30 Days Wild – Day 7 – Blue out of the Grey

Not perhaps the best day to be wild, but after a long dry spell much of our wildlife will be welcoming the rain. Birds like song thrush and blackbird need worms to rear their young. The snails will welcome some rain as it will deflect the thrush from eating them and enable them to get out and eat my vegetable plants!

However it did not rain all day and in a brief sunny interlude I found a blue butterfly in my mini-meadow and not just any blue, but a male silver-studded blue.

silver-studded blue 4x3

silver-studded blue (male)

To record an odd individual might not seem a great surprise, but I have seen them every year and sometimes several individuals of both sexes. This is a heathland species, renowned for having colonies that are very localised. In fact research has shown that most travel no more than 50m from where they hatch and many only up to 20m. Their flight is quite weak and usually low to the ground, in short they don’t get out much!

When I see them in the garden they are in the mini-meadow, a tiny grassland about 4m x 5m, otherwise the garden has a small lawn and flower borders with a small vegetable patch, no heath at all. What is more I live in the midst of ordinary suburban gardens, across two roads there is the New Forest, but even then it is short turf and conifer plantation. The nearest silver-studded blue colony is relatively close at 750m away, but it seems that this is something like 15 times as far as even an fairly intrepid silver-studded blue would go in a lifetime. To cover this distance would also involve not crossing open heath, but a large conifer plantation, two roads with hedges and a further line of trees. Even stranger the butterflies I see are, like today’s, not well travelled, worn, veterans but freshly emerged and pristine.

Silver-studded blue have remarkable lifestyles, their association with ants is only matched by the large blue. The newly hatched larvae are taken into the nests of one of two species of black ant and only venture out at night to feed on a variety of plants, but on heaths, usually heather or gorse seedlings. The caterpillars secrete a sweet substance beloved by ants, in fact it seems they suffer when it is not removed by ants.

The mystery of why I see them regularly in my garden remains, maybe they do breed in my meadow, but if so they are feeding on bird’s foot trefoil, something the heathland variety does not usually do, although they do so in limestone areas such as on the Great Ormes Head. It would also need there to be the right ants present, something I cannot confirm and it would be in a very atypical habitat, so seems very unlikely.

silver-studded blue closed

Settling before the next rain shower.

If anyone can shed any light on this mystery I would be delighted to hear, I am at a loss to explain why they appear so often so far from their nearest colony.

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30 Days Wild – Day 22 – True Love

It seems we are having a very odd year, after a winter with some wintry weather we now have a summer with summery weather. I was late into Blashford as I had to attend a meeting off-site in the morning,  the moth catch was somewhat reduced after a rather cool night but did include a very fresh true lover’s knot. The name derives from the complex pattern, the name “true lover’s knot” has been associated with many actual knots, perhaps most often with one comprising two circular but interlocking knots that can move but not be pulled apart.

true lover's knot

true lover’s knot

The moth is common and although a heathland species feeding on heathers, will wander widely so is often caught well away from this habitat, they probably also feed on heathers in gardens.

I spent much of the afternoon mowing paths, a rather thankless task, as soon as I cut the strip beside the path the taller vegetation behind tends to fall, resulting in a path that is barely more passable than before.

Locking up at the end of the day I came across a pair of spiders, looking somewhat “loved-up”. I don’t think this species is one where the male is at great risk, but it probably still pays to go carefully when your partner is much larger and a fierce predator with a mean set of fangs! (or perhaps long-jaws).

pair of spiders

A pair of spiders – possibly the long-jawed orb weaver

Mating in spiders is achieved by the male passing a sperm packet, using his modified pedipalps and I think this maybe what is happening in this picture.

It was still very sunny and warm when I arrived home and took a look in the garden.

What’s in My Meadow Today?

The grass is really drying out now and flowering of many plants is accelerating. The knapweed is well out now, having gone from nothing to loads of flowers in just two or three days.

knapweed 2

common knapweed

Common knapweed is actually rather infrequent in true meadows, at least in southern England  as they would get cut before it goes to seed, it is more frequent in rough pasture or roadsides that are not excessively cut. It is a very good nectar source for lots of insects and so a couple of plants are a must for me.

