probing almost vertically downward.

The dry weather is stressing plants and some smaller trees are losing their leaves already. Most of the grass is now brown and many species rapidly going to seed. There are still flowers out there though and one such is creeping cinquefoil.

creeping cinquefoil

creeping cinquefoil

 

Still Wild After all These Days

Summer moves on, at Blashford on Sunday I saw my first gatekeeper of the year, oddly a little later than in some years, most other butterflies have been merging a little earlier than usual, so I am not sure why they alone are later.

gatekeeper

The first gatekeeper at the year

It was also the first day I had seen brown hawker dragonfly, although I would guess they have been flying for a couple of days. The first common tern chicks also flew, even if a little tentatively, hopefully we will see over seventy fledge this year. Another first for the year was Essex skipper, they at every like small skipper, but tend to fly a couple of weeks later.

Essex skipper on yellow rattle

Essex skipper on yellow rattle

At least I think it is an Essex skipper!

I had another go at getting a flight shot of a hoverfly, a very frustrating thing to try, this was my best attempt.

hoverfly

hoverfly

I went on a walk down the Dockens Water to check where we will need to go Himalayan balsam pulling and if we have missed any plants. I found a few, but also a number of native marshland plants.

marsh bedstraw

marsh bedstraw

water forget-me-not

water forget-me-not