It was a very fine evening and I realised I had not yet gone to look for the roosting silver-studded blue on the heath over the road form my house. These butterflies form small colonies usually on damp heathland and will roost in groups, typically on a slight slope that gets the last rays of the sun each evening. They make great subjects for photography, although the low light levels by this time of the day are always an issue.

silver-studded blue 5

roosting silver-studded blue (female)

silver-studded blue 2

roosting silver-studded blue (male)

The low light can offer the option of taking either with the light, as the top picture, or against, as in the lower.

Although the site is officially “wet heath” it is now bone dry and lots of the plants that should be surrounded by spongy bog are high and dry, which makes them much easier to photograph without getting wet knees. There were several bog asphodel plants in flower.

bog asphodel

bog asphodel

With the sun having set we were heading back when a cotton grass head standing out pure white in the gloom caught our eyes, in a typical year walking to a cotton grass plant could mean being up to your knees in a bog.

cotton grass

cotton grass seed head after sunset

Going out on the heath on a fine summer’s evening is magical and certainly something everyone should do if they can, ideally carry on well after sunset and go and listen for nightjar, woodcock and snipe, what could be better! Britain is home to a large part of the European lowland heath, valley mire and a lot of it’s upland counterpart too come to that, so it is a very British experience.

 

30 Days Wild – Day 15 – Forest Visitors

I had most of the day off today and everything I have for the blog today comes under the  heading of……

What’s in My Meadow Today?

At first there did not seem to be much in the garden today, then I saw a dragonfly, at first I could not get to the right angle to see it through the grass, so I was not sure what is was. Eventually I could see it was a keeled skimmer, a species characteristic of the small boggy streams of the New Forest. When they first emerge dragonflies move away from water to feed up and mature. Once they are ready to mate they will return, where males will hold temporary territories and try to attract visiting females.

keeled skimmer

immature keeled skimmer

I have seen this species in the garden before in previous years,but this was my first this year.

Looking around a bit more I saw a blue butterfly, looking very fresh I thought it was unlikely to be a common blue, as these have been out for some time now and sure enough it was a silver-studded blue.

silver-studded blue

silver-studded blue (male)

These wander from the heaths of the New Forest, and occasionally we see several in the garden, but this was my first this year. The Forest is probably the best area in the whole country for these butterflies which are heathland specialists, their caterpillars feeding on heathers. Where they occur is not as simple as where their foodplant is though, the heather has to be quite short and they also need the right species of ant to be present. The larvae actually live in the nests of black ants during the day, only coming out at night to feed, apparently being protected by the ants. The adults when they hatch out of the pupa continue to get protection form ants as their wings harden, droplets left on the body as they hatch seem to attract the ants. Remarkable and very beautiful little butterflies and a joy to have visit the meadow.

I have included several references to wild carrot previously in this blog, one of the  reasons I have it in the meadow is that it is an attractive nectar source, especially for hoverflies. looking a the largest plant in the meadow I noticed a hoverfly feeding with others hovering above it. The feeding fly was a female and the others were males engaged in a competitive hovering, hoping to impress her with their skills and so their fitness as a partner.

hovering contest 3

hovering contest

They are one of the dronefly species, Eristalis nemorum (Thanks Russ). Although the picture was taken at over 1/1000 sec the wings of the hovering males are still a blur.

My back garden meadow may not be large but if I look closely there is a lot going on in it.

A Full House

The poor weather over the last couple of days has brought in huge numbers of hirundines, that is swallows and martins, to Ibsley Water. there are especially very large numbers of house martin, they are impossible to count but I estimated at least 5000 today with probably 1000 swallow and at least 500 sand martin. Everywhere you looked over the water there were birds and then, scanning upward against the clouds there were many, many hundreds more. These higher birds are mostly house martin the swallow and sand martin tend to keep lower. They gather over water in an effort to find insects in weather when there are few flying elsewhere, often they pick prey directly from the surface of the lake.

The other aerial plankton feeder of summer is the swift, they mostly leave around the end of July, but a few can linger and searching through the hirundines can sometimes result in finding one and today was just such a time. Swift in September is a scarce bird, in fact in some years I don’t see one after mid August.

Other birds today included a hobby, lured in by the masses of martins as potential prey, although I did not see it catch one. The great white egret was around on and off, the ruff of the last few days was joined by another by the end of the day, when there were also 2 juvenile Arctic tern. A single black-tailed godwit dropped in for a while and there were 2 sanderling reported.

This is really not the weather for moths, so tomorrow’s planned “Moth Event” promises to be a bit of a damp squib. Today’s catch total a massive two moths! I suspect tonight may well be worse. The highlight was a fresh frosted orange, always a nice sight.

Frosted orange

Frosted orange

Several people mentioned the very good show of flower put on by our small patches of heather near Ivy North hide this year, in fact there at small patches of heather in several places across the lichen heath and I suspect these will expand in the coming years. All of this heather is the common ling, but we do have one plant of bell heather Erica cinerea on the reserve and this is in full flower now, somewhat after the ling has finished.

bell heather

bell heather

Although it is feeling very like autumn already there are still some reminders of summer out there, such as grasshoppers, I found this somewhat atypically coloured field grasshopper near the bell heather at the end of last week.

field grasshopper

field grasshopper

Butterflies, Bees and a good Soaking

Friday was a warm if not particularly sunny day, apart from right at the end , but I will try not to dwell on that!

Although the reserve is known for the lakes we are lucky to have some very good woodland and small areas of heath, most of which is lichen heath. However some of the heath is the more traditional kind with patches of heather and these are now in full flower.

heather

heather

Heather not only looks good it also produces lots of nectar which attracts lots of insects and despite the lack of sunshine these included several butterflies and bees. I saw common blue, brown argus and this small copper all enjoying a good feast and sitting with wings open to gain as much warmth as they could from the weak sunshine.

small copper on heather

small copper on heather

We have probably all heard of heather honey as being one of the most sought after, and heather is often visited by honey bees, but the bees visiting these plants were much smaller, one of the solitary Colletes species.

small bee on heather

small bee on heather

Having looked it up I am pretty sure they were Colletes succinctus , a common species that especially favours heather flowers. I also saw at least one bee wolf, a wasp that hunts bees and especially honey bees, I wondered if it would take the little solitary bees but it did not seem interested in them, perhaps waiting for larger prey.

The heather was not the only plant flowering though, there was just enough sunlight to open the flowers of common centaury.

common centaury

common centaury

This attractive little plant has flowers which only open if the sun is more or less out, as this when the insects that will pollinate it will be flying.

It was quite a good day for butterflies all round, at least in terms of species seen, I also saw silver-washed fritillary and clouded yellow as well as the commoner species. I failed to get any pictures of clouded yellow or fritillary, although I did get this female meadow brown with wings open, something they don’t tend to do when the sun is fully out as they get too hot.

meadow brown female on fleabane

meadow brown female on fleabane

I locked up the hides at the end of the day as Jim and Tracey were setting up things for the Ellingham Show, if you can, go along and say hello to them, they have lots of activities with them and the show attracts lots of participants, so is well worth a visit. A feature of the locking up process was mandarin ducks, I saw two juveniles on Ivy Lake, one on Ibsley Water and no less than four on the Clearwater Pond. They have obviously had a good nesting season, as have almost all species it seems. On Ivy Lake there are still four common tern chicks to fledge and I saw several broods of tufted duck, especially on Ibsley Water.

It started to rain hard as I locked up the Tern hide, normally the last hide to visit, but unfortunately from there I could see that the windows of the Lapwing hide had been left open and I knew that heavy rain would soak the hide, so I went up to close them. By the time I got there the seats and arm rests were drenched as was the hide log book. On the plus side I did see 3 common sandpiper, a green sandpiper, 3 shoveler, a teal and a snipe, I also got very, very wet